Out now on PopMatters, and only two weeks overdue, my continuing love affair with all the delicious and varied beers of Belgium. Choice quote:
I've experienced trouble keeping track of all these beers, and I haven't even begun to sample the specialist beers made by various small breweries around the country. Leffe comes in four varieties and Chimay in three colours (each deliciously different and successively stronger); there's a stable of 'kriek' lambics and diverse white beers that all blur into a lazy haze of malty hops and foam. I've a stack of scribbled coasters with notes, stars, and underlinings of various names but very few criticisms and memories; and there've been a few times already that I'll walk into a supermarket or bottle shop and recognise a label or two, like someone who looks vaguely familiar, like I might have had a deep and intimate discussion with the night before but now cannot match to a name. It's embarrassing for all concerned. The coaster might say 'hallelujah, I've found my brand' and I might have dragged all my friends to the bar to meet and greet it, but a week or so later I'm not so sure any more. Another beer has come between us.
Mr Anderson, I loved thee. Another film about middle-age failure and father-hungry sons, there’s probably a few too many relationships at work in this film. Which drag it down, diffuse the focus and leave the viewer slightly at sea. Sea films are dangerous, they swallow attention and careers. The detail was as always superb — Mr Anderson truly loves every fine touch — he aims for an absolute of set control and flavour which is admirable. The background of Italy was a nice touch. The ensemble was great. The best touches were the singing Brazilian, the electro-keyboard song and the outrageous gunfights. The interview scene with the killer whale in the background was tops. Cate Blanchett was luminous and consistent. Bill Murray was either not quite chaotic or essential enough to carry the drama. I love thee too, Bill, but something was missing. Between him and Owen and Anjelica and Willem there just wasn’t that access of depth and emotional reality (or need) that kept Tenenbaums rolling. Like the guy on IMDB says, there’s touches of Fellini comedy rubbing off from the Cinecitta studios. But Fellini, even at his nutty and dreamiest always has a foot firmly planted in humanity. At least this one is slightly more specific and detailed about mid-life wash-ups and mild desperation and resurgence. Take the scene with Werner, Klaus’ son. It could’ve been a real identifier, a child-moment of salvation, but it failed. Alas. Would it be inconsistent to ask for greater focus on human detail, the emotional fine print, as opposed to the set detail? I so much wanted to love this film that I felt a little jilted. Maybe a complementary set of them Adidas would’ve helped.
I love SF for its speculative powers and bold acts of prophesy. It is an act of extended interpretation, a radicalisation of the New. But it also has its transparent problems on a structural level. Basically, the technologies of typical SF have (supposedly) undergone several generations of paradigm shift — within the limitations of what we currently conceive to be possible later. Regrettably, the technology has advanced but the narrative worlds haven’t. The narratives are always predictably 20th Century human. Why else is the clear-cut moral range of the Western so adapted to SF? On a very basic structural level that ignores for the moment the leaps of faith involved, and which ignores the trends and fashions of narrative culture, narrative has, when viewed in technological parallel, changed little over the last thousand years. Good guys on grand adventures fight against evil aliens or technologies; there’s friendships, loyal teams and skimpy heroines; missions spinning out of control that become desperate journeys home; mysterious objects/omens/phenomena that teach humanity crucial lessons about itself or the vastness of space; there’s power plays within hierarchies and rebel factions — and all with the clearest scenario establishment, suspense and resolution of within 1-2 hours or 190 pages (and I beg indulgence here — it is an error to confuse plot with narrative — narrative is the whole active field of story and effect, not just its obvious formal/genre elements). For us, these are a series of fixed and universal forms which change little except in shape and colour but which inform much of the novelisation, filming and televising of SF. An episode of Star Trek might deal very intelligently with an interesting and debilitating problem of interstellar physics, and the formal execution of the episode might reflect this; but it’s still an extension of the problem/teamwork/solution form worked out in 50 minutes. (Star Trek - The Next Generation embodies most perfectly what could be called the corporatisation of SF — a reliable, bankable and easily-consumed SF-product franchise. More on this later.) It’s easy for SF to dream up convenient stellar drives and beeping tricorders — it is much harder to conceive and execute a narrative experience that is truly futuristic or that hypothesises how future generations might expand and experience the structures of narrative beyond superficial trends. Because narrative too should also undergo paradigm shifts if it is to be truly futuristic.
