Hedwig and the Angry Inch: an individual’s search for wholeness and authenticity delivered in a flat musical adaptation

John Cameron Mitchell, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001)

A feisty little number showcasing John Cameron Mitchell as a director, actor, scriptwriter and singer, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is the film adaptation of the musical of the same name in which Mitchell also starred. The film follows the quest of Hansel (Mitchell) growing up in East Berlin in the 1960s – 70s: a product of a dysfunctional family, he finds refuge in Western rock music. Dissatisfied with his life, he seeks escape with an American soldier who suggests that he (Hansel) change his sex from male to female and marry him (the soldier). Taking his mother’s name (Hedwig), Hansel does what the soldier suggests – although the sex change operation is botched – and marries the fellow who then takes her to Kansas and abandons her there. At the same time, Hedwig sees on the TV news that the Berlin Wall has fallen so all her sacrifice has been for nought. Nevertheless, Hedwig picks herself up by forming a band, writing and performing songs, and babysitting for US army families. She meets and befriends Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), teaching him all she knows about rock music and helping him with personal problems. They write and record songs together, and eventually fall in love. When Speck discovers that Hedwig is transgender, he flees with the songs they have written together and establishes his own career as teen pop idol Tommy Gnosis. In this, he becomes wildly successful and Hedwig launches a copyright lawsuit against him. She tries to raise money for the lawsuit by forming a new band The Angry Inch, composed of eastern European migrants including her “husband” Yitzhak (played by actress Miriam Shor), and touring franchises of a seafood restaurant chain and various other small venues.

Hedwig’s history is told in various ways including song, animation and traditional live action plot narrative mixed together. Most of the plot is told in flashbacks that follow a chronological sequence and this sequence is sometimes interrupted by some incident relevant to the plot in the present day. Throughout this narrative of rise and fall, defeat and rise again, followed by betrayal and another defeat, is threaded a journey in which Hedwig searches for wholeness, renewal and authenticity, indicated by her constant reference via the song “The Origin of Love” to a story in Plato’s “Symposium” in which humans were originally two people stuck together and forcibly separated by the gods, and the purpose of life is for humans to rediscover their lost halves.

While Mitchell excels in his multi-tasking as director and actor, and portrays Hedwig in all her bitchiness and questing, the songs in themselves are not all that interesting – performed in various conventional pop / rock styles, they are clearly aimed at the general public – and would be flat without Mitchell’s flamboyant presence; and the plot itself builds up to a weak and inconclusive climax. Does Hedwig win her lawsuit? We don’t really know, though later she gains much public sympathy after an incident with Speck later in the film. The final scenes in which Hedwig appears to reconcile with Speck could be pure fantasy – indeed, everything that happens after Hedwig’s encounter with Speck in his luxury limousine could be fantasy.

Apart from Mitchell himself, the cast is rather mediocre, and without the songs and Mitchell’s stage performances, the film tends to be flat. There isn’t much to recommend the music and I’m not surprised that most of what is memorable about the film is Mitchell’s acting and his character Hedwig in all her primping and glam finery.

David Bowie Under Review 1976 – 1979: The Berlin Trilogy – a good if dry introduction to David Bowie’s most influential recordings

Christian Davies, “David Bowie Under Review 1976 – 1979: The Berlin Trilogy” (2006)

David Bowie’s death in early January 2016 left behind a considerable artistic legacy encompassing visual art, cinema and music but it is his music that forms the foundation and core on which everything else Bowie has done is based. In particular the music he made from 1976 to 1979 is the basis on which Bowie’s reputation as an experimentalist and innovator in music and visual artist rests, and as the title of this DVD indicates, it’s this period with emphasis on the three albums “Low”, “Heroes” and “The Lodger”, often referred to collectively as the “Berlin trilogy” – though with regards to their actual music and musical arrangements, and where they were recorded, they don’t actually form a trilogy – he made with fellow UK musician Brian Eno as collaborator that’s under the spotlight. This documentary is an exploration of what led Bowie to join with Eno in Berlin and other parts of Europe to write and record the music on these albums the way they did, how their collaboration developed and how they eventually drifted apart and went their own ways after “The Lodger” album.

