Monday 31 January 2011

The Western Lands: 1

"Bob, Rupert Is A Gentleman!"

Essential reading from Adam Curtis' blog about the Great Old One Rupert Murdoch, and his aggressive, underhanded entry into 'the establishment'. Have to admit I've been kind of semi-obsessed with the reader-retarding, lying, union-busting, racist, sexist, homophobic, lying, tax-dodging, blackmailing, war-mongering, lying, neoliberal bastard since about the age of twelve. Not least because so many lives would have turned out much differently/happier/longer if not for his seemingly invincible, cancerous influence on entertainment, sport, political discourse, business practices, public policy and the general intelligence levels of the UK/US since the 70s. That's as Fair and Balanced an assessment as I can offer.

Hex Death

"LOS ANGELES (PNS)—Richard M. Zhlubb, night manager of the Orpheus Theatre on Melrose, has come out against what he calls 'irresponsible use of the harmonica.' Or, actually, 'harbodica,' since Manager Zhlubb suffers from a chronic adenoidal condition, which affects his speech. Friends and detractors alike think of him as 'the Adenoid.' Anyway, Zhlubb states that his queues, especially for midnight showings, have fallen into a state of near anarchy because of the musical instrument.

'It's been going on ever since our Bengt Ekerot / Maria Casarès Film Festival,' complains Zhlubb, who is fiftyish and jowled, with a permanent five-o'clock shadow (the worst by far of all the Hourly Shadows), and a habit of throwing his arms up into an inverted 'peace sign,' which also happens to be semaphore code for the letter U, exposing in the act uncounted yards of white French cuff.

'Here, Richard,' jeers a passerby, 'I got your French cuff, right here,' meanwhile exposing himself in the grossest possible way and manipulating his foreskin in a manner your correspondent cannot set upon his page.

Manager Zhlubb winces slightly. 'That's one of the ringleaders, definitely,' he confides. 'I've had a lot of trouble with him. Him and that Steve Edelman.' He pronounces it 'Edelbid.' 'I'b dot afraid to dabe dabes.'"
- Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

JJ: You know that movie RICHARD with Richard M. Dixon? Well you know Nixon went through a big change after over after he lost in California?
MM: A sex change?
JJ: Well, whatever. And he went to psychiatrists and all that. Well in RICHARD they portrayed that with a Clockwork Orange thing with him sitting in a theater with his eyes clamped open watching his 'Checkers' speech and him barfing.
- from an Interview magazine exchange
with Malcolm McDowell, c. 1972

"In the backseat of this solar system is the planet of OB. It has 5:00 o'clock shadow and a thousand ski-slope noses for mountains. Its orbit is so sneaky and wishy-washy that it defies the astronomers' calculations. Every day on this planet is blue monday and every season the fall. Its surface is the size of Brooklyn. Its craters were once filled with chicken soup but that needn't bother us here. It is a bug among planets and leaves in its wake a trail of brown stains. As it moves closer and closer to earth a dying race of Noxons await the signal of their Noxious. It has already begun. I mean, you know, the nightmare for our solar system."
- Ishmael Reed, from "Cab Calloway Stands In for
the Moon, or D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful"

"We're working on a 'Flush for Nixon' campaign, so when he says 'I accept' at the Republican Convention, you run into your bathroom and flush the toilet. We figure if we can have like 30,000 toilets flush around the country, we can drain the Potomac."
- Abbie Hoffman

Saturday 29 January 2011

Blows Against The Empire

The Skids were a seriously great band, and I'll probably have to write about them at length, but firstly here's one of their big hits from 1979:

Hearing "Working For The Yankee Dollar" for the first time was a shock to my ten-year-old self because it introduced me to the concept of anti-Americanism, the unsettling fact that there were people who simply didn't like the country where everything good came from. In many ways this record felt like a watershed, because the decade that was to follow was to see a surge in antipathy toward Uncle Sam, from Greenham Common to Spitting Image's ceaseless mockery of Ronald Reagan. What had initially seemed an incomprehensible outburst was to become one of the ambient themes of the era, the "common sense" idea that the Leader Of The Free World was dangerously out of control, a gunslinging outlaw in the saloon of global politics.

Also, it's a cracking video, isn't it?

Freak Out

Oliver Nelson was a musical giant who was unfortunate to live in an era of supergiants. Most famous for the classic cool jazz of "Stolen Moments" his music was all over the 1970's as incidental compostions for TV shows such as The Six Million Dollar Man, Columbo and Ironside, as well as arrangements for films such as Last Tango In Paris and records by the likes of James Brown, Nancy Wilson and The Temptations.

Nelson's life was largely one of incident-free dedication, being both a consummate professional and an educator who spent a great deal of his time in the practical teaching of music. He was one of the quiet but ceaselessly active backroom technicians who keep the cogs of the music industry turning, while drawing little attention to themselves and creating opportunities for others.

His last record before his tragic death of a heart attack in 1975 was "Skull Session", that took a wild new direction that was deeper out and farther in than even Miles Davis's fusion work. Its brain-frying stereo-panning synths anticipate the sci-fi gonzo rock of his fellow Los Angeleans Chrome. It's fascinating to speculate how Nelson's music could have evolved over the rest of the decade, perhaps succeeding in a true fusion of jazz, funk and rock that seemed to evade everybody else who tried it.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Screaming In The Dark

When John Lennon experienced an existential crisis after The Beatles had broke up, he desperately cycled through a series of alternative therapies and philosophies before recording a self-indulgent LP and deciding that all belief systems were rubbish and retreating into the state of pampered egotism he felt most comfortable in.

When Oscar nominated lyricist and composer Dory Previn hit the same wall she poured it all into her music, culminating in a series of deeply idiosyncratic solo albums released between 1970 and 1976. Dory used these records to obsessively dissect where she had been and where she was going (her first solo LP of the decade was called ‘On The Way To Where…’), in the most coruscating and brutally self-critical terms, returning time and time again to key points in her angst ridden life. These recordings contain some of the most honest and searingly personal music ever pressed onto vinyl.  

The appeal of singer songwriters is often that their stuff is easy to relate to, i.e. the audience feel that elements of their own lives are being set to music and reflected back at them: after all, they’re going through their own changes, their own relationships, their own shit. But no-one had shit like Dory Previn. As a child she had suffered at the hands of her alcoholic shell-shocked father who once held her and her mother hostage at gun point for several months before disowning her as someone else’s kid and dying; a devout Catholic, she had been beaten and abused by the Nuns at her school for the crime of being left handed; a dedicated wife and musical partner to Andre Previn, the break up of their ten year marriage (hastened by Andre’s affair with Dory’s close friend Mia Farrow) triggered a complete nervous breakdown, a long stay in a mental hospital and gruelling electroconvulsive therapy.

Dory takes the confessional song and turns it into show trial, most often placing herself (or Mia bloody Farrow) in the dock. Dory doesn’t just use elements of real life in her material, she is her material, and her songs are occasionally shocking in how frank and unflinching they are. If this sounds self-indulgent then, yes, quite right: it’s supremely self-indulgent, but done without ego or appeals for sympathy and with wit and irony and great eloquence and intelligence. You feel that Dory would have written these songs anyway simply because she needed to write them, the fact that somebody paid her to record them is irrelevant.

If there can be a single song that sums up Dory Previn’s unique talent, its probably ’Twenty Mile Zone’. Based, of course, on a true story, it details how she was pulled over by a traffic cop who had seen her driving along on her own at night, screaming out of the open car window at the top of her lungs. The genius of the song is in its jaunty and amusing representation of what can only be the symptoms of mental illness, and the telling of the two sides of the story: the cop who doesn’t understand why Dory is screaming, and Dory’s incomprehension that more people aren’t.  


Straight Time

‘Straight Time’ is a 1978 film directed by Ulu Grosbard which contains one of Dustin Hoffman’s finest and most uncompromising performances.

