italian director MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI has made several canonical films throughout his career, my favorite being L'AVENTURA (CINO DEL DUCA,1960), but his first english-speaking film BLOW-UP (Bridge Films, 1966) created at the height of the mi-60s BRITISH INVASION is a remarkable film on several levels.
as mentioned before it is a document of an all-too brief moment when there was a liberating sense of artistic, cultural and sexual possibility. at times it is hard for americans to understand british class politics as it is a bit foreign to our culture which is more underpinned by nefarious forces like structural racism and conservative, puritanical, often binary inherited constructions of sexual preference and gender identity. in england markers of identity such as clothing and regional accents gave you away as being of this or that class, which was often a permanent strike against an individual despite their success thereafter. once lower class you are always lower class. in america we may make fun of a unique accent (i'm looking at you LOUISIANA, BROOKYLN and the SAN FERNANDO VALLEY), but we won't let that stop someone from running a company or holding political office. for this reason i think american BLUES, R&B and ROCKABILLY provided british youth a foreign cloak to don and transcend whatever their class prescriptions were in england's rigid, almost caste-like social hierarchy.
this freedom can be viewed in a legendary scene where THE YARDBIRDS oerform. this scene is notable as it was shot during the brief moment that JEFF BECK and JIMMY PAGE where both sharing guitar duties (BECK would amicably depart shortly thereafter).
beyond the era that this film depicts and its influence on modern culture, this film also dives deep into the nature of reality as scene through technology. the film itself showcases a photographer who notices in his darkroom while processing film from a recent photoshoot in a park that he remarkably has evidence of a murder after magnifying, or blowing up, his film several magnitudes.
i think now ideas of HYPERREALITY in the digital age are common place as concepts such as DIGITAL DATA COLLECTION, VIDEO SURVEILLANCE, PAPARAZZI/TABLOID CULTURE and DEEP FAKES have provided means of both documenting and manipulating our belief that what our eyes relay to our brain cannot be relied upon. our reality can be dissected and cross-examined by a seemingly endless myriad of perspectives to the point now that TRUTH seems like a relative ideal, not based in actual fact.
science fiction has long toyed with this idea of authenticity and the limits of empricism (as seen in the the work of ISAAC ASIMOV, ARTHUR C. CLARKE), as have minds dating back to antiquity (SHIP OF THESEUS PARADOX, PLATO's ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE). i think were this film excels is that it asks us at what point do we stop trusting our senses and totally bow to the high reality brought on by technology. i think right now we are still dealing with this question as DIGITAL MARKETING and RESEARCH TECHNOLOGIES of such corporations like FACEBOOK and GOOGLE have already made us subservient to algorithms. its already happening.
this is a classic film that deserves to be watched repeatedly and i highly recommend it. also, it is worth paring this film with the later FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA effort THE CONVERSATION (PARAMOUNT PICTURES, 1974) as it is a similar premise, except this time dives into audio manipulation. in a world accustomed to AUTO-TUNE and the wizardry of PRO TOOLS, this film may also strike a chord, pun intended.
BOOK REVIEW | "BE MY BABY: HOW I SURVIVED MASCARA, MINISKIRTS AND MADNESS, or MY LIFE AS A FABULOUS RONNETTE" BY RONNIE SPECTOR AND VINCE WALDRON
photo by nacrowe
it's difficult to read RONNIE SPECTOR's memoir BE MY BABY (HARMONY BOOKS, 1990) and not come away with an appreciation for just how staggeringly horrific her years as a young adult were at the hands of her ex-husband, legendary producer PHIL SPECTOR.
i don't want to make too much of him since this is not his story, but it's important to get a sense of his character in order to understand her struggle and eventual success in transcending his influence. PHIL is without a doubt a record producer of the first order. his work with 60s GIRL GROUPS like THE RONETTES and THE CRYSTALS and later THE BEATLES are legendary for his use of his WALL OF SOUND technique. essentially he would stack tracks upon each other to create swirling, hypnotic orchestrated compositions that were unlike anything before or since.
