Monday, December 16, 2019

digital glam #1 - instagram face

Often on my travels, especially in Europe for some reason, I see someone - usually a woman, not always though - who looks digital.

Skin-tone just a little too even...  hair unnaturally straight and glossy...  eyebrows sculpted... eyelashes lushly thick and black -  lips unrealistically plumped and perfect...

It's pretty easy to work out this is the byproduct of  the presentation of self in digital life -  social media, dating apps, etc etc. People using filters and colorizing and other cosmetic enhancements of the image, done after the fact rather than beforehand (make-up, flattering angles, good natural light). Post-production lighting adjustments, a pixel-level grooming of public self. Then trying to look like that engineered online image in your everyday life. 

As Jia Toleninto puts it in The New Yorker: "Contemporary systems of continual visual self-broadcasting—reality TV, social media—have created new disciplines of continual visual self-improvement."

That's from her deep-dive feature  on the phenomenon of Instagram Face - "how social media, FaceTune, and plastic surgery created a single, cyborgian look"

"It’s a young face, of course, with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips. It looks at you coyly but blankly, as if its owner has taken half a Klonopin and is considering asking you for a private-jet ride to Coachella. The face is distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic—it suggests a National Geographic composite illustrating what Americans will look like in 2050, if every American of the future were to be a direct descendant of Kim Kardashian West, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Kendall Jenner (who looks exactly like Emily Ratajkowski)....

"Instagram, which launched as the decade was just beginning, in October, 2010, has its own aesthetic language: the ideal image is always the one that instantly pops on a phone screen....

"Snapchat, which launched in 2011 and was originally known as a purveyor of disappearing messages, has maintained its user base in large part by providing photo filters, some of which allow you to become intimately familiar with what your face would look like if it were ten-per-cent more conventionally attractive—if it were thinner, or had smoother skin, larger eyes, fuller lips. Instagram has added an array of flattering selfie filters to its Stories feature. FaceTune, which was released in 2013 and promises to help you “wow your friends with every selfie,” enables even more precision....

"You get the feeling that these women, or their assistants, alter photos out of a simple defensive reflex, as if FaceTuning your jawline were the Instagram equivalent of checking your eyeliner in the bathroom of the bar...

"Twenty years ago, plastic surgery was a fairly dramatic intervention: expensive, invasive, permanent, and, often, risky. But, in 2002, the Food and Drug Administration approved Botox for use in preventing wrinkles; a few years later, it approved hyaluronic-acid fillers, such as Juvéderm and Restylane, which at first filled in fine lines and wrinkles and now can be used to restructure jawlines, noses, and cheeks. These procedures last for six months to a year and aren’t nearly as expensive as surgery....

'"There was something strange.. about the racial aspect of Instagram Face—it was as if the algorithmic tendency to flatten everything into a composite of greatest hits had resulted in a beauty ideal that favored white women capable of manufacturing a look of rootless exoticism..."

haha at the comment left by the robot

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Girlschool's out forever

Well I knew glamlove was a stripe painted right down  Def Leppard's collective back, but I didn't know Girlschool were repeat defenders - here covering bubblestomp and glitterbeat

I guess it's just part of the DNA of anyone who was a pop kid in the UK 70s

They really should have done a cover of "School's Out" though

And did they ever go on Rockschool and if not why not?

Friday, September 20, 2019

the secret sauce

other pejoratives to add to that Jonas Barish list - grandstanding, showboating, hammy

in the vicinity - drama queen, diva, primadonna, show off, exhibitionist

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

never had a persona

When we saw Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, a young woman appeared on the screen in the skimpiest of bit parts. I could swear it was Lana Del Rey and in that instant thought "that's so right - of course she's in it" . But when we checked the credits, not a trace. 

