March 28, 2012


The biggest influence on The Politics Of Envy though was undoubtedly Kenneth Anger. David Tibet from Current 93 told me a couple of years ago that he was very ill and they were trying to do a fundraising event for him. Through David, I managed to get in contact with Kenneth. Lots of people from my generation love Kenneth Anger. When I was 13 or 14 I spent all day in this cinema in Bristol watching all of his films. The magic that came through the television to the audience just kind of touched me. For me when I was young, people like Kenneth Anger, Lee Perry and Richard Hell educated me. What I got from school didn't matter as much as what I took from these people ... I guess he's best known for Scorpio Rising in the 1960s, which is when people like Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page started having dealings with him. He's magical. So anyway, we all went on this huge symposium in Portugal for three weeks across all these different galleries and theaters with artists from all over the world and theorists. It was basically people giving lectures in honour of Kenneth Anger called "Magic & Art". I got to hang out with him for a little bit, and he was wearing this white panama suit and playing the theremin, and he's still got his quiff! I mean, God knows how old he is, and he's such a playful, naive character. I just love the bloke, so from that, I was living in Berlin at the time and I had an idea to do something with his book, Hollywood Babylon. I wanted it to be a big production with Kenneth's signature on it but featuring different people from our scene. It's like when Cocteau worked with Stravinsky; I wanted Kenneth Anger to put his signature on this piece so it would live on after he died. That part of it is still a work in progress, but Kenneth's avatar kind of quantifies the whole album. I was going to call the album Fountains, and Kenneth Anger was the real fountain that influenced so many people apart from me on this album. There's Richard Hell's experiments in New York from 1972/73 with The Neon Boys; the way he ripped his t-shirt getting "Richard" on it; then, after seeing the Kenneth Anger films I went through a period of listening to nothing but Lee Perry on a daily basis. For me, if Kenneth is a magician then Lee's a shaman. I don't know how to explain it but in the punky reggae times; I don't really know the historical facts of it all but I spent quite a lot of time with some heavy duty Rastafarians, these real elder guys. I'm not really a part of their culture or anything but they were a real inspiration to me. They're like Indian Yokis or something. A lot of the people me and Adrian Sherwood looked up to when we started On-U Sound were cool, older guys with dreadlocks. Even now, with dubstep artists like Burial and Pinch they really look up to a lot of the experiments me and Adrian did with On-U Sound, and we're quite influenced by dubstep and now Adrian's got some of the dubstep kids to remix Lee Perry so it's kind of become like a circular feeding process of inspiration.

Mark Stewart explains his new album to Drowned in Sound.

March 26, 2012

Autoluminescent (or, the St Kilda of the damned)

It would seem that Richard Lowenstein’s documentary Autoluminescent was anticipated back here, when his 80s rock-star drug-house romance Dogs in Space was revived as part of a Melbourne Underground season at the Melbourne Film Festival in 2009. Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S Howard was a key part of that scene – evocatively called “the St Kilda of the damned”, in a link that’s since gone dead – and he was living back in Melbourne after stretches in London and Berlin, sick but off drugs, so it probably seemed a good idea to start documenting him. And just in time too: Howard died at the end of 2009, aged 50, of liver cancer, having contracting hepatitis C, the Australian rock and roll disease.

Autoluminescent – named for a Howard song – runs in the World Cinema Showcase, in four cities (details). I hadn't paid attention, and didn't know it was coming – it's a rare and brilliant thing to see a film in a festival programme that is a complete surprise. The Australian reviews, from its screenings there last October, are very good and when it played on the ABC in January, the nicely-written blurb paid as much attention to Howard's famously striking appearance – “a phantom out of Kafkaesque Prague or Bram Stoker's Dracula ... A beautifully gaunt and gothic aristocrat” – as his revolutionary guitar playing (from all of what gets called post-punk, arguably he and Sonic Youth's Lee and Thurston have the most recognisable, original guitar sounds). That blurb gets at his otherness, too. Especially in Australia in the 1970s. Even Nick Cave, on first meeting him, called him a poofter.

One of the problems Howard had – in terms of posterity, anyway – is that his post-Birthday Party work was so overshadowed by the stature and charisma of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds that the present sometimes seemed to turn around and reinterpret the past: the Birthday Party risked becoming erroneously regarded as Cave’s pre-Bad Seeds vehicle. But look at any coverage from the period and you note that Cave and Howard were considered equally important (as in the NME column above, from 1982), and contributed equally to the look, sound and reputation of the band: if Cave had an air of violence about him, was more barbaric, comic and macho, Howard’s look was more dandy-ish. He also wrote the band’s first great song – in fact, it was by the Boys Next Door, the band the Birthday Party evolved from. He was 16 when he wrote it. “Shivers” also featured on the Dogs in Space soundtrack, in two versions. I prefer this much later version, sung by Howard in 1999 on an ABC show called Studio 22, to the new-wave crooning of the Cave one:

Then, the Birthday Party. The Rowland S Howard Wikipedia page describes Birthday Party shows as “wickedly gleeful romps”. How utterly delightful! Wickedly gleeful romps is certainly one way of describing a performance as hilariously unhinged and threatening as this, of “Junkyard”, on German TV in 1982:

No surprise that “Some Velvet Morning” was on Howard's NME consumer list above. The very same year there was this belligerent cover version, sung by Howard and Lydia Lunch, released on 4AD:

After the Birthday Party came apart in 1983, not long after their only New Zealand tour, one of Howard's new bands was Crime and the City Solution, Berlin-based with Australian Simon Bonney fronting. You want to talk about being overshadowed by the ubiquitous Nick Cave? How many remember that Crime and the City Solution also appear in Wings of Desire, performing before the same crowd as the Bad Seeds?

The clip above is also from Studio 22, with Mick Harvey (ex-Bad Seeds/Birthday Party) on drums. Below, from the last solo album, Pop Crimes, released in 2009, the year he died: a cover of Talk Talk's “Life's What You Make It”. As far as the film goes, it's this review, from a fan, that makes me want to see it.  It suggests that it does what good rock documentaries should do: capture something of your own past as a listener and consumer, your own emotional investment.

March 20, 2012

Watching Ordet

The farm woman who has died in childbirth is stretched out in an open coffin as her weeping husband sits beside her. The mad brother who thinks he is the second coming of Christ walks into the room holding the hand of the couple's young daughter. As the small group of mourning relatives and friends looks on, wondering what blasphemy or sacrilege is about to be committed at this solemn moment, the would-be incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth addresses the dead woman in a calm and quiet voice. Rise up, he commands her, lift yourself out of your coffin and return to the world of the living. Seconds later, the woman's hands begin to move. You think it must be a hallucination, that the point of view has shifted from objective reality to the mind of the addled brother. But no. The woman opens her eyes, and just seconds after that she sits up, fully restored to life.
There is a large crowd in the theater, and half the audience bursts out laughing when they see this miraculous resurrection. You don't begrudge them their skepticism, but for you it is a transcendent moment, and you sit there clutching your sister's arm as tears roll down your cheeks. What cannot happen has happened, and you are stunned by what you have witnessed.
Something changes in you after that.
-- Paul Auster, from Invisible (2009).

March 13, 2012

Unreal city

1. “I still have a strange sense of dissociation, as if I am an observer of someone else’s disaster movie.”

2. “It must have been 1951. Frankfurt was bombed flat during the war ... Frankfurt was indescribable. I’d borrowed a studio from a painter who was himself in Paris. I was working there for an exhibition in the Zimmergalerie Franck, and every morning I took my son to school. The walk to the school was across an enormous bombsite. A great heap of rubble, with here and there some places that had been flattened so you could walk over them like paths. There were some outer walls of houses still standing. A doorway, and some stretches of wall. It was a surreal landscape, and it inspired me enormously. If you walk through a town that lies in ruins, then the first thing you naturally think of is building. And then, as you rebuild such a town, you wonder whether life there will be just the same, or what will be different.” -- Constant Nieuwenhuys, interviewed in BOMB magazine, 2005.

3. “Night after night, day after day, each majestic scene I witnessed was so terrible and so unexpected that no city would ever again stand innocently fixed in my mind. Big buildings and wide streets, cement and steel were no longer permanent. They, too, were fragile and destructible. A torch, a bomb, a strong enough wind, and they, too, would come undone or get knocked down. But I so loved the unity of those times. I loved Lakeview Avenue, my street -- and it was my street -- and I loved the Community Union. I mostly loved everything I was seeing, and especially all that I was learning.” -- Bill Ayers describes riots in Cleveland, Ohio, 1966, in Fugitive Days (Beacon Press, 2001).

Mobile phone pictures taken on Peterborough St, Avonside Drive, Madras St, Manchester St, Victoria St, Colombo St and in Lyttelton, Shirley and Woolston, between January 4 and March 2, 2012.

March 5, 2012

Preaching to the perverted (lost and found Blue Velvet)

There is more story. That’s the obvious and immediate thrill of deleted scenes or lost footage showing up, and adding to or expanding the experience of a film you love and know well, or thought you knew well. The same kind of thrill as finding more Heavenly Creatures – or an alternate version that extends the story by a couple of days – when you first heard about Angela Carter’s unproduced Parker/Hulme screenplay. The same kind of thrill – you imagine – that keeps fantasy and comic book fans going back for more, and generates entire internets of fan fiction. More story. Sometimes the new stuff, or newly available stuff, incorporates itself so smoothly into the old stuff that you can no longer consider the first version you saw to be complete (Apocalypse Now vs Apocalypse Now Redux or the 2010 Metropolis vs all the inferior versions). At other times, the deleted scenes are best left where they were (Reservoir Dogs would become more fully Mr Orange’s story, and probably a lesser film, if an editor were to put the cut scenes back in) and you might only watch them once, out of interest.

Fifty-one minutes of “lost” Blue Velvet footage was found in time for the 25th anniversary blu-ray release. This was both a surprise and not one; fans knew the deleted scenes existed and that they had once made up part of a legendary four-hour cut (some say three and a half hours). Cut scenes had been partially reconstructed from stills and text and there has been the weird phenomenon of a Blue Velvet poster (this hideous one, for an Italian release) depicting a moment that doesn’t exist in the film. But it’s one thing to know and another to see, which is why there was genuine excitement last year when the news came: the blu-ray would have the lost scenes, all scored and edited. It's a big deal. Just like Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) tells Sandy (Laura Dern) over a malt at Arlene’s, “I’m seeing something that was always hidden”.

And? The most anticipated bit has become known as the “flaming nipple” scene, because it ends with a topless woman illuminating the seedy darkness of a bar with exactly that party trick. The same scene gives us more rampaging Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) and a moment in which Brad Dourif’s shock-haired Raymond, who never really has enough to do, orders “Pabst Blue Ribbon, one case, long neck” (apart from anything else, Blue Velvet is one of the great beer movies) at the counter while Frank terrorises a guy called Willard and also sets up the pool-table image that the Italian distributors loved – although we never see it from that angle. This scene would come just prior to Frank and his gang of perverts showing up at Ben’s house – Ben is Dean Stockwell, above – for a scene that is altogether seedier, more surreal and more central (perhaps the centre of the film). But much of the 51 once-lost minutes are taken up with banal home scenes of Jeffrey, his mother and his aunt Barbara, which anticipate the gentle eccentricity of Twin Peaks, although you could argue that aunt Barbara’s obsession with termites adds to the movie’s insect theme, and there is a scene at the Williams house that sets up a meeting between Jeffrey and Sandy ahead of her famous, and much better, entrance in the actual movie (be like the wind was apparently the direction Lynch gave Laura Dern – it worked). We get more scenes of Sandy’s jock boyfriend, Mike, who we barely glimpse in the film proper, and a series of scenes in which Jeffrey phones his college girlfriend, and gets dumped. A scene in the Slow Bar as Jeffrey and Sandy wait to see Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) sing has them sitting through the interminable support acts: a dog eating its dinner, a Z-grade comedian with a band and a belly dancer. In all, this Slow Bar stuff runs for close to nine minutes and it’s Lynchian quirkiana that somehow doesn’t fit this Lynch film but would work in his more indulgent, less narratively concise ones (were it looking more like it was shot on your phone than playing in hi-def it could slip easily into Inland Empire).

Mostly, these scenes would have been in the first third of the film, and would have it slowed down considerably – despite it and Lynch’s reputation, Blue Velvet is surprisingly economical and straight-forward in its storytelling – but there is one early Jeffrey scene that could have added something. When Jeffrey’s father is hospitalised at the very start, his mother calls him at college and tells him to come home. She rings during the middle of a dorm party. And where’s Jeffrey? He’s in the basement, watching a couple make out in a scene that establishes him to have been a voyeur well before he ever heard of Dorothy Vallens. But, again, it would slow the film down and Lynch doesn’t have flashbacks in this story, so it’s hard to know, if you're playing editor at home, just what you would do with it. But in any case, Bill Wyman (not the Rolling Stone) is right to say, in this great review of the blu-ray edition, that it is the one deleted scene that would significantly change our understanding of the film as we have come to know it. In the finished film, Jeffrey strikes us as innocent but curious, stepping into a new world for the first time; this deleted scene shows he has been at least part of the way into it before. But even if most viewers of Blue Velvet have had no direct knowledge of his history until now, that history was known to MacLachlan and Lynch – and some others – when the Dorothy scenes were shot. In other words, is there a way in which deleted scenes always leave traces, even subliminal ones, in the finished film?

Otherwise, one very quick scene has Jeffrey calling Dorothy’s house and getting a terrifying – even by phone – Frank on the other end. It’s pretty fantastic and short (only about 30 seconds), so it’s hard to know why it went. But the best – one I would have kept somehow, were I David Lynch – is Dorothy’s rooftop scene. This one establishes a tenderness between Jeffrey and Dorothy that also adds to the wider story. He is in her apartment. She is suicidal. She asks him to come with her to the roof of the apartment building. In the corridor, the lights flick on and off – a Lynch motif that usually indicates evil or supernatural trouble – and on the roof, the sky is lit up by blue-white lightning and the “Mysteries of Love” theme plays. Along with the lights going out when Frank dies, this is the closest that Blue Velvet gets to the more supernatural or gnostic visions of Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, Eraserhead, Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive, where gaps between worlds opened up (and I’d recommend this recent Sight and Sound piece to anyone interested in Lynch-as-religious-artist). But, still, the surprising tenderness between Dorothy and Jeffrey here also seems, like the deleted voyeur scenes, to have left traces elsewhere in the finished film. And even if I never watch them again, my future viewings of Blue Velvet will be subtly altered by them (once seen, things are impossible to unsee).

Despite all this, though, there are still missing scenes that remain missing, or have not been included. There is a famous still (below) from a scene set in Dorothy's bathroom. It's not on the blu-ray: according to the screenplay, it involves Dorothy flushing the other severed ear down the toilet. Some things stay hidden.

Also on the blu-ray: bloopers, a Siskel and Ebert clip in which Ebert demonstrates that he was on the wrong side of history, and the hour-plus Mysteries of Love doco from the DVD release a decade ago which re-establishes some things we have come to know as the folklore of the film: Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti writing “Mysteries of Love” because the production couldn't afford This Mortal Coil's “Song to the Siren”, which was Lynch’s favourite song at the time (he went on to use it in Lost Highway), and Rossellini basing her famous, traumatic nude scene on Nick Ut’s photo of a girl burned by napalm.

The three beautiful screen grabs above are from here. I thought my selection was random but now I’m noticing where a light source is in each pic.

March 2, 2012

The Christmas tree lights were on then off

Stills from Morvern Callar (2002, shot by Alwin H Kuchler) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, shot by Seamus McGarvey). Blog title from Morvern Callar by Alan Warner (1995).

March 1, 2012

Days of Kevin

The Lynne Ramsay style may be Malickian but the psychology of We Need to Talk About Kevin -- some people are simply born evil -- is pure horror movie, or "a horror flick with pretensions" as one local reviewer sneeringly puts it, and whether or not this internet-sourced poster is official, it's a smart way to market it. (Also, isn't calling something "pretentious" on a par with complaining that a story isn't "realistic"? Some other "horror flicks with pretensions": Repulsion, Possession, Don't Look Now, Antichrist ... )