Sunday 31 October 2010

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Running On The Spot

"The art of Thespis developed, as its inmost nature required, as a scene of the morning and of the full sunlight. On the contrary, our Western popular and Passion plays, which originated in the sermon of allocated parts and were first produced by priests in the church, and then laymen in the open square, on the mornings of high festivals, led almost unnoticed to an art of evening and night. Already in Shakespeare’s time performances took place in late afternoon, and by Goethe’s this mystical sense of proper relation between art and light-setting had attained its object. In general, every art and every culture has its significant times of day. The music of the 18th century is a music of the darkness and the inner eye, and the plastic of Athens is an art of the cloudless day. The candle affirms and the sunlight denies space as the opposite of things. At night the universe of space triumphs over matter, at midday the surroundings assert themselves and space is repudiated."

Oswald Spengler, "The Decline Of The West"

For Oswald Spengler, the history of Western art was a constant striving to better represent an infinite sense of space, which for him was the essence of the Western "soul feeling". All the innovations of Western art were in the service of this ideal - the development of perspective on the two-dimensional canvas and the corresponding invention of new shades and textures of paint were mirrored in the perfecting of the acoustics of the concert hall and the ever-expanding range of instruments and tones of the symphony orchestra. Thus the essence of Western drama, of which "Dr. Faustus" and "Macbeth" were the earliest and most perfect representations, was to portray characters for whom time and space, interchangeable constants in Spengler’s schema, were always in mutation, most especially when both were being constricted.

There was never a more Spenglerian group than The Jam, whose music consisted of soul-dramas whose protagonists were forever meeting a receding horizon. Paul Weller instinctively understood that to run out of time is to run out of space, and to run out of space is to run out of time. The Jam’s songs were themselves projected shadows, invariably conveying the opposite of what their titles proclaimed. Therefore, for example, "Going Underground" is about selling out, "Start" is about the end of a relationship, "That’s Entertainment" is about ennui, "The Eton Rifles" is about the collapse of working-class solidarity, and "Absolute Beginners" is a rueful reflection on experience.

The impending sense of foreclosure in Weller’s songs had two sources. The first, difficult to recall nowadays, is the fact that for the pre-Thatcher era working and lower-middle classes, adolescence was the briefest moment of possibility in a life that had already been largely pre-ordained to consist of a steady job and a steady marriage. Pop music, like toys and comics, was something that you were expected to grow out of as you accepted the responsibilities (and limitations) of adulthood, and these responsibilities would closely resemble those of your parents. This sense of adolescence being a fleeting and precarious moment of freedom usually manifested itself in strongly enforced music taboos, concerning both competing contemporary genres and past musics. Although the late-70’s may appear to be a musical cornucopia to present day dilettantes, most of it was off-limits with respect to whichever cultural grouping with whom you'd thrown in your lot.

The second was the sense that the post-war consensus, and its possibilities for working class advancement, was coming to an end. Ironically, the subsequent destruction of the employment base, in conjunction with the new North Sea oil revenues, would result in the remnants of these classes entering a kind of permanent adolescence, with the blue collar working class pushed toward a lumpenised existence of benefits and casualised employment, and the white collar taking refuge in the expanded higher education sector; both groups leading oddly shapeless lives of instant gratification and trivia. It is this disconnection with the world that The Jam inhabited which gives them their curiously dated quality. Looking back from the present, it often seems difficult to understand what Weller was getting so uptight about.

The Jam’s final and finest album, "The Gift" was in many ways the last record of the post war consensus, and an open elegy for it, with Weller’s lyrical concerns reaching their fullest expression with two songs, "Running On The Spot" and "Happy Together".

"Running On The Spot" itself is the final expression of the social disillusion that began with "The Eton Rifles", with any lingering pang of youthful expectation curdling into a realisation that all they represent are "the next generation of emotional cripples". With "Happy Together", you can almost feel the walls closing in. Desperately trying to convince themselves that their only option is the best one, a couple attempt to reassure themselves that at least they have each other. It sounds like bad faith, but still represents an era when people could still look to each other for salvation, rather than be abandoned to the vagaries of "the market".

Thursday 28 October 2010

Charlie Don't Surf

Note: Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher (actual son of Doris Day and executive producer of her TV show) were the friends and 'intended' victims of the Manson family, for petty showbiz reasons - not 'race war', helter skelter or any other hippie/punk/industrial rock bullshit.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Man's Best Friend: Straight on Till Morning (1972)

Straight on Till Morning (1972) is amusingly described here as 'like Ken Loach directing poor cow on LSD'; in fact it was the work of Peter Collinson, director of now ubiquitous 'Brit' film of the 60s The Italian Job (1969). If this was equally feted as a film of the 70s then we'd recognise something of the psychic/social extremity of that period. Spoilers obviously follow...

Rita Tushingham (Brenda) escapes from a spectacularly miserable looking Liverpool to a hardly much more thrilling 'swinging' London, claiming to her mother she's pregnant and going to find the father. Once there she sets out to find a man to make her pregnant, to give truth to her lie, deciding on James Bolam (not the most prepossessing swinging guy), but he, unfortunately, sleeps with her London 'best friend'.

