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The common factor linking Blair and Blur is that they made thoroughly sure to get their sell-out in first, to make perfectly clear that the dream was over, that there would be no more experiments, no more utopias, only a constricted, and as the still-unfolding financial crisis makes clear, utterly misnamed ‘realism’. The generation that came of age in the mid-late 1990s were perhaps the most apolitical of the 20th century. leaving a mess which those born in that decade are struggling to clear up, through the student movement against the Tory-Whig Coalition government – whose Prime Minister, a fan of the Smiths and the Jam, displays impeccably Britpop tastes. Pulp were alone at the time in holding onto the possibility of utopias and alternatives, in being able to use the world ‘socialism’ without smirking – although they didn’t create an alternative so much as carry the idea through a most unsympathetic period.

I have a memory of an Irish Times music journo summing up the Blur versus Oasis pop rivalry with, and I am obviously paraphrasing here, ‘while both sides fought over chart positions it was Jarvis on his push-bike who swooped in to steal the crown’. I was a fan of Pulp‘s music (I am horrified to discover having followed that link that I just missed their Sydney gig), both due to the catchy songs as well as my own contrary desire to stand apart from the mainstream taste-setters. Of course Pulp were not exactly underground, although following Jarvis led me to the amazing Oedipus Schmoedipus album by Barry Adamson, so I am grateful for that.

Owen Hatherley makes it quite clear early in this work that Uncommon is not intended as a prosaic discography – or even a biography of the magnetic Jarvis – intead it is an account of the band Pulp represents, the contrary associations it projected against the background of New Labour and Britpop at its height, an uncomfortable reminder for this narrow politically-minded  subset of public school demagogues and PR denizens that Britain’s class culture was far less bucolic than their press releases would have the public believe. Damon Albarn’s mockney facade is here twinned with Blair’s ‘yeah yeah yeah‘ deceptive superficiality.

The 90’s were awash in a pre-packaged faux nostalgia for previous periods – the mono-cultural setting of Britain’s past cited in order to eclipse its multicultural present; the fashions and empty rebellion of the sixties stripped of any political comment. Even Northern rockers Oasis were at it, Noel Gallagher’s lyrics summarising the druged up euphoria of rave culture, but weighed down with post-Beatles musical ballast. Pulp, Hatherley argues, instead situated their music and lyrics in the band’s experiences coming up in the politically marginalised urban environment of Sheffield, with the promises of reform and social improvements made during their childhood repeatedly betrayed.

The evolving abilities of Jarvis Cocker as a lyricist is also examined. The song ‘My Legendary Girlfriend‘ released in1990 is liberally quoted from, demonstrating the singer’s talent not just at evoking a time and a place, but in telling a story. As the band progressed Pulp’s lyrics became decididly risqué, with Jarvis casting himself as a suburban lothario, an insatiable in his pursuit married women instead of the teenage girls that populate the chart ballads. Black humour becomes more prominent in the music, with an evident desire to expose the listener to a rage of emotions beyond simple titillation and yes, even expose the political hypocrisy of the era. One find of Hatherley’s in particular is the little-known, bombastic b-side Cocaine Socialism, a blistering indictment of New Labour.

Of course singles like Common People and Disco 2000 (which I recall Jarvis blithely revealing in an interview he wrote to secure royalties for the Millennium) from the best-selling album Different Class launched the band into a difficult period of fame, confounding their attempts to use it to their own ends. The decline of the band is treated as a further opportunity to describe the frustrations of the neo-liberal 90’s and early 2000’s, as much as result of internatl pressures as it was their failure to be pidgeon-holed by the music industry.

Hatherley has produced a perfect tribute to Pulp and the time that produced them as a band, invoking the sincerity of their ambitions as musicians and story-tellers. This account of their career is an excellent excoriation of Britpop and New Labour hagiographies.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

Take us out Mr Cocker

Uncommon by Owen Hatherley Zer0 Books

 

Where does all that fluff

come from for heaven’s sake?

They say it’s flakes of skin.

Take care – someone might

collect it all

and make little models

of you.

I have stated before on the blog that I am reluctant to review poetry for ‘A book a day…’, because I feel it cheapens the value of it. Poems should be enjoyed in quiet reflection, the reader should take their time to let the meaning of the verses sink in. Unfortunately time is one thing I do not have. Still I have made exceptions while writing this blog for two reasons. Firstly I enjoy poetry and want to include it here, despite my misgivings; and secondly I believe modern poetry especially is something that should be celebrated more.

Linda Coggin – who according to the publisher’s bio starred in Ken Russell’s Gothic, which is such a wonderfully weird film (though not up there with his demented take on Bram Stoker‘s The Lair of the White Worm) that she is immediately awesome in my eyes – presents a short collection of poems that are drawn from ordinary life. The poems also exhibit a notable quirkiness, a welcome skew on day to day events.

