Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Drag Me to Hell

The pulp-fiction title provides one clue, the quite literal visual depiction of said title one more. And sure enough, Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell is to horror films what the spring's Taken was to action movies: a satisfying, straightforward, well-made example of its genre, smart enough not to take itself too seriously, but self-possessed enough to avoid smug camp. Such films become rarer and rarer as Hollywood finds itself torn between high-profile (though not necessarily highbrow) adaptations and lowest-common denominator schlock, usually with a self-consciously "ironic" edge. For relief, there's the occasional clever, high-concept movie, but pure genre films - which satisfy an itch, do so with great skill and craft, and don't feel it's necessary to saturate themselves in a jokey postmodernism - have largely fallen by the wayside in the 00s.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My Brother is an Only Child

Two brothers: one, Accio (Elio Germano), a fascist, the other, Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio), a communist. As the Netflix envelope tells us, they "remain close despite their opposing political views, but when they both fall for the same woman, the rift between them grows." Actually, the story is more complicated - and interesting - than that. Manrico's commitment to his cause is greater than Accio's; the latter is a right-winger by virtue of heady testosterone, lingering Catholic traditionalism, and blistering sexual frustration. Besides, about two-thirds of the way through the film, Accio is no longer a modern-day Mussolini wannabe, so the film's potentially glib hook is not in play anymore. Meanwhile, the woman, Francesca (Diane Fleri), remains Manrico's lover throughout; and Accio's attraction to her may actually bond the brothers closer rather than split them apart. The film spans fifteen years, though the siblings don't quite age accordingly, and the storyline offers a political progression to match the familial dissolution. In the end, My Brother is an Only Child is an entertaining and at times though-provoking movie, if not a terribly deep one.

At its best, the film is a wry, warm portrait of sibling rivalry, a kind of coming-of-age comedy shot through a prism of extremist ideologies. While its heart certainly seems set on Manrico's leftism, the movie humors Accio's fascist blustering, seeing the bumbling blackshirts of the 60s as inadvertent comedians rather than sinister hoodlums. Occasionally, a satirical slingshot is aimed at the radicals as well. Particularly amusing is the Beethoven concert, initially a moving tribute from young revolutionaries to a musical iconoclast. Quickly, though, it becomes a silly socialist singalong when "Ode to Joy" receives embarrassing new lyrics, by way of placards extolling the virtues of Mao, Lenin, and Stalin. Accio himself eventually joins "the movement" (he's astonished to find out he doesn't get a membership card) but his political insight is still outstripped by a headlong obsession with "action". Meanwhile Manrico heads for the thickets of radical terror - while the name "Red Brigades" is never evoked, it seems clear that the once idealist worker has descended into Italy's version of the Weather Underground and Baader-Meinhof Gang. At film's end, only Accio seems to have a clear idea of how to make the struggle real, fusing political activism and family commitment in one impulsive, yet surprisingly intelligent, action.

The political history of 60s and 70s Italy is painted with a rather broad brush. One does miss a deep understanding of the Communist Party's relationship to radical activism (the film paints the two as glove and hand, respectively, when in fact their interests did not coincide until well into the 70s), as well as the actual role fascist recidivists played in state repression (indeed, the state hardly registers, save for the climax and a brief aside leading up to it - in this film, the political is very, very personal). At times, with the brothers representing differing ideologies, and with most of the action focused through the backwater Mussolini-built town of Latina, the movie takes on the quality of a fable, so it seems appropriate that the politics are simplified and streamlined. Besides, how much intricate ideological parsing can an audience take? Even so the era is evoked with some sharp flourishes; for example, the TV flashes images of 1968's international revolution, while Accio sits down in front of a hot plate and informs us, via narration, "The revolution never came to Latina. I think I spent most of that year in the kitchen."

The relationship between the brothers plays with goofy charm and warmth. You end up liking both of them - Accio, despite his political idiocy, and Manrico, despite his callous self-centeredness (he coasts on his charisma to bed women and then leave them hanging; ultimately, it's his own family he leaves hanging). Germano, as Accio, is magnetic with his enigmatic smiles and self-effacing jokiness, though occasionally, he tries a bit too hard to echo Robert De Niro (the two even look a bit alike). Ricardo Scamarcio is not quite as intriguing, but he's just as good as he needs to be for the part. Taking what could be a thankless Che Guevera pin-up rad doll and infusing him with humanity and genuine charisma, we can see why the youthful activists and old mamas of the village alike fall under Manrico's spell. Meanwhile, Diane Fleri embodies Francesca with such engaging warmth that we can sense immediately how both Manrico and Accio could fall for this pretty young activist in their own way; her bright smile outshines any red star or Mussolini medallion. One scene, in which Accio bids her farewell with a playful fascist salute and she returns the gesture with a grin and a mock fist of solidarity, rather nicely evokes the humanist way in which the film attempts to transcend political boundaries.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

