Tuesday, August 13, 2019

mirror mirror (slight return)

bonus mirrorism

an ancient (June 2003)  Blissblog post inspired by K-Punk on David Sylvian and Japan  - this is one of the seeds of Shock & Awe, although there are earlier seeds in Sex Revolts and Melody Maker writings on World of Twist and  Last Few Days...  and even pre-seeds going back to Monitor days:

The escape artist. Mark’s mini-essay on Japan is so immaculate and exquisite, it seems almost churlish to say that, actually, I find “Ghosts” rather a moving song. I’m not alone either--there’s the missus (possibly America’s #1 Japan fan-- a lonely breed), and there's Goldie (he sampled it on Rufige Cru’s neglected classic “Ghosts of My Life”, a masterpiece of svelte darkcore), and Tricky ("Aftermath" has a sample from "Ghosts", right, or a lyric-quote?), and maybe even Dizzee Rascal (judging by the 
the Sylvian-Sakomoto vibe on ‘Sittin’ here’ and “Do It”, the two melancholy songs that bookend Boy In Da Corner). Carrying on previous trains of thought, I suppose my question is: would it actually diminish the song to believe it had some source or emotional referent in David Sylvian’s real life? To take it as both haunting and haunted. He’s very stylized as singers go but it seems like “beautiful sadness” is something that runs through a lot of his work (along with the quest for serenity) and you could see him as having less to do with a mannequin like Steve Strange and more with Scott Walker, or Nick Drake, or even Frank Sinatra (melancholy given poise, pain contained through elegance). Or Ian Curtis--“Ghosts” in some ways seems like a sister song to “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. 

Whenever I see someone who has pulled off a really drastic form of self-reinvention, gone all the way with artifice and masquerade--be it Strange, Numan, Leigh Bowery, Marilyn Manson--I always wonder: what are they running away from? It takes so much energy to do that and to maintain it. (I can barely muster the strength to look halfway presentable to the world). 

With Sylvian, perhaps the word “Catford” is explanation enough. No slight to that town but if it’s like 95 percent of the UK or anywhere else for that matter, then you can imagine why the sparkle-starved, culture-famished David would want to dedicate his life to exquisiteness, alien glamour, forbidden colours, to turn himself into a perfect surface, to get away and never go back. But there’s something more, I suspect: thinking of him performing "Ghosts" on TOTP, the excessive poise and stillness, the statuesque quality of his vocals (a frieze of emotion, almost), the perfectly made-up blank white expressionless facade, to me it all screams internal struggle, damage in the depths. Real ghosts in his real life. 

“Lines of flight” always carry with them traces of what’s left behind. Can we even conceive of escape or reinvention of the self without registering what's being escaped from, or acknowledging the raw, base matter that is remoulded into a human art object? 

I think you could work up another reading of Sylvian, not opposed but supplementary to Mark’s. 
It might cue off Penman’s riff about class and Bryan Ferry’s voice, how its alien-ness was produced by the struggle of a Geordie trying to sound debonair --and how that slightly grotesque quality disappeared when he perfected the po(i)se and shed the last traces of Tyneside. (Joy says one of her Japan fan acquaintances had managed to find a very early radio interview with Sylvian where he's talking with a thick Catford accent--again the struggle, the effort that goes into changing one's voice). It might then proceed to examine Bowie/Roxy and the glam end of artrock, its motor fantasy of stepping outside the lowly world of production into a sovereign realm of pure unfettered expression and sensuous indulgence, an imaginary and fictitious notion of aristocracy (more Huysmans than real lords who have to do humdrum things like manage their estates, juggle their investments, do a bit of arms dealing). It might pause to consider briefly the disillusionment of actually achieving the supermonied aristo life--Ferry, condemned to mooch jaded forever through art openings, fashion shows, all tomorrow’s parties (that old tis better to journey than arrive line). It might also look at the history of Orientalism and its relationship with dandyism. The Far East and its codes of etiquette, the extreme stylization of emotion in its art; grace and symmetry. (Didn’t Barthes write a whole book about Japan--the country, not the group!--called something like Empire of Signs, one of its ideas being Japanese culture as a realm of surfaces, where the depth model is abolished--he had this idea that the Japanese don’t think eyes are windows to the soul, they see them as attractive but flat planes). There must be some connection between artrock’s ruling-class fantasies and ideas of China or Japan as extremely well ordered, disciplined, hierarchical societies. There’s a bit of totalitarianism chic going on--Mao, the Emperor, Mishima etc--that parallels Bowie’s “what this country needs is a really strong leader” flirting with fascism phase, or Iggy with his “visions of swastikas” and plans for world domination (and those are lyrics from “”China Girl” come to think of it). As reheated by the New Romantics: Spandau Ballet’s Journeys To Glory with its noble torso statuary on the cover and Robert Elms’s faintly fascistic sleevenote, the whole idea of a Club for Heroes. Glam's tendency (through its shifting of emphasis toward the visual rather than sonic, spectacle rather than the swarm-logic of noise and crowds) towards the Classical as opposed to Romantic. Glam as anti-Dionysian. The Dionysian being essentially democratic, vulgar, levelling, abolishing rank; about creating crowds, turbulence, a rude commotion, a rowdy communion. Glam being about monumentalism, turning yourself into a statue, a stone idol. 

follow up post in response to Mark's further thoughts (at the bottom of this)

bit more on Sylvian... 

