Thursday, 25 September 2014

Review: Wold, Postsocial (Profound Lore)

Despite the deliberately obscure nature of their (relatively few) press releases, the origins of Sean Campbell’s Wold project can be traced to the Saskatchewan plains, and the industrial city of Moose Jaw, Canada. Lying nearly a thousand miles from the coast, this remote spot was where Campbell (or Fortress Crookedjaw, as he is usually credited) released his first self-titled CDr back in 2001. Over the course of four subsequent full-lengths, culminating in the appropriately-titled Working Together For Our Privacy, Campbell developed a hybrid form of tape music and black metal as forbidding (and seemingly hermetic) as the pre-live catalogue of Jandek’s Corwood Industries. The fifth Wold album, Freermasonry, received considerably more attention in Europe than its predecessors, as Stephen O’Malley oversaw a pressing on his Ideologic Organ label, the cacophonous slab of vinyl having been cut in Berlin by Rashad Becker.

At the midpoint of its central track, through a thick fog of third-generation cassette noise, Postsocial (momentarily) presents the listener with the rudiments of an electric guitar solo. That this comes as such a surprise demonstrates the gulf that Sean Campbell has put between his Wold project and the forms of metal practised by his professed heroes, British bands such as Judas Priest or Venom. It was a 1982 release from the latter, of course, that gave the name to the entire genre, but Campbell seems determined to take nothing from subsequent black metal but its sheer volume, along with a devoted fascination for the sound of some seriously degraded media. While William Basinski’s work with deteriorating loops of tape can be profoundly elegiac, Wold’s fifth album resembles a Darkthrone or Mayhem cassette that has been bootlegged without mercy, smudging riffs and lyrics into a cacophonous and indistinguishable whole.

It is worth asking whether Postsocial ought to be classed as metal at all. Lacking the verse patterning (and discernable instrumentation) of Southern Lord’s formidable grindcore acts (such as Nails), the album also stands apart from more ‘civilised’ avant-metal LPs (such as Monoliths & Dimensions, with its clear nods to Alice Coltrane and Miles Davis). Indeed, last year’s Gravetemple residency at Oto saw even Attila Csihar himself nudged into a kosmiche jazz mould, with O’Malley and Ambarchi deploying drones and cymbal brushes rather than feedback and nosebleeds. By combining his own structural innovations with such extremes of sonic violence, Campbell has thus sketched out a hybrid form of tape music and experimental metal quite unlike the work of his southern contemporaries.

And yet there remains that glorious (and rather goofy) guitar solo, looming into place halfway through “Five Points.” This idiosyncratic moment, placed at the dead centre of the album, gladly reminds the listener that they are not listening to a lost study by Pierre Schaeffer, or even Merzbow. Postsocial is not a lesson in tape music; it is also a concept album to rival Judas Priest, constructed around an aural pentagram and hosted by Campbell’s alter-ego, Fortress Crookedjaw. It may seem paradoxical for a record so defined by excess – both conceptual and acoustic – but Wold’s latest ultimately works best as an exercise in radical subtraction. Over the course of 45 cacophonous minutes, the album erases almost everything that has come to define the subgenre, from solos and screeches to blast beats and amplifiers, until we are left with nothing but the monstrous rumbling of tape itself.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Review: James Ferraro, Cold

The crooning R&B-styled vocals that crop up on almost every track here might come as a surprise to those who caught up with James Ferraro following his move to the LA-based Hippos in Tanks label in 2011. Since then, Far Side Virtual found room for some buried singing on just one track (‘Dream On’), while last year’s Sushi LP removed the distinct human voice altogether, reducing any vocal samples to robotic chirps and chopped-up gasps. On fifteen of Cold’s seventeen tracks, an auto-tuned Ferraro murmurs away about collapsed relationships (“You used to have my back / Now you’re fucking with my life”), John Woo visions (“Dove, dove keep shining / dove, keeps on flying”), and the tinted windows of imagined limousines. The mixtape abounds with references to classic funk and R&B (a cyborg Apollo-era James Brown is conjured up by the closing refrain of ‘Dove’), and on first listen Cold appears to be a disarmingly sincere contribution to the jaded hipster blues of so-called PBR&B, joining the ranks of Drake, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, and even Kanye West (circa 808s & Heartbreak). 