The opening quote chosen above is taken from a piece titled ‘Fluff in the Ideal Home‘, which begins with a list of household objects and with each verse makes these things seem more lifelike, ending with the admonition to take care – in case of some voodoo animation coming into play.

‘Dead Man Walking’ eulogises the second hand clothing of dead men that has gone on to have new life after their owners are deceased. Once again there is this curious notion of object, ordinary items, becoming invested with the stuff of life.

Death is also ordinary, the small mercies that can be offered to the dying – ‘We made small gestures/ of comfort/ water on the lips/ morphine in the veins/‘ – but also how a life can pass out of the world without any impact. ‘Alice Dunn – an obituary‘ describes a simple existence within a small village community, that began in a house numbered four and ends two doors down at number six. The poem ends with the line ‘It must have been the gypsy in her soul.

‘Job Exchange‘ describes the roles people play in their lives, sometimes in conflicting and at times in secret.

The janitor, who was really

a poet

pushed a perambulator in iambic pentameter

In ‘Entirely Spider‘ a woman is transformed from a lonely arachnophobe to a courageous defender of her children from that same fear. Becoming a mother has taught her to appreciate the small life of the spider, who is also raising a brood. It is a wonderful little fable disguised as a poem. Not as a Friend has the poet compare herself to her own mother, trying to imagine if she had known her as a child, would they have become friends.

but I can recognize in the pictures

the shape of my mouth

the way you stand awkwardly

on one leg like I do.

So in a way I had been there

‘Lilith’ is a departure, which describes the casting out of Adam’s first wife as a liberation –

She watched soft, compliant Eve

smoothing Adam’s bed

Lilith is occasionally utilised as an anti-patriarchal symbol, her insistence on coupling with Adam on top being the reason for her rejection. Coggin has her be transformed into a bird, but feel relieved not to have to submit to Adam – and by association his male descendants.

Coggin’s poetry is both incisive and quirkily humourous. Well worth investigating.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

In the past fifteen years, I have watched British film attempting to assert its Britishness, but I have found that the terrain it maps out seems wholly foreign to my own experience. Largely this felt like someone else’s cinema, or rather a cinema functioning almost exclusively as PR for the notion of that New Modern Britain every successive government has offered up and failed to deliver.

The best job I ever had was as a volunteer with the Jameson Dublin Film Festival in 2003. In exchange for a measly three hours handing out tickets, I could go see as many festival screenings as I wished and rub shoulders with the invited cinema personalities. I met Javier Bardem! I got into a fight with Jim Sheridan‘s wife (less proud of that one). It’s as close as I am ever likely to come to the ‘film industry’.

And yet looking back it was a surprisingly hollow experience. I have been to film festivals since and they are all quite similar in their fascination with celebrity and the glossing over of any genuinely startling work of film into single word reviews exchanged over a cocktail. ‘Controversial’. ‘Disturbing’. ‘Perverse’. There is a sense that the naieve aim of film festivals – the promotion of film as an artform – has been lost in favour of celebrity gossip and flashy marketing.

Every now and then I am reminded of the true value of film criticism, of the pleasures it can offer and the engagement with the medium it encourages. Enter Carl Neville.

This book contains a series of linked essays describing the rising star of the British Film Industry in concert with the populism of Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia‘. Neville identifies how the films of Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle combined to elide the recent memory of Thatcherism. Realism in cinema is eschewed by the popular box office hits of the period and the new gloss of paint given to government by Blair‘s success in defeating the Tories  allows for an aspirational tone to enter political discourse – that of course was not acted upon. Neville also treats of the rise of ‘New Laddism‘, as both a reaction to the ‘New Man‘, of the 1980’s and an endorsement of consumer culture.

All of this, Neville argues, is encapsulated in 90’s cinema and onwards. In Four Weddings and a Funeral he finds an attempt to turn back the clock on Thatcherite Britain to the bucolic era of Waugh, whereas Trainspotting obscures the realities of drug addiction and a crime-ridden underclass by fixating on the notion of ‘choice‘. This nominally Scottish film is revealed to be a voyeuristic skin designed for middle-class England. Its magic realism and irony does not serve to deepen its themes as a work of cinema, but to raise a laugh and replace the awareness of the realities of heroin-addiction and social depravity with a hyper-kinetic cartoon:

The opposition between a non-judgmental imaginative rendering and a patronizing realism assumes that in some way McDonald, Boyle and Hodge are more on the side of the underclass by representing them as attractive, even enviable, rather than suffering and pitiable.

