During this happy Halloween season, let’s not forget Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and its doomed, hypersensitive protagonist, Roderick Usher. As many have observed, Poe’s writings have been eerily prescient of the changes that have overtaken American society, particularly his tortured characters’ sense of misery, alienation, and inner turmoil that eventually drive them to death and murder. For among his other hyperesthetic maladies, Roderick Usher suffers from hyperacusis, an extreme sensitivity to loud sound. Poe thus anticipated that peculiar malady of the rock star, and the consequences of live concert performance. (Remember Emerson’s insight: Nothing is got for nothing.) For Roderick Usher is troubled, like many rock stars, by having the volume in his head always turned too loud. He is not losing his hearing—au contraire: it has become more and more acute, so acute, in fact, he claims to be able to hear his twin sister’s fingernails clawing at the lid of her coffin, even though the coffin lay in a vault deep within the catacombs beneath the House of Usher. Roderick Usher’s hyperesthetic, disordered mind reasserts the philosophical problem of perception: What mechanism in the brain determines what we hear, that is, which sound(s) we attend to, and which we ignore? Do we inflate the meaning and significance of things that go bump in the night, or ignore them?
Friday, October 30, 2009
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
The emergence of psychedelic rock in the late 60s was fueled by the same cultural interest in exotica that inspired the 50s exotica of Les Baxter and Martin Denny. The (Hawaiian) steel guitar is to country/western music what the sitar is to psychedelia: both instruments invigorated these forms of pop music through their novel, non-Western, that is, exotic sound. Exoticism and primitivism (both forms of essentialism) were terms used within the discourse of authenticity—that which is considered to be trustworthy or genuine—to sell exoticism to music consumers—“there ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.” The Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto bossa nova hit, “The Girl From Ipanema” (1964), as well as the Getz/Charlie Byrd LP, Jazz Samba (1962), were to lounge exoticism (cool detachment) what Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” and “Oye Coma Va” were to hippie exoticism. Authenticity is merely a marketing tool, a way of validating certain popular music forms.
The embrace of the exotic became a form of bohemian expression. As Simon Frith has observed, “music is more like clothes than any other art form” (Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, Harvard UP, 1996). Bohemianism substitutes aesthetics for politics, which is why songs such as “Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones—the first true bohemians to become rich through rock music—is nothing but sheer posturing. By the late 1980s and the era of digital sampling, artists such as Peter Gabriel employed the sampling of so-called “world music” as a way to enhance—and therefore validate as authentic—his music within the marketplace. He wasn’t the first.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Sleeve—the protective cover in which a vinyl LP record is packaged and stored, normally with distinctive graphics. According to Michael Jarrett, it was Impulse! Records founder Creed Taylor who consciously attempted to change the look of jazz by concentrating on the graphics of the record sleeve or album cover. He said:
“I thought that the audience for jazz was, generally, of a higher level of intelligence,” says Taylor. “Gil Evans’s Out of the Cool, if you recall, has a photograph of Gil seated on a stool; he’s holding a manuscript. Instead of making him seem like the shadowy artistic type, it was set up to give him a Madison Avenue look, to make people think, ‘He’s a pretty good looking guy. He’s intelligent looking. I thought jazz was down-in-the-basement and seedy.’” (Sound Tracks 170)
Taylor, along with George Avakian at Columbia, Reid Miles at Blue Note, and Norman Granz at Verve, all consciously attempted to shift the connotations of jazz from “left-leaning bohemian values,” widely associated at the time with folk music. (p. 170) By consciously altering the graphic signifiers on the album covers, they successfully changed the public perception of jazz to urbane—Modernism as understood by the middle class.
Which sleeve in the history of rock music was the first to try to shift the connotations of rock from “teenybopper” or “pop” to “art” through the use of cover art and design? Certainly the black and white photograph by Robert Freeman used on the cover of Meet the Beatles! (January 1964), was consciously “artistic,” but it did nothing to alter the widespread association of rock with folk, and therefore its left-liberal bohemianism. In fact, the Meet the Beatles! cover became the prototype of all rock album sleeves to follow, as it became common practice to use a formally arranged picture of the band on the LP sleeve. The black and white cover of the Stones’ The Rolling Stones (April 1964) was clearly modeled after Meet the Beatles!, as well as all subsequent Beatles albums, e.g., Beatles For Sale (December 1964), although the latter was in color. Rubber Soul (December 1965) continued the practice of using a group photo on the cover, slightly modified in this latter case by the use of what might be termed psychedelic expressionism. So which album cover in the annals of rock consciously attempted to alter the perception of rock music from that of left-liberal bohemianism, lower working class values (“garage”), down-in-the-basement seediness, and the gaudy day-glo, paper cut-out signifiers that signaled stoned-out psychedelia? I initially considered the Velvet Underground’s first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (March 1967), but ruled it out because the name of the band is so stridently bohemian, and because Andy Warhol’s famous banana peel cover smacked of Pop Art and was too deliberately outré anyway.
My nominee, therefore, is the Beatles’ The Beatles (December 1968), aka “The White Album” (the word album from the Latin albus, meaning blank, or white) with its minimalist art approach. Early issues of the album had the band’s name embossed on the cover on a white background, with a unique serial number printed on each cover. In subsequent issues, the band’s name was no longer embossed but printed in gray, with no serial number. In both instances, though, the album art was startlingly different than other sleeve art at the time, and the cover design, inspired by minimalist art, was quintessentially modern, and therefore urbane. Of course, the Beatles’ bold effort was all for nothing, as Charles Manson hijacked the album shortly after, and rock remained as “controversial” as ever, and hardly a sign of urbanity. I suspect, however, that the cover art concept demonstrated on The Beatles cover sleeve inspired countless graphic designers, and initiated what we now call “rock album art” as a distinct artistic form.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
I’ve observed on this blog once or twice before that so-called progressive rock (or “art rock”) developed in order to assuage pop guilt. The founding work of the movement is no doubt the Beatles’ heavily engineered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), although some would argue that the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) is the foundational work. Either way, both of these albums were made with “high” or “serious” aspirations as opposed to mere “pop” aspirations, thus making them, among other things, acutely self-conscious examples of rock music (isn’t self-consciousness a characteristic feature of a so-called guilty conscience?) As a frequenter for many years of garage and yard sales and record conventions, as well as the used record bin at my local Goodwill store, I remember a time when you couldn’t give away albums from the art rock camp, e.g., Supertramp, 10cc, The Moody Blues, Genesis, King Crimson, Electric Light Orchestra, Yes, and Emerson, and Lake and Palmer on the British side, or Kansas, Styx, and Boston on the American. By the early to mid-1980s, many of these bands, and others, of course, representing the art rock movement, were considered “dinosaurs,” that is, extinct giants that once walked the earth. And if not yet extinct, certainly déclassé, because by the 1980s many critics considered these bands’ best work was behind them.