Hoffman is Max Dembo, a career criminal who has spent his life in and out of prison. After completing his latest sentence he briefly attempts to go straight, finding work in a can factory and a respectable new girlfriend, Jenny (a young Theresa Russell) but he is almost immediately compromised by an old friend and finds himself back inside on a trumped up parole violation. To his obvious disappointment, he is re-released after only a few days. Max is picked up by his obnoxious and draconian parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh, in an infinitely punchable role). On impulse, Max beats him up and leaves him semi-naked and handcuffed on the central reservation, then steals his car and goes back to his default position: crime.

Dembo is no master criminal, however, he’s a stick up artist, a ruthless and violent man who forcibly takes what he needs to stay alive, driven by expediency and the need to lash out at those who oppose him. His crimes are impulsive, reckless and improvised. He motivates himself by drawing on his rage at the injustice of his situation: his lowly place in the world outside of prison and his persecution by society, by his parole officer, by the manager of an upmarket jewellery store who treats him with condescension and suspicion as he’s out shopping with Jenny. As a sociopath, of course, he has no interest in how his own behaviour contributes to this (he is casing the joint, after all), not even as he robs the jewellery store and threatens the manager as a punishment for treating him like a criminal.

The jewellery store robbery and its aftermath is probably the key sequence in the film. This is no finely worked plan, no detailed, clock mechanism ‘Rififi’ type plot, it’s a haphazard smash and grab, a violent assault cooked up in a few hours over some beers with his accomplices Willy & Jerry (Gary Busey and Harry Dean Stanton). The raid goes wrong, of course, but not through lack of planning. Max, inexplicably, but quite deliberately, lingers too long at the scene, smashing case after case of jewellery when he and Jerry should be making their escape. As a result, spooked by the sound of sirens, getaway driver Willy panics and leaves the scene, leaving his accomplices to their fate.

A basic reading might be that Max simply gets greedy, or that his rage makes him careless. It could, of course, be suggested that Max wishes to get caught, or killed in the pursuit of the robbery: to reach the only destinations available to him (jail or death) immediately, to get somebody else to put an end to it once and for all. Within a few moments, however, his feral survival instinct kicks in and Max is running for his life, and it’s Jerry who pays the price for his friend’s death wish, dying ignobly in someone’s back yard.

Having only just escaped with his life and the loot, Max makes plans to leave town with Jenny, stopping only to kill Willy for his betrayal. Shortly afterwards, Max stops for fuel and, with a brief explanation ( "Why can't I go with you?" - "Because I'm gonna get caught"), leaves Jenny at the gas station and continues on his own, an act that could be interpreted as a gesture of noble self-sacrifice, but, more in keeping with his ruthless nature, also makes Max’s life as a fugitive infinitely simpler.

Early in the story, Max meets up with Jerry for the first time after his long jail term. Whilst Max was inside, Jerry has married and set up his own business and is living the straight life in a nice house in the suburbs. Once his wife is out of earshot, Jerry says something like ‘you’ve got to get me out of here, man, it’s driving me nuts!’. Just like Max, even when Jerry is given a choice he can’t help himself: it’s all he knows. 

The last things we see are a series of mug shots, retrospectively plotting Max’s criminal career back to his first arrest at the age of 12. It’s an unsettling, infinitely downbeat finale that reiterates that Max’s ultimate fate is preordained by his character flaws and the drastically limited choices he has as a result: a ‘straight’ life will always be beyond his grasp.   

Hoffman, at the spiky, perfectionist height of his 70’s superstardom, is excellent, retaining his usual gentle, awkward likeability on the surface but giving his character a hard, sharp, dark centre. Ostensibly passive, this is a man who is at his most dangerous when threatened, and who excels at backing himself into corners.

A sombre but fascinating film, ‘Straight Time’ was not a success on release, and a dispute between Hoffman and the studio led to it being withdrawn for several years. Unhappily, it is still not available to buy on DVD in the UK although, if you wish to emulate the outlaw spirit of Max Dembo, it can apparently be downloaded illegally at the sort of places that specialise in this type of crime.  


Everything Falls Apart, Pt. 2

A Sum of Possibilites: Gordon Matta-Clark and the Urban Landscape

When the artist Gordon Matta-Clark moved to New York City in 1969, the city as a whole wasn't in the best of economic shape. Declines in post-War manufacturing and shifts in the labor market, loss of jobs, economic stagnation, flight to the suburbs and a shrinking tax base, municipal mismanagement -- all of the problems that were affecting a number of major American cities were beginning to take a severe toll on the city of New York. Nevertheless, artists of every stripe continued to move into Manhattan -- visual artists, writers, and musicians who would play an instrumental role in shaping the City's cultural landscape over the next decade or so. With the real estate market in an extended freefall, many of them had no problems finding cheap and available places to live and work.

Such was the case with the neighborhood of the SoHo (then called the South Houston Industrial Area), a former sweatshop district where obsolete and derelict property was plentiful. Since the late 1950s, scores of artists had settled into the neighborhood, the property owners often letting many of them live there in an off-the-books capacity. This situation allowed Matta-Clark and his peers a number of unusual opportunities, the means of establishing and developing their own interconnected and mutually supportive cultural community. The anarchically-run co-op exhibition space at 112 Greene Street, which allowed artists to stage their own exhibits and performances, was one such example. Another communal anchor was the artist-run restaurant FOOD, which Matta-Clark -- along with his partner Caroline Goodden and several of their friends -- opened in 1971.

L-R: Tina Girouard, Caroline Goodden, and Gordon Matta-Clark 
in 1971, at the storefront that would soon become FOOD.

For Gordon Matta-Clark, making art was a fairly recent pursuit. He’d spent much of the 1960s unenthusiastically earning a degree in architecture at Cornell University. His grades throughout had been consistently poor, perhaps owing to the fact that in the course of this studies he discovered his own deep antipathy for the Modernist tenets of architecture and city planning that his professors adhered to as gospel. Only so much sterile formalism and blindly reckless idealism, Matta-Clark had reckoned. If there was any single experience that proved instructive and inspirational to him during his time at Cornell, it was when he met and spoke with the visiting artist Robert Smithson in early 1969 -- just one year before the latter would create his ambitious Spiral Jetty earthwork on the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

Robert Smithson was a voracious reader across a baffling broad array of disciplines and interests, not the least of which were geology and science fiction. He held a perverse aesthetic fascination for the vagaries of accelerated urban sprawl -- with terrain vague and rough-edged "non-place urban realms" where hapless juxtaposition of prefab modern civilization and the natural landscape resulted in curious new forms of desolation, upheaval, and disfiguration. ("Ruins in reverse," he'd called the suburban developments of his own native New Jersey.) A central idea for Smithson in the course of his own work and theorizing was that of entropy – the second law of thermodynamics that decreed that all entities and systems inevitably gave way to degeneration, decay, and disorder. As in nature, so too with man-made systems. Speaking in a 1973 interview, Smithson explained:

"...It seems that architects build in an isolated, self-contained, ahistorical way. They never seem to allow for any kind of relationships outside of their grand plan. And this seems to be true in economics, too. Economics seem to be isolated and self-contained and conceived of as cycles, so as to exclude the whole entropic process. There's every little consideration of natural resources in terms of what the landscape will look like after the mining operations or farming operations are completed. So that a kind of blindness ensues. ... And then suddenly they find themselves within a range of desolation and wonder how they got there."

His own art, he asserted, was the product of his own efforts at creating "a dialectics of entropic change." In many ways, his ideas coincided with a larger aesthetic shift that was transpiring in the late 1960s and early ‘70s -- new artistic practices and strategies in which artists favored Bataille over Kant, contingency over autonomy, the temporal and indeterminate over the transcendent. Instead of formalism, formlessness; instead of purity, dissipation.

