Sunday, April 20, 2014

Grin Without a Cat - Chris Marker at the Whitechapel Gallery

'Since these mysteries are beyond us, let us pretend to have derived them.' - Jean Cocteau (quoted in Chris Marker's Si j'avais quatre dromadaires).

Who was Chris Marker? It seems that any piece ever written about the documentary filmmaker, writer, photographer, philosopher, artist and poet poses this question above all others. And it could be argued that a visit to the current retrospective at London's Whitechapel gallery won't really help you to answer the question.

The reasons are twofold: firstly there's Marker's own reticence throughout his lifetime in offering any personal information to researchers or interviewers. Born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921 (possibly); unremarkably for a photographer he hated being photographed. When asked for pictures of himself he'd often return pictures of cats. And then there were the sketchy details of his origins. Was he born in Ulan Batur, or was it Belleville? While part of the French resistance during the war was he recruited by the US military? To this day no one is entirely sure.

Secondly: Marker's own work, by anticipating or utilising the latest developments in representative technology, means that it often defies categorisation, sometimes even contradicting its own supposed aims while pioneering what we now lazily term multimedia work. And while this exhibition really is excellent (dividing his work into four distinct zones) it possibly requires far more than the scant two hours which I was able to give it before you'll really get a handle on what this legendary/cult figure was all about.

The deliberate obfustication regarding his background or origins reminds me of The Residents' 'Theory of Obscurity', derived from the composer N. Senada (himself probably a myth), wherein any biographical information or cult of personality are seen as obstructive to the process of any appreciation of the art object itself. Of course, as with Ralph Records most famous recording artists, this superficially admirable aim has the added effect of making the 'recluse' even more fascinating to obsessive admirers. The catalogue for this exhibition begins with an essay by avowed fan Chris Darke, where he's granted a glimpse of the man at work in his own studio. The awed tone is palpable.

Whether, like The Residents, this wilful obscurity is disingenuous - even an absence can be a superb marketing tool - or perhaps stems from the experience of subterfuge learned in his formative war experiences doesn't really matter. What is clear is the effect that this can have on the unthinking punter faced with rooms filled with fragments, reels, images, volumes of travel photography, installations and cartoon cats: you find yourself initially thrown adrift with only the work itself as a reference point. This may have been Marker's aim, but then a strange paradox occurs: you realise after a short time that everything here is deeply personal. And the excellent commentaries, often taken from Marker's own writings seem to back this up. 

The first room in the gallery contains a looped screening of his early collaboration with friend Alain Resnais, Statues Also Die (1953) which was partly banned by the French government for its anti-colonialist stance. Even today it still packs a considerable punch at its conclusion. Resnais described Marker as "the prototype of the twenty-first-century man." and Grin Without a Cat bears this out with its embrace of every media under the sun. His Zapping Zone (1990) - a room full of monitors displaying a plethora of found footage, computer generated imagery and news channels is a fine demonstration of what Catherine Lupton describes as 'provocative tensions between the cutting-edge profile and the shock of the old'. She continues: 'Zapping Zone invites random sampling and multilateral exploration of a series of different, discontinuous video and digital hypermedia clips; yet physically it first strikes the gallerygoer’s eye as a ramshackle, junkyard assemblage of elderly televisions and computer monitors.' In other words, quite often Marker may have wholeheartedly embraced every new form of communication and image processing software (he's rumoured to have dies at his computer), yet here is an artist who has one foot very firmly planted in the 20th century. It's this tension which makes his work all the more poignant.

It seems that Marker existed on the very periphery of dilettantism, making his own diverse obsessions - which just happened to include the wider picture of humanity and contemporary anti-imperialist politics - into the focus of his main work.  As he himself is quoted as saying 'In another time I guess I would have been content with filming girls and cats. But you don't choose your time'. And Marker's time coincided with the seismic shifts surrounding the Vietnam and cold wars as well as the rise of radicalised European intelligentsia.  

Indeed, like all the artists of his generation in Parisian Left Bank society, Marker, was a deeply political animal. What's more he used animals in defence of his politics. Not only is there his famous alter-ego in the shape of Guillaime-en-Égypte, the orange cat (above) who guides you through the personal museum of touch-points and totems of 1997 CD -Rom, Immemory, but just about every other work bears the pawmark (or talonmark) of his beloved cats or owls.

The final room contains his most ambitious opus, the titular film Grin Without A Cat: 240 minutes of footage of demonstration and diatribe focussing on '60s and '70s oppositional politics, and it's this part of the retrospective that convinces you that his reluctance to play any PR games really stemmed from deeply held beliefs rather than inverse egotism. But still, at the exhibition's conclusion you emerge doubly intrigued with such an enigma while convinced of his remarkable prescience regarding the way in which imagery and words could be sliced and compiled to construct new meanings.

Perhaps ultimately this is Marker's legacy - the weblike tracery of 20th century historical record and poetry which anticipates our online connectivity while attempting to imbue his own world map with personal significance. An inveterate traveller, the series of photo volumes which he compiled in the Petite Planete series (and which also feature another of his very French predilections: female beauty - I've rarely seen so many beautiful women in one exhibition) demonstrate that he was a superb photographer with a singular eye. In other places, such as his homage to early cinema, the installation Silent Movie (1995), you sense his enduring attachment to the more freewheeling abstractions and coincidences of the '60s countercultural movement. At every turn there's a sense of resonance both into the future and the recent past. 

This is appropriate as Marker's most famous work is the short film La jetée, a strange compilation of (mostly) still images telling a haunting post apocalyptic tale of paradoxical time travel that notoriously inspired Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, amongst many other films. It was, apparently, a mystery to Marker, as to why this work alone should have been singled out by his fans as it represented, for him, more of a demonstration of how financial and technical constraints could hobble his creative urge. But to sit through its 28 minutes on a big screen is still unbelievably powerful. Perhaps because it contains the best of everything he achieved in every field: editing, black and white photography and as a meditation on the perception of memories. And it still retains the germs of that decade's nascent anti-establishment movements as well as acknowledging his peers' devotion to Hitchcock with its direct references to Vertigo.