To those familiar with either Night Dolls with Hairspray or any of Ferraro’s later ‘Muscleworks Inc’ recordings (such as Feed Me and On Air), this fresh persona might seem a little suspicious. Where earlier albums dealt with killer nerds, TV addicts and human cockroaches, Cold turns out to be a deadpan account of the kind of navel-gazing endemic in its target genre. The illegible vocal sample that runs throughout the self-pitying ‘Fade’, for example, is revealed (through headphones) to be an unprintable obscenity directed at the singer himself. Similarly, the lyrics to ‘Slave to Rain’ are hilariously nihilistic, a kind of ‘Pennies from Heaven’ for the HD generation, promising to “have babies and shower them with cash / Cold hard cash.” The artist’s shifting stance is most hauntingly evident in the penultimate song (‘Turned Opp’), as a distorted voice praises “LOVELY LOVELY CASH” beneath the repeated lament: “I’m just trying to live properly / Let me burn...” 

Doing for jet-lagged R&B what Zappa did for the more sickly corners of doo-wop, Cold is a stark addition to Ferraro’s ongoing account of our era and its cultural detritus.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Ghost Dance: Re-evaluating Terrence Malick’s darkest film

Newborn, I open my eyes... I fall into the flame. You brought me out of the shadows. You lifted me from the ground.”

Delivered in subtitled French, over some alarmingly lo-fi digital footage, Olga Kurylenko's ecstatic words launch the opening monologue of Terrence Malick’s sixth film, To the Wonder. On first viewing, they seem to repeat the kind of romantic reverie that has underscored so many of the director’s past films (especially the revered 1970s pair), a series of visions of erotic love as a shortcut to sublimity. In dramatic terms, however, the language used seems a little too frank: if love has been acknowledged as a ‘born again’ experience in the opening seconds of the film, then it is hard to see how the remaining 113 minutes will generate any real affective weight. 

Upon walking out of the cinema six months ago, these concerns seemed to have been well-founded: while the arrival of Rachel McAdams’s ‘Jane’ had formed a momentary eddying love triangle a third of the way into the film, the work seemed a monotonous slab of melodrama, utterly lacking the sheer historical power of his earlier masterpieces (The Thin Red Line and The New World), and failing to recapture the grim theological urgency of The Tree of Life. Where the latter’s audacious theodicy involved a jaw-dropping recreation of the deity’s ‘speech from the whirlwind’ (Job 40:6–42:6), To the Wonder seemed content with an extended illustration of the notion of marriage as a mirror of Christ’s relationship with the church (Ephesians 5:23). The director's new film, strangely pedantic and literal, seemed to altogether lack its predecessor’s profound tragic resonance, a quality that quite superseded personal belief, as evidenced by that work's deserved winning of the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

Even Roger Ebert’s warm review (his last) was rather hesitant, admitting that “as the film opened, I wondered if I was missing something.” In this sense, the closing paragraphs of the late critic’s article are movingly candid:
"Well," I asked myself, "why not?" Why must a film explain everything? [...] There will be many who find To the Wonder elusive and too effervescent. They'll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.
Over the past six months, to my surprise, Malick’s sixth film has stuck with me. Certain malevolent images have resurfaced with the nagging insistence of a horror film (the wellington-booted ‘Neil’ picking his insolent way through the fatally diseased mud of Bartlesville; ‘Jane’ edging past a nest of torch-lit dolls in her oppressively gloomy house; or ‘Marina’ herself, peering through their shrouded windows out into the deserted neon streets). Unlike Badlands or Days of Heaven, in which the forces of darkness were fairly explicit (and criminal), To the Wonder seemed to conceal a deeper unease, juxtaposing the three protagonists’ privileged ennui with the brooding existential doubt of Father Quintana, asking: “Why do you turn your back? All I see is destruction. Failure. Ruin.” An extended work of quasi-Lutheran deus absconditus, Malick’s latest film shared with Quintana the painful sense that the deity was hidden to the contemporary world, leading to its savage portrait of our debased era, packed with glitched Skype calls and electrical garage doors.

Aside from the vague echo of Ephesians, however, the depiction of Neil’s failed romance seemed to bear little relevance to such grand concerns, and the ‘born again’ romantic notions introduced by Marina’s opening monologue formed a rather bland distraction from the profound questions lurking at the heart of the film. As Joe Neumaier complained in the New York Daily News, the film appeared “dreamlike but empty: Olga Kurylenko just keeps dancing...”

