Here's something I wrote for the Kansas City Star after this year's Lollapalooza; they didn't publish it because it's true and, as we so carefully repeat, truth doesn't do anyone any good.
Notes on Lollapalooza, 1-3 August 2008:
Fear & Loathing in the Unreal City
Since Altamont, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Watergate ground out the last embers of Woodstock’s bonfires, any movement of an even moderately “countercultural” or utopian bent is bound to be compared to the wave that peaked in San Francisco and rolled across the Atlantic in the days that may, in some distant time, be looked at as the last in which men-as-giants roamed across the fading pan-American landscape at the heights of their powers (Dylan, the Kennedys, Dr. King, Malcolm, Bobby Seale, and Manson in physical presence; the Panthers, the SDS, and the Weather Underground in marching masses or deep in the subconscious; and Marcuse, Marx, Fellini, Joyce, and Guy Debord in the electrical currents sparking on every streetcorner, in the hundred thousand basements where a hundred thousand Johnnies were mixing up the medicine). To compare that wave to the modern current of popular “indie rock” and its attendant culture, however ideologically impoverished the latter may be even in contrast to what admittedly now appears to have been primarily a gust of bright, necessary naïveté, is a task that to a certain extent completes itself, and the extent to which it doesn’t is at least as revealing, for the characters (and “characters” is the word) who are present are those who are tragic not because their potential goes unfulfilled but because, as Frank Zappa said almost 40 years ago, their tragedy is that they have gotten exactly what they wanted.
Perry Farrell is of another generation; properly speaking, he was of another generation even when he was in his own. Born in Queens in 1959, Farrell was nearly 30 by the time Jane’s Addiction, a group of musos all significantly younger than him, released its first album and scored a massive hit with “Jane Says,” and he served as something of an elder statesman for the Seattle-centric group of alt-rock bands that roared into public consciousness with Nirvana and cohorts. The philosophy behind Farrell’s work in and out of the band was a clearly post-hippie, everybody’s-groovy-now happy hedonism that, in common with the ideals he was clearly trying to emulate, was predicated on the vague concept of sociopolitical transcendence through indulgence, be it acceptable or transgressive. Farrell’s mistake was almost precisely the same as Timothy Leary’s before him: he built a vision on the kind of purely self-satisfied action that only a man with money, sycophants, or both could ever hope to sustain, and in precise accord all those below him caught the fallout that could never penetrate his fame or wealth. Leary’s onetime followers became failed seekers, alienated acid casualties, or cynical corporate types; Farrell’s too have been subsumed into the corporate superstructure but in a new manner befitting their origins. Whether Leary’s or Farrell’s failures were purely accidental or secretly spied from great distance is a matter that can be of little importance to those who bore the brunt of those failures; history has judged Leary, and if Farrell’s 2007 album with the Satellite Party, Ultra Payloaded, is any indication, he remains locked in a preternatural adolescence from which the cruel comedown will no doubt be punishment enough.
That Farrell’s newly immobile Lollapalooza should be centered in Chicago is no surprise, for if he is the misguided optimist leading a vanguard of his own children, the Chicago-based Pitchfork Media is this “movement’s” Rolling Stone and editor Ryan Schreiber its Jann Wenner. There is no shortage of revolutionaries who have, through time, crises of conscience, and sheer weariness, eventually become part of the conservative establishment they once despised; Jann Wenner is a unique case in that he appears to have been perhaps the only man in American history to pose as a revolutionary in order to fulfill his dream of becoming a used-car salesman, to self-style as a canny flower-child with the penthouse in mind from the word “go.” His legacy, such as it is, stands upon his reliance on the public never to investigate his claims of spiritual brotherhood with those whose daring it was his profession and his pleasure to exploit (witness, for example, his self-serving editorial in RS’s Hunter S. Thompson memorial issue or the inflated I-was-there-man tone of his interviews in the HST documentary Gonzo—yes, Jann, you were there, but so was Henry Kissinger).