The Third Movement (Adagio molto e cantabile) of Beethoven's Symphony nr. 9 in d-moll
I don't generally go for Hegelian definitions of the Sublime (or was that Kant), but if I was pressured to analogise the cool, abstracted air of Sublimity and had sufficient leeway of criteria, I'd choose the box marked Musical Art and lock in this Adagio.
It's best to define the Sublime by what it is not: it is not utterly bereft of melody, harmony or counterpoint. It does not, ultimately, eschew rhythm. It is neither narcotic, necrotic nor sentimental. It's neither abstractly restful or becalmed to such a degree that all movement is negated; it doesn't transfix or beholden the mind to its beguiling extremities. The Sublime does seem to entail an air of rarefaction: of heights, unsullied skies and long horizons; of inner smallness drawn against the widest vista and emptied spontaneously into harmony with 't. It is high humanity drawn to near-abstraction without spiritual dogma; humanity without suffering or the mud of cloying hearts. (The Sublime is obviously incompatible with the African.) Neither Platonically ideal nor the Rilkean domain of angels, Beethoven's Adagio is absolutely humane, that beyond which it is humanly inadvisable to speculate, for there is nothing further besides the vacuum of space and/or the dread void that looks back into you. His Adagio is sublime because it's subjectively rendered as though born of felt experience, or by a seeming-experience on the fly of composition/performance. You can't tell if it's art or deepest experience.
The backing of winds and strings allow the lightest escapades of melody; the backing draws in, builds and returns and then launches into austere freedoms of lightness. All the while progressing the movement of experience and time, seemingly natural-formed. A metaphorical tap into pure spirit as universal experience. The score, the sublimely narrative movement, is like a delicate instrument designed for handling the lightest, most delicate filaments and textures, and yet also capable of drawing and channelling the heaviest support and foundation. It is lightness anchored in the depths, a strong body singing the life of the mind. That contains its own action and rest in a single movement; that is coolly sufficient; that is both air and experience.
Notable point: the release into flight of the French horn at 9:00 (on the 1977 von Karajan/Deutsche Grammophon recording)
As you all know, the purpose of this blog is largely memorial: to keep basic track of the various works worth reviewing during my time in Europe; so that I can archive these impressions and also gauge the volume of stuff encountered for the sake of future recollection and memory-propping. And also to let others know what I've seen, read and consumed. Pretty basic stuff. But don't let it create the impression that I write or review everything I see and do. It just ain't so. Only the stuff worthy of longer review and associative analysis makes it onto the Daze. To review everything would be to incur a Borgesian maelstrom equally mind-numbing, wasteful and detailed as that may be. To review everything I might only get a bite of, or witness the last five minutes or garnered through staggered impression of channel-surf'd malaise, these too would still not constitute sufficient warrant and booking in review form. Only the good shit. The rest, well, it's either trash, tired or merely worthy of sighs. Stuff I've seen in toto but which can be dealt with in one or two words. Like:
Sex is Comedy by Catherine Breillat (shit). The Circle, by Jafar Panahi (naturalistic). Coffee and Cigarettes, Jim Jarmusch (fagged out). The Captive, Chantal Akerman (insipid). Mirror, Andrei Tarkovsky (lacking). Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss (mild fun).
Fans of The Control Room will wanna read up on the renegade news channel and its unique charter through our diseased media times. Miles compiles a pretty thorough and broad essay on the channel; it’s probably as good an introduction as can be done at the moment. The problem of course is that the Iraq occupation is an ongoing concern; and hence so is the US smear of the station. The most entertaining value of the book is to lay bare how shameless, depraved and supremely American the NeoCon occupation and global war on terrr really is. The stunned mullet of Bush coming to grips (ever so slightly) with the hatred of the US and US foreign policy in the Middle East, and the laughable PR manoeuvres to try and correct this image with advertising guff and smokescreens and new media initiatives (cf the various cynical and corporate ad attempts at rivalling Al-Jazeera, bringing in the likes of Charlotte Beers and her corporate delusions). And the sheer, deepest hypocrisy at the heart of it all in a nutshell, forcing the rhetorical concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ onto other countries and yet castigating the one truly free and democratically-relevant channel out there. On top of all the blatant lies and the totally false evidence for war and WMD. When, if they really wanted to get their perspective across, the US could’ve efficiently used Al-Jazeera as a conduit even Qadhafi learnt that lesson early on.