Given that the vast majority of the film was set (and shot) in the Oklahoma town in which the director was raised, it is intriguing to learn that this southern state was also the primary historical location of the Nanissáanah, the Native American ‘ghost dance’ of the 1890s. Created by a Nevadan Paiute named Wovoka in 1888, each ritual performance of the Nanissáanah lasted for four whole days, during which (according to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture): 
“the dancer would be transported to the afterworld where departed relatives were seen living the old, happy life of the prereservation era, when bison abounded”. 
Wovoka's extended conjuration ritual, summoning the ghosts of the dead and opening liminal pathways to the bison-rich pre-Columbian age, was soon seen by the US government as an act of political resistance, ultimately leading to the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29th 1890. Following the slaughter, a US soldier proudly noted that his regiment had “Sent 200 Indians to that Heaven which the ghost dancer enjoys. This checked the Indian noise, and Gen. Miles with staff Returned to Illinois.” The act of attempted genocide was approvingly reported by the young L. Frank Baum (later to gain fame for creating the escapist frontier of Oz), who saw the massacre of the ghost-dancers as a step forward in the ongoing drive to “wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth”.

These historical crimes form the darkest substrata of the poisoned soil in Malick’s film, and the ceaseless acts of dancing (that so irritated Joe Neumaier) seem to be part of the director’s ongoing effort to forge his own path back to the “prereservation era, when bison abounded”, locating an alternative historical track. In his sixth film Malick is again seeking what Thomas Pynchon has called “the fork in the road America never took, the singular point she jumped the wrong way from..."

While it remains far less explicit than the ecocidal war of The Thin Red Line (or the doomed Wagnerian portrait of Pocahontas and Smith in The New World), this murderous backdrop hints already at the brooding malevolence that was detectable upon even a cursory viewing of Malick’s film. The Aeolian harp that Marina listens to with such rapt attention, for example, seems less a symbol of the Shelleyan divine (“Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is!”), and more of creeping Coleridgean dejection: “the dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes upon the strings of this Aeolian lute, which better far were mute.” Marina’s harp is catching at the gloomy air of the dead lands that surround her, rendering the atmosphere of the nation horribly audible, and underscoring her own terminal Nanissáanah. (Even when the Aeolian harp is absent, a low droning effect haunts the majority of To the Wonder, courtesy of Daniel Lanois, who is credited with ‘Sonics and Variations’ at the end of the film.)

To fully comprehend Malick’s enigmatic ghost-dance, however, it is necessary to consider the private realm as well as the public: like The Tree of Life, this is a work of spiritual autobiography rather than national history, and it has been constructed from such personal material that (as Ebert recognised) we are at constant risk of “missing something”. Modern Hollywood, of course, is very fond of autobiographical cinema – in recent interviews, Oscar-beloved directors such as David O. Russell and Richard Linklater have been eager to reveal the personal stories behind their work, with Russell declaring that Silver Linings Playbook is “personal to me, because I’ve lived through some of these experiences with my son,” and Linklater revealing that the Before trilogy is “personal and I don’t talk about it, but I met a girl in Philadelphia in 1989, and we ended up spending the night walking around, flirting...” While there is a certain affected coyness to such remarks (leading to the enormous ‘but’ that excuses Linklater’s kiss-and-tell commentary), they reveal the contemporary film industry’s voracious appetite for ‘personal’ detail. After Stanley Kubrick’s death, even Eyes Wide Shut was dragged into such a context, with Tom Cruise telling journalists that the film was “as personal a story as [Kubrick]’s ever done”.

For Malick, of course, this demand for extraneous ‘personal’ commentary poses a problem: the director has refused to give any formal interviews since 1979, insisting that the work stands alone. This stance, admirable and effective enough in relation to the four historical films that launched his career, begins to create interpretive difficulties following his late turn towards autobiographical material; with The Tree of Life the director seemed to make some deliberate concessions in this direction, making the underlying personal tragedy (Larry Malick’s death in 1968) fairly explicit in the film’s heart-rending opening scenes. To the Wonder, however, is far more elliptical, refusing to grant any real access to the private events that underscore the film’s onscreen meditation. 

By turning to the few biographical articles that have been published (in particular Peter Biskind’s lengthy 1998 piece for Vanity Fair), it is possible to assemble an approximate account of the individuals and circumstances depicted in To the Wonder. The four central characters correspond quite closely with the director himself, and three others:

  • Neil = Terrence Malick (who grew up in Bartlesville Oklahoma, and moved to Paris in 1980)
  • Marina = Michèle Morette (who met Malick in Paris, 1980; moved to Austin and married him in 1985; agreed to a divorce in 1998)
  • Tatiana = Alex Morette (Michèle’s daughter, who returned to Paris to live with her father aged 15)
  • Jane = Alexandra Wallace (Malick’s sweetheart from St. Stephen's Episcopal school in Austin, who married the director in 1998)

Assembled in such crude terms, the film is revealed as a kind of autobiographical roman à clef, exploring the obscure years between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), a period in which the director spent time in Paris before returning to Texas with Michèle Morette and her daughter (who left soon afterwards), where the couple married, and then separated. The succeeding marriage to Rachel McAdams’s ‘Jane’ (Alexandra Wallace) thus presumably awaits Neil at the end of the film, offering what might appear to be a rather cheerful conclusion: an uplifting comedy, in the best Elizabethan tradition ("A heaven on earth I have won by wooing thee").