But new media technology developed for systems such as the Xbox—the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series of games, for example—has introduced the music of these antique bands to a new, younger audience. As Marshall McLuhan observed decades ago, the content of the new media is the old, and the music contained on Rock Band (and Rock Band 2) are good examples of this insight. I was reminded of McLuhan’s observation the other day when I heard my son John (sixteen years old) playing his Xbox guitar along with Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son,” a big hit when I was, alas, not a whole lot older than he is now—in my early twenties. I believe John happened to be playing Rock Band 2, but the song is also on Guitar Hero II, or so I’ve been told.
There is, perhaps, no better example of a Seventies-era arena rock dinosaur than Kansas. To lift a phrase from Michel Foucault, Kansas is a band that lives in the Seventies as a fish lives in water, that is to say, it can live nowhere else. The Beatles had shown that a rock band could sell out a stadium, and the subsequent rock festivals of the 1960s, and the so-called “arena rock” of the 1970s (a term used in lieu of “stadium” since not all rock concerts were held in them) rode the massive wave—tsunami—the Beatles had created. The American counterpart to British bands such as King Crimson and Yes, Kansas, being Midwestern, was perceived as less innovative (“derivative”) than these bands, but the band was composed of six viable, hard-rocking musos nonetheless—who unfortunately never quite understood the valuable cultural cachet of the album cover, as Yes, for instance, with its arty SF/fantasy covers by Roger Dean, did. (The cover for Kansas’s first album was taken from the Modernist mural painting of John Brown in the Kansas state capital painted by John Steuart Curry.) The band’s first album, the eponymously named Kansas, was released in 1974. The last album featuring the original band members, Audio-Visions, was released in 1980. During those seven years the band released eight albums, one of them, Two For the Show (1978), being a double LP live set. Soon after the release of Audio-Visions, the band began drifting apart. A couple members became born-again Christians, and through the 1980s the band was known primarily as a Christian rock band, and never again had the popular success it did during the years 1974-80. The band’s biggest charting single, “Dust in the Wind” (“All your money won’t another minute buy-hiiiiiiiiiy”) from 1977’s Point of Know Return, was, I think, appropriately criticized by Charley Walters, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide (1979), as “sophomoric philosophizing” (p. 200), and therefore appropriately pastiched, years later, in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). The doom-laden “Dust in the Wind” remains the band’s most popular song, although to my taste the band’s best album from those first six years is Song For America (1975, cover art pictured), which I think also contains the best side (side 1) of music they ever recorded: “Down the Road,” “Song For America,” and “Lamplight Symphony,” all written or co-written by guitarist/keyboardist Kerry Livgren. His departure after 1980’s Audio-Visions dealt the band a serious blow. Kansas’ first album was released the year, 1974, I enrolled at the University of Kansas (not as a true freshman, however). That fall was the first I heard of the band, as it played a free concert in Lawrence coinciding with the beginning of the semester. Given that the band was from Topeka, the state capital, just down the road from Lawrence, it was, as the saying goes, a “big deal” for them to play a concert locally.
The apparatus supporting bands such as Kansas (and Pink Floyd, and so on) was the technology of the synthesizer, the modern recording studio, and FM radio. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, FM radio defined itself by its high brow opposition to Top 40 (“teen,” that is commercialized, music). FM radio was, then, the place to go for more “serious” music, whether that was psychedelic surrealism (called “head” music at the time) or lengthy jams by West Coast bands such as Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Airplane. And that’s just it: FM radio supported, even encouraged, the extended, “orchestral” arrangements by bands such as Kansas. Most certainly Kansas wrote short songs purposefully designed as hits for Top 40 radio (“Down the Road,” as well as the aforementioned “Dust in the Wind”), but the band’s forte was extended compositions and classically styled arrangements. The band’s arrangements, in contrast to its compositions, were always its strongest suit. In this sense, it drew, as did many bands, from the brief but fruitful interchange between the classical and pop worlds.
Perhaps the best way to understand Kansas in the context of the 1970s is to contrast the noise, that is, violence and aggression, of British heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath with the benign, pop stylings of Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles. Although American, Kansas was arguably part of the same outgrowth of British post-Yardbirds experimentalism as Cream, Led Zeppelin, and King Crimson, inheriting, in part, the latter band’s lyrical imagery (mystical and apocalyptic). But the American part of the equation, though, was its allegiance to working class heavy metal bands such as Grand Funk Railroad—which is why it never had the cultural cachet of the other prog-rock bands of the time. For Seventies prog-rock was, just as heavy metal was, the venerable Lester Bangs once observed, born “from machines and electronic appendages.”