America doesn’t just come across badly (even a minor list of its errors and lies could’ve had that effect) but as one of the major and most guilty propagators of disinformation out there today. If Rumsfeld et al successfully cast their spin over the most heinous and bloody crimes in the war, then you know 99% of the (US) media simply aren’t doing their job. Which is the deepest shame in the book (contrasted with the braveness and integrity (hey, bias? Yes) of the A-Jazeera crew) the narcolepsy and self-censorship affecting Western media today. Remember the major US networks falling over themselves to patriotically follow the White House brief by not broadcasting Bin-Laden because his messages could be coded? To accuse Al-Jazeera of enemy propagandising (when you’re the biggest propagandiser of all) is an amazing act of slander and misinformation; and now a quiet majority of Americans think of AJ as partial to Bin Laden (the counterpart of this argument is that Hicks line of partitioning information in such a way to keep (American) people stupid). The great news is that most Iraqis are smarter than that. Most Arabs are cynically aware of how governments use the media and so they had a good laugh at the American attempts at positive spin (though add up all the hundreds of millions wasted in the process… and you get an idea of war consultancy profits and sheer waste). The sad fact is that the major Arab concern in Palestine is still not being addressed in a meaningful way by the US. If only Bush could realise that to do so would instantaneously transform the image of the US in Iraq. Obviously, that is a heavy load to realise in one go and not a single NeoCon hawk would have the smarts to suggest it. With the result that the broad ‘Zionist Conspiracy’ argument will continue to be aired in the Middle East. (It bears noting that Al-Jazeera is often labelled an Israeli plot in the Mid-East what Fisk called the perpetual Conspiracy mentality).
Al-Jazeera represents the single most important step forward in the Middle East today. An independent media outlet is a crucial prop for democracy in any form today. And considering this is the rhetorical goal of the US, their squashing, slandering and abusing Al-Jazeera (in the field as well as diplomatically) leads one to conclude that there are latent or unspoken goals driving their invasion and occupation besides the ones touted: freedom, democracy, regime change. Oil no doubt. [Though, in an aside, I’ve got more to say about the sheriff’s stance the US is adopting over Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon the probable real motivating force just south of the border is keeping its cards close.] Al-Jazeera is a brave enterprise; and with the launch of the English version, it should become a major media voice on the global scale and hence no doubt even more castigated (with all the integrity and underdog kudos attached). At least, my hope is that if AJ does become the BBC of the Middle East, then it’ll start attracting the cream of journalists and analysts, those with enough integrity left to ask difficult questions and scalpel through the tissues of lies and spin. This could be the single strongest corrective measure in the modern media since the smokescreen began with Dubya’s election (and possibly much earlier). Maybe Fisk might join the crew. But then Fisk is probably a bit too reactive for the AJ ethic of ‘the opinion and the other opinion’. I was reading an interview with the Fisker a while back in which he pricks the bipartisan myth of journalism, of allowing right of response when you’re faced with the kinds of extreme and continuing atrocities such as occur in Palestine, in which case you need to call a spade a brutal, criminal and grossly inhumane, illegal occupation. A crime is a crime by any other name. Which reminds me of the article on Al-Jazeera recently, of a Japanese legal team which concluded that Bush and Blair could legally be tried as war criminals to the full extent of the law. Didn’t see that article anywhere else.
For Arabs everywhere, everything America does in the Middle East is seen through the prism of Palestine. Washington is blamed for blocking attempts to find a ‘just and lasting peace’ between Israelis and Palestinians, for freezing the road map to peace and for supporting an extremist Israeli government that is in contravention of international law. When President Bush calls Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ‘a man of peace’, all the advertising expertise of Madison Avenue will not help win Arab hearts and minds. You cannot polish a turd. (p386)
Also of note is the battle over words like martyr, occupation, invasion, resistance, which Al-Jazeera used freely at one point. And the subtle shifting of power away from Saudi Arabia, especially now the US has bases in Qatar, Iraq etc.
The Cannonball Adderley solo on Flamenco Sketches (Kind of Blue)
Despite all the banging on about modal jazz and the fact that Flamenco Sketches is very clearly modal, it is nonetheless one of the most perfect pieces of jazz ever recorded. It is purest improvisation. It is free soloing over an integrated and conducive backing where everything sounds 'together'. The furthest state removed from indulgent noodling and ego-exercises on a technical scale; this is emotional and affective music where the means and message merge to become art. It is gentle, contemplative and meditatively sparse yet reassuringly intimate; its emotional contour taking in warm comfort in one mode and the soul’s weathering of the storm in the next, before returning again to comfort in the late of the night. It is one of the great triumphs of the blues ballad form. It is the heart of music laid bare with grace and maturity.