Except, of course, that this ending is denied us: To the Wonder ends instead with the dejected Marina (Michèle Morette) vanishing into an forbiddingly dark airport tunnel, before reappearing, inexplicably drenched in water, on an unidentifiable grassland. Dancing a final Nanissáanah, she drifts towards a pylon on the horizon, moving further and further away from Malick’s lens until a bright light abruptly catches her face, and she ‘sees’ the wonder, the insular abbey of Mont Saint-Michel (‘La Merveille’), Normandy:

This closing montage is far from the Elizabethan marriage scenario that we might expect from the biographical outline above, and it is only really comprehensible once we discover the sad fact that Michèle Morette passed away in July 2008. Malick received this news just three months after he had begun shooting The Tree of Life, and the loss evidently haunted his sixth film from its very inception. Marina’s opening monologue is not simply the paen to ‘born again’ love that it appears upon an initial viewing; it is a disarmingly direct response to the cinematic act of incantation itself, the first utterance of a summoned voice glad to have been (temporarily) raised from the otherworld:

Newborn, I open my eyes... I fall into the flame. You brought me out of the shadows. You lifted me from the ground.”

Kurylenko’s ‘Marina’, then, is a kind of filmic apparition, dancing the Nanissáanah through the numinous space of the director’s Oklahoma grassland, made dimly aware of her own immateriality. Affleck’s ‘Neil’ is (along with the directorial Malick himself) a kind of Orpheus figure, who has raised a deceased lover “from the ground,” but is unable to fully accept her reincarnated form. Like Eurydice, she stands a few feet behind him in the garden of ‘La Merveille’, and he is appreciably reluctant to turn and look directly at her:

When these two black-garbed figures do finally embrace, Marina’s breath immediately clouds, and Malick cuts to a shot of the same garden (green just moments earlier), covered with a thin layer of snow:

Unlike anything in the director’s prior filmography, this sequence offers filmmaking in the chilliest symbolist tradition, recalling the haunted contemporary Paris of Cocteau’s Orphée (1950) more than the pastoral romances of Badlands or Days of Heaven.

Following on from this unsettling prologue, the America in which the bulk of the film takes place is seen to be even more diseased, a vision of Oklahoma in which every house seems haunted, and in which the local river itself has become cursed:

The spreading toxicity of the land that Affleck encounters is, of course, the result of the kind of tar-sand seepage that often hits headlines in the contemporary US, a politically resonant instance of the dead poisoning the living (for what is tar but decayed organic matter...?). As Marina struggles to suppress any awareness of her own mortality, the unquiet spirits beneath Oklahoma are seen to be quite literally polluting the land itself.

Throughout Malick's short film, Neil tries to comprehend and overcome this spreading decay (cutting and bagging samples of hair from sick children), but the shared unrest gradually leads to a vision of total entropy, a frozen state upon which the film fades to black after 41 minutes, marking the spread of the infected ice glimpsed in ‘La Merveille’ to America itself:

The central third of To the Wonder is dominated by Rachel McAdams’s moving portrait of Alexandra Malick (‘Jane’), offering a marked contrast to the dancing, incorporeal Marina. As a still-living woman, Jane works and reads, but rarely dances: she has not been 'summoned' by Malick’s film, and is merely being observed. Where Kurylenko's performance is abstracted and balletic, McAdams' is grounded and realist: the malevolent gloom of the film stays well away from her, and almost seems to be waiting (as a form of Lovecraftian eldritch darkness) outside her home, massing itself behind Neil’s back:

When Malick finally turns his attention away from his current wife, and back to Marina, we find, unsettlingly, that she has literally returned to the earth, and is scudding along the dark metallic subway beneath Paris:

“I feel stripped bare,” intones Marina, sounding uncannily like a soul trapped in the thirteenth canto of Dante’s Inferno (“naked and scratched, flying so violently that they broke all the limbs of the wood”). “I don’t know where I’m going... I can’t take it here anymore.” The subterranean European locale that she cannot bear is soon (inevitably) folded back into the poisoned earth of Oklahoma, as Malick intercuts shots of Marina with the quagmire through which Neil staggers, in one of the director’s most queasily memorable scenes.