The documentary’s style is as minimalist as “Low and “Heroes” are in its structure: it is chronological and relies heavily on interviews with some musicians who knew and worked with Eno, and with music reviewers and analysts like David Toop, David Stubbs and various others. Bowie and Eno themselves were not interviewed for the documentary though it features recordings of Bowie talking to other interviewers. The documentary includes excerpts of particular tracks from the recordings along with interviewees’ opinions of them, snippets of music videos and live performances, and also places Bowie’s songs in a broader context by demonstrating parallels between them and the work of other musicians and performers like Blur, Iggy Pop (whose career Bowie helped save by co-writing several songs for his classic albums “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life” and by supporting him on tour), Madonna and Talking Heads.

At times the documentary can be a bit dry for those Bowie fans expecting gossip and lots of name-checking; but for those interested in learning about what the music experts interviewed think of particular songs and instrumental pieces from the three albums, the film does a good job there. There is not much information though about the aleatory processes Bowie and Eno used to compose melodies and rhythm structures, nor about the themes that inform all three albums and how these themes fit in with Bowie’s concerns with alienation, the nature of identity and the search for authenticity in a world obsessed with appearance and celebrity, and his interests in the occult and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy.

The documentary is at its best describing the history of how Bowie and Eno came together and worked on the albums, with the assistance of musicians like Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, and especially Tony Visconti who produced all three albums as well, and the other work that Bowie did in-between recording them. Where the documentary is weak perhaps is in not interviewing artists and musicians who were inspired and influenced by these albums, in investigating those aspects of Berlin culture and society that made a deep impression on Bowie and his music, and whether the city and its citizens had any influence on him in giving up his flirtation with Nazi symbols and ideology.

There is mention of Bowie’s cocaine addiction insofar as it was this among other reasons that led to Bowie fleeing the US and setting up new digs in Europe and which inspired his 1975 album “Station to Station” – but apart from that, there is very little else about the deep psychological and spiritual crises that fed and were fed by the coke habit and which among other things led to the break-up of his marriage.

In short, the documentary is a good introduction to the making of three of the most famous Bowie albums and their place in Bowie’s career and studio output. Perhaps it could have done more for an even more informative and intriguing visual essay but we are probably not likely to see anything similar and more investigative.

Invocation of My Demon Brother: not an essential film to see for Kenneth Anger fans

Kenneth Anger, “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969)

If like me, you’ve already seen a considerable number of films by Kenneth Anger, this one won’t add much that’s new to your knowledge: Anger creates what’s basically an extended rock music video with scraps from another film “Lucifer Rising”, shots of bikers, a group of people smoking from a skull and a Satanic funeral ceremony for a cat. Filming techniques such as the layering of images (a constant Anger motif), film speed distortion, placing the camera at odd angles and juxtaposing shots drawn from different sources to suggest a narrative and create unusual connections are combined so as to extract maximum shock and horror, and disturb viewers with intimations of occult evil. Bold red shades are emphasised to invoke Western stereotypes about devil worship. A multi-lens filming approach so as to suggest an insect’s point of view adds an extra sinister impression.

Some viewers will obviously find this film very dark and frightening, especially in scenes where a Satanic high priest flourishes a flag with the swastika symbol: this could very well be Anger in a cheeky mood, knowing that (in 1969) Western audiences were sensitive to the horrors of Nazism and Nazi flirtation with pagan religion and the occult, and so he uses a Nazi symbol in the context of an occult ritual to shock people. The joke is that the ritual is in honour of a dead cat! – in this way, Anger plays with images and their sequencing, and the cultural associations they have for Western viewers, to create a spectacle that makes fun of people’s fears and the things they avoid without understanding why they do so.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the soundtrack, composed on Moog synthesiser by famous Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger: it ain’t much to hear, to be honest, but it’s probably the most significant work of solo music he’s done in nearly 50 years.

The film is not essential viewing: you’re best directed to Anger’s other works “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, “Lucifer Rising” and “Scorpio Rising” if you want a psychedelic experimental film experience with occult themes.