“Ghosts” is one of only two things by Sylvian I paid money for, so maybe Mark is right about it being exceptional in the Japan canon for its overt emotion; other stuff, like “Art of Parties”, sounds great but was a bit disengaged for me. But per Mark’s reading, maybe that’s what great about it, the slink of the surfaces. 

The other thing was “Bamboo Music/Bamboo Houses” by Sylvian-Sakomoto: amazing drum programming. (Still haven’t heard “Riot In Lagos”--somebody help me out here!). 

The China/Japan totalitarian chic thing doesn’t run deep, sure… it’s appropriately shallow, flirtation with decontextualized signifiers in true glam style. Still I notice that there’s a song called ‘Communist China’ on the first album, while on the Teutonic tip there’s “Suburban Berlin” and “Nightporter” which I assume is inspired by the Dirk Bogarde as Nazi-in-hiding movie. They also have a tune called “Rhodesia” bizarrely enough---surely the only rock song about this white-power pariah of the world community state, although i daresay there's a roots reggae tune of the same title. 

That bio Mark links doesn’t mention “class”’ as such (maybe press releases should come with sociological data). But I’d hazard a guess re Sylvian: he’s from that upper W/C, lower M/C indeterminate greyzone whence so much great UK pop stems. 

The later stuff’s not as barren as Mark makes out (although I once dismissed Sylvian solo as “jet-set mysticism”, while Jonh Wilde’s description of his voice as sounding like hair lacquer struck me as uncomfortably apt). But the “Gone To Earth” instrumentals are lovely in a Durutti/Budd/John Abercrombie sort of way, while things like “Orpheus” and “Waiting For the Agony To Stop” have a certain Scott Walker-goes-ECM grandeur. But I would swap his entire solo career for “Adolescent Sex” the title track of the first Japan album. It’s like disco-metal or something, its sashaying glitterball raunch and cokane dazzle suggesting a whole lost future or parallel pop universe. It’s like Guns N’Roses “Welcome To the Jungle” produced by Daft Punk circa “Digital Love” or something. This totally plasticized, artificial rock music that still rocks. (The only thing I’ve heard like it is some tracks made by Last Few Days, a second-tier industrial group who circa ’89 totally reinvented themselves as this glammed avant-raunch outfit and got a major label deal. Then they unwisely went house and that was that). 

It’s interesting how Japan (and Foxx-era Ultravox too come to think of it) had so many of the same inputs and reference points as Siouxsie & the Banshees---Roxy, Velvets (Japan covered ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’), Dolls, Eno, Bowie, similar movies and books too I’ll bet, similar flirtations (that decadence/fascism/S&M/voyeurism) and shtick (ice queen, don’t touch me, regal remoteness, I am a machine, metal will rule in my master scheme). And yet the Banshees were deemed "punk" and all through this period Japan and Ultravox were jeered at as glam johnny-come-latelys, throwbacks. If you reconfigured glam as the true 70s revolution/upheaval in 70s UK pop, and made punk into its aftershock, you might get some interesting results. 

Mark quotes Penman on the later Ferry stranded in an “autumn swirl of shrivelled or dying signs (that once were lustrous: 'dance' - 'drug' - 'love'), making solemn play of an immensely empty escape in the facades of an eternal tone - windswept, misty, limpidly sensual, banal.” The comeback Roxy is something I’d probably have mostly disregarded at the time, except in an idle radio enjoyment way--not sure I’d even heard the original Roxy then, so had no disappointment or betrayal to bring to the table. But I always really liked the glint-swirl synths of “Same Old Scene” and in retrospect this wanly elegant later Roxy/Ferry--“More Than This”, “Avalon” even--has a certain narcotic allure. Weirdly, it’s like Ferry’s arrived at his own wispy aristocratic version of ambient music. 

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Myra and Tyler

S+A is a long book, but it could have been twice as long if I'd pursued some of the fascinating tangents that presented themselves.

When sketching the landscape of mass culture at the turn of the Seventies, in order to set the scene for DB's "I am gay" declaration, I mention a string of films with gay / cross-dressing / trans themes.

Including Myra Breckinridge - the 1970 film version of Gore Vidal’s  best-selling satirical novel of a few years earlier– which features a post-operative transgender heroine, S&M, and anal sex with a strap-on dildo. 

That seems promising, doesn't it?

Sadly, Myra Breckinridge is also considered one of the worst movies of all time. And they've got a point. 

It has subsequently acquired one of those "so bad it's good" reputations. 

I recorded it a month or so ago when it had a rare airing on Turner Classic Movies. So far it's been hard going - still not made it all the way through, been doing it in bite-size portions - on account of the frightful script, some poor acting, stilted direction....

But it certainly has a smidge of interest as a period curio.