Marker's own influence on later artist's looms everywhere. From the meticulous obsessions of, say, Peter Greenaway (also a big fan of Resnais) to an entire generation of less able installationists and multimedia practitioners. Grin Without A Cat is admirably wide-ranging, yet such a concentrated combination of public and private, chance and deliberation may leave those un-indoctrinated to his cult scratching their heads. For both those people as well as the most enthusiastic worshippers, this wonderful exhibition may ask you for more than merely one visit to really understand how important an influence Marker was on our ways of thinking about 21st century art and its function. I'm certainly going back (it's free!).

Grin Without a Cat is on at The Whitechapel gallery until Jun 22nd

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Cinema in a post-gaming world gone to shit (The Raid 2 & Snowpiercer)

It's not all Danish auteurs, knotty jazz-rock and impenetrable nonsense here at Jonesisdying towers. We like a little bit of straightforward rock 'em, sock 'em mainstream Hollywood action movie erm... action once in a while (ok, quite often, truth be told). And science fiction as well. 

The trouble with this is, of course, that most Hollywood actioners are a lot like crack or Chinese food. Five minutes after consuming it you just forget the two and half hours of eye candy and crave some more. What's worse, I suspect this trend is deliberate as the habit can often lead to watching a movie about five times before you can begin to distinguish it from all the others in the genre/series/franchise etc. etc. Yes, the subject matter or treatment is usually predictably generic (it's a species of film grammar, after all), yet frequently these days it's also the sheer length that can lead to big screen alzheimers.

For example: I know I saw Captain America The Winter Soldier a couple of weeks ago (and really enjoyed it) but beyond a vague sense that the film seemed to be addressing some genuinely interesting points about freedom of information vs national security and it had more Scarlett Johansson than the last one*, I couldn't really tell you what happened: the Marvel franchise has now grown so huge and labyrinthine (actually in quite a good, coherent sense to be honest) that it seemed to be more exposition and soul-searching interspersed with superb set-pieces than anything; like an expensive soap opera with guns rather than a punchy thrill-fest, which is what we really want.
Insert gratuitous Scarlett Johannson picture here
The reason I say all of this is because I recently saw another couple of movies that reminded me that simplicity is always the wisest course when building your thrill-ride for the eyes. Both films represent what I now think of as the sub-genre of 'post-gaming' cinema. That is: the movie has one very basic point - to get the main protagonist from A to B via a series of levels, each of which contain a different (escalating) level of 'peril' (I love the use of this word in film adverts - if any poster warns me of 'mild peril' I immediately think silent movie villains, twirling moustaches and tying heroines to railway tracks). The final level, naturally, contains the big 'Boss'.

Simples. And you'd imagine that such a brutally minimalist slant to plotting would lead to mindless films for morons who spend most of their day in their underwear and using their thumbs to shoot, stab, fold and mutilate stuff on the TV. Yet you'd be wrong. When it comes to (often literally) visceral thrills coupled with devilish ingenuity there were two films that defined this sub-genre in the last two years: The Raid: Redemption and Dredd.

Urban Dredd
For some reason I never got around to writing about these films in depth, but while both superficially seem to have about the same plot (fighting your way up a squalid dystopian high-rise block to defeat the criminal overlord/lady) they both erm... blew me away. Dredd single-handedly rescued a maligned comic-book adaptation (from Danny Cannon's awful attempt with Sylvester Stallone who ruined it all by taking the helmet off) by understanding that the central character was always a brutally minimalist character with barely any emotional touch points and with an elegantly binary notion of 'morality' or 'justice'. Karl Urban channelled the unsmiling near-fascism of the Judge to perfection. Like Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, this left us with a gory, blood-spattered irony-fest where the real imagination can be poured into both a wonderfully grimy, drug-fuelled aesthetic and increasingly kinetic set-pieces. I really hope they make another.

Gareth Evan's The Raid had a similar (digital post-HDR) grimy aesthetic, but along with the gore came some astounding martial arts scenes (utilising pencak silat - a special form of close combat) added to the typical plot-twists and oddly gooey sentimentality that no far Eastern film can do without. This isn't to say that it was complex in any meaningful sense, but added a little spice to the Cuprinol-like directness of what was the film's aim.

This kitchen is about to get VERY messy
This week saw its sequel: The Raid 2 (well, durr...), released in major cinemas and, sure enough, it seems that the first film wasn't a fluke. Starting off almost exactly where  the finale of the first instalment left off, it follows doe-eyed one man killing machine, Rama, as he's dragged back into grimy underworld corruption-riddled Jakarta again. Now he's working undercover to bring down some warring crime lords as well as the high-ranking police officials who collude with them, and it's no small matter. It involves punching walls while serving a two-year prison sentence (separated from his wife and new child, just so he can get near to one of the crime lord's sons), fighting whole crowds in toilet cubicles or mudbaths and then navigating a maze of double dealing and deception as well as negotiating (i.e: slaughtering) his way to a rendezvous with the hardcore violence awaiting him at the top of yet another building. This time it's a restaurant - giving a great opportunity for an incredible fight sequence in an all-white kitchen (see above image) that leaves it considerably redder in hue.

The violence is often so brutal that you enter that strange mind-state where you alternate between gasping and giggling (a scene with a metal baseball bat embedded in an opponent's face made the entire cinema guffaw). Evans knows exactly how to balance the kineticism with nerve-shredding pauses that presage all the carnage. And in the end, despite all the head-swimming double-crosses, it's a simple film with a simple aim that really gets the job done. It's only real flaw is perhaps the needlessly distended length, but in this case more doesn't necessarily equate to less. It allows diverse variations on the theme, such as a wonderful fight sequence in a car, during a bullet-riddled high speed chase or scene involving a female, deaf assassin, two hammers and a metro carriage. Ouch...

