Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Dr Martens: coming and going

I was rather startled to learn the other day that Dr Martens has a bespoke service. Actually, it could be argued that what the venerable cobbler is offering is a made-to-measure service, since the customer is restricted to variations on the classic 1460 and 1461 styles but, pedantry aside, it does seem that the brand’s values have shifted somewhat from the days when a pair of Docs was de rigueur if one was attending a Wedding Present gig or an anti-apartheid demo. On the other hand, I guess Docs were always a bespoke garment in a way, since they required a good 10 days of wearing in before they were truly comfortable (a process I described in detail nearly 20 years ago) which meant that each pair was uniquely bonded to the peculiarities of a specific set of feet. Some people, it appears, can’t be doing with this time-honoured ritual, which is why the company is now offering a broken-in boot, which can be worn with ease fresh out of the box.

To some of us wizened old farts for who the trusty Doc was a badge of all that is edgy and subversive, this pathological poncing around with the basic formula looks to be a classic case of missing the bloody point. Docs were often customised, of course, with spray paint and tinsel and nail varnish and sequins and more, but you did it yourself; you didn’t pay the company to do it for you. In some ways it’s an act of recuperation, taking back something that was once dangerous and co-opting it to the cause of capitalism. Although of course nobody’s really taking anything back, since all along the Dr Martens brand has been owned by the Griggs family. When they started marketing the shoes they were marketed as workwear, making the status of wage slavery just that little bit easier. Their appropriation by punks and other riff-raff was a pretty half-assed act of détournement (or even class tourism) because the owner of the means of production (and the recipient of the profits) remained the same.

Yeah, whatever. For the first time this century, I feel like treating myself to a new pair.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

David Bowie – Five Years

The BBC documentary David Bowie – Five Years undoubtedly justified the hype. Although the basic narrative will be familiar to many, some of the freshly unearthed archive footage is a real shock to the senses, looping as it does in and out of the stuff that gets trotted out for every 70s nostalgia fest (Starman on TOTP, bits of Cracked Actor and so on). Moreover, the fresh interviews prove that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that much-derided format, the talking heads doc, provided the heads are judiciously chosen and given sensible questions to answer. Indeed, so rich were the pickings from people who worked with Bowie in some of his most productive periods (with Visconti *and* Eno *and* Fripp you’re spoiling us) that – completely irrationally and unfairly – I felt cheated by the very few omissions; why, for example, did we hear the recollections of guitarist Carlos Alomar and drummer Dennis Davis but not bassist George Murray? Were Angie Bowie or Iggy Pop washing their hair? Incidentally, seeing these people 30 or 40 years after their prime offers an object lesson in how capricious the ageing process is, but also how irrelevant it ultimately it is. Woody Woodmansey, the drummer for the Spiders from Mars, now looks like Jim Bowen’s dad, but at least he’s still with us. His partner in rhythm Trevor Bolder appears eerily unchanged from 1972; maybe even younger, since he’s missing those grey sideburns. But it’s Bolder who didn’t live long enough to see the programme broadcast.

One small niggle, though. The show’s structure, focusing on five key years in Bowie’s development as an artist, allowed the makers to slim all the potential material down to a manageable shape. In reality, though, those so-called years were allowed to bulge out beyond their chronological bounds (for example, the 1972 segment became “1971-1972” and ended with a caption about the Ziggy retirement gig, in July 1973) and as such the we were treated to most of the major incidents from 1971 to 1983. And this is where the faintest flutter of disappointment makes itself felt. The programme had as its consultant the excellent Nicholas Pegg, who in his indispensable reference tome The Complete David Bowie goes to great pains to assert that (contrary to rock hack orthodoxy), Bowie’s creativity did not suddenly evaporate in the mid-1980s and that there are moments to savour in much of his subsequent work. But in Five Years, as soon as the last echoes of the Serious Moonlight tour fade away, we’re briskly told that Bowie recorded 11 more albums in the next two decades, pretty much disappeared in 2007, then unexpectedly came back earlier this year, er, that’s it. As such, an opportunity to reassess Bowie’s career as a whole is lost. I still maintain, for example, that Absolute Beginners was Bowie’s best song of the 1980s; and the Outside album from 1995 can at least be mentioned in the same breath as his Berlin trilogy. And yeah, Tin Machine was crap, but surely it deserves a mention, if only to show what a mid-life crisis looks like on a big budget.