It’s a startling critique of a film that has transcended its initial controversy to become one of the best-known recent films in British history. The films of Danny Boyle in particular are focused on throughout this book, with the author calling attention to how the use of vicarious fantasy avoids any encounters with harsh realism. Another example given for this process is the evolution of the football hooligan sub-genre, from Philip Davis’ I.D., with its disturbing account of an undercover cop embracing the weekend violence of hooliganism, to Frodo Baggins enjoying a thoroughly middle-class misadventure in Lexi Alexander’s Green Street.

Fantasy has replaced any concern with the realities of life in modern Britain. It is not all doom though. Nevillie is particularly appreciative of films like Adam & Paul and Morvern Callar (that rare thing, a masterpiece in its every iteration – the soundtrack is an absolute delight). Sexy Beast compares the misery of London’s criminal underworld to sunny Spain, where Ray Winstone‘s Gal can finally build a life for himself. But it is The Queen which offers Neville the opportunity to return to the boogieman of this piece, Tony Blair, media literate, hysterical, with a canny ability to replace ideology with emotionalism.

This book gave me a welcome slap in the face. Impassioned argumentation and impressively cineliterate.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

Corporate Cannibal, Boarding Gate, Southland Tales and Gamer have almost nothing in common – except for the fact that they all belong to, and they all express, a common world. This is the world we live in: a world of hypermediacy […]

Writing this review is a real treat for me. I have been following the career of Steven Shaviro for almost a decade now after discovering his online work Doom Patrols one evening while browsing the internet for information about Philip Pullman‘s Galatea. Not only did I discover Shaviro and his own particular brand of pop cultural critical theory, I emerged buzzing with curiousity about My Bloody Valentine, Grant Morrison and a renewed enthusiasm for the films of David Cronenberg. His blog The Pinocchio Theory is also well worth investigating.

Post Cinematic Affect presents a series of essays on a selection of movies and videos that in Shaviro’s view describe emerging new media forms that are as yet theoretically unrepresented. The book itself is not only concerned with film theory, but the post-Marxist absorption of the public in the entertainment industry. When discussing critical flops such as Richard Kelly‘s ambitious Southland Tales, or Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor‘s Gamer he is not so much interested in defending their reputations as cinematic works, as he is in demonstrating how they describe our evolving relationship with media. What might be said to be transgressive about these films is the way in which they have abandoned traditional presentation of plot, genre, camera style.

They also indulge our culture’s fascination with celebrity. Cinema inherited much of its form from stage productions. Actors played parts, that allow the audience to engage with the story being performed. Yet celebrity has outdistanced any possibility of engagement with the characters being played in contemporary films.  Boarding Gate‘s protagonist is played by Asia Argento, an actress who has been violated and murdered onscreen multiple times in films directed by her own father. The controversy cemented her early fame, creating an identity that could overwhelm any flimsy fictional character. Director Olivier Assayas avoids this by having Argento play a woman who is constantly having to reinvent herself. Only through this continual renewal can Argento be subsumed into the story. Grace Jones similarly has a twin existence, as the music performer who must shapeshift with each appearance and as an individual woman who is quite conscious of the importance of maintaining that other self. Shaviro infers into the lyrics of Corporate Cannibal – “I’m a man eating machine, – a recognition not only of her sexualised alter ego, but her necessary existence as corporate product.

Shaviro impressively claims that Kelly is attempting a revolution against the very basis of Eisenstein montage with Southland Tales, where associations between images in and of themselves constitute meaning, without any broader context. The rapidly cut action scenes of contemporary movies demonstrate our ability, as an audience, to be viewers of multiple sources of information simultaneously. Our awareness of the action on screen is played with, such as the entertaining sequence when Justin Timberlake lip-syncs to The Killers. Here the character played by Timberlake, Pilot Abilene, is experiencing a hallucinatory drug trip. Yet our attention is drawn to Kelly having a celebrity singer ‘perform’, music by another act, music which it just so happens is far more evocative of his character’s crisis than the bland material he himself produces. Timberlake also breaks out of sync by drinking and carousing with the other performers, reminding us of the falsity what we are seeing (not to mention the drug-impaired perspective of Abilene).

It’s an excellent analysis of the levels of meaning sought by Kelly with this film. In Neveldine and Taylor’s Gamer, he finds a sarcastic parody of subversive cinema. Viewers are deliberately made complicit with the insensate voyeurs of this dystopia. In engaging with the film’s genre staples, we become a reflection of the media depravity here vilified. The film also anticipates developments in MMORPGs, online games that require live interactions between players and game content.

Shaviro touches on multiple sources for his post-Marxist critique, including Spinoza, Fredric Jameson and Deleuze. His analysis identifies markers for our evolving relationship with new media, but no definite outcome. This book presents an excellent overview of the changing shape of cinema and our engagement with film.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

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