Sunday, 26 May 2013

Withnail and I or: Searching for the "British Dream"

I was re-watching 80s binge drinker movie Withnail and I the other night, and either because I was in the middle of reading Hunter S. Thompson's classic gonzo adventure or because both works really are that similar, I was reminded a lot of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Actually, replace Las Vegas for English country green, and replace copious amounts of drugs for copious amounts of alcohol (and some drugs), and both are really one in the same. Fear and Loathing, the movie at least, was adapted from a book that summed up the trippy 60s and it's rough morning after: the 70s. Withnail, which itself received a similar case of moderate success followed by a cult following, seems like it wants to be a book. The narration and world always feel like they're missing out details the book explained to us. Like the characters are only adaptations of already memorable ink, and the story is - like the Fear and Loathing adaptation - simply picking out the best bits and re-arranging them to create an understandable film language out of the drug-induced ramblings on paper. Yet it isn't an adaptation, it's written by the same boozy guy who directed the movie, and the same boozy guy who just so happened to take 20 years off before returning to direct a Hunter S. Thompson adaptation in the form of The Rum Diary, an only decent movie that has still managed to become much underrated under the barrage of derision it received on release.

But back to where I originally was; traveling along a highway, headed away from the people and the noise and into the sparsely populated heart of Britain. Like Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo headed to Vegas with the clear-cut purpose of covering the Mint 400 race, Withnail and our main character; not even getting the name "I" until the end credits, set out for the Countryside to relax and get away from their dead-end acting jobs, and to escape their run-down, debt ridden apartment. But like Hunter Thompson's alter ego, our two heroes find they really have no idea why they are their, and ultimately find that the country is more dangerous than they had originally thought.

The story itself matters very little, this is a character piece, which of course only works if the characters are damn interesting. Luckily Richard E. Grant's Withnail is one of cinema's great creations. Like all things in this film it took me until that second viewing but a few nights ago to really appreciate the character; he's a total prick. As an audience we set ourselves to believe in our main characters and their supposed good intentions, and when they don't have any good intentions we believe in them because whatever they are doing they are doing with style, and passion. Withnail is such a solid character because he lacks any sort of redeeming feature or reason for any of the other characters to like him, but like all of the other characters who are so happy to spend their time with him, we enjoy to watch him to simply see what he will do next. His only real intention is to have a nice weekend in the country; at night he wants a nice place to sleep and during the day he just wants to get smashed and soak up the culture in the most hap-hazard way. Not really good intentions, but he does it with the wicked style and demonic passion that keeps you watching.

And we see all this through the eyes of I, or Paul McGann for short. He's a normal blue-collar man, or at least he hopes to be one day; billed as an out of work actor hoping to land a big role, that has unfortunately been dragged down by Withnail into the drug culture of a failing 60s Britain. They get the country home their staying at off of Withnail's uncle Monty (the recently passed Richard Griffiths) a jolly man who just so happens to be a raging homosexual.

So what am I actually trying to say about all Withnail and Loathing and Britain and dreams and whatever else anyway? Is this a review or a rambling essay on Britain and journeys? Well unfortunately it's the latter, but I might as well get all that reviewing shit out the way first. As I mentioned before I hated this absurdist monstrosity on my first go-around, but once I watched it again I've actually come to rebrand it. Maybe it was the hype of watching a cult classic, or any one of the many other nice things I had heard of this from what was most likely all British critics. Whatever it was, it made this movie look very mundane the first time I watched it. But the other night, as a (excitedly) gave this one another chance I truthfully knew deep down I was going to find it a lot better than I did long ago. It's a frequent occurrence for me. A film for whatever reason doesn't live up to the hype I had for it (and I mean long-winding cinephile hype, not that crappy studio-imposed hype that comes with every new superhero release) but it broods in my brain long enough, swirling around and connecting the dots my hype filled eyes were too blind to see, until by the time I watch the film again I am then able to enjoy it for what it is.

And believe me, there is riches to be found here. I wouldn't exactly brand this as a comedy as most do, but there is a dark cheek to watching Withnail get himself into all sorts of trouble, you keep watching for the same reason you would keep watching a nature program where a zebra attacks a lion (and if your not the type of person who would watch that, then I doubt your the kind who would watch this). Maybe it's not funny, buy then again it sort of is. But the comedy isn't why you would watch this, it's not the weird spectacle you expect from a cult film, it's actually a brilliantly written mini-masterpiece, the story itself revealing it's real brilliance only in retrospective (and in it's ending, one that meant nothing to me on first viewing, but on second viewing I noticed that it was the key to unlocking Withnail's character) and the direction is filled with a sort of ferocious energy that should feel out of place with the mundanity of the lives these characters, but it only adds to the bizarre world that is created here.

In review terms: I liked this movie a lot. It still feels like it's expanding in my mind. But for what it is now, it's a well acted and well made movie that really didn't need to do anything well in the first place, it's an alcohol soaked journey of one of the most brilliant characters ever put to screen, with all of this made possible by Paul McGann's I, who cements this whole world of weirdness, and is our constant lifeline back to reality. If you haven't seen this film already then I highly recommend it. 9/10 

But reviewing it wasn't what I set out to do here. I started this post about Hunter S. Thompson and now I can finally get back to that. Hell, just look at the Withnail and I artwork at the top of the page; the same sort of crude counter-art that Ralph Steadman filled the pages of Fear and Loathing with. But it's more than just some front cover scribbles which draw me to connect both works. Both Thompson and Robinson seem to have found the perfect formula for the boozy road movie; their set-ups in which one normal (well, more normal, at least) character cements the story from a more deranged lunatic who manages to charm his way into being the voice of reason at times. And what are these people trying to find? Well Duke and Gonzo's assignment states they are to find the American Dream (as well as cover the mint 400). To think about it the Nevada desert is as good a place as any for the American Dream to be hiding, or at least it was back in the 70s. All of the tripped out hippies of the psychedelic movement just a few years were closer than anyone else to catching this dream, and it's a damn shame they were too drugged up to notice; the reason they let it slip away without even so much as a fight.