Apparently LDR was keen to be on the soundtrack, though. Tarantino's music supervisor Mary Ramos recently said: "...Lana Del Rey is amazing and she has such a Quentin vibe to her and had a few songs she wanted to submit, but Quentin wanted to stay rooted in the period and utilize his memory of KHJ Boss Radio in Los Angeles" (i.e. all the surprisingly mediocre AM radio hits that fill up the soundtrack of Once)

LDR does have such a "Quentin vibe" - that's why I hallucinated her presence in the film. What is that vibe? Entralled by / in thrall to an inherited stock of glamour iconography and retro-sexual archetypes.... a bravura command of an exhausted language....   seductive but reactionary.   Exquisite nothingness. (Each time I see a QT I always leave the theater, almost spitting in annoyance, thinking "never again".) 

Here's my review of Norman Fucking Rockwell!


Watch out Adele! There’s another soul lady coming up behind you and her name is Lana Del Rey.” 

So said a Top 40 radio deejay last month, transitioning between “Rolling In the Deep”  and “Video Games”. This piece of patter wasn’t just a smart way to introduce an unfamiliar, relatively edgy song to mainstream listeners, it was a rather astute bit of music criticism. Think about it: Adele and Lana Del Rey are young women who’ve had their hearts broken and who sing about it in musical idioms that are overtly non-contemporary:  Etta James-style Sixties soul, with Adele, and in Lana Del Rey’s case, something less tightly anchored to specific sources but equally old-timey in its evocations of the Fifties and early Sixties.  The question both singers raise is “why do these otherwise thoroughly modern women express first-hand feeling s in such second-hand imagery? Why coat something raw and real in this vintage veneer?”

Lana Del Rey arrived on the scene too recently to make it into my book Retromania, but—like Adele—she is an absolute gift when it comes to talking it up: “look, see,  that ’s what I’m  on about!” . That said, they  represent different kinds of retro-pop.  Adele’s is unselfconscious, just an artist who’s embraced a decidedly old-fashioned style and reiterates it without adding much to it.... The hallmark of unselfconscious retro is not dressing the part, not looking like you’ve time-travelled from the era  in which the music is sourced.

Lana Del Rey is much closer to the hyper-conscious retro that’s endemic in indie/ underground music, where clothes and artwork reference a bygone era, while the lyrics and the music itself often teem with crafty allusions..... Retro of this kind, where a group’s sound-and-visuals incorporate citations and where spotting them is an integral part of the fan’s enjoyment, is not a new thing. It’s been part of indie almost from the beginning  (The Smiths’s iconographic record-sleeves, Jesus & Mary Chain or Butthole Surfers “sampling” riffs or backing vocal refrains from Sixties and Seventies rock legends). It can be traced back further still, through glam rock’s Fifties echoes to The Beatles’s Chuck Berry pastiche “Back In the U.S.S.R.” and Zappa’s doowop album (both 1968). At the same time,  there’s no doubt that this kind of conscious retro-activity has intensified in the 21st Century, partly as a result of just how extensive the archive of pop history is now (five or six decades) and partly because the broadband era has made accessing that history so damn easy. YouTube, in particular, is a vast, evergrowing repository of promo and music-on-TV clips along with every other kind of pop (and unpop) culture.  And YouTube is as much as audio library as a video archive. You can school yourself there, free of charge.

Which brings us back to Lana Del Rey. Her rocket-like ascent was propelled by videos she put on YouTube made out of footage she’d found on Youtube.  “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” put History in shuffle mode:  a miasma of Americana that drifts back and forth across the decades  but  is unified by its sustained elegiac mood of not-now-ness.  Amid the appropriated home movie footage of swimming pools and skateboarders and kids on mopeds,  specific allusions pop up: the Hollywood sign, Chateau Marmont, Lana in Lolita sunglasses from Kubrick’s movie, Lana in a racing driver jacket that suggests Evil Knievel or maybe the  70s road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, Lana in a white leather fringe jacket that echoes Easy Rider or maybe Elvis in Las Vegas. 