It was Smithson's ideas on entropy and site-specific art that fascinated Matta-Clark when the two conversed in 1969, and it was those ideas that played an instrumental part in the latter's development as an artist. But whereas Smithson was interested in creating "new monuments" in the open expanses of the American landscape, Matta-Clark's prior education steered him in the direction of the nation's urban centers -- to the physical environment of the city itself.

Having grown up in New York City, Matta-Clark returned after an extended absence to find the city in the throes of decline. Speaking in a later interview, he recalled of his youth in Robert Moses’s Manhattan:

"As the City evolved in the Fifties and Sixties into a completely architectured International Style steel and concrete megalopolis. By contrast, great areas of what had been residential [space] were being abandoned. These areas were being left as demoralizing reminders of 'Exploit It or Leave It.' It is the prevalence of this wasteland phenomena that drew me to it."

As an artist Gordon Matta-Clark quickly gravitated to the idea of making art works that were connected to (and more often, arose from) urban topology, mutable space, communal life and cultural memory, property, the disconnect between architectural form and architecture as surplus commodity, as well as the varied economies of expansion and waste that existed in the urban landscape.

Top: Gordon Matta-Clark, "Pig Roast," at the Brooklyn Bridge Event, 1971
Gordon Matta-Clark, photo from Walls Paper series, c. 1972

In 1972 he began to set out to the city's blighted neighborhoods, seeking out the blocks of condemned and abandoned buildings. Sneaking into these buildings with saws and chisels and blowtorch, he made a series of precise and scattered incisions -- carving them up, rearticulating the architectural spaces, exposing their structural and material components. His friend and fellow artist Ned Smyth accompanied him on many of these excursions, helping lug tools and equipment and keeping an eye out for the police. As Smyth described it years later:

"We would break into abandoned buildings in the South Bronx and cut large, geometrically shaped pieces out of walls and floors, opening up the spaces. ...This was always scary, with blocks and blocks of empty, boarded-up buildings, haunted by junkies who would steal copper wire and pipe to sell as scrap to get money for drugs. ...We would haul all his saws and other tools, including a power generator, up into these building shells. Sometimes the apartments looked as if the occupants had simply walked out on their lives, leaving their furniture just as it was, their clothes hanging on hooks behind the doors."

Many of these early "cuttings" were done without permission and amounted to criminal trespassing. As early as 1970 Matta-Clark had drafted a proposal for such work and had been sending it out to various organizations and public officials, presenting himself as an artist who aimed to "make sculpture using the natural [sic] by-products of the land and people."

Top: Conical Intersect (Paris,1975) artist's execution & schematic.
Bottom: Conical Intersect, and Office Baroque (Antwerp, 1977)

Within a few years, however, Matta-Clark would gain permission to realize some of his projects, and during the years of 1972 to 1978 executed a number of site-specific dissections in several cities -- in  locations around New York and New Jersey, as well as in Genoa, Chicago, and Antwerp. Utilizing buildings that had been condemned or slated for demolition, the works were intended to exist for a brief period of time, fated -- like the structures themselves -- for a temporary existence.

On a symbolic or theoretical level, Gordon Matta-Clark's engagement with the discarded architecture of the contemporary city comprised a form of “urban reclamation.”5 As such, one might read it an inquest into the dialectical gaps between (use-)value and obsolescence, surplus and salvage; of architectural space as mere material and property and its role in framing or containing and channeling the intricacies of human activity, interaction, and experience -- cycles of births and deaths, moments of private joys or shared sorrows, of everyday life -- that transpired or are carried out within the spatial boundaries of a brute physical environment. In the end, it operated as an inquiry into the production of social space --- as it was perceived, conceived, and lived.6

Initially, Gordon Matta-Clark's proposal letters met with little response. He'd continue to send them out over the years. When he approached real estate developer Melvyn Kaufman in 1975, seeking to "collaborate" on a series of projects, Kaufman sniffingly responded:

"Someone said that dying gracefully is an art. Perhaps it is. But I do not like funerals, either as sad occasions or celebrations. I believe in the great demise but I believe in life more, and I resent the infringement of death processes prolonged as a devitalization of the living."

The castigating tone is amusing, as it seems Kaufman considered Matta-Clark's request as being part of a cynical and reprehensibly exploitative enterprise, accusing him of something akin to "playing in (or with) the ruins" of an ailing metropolis. Given the conditions at the time, one can imagine the reasons for Kaufman's consternation. After all, it was hardly an ideal time to be a real estate developer in NYC -- what, especially seeing how 1975 was also the year of the fed's famous "drop dead" decree. Hence Kaufman's pilings-on of funereal analogies. Morbid metaphors for a morbid and entropic time.

Neither Robert Smithson nor Gordon Matta-Clark would live to see the end of the decade. Smithson would die in a helicopter crash in 1973 while surveying the location for his next major project; and Matta-Clark died in 1978 of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 35, scarcely six years after he had begun his series of urban "cuttings" and fully embarked on his work as an artist. By that point, SoHo was already well on its way to becoming a different place than the one Matta-Clark and his friends had known and inhabited. New businesses would begin to move in, and shortly the neighborhood would start to "turn around." And in the decade that followed, it would become a cultural hub -- sweeping with restaurants and boutiques and a number of high-end art galleries that would all help fuel the moneyed-up, inflated art boom of the 1980s.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

5. This idea of urban reclamation more or less falls into step with certain claims that have been made about graffiti -- that graffiti in the act of marking, tagging, and bombing constitutes a recuperative gesture against an alienating and anonymous environment. By some accounts, this sort of connection wasn't lost on Gordon Matta-Clark. He was enthralled by the tags and murals that he saw proliferating throughout New York City in the early 1970s. At one point in 1973, he drove his truck to a street festival in the South Bronx and invited residents to decorate the vehicle with spray paint as they saw fit. He later cut up the truck's body with a blowtorch, and exhibited select segments at a group exhibition. In the same year, he would also document murals on the city’s subway trains for a series of works called Photoglyphs.

6. In the two decades that followed his death, Matta-Clark's work received only fleeting and limited attention among art critics and historians. He did, however, become something of a mythic figure in architectural circles, where his work was viewed as an act of "deconstructing" architecture -- as a wholly aesthetic exercise. In more recent years, that narrow reading of Matta-Clark's work has been challenged by overdue accounts from art-historical quarters, with a number of critics pointing out the social ideas that fueled much of the artist's work.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Everything Falls Apart, Pt. 1

Certainly the End of Something or Other, It Seemed

"Do you think a city can control the way people live inside it? I mean, just the geography, the way the streets are laid out, the way the buildings are placed?"
"Of course it does," she said. […]
"Yeah...But thinking that live streets and windows are plotting and conniving to make you into something you're not, that's crazy, isn't it?"
"Yes," she said, "that's crazy--in a word."
- Samuel R. Delaney, Dhalgren

“Architects tend to be idealists and not dialecticians.”
- Robert Smithson

In 1975, science fiction author Samuel R. Delaney published his eleventh novel, Dhalgren. Weighing in at 800-plus pages, knottily metafictional, equally praised and reviled by readers and critics alike, Dhalgren would prompt comparison to another similar novel that had appeared only two years previously -- Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Commenting in an interview years later, Delaney countered, "Gravity's Rainbow is a fantasy about a war that most of its readers don't really remember, whereas Dhalgren is a fairly pointed dialogue with all the depressed and burned-out areas of America's great cities. ...To decide if Gravity's Rainbow is relevant, you have to spend time in a library. ...To see what Dhalgren is about, you only have to walk along a mile of your own town's inner city."1

In many respects, Dhalgren was very much a product of its time. The setting of Dhalgren involves a city -- a fictional city called Bellona that lay somewhere in the American Midwest, a city that has been cut off from the rest of the country by some mysterious and unexplained rupture in the space-time continuum. Post-apocalyptic, ethnically diverse, gang-infested, and pornographically rife with all nature of pan-sexual couplings, Bellona embodied the cultural phobias that many Americans held about the nation's metropolitan centers at the time -- represented many of the reasons that the white middle classes had fled in ever-increasing numbers to outlying suburbs over the two preceding decades. It was the sort of setting that would appear again and again in the years that followed, often in films of the "urban exploitation" nature; films like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York, The Warriors, Fort Apache: The Bronx.2 If this setting would had become a predictable cliché by decade’s end, it was a cliché that hinged on an underlying Hobbesian-Darwinistic dread that much of America had about the fate of its urban centers. As Richard Nixon had reputedly mused to his aides at some point in 1972, "Maybe New York shouldn’t survive. Maybe it should go through a cycle of destruction."