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Having mulled over the issue for the past couple of days, I’ve concluded that those collections of bad cover versions of pop songs performed by celebrities included in the Golden Throats series (4 volumes) are perhaps best understood as examples of travesty rather than burlesque. The difference between the terms resides in intentionality. A burlesque is any work purposefully designed “to ridicule a style, literary form, or subject matter either by treating the exalted in a trivial way or by discussing the trivial in exalted terms (that is, with mock dignity).” Burlesque is a form of derisive imitation achieved by exaggeration. In contrast, a travesty is any novel, play, poem, film, opera, or other creative work that reveals the incompetence of its author/performer. A travesty trivializes a serious subject or composition. “Generally, a travesty achieves its effect through broad humor and through incongruous or distorted language and situations.” Unlike a parody or burlesque, the purpose of which is intentional mockery, a travesty is any work in literature, music, or art that is “so poorly done” that it fails to meet “even the minimum standards” for style, technique, form, and so on.
I used “perhaps” in the first sentence because we no longer adhere to notions of art’s autonomy—any formalist evaluation of the remarkable cover versions included in the Golden Throats series (I say remarkable because they’ve been collected and hence been “distinguished”) is bound to fail, as exemplified, for instance, in those art historians who tried to explain Duchamp’s Fountain (pictured) by appealing to the (traditional) aesthetic category of “beauty.” Duchamp was one of those artists who enabled the transfer from modernism to postmodernism—from art as “work” to art as “text.” Because it is impossible to list the properties of those works susceptible to Duchampian “remotivation” (what he did by placing a urinal in an art gallery), it’s no longer possible to refer comfortably to Golden Throats’ cover versions of rock and country songs as “camp.” In the 1964 essay “On Camp,” Susan Sontag argued, “not everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder” (Against Interpretation, p. 277). The trouble is, of course, it is. What sort of text (or event) cannot be radically re-read, that is, transformed into a travesty? Think of Duchamp’s goateed version of the Mona Lisa, or Mel Brooks films such as The Producers or his remake of To Be Or Not To Be, which send-up Nazism.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
The Picture of Dorian Gray—the picture acts as a “magic mirror” (as in the story of Snow White), absorbing Dorian Gray’s spiritual ugliness while he remains young and handsome. “In Godard’s A Bout de Souffle Jean Seberg pretends to be happy and insouciant, but, pinned to the wall, just behind her head, life-size photographs of herself looking sad and thoughtful give the game away,” writes Raymond Durgnat (Films and Feelings). Thus pictures, rather like so-called “Freudian slips”—slips of the tongue—give a person away, betraying the actual reality hidden behind the mask, the disjunction between image and reality. It is also possible for pictures within movies to attack characters in a similar fashion: in Hitchcock’s Blackmail, for instance, a laughing clown points his finger at Anny Ondra as she, knife in hand, backs away from a corpse. While pictures can incite the imagination (as in The Who’s “Pictures of Lily,” or the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold”), pictures can also hide or conceal actuality: in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Alex attacks the cat lady with a large plastic sculpture of male genitalia, crushing her skull with it as the camera cuts away to the garish contemporary paintings on the walls. But pictures of the lost object of desire also serve up painful memories of loss, serving as a constant reminder of one’s current singular situation—the Reality Principle. A picture of one’s self can function merely to increase one’s own intense loneliness and isolation, as in George Jones’s romantic ballad, “A Picture of Me (Without You).”
“Who wrote the Book of Love?” a famous song wants to know, and, of course, there is no answer. Books, archives of wisdom and repositories of cultural knowledge, cannot be read—it’s as if they were written in a foreign language. Proclaiming to make the world legible, books, paradoxically, are often indecipherable. “Tell me where the answer lies,” sings Neil Young in “Speakin’ Out.” “Is it in the notebook behind your eyes?” Books also supplement one’s memory—they are the place where things are written down, where lists are compiled, where experiential narratives are recorded, serving as reminders of what to do—or warning of behaviors to avoid. Thousands of words have been written about pictures, and books contain thousands of words; the lyrics to songs about books and pictures are frequently about both the failure of language and of the discrepancy between thought and action.
Books And Pictures A-Z:
ABC – The Look Of Love
The Beatles – Paperback Writer
Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Everyday I Write The Book
Deep Purple – The Book of Taliesyn
Echo and the Bunnymen – Pictures On My Wall/Read It In Books
Filter – Take A Picture
The J. Geils Band – Centerfold
Hüsker Dü – Books About UFOs
The Incredible String Band – Antoine
George Jones – A Picture of Me (Without You)
The Kinks – Picture Book
Love – My Little Red Book
The Monotones – The Book of Love
Nazareth – Why Don’t You Read the Book
Alan O’Day – Undercover Angel
The Police – Don’t Stand So Close to Me
? and the Mysterians – Ten O’Clock
Rod Stewart – Every Picture Tells A Story
Status Quo – Pictures of Matchstick Men
Talking Heads – The Book I Read
U2 – When I Look At the World
Son Volt – Out of the Picture
The Who – Pictures of Lily
XTC – Books Are Burning
Neil Young – Southern Man
The Zombies – Imagine The Swan
Monday, October 19, 2009
Vergeltungswaffen—German for “vengeance weapon,” as in V-2 rocket, a weapon of revenge, retribution, and reprisal. Prompted by the box-office success of the Gerard Butler-starring vigilante movie Law Abiding Citizen this past weekend, an article in today’s L. A. Times explores the link between vigilantism and vengeance in American movies. The link is indisputably true—the vigilante is as old as D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), in which a rogue terrorist organization, the Klan, is depicted heroically—but vigilantism (the act of operating outside the law) should not always be equated with vengeance (retribution). Revenge is a force that crosses film genres, as the article observes, and it is true that there are indeed “affinities between vigilantes and superheroes”—the character of Batman, for instance, whose traumatic origin was in witnessing the cold-blooded murder of his parents. The character’s origin is, of course, a conceit, revealing more about the logic of entertainment than about the motives for vigilantism.