Five Years is a film made with skill, verve and unabashed love about one of the most important, intriguing artists in any field in the past 50 years. Watch it; it’s great. But it falls tantalisingly short of being as brave and cussed and contrary as its subject. Bowie was the great re-inventor but to a casual viewer – perhaps a young music fan who doesn’t quite understand why everybody got so excited when the new album appeared – the documentary would suggest his reputation is fixed in amber, immune from critical re-invention.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Woolwich: what it might mean

How soon is too soon to view yesterday’s hideous events in Woolwich not simply as a brutal act of killing (which they were) but also as a performance, an attempt to grab the attention of the media by the simple act of doing something unexpected and horrific (which, if eyewitness reports of the perpetrators’ comments and actions are accurate, they also were)? Indeed, it represents a profoundly 21st-century outrage, as the alleged perpetrators apparently offered impromptu interviews, posing to be photographed and filmed by witnesses, and the first commentary on the attack that many encountered came not from mainstream news organisations but from the Twitter feed of a rapper called Boya Dee (“Then the next breda try buss off the rusty 45 and it just backfires and blows mans finger clean off...”

It is not to discount the enormity of the crime, or the pain felt by the dead soldier’s family, friends and colleagues to suggest that the impact of the event transcends his life, death or even his identity; as I type this, we don’t even know his name. As Baudrillard wrote in response to 9/11, “Violence in itself can be perfectly banal and innocuous. Only symbolic violence generates singularity.” It’s the symbolism and the political meaning that makes this news rather than the death per se. Soon we’ll be informed of his identity and he’ll achieve a posthumous fame far in excess of that which adhered to him in life. But I can’t help but think that his killers might have been advised to take a tip from someone they’d probably regard as their ideological antagonist, the right-wing historian Dominique Venner, who shot himself by the altar of Notre Dame the day before the events in Woolwich. With his suicide, Venner might not have attracted many new recruits to his anti-gay, anti-Muslim creed but people have at least been forced to think about what may have driven him to do what he did; and nasty as his opinions may have been, the stunt that Femen pulled – an activist with an anti-fascist slogan painted on her bare breasts mocking his death by faking a suicide in the same location – seems even nastier. Yesterday’s events in London will have the opposite effect to what Venner manage, as bloody cleavers and a brave cub scout leader and less brave EDL opportunists crowd the scene. Apart from a vague gripe about what western soldiers are doing in Iraq or Afghanistan, what did it all mean? I’ve argued before that people who are prepared to die in a political cause ought to follow the example of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc or the Czech student Jan Palach and do something that doesn’t harm anyone else; they miraculously become freedom fighters while others labour under the label of terrorism. Unless something very peculiar happens, that’s not a fate that will befall the killers in Woolwich.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Luhrmann’s Gatsby in all its dimensions

I’ve been awaiting the arrival of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for many months with the same giddy excitement that I used to reserve for the Eurovision Song Contest. I’d be hoping for some Abba-esque flash of brilliance, all the time knowing deep down that my enjoyment would be of the cruel and camp variety, gazing on open-mouthed as a bunch of hapless mannequins staggered through ineptly choreographed routines to shudderingly banal music; and there would probably be a clown or two. As such, Gatsby is a disappointment. As an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel, it’s not atrocious enough to be funny but it’s certainly not brilliant either; as a movie in its own right, it’s quite interesting. And Bonnie Tyler’s not in it.

To run through the basics, Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce stick to the basic plot pretty faithfully, with the exception of a framing narrative which had Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) recounting the story from a drying-out clinic; more of that later. A kid writing a book report having only watched this version would at least scrape a pass. Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby is rather good, convincingly swinging between insouciant bonhomie at his bacchanalian parties and quasi-teenage gawkiness as he awaits the reunion with Daisy. Maguire, by contrast, is awful, depicting Nick as a one-note klutz, his Wall Street suit-and-bowtie get-up only reinforcing his resemblance to Pee-Wee Herman. Carey Mulligan can’t do much with the impossible role of Daisy although she does have the acting chops to remind you what a fickle cow the character is; and she looks nice, which helps.

Indeed, the whole film looks nice, but that’s what we’ve come to expect from Luhrmann. The party scenes are suitably brash and energetic (with inevitable nods to Cabaret and Chicago) and some of the big, swooping shots across Manhattan and the yearning gap across the water that separates Gatsby’s mansion from the Buchanans’ place are proper heart-in-mouth stuff. They make good use of the 3D format but elsewhere Luhrmann seems compelled – as do most directors who appropriate this stupid, expensive gimmick – to get his money’s worth. So we get champagne corks and footballs hurled in our general direction, lit cigars and the tumbling characters of Carraway’s typescript; all embodying the paradox that a process that is supposed to make a movie more real, more lifelike only reminds us of the artificiality of the form.