Another artifact of the era was the 1979 documentary 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s. Focusing on life among black and Puerto Rican gangs of the South Bronx, the film graphically illustrated the advanced urban decay and socio-economic breakdown that afflicted the South Bronx in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The film's very title is curiously awash in ironic implications. Firstly, in its highlighting of distance and economic disparities, but second in the way these disparities invoked a specter that haunted the history of modern urbanization from its very origins -- pointed to a social legacy that could be traced back to the "Haussmannization" of Paris in the previous century.

Eighteen years in the offing, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann's redevelopment of Paris was the most ambitious and expensive undertaking of its sort in modern history, requiring inconceivable amounts of leveraged financial backing and a labor force that employed upwards to one-fifth of the city’s working population. It amounted to an infrastructural overhaul that completely transformed the city. The project required the dislocation of thousands of the city’s citizens, the course of which resulted in the destruction of numerous poor and lower-income neighborhoods (those potential pockets of political unrest in the Second Empire); in the end pushing much of that population into slums on the city’s margins. In the place of some of these demolished neighborhoods arose housing for the city's more affluent and middle-class residents, districts in which the broad avenues converged on a series of arrondissements and commercial hubs that included such newly-built department stores as Le Samaritaine and Le Bon Marché.

Robert Moses: 'Look upon my works, ye haterz...'

Haussmann’s Paris would become a modern model city for urban planners the world over, and an inspiration to American twentieth-century men of vision such as Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Robert Moses. Hailed as a "master builder," it was Moses who presided over the extensive projects of city planning and urban renewal in New York City from the late 1920s through the 1970s. It was also his Cross-Bronx Expressway -- begun in the late 1940s and completed in 1972 -- that many critics blamed as the primary factor in the demise of the South Bronx. Between the Expressway and the compounding factors of "white flight," strained social services and budget cuts, and the city's policies of municipal redlining and "planned shrinkage," the neighborhood entered a steep downward economic spiral. Within the span of a few years, the blighted South Bronx would become -- as a sort of idée fixe in the public imagination -- the epitome of an "urban wasteland," a testament to the dysfunctionality, failure, and obsolescence of the modern city.3

By some accounts, the mid-1970s may well have marked the official end of the Modernist social vision. The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project by the city of St. Louis in 1972 was framed by many as de facto evidence of the failure of modern urban renewal and social engineering. That same year, architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour published the first edition of their anti-Modernist decree Learning from Las Vegas. The following year brought Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. And in 1975, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker appeared -- a comprehensive and deeply critical account of the life and career of Robert Moses that met with a broad readership and would eventually land a Pulitzer.4 The ground was shifting, all that was solid was melting into air.

President Jimmy Carter visits the South Bronx, October, 1977.

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1. No doubt Delaney’s dismissive remarks will rankle some readers. So perhaps it should be pointed out that numerous critics have argued that Gravity’s Rainbow couldn't have been more crucial and timely. Publishing in the midst of the Watergate disclosures in 1973, the book's unstable narrative unfolds in a densely intertwining sprawl of conspiracy theories, shadowy global alliances, conflations of actual and speculative histories, the irresolution of its narrative and structural slippage embodying the paranoia of its milieu. As author and historian Andreas Killen summed it up, Gravity’s Rainbow is ultimately about how "the loss of historical consciousness becomes a function of image culture...and its rewriting of the past" in contemporary/postmodern America.

2. To name just a few notable examples, admittedly.

3. Sociologically, this all shaped up in a very tautological fashion. Advocates and apologists for increased suburbanization routinely pointed to the decline of inner-city conditions to argue for the increased relocation of jobs and families to the suburbs, conveniently ignoring the very same relocations were in part responsible for the conditions in question.

4. Adding another pivotal book to this stack, Gayatri Spivak’s English translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology appeared in 1976.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Any time but now, any place but here: Radio On.

Chris Petit’s Radio On is certainly an exceptionally interesting film, maybe even a great one, a film that draws you back repeatedly but whose central enigma can never really be satisfactorily resolved. Interpretations here are even more provisional, even more open to revision than usual.

That said, off we go.

Radio Off.

The radio itself occupies an ambivalent place in Radio On, it’s associated at best with the mundanity of football scores, at worst and most frequently with those things that Robert, the central character, wants to keep out of his safe and pristine, faintly melancholy world, those inevitable concerns, sex, death and politics. The IRA, pornography, industrial strife all come in via the radio. It offers nothing but trouble. As with many films of the Seventies (in say, Sunday, Bloody Sunday or O’ Lucky Man!) the radio, especially the car radio, is used to convey something of the background conflicts of the times.

But here the most immediate use of the radio is to forge a link between Robert, in his car, and The Dead Brother whose radio we see in the opening sequence on the end of the bath he has died in. The long steadicam-driven opening sequence, sound-tracked by Bowies’ Heroes/Helden, combines freewheeling, chaotic camerawork and the emotional intensity of the music to establish The Dead Brother as Dionysian, a representative of those same dark concerns that Robert has been trying to escape. The camera explores the flat at length, drunkenly weaving between rooms, intoxicated by its clutter and exotic detail, most notably a long quote from Kraftwerk, a manifesto of sorts, pinned to the bedroom wall.

The Brother is calling out to Robert from the land of the dead, via the uncanny, disruptive medium of radio. Robert’s first act within the film is in fact to turn the car radio off and remove Heroes/Helden from the soundtrack. The implication in the opening sequence is that Heroes is playing on the bathroom radio, but this idea is also clearly undercut by its being non-diegetic, both in its volume and fidelity and their remaining constant as the camera moves around the flat. There is a zoom in on The Dead Brother’s radio, followed by a static shot of Robert’s car radio, the song now reduced to the appropriate diagetic dimensions. He opens an envelope and removes some cassettes by Kraftwerk along with the message Happy Birthday, Brother though there’s nothing else in the film to suggest that this really is Robert’s birthday.

Here we have some of the core elements of Radio On’s mystery: the brother’s death, his intense involvement with Kraftwerk, the passing on of his cassettes with the ambiguous message Happy Birthday, the connection between them created through the radios in the bath and car by Bowie’s Heroes/Helden, a song which is itself split into two halves, recorded in a divided city.

The Dead Brother.

There is another possible, more audacious reading of the opening sequence which proposes to take Radio On further into the uncanny and render it a supernatural tale of a sort, a film in which Robert must assimilate the ghost of his dead brother, in order to free himself from the limbo we encounter him in at the start. Both brothers are dead, but in different ways. The camera at the start is the brother’s spirit, newly liberated, roaming his flat, revisiting those earthly things it has lost, searching for a way out, pausing at the windows and eventually finding it via the radio. Radio On starts where The Dead Brother, and what he represents, come to an end.

In a sense The Dead Brother is the music itself, is Bowie and Kraftwerk. The Dead Brother channels in through the radio, is shut down and then reappears again in an icy, interstellar blast as Robert plays a brief snatch of the start of Uranium in the car, waiting to pick up his girlfriend’s laundry: the voice that speaks at the start of the track, incomprehensible and Gnostic yet unquestionably futuristic is the voice of the Brother, and it is his voice, in the form of Kraftwerk, that accompanies Robert on his drive to Bristol. It is this ghost, this Geist which is assimilated both by Robert and the film itself in Radio On’s conclusion.