And on the other side of the ocean Withnail and I are looking for something just as un-findable. It has no name, the fact that the "american dream" was given a name goes a long way to showing the commerciality of such a country; it's just a big advertisement for the country. It's only Duke and Gonzo, operating in a world most people read about because they would rather not experience, that have any chance of walking in on the dream, probably with it's pants down. But their english counter-parts are looking for something similar. The acting job they keep up isn't the dream. That's a goal and a career. A dream, as long as it isn't a foolishly over-elaborate one, should require no work at all; it should be as easy as closing your eyes at night. I don't have a name for what they're looking for, but as it's already in the title I guess I'm forced to brand their conquest the search for the "British Dream". Being a British man myself I know that-that title is a double negative; Britain isn't the land of the dreamers. The American Dream exists for people in Britain, not for people in America, or at least for those of us in Britain who can't see the colour in our own country, we see only the grey colour of it's personality.

The search for such a thing itself is reason enough to brand this a comedy. Because such a dream involves only going to the country where the characters can in part self destruct, and where the people they insult are not big burly men at the bar but old people addressing a tea party. They have no reason to run away from them, they can be as vile as they want, they are above that world.

And the ending of both films perfectly sums up each country. Or at least they sum up my personal experience of Britain and my mind warped image of America. The ending of Fear and Loathing (spoilers for both in the next two paragraphs) is different between the film and the book. On papar Duke ends his odyssey by taking some amyls (prescription drugs that he doesn't have a prescription for) and laughing at two marines; ending the 60s myth of revolution leading to peace once and for all, and in such glowing fashion: high on drugs and not giving a fuck. The movie ends with a different scene, but the same note. Duke just manages to get Gonzo to the airport, and after a decently uplifting sentiment from such a deranged man, Duke rides off, leaving the troubles of Vegas behind as we watch his red convertible disappear into the distance to the sound of The Stones' Jumpin Jack Flash. There's no uplifting sentiment at heart here, but because of the aesthetics put in place the heart felt feeling of a journey fulfilled and an era ended is still in place.

But we now transport across the pond, the sun-kissed desert has been replaced with water lashing from the sky and green on the floor. "I" manages to escape, he lands an acting job which allows him to escape. He goes to board the train; Withnail being left behind with the junkies and crack whores who we suddenly realize he doesn't want to be with. But in Thompson's vision we watch Dr. Gonzo leave on a plane, his horrific character protected by the country he lives in, while Withnail is left there, no plane or train to take him away. It's in the end (the same one I found so out of place on first viewing) where Withnail recites a paragraph of Shakespeare. And he's good at it. I didn't get this ending at first, but looking back I realize that Withnail's inability to find a job and escape this now failing decade has nothing at all to do with his acting skill or talents. It's with him as a person, he doesn't want to succeed. He is a swirling abyss of self destruction. It's this moment that turns Withnail into such a great character, and it's what in retrospective seeps tragedy over the rest of the film.

And such self destruction, such will to not succeed is what is so uniformly British about this film. As a man of English origin I don't see that as a flaw in the people of this country, or even as something new that no one but me has the balls to write. British people know better than anyone else that they don't aim to be the next president and don't believe their country is the best country in the world. If not through their own feelings then from such negative opinions when American people do such things. If Fear and Loathing takes you into the dark heart of America, and that's exactly what Thompson promises to do when you first enter on this journey with him, then Withnail and I is a look at the un-said truth about Britain and it's aspirations, the "British Dream" if you will.

Both works are fantastic. I'll probably feel the need to ramble on about Fear and Loathing in a separate post, but in case I'm killed before then - my final write up on both the film and book is that each represents some of the best stuff their respective mediums have to offer. They're actually a lot more witty than withnail is and the drug-induced imagery and hollywood escapades are things a British production of a story set in Britain couldn't keep up with. But there's a dark heart to Withnail that even Thompson (or Terry Gilliam for that matter) don't offer. Withnail is a fun movie, and also a perfect one in it's understanding of character and structure (a no bullshit approach to both). It's a tragic tale filled with it's fair share of exciting, memorable sequences that has a very tragic ending, but it neither feels tragic or exciting, and I mean that as a compliment. These characters simply exist, and while the 80s-made film is set in the 60s, it captures a time and place that is lost forever in perfect detail.

Ok, one last paragraph, filled with a sort of philosophical element that goes partly unexplained to end this drama in style. Near the end of Withnail, the two title characters sit back in their apartment, sitting back with Danny, their drug dealer, who along with the apartment itself bookends their journey. He is there with another drug taker: Presuming Ed. Here we are, at the end of the 60s, although we and the filmmakers are looking back at it. It's in Fear and Loathing which came out in the early 70s that looked back in horror at how such a brilliant decade had ended. Now sitting back in their apartment, Danny says "They're selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black". Withnail's tragic walk into the distance, which presents a visual opposite of Depp's car vanishing into the desert, doesn't just end a friendship; it ends the decade. Both works wave goodbye to the 60s, both are one in the same really, but both are from opposite sides of the pond, which is what paints them so differently.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

In Review: Nirvana

I find it much harder to write about the things I do like compared to the things I don't. Which must be why I find it so hard to sum up why I like Nirvana. When you hate something the flaws stick out at you. They are the things jamming into your sides, illuminating the fact that this isn't so great. But good things are different. They're static. You like them because you like them. Maybe I'm too scared to look close in case I find something I don't like. But I'll try my best.

