I'm the world's greatest apologist for Brian De Palma but his version of Elroy's The Black Dahlia is a disaster. The plot is so incomprehensible that you are left wondering how the director thought anyone would be able to follow it (one exasperated reviewer said that he'd read the novel twice and even he didn't know what was going on). Worse, the film pursues a hackneyed Stylishness, as embodied in Scarlett Johansson's horribly stilted performance - Am Dram mannequin in dressing up box outfits, ostentatiously twirling a cigarette holder because That's What Screen Vamps Do.
De Palma is peculiarly unsuited to adapt Elroy. His stock-in-trade is the lurid and the excessive, not rapid-fire realism. 'Noir' has been talked about a great deal in the discussion of The Black Dahlia, but De Palma's palllete couldn't be less monochrome; it's the very definition of garish. His preferred mode is oneiric, and his best films, with their weird transitions between honeyed sentimentalism and appalling cruelty, have the languid tension and sudden violence of a de Chirico canvas. They are rightly considered sick, and the glimpse they give us of the patho-logic of fantasy is their great virtue.
De Palma's great theme, obsessively reiterated, is betrayal. But the trick that he pulled in every film from Obsession through to Carlito's Way and Mission Impossible - exposing a trusted character as a betrayer - is immediately undercut in The Black Dahlia because we don't even for a moment entertain the thought that any of the characters is anything other than deeply corrupt. The problem with these Elroy adaptations - and this is no slur on Elroy, whom I must confess I haven't read - is that universal corruption is now practically a period detail, as standard a feature as muted trumpet on the soundtrack.
There are, naturally, moments of vulgar sublime brilliance, when De Palma's creepy grotesquerie breaks the bounds of ultra-realism, and we start to feel uncomfortable (discomfort is actually the feeling that De Palma at his most effective elicits, a discomfort that arises in part from his incapacity or unwillingness to temper his excesses and make a 'Good' film ... Often, we find ourselves asking, should we be watching this?, as if sensing that too much unconscious material has been revealed).
Owen observed after seeing The Black Dahlia that one of the most interesting aspects of the film was its unresolved handling of the period setting; at times it felt like an updating of the 40s using the techniques of the 21st century, at others the 21st century as seen through the lenses of the 1940s. A similar sense of dyschronia dominates Christina Aguilera's new album, Back to Basics. Hearing that the album was 'inspired by soul, jazz and blues of the '20s, '30s and '40s' made you expect the worst: the necrotic hand of Authenticity, all the Jools Holland horrors.... The fabulously hectic single 'Ain't No Other Man' put those pre-conceptions to flight. Aguilera's choice of the nearly forgotten Premier as producer showed excellent judgement; the 'Picasso of hip-hop' didn't slavishly re-construct a Period Sound so much as as he cubistically de-constructed it. The great service that hip hop can still perform for pop is to remind us of its essential lack of presence. One of the paradoxes of postmodern culture, of course, is that it is always forced to return to - an illusory, supposedly pre-mediated - past in its pursuit of real, live presence. Reading interviews with Aguilera, and listening to the roll-call of inspirations on the album itself - which include Minnie Ripperton, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin - it is clear that the Past being summoned here has nothing to do with a specific historical period, even one as broadly-defined as 'the 20s, 30s and 40s'. What is being reached for is a prelapsarian Lost Present, the past as such. On the tracks he produces on Back to Basics, Premier shows us that this Past is only available to us through filters and screens, foregrounding the dyschronia via the famously angular quality of his samples and the inclusion of scratched vinyl noise. That is why 'Ain't No Other Man' sounds more like steampunk 2-step than an accurate simulation of a historical moment.
It is perhaps the cartoonish setting of 'Ain't No Other Man' that makes Aguilera's voice more bearable than normal. It is hard to think of a voice less Soul-ful than Aguilera's; its honking, stentorian force, so inhumanly invulnerable, is even less suited for the expression of emotions than the efficient gymnastic displays of Carey or Dion. The discrepancy between the impersonal force of Aguilera's voice and the ultra-personal nature of some of the songs (fuck yous to her former producer, accounts of domestic abuse in her family, paeans to her new husband) makes listening to Back to Basics an oddly disconcerting experience at times.
There is nothing on the album to match 'Ain't No Other Man'. But Back to Basics is always interesting, if only as a symptom of a chronic malaise. The second disc, produced by Linda Perry, was supposedly envisaged as a more authentic Jazz Age simulation. Thankfully, however, the anachronisms are not entirely purged, and some tracks - the soft-focus, sepia-smeared Jessica Rabbit torch song, 'Trouble' and the next single, 'Candyman', a lewd hijacking of 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy'- are not without charm.
A few years ago, an exercise in anachronism like Back to Basics might have seemed paradigmatically postmodern. But that was before revivalism became so naturalized that the question of historicity was suspended altogether.
After reading the interview online, John wanted to add detail to some of his responses, which he has kindly taken time to do. So the version of the interview below is a kind of extended remix.
I talked to John while he was recording his new LP, From Trash, the fourth he has recorded with Louis Gordon.
Foxx's records have always been about architecture and space rather than personal emotions, and on Metamatic and the albums with Gordon, he has 'edited' London, much in the way that Godard edited Paris in Alphaville, trimming away the Trad trappings to produce a city of angular high rises and depersonalized plazas. A whole other city - lushly desolated and languid - is explored in the 'Quiet Man' stories, the Cathdral Oceans project and Tiny Colour Movies, of course. But From Trash, which might turn out to be the most successful of his collaborations with Gordon, is a celebration of the city at its most anonymous, lurid and enjoyably alienating. The metropolis emerges as a inexhaustible clamour of options. 'Ten thousand ways/ that we can go/ from here...And the air/ is filled with electricity/ and ghosts... an invitation to disappear/ and reappear...' But, appropriately, given its title, the album sounds scuffed and scratched, abrasive and harsh; this is the city as seen through shattered windscreens or on malfunctioning CCTV monitors. The electronics are as frayed as a Londoner's nerves. But, as in London itself, there are always moments of tranquility amidst the tumult; 'Never Let Me Go', for instance, is a lovely vocoder fugue, as unexpectedly refreshing as a quiet side-road adjacent to Oxford Street.