Structured by bizzare editing the film opens and as truly disorientating, if not to say distressing, 'image' of 70s London/Britain. This is even before Tushingham, in scenes of painful awkwardness that perhaps belie Adam Kotsko's theory of the recency of this structural trait, meets her fatal partner - truly post-Norman Bates pretty boy psychokiller 'Peter' (played by Shane Briant).
Entering into a foile a deux, structured by Peter Pan, from which the film takes its title, they settle down in the mews house of the sugar mummy 'Peter' has previously murdered. He has one of those psychopathologies hopefully not present outside cinema (equal parts Norman Bates and Mark Lewis (Peeping Tom)) - murdering his surrogate 'mothers' and anyone he finds 'pretty' with that archetypal British weapon the Stanley Knife.
We see the depth of his pathology when he murders the dog 'Tinker' because Brenda as 'prettified' the poor creature to entice Peter. Settling into 'domestic bliss' (Peter regards women as there to cook and clean), eventually Brenda (now renamed 'Wendy') becomes pregnant. As she seems to have disappeared she is tracked down by her London best friend on behalf of her distraught mother. Unfortunately said friend meets up with Peter and, after sex, he murders her for being 'pretty'.
The most extreme and distressing moment is, unusually aural. Outside of the squelchy 'shunting' in Society, David Lynch's sountrack for Eraserhead, or the slaughtered pigs of The Exorcist, it contains one of the most horrifying sound sequences in cinema.

Peter likes recording his murders (parallel to Mark Lews's filming) and to prove his true nature to Wendy he locks her in the bedroom with a tape playing the sounds of his killing of the dog and the best friend. The sounds of the killing of the dog are truly horrible - obviously we're dealing with fiction, but there's something about the slow and painful killing of the dog that exceeds the sounds of the murder of the friend. I don't know how they got these sounds recorded and I don't want to know.
After escaping from the bedroom and trying to escape by Peter the pregnant Brenda/Wendy is presumably murdered by Peter (this takes place off camera). If we think of the literally suspensive ending of The Italian Job I doubt we could imagine a grimmer counterpart of the undecidable ending.

Of course the film inhabits the misogyny discussed previously here, in almost a parodic way, considering the general unpleasantness of the male characters and Peter's camply 'performative' masculinity (mixing in homophobia as well - it seems appropriate Shane Briant would later play Dorian Gray). On the other hand, the female characters are generally supportive, Brenda's mother is genuinely concerned for her and seems more confused by her daughter's fantasy life and disappearance. The best friend she meets in London may sleep with Wendy's prospective boyfriend and Peter, but she goes to find her and seem socially/sexually liberated, but not condescending or hostile to Brenda.
Therefore, we don't have 'anti-Oedipal' outsiders versus both straights and the newly-liberated hippies/hip, but rather hyper-Oedipal violent inversion. The fantasies of return to childhood are given a far darker edge than anything Denis Potter imagined, and the brutality, in the most banal 'British' way, captures a 'nihilism' that has nothing glamorous or punk about it.

It's the refusal of a 'social' or even 'psychological' explanation for this extreme but banal violence, beyond the usual post-Freudian cliches, that makes the film so misanthropic. A true product of the 70s, a film without hope.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

A Taste Of Fanny

"As the nation declines in power and wealth, a universal pessimism gradually pervades the people, and itself hastens the decline. There is nothing succeeds like success, and, in the Ages of Conquest and Commerce, the nation was carried triumphantly onwards on the wave of its own self-confidence. Republican Rome was repeatedly on the verge of extinction—in 390 B.C. when the Gauls sacked the city and in 216 B.C. after the Battle of Cannae. But no disasters could shake the resolution of the early Romans. Yet, in the later stages of Roman decline, the whole empire was deeply pessimistic, thereby sapping its own resolution. Frivolity is the frequent companion of pessimism. Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. The resemblance between various declining nations in this respect is truly surprising. The Roman mob, we have seen, demanded free meals and public games. Gladiatorial shows, chariot races and athletic events were their passion. In the Byzantine Empire the rivalries of the Greens and the Blues in the hippodrome attained the importance of a major crisis.

Judging by the time and space allotted to them in the Press and television, football and baseball are the activities which today chiefly interest the public in Britain and the United States respectively. The heroes of declining nations are always the same - the athlete, the singer or the actor."

Sir John Glubb - "The Fate Of Empires" (Blackwell, 1978)

Of course, Sir John’s pantheon of the heroes of a declining nation should also include chefs, whose celebrity incarnations have spread like a plague across the nation’s television scheduling hours since the beginning of the Blair era. Although the 1970’s are frequently considered to be an era of decline for Britain in particular, there is much evidence to suggest that in many ways the country still possessed a formidable fortitude and virility. This was not least manifested in its dire cuisine, prudishly coy "sex industry" and dilapidated sports stadia, all of which suggested that the British public were a long way from being the passive spectators of spectacle and addicts to instant gratification that Neoliberalism demands.

British food in the 1970’s was heroically Spartan, with the meat-and-two-veg wartime/austerity culture still lingering two decades after it had become redundant, and combining with industrially derived "instant" foods such as Cadbury’s Smash and Angel Delight. With its powdered vegetables, powdered desserts and substitute fruit juices, the average British family ate like NATO soldiers on exercises or Soviet Cosmonauts. The late ‘50’s had nevertheless seen the appearance of the first real celebrity chef in the bizarre Norma Desmond figure of Fanny Cradock, a viciously snobbish petit-bourgeois matriarch with pisshole-in-the-snow eyes and a back story out of a Catherine Cookson novel. Although Cradock’s menus appear rather modest by today’s standards, at the time they were considered to be almost impossibly grand and pretentious. Nobody who watched her show was remotely interested in emulating her cookery - the main sources of entertainment were her waspish asides to her dipsomaniac husband Johnnie, who would wander haphazardly around the rear of the set, bottle in hand, pausing only to get in his wife’s way.