8 1/2

Guido (Marcello Mastrioanni) is a filmmaker. Suffering from director's block as his big-budget shoot draws nearer, Guido finds himself tossing and turning between baroque fantasies, an even more carnivalesque reality, and childhood memories both soothing and haunting. Serving as guide on the artist's quest for inspiration is the fleeting image of a beautiful muse (Claudia Cardinale); she appears every now and then like a splash of cool water - all too briefly. Then Gudio is submerged once again in the sweltering sauna of questioning producers, condescending writers, boorish acolytes, tormenting cardinals, preening mistresses, hectoring wives... The concluding image, which captures the film's wild characters marching around a circus ring with the director as the ringleader, nicely sums up the spectacular nature of the movie. The opening images (and sounds) - with the director trapped in his car, barely able to breathe, before floating in the sky like a balloon, with a mysterious figure tugging on a rope attached to his leg - also set the tone, establishing the artist's alternating claustrophobia and free-floating imagination, while preparing us for a film which will be told, most often, viscerally rather than narratively.

8 1/2 is widely regarded as Federico Fellini's masterpiece, yet however one judges it against the Italian director's body of work, it's an essential movie. Usually placed alongside classics like Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Godfather in lists of the greatest films ever made, 8 1/2 has had an immense impact on popular culture since the 60s, furthering the idea of free-associational storytelling, glorifying the artist's humorous explorations of his own hang-ups, privileging the power of imagery and style over devotion to exposition and objectivity. None of this was new, of course, and even that which was relatively new already had already found expression in the vibrant New Wave films pouring forth from France. Nonetheless, 8 1/2 was one of those films which consolidated innovations and gave expression to the zeitgeist in a particularly memorable way. As such, its influence was carried on through all the envelope-pushing works of proceeding decades; today its idiosyncratic vision, devotion to individual consciousness, and modish style have perhaps found their latest home in the more innovative television series. This may say as much about the precarious nature of the filmic medium at present as it does about the eternal adaptability of "Felliniesque" flamboyance.

As for the marvelous movie itself, it remains sumptuous, romantic, entertaining. It is both timeless in its airy, imaginative, highly stylish approach, and charmingly of its time, as a portrait of early 60s chic on the cusp of mid 60s Pop bohemianism. The night scene, in which the director climbs the scaffold of his eerily empty outdoor set with his wife's lesbian gal pal, sharing his existential neuroses, perfectly summons a contemporary mood of melancholy dislocation. That feeling, for the moment confined largely to intellectuals and attributed variously to the Bomb and Sartre (both a bit old-hat by '63), would soon explode into the public consciousness, carried by the surging youth with their psychedelic drugs, hedonistic rock music, and apocalyptic politics. For the moment, at least, the seed of this mass mood was sprouting in a series of remarkably fresh and adventurous movies bursting forth from Europe, 8 1/2 being but one of the most notable. Personally, I find several Fellini films I connect more deeply with - beginning with his coming-of-age (somewhat after the fact) I Vitelloni and ending with that aching elegy to the good life and cynically cool celebration of the "sweet life," La Dolce Vita. However, there's no doubt that 8 1/2 is a summit in Fellini's cinema, and in the history of movies: there's nothing else quite like it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

It's a Gift

W.C. Fields plays Harold Bissonette (pronounced "Bis-o-nay" at his pretentious wife's behest), a henpecked husband and besieged shop owner who's also a man with a dream. When his uncle dies and leaves him a bit of money, Mr. Bizonet, er...Mr. Bis-o-nay doggedly ignores his wife's blistering putdowns and admonishments, and buys an orange grove in California. The family sets off for the promised land in their old jalopy, wreaking havoc along the way; needless to say, when they arrive at their destination it isn't exactly Solla Sollew. But there's one more surprise awaiting them; in the end, Harold will have oranges aplenty, all the better to add a touch of flavor to his tall glasses of gin.