It's not only the way that the vocals are distorted on 'Freeze Frame' that reminds me of the unconsummated electro-plateau of Justin Timberlake's 'SexyBack'. (Incidentally, Timbaland produced that distorted effect by feeding Timberlake's vocals through a guitar amp - so there are still some uses for a guitar amps then.) Like 'SexyBack', the most viscerally compulsive tracks on From Trash - the title track, 'Freeze Frame', and 'A Million Cars' - sound as if they have been designed to function on an EBM dancefloor. (I hasten to add that I'm not the first to notice the parallels between Timberlake and EBM.) When it crawled out of the pop hinterlands of Belgium and Canada in the 1980s, EBM - which was massively indebted to Metamatic, it goes without saying - touted itself as the sleek, cyborgian future. As it happened, the future was cancelled, and like Goth, EBM has attained hardy perenniality by retreating into the catacombs and re-emerging every now and then to intersect with the mainstream.
Given my comments on Blade Runner and Neuromancer in the last post, it's interesting to compare Foxx's sonic fictional rendition of cyberpunk with Gibson's literary version. While Foxx stripped out pop's 'blue-jean DNA' and re-clothed it in the grey suits of a certain avant garde (Magritte, Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, Burroughs), Gibson dressed SF down in rock 'n' roll leathers and shades. It is the difference between pulp modernism and postmodernism.
It's possible to hear 'From Trash', which splices b-movie terror with class anxieties, as an oblique kind of oblique manifesto for pulp modernism, actually. 'They always come.. they always come.. from trash...Invasion/ imitation/ no invitation/ no sense of occasion...' Some remarks Foxx made in the second part of the interview with Simon Sellars, (the first part of which appeared on Ballardian) might provide a few clues as to why the notion of coming 'from trash' continues to resonate. 'We were entirely a working class band,' Foxx said of Ultravox, 'so we were determined not to act out the pleb role the more middle-class writers seemed to expect. It would be letting the side down. We weren’t interested in pretending to be dumb, because we weren’t. ... Our stance was much ... more akin to my father’s ambitions as a boxer — to get out of the bloody mud and get out of those bloody towns and live like a human being for as long as possible. Get free enough to be able to redesign ourselves.'
Since Tiny Colour Movies had just been released when we spoke, we began by talking about cinema.
K-P: Which films were most influential on you early on?
JF: Oh, very cheap science fiction films mostly. There was one particularly memorable movie called Robot Monster, so bad it was surreal, it had the quality of a dream, an exceptional movie.
I now think it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, partly because it had no regard for plot or anything else recognizable as conventional cinema of the time. This of course made it an event of inestimable importance to me, because, as a child I took it all literally – swallowed it whole, like Alice’s potion.
And like that potion, it allowed entry to an unexpected universe. One which had unfathomable logic and laws which were endlessly flexible. A deeply exhilarating experience. I still dream sequences from it, or rather I seem to have permanently incorporated sections of it into my dream grammar.
Growing up with movies as a child and being subjected to them before I could understand the adult preoccupations and motivations involved in the plots, pitched me into conscripting these films as a personal grammar. I had no choice, so I ended up with this Lynchian reservoir of sequences that carried every dread and joy and everything in between.
These events are still imbued with unfathomable, inexplicable, tantalizing mystery, because I couldn’t really understand them at all. It was hallucinogenic and vivid, and provided me with an image bank and a gorgeous range of emotional tones I still haven’t managed to exhaust.
Much later,when I got to ‘Cinema’ - or the official critical view of it - the more intellectual, often French aspect. I didn’t recognize it at all.
Later, I ended up enjoying this sort of perspective a little, but in a rather disengaged, sceptical way. To me, it seems a method of criticism which is often marvelously baroque and can be engaging, but has little to do with my own experience of Cinema.
I can only deal with it as a marvelous fictional construct, like medieval religion or quantum physics - a consensual social hallucination developed by a priesthood. In the end it’s as tangential as my own individual one.
But that very crude, improvisational, amateurish side of cinema or filmmaking, I continue to find deeply fascinating. Take for example Ed Wood’s films. He made them simply because he was in a place where it could be done.
I think of Ed Wood as a sort of advanced naive artist. He was among the first to make cut-up movies. He achieved this by using props he came across in warehouses and stock footage he discovered in the film vaults of Hollywood cutting rooms, then he built movies around these fragments.
This is the art of collage and sampling. It is art as found object, as coincidence, as accident, as Surrealism, as DaDa, as Situationism. All made possible and motivated also by the dynamo of American opportunism, but with great love and inadequacy and tenderness.
Ed Wood was doing, fifty years ago, what the avant garde are only now beginning to do with film.
(This is also very similar to the way rock’n roll often manages to parallel or prefigure avant garde concepts, by arriving at them from a totally different direction. Pop is such a virile mongrel it’s capable of effortlessly demonstrating, realizing, manifesting, absorbing, remaking any sort of academic intellectual concept. It can do this so well, it often makes any parallel or previous version appear weak or even redundant).
An admiration for that sort of visceral, sensual, opportunistic, native intelligence led to an interest in, and respect for, home video and super 8 - very low grade domestic ways of making films - I suddenly realised there was a whole other world there, one which hadn’t been properly discussed, but as real, in fact more real and potentially at least as powerful, as official cinema.
K-P: The film collection you refer to in the sleeve notes to Tiny Colour Movies - you write about it very beautifully. Are there any plans for those films to be shown in the UK?
JF: Thanks. I’d like to - there are some problems with these fragments, because they’re so small. They’re physically difficult things, and they’re unique irreplaceable and very fragile, so you can only ever show digital copies of them. But it would be interesting to do something like that. I’m beginning to look at some possibilities now, working with Mike Barker, who has accumulated a marvellous archive, and we’re discussing this with some film festivals.