There was always something poignant and sympathetic about the Cradocks, however. They were the kind of archetypal couple that don’t exist anymore - the type that stayed married for reasons of business respectability, regardless of how incompatible they might be. Fanny’s ruthless social climbing was of the desperate kind that had to derive from real experience of poverty, and her underlying insecurity was always bound to lead to disaster sooner or later. Nemesis was to occur in 1976 when she verbally flayed amateur cook Gwen Troake on BBC’s "The Big Time", an incident that so appalled the public that it effectively finished her television career.

Fanny’s position as the Nation’s most recognised cook was taken by the Gwen Troake-like Delia Smith, an innocuous working-class girl who created the kind of pleasant, unpretentious recipes that met the overwhelming approval of the British public, who still very sensibly confined oral gratification to the margins of their culture. It couldn’t last however, and a combination of the instinctive cultural cringe towards the "food culture" of the Continent, American standards of big-portion gluttony, and the vast loosening of credit standards following "The Big Bang" allowed an entire collection of wide-boy entrepreneurs and metropolitan food-snobs to open ever more exotic restaurants and otherwise dine in them. The end result is a gruesomely disgusting food-fetishism in which a whole slew of vulgar public schoolboys can appear on our televisions flambé-ing veal steaks with arc-welding kits on improvised sets in the open countryside.

The deeper tragedy of course is that the public of the 1970's would have been far more fit to face the austere future we are being promised following the collapse of Neoliberalism. When future generations get to laugh at our decline, you can forget about news reports about George Osborne. It’ll be footage like this that will be the focus of their derision:

Vampire Blues

I need to do a long post on The Stranglers - in my opinion the greatest band of their era, and yet still to this day subject to a mysterious cultural omerta. In the meantime here's a track from Hugh Cornwell's inexplicable 1979 album "Nosferatu".

It's unclear why Cornwell felt the need to make a solo album at this time. One would have suspected that having freed himself from the seismic reaming machine that was The Stranglers' rhythm section he would have indulged his craftsmanlike songwritery side, but instead "Nosferatu" is an experimental, fragmentary hall-of-mirrors, fathomable only by its creator.

Perhaps a clue as to its purpose is given by the fact that The Stranglers had already used the smack-as-vampire meme in "Peasant In The Big Shitty". When injecting (no doubt adulterated) magical powders into your body, it's inevitable that you'll be injecting a certain amount of psychic filth with them. "Nosferatu" is Cornwell giving the larvae at the bottom of his psyche something else to feed on. It's a diseased record.

Monday 25 October 2010

Outlaw Detente

The Apocalyptic Underclass

A Boy and His Dog (1975), although never a hit, was somewhat influential in its depiction of a post-apocalyptic world. Directed by L.Q. Jones (a character actor mainly known for his Peckinpah lowlifes), it has obvious echoes in Mad Max, not least in its post- technological inversion of the western (although some 70s westerns share motifs). Featuring a young Don Johnson as Vic, who 'scouts' a post-nuclear wasteland with the help of his telepathic dog Blood, it depicts a world where young men and boys (no-one lives long here) fight a war of all against all for food and women. Guns are the only guarantor of trade, and dogs are the smartest guys in the room. 

The 70s was the decade when various apocalyptic scenarios went mainstream. The disaster movie cycle (Towering Inferno, Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, various Airports, and any number of films where nature strikes back) modified the premise of the previous decade's On The Beach, with superstars as elites facing overwhelming disaster, attempting to survive it assisted by professional expertise. Along with the nightmare scenarios, the basic pleasure was waiting to see who made it to the end ("Ooh Robert Vaughn's dead! Will Fred Astaire survive?"). There was also novelty in the Grim Reaper not selecting victims according to status.

However, with their use of spectacular effects and all-star casts, the 'event' disaster movie had its low budget mirror image (often the case with 70s genres). The lewder, cruder apocalyptic scenarios of George A. Romero, Roger Corman or other 'exploitation' productions rarely featured elite characters or superstar experts who could eventually save the day. This time, the stories were largely told on the level of worn-down working stiffs, or indeed a dangerous 'underclass' excluded from labour value. Mirrored in their budgetary differences, these conflicting perspectives were a matter of class. The economic relations and emotional connections of bigger budget disasters were put aside to favour raw survival. With victims played by c-list actors, individual deaths were granted less dramatic significance. With stagflation, mass lay-offs and energy crises moving many urban areas towards 'post-apocalyptic' conditions, faith in technical expertise and organisation wasn't an option at the grindhouse (like the one still open for business in A Boy and His Dog, showing porn loops and old westerns). Nor did these films affirm family bonds in their traditional sense.

A Boy and His Dog generated fierce feminist criticism for its sexual politics. 70s cinema's obsession with rape has been discussed here, and this film is no exception in its disturbing attitude to women (also present in Harlan Ellison's original stories*). The figure of 'woman' - teenage Quilla June - is posited between a suffocating, (literally) sterile social conservatism and the most brutal form of post-capitalism, with women  the ultimate commodity - producer or product. Underground, women are reproduction machines in a grotesque version of Republican ideals (anticipating The Handmaid's Tale). Outside, women hide away for their own safety - hence the need for 'his dog' to sniff them out in exchange for food. Both 'societies' being caricatures of what each fears in the other; Quilla June's 'choice' is between a patriarchal prison of automated duty, or a feral 'me' generation of violent sexual predators. Much criticism focussed on her character willingly trading on these misogynist negations. Without giving away spoilers, family and 'love' are revealed as meaningless when pit against crude, ugly necessity.