According to Del Rey, though, the recurrent invocations of places like Vegas and LA in her videos (and also her lyrics) aren’t really references so much as mood-tints.  “The thing that fascinates me about all of them is the colors of the places,” she says on the phone, in transit to another mythic-Americana landscape she adores, Coney Island.  “The muted blues and greens in California, the bright lights of Vegas...  People ask me about what the Fifties imagery from California represents to me, but actually I’m mainly just a visual person.   Sometimes when my producer and I talk about songs, we talk about them in terms of colors. In a way the  album was visually driven. “

Part of the nostalgia effect of the found footage in  Del Rey’s videos derives from the properties of the different kinds of film stock, including the specific way that it ages and decays.  The bleached and blotchy textures trigger a poignant sense of time’s passage, an inkling that even your most halcyon memories will fade to nothingness.  “Blue Jeans” explicitly forefronts the idea of “dead media” and antiquated formats with its opening footage of a hand grabbing a pack of Eastman Ektrachrome Super 8 film.

Lana Del Rey may, in fact, be about to become the first Hipstamatic pop star.  Photo apps like Hipstamatic, Instagram, and ShakeIt!, or Fuuvi’s new faux-Super8 device the Bee, offer a digital simulation of an analogue past. Something similar is going on with Lana Del Rey’s music : old-timey instruments like mandolins, strings, harps and twangy surf guitar make up much of its texture, but there’s also  unidentifiable sounds flying about that are clearly sampled and processed, while the beats on Born To Die are boombastic,  hip hop in impact if not actual feel.  The result:  the RZA meets Lee Hazelwood. Factor in Del Rey’s choices in clothes, hair, accessories and make-up, and it’s clear she’s the perfect pop star for the era of vintage chic. Not that she’s only artist around with sound-and-visuals that are pre-faded and artificially distressed.... 

It’s not just the stylized form of Lana Del Ray’s songs that feels out-of-time, it’s the emotional content too:  a language of romantic excess that harks back to Roy Orbison’s most over-the-top ballads or Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World”. Love as malady and madness, delirium and delusion...  and at the ultimate degree, death. “Dark Paradise” is a song of morbid fidelity, an abandoned or bereaved lover who prefers to keep the company of ghosts: “There’s no remedy for memory...  I wish I was dead.” Elsewhere, Lana sings “I’m not afraid to say that I’d die without him.”

“I don’t really condone relying on another person to the point where you’re going to die without them,” says Del Rey.  “Something I never really expected was to have gotten into a relationship that ended up being very tumultuous.  But I had met someone who was so magnetic and made me feel differently from the way that I felt for so long, which was sort of confused and bored...  and because in the end we couldn’t be together, it ended up having a  do-or-die element to it.  That was an experience that struck me and I kept on falling back to that place in terms of inspiration for the songs.” 

Born To Die goes beyond retro-romance, though, to retro-sexuality, retro-gender.  All those yielding, doe-eyed ballads of abject devotion...  seem to look back in languor to a time when men were men and women were thankful. A pre-feminist world, or more precisely, America before Betty Friedman’s The Feminine Mystique  was published (1963).  So in “Without You”, Del Rey coos “I can be your china doll if you want to see me fall”, while “This Is What Makes Us Girls” seems to define femininity as being a fool for love:  “We all look for heaven and we put love first/Don’t you know we’d die for it?/ It’s a curse.”  At the other extreme, there are songs about women who uses wiles to get what they want. “Off to The Races” recalls Ginger, the Casino character played by Sharon Stone, except if Ginger actually enjoyed being a kept woman and was as docile and adoring as DeNiro’s Sam Rothstein hoped.  She’s a moll, wasting a rich man’s money (“give me them coins”), breaking into a Betty Boo squeak for the lines “I’m your little harlot, starlet” and purring “Tell me you own me”.