I already wrote one overly extensive post about Nirvana. I liked that one. I would have been happy to read that as a kid; get to know everything about Kurt Cobain that all of the music journo's kissing his ass dont tell you. Alas I didn't review his albums, just talked about them, how they were made. It depends completely on how into Nirvana you already are which article is for you.

I'm reviewing the albums with the same style that George Starostin used in his own site (which you can read here) call it stealing if you want, it will depend on how well written your complaint is if it manages to upset me.

Warning: This is a bit of a Nirvana wankfest. Not on purpose, simply because when I write about this band I just can't help it. I would hope these are fair minded reviews that do away with any hyperbole (please notice the word hope) and add to the enjoyment of the albums for people too soulless to make their own opinions. Enjoy!

Bleach (1989) 

1) Blew 2) Floyd the Barber 3) About a Girl 4) School 5) Love Buzz 6) Paper Cuts 7) Negative Creep 8) Scoff 9) Swap Meet 10) Mr. Mustache 11) Sifting 12) Big Cheese 13) Downer 

I was actually going to start writing about this being a down and dirty garage album, being that-that is the way I remember it, but listening to it again (I never feel the need to return to this album) it's actually more polished than you'd expect. Nirvana is really just Kurt Cobain's Pixies appreciation band (despite being better than that band) and the while Nirvana wasn't quite a pop band they were already on their way. 

It's an easy listen, like all Nirvana, filled with very simplistic hooks which draw you in and don't seem to go anywhere. The only problem here is that Cobain clearly wanted to keep his cred with the underworld of Seattle grundge and needed to make the whole sound dirty and sleazy enough to fit in. And sure enough he does; this is what I imagine what it would sound like if me and some friends got together (keep in mind: no instrumental skill) and made a band that attempted to sound like Nirvana. 

Ok, it's not quite that bad, there is moments of inspiration throughout. About A Girl is the albums highlight, a track Iggy Pop himself described as sounding like "someone gave Thorazine to The Beatles" something which would have probably pleased Cobain: the world's most unsuspecting Beatles fan. It's a great song, mainly because it's great for all the reasons the bands next album were great. Other than that you've got the bands first single Love Buzz which features some catchy guitar work, and that's about it. 

Actually the first five tracks are all pretty solid (it's a front-heavy album if there ever was one) and they show off Cobain's darkest lyrics. No sarcasm here, just stories about rape, murder and abuse. Actually the whole album, without any big-shot composer working some magic over the top, sounds surprisingly dark, not just in lyrics but in the tone of the instruments as well. The album does start to veer off in the middle though, the "Oh my god this is our first record" magic starting to disappear, ending with the final three tracks which sound almost unlistenable. 

This wil interest hardcore nirvana fans a lot more than it will interest newbies; if only to see where the band came from, and to notice how much they evolved from album to album. It's not perfect, not even great to be honest, but it has it's moments. But if you call yourself a fan then you should have already heard this anyway. 7/10 

Nevermind (1991) 
1) Smells Like Teen Spirit 2) In Bloom 3) Come as You Are 4) Breed 5) Lithium 6) Polly 7) Territorial Pissings 8) Drain You 9) Lounge Act 10) Stay Away 11) On a Plain 12) Something in the Way 13) Endless, Nameless 

It has the iconic baby album cover. It has Smells Like Teen Spirit. It is also arguably the most influential album since it's release back in 1991; it brought alternative rock into the mainstream, finally killed the 80s, and it dragged the grundge movement into the mainstream with it. And it's became the go-to answer for Nirvana's best album. 

Don't get me wrong; there isn't a single bad tune on this album. Cobain stopped acting like he was the front man of the Butthole Surfers and started writing some great pop hooks. They're catchy as hell, and the studio-added pop sheen that colors this album might have made Cobain consider himself a sell-out, but ultimately it's why this album was so huge; it''s a fun party-friendly pop album disguised as a rebellious alternative to the mainstream. 

All the songs follow the Nirvana structure here, but who cares when each track is doing it's own thing (making it the complete opposite of the generic bore-fests released today as "rock albums"). And all the tracks are so unassuming; no spectacular 8 minute rock operas, no weird experimentation; Nevermind is simply a clear-cut album's worth of solid tracks. That's why it was more successful than In Utero; a better album in my opinion, but one that is not nearly as safe. 

Don't worry, Smells Like Teen Spirit is still my pick for the best track; I won't bore you with any pointless hipster choice. Come As You Are is the best of the other hit singles from this album (with In Bloom providing the quintessential sarcasm and Lithium the quintessential teen angst) while the band even gets a chance to slow down for a second with the dark story of rape that is Polly (a true story as well; Cobain saw it in the paper while trying to think of lyrics for the songs) and the dark mournful album closer Something In The Way, Cobain's fictionalized account of living under a bridge. 

Maybe the lyrics do feel a bit teenage angsty now. A teen could probably write Lithium as easily now as Cobain sung it then. And some lyrics are too simple to be great, but as a whole the lyrics here are what people related to, and why it sold so well. Still it's the music thats king. Cobain might have been the powerhouse, but Nevermind is the best Krist and Dave ever got as an argument piece that Nirvana was a threesome, both the drumming and the bass here are nothing technically great, but they are loud and thrashing, and this album wouldn't have the same anger behind it if it wasn't for them. 

It ends on Endless, Nameless, originally a hidden track on the album. I remember being a kid trying to figure out how to unlock such a track, thinking it must be some sort of video-game style secret code entered into the buttons of my CD player, alas I didn't hear this until years later. It's just a bit of improvisation from the band after a take of Lithium went wrong, nothing great, but surprisingly well fitting with the other songs. 