(Leeds and Brighton have since confirmed showings of Cathedral Oceans and Tiny Colour Movies in November, and the ICA is discussing some film/music events for March 07).
K-P: I noticed you thanked Paul Auster in the sleeve notes, why was that?
JF: Paul Auster has is very interesting to me, because I wrote this thing called ‘The Quiet Man’ years ago, in the 80s, in fact I’m still writing it. Then I read the New York Trilogy, and it struck so many chimes. It was as if I’d written it, or it was the book I should have written. I have to be very careful to find my way around it now.
Such occurrences are simultaneously rewarding and terrifying. They illustrate the fact that there is something in the air, which is tremendously heartening after working alone for years, yet they scare you because it feels as if someone has published first, and therefore registered their claim to where you discovered gold.
I simply wanted to acknowledge the effect, and the odd sort of encouragement of recognized themes, as well as a continuing parallel interest in the idea of lost movies and fragments
K-P: There’s a certain kind of London affect that’s interesting, of stillness, and the city being overgrown, which is sort of recurrent in your work - where’s that come from do you think?
JF: When I first came to London it seemed a great deal like Lancashire, where I’d come from. But Lancashire had fallen into ruin. The factories had closed, the economy had faltered. We felt like the Incas after the Spaniards had passed. Helpless, nostalgic savages adrift in the ruins.
I grew up playing in empty factories, huge places which were overgrown. I remember trees growing out of the buildings. I remember a certain moments of looking at it all and thinking what it would have been like when it was all working. What life might be like, if it were all working still.
All of my family worked in mills and factories and mines. And all this was gently subsiding, spinning away.
Coming to London, I couldn’t help but wonder if it might also fall into dissolution. Then I saw a picture a friend had. It was a realistic painting of what appeared to be a view over a jungle from a high place. Gradually you came to realize that it was a view of an overgrown city from a tower, then you realised that this panorama was from a ruined Centre Point and you could see Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, Charing Cross road in the undergrowth. It felt like a revelation. It manifested so perfectly this vision I’d had of everything becoming overgrown, an overgrown London. A vision of longing and nostalgia tinged with fear.
I would often experience a feeling of stillness and wonder as I walked through certain parts of London. I often walked through empty buildings and neglected, overlooked places and they would replay that sensation very strongly.
I went to Shoreditch, in 1982, and made a studio there. When we first went into the studio building it had trees growing out of the windows on the upper stories. It was very like Lancashire, that whole area was derelict, had been abandoned, because that had been the industrial bit of the East End. Now there was no-one there, it was empty. It gave me that calm drifting feeling of recognition.
There was some kind of collective image of overgrown and abandoned cities at that time. Perhaps it’s always there. Such images were present in Ballard, Burroughs, Philip K Dick. In those science fiction authors writing about the near future - conducting thought experiments, exploring likely consequences and views of the unrecognized present, which I think is very valuable. They offer perspectives and meditations on our vanity and endeavours. As such they maintain continuity with a long line of imagery, from religious myths and folk stories to science fiction.
K-P: It seems to have a real unconscious resonance, this idea of overgrown cities, it’s obviously there in surrealist paintings, which seem to be a constant reference, especially in your early work -
JF: Yes, there’s that side of it too. In science fiction films you often get those recurrent images, which I think are very beautiful, of someone walking through an abandoned city.
We have accumulated a range of such images all along the line, from folk and fairytales, to the actual construction of follies and romantic overgrown gardens, to the truly dislocated, such as Piranesi’s ruins and prisons, to Max Earnst’s paintings, or Breughel’s Tower of Babel, or the background urban locations in Bosch, as well as De Chirico’s townscapes and shadows.
Planet of the Apes has one of the most shocking and resonant - the end of original movie, where we see the Statue of Liberty tilted in the sand. A real jolt, the first time you see it. A modern take on Shelley’s Ozymandias.
Photo by Tim Chapman
K-P: I also wondered about religion, because it seems to me, off the back of Cathedral Oceans, but also the records covers, with their use of Renaissance imagery; an emphasis on light and radiance seems to persist through all your work. Do you see that as an explicitly religious thing?
JF: No, I don’t. It’s very difficult, all that. What I’d prefer to say is - I’m not really a religious person. In fact I think religions are quite dangerous, power structures that can lead to all kinds of terrible mistakes, the history’s not too good - in some senses. - It must equally be said that some of the ideas they promote and contain have allowed the foundation of civilization as we know it. Take for instance that astounding, revolutionary idea of turning the other cheek.
That single concept helped take us out of centuries of civilization sapping vendettas - of us all being subjected to people with short tempers and long memories, and those who would manipulate them.
Appreciation of the wonders of ‘Creation’ was one of the original philosophical cornerstones of Science – making an investigation of the mechanisms of this concept of Creation desirable and therefore possible, as revealing of the intricate marvels of ‘God’s Work’.
Of course, all this came unstuck when Science raced ahead of the church and seemed to contradict it, when Gallileo managed to upset the status quo.
So, on one hand you have the ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ side of religion, the province of the literal, bureaucratic application of morality and the arbitration and ownership of ideas and experience - Fundamentalism, which scares me.
And on the other we have that new sort of Dawkinian response - a parallel fundamentalism using Science, co- opting Darwin and that volatile and partly insane beast, Logic.
This seems intolerant of all grey areas. Of course I have to declare that is where my personal interest really lies - in the uncertain, the peripheral, the overlooked, the neglected, the emergent, the as yet undefined.
It seems to me the point is being lost again in all the dust raised by daft, dull literal arguments about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
A more useful position might be a humble attempt to gain some understanding of what these ideas mean and what their effects and uses might be, in various contexts, as distillations, communicators, transmitters and indicators of vital - and often universal - human experiences and concepts.
Anyhow, these are some of the reasons why I’d much prefer to avoid that entire area of energy sapping static, along with the words ‘religion’ or ‘spiritual’.