And it’s Cannonball Adderley’s solo that I find particularly graceful. Coltrane takes the first solo, navigating comfortably over the three modes and introducing some of the measures Cannonball will develop. The biggest difference between the horn players is that Cannonball has this amazing faculty for lyrical rhythmic grace. His improvised phrasing is strongly suggestive of the human voice. He has a genius for that rhythmic degree between swing and funky. He bends notes up unexpectedly, he quips and pops little phrases; he sings languid one minute then uses plain bop-notes the next. And then he will sustain the most beautiful vibrato note. He is fabulously well-punctuated one of the finest grammarians of rhythmic phrase and finesse in jazz. Coltrane seems more the straight-ahead, lateral line-man in comparison, his soul a different kind of energy. Cannonball is a sheer optimist, pacing his notes between the beats while staying perpetually fresh (I think he is the better complement to Miles’ spare musings Miles also has an acute rhythmic sensibility not immediately apparent). He plants a bold note to clear the air of the last, he sews together heart, tact and intuitive melancholy in a broad sketch of runs and commas, and at 5:12 he performs an amazing, roof-opening octave run that is pure elegiac soul. It is no longer improvisation but pure emotion.
Why is it so humane-affective? Flamenco Sketches implies that at the pinnacle of pure music and art, you’re likely to find a deeply profound but optimistic sadness, a melancholy emotion of loss tenderly rendered but utterly expressive of soul. A truer kind of beauty.
I’ve had a lot of recumbent time to study Vincent van Gogh’s A Sidewalk Café at Night a painting about perspective and colour as luminosity (view). Vincent must’ve had a peculiar fondness for the geometrical rays of the vanishing point in his compositions, a lesson central in his learning to paint (which like everything, he learnt and executed quickly). The composition of the Café scene is near perfect and harmonious, with the vanishing point just left of centre. The rooflines, the awning, the drainage grooves on the cobbled street and even the aligned leaves on the tree all snap in line to that central point of infinity located somewhere near the golden gas light above the waiter’s head. The white tabletops float like saucers in formation away from the centre; and to deter them as subjects from the painting, the people of the café crowd in vaguest definition around this point. An inverted distancing effect: the people are indistinct and distant, the stars are bright and exaggeratedly close, like daisies printed onto the blue fabric of night. The man and woman on the street’s right travel in opposite directions, silent vessels in the night. The blue doorway pillar on the left buttresses the bright expanse of yellow awning and offsets the heavy buildings in darkness opposite. A large quarter of the street is devoted to the rough cobble street, hurriedly scored on an underlay of white and gray. The nearest subjects in the order of perception are the chairs one of Vincent’s favourite objects the first three all face the same direction subtle cues for the rearrangement of mental furniture as experienced in the bedroom with chair painting. The length of the awning and the diminishing heights of the doorways all seem to indicate a stretching of perspective or an unreal scale (again, voiding the front of humans helps). But for all its adherence to perspective and the vanishing point, and the impression given of a funnel effect, this is an unusually flat and undimensional painting, because it instead wants to suggest depth by colour and colour contrast. There is no arranged layering of depth in Vincent’s work; it’s all about straight paint to canvas and not the manipulation of dimensionality. Since perspective is all about true perception of dimension, this painting would be a mess without its bold and direct colours. The colour in turn disguises the fact there’s no real luminosity at work on the canvas, no real sources of light. So in a snap Vincent regresses to a pre-Renaissance attack on painting, as though the culmination in Rembrandt never happened. A modern idolatry of colour perhaps. All the light comes from the yellow and orange of the awning, tempered with green contours and mixed-on-canvas white overlays. The source of light is barely defined as a source; the gaslight is neither background nor foreground and indifferently melded with a basic outline. It is yellow in a field of yellow, ambivalently close. If the gaslight had real luminosity (which I’m sure it did it reality) he would’ve had to create realer shadows and gradations and intensities of light obviously time-consuming details. Every brushstroke is a registration of haste and urgency it must’ve taken an hour or two to paint this scene. In part it’s dirty and amateurish. But it is still a bold transmogrification of reality the only reality here is the paint, the colour. A reality where colour draws a hard wedge (like the awning) between the darkness it doesn’t care for, but without all that religious or allegorical interpretation of Light. You begin to suspect there’s a complementary mindset at work here, that Vincent doesn’t paint what’s Realistically there but what his heart wants to see and harmonise with order and colour.