Like so much of 70s cinema, it opens up stark polarisations without easy resolution. The idea of the repressive, family-driven small town vs. the lawless post-industrial wasteland still informs American political discourse (and has increasing traction in Europe too). In their youth, both Vic and Quilla June are little more than bewildered adjuncts of their respective worlds, fuelled by illusions of power and escape. The film was released in the dying days of Fordism, and more than its explanatory nuclear war, the film's anxieties fixate on masculinity as an unruly surplus, with women as its economic and/or biological battleground. This theme is now common to 'apocalyptic' scenarios, and not just in film. Although the big budget 'event' disaster has since returned to re-affirm family values, the supposed 'underclass' despair of A Boy and His Dog  - and similar low-budget 70s catastrophes - has disseminated into popular culture more pervasively than the gentrified, containable nightmares of Irwin Allen.

*Later - unfilmed - stories of Vic and Blood feature radioactive zombies, and a lot more 'survivor guilt'. Ellison's stories, like Romero's films, were deeply influenced by Richard Matheson's I Am Legend - the urtext for innumerable novels, comics, films, TV shows and games since the 70s.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Seen And Unseen

"The "street" is the reality and unreality. The centre of the universe, the beginning and the end of time. The whole spectrum of all human existence in full living colour written on the walls, scored with the thump of explosive, photographed in the mind of a diseased body. Replayed every day, relived with boredom. We live in the commercial break of a battered building. Selling our morality to ourselves over and over again, with the help of war books, films, T.V. and sleep. Don’t think of the rights and wrongs, just let the beast rise and enjoy the primeval passion."

A.F.N. Clarke, "Contact"

BBC Videos

"Contact", written by A.F.N. Clarke and published in 1983, was an obyvatel account of his two tours of Northern Ireland, in Belfast in 1973 and South Armagh in 1976, as a Captain in the Parachute Regiment. Written as an unmediated soldier’s account, it offered a harsh and unforgiving verdict on all sides participating in "The Troubles".

The book depicts the soldiers of the British Army living a strange dual existence, between isolation in dark, improvised urban fortresses, forever trying to fend off boredom or to simply catch up on sleep, and their release onto the streets, where their tensions and frustrations are released in bone-crunching episodes of violence, as local youths are pushed up against walls to have their balls squeezed, pubs are turned over and their contents smashed, and rioting mobs are steamed into with armoured personnel carriers. The "toms" live in fear of, and enthusiasm for, "contact" with the enemy, be it the ruthless I.R.A professionals of the border counties, or the slippery, cunning "loyalists" of the U.D.A.

"Contact" depicts the war in Ulster not as one of territory, or religion, or ideology, but as a war to control the narrative. In such a fissile environment, with the aggressors living cheek-by-jowl, incidents are depicted as inevitable, even when the Paras are not deliberately trying to stoke them up. What matters to all sides is not what happens, but how it is interpreted by the outside world. Clarke paints a portrait of a ghost war, where major riots are forgotten almost as soon as they have ended, where casualties are hushed up, and where the perpetrators of an act of violence can change between news bulletins. Indeed, part of what allows the soldiers to get away with their violent harassment is that they know that there are many situations where it suits the paramilitaries to keep quiet about Army incursions onto their territory.

A year later, in 1984, "Contact" was adapted for television by Alan Clarke on behalf of the BBC. Clarke was always the most cold-eyed and unsentimental of the social realists, and he abstracted the story even further. Concentrating on the second half of the book, he depicted the Paras in South Armagh almost as a wandering tribe, endlessly patrolling the hills around Crossmaglen, observing the ambivalent comings and goings on the local farms carefully but remotely. Like the mercenaries in "Predator", the soldiers are always watching, always being watched, their lives an exercise in unending low-level tension. That is until we see just how lethal the border country can be.

"Contact" was much criticised at the time, for its refusal to moralise, to offer "solutions", or to make an obvious statement. Not one to take criticism lying down, when Clarke was to return to the subject of The Troubles five years later, it was with the most pared-down and brutal 40 minutes of drama that British television had ever seen, and is ever likely to see.

Friday 22 October 2010

Oliver's Army

Stomach head and genitals
Choked until unconscious
Cold water poured in the ears
Plastic bag held over head
Thrown against the walls
Then they were thrown against the wall
Then they were hit with karate chops
Beaten in the face
Bending of the wrists
Lifted up by the ears
Burnt with cigarettes
And teeth knocked out
Then they were spread-eagled on the floor
Then they were spread-eagled on the floor
And then jumped upon
And then jumped upon
And then jumped upon

- The Pop Group 'Amnesty Report on British Army Torture in Northern Ireland'

Unaccustomed as I am to public blogging...