We know that the brother is dead, but not how he died, and we discover other things about him, hidden away in the film’s sparse dialogue, in a short but key scene where Robert looks through some of his slides. We learn from the girlfriend that there is to be an inquest into his death, we know that the police have been throwing their weight around, that they have had dogs in the house. Later Robert asks whose side the Dead Brother was on, only to be asked in turn whether he thinks it’s as simple as taking sides. The exact circumstances of the death are unknown but certainly natural causes can be ruled out. Suicide, drug overdose, murder? Why would the police bring dogs to the house? Heroin? Explosives? Is this why the IRA is referenced on the radio? Is this why Robert unwisely asks the AWOL squaddie if he has ever been to Ireland? And is this why there is the later, unresolved question as to whose side the brother was on?

Pornography is also referenced twice on the radio in news reports, and then discovered mixed in with the other slides that Robert projects on the bedroom wall, little flashes of hardcore and S&M. The brother may be gone, but what he has left behind, his legacy, is murky, dangerous, illegal. The brother here is both the ID, Robert’s Dark Half and also the era, the troubled 1970’s themselves that the film and the filmmakers are about to leave behind, which are about to be resolved by the brave new decade on the horizon, the Eighties.

What the Eighties meant to them.

The brother’s death is then in some ways simply the end of a decade, the impossibility of things continuing as they are, but in his becoming-music and passing over to Robert, birthing Robert’s emergent subjectivity (Happy birthday, brother!) and then flooding out to fill the frame at the end of the film the fulfilment of Kraftwerk’s Techno-Utopia is assured. Radio On then is fundamentally a film about epistemic shift and realignment, the retrospectively mysterious belief in the Eighties as the millenarian moment. Certainly the Kraftwerk quote at the start of the film sees the Eighties as the terminus and completion of the modern project, and the band as the bridge between the Twenties and the coming decade.

We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner Von Braun. We are the link between the Twenties and the Eighties. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesizers and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality.

If the Seventies is the point when many of the struggles of the Sixties came to have an impact on the fabric of daily life, when they were pushed through as legislation, began to impact on relations in the home and work, between individual and the State, an epoch of disorienting disruption and contestation, a decade of conflict and terror, then the promise of the Eighties is a peaceful revolution achieved through technology and art, a different kind of real will be realized here, the Eighties will transform us (and Robert) from Halber Mensch to ManMachine. The dead brother has been too ensnared in the dark domains of jouissance, the body, politics, the dead-end of Sixties and Seventies, but the liberatory Apollonian possibilities for technological transformation, transubstantiation are passed forward.

The living dead brother.

Robert then is the figure of the new man, and he can become this in many ways because of what he is not. The Dead Brother is flamboyant, involved, worldly, committed, Robert is cautious, inexpressive, watchful, removed, sexless. The contrast between the brothers’ flats immediately conveys the difference between them. The Dead Brother’s is a sprawl of images, books, objects, sounds. Robert’s is bare, bright and cold, located above a cinema which is, with supreme irony, screening Oshima’s Empire of Passion. His relationship with his girlfriend has deteriorated and she eventually leaves him, he works alone as a DJ, sitting pensively in the dark booth, watches the life of the city going on from the safety of his roof as the radio reveals to him all the world’s troubles.

One of the ways in which Robert’s detachment is conveyed in the film is the use of windows: just prior to his girlfriend leaving, as he learns of his brother’s death, Robert and his girlfriend are framed by two internal windows located directly opposite each other across the roof of the cinema. While Robert talks on the telephone his girlfriend looks back at him disappointedly through the far window as she departs. Later in the film there is a shot of Robert and the German Woman he meets in Bristol, standing in the same room in the hotel gazing out of different windows,. It’s a long take from the flyover that runs past the hotel and it appears as though they are in two separate rooms. The next day the German Woman tells him that she thought they would have sex the night before, but of course they didn’t. Robert’s anxious semi-comical response is to ask her, How do you say that in German? Women are difficult to communicate with or to relax around in Radio On, the German Woman’s Friend can’t speak English and is currently in a man-hating phase anyway, the German Aunt is sanctimonious and conservative, his brother’s ex-girlfriend mistrustful. Worse still is Robert’s only other encounter with a women in the film, the aggressive, pool playing girl who kicks his chair away and leaves him sprawling on the floor.

There is a reoccurrence of the window motif in the sequence where Robert looks at his brother’s slides; an ambiguous shot in which he stands against the wall, facing the image of what we assume is his dead brother. Though it’s unclear whether Robert is standing in the place which he himself occupies in the photograph the brother in profile on the left of the shot seems to be responding to someone on the right and Robert is correctly located in terms of scale. Here is the final distance in the film; the Brother is at an impossible remove. While the other barriers can be breached, the window Robert shares with his brother is split into two incommensurable orders of being, it is impossible to communicate with or to reach out to him now, even if Robert were capable of it. The roads may connect us, the radio may connect us, distance may have been abolished in one sense but other, deeper distances persist, new forms of distance come into play.

Studied characters

Radio On’s characters may be less voluble than those of traditional British cinema, but they are still integral to the film’s meaning. The central characters, the brothers, are inexpressive or completely absent. Many things have to be inferred about The Dead Brother as they do Robert. We can be certain what he is NOT: not a fighter, not a lover. He’s a man of taste in many ways, working as a DJ, living above a cinema, a connoisseur. There are also traces of pomposity, his refusal to play the track Help Me Make It Through The Night and instead playing Sweet Gene Vincent with the words "here’s something better", asking the Squaddie “Who’s that then?” when the Squaddie says “Bastards” in reference to his time in Ireland (and then being terrified by the response). By his abruptly walking out of the room while the Aunt and the German Women are talking.

This combination of timidity, a tendency toward grandiosity, a simultaneous desire for and fear of closeness which the “third-space” of culture serves to mediate, a restlessness with their particular era, are the characteristics of an identifiable English type, the malcontent, the dreamer, the man apart. Rather like the Squaddie Robert is in a kind of internal exile: internal in two senses, both adrift within the country and within himself. The Dreamer is only half in the world, part of him is always at a remove, located somewhere in the future he yearns for, the future that will bring fulfilment, that will allow him to fully occupy himself, fully live within his time and place. The Dreamer is perhaps in a germinal stage, in the process of becoming an artist: the artist is ahead of us, beaming back messages from the future. This is what has traditionally given the artists their aura, the way they are lit by the dazzle of the other dimensions they partake off and which we can not see.

The dreamer has always been born too early or too late, is fated to be here rather than destined to be there, where life is. Instead he has England’s damp pubs with their ancient beers and peasant faces, the constant humiliation of having to live in the hidebound present. Press the fast forward button on life, the future is calling.

Robert’s detachment is not only emotional detachment then. When he stands against the slide of his brother, and it is uncertain in whose place he is standing, the image sets up and sets off a complex set of interrelations and divisions. It is his attempt to connect with The Dead Brother, who is now fully absent, who has perhaps become identical with himself through death, has been reduced to, or acceded to the state of pure image, pure sound. Robert is still half in and half out of the frame, posing the question of how to resolve his condition, which world to live in, the world of exile, oriented toward the future or the escape into death.

The ghost of Rock and Roll.

Robert is also in limbo in the sense that he occupies the zone between the death of rock, the end of the American dream, and the new European future the film anticipates is just on the horizon. Sex and drugs and rock and roll, the only things that Ian Dury’s brain and body needed will be superseded.

