Friday, May 27, 2022

"No, I Don't Want to Hear the New Stuff"

Did something unusual - and retromaniacal - a few weekends ago: went to Cruel World, a gigantic out-doors convocation of aging Goths and alt-rockers, just up the road (in LA terms) in Pasadena. We -  me + the missus + our 16-year-old + his friends + their parents - went on the first of the two days, the Saturday, baking and squinting in the 90-degree-plus heat and glare as a succession of all-star, largely British legacy acts performed

For me, the prime attraction was the first-time-ever sighting of Public Image Ltd and Devo in the flesh (albeit rather far off and mediated by the giant videoscreens, in practice). And also the first-time-in-over-30-years sighting of Morrissey. He and Lydon (another Irish Blood, English Heart icon-gone-to-rust) have been towering figures in my mental landscape since I was  more or less the age of our son. But they have subsequently clouded their eminence through drifting to the wrong (right) side of the political spectrum. I was curious as much about the mixed emotions they would trigger as the extent to which they could still deliver live. 

I was also excited to hear The Beat (billed of course as The English Beat, gah!), another much-loved group I never saw back in the day; rather intrigued to witness Bauhaus; and mildly curious about Blondie.  (There had been rumours that Johnny Marr, who had been playing in this legacy incarnation of Blondie, might conceivably later stride onstage with Morrissey, creating a semi-Smiths reunion. But in the event it seems that it was Glen Matlock who guitared with Debbie Harry et al). Had been psyched to resee Echo & the Bunnymen, but they had to pull out.

Although there were quite a few young people - Morrissey and some of the others on the bill being the kind of cult figures that pick up new fans with each generation of maladjusted and mope-minded - it was a largely middle aged and even old aged audience. Indeed I saw quite a few people who were infirm, getting around in those little electric buggies that the morbidly obese or otherwise mobility-impaired use. And although most people were hydrating themselves at a sensible rate and sheltering under parasols, I did see one septuagenarian-looking geezer carted off prostrate on a motorized stretcher, seemingly having  succumbed to heatstroke, or worse. (When I got home myself I had all these strange aches in my arms  and discovered that this is a symptom of dehydration).  

The artists themselves looked like Time had taken its toll. Dave Wakeling was a bit ragged vocally and as for Ranking Roger - well, of course, he sadly wasn't there, subbed for by a younger, fitter and aliver surrogate who did a solid job as chatter and compere. 

Talking of missing persons, Missing Persons kicked ass like the all-American rockers turned New Wavers they were and remain. Although I think Dale Bozzio may be the only original member left. Her profuse thanks and love to the audience felt sincere and heartwarming.  

In between the acts, it was fun spotting the alt-tribes - Goths of several generations who determinedly turned up clad in layers of black garments, defying the sun to do its worst; Latin lovers of Moz;  portly punks and Anglophile Angelenos. Some, less aligned with the alternative than with New Wave, wore T-shirts declaring their allegiance to MTV (or more precisely, the Brit Invasion enabling MTV of the '80s, rather than whatever it is nowadays).

My favorite T-Shirt that I spotted - and it may well be a self-printed original, as I can find no trace of it on the internet -  was stretched tautly across a male belly and read: "No, I Don't Want To Hear the New Stuff".

I chortled inside at the sight of that: retro-consumerist bad faith proclaimed with pride. No future for you, beloved band of my youth: just keeping playing the old songs, forever!  

But of course, when it came to it, I had scant interest in hearing the newer material either. 

Indeed, I wasn't much interested in the older stuff that wasn't the favorite or best-known stuff. 

The Church, for instance - absolutely wonderful for the duration of their two top tunes and emteevee regulars, "Reptile" and "Under the Milky Way" - but the rest was a bit of a ragged snooze. 