I ‘m also convinced that those kinds of experiences, which are often labelled as ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ experiences, are really a part of normal human experience, and are available to everyone. I strongly believe they are not solely the province of religion – I think everyone can access them without reference to religion.
They also seem to operate and have a value in a number of different and very useful ways – as providers of perspectives and emotional and visceral connectiveness – with the universe and with other human beings, animals and plants - together with their respective, overlapping, intellectual, emotional and physical ecologies. And it’s this which really interests me. This delicate tangled web.
The radiance I sometimes refer to occupies this sort of area. I often see people as if in a frozen moment and they seem to have an internal glow inside them. Their skin seems translucent and they carry their own time. I feel calm and distant and warm from this. It can happen in an instant. In very mundane urban situations. You realize you are not looking at a single person, but at a sort of stream or cascade.
It happened yesterday in a supermarket. I happened to glance at a young woman who looked like a transfigured hidden Madonna. She wore jeans and a teeshirt, an ordinary woman. But equally, she was a continuity, a lovely genetic physical thread to other times, both previous and ahead and still unformed. She simply glowed. Quietly and unknowingly luminous. The Eternal Woman.
K-P: The sort of feelings you deal with are more abstract; it’s like you go to those states without reference to the way they’ve traditionally been coded, really.
JF: Yes. I certainly feel there are other ways of allowing these experiences. I feel we may often prevent ourselves from really seeing some things that may be truly important by filtering them through inadequate presumptions. These also need careful untangling.
K-P: You often use the word ‘angelic’, or ‘angel’…
JF: Yes, very perilous territory, especially since these terms have since been co-opted by New Agers. I’ll put on the grey suit to dispel all that.
Many of these spring from what I think of as ‘thought experiments’ - things I employ all the time, as a tool to get at half buried or emerging realizations. If you’re at all interested, I’ll try to outline a few.
Firstly, the idea interested me - still does – of parallel evolutions – imagine something that may have evolved alongside us, something we’re not quite aware of yet, that we haven’t yet discovered.
That may include things which exist in other planes or by other means, or things which resemble human beings so well that we assume them to be human, but they may not be. Yet they live among us undetected.- the possibility that other forms of life may have evolved alongside us, but invisible because of their proximity.
‘Hiding in plain sight’ is a great idea, something that’s very interesting in itself - on one level connected with sleight of hand and parlour tricks and conmen, but on the other hand, very subtle, intuition led perceptions. It could give rise to situations that are tremendously moving, fragile, tender. Metaphorically very resonant.
Another one - I’m also very interested in the concept of a singularity. An event that only happens once, or once every thousand or million years.
There may be rhythms which extend over tens of millions of years and are therefore unrecognizable to us, except as single unconnectable and unexplainable events.
But the fact that we have no context to fit them into, doesn’t mean they don’t happen.
Yet another thought experiments posits the concept of Angels as a connection between things. An entity that only exists between. A sort of web or connection. They arise purely as an intrinsic, invisible and unsuspected component of the evolution of the ecology that supports whatever they exist between. They cannot exist on their own.
K-P: Yeah, because in the Cathedral Oceans book you seem to have stuff on angels which runs parallel with the stuff on ghosts …
JF: I guess it’s all a continuum. Many of us have these little incidents - everything from coincidences onward - things that we can’t explain using the references we commonly employ.
I’m very interested in those things, always have been. Through those odd things, we glimpse something that’s outside the way we usually look at the world, and realise there might be another way of looking at it, an alternate perception to the one we have, and I think that’s a very valuable possibility to keep hold of. The awareness that maybe there are gaps in our perception that we aren’t able to fill yet.
K-P: Yeah, because I think one of the most powerful things - which comes out in Tiny Colour Movies but in retrospect has always been there - is that you’re able to deal with positive, affirmatory feelings that are sort of eerie and uncanny, and a certain kind of calm serenity.
JF: Good, somehow that’s always been a vital component of that sort of experience, for me. A sensation of utter cam and stillness. Miles away from any agitation. It seems deeply positive.
It’s an opposite to the excitement you get from, say, rock and roll… I think in general we like to stir ourselves up in various ways, using art or using media or whatever, and I think it’s just as valid to move against the norm, and the norm at the moment is to speed everything up.
I mean, that’s what we’re trying to attain, aren’t we, through media? - That awful maximization of time and efficient transmission of ‘information’. Some of this is economic – time equals money - and some is simply done because it can be done, and has become an unquestioned convention.
If you could time-jump to show the average TV ad of today to someone twenty or thirty years ago, they wouldn’t understand it. The ad would depend on the viewers perception speed and also on a series of recent references. Our parents simply weren’t fast enough, they hadn’t been accelerated as we have been by media and the pace of modern life, and they also don’t have the inculcated, busy reference chain.
Acceleration is also kind of exciting and interesting, I mean I really enjoy it, sometimes - but it equally leads you to think ‘what happens if you do the opposite?’- it might be just as pleasurable and just as valid to do that.
So, one of the things I want to try to do is work on the other end of this spectrum - see what happens when you slow things down.
I was surprised when I was doing the first music for Cathedral Oceans, using echoes that were 30 seconds long, so the rhythms were 30 seconds between the beats.
It was very interesting slowing down enough to work with that intuitively. You had to do it, you had to synchronise with the track in order to be able to work with it. And it’s very interesting what kind of state you get into – intense, yet calm and tranquil. A sort of trance state.
K-P: I think it's particularly on the LPs with Harold Budd, where you get that sort of aching plateau, where you slow down so much that any peturbation has a massive effect really.
JF: Yeah, exactly. Very well put.
Harold was one of the first people who got that right, I think. One of the very first to have sufficient courage to leave enough space in the music and not fill spaces unnecessarily. Not decorate. Takes an awful lot of quiet courage to do that.