The dark second half of the film, following Marina’s return, comes increasingly to resemble the almost necrophiliac relationship between Kelvin and Hari (or ‘Rheya’) in Stanisław Lem’s 1961 novel Solaris (and its two excellent cinematic adaptations, by Tarkovsky in 1972 and Soderbergh in 2002). Olga Kurylenko, who was born in the Ukraine, has joked that she “comes from Tarkovsky-land,” suggesting that the striking echoes of Natalya Bondarchuk’s 1972 performance may well be intentional. Like Lem’s reluctantly reanimated heroine, Marina becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her existence throughout the second half of the film, leading to the harrowing sequence in which she attempts to swallow an entire bottle of capsules while fighting with her pitiless husband:

This scene carries grim echoes of Hari/Rheya’s consumption of a container of liquid oxygen in Lem’s novel, hinting at the morbid consequences of defying natural decay, and anticipating the grimly entropic pronouncements of Father Quintana that dominate the film’s tortuous latter half: “Why do you turn your back? All I see is destruction. Failure. Ruin.” Malick’s priest, like the suffering Father Carras in William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist (1971), is increasingly plagued by visions of those he is intended to protect, as his house becomes infested with wasp-like insects, and is surrounded by the clamouring of the sick and the poor:

Quintana's dramatic failure of priestly compassion in these scenes offers an echo of the haunted lovers’ predicament far more profound than was initially apparent (with the film simply appearing to be an extended sermon on Ephesians 5:23); like the Orphic Neil, Quintana has repeatedly failed to find the divine in his surroundings (or in his parishioners), and is being gradually drawn towards his own hellish version of Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

The two most dramatic episodes of the film’s second half are both presented as encounters, more or less literal, with the demonic. If To the Wonder is understood as an Orphic story, detailing the artist’s failed attempt to raise Eurydice from the underworld, then the intervention of ‘Anna’ seems to reflect a fairly explicit instance of the subterranean world’s resistance to such a forbidden operation. Romina Mondello (who plays the interloper) is most famous for starring in the Dario Argento-produced Italian horror film The Wax Mask (1997), and Malick makes his most explicit nod to the ‘horror’ genre in casting her as his bizarre Felliniesque temptress. The menacing Anna tries to lead Marina away from the suburban world of the living, while hissing in her ear: “Leave this place. It’s cramped. Small. There’s nothing here. Look at their faces. False. All false...”

Significantly, Anna makes the film’s only explicit reference to Marina’s mortality, as she tells her to “Listen to your heart,” before pressing her ear to the woman’s breast. “Dead?” she asks. As these two women stride through the streets of Bartlesville, shouting at the inhabitants (“Where are the people? They’re all dead. Nobody’s here. Nothing!”), it seems to be implied that Anna is a kind of apparition. She, at least, recognises such unease in Marina, and taunts her for it: “What are you looking at? You think I’m a monster? An evil monster? A vampire? A witch?” And it is true: none of Bartlesville’s residents seem to see or hear her, despite her raising such a racket. Mondello’s character seems to be the literal incarnation of the “other woman” referred to in one of Marina’s monologues: “My God, what a cruel war. I find two women inside me.” One of these, the uneasy Marina tells us, seeks after the deity, while “the other pulls me down towards the earth...” 

The climactic episode in Marina’s tragic story is the brief motel encounter, during which she seems to submit to the impulse to return to the earth, surrendering to the kind of debased love that Jane has already seen in Neil (“You made it into nothing. Pleasure. Lust.”). While Anna’s demonic nature was made only tauntingly implicit, the figure Marina joins in the motel is literally branded with death, a tattoo spreading across his chest as unmissable as the ‘666’ upon Damien Thorn’s brow:

This pivotal sequence is separated from the strange scenes with the demonic ‘Anna’ by one of the most troubling instances of dance in the entire film, as Marina pirouettes brazenly through a shopping mall, swinging a yellow mop. The incongruous image is probably that which most irritated critics such as Joe Neumaier, yet it also marks a key transformation in the film’s abiding use of the ghost dance: the point at which Marina’s Nanissáanah shifts from being a celebratory evocation of the “prereservation era, when bison abounded” and becomes a sign of her consuming death-drive (the Freudian Todestrieb). The music to which Marina’s final impromptu mall dance is set is Rachmaninov’s symphonic Isle of the Dead (Op. 29, composed in 1908), a piece whose strangely swaying 5/8 ostinato was intended (by the composer himself) to evoke the sound of Charon’s oarsmen rowing a soul to the land of the dead. With a nudge from the demonic Anna, it seems that Kurylenko’s Marina has begun to dance to Charon’s thanatic rhythm, and that she is at last ready to join the deceased souls that teem in the substrata beneath the plains.