And now there is another film to extend this linear, level-defeating approach. Snowpiercer is, I have to say, one of the best things I've seen in a long time. Not yet released in the UK or US (I believe it has a summer US release date now) - it's directed by Joon-ho Bong the man behind the superb South Korean monster movie Gwoemul (The Host)

The film is based on a series of graphic novels by Frenchmen Jacques Lob  and Jean-Marc Rochette and uses the simple premise of a post-apocalyptic world where the last of humanity live in a huge train which endlessly circles a terminally frozen globe. In a hilariously pared-down metaphor for society, the poor are lumped into the rear trucks where they live in cramped, bullied squalor and munch on cubes of disgusting looking protein jelly (and yes, you do find out what it's made of). The rich passengers who paid to join this dystopian Orient Express live in luxury at the front of the train, as does the mysterious Wilford whose emissary is played by a fantastically unrecognisable Tilda Swinton.

Yup, that's Tilda
(In a side note: this is the third film I've seen in the last month that features Swinton playing characters which don't look like Swinton! her turns in both Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel - as the aged Madame D - and in Terry Gilliam's excellent Zero Theorem (as a Scottish, schoolmarmish virtual shrink) are amazing.)

At the heart of the increasingly unhappy proles travelling third-class is a bearded Chris Evans (Captain America himself, here playing Hugh Jackman-like Curtis) along with a young protege, Edgar (Jamie Bell who, thanks to this and Nymph()maniac now seems to have shaken of the awful stench of Billy Elliott) and an ageing leader, Gilliam (see what they did there? This character is played by John Hurt - who, as with Outlander or Hellboy, always seem to signal that a film's better than usual. He's a kind of anti-Liam Neeson!). Revolution is on the cards, and the only way that the means of production will pass into their hands is, yes, you guessed it, by fighting their way carriage-by-carriage along the train to get to the engine. A sort of occupy movement with cleavers.

See? A childishly simple premise, yet its limitations allow Joon-ho Bong to utilise cunning and imagination to forge genuinely new slants on this post-gaming genre. The sequence where Curtis' band of future Bolsheiviks meet a black wall of 'state' troops (above) is an object lesson in protracted tension and release. And the action is so fast-paced that you completely forgive the obvious plot-holes or, in actual fact, the sheer silliness of the film's premise. By keeping the body count high and with some wonderfully written parts for characters such as The Host's Kang-ho Song as a junkie lock picker this film maintains its momentum like, well, a speeding train.

In many ways this premise reminded me of another great science fiction predecessor: Christopher Priest's Inverted World. In that 1974 novel the characters believe they live on a strange world in which the laws of physics are  turned on their heads and the city that they inhabit endlessly circles the globe on tracks which need to be laid as it travels. 

Just as in Priest's classic book, the train of Snowpiercer is not necessarily what it may seem and despite its almost Alice in Wonderland removal from reality you become utterly immersed in the film's internal logic. On top of this Evans gives a believably harrowing performance as a man driven not only by a sense of justice but a truly dark secret past, putting paid to the altogether blander white bread performance he gives as the Captain.

For his first movie in English it seems that Joon-ho Bong is already well on the way to achieving far more than John Woo did with ten years in Hollywood.

I predict a big cult hit, and no mistake...

*Oh, and at one point there was a really obvious reference to Kubrick's Shining, oddly enough...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


A brief note to flag up my recent rather niche Pinterest additions. You'll find scans of my dusty old collection of books by (or edited by) Ladbroke Grove's leg end: Michael Moorcock. I collected these books mainly in my late teens when recreational pursuits collided with an insatiable desire to read. There wasn't much on TV in those days.

But MM - never, it has to be said, the world's most nuanced of writers; he did churn them out, my galleries are the merest tip of a really big iceberg) - still managed to win you over with size. Not only with trilogies, quartets and endless series of novels, but also with the sheer size of his imagination. No matter that he was portly, had a big beard and probably invented steampunk (double boo! even if we didn't know it at the time, obviously). To my peer group he was cool. He even had his own pet rock band.

What's more, via the integral part he played in forging a new sci fi aesthetic as edior of influential journal, New Worlds, he was the portal to other, even cooler writers such as J G Ballard, M John Harrison, Roger Zelazny, Brian Aldiss, Thomas M. Disch, or even William Burroughs.

However I found that the tedious business of scanning lots of old books from my late adolescence focussed my mind on the way in which we experienced visual design a few decades ago. Was it design that brought music and literature so much closer together, or were the cultural lines merely so blurred in those far off days that illustrators could find work in more places?

Whatever the answer, the fact is that many of the artists who produced these covers also worked on album sleeves, cinema production design, magazines and more. They provided, in the absence of more than one Stanley Kubrick, the equivalent of today's brain melting CGI for the kids who, y'know, dug it. It also gave our world a kind of coherence. In the same way that Moorcock emulated his own Multiverse by writing a vast swathe of interlocking, intertextual books with recurring characters, the covers of the books connected us to other worlds, dreamed up by other musicians, writers and artists. Obvious, I know, but still true.

So there are covers by everyone, from Rodney Matthews (boo!), to Chris Foss (yay!), with even some real stinkers thrown in such as Boris Vallejo. The four 1979 Quartet Jerry Cornelius paperbacks are real favourites of mine.

One board is entirely devoted to the work of Bob Haberfield who I know next to nothing about, except that he's Australian and (if still with us) 76 years old. At the time I found his covers brash and clumsy compared to, say, the jewel-like hallucinations of Patrick Woodroffe (above) or the elegance of Bill Sanderson's Jerry Cornelius covers. But putting them together I admire both their vigour and their variety. Does anyone else know any more about this guy?

So, there you go. if you like dodgy '70s sci fi book covers, this may float yer boat...

*sorry, pun stolen from Tony Benyon in about 1904

Monday, April 07, 2014

Noah (2014)

So I went to see Noah.

