Tuesday, 28 September 2010

"This town is too peaceful lately..." Puncturing the Silences of I Spit On Your Grave

The eerie, unsettling potential of the harmonica had, by 1978, already been well established. It's slurred wail and reedy chords, its uncanny sound – so close in many respects to the human voice, but a human voice transfigured, become-cyborg – haunted the soundtracks of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and Luchino Visconti's Ossessione like a refrain of the damned. It is this mechanic squeal, drifting in and out like scant punctuation amidst the endless deafening silences, that adds so much to the palpable sense of terror built up in the long, slow build up to Meir Zarchi's I Spit On Your Grave.

From beginning to end, the story is untroubled by non-diegetic music, still something of a rarity in late 70s American films. Zarchi claims whatever music he tried to “impose” on the images he'd shot just made him want to “puke”. As a result, harmonica aside, the film contains only two short snatches of (diegetic) music: a soft church organ as the protagonist, Jennifer Hills, goes to ask for forgiveness before embarking on her vengeance; and, a little later, an aria from Puccini's opera Manon Lescault.

It is therefore tempting to impose upon these three very different musics a classical Freudian psychodrama, with the rapist's harmonica playing the part of the film's sonic id, the voice of inhuman machinic desire; the church organ, its superego – or perhaps more properly ego-ideal, the father to whom one must beg forgiveness; leaving the operatic aria to play the role of the film's ego.

Meir Zarchi is somewhat flip about his choice of music for the scene in question. He even admitted when interviewed that right up to the last minute he was undecided between it and some rather jolly uptempo honky tonk piano music. Having amputated the gang leader's manhood and left him bleeding to death in her bathroom, Jennifer (played by Camille Keaton), walks downstairs and puts on a record to block out the screams. She then sits impassively, waiting in an armchair, her gaunt features as deadpan as the father (Buster) she inherited them from.

Though Zarchi wouldn't give his reasons for the choice, the libretto to this particular aria, which comes from the fourth and final act of Puccini's opera, seems peculiarly appropriate:

Sola, perduta, abbandonata
in landa desolata!
Orror! Intorno a me s'oscura il ciel.
Ahime, son sola!
E nel profondo deserto io cado,
strazio crudel, ah, sola, abbandonata,
io la deserta donna!
Ah, non voglio morir!
Tutto e dunque finito.
Terra di pace mi sembrava questa
Ah, mia bella funesta
ire novelle accende
strappar da lui mi si volea; or tutto
il mio passato orribile risorge,
e vivo innanzi al guardo mio si posa.
Ah, di sangue s'e macchiato!
Ah, tutto e finito;
asil di pace ora la tomba invoco
No, non voglio morir. Amore, aita!
Clearly the cries of horror! ('orror!') I don't want to die! ('non voglio morir') the terror of being alone, lost and abandoned ('sola, perduta, abbandonata') in a desolate place ('landa desolata') thought to be a peaceful haven ('terra di pace'), are almost uncannily appropriate to the specific situation Jennifer Hills finds herself in at this moment in the plot.

What should be more unsettling to any hope of a feminist appropriation of I Spit On Your Grave is the implication in the latter half of the poem that all this may have been brought about by her own "fatal beauty" ('bella funesta'). It is, to say the least, disturbing to discover that, at the very moral, sympathetic core of the film's sonic subjectivity, such lyrics would seem to echo the plaint of the gang leader that Hills had brought the rape upon herself by the way she dressed.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Cancerous Growths : Technological Darwinisms

For over a century, the question of tomorrow has largely been a question of evolution. Under the influence more, perhaps, of Herbert Spencer than Charles Darwin, the future path of the human race is conceived now as one of a directed evolution through technology, and in this respect the theorems of futurologists have themselves evolved somewhat less over the course of the capitalist period than has the peppered moth.

The term Techno-Darwinism has entered a certain vogue over the past few years thanks to the work of entrepreneur and 'angel' investor, Benjamin Joffe. For Joffe the term refers to what he calls a "survival of the fittest" amongst tech start-ups in the rapidly expanding Chinese market. Nevermind, that the term "survival of the fittest" is Spencer's and not Darwin's, Joffe is hardly the first capitalist to stretch a scientistic metaphor in order to justify and naturalise his own profiteering.

Nor - though he may be credited with the hyphenation - is he the first to import purportedly Darwinist models and notions into the sphere of human technological 'progress' - in order, principally, to legitimise the use of the very word 'progress' and frame it as a kind of naturally occurring and practically inevitable process.