An affectionate if subjective review of a musician’s life in “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 2)”

Martin Scorsese, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 2)” (2011)

I had expected the second part of this documentary on George Harrison to be more interesting than the first and to be quite deep – it covers the second half of his life after all! – but the reality is that it is no more than an affectionate series of snapshots and fond reminiscences by family members and friends who loved him or worked with him. There is little exploration into why Harrison was so drawn to following esoteric Hindu and other Indian traditions and philosophies, how he was able to reconcile being a major celebrity and popular music icon, with enormous wealth and influence at his finger-tips, with following a spiritual path which must have beckoned him at some stage of his life to renounce his material life-style and possessions. One suspects that Harrison’s understanding of the Eastern traditions might have been a bit naive or self-serving, and not very self-critical or engaged in self-examination; there is mention in the documentary of his cocaine habit and his infidelity to his first wife Pattie Boyd (who divorced him in 1977 because of his repeated unfaithfulness and his alcohol and cocaine abuse) and later to second wife Olivia Arias, so his spiritual quest was certainly an odd one that permitted self-indulgence. Since the point of the film is supposedly to investigate how a famous celebrity comes to follow a personal spiritual quest in order to deal with the pressure of fame and the emptiness of easy wealth, and how that person lives with the contradictions that arise as a result, the documentary’s failure to do so in a meaningful way to those audiences not familiar with Harrison’s music or musical history leaves the whole project looking like a moving scrapbook of memories and selected highlights that might or might not be interesting to know.

The format that Martin Scorsese uses to make the documentary – allowing interviewees to ramble at some length and slotting them together in a meandering chronological narrative along with snippets of old photographs and film – strains at its limitations: everyone interviewed speaks warmly of Harrison and his generosity with money and material possessions, his puckish humour and various eccentricities. Harrison’s boundless generosity, stemming from his beliefs, leads him to an unexpected career as a film producer, providing financial backing to various British films in the 1980s through Handmade Films and helping to keep the British film industry afloat during that decade. The interviews generally present a positive view of Harrison and he comes off looking a like a saint. The film-making approach makes a sober assessment of Harrison’s life and spirituality impossible. (The fact that Olivia Harrison was a co-producer might partly explain the film’s generally forgiving view towards her late husband.) Large gaps in Harrison’s musical career in the late 1970s,  part of the 1980s and most of the following decade are glossed over. Inexplicably there is no mention of the recording and release of his album Thirty Three & 1/3 in 1976 which revived public interest in Harrison’s career after a creative slump in the early to mid-1970s.

Anyone wanting an evaluation on how significant Harrison was as a musician and song-writer during his life, even as some sort of guide or exemplar of living a spiritual life, and whether the legacy he left after his death has stood the test of time and grown, won’t find the answer in what is essentially a hagiography.

Scorpio Rising: an amazing concoction of film collages, music and themes

Kenneth Anger, “Scorpio Rising” (1964)

One of the most amazing concoctions of film collages and music soundtracks, “Scorpio Rising” is perhaps Kenneth Anger’s most famous and influential film. It’s a showcase of Anger’s interest in outsider and gay sub-cultures, homoeroticism, and ritual behaviour and activity that result in transformation usually through the medium of sexual violence and death. The juxtaposition of various visual sequences in parallel can have read into it a connection between and among Roman Catholic belief, the attraction of cults (religious and political) and Anger’s ambivalent opinion about them, the role of ritual in sustaining such cults, and the place of violence and sacrifice in ritual practice that helps to sustain belief and restrain and keep people in their place.

On a basic level, the film follows a young biker, Scorpio, as he customises his bike and lavishes love and care upon it. He later dresses, slowly and carefully, in full biker gear before going to the bar where he and his friends usually hang out. They subject one of their own to a hazing that involves stripping and humiliating him and then possibly raping him. They then engage in a mock celebration of Mass culminating in one of the guys pissing into his helmet and offering it around to his flock. The fun climaxes in a furious bike race in which someone falls and breaks his neck. The police are soon at the scene to cart everyone off to jail.

In amongst all that activity, Anger includes footage from an old Cecil B de Mille film (“King of Kings”) of Jesus restoring sight to a blind man and later mounting a donkey to enter Jerusalem, from which city we know he’ll never leave alive. Photographs and propaganda material showing Adolf Hitler as a saviour figure and Nazi swastikas also appear. It’s as if Anger wants his audience to infer that religious fervour for Christianity and its major figures is no different from Nazi fanaticism and that religion, political cults and youth sub-cultures are as one in celebrating their distinctive rituals, fetishising objects of worship, incorporating violence and death with sexual undertones in their most important celebrations, and using that violence and the transformation of sacrificial victims as a focus for releasing social tension and unease in a world that pays lip service to freedom and individuality but fiercely suppresses both.