Apart from its then-shocking taboo-busting elements - comparable to those  in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which also came out in 1970, and also has a transgender character - Myra Breckinridge the movie is also a kind of essay about glamour and Hollywood. It's incredibly camp, and perhaps even more so than it intends because of (per Sontag's definition of the C-word)  its failed seriousness. There is a thread through it that does appear to be trying to say something - a hint of intellectual aspiration. 

Director Michael Sarne goes in for one thing which is quite striking and possibly innovative, which is interspersing the film with clips from movies made during Hollywood's golden age, often providing some kind of ironic commentary on the movie's storyline, or simply disrupting it. 

In that sense Myra Breckinridge is meta about Hollywood history in much the same way that glam is meta about Fifties rock and roll (while also referencing Hollywood history into the bargain).

Mae West's appearance in the film - reprising her classic persona - only adds to the meta. 

The other thing in Myra the movie that is interesting - and which is derived directly from the Gore Vidal novel - is that the heroine Myra wangles her way into a teaching job at a school for the dramatic arts. What she is supposed to be teaching is etiquette, but instead she holds forth on the history of Hollywood and the symbolism of movies. Much of her patter is actually derived from the works of the once influential, now fairly forgotten film theorist / historian Parker Tyler.

Several years ago, while in the midst of S+A, I went to the local library and there on the table of books taken out of circulation (for lack of use)  and for sale, was a battered, thin-cardboard-encased copy of Magic and Myth of the Movies

I thought "ooh this might be useful" - for the glam / Hollywood nexus. And it was only a dollar.

Didn't get very far with it - Tyler's style is somewhat flowery - and then something else more urgently relevant to my researches displaced it and I never went back. 

Myra's an admirer, though (and one must assume, Gore too).

In the novel, she writes in her diary: 

"Tyler’s vision (films are the unconscious expression of age-old human myths) is perhaps the only important critical insight this century has produced.

In the film, Myra's pontifications about the nature of cinema, stardom, etc, are based on the themes and arguments in Magic and Myth of the Movies. But whereas the novel used direct quotes, Tyler did not agree to that for the movie. 

In one scene, a student protests that one or other of the films Ms Breckinridge has been discoursing about in celebratory terms is absurdly lacking in realism. Bearded and boho, he's clearly meant to represent the middlebrow and supposedly serious-minded viewpoint of that era, modish beliefs in naturalistic acting, the Method, ordinary life captured without sentimentality or gloss etc etc. Myra mockingly shreds this notion, Oscar Wilde-style, and extols the superiority of illusion over truth.

Tyler's take on film isn't exactly camp, though. He grasped the psychological seriousness behind - or contained within - or driving - the most fake or flimsy material.  He recognised the irrationalism and monstrosity of the movies during the dream factory heyday. Ancient mythology was being reanimated in these epic images and star personae. Both the original myths and their modern echoes tapped into that aquifer of atavistic desire and fear known as the unconscious. Tyler was alive to the id in celluloid - the elements of fetish and fantasy that glued eyeballs to the movie screen in a narcotized trance. 


Tyler also did pioneering work on queer undercurrents in cinema, and wrote about underground and experimental film too.

When I was digging into the Tyler book I'd picked up at the library, I noticed how much his approach and themes seemed to anticipate aspects in the work (fictional, theoretical, filmic) of Kenneth Anger, J.G. Ballard, Nik Cohn, and Camille Paglia.

Out of all those, it was the resemblance to Paglia and Sexual Personae that struck me most stridently.

And what do you know? Shortly after the recent Turner Classic Movies airing of this anti-classic, I went for an internet wander and came across this Paglia piece from June 27th, in which she writes about Myra the novel, about Gore Vidal's life + work,  and mentions the profound formative influence of Parker Tyler's work on her own thinking:

"Myra’s bible is film critic Parker Tyler’s Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947)—the “masterpiece” always open before her as she writes the seethingly urgent and often interrupted diary (partly inspired by Anaïs Nin) that frames the novel. She is dedicated to completing her deceased husband Myron’s book on Tyler, whose florid language she speaks: “We deal in myths,” she declares of Hollywood, with its eternal gallery of “archetypal roles.” Commentators on Vidal too casually treat his Parker Tyler theme as a dismissive lampoon. Tyler acknowledged that Vidal had made him “Myra’s muse” but forbade use of quotes from his books in the movie (a loss lamented by Raquel Welch). An openly gay poet and bohemian writer in Greenwich Village from the 1920s on, Tyler was in fact a major film critic whose exclusion from academic film studies is scandalous. (David Bordwell rightly classifies him as a 1940s “rhapsode.”) Tyler’s first book, The Hollywood Hallucination (1944), is or should be a classic. His fusion of Frazerian myth criticism with Walter Pater–style prose poems had immense impact on the development of my own 


Gore Vidal, incidentally, got the name "Breckinridge" from actor / drag queen Bunny Breckinridge, part of Ed Wood's circle, and later played by Bill Murray in the Tim Burton movie. 

mirror mirror (slight return)

bonus mirrorism an ancient (June 2003)  Blissblog post inspired by K-Punk on David Sylvian and Japan  - this is one of the se...