Which, oddly enough, is where things get interesting. Because 3D demands these big scenes, the characters often seem like figures in a diorama, or the inhabitants of a dolls’ house. When Gatsby’s nerve breaks and Carraway snaps, “You’re acting like a little boy”, the viewer can’t forget that, as good as DiCaprio may be, yes, he is still acting – the scene comes over like a high school production of a Noël Coward scene. The film doesn’t find the emotional heart of the novel (the most moving moment in the book, the appearance of Gatsby’s father at the end, is missing) but Luhrmann’s not trying to do that. Instead, he’s taken the most essential component of the main character’s story, the sense of desperate reinvention and pretence, and extrapolated it into a whole movie. It’s postmodernism, stupid.

So we get the nods Hollywood’s past intimations that success and fame don’t bring happiness. DiCaprio’s boyish confidence has more than a little Charles Foster Kane about it and his home is Xanadu; his final exhalation of “Daisy” may as well be “Rosebud”. And then he is found floating, not on a mattress as in the novel, but face down, like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. Some of the other cultural tips of the hat are more clunky, and seem to play fast and loose with reality. Carraway has a copy of Ulysses, which was published in Paris in February, 1922, so it’s just about feasible that a copy may have evaded the attention of the US censors and made it to him by the summer of that year, when the story is apparently set. But Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue didn’t appear until two years later, so rather than being a useful period detail it feels as if Luhrmann just asked for something familiar and 1920s-y to fill in a gap. 

But hold on; this isn’t real, remember. There’s no room for historical pedantry in Luhrmann Land (and neither Jay-Z nor Beyoncé nor Amy Winehouse were around in 1922 either). If the 3D hasn’t done the trick, the framing narrative should, although at first it appears to be wholly gauche and clunky. Making Carraway an alcoholic just reinforces the fairly banal inference that he might be a fictional stand-in for Fitzgerald himself but no – he’s actually Luhrmann, pushing around these funny little ciphers of people in the vast toy theatres of his imagination, playing the music he wants to play whether it’s historically plausible or not. Who’s to say that the action we’ve just seen played out in 3D isn’t the dredged from his booze-sodden imagination, or just a ploy to get the psychiatrist off his back? Indeed, this may explain the oddest piece of casting, that of Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan as the racketeer Meyer Wolfshiem. When Pete Postlethwaite browned up and took a Japanese name in The Usual Suspects it made no sense until you realised the whole story was an off-the-cuff spiel by a master deceiver. Could Wolfshiem be Indian? Yes, if Luhrmann/Carraway becomes Keyser Söze and wants it to be so. It’s just a story, after all.

So how can we explain Luhrmann’s Gatsby? Well, not really by reference to the original novel, or to previous adaptations thereof. Nor to Hollywood’s previous ruminations about the downside of riches, or even to its depictions of the Jazz Age and all its debaucheries. Baz has cherrypicked them all, but with a level of discretion and decorum that may surprise his detractors and none of them tells the whole story. No, the closest connection I can see is with a British movie, one that failed as an adaptation of a beloved book, that didn’t even bother to depict the time in which it was set, but later came to be seen as a wry satire on the culture and society that prevailed at the time it was made. And it had some fun party scenes. Luhrmann won’t thank me, but his Gatsby is a kindred spirit to Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners. I wonder what that would have been like in 3D...

PS: Oh hell. I’ve just realised that the gap between 1959 (when Colin MacInnes’s novel Absolute Beginners was published) and 1986 (when the film appeared) is the same as the gap between 1986 and now.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Zadie Smith and the phantom child of Brigitte Bardot

I’m reading Zadie Smith’s NW at the moment and a single sentence leaps out from the Willesden grime:
If only the man were like Brigitte Bardot, who never had children, preferring animals.
The thing is, Brigitte Bardot did actually have a child, a boy named Nicholas-Jacques, by her second husband Jacques Charrier. She may well prefer animals – she said as much in her autobiography – but the child does exist.

Now of course NW is a work of fiction and the author is entirely within her rights to create a parallel world in which Nicholas-Jacques was never born. And even if she hasn’t exercised that right, she’s allowed to create characters who believe things to be true even if they’re not. Her character Leah never claims to be an expert on the family life of any particular French sex symbol, so this isn’t as much of a cock-up as the music fan in Kazuo Ishiguro’s story ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ who refers to the composer Howard – rather than Harold – Arlen; or the suggestion in Julian Barnes’s Arthur & George that the Stonyhurst-educated Conan Doyle might not know the difference between the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception.