About 13 deliberately chosen pop and rock songs of the mid-1960s, all used without permission, make up the soundtrack in a way such that they heighten the audience’s sense that a ritual is underway, that a sacrifice is being prepared and death (and the transformation that it represents) will be the crowning result of both the ritual and the film. The audience plays an active part in interpreting the music and the visuals to draw out meaning that would not exist with the music and the film apart and in isolation from one another. We are very much participants in the ritual when we watch this film.

The beauty (if such a thing can be said) about Kenneth Anger’s films is that they are precise enough and vague enough that audiences can read a myriad of messages that all overlap. One can read nostalgia, a love of dressing, fun and teenage rebellion into the film; darker themes such as uncritical hero worship and the close relation of sexual violence, death and repression also appear.

 

A survey of social and cultural changes in 1960s Britain through one musician’s life in “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 1)”

Martin Scorsese, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 1)” (2011)

A really very thoughtful and fascinating documentary (in its first half at least) on the life and career of the British rock musician icon George Harrison, as told by the people who knew him and worked with him, in more or less chronological order from his days as a working-class Liverpool schoolboy jamming with the kids who together would become one of the world’s most beloved and influential rock bands. Hollywood director Martin Scorsese performs a very deft job tracing Harrison’s development as a musician, a song-writer and a man on a personal spiritual quest to find meaning and purpose in his life. Harrison’s maturation as a musician and person took place during a period of social and cultural ferment in Britain, one in which his band The Beatles was itself a major player, attracting other musicians, artists, photographers and various hangers-on, not all of whom had something worthwhile to give. The pressures of fame, wealth, the power and influence that come with having money and celebrity, and the often unwelcome attentions of a media hungry for sales and profit or of groupies, drug dealers and others, were deeply felt by the band members both individually and collectively, and Harrison felt such strains perhaps more deeply than the other members – hence the sub-title, in which living with such easy wealth pushed Harrison into questioning the direction and purpose of his life and heading onto a more spiritual path.

Part 1 deals with Harrison’s time with The Beatles: his career then is more or less synchronous with the band’s musical evolution right up until 1966 when meeting the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar exposes Harrison to a very different musical tradition and culture which leads him to investigate meditation and spiritualism. The documentary moves with the ease and flow of classical Indian improvisational music through the 1960s and shows something of the rapidly changing musical and cultural scene in Britain. The creative conflicts among The Beatles crop up as a motif throughout the documentary.

One expects that the former surviving members of The Beatles (Paul McCartney and Ring Starr) will appear in the documentary and they do. Ex-wife Pattie Boyd and best friend Eric Clapton (who was in love with Boyd while she was married to Harrison and who married her after the Harrisons divorced) also appear. Though there is a lot of talk about the internal politics that drove The Beatles apart, there is very little about how Harrison approached the song-writing process, how he became a talented and capable composer in his own right such that Frank Sinatra adopted one of his songs “Something” into his own repertoire, and why his talent was slow to develop to the extent that it was overshadowed for a long time by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

(Of course one of the problems in making a documentary about a dead person based entirely on interviews with the people who knew him is that they will often be inclined to speak well of him, rather than criticise his shortcomings, and this is certainly the case here with this documentary with the result that Harrison perhaps comes off as a better person than he actually deserves to be. His martial infidelities which cost him his marriage to Boyd are passed over. Plus one hardly expects the likes of McCartney to rue his and Lennon’s treatment of Harrison as an inferior in the song-writing department to the extent that Harrison’s contributions to The Beatles’ collective work were held to much higher standards than Lennon and McCartney’s compositions.)

Fittingly Part 1 ends with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, one of the great Beatles classics and the first such song to feature a guest musician (Eric Clapton on lead guitar) in a significant role, thus signalling Harrison’s eventual break away from The Beatles into his solo career and life which I presume will be covered by Part 2.

