Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll (Damian Jones 2009)

"Oi oi!" I've just been to see director Damian Jones's portrait of Stiff's cockiest cockney, the legendary Ian Dury. Jone's highly stylized biopic predictably explores - but I don't think exploits - the disability issue, with Dury hobbling through various moments of rock'n'roll excess in grubbiest London. Andy Serkis, who plays Dury, looks more like a thespian Gary Glitter, but does well in capturing Dury's charming growl and larger-than-life spirit.

What emerges is a story of fathers, sons, and a quest to compensate not just for polio, but for a kind of inferioity complex that expresses itself in Dury's family relationships. This, of course is an age-old formula, as biopics generally follow Romanticist tenets by seeing the artist's life as a series of traumas in which their nose-diving ego flails between broken personal relationships and the precarious recognition of their audience. In order to even connect with a fan base the questing genius must contend with the exploitative relations of the music industry. Entering the commodity form as a celebrity - their version of workaholism - is seen as a compensation that ultimately fails, however, as fame is such a cruel sea.

As we munch our popcorn, ultimately we realize that although performers are hell to live with, these ego-driven specimens more than make up for it with their on-stage charm. The biopic genre therefore becomes an nostalgic exercize (better yet an exorcism). In that respect I would like to have seen more of the pub rock scene and the Stiff Records family represented in this particular movie.

... One wonders what both Jones and Serkis will be up to next on the strength of this one.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The "Mention Elvis" rule

The term I used to use was speaking through the popular; another way to put it, as Jeremy Gilbert (2003) has suggested, is that celebrities become our coinage, our currency, and we use them in everyday speech - and media interviews and products - to build alliances. We speak through the popular to create hegemonies. As such, pop culture icons circulate as in-jokes. All this is by way of a preamble to introduce the "Mention Elvis" rule:

The "Mention Elvis" rule states: in pop cultural products that have nothing to do with Elvis but still mention his name, the less he is mentioned, the worse the product.

This law of diminishing returns hits its zero point when the product makes no mention of Elvis at all. Products that make no mention of Elvis are outside of the set of cultural predictions made by this rule... I will give some examples to demonstrate what I mean.

Take Bubba Ho-tep (Coscarelli 2002), which recycled the image of the King as part of a strange scenario starring Bruce Campbell. It's quite a good movie. Honeymoon in Vegas (Bergman 1992), with its flying troop of Elvis impersonators, references Elvis a bit less, and is an passable feature film too. Then yesterday I got to see Daybreakers (Spierig 2009), a new vampire movie in which Willem Dafoe plays a renegade rehumanized vampire, named Elvis, of course. The Dafoe character introduces himself as "Elvis, like the singer" and does a little impression. That moment, and pretty much the rest of the film, are so cringingly bad that even this talismanic mention of the King cannot save it. Elvis gets a tiny mention, and the movie is predictably awful, making lame comparisons between the American military-industrial complex and, um, blood suckers.

So why does the "Mention Elvis" rule hold up? I think it is because film makers using an Elvis theme for any length of time know it will wear very thin, very fast, unless they do something interesting. Meanwhile, scripts that merely reference Elvis are doing so to evoke a cliche that will connect with any audience. Everyone gets the joke. Nobody goes, "Who?" The result is that a stinker about Elvis can give the worst of material just a bit more milage.

Of course the "Mention Elvis" rule does not apply to Elvis's films themselves: neither the films about Elvis (which were usually good) or the films starring Elvis as a racing car driver, native indian or American playboy (which were usually bad). It also finds an exception in Ghostbusters (Reitman 1984) which cleverly used a mention of Elvis to highlight the stupidity of the media.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Mark's postings on music genre

Genre proliferation: the disease of the modern era (on noughties genre proliferation)

Genre proliferation: the disease of the modern era

Simon Reynolds, perhaps the only person to really manage an overview of the contemporary music scene, has just written his review of the noughties where, amongst other things, he explores the idea of "landfill indie". Landfill indie notwithstanding, Reynolds cites around twenty-five different genres or variants in recent popular music. The Horrors, for example, are "mashing up Goth, shoegaze, post-punk, late-80s neo-psych in the Loop/Spacemen 3, etc". Here they are, as if to remind us that haircuts still matter despite any purported micro-genre explosion:

Reynolds adds a thumbs up for "Mica Levi, who bridges the considerable gap between riot grrrl and grime, between Woodentops-style indie-bop and Herbert's blippy, micro-syncopated glitchtronica." While I am sure there was always a whole heap of vernacular musics to mix, match and enjoy, the fissile, recombinant "meme-like" nature of contemporary music - or rather contemporary music reporting - in part reflects the recent social obsession with genetic futurism.

It is as if popular music criticism is now a laboratory which dissects the genetic codes of the tunes in order to guide packs of hungry consumers. I think it would be fair to say this linguistic move comes in part from the alienated world of electronic dance music. While the folk-related traditions of popular music were always about enhancing the "feel" of the music and combing those traditions was about getting something "cooking", this style of analysis is more about dissection, mutation and calculated recombination: playing with DNA rather then merely shaking it. The model for the modern musician and his or her critic therefore becomes Gregor Mendel, who of course was both a scientist and a priest.

Ironically, all this freeplay with musical memes not only makes genre lifespans shorter, but it also makes inheritance a more important concept than ever. Tradition isn't age old now, it's recent. That said, I am beginning to feel out of the Futurist loop, and that from a plain old denim-and-jeans (not genes) rock perspective, all this genre proliferation feels like fannish elitism, the endless assertion of cultural capital whose references are lost on any hapless outsider who might happen to catch about the pedigree of a recent tune.

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