(Well, maybe holding bay would be more appropriate.) Looking out onto the snowy drizzle of a very white Dublin morning, planes parked under drapes of snow, with the news that Hunter S. Thompson has offed himself with a gun. Not like the Doctor to go for the broadly symbolic exit, neither for dramatic purposes nor for want of Papa-worship or anything. Either the drugs stopped working or Hunter simply stopped working. Massive betting debts, writer’s block, sheer ennui and antipathy at the Bush regime or the general decline of the American state and the ultimate disenfranchisement of its citizens; these and probably a dozen other reasons and theories will roam the mediasphere. Or, of course, it could be something very simple like bad health. Rolling Stone will do a loving but misguided tribute on HST’s madness under a deadline, written by a hack going for a ten-gun Nixonian send-off; Johnny Depp will come out distraught and maybe Bill Murray will provide the most moving and respectfully insightful eulogy of them all. I see Ralph Steadman has done the Independent and the Guardian the service already. Whatever comes out of it, I am certain that the world is going to seem a lot less sane without him around.
Leuven: Leffe Bruin, Mort Subite (kriek), Westmalle Tripel (trappist) and Orval (trappist). Four beers and I'm already in heaven. And these just from the local corner store. My long and no doubt continuing novel about all of Belgium's beers is progressing. All that editing is just so much additional fermentation.
I wish it were possible to write while drunk or at least mildly hammered on Belgian beer. As I sit in a warm café at the foot of the St. Pieterskerk of Leuven (sadly stunted and incomplete without its tower, but impressive enough in the swirling snow), I consider sending off a quick mental prayer to the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson, asking for guidance and stamina in the task ahead. The good Dr. Thompson, you will recall, had an almost superhuman ability to conflate drugs and alcohol with the journalistic brief at hand. The Doctor could've aided my long and continuous researches into these beers. But I believe that ultimately, when faced with the sheer scale and variety of Belgian beers and their swift alcoholic punch, that even he would've taken an early retirement.
Also, I've the bad luck to be in Belgium at the same time as George W. Bush. Some observations I've made: a president who preaches fear and militarism naturally believes his own cult of fear. When his blue jumbo landed at Zaventem airport, his was the only plane in a deliberately restricted airspace and landing schedule. The airport was blocked off, a massive garrison of US security guards and FBI agents took over, including sharp shooters on roof buildings, riot squads etc. The Pres got into his bomb-proof limo and drove as part of an armed convoy direct to the US embassy in Brussels in what must no doubt be the record time of 26 minutes. I mean, this is Belgium; the Prez could've cycled in and heckled a few startled shoppers and none would bother to take a pot shot at him, if only to relieve the boredom. That massive defence budget must be spent somehow, and his trumped up importance underlined by any means and technology available. Secondly, and this is in line with the jibes levelled at Bill Clinton during his regime (all fries and cheeseburgers): every time George W. comes out of some conference or meeting with European dignitaries and does the smirk for the cameras, all he seems to be able to talk about is the meal just consumed. First there was the breakfast with the Belgium PM ("We had a nice lunch together") and later on there was a little glad-handing with Chirac (who just towers over GWB in every sense, statesmanship, presence, seniority) in what was declared to be a dinner he "had been looking forward to a lot" and which was the "first since getting reelected". All the time, Prof. Rice sits nearby with a look of blank concentration. She doesn't really need to be here as part of the ambivalently billed "charm offensive" (would that be bilateral or unilateral charm?) but she has the deliberately studied look of the understudy hard at work, waiting for a morsel. One of the strangest double acts in politics today. When the Belgian news used direct feeds, it again becomes glaringly clear how inept GWB is at attempting to string together incoherencies and platitudes for the media: the same old spluttering inanities, just as Blair (for instance, as breakfast guest) stands next to him with that decidedly bambi-ish look of open-mouthed dazzlement and reels off something far more coherent but subtly GWB-propping.