Schreiber’s prostitution has been subtler and has taken place at a higher speed, in a manner befitting the generational gap between him and his clear forerunner. Rolling Stone wanted to sell you products to induct you into a lifestyle; Pitchfork needs only to sell you the idea that there is a culture happening somewhere on these arid plains and that you, for having missed it, will be forever stuck in the half-world of those condemned to be strangers to their own zeitgeister (“ghosts of the times” indeed, for these are ghostly times, times at which the spectral world seems as if it could not possibly be more threatening than the “real” one). There is a mythical Brooklyn, or perhaps a mythical Williamsburg, that lives in Schreiber’s head, a concentration camp of American Apparel t-shirts and too-tight black jeans, and he and his minions are clearly dedicated to creating its trends and then drawing them sharply away before any of the pathetically eager subjects on which they act have the time to inquire as to whether there was any substance there in the first place. A positive word from Pitchfork can throw nearly any group from anywhere into the highest echelons of college radio play and small (or large) label record sales, and a negative one is the source of a pervasive blacklisting that hearkens back to the Hollywood of the Red Scare; the site has used this considerable power not to cast light in equal and deserved profusion but to mold culture into a disgustingly heterogeneous parody of itself and to do so on a terrifyingly widespread basis in which Henry Ford-style assembly line tactics masquerade under the banners of “tolerance” and “multi-culturalism.” And like several well-known spiritual antecedents before him, Schreiber is not above the retrospective editing of history: witness, for example, the sudden hike in Pitchfork’s rating of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the record that through no fault of its own stands at degree zero for this scene of scenes, this meta-scene.
Paranoid of me, perhaps, but when a major American city temporarily designates a zone in which the moralizing penal code that substitutes public shaming for effective justice will be relaxed—revoked, even, as smuggled booze, pot, LSD, and no doubt a host of other chemical amusements that I didn’t glimpse were imbibed without respect to the proximity of security personnel—it’s hard for me to avoid recalling the fears of Haight-Ashbury hippies that the San Francisco government was building containment camps for them in the late ‘60s. These gestures, which look like concessions on the part of the Power, are in fact simple reinforcement of the radical alterity of all things foreign to that Power: a brief reprieve granted to the Other is always-already a means of emphasizing its Otherness, its illegality when the reprieve ends. It is in this sense that, for example, the New Deal perhaps did more to inextricably entwine the idea of American-ness with capitalism than any other recent social program. Certainly the measures Roosevelt enacted were extremely progressive when viewed from one angle, but when he allowed those measures to lapse, the message was clear: These were extraordinary actions called for by extraordinary circumstances, certainly not Ways to Live. Surely you didn’t imagine they were permanent?
Effectively compounding the creeping dread is the terrifying spectacle of the Obama Store, a merchandise booth next to the regular food and alcohol vendors selling Barack-centric goods ranging from the traditional and sincere to the hipster-approved ironic. Read that name carefully now: the Obama Store. It’s almost refreshing for a serious presidential candidate to make the virtual public admission that the whole gig is a sham, that it’s an advertising and marketing enterprise after all and that only the campaigns’ architects and financiers get serious votes; one might hope that such an admission would end the charade it unveils, but “Obama ‘08” t-shirts were in heavy evidence and apparently selling steadily. If Matt Taibbi’s brainless, neo-jingoistic, and (of course) well-regarded series of Rolling Stone articles on Obama (not to mention Wenner’s fawning interview of him) are to be read as barometers, Lollapalooza was one of many crosscurrents in the groundswell that the confused young Illinois senator will ride all the way to that mansion on the hill. I wonder if even he can recall his actual opinions at this point in the race.
The Kennedy comparisons Obama has garnered are unapt, for they would necessitate an analog between the Eisenhower and Bush administrations, similar enough in terms of omnipresent nuclear terror but less so in the realm of popular approval; and Jimmy Carter’s convictions were far too clear for his era to make an appropriate reference point—indeed, in these last 45 years in which we are all kept well aware that any president who rocks the boat too hard can and will be gunned down in plain view, Carter was simply too honest a man to be an effective politician. In fact, Obama’s high tide is far more like the one ridden by Reagan, built on promises of renewed national self-esteem and Hallmark sunrises over the stars and stripes, and surely I need say little about that anemic old charlatan, the American counterpart to the befuddled plutocrats and ecclesiastical cowards who handed their nations’ skeleton keys to men like—yes, it must be said—Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco. Obama has yet to make a crucial decision: does he want to be a good man, or does he want to be the president? Every November 22, he along with all of us must note the anniversary of the moment that we discovered that, in this social order, one simply cannot be both.
I sit with a handful of sweaty, weary showgoers on a small hill overlooking the vast expanse of grass on the south side of Grant Park that leads to the headliners’ stage, the sound of the Bloc Party dying distantly in the unmoving heat. A few feet in front of me, a girl who cannot be older than 15 rises from the grimy crowed, arms herself with a pocket mirror, and begins the meticulous application of eyeliner in between her blinking away of the dust that rises from the nearby footpath. It appears at this juncture that she is the posterchild for the generation that is hers and mine. Even the less obviously self-conscious audience members here seem to have got up everything that is theirs simply for spectacle and the projection of a fragile identity, everything from dancing to facial expressions to clothing to drugs. It is all for the benefit of a jury of our peers. Total Surveillance: fear grows into publicity. We eye with lust the bags of crushed ice on passing trucks.