Of course the album is at its best when there's pure rage coming out of your head phones, which is why Lounge Act is still the track I return to most, it's the most catchy of all and sums up the energy and adolescent anger that is Nevermind. 9/10

Incesticide (1992) 
1) Dive 2) Silver 3) Stain 4) Been a Son 5) Turnaround 6) Molly's Lips 7) Son of a Gun 8) (New Wave) Polly 9) Beeswax 10) Downer 11) Mexican Seafood 12) Hairspray Queen 13) Aero Zeppelin 14) Big Long Now 15) Aneurysm 

Incesticide is a compilation album made up of unreleased tracks, singles which hadn't been put onto their other albums, and some recordings the band did for the BBC in 1990. It's a bit of a schizophrenic album (although what do you expect from a compilation) that could easily be split in three; the tracks on part 1 feel like classic nirvana (albeit more raw than on their studio albums) but as soon as act 2 begins (Turnaround signals it) Nirvana goes into happy mode. Even the most tortured track on Nevermind, Polly, gets the happy treatment in a sped up version. But if it's "raw" you came here for just go to the last third of the album, it's got some of the weirdest things the band ever put together, some of it unlistenable, some quite great. 

Yet despite the album seemingly being the forgotten step-brother of Nevermind, Incesticide is at it's best when the weird is flushed away and the simplistic fun is in full spin. Thats why the best track is Son Of A Gun, a song originally by Kurt's favorite band The Vaselines, which is the best case for Nirvana being able to do inspiring pop as well as they do tortured rock. 

It lacks the consistency of Nevermind, and the studio sheen is missed when the screeching of crap like Hairspray Queen starts to play, but this is uncensored Nirvana, or at least the closest we'll ever get to it, which is basically the wave this album rides on. "Dive" has the very special honor of being Courtney Love's Nirvana song of choice, and while it doesn't quite live up to the standards you would expect from such a prestigious woman it does get the pulse racing, and gets you ready for (some of) whats to come. 

Another highlight is closer Aneurysm, the only rock anthem to be found here (neatly hidden at the end), the title means a blood vessel that is building up with blood, ready to blow, and while Cobain doesn't hand out any medical advice in the Lyrics the connection to the title is maid clear through the music. The track builds up (not slowly) until the whole song literally explodes. if you want a song to represent anger then you couldn't go wrong with this. 

Then again the final third of the album does have some difficult stuff on it. The sort of obscure, hard rock songs that Nirvana isn't know for, and will probably turn off even hardcore fans. It's that lack of consistency that has kept this from being a masterpiece, but the good stuff here is just too good to ignore. 8/10

In Utero (1993) 
1) Serve The Servants 2) Scentless Apprentice 3) Heart Shaped Box 4) Rape Me 5) Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle 6) Dumb 7) Very Ape 8) Milk It 9) Pennyroyal Tea 10) Radio Friendly Unit Shifter 11) Tourette's 12) All Apologies 

It was only 4 years after bringing out their first album that they were bringing out their last. It's become popular to call this the better album than Nevermind, most likely through a simple desire to be different, but even as a youngster first delving into Nirvana's back catalogue I always found this the best. 

Lyrically this is Cobain's most personal album. There's clear references to his personal life, which by that point was becoming a struggle. Heart Shaped Box, the albums bluesy lead single, is aimed at Cobain's wife Courtney Love, while Frances Farmer has obvious parallels with Cobain's daughter and the court case surrounding the family. Actually, the lyrics here didn't at all become relatable pieces of teen angst like that of Utero's predecessor, but they are the most structured and memorable of Nirvana's career, and stands this as Cobain's (and the band's) stand for artistic credibility. 

Even on the first track Cobain sings "Teenage angst has paid off well" in clear reference to Nevermind, and all that follows is a band trying to break free from the box the mainstream had pegged them into. It includes the most harmonic and beautiful tracks the band ever made, as well as the most angry and stimulating. You could say this was Cobain's "Tortured Soul" album but that would be a lie. It might be a harder, faster album than before, but the band never sacrifice any fun for the listener (a courtesy few bands since have given since). 

This isn't Incesticide, but it does have a very natural feel to it. It's a million miles away from Nevermind. It was composed by Steve Albini, one of the biggest rock producers in the world at that point who was famous at the time for doing some of the Pixies album (One of Nirvana's biggest influences) and he found the perfect tempo for all of the songs here. 

Yet what's really great is that even with all of the emotion put into these tracks, and even though some of the guitar work here more complex than before, this is still such an easy listen. It flies over. each track does it's own thing, and what your left with is an album that seems like it was the apex of what Nirvana was at the time. It's more soulful than anything the band had ever done, and Cobain, despite what was next, finally seems to be confident in his own skill as a musician. 

And then comes the end with All Apologies. It's the complete opposite of what is expected of the angry rockers everybody thought they were, and even points to where nirvana might have gone next. All Apologies ends the Nirvana story perfectly, and when you listen to this album from the start it feels like the band has made their full transformation into something new. 

The best studio album the band ever gave us, and the best rock album since it's release. 10/10 

Unplugged in New York (1994) 
1) About a Girl 2) Come As You Are 3) Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam 4) The Man Who Sold The World 5) Pennyroyal Tea 6) Dumb 7) Polly 8) On a Plain 9) Something in the Way 10) Plateau 11) Oh Me 12) Lake of Fire 13) All Apologies 14) Where Did You Sleep Last Night?   