A good American is one with a sense of humour and at least a shred of irony. What great hillbilly fun: a quartet of drinking guys in cut-off overalls having way too much fun on stage. Noodles of talent. And everyone invited back to the hotel for pool and rack assessments (for the next album cover, so they say). Sticking mostly to AC/DC covers in a very tight 1.5 hour set, with a lot of tongue in cheek preacherisms (It was revealed to me… my path was clear… I want to testify… or maybe that’s the hooch in them talking) and some absolutely ace banjo playing (Don Wayne Reno, you are a legend). Personal favourites include Big Bottom (The looser the waistband, the deeper the quicksand) and Fat Bottom Girls and The Ace of Spades. You just can’t appreciate these songs until you’ve heard them rockgrass style. Also, what is unarguably the best cover of Walk This Way ever performed. All part of music about drinking, cheating, killing and going to hell. The insight of the night was the prevalence of lunch songs, if you know how to look for them. A band for whom performing and drinking time are the same thing. Best covers band of the year.
Yes, this has been a somewhat slow review week, this week, but I’ve been having all sorts of kooky themed journal ideas (it could be the flu putting me in that deliberate convalescent mode of perception). This one, inspired by reading a Dorothy Parker interview on The Paris review site, whose excellent ‘DNA of literature’ section features heaps of interviews (and is slowly expanding, it seems). Parker laments the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ("Poor son of a bitch") saying how no one rocked up to his funeral, and the ignominy of being a Hollywood hack slash scenarist. The Wikipedia couldn’t flesh this anecdote any further, but it got me reading up ferociously on all the flappers of the Lost Generation with their smarties and petting parties. And how this brief little era still has potent associative function in the idealistic paradise of American Pipe Dreams and Fairy Castles (subdivision: literary scenes). The Round Table, the pre-Depression bobs, the booze. Ah, memory. To wit:
The Twenties Journal (specialising in brisk short fiction) And the Twenties Press (an online archive of forgotten writers)
I’ve been comparing the original Smile bootlegs with the finished product delivered unto us last year. Also, watching a doco with brief audio snippets of the original tapes reminded me of some noticeable differences which only now become more apparent. It’s all in the voices, the vocal approach. And Brian’s singing style or brief to the BBoys. The singing is much younger, of course, and hence fresher and better suited to innocence slash youth themes (Carl, always so fresh!). But most significantly, the original vocals are fused and forged with melancholy, with a kind of hashed-out sadness slash longing slash emotional feel. In Brian above all. A vocal on the cusp of self-alienation, regarding the self from a slight distance and perceiving a sadness therein. It comes out on the extra scattered tracks from the period as well, stuff like With Me Tonight. The new and completed album, despite all its slickness and clarity and musical precision, skims off this rich layer of melancholy cream (ugh, great curdling metaphors, Batman). The new album’s (backing) vocals are great, except as mentioned earlier, Brian sings all the leads and Brian’s voice is several generations removed from the young man of 25 — it’s as though the care he took with 'feels' in the 60s has been lost; his inflections are pedestrian and aged. The melancholy infusion is gone; the sheer emotion and originality that so impressed critics and sycophants in '66. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful we have a finished product at all; but the subjective layers of the originals flatten the feel and beauty of the new stuff somewhat, they lack a tiny but noticeable degree of emotional range. And the material is so well suited to melancholy shades and browns. Compare, for reference, the versions of Wonderful, even Vega-tables, their sheer evocative power.
Also, on PopMatters now, my bit on Dublin fruit and flowers and Moore Street.
People in Dublin seem to be congenitally afflicted with the habit of walking into others, thereby making any venture onto a crowded street a thoroughly haphazard and jaunty experience.
No, I haven’t completed it again, although I might feel differently about it a few chapters later; but of all Lawrence’s novels, bearing in mind that all his openers are strong, I find the Rainbow's first chapter the most powerful (with Women in Love, naturally, a close second). A complete and thorough introduction to character, method and theme, it's psychologically acute and representative of everything to come after. In a way, he is mad in his completeness and reach for succinct totality. DHL is a subjective surgeon operating in a strange world of animal darkness, of pained relationships with their insidious needs and smarting negations, the biblical knowing and biblical language; of couples desperate for completion and yet too intense for the ultimate possibility. It's all shockingly animal. A 'scape where instinct battles for spirituality but fails in its fires. A place where winds in the trees mirror the windy strains of the heart. It's an amazing personal achievement I can’t think of any other writer of late that has as much subjective force. It had me thinking again of one of Henry Miller's finest passages (from Nexus, methinks) where he expresses his love of characteristic openings in novels: some authors floating high over the work but casting vultural shadows, others mad and schizophrenically intertwined with every word and seed of the book.