For Ray Kurzweil, evolution through technology represents an exponential growth in human advancement towards what he refers to as the Singularity, a point in the near future (2045) when the combination of advance in genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence will allow an expansion in machine-human intelligence and technological development beyond our wildest imaginations.

Similarly, as Marina Banjamin has pointed out, the Space Age was full of evolutionary metaphors, with everyone from Werner von Braun to Arthur C. Clarke to Buckminster Fuller referring to Apollo 11 as the natural sequel, equal in importance, to the moment primitive life first left the oceans for the land.

All of which amounts to little more than a stretched metaphor put in the service of valorising some favoured project. Consensus amongst developmental biologists and palaeontologists seems to be that human evolution has remained fairly static for a good hundred thousand years or so. That's not to say that we are not witnessing evolution - and rapid evolution at that- in the present day. Only it's an evolution to which we are but the hosts. To talk of the evolution through natural selection of metastasising cancer cells is not just a metaphor. Puts a somewhat less positive spin on Joffe's notion of capital as techno-Darwinism though....

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Two Late Expressionist Utopias: Frau im Mond and Tabu

At the turn of 1930s, two of German expressionist cinema's leading lights left the dark shadows of the catacombs and the back alleys in search of other worlds. Both Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau had featured utopian imagery in their films before: think of the fairground scene in Sunrise, or most famously, Lang's city of the future in Metropolis. But both of these films feature distinctly urban utopias, whereas Tabu (1931) and Frau im Mond (1929) each take flight from the modernist city. The former looks back to the traveller's tales of exotic lands that inspired early utopias such as Francis Bacon's New Atlantis, while the latter looks forward to the 'hard' science-fiction of Arthur C. Clarke et al and the Apollo moon landings.

While the bare bones of Frau im Mond's plot, about a rocket trip to the moon and the happy couple that choose to stay there, may recall the late Victorian scientific romance of H.G. Wells, it is the little details that make it so prophetic – and the story behind the story that make it so historic. Advertised as “The first utopian film based on scientific fact,” Frau im Mond's rocket trip contain a number of features that put it closer to the Apollo landings of forty years later. Firstly, and most conspicuously, there is the countdown to lift-off, never before featured in fiction (let alone fact), and apparently invented by Lang on something of a whim for the purely dramatic reasons of building up tension (Alfred Hitchcock, who had only recently returned to England after a spell working at UFA studios in Berlin, may well have been taking notes).

Rather more profoundly – from a scientific point of view at least - Lang's film showed the world its first depiction of a liquid fuel rocket composed of two stages, jettisoning its first stage after take-off – just as the American space rockets of the sixties would. Such an extraordinary prophecy is made only slightly less incredible by certain details surrounding the film's production. The story, by Lang's wife and frequent collaborator, Thea von Harbou, was inspired by a small book written by Hermann Oberth, entitled 'By Rocket Into Planetary Space'. Originally intended to be Oberth's doctoral dissertation but rejected as too “utopian,” the book detailed the theories Oberth had been working on since a childhood exposure to Jules Verne. Oberth, along with his colleague, Willy Ley, from the Verein für Raumschiffahrt, a German amateur rocket enthusiasts club, would ultimately serve as technical advisors on Lang's film.

Also, in Oberth and Ley's circle at the time, was a young man named Werner von Braun. In the 1930s, as a member of the SS, von Braun would design the V-2 rocket, which bore the insignia of the woman in the moon at its base. The Nazis apparently considered, Lang's film so close to the scientific truth of their weapon that they had the film suppressed and all its models destroyed. Despite the destruction wrought by von Braun's invention on Western cities, and the use of concentration camp inmates as slave labour (resulting in more deaths in the rocket's construction than as a result of its firepower), within just a few years of the World War Two ending, von Braun's name would turn up in the American mainstream, advocating space travel in the pages of Collier's magazine, and even designing (with Willy Ley and Disney imagineer John Hench), the TWA Moonliner, a rocket bearing a distinct similarity to the V-2 that stood as the tallest structure in Disneyland's Tomorrowland.


Coming two years after the Jazz Singer, Frau im Mond was probably the last great silent science fiction film. In the year of its release, F.W. Murnau, dejected by the failure of his first talking picture, the now lost Four Devils, left his adopted Hollywood home for the South Pacific. Schooled in the romantic theatre of Max Reinhardt, it may have been the orientalist tendencies in so much nineteenth century music - from Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri to Bizet's les Pecheurs de Perles - that led Murnau to seek his own escapist exotica.