In a few months time I’ll look back at that sentence and think ‘WHY?’, so this post is an aide de memoire to try and describe what possessed me to see one of the dullest two hours committed to celluloid this year (yes, I KNOW no one uses celluloid anymore, but you get my point).

I’m currently fascinated by the trends in big-budget cinema. I have a theory (which I’m copyrighting right NOW) that the film industry is in a form of crisis similar to that which shook it in the early to mid 1960s. The facts speak for themselves: we’re awash with lavish, effects/costume-laden epics, unable to  restrict themselves to a length that doesn’t require two toilet breaks and a numb posterior. I almost wept for joy when I realised that Wes Anderson’s charming Grand Budapest Hotel clocked in at a mere 100 minutes.

Last week’s other big release in the grown-up fairytale department – Marvel’s latest instalment to their (rather well-constructed) Avengers franchise, Captain America: The Winter Soldier – is over two and a half hours of exposition and action set pieces (albeit laced with not only one quite politically daring sub plot but also another which can only be taken as being designed to appeal to the LGBT audience – so, yay! to Marvel). However, the superhero genre seems to now be transmogrifying into a big screen equivalent of a TV box set, so may not count in this context.

Elsewhere we have the latest 300 sequel as well as (what appears to be) a really cheap, sub-Spartacus Blood and Sand sword and sandal monstrosity: Hercules. I have yet to see either, but may succumb. I’m weird like that.

But do you see what I mean? Greco-Roman epics, magical realism, even bloated musicals have returned. If you’re a pessimist it may signal the end of small budget think-pieces for your local Odeon. If you’re an optimist we’re back in about 1965 and the cinematic underground is about to be reborn anew: Little Scorceses and Cassavetes just around the corner…

And as if to confirm the paranoia what do we now get? A BIBLICAL EPIC! Now, a cursory glance at the statistics show that anything relating to the Old Testament (that’s the Bible volume ONE, boys and girls – old Hebrew-style) has been off our screens for decades. The last version of Noah’s big bateau fest starred (I’m not making this up) John Voight and Mary Steenburgen hamming (ho ho) it up in a TV film in 1999. Even the Israelis wouldn’t go near such stuff: the 2010 Sodom and Gomorrah film, Zohi Sdom is a comedy!

So now, in 2014, the age of post-industrial, post-internet wisdom, we get not only Noah, but, coming up later in the year Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Exodus; complete with Christian Bale looking cross as Moses. To paraphrase Abraham on hearing from the Lord that he should shish kebab Isaac: WTF?

But let’s return to Noah. The only sane response to a film that Peter Bradshaw described as ‘muscular’ and even Sight and Sound seemed to think was ok, is to see why, potentially, it could have been alright and why so many critics seem to even give it the time of day. Firstly it’s a Darren Aronofsky film. Pi? Black Swan? REQUIEM FOR A DREAM??!? All of these will be as distant memories as you watch the degraded ‘filmcraft’ of Noah. As I sat amongst an audience who, judging by the sniggers, found it just as risible as me, I could not, for the life of me, see what the point of the film was: Some reconnection with Aronofsky’s Hebraic heritage? Maybe. But overall Noah comes across more as a kind of weak-willed eco-morality tale. There’s Russell Crowe (again, not in himself a necessarily bad thing – he can act) looking all forlorn as the titular man of God in a wicked, wicked world. Like some combination of Mad Max and DaveAngel, Russell’s here to tell us that eating animals is bad and our ravaging of Mother Earth is NOT COOL. Is this supposed to be an analogy for our modern world?

 Two things struck me as really peculiar about Noah. One: for an epic film about the end of the world it feels pretty small-scale. Sticking in some sub-Hobbit rock monster/angels and avoiding too much genuine decadence or destruction in order to get the film its 12 certificate really loses a lot of potential. There's no sense of that tTechnicolour sweep which kept Charlton Heston and Victor Mature from getting too much. In one scene Noah witnesses man’s depravity and it almost approaches a Brueghel-like intensity. Almost. But on the whole it’s a simple tale of a big square boat and the ‘creator’ having a masterplan.

Secondly: the attendant publicity describes the film as ‘fun’. Yes, you read that right. Watching humanity bite the big one is fun. Well, not quite as fun as Roland Emmerich’s 2012, which pretty much did the same job, but at least was SO preposterous that it didn’t bore me. I’d rather be stuck on a boat with John Cusack than this bunch of stoney-faced old-timers. Jennifer Connelly (as Mrs Noah) looks as though she’s one missed meal short of starvation throughout. Maybe she could benefit from al that tasty livestock down in the hold? Actually, come to think of it, even the animals didn’t really get much of a look-in in Noah. Surely they were the whole point of the ark-building nonsense?

Told you...

Ray Winstone mistakes a bit of leering (and a scar) for doing the job of ‘conveying the evils of humanity’ in his role as bad-guy, Tubal-cain. Emily Watson (also worryingly bird-like as Ila) at least manages to give a performance so dripping with young motherly misery as to make you believe that maybe she really should settle down now and have a couple of sprogs. Talk about broody…

 A little over 20 minutes into the film I realised what a potential the story had for a great science fiction re-telling as the ragged bunch of zealots encountered some scene of industrial destruction (this is a strangely post-apocalyptic world). How cool it would have been to imagine that a pre-flood world could have harboured modern technology, I thought. But no, Aronofsky sticks fairly rigidly to the official version (putting in a little imagination to explain Noah’s drunkenness), even leaving in the bloody dove and olive branch. Thank goodness Battlestar Galactica did the job several years ago, but it means that we’re stuck with a po-faced oddity that at times emulates Terence Mallick’s terrible Tree Of Life, only to break the spell with many inadvertent opportunities to chuckle. Biblical pregnancy tests, a young Ila asking Noah to sing to her (NO! Did she not SEE Les Miserables??!?) and the odd sight of a bunch of jews running round a big ship looking for Ham? The laughs kept a-coming.