 “I’m an interesting mix of person,” says Del Rey defensively, with just a hint of annoyance.  “I am a modern day woman.  I’m self-supporting. I went to college. I studied philosophy. I write my own music. But at the same I also very appreciate being in the arms of a man and finding support that way.  That feeling influences the kind of melodies I choose and how romantic I make the song. Maybe it ends up giving it a slightly unbalanced feeling.”  Asked about the references in other songs on Born To Die about good-girls-gone-bad  (“degenerate beauty queens” is one memorable lyric), she points to David Lynch’s movie Wild At Heart as not so much an inspiration as a parallel with phases in her life. “The way I  ended up having relationships and living life, it sometimes mimics those more wild relationships.  Wild At Heart was an influence – in terms of the way it was shot, but also the love story.”

Right from the off,  commentators have talked of Lana Del Rey in terms of  David Lynch’s dark dreamworlds. They’ve also mentioned singers linked to his work such as  Chris “Wicked Game” Isaak and Julee “Falling” Cruise, whose songs  evoke a bygone era when the brokenhearted died inside but did it in style.  The Lynch connection highlights a curious quality of Lana Del Rey’s whole shtick: not only does it hark back to the Fifties and early Sixties, it inevitably also recalls the Eighties’s own echoes of that time. Movies  like Lynch’s  Blue Velvet, Jarmusch’s Strangers in Paradise and Mystery Train, the S.E. Hinton adaptations Rumblefish and The Outsiders. Musicians as various as Tom Waits,  Alan Vega, Mazzy Star. 

This Sixties-via-Eighties syndrome isn’t  unique to del Rey  by any means. As much as R&B originals like Etta, Adele recalls forgotten Brit soul revivalists like Alison Moyet, Carmel and  Mari Wilson. The scene that Frankie Rose belongs to—Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls—reaches Spector’s wall of sound and the Sixties girl group’s via Jesus and Mary Chain and the “C86” movement of bands like The Shop Assistants. Then there’s The Men, as featured in this issue, who draw from the harder side of mid-Eighties British psych-revivalism. On their song “( )” they filch not just the riff from Spacemen 3’s “Revolution” but a chunk of the lyric (“And I suggest to you/That it takes/Just five seconds”) along with lines from another Spacemen song “Take Me To the Other Side”.

If retro culture has reached the point where we’re seeing revivals of revivals, citations of citations (Spacemen 3 remade Stooges songs while “Revolution” itself is an already-somewhat-hokey homage to MC5), what are the implications for music going forward? As time goes on, signs are becoming more and more detached from their historical referents, hollowed out.  All these sounds, gestures, time-honored phrases, are entering into a freefloating half-life, or afterlife, where all they are is pure style.

This appears to be the ghosty place where Lana Del Ray comes from.  In “Without You”, she sings “but burned into my brain all these stolen images”  and I can’t help thinking of Blade Runner and the android replicants who are given transplanted memories.  Her lyrics are full of sampled clichés (“ walk on the wild side”, “white lightning”, “feet don’t fail me”) or references to iconic brand-names (“white Pontiac heaven”,  “Bugatti Veyron”).  But she says that the Pontiac allusion isn’t for its pop-cultural associations (Two Lane Blacktop and other 70s movies, songs by Tom Waits and Jan & Dean) so much as “just the sound” of the word. Likewise, the name “Lana Del Rey” was chosen for its lilting loveliness, rather than its rippling resonances (a Hollywood movie idol with platinum blonde hair and a turbulent private life, a California beach town, a make of 1950s Chevrolet). It was “a big risk” renaming herself, she says, “but my music was always beautiful and I wanted a name that was beautiful too.”