Malick's depiction of Marina's oddly willing dance towards death, utterly lacking the theological security of The Tree of Life’s closing scenes, is markedly darker than anything in the director’s previous work. Where The New World was largely inspired by the transcendental musings of Thoreau, Hawthorne and Melville (and The Tree of Life ended with a sublime incarnation of Hart Crane’s The Bridge), To the Wonder seems to be an illustration of the sort of existential pessimism found in T.S. Eliot’s 1925 poem, ‘The Hollow Men’:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar...
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

Marina, summoned from ‘death’s other Kingdom’ by the bereaved artist, is gradually seen to be little more than a “headpiece filled with straw,” a disquieting realisation that ultimately starts to extend to the living, too: the director’s overdubbed whispered voices increasingly become as “quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in [a] dry cellar”.

For a work that borders on such nihilism, To the Wonder might seem to have been rather oddly titled, the phrase's air of sublimity making for an ill fit with the film’s abiding vision of failure and ruin. In this sense, it is interesting to discover articles dating back to December 2010 (as the film was being shot) that refer to the film under a totally different title: The Burial. Shortly before the film’s release (a year after these reports emerged), producer Sarah Green belatedly denied any links to this more morbid title, declaring that “It is not called The Burial. We don't know what The Burial is. There is no movie that we're working on called The Burial.” Green’s strenuously disowned title does, however, seem to have been rather appropriate, suggesting as it does that the entire film is serving as a kind of anthropoid coffin, surrounded by canopic jars: a celluloid vessel to be lowered into the earth. 

Given the director’s famous reticence it is impossible to know for sure whether the more explicit title was indeed considered, and if so (as seems likely), why it was ultimately rejected. One reason, of course, might simply be that The Burial veered too close to the horror tropes with which To the Wonder occasionally dabbles, and that the proximity to classic genre pieces (such as the 28th issue of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing) would distort the film's reception. Another possible factor is that touched upon by Roger Ebert’s final review (“Why must a film explain everything?”): there is the chance that, had the film been released under its working title, it might have seemed too blatant an exploration of the Orphic process, and too intimate a reflection upon Malick’s private loss. 

These speculations are, of course, ultimately superseded by the closing reels of the work itself. The final sequences of Malick’s film (depicting Marina’s lonely corridor descent and her muddy reincarnation upon the lamplit plain, illustrated above) serve as a loose structural parallel to the ‘dummy chamber’ found in each of the ancient Egyptian pyramids; these feints lead hapless intruders away from the true Pharaohic chamber, trapping them in a dark end-stopped tunnel. Similarly, the true heart of Malick’s film (and the wealth buried in Marina's celluloid tomb) has already been encountered, a reel earlier, with Quintana’s rapturous closing epiphany: “Flood our bodies with your spirit and light so completely that our lives may be only a reflection of yours. Shine through us.” 

This climactic vision of divinity resting among such apparently shattered lives recalls the closing monologue of The Thin Red Line, in which Private Train watches the wake churning from the rear of a troop carrier, and murmurs: “Darkness, light, strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.” In the earlier film, this “darkness” was seen as a gigantic, historical force, the war itself. In Malick's latest, unsettlingly personal film, these forces have been internalized, as “our bodies” are seen to have become the decaying corporeal sites of theological light and darkness. While the “eyes” mentioned at the end of The Thin Red Line had witnessed epic conflict on a Homeric scale, Father Quintana has simply gazed upon the throng of damaged souls that forms contemporary America: the faces of the sick, the impoverished, and the incarcerated. Rather than burying these souls with Marina, however, Malick’s disturbing Orphic miniature (his shortest film since Days of Heaven) turns the nation's doomed demos into a source of uncanny cinematic awe. As Quintana realises, in his final words in the film, every pair of eyes, no matter how haunted or debased, form a mirror to the wonder of pure Being: “We were made to see you.”

Friday, 17 May 2013

Review: Aaron Dilloway, Siena

The rubber-masked figure that grinned from the cover of last year’s Modern Jester 2xLP remains the perfect poster-boy for Aaron Dilloway’s current work, an addictive blend of Goya grotesquerie with technological mischief. The neatly-attired monochrome monstrosity, mottled with the grain of poor TV reception, seemed to have been instagrammed directly from a rerun of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone... In contrast, the digital artwork attached to Siena, Dilloway’s latest name-your-price release, is strangely muted: a set of hazard-warning stripes sapped of any urgency through being rendered in Hanson Records’ austere black and white. 

Appearing in the wake of a string of live and collaborative albums, including the limited-run Grapes and Snakes cassette (with Jason Lescalleet) and two recordings with To Live and Shave in LA’s Tom Smith (Impeccable Transparencies and the forthcoming Allein Zu Zweit), the album’s eight tracks are similarly unassuming: straight-to-digital and without individual titles, they seem in grave danger of being drowned out, their combined signals lost in Dilloway’s growing sea of noise.