Reading the excellent and humbling analysis of trends in 70s cinema, TV & comics by Phil and Wayne [Hello! by the way, I’m Niall] below I was given pause to wonder “Did I actually go and see a film at the cinema in the 1970s?” I was born in 1966 and actually, the answer is “yes,” A Bridge Too Far. With that honourable exceptional I will only have seen films on TV – possibly, early 70s fare such as Carry On and James Bond recycled in the later 70s through a tiny B&W set. And perhaps, the “big” Xmas film on BBC1 - again a few years out of date when it reached the small screen.
I’m squeamish about commenting on 70s cultural product when I didn’t experience it in its original medium and milieu, but I am also genuinely interested in the events [and the representation of them] of the time and their relationship to current representations. Carl seems to be doing a job on the Music, Economics & Politics, and I can understand why, on a personal level, an effort to grapple with these themes might promise a degree of personal resolution.
Rigorous quantitative and qualitative research into socio-cultural phenomena [which are what, I think, are left after “actual events” are taken out of the equation] is not, I’m given to understand, the remit of a blog. An archetypal bloggers trope in my very limited experience is to assert the existence of a phenomenon and then to insert You Tube footage to support the observation and is something I’m keen to steer clear of [partly because I can’t be bothered, but partly because I think it’s intrinsically reductive]. Nor do I have time to review the entire oeuvre that concerns the subject of discussion, not even time, in fact, to read a single book or watch a single episode. The third way then [unless one is to resort to totally unsubstantiated generalisations] is personal reflection. One trouble with this is [Brookerism alert!] –if you’re anything like me- you’ll be sick of me using the word “I” already and you’ll have reacted to the phrase ‘if you’re anything like me’ by thinking “ugh, of course I’m not anything like you...” which means that you are actually a bit like me because that’s how I always react to the phrase “if you’re anything like me”
The oblique reference [above] to the poverty of my upbringing also bespeaks an urge to use reflection on the seventies as a form of therapy and to assume that others are doing the same [see gratuitous vague reference to Carl’s background above] and although my self-analysis might blur the picture somewhat the first point I want to make about the Seventies is that the articulation of an ‘era’ through its cultural product seems legitimate now because everyone has access to all such product today - so its hard to remember that this wasn’t always so. We also legitimate this approach by bonding through our nostalgic recollections. This cannot be assumed to be representative of the 1970s as lived experience though.
We had a TV, but we were “not an ITV family” so no adverts, no Coronation Street. No car, no phone, no record player, no Sun, no Mirror, no fashion [home-made clothes] or haircuts, no seaside holidays [home or abroad], no celebrities. No such thing as “lifestyle.” Never had a pizza, never set foot in a cafe, hotel, pub or restaurant. No camera – no photos...I was brought up by my single mum on a council estate in the North of England – so I can hardly have been unique. There must be millions like me who barely experienced “popular culture” at all except with certain bafflement. Why, I would have wondered at the time, were people suddenly wearing trousers with a tartan stripe down the side? And how did they know to wear these trousers simultaneously? And where did they buy them from?
The main common discourses with which I engaged would have been televised sport [of which more later] and the “News” – the BBC Six O’Clock News, followed by Look North [Regional BBC News] and/or Nationwide [National Magazine programme] and the Yorkshire Post [National newspaper for Yorkshire, broadly right-wing]. From this News I concluded that Britain had a rubbish economy, made shit cars and we were crap at sports. The following people were mad or bad – Anthony Wedgewood Benn, the IRA , Arthur Scargill, Leonid Brezhnev, football hooligans, the Yorkshire Ripper, Don Revie and Brian Clough. [Not that I’ve read any of his books but it seems David Pease has accurately identified his bogeymen, I look forward to not reading his book about Jimmy Savile and to not watching Michael Sheen’s impersonation of him]. Funnily enough, I have no recollection of who the “good guys” were in a political sense –it certainly wasn’t their obvious opposites. Anyone who wasn’t mad or bad was corrupt, incompetent or naive. In this context it must be remembered that Margaret Thatcher made complete and utter sense [well, to this 13 year-old anyway.]
To respond to Carl’s original inquiry, the answer to the question of for whom the 1970s was a period of crisis is a resounding “Me!” I could list all the obvious things that made it dreadful and I may refer to some of them later, but if my memory serves me correctly, on top of the fear of power cuts, coal shortages [the fire provided our only heating and our hot water], escorting my sisters after dark for fear of the Yorkshire Ripper, came the hyperinflation that genuinely appeared made one week’s benefits worthless the next.
People seemed [cliché alert] brutal- racist, sexist, homophobic and vicious about anyone with a mental illness or disability. The concept of “bullying” as aberrant or even wrong didn’t really exist. In this environment, “Mrs” Thatcher did not seem, in 1979, - an extreme political figure. I would argue that the most common perception of politics and politicians was, much as it is now that “one lot are as bad as the other”. That Stalin = Hitler, Loyalist=Republican, Benn = Powell etc. Thatcher was the ‘third way’ - she was, in the most literal sense, financially and morally conservative She had a hinterland, she was middle-class, nostalgic, romantic, “common-sense,” basically an apolitical figure for people who were sick of politicians. Reagonomics and the dismantling of the working class power base came later, arguably more as collateral damage in a moral war than from any rigid economic ideology. This much has been argued elsewhere, but for England [I doubt much of the rest of the UK would recognise themselves as having “voted for her”], in my memory, she was a breath of fresh air.

So, having thought long and hard about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that no assessment of the 70s would be complete without significant reference to the sport of the time. So we’ll begin close to home, with this clip [Leeds v St Helens in the 1978 RL Challenge cup final, if you can't be arsed watching it] and the observation that at no point in the 1970s did I attend a live sporting event or travel the 25 miles that separate York [where] I lived to Leeds [which might as well have been Timbuktu for all the connection I felt with it.]

Thursday 21 October 2010

Put some fire into their wretched lives

Surely a candidate for the first British punk record. But is it a reactionary mocking of the progressive aspirations of the youth? Or a working class attack on middle class self-righteousness? Whichever, it would be another seven years before another record could match it in the depth of its contempt.

