Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Dream and the Nightmare

In theory, rock ‘n’ roll is an egalitarian artform, having derived from an ideology of amateurism (as opposed to professionalism). Because of this ideological underpinning, it has consistently struggled with the problem of how to redress the gap separating the fan from the star. In its positive form, the problem of the gap is overcome by a version of the Horatio Alger myth, in which a working-class stiff is kissed by Lady Luck, and the dream comes true: he becomes, as John Lennon memorably sang, a “Working Class Hero.” Think, for instance, of Tommy DeCarlo, once a credit manager at a Home Depot store in North Carolina, now the lead singer for Boston.

The recent, much publicized events surrounding Rihanna and Chris Brown represents the dark parody of the Alger myth: the star-struck, working-class stiff on whom fortune has smiled, but because of some failure of character, some moral weakness, he throws it all away (Bad Company’s “Shooting Star”). Tommy DeCarlo is the emblem of the (generative) dream, Chris Brown the emblem of the (destructive) nightmare. One can understand these two stories as the myth of “the rising star” and the myth of “the falling star.”

Historically, “the star” became distinct from what was known at the time as “the picture personality” around 1914. There were (at least) two consequences of this transformation: 1) the cinema became disassociated from the theater, from the theatrical mode of representation (hence rock stars are more like movie stars than stage actors, and are more likely to become movie stars than stage actors); and, 2) the studio relinquished control over the “picture personality’s” public image. The emergent discourse on the private life of the picture personality created what is known as “the star,” the star by definition having a private life that is open to the press and to fan magazines; fan magazines, the subject of which is the life of stars, are premised on open access to the private life. In other words, the life of the star forms a narrative that is separable from the roles that he or she plays and have made him or her a star in the first place. One’s private life comprises a narrative that is utterly distinct from the narrative forming one’s professional life, although as is clear from Chris Brown’s recent case, when problems presumably concealed in the private life emerge, there are real and drastic consequences on the professional life. Why? Because the generative or positive version of the myth must be preserved at all costs. Because it is inviolate, those who have transgressed against the benign myth must be made examples.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Et Tu, Bono: You, Too?

As if in response to the massive media campaign that has geared up to promote U2’s latest album, NO LINE ON THE HORIZON, Andrew Gumbel has penned the following article for The Wrap, “Bono, U2 Blasted as Hypocrites and Sell-outs.” Gumbel chides U2 for turning its back on its fans as revealed by the band moving its business operations offshore in order to escape Irish taxes. While Gumbel may have a point, one might do well to remember that the history of rock is marked by continuous controversy: the strongly negative reaction to Bob Dylan’s going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965, for instance, or the commercialization of the Woodstock 1999 festival, and the violence that erupted there. While I sympathize with Gumbel’s position, I think his article is, in part, a response to the problem of feeling disenfranchised. Alienated from the products and services of mass culture, one feels drowned by consumer goods.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Nabokov Letter

In my and Rebecca’s book, Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side (FAB Press, 2006), we discussed Donald Cammell’s proposed film of Vladimir Nabokov’s “unfilmable” novel, Pale Fire (1962). As his biographers, we were told of a letter Donald had received from the famed author regarding Donald’s proposed adaptation of the novel, but the letter written by Nabokov—of which Donald was justly proud—was never recovered during the many years my wife Rebecca and I worked on our book, which went to press three years ago this month.

We are happy to report, however, that the letter from Vladimir Nabokov to Donald Cammell was discovered by David Cammell, Donald’s brother, just a couple of months ago, in December 2008, among his personal papers. During the writing of our biography, David assured us of the letter’s existence because he’d read it—but was unable to locate it despite his best efforts. Although the letter now has been found, its discovery, obviously, has occurred too late for inclusion in our book. And yet, now that the letter has been recovered, happily it is available for all the world to see. Although all of the late author’s work is closely guarded, Dmitri Nabokov has kindly given his permission for the letter to be distributed in cyberspace. We are deeply grateful to him for granting permission. If anyone wants confirmation of this permission, you may contact Dr. Stephen Blackwell, Professor of Russian at the University of Tennessee—Knoxville and moderator of the NABOKV-L discussion boards, with whom Dmitri Nabokov is in close communication. I have discussed Donald’s proposed adaptation at length on the NABOKV-L, and a copy of the letter was sent to all list members who wanted one.

Becky and I were mildly surprised by the date of the letter—July 30, 1971—as the treatment Donald had written of Pale Fire—the treatment we have a copy of and have read, anyway—is dated May 1974. Although we knew he was always at work on various film projects, we were confident that during the 1970-71 period Donald was entirely focused on a film project titled Ishtar (not to be confused with the Dustin Hoffman-Warren Beatty film released in 1987). But it is now clear that he had begun thinking of adapting Pale Fire during this period, perhaps even earlier. Donald admired Lolita and also Kubrick's film adaptation of it, and also admired Nabokov's novel Despair, filmed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1978. In July 1971, when the letter was received, Donald and Myriam Gibril were living in David Cammell’s flat on Old Church Street in Chelsea, literally just around the corner from Mick Jagger. Somehow, the letter must have subsequently remained in David’s flat, over the years eventually getting mixed in with David’s other papers, only to resurface thirty-seven years later, and almost thirteen years after Donald’s death in April 1996. As Nabokov was not profligate of praise, we can certainly understand why Donald was so proud of the letter. Below is a copy of the heretofore unpublished, and largely unknown, letter. Although Nabokov suggests a possible meeting, I am quite sure that no meeting ever took place between the two men.