When this is done, it allows an alternative ecology to emerge – one based on events that are much less frequent. And that, of course, affects their significance. You are drawn to them in a sort of smiling fascination, rather than the usual pop music method of lapel grabbing bombardment.
K-P: It seems to be something similar to what you get in Tarkovsky films - where either people say ‘oh, this is too slow I can’t stand it’, or they enter into the slow time of the film and anything that happens almost becomes too much.
JF: Exactly, you can concentrate on any event very thoroughly, when that mode of perception is made available. Events become stately and welcome and valued and significant, and their arrival and departure can be fully experienced. The lack of jostling allows that sort of elegant notional space to open up.
It functions at the other end of the spectrum from commercial t.v. and cinema, and of rock & roll. Both ends can be equally interesting, I think.
K-P: Yeah, I was actually listening to one of the pieces on Tiny Colour Movies and it was like you’d imposed the stillness and calmness of painting and photography or a certain type of film onto - the agitation of rock, really.
JF: Yeah, that’s interesting, yes.
K-P: Because certain kind of dreams - the dreams we’re most familiar with are hyper-agitated, full of urgency etc, and there’s another type of dream quality you seem to get to where those urgencies are suspended and you’re out of that everyday life push-and-pull, really. I wondered - there seems to be a certain aching, or longing quality - these are words you seem to use a lot in your music…
JF: Well, dreams are a very important component. I realized that it is not simply the image you present yourself with, in a dream, which is important – it’s also the emotional tone of the scene. You can see a cloud, but this will be accompanied by a sense of wonder or by a sense of dread, and it is that accompaniment which determines its meaning.
The employment of these images and tones are some of the things that everyone shares, aren’t they? They’re composed of bits of unique personal events and references and memories, such as longings that you might have had when you’re a child.
When your parents are away even for an hour it feel as though it goes on forever and you really deeply miss them - and the abstraction, the tone component of that just carries on through life. Gets applied to different situations. These longings - and all other emotional parts of the spectrum - join the repertoire of tones we carry and apply. Some moments last forever.
K-P: But there’s almost a positive side, almost an enjoyment of longing and ache.
JF: Oh yes, where the observer part of you acknowledges an emotional connection with the rest. Simultaneously you feel as though you are very integrated, yet you are being gently pulled away from yourself. Gently disengaged.
K-P: Isn’t the ‘emotionless’ quality of your music more to do with a certain kind of calm?
JF: Yes, it’s quite a complex thing, a compound. There are states where there’s a sensation of time passing, things changing, knowing the world is changing, falling in on itself, and reforming. And you may even be in the process of doing just that yourself.
But there are moments where you just stand by and watch it all, where you’re aware of it, in a moment that seems to go on forever. So it’s something of standing in a still place and watching the patterns in passing crowds and even in your own life. Can be a very powerful experience.
That stillness, and the maintainence of a quiet dignity in the face of insurmountable circumstances can be immensely moving to witness.
It can be much more effective and moving if someone tells the story in an unemotional or undramatic way. You find that in Ishiguro. Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go are good examples of that kind of writing, where the most important components remain unstated. The Leopard is suffused with, and is dependent on a variant of this.
It’s also allied to a device used in different ways by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Cary Grant. - An archetypical figure attempts to retain dignity in the face of the worldly chaos while remaining ever hopeful of romance.
And with Ballard and Burroughs, you get an almost gentlemanly, middle class version of a similar sort of stance – mayhem of all kinds observed from a disengaged viewpoint.
K-P: OK, so you’re recording this new album now. How does that compare with previous ones you’ve done with Louis?
JF: It’s similar in a way, because when we get together we work in a similar way. But I think this album is a little more abstract, the beats and vocals – in fact all the elements - are much more cut-up than previously.
There are more abstract elements too - things we wanted to do, but couldn’t before, but now technology allows it. You can really chop things up and turn them around and change them.
Many of the songs have a cut-up feeling, because they are made up of various improvised takes which have been cut up ruthlessly and reassembled. A good way of catching the moment and not over polishing a performance along the way, so it still feels fresh. There are some new themes – ‘Friendly Fire’ and ‘Another You’ and ‘From Trash’.
That’s what’s new about it, but it’s still recognizable, I think, as what we do.
K-P: How big is the psychedelic influence, because that seemed to come back with the stuff you’ve done with Louis?
JF: Well we both like that, certain kinds of psychedelia, not all of it. It mainly stems from ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the Beatles track. A little of that is present but more subsumed in the Electron Rock. Still a healthy amount of dislocation though.
K-P: There’s a strong influence on your vocal style from The Beatles, isn’t there?
JF: Yeah, well that’s just what I grew up with, and also where I grew up – in the North, equidistant between Manchester and Liverpool.
I think the main influences are church music, that period of psychedelia, the blues I guess, along with cheap radio and film music I heard when I was a child and later, when I went hitchhiking in Europe, as a teenager. And the context - which can’t be neglected – The passing of an era, ruin and reformation, a sort of wary, drifting, celebration of urbanity.
That psychedelic side is very important. I remember hearing ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ when it came out - and it had a drum loop and backward and collaged tapes as well as drones, which people hadn’t used before.
I realized it was something which couldn’t have been arrived at without a recording studio, yet it seemed strangely alive – a perfect mating of art and technology. It seemed like the future of imagination in music – and in many ways it was. A prime indicator.
It is also one of Brian Eno’s favourite tracks - you can hear the influence of it on Talking Head’s ‘Remain in Light’. I was pleased to discover that, and a couple of other things, when we worked together. Gave us a nice instant common vocabulary outside the expected Art School set of references.
Thanks to Owen for the transcription.
In his recent interview with Ballardian, Iain Sinclair told Tim Chapman that ‘they’re treating these literary classics from another era as if they were heritage Dickens. Probably that’s a mistake – you’ve got to really get down and hack it to pieces and find something that really works in film terms, something that honours the spirit of the original book. You can’t just make the film of the book – it doesn’t work.’