“Beautiful” is a word that crops up repeatedly in Del Rey’s conversation, as it does in her lyrics. She seems to be intensely susceptible to the splendor of appearances, to the point of vulnerability. “You look like a million dollar man/ so why is my heart broke?”, she beseeches plaintively in “Million Dollar Man”.  In “National Anthem”, she sings about “blurring the lines between real and the fake.”  The gap between image and reality is an obsession. So is fame, portrayed as the dangerous desire to lose oneself by merging into a glamorous facade. “I even think I found god in the flashbulbs of your pretty cameras,” she sings in “Without You”, while the words “Movie Star Without a Cause” flash up in the video for “Blue Jeans”.

Then there’s “Carmen”, seemingly a song about a 17-year-old starlet who’s dying inside and only comes alive when “the camera’s on”, but really more like a perturbing self-portrait. “‘Carmen’ is probably the song closest to my heart,” says Del Rey, who seems vaguely put-out that I’ve heard it. “’Famous and dumb in an early age’—that’s fame in a different way, in different circles, for different reasons. Not really for being a pop star. It’s sort of like, my life”. Once again, you have to wonder about an artistic imagination so colonized by old movies and old songs that it can only express things that really happened in a real life through this “cinematic” prism.  Is this a distancing mechanism, a buffer to manage the emotion? Or was the actual love affair itself contaminated by fantasy and role-play?


What we have with Lana Del Rey is the problem of the undeniable talent who is also a throwback, and who therefore sets back the cause of musical modernism. (See also: The White Stripes).  She’s not a  straightforward revivalist: the music and the presentation are diversely sourced and the end result is a sophisticated concoction (in that respect, she’s closer to The White Stripes than Adele). But it still falls, ultimately, within the domain of pastiche, memorably defined as “speech in a dead language”.  Given her passive persona, it’s tempting to say that the ghosts of pop culture’s collective unconscious speak through her....   

[disco edit of Spin, 2012 piece for their Retro-Activity issue]

[full length mix here]

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

vomiting glamour

How Kenneth Anger Created Camp Cinema with His Short Film, 'Puce Moment'
a piece by Matt McKinzie

"Over a black screen, in garish pink font outlined by vivid turquoise, the words "a film by ANGER" come into view. Not "a film by KENNETH ANGER"… no, he has chosen to omit his first name for a far more ostentatious, and multilayered, mononym....  it is almost as if Anger expects you to know who he is, to blindly and readily accept this sense of self-attributed stardom.... It is this kind of absurdism—this fascination with fame and glamour, the stylistic presentation of an artist's name akin to the presentation of a venerated show-business legend (despite being the farthest thing from one at that point in time), the full and self-reflexive embrace of artifice—that comes to define Puce Moment (1949), Anger's overlooked touchstone of the early avant-garde cinema movement.

... His first major work, Fireworks (1947), landed him in a contentious court case for exhibiting to American movie houses what is essentially a homoerotic wet dream. Puce Moment, which came two years later, emerges as a different kind of dream. As in Fireworks, you won't find handsome sailors or the sparks of Roman candles posing as metaphoric ejaculate. What you will find, however, are more covert allusions to the social and aesthetic realities of Anger's existence and art, the same sort of illuminating material in later Hollywood films like Valley of the Dolls and Rocky Horror Picture Show....   his visual and formative distortions of the film's "plot" make Puce Moment perhaps the earliest cinematic artwork to adopt the camp tradition, and unlike any other (certainly mainstream) motion picture of the 1940s, it is self-aware in its appreciation and understanding of glamour, artifice, exaggeration, and of the power of sexuality and materialism....