And yet there was a moment, if only one…Saturday afternoon I walked away from Explosions in the Sky’s set on one end of the park bound for Battles on the other and was swallowed by and sunken into wave after wave of young people moving in the opposite direction to the stage I had just left. My first thought was of The Waste Land, Eliot’s crowd flowing over London bridge into the Unreal City: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” But—and whether it was a genuine intuition or simply the cinematic narcosis of the music which surrounded us, I know not—I looked into as many of their faces as I could catch as they passed and was struck somehow with the knowledge that they were trying. Not succeeding, and perhaps not even trying with intelligence or craft, but trying at least, if nothing else trying.
The second intuition of the festival required no wondering, no equivocation. After Rage Against the Machine’s set was (necessarily) interrupted over and over by Zack de la Rocha’s pleading with the audience to move back and stop crushing the susceptible front-row members against the steel security railings—pleading that was greeted with indignation and the sentiment that he was “here to entertain us, not to talk”—I stared out over the ruined park littered with beer cups and food wrappers and thought again of Eliot: “Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit/There is not even silence […] /But dry sterile thunder without rain/There is not even solitude […] /But red sullen faces sneer and snarl.” Empty cisterns and exhausted wells.
I followed the dozens of thousands who had just jeered at the request that they take such small pity; followed them out of the park and down Congress in the heart of a massive pack, and suddenly there broke out a yelling and a violent celebration, and the air shook with the palpable shift from individual consciousness into mob rule, from thought into unconsidered herd motion, and it was at that moment that the lens cleared and the veil lifted. All this—the music, the drugs, the trend-chasing, Obama and his new-voter army—all this was simply a means to an end, an excuse to sublimate the individual mind into the bloodlust of the pack, the empty-headed ecstasy of human troubles dissolving into beehive simplicity and collective undulation. The people around me, the people who I call peers and in whom so much crumbling hope is sometimes placed, desired only that dissolution and cared little or none for the way in which it was reached. Any person or entity could have been at the head of that pack issuing any instructions, and those instructions would have been followed: the mere consideration of right and wrong suddenly vanishes into the lethal simplicity of doing what is done by he who stands at your side.
The American Dream now clearly discloses its two sides: on one stands a nation of snake-oil raconteurs, televangelists, and confidence men, and on the other a herd desperate for the narcotic oblivion of blind allegiance. Whatever revolution this generation could muster will be but a tapping on the glass, a kick at the walls of a snow-globe, for we are far too deeply buried to remember the dead legends of an outside world. How do you cheat the dead? By making them fear for the lives that they have already lost.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
After Federico Fellini's early realist films, among them widely-acknowledged masterworks including I Vitelloni and La Strada, he turned decisively to a cinematic style that was surreal in the true sense of the term: certainly it was visually dazzling and full of nearly unbelievable images and scenarios, but it was also deeply personal in the sense of reflexive psychoanalytical introspection that the charter Surrealists (Dalí, Cocteau, Buñuel, et al) sought to expose. The automatic processes, the irrational visuals, the primacy given to the unconscious in the work of such figures were intended to demonstrate and develop much more than what Ben Watson refers to as "the warm shower of imageoiserie" (and given the source, we can assume the cloaco-sexual suggestion is entirely intentional) of postmodern would-be neosurrealists in the vein of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Tarsem Singh who, despite having produced some admittedly dazzling and memorable settings and atmospheres, nonetheless fail to produce films with the rich detail or multivalent suggestibility of truly great compositions.
As such, the content of Fellini's great surreal features (La Dolce Vita, 8 1⁄2, Giulietta degli Spiriti, Satyricon) is primarily discussed either in terms of pure visual composition or in relation to what they elucidate in his own emotions and intellect, and while both these approaches are instructive, they miss the implicit political critique of Fellini's films. Admittedly, this critique is subtle almost to the point of absence: though social criticism looms large in all the films listed above, a clear political gesture from Fellini is a rare bird, particularly in terms of literal plotting or event. However, Fellini's films are so enduring and powerful in part because they reveal themselves through so many conduits besides simple plot, because so much of their content works on more figurative levels that, in this age in which what a film "is" tends to be defined strictly and simplistically by the events it contains, are ultimately more exciting and are cast out farther and deeper into the vague, shadowy realms of possibility.