In Bristol, Robert, wearing a leather biker jacket encounters a cheeky street kid wearing exactly the same jacket, who offers him drugs and girls, repeating a line from Eddie Cochrane’s Three Steps to Heaven that has been used earlier in the film. Robert, naturally, wants neither but instead wants to hear some music, though he is turned away from the smart club the boy suggests, probably on sartorial grounds. Even the German women he then offers a lift to comment on his old fashioned rocker look, and later when Robert sits disconsolately in the back of a Cadillac in a motor museum in Weston he is told "It (the car) doesn’t suit you ." The car has been consigned to history; Robert’s glum attachment to it is faintly absurd.

The clash between Rock and the New Music of Bowie, Kraftwerk and Devo, the tension between them and their association both with the brothers in the film and with different epochs, the generational overlap and the necessity of moving forward into a new Europeanism is given a visual correlate at the start of the film, again in the investigation of the brother’s flat. Held in the frame, directly adjacent to the Kraftwerk quote there is a postcard of the tail fin of a Fifties’ gas guzzler. The Post-War dominance of the American Sublime, its style and freedom, its modernity, played off against Kraftwerk’s statement of technological optimism and their own manifest destiny, of a European modern that predates it and will flourish again in the coming decade.

We are given glimpses of this latent European future, in the shots of tower blocks and motorway intersections as Robert exits London and the plane taking off ahead of the car as he drives, in the video games Robert plays, in his wintery flat with its three TVs (an echo here of Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth) and the clean, quiet spaces of the factory with its blazing lights and gleaming GILLETE sign at the front. These are harbingers of the future, the dream of a pristine capitalism, of life finally liberated from murk, dust and toil: speed, light, technology, a world transformed.

But not just yet, we are still in 1979 and the redemptive Eighties have yet to arrive. Dead Rockers and Rock haunt Radio On. The soundtrack includes Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World, Robert’s choice on the pub’s American style jukebox, a song about the impossibility of finding love, and Ian Dury’s Sweet Gene Vincent, which Robert rather high-handedly plays in place of the requested track. Here Dury’s lament for the loss both of a rock giant and also the rock era, which begins with a spectralised sample of "Blue Jean Baby!" from Vincent’s Blue Jean Bop is itself warped and distorted in the factory’s harsh, antiseptic environment: we are at a third generational remove perhaps, a third level of attrition.

Both Vincent and Eddie Cochrane are referenced later in the film when Robert, refuelling, meets up with a garage owner played by Sting, not far from the place where they were killed in a car accident. The Garage Owner is himself in limbo, living in a caravan and waiting to hear back from an A&R man about his band. Together they sing Cochrane’s Three Steps to Heaven a song which The Garage Owner reprises at the pumps as Robert drives away. Three steps to heaven in this context, takes on the dimensions of a pun, twinning sex and death. Robert sings enthusiastically along to the Garage Owner’s rendition of the track, one of the few moments of rapport that develops between Robert and another character in the film. This is Robert’s only means of connection, through a shared cultural passion, finding a girl and holding her in your arms is not heaven, in fact it’s too close up, too invasive, too intense, finding a boy who shares your passion for songs about finding girls is the closest he can get.


Tuesday 18 January 2011

We Want the Airwaves

Neilsen Ratings: Top Ten U.S. Television Shows, 1979-1980

1. 60 Minutes
2. Three's Company
3. M*A*S*H
4. Alice
5. Dallas
6. Flo
7. The Jeffersons
8. The Dukes of Hazzard
9. That's Incredible
10 One Day At A Time

Thursday 13 January 2011

Shaman's Blues

‘The growth of bureaucracy creates an intricate network of personal relations, puts a premium on social skills, and makes the unbridled egotism of the American Adam untenable. Yet at the same time it erodes all forms of patriarchal authority and thus weakens the social superego, formerly represented by fathers, teachers and preachers. The decline of institutionalised authority in an ostensibly permissive society does not, however, lead to a "decline of the superego" in individuals. It encourages instead the development of a harsh, punitive superego that derives most of its psychic energy, in the absence of authoritative social prohibitions, from the destructive, aggressive impulses of the id.’

Christopher Lasch - "The Culture of Narcissism"

"Why did you throw the Jack Of Hearts away?
It was the only card in the deck
That I had left to play."

- The Doors "Hyacinth House"

The Doors are perhaps the most curious group in the history of popular music, and in my personal opinion probably the greatest. Both a product of their era and very much the antithesis of it, they seemed to both stand apart from the spirit of the times, and yet embody the contradictions that characterised it.

The Doors themselves were children of the military-industrial complex. Jim Morrison’s father was Rear Admiral George Stephen Morrison, commander of the United States Navy’s 7th Fleet during the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident that initiated the American military involvement in Vietnam. Guitarist Robby Krieger’s father was a senior executive in the shadowy RAND Corporation, a quasi-private entity that conducts research on behalf of the U.S. military, and is notorious for its use of game theory to produce the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. When Morrison famously declared that his parents were "dead" it was for more pragmatic reasons than the obvious Oedipal symbolism. Just as it would have been awkward for him for it to be known that his father was, perhaps more than any other individual, responsible for starting the Vietnam War, so it would have been equally awkward for his father were it widely known that his son was an avatar of the counter-cultural rebellion against it.

Morrison was a far more complex and sympathetic character than the narcissistic "Lizard King" projected by his record company’s marketing department and the series of lurid, largely fictional biographies that followed his death. Those who were close to him who didn’t feel the need to cash in on his fame generally portray him as a thoughtful individual who was in many ways a reluctant rock star, and who would rather have occupied his time with his poetry or his real love, film-making. His estrangement from his family makes his background biographically sketchy, though it is known that, as is typical for the scion of a military family, his childhood was itinerant, and characterised by his father’s somewhat bizarre disciplinary regime, which eschewed corporal punishment in favour of dressing-downs and bawl-outs, as though the Morrison children were Marine cadets. The one episode in his childhood that Jim Morrison liked to divulge was when his family drove past a car accident that had left a number of Native Americans lying dead by the side of the road. Morrison imagined that he had ingested the soul of one of the dead Indians, granting him shamanic potential.

Although it has been suggested that Morrison greatly exaggerated what he had witnessed at the scene, its importance is that it gave him his first uncanny idea of the possibilities of magic. The enigmatic Freudian psychoanalyst Géza Róheim wrote in "Magic and Schizophrenia" that magic is the counterphobic action, that it gives the weak ego its first opportunity of spontaneous action against the suffocating pressure of the superego. It is this possibility of spontaneity that gives birth to The Individual, within which nests Durkheim’s Homo Duplex - social man and personal man. Fearing the terrible punishment of the social superego for "sticking out" if we say the wrong thing, we all nevertheless possess the magical possibility of using language to bring ourselves to the attention of others, of impressing them or converting them to our cause. With The Doors, Morrison launched perhaps the most spectacular attack on the social superego of the post-war era.

The Doors' self-titled debut album, released in 1967, opens with what was pretty much their manifesto - "Break On Through". The "other side" that Morrison is attempting to break through to is that of the completed shamanic initiation. For all its drama of spiritual possession, what shamanic initiation is really about is the conquering of the superego. The shaman dramatises the social consensus as possessing spirits in order to confront and ultimately control them, doubling his own strength and giving him the power to cure others. The Doors’ sound here is unprecedented - rather than riffing, it pulsates insistently, like the fragile ego declaring its courage to be. The Doors’ sound was spacious but bounded, contained within a periphery, at times almost subterranean. The Doors were not Faustian, but Magian, Spengler’s term for the cultures of the Middle-East, whose primary symbol, the cavern, manifests itself in the domes of the Mosque and the Synagogue, and whose aesthetic was that of magical transmutation, of alchemy - the symbolic conquest of the self.

