Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Decline of the Wes, or, Three Movies, Three Nostalgias

The other day I finally watched Amarcord – a Fellini film I’ve been meaning to see ever since learning that it was an influence on Eno’s On Land. Couldn’t quite see that connection, beyond the nostalgia (Eno for the Suffolk of his 1950s and ‘60s childhood,  Fellini for his 1930s Adriatic adolescence) but nonetheless was utterly beguiled by the film’s year in the life of a fictional coastal town. Then I immediately picked up, as I so often do, Have You Seen…?, to find out what David Thomson has to say.

DT tears the film apart! “The word amarcord means ‘I remember’, but the mood of the film is more that of someone saying ‘I wonder’, trying to forget harsh times or ugly truths… Nothing hints at why fascism had come to Italy, or at the process that would remove it. Fellini knew that bad time, of course, but Amarcord is a case of leaving nostalgia uninspected….  It is a display of charm done without much shame. It reminds us, perhaps, of Fellini the cartoonist, watching life go by and turning it into lively comic sketches… Fellini once was a real social observer and storyteller. Here he is a mere collector of material. He has withdrawn enough from story to give up its urge to judgment. So Amarcord discourages history or political thinking. The Fascists came like the snow or the blossom; you shrug and wait for the next season.”

Floral Mussolini meets the flower of Italian youth

Oddly, as so often, I enjoyed DT’s dismissal of a film without it affecting my enjoyment. The two  continue to coexist quite comfortably.

One phrase in DT’s delicate dismemberment of Amarcord – “I do think there’s a conscious effort to suggest that fascism is an adolescent ideology” – reminded me of another movie I watched recently, also belatedly: The French Dispatch. I don’t know if Wes Anderson is a fan of Fellini, let alone influenced by him, although they do share a love of décor and costume (but then who doesn’t in modern movie-making – films, and TV, are caked in the stuff). There are many modes in which an infatuation with the sumptuousness of surfaces can be expressed. Still, that line about “an adolescent ideology” snagged my attention, because that is what Anderson does with May 68 and student radicalism: he makes it out to be merely an outbreak of trendy immaturity.

Generally, I find Anderson’s films beguiling in the moment of watching, but invariably leave the theatre dissatisfied and grow steadily exasperated with him and with myself. “That’s the last Anderson film I’m going to see,” I usually vow (the same always happens with the latest Tarantino) But with The French Dispatch, I wasn't beguiled, I was bored, actually falling asleep two-thirds of the way in (I don’t know how it ends, if ending there be). Still, I was awake long enough to be irritated by the treatment of the young radicals of the late ‘60s. (And it seems clear that a similar sort of mockery is intended with the  triptych's plotline about the imprisoned murderer turned abstract painter – another kind of radicalism, the primal expressivity of the outsider artist, is made to look silly).

 It's not an especially original or penetrating insight to say of Anderson that he's besotted with the décor of the past but uncomprehending when it comes to a past period as a passion play of conflict and struggle, aspiration and idealism. Typography, uniforms, customs, procedures, design, accoutrements, appliances – the exquisiteness of form and formality is fetishized, each and every visually scrumptious scene screams to be freezeframed so that you can pore over its symmetries and color coordination. But as for everything else – the  real energies that motor history, the tensions and turmoil bubbling behind the prettiness of the past -  Wes is useless.  Nothing is quite real, nothing really hurts (a great film wounds you, makes you ache with the wish that the fate of the characters could have been otherwise – or that you could ever in your own paltry life feel a fraction of what they've felt). 

One thing Anderson does seem to share with Fellini is a great fondness for the bustle of minions and underlings. The punctilious spectacle of people briskly going about their business, the tasks associated with their allotted place, wearing the uniform appropriate to their station and function, pulling rank or doffing the cap when required.  Officials, bell boys, able seamen, scout leaders, maids, maitre d's.  It’s a view of society as a caste system – the high and the lowly, predestined, to the mannerisms born.


His films often resemble a Richard Scarry Busy Busy World book (all those cute cutaway cross sections of the interiors of buildings, ships, planes!) soaked through with the aristocratic nostalgia of an Evelyn Waugh. Look at how charming the world looks, when everything is in its place and everybody knows their place.