Within ninety seconds, however, Siena overturns any sense of Dilloway-as-usual, as a beguiling three-second loop, consisting primarily of acoustic guitar and sampled vocal, begins to wander lazily across the stereo field. The effect is quite unlike anything in the catalogue (conjuring the sort of stoned ambiance more familiar to fans of Endtroducing than Burned Mind), yet soon turns out to be a moment of deliberate dissimulation, as explicitly ‘musical’ samples promptly disappear from the album altogether. 

The seven pieces that form the bulk of Siena reflect the casual description that Dilloway has given of its creation (“Raw recordings made inside and outside in Siena Italy”), and combine to form a subtly disorientating blend of lo-fi field recording and inorganic tape sound. The overall impression is of an unexpected hybrid between Chris Watson and Masami Akita, in which any distinction between the living and the mechanical is gradually erased.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Zeitgeists & Demons: Fede Alvarez's 'Evil Dead'

In the wake of Joss Whedon’s deconstruction of the well-trodden ‘cabin in the woods’ scenario, a 2013 return to The Evil Dead seems a little ill-advised - especially given the rotten state of the horror remake in the early 21st century. Over the past decade Michael Bay has regurgitated (through his trash-for-cash studio 'Platinum Dunes') a string of corporate reimaginings of horror classics from the 1970s and 80s, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Amityville Horror (2005), Friday the 13th (2009), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). Diligently branded with matching poster art (red type beneath iconic villain) and gunmetal-grey cinematography, each polished turd displayed the somnambulant directorial vision of Bay’s roster of ex-MTVers and ad-helmers, such as Marcus “AT&T” Nispel and Samuel “Teen Spirit” Bayer. Team Platinum worked hard to kill the notion of the aesthetically imaginative horror remake during the last ten years, and they practically succeeded: masterpieces such as Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) are all-but hidden by Bay’s pixelated shroud of CGI fog.

A glance at the poster of the new Evil Dead (minus the ‘The’) reveals, surprisingly enough, that it has been produced by the three key individuals behind the 1981 classic: Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell. Fede Alvarez, the film's Uruguayan director, was picked by Raimi based solely upon his Ataque de Pánico! (a 5-minute youtube short made for just $300):

This choice already suggests the kind of underground sympathy utterly absent from Platinum Dunes’ work, and links the film with the contemporary wave of Spanish-language horror cinema led by Gustavo Hernández and Jaume Balagueró. The association is borne out by the film’s opening sequence, in which Bay’s nubile-teens paradigm (lampooned so memorably by Whedon) is abandoned in favour of a witch-burning sequence that could have been directed by Tobe Hooper, or even Tod Browning. Camera weaving between cat corpses and deformed faces devoid of emotion, Alvarez immediately establishes his own relentlessly corporeal aesthetic, presented in resolutely analogue 2D, but with far more physicality than was displayed in his mentor’s recent trip to Oz

Ending with a gigantic title-card that Gaspar Noé would be proud of, this short prologue reveals the Evil Team’s obsessive belief in a pre-CGI horror paradigm, a return to an aesthetic absent from the multiplexes since The Blair Witch Project (1999). As Alvarez has remarked: "We didn't do any CGI in the movie. Everything that you will see is real, which was really demanding. This was a very long shoot, 70 days of shooting at night.”

Looking through the early responses to Alvarez’s film, it soon becomes clear how unfamiliar the analogue horror experience has become to modern audiences: American reviews have complained that the film contains “some of the most graphic horror violence ever presented on the screen” (Moore, Movie Nation), and the overwhelming novelty of the resulting experience has led critics to suggest that Alvarez and Raimi have gone “further than any mainstream picture” (Nashawatay, Entertainment Weekly), with the screen “literally awash in blood” (Whitty, Portland Oregonian), exposing “demons at its core” (DeFore, Hollywood Reporter). These shell-shocked reports, unsurprisingly, are not translating into universal acclaim (the film currently languishes at 57% on Metacritic and 63% at Rotten Tomatoes), but attest rather to a sense of shared near-trauma more familiar in the 'nasty' era preceding the 1984 Video Recordings Act. A Twitter trawl reveals a similar stream of proud multiplex anecdotes, ranging from walkouts (“I saw 5 people walk out” @Alexaitis) to more appropriately grisly reactions, such as “3 people got sick and 2 fainted” (@edenmasterson), and the magnificent “vomit smell all over the cinema” (@CarmaFilm).