And then there was PiL, who I never saw back in the day. Lydon, or Rotten - not sure what he goes by these days - was in surprisingly operatic voice, hamming it up inimitably. I had minimal expectations, anticipating a set that drew heavily from the later undistinguished PiL records. But "Public Image" was a thrill and "Death Disco", amazingly, absolutely seared, the stand-ins doing a very decent job in lieu of Wobble and Levene. "Rise" also was a treat. 

Only a brief valedictory barb about being very much "awake, thank you very much" hinted at the Brexit-and-Trump supporting Johnny of recent times. 

The next highlight was Devo. Again, a group I never saw before. Their debut album is something I play often - simply one of the best and most original rock albums of all time, purely on the level of riff and rhythm, with all the ideology and sick humor and grotesque imagery almost functioning as a bonus, to be attended to or ignored according to preference. 

 At first, my heart sank as the set-up was the Freedom of Choice-onwards synth-dominated sound - Gerald Casale (who seems to have shriveled up haha with age) on keyboards. The delivery was slick, potent, synced to video projections, but a bit sterile, and "Whip It" aside, not their best material by a long shot.

 But then halfway through they went off and came back again in yellow clean-up squad suits as the guitar-powered Devo of Are We Not Men and Duty Now for the Future - Casale wielding a bass guitar. And this was every bit as exciting as you could hope for, if still a little regimented / professional-entertainer in vibe. 

(I was a little surprised they played "Mongoloid", though).

A glimpse of Psychedelic Furs, who I only ever saw before at another New Wave retro lineup at the Hollywood Bowl, on a bill with Bow Wow Wow and The Go-Gos, about seven years ago. 

Then it was Bauhaus at dusk - as seemed only right and proper, given the issues with vampires and daylight. Peter Murphy's bald dome + beard-with-twirled-mustache seemed like a gracious way for a Goth beauty to age out, and the walking cane makes for a good performance prop, even if it's actually physically needed for support with the advancing years and wear and tear of injury, which it may well be. Daniel Ash, whose hair and white-frame sunglasses made him look like a cross between a Buggle and a bandicoot caught in a wind-tunnel, churned up an impressive barrage of gnarly guitar. The expressionist lighting was excellently atmospheric. If much of the material seems as histrionic and affected as ever, when they played the killer singles - "She's In Parties", "Kick in the Eye", and especially "Bela Lugosi's Dead" - I happily conceded they are a great entertainment.

And then there was Morrissey. 

The first surprise was what fine voice he was in. Perhaps amplification at large venues has improved, or there have been advances in sound mixing from when I saw the Smiths back in the day, or - the last previous time - at his first solo concert in Wolverhampton in the winter of '88. But judging by what I heard, Morrissey has never sounded better as a singer.  

Such a pity that so many of the songs sung were shit songs, from the string of solo albums this millennium. 

But it wasn't just the likes of "The First of the Gang to Die" (which, having heard some of its competition out of the last 20 years output, I can understand finally why fans rate it highly - it's the closest to an actual tune out of any of them) or brand-new nothingnutburger single "I Am Veronica".  Some of the duds came from the '90s, like obscure B-sides (C-sides more like) "The Loop" and "Jack the Ripper", or "Alma Matters" (from Maladjusted). He even exhumed "Ouija Board, Ouija Board".  

The response of the crowd was flatter than I'd expected, suggesting that they shared my preference for - not so much older material (since some of what was heard was 30 years old) as the old-and-great stuff.

When he did play fan favorites ("Suedehead") or sublime "deep cuts" (like "Little Man, What Now" off Viva Hate, or "Half A Person", a Smiths B-side that is a triple-A side compared to the last quarter-century's output), it was wonderful. 

But it didn't manage to outweigh the effect of the disproportion towards mediocrity in the set. 

It wasn't just the material chosen, though. It was Morrissey's between-song quips and barbs, so opaque and archly unreadable in tone. And then the images and video loops that punctuated the songs - largely unrecognizable to almost everyone in attendance, I should imagine (I would hazard the "Ouija" image was of Doris Stokes but who knows? Certainly few in this audience). Figures from Morrissey's private (too private) pantheon of obscure film, television and stage crushes. 