The documentary is aimed at people who know The Beatles’ music and something of their history and the times in which they lived. For others (mostly young people born after the 1970s), the documentary may be confusing and even pointless: Harrison wasn’t the most prolific member of the band and was certainly very self-effacing, and his otherworldly songs are not always the most pop-friendly chart-topping pieces. But perhaps that is all the more reason for Scorsese to have made a documentary about him. The film’s narrative structure seems very loose but that is deliberate: it’s intended to flow in a wandering way yet it still goes from A to B all the way to Z.

Inside Llewyn Davis: a tricksy film that does no justice to the early 1960s American folk music scene

Ethan and Joel Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013)

Inspired by and based loosely on the life of Dave van Ronk, “Inside Llewyn Davis” follows a week in the life of the fictitious Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk guitarist / singer, who makes one bad decision after another and ends up back at square one after a trip to Chicago to audition for a well-known music promoter and join his record label fails. The film has the air of a fairy-tale, complete with portents and tests of character along the way, all of which Davis either fails to heed or just fails anyway, and is of a piece with an earlier Coen brothers film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – heck, John Goodman even figures here as one of many antagonists with whom Davis has to contend.

At the beginning, the year is 1961 and Davis is playing a gig at the Gaslight Club. His character quickly becomes obvious: he’s not very supportive of the other musicians who play there and he’s a bit of a coward who runs away when he should stand his ground and assert himself. After the show, his encounters with his sister and a fellow musician, Jean (Carey Mulligan), who accuses him of being the father of her unborn child, demonstrate his lack of feeling for others’ problems and struggles in life, and a failure to take responsibility for the damage he causes to friends and family. Above all, his treatment of various marmalade cats that pop in and out of his life shows a lack of compassion. Even his flight to Chicago to meet a label mogul, Bud Grossman (F Murray Abrahams), is an avoidance of responsibility: during the time that he is away, he should have been comforting Jean who is anxiously awaiting her appointment with a doctor.

As a musician, Davis is merely so-so: though his guitar-playing is decent enough, he can’t write emotionally expressive lyrics – all his subject matter is second or third-hand – and in his live performances he can’t connect with his audience and hold their attention. As the movie progresses, Davis becomes more and more a pathetic caricature devoid of compassion and feeling for others and less of a human being himself. By the end of the film, his week has come full circle and he finds himself back at the university professor friend’s house where he dossed before and first met the first of a number of marmalade cats who will mysteriously guide him on his particular odyssey. Davis’s week in effect has become a microcosm of his wider life in which he is forever running in his own existential hamster-wheel with no reward in sight. It’s supposed to be an underlining comment by the Coens that the only people Davis feels at home with are pretentious arty academic types who think that being friends with a down-and-out stereotypical bohemian folkie gives them authenticity.

On the whole, the acting is excellent with the attractive Oscar Isaac injecting some necessary humanity and warmth into what is basically an unattractive and repugnant one-dimensional character. He is ably backed by Mulligan and Justin Timberlake who together form a duo Jean and Jim Berkey, who in the Coen universe could have been the genesis of the famous folk-singing trio Peter, Paul and Mary if Davis had agreed to team up with them. On the other hand, in his few scenes John Goodman as has-been jazz musician Roland Turner chews up the scenery even when fast asleep or blacked out from a heroin overdose.

The cinematography evokes a particular noirish mood of the early 1960s and an America at the tail end of the repressive and grim McCarthy era and not quite yet on the cusp of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, and Lyndon B Johnson’s social reforms that transformed society, eliminating poverty and racial discrimination for a generation of millions of Americans. The camerawork becomes downright menacing and spooky during the travel scenes to and from Chicago and serves to present opportunites for Davis to reconnect with humans and animals which he fails to take.

As a character study, the film is too facile: Davis fails practically every test put in front of him. That’s just so unrealistic and alienates the film’s protagonist from its audiences. The film would have succeeded if Davis chose a few times at least to connect with others and missed every other opportunity. Indeed, the film might have resonated with its audience if Davis had been conceived as a caring musician of middling ability who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and gives up his failing career as a musician at just the point when a young Bob Dylan was to burst onto the scene and revive public interest in American folk music. Instead, the Coens turn “Inside Llewyn Davis” into just yet another of their usual Coen-esque flicks in which they play a capricious God who enjoys toying with His victims in an indifferent and uncaring universe.