The above describes the plot, all right, but if it conveys a humorous situation comedy in which the gags all arise from the premise, then I've given the wrong impression. One's sense of It's a Gift will be determined in the early scene when Fields attempts to shave. His teenage daughter charges into the bathroom and commandeers the mirror. W.C. bumbles around the room trying to determine a new way to cut his whiskers, but the humor arises not so much from his solutions, which are nonetheless amusing, as from the man himself. I watched for a minute or two and found myself thinking, "This isn't really very funny." Then, unexpectedly, I began to chuckle. And the mirth quickly became bountiful: Fields is so offbeat, so singular in his timing and expressiveness, that he's hysterical. He never seems to be milking a gag for laughs: he's like the juggler who keeps several balls in the air while drinking a glass of milk (spiked in this case) and talking to a friend - the comedy is simply effortless and natural. The constant assaults of the outside world - the family first and foremost - are never-ending, and the humor is to be found in Fields' flailing endeavors to fend off these assaults, particularly the incessant verbal volleys of his withering wife. All of which can only be truly appreciated by watching the man in action, and as such, It's a Gift comes highly recommended.

It's a Gift is also wonderful for how it situates Fields' wild, desperate humor in the context of Depression realities, from the hardscrabble Jersey town where Bissonette raises a family, works, and suffers (all the same, really) to the Californian Eden of parched orange groves and sequestered mansions. In the end, Fields is a man who's achieved the American Dream in true individualist style: by being his own cantankerous, ever-enduring, ever-soused self.

Mutual Appreciation

Wannabe rock star Allan (Justin Rice) shows up in New York to pursue his career, experience city life, and hang out with his friends Lawrence (writer/director Andrew Bujalski) and Ellie (Rachel Clift) - Lawrence's girlfriend, whose feelings for Allan may give the movie its sly title. As Allan and Ellie skirt closer to the edge of a sexual and emotional engagement, they realize they're playing with fire - without care, their happy trio could quickly go up in smoke.

As with all of the talented Bujalski's films, a plot description does not fully convey the movie's appeal. Actually, Mutual Appreciation is one of the best films of the decade. The attraction lies not so much in the story, which gives the fleeting moments and prevailing mood a context and a destination (though as always, a climax is present without a full-on resolution), as in the texture of the film. The beautiful, grainy black-and-white 16mm film look suffuses the proceedings with a melancholy, romantic atmosphere. Bujalski elicits charismatically naturalistic performances from his entire cast, and the improvised feel of the exchanges (though they are, in fact, hardly improvised) deepens the relaxed sensation of being immersed in an authentic universe which the filmmaker, like a Deist God, set in motion and then left to spin of its own accord.

Mutual Appreciation's rock musician hero and hip Brooklyn setting (touristy exteriors are eschewed for just-as-evocative apartment rooms and occasional basement clubs) are double-edged swords. They create a buzz and excitement around the film which can draw viewers in (Bujalski's first film took place in a more grungy post-college setting; his third in a workaday, more practical thirtysomething milieu). However, these elements also allow some to smugly deride the film as trendy or "hipster" and thus dismiss it. In fact, Bujalski's prevailing mood is a warm engagement with life, limned with melancholy; he eschews arch, ironic distancing for exposure of the raw feelings which race beneath young people's social interactions. He even has the guts to show the discomforting parasitism which underlies the musician's free-wheeling life, as he stumblingly phones his dad for money and endures a lecture about finding a job. Bujalski's first films spawned a movement jokingly dubbed "mumblecore" (these films can be intriguing but remain mere snapshot details of Bujalski's larger, richer canvas). Most other filmmakers of this milieu would have you believe that their characters survive on unconvincing half-baked "cool" jobs or some nebulous notion of financial independence. (This honesty manifests itself in different ways in different Bujalski films: in Funny Ha Ha, the character struggles through dreadful-looking temp jobs while Beeswax gives its characters relatively un-hip professions like lawyer and store manager). Anyway, after Bujalski kicked off an under-the-radar movement (of which most filmgoers remain blissfully unaware), he lay low for a while, appearing in a few of his peers' films but apparently waiting until the buzz blew over and he could go back to making his own unique, inimitable movies without being pigeonholed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ivan the Terrible

Over the course of two films, released fourteen years apart due to Soviet censorship, legendary director Sergei Eisenstein chronicles the infamous Russian tsar's ascension to and assertion of power. Ivan (Nikolai Cherkasov) begins as a handsome young prince, crowned at the opening of Part I while the corrupt nobles whisper conspiracies under his very nose. By the end of Part II, Ivan is a wizened, shrewd tyrant, foiling an assassination plot by using a simple-minded relative as bait. In between, he leads troops into battle, throws decadent parties, loses a wife to poison, and is betrayed repeatedly until his paranoia makes him wise beyond his years - and authoritarian beyond his foes' wildest expectations.

