September 23, 2009

The old Bill

News has been getting around about this new William Burroughs doco, A Man Within. The trailer's been online for a few weeks. I have dim memories of a pretty good 1983 doco Burroughs that ran in the first year of Ant Timpson's Incredibly Strange Film Festival at the Capitol, Auckland, in 1994. That one tracked the biography; this, the first posthumous one, looks like it might track the influence. Thus, talking heads like Iggy Pop, John Waters, Laurie Anderson and Genesis P Orridge. Good news: no sign of Bono.

Based on this Chicago Reader feature, you could even consider this the revenge of James Grauerholz, Burroughs' literary executor, curator of the legend and the business manager who helped get Burroughs out of semi-obscurity in the 80s:
Grauerholz had been unhappy with a previous Burroughs documentary, Howard Brookner's 1983 Burroughs, in which he'd also played an active role. "I was surprised to see how my role in William's life had been handled in the final editing process," he says. "Basically, the BBC editors took a dislike to me. They . . . couldn't resist a 'controversial' angle on the Grauerholz guy. So they chopped together dozens of different speeches by me into a phony voice-over 'monologue' accompanying a montage of scenes of me and William working together, etc. If you listen on headphones you'll hear many, many audio splices. They made me look like a usurper and a smug, self-satisfied wise guy."
Grauerholz got [new doco director Yony] Leyser access to VHS footage of the Reunion and many of the local participants. The circle began to widen, encompassing Burroughs's friends and admirers on the coasts, and the scope of the film expanded as well ...

September 18, 2009

"When all my friends were alive"

1. In Melbourne last October it was Patti Smith week. Or maybe Patti Smith month. She was the big event at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, the keynote guest. She was everywhere, both rumoured and real. She was in the newspaper, making a sunglassed appearance like a cryptic Dylan, in a suburban bookshop. The Age headline: "Even without her guitar, she can still electrify." There were three photos with the story; she signed the armpit of someone's copy of Easter. She was appearing with Philip Glass in a tribute show to Allen Ginsberg and she was playing with her own band. A 16mm documentary about her screened, Dream of Life. Her photos were on show in a gallery; photos of her objects -- her boots, her guitar -- by someone else were on show somewhere else. Everything was about Patti Smith. I walked into a bookshop on Brunswick St and they were playing her covers album Twelve.
It was nearly a year ago but doesn't feel like that long. The hot, dry city. The festival crowds. My notes coming out of that art gallery: "Small, silvery pictures. Her bohemia claimed as Melburnian. Not rock 'n' roll lifestyle shots. Ruins, statues, goats." The place was packed with the curious. Pictures of Shelley's grave, and so on. The river Virginia Woolf drowned in (the picture above, The River Ouse). Old world, Burroughsian deserts and graves, sacred or charged objects. Relics. They played the Coral Sea album upstairs, from her book inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe with guitar-shredding supplied by Kevin Shields. A letter to the long-dead Mapplethorpe -- was this in a photo, was it separate text, a line on the album? Not sure now -- "I imagine you sleeping as I write. As you did when we were young."
The other story in the news all week was about a murdered Australian girl in Croatia. Cut into pieces and dumped in a lake. She was Britt Lapthorne, 21. Her mother on television: "We're just broken people."
On Saturday night, the concert. Five of us from New Zealand getting in for free. Great seats, no support act. My notes again: "Smith: We shall live again. George Harrison, Kurt Cobain, Hendrix. Refers to Tom Verlaine, Jerry Garcia. Living connection to bohemia. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso. Older, adulatory crowd. A twenty-something waitress in the restaurant beforehand says Who is Patti Smith? Ask your dad. Patti Smith started beatific, turned easily fierce."
Can't remember now what the Jerry Garcia thing was, but Tom Verlaine -- she said she'd just been talking to him on the phone. We weren't sure whether to believe her.
The film screenings had sold out. We wouldn't be here long enough to see the show with Philip Glass. But we saw the concert, the centre of all this revolving Patti Smith activity. She turned up after a film screening, the Age said, at a Q and A session and played some songs then too. She seemed to be everywhere, unable to stop appearing in public.