He put on all clean clothes, folded his stock carefully, and donned his best coat. Then, being ready, as grey twilight was falling, he went across to the orchard to gather the daffodils. The wind was roaring in the apple-trees, the yellow flowers swayed violently up and down, he heard even the fine whisper of their spears as he stooped to break the flattened, brittle stems of the flowers.
‘What to-do?’ shouted a friend who met him as he left the garden gate.
‘Bit of courtin’, like,’ said Brangwen.
And Tilly, in a great state of trepidation and excitement, let the wind whisk her over the field to the big gate, whence she could watch him go.
He went up the hill and on towards the vicarage, the wind roaring through the hedges, whilst he tried to shelter his bunch of daffodils by his side. He did not think of anything, only knew that the wind was blowing. (p40, Oxford Classics)
The actual courtin' scene itself is a masterfully succinct piece of subjective difficulty and violent otherness (to use a term I'd rather not). Full of instant and flushing transformations. Vivid.
A room, a time, a place and a novel, 2046 is a completely sufficient and enclosed cinematic world. Stylistically separate but twinned with In the Mood for Love, it broadens the relational scope of the lead(s) and deepens the narrative topography of (a) love in 60s Asia.
I love the international (or intra-Asian slash migratory) approach of a story blended with a Western-looking culture and sexuality. A film fused with the romance of life. At times magically composed and shot, Wai's cinematic language is intensely created and affective and personal and image-driven. He seems to make the same (if not a thematically similar) film again, varying only his techniques and the relational settings in a curious mix of Murakami and organic subjectivism. The dramatic-realistic Tarkovsky perhaps? I saw Chungking Express about a week or two previously, and it's kind of shaped the way I look at Wai's oeuvre-contour. Particularly his approach to meetings and love's early petals. He's very much the horticulturalist of Asian cinema, dedicated to the careful cultivation of fine and dramatic cinematic flora. Beautiful to look at and wander through, wanting to be read symbolically.
Technical-trope-wise: A bold use of the production company logo as narrative bookends. A strong sense of space and enclosure slash privacy given by the deliberate use of obscuration in the dialogues: when one character speaks, the other (or even the lead) is obscured by a panel or wall or fitting, forcing a lot of the dramatic action onto a third of the screen. It's an unexpectedly intimate effect. Further deepened by what feels like a very naturally-lit film with alternate camera speeds, and an execution mostly between close-up and mid shot. Wai is one of the best directors of interiors, period. I can’t remember any major establishing exteriors in 2046.
Tony Leung and Gong Li are masters of nuance and subtlety, the latter probably more so, every bitten lip a treasure of suggestion on the big screen. Leung’s character seems to have become much more chauvinistic and easy, less a writer in love. Emphasis now falls on the failed love of the women. And of course all their unspoken secrets, their generosities and demands. The emotional terrain of the film is further typified by what's left out of it in the generically-Hollywood sense: guilt, remorse and happy endings. It makes of true love a complex memory, something only approached in real experience and then under constrained circumstances, but best left to ponder over later or in another place (distanced within), leaving one smarting and hardened and closed to other loves or the love at hand. And hence making excellent philanderers of us all. With rent owing and drunk girls in hand. It's still Tony's film.
The future story lacks pathos and counterpoint, its script-gears not fully meshing (in a commentary or metaphorical sense) with the 60s story (in fact the whole secret-hole thing becomes a bit trying). Which is a shame because it stretches the ultimate believability and humane reality of the latter. It (the future story) seems to represent an emotionally barren but hypermobile state of affairs without any angst or ennui (especially in that French way) (or even a technophobic slash cybernetic paranoia) (or strong contrast) which might've turned this into a truly great arthouse/artistic film, if only in a causal/metaphorical sense — fleshing out the emotional-consequence landscape between the many temporal and subjective layers of the film. But when the mechanics of filmmaking are so beautiful you can almost feel Wai's creative idea-plant grow, you don’t really care.
Just a little too long and occasionally ill-paced with respect to music, and possibly not as great and thorough as Mood, it's still pure cinema. Pure style and vision in execution, Wai's art and technique are flawlessly tuned and fused (sounds great, eh? Doesn't really say much. See it yourselves).