"The first indication of Anger's campy distortion is the prologue to his plot. Inexplicably, a series of flapper dresses are danced (by an unseen puppeteer) in front of the screen, before fudging the lens to reveal subsequent dresses on the rack in perpetuity. Anger is vomiting glamour into our face, objectifying objects, sexualizing what cannot, in a vacuum, be sexualized: silk, velvet, cotton, glitter. Our world is tactile and corporeal, and it is overwhelming. But we cannot get enough of it."


an old review by me of a video reissue of Kenneth Anger's films

(Jettisoundz videos)

When they get around to unpicking the tangled threads
that connect The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Psychic TV,
somewhere at the web's centre will lurk the tarantula figure
of Kenneth Anger. Aleister Crowley fan, ex-chum of Jimmy
Page, and chronicler of the psycho-sleaze behind Hollywood's
glittering facade, Kenneth Anger is also the maker of a
series of films whose themes uncannily prefigure the abiding
fixations of leftest-field rock. Pass beyond a certain
limit, and you enter a realm where magic and ritual, S&M,
Crowley, Manson, Nazism, bodypiercing, tattooing,
hallucinogenics, mytho-mania, voodoo dance, all interconnect
as facets of the same quest: for the ultimate transgressive,
transcendent, self-annihilating mystic HIGH.

Both "Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome" (1954) and
"Invocation Of My Demon Brother" (1969) are about this search
for supreme bacchanalian release. ("Inauguration" was
inspired by taking acid, "Invocation" by the counter culture
created by acid). Both are a kaleidoscopic montage of images
grotesque and bizarre, with all the key Anger motifs (cocks,
pagan ritual, bikers, Swastikas, cabbalistic symbols) brought
into play. "Inauguration", with its strident Janacek
soundtrack and vampily made-up actresses, is simultaneously
camp and disturbing; "Invocation", with its maddening moog
soundtrack by Mick Jagger, captures the apocalyptic vibe of
the bitter end of the hippy daze, and must surely have
influenced Nic Roeg's "Performance".

"Lucifer Rising" (1970-80) shares much the same pre-
occupations as the other two films, but expresses them in
less histrionic fashion, through images of serene, stately
beauty, set to a beatific soundtrack by Bobby Beausoleil (an
acolyte of Manson's). "Lucifer Rising" is a rehabilation of
Lucifer, reclaiming him as the Light god, a Rebel Angel whose
"message is that the key to joy is disobedience". Anger's
biker movie, "Scorpio Rising" (1963), on the other hand, is a
"death mirror held up to American culture". The biker
represents American myths of Lone Ranger individualism and
Born To Run freedom, taken to their psychotic limit.
"Scorpio Rising" is a giddy miasma of death's-heads, Iron
Crosses, cocaine and blasphemy, with Anger salivating over
the well-stuffed crotches and leather-clad torsoes of his
subjects - and all set to the incongruous soundtrack of
Sixties pulp pop!

Of the five shorter films also included in this series,
"Fireworks" (1947) is a blue-tinted homerotic nightmare about
being brutalised by sailors (the final image is of a sailor
with a Roman Candle jutting out of his zip), while "Eaux
D'Artifice" (1953) is a beautiful Midsummer Night's
dreamscape, with a full moon suffusing off the cascading,
gushing and spurting waters of the Tivoli fountain gardens.
Sheer brilliance.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

dreamhome heartaches

You got to hand it to capitalism - selling us our chains, seductively guised as liberation and self-realisation

Here Roxy's "In Every Dream Home A Heartache" - a song about the hollowness of consumer desire, reification of the self and the other - is used to soundtrack a commercial that connects an overpriced fragrance, whose proper realm is Duty Free and the pages of Vogue,  with pagan revels and going wild in the country

It's some kind of edit, the song as heard on this Gucci Memoire ad - "standards of living" (intoned numbly by the dead-inside protagonist) shoved up right up against "but you blew my mind" - the trigger for the Dionysian freakout

Ballard would probably have loved this ad

It connects perhaps to his later novels -  the rage of the the privileged - how no one secretly craves  revolution, or at least chaos / collapse, more than the class that created and maintained the world-as-is

(Harry Styles sounds like a character from hard-boiled fiction, or Performance / Get Carter, or a Colin Macinnes novel maybe)

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. 


  ... or at least, if not endorsing / encouraging, then at least accepting the existence and inevitability of theatricality as a social mech...