Vengeance, retribution, reprisal—getting even—is a powerful motivating force, and the cinema seems to be the ideal medium in which to enact its violent display. The reason seems obvious: justice is an abstraction, and because it often unfolds slowly, it makes a poor subject for drama. Moreover, stories of vengeance ideally fit the Modernist paradigm, the individual pitted against (corrupt) society. Since the justice system is an incalculably complex bureaucracy, and filled with corrupt officials, the individual necessarily operates outside the system, as a rogue (vigilante), often using a gun as his or her vergeltungswaffen. The American vigilante descends from the gunslinger, the streets of the big city analogous to the lawless frontier. Although the gun is the vigilante’s preferred weapon, I’ve always found figures such as Dr. Phibes and the Crypt Keeper much more imaginative in the way they enact a form of poetic justice.
V For Vengeance (x13):
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Once Upon A Time in the West (1968)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Tales From the Crypt (1972)
High Plains Drifter (1973)
Walking Tall (1973)
Death Wish (1974)
The Exterminator (1980)
An Eye For An Eye (1981)
The Brave One (2007)
Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Several years prior to the 1967 publication of Derrida’s book, Theodora Kroeber, wife of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, published Ishi in Two Worlds (1961), “A Biography of the Last Wild Indian of North America,” which explores the degradation of Ishi’s tribe and culture. A few years later, Kroeber issued a partially fictionalized version of Ishi’s story under the title Ishi: Last of His Tribe (1964). (Recently, in 2003, her sons Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber co-edited a book on the Ishi affair, Ishi in Three Centuries, the first scholarly book on the subject to contain essays by Indians.) There were popular songs about Indians before the publication of Theodora Kroeber’s first book on Ishi in 1961, of course—“Indian Love Call,” “Oklahoma Hills,” and Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga”—but beginning in the Sixties, many songs were written celebrating the Indian as an emblem of natural goodness, mightily sinned against. They might be understood as songs expressing remorse, but by engaging in self-accusation and self-humiliation.
Songs About The Indian:
John Anderson – Seminole Wind
Brooks & Dunn – Indian Summer
The Cowsills – Indian Lake
Elton John – Indian Sunset
Merle Haggard – Cherokee Maiden
The Holy Modal Rounders – Indian War Whoop
Johnny Horton – Comanche (The Brave Horse)
Johnny Horton – Jim Bridger
Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy – Indian Love Call
Tim McGraw – Indian Outlaw
John Mellencamp – Hot Dogs and Hamburgers
Johnny Preston – Running Bear
Paul Revere & The Raiders – Indian Reservation
Hank Thompson – Oklahoma Hills
Hank Williams – Kaw-Liga
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Flowers smack of sentimentality. They’ve become a cultural symbol upon which an entire economy thrives—the flower shop. “Say it with flowers”—flowers presumably speak when words fail, yet can say more than the words themselves. The trouble is, flowers are maudlin, mushy, and mawkish, redolent of schmaltz and hokum. “I’m sending you a big bouquet of roses,” sang Eddy Arnold, “one for every time you broke my heart. As the door of love between us closes/Tears will fall like petals when we part.” In the 1960s, flowers were usurped by hippies and deployed as symbols of peace and love, rendered most famously by Scott McKenzie’s “Summer of Love” song, “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair),” as well as by the image of the flower placed in the barrel of a soldier’s gun. (Donovan’s 1967 album, A Gift From a Flower To A Garden, issued in December of that year as a lavish two-record set, was, according to a blurb by Rob O’Connor found on Amazon.com, “sincerely meant as a possible present for the hippie who has everything.”)
In “Daffodils,” poet William Wordsworth associated flowers—or rather, the daffodil—with pleasurable self-contentment. (That is, if you assume he actually wrote the poem. Ken Russell, in his 1978 Wordsworth bio-pic Clouds of Glory: William and Dorothy, includes a scene in which the Wordsworth character, played by David Warner, tells an admirer that “Daffodils” was a poem composed by his sister—that the poem consists of his “sister’s words.” In exploring the most unusual relationship between William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, it seems Ken Russell, more so than any other filmmaker, seems to understand that art can come from the strangest of places.) Of the dazzling field of daffodils, Wordsworth writes:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
In King Vidor’s film Duel in the Sun (1946), the place where the lovers died is marked by an unusual flower known to grow nowhere else: a cactus with a large red blossom. Drawing the motif of the lovers’ graves from folklore (and perhaps Wuthering Heights as well as the poem by Marie de France, “Chevrefoil,” meaning “honeysuckle,” referring to the vine that grows up intertwining the graves of Tristan and Iseult), the cactus-flower symbolizes the lovers’ souls have become mingled in death. Some years later, in John Ford’s magnificent The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the film’s central symbol is the cactus rose, the John Wayne character’s favorite flower, an image of “wild civility” (Herrick).
A Bouquet Of Flower Songs:
Eddy Arnold – Big Bouquet of Roses
Patsy Cline – A Poor Man’s Roses
The Cowsills – The Rain, the Park & Other Things
Vic Dana – Red Roses For A Blue Lady
Elvis – Drums of the Islands
The Four Seasons – Watch The Flowers Grow
Ian Hunter – Flowers
The Kingston Trio – Where Have All The Flowers Gone?
Scott McKenzie – San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)
Mountain – Flowers of Evil
Neutral Milk Hotel – King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
Phil Ochs – Flower Lady
Tom Petty – Wildflowers
Johnny Rivers – Mountain of Love
The Rolling Stones – Dead Flowers
Spanky and Our Gang – Lazy Day
The Statler Brothers – Flowers On The Wall
Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond – You Don’t Bring Me Flowers
Talking Heads – (Nothing But) Flowers
XTC – Summer’s Cauldron
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
A remarkable serendipity occurred this morning shortly after I posted my blog on dolls, mannequins, marionettes, dummies and other forms of simulacra. After posting the entry, I checked my email to discover that my friend Jim Fields had sent me the link to the British DVD/Blu-ray website, DVDTimes, which has posted the description for the upcoming GHOST STORY DVD for which I conducted the audio commentary with director Stephen Weeks. I’d mentioned the upcoming DVD release of GHOST STORY on my blog few weeks ago, but at that point I’d been notified only of its imminent release by the DVD producer, Marc Morris of UK’s Nucleus Films. If you didn’t see my earlier blog entry, go here. When I receive my complimentary copies of the DVD from Marc Morris, I’ll provide a complete review. In the meantime, you can read the DVDTimes description here. Kim Newman calls Stephen Weeks’ GHOST STORY “A little-known gem of British spookiness,” and I concur. The film’s only previous home video release was many years ago, in the form of a pirated VHS edition, retitled for that occasion Madhouse Mansion. Avoid this slightly truncated version and pick up a copy of the 2-disc DVD set with a fully restored transfer of the film, loaded with supplements.