The follow-up "Strange Days" long player, released the same year, delved into what would be The Doors' ur-theme - loneliness - with songs such as "People Are Strange" and "You’re Lost Little Girl". It’s likely that the continual uprooting of Morrison's childhood was as responsible for his enthrallment to this subject as his father’s disciplinary habits were responsible for his compulsive anti-authoritarianism. Loneliness has long been the essential American experience, and its anguish bore the birth pangs of a rock’n’roll that was so lonely it could die. For Morrison, this endless, anomic vista of loneliness was symptomatic of an America, and by extension a Western civilisation, that was played out, its spiritual fountainheads long since run dry.

Morrison’s uncompromising assault on the superego made The Doors politically and socially indigestible by pretty much all sides. Unlike the rest of the counterculture, they didn’t present a set of demands to be met, whether modest or radical. Their antinomian stance was one of total repudiation. Both this and their generally aloof manner ensured that they would tend to generate trouble even when they weren’t looking for it, and would find few sympathisers when they found it. Their pithily irresistible pop singles would bring them to public attention only for television producers to ban them for minor infringements of etiquette, and for the police to bust Morrison for vague misdemeanors that were permutations of the catch-all euphemism of "lewd behaviour". These fuelled an increasing perception of his general oafishness within a music industry that cared little for him. Indeed Morrison himself had always shown disdain for the music business, always preferring to hang out with bar-flies and street bums than with his fellow musicians. What was clear from his increasing consumption of alcohol, and his decreasing contributions to The Doors records was that his battle against the nomos was one that he was losing. For all this he was still capable of great acuity. After the infamous bust at Dade County, Florida, Morrison, who privately feared the possibility of prison, nevertheless made the observation that the experience had helped him understand the purpose of the U.S. Penal system: to break African-Americans.

In 1970 The Doors somehow emerged from this fiasco with something of a comeback with the "Morrison Hotel", and "L.A. Woman" albums, both of which featured Morrison back at the creative helm, and which returned to a simpler, rocking sound that was both a commercial and critical success. "L.A. Woman" was thematically the most essential Doors record, a heartbreaking document of loneliness and isolation, both felt and observed. It also showcased how subtle and supple the band’s ensemble playing could be, hitting wonderfully tactile grooves without even the barest hint of showiness. The album’s most famous track is undoubtedly "Riders On The Storm", a song, which like Joy Division’s "The Eternal", has an aura of finality that almost suggests precognition.

After "L.A Woman", Morrison’s last studio recording was of his poems, which would be released in the late 70’s as "An American Prayer". Morrison’s poetry was disdained by the critics, although this is largely due to a general misunderstanding of its purpose, which wasn’t an attempt at profundity or beauty, or to create Eng. Lit. Ultimately, it was an attempt to produce a superfluity of meaning. Anthropologists class the shaman phenomenon as a magical medical complex, in that primitive tribes experience disease and illness not as the result of objective biological symptoms, but as a spiritual, which is to say a social, attack. If a tribesman is struck by a mysterious illness then it must be the result of a broken taboo or witchcraft or sorcery. As he cannot know who or what is the origin of the illness, he is defenceless and will quickly succumb. Other members of the tribe are vulnerable to sympathetic symptoms and are also liable to go down. The purpose of the shaman in effecting a cure is to use his surplus symbolism to give the disease a meaning, which gives the tribesman his first foothold in resisting it, and then to draw it out and cast it back on its originator.

Within the confines of a primitive tribe, of course, it is easy for the shaman to identify the source of a social superego attack that initiates disease. In the complex, multi-layered societies of the contemporary West, the sources of superego pressure are as multitudinous as they are nefarious - they leak through society as iatrogenic undercurrents, manifesting themselves in random psychotic acts; as murder, suicide etc. The superego can attack in many ways - through what Ivan Illich called "the irrational consistency of bureaucracy", through the law and security services, via the mass media, or even through the peer-pressure of the hip "alternative media" that claims false fraternity (which is why uncompromising later bands like The Stranglers and Joy Division always had a deep distrust of the music press). Morrison’s poems, which seemed at once both florid and dissociated, were ultimately an attempt to try to give this nebulous force some kind of shape so that it could be handled and resisted.

Ultimately, all transgressive artists who die unnaturally are killed by the superego, whether the mechanism be suicide, drug overdose, or assassination by a deranged fan. Morrison’s death fitted perfectly within this pattern, within Marcel Mauss’s idée de mort suggérée par la collectivité, within voodoo death. Although the ostensible cause of his death was an ingestion of heroin erroneously given to him by his girlfriend Pamela Courson instead of cocaine, the ultimate cause was an ego relentlessly worn down by the pressure of the superego - compare his beaten, exhausted vocals on "L.A. Woman" to the eager yelping on The Doors' debut just four years before. Courson herself would succumb to voodoo death three years later, at the same age of 27 as her famous boyfriend. On the day that Morrison died, on July 3rd 1971, his father, that ultimate superego figure, presided over the decommissioning ceremony for the USS Bon Homme Richard, the aircraft carrier that he had commanded all those years before off the coast of Vietnam.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Frenzies of Renown

"Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert F. Kennedy. And Ethel M. Kennedy shot Judith Birnbaum. And Judith Birnbaum shot Elizabeth Bochnak. And Elizabeth Bochnak shot Andrew Witwer. And Andrew Witwer shot John Burlingham. And John Burlingham shot Edward R. Darlington. And Edward R. Darlington shot Valerie Gerry. And Valerie Gerry shot Olga Giddy. And Olga Giddy shot..."
- J.G. Ballard, “The Generations of America"

"The Andy Warhol prophecy of 15 minutes of fame for any and everyone blew up on our doorstep."
- Lance Loud

Altamont, post-Tet Vietnam, the Manson trail, Attica, skyjackings on an almost daily basis, economic decline. What the hell happened? It wasn't supposed to be like this, living in America in the late twentieth century. The economic affluency and social certainty of the post-War boom, the ascendant "American Way of Life" of a decade prior had pointed to another horizon, to an entirely different future. The outlook of that era couldn't have been more optimistic, more assured.

The artist of that earlier, not-too-distant past had been Andy Warhol. Everyone knows the artist's Greatest Hits -- the parades of soup cans, Brillo boxes, gunslinging Elvises, etcetera. All the flat, emblematic, serialized signifiers and mass-produced objects of a new, modern consumerist society blankly mirrored back to itself. But behind all the sharp and glimmering surfaces of those objects lay a shadow; that shadow being death -- death imported into the fabric of modern life in new and improved ways. There was the enshrinement of the suicided sex symbol, then the first lady in numbed and unimaginable shock on a certain fateful day in Dallas. Death, death and still more death. State-mandated death by electric chair, and self-actualized death from leaping off of a skyscraper. Death in car crashes, in plane crashes, and lurking in tainted tins of tuna fish.

Perhaps one can invoke only so much death and morbidity before fate itself reciprocates by finding a place for you in its Rolodex. For Warhol, death would arrive one June afternoon in 1968 in the form of three slugs from a .32 calibre pistol, the pistol wielded by disgruntled and deranged ex-associate Valerie Solanas. Briefly and officially declared dead by doctors after the shooting, Warhol managed to survive the attack.

Andy's chest.

In his 1975 autobiography, Warhol would write, "In the '60s everybody got interested in everybody. In the '70s everybody started dropping everybody. The '60s were clutter. The '70s are very empty." In the end, he was most likely talking about himself. After the shooting, Warhol began living a more guarded and less accessible existence. Some would argue that the latter part of the statement very much sums up the artists's career during the 1970s. No more art with a grim or ironically critical subtext. The 'seventies for Warhol were the decade in which making art meant making money, and the artist found that he could do this by simply resting on his laurels, settling into a formulaic signature style, and cranking out portraits of celebrities, socialites, and wealthy collectors.1 He'd also spend the decade toadying to glamorous and powerful patrons (among whom could be counted Empress Farah Dibah Pahlavi and her husband, the Shah of Iran), and hanging out with the likes of Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli at Max's KC or Studio 54. And then there was launch of his own show-biz/society magazine Interview, a publication devoted to aimless chit-chat with people who were famous, or angling to become famous.