The clockwork elegance of socially stratified space – all those moving parts cogging together as a smoothly running hierarchy – in Anderson’s movies reminded me of yet another film I’ve seen recently: Playtime.  I’d never seen a Jacques Tati film before. The little glimpses I’d caught  convinced me that this was a comedic world I’d never want to spend time inside. Too whimsied, too mild and minor a pleasure. But something –  the memory of a DT recommendation, its warmth but none of its actual specifics -  made me click on Playtime when it presented in the Criterion menu. I watched it without advance knowledge of what it was about, a virgin state quite hard to arrive at these days, and one to take advantage of should it occur. And I was entranced.  Only to discover later that my reaction to the film was almost the opposite of how you are supposed to take it.

It was intended -  everyone agrees on this -  as a satire of a sterile, technocratic society emerging in the Sixties, the "tomorrow's world - today!" of  chrome and glass and plastic, where functions are pointlessly automated at every turn, just for the sake of it, for the future-now frisson of it. Barely a trace of Nature or the old Paris is left in this ultramodern metropolis. Unaware of how its creator's intent, I took it as something completely different: a total rhapsody to modernity.  No doubt this is an accidental byproduct of today's nostalgic fetish for mid-century aesthetics, the look of graphics and appliances in the 1950s and early '60s. But as a result, I watched Playtime in a Wes sort of way, I suppose (showing perhaps that the "decadence" in Anderson's work that aggravates me is really me recoiling from my own capacity for irony and detachment, resisting being seduced by it). 

 Thanks to a protracted and involved production process (Tati constructed a gigantic set involving multiple city blocks and high-rise buildings) Playtime finally came out in 1967, but if I hadn’t known that I would dated it 1961 from the look of people’s clothes and hair, the furniture and interior décor of offices, shops, apartments and restaurants. Fairly instantly I was reminded of Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, his nostalgic evocation of the early Sixties optimism all those songs like "I.G.Y." and "New Frontier", the "graphite and glitter" of  the near-future paradise that technology and automation will bring.  Maybe it’s a case of the auteur’s intent being undercut by the erotic logic of the camera, so the work ends up saying something else, or saying two opposed things simultaneously.  But the Paris of Playtime seemed like a shiny wonderland. 

And yes, Tati has humanity bumbling along, not quite able to go with the program that its best and brightest minds have laid out, the messiness and clumsiness of ordinary people getting in the way. Also what screws up the planning is the sheer Frenchness of everyone, which seems to rush in to fill the vacuum in a cityscape studiously evacuated of everything traditionally Gallic (apart from the flower lady and some of the food). Nationality as this stubborn ineradicable force, a recalcitrant drag against the International Style of corporate modernism.

 I’d almost read the film as an accidental riposte to the Situationist et al critique of soulless technocracy and urban planning and the emptiness of consumerism (although actually it seems to be  the case, that Tati was roughly on the same page as Debord and crew, at least in terms of his animus). The characters wandering bedazzled and disoriented through the steel and reinforced concrete maze  could be taken as  psychogeographers re-enchanting the city through dérive.

I don’t know what Tati’s politics were  - probably not unlike Fellini's (moderate... keeping his distance from ’68, unlike some of his Italian cinematic contemporaries...  a supporter of the Christian Democrats). But it’s funny how today’s eyes can look at this shimmering vision (filmed in 70 mm, for twice the richness and detail of standard film, it’s seen best on a gigantic screen, an opportunity to be seized should it present itself) in a completely opposed way to the creator's intent.

Apparently, when the film finally came out, it was fatally out of step with the mood of France / Europe / the West circa 1968. As DT notes, “anger is one of those emotions expressly missing from Playtime”. That’s from his “Have You Seen….? review of the film. Earlier, in the entry on Tati in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, DT harps on the satiric intent of Playtime, Trafic, Mon Oncle, finding their critique of “the brutality of progress” to be “tritely thought out and endlessly reiterated.”

 But by the later volume, he appears to have revisioned Playtime and his response to it is remarkably – and pleasingly – close to my first-time reaction. Here, writing in 2008, he rejects the idea that it should be understood as a work of “social criticism that deplores modern times”. Instead, the look of the film – meaning how it looks at the world, rather than its décor – is a “tranquil, amiable gaze… There is nothing like the inclination to see ugliness, or unkindness, that actually builds pathos in Chaplin. Rather, Tati is charmed by the existence of things in space…” . The camera is “backed away, at an amazing (and amazed) distance” and the overall effect is that “the sense of beholding the turmoil of life is irresistible…. Yes, this society is accident-prone and deserves to collapse or destroy itself, but its energy, its persistence, is beautiful and inspiring. It’s like watching cells grow and divide. What alarmed 1968, I suspect, was the authentic optimism of the film, its exhilaration…”

Although their metaphors for life and the world are different - for Fellini, it's the circus or the cartoon; for Anderson, the cutaway / diorama;  for Tati, in at least this film, it's the amusement park or funfair - they do all have in common versions of this "tranquil, amiable gaze", a sense of "the impossibility of critique", or its unnecessariness, an unconflicted view of life. 