Who knows if Kurt Cobain meant this as a suicide note or not? He did get the stage for this performance (one of the band's last) to look like a funeral; all of the flowers and empty space being both perfect for the set they had prepared, and scarily telling of what was to come. It truthfully doesn't matter, it's a beautiful performance anyway, and fans shouldn't stay away from it just because it's live. If anyone ever dismisses Nirvana as angry noise or teenage angst then first slap them in the face, and then get them to listen to this album. I can think of no other live show which gets everything so right. 

In Utero is the bands best statement as a rock band, but this is something more. It shows a side to the band that was only just starting to blossom. All of the songs on here sound better than the original album versions. And all of the covers the band does sound way better than the originals. The Meat Puppets, who are covered 3 times here, even performed with Nirvana that night, and their original versions (all solid lyrical works overshadowed by unlikeble music) find their perfect home in Nirvana. 

It might sound like I'm kissing a bit too much ass on this one, but I did warn you at the start, and if there ever was an album that deserves it, it's this. The bands cover of David Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World has became more well know than the original, the three Meat Puppets songs sounded even more natural coming from Cobain than from their original creators; with "Oh Me" being my favorite track of the whole CD, and the bands cover of Leadbelly's Where Did You Sleep Last Night ends the CD in truly perfect fashion. It shows the band had become quite brilliant with their guitars, despite the what some might claim, and that Cobain's voice had become something truly special. 

That might sound like a lot of covers but they all fit perfectly with Nirvana's other work. The only song which sticks out is On a Plain which to be fair is a bit too much of a faster rock song for this set. 

And what more can I say? I can think of no other album more perfect than this one. Every track is brilliant, and as a whole this album is the best thing they ever did. In Utero might been my favorite of the band's studio albums, but it has nothing on this. This was their utter peak, and my favorite album of all time. 10/10 

Other Stuff
Reviewing all of Nirvana's stuff was harder than I thought it would be. There is some bad stuff in their library; I very rarely feel the need to return to Bleach, and some of the stuff on Incesticide just hurts to listen to, but Nevermind has earned it's place as a classic, and In Utero and Unplugged are some of my all time favorites. Whatever bad music they created they sure made up for it. 

I do sort-of understand when people say they don't like Nirvana (despite it filling me with murderous rage) but in truth it doesn't matter at all, Nirvana always meant a lot more to me than the music. Being born in 1996 there has been no real figures like those of this band for my generation. Maybe todays culture simply wouldn't allow it. Cobain never asked for the title that was thrown onto him, he was simply given it by the people, and in todays music industry where whats good and bad seem to be decided by the industry I  doubt such an idea could exist today. 

My generation is filled with people who think they can do anything, Nirvana may have inspired people, and the story of three small-town kids becoming kings of the music industry for a few years obviously has it's influence, but Nevermind, even it's name, is a better message than any that have been given out since, and something the people of my generation simply wouldn't understand unless they grew up with it (and believe me, you can literally spot these people out; maybe not Nirvana fans, but people who at least understand the message they were sending out). Kurt Cobain understood that life was whatever you made of it, and that if you had any sense at all, that was what was happening today, not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. 

And that carry's over to the music too. There's an effortless-ness to all Nirvana music. The guitar work isn't impressive because of any real technical mastery or amazing guitar solos, it was great because of the emotion is summoned. And Cobain's lyrics worked because they didn't preach any messages or even good morales. They were sarcastic and purposefully controversial, they accepted a generation of people who didn't actually want to do any good. They represented something real, not something purposefully. 

I don't really know how to end this. If you haven't already, get yourself listening to some Nirvana, and if you have already then go listen to some Pixies and Husker Du, you like Nirvana you'll like them. Otherwise, nevermind. 

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Troubling Art of the Blogger

You remember that mission statement that Tom Cruise sends out in Jerry McGuire? Well that's basically what this is. The only difference is this isn't sent to a company of people I work with, it's simply for me and any of the people it reaches through my blog. I guess that's good in a way; it means I can neither get fired from a high-up job, nor am I Tom Cruise. But it also means it won't send ripples throughout the blogging community, one day being carved into the digital fibre of the internet when one of the computer gods gets around to making the 10 commandments of the internet.

But I know what your thinking: Why write a mission statement for yourself you madman! Just think those things. No need to write them down. And if there is just jot them down in your journal, don't expose yourself so openly like some sort of indecent nighttime flasher! That's right, I'm like a freaking mind reader.

But really, what am I writing this for. Well, as the site doesn't currently invite many visitors, I see this blog more as an extension of my journals (SEE: Now neglected papers where I once splashed out my emotions into ink) which is good, isn't it? They say the best writers are the ones who write like no-one is reading (or is that a completely unrelated eulogy about dancing?). But this isn't any sort of daring game with myself; I won't be adding posts filled with embarrassing personal facts to tempt fate with the possibility someone I know might find them. I'm writing this to set everything straight. Don't ask what it is I am setting straight, because frankly I just don't know. But writing apparently unlocks something inside you, or at least the thing your writing first becomes apparent to you as your writing it.

All I know is I've been neglecting this blog. I started it because I wanted to be like the bloggers that I read myself, and to become a good writer. But by creating a blog and then not doing anything with it I have found even more artistic unfulfillment. I imagine this is what it's like to buy a cook book that contains practically every recipe ever in it only to find yourself chomping on a McDonald's happy meal everyday. And don't think it's because I have nothing to say. The worst thing an artist can do is claim he has nothing to say, either to cover his back or as what he believes will be something artistic to say. I have a lot to say, it's just hard to say it.