The film does no justice to Dave van Ronk, whose life was picked over for various scenes in the Coens’ film: van Ronk worked with the merchant marine just as Davis has done in the past and will do again, supported leftist causes (the most the Coens can bring themselves to refer to this is a short scene in which Davis tries to retrieve his old union card and is asked if he is a Communist) and mentored Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Whereas Davis looks down upon other folk musicians as competitors to be despised as “careerists” if they happen to be different or connect with their audiences. From what I have read of van Ronk, he seems to have been a caring person who was keenly aware of the social and political problems of his time, read avidly (he was a science fiction fan) and joined leftist organisations.

The film does touch on important issues such as musical “authenticity”: are musicians who pursue music as a career and who tailor their performances to meet audience or record label boss demands any more or any less “authentic” than those whose voices are so idiosyncratic that they cannot be pigeon-holed and smoothed over for a mass audience? is Davis right or wrong in spurning the turn to pop music that Jim and Jean Berkey are making? I sense here a nasty message from the Coens which suggests that musicians who for some reason refuse to co-operate with the music industry and submit to commercial pressures and influence on their music to become “careerists” are self-indulgent arrogant pricks while the ones who buckle under and give up what makes them unique to please the recording industry, churning out hit single after hit single for their masters and getting very little in return financially and artistically, are truly genuine and giving of themselves. It’s as if having long ago made their Faustian pact with Hollywood, the Coens (like Davis) are jealous of those who might compete with them and succeed but who still retain their real individuality and quirkiness.

There is a scene in which Davis assists Jim Berkey and another folk singer in recording “Please Mr Kennedy”, a song referencing then US President John F Kennedy’s determination to send an American astronaut to the moon; this is one of the few parts of the film that ground it in its early 1960s period yet it’s also a part totally devoid of political and social commentary on the period. This is of a piece with other Coen films which also take place in a universe where apparently issues of political, cultural and economic import don’t exist. Everything is down to chance and the will of Fate.

This could have been a very touching film about human frailty and how good people get ground down with rejection and failure at every turn simply because no matter how hard they try they’re just not good enough or can’t contort their square selves into round holes. Instead “Inside Llewyn Davis” becomes just another tricksy exhibit in the Coen brothers’ flea circus, leaving this particular audience member with the feeling that she got conned.

Suicide Club: gory horror flick intended as interrogation of the state of modern Japanese society

Sion Sono, “Suicide Club / Jisatsu Sakuru” (2002)

Famous for its controversial premise, full-on gory presentation and an arresting opening sequence of 54 school-girls jumping off a city train platform into the path of an oncoming train, “Suicide Club” is a meditation on the nature of modern Japanese society and its increasing dependence on technology as the connection among different generations of people that replaces all other social connections such as family and community. A wave of mass suicide hysteria hits Japan, baffling a group of detectives in Tokyo who try to piece together various incidents in which young high school students throw themselves off train platforms and the tops of buildings en masse. The detectives have little to go on apart from strange white bags, in all of which are found rolls of human skin sewn together. Some of the skin patches feature a butterfly tattoo. The detectives try to track down people with these patches and one of these persons is a young teenage girl Mitsuko, whom we first meet wallking home when all of a sudden her boyfriend Masa flies from the sky and crashes into her, clipping her ear before hitting the ground.

The detectives receive phone calls from mysterious people including a hacker called The Bat and an anonymous boy who warns one detective, Kuroda, of an upcoming suicide event. The police misinterpret the warning and stake out a train station in vain. Kuroda then goes home and discovers his entire family has committed suicide.

The Bat is captured by a group of glam rocker musicians led by guitarist Genesis who warbles a song while stomping on sacks of squirming puppies and mewling kittens. While Genesis and his friends perform, The Bat emails the police and informs them of her whereabouts. The detectives promptly arrest Genesis and the band, assuming they are the people inciting kids around Tokyo to dock themselves.

All while this is happening, a girl group called Dessert perform songs, video clips of which are spliced into the film at various points in ways that connect to the film’s events and insinuate that the singers are essential to the film’s narrative. Thus when Mitsuko goes into her dead boyfriend’s bedroom, she sees a poster of Dessert and figures out from the way the girls are holding up their hands and fingers a conspiracy of sorts. She investigates the conspiracy and finds herself being interrogated by a group of children in a bizarre sequence of surreal visuals and inventive film-camera panning. Mitsuko affirms her will to life in spite of the dreadful events occurring around her and the children order her butterfly tattoo to be removed.