in much the same way that he utilized the studio to bend to his will, his relationship with RONNIE was conceived under equally SVENGALI-like terms. she was a player in his warped fantasies and because he held the key to her career, their relationship was a toxic codependency with dire consequences. he would literally stop at nothing to control her:
1) high walls lined with barbed-wire and security
2) a car with a mannequin made to look like him to accompany her on drives
3) surprise adoptions and use of custody as means of control
4) psychological warfare
his most devastating tactic was to promise recording sessions for new songs that never came to be or were shelved indefinitely. her power was her stage presence and he sought to change her into a housewife with limited means of expression, identity or contact with the outside world.
one detail that i found super interesting was that he would watch ORSON WELLES' classic film CITIZEN KANE obsessively and largely the plot of that movie resembles their marriage. one were a rich, powerful man buys everything for his wife without regard for her desires, dreams and ambitions. essentially fame and wealth stunted growth.
the fact that she suffered immensely during and after her marriage, both personally and career-wise (which never fully recovered or reached the same heights again unlike peers such as DIANA ROSS), only further emphasizes the cost of independence.
thankfully she does find bliss eventually in domesticity and motherhood, cliche as that may sound. but i feel that for her finding an identity within a health family construct was something she searched for since childhood as the daughter in a single-mother household. i just like the fact that the memoir ends on a note of creation, something she determined. not a wall that was created around her that ultimately attempted to snuff her out.
to me this book is about struggle and survival and the mental cages we put ourselves in for any number of reasons: fear, loyalty, finances, comfort. people are complicated and the reasons they stay in toxic relationships is equally mercurial and personal. i feel it is a mark of incredible bravery for RONNIE to make a statement like she did in this book especially back in early 90s, almost 30 years ago when this was written long before ME TOO and TIME'S UP and modern advocacy efforts regarding DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, GASLIGHTING and CHILD GROOMING. she is worthy of being admired.
great read. i recommend her memoir highly whether you are a fan of THE RONETTES or not. but honestly, you should be a fan of THE RONETTES.
when i was in graduate school at TEACHERS COLLEGE we were asked to come up with a metaphor for how we ran our classroom. my response: my classroom was like an ORNETTE COLEMAN record in that from the outside it sounded unstructured and chaotic, but underneath it all there was an effective classroom with purpose and communication.
COLEMAN was the foremost purveyor of what became known as FREE JAZZ. much like in FREE VERSE poetry (WALT WHITMAN, T.S. ELIOT, WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS) words are left untethered by expectations regarding rhyme, meter and structure, FREE JAZZ was unshackled by notions of key, mode, pace, rhythmic structure, etc.. in essence participants were forced to listen to each other which with intent since there was no road map or safety net to rely upon. in my opinion this is the very defining characteristic that makes jazz JAZZ: improvisation.
its basically chaos theory in practice: out of chaos comes order.
that was one of my organizing principles regarding lesson plans in my english classes. make things messy. i always felt that learning should be about discovery. give them the tools and let them learn to apply. supplemental instruction only after being forced to work with peers through a problem first. in my opinion this reflects REAL LIFE.
unfortunately at the moment in american education it is more about memorization or far worse, the attempted deduction of the most appropriate answer based on reverse-engineering the intent of a test writer. everyone i know that still teaches does test prep consistently in class a matter of not committing career suicide. we are developing a generation of test takers and not practical problem solvers. breaks my heart but i loss that war.
but i still look to COLEMAN as a beacon of that beautiful chaotic noise of discovery.
authenticity is one of those weird things in life, especially with regards to art. a pet peeve of mine is when a person criticizes a piece of art for not being "realistic" enough, as if portraying reality (which reality? your reality?) is a goal of value or perhaps even approachable. film, along with any piece of art originating in the human consciousness, is a construction. even documentary films are pieced together to create a viewpoint and in that sense are as "fake" as any narrative film. it is just the nature of art.