The set ended abruptly, with no encore (seemingly a Cruel World policy with all the groups, but particularly anti-climactic for the headlining, night-closing act) and instead this bizarre, disturbing video loop of a Japanese man blowing his brains out (whether real or some kind of Aktionist art stunt, who knows?). For sure, the event was called Cruel World, a mope-rock  joke sustained with the three stages dedicated respectively to Lost Boys, Sad Girls, and Outsiders, but even in that self-mocking context it felt grim and unpleasant to end with suicide. Triggering, even.

The crowd spilled out into the night, passing through the circle of hot-dog vendors who had set themselves up immediately outside the venue (a meat-free zone by edict of Moz). 

In Retromania, borrowing Svetlana Boym's opposition between reflective nostalgia versus restorative nostalgia, I describe Morrissey as pop's "supreme poet of reflective nostalgia", an artist who finds perverse fulfilment in "the bittersweet pangs of poignancy", treasuring the feeling of being an exile in time, at home nowhere and nowhen. But I also acknowledge that Morrissey has sometimes trespassed  into "the restorative nostalgia danger zone", harking back to outmoded notions of insular nationality, succumbing to the delusory belief that things actually were better back in the good old days. 

Well, since writing the book, he's decisively gone over to the other side of the "Make ____ Great Again" divide.

Yet for all the obnoxiousness of his opinions, I'm not sure I could ever renounce the old songs - meaning, mostly Smiths, plus half of Viva Hate, "Seasick But Still Docked" and "I Am Hated For Loving".  This music is too entwined in my fibres. 

It's hard to believe that someone capable of creating something as beautiful, kind, and wise as "Accept Yourself" could endorse For Britain. 

But probably we all have relatives, or old friends, who have drifted over to the loony right. Become cranky and conspiracy-minded with age. And you can't amputate from memory the times you had with them. They are part of you. That's why it's painful. 

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.


One of the slogans graffitied on the city walls in The French Dispatch's version of 1968 is: "les enfants sont grognons", which translates as "the children are grumpy."  Revolution is equated with teen fads like yé-yé music and with dance moves and hair styles in fashion for a micro-season. The very idea of manifesto-writing (big ideas about changing society, about art or life) gets rendered ridiculous by the petty prissiness of proof-reading. 

Frances McDormand's character, the journalist observer, ventriloquises the director's viewpoint when she delivers a lecture that essentially tells the girl and boy student leaders to put away childish things. Instead, she instructs them to go off and go to bed together (the idea is that this is "what they really want" - in other words, social discontent and political fury are just pent-up libido). Confirming their immaturity, it's revealed that both the boy and the girl are virgins. Their lack of experience points to  unworldliness -  they don't know how the world works. All their hot air about borderless utopias stems from a profound innocence that's embarrassingly gauche. 

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.  This is the standard, accepted view of Playtime: see this recent capsule by Richard Brody in a New Yorker list of the greatest independent films of the 20th Century: "Jacques Tati built a skyscraper city—not full-sized but surprisingly close—on the outskirts of Paris for this wildly ambitious comedy of the regimentation and disorientation that the architecture of technological modernity imposes on its users, the human disconnections that it inflicts, and the anarchic spirit of revolt that it inspires.

Utterly unaware of how its creator intended Playtime to be taken, 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 surfaces). 

 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 early Sixties optimism in 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. (As Fredric Jameson put it in his Postmodernism book of '91:  "The return to history everywhere remarked today… is not a return exactly, seeming rather to mean incorporating the 'raw material' of history and leaving its function out, a kind of flattening and appropriation").

Playtime - well, there's two nostalgias here, the nostalgia of its creator and the nostalgia of a certain sort of contemporary viewer (such as me). Tati's nostalgia 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.