As well as demonstrating the novelty of analogue horror, such extreme reactions reflect the brutal factuality with which Alvarez shoots some of the film’s most graphic sequences, abandoning Raimi’s carnivalesque humour in favour of an aesthetic seemingly inspired by crime-scene photography:

Shots like this recall films such as David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), or Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), yet Alvarez's film seemingly lacks any sense of psychological or sociological motivation. Where Roth explored the pitiless behaviour of a European plutocrat, and Fincher indulged in a Catholic examination of sin, the Grand Guignol splatter of Evil Dead is presented as an utterly amoral spectacle, a macabre study of the indifference of the undead. Following Joss Whedon’s postmodern palate cleanser, Alvarez and Raimi seem to lack any interest in ironising the genre; instead, like Rob Zombie, they pick up where the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre left off, and situate the vast majority of their 92 minutes in the red heart of hell.

This sense of a sustained aesthetic exercise gives Alvarez’s film an unexpectedly avant-garde tone, the kind of rigorous austerity more associated with Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) or Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) than any recent mainstream horror release. The foggy moments leading up to Mia’s infamous tree-possession scene, for example, rely upon a sustained evocation of vivid natural imagery that might otherwise be found in a Terrence Malick film:

The water, mud and reeds that consume Mia’s car feel as alien and ominous as the poisoned quagmire that Affleck gingerly traverses in To the Wonder (2012), and as damp and tangible as the Virginia mashes of The New World (2005)

With Malick’s moral and theological compass forcibly amputated, however, such imagery becomes oppressive and revolting, an environmental parallel to the bodily corruption that infests the film. Where To the Wonder’s Marina boasts a rich interior life, Alvarez’s Mia is a corporeal shell, a figure who is viewed as barely human even prior to her possession

In a brilliant addition to Raimi’s original scenario, Alvarez’s heroine is immediately introduced as a drug addict. Crucially, far from being the heroic pothead stereotype (represented by Marty Mikalski in The Cabin in the Woods), Mia is presented as an addict in the most inhuman, Burroughsian mould, existing in a monstrous state of mindless consumption:

Junk is the ideal product, the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy... Junk yields a basic formula of “evil” virus: The Algebra of Need. The face of “evil” is always the face of total need. A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope... A rabid dog cannot choose but bite.
- William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch: ‘Introduction - deposition: testimony concerning a sickness’ (p. 8)

Totally abandoning the standard Carpenter/Craven model of an innocent heroine pursued by sinful demons, Alvarez situates Burroughs’s “evil virus” within Mia from the outset, and the remainder of his film (like the novel that succeeds Burroughs’s clinical introduction) serves as a hallucinatory illustration of the hellish realms lurking behind “the face of total need”. In place of the Kafka-derived insect-people/aliens of Naked Lunch, Alvarez’s film is populated with human forms in which the living and the dead are rendered almost indistinguishable: both are transformed into grotesquely animate slabs of meat.

The nihilism underlying this transformation is, upon reflection, the most truly terrifying element of the film, a portrait of going ‘cold turkey’ that gradually reminds its audience of the dehumanizing comparison underlying that expression. The sickening horrors brought to the screen (in glorious two-dimensional analogue) are the logical extension of a worldview in which a recovering addict is equated with a piece of animal flesh, an apocalyptic blast of body horror even more potent than Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of Burroughs’s novel. 

Behind such indifference to the addict, of course, lies an indifference to suffering in general, a state in which human beings are seen as vapid ciphers, defined solely by their bodies, dismembered or otherwise. This attitude haunted the existential void of Harmony Korine’s own recent Spring Breakers, especially its opening montage, in which super-saturated slow-motion footage of barely clothed bodies is accompanied by the blaring music of Skrillex, forming a synthetic sublime to rival Jeff Koons:

In Evil Dead, this nihilism is even more concentrated and sustained, leading to the unforgettable image of our undead heroine, half-buried, addressing her brother through a polyethylene bag:

Rather than willing the hapless David to offer aid to the addict, Alvarez has so brutalised his audience by this point that we find ourselves unable to look upon the face of suffering; our capacity for empathy has been utterly annihilated. This peculiar process, implicating ourselves along with the film’s sole survivor, suggests that (like Burroughs) the film takes the “evil” of its title as a far more pervasive quality than we are accustomed to in the genre. Far from representing an upstanding group of teenagers facing an external malevolence, the five characters of Evil Dead are revealed as a synecdoche for a more general evil, a product of their (and our) collected indifference: David, Eric, Mia, Olivia and Natalie are not, in the end, individuals with any living interiority. They are a unit, and, like Korine’s raging adolescents, they combine to form a mirror to our own age; a cold and hapless spirit hidden within their five initials: DEMON.