2. Back home, in the travel section of the paper, I wrote it up like this:
"The singer from the '70s?" says a cab driver back in Christchurch. But at least he'd heard of her. The 20-something waitress at Cookie, a sensationally good Thai-inspired restaurant on Melbourne's Swanston Street, draws a blank. "Ask your dad," one of us ungallantly replies.
Anyway, Smith is more than just some singer from the '70s. She was the first person to successfully fuse poetry and rock music. These days, she's also an art photographer -- her small, silvery black-and-white photos of subjects as varied as the river that Virginia Woolf drowned in and slippers that once belonged to Robert Mapplethorpe were in a busy gallery on Flinders Lane. And she was the subject of Dream of Life, a documentary that ran at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image on Federation Square.
In Melbourne, she plays two nights with her band. We catch one and see that, even at 61, she can shift easily from beatific Buddhist poet to someone furiously punk-inspired. Then she does a night with American composer Philip Glass in a tribute to Allen Ginsberg, which is a reminder of why you want Smith at your festival: she's a bridge between an older literary world and broader popular culture. She can cover a song by Kurt Cobain and then explain why Rimbaud or Genet mattered. Which means that she's a perfect symbol for a city like Melbourne, which so clearly values its bohemian flavour and lively artistic community.
She's everywhere in Melbourne this particular week. You go out to Readings Books in Carlton and she's there with sunglasses and smirk, trading quips with a crowd. You go out to the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Fitzroy and there are large colour pictures of objects from Smith's past taken by the guy who made Dream of Life; photos of the urn that holds Mapplethorpe's ashes, of her boots, her guitar.
They look like nothing so much as the relics of a saint.
3. Nearly a year later, I finally watch this movie, Dream of Life. It's experimental, patient, disorganised. It took Steven Sebring 11 years to make it; he was filming as far back as the tour she did with Dylan in New Zealand and Australia, 1998. He doesn't call it a documentary but a visual portrait. So no rock critic talking heads saying why this album matters or that album, but we still get Bono (briefly) who seems unable to stop himself appearing in other people's documentaries.
Smith gets her biography out of the way first. Births and deaths, especially the deaths. Robert Mapplethorpe, Fred "Sonic" Smith, her brother Todd. We keep getting this: the survivor, the one who gets to remember, the official mourner. And a walking curator of bohemian history, sometimes not much more than the sum of who she reads and listens to, or maybe that's all she chooses to show you (meaning she learnt more from Dylan than how not to hail a taxicab). You start to think she is never going to give you anything without the mythology and then she takes you/Sebring to her parents' house and they have burgers. She's like a kid again; she's stayed a fan her whole life -- is that who she is? In the DVD extras her mother says her favourite Patti Smith song is "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger".
Ginsberg said to her, after her husband died: "Let go of the spirit of the departed/and continue your life's celebration." There's a lot of death in this and a lot of overcoming. Not always celebration. She cries on stage reading Ginsberg's Buddhist poem "On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara" with Philip Glass, and the lessons taught to Ginsberg become lessons taught to Smith. You can get a sense that it's taken you a while to get to these unguarded moments, or taken Sebring a while. Even taken her a while. Periods of life, periods of extinction: the 1970s were "a time when all my friends were alive." Great line. Call her tough, vulnerable, enduring; the constant grave visitor, the book-carrier, the student.

4. This is Tony Triglio on that Ginsberg poem, from his book Allen Ginsberg's Buddhist Poetics: "Where the goal of a traditional western elegy is consolation through language that reaffirms metaphysical authority, consolation in this Buddhist elegy might be best expressed as a representation of the mind in an intensified condition of awareness, proof in the poem that the guru's lessons on meditation and perception have been put into practice after his/her death."