The film seems critical of various aspects of Japanese society including conformity, the obsession with pop culture and youth fads, people’s lack of authenticity and the pervasive alienation within society. The police are shown as rather incompetent and pathetic in their pursuit of individuals they believe are encouraging the young people to kill themselves. Suicide as a cultural phenomenon in Japan is investigated on a superficial level: teenagers seem to treat it as a game. Death and its cavalier treatment by the Japanese are ever present in one form or another. Ultimately the film appears to suggest that the phenomenon of suicide points to a pervasive malaise afflicting modern Japan and that there can be no one cause people can point to: so many factors can drive people to take their own lives. The film offers no easy answers and characters must deal with the possibility of death and come to terms with life and living in individual ways.

Plot-holes abound: the film never makes clear who tattoos the butterfly tattoos on Mitsuko and others and why the tattooist should be doing so; and the sub-plot of The Bat and Genesis remains undeveloped and unrelated to the detectives’ work and Mitsuko’s own journey of self-discovery. The narrative is fragmented and the film lacks “proper” closure; within the film’s theme of alienation and disconnection, I suppose that the desultory nature of the action and its lack of resolution are appropriate. Characters remain undeveloped and one-dimensional, and the acting is competent, but again such a development has its logic within the film’s theme. Perhaps to survive in a society that emphasises conformity, hierarchy and ceaseless hard work for vague and contradictory ideals, people must divorce themselves from their true feelings and soul and behave like automata.

There are several sequences within the film that lack dialogue and “Suicide Club” features some very effective and quite noirish scenes, mixing them with handheld camera work that look very much like newsreels.

As might be expected, the film finds a lot of black humour in suicide, especially in one scene where a group of high school students on top of a building are discussing the incident of the 54 school-girls and laughing at their suicide. Before you know it, a bunch of boys comes along and makes suicide jokes and in no time at all the kids are lined up on the edge of the roof ready for the Great Leap Forward. Probably one of the funniest parts comes right at the end when Dessert sing their closing number urging people to connect with others more fully (and at the same time make money for their record label that exploits people’s alienation and desire to reach out and feel a part of society for profit).

In all, the film functions at a superficial level as a critique of Japanese society and an inquiry into what it means to be alive and to be fully human. It does become confusing and eccentric as it progresses and loose ends aren’t tied very well. I get the feeling that by the end of the film, director Sion Sono was no more enlightened about the phenomenon of suicide and the role/s it plays in Japanese culture than viewers are, though he did later make another film intended as a prequel to “Suicide Club” and wrote a novel that expounds more on the themes of “Suicide Club” and his intentions with that film.

 

 

Clean: a tale of caution and redemption lacking in spark and realism

Olivier Assayas, “Clean” (2004)

Rare are the movies in which two main characters happen to be father and his daughter-in-law yet just this month I’ve already seen two: Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” and Olivier Assayas’ “Clean” which stars the French director’s ex-wife Maggie Cheung as Emily Wang, a washed-up cable TV music show host whose musician husband dies from a drug overdose. The commercial music media blames Wang for giving her husband the drugs he used to kill himself and Wang herself spends time in prison for drug possession. After her release, Wang tries holding down a number of dreary jobs without success while also attempting to reconcile with her young son who is in the care of his grandparents Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary (Martha Henry). Rosemary herself is dying and Albrecht does not know if he can cope as sole custodian once Rosemary is gone. After many setbacks and personal crises, a glimmer of hope appears for Emily with a possible career as a singer beckoning in San Francisco and Albrecht throwing his support behind her.

The movie is a conventional treatment of a drug addict struggling to pick up the pieces of her life together after a major tragedy and trying to reform and fit into a world she doesn’t really care for. The movie dallies between portraying a character who must face up to responsibility for her life and her son, who must negotiate life’s tough paths without a man on whom she leaned for support, on the one hand and on the other a message about finding something you love to do and which allows you to develop your talents and let you fly. Cheung delivers a fine and moving performance as Wang with all her flaws and brittle personality: a woman who has been self-indulgent perhaps for too long and who is learning the hard way about having to compromise her individuality in a world that cares as little for her as she does for it. Nolte gives just as fine a performance as Albrecht who empathises with Wang and is willing to give her another chance when all her friends in the music business distrust her and withdraw support at the last moment. Wang finally learns who her real ally is.