The cream of writer/director combo flicks are diverse and many, from Godard to Takeshi. But on the downside, the ones that fail often fail intensely. One thinks of George Lucas’ recent work. And it’s on this subterranean scrap heap that Vincent Gallo’s Brown Bunny belongs. It’s singular proof of what you can get away with as self-scored and self-obsessed director: lots of shots of yourself scoring with every chick, indulging your hobby (biking) and ultimately, getting blown by a reasonably well-known actress. What could be better? Do some brooding, look lost and intense and string together endless shots of American roads shot through a dirty windscreen, show off the peculiar powerlessness of your light voice, and voila, a Cannes nomination comes your way. Bunny is one of those rare films that gets a negative score for story without in any way approaching Beckett. A negative score for sense and involvement, this film is almost anti-engaging. The one nicely cinematic shot in the desert becomes a grossly meaningless non-statement (you can tell the double negatives are crowding in. Again, our criticism lacks a full discourse of negativity). I’m amazed (in a slightly perverse way) at how Gallo can dilute and de-flavorise his film of all usable meaning and effect, at how he can make himself especially so bland. And to get head from Chloë Sevigny seems to be the ultimate expression of directorial coercion slash getting away with it I mean when Leonard Nimoy directed Star Trek III he didn’t unload his schlong for all to service, no matter how glazed Shatner’s eyes were ("Spock… Friend..!"). Now, everyone knows that Chloë swallows. For a film about being lost and broken-hearted (merely by association, not by acting, script, montage…) to end on a tawdry note of film-my-dick is amazingly conceited. I had to watch most of Bunny at 4x speed because of all the tedious road shots, and was seriously going to demand a refund from the Leuven video store if I could’ve been arsed filming myself in the process and mailing the tape to Gallo directly.
Also saw Terry Gilliam’s quixotic undoing (I know, the cheaper the pun…) in Lost in La Mancha. As far as cinematic disaster movies go (with what to compare it to, Hearts of Darkness?), it’s quite nutritious documentary fare though not quite the whole narrative meal. A keyhole view into who and what powers own and really control a film project; in this case the insurance underwriters. Gilliam is the dreamer whose under-budgeted film mutinies; there’s moments when he’s facing the darkness and the betrayal but he never quite snaps, his humour doesn’t decay for a second (seeing him watch the rushes reveal his comic intent). He’s not quite as uncompromisingly gung-ho as Coppola, digging himself deeper and deeper into his own personal jungle; just more aloof and resigned to the care of the details of his film, not heeding the executive vultures circling ominously. The unsung hero (or Sancho Panza) of the film is the focused and impressively organised first AD, Phil Patterson. When he’s about to quit you know the film is doomed. Depp doesn’t have much of a say; there’s no conclusive remarks from Rochefort himself which are absolutely necessary; and there’s very little original footage (am afraid to say that very little was actually/probably shot) which could’ve made some great bonus features. The focus is too much on Terry and he comes across like the mischievous director at play with all his fancy dreams. The director, I feel, could’ve learned some important production lessons from Fellini basically overspend on everything (especially sets), overdraw and go nuts with every detail so that when the executive crunch comes you’ll at least have a basic complement of sets and stages to work with. At least, he had an indulgent De Laurentis to back him; but it’s a good way for dreamer-directors to operate. It’s sad that there’s a recurrent theme of indulged failure to Gilliam’s work; a behind the scenes doco of Baron Munchausen would’ve been very interesting (DVD reissue, anyone? Extra Uma?). But, on the whole, I am keener than ever to get my hands on the Criterion Collection of Fear and Loathing. Particularly eager to get into the amazing sound engineering on that one.
There’s not much to say about the Oscars (which sound infinitely funkier in French: La Cérémonie Os-Car) beside Spike Lee wearing a Fez, but there was a telling audience/recipients/reaction shot, bearing in mind the occasional crowd-shuffling, and which indicates the Academy’s idea of Seating Seniority, a shot of Alan Alda sitting in front of Martin Scorsese, who was actually up for an award. That was surely no accident.