The film is a masterpiece - the above plot description guides the action, but the essence of the movie is in the extreme close-ups Eisenstein lavishes upon the bizarre faces of his players, the lavish yet cleverly designed set pieces (dinners with huge white, and later black, swan statues; a diplomatic detente in which the figures are placed on the checkered floor like chess-pieces), and the magnificent score contributed by Prokofiev. One should not expect a historically accurate recreation, a politically correct manifesto, nor even an especially straightforward narrative; to enjoy the movie one has to appreciate the campy effects Eisenstein employs and recognize that their campiness is not really unintentional. Even Ivan the Terrible seems in on the joke, half-flirting with an effeminate usurper just to get his way, wickedly grinning as he poses for Eisenstein's flamboyant camera. Part II is even better than Part I, if only because it further abandons the dutiful rollout of Ivan's rise to power for the immersion in his decadent, paranoid, baroque milieu.

Eisenstein had been one of the signature pioneers of Soviet silent film, when his films focused on the power of "montage" - rapidly cut sequences which often employed visual metaphors and rhyming images. Ivan the Terrible employs a wider variety of tricks, but the execution is still tight, controlled, and rhythmic - not in a cold fashion, but bursting with enthusiastic passion. As Stalin clamped his iron fist down on the Marxist state and narrowed the range of the arts, preferring drab socialist realism to inventive avant-garde agitprop, it was hard to see where Eisenstein fit in this totalitarian vision. He was freed up to create Alexander Nevsky, a heroic history film and his first collaboration with Prokofiev, in the late 30s. But the film's anti-German slant became a mark against it with Stalin's ever-shifting political line and it was a good five years before Eisenstein was cautiously given permission to proceed with Ivan, seen as a tribute to the latter-day despot. How times change! Suddenly ostentatious monarchism, nationalistic xenophobia, and subservience of the masses to the rule of one man were celebrated in the name of the Leninist revolution. Apparently, Stalin approved of Part I, was dismayed by Part II (whose release was delayed until after his death), and canceled Part III. Eisenstein's career was over, he died at fifty in captivity, and the Soviet cinema entered its deepest deep freeze, only to be alleviated with Joseph the Terrible's own demise. Today, some see Ivan the Terrible as a Stalinist apologia, while others find in it a subversive attack on the dictator. Perhaps both viewpoints are correct, which only adds to the attraction of this warped classic.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Around 10:00 at night, Domnul Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), a 63-year-old Romanian widower who likes to drink, is feeling a bit queasy. By 6:00 the next morning, he's lying on a gurney in a hospital room that looks more like a morgue - he's comatose and his head is being shaved in preparation for surgery. In between, Lazarescu is escorted from hospital to hospital, indifferent doctor to indifferent doctor, his only sympathetic companion the nurse who rides with him in the ambulance and becomes increasingly frustrated with the cold shoulder - or outright rudeness - they encounter on their journey through the night. None of this is giving much away - indeed, the title is more suggestive than the movie, as we don't actually see Mr. Lazarescu die (though it doesn't seem like it will be long by the end). Lazarescu is what Hitchcock would call a MacGuffin - a device to hook the audience so they'll stick around for the real point: an exposé of a shockingly careless and overcrowded Romanian medical system and, even more pointedly, a fascinating study of human nature and "professionalism" in action.

In a way, this is problematic. When we meet Lazarescu, he is slovenly, inarticulate, and pathetic. Still, he earns our sympathy simply by standing (or slumping) in front of director Cristi Puiu's camera and struggling to articulate his ills, to which his mildly friendly neighbors seem mostly indifferent. Yet as the film wears on, and old man Lazarescu becomes increasingly disheveled and sickly, he becomes less subject than object. By film's end, Puiu and we in the audience are almost as guilty of neglect and indifference as the various doctors who shuttle their patient off to the next unlucky medic. The nurse becomes our protagonist to a certain extent, suffering alongside Lazarescu and moving from scolding him to (ineffectively) scolding the practitioners who refuse him care (various excuses are used: he's an alcoholic and doesn't deserve treatment, he needs surgery and we can't do it here, the patient's still conscious - he's not - and thus has to sign a waiver, etc.). Even she is gone by the final moments.