So why don't I update this blog that much? Is my life really that eventful that my activities have dragged me away from something I actually want to do, nevermind all of the stuff I wish I wasn't having to do. Well not really, no. I could use the old cliche that it's easier to imagine this blog as a thriving community of activity than actually make it one, but you'd have to be an idiot to believe that. Imagining success only further proves you don't have it. I know I need to post more, that I need to be a better writer, that my blog really isn't a blog at all until I make it one. I guess I'm just lazy. What of the rewards of a great sentence? of a finished article? They are indeed great, and would only make me glad of writing. But it's been a lot easier to just accept that my blog was out there somewhere, that for the time being it didn't need my assistance. That as long as the time-gaps between my posts didn't get to the point where if someone stumbled upon my blog they might fear I died mid-article, that it was ok.

So I guess I do know what this is. It's a promise to myself to not wait another month, to not settle for things simply being adequate, but to actually do something, anything. Something bad is better than nothing at all. And that itself would only be true if I was counting on making something bad. Maybe I'll make something I might one-day laugh at, but not something I would be unhappy with. I would hate to be one of those writers - of which there are many - that mistake lack of talent or skill for a lack of experience.

Yet this is an update too. A sort-of marker of where I am into the blogging experience, which makes the whole idea of running a blog a lot easier to swallow for me. I haven't blogged enough yet to know the ins and outs, but I feel like someone who's just got their first car (not me then - hey, I was struggling for a metaphor). I'm guessing that feels like you suck at driving a car, yet you feel better at it than everybody in the world who hasn't got a car. I've noticed things about my writing, and blogging in general, since entering this crazy game. A game that you know - yet you don't fully realize until you start - never stops from the very moment you click play.

I've noticed I'm much better at making my writing good (or at least up to a standard where I won't cringe when I click "Publish") than I am at actually making my blog look nice. I'm currently on my third design of the blog since staring up, and writing this has given me the urge to change it again after I finish writing. It never looks quite right. Maybe because there's no image of the finished thing screaming in my head, just images of other blogs that have got it right and are laughing at me from up above. I'm gonna get it right eventually. Hopefully.

When it comes to writing I've noticed I'm a big fan of overcomplex metaphors and bits of writing that sound smart because they are made of long winding sentences and double connectives, yet really mean nothing at all. These thoughts could have been written down just as easily as they were formed in my head, yet I've fell into he habit (freely, with open arms, up until now) and I haven't been able to get out of it. It just happens. Just like all habits of bad writing. And all the habits of good writing to, lest I forget.

I don't quite know why my brain (or my heart, as many confused artists will probably claim my writing comes from) can't just explain things simply. It's probably because I'm such a sarcastic bastard in real life. I love to think idiots wouldn't get my writing because it's too smart for them. When in truth it's probably smart people who don't understand my writing because it's too dumb. Then again I hate to put myself down. And seeing someone else put down their own writing always feels like a waste of their talent to me. I was always great at writing as a kid. It's more than likely I was very talented at it back then. Back in say, primary school, I was a great writer. I just stuck in. And the praise I got has just stuck in my head ever since. Until recently when I noticed I wasn't really ahead of anyone as a writer. For all those years I thought I was being a good writer. But all those people who told me I was a great writer when I was a kid just screwed me on this one. For years I've just been the great writer I thought I was (Translation: not a good writer at all, maybe just a decent enough one to pass English exams) and I've never attempted to be an actually good writer, probably because until recently I didn't know there was difference. So that's something else to aim for too.

If there is one thing I'm proud of so far with this blog it's the template I've worked around for some of my posts. Looking back at my best post; a history lesson of sorts on the band Nirvana, I can pick apart the prose as something I could do a lot better now, only 2 months or so after writing that post, but I'm still proud of that post. It's filled with pictures and videos. And it ends with lots of cool... extras, if you will. I include the last song the band ever made, it's a sad one when you think about it, and it's a dramatic technique by me that isn't too hard to decipher. It pulls on the heart strings. I even include Dave Grohl's song about Cobain for extra effect. An artistic impression of the 27 club, for a subject untouched in the writing to be channeled to the reader through an image. Before ending on my favorite of these techniques; having a sort of "summing up" image, here a collage of Nirvana and it's many assets. I do this on most articles, like a more stylish version of a full stop. A way of concluding a piece of writing the same way a filmmaker might end a rom-com with the endearing image of our couple, a films worth of funny, relationship-forming shenanigans behind them, now ready to live their lives happily together, and to be immortalised in audiences minds though that one final image (See! one of those extensive metaphors I was talking about) and don't think I'm making fun of this article, I'm proud of it, and I'm proud of the article and how I've used images and videos as an extension of the writing. Does this mean my articles are better than other bloggers because of this? Of course not. But it does mean I'm doing something other blogger aren't doing. And of that I'm happy.

I'm sure it would be in the interest of public decency to wrap this baby up. It's been a long post. But in the end I did manage to figure why I wrote this post (me proving one of my earlier points again). This is  my real opening to this site. That self deluded welcome page I wrote earlier is now obsolete. I won't delete it. It's important. At least to me. It represents a part of my writing that I hope isn't there anymore. I'm not saying it's there so I can point people to it "You think this post is great, you should go back to when I started to this blog, then you'll see how much I've changed as a writer". It's not like that at all. I think I'm in control of my own ego at least that much. It's more that for any artists (and sorry for describing myself as one, but anyone can if they feel they are, as long as they plan to prove it) the bad parts of them are just as important as the good.

Once again I must wonder what this blog post. Who is it aimed at? and why would they read it anyway? I guess it's because this whole post has been about my inability to update this blog with posts I feel proud of. Whatever this post was, I'm proud of writing it. Before I felt like I was writing this blog through a filter, trapped inside a box, now I feel like I am free to write about anything.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Shining: Book vs Film

I feel its worthy of note that Stephen King's The Shining was one of the first books I ever read, and as Kubrick's movie adaptation was already one of my all time favorites, it was to me not just a comparison of which of these acclaimed artists could do the most with the same story, but actually which medium was better. I must warn you that on my long trek through the halls of the Overlook I did not manage to find a definitive answer (as if you expected one) but I do feel that both the film and book, which both transcend the age-old haunted house horror genre to become something more, are excellent examples of what is good and bad in each medium. I suppose what I like about each medium is subjective, and I'm sure there are those who happily disagree with me and pick one over the other.