It would be hard to think of a film that follows this advice less assiduously than Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, surely the most faithful adaptation of a PKD novel to date. Oddly, the rotoscoping technique adds to the sense of fidelity to the novel, since it has the effect of lending the film something of the oneiric vagueness of the images that pass through your mind as you read the book.
As Steven Shaviro pointed out, 'the “look and feel” of the rotoscope technique is itself the real meaning' of Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. 'Rotoscoping, at least in Linklater’s use of it, is rooted in the real, but the real has been somehow displaced or distorted — with the implication that this displacement and distortion is itself, in a deeper sense, the bedrock Real of the society of addiction and control.'
I (contra Sinclair) maintain that, as a rule, SF adaptations should be made as period pieces, and Linklater’s film works because it remains rooted in the 70s. There is no facile attempt to ‘update’ the novel or its concerns. One of my problems with Weiss’s Atrocity Exhibition, the film which prompted Sinclair’s remarks, is that it is not sufficiently rooted in the Sixties.
A Scanner Darkly is about the painfully drawn-out end of the Sixties – the collapse of psychedelic expansiveness into sulphate pyschosis. Its analogue in pop would lie somewhere between the sleazy strung-out street corner clamour of On the Corner and the burned-out synaptic tenements of Unknown Pleasures, between Funkadelic's derangement at its most doleful and Cabaret Voltaire's paranoia at its most personality-disintegrated. A Scanner Darkly is one of Dick’s bleakest novels, and almost certainly his saddest. Few could remain unmoved when confronted with the list of real-life casualties listed at the end of the novel (a litany of the drug-damaged that Linklater solemnly repeats at the end of the film).
Although it was published in 1977, A Scanner Darkly’s mood is already postpunk. Or postpostpunk, since the novel’s scenario – speedfreaks inserted into an acephalic Control apparatus – fast forwards past the highs and cuts straight to the comedown whine of long-term psychiatric damage, institutionalisation and premature death. Both the novel and the film are remarkable, in fact, for their unstinting desublimation of drugs . The most censorious anti-drug campaigner could not have portrayed them more negatively. Only the bad side of Substance D (=speed) – permanent psychosis, bugs crawling from out under the skin into the Real, where they are ineradicable – is expressionistically presented. Instead of showing the speed rush from inside the delirium, Dick and Linklater’s unblinking scanners (as unforgiving as a reality TV camera) record the vices of the habitual drug-user - unreliability, tedious self-involvement, a seemingly infinite capacity to squander time and resources - from outside.
Both the novel and the film function as a kind of requiem for speed. In the immediate postwar years, amphetamine was sold - like ubik - as a wonder-drug cure-all prescribed for a stupefyingly compendious array of medical problems, including ‘asthma, epilepsy, obesity, travel sickness, narcolepsy, schizophrenia, impotence, Parkinson’s disease, hyperactive disorders in children and apathy in old age. … A 1946 report listed thirty-nine different disorders for which Benzendrine – only one of the three main types of amphetamine – was the recommended treatment.’
Amphetamine, safe if used as directed? Even the advertising slogans Joseph cites – such as ‘Two pills are better than a month’s vacation’ – sound like they have been lifted wholesale from Dick’s fiction.
There is a sense in which - metonymically - speed was postwar, prepostmodern capital, not only because amphetamine gave users more time to consume, but because it induced their bodies into a becoming-capital. As they ingested speed, users transformed their own nervous systems into miniaturized version of capital’s boom and bust cycles. Like capital, speed, in itself, is nothing; ‘the great pretender, a charlatan that deceives the body into adjusting to heady heights of nervous activity by … altering its internal thermostat’, speed stimulates, but without bringing any new energy into the organism. Like speed, capital’s hype-dynamics appear to produce something from nothing. But the cost when it is called in - and it always is - is vast ...
Speed was certainly the Cold War drug - everyone knows that Kennedy was famously wired during the Cuban Missile Crisis - and seeing A Scanner Darkly now makes one suddenly aware that Dick’s fiction presupposed the Cold War as a constant backdrop. The Cold War recurs - distorted, refracted, deflected -as a Real in all of Dick's worlds. It's possible to position A Scanner Darkly was one of the last moments in a trajectory of Cold War SF paranoia dating back to the 50s. SF and the Cold War were inseperable from the start: it would be too hasty to say that something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a simple transposition of Cold War paranoia into SF, because the Cold War itself already mobilized a Science Fictional language of stealth invasion, parasitism and insidious transformation.
It’s no surprise, then, to find that A Scanner Darkly is the novel in which Dick is closest to Le Carre. The phrase Zizek uses to describe Highsmith's deadlocks and longueurs - the ‘inertia of the Real’ - applies equally to Le Carre and Dick. In all three, narrative runs aground on 'the lack of resolution, the dragging-on of the "empty time," which characterize the stupid factuality of life.'
Inertia... Although Dick already takes for granted what Donna Haraway will eventually plod onscreen to tell us: that we are disturbingly inert, while our machines are disturbingly lively. When Dick recounts the same message, it is in the terms of Beyond the Pleasure Principle: 'The drive of unliving things is stronger than the drive of living things'
In A Scanner Darkly, as in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, all intersubjective relations devolve into webs of suspicion and betrayal. It goes with the territory, and the territory is nowhere - an existential East Berlin where everything you do has to be deniable. You're guided by the grim categorical imperative which agents ignore at their peril: act as if the person to whom you are talking to will sell you out. If they haven't fucked you over yet, just wait... If they don't fuck you over, you'll do it to yourself... Before long, you split in two, like Arctor, and then there's no way back (all the king's horses and all the king's men ... ). But total mental breakdown is the best cover of all ('they can't interrogate something, someone, who doesn't have a mind'). Double agents, double lives, shivering on street corners, not sure if you're the Man or waiting for the Man, but you're always waiting... Cold war and junkie Cold, cold efficiency ("I am warm on the outside, what people see. Warm eyes, warm face, warm fucking fake smile, but inside I am cold all the time, and full of lies"), the duplicities and self-deceptions of the addict doubling those of the spy in deep cover:
Wraiths, spooks, 'evaporating girls', stalking a morally neutral Greeneland in which everyone plays a part but no-one is responsible. Here, paranoia no longer assumes the florid form of Schreber's delirium; it is routinized, as grey as used bed sheets, as solid as styrofoam, a 'monochrome game of disappointment, deferral, the next drink, the clink of ice cubes, the creak of mattress springs, the abyssal swirl of cigarette smoke up to the ancient ceiling....' (IP again)
The novel is actually set in 1992, and it ominously foreshadows the permanent winter of postmodernity. 'The winter of spirit. Mors ontologica. When the spirit is dead.' Arctor-Fred-Bruce's passage from speedfreak schizophrenic to patched-up penitent uncannily anticipates the switch from speed-modernism to depression that the culture as a whole will undergo. 'No future ... only this'. Dick's coolly precise diagnosis of the former Arctor's condition applies to postmodernity in general:
Postmodernity as undeath... Reiteration without the possibility of innovation... you're dead, but you don't know it.... Human time has run out...