And there's nostalgia at work in all three films - but a different kind in each.

Amarcord is proper rose-tinted nostalgia, selective memory retrospection - the ugly parts of the past largely sidelined in the warm glow of memory. 

The French Dispatch is the sort of nostalgia that isn't really nostalgia (because there's no algia as such, no pain or ache). Retro at its purest, making contact with the past only through pastiche. The screen suppurates with a surface-deep fetish for the historical (decor, clothes, typography, etc) but there's no feel for History. 

Playtime - well, there's two nostalgias here, the nostalgia of its creator and the nostalgia of a  a certain sort of contemporary viewer (like me). Tati's takes the form of a a bemused-amused scepticism about modernity and neophilia (the rapid replacement of old architecture and old ways of doing things, in all their charm and familiarity). But over a half-a-century later, the film becomes susceptible to a retro-modernist  nostalgia. Its stirs wistful feelings about the optimism and confidence of the immediate decades after WW2. C.f. Rem Koolhaas on the late 60s as humanity's highpoint: the Moon Landing, Concorde's launch, the Osaka Expo, grand projects pursued by a "public sector... with vision".


Bonus beat: DT on WA, from The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition

"I liked [Rushmore] very much but felt already that The Royal Tenenbaums had a kind of whimsical pretension that can mark and beguile a student who has given up on being educated. Thus, the agonies of family dysfunction have been chilled by a kind of visionary novocaine, itself pleasing and very much of the moment, but with one drawback: that the sense of dysfunction (and thus failure) could be reassessed or tamed as mere oddity....  The comparison with Paul Thomas Anderson is a signal. PTA's films have been odd and disconcerting at times, but overall they leave no doubt about the maker's sense of trying to make films in a time of immense physical and cultural crisis. By contrast, WA seems to exist at the far end of a very private, isolating corridor. Moonrise Kingdom seemed to exist on an island at the far end of that corridor: it was pretty, whimsical, and consistent, but what was its point?"

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

retrotalk2022 - 2000s revivalism already

A piece in Far Out magazine about 2000s revivalism by Sam Kemp

"If  the 2000s were already an era dominated by revivalism, what is it that we’re currently reviving? Are we already caught up in an endless loop of reinterpretation? From where I’m standing, it appears the 2000s were still unique enough to hold something worth recycling... One of the key differences between the 2020s and the 2000s is the way we consume culture. Before the advent of streaming services, we had fewer opportunities to cultivate an individual cultural sphere.... The charts were, generally speaking, still a fairly good indicator of what the nation was listening to. Today, the way we experience music is so fragmented that the idea of an entire generation of children being caught up in S Club fever feels unimaginable....  By basking in nostalgia for a period where people watched MTV instead of living within an echo chamber of their own taste, are Gen Z attempting to simulate the joy of shared experience?"

Also suggests that the 2000s was a time of optimism 

I guess every age thinks the age immediately prior to it was a/ less fragmented b/ happier. But it didn't feel like that during the actual 2000s. It felt fucking grim and like the monoculture had disintegrated. 

Saturday, April 30, 2022

retrotalk2022 - festivals fester

Eric Drucker at the Ringer on how music festivals are in the big business of selling your youth back to you. Like the concept of "forever goths" and the thought that an entire festival - not just specific reunions of bands on the bill- could be a kind of mega-reunion or flashback or form of time travel. Also the concept of a band's transition from "dated" to "classic".

"It’s been more than two decades since the first Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. After a rough entry, Coachella eventually showed new generations of American concert promoters and audiences that these events were not only financially lucrative and amazing backdrops for selfies, but also the locus of culture-defining moments. Coachella inspired plenty of like-minded, goofily-named imitators around the country. Some have persisted, others have perished. (A quick RIP to All Points West, Sasquatch!, Treasure Island, Intonation …)

"Yet as the number of festivals has multiplied, a sameness has developed in their lineups. Individual identities have been lost, even among the ones with the longest histories. Coachella started in 1999 with an eye toward underground sounds and Bonnaroo launched in 2002 with a foundation in the jam band scene, but by 2022, much of their rosters can feel oddly interchangeable. And ever since Lollapalooza transitioned to a non-touring event in 2005, it has struggled to develop an ethos beyond “We heard you like music, here’s a lot of it.”