It should be said also that just as Wang starts changing her attitude and habits, Albrecht also undergoes a change in his attitude towards his daughter-in-law when he discovers his wife is terminally ill. His willingness to change helps Wang to grasp an opportunity to advance in a new career related to music. Some viewers may object that Wang might be returning to an environment where she will once again be exposed to drugs or to the stresses that encouraged or pushed her into drug addiction. However the music Wang performs in the film’s final scenes seems as far away from the new-wave / post-punk music scene that Wang and her musician husband had favoured originally as the dead-end retail jobs Wang had pursued earlier in the film.

Apart from the two leads’ performances, the film lacks spark and is over-earnest in its character study of an ex-junkie trying to rebuild her life. The pace is very glacial and the style is very flat. Not personally knowing any drug addicts or ex-addicts, I cannot comment on how realistic the film is but it seems rather peculiar for the main character not to be in rehabilitation or seeing a social worker or counsellor while weaning herself off drugs. Cheung looks rather too healthy most of the time and for her to run to familiar friends and places where she and her husband got involved in the drug scene in the first place would seem rather counter-productive. Perhaps the movie’s script-writers were imagining Wang as an Asian version of Marianne Faithfull or Nico; they’d have been better off perhaps talking to ordinary ex-junkies who eventually made good and basing Wang’s character and story on their stories.

True Norwegian Black Metal (Vice documentary): a travel guide into the “world” of a black metal musician

Ivar Berglin and Peter Beste / Vice, “True Norwegian Black Metal” (2007)

Despite the title, this short documentary is a brief travel guide into the world of Gaahl, the lead vocalist for the Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth. Interviewer Ivar Berglin, photographer Peter Beste and one other guy are interested in why Gaahl, born Kristian Espedal in 1975, has such an extreme reputation for violence and apparent Satanism in Norway so they visit him at home in a remote mountain village. They initially find a very convivial man with a considerable wine collection who paints portraits in his spare time. Gaahl then takes the film crew through the forests and up a mountain to a wooden cabin, described as his “grandparents’ cabin; along the way, Beste films beautiful scenes of forest trees with boughs covered with snow.

The docmentary begins with a brief but quite effective survey of the history of black metal beginning with its origins in a British band called Venom in the early 1980s. Scandinavian bands such as Sweden’s Bathory and Denmark’s Hellhammer were inspired by Venom to develop a style based on what they considered to be truly dark aspects of human thought and behaviour and their example later inspired the black metal music sub-culture in Norway in the mid to late 1980s. Sensational crimes such as church-burning, attacking the elderly and immigrants, and Varg Vikernes’ murder of Mayhem’s lead guitarist Euronymous in 1993 brought the scene much unwelcome attention from the Norwegian mainstream media and beyond. Into this milieu arrived Gorgoroth whose members also received intense attention from the media and the police for acts of outrage and violence. Gaahl himself was imprisoned for beating up people and other acts of violence and at the time of his interview with the Vice team, had only recently been released from jail.

Initially appearing very much a typical news report with a fast pace, sharp edits and cuts, and a near-breathless reporting style, once the documentary starts focussing on Gaahl’s life in his remote mountain home, it becomes more intimate with a slower pace. As he takes the Vice reporting team through the forests and up a mountain in miserable weather, the reporters voice their annoyance at his actions and moan how they really came “for the music” when all the while Gaahl is showing them the source of the inspiration for his and Gorgoroth’s work!

In these later scenes, Gaahl is portrayed as a lone wolf who draws inspiration from nature and whose personal philosophy is inaccessible from the Vice reporting team, let alone the rest of the world. We are encouraged to empathise with Gaahl and his outlook on life.

Since its making, the documentary has been criticised for misreporting aspects of Gaahl’s life, among them the fact that he actually lives in an apartment in Bergen and does indeed socialise a lot. I don’t know if this misreporting was accidental or intentional but if it had been the latter, I confess to having fallen hook, line and sinker for the deception: the actual “plot” is sketchy, the film crew and Gaahl play their parts, and my own imagination fills in the details.