The New-Path centre where Arctor-Fred-Bruce is sent to 'recover', with its the mixture of Gestalt nonsense, tranquilizer-enforced pacification and cheap religiose piety, is almost an archetype of postmodern power. Nothing new in New-Path.... No future...only this. The section of the novel in which PKD describes the induction into New-Path - the dead-eyed Arctor-shell asked to mop the floor by an orderly, then sitting impassively, indifferently, a thousand miles away, while others converse ghoulishly around him - chillingly captures the blank withdrawal of clinical depression and the banal horror of institutionalization. No future... only this.
In the (circa 1945-1989) speed modernist era, culture, technology and social change were in a relationship of interexcitation. Postmodernity, by contrast, is characterized by a radical disjunction between technological and social change on the one hand and culture on the other. The rate of technological and social change has by no means decreased – quite to the contrary in fact – but culture no longer acts as a transmitter and intensifier but as a ‘future-shock absorber’ (Eshun), which cools and slows the impact of the new. Culture increasingly falls into the role of retrofitting the anomalous into the homely. The Graphic User Interface of the PC - which familiarizes the front-end of the computer by converting it into something that can be understood through the rear-view mirror - is a perfect illustration of this trend. Gadgets themselves take on the role that speed once played - consider the endless electric midday that computer games open up, for instance - with Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) now acting as the dampeners in a seamless stimulus-control interpacification circuit. Look into the black-rimmed insomniac eyes of a teenager to see the system at work... SSRIs are the neurological band-aid late-capital puts on the brain damage it inflicts...
SSRIs are the perfect therapeutic drug for Control society, since they don't so much cure depression as manage and normalize it. The 'side-effects' of SSRIs include slowness of thought, reduced libido and suicidal impulses, i.e. depression. But, since SSRIs suffuse you in a cotton wool haze, you no longer care that you are depressed. You feel like Fred in New-Path, well-adjusted to the fact that nothing can ever happen again. (Why did you ever think it could?)
It's worth noting here that the widespread use of mood-altering drugs for depression and anxiety points to an inconsistency in commonsense metaphysics. Most people find the idea that the mind is the brain abhorrent, yet they happily take drugs whose efficacy presupposes just such an equivalence. (Dick's 1964 novel, The Simulacra, begins with the banning of psychoanalysis: the only permissible treatment for mental illness is pharmacological.)
Perhaps more than any other writer, Dick anticipated the way that postmodernity would turn out, so it is both ironic and fitting that Dick's own fictions should have been so central to postmodern culture. There has been no film more important in postmodernity than Blade Runner, and it is to be hoped that Linklater's A Scanner Darkly might rescue Dick (and also SF) from the by now almost entirely negative influence of Ridley Scott's film.
Gibson’s novels are not fashionable at the moment, but – despite Neuromancer being so similar to Blade Runner that when he first saw the film, Gibson thought that he was dreaming it, that that the images were streaming direct from his unconscious - Blade Runner remains canonical. Yet Blade Runner, like Neuromancer, effectively postmodernizes both pulp and the avant garde. Noir - itself postmodernized - is the vehicle for this appropriation, providing the texts with a ready-made (and by now far too familiar) veneer of stylishness and street sass. Gibson referred to his use of Burroughs, Ballard and Dick as an ‘airbrushing’. This description would apply equally well to Scott’s hyper-aestheticized rendition of Dick, which excises all the trash which isn't picturesque, elmininates the low-rent kookiness and transforms Dick's balding, paunchy losers into classically anti-heroic Noir 'tecs. Blade Runner's impact quickly went beyond influence, and it became metonymically implicated in late capitalism. Scott's Noir near-future quickly collapsed into capital's postmodern present; at a certain point in the eighties, it seemed that every advert was filmed inside the Tyrell corporation. Hollywood, evidently, was hypnotized by Blade Runner; and after The Matrix, SF remains trapped in the sleek, chic noir-lite black leather prison that Blade Runner designed.
Of all the substractions that Scott makes, the most significant is the excision of the theme of ontological vertigo, or reality bleed, from Dick's fiction. (In maintaining a focus on that theme, Verhoeven’s pulpier Total Recall is far closer to PKD than is Blade Runner). The question around which Blade Runner is organized – is this an android or is it a human? – effectively keeps it locked at the level of Baudrillard’s second order of simulacra, but the prescience of Dick’s fiction was to have broached the third order of simulacra, where the status of reality as such is in question. Dick’s affinity with Gnosticism consists in large part in his suspicion that the whole of lived reality, not merely technical artefacts within that frame, is a simulation.