Do dolls have souls? “All children talk to their toys; the toys become actors in the great drama of life, scaled down inside the camera obscura of the childish brain,” writes Charles Baudelaire. Mannequins and statues (and of course dolls, puppets, and other forms of simulacra) occupy an unusual space in our world, being neither living nor dead. Filmmakers for decades have often exploited the ambiguous cultural status of dolls, puppets, mannequins, and marionettes, often for horrific effect. “Statues are people waiting for their turn to come alive—as in the Pygmalion myth,” writes Raymond Durgnat (Films and Feelings, p. 233). Pinocchio is one such famous doll that became a living person. Durgnat cites the film One Touch of Venus (1948, based on the 1943 Broadway musical), in which Robert Walker falls in love with a mannequin (window model) of Venus. His love for her brings her alive, in the form of Ava Gardner. In Powell and Pressberger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and in Les Jeux Sont Faits (1947, based on a story by Jean-Paul Sartre), the temporarily dead walk among the immobilized living: in eternity the living, paradoxically, are mannequins. Two films released in the Eighties, Weird Science (1985) and Mannequin (1987), also activated the Pygmalion myth, but Mannequin owes a significant debt to the earlier One Touch of Venus. Filmmakers the Brothers Quay generally prefer to work with dolls than live actors, becoming famous for animated films featuring dolls, such as Street of Crocodiles (a still from which is pictured).
In popular song, girls often become dolls, girl-women, adult but infantile objects of desire, their beauty likened to that of a doll (they are “placed on pedestals,” like statues). Baudelaire anticipated what he called the “puerile” future of little girls:
I am not referring to those little girls who put on grown-up airs, paying social calls, presenting their imaginary children to each other and talking about their outfits. The poor little things are copying their mothers; they are already preparing for the immortal future puerility that is theirs, and decidedly none of them will ever become my wife. (Essays on Dolls, 16)
The greatest song about a statue with a soul is Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga,” about a wooden indian made of pine (like Pinocchio) whose love for the beautiful indian maid in the antique store forever remains unrequited, just as one of those lovers written about in Keats’ poem, frozen forever on the Grecian urn.
Kaw-Liga was a wooden Indian standing by the door
He fell in love with an Indian maid over in the antique store
Kaw-Liga just stood there and never let it show
So she could never answer yes or no
He always wore his Sunday feathers and held a tomahawk
The maiden wore her beads and braids and hoped someday he’d talk
Kaw-Liga, too stubborn to ever show a sign
Because his heart was made of knotty pine
Poor ol’ Kaw-Liga, he never got a kiss
Poor ol’ Kaw-Liga, he don’t know what he missed
Is it any wonder that his face is red
Kaw-Liga, that poor ol’ wooden head
Kaw-Liga was a lonely indian never went nowhere
His heart was set on the Indian maiden with the coal black hair
Kaw-Liga just stood there and never let it show
So she could never answer yes or no
Then one day a wealthy customer bought the Indian maid
And took her, oh, so far away, but ol’ Kaw-Liga stayed
Kaw-Liga just stands there as lonely as can be
And wishes he was still an old pine tree
One would think the doll, the statue, the mannequin is above all the drama of life, but that is not so – yet it remains infuriatingly divine in its perpetual silence.
Alisha – Do You Dream About Me? (from Mannequin)
Chuck Berry – Oh Baby Doll
Alex Chilton – Baby Doll
Foo Fighters – Statues
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers – Statues Without Hearts
The Grateful Dead – China Doll
Buddy Knox – Party Doll
Johnny Mercer – Satin Doll
Mott the Hoople – Marionette
Oingo Boingo – Weird Science (from Weird Science)
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Tesla Girls
Alan Parsons Project – I Robot
The Residents – Kaw-Liga
Stan Ridgway – Jack Talked (Like A Man On Fire)
Styx – Mr. Roboto
Hank Williams – Kaw-Liga
Heinrich von Kleist, Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, Essays on Dolls. Trans. Idris Parry. Penguin, n.d.
Monday, October 12, 2009
From the other side of the mirror, the Other often intrudes: the heroine sees the werewolf reflected in her vanity mirror, the vampire betrays itself by having no reflection. In Dead of Night (1945), a mirror begins to take over the room in which the heroine lives. “A mirror is a latent doppelgänger,” writes Raymond Durgnat in Films and Feelings (231). The Dark Mirror (1946) tells the story of identical twins, one good, the other evil. At a critical moment in Evil Dead 2 (1987), the hero, Ash, stops to inspect himself in the mirror—only to have his evil doppelgänger reach from the other side and grab hold of him, telling him he’s losing his mind. “Mirrors tell the truth, but in a menacing way. . . .,” observes Durgnat (231-32). Hence characters who despise what they are, or what they have become, smash the mirror and hence their own self-image. But mirrors can be also remind us in a positive way of who and what we are, as in the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror”: “When you think the night has seen your mind/That inside you’re twisted and unkind/Let me stand to show that you are blind/Please put down your hands/’Cause I see you.” Often a symbol for Narcissistic self-absorption, the mirror nonetheless frequently tells the truth: as Jean Cocteau observed, mirrors are associated with death, because we watch ourselves grow old in mirrors.
