Friday, 30 March 2012

Omega Man

Besides the obvious downside of never being able to see your friends and loved ones again, there is something strangely appealing to me about being the only survivor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Popular culture would have us believe there are three possible scenarios in which this could happen: nuclear war, an airborne pathogen or the current most popular which is the zombie holocaust.

Nuclear war is the least appealing to me because you'd most likely spend the rest of your life in an underground bunker cowering from outside radiation levels. This would be fine if you managed to store a lifetime's worth of books and DVDs and remembered to pack more than one pair of reading glasses. In the Twilight Zone episode 'Time Enough at Last' there was a scientist who finally had time to read when trapped inside a nuclear bunker but then broke his only pair of reading glasses. Oh, the irony!... Lesson learned.

Zombie holocausts and airborne pathogens would both be fine with me as long as I had somewhere to fortify against zombie attacks and an antidote to the pathogen. It would be important for me to be in a major metropolitan city which had been recently evacuated; I don't want any recently-deceased corpses with agonised expressions showing up as grisly reminders and ruining my fun.

This leaves me free to roam about at will. I would sleep in a different luxurious house every night, drive the most expensive vehicles during the day and almost certainly read your diary. I don't think I'd get up to anything too strange - my repressed Irish-Catholic guilt-ridden background would forbid it. I might just walk around naked and see if my legs look any good in a mini skirt.

Ultimately, I would need to find somewhere safe from rampaging zombie hordes, so a trip across the ocean on a vessel such as the QEII should tide me over until their numbers dwindle. I would search for other survivors while collecting rare antiquities from around the world before returning triumphantly to my homeland of Australia. In Melbourne I might construct a yacht atop the Eureka Tower and in Brisbane I might set up a Salvador Dali Museum in the corner store near where I grew up. I would then have something to watch while playing Space Invaders. The possibilities are endless!

There's something comforting about knowing you'll most likely die by being eaten by a zombie. In the real world you could walk out the front door and get hit by a bus or die in a myriad of other ways. In the post-apocalyptic world the options are fewer. Also, if you were to encounter any other survivors it would be great to know you have a common enemy in the zombies. There is nothing more gratifying than having a common agenda. It would also be a great conversation starter.

I like the idea of living in a world that's frozen in time. It often seems to me that by the time you get a handle on how the world works these days it goes ahead and changes. In the post-apocalyptic wasteland you'd have forever to understand the world's secrets. Still, I probably wouldn't bother finding out about Area 51, The Kennedy Assassination or Harold Holt's disappearance because I'm not a conspiracy nut (I'm obviously a nut of a different kind - see above)

The one drawback for me is that I tend to get lonely and miss people after one afternoon alone and I don't think many apocalypses last a single afternoon. Perhaps it's only a great fantasy if you're a bachelor or an orphan and have no friends. Unfortunately that's not me. I have a daughter and wouldn't want to see her growing up in a world devoid of humanity. She'd need her mother and her immediate family. She'd need friends... and an education... and medical attention too in case anything goes wrong. All these other people would also need their families. This certainly opens the floodgates.

To be a well rounded person she'd also need to hear differing opinions on subjects and points of view that I don't necessarily agree with (it's possible I may not be the genius I take myself for) so those people, I concede, should also be allowed to live. How far do you go in constructing the perfect world? Even though I don't believe in god, does that make it right for me to extinguish all those murderous religious zealots from the world? Wouldn't that make me as bad as them? Maybe they'll learn to chill out.

Don't worry world, if it's up to me to decide who lives or dies rather than some indiscriminate threat, then it's lucky I'm feeling in a generous mood today... Everybody lives!... Except journalist Andrew Bolt... That guy shits me.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

This is Hardcore Preservation Society (Part Two)

Last week I tackled The Kinks' 1968 album 'The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society'. This week I'd like to delve into an album that I believe is thematically similar; the 1998 Pulp album 'This is Hardcore'.

Like 'Village Green', 'This is Hardcore' sets the agenda with the first song 'The Fear' in which edge-of-your-teeth guitar feedback accompanies lyrics that tell of the indescribable fear that any 90's Ecstasy user would associate with the inevitable comedown from an artificial high. The high is artificial but the fear is also (or is it?) Lead singer Jarvis Cocker probably realised this album would test most casual fans that came aboard with hit album 'A Different Class' and includes the ominous line 'you're going to like it - but not a lot'.

Pulp started as a band in the early 1980s and slogged it out for years before having a hit in 1994 with the album 'His & Hers' and then being swept up in the whole Britpop phenomenon. Overnight they went from being on the dole to being front page newspaper fodder when Jarvis Cocker famously wiggled his ass in disgust at Michael Jackson at a music awards show. Pulp then went on to court controversy with their hit song 'Sorted for E's and Wizz', which to my mind was a damning satire of the pervading drug culture with lines such as 'Mother, I can never come home again, cos I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere, somewhere in a field in Hampshire.'  Nevertheless the tabloids hounded them and as Jarvis Cocker describes in the documentary 'Live Forever' they were even courted by Tony Blair to lend their support for the New Labour party. It's no wonder they followed up Different Class with an album looking at the dark side of fame and giving a two-finger salute to the shallowness of the showbiz industry.

Because they were a bit older and wiser than the average pop band they probably knew they had hit the glass ceiling with the success of 'A Different Class' and pulled out all the stops with the follow-up 'This is Hardcore', knowing they might never be offered this sort of budget to record again. The videos that accompany the album are especially gorgeous (Cocker himself studied film in his youth) with the most notable example being the noir-ish 'This is Hardcore' video which features some Busby Berkeley-esque choreography.

The album itself doesn't really have any singles that are as instantly accessible as 'Common People' and it says something about the sway they had at the time that they were allowed to release a frankly hilarious song about growing old 'Help the Aged' when all the other pop stars at the time were desperately trying to hang on to their youth. Jarvis Cocker was also very witty and I remember an interview where he was asked what colour his hair was before dryly replying with the brand of his hair dye.

It's hard now to imagine a song such as 'A Little Soul' being released as a single by any band - but Pulp did! - and in a perfect world it would be a classic. It's a gorgeous song about a pervading subject on the album - regret. In it Cocker's sleazy alter ego laments that he has 'no wisdom that he wants to pass on' to his child. The video is so simple, but so effective:

Another pivotal song is the single 'Party Hard'. It's probably the most easily accessible song on the album with it's Berlin-era Bowie vocal and its danceable beat but the lyrics tell a different story about people that have nothing to offer beneath the veneer and 'used to have it, but now they've just had it.' This is an album about the comedown from the party and its lingering aftermath, whether it be contemplating your mortality whilst doing domestic chores in the song 'Dishes' or lamenting the fate of Sylvia whose youth and beauty were stolen by a man who 'just wanted to show