One such film is 1972's Roma, which like much of the maestro's work proceeds from basic autobiographical facts into a surreal realm that is ultimately both fascinatingly fantastical and incisively relevant. Fellini himself begins the film with a voiceover in which he admits that it essentially has no plot, no continuous narrative, no characters except "Rome herself" (which is, as ever, a bit disingenuous, as he himself is clearly the male lead to the city's heroine), and loosely chronicles the roots of his interest in the city with his school trip there in the mid-'20s, his immigration as an 18-year old at the very outbreak of World War II ("They won't bomb us because they're afraid of hitting the Vatican," as one Roman denizen memorably observes), and, in a characteristic upsetting of the subject/object binary, the actual process of filming the early '70s portion of Roma itself. As befits history, much of the film takes place during the rise, reign, and fall of Mussolini, and his looming presence is hardly tiptoed around: when the young Fellini meets the Roman family with whom he will be staying on his 1938 sojourn, an older male relative introduces himself by bounding out of a bathroom and doing his best Benito, and when an air raid takes place during an early '40s visit to a vaudeville show, one of the trapped theater-goers declares, to the lukewarm approval of the crowd, that "only Mussolini and fascism will save us."
While Fellini's narrative voice-over makes no explicit comment on the pro- or anti-Mussolini sentiments expressed by various characters throughout the film (though, naturally, there is a crack about trains running on time), the very material of his cinematic technique is a pungent rebuke of the ideology of fascism. As Dr. Marshall Armintor has remarked in conversation with the author, "There is no fascism without uniforms": despotic totalitarian politics rely completely on the spectacle, the appearance of solidity, strength, and homogeneity to mask the inequality, oppression, and violence beneath. It is always a sign of imminent danger when a nation begins holding displays of its athletic, intellectual, even spiritual prowess, for such a display is nearly always the corollary for an act of imperialist-style violence, the justification for the subjugation of a people who fail to meet the lofty standards demonstrated. Roma contains one such display in a scene in which Fellini-as-a-boy and his parents visit a movie theater and watch a pro-fascist film strip among the crowd's jostling for seats, and while the juxtaposition of the false regality and fraudulent grandeur of the Italy on screen with the petty bickering of the Italy represented by its citizens is a clear critical gesture, there is greater deconstructive substance to be found in the actual techniques Fellini uses to construct his films. This is the specific political power of Roma: it presents Fellini's filmmaking for the first time in the specific context of sociopolitical repression and demonstrates by such presentation the power of his work to beggar the totalitarian myth.
Like the fascists, Fellini returns again and again to spectacle, to overwhelmingly massive crowd scenes and vast, dazzling panoramas, but he employs them to precisely the opposite effect. Totalitarianism desires to present a unified front, a stoic, "dignified," hard line of state-sponsored rigidity and strength; Fellini presents crowd scenes in all their actual circus-like surreality and diverse grotesquerie, a move that powerfully gives the lie to the cheap appearance of monolithic splendor that is the very lifeblood of fascism. Mussolini, like Hitler, was careful to present images containing only lean young men of the most ethincally "purified" sort (which naturally suggests questions regarding the relationship between the fascist ideal and homosocial or homosexual desire, a topic for another discussion) performing feats of physical strength or arranged in unyielding formations of marching and saluting troops; Fellini not only includes outcasts, "degenerates," Frank Zappa's "left-behinds of the Great Society" (let's hear it for another great Italian . . . ) but makes them part of the focus of his visual and ideological structures. He does so not in an exploitative or condescending manner but with the intrigue and sympathy of one who understands that "freaks" explode the boundaries of normalcy, push at the limits of what is to be considered "real" or "average," and most importantly call into question the behaviors of the "normal"--for as often as Fellini depicts obviously outcast characters ("homosexuals and my usual enormous whores," as he laughingly puts it during one of the scenes of Roma's filming), he also puts forth characters whose behaviors have been ratified by society but are clearly conducting themselves in brutal, thoughtless, even bloodthirsty ways (for example, the ritualistic-sacrifical air of Anita Ekberg's famous dancing scene in La Dolce Vita, especially Alain Dijon's wonderfully twisted facial expressions). In the same manner that Watson so enthusiastically applauds in Zappa's oeuvre, Fellini gleefully thrusts into focus the people and situations that shatter the violent and destructive myths of fascism.
More on this later . . .