"As the live music industry hopefully enters its first full festival season since the beginning of the pandemic, some of the country’s largest promoters have unveiled or resurrected more niche festivals as alternative options. These offerings focus on a particular era or sound and are usually limited to a single day of programming, rather than the current industry standard of spreading an event out from Friday to Sunday (or longer). Entrants in this category beyond When We Were Young include the 1980s gloom fantasy Cruel World, the soul showcase Smokin Grooves, the outlaw–roots country roundup Palomino Festival, and the throwback hip-hop showcase Rock the Bells.

"... Though ticket sales for major festivals far exceed the specialty ones, there is more of a sense of excitement around these recent entries. When every festival this year seems to be headlined by Metallica, Halsey, Green Day, and/or J. Cole, it makes sense why Cruel World would get forever goths pumped about the idea of moping out to Morrissey, Bauhaus, and the Psychedelic Furs on the same day.... 

"In the early phases of Coachella, the festival often attracted crowds with reunions of influential bands that younger fans probably hadn’t been able to see play live in their prime—most notably Pixies, the Stooges, and Rage Against the Machine. It was said that the organizers’ dream booking was the Smiths. With all due respect to Swedish House Mafia, reunion acts no longer appear to be a core part of Coachella’s mission. But many of the other recently announced events feel like reunions for entire bygone tours and festivals. Looking at the When We Were Young lineup, it’s hard not to see it as a retread of New Jersey’s The Bamboozle, or an idealized version of a certain multistage, summer punk showcase that once traveled our country’s fairgrounds and stadium parking lots. As Told says, “The elephant in the room is the Warped Tour.”

"....For some of the acts that are playing Just Like Heaven, it will be the first time they’ve been packaged under an aura of recapturing yesteryear. The dance punk band !!! played Coachella three times between 2004 and 2011. The group has been consistently putting out music for more than two decades and still tours clubs regularly. “We’ve never played the hits,” says Nic Offer, !!!’s frontperson. “Also we didn’t really have hits that were big enough that people are always going to be screaming for them, so we’ve been lucky in that.”

"...When Goldenvoice approached !!! last year about Just Like Heaven, they were reluctant, not wanting to get shunted into the old band category. “There’s that transition from dated to classic,” Offer says. “I think every musician is kind of counting on that moment when it’ll happen to them. And, you know, it looks like this is going to be the moment where it starts to happen for bands like us.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

so this is the afterlife...

Interesting / poignant piece by Nick Duerden about pop stars and what they do after their careers collapse, spun off a book he's done on the subject, Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars 

I've often wondered, and worried, about what pop stars do with themselves when their moment - often rather brief - has gone....  how they make ends meet.... what they do with all that time on their hands.... and not wanting to go out and about much on account of the inevitable "didn't you use to be...." comments

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

pre-echoes of Retromania # 6 - "going forward into the past"

Funny to see a reviewer (in Sounds, I think - unidentified, anyway) complaining way back in 1977 that Elvis Costello's music is as recycled and recombinational as his name. 

Having read Franklin Bruno's book on Armed Forces, it does seem like the m.o. of the Attractions often was to steal riffs and rejigger them, sometimes inverting them - these riffs often sourced in relatively obscure (at least to the New Wave audience's ears) rhythm-and-blues or soul songs, so they could get away with it presumably, or because it was simply their favorite music, or where they could all find common ground as musicians. 

But what's interesting is that despite this patchworking of bits and bobs borrowed, the outcome comes across with the force of the New - it's animated by an almost unprecedented spite and vitriol, and by the power of the playing and performance. 

The personality, the attitude, revivifies and repurposes all this second-hand material - that's what makes the song jump into the present and leave behind pub rock (a scene, incidentally, characterized by groups doing a lot of cover versions - a break with the progressive ethos of only doing your own material). 

Not forgetting the lyrics  - the locus of the New here, as in so much New Wave (along with image). 

The content changes the form. Charges it up. 

The urgency of the subject makes it totally now (meaning 1977 - the 1977 of RAR and ANL)