█ █ █

One good way to become famous in America during the 1970s was to shoot somebody who was famous. Preferably an elected official. You didn't need a political motive. The target didn't have to be someone who was especially beloved by the public. You didn't even need to be a decent enough marksman to properly finish them off. None of that mattered, because it still made for good theater. Ask Arthur H. Bremer. A socially maladjusted and marginally employable young man hailing from Milwaukee, Bremer originally set out to shoot president Richard Nixon (who was running for re-election in 1972), but wound up shooting would-be Democratic contender George Wallace, instead.

Wallace, for those who need a reminder, was the two-term governor of the state of Alabama. In the prior decade, he’d attained notoriety for having opportunistically opposed desegregation. He'd physically blocked enrollment of black students at the University of Alabama in 1963, and had defiantly proclaimed, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." In 1972, he was making his third bid for the presidency, this time running on the Democratic ticket. Regarded as the "Spoiler from the South" by the press, Wallace had proven a formidable contender. He was, by one journalist's description, "a Southern populist of the meanest streak," and in 1972 he posed a considerable threat to both the Democratic ticket and to president Richard Nixon. On the campaign trail, he stumped on a staunch law-and-order plank, and vociferously decried the increased liberalism, civil disorder, and "moral decay" of the 1960s. All of which met with a warm welcome with Nixon’s "silent majority."

Wallace, squaring off with the feds at the University of Alabama in 1963

Wallace's run for the White House was, of course, troubling for some Americans. Even though by 1972 he'd denounced his prior pro-segregationist platform, Wallace proved that he wasn't above exploiting the racial tensions surrounding the federally-mandated school busing program for his own political gain. His campaign speeches were the epitome of unbridled demagoguery -- podium-thumping screeds of anti-federal rhetoric aimed at the intrusive, do-gooder meddling of the "briefcase totting," "pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington," interlaced with mockery of a diffuse and unnamed elite of "hypocrites" and "intellectual snobs" who reputedly shaped the nation’s social and economic policies.

To the alarm of many in the press and public at large, Wallace’s message found a broad and receptive audience, particularly among disenfranchised or alienated blue-collar and middle-class voters. On the campaign trail he met with enthusiastic and overflowing crowds when he appeared at rallies in Wisconsin and Michigan. Covering the Democratic primaries for Rolling Stone magazine, journalist Hunter S. Thompson declared, "George Wallace is one of the worst charlatans in politics," further observing: "But there is no denying his talent for converting frustration into energy. ...The frustration was there, and it was easy enough to convert it -- but what then?" The danger, Thompson recognized, was that Wallace was ultimately "stirring up more anger than he knew how to channel." 2

Not that any of that mattered to Artie Bremer, he was just looking to make a name for himself. He'd first set out with Richard Nixon in mind as his target. For weeks he shadowed Nixon's campaign stops, chronicling his journeys in a diary as he went. Hapless and unfocused in his stalking, there was one aspect of his task that he was deeply attentive to -- his appearance. Bremer wanted to make sure he did the job in style. He didn't want to be taken for some disheveled loser or -- even worse -- some sort of hippie. He put a great deal of thought and effort into his wardrobe and his grooming in order to meet each opportunity to shoot the president looking like a normal, clean-shaven, patriotic citizen.

Bremer, photographed by security at a pair of rallies in the late spring of 1972

At one point, spying Nixon’s car outside the American embassy in Ottawa, Bremer realized that he had been caught by surprise and wasn't properly dressed for the occasion. He dashed back to his hotel room to change and smart himself up, returning to the embassy to find that Nixon had already departed. Furious with himself, he wrote in his diary:

I wanted to shock the shit out of the [Secret Service] men with my calmness. .... All these things seemed important to me, were important to me, in my room. I will give very little if ANY thought to these things on my future attempts. After all does the world remember if Sirhan’s tie was on straight?

Yet, attending a Nixon rally a day later, he witnessed the same Secret Service personnel targeting rank-and-file protesters, and noted incredulously, "WOW! If I killed him while wearing a sweatty tee-shirt, some of the fun & Glamore would defionently be worn off [sic x 4]."

But eventually Bremer did draw the attention of Nixon's security detail, which prompted him to quickly change plans. After briefly considering Democratic frontrunner George McGovern, he instead set his sights on Wallace. In his diary, Bremer bemoaned the diminished media coverage his lower-profile target would attract, yet that didn’t dissuade him from contemplating what sort of clever one-liner he'd deliver before pulling the trigger.3 Within a week of trailing Wallace, he shouldered through the crowd in a shopping center parking lot in suburban Laurel, Maryland, approaching the candidate as he shook hands with supporters after a campaign speech. At close range, he emptied his revolver, shooting Wallace four times and critically injuring three bystanders.

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In much the same way that acts of terrorism are efforts to intervene in the machinations of history or global politics by way of the "communicability of images" that surround such events, so too can an attempted assassination -- no matter how botched or incoherently motivated -- be regarded as an effort to disrupt the hierarchy of society’s symbolic order. If political assassinations in the U.S. of the 1960s were unanimously spoken of in terms of martyrdom and "national tragedy," then in the decade that followed they often took on an element of absurdity. Perhaps it comes down to the power of contemporary cultural myths, and the deflation of same that transpired in the 1970s. One such myth being that in a supposedly classless society any citizen could "grow up and become President." If anything, the 1960s and 1970s provided frequent reminders that, instead, it was much easier to be the person who grew up to take a shot at the President.

As with Warhol, George Wallace survived the shooting; although the attack would derail his bid for the presidency and leave him a paraplegic for the remainder of his life. Arthur Bremer would receive his desired 15 minutes of fame, which ended up translating into a 65-year prison term. Upon sentencing, Bremer reportedly told the court, "Looking back on my life I would have liked it if society had protected me from myself."

Shortly thereafter, somewhere on the West Coast, aspiring screenwriter Paul Schrader wasn’t doing so well. Estranged from his wife and living out of his car, Schrader found himself contemplating the emotional effects of loneliness on the male psyche. He had also been reading Bremer's newly published diaries, and from there he got it in mind to write a script about an existentially adrift NYC cab driver. The resulting film, as we all know, would become a huge and controversial success a few years later -- controversial due to its brutally violent content as its use of a former Disney child actress playing the role of a twelve-year-old hooker. The actress was Jodie Foster, who would inspire an amorous fan from Colorado by the name of John Hinckley to begin plotting ways of gaining her attention.

"And Olga Giddy shot Rita Goldstein. And Rita Goldstein shot Bob Monterola. And Bob Monterola shot Barbara H. Nicolosi. And..."

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1. This was, as art critic Matthew Collings has called it, Warhol's "doing uncritical portraits of anyone who could pay period."

2. It's been argued that Wallace was an early pioneer of the contemporary "politics of rage" -- the backlash rhetoric that has been the primary parlance of the culture war waged by American conservative movement over the past 3 decades. It was for this reason that historian Dan T. Carter declared Wallace "the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics."

3. In keeping with the culture of paranoia at the time, it bears pointing out that this account (diary excerpts in particular) has been contested. There were at the time a number of conspiracy theories surrounding the attempt of Wallace’s life -- theories hailing from both the Left and the Right ends of the political spectrum. Records show that in the hours following the shooting, Nixon and his aides were scrambling to find a way to plant evidence that would tie Bremer to the campaign of Nixon's leading Democratic opponent, Senator George McGovern. For this reason, the American author Gore Vidal would soon assert in the pages of the New York Review of Books that Bremer’s diaries were a fraud, alleging that that had been authored by one of Nixon's henchmen and planted among Bremer's belongings by the C.I.A.