Reflections On The Mirror:
Blue Öyster Cult – Mirrors
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Mirror Man
Death Cab For Cutie – My Mirror Speaks
The (English) Beat – Mirror in the Bathroom
Lefty Frizzell – I Never Go Around Mirrors
Chris Isaak – Shadows In a Mirror
Michael Jackson – Man in the Mirror
Dave Matthews Band – True Reflections
The Misfits – Die Monster Die
Joni Mitchell – Moon in the Mirror
Mott the Hoople – Through the Looking Glass
Graham Nash – Man in the Mirror
Rush – War Paint
The Velvet Underground – I’ll Be Your Mirror
The Who – Smash the Mirror
Sunday, October 11, 2009
For the past several semesters, I’ve been teaching a course on Hollywood fiction and the Hollywood movie (films about Hollywood). The course requires students to reflect on their attitudes and assumptions about movies as a form of mass culture. Because movies are culturally ambiguous—they blur distinctions between art, entertainment, and mass communication (propaganda)—much of the writing about Hollywood has been critical of Hollywood’s detrimental impact on American life and values, often perceived both as a source of collective fantasy and as an apparatus of mass deception. According to John Parris Springer, in his fine book Hollywood Fictions: The Dream Factory in American Literature (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), Hollywood fiction is highly critical of the influence of Hollywood and of Hollywood movies on American life and values. According to Springer, the “central cultural paradox disclosed by Hollywood fiction” is the fundamental ambivalence of Americans toward their own popular culture, their delight in, and suspicion of, the formulas of mass entertainment and their attraction to, yet distance from, the organizing ideologies and styles of mass culture. Hollywood fictions articulate deep-seated anxieties and concerns about the influence of Hollywood movies on traditional social and cultural values. Fiction critical of Hollywood emerged during the early Modernist period, which was all about self-expression (individualism). Literature shifted its focus from the social system to the individual, with society portrayed as the enemy. Hollywood fiction generally substitutes the studio system for the social system, and hence focuses on the individual’s moral battle vis-à-vis the corrupt system, Hollywood as a degrading social system that requires moral compromise in order to succeed. The features that distinguish “Hollywood fictions” from other kinds of narrative fiction are as follows:
- It has a psychological appeal: it is a literary narrative that merges 1) fascination with Hollywood as a singular and exciting “way of life” with 2) suspicion toward its moral and social influence
- Setting is transformed into character, loaded with metaphorical significance
- Hollywood is a “reference point” for certain social and cultural issues, a passe-partout or “pass key” to a full understanding of the values and experiences that shape America
- It is explicitly concerned with Hollywood’s moral values, the values of those who reside in the specific socio-geographical space of “Hollywood” and their influence on others.
Hollywood fiction dates to the mid Teens (Springer identifies a story first serialized in Photoplay in 1916, titled “The Glory Road,” as the first Hollywood fiction, that is, a story that uses Hollywood as a means of cultural complaint). There are many famous moves about Hollywood; a few such examples include Ella Cinders (1926), What Price Hollywood? (1932), A Star Is Born (1937), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and In A Lonely Place (1950). But given that fiction critical or satirical of Hollywood emerged so early in its history, popular songs critical of Hollywood, historically considered, came rather late. I’ve listed a few of these songs below; some of them, such as the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” are rather famous. There are many other good songs not listed here, of course, but all of the songs rest upon a tradition decades old before the songs themselves were ever recorded.
Songs Of The Golden Land:
Buckcherry – For The Movies
The Clovers – Love Potion No. 9
The Doors – L. A. Woman
The Eagles – Hotel California
Guns N’ Roses – Welcome to the Jungle
The Kinks – Celluloid Heroes
The Misfits – Hollywood Babylon
Phil Ochs – The World Began in Eden But Ended in Los Angeles
Poison – Hollyweird
Stan Ridgway – Beloved Movie Star
Boz Scaggs – Hollywood
Bob Seger – Hollywood Nights
Elliott Smith – Angeles
Supertramp – Gone Hollywood
Friday, October 9, 2009
“Fantasy is a place where it rains,” writes Italy Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Vintage, 1988). His use of “rain” is figurative, of course; our “mind’s eye” is the movie screen upon which the imagination “rains” down the images that form our fantasies. “The mental cinema is always at work in each one of us, and it always has been, even before the invention of the cinema. Nor does it ever stop projecting images before our mind’s eye” (83). Rain—the Parisian rain that announces the dissolution of love, the end of Rick and Lisa’s relationship in Casablanca, metaphorically realized by the note from Ilsa Rick reads at the train station. Rain as sadness and melancholy: the implied link between “Rainy Days and Mondays” about which the Carpenters sing. Rain as adversity, as hard times, as the bad things in life, as in James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”
But what about the association of rain and fantasy, poetically rendered by the image of the introspective child staring out of a window as raindrops patter against the windowpane? There are many wonderful songs about rain (e.g., Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”), but the songs on the following playlist explore the connection between rain and fantasy, fantasy as a place where it is always raining. “Rainy Night in Georgia” does not simply express melancholy, but is also about the singer’s (Brook Benton’s) visual imagination, as is one of Elvis’s last truly great songs, “Kentucky Rain.” (Rain as anxiety.) For rain as the frustration of Erotic fulfillment (the Reality Principle), go here. My favorite? The Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain.” Why? Well, as Louis Armstrong famously said, “There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them.”
Fantasy As A Place Where It Rains:
The Beatles – Rain
Brook Benton – Rainy Night in Georgia
The Carpenters – Rainy Days and Mondays
The Cascades – Rhythm of the Rain
Eric Clapton – Let It Rain
The Cowsills – The Rain, The Park & Other Things
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Who’ll Stop the Rain?