But then again, it is my opinion, so you might as well take it as fact.

So where to begin with such a comparison? The plot of both works is usually given, yet I have long since found much reason to describe the premise of whatever I am reviewing, both because if your on this blog then I'm going to say you've got an internet connection and that you can find that info out for yourself, and because no-one's paying me, which makes any complaints over my lack of explanation paper thin. Lets just say that Jack Nicholson, or Jack Torrance depending on your medium, has got a great new job as a caretaker in a haunted house secluded enough to let all of the horror you will find here possible.

Reviewing the Movie 
The hedge-made labyrinth which is only a fleeting bit of background information in the book is not only a key location for the movie, but a symbol of exactly what Kubrick was going for. The whole movie is a giant labyrinth, giving you enough to play with that you understand the big picture, yet withholding a lot of the important details. I won't list the many unexplained anomalies of the Overlook, and the cabin fever vs the supernatural argument leads nowhere when the whole point of the movie is clearly open to anyone's interpretation, but Kubrick does plant images for the audience that almost feel like there leading you somewhere if you follow them long enough. The most glaringly obvious one being that picture at the end of the movie; Was Jack absorbed into the house? Is he simply reliving an endless cycle that has happened before? Did Kubrick even know himself what he was going for here?

If you don't believe me that this story - presented, and even marketed to us, as a traditional haunted house movie that moves into slasher territory when the shit starts to hit the fan - is actually a multi-dimensional mindfuck, leading us down as many possible explanations as there are never-ending corridors in the hotel it's set in, then just look up recently released documentary "Room 237". Whether you believe the theorists in that film are wackos or intelligible fans who have managed to pick away at the movie long enough to find things no-one else has spotted before, it's undeniable the film was made with the idea that the audience can believe what they want to believe, intended by the filmmakers or not.

As for the film itself, I've already said it's one of my favorites. It's that perfect mix of a brilliant art film from a master filmmaker (Kubrick, who was great because of how easily do-able he made being a genius look) that's managed to camouflage itself as a piece of genre entertainment. It also helps it was derided on release and only picked up its adoring fans years later (the greatest movie ever to be nominated for a razzie?).

Kubrick of course made the bold claim on release that this was the scariest film ever made. Some might mistake this as a moronic claim, a simple piece of shock excess with the obvious intention of getting asses into cinema seats (aided of course by the fact that he was in the golden era of horror: Halloween and Alien already out, Freddie Kruger just around the corner) yet I will give Kubrick the benefit of the doubt in knowing what he was doing. He was subverting the mainstream masses expectations. He did this again and again throughout his career. Just look at his final laugh at the mainstream; his supposed "erotic thriller" Eyes Wide Shut, starring at the time-hollywoods favorite couple, which was really a complex psychological drama that was all about how something big and sexy turned out to be completely different to how Mr. Respectable Everyman thought it would be (sounding familiar?)

Yet the real reason Kubrick's claim that The Shining was the pinacle of multiplex terror never sat well with me was because this isn't really a traditional horror movie at all; more a gory fairy tale. Don't get me wrong, there is a long list of horrifying images sprung throughout this film (and I'm guessing the Grady-twins would rank top of most people's lists) and there's a feeling of growing dread throughout the film. Yet there's something so mystical about this movie to me. It's not set in a run-down camp lodge, or in a city framed in total darkness; it's set in a really nice looking hotel, with beautiful views on the outside, and an inside that's filled with lots of wide open space that is filmed amazingly with Kubrick's steadicam, which captures the feeling of being a small kid in a big place perfectly. And it's not an un-killable monster coming to kill the lead characters in their dreams, it's just some guy who goes crazy while care-taking a hotel. Most filmakers cover their movies in a sheet of blood, yet Kubrick's film is covered in the childlike glow of christmas time snow.

Then there was another reason why the movie was so great: Jack Nicholson. The man is an acting powerhouse, at least in the 70s and early 80s, after which he simply became a cool guy with a great reputation. Nicholson is hilarious here. I've heard people complain over the fact that Nicholson plays the character like a psycho, not the loving family man who slowly declines into madness like described in the book. Yet that's part of the fun of this movie, Jack is a character destined for what he will become in the Overlook. It's not until he starts swinging that axe that we see that trademark-Nicholson grin creep onto his face.

The over the top-ness of Nicholson, contrasted with the endless shrieking of Shelley Duvall, and the cliche scary movie kid portrayed by Danny Lloyd (an archetype which audiences would never accept in the same way today) create the high points of the movie. One sequence, where Nicholson backs Duvall all of the way up the stairs after she has discovered his "novel", was famously shot a record 102 times. You could argue that to be excessive (and damn funny when you find out Kubrick used the second take) yet it nevertheless is one of the most intense scenes ever filmed.

Yet the highpoints of the movie are the sequences set in the ballroom, where Jack's alcoholism gets the better of him in either his own self-serving psyche, or as part of the Overlook's manipulation. It's great just to watch Nicholson act here. To see him finally accept the madness going on around him and implant himself into the song and dance thats being orchestrated for him. Kubrick, to the dismay of many fans (and King himself) altered the book heavily when adapting it to screen, but this sequence is taken almost directly from the book. Yet in the book we are fully aware of why all of this is happening (the benefit of the house) and we are simply witnessing Jack Torrance be turned into a monster. Conversely, Kubrick's ballroom is filled with light, energy and music. This Jack Torrance is already in on the joke. He is already a monster, no need to be tricked into anything. King played for the ironic horror, Kubrick played for the twisted laughs.