i'll give an example. QUENTIN TARANTINO chose in his western DJANGO UNCHAINED (A BAND APART/COLUMBIA PICTURES, 2012) to feature a song by florida rapper RICK ROSS in the opening credits, which numerous critics took umbrage for, you guessed it, not being realistic to the genre or time period. TARANTINO responded that the lilting orchestrations common to classic JOHN FORD, HOWARD HAWKS, SERGIO LEONE and SAM PECKINPAH films were constructions in of themselves, in fact the only music that would be native to the time period would be fiddle music from appalachia given that many of these frontiersmen were of scotch-irish origin.
what interests me more than the vapid chase for "realness" in film, which is completely quixotic in nature, is what actual choices directors and their production teams made and what are the consequences of those decisions. this brings me to ITALIAN NEO-REALISM, which was an aesthetic of the post-WWII period (popularized by ROBERTO ROSSELLINI, VITTORIO DE SICA, LUCHINO VISCONTI, FEDERICO FELLINI and others) meant to convey the physical, psychological and spiritual toll inflicted by the destruction and personal hardship of the period.
enter director PIER PAOLO PASOLINI and his deeply religious film THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATHEW (ARCO FILM 1964). his fidelity to the Bible made people question whether he was taking aim at the catholic church, who famously sided with the fascist BENITO MUSSOLINI government during the war (in fact, this pact is how the vatican gained independent nationhood). a famous choice PASOLINI made included depicting the Madonna as a preteen, which is historically accurate given the culture and life expectancy of the period and region.
this predictably cause an uproar, which is unfortunate. orthodoxies are meant to be challenged in a healthy debate over what constitutes faith, belief and the boundaries of interpretation. people look to confirm their own biases and viewpoints and it is the power of art to hold a mirror to such and examine, probe and question their validity. obviously religion is one of those settled areas of inquiry for some, which is ridiculous given that faith requires doubt, otherwise it is mindless blind faith.
PASOLINI made a career of questioning basic precepts of italian society and paid the price by being murdered for it. his example is one of courage, the kind that doesn't get caught up in jingoistic pursuits of dominating an "other," rather his sights were set on himself and his people and culture. to examine and cobble together their true essence on screen. to provide a new cultural identity in the wake of the fascism and compliance to church and state the defined the previous generation of italians.
art by nacrowe
watch HERE for our most recent episode of DEER GOD RADIO on MAKERPARKRADIO.NYC which explored the golden age of country and the modern americana movement that rediscovered that rootsy appalachian vibe. under no conditions did we ever consider playing any of that commercial pablum that passes itself as modern country. that stuff is utter shit.
past episodes of DEER GOD RADIO as well as other MAKERPARKRADIO.NYC shows like MAKE HER SPACE, NOWHERE FAST and THE SYNTHESIZER SHOW are available here at the DEER GOD website.
artwork by nacrowe
watch HERE for the latest installment of THE SYNTHESIZER SHOW on MAKERPARKRADIO.NYC where hosts Vince and Reed return with a new playlist of electroclash, film scores and electronic deep cuts as only they can.
as always, you can access past episodes of THE SYNTHESIZER SHOW via the DEER GOD website as well as those of MAKE HER SPACE, NOWHERE FAST and DEER GOD RADIO.
one of my all-time favorite writers. and not just because he writes about the part of brooklyn my family is from.
in the united states there is this force-fed optimism shoved down our throats since birth through our education systems and mass media that basically propagates the narrative that if you work hard enough, good things will happen. reading any HUBERT SELBY JR novel essentially an exercise in looking the AMERICAN DREAM straight in the face and laughing at it. and not one of those belly laughs were you see the folly, but one of those nervous ones were you realize how much of your identity is swallowed up in this hollow fantasy.
the three novels of his i am familiar with are LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN (1964), THE DEMON (1976) and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (1978). two obviously have been made into excellent film adaptations by ULI EDEL and DARREN ARANOFSKY, respectively. love them both but such will be the topic for another post. what unites them all is a sense of competing drives, not necessarily good vs bad, but constructive vs destructive tendencies brought on by ambition. the central question of his novels is "what is it that we want?" and "what is the price of attaining it to your psyche?"
his characters tend to have what SIGMUND FREUD would recognize as a very strong will to self-destruct, or as he termed it, a "death-drive." all of his protagonists (incidentally all share the name "Harry" in his novels) seek validation through community, money, vice, or otherwise and in each case they get into trouble. its almost like he chooses each novel as a way of elucidating different facets of how the AMERICAN DREAM is a hoax and a quixotic fallacy on par with any other human construction (family, religion, community) used to motivate a sense of identity. in terms of narrative the protagonist's character arc is inverted, as you undoubtedly encounter them initially at their highest point, the peak of their powers and sanity. from here on out its a downward spiral, with any solace in brief periods of calm merely red herrings making the free-fall to come that much more brutal and inhumane.
it is a dark, bleak and ultimately realistic portrayal of reality. when i read his work i am often thinking about my own motivations, goals and what the actual cost of such are. yes in america there is opportunity, but what is the price of the success we seek? what are you giving up to achieve it and fundamentally who are you at the end of that process? what has that process done to your sense of self? that is the gift of his work in my opinion. they are almost bitterly self-reflective in nature in a way few others are.
as a former english teacher i really appreciate the fact that his characters are so singular and well-constructed that HUBERT SELBY JR imposed a very unique writing style where he would not use quotes and never specifies what characters say what at the end of sentence. characters speak in all caps and by context you know who said what without being told. it is a really neat trick that just further showcases the depth of his writing.
other side note: THE SMITHS' THE QUEEN IS DEAD album is named after a chapter in LAST EXIT TO BROOKYLN. just saying.
photo by nacrowe
much like his previous book on another legendary SEATTLE musician (HEAVIER THAN HEAVEN / KURT COBAIN), ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS (2006, Hachette Books) by CHARLES R. CROSS is a sensitive portrait of a transcendent cultural figure whose modesty and private introversion belied his public persona.
the striking thing i walked away from this book, aside from new knowledge of the formative experiences of JIMI HENDRIX on the chitlin' circuit as a hired gun for the likes of LITTLE RICHARD and THE ISLEY BROTHERS among others, was his evolution. ever expanding his musical lexicon to incorporate new ideas, technology, chemicals, etc as a means of further refining an expression of consciousness that only he could translate.
in a way he was a shaman, a gatekeeper temporarily transporting us to another reality. whenever i hear his music i feel the higher ideals he promoted so ardently, those notions of free love and brotherhood which seem so naive in the modern trump-ocalpyse we are all currently living through. HENDRIX invites us to a metaphysical world that isn't defined by race, gender or worldly possessions, it is a landscape of sound and vibrations.
CROSS balances presenting the many sides of HENDRIX by those who knew him best while largely conceding that the man was a vagabond, a self-described gypsy that transcended his early modest upbringing to produce some of the most epochal music of the 20th century. he was HENDRIX not because of SEATTLE or his childhood, but because of the choices he made as a self-made entity. he was the ultimate cultural sponge, learning from all his experiences. his real genius in my opinion was his ability to contextualize blues, jazz and rock n' roll into a singular cohesive statement.
this genius of taking what came before and creating a new lexicon for all that came thereafter is something i can only point to composers/musicians like IGOR STRAVINSKY or LOUIS ARMSTRONG as comparable in the last century. he literally changed modern guitar playing, arguably the featured instrument of 20th century popular music.
regardless, this book is worth looking into as well as his equally excellent HEAVIER THAN HEAVEN about NIRVANA frontman KURT COBAIN.