At the risk of offending fundamentalists, creationists and other such factions in my massive readership, what Aronofsky has done, is merely do what’s been happening in our cinemas for the last decade: serve up another fairy tale in a slightly polished form, merely (it seems) because we now have the awful CGI technology to do it. Just because it comes from a very, very old book, we shouldn’t see this as more significant than say jaclast years’ Jack The Giant-Killer, Oz The Great and Powerful, Clash of The Titans or (my personal favourite in awful ways to update folk tales) Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters.

Now there was a film worth laughing at.

Ladies and gentlemen, watch Ruth...

A delayed posting and anyone not interested in erm, complicated jazz-rock of the mid ‘70s should probably wait until the next update on here for less esoteric ramblings.


A couple of weeks ago I was pointed in the direction of… FINALLY… a release of the soundtrack which precedes (maybe) the official release of the film of the gigs which gave birth to one of FZ’s finest albums: namely, Roxy and Elsewhere.

Roxy by Proxy single-handedly demonstrates why the period of 1973-5 for Zappa (and the last incarnation of the Mothers) was his most fruitful and, conversely, what a godAWFUL organisation the ‘Zappa Family Trust’ are.  I may go into more detail on point number two at the end of this post, but, in the spirit of using this blog to pass on GOOD news rather than dwelling on negative emotions (man) let’s sort out why Roxy by Proxy is so wonderful, despite its suspect origins.

In December 1971 Zappa was attacked on stage at London’s Rainbow Theatre by a jealous fan who claimed that FZ was looking at his girlfriend. A fall into the concrete orchestra pit led to a six-month period confined to a wheelchair, a deeper voice (produced by a crushed larynx) and a lifetime of back pain. But more importantly, it was probably exactly what the progressive composer in FZ needed at that time: an extended period to come up with something more mature than the road tales and rock ‘n’ roll lineage of the Flo and Eddie incarnation of the Mothers.

The two subsequent albums, Waka Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo were ample evidence of FZ’s changing approach – both albums featuring two significant things – a bigger brass section lending the ensemble’s sound more towards jazz, and the more permanent addition of the mighty George Duke on keyboards (he’d already worked on Chunga’s Revenge on ’70 and the 200 Motels project in ’71). While every incarnation of Zappa’s bands has contained astounding musicians, this was the cusp of Frank’s entry into a level of playing that really took the purpose of ‘getting all the right notes on the tape’ seriously.

By 1973, with his full return to the stage, Zappa began to assemble what would, to any right thinking aficionado, become not only his greatest touring band, but pretty much THE BEST BAND YOU’LL EVER HEAR. This express train ride to superlative city is fully justified because, well… let me demonstrate.

Early incarnations of this more ‘serious’ line up at various times featured earlier cohorts such as Jeff Simmons and Ian Underwood as well as fusion fiddler, Jean Luc Ponty, whom George Duke had already played with on his Zappa-inspired King Kong album. As well as a live album featuring Duke’s own trio. Added to this was what would become the core of Zappa’s touring band for the next 18 months. This was Ruth Underwood (Ian’s wife at the time) on percussion, Napoleon Murphy Brock on flute, sax and vocals, Ralph Humphreys on drums, Chester Thompson on drums, Tom Fowler on bass and brothers Bruce Fowler on trombone and Walt on trumpet.

The earliest variant of this line up toured (with Ponty and without Thomspon or Murphy Brock) from February in 1973 to August, but by October both Ponty and Ian Underwood had gone and the Over-Nite Sensation album had been recorded.

The removal of non-American, Ponty (along with attendant ego clashes with Zappa) laid the way open for a band that not only had the fearsome chops to deal with Frank’s insanely complex material but also a shared an outlook and cultural reference points with which to combine political satire (Watergate was colouring all US events at the time) and the usual road humour that Zappa loved to feature in his work. But more importantly, this was a band that could play.

So it was, that by the end of 1973 the transitional line up which still featured Jeff Simmons on guitar and featured both Humphreys and Thomson on drums had convened in December at the Roxy on Sunset Boulevard for a six-night residency that gave birth to the Roxy and Elsewhere live double album; the ‘Elsewhere’ of the title being additionally recorded dates in Chicago and Pennsylvania, as well as the studio overdubs to add a little tweezer gleam to the proceedings.

By February of the following year the line up had settled into the more manageable six –piece without Simmons or Humphreys. The following studio album, Apostrophe (‘) – released under Frank’s own name with no ‘Mothers’ - dated from sessions which retained Ponty as well as various other luminaries (including Jack Bruce playing electric cello on the co-written title track – apparently he hated it) and continued. While both this and its predecessor are now considered FZ classics (possibly for the wrong reasons, containing as they do some of Frank’s more sexually dubious numbers) interestingly at the time his stock was critically low. Reactionary writers mourned the older versions of the Mothers and heard only the sardonic road tales while ignoring the amazing band that was evolving under the smut.  The fact was: while FZ was always a brilliant studio technician, this band had to be heard LIVE to really be appreciated. And a true representation of the finest live band that ever bestrode this earth (IMHO) had to wait until the later release of Roxy… and the following year’s One Size Fits All - arguably Zappa’s finest studio album – to really show what they could do.  And again, both of these albums were panned by the critics. Talk about cloth ears…

But forty years after the fact it’s pretty well accepted, both by fans, critics and the original band members that this really was where Frank reached some kind of  creative apotheosis. But why?

Well, the aforementioned accident/attack as mentioned had not only given him time to do some really serious writing for which he HAD to find the right combination of musicians to play. It was that complicated.

But if you investigate the usual ‘conceptual continuity’ clues that litter Zappa’s work, it’s easy to see why this version of the Mothers was the ultimate.  Here are four randomly picked reasons:

      1)   Percussion: FZ was originally a drummer and (as he later demonstrated with drum version of The Black Page’) he could write for drums. His initial love of Varese and Stravinsky had left him with a penchant for percussion and with the Roxy line up he had THREE world-class percussionists onboard. The Roxy By Proxy tapes feature a brilliant rhythm-only retooling of ‘Cheepnis’.