Murnau's Tabu is a film whose images teem with music. We see its characters singing, drumming, playing the guitar, and, frequently dancing. Despite Murnau's embeddedness in the film's habitat (he was by that time living on Bora Bora) and the realist intentions behind the choice of real locations and native actors, the dancing we see was in fact tightly choreographed by Murnau and his collaborator Walter Spies to fit into their conception of 'architectural cinema' (and the real locations and natural light certainly do not seemed to have stemmed Murnau's love for suggestive use of shadows). Likewise, the music composed to be performed in theatres alongside screenings of Tabu bares about as much relation to the authentic music of the South Seas as does The 101 Strings in a Hawaiian Paradise.

Composer Hugo Reisenfeld, whose first work on film was as a music arranger on film adaptations of the operas Carmen and Siegfried (for Raoul Walsh and Fritz Lang, respectively) initially proposed using themes by Bizet, Massenet, and Mendelssohn, and, although these were ultimately not to be used in the film it nonetheless gives you an indication of the way he was thinking. Though the music is often in sync to images of the islanders playing their own instruments, the soundtrack gives us, somewhat incongruously, a symphony orchestra throughout, frequently reprising themes from his earlier Murnau collaboration, Sunrise (along with a bit of Smetana's Má Vlast).

Tabu had begun life as a collaboration with the ethnographic film-maker Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran), who had intended to make a political documentary about white exploitation of the islands' natural resources. Apparently the hard-drinking, heavy smoker Flaherty soon fell out with the ascetic Murnau over the latter's preciousness concerning the waxed floors of his yacht. As the story of Murnau's film moved further away from political critique towards exotic fantasy, celebrating the idyllic lifestyle and 'primitive' rituals of the islanders, Flaherty was ultimately banned from the film unit, left to stalk the production like a jealous lover.

One week before Tabu's American premier, Murnau was killed in a car accident, while work on the music was still underway. On a documentary featured on the Eureka Masters of Cinema DVD, his grand-daughter recalls him as a great lover of music who knew many operas by heart ("from Beethoven to Bach"). Shortly before his death, he had signed a contract with Paramount to produce five new sound pictures, all of which were to be shot on the South Sea Islands. Alas, we will never know whether the resources of sound film might have led Murnau to find more sonic sympathy with the islands where he had chosen to live out his final years.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Sounds Like Dystopia

"It's the year 2010 and you wake to a familiar tune playing softly. It gets you out of bed and makes you feel good. As you walk into the bathroom, your Personal Media Minder activates the video display in the mirror, and you watch a bit of personalized news while you get ready for the day. You step into the shower and your personalized music program is ready for you, cued up with a new live version of a track that you downloaded the other day. It is even better than the original recording, so while you dress, you tell your "Taste Mate" program to include the new track in your playlist rotation.
You put on your new eyeglasses, which contain a networked audio headset, letting tiny earbuds slip into your ears. You switch on the power, and the mix that your friend makes for you starts to play. Music pours into your consciousness. It becomes yours.
After breakfast with your family, you head off to work and the Personal Media Minder asks if you wish to finish the audiobook you started yesterday morning. You confirm and listen while you walk to the train that takes you to your job.
During the day, your headset and other wireless devices help you communicate across the network, with your friends, associates, network buddies, and "digital peers." The headset also keeps you connected to that hard rock collection that you really love to listen to. Meanwhile, a variety of new songs, new versions, and remixes of tracks that you truly dig, along with your old favorites, continues to come your way. Using TasteMate, you access and trade playlists, and recommend a couple of songs to your friend in Seattle, and they get added to his rotation. Music propels you through the day.
On the way home, you choose your usual dose of news, sports, weather, and the latest dirt on your favorite bands and movie stars. The headset syncs to the active 3D displays that project images just in front of your eyes, or onto the communal screens available on the train and at home. You decide what you hear and see, and who can share in the experience. The Media Minder blends and delivers the programming you select, along with whatever variety of new music you decide to explore. It also determines how that music is chosen, with the help of the TasteMate program.
Back at home, you cruise into the evening with the house system sending soft dinner jazz to various speaker systems in your house, as you serve up one of your culinary specialties, then pay your bills. One of these bills is your media and entertainment subscription, which includes your monthly music, video, network, and communications charges; it's always lower than your heating or water bill. Incoming calls from your friends blend into the programming that surrounds you, as you see fit. After dinner, you clean up, perhaps enjoy a couple of games with friends across your virtual network, and begin to wind down with some New Age derivatives of Mozart's original compositions, which you discovered late one night while cruising through the music sharing channels. . . . "
- The Future of Music (2005)

For those of you to whom, like me, the above seems like a vision of hell to exceed Dante's darkest fantasies, it may come as something of a shock to discover that it's authors, David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard, regard this is something to look forward to, something to eagerly anticipate and benignly encourage. Over some 190 pages, the authors expound their notion of "music as water: ubiquitous and free flowing" as the coming paradigm of all music consumption. No matter that almost every page displays their absolute stupidity with regard to music. They don't even understand water.