But because of the quasi-Joycean narrative technique that Smith employs, blurring the distinction between an omniscient narrator and the inner thoughts of the characters, it’s not clear if this is what Leah thinks, or what the author/narrator thinks about the situation that Leah is in. And if we give her the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter, is the reader expected to know that Leah is wrong? And since I’m only a few chapters in, am I going to discover that whole Bardot’s child thing is going to be explained and resolved by the end, leaving me looking utterly stupid? I’ll let you know.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Met Gala: “My dog ate a safety pin”

The witterings of various F-list slebs at the Met Gala in New York earlier this week have attracted much scorn. But to be honest, wasn’t the event itself just asking for trouble, with the theme ‘Punk: From Chaos To Couture’? There was no point asking the red carpet crew about punk because the whole shebang was about the end of punk, the death of punk, the absorption of punk into the belly of the money beast. In Situationist terms it was about recuperation, the act of taking something revolutionary and making it safe for capitalism. And it’s not as if the gala itself represents any kind of major movement in that process; punk as a potent visual genre was already mortally gored in 1977 when Zandra Rhodes tarted up an evening frock with safety pins. The likes of Madonna and Sarah Jessica Parker had been invited not to celebrate punk but to dance badly on its grave; surely they can be forgiven if they couldn’t get it together to improvise a coherent funeral hymn at the same time.

PS: And here are three things that are more punk.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Branding: realty and reality

I’ve written before about the time of my professional life when I had serious responsibility for what was felt to be A Major Global Brand and how unfortunate it was for everybody concerned that this coincided with the time of my cultural and political life when I read Naomi Klein’s No Logo. I didn’t win that argument, as can be seen from the news that a New York real estate company that has offered staff members a 15% pay rise if they’ll allow themselves to be tattooed with the firm’s logo.

Now, there are a number of interpretations that could be applied to this. New York’s an expensive town, the US economy’s not doing that well, so maybe the employees simply decided that the temporary pain and lasting embarrassment were worth it if the cash were right. They’re estate agents, right? We’ve all seen Glengarry Glen Ross. And then of course it could be that the whole thing is just a light-hearted publicity stunt for the firm, relying on the fact that most news media operations these days don’t have the time or resources for proper bullshit detection.

But let’s take the whole story at face value and believe what the CEO of Rapid Realty says, that his employees were happy to accept the inking because they are “passionate about the brand”. The thing is, I can understand the cold, brutal, business logic of encouraging consumers to believe in a brand, to want to belong, to buy into some kind of collective identity that transcends the empirical quality of the products being sold. That’s where the profit margin lies. But do you really want your staff to be quite so detached from the real world?

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Cloud Atlas: the two-sentence review

At its heart, the subject matter of Cloud Atlas (the novel) is the core component of all fiction, the story.

At its heart, the subject matter of Cloud Atlas (the movie) is the core component of all cinema, the less-than-convincing facial prosthesis.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Posterous: I’d never join a club that would let me forget I was already a member

I received an e-mail the other day advising me, with great sadness, that Posterous was closing down and that I should make efforts to transfer my data to another site. I was a little confused because I don’t remember signing up for a Posterous site or putting anything on it. In fact, I’m not entirely sure was Posterous is. Sorry, was.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who leaves fragments of himself around the social media landscape without realising it. I suppose I first got involved around the turn of the millennium, when I started prattling under various pseudonyms on Guardian Unlimited and then had a look at FriendsReunited. I started blogging in late 2005 and although my posts have been less frequent of late, I’m still in the same place. The following year I joined Twitter – about the only time I could have been accused of being an early adopter. I’m also on Facebook and LinkedIn; and Delicious, Flickr, Quora and Google+, although in some of those cases I can’t remember the last time I logged in. I started a blog on WordPress during an odd couple of days when Blogger refused to work, but I only did one post. I think that’s it. Oh yeah, and Posterous. Apparently.

It’s inevitable that some of these products will die off, neglected, forgotten; they were the future once. And those that remain lose something of their shine. Facebook is increasingly the domain of the middle-aged apparently, as ver kidz desert it because they don’t want their parents spying on them; Twitter is just out of control; and oh yeah, blogging’s dead. Again. Maybe instead of culling sites as they’ve done with Posterous, they should rest them for a while, then reissue them under new names after a couple of years, when we’ve all forgotten about them.

It’s not all gloom though. My younger friends (the ones who still worry more about zits than wrinkles) swear by Instagram, although as the world’s most inept photographer, I don’t think it’s really for me. MySpace? Yeah, right. I have been snooty in the past about Tumblr, because its picture-driven vibe feels like a surrender to a post-literate zeitgeist but to be honest, there are times when I don’t feel like writing that much either.

So I decided to set up a Tumblr, to see what it was all about. At which point, I discovered – with sickening inevitability – that I’d already set one up a year or so ago and promptly forgotten it, and I’d used it to post nothing but the following picture, which suddenly seems rather apt in the circumstances:

PS: Further corroboration of the Facebook age divide from Radio One. Apparently they prefer something called Keek, although I reckon that's a made-up site, like a drug in Brass Eye.

PPS: Or Pheed, or Incredibooth. More here.