The Doors – People Are Strange
Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Echo & The Bunnymen – Ocean Rain
Peter Gabriel – Red Rain
The Grateful Dead – Box Of Rain
Willie Nelson – Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
The Police – Shadows in the Rain
Eddie Rabbit – I Love A Rainy Night
Prince and The Revolution – Purple Rain
Neil Sedaka – Laughter in the Rain
James Taylor – Fire and Rain
The The – Kingdom of Rain
XTC – 1,000 Umbrellas
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Déclassé—To be demoted from a high status or rank to a lower one, especially in social status. The word déclassé is also applied to weapons considered obsolete or antiquated. It refers to that which is no longer viable or operational. The déclassé is not “kitsch”—tawdry, overly sentimentalized art of the banal representational sort—but refers to those features of our inherited culture that make us uncomfortable. It refers to those cultural behaviors that are now obsolete, forming the basis of an unwritten protocol that silently censors and marks the limits of proper taste. It proscribes movies that cannot be made, jokes that can no longer be recited, pop songs that now seem starkly ludicrous, silly, and pretentious. The interest in cultural productions that are considered déclassé is primarily historical, that is, scholarly: they are museum pieces which Time and History have rendered quaint, but nonetheless strange, artifacts. The déclassé may once have been highly fashionable, but is no longer—it no longer “speaks” to contemporary audiences and hence is out of fashion. These things may have a nostalgic appeal, but they no longer carry the sting of truth. A recovery or revival is unlikely.
Examples Of The Déclassé (In Language Or Sentiment), Hardly Exhaustive:
Harpers Bizarre – The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) [1960s]
The Beach Boys – Be True To Your School [1960s]
Jimmy Dean – I Won’t Go Hunting With You Jake (But, I’ll go chasin’ wimmin) [1950s]
Leroy Van Dyke – I Fell In Love With a Pony Tail [1950s]
Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders – A Groovy Kind Of Love [1960s]
Bobby Goldsboro – Honey [1960s]
Kay Kyser and His Orchestra – The Umbrella Man [1930s]
John Lennon – Woman Is The Nigger Of The World [1970s]
Loretta Lynn – The Pill [1970s]
Glenn Miller and His Orchestra – Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me) [1940s]
Joni Mitchell – Woodstock [1960s]
Wayne Newton – Dreams of the Everyday Housewife [1960s]
The Plasmatics – Metal Priestess [1980s]
Helen Reddy – I Am Woman [1970s]
SSgt. Barry Sadler – Ballad of the Green Berets [1960s]
Monday, October 5, 2009
The German inventor Emile Berliner patented the Gramophone in 1887. Unlike Thomas Edison, Berliner eschewed recording onto cylinders, and instead started recording onto flat disks—records. These early records were made of glass, later zinc, and eventually plastic, onto which sound information was etched into a spiral groove. The (figurative) arm of the gramophone (pictured), the playback device, contained a needle that “read” the sound vibrations in the grooves, transmitting this information to the speaker, which amplified the sounds. Berliner founded The Gramophone Company in order to manufacture both records and the technology to play them, Gramophones. Significantly, in 1908 Berliner began using Francis Barraud’s painting His Master’s Voice as his company’s logo, an image familiar to anyone who owns a few older RCA records. (The inventor eventually sold the licensing rights to his patent for the Gramophone and method of making records to the Victor Talking Machine Company, which in turn became RCA-Victor.)
I’ve always assumed that Berliner chose this now famous image as his logo in homage to Argos, Odysseus’ faithful dog. If you remember, in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus returns home to Ithaca in the twentieth year of his absence, disguised as a beggar. Nonetheless, that remorselessly old, dying dog, which manages to keep warm only by lying on a composting manure pile, manages to recognize his master, Odysseus, when he speaks—by his master’s voice. Despite Odysseus’ disguise, despite the long absence, the keen ears of Argos can recognize his true master by the authenticating sound of his voice. Presumably, Berliner chose Berraud’s painting in order to suggest the crystal clarity of sounds etched on his records, that his records captured authentic sound.
Berliner was a very smart and clever man, and he chose to record popular singers of the day—Enrico Caruso, for instance—to help advertise his records and the Gramophone. But as Friedrich Kittler has argued, in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford UP, 1999), from around 1880 on, composers of music have been “allied with engineers” (24). After this date, he writes, “The undermining of articulateness becomes the order of the day” (24). As a consequence of sound recording, noise itself became an object of scientific research, and the previous conceptions that governed musical theory became antiquated.
The phonograph does not hear as do ears that have been trained immediately to filter voices, words, and sounds out of noise; it registers acoustic events as such. Articulateness becomes a second-order exception in a spectrum of noise. (23)
He’s right, of course: recording is a process by which sounds are made, not “captured.” It’s a form of engineering. Consider the sort of composers considered significant and important since 1887: Schoenberg, for instance, Ives, Varèse (all born in the nineteenth century), and Stockhausen (born 1928). The latter’s Kontakte owes as much to electrical engineers as it does to the redefinition of music theory that occurred when sounds (and music) became understood as sonic vibrations. I don’t think contemporary musicians who also happen to be music theorists, such as Brian Eno and Chris Cutler, would dispute Kittler’s characterization of the recording of music as an “acoustic event,” nor dispute the idea that articulateness (of voice) is “a second-order exception in a spectrum of noise.” Such is the impact of technology on our idea of (popular) music.