      2)   Voices: Frank’s newly lowered voice needed not only George to sing up, but also Napoleon Murphy Brock. This adds the sweetness that Zappa’s sardonic near monologues on numbers such as ‘Montana’ or ‘Stinkfoot’ can’t supply. The close harmonies that resulted allowed the requisite amount of greasy doo-wop into the mix. Just listen to the band’s sense of fun as they sing the final line to ‘Dickie’s Such An Asshole’: their tribute to the exiting President Nixon.

In several interviews Duke talks about how Frank wore away his muso snobbism about dumb, greasy rock ‘n’ roll as well as helping him accept a wider array of new electronic equipment and getting him to sing. Hold on… he never sang before he joined the Mothers?!? Just listen to his voice on ‘Inca Roads’ and marvel at the loveliness of his voice! And by the time, a year after leaving the Mothers, he recorded his own version of Frank’s anti-racism classic: ‘Uncle Remus’ on his  solo album, The Aura Will Prevail, his voice had become a thing of grace and power.

      3)   Versatility: watch any film of Frank at the helm in a live situation and you see the various visual cues and hand signals that could lead the band in one of several directions, often turning on a dime in the middle of a complex arrangement to include some private joke or incongruous flourish. Again, as George Duke said: this band was SO well-rehearsed and proficient as to almost know before Frank what was required. To listen to any of the recordings from the ’73-’74 band is an exercise in witnessing what can actually happen if musicians give themselves entirely to music.

      4)   Democracy: An odd one in the context of FZ: for years Frank was the ringmaster in his own circus of oddities, yet following a serious accident (as well as losing all of the band’s equipment in the notorious ‘Smoke on the Water’ hotel fire on lake Geneva and being involved in the legal wrangles of extricating himself from the managerial grip of Herb Cohen) even such an avowed workaholic could grow sick of having to nursemaid a band. Years of penury in the Mothers’ early years had meant that Frank had to constantly field the complaints of musicians who often went hungry. But with the Roxy band you can somehow sense that, maybe for the only time in his career, Frank was enjoying spending time with a bunch of players who were in every way his equal. Ultimately he’d never go as far as to hand over any control of the ban’s future to anyone else or claim that he was anything less than their paymaster (unlike the rather disingenuous way that, say Robert Fripp does with King Crimson, or David Bowie or Paul McCartney would with Tin Machine or Wings) – but if you watch any of the TV broadcast you can see the sheer joy that he’s getting by spending time with such outstanding musicians. This was more than just humour belonging in music, it was Frank truly getting his musical rocks off, and even learning from the conservatory-trained alumni around him. He may have lost his Ian Underwood, but he’d gained not one but six others in replacement. Which brings me to the jewel in the ’73-’74 Mothers’ crown: Ruth.

Ruth Komanoff/Underwood had witnessed Zappa’s important 1967 Garrick Theatre residence in New York where he’d learned his advanced stagecraft and absurdism. In later interviews she points out that, while they were revolutionary in their chaotic approach to what constitutes a ‘gig’ (involving members of the audience at various times), in the midst of the shenanigans were some exquisite tunes.

Ruth’s skills as a percussionist were to emphasize both the rhythmic and melodic heart of Zappa’s work. If George Duke provided the chordal backbone of the set-list, she injected intricacy and speed that beggars belief. In later years Captain Beefheart meanly suggested that FZ had used the lovely Ruth as mere window-dressing, but it’s obviously bullshit. Why else would Frank give his famous call to ‘Watch Ruth’ in the monstrously complex ‘Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?’ This is Frank, the supposed misogynist, in awe of a woman as a key member of his band. He knows that he can put her on the spot, any time and she’ll deliver.

So, over the years I’ve tried to collect as many recordings of this band (or its variations) as I can. The mere attempts of an obsessive, you’d probably conclude. However, if I was the kind of classical music buff who sought legendary recordings of, say, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, I’d be regarded as an aesthete. It’s the ‘rock’ label that adds the sneer. But IS this rock? I’d say not.

The Roxy band serves up a melange of funk, rock, jazz, doo-wop, modern experimental and improvisation, often in the space of one number. And it’s this last point that made me sit down and write this in the first place. For, on Roxy By Proxy, there’s a version of ‘Dupree’s Paradise’ that may, just may be the best recording of any live band ever committed to tape.

Don’t get me wrong: I know there are finer moments, arguably better playing, even better tunes, but for the reasons stated above as well as many others, this version of ‘Dupree’s Paradise’ represents an almost platonic form of what ‘live music’ should constitute.  Beginning with George Duke’s cute Fender Rhodes and synth extrapolations the band cruise into a funky-as-hell jam that then seamlessly segues into the lovely theme of the tune at the five-minute mark - an epitome of modern American music. From there we journey through a Tom Fowler bass solo that references ‘Montana’’s complexities and returns us to a scorching Zappa guitar solo before reprising the theme one last time. In construction it’s nothing special, but listening to it for the first time I was struck as how this one 15-minute track contains everything you need to know in order to appreciate why I love this band so fucking much.

If there was ever a disappointment with the original Roxy and Elsewhere album, it was that it wasn’t a true aural document of how astounding the band were live. It was the later release of volume two of You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore - a complete Helsinki gig - which revealed that yes, they really, really could do all of that in real time! And now, after an eternity of waiting we finally get to hear the cream of one of the fabled nights unadorned on tape. Not only this, but a legitimised version of the full August 27, 1974 at KCET in Hollywood TV special* has been released as well as an earlier Road Tape of thePonty line up live in (again) Helsinki. It never rains etc.