The film could be bleak, but instead - perhaps because Puiu cheats by withdrawing us from Lazarescu's largely interior suffering - it is fascinating and times even comic. Puiu has described the movie as a "black comedy" and indeed, it is at times darkly humorous to see the gap between the doctors' cool assurance and their inability to save one man's life or even ease his pain. The film also holds the fascination of documentary - even the more authentic forms of reality television - as the shaky camera voyeuristically picks up on little details: the cute young doctor's assistant blushing and flirting with the slightly older doctor between bouts of curtly trying to dismiss Lazarescu, the brash young doctor (he looks about 19) who orders everyone around and fatalistically assesses Lazarescu's dim chances of surviving the night, the hushed tone in the receptionist's voice as she describes the end of all-night shift, while in the background, a vacuum drones monotonously, its tones oddly soothing. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu won prizes across the globe in 2005 and 2006, in film festivals and critics' societies. Curiously, despite the comic undertones existing subtly alongside the verité authenticity and grim hospital decor, the box declares this film "the most acclaimed comedy of the year" (emphasis mine). Now that's funny.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Lost Weekend

Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is a writer - in theory - and an alcoholic - in indisputable fact. Coming off a bender, telling himself he's finally going to write that big novel, Don's itch to drink is palpable as his brother (Phillip Terry) helps him pack up for a restful long weekend in the country. Instead, drawn to booze with the stubbornness of a boomerang, Don ditches his brother and his long-suffering girlfriend (Jane Wymann) to gulp down several shots of whiskey at the local establishment. Don, who was uptight and irritable in the first scene, loosens up, waxes eloquent on the wonders of whiskey, and flirts with a sassy hooker who picks up johns in the bar. It's a clear and effective depiction of why drinking appeals to this insecure artist - and it will be the last such moment. Having presented the magical deliverance of the ennui-quenching rye, writer/director Billy Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett proceed to display, in merciless detail, all the drawbacks of the addiction. Don becomes a kind of 40s Dante in reverse, descending from brief intoxicated Paradise, through a purgatorial search for satiation, and finally into the depths of DT Hell. Only his longtime lover can hope to rescue him from the depths of his own self-hatred, of which the hard drinking is both partial cause and persistent symptom.

Compulsively watchable, with its strong performances (especially from Milland, who manages to be both pleasingly theatrical and harrowingly natural), juicy dialogues and monologues, and its de facto structure. The use of a single weekend as a framework (although the filmmakers cheat a bit by using flashbacks) focuses the action and makes Don's decline from sobriety through every stage of drunkenness to suicidal withdrawal all the more effective. The Lost Weekend is a very good movie, but it isn't great - and it's one of those films which can be frustrating to watch at times, because you can sense greatness within its grasp. Though the flashbacks are effective in laying out Don's pathology and explaining his mysterious relationship to Helen (whose affection for him and patience with him initially seems unwarranted), one wishes a less artificial construct could have been found. The film is sharpest when it stays on its one-weekend timeline, and when it unfolds by keeping pace with its hero's descent. Even the flashback photography is not as precise and focused as the images of the "present" - as if Wilder and fantastic cinematographer John F. Seitz were aware that their explanatory history wasn't as strong as their demonstrative real-time. There's also an overemphasis on explaining the addiction, which is after all as much chemical as anything else, but one is tempted to forgive the frequent psychological self-analysis, as it's so artfully written.

The film was marked as "realist" at the time of its release, when it won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1945. However, "realism" is not the same as "reality" and part of the film's appeal lies in the friction between the pleasures of Hollywood style (despite its location shooting, the films falls safely within the framework of studio filmmaking) and the darkness of the subject matter. The classicism gives us an familiar frame within which to view the grim reality of alcoholism, and The Lost Weekend is all the more effective for it. Like many thematically ambitious films, it dates more than movies which may have seemed less "edgy" and "relevant" at the time - when it lectures, explains, or at times overdramatizes Don's drunkenness it can seem out of touch. Mostly, however, the movie is still stirring, evocative, and engaging. The bat in that infamous scene does look embarrassingly fake, but the set piece has a great, grisly finish which still sickens. An excellent movie, flawed but a classic.

(Incidentally, many will adjust the balance more in favor of the latter than the former - take Tony d'Ambra, curator of filmsnoir.net, with his marvellous and celebratory write-up on the movie; you should absolutely follow the link for a more in-depth view of the movie.)

Chop Shop

Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), a Queens urchin, lives and works amongst the junk heaps and stolen cars of the local chop shop - both a street-savvy preteen and a naive dreamer, he knows how to navigate this adult world yet innocently hopes to purchase a van and turn it into ice cream truck. His older sister (Isamar Gonzales) shows up one day and sticks around, spurring him on in his dreams - yet she also wounds him, when he discovers she's turning tricks to make ends meet.