Some Acoustic Events:
The Beach Boys, Caroline, No [album version]
The Beatles, Revolution 9
The Doors, Horse Latitudes
Electric Light Orchestra, Telephone Line
Brian Eno, Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks [album]
King Crimson, 21st Century Schizoid Man
Pink Floyd, Money
Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music [album]
The Residents, Eskimo
The Shangri-Las, Leader of the Pack
Frank Zappa, Lumpy Gravy [album]
Sunday, October 4, 2009
A siren, in Greek mythology, was an assemblage or portmanteau, part bird, part woman, and was both dangerous (a “siren” to this day warns of danger, a usage derived from the siren’s song that lured men to their doom) and seductive—a prototype of the femme fatale. At least originally. In later folklore, they lost their wings, and became fully aquatic and mermaid-like (“la mer” meaning “the sea” in French, hence mermaid means “sea-maiden”), revealed by the fact that in the Spanish and French languages, for instance, the word for mermaid is respectively Sirena and Sirène. Hence sirens and mermaids are often confused in the popular imagination. In contrast, the Greek word nymph, a female spirit usually associated with a specific geographical place, has both “bride” and “veiled” among its meanings; a “nymph” has come to mean a young woman of marriageable age. Hence the words mermaid, nymph, and siren all refer to highly seductive and desirable women, although potentially dangerous: for the Victorians, a “nymphomaniac” was a fundamentally disturbed woman, revealed by her excessive interest in sex. Perhaps because of its association with the word “nymphomania,” the word “nymph” seldom occurs in the lyrics of popular music. Mermaids and sirens, however, are mythical creatures that often make appearances, figures of elusive beauty. I’m including Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” in the following playlist, primarily because it is the precursor song of Van Morrison’s “Queen of the Slipstream” (“Going away far across the sea/But I’ll be back for you/Tell you everything I know”): both are romantic songs are about nymphs, beautiful young women waiting for the return of their lovers. But both “Can't Get It Out of My Head” and “Queen of the Slipstream” are also figurations of the Muse, signaling the singer is among the poetic elect.
Mermaids, Nymphs, And Sirens:
Aeon – Nymph
Tori Amos – Siren
Tim Buckley – Song to the Siren
Cream – Tales of Brave Ulysses
Bobby Darin – Beyond the Sea
Electric Light Orchestra – Can’t Get It Out My Head
Hall and Oates – Maneater
Van Morrison – Queen of the Slipstream
Nightwish – Siren
Robert Plant – Song to the Siren
Sade – Mermaid
Shel Silverstein – Mermaid Song
XTC – Mermaid Smiled
Saturday, October 3, 2009
Fire — “If we go back far enough,” Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, “we find that the first acts of civilization were the use of tools, the gaining of control over fire and the construction of dwellings. Among these, the control over fire stands out as a quite extraordinary and unexampled achievement. . . .” He theorized that the first human (male) to renounce his desire to put out a fire by micturating, “was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire.” In other words, the first major step toward human civilization was the renunciation of instinct. Woman was put in charge of fire—the hearth—because her anatomy made it impossible to put out a fire with the phallic equivalent of a fire hose. As if to link fire and the phallus in an explicitly Freudian way, Jean-Jacques Annaud, in his film Quest For Fire (1981), included a scene a which a female performs fellatio on one of her male companions, presumably for the first time in history (although the ur-fellatrix, unlike Eve, eludes the historical record).
Hence fire is essential to civilization, and yet is also capable of destroying it: it is both fascinating and terrifying—the fire that signals the apocalypse. In the popular imagination fire is most often associated with erotic passion (“c’mon baby light my fire” Jim Morrison implores in the famous song), but when is fire more closely associated with fire in the eschatological sense—the conflagration that signals damnation, the end of the world? The Meat Puppets’ “Lake Of Fire” is once such song; Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” (“Satan’s sitting there, He’s smiling/Watches those flames get higher and higher”) is another, the distant precursor of which is the Louvin Brothers’ “Are You Afraid To Die.” Bob Seger’s “Fire Lake” is a song about fire in the Freudian sense, except rather than singing of the renunciation of instinct, the song celebrates its return (return of the repressed). Johnny Cash’s version of “Ring Of Fire” is famous, but Anita Carter’s version is better—passion, yes, but passion linked with self-destruction. Beautiful self-destruction, self-sacrifice, is also explored in Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ For You.” Setting aside the banality of songs about passion, there have been some very fine songs about fire. As opposed to those who say the world will end in ice, these songs say fire.
A Few Songs About Fire, Not Ice:
Anita Carter – Ring Of Fire
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
Blue Oyster Cult – Burnin’ For You
Chrome – Firebomb
The Cramps – Sinners
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown – Fire
King Crimson – The Court of the Crimson King/The Return of the Fire Witch/The Return of the Puppets
Barry McGuire – Eve of Destruction
Meat Puppets – Lake of Fire
Michael Murphy – Wildfire
The Rolling Stones – Play With Fire
Bob Seger – Fire Lake
Talking Heads – Burning Down the House
James Taylor – Fire and Rain
The Marshall Tucker Band – Fire on the Mountain
Friday, October 2, 2009
“In Fritz Lang’s M,” writes Raymond Durgnat, “the child murderer (Peter Lorre) sees his next victim gazing into a shop window full of toys. He pauses by the next window, and his reflection is hemmed in by a display of serried knives. In yet another window, the movements of an attention-getting spiral and an arrow have a mesmeric, mechanical quality, like the psychological pressure pounding inside his head. Photographed as reflected in the shop window, your character is transparent to what he is gazing at—his desires and obsessions are more solid and real than he himself. . . . ” (Films and Feelings, p. 232). The urban flaneur (Baudelaire: “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”) is naturally drawn to the shop window, as shop windows theatricalize desire, framing by means of the window casing toys, clothes, fashionably dressed mannequins, glittering baubles and beads—Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the boys and girls gazing at potential gifts in A Christmas Story, the puppy about which Patti Page sings in “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” But windows also reveal the truth, a world freed of illusion. Perhaps the best window song is therefore George Jones’ “Window Up Above,” in which the window up above voyeuristically allows, by chance, the singer to know the truth about his marriage, and express the heartbreak that follows: perversely, the window has allowed him to see the way things actually are, his wife in the arms of her lover: the horror and fascination of gazing into the face of Medusa.
The Window And The Flaneur:
50 Cent – Window Shopper
Aphex Twin – Window Licker
The Beatles – She Came In Through The Bathroom Window
Jimi Hendrix – Blue Window
The Hollies – Look Through Any Window
George Jones – Window Up Above
Billy J. Kramer – From A Window
Metallica – Dirty Window
Patti Page – How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?
The Rays – Silhouettes
U2 – Window in the Skies
Hank Williams – Window Shopping