For when Leonhard and Kusek propose a model of music as water, they are evidently not talking about music as a publicly funded, state-run monopoly. No, their supposedly utopian vision of the future of the music industry involves the transformation of music into a privatized utility. "Do we feel that water companies have undue monopolistic powers, and do we consider water to be a "product"?" They ask rhetorically, as though the expected negative response was so obvious as to scarcely require thinking about.

But when three multinational corporations control the water supply of over one hundred nations; when water privatization in England and Wales has led to an increase in price, an erosion of working conditions, an increase in household disconnections, a deterioration in the service provided, and no increase in water quality; when the IMF-imposed sale of the water supply to the Cochabamba region in Bolivia led to the Bechtel Corporation of San Francisco gaining legal ownership of all of Cochabamba's water supply - even its rainwater - and ultimately to the notorious Cochabamba Water Wars of 2000; perhaps we should start to question the "undue monopolistic powers" of the water companies, and perhaps we ought to question whether this is a model we want to follow for the provision of something as precious as music.

Before I am accused of taking a metaphor too literally, however, let's examine what Kusek and Leonhard actually have to say about music, about the kind of music we might be listening to in this bright future of theirs, and what it might sound like. Precious little, as it turns out. The sound of music seems to be of little concern to these self-styled futurists. In the above-quoted paragraph they offer us some "familiar tune playing softly", a little "hard rock", a touch of "soft dinner jazz," even "some New Age derivatives of Mozart's original compositions," (I particularly like the way they had to point out that Mozart wrote "original compositions" - such a novelty will it be to actually compose in the coming era of endless re-versions, remixes, and derivatives).

They trumpet themselves repeatedly as champions of the "niche", the "emerging", "new music" and "indie labels". All the exciting new marketing tools of the digital age - from video game syncs to corporate sponsorships - are framed as opportunities to smash the prevailing hegemony. And yet, when it comes to providing examples, we are faced with an array of staggeringly familiar names: U2, Blink 182, Sting, Phish ... Hark! What refreshing new sounds be these coming up from the underground? The confluence of the names of all these rock dinosaurs with Leonhard and Kusek's shiny new tools is not merely contingent or coincidental. The fact is, far from breaking the hold of the major labels, opportunities like having your song in the latest EA Sports game are only available to artists already deeply embedded in major label structures.

The authors never tire of chanting how this brave new world will increase the "diversity" of music available to the listener, and yet almost every means they chart to do so will undoubtedly have the opposite effect. They may criticize the traditional radio DJ for following playlists, but at least live radio with live human presenters offers the possibility of a maverick emerging who will bring strange and unusual acts into a sort of mainstream - John Peel being the classic example. On the other hand, expecting diversity to emerge from the algorithms in a web store like Amazon which tells you "people who bought this may also like ..." can only be folly. There is no John Peel algorithm. Such automated software will never surprise you (unless it's broken), only ever offer you the same sounds under different proper nouns.

Futurists have form on this matter. Kusek and Leonhard are not the first to mistake more stuff for enlarged real choice. Back in 1970, Alvin Toffler, in Future Shock, wrote of the "incomparably more diverse" wares to be found in the new supermarkets then fast becoming ubiquitous. Even as Toffler criticised the "architectural sameness" of the supermarkets, he boasted of their "gastronomic diversity" - and even architecturally, he was convinced that, given time, "Uniformity will give way to diversity." As the term "futurist" ceased to refer to a type of artist or political thinker and became a kind of profession in itself, from Toffler's course at The New School to net evangelists like Leonhard and nanotech prophets like Ray Kurzweil, it seems to have necessitated an almost total neglect towards precisely those disciplines in which the future was once most at home: aesthetics and politics.

Thursday, 23 September 2010


In my brief absence from the blogosphere, I seem to have missed the boat somewhat on Inception and meanwhile Mark K-Punk has gone and made almost exactly the point I wanted to make about it (though I think he makes it better than I would have). This is precisely what I was alluding to on Twitter when I said that the film was not as clever as it thought it was. There are basically two philosophical ideas in Inception, one of which is fairly boring, standard sixth form stuff (what if our reality is just a dream? etc.), the other is slightly more interesting (the strange loops stuff Mark talks about), unfortunately, at a certain point the writers clearly decided to 'go with' the former.