In A Scanner Darkly, the moment of reality bleed comes when, in the words of Steve Shaviro,
How are to read this, the pivotal scene of the film? It is almost as if the scanners have acted as analysts, exposing the Real of Arctor's desire for Donna. ('To love an atmospheric spirit. That was the real sorrow. Hoplessness itself. Nowhere on the printed page, nowhere in the annals of man, would her name appear: no local habitation, no name. There are girls like that, he thought, and those you love the most, the ones where there is no hope because it has eluded you at the very moment you close your hands around it.') Or as if the surveillance machines - the means, supposedly, by which we verify whether an event has happened or not - have themselves begun to fantasize. In any case, this moment of ontological scrambling is the 'wound in Being' into which the film and the novel both implode.
In a McDonalds franchise, Donna and Mike discuss damnation:
"In hell they sell you nickel-bags and when you get home there's M-and-M's in them."
"M-and-M's made of turkey turds," Donna said, then all at once she was gone.
Death to New-Path...
Ah, back in the cool embrace of cyberspace. Broadband link finally established in new base camp...
Ahead of the promised rash of big posts, I must just say something about Gordon Brown's television interview last Sunday.
The whole Brown-Blair soap opera perfectly illustrates that the concept of the big Other is indispensable for understanding the current mode of the capitalist-parliamentarian Spectacle. (Let's be clear, this is a soap opera; when the Tory party imploded a decade and a half ago, it was over issues of policy - Labour's current disintegration is down to personalities and ambition.) Only the notion that there is a big Other who remains ignorant can account for why both Blair and Brown refuse to publicly acknowledge what everyone knows; that they are bitter rivals who despise each other.
The interview revealed the extent to which Brown is Nixon to Blair's Kennedy. It is as impossible to imagine bare-faced Messiah Blair enduring private doubts as it is imagine the brooding Brown looking confident in public. When Blair is telling a lie, he looks as if he believes it, and believes it with every fibre of his thespian being. But even when Brown is telling the truth he looks shifty and mendacious. The would-be personable grin his image consultants have told him to adopt comes off as creepy and menacing; it exudes the Bond-villain fake bonhomie of a man who knows that his goons will break the legs of anyone who crosses him.
Brown's performance was so extraordinarily, uncomfortably bad that it prompted the Times to suggest that the interview might turn out to be 'the moment when the leadership began drifting ineluctably out of his grasp'. Such proclamations have a hypersitional efficacy, of course. The very fact that it is now possible to entertain the possiblity that Brown might not become P.M. makes that contingency more likely. Up until recently, Brown has had hypersitional magic on his side - he would 'inevitably' succeed Blair. But now it increasingly looks as if we are about to witness, once again, something 'inevitable' not happening... (But don't worry - Retcon will smooth over any anomalies, it always does...)
Jameson's excellent piece on Zizek's The Parallax View is on the LRB site (but the illustrated version at Subject Barred is more alluring...)
As a contribution to the discussion of Le Carre and Spooks over at the Pillbox, here's something I prepared earlier....
Pending a proper post, a few connections and links.
Of all the intriguing moments in Tim Chapman's fascinating interview with Iain Sinclair over at the ever-excellent Ballardian (Sinclair so much more arresting and engaging as a commentator and critic than as a novelist, where writerly obsurantism fogs over all his insights and sharpness), this is one of the most telling:
Sinclair: He said that, which was very surprising, but in a sense he doesn’t need to because it’s almost like his mental landscape. He did say to me he’d never really been to the East End of London — he had no real interest or desire in seeing it. He’d done a car trip once to go and have a look at the Millennium Dome but he never got out of the car — just drove past it and went back again to Shepperton.
C: It’s probably the best way to see it.
Sinclair: It probably is, but this is the absolute opposite of what I feel. Always, the way is that you walk. You start from wherever you are and you walk slowly through the city, and your narrative is revealed. He just doesn’t feel the need to work in that way at all. He fillets from magazines, watches random TV, and looks at technical reports, scientific journals, and just cuts up and accumulates this material. In the 60s, he was using it fairly straight in a fragmented way, and now it’s become finessed into something that’s almost like a standard literary novel, but once you look below the surface it’s something else.
... all of which compares interestingly with the following, taken from a conversation between Jeremy Greenspan and John Foxx that I convened when the Junior Boys were in London a few weeks ago:
John Foxx: I used to live near there. I used to walk there all the time.
JG: Do you know what I mean? There must have been something about that place, just the quality of the plaza spaces, and everything being subsumed into this complex.
JF: It’s like a model for a London that never was, and it could have been easily, and some of it is like that.
JG: Would you want to live in that London?
JF: I almost did live in the Barbican. I went to see a flat in there, I thought very carefully about it, and then, just accidentally, I got one nearby. I just like the way it’s all self-contained.
JG: Yeah, so do I. It’s like Bentall box living …I mean, so much of the sort of thing that influences me is this periphery, this strip mall thing, and I think most people’s inclination when I write about it is that I’m writing some sort of critique, you know, ‘Why is it that we have to put up with this?’ but obviously I find something haunting and beautiful about it…
Further extracts from the Foxx/Greenspan dialogue will appear in October's Dazed & Confused....
Ian Mathers on Joy Division... Prompts me to reflect that an absolute gulf separates the Joy Division Event - which can now only be re-constructed from faded cassettes, overlit Super8 footage and primitive VHS - from today's anticipative commemoration. No doubt every one of the Editors' grave-robbing performances has been digitally recorded, as part of a virulently proliferating archive which no-one will ever want to access. (How is it, by the way, that a group such as the Editors, who would have been dismissed as fifteenth-rate JD imitators in 1980, not only escape derision but enjoy a modicum of respect?)
Sometime k-punk correspondent and fancied wit Dejan Nikolic now has a splendid blog...
Must also mention Penman, on top form atm, especially in his dizzying, dazzling disection of George Smiley's diseased lung....
Sorry that there's been no posts here for a while, but, for the past week or so, most of my time and energy has gone into setting up my new base of operations in the witch-haunted flatlands of Suffolk. I won't have a broadband connection until next Tuesday... But I hope that, before then, I will be able to post up my thoughts on A Scanner Darkly... After that, the long-awaited John Foxx interview and the second part of the Fall piece should, at last, appear...