The Roxy dates, of course, were filmed, and the resultant concert footage has, to any right-thinking Zappa fan, become a kind of holy grail. For years now the ZFT have taunted us with brief glimpses even allowing a 30-minute clip to appear on Youtube.  But, like all of the ZFT’s nefarious trading decisions, you can’t help feeling that any delays merely serve to jack up the price and extract the most capital from the deal. Unlike, say, King Crimson, whose website offers a plethora of reasonably priced live and rare treats for the obsessive fan who can be bothered to shell out for such stuff, the Zappa website is both poorly constructed, filled with faux Zappa-speak and littered with archive material that over the years has been bewilderingly random and unfocussed, despite some truly lovely stuff appearing (cf: Wazoo – a live recording of the big band’s seventh and last date in Boston). What’s more appalling are the prices that the ‘Trust’ has inflicted on fans. Who really expects to pay over 20 dollars for a download these days? It often seems that the legacy of Frank - who to be fair wasn’t anything but a self-avowed free market libertarian – has come to rest in the hands of someone more venal, controlling and grasping than Zappa, namely his wife, Gail. As I’ve stated before: the work that his son does often strikes me as being more of an excuse to claim a living from art that was made long ago by his dead father. How many Dweezil records have you bought recently? Exactly…

So it is with mixed feelings that I celebrate the final release of Roxy by Proxy (and the likely release of the film from which it is drawn). It reminds me of the way that Neil Young has toyed with fans who waited for years for his back catalogue and various rarities to be unleashed: but at least he’s alive and should be able to do what he likes with his archive, no matter how frustrating it can be to be unable to buy Time Fades Away. But while the market for Zappa rarities may be considerable on a worldwide scale, it seems like a poor excuse to make the faithful pay a premium. Personally I’d buy a shedload of the 73-74 band CDs should they become available. But not at inflated prices or from a website that can’t even be bothered to give full track details or provenance unless you buy on spec.

Luckily there are hundreds of sites and more obsessive fans out there who share, discuss and cherish this stuff beyond mere capital gain. After all music is the best. But I think I’ve already said too much…

Instead let’s have another look at the best band you DID ever hear in your life. Ladies and gentlemen, watch Ruth…

*It’s worth noting that by this point the band were possibly even more fearsome than at any other time, having been touring almost continually for a year. I urge anyone to watch this gig in its entirety.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Nymph()maniac Volumes I & II (2014)

I began writing this on the same day as the commercial monstrosity we know and 'love' as the Academy Awards takes place. And while this piece is ostensibly about the new Lars Von Trier film(s) it seems that I can't keep my seething annoyance at the farce masquerading as some kind of artistic validation ceremony out of my blog. If this review hasn't been written at 4.30in the morning it still seethes with a little indignation. So please forgive the opening digression about Mr McQueen: a fine director and genuine stand up guy, I'm sure we can all agree. Otherwise just jump to the fifth paragraph and ignore the following…

I suspect that the reason I politely seethe is because of the connection between Nymph()manic parts one and two and this year's Hollywood binge (and it IS a binge, no matter who wins. Make no mistake, even if your absolute favourite film of the last year and a half wins an Oscar it means precisely NOTHING in terms of the value of the work itself). The connection is the director Steve McQueen.

McQueen's previous film, Shame, concerned itself with a similar subject; sexual addiction, but notably suffered by a male protagonist and whose screenplay was co-written by a woman - the brilliant Abi Morgan. Both films' treatment and exploration of sexuality and post-industrial psychological damage in the early 21st century differ wildly.

Von Trier's story - the Sheharazade-like unfolding of Joe's (Charlotte Gainsbourgh) sexual education and subsequent fall from grace, told over the space of one night after she is discovered beaten and bloody in a dystopian alleyway by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) - makes little reference to pornography, implicitly and rightly conceding that we actually live in a post-pornography age where the depiction of the act should no longer be regarded as in any way the breaking of a taboo, or as provocation in the pursuit of some 'controversy' or grim publicity. In that sense Von Trier's work is far more contemporary than McQueen's work. This year, McQueen's contender for a raft of honours at the Academy Awards - 12 Years A Slave - reiterates the fact that he's essentially a filmmaker who deals more in historical diatribe: a message guy. I wasn't entirely won over by either 12 Years A Slave or Shame despite their fine (and finely nuanced) performances, undeniably important subject matter or even their ravishing good looks. Where was the humanity? They seemed more educational and, while harrowing, always seem somehow viewed externally. But Von Trier's films dare you to become part of the narrative. Or maybe I just suffer from a similar type of depression as Von T, but it seemed that Nymph()mania - woefully marketed as something beyond the pale - packs more life, thought and vivacity into its four and a half hours than MCQueen’s managed with three films. Just don't expect it to win any Oscars next year: it doesn't do middle class guilt.

 Back to the actual film:

Never as gruelling as you quite expect it to be, Nymph()maniac’s episodic and chronological form does feel strangely old-fashioned at times, but is peppered with enough jokes and shifts in stylistic approach that it never commits the cardinal sin of being less than involving. This is cinema that accepts ideas as currency and still sees worth in the literary models that preceded it (half of the characters have letters for names, evoking both Kafka and Anne Desclos). At times Joe's chapterisation (is that a word?) of her life make the film seem more like a Defoe novel. This may be why another review saw the film as having a certain 'confessions' quality. Humour and sex? Heaven forfend. Not since the 1700s have we British been able to talk openly and maturely about sex without referring to our default 'ooerr missus' mode.

Performances are mostly great, although the constant changes in tone can throw you at times. Joe’s younger self, played by Stacy Martin, is, at times so remarkably dumb that you begin to question the veracity of her tale, while I’ve always found Charlotte Gainsbourgh’s ‘style’ of non-acting somewhat confounding.  I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think Von Trier’s use of Shia LaBoeuf can be viewed as ironic in the extreme. Of course nearly all reviews point to his awful accent but I think there’s more at work here. LaBoeuf’s character, Jerome, is a 24-carat jerk throughout and perhaps here stands in for more than one character (Seligman continually points out the improbable reoccurrence of the character in Joe’s story – never letting us forget that at best she’s an unreliable narrator): he’s the man who both initiates Joe’s sexual life and effectively ends it, never really rising above the two-dimensional.  And maybe LaBoeuf’s recent public meltdown says more about how Nymph()maniac has laid bare his shortcomings. But this is pure conjecture…

Elsewhere Stellan Skarsgård is now possibly the best actor to convey shabby Northern European stoicism on the planet. Here he strikes just the right balance between shabby and sapient. Also of note is Uma Thurman’s extraordinary tragic-comic depiction of an abandoned wife (in the film’s most squirmingly hilarious comedy-of-manners moment), and Mia Goth’s turn as Joe’s young protégé which is, in turns, heartbreakingly beautiful and scathingly insolent.