The thing is, I spent almost the whole film thinking that its whole structure was itself going to turn out to be a strange loop, like the paradoxical dream architecture talked about in the film - i.e., that the end, which had, necessarily to come after the middle, would turn out to be the beginning, which itself had necessarily to come before the middle. But it didn't do this, nearly but not quite - it just ended on the spinning top, in a vaguely Richard Herring-esque 'Ah! But what if all this is still just a dream? Eh? Eh??!' Well, more fool me, I suppose ...

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Faith on Earth is a Thing of the Past : Le Vaisseau Fantôme at the Opéra Bastille

As the Vorspiel draws to a close, the curtain rises on a vast pale room. Stage left stands a vastly proportioned door which will make dwarves of the protagonists (and giants of their shadows), stage right a kind of frame within which shimmers the image of a woman gazing dutifully up at a painting of a storm. The curious insubstantiality of this image, its coved frame, raise the question whether this image of an image is itself a filmed projection (for soon we see the woman within shift her posture slightly), or perhaps (as we soon discover to be the case) sheltered behind a scrim. Is this woman but a dream dreamt by the present scene, herself dreaming of a ship lost on stormy seas - a ship that we soon discover ourselves, as sailors bearing ropes come marching through the great door, to be aboard? Towards the end we will find ourselves questioning the reality status of this painting once more, as lighting effects expose the audience to a collectivised Stendhal Syndrome.

Richard Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer (rendered in French as Le Vaisseau Fantôme), as performed last night at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, is an opera at the crossroads (meeting the devil, perhaps?), an opera of counterpoint and contradiction. Composed in the early 1840s after a tumultuous sea voyage across the Norwegian fjords, undertaken to escape his creditors, (but inspired just as much by a satirical tale by Heinrich Heine), Wagner no doubt sympathised with the sea captain Daland's willingness to offer up his daughter, Senta, to the Dutchman in exchange for his treasure.

Written, then, in something of a hurry, in the hope (vain, as it happened) of escaping penury, The Flying Dutchman lies midway between classical opera and Wagner's later mature style and contains elements of both. Performed last night (as it frequently is) absolutely continuously, without breaks between its three acts, and yet with clearly defined arias to disrupt the smooth flow of arioso. There is even at times, such as the early dialogue between Daland and the Dutchman, something approaching secco recitative, yet punctuated by chords far more caustic than anything you might find in Handel or Mozart. It is also contains some of Wagner's earliest uses of leitmotifs, and remains the earliest of his operas to have been performed at Bayreuth.

Generically, though based on a comedy, the story is a tragedy, yet its hero sings bass (with nothing of the buffo about him) with a ghostly tremolo, serving to emphasise the weak, effeminacy of his rival for Senta's affections, Erik (a tenor). A love story whose lovers scarcely touch, embracing only twice (both times within the same scene) and but fleetingly. They seem to spend most of their time divided by the vast blankness of the stage, looking away from each other, scarcely capable even of seeing each other. At one point they seem to almost pass through each other, both as ethereal, as insubstantial as each other. As Senta lays dying she clings not to the Dutchman's body but to his portrait, in love more with the myth than the man.

In stark contrast to the lush warmth of the orchestration, the mise-en-scene and lighting was all cool minimalism in blues and greys. Even as the lights brighten in the second act, it is the harsh winterlight of a Bergman film (fitting its Scandinavian setting). My companion and I found ourselves comparing the staging (by German theatre director, Willy Decker) several times to the cinema. Most conspicuously, with its obtusely projected stage, long shadows and acute forced perspective, to German expressionism. Before the Dutchman's first appearance on dry land, we see for a long time his shadow, projecting from the door jamb. The image recalls nothing so much as Dr Caligari's somnambulist, Cesare.

From its opening storm to its Hoffmann-esque themes of the uncanny intrusion of the supernatural into the quotidian domestic sphere, The Flying Dutchman may be the ultimate romantic opera, the very apogee of romantic art. But in pushing romantic illusionism and suspension of disbelief to its limits, it seems to leap out of its frame (like the jutting stage itself) and force a certain self-doubt, a radical questioning of its own artifice which looks to the future in more than one direction. Last night's performance may have offered us a dream within a dream, a dream that dreams itself in an endless strange loop, still, for all its spectral shimmer, it retained a certain crisp clarity. Like lucid dreaming, it offered the dreamer the chance to become aware of its own reverie, thus offering the utopian possibility of infinite transformation.