An excellent little film, glowing with a surprisingly warm poetic touch. The performances, turned in by nonprofessionals, are uniformly engaging - though limited in technique, the actors nonetheless convey buried emotions as they shuttle between ambivalence (feeling overwhelmed by their conditions) and resolve (working incredibly hard, pursuing - fanciful? - goals). The boy's heartbreak on discovering his sister's secret is deeply affecting. Director Ramin Bahrani engages with his protagonist's lifestyle without condescending to them; he demonstrates how a barely-furnished hovel above a garage can become a vaguely comfortable home with the presence of a loved one or a resolution that one will take what one can get. The story, while loosely structured, moves forward through its eighty-five minutes, accumulating memorable details and privileged moments along the way, keeping us curious, allowing its characters to grow but not too much. Most of all, the photography captures the vitality of a location: this may not be the ideal home or workplace but Bahrani does not leer with mock horror; he shows us, as with that hovel, how the little boy fits into his landscape, the camera capturing the latent beauty much as we suspect the precocious adolescent does.

Neorealism, as a pseudo-documentary style following the lives of fictional, but realistic, poor people, first made its appearance sixty-five years ago in postwar Italy. Bahrani, a young American filmmaker, has taken up the torch amidst today's multiplex blockbusters and twee indie quirkfest (in which it's taken for granted that money is not a concern). This 2007 film is his follow-up to Man Push Cart, a highly praised but (to these eyes) overrated debut in which the pretty surfaces, contrived storylines, phony performances, and aggressively pronounced camerawork distracted from the heart of the story. Chop Shop feels much more naturalistic, and less uneasy about its own romanticism, which comes with the territory: Bahrani is obviously attracted to beauty, however slummed up, and to pretend otherwise would be dishonest. Here he does not try to disguise his penchant for street poetry, but rather integrates it with the hardscrabble life he conveys and the rhythms of the human society on hand. Roger Ebert has called him "the new great director." I would not go that far - his milieu still feels a little forced, his poetic touch slightly overbearing, a certain intensity still lacking - but he's certainly showing promise. His latest film, Goodbye Solo (unseen by me, but very highly praised by others) is now on Netflix.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

You Don't Need a Metro To Know Which Way The Wind Blows (or It's All Over Now, Hollywood)


Some thoughts on new media at the end of the Zeroes, on the cusp of the Teens

When the buzz hits the Metro, that ubiquitous subway news freebie, then it’s probably hit the mainstream. Sometimes this means the ebbing of a tide – as I suggested with July’s (500) Days of Summer free media blitz. With that campaign, it seemed that “indie” quirkiness had reached saturation point and it was time to start looking elsewhere for pop culture trends. Perhaps that “elsewhere” was the Metro itself. If their cover stories can mean the tide’s gone out, sometimes they seem to suggest a tide coming in, and that appears to be the case this weekend. Their picture of the Hollywood hills, partially obscured by the light bulb-crowned head of a young woman, is headlined “How recession is forcing creativity.” The cover image and inside article are just vague and suggestive enough to suggest that a “meme” (that increasingly popular academic word hijacked to mean a pattern of thought sweeping the culture) has begun to form.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Baader-Meinhof Complex


“Shooting and f*cking are the same thing.” – Member of the Red Army Faction, a German left-wing terrorist group, in response to a Jordanian guerrilla who tells them to stop sunbathing nude at the training camp.

Of such surreal juxtapositions is 1960s radicalism made, at least in the Western world. Behind the Iron Curtain, the revolutionaries were trying to breathe the fresh air of the Prague Spring – and though the response was an incursion of Soviet tanks, few fired back. In the Third World, on the other hand, guns and bombs were not in short supply, while libertine sexuality and pop cultural acumen were regarded as bourgeois conveniences: serious revolutionaries had no time for the counterculture. Yet in relatively liberal democracies like France, West Germany, and the United States the New Left was drawn mostly from student ranks, from young people who had grown up for the most part in comfort, in the paradoxical postwar atmosphere of hope and fear. They dreamed of fusing the libertarian ethos of the hippie counterculture, the badass attitude of urban outlaw culture, and the heady exuberance of Marxism (sans the dead weight of the USSR) into a Molotov cocktail of youth revolution. Their credo was, in Jim Morrison’s words, “We want the world and we want it now.”