Reviewing the Book
As I've said, this was one of my first books, and my first Stephen King. The man, with his long going reputation as the master of horror, and the distinction of being the only writer on this side of J.K.Rowling to still be a household name, had a big reputation to live up to in my mind. Which was why I was so surprised when I found the book so funny, at least early on. Not to say it's a secret comedy that's still fooling people, simply that King sprinkles enough humour here and there to lift the book up from what could have been a drab pit of depression into something more relatable.

What's so funny? Mostly just the internal thoughts of Jack Torrance, starting off with his hatred of the hotel's owner Mr. Ullman, an arse-hole who's sleazy personality is glossed over completely in the movie.

The book itself is a strong one. King himself is no Thomas Pynchon; he feels more a well trained author who knows the ins-and-outs of writing than someone who is experimenting and bending the rules of writing, but his writing is more than just competent, and he makes The Shining a very easy, if at times very slow read.

And by god is it slow. King throws enough weird happenings and paranormal outbursts to keep the reader interested in the horror side of things, yet it's clear King was much more interested in the characters, most specifically Jack, who's own alcoholism and past abuse of his family were partly auto-biographical for King. The idea Jack is an alcoholic is a main theme throughout the book, and the supernatural elements in the book seem to be a metaphor for an abused family that (like many families imprisoned by abuse) simply ignores the problems. King makes the point that for a family like this, all of the cracks would come to the surface if they were trapped together in a big empty house for a winter.

In truth, while I wouldn't argue against the books reputation as a horror classic, it seems to me King - at least for this book - was more a great ideas-man, less a brilliant storyteller. The best bits of the book are the ones clearly more personal to king; the ones not at all involving axe murderers and ghosts. Which means that when the book does plough head first into these things the book does suffer, and the slow build up stops allowing for more character development and instead stands in the way of the action, which apart from the finale which is a real highlight, is the low point of the book.

Then again, when King does get going-he really gets going. He's damn good at creating well rounded characters. If you thought Jack's transformation into a madman in the movie was simply too sudden a change then you'll find the book has a lot more to offer you, showing the man's slow decline from loving but flawed family man to killer. Other characters are also given a bigger spotlight in the book, most notably Dick Hollaran the Overlook's chef. It would be fair to say Kubrick turns all of his characters into much simpler stick figures, not a bad thing when it allows for the story and action to speed up a lot more, yet King gives his characters space to breath, and the extra backstory to all of the characters should be the main selling point for any fans of the film who haven't read the book yet.

It's an enjoyable if overlong horror book which celebrates it's own sick darkness and gory imagery in the same way that the film celebrates it's more fantastical imagery and outlook of childhood.

(Spoilers incoming) 
It should be clear to you by now that it's the movie that I prefer. Both are enjoyable experiences, but Kubrick takes the haunted house template in King's novel and makes it about something completely different. That's why he cut so much from the book. I'm guessing when Kubrick read the book he wasn't that bothered about the story of Jack, Wendy and Danny, instead he saw an opportunity to make a film about the medium's infinite opportunities, and create a heavily calculated mystery of a film filled with hidden symbols and symmetrical frames.

So What's different about the two works? Well the backstory of the book mainly concerns Jack's years of being a struggling alcoholic schoolteacher, a stint ending with him crashing into a bike while drink driving. He doesn't kill anybody, but the moment when he think's he did put's him off the bad stuff for a while.

Another big difference is in the character of Hollaran. In the film he is a martyr, his sole purpose being to bring the slow plough to the hotel so Wendy and Danny can escape. In the book, not only are his backstory back at his home and his journey to the hotel both filled in, but he doesn't die at all. He doesn't save the day in total heroic fashion and gets them out of the hotel alright.

The most glaring change is the way Jack dies. In the film he freezes to death in the hedge-maze. In the book a plot-point is set up early on that Jack must attend to the boiler everyday or the hotel will blow sky high, and yes you guessed it? In the middle of all the carnage he forgets to check it and is killed in the explosion. The reason for the change? Maybe Kubrick just wanted to keep the evil at the hotel still alive for his audience even after his characters escaped. Or maybe he was making the ultimate contrast between the book by turning fire into ice.

I won't go into all of the differences. They're unimportant really. i did get two things from the comparison:
1) Books are for the detail. Yes, they can tell you more than films and can tell you what characters are thinking. But all of that is really in service of giving more backstory/detail to the plot, and raising more points to the reader that they may not already be thinking about.
2) Movies are for the experience. Filmmakers can experiment with what their medium is a lot more than authors can. I see here that Kubrick didn't go for the backstory, he went for the overarching horror experience, he wanted to put in all of the great elements of the book and let his audience figure the rest out.

Other Readings of The Shining 
The Shining has meshed into the pop-culture stratosphere over the years, a film that everyone knows even if they haven't seen it, so it makes sense that a lot of people would have things to say about it. Here are just some of the best I've found:
  • Scanner, one of my favorite film blogs which is run by Jim Emerson, wrote an article about the theories surrounding the film and doc Room 237. Read it here. 
  • Critic Richard T. James, someone you should definitely check out if you haven't already, was an early supporter of the film. His review was eye-opening to me. 
  • There are a number of analysis' of the film on the internet. This one explores the hidden meanings and ideas of duality in the film. This one talks about the films many complexities. 
  • Oh yeah, and there's this too: 

And here's some cool pictures I found while looking for some artwork for this post: