July 30, 2012

I'll take the subway to your suburb sometime

Norwegian Wood (2010). Directed by Tran Anh Hung, photography by Ping Bin Lee.

July 18, 2012

David Mitchell, Kenneth Anger and Graham Kerr

No, not that David Mitchell. Nor that one. Not even that one. But this one. This week, the excellent bfm Flying Nun Records series Extended Play got up to Exploding Budgies and Goblin Mix, two 80s New Zealand bands that perversely or brilliantly did the so-called Dunedin sound in Auckland, before reinvigorating Dunedin itself (the 3Ds, later in the history). Two bands that were also vehicles for the eccentric genius (guitarist, singer, lyricist, artist) David Mitchell. Is genius fair? Yes, probably. And a rare spirit of rock 'n' roll in this otherwise fairly sober series (a typical story begins, "The first time I lost all my front teeth ..."). The 3Ds were excellent, of course, and -- like all the best rock bands -- entirely unpredictable. The Ghost Club, a more concentrated exercise in Mitchell-ism, has had its moments too. I never saw these earlier two bands, nor Plagal Grind. I never had the records. But I still know the songs. Especially "Kenneth Anger".

A David Mitchell song about Kenneth Anger was no surprise looking back, even if you were doing nothing other than paying attention to the wayward imagery in some of Mitchell's sleeve art. But here's the bit from Extended Play where he talks about writing the song:
When I was a nipper, I used to go to some second-hand book store called Bloomsbury and I was obsessed with Aleister Crowley and all these sorts of things. I used to buy all these occult books, which had these stamps on them: "Graham Kerr". After getting about, God, 15, I thought, "Who is Graham Kerr? This is amazing. Why do you have all these books since you were the Galloping Gourmet?" He was really into the occult, black magic. So how that ties in with rock'n'roll, I don't know, but I'm pretty sure nobody in any of the bands I have ever been in understood why I write songs.
My sister lent me a book on American underground film-makers. As a 15-year-old, you're sitting there reading about Kenneth Anger. At almost the same age, he's borrowed his dad's 16mm camera and he's filming Fireworks, which is about a bunch of gay sailors and it kind of ends up in this masturbation sequence where the fire rocket sort of goes off. As a kid, I just remember thinking, "Fuck, I love him." And he made movies like Scorpio Rising and Inauguration of My Demon Lover* and I fell in love with the idea of Kenneth Anger and I love the name, anyway. So as a music autism sort of chap, I desperately tried to write some music that would sum up what I thought his films might be like. I never saw them for like ten years after that song was written.
In fact, he came into the Flying Nun office. He was making a documentary about this really incredible witch in Christchurch**. Or maybe it was at bfm, somebody had mentioned that somebody had written a song about him. He went into a fury and stormed off down to the Flying Nun office with his henchman trying to find out who it was so he could sue him. I got this phone call saying, "Oh my God, Kenneth Anger just came into the office. He was furious. We had to play him the song and he listened to it and said he really liked it." So he wrote me a little note on the Exploding Budgies CD saying, "Love the song. Lots of love, Kenneth Anger."
* Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome or Invocation of My Demon Brother.
** This will have been Rosaleen Norton, who was born in Dunedin.
Hopefully someone can write in and correct me if I'm wrong, but I would guess that the above story happened during Kenneth Anger's 1993 visit to New Zealand with the Magick Lantern Cycle. At the same time, the then-new Wellington community paper City Voice got a sensational front-page story out of Anger's (entirely legitimate) anger over discovering bootlegged VHS copies of his films for sale in New Zealand. Again, if memory serves.

Anyway, the song:

And Graham Kerr? As noted, David Mitchell means this one. Google searches for "Aleister Crowley Graham Kerr" and "Occult Graham Kerr" returned exactly no results but that doesn't mean that the story isn't true. There are plenty of references to Kerr suddenly becoming a born-again Christian at some point in the 70s or 80s ... It's a strange world.

July 5, 2012

Walk through doors, never to return

What was it David Lynch said about the words “lost highway” – they made you dream? Three films on, the words Inland Empire did the same kind of thing: the title, with its sense of things secret and hidden, can seem like an analogy for dreaming, or the imagination, for interior worlds, and it fits this most interior of Lynch movies, a film that sticks more closely to its protagonist than any other, closer even than Eraserhead (Jack Nance’s sad, soft face never loomed in close-up like Laura Dern’s does here, or as often, with waves of terror, shock, disbelief and occasional lust registered almost microscopically). Inland Empire as the world inside: by the end of its two hours, 52 minutes (it is the longest Lynch film by miles, longer even than Dune), it has come to seem labyrinthine; you are deep inside the consciousness, dreams and fears of one woman, or possibly three women, played by Laura Dern. So far inside that there is no way back. Can you even remember where or how this all started? The close-ups of faces, the limited sets (the whole world as a few adjoining rooms) and the grainy digital video (actually a flaw in other ways) combine to create this sense of a world that you can’t find your way in. Time has collapsed, and space has too.

The conventional wisdom around Inland Empire is that this was a perplexing disappointment after The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive had restored Lynch’s reputation with movie-goers (time looped: it was a replay of the way that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was taken as a perplexing disappointment after …). It seems to have been the Lynch film (excluding Dune, an impersonal one) that regular moviegoers like the least, if we can take IMDB voting scores as an indication. Its IMDB score is 6.9 out of 10 – The Elephant Man is at 8.3, The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive are at 8.0, Blue Velvet at 7.8, Lost Highway at 7.6, Eraserhead at 7.3, Wild at Heart at 7.2 and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me at 7.0, with Dune behind Inland Empire at 6.5. The scores almost work as a guide to accessibility.

Inland Empire is hard to watch, no question. Literally: the digital video means that the film lacks the sumptuousness and dream textures of other Lynch films, but at a couple of moments, it is an advantage. A scene with a stabbed, paranoid Dern on Hollywood and Vine at night is a rare example of Lynch using a recognisable location as the place it purports to be, and the digital video lends it a documentary-like feel, especially in a truly remarkable bit in which the dying Dern lies amongst homeless people and the Japanese girl billed only as “a street person” delivers a monologue about her friend in Pomona, a junkie and a prostitute. Inland Empire seems at this point to be close to filmed reality, a street documentary grabbed surreptitiously, until Lynch pulls back and reveals the scene as the climax of the film that Dern’s Nikki, an actress, has been shooting. Maybe it’s not surprising that the most “real” seeming of any Lynch scene should be shown as artificial – even more than Mulholland Drive, this movie is a hate letter to Hollywood, with its false dreams, its producers who double as pimps and gangsters, its would-be starlets driven to addiction, prostitution and suicide, where the mere making of a film is seen as somehow sinister and dangerous, with acting able to alter reality, and usually not for the best. The film within the film is a remake of a cursed Polish movie. A key line on film’s ability to destroy: “She looks very good in her blonde wig, like a movie star,” says the homeless Japanese girl about her doomed friend.

Digital video meant that Lynch was free to improvise, and the use of monologues is new (Dern has several). There is also a sense of salvage or creative re-use: the sitcom rabbits came from a short film series and Poland is both a source of funding and production resources, and, in the story, a terrifying alternate dimension, akin to Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge (we have Sarah Palmer herself, Grace Zabriskie, as the Polish crone). The doubling plots of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are pushed further, so that we have even less sense of where the “normal” world is, and just where the story deviates from it. As Cahiers du Cinema critic Stephane Delorme put it, “It is the literal history of a collapse, just as in the second halves of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, except here the film trembles from end to end.” Trembles is a good choice of word: the feeling of doom is constant, from the very start – a couple of scenes with the Locomotion girls may break the tension a little but they don’t lift a sense of sadness, if you see the girls as versions of the Twin Peaks teenagers lured across the border into the brothel/casino One Eyed Jacks, or the porn stars and wannabe actresses of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive (there are so many ways in which it is like this Lynch movie or that Lynch movie, including Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, that it’s almost a recapitulation). Lynch subtitled this “A woman in trouble”, which could have been the subtitle of Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive especially, even Lost Highway, where Patricia Arquette’s femme fatale is really just another of the abused, exploited women. Two things make this woman in trouble story different, though: the incredible, unsettling range of Dern’s acting, and the unusual joy of the closing credit sequence. Dern and the other girls, now including Mulholland Drive’s Laura Elena Harring, brought back to the Lynch world for just this sequence, dance as one of the girls lip-synchs to a Nina Simone song. Usually lip-synching is something to be afraid of in a Lynch film, as it implies a supernatural rupture – Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet, Rebekah Del Rio in Mulholland Drive – but this sequence overturns everything and gives you exuberance and release. Even for the girl in the blonde wig who looks like a movie star.

July 4, 2012

Before it disappeared underwater

A huge area of land which was swallowed up into the North Sea thousands of years ago has been recreated and put on display by scientists.
Doggerland was an area between Northern Scotland, Denmark and the Channel Islands.
It was believed to have been home to tens of thousands of people before it disappeared underwater.
"We have speculated for years on the lost land's existence from bones dredged by fishermen all over the North Sea, but it's only since working with oil companies in the last few years that we have been able to re-create what this lost land looked like."
-- From a BBC online report, "Hidden Doggerland Underworld Uncovered in North Sea", July 3, 2012.

All mobile phone pictures were taken in Christchurch on July 3 and 4, 2012. Photos of photos are taken from the Christchurch Art Gallery's outdoor exhibition Reconstructions: Conversations on a City ("can this city be rebuilt as a place of genuine quality and interest if it undervalues the significance of its rich architectural heritage past?").