The use of British idioms and currency would seem to suggest that Jerome’s vowel-mangling is supposed to imply that Joe's adventures take place in the UK. But Von Trier is dealing in analogy here and any kind of factual or geographical accuracy are moot. Most importantly, Von Trier is defiantly resisting the imperialism of American cinema in favour of European intellectualism. It’s really no wonder that most spoon-fed, wet behind the ears 'journalists' regard him as 'controversial.' But any controversy here really resides in words rather than actions. If you balk at the depiction of sex on screen, a discussion on paedophilia may just blow your tiny mind.

 While writing this I reacquainted myself with the infamous'nazi' remarks that got Von Trier voted personanon grata at Cannes in 2011. In retrospect it seems so silly that anyone could have misinterpreted his comments, to a press conference dead set on bating him, as anything but flippant and ironic. But I think it's in this incident that we can find the true key to Nymph()maniac - his humour. Reviews so far have noted the lightness of touch, at least in the first half. Yes, shock horror, Lars Von Trier has a sense of humour and at least a third of Nymph()maniac is pretty damn funny. And when it’s accompanied by the bruising Teutonic metal of Rammstein it’s just joyous.

But what of the story itself? Does Von Trier expect sympathy or empathy for a mother who abandons her child for the slim chance of sexual pleasure (or degradation)? Of course he doesn't - because he's interested in the notion that all bad behaviour or dysfunction has more than one cause, more than one way of being examined. It's up to the (assumed) intelligence of the viewer to decide what can be taken from this. Is the depiction of violent sexual imagery at the hands of ‘K (brilliantly played by Jamie Bell as a weasel-eyed S&M Prince Harry) in any way misogynistic? Not to my eyes, because what Nymph()maniac does most effectively is to examine gender differences in the light of addiction. Joe is both victim and proud protagonist (as displayed in the ruthless logic of the last two minutes of the film, which I won’t reveal here, save to say it reminded me of the nihilism of Baise Moi). Is her quest (or pursuance) a spiritual one  - as inferred by her bond with her father and his communing with the ‘souls of trees’ - or a doomed attempt to fit to society’s mores when eventually she renounces her sexuality, having spent half of the film trying to regain it, no matter what the cost?

 Seligman's digressions and footnotes during Joe's recounting of her life  - on knots, mathematics, polyphony, Freudian theory, fly fishing etc etc - act as delicately poised recontextualisation and also as a kind of gentle confessional where he counters her (typical) addict's propensity for labelling herself as evil, damaged or just plain bad. Yet these counterpoints to her imaginative narratives also serve another purpose.

Via these (very masculine) interjections Nymph()maniac also serves as an answer to so many of the wrong-headed notions and slurs that the director has had to endure over the last few years. It's the mark of a maturing artist that he can take these threads into his work and make them eloquent discussion points rather than barrelling past them in some hermetic, artistic bubble of misplaced hubris.

 The 'nazi' incident is dispatched by Seligman via a brief comment about anti-Zionism not being the same as anti-semiticism. In Geoff Dyer's masterful Zona he talks about how angry he became at Von Trier's seeming attempts to recreate the mystical nature of Tarkovsky's Stalker in the woodland terror of AntiChrist (a film I hated too). Dyer's finely chosen words always reminded me of a Julie Burchill review of a Deacon Blue record, many years ago, where she pointed out the pointlessness of liking a Prefab Sprout tribute band. Sure enough, Lars adds a dedication to Tarkovsky at the end of Nymph()maniac while referring to the Russian master by way of the 'fake' Rublev icon on Seligman's shabby wall. But here you sense that he's realised how his debt to Tarkovsky  has been fully paid. The mysticism which seeps into the narrative - what people like a religious reactionary like Mark Kermode perceive as 'sacreligious' (while simultaneously signalling his fanboy familiarity with 'cult' '70s porn) - in fact speaks of  pantheism and more primal forms of worship: it's noted in Seligman's speech about the schism between the eastern (joyous) and western (guilt-ridden) forms of early christianity. This is a film about joy and self-acceptance and, even more importantly, self-responsibility for our predelictions, our depressions and their damaging effects on those around us. Joe's rejection of the bourgeoise politesse of 'group therapy' may be traditionally misguided but it at least speaks of a person filled with an appreciation of life. She chooses the term ‘nymphomaniac’ over ‘sex addict’. And Nymph()maniac is full to the brim of anima, the force of life.

 Again and again we're confronted by the notion of the right or left-handed nail trimming analogy: i.e.: delayed pleasure or instant hedonism; live for the moment and regard others as mere collateral damage or live as a virgin, making your head the only source of pleasure. Whether you regard this as a useful analogy between male and female approaches to pleasure/life is up to you.

Von Trier manages to cram all this into a mere four and a half hours. I watched parts one and two in once chunk and would advise anyone else to do the same. And while the film has a logic to its split (the numbers of the chapters are a reference to the los of Joe’s virginity), I feel it should always be seen in one complete sitting. I also wanted to see it again as soon as it finished.

Neither needlessly provocative or a film which gives any real answers for us gloomy Northern Europeans out there, Nymph()maniac may already be my favourite film of the year. One thing I do know is that I will be thinking about it for a long time to come. And hardly anything does that any more, especially if it features Shia LaBeouf. Just don’t expect it to win any Academy Awards. What greater recommendation could there be?