Pulp Sorcery

In cinema, fashion, and not least political rhetoric, the 30s chic of Bonnie and Clyde was highly influential. However, if the cinematic past couldn't help but be concerned with the present by the late 60s, the 70s looked backwards with less urgency. The 30s were everywhere in 70s pop culture, but what the 30s 'meant' became elusive with the shift towards nostalgia. The darker aspects of the 30s were reserved for neo-noir howls of pain like Chinatown or The Conformist, just as bleak revisionist westerns like McCabe & Mrs. Miller alluded to contemporary political anxieties. In contrast, hit films such as Murder on the Orient Express offered shop-worn motifs and predictable resolutions. 30s nostalgia was used for the comforts of genre and style, not something as troubling as history, or how it resonates in the present. The viewer would have to dig very deep for historical relevance in the originals; never mind the pastiche, or affectionate parodies such as Young Frankenstein. It was the past as theme park, suitable for all ages.
In the early 70s, the revival of the 30s pulp was also underway. American comics, having reinvented superheroes via the technology and anxieties of the New Frontier, aimed to keep an ageing audience* by reviving the harsher heroes of the Great Depression. Doc Savage, the Shadow and Conan the Barbarian were being dusted down and resold to college kids hip to nostalgia, and especially for the 30s (with HP Lovecraft finally hitting the big time). With the decline of TV's pop art Batman - and the emerging gay monopoly on camp - these 70s versions were strangely po-faced in their reverence. Pulp revivals were also mirrored in paperback fiction, with Heinlenesque space opera and 'sword and sorcery' becoming huge money-spinners. Cultish revisionism like Philip Jose Farmer's Tarzan Alive! also paved the way for today's darker, but no less reactionary, 're-booted' heroes. Creaky 30s serials also found a new lease of life via TV and a booming nostalgia market.
It's been already been noted here how movie vigilantes emerged in the Nixon years. With a paranoid loner in the White House, and neoliberalism looking for enforcers, the fantasy of barbarian kings or crime-fighting oligarchs complemented vigilantes with aggressively pre-New Deal values. The original pulp heroes offered simple solutions to escape the Great Depression. The wealthy Shadow just knew "what evil lurked in the hearts of men" - he had no need to explain it to his hypnotised employees. Doc Savage could finance imperial adventures with profits from his South American mines. Conan could slay his way to monarchy without doubts, as might was the only right in his era of declining empire and lawlessness. The ruling class superman was back with a vengeance.
In the latter part of the decade, and true to postmodernism, nostalgia piled up on itself. With the emergence of mass collecting and 'fandom', every popular medium harked back to a 'golden age', comic books included. Bereft of a gold standard, various 'golden ages' were nevertheless agreed to end with Eisenhower's presidency. The 'innocent' 50s celebrated in Happy Days and Grease vied with the 40s 'good war' being endlessly fought on screen and print throughout the 70s. 'Golden oldie' songs were reanimated on radio and TV. Primetime hosts like Joe Franklin or Michael Parkinson toasted ancient stars (and by implication, the values) of a monochrome past. However, there was only one 'golden age' actor still on his way up. 

Despite uncomfortable connotations for certain sectors of the audience, pre-60s nostalgia was mainstream lingua franca by the end of the 70s. George Lucas, unsuccessful in his attempts to revive 30s icon Flash Gordon, followed American Graffitti (reimagining his own youth as theme park) with Star Wars**. Its inventory of pulp cliches, and shot-for-shot pastiche of older Hollywood glories, led to a boom in retro fantasy targetting all ages, on screen and beyond. Serials, cartoon characters, pulp icons and b-movies got big money makeovers, with varying degrees of success. Revived reactionary assumptions could lurk beneath the gloss of 'pure entertainment', as much as the Hollywood president could sell his agenda with a cute one-liner or movie reference. Raiders of the Lost Ark consolidated Hollywood's rush to the past, synthesising its childish influences and repackaging them for 'knowing' adults. This overdressed Republic serial was nominated for Best Picture, in a year when almost all Oscar nominations looked towards the distant past, its genres or stars. In Reagan's year of re-election, Indiana Jones advertised his second whip-cracking campaign with the tagline: "The Hero is Back!" Before long, the retro hero was even re-winning long lost wars. By the mid-80s the hero could do anything - except look forward.

*In the early 70s, average audience age for superhero comics was 11. In the 21st century, it's about 35.

**70s/80s film versions of 'new wave' science fiction (ie. downbeat, political, environmental, 'adult' and very 60s) were notable flops upon first release - these include Slaughterhouse Five, Damnation Alley, A Boy and His Dog, The Final Programme, Dune and even Blade Runner.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

"This year North Sea Oil, next year the Atlantic Tunnel!"

The commercial that starts at 1.05, for Paxo Stuffing.

Subject: "Britain's new greatness".

Made on the eve of Thatcherism, or after the election victory?

Colonel Blimp-esque ambassador puts the Ay-Rabs (big concern in the mid-70s on account of their buying up loads of London property) back in their place.

The Neoliberal That Came To Dinner

Sunday 17 October 2010

The Abuse Of Sex

Credit: David Graves/Rex Features

The Greco-Armenian mystic and esotericist G.I. Gurdjieff held strong opinions on what he considered to be "the abuse of sex". For him, this constituted not the everyday perversions that are the subject of boundless wobbly camcorder footage on the internet, but rather the channeling of sexual energy into non-sexual activity. As he himself put it:

"The energy of the sex centre in the work of the thinking, emotional, and moving centres can be recognised by a particular ‘taste’, by a particular fervour, by a vehemence that the nature of the affair concerned does not call for. The thinking centre writes books, but in making use of the energy of the sex centre it does not simply occupy itself with philosophy, science or politics - it is always fighting something, disputing, criticising, creating new subjective theories. The emotional centre preaches Christianity, abstinence, ascetiscism, or the fear and horror of sin, hell, the torment of sinners, eternal fire, all this with the energy of the sex centre……Or on the other hand it works up revolutions, robs, burns, kills, again with the same energy. The moving centre occupies itself with sport, creates various records, climbs mountains, jumps, fences, wrestles, fights, and so on.

In all these instances, that is, in the work of the thinking centre as well as in the work of the emotional and the moving centres, when they work with the energy of the sex centre, there is always one general characteristic and this is a certain particular vehemence, and together with it, the USELESSNESS of the work in question. Neither the thinking nor the emotional nor the moving centres can ever create anything USEFUL with the energy of the sex centre. This is an example of the ‘abuse of sex’".

It was fortunate for Gurdjeff that he died before the publication of the first edition of The Guinness Book Of Records, which he would no doubt have regarded with horror as the cultural institutionalisation of the abuse of sex. The brainchild of Sir Hugh Beaver in the mid-fifties, the book was a compendium of both natural facts and stupendously useless feats of human persistence, endurance, and megalomania that was annually compiled by twins Ross and Norris McWhirter, and printed every October to cash in on pre-Christmas sales.

It was a measure of that free-wheeling era that BBC bosses considered this filth fit for imposition on the nation’s children, and in 1972 "Record Breakers", a show based around the book, began its long broadcasting run. Light entertainer Roy Castle was chosen to be the main presenter, focusing on record-breaking attempts around the world, and, when not watching people fly upside down under bridges, or the largest aerobics class in the world, channeled his surplus sex energy into breaking nine world records himself.

Tellingly, the McWhirter twins’ abuse of sex manifested itself in other fields. The McWhirters were tireless political activists for a strand of right-wing Libertarianism that culminated in their role in the foundation of The Freedom Association, a pressure group that was profoundly hostile to the trades unions. Ross McWhirter’s calls for harsher treatment of Irish Republicans, the constant monitoring of ordinary Irish civilians living in the UK, and finally his offer of a reward of £50,000 for information on a wave of terrorist attacks in the capital, led to his assassination by the Provisional IRA’s Balcombe Street gang, who were themselves engaged in an increasingly bold and reckless campaign against "ruling class" targets in the West End. This act was weirdly unfathomable to children at the time, like hearing today that Alan Titchmarsh has been singled out by Al-Qaeda.

Roy Castle’s biography was no less unusual. An agoraphobic, he would reputedly take refuge from the vast studios of Television Centre 1 by diving into a strategically placed wicker laundry basket, whose lid would be safely sealed by the weight of Cheryl Baker so as to assure the stricken Castle that there was no chance of it being inadvertently removed. It is difficult to resist speculating that this impromptu, Bucks Fizz-topped structure acted as some kind of primitive Orgone Accumulator, that, as well as curing Roy’s panic attacks, had the accidental secondary effect of charging his extraordinary libidinal surplus.

Saturday 16 October 2010

A Fable


Both one of the most prescient and one of the most esoteric films of the 1970’s was Jack Gold’s "Catholics". Made in 1973 (for ITV’s Sunday Night Theatre), but set in the then near-future of 1979, it devastatingly examines the tension between the coming era of all-forms-of-belief-are-equal ecumenical liberalism, and the older forms of abstinence and devotionalism which for many Catholics was the basis of their faith.

The background to "Catholics" was the series of reforms enacted by the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960’s, which were intended as a response to changes in society and to make the Church more "relevant" to the modern world. As is usual with liberal thought, "relevance" assumed that what was needed was the removal or modification of any institutional elements that were deemed intellectually demanding, or prescribed (or proscribed) certain kinds of behaviour.

What the film therefore sets up is the kind of conflict (the film’s American title is "The Conflict") that was to become common in real life from the late 70’s onwards - the arrival of the young, eager, liberal improver (Father Kinsella, here played by Martin Sheen) to shake out the fusty, habituated, institutional stick-in-the-muds that insist on doing things in the bad old ways.

On a bleak windswept island off the coast of Ireland, a group of Albaesian Monks, led by their Abbott (Trevor Howard), have returned to reciting the liturgy in Latin, after the fictional Fifth Vatican Council have banned the practice as part of the Catholic Church’s ongoing strategy to merge with Buddhism. Even worse, the revival has struck a chord with followers worldwide, such that the congregations for the masses that the monks conduct are swelling to the point where they are becoming a media cause célébre.

There is nothing that alarms the liberal mindset more than the notion that market forces might be working against you, so Sheen is dispatched from Rome to use any means of persuasion necessary to cajole the irascible Abbott into abandoning his experiment in revisionism before events get out of hand. Fortunately for the forces of modernisation, Trevor Howard’s Abbott is not the formidable enemy of progress that he initially seems. Howard has his own secret, the darkest one of all, and his motives for his liturgical deviancy are far from what they initially appear.

"Catholics" is a sombre, serious film, illuminated by a heartbreaking performance by Trevor Howard as a man utterly broken by his contradictions. The complex discussions about doctrine and liturgy, around which the film revolves, highlight how some of the most sustained opposition to neoliberalism was deeply conservative. Such conservatism was deliberately misrepresented by liberal ideology - what is most dangerous to reformists such as Kinsella is not the reactionary doctrine of the traditional church, but the insistence on the primacy of the Sacred, even if those who are defending it are no longer believers themselves.
“All blokes are that sort of bloke.”

Hitchcock’s 1971 Frenzy is a notoriously grim bit of work. Low budget and relatively low-key in comparison to his films of the Sixties, Frenzy deserves to be considered at length, and will be elsewhere.

The film that shadows Frenzy is Alfie, not least because Michael Caine turned down the role and because Barry Foster who plays the murderer Rusk bears such a strong resemblance to him. Foster was apparently cast on the basis of Hitchcock’s having seen him in Twisted Nerve but surely his close resemblance to Caine (though he has a sharper, shrewder, more shark-like face, Caine’s aura of psychopathology comes from the knowing deadness of his eyes and a bland, slightly dandified prettiness) is key to where Frenzy situates itself in regard to the Swinging Sixties. Frenzy amplifies Alfie’s casual misogyny, the barrow-boy made good who lacks the restraint/decency of down-on-his-luck ex military man Blaney, played by John Finch, fresh from wading through buckets of blood for Polanski. A salt-of-the-earth type whose villainy is masked by his beguiling mateyness the film can’t quite decide how it feels about him. The rape and murder is especially horrible, yet the later scene in which Rusk tries to retrieve his pin from the hand of the murdered barmaid Babs is played for dramatic tension and incorporates elements of slapstick such that there is a strong identification with Rusk’s “plight”. The film is conflicted about Rusk, there is a certain envy, anger that the liberated proles might be getting away with too much, but also certain respect for their being able to act on their desires. The final sequence, in which Rusk is finally caught, carries a half apologetic tone. Sorry old boy, fun’s over, I’m afraid. The rapist and murderer as a loveable rogue.

Crisis and the Big Society Solution

Click to on images to enlarge

Action! was a British comic published from February 1976 to November 1977. It was very popular for its ultra-violent knock-offs of Jaws (Hookjaw - except here the shark always won), Rollerball (Death Game 2000), and the novels of Sven Hassell (Hellman of the Hammer Force, caught between Soviet troops and the meddling Gestapo). But the shit really hit the fan with the serial Kids Rule OK (above).
The London Evening Standard and The Sun ran major articles on the comic. Over the next few months Action was the centre of a campaign led by Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association to censor or ban the comic. In September 1976 (editorial director) John Sanders appeared on the television programme Nationwide, where he tried to defend the comic from a vigorous attack by interviewer Frank Bough. Pressure within IPC's higher management, and alleged worries that the two major newsagent chains, W.H. Smith and John Menzies, would refuse to stock not just Action, but all of IPC's line, led to the 23 October issue being pulped. (Wikipedia)
By the time Action! was off the shelves, IPC moved the ultra-violence to past wars (Battle Action, continuing some Action! serials), or the far future (2000 AD - still going, and as brutal as ever). Below is the accelerated conclusion to Kids Rule OK, after weeks of carnivalesque "aggro", gang war, knife fights, petrol bombings, arson, riots, police brutality and absolute social decay (and where in hell were the girls?). It was never published.


Wednesday 13 October 2010

Nazi Operations


The cinema of the 1970’s conjured up a great many revenant ghouls, but few more memorable than the aging Nazis who returned from the South American jungle armed with scalpels, dentist’s drills, and improbable schemes to implement the Fourth Reich.

The fate of the Nazi diaspora that "slipped" through Allied hands at the end of the Second World War had long been the subject of myth and speculation, from Neo-Nazi mythologists to pot-boiling thriller writers. Behind the more fantastical stories of secret Arctic bases, contacts with UFO’s, and the continued survival of Hitler himself, lay the basic truth that a great many Nazis and former-Nazis had, where possible, inveigled their way back into everyday German life, and where not possible had smuggled themselves to Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The first worldwide indication of the scale of the migration came in 1960, when MOSSAD agents kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, the director of the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps, in Buenos Aires, and returned him to Israel for trial. It was claimed that the same Israeli team had had the opportunity to also seize the notorious Joseph Mengele, but declined to do so for lack of resources.

Nevertheless, for all the hand-wringing over Nazi war crimes, few international governments were really inclined to bring Nazi fugitives to justice. The main Allied powers had elicited the aid of Nazi scientists in their weapons and space programmes, and were sensitive to charges of hypocrisy in pursuing what were often more minor figures in the National Socialist regime. Similarly, the West German government’s BND security service employed thousands of ex-Nazis, as reputedly did the East German Stasi. The fledgling West German state was also prepared to turn a blind eye to the Nazis who had quietly brought their technical and administrative expertise into the re-born industrial conglomerates. Likewise, the Nazis’ South American hosts were uninterested in exposing what had become discrete and productive citizens, whose political philosophy was far from incompatible with that of their hosts. By the 1970’s even Israel, the nation most motivated to track down the criminals, had far more pressing tasks to allocate to its security services.

The return of the original Nazis as a socio-political force to be reckoned with was therefore a purely cinematic phenomenon, but that shouldn’t lead us to underestimate the enormous impact that films such as "The Odessa File", "Marathon Man", and "The Boys From Brazil" had on the public imagination. The Nazis, because of their real existence, had always been the creepiest of villains, but their exile to the past ultimately rendered them harmless to contemporary audiences. The idea that they could still return amongst us, their cruelty becoming even more twisted with age, was both thrilling and shocking. And because everyone knew that the Nazis were capable of anything, their diaphanous schemes to genetically replicate Hitler, or subject Israel to biological warfare, may have stretched credulity to breaking point, but never actually shattered it.


In reality though, if these films were guilty of anything, it was of grossly over-rating the Nazis themselves. "The Boys From Brazil" portrayed Mengele as a genetic engineering genius, whereas the "experiments" he conducted in real life were little more than aimlessly sadistic exercises in morbid curiosity. Similarly, the purported ODESSA organisation, far from being a sophisticated underground network dedicated to National Socialist renewal, was in actuality little more than a series of impromptu and disorganised rat runs.

And this helps to give another explanation as to why international governments where so disinclined to pursue the escaped Nazis - the fugitives themselves were no longer the men they had once been. Once the spell of Der Führer had been broken, these formerly aristocratic and ruthless arbiters of life and death, reverted, like princes who turn back into frogs at midnight, to the harmless minor industrialists, back-scratching businessmen, and clubbable bourgeois shopkeepers that Nature had probably always intended them to be.