September 9, 2009

Alien nation

The continual presence of the ship forces one more question. Who is it who arrived, uninvited, in South Africa? Who is it who came one day in a ship, and stayed, and did not leave? In Johannesburg: who are the aliens?
An excellent piece from a South African writer on the year's other most discussed movie: District 9. While those who lived through Apartheid in South Africa will surely have picked up nuances in the film that escape those who did not, as du Toit suggests, New Zealand viewers are in an unusual position. The film's New Zealand executive producers -- Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh -- are both old enough to have been aware of, and surely sympathetic to, the anti-Apartheid movement of the 1970s and 80s, whose largest and most visible event was of course the nationwide protests against the 1981 Springbok tour. That was an identification with an international cause that hasn't been matched since in New Zealand politics (and probably has no precedent, either). I'd be very surprised if Walsh -- then active in post-punk groups like Naked Spots Dance and a Victoria University English Lit student -- wasn't one of those who marched in Wellington in 1981 or was close to those who did. And apparently it was Walsh who first suggested to South African film-maker Neill Blomkamp that he expand his short Alive in Joburg into a feature. New Zealanders helped put Apartheid on the international stage nearly 30 years ago; it's an impressive irony that we've just done it again.

September 7, 2009

Hunter, manhunter, hubris

1. Have you ever wondered about that song from Night of the Hunter, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"? Gordon Campbell's Werewolf has a good piece on it this month, written from inside the song's tent-revival world -- or, rather, from someone who knew that world and whose exposure to the use of this song in this movie was one step along the road towards leaving it. The idea: Mitchum's use of the song is a stance as provocative as Sid Vicious singing "My Way"; the story of the film is the dangers children face in a dark and threatening world -- now even the protection the song talked of has gone.

2. Michael Mann's Public Enemies. Johnny Depp is good and Christian Bale is even better. As in Mann's big-screen Miami Vice, American pulp becomes high art through the tricks of Mann's method -- restrained and sombre performances, unexpected close-ups and odd angles, the chaotic editing of sudden gun violence, some arrestingly beautiful images (a shoot-out in an apple orchard, a window in an apartment filled with a moving train, Dillinger alone in the Chicago police station) -- while the use of digital video gives us the illusion of clarity. But in fact these characters are always inscrutable.

3. Things they might wish they had never said: the Quentin Tarantino edition. Here is Tarantino ("Mr Blood Red"), in an interview by Ella Taylor, LA Weekly, 1992.
Tarantino brims over with ideas for future movies, including love stories and musicals. He has no doubt that he can continue to make the movies he wants within the studio system. “I’m not coming from the attitude that I want to run as far away from the studios as I can, or the attitude that I want to run up to the studios as much as I can, because there’s danger in both. You don’t watch out and next minute you’re Richard Donner. At the same time, if all you do is these little art films for 10 years for a million or two dollars, you’re going to climb up your own ass. When was the last time Nicolas Roeg did a good movie? I’m not ragging on other people, but after I saw Twin Peaks — Fire Walk With Me at Cannes, David Lynch has disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different. And you know, I loved him. I loved him. I think Gus Van Sant, after My Own Private Idaho, has become a parody of himself. A lot of these guys, they’ve become known for their quirky personality, and when they can do whatever they want, they showcase their quirky personality.”

September 4, 2009

Tarantino problems

Jonathan Rosenbaum, from his blog:
Since many people have been asking me to elaborate on why I think Inglourious Basterds is akin to Holocaust denial, I’ll try to explain what I mean as succinctly as possible, by paraphrasing Roland Barthes: anything that makes Fascism unreal is wrong. (He was speaking about Pasolini ’s Salo, but I think one can also say that anything that makes Nazism unreal is wrong.) For me, Inglourious Basterds makes the Holocaust harder, not easier to grasp as a historical reality. Insofar as it becomes a movie convention — by which I mean a reality derived only from other movies — it loses its historical reality.
Ed Holland in The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino (Part 2), at The House Next Door:
[Hans] Landa's tone is so reasonable, his point-to-point argumentation so strictly logical, that by the time he's come to his conclusion we actually understand why he considers the Jews to be vermin. It's disturbing, and Landa's offhand equation of Jews and rats earns the same nervous gasps that a Nazi major later gets by suggesting the unexpected resonances between African slaves and King Kong. But we get what he's saying, and we sense that the farmer perhaps grudgingly understands as well: as even he has to admit, he'd never greet a rat with a saucer of milk, and no amount of logic about the similarities between rats and the more respected squirrels will convince him otherwise ... It's a horrifying scene because it presents Landa as such a logical monster and, as Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) will later say about his protégé Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a "strangely persuasive monster."
Jason Bellamy in The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino (Part 2):
Tarantino's Nazis are something that Nazis are almost never allowed to be in American movies: intelligent. Landa is an opportunistic devil without a conscience, to be sure, but will we see a smarter character this year? I doubt it. Fucker is almost clairvoyant, and beyond that he's ballsy ... Then there's Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) who displays his intelligence three ways ... Also not to be overlooked is Fredrick Zoller, who isn't the mindless killing machine his war heroics have us conditioned to believe he must be.
Ed Holland in The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino (Part 2):
The Nazi officer who's killed in the film's second chapter says that he won a medal for bravery, while the Bear Jew asks him if he got it for "killing Jews," an attempt to simplify this guy before beating him to death ... This is even truer in the scene with Wilhelm (Alexander Fehling), the new father out celebrating his baby's birth. His showdown with Aldo over the tradeoff of the actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is heartbreaking ... It's an odd scene, one where the Nazi suddenly becomes the sympathetic protagonist, the guy we're rooting for.
Funny -- I never thought the Nazis were sympathetic protagonists worth rooting for, that they had their exploits simplified unfairly (and what could "bravery" mean in this context?), or saw Landa's reasoning in that speech about rats to be "logical". For the record, then, both Bellamy and Holland liked Inglourious Basterds. Rosenbaum disliked it. I think the problem with Inglourious Basterds -- the moral problem, not its failure as entertainment (the film's excruciating third and fourth chapters, its Naked Gun-like trivialising of figures like Hitler and Goebbels, its glib use of WWII as material for self-infatuated meta-comment about cinema, to give three examples of that) -- is that Tarantino is unable to write villains who are not also fascinating, entertaining, cool. That wasn't a problem before. Every character in Reservoir Dogs was a villain -- or, in one case, an undercover cop posing as a villain -- but they were derived from movie villains and had a clear unreality. Ditto Travolta's, Jackson's and Rhames's characters in Pulp Fiction. In both films, a criminal world was humanised and made entertaining. I suspect he has always found the humanised and complex killer more interesting than the victim. But the problem is that the Nazis are a different order of movie villain.

This is Tarantino talking about Hans Landa in the September 2009 Sight and Sound:
He sets himself up as such a great detective that you don't want him to disappoint you. You want him to be as good as you think he is.
You heard that right. "You" -- we, the audience -- want to watch a Nazi who's so good at sniffing out Jews that he's earned the nickname "Jew hunter" succeed.

Rosenbaum also dug out this illuminating quote -- Tarantino on the relationship between historical trauma and cinematic spectacle, from a Rolling Stone interview:

Q: Has 9/11 or the war on terror had any impact on you personally or creatively?
A: 9/11 didn’t affect me, because there’s, like, a Hong Kong movie that came out called Purple Storm and it’s fantastic, a great action movie. And they work in a whole big thing in the plot that they blow up a giant skyscraper. It was done before 9/11, but the shot almost is a semiduplicate shot of 9/11. I actually enjoyed inviting people over to watch the movie and not telling them about it. I shocked the shit out of them … I was almost thrilled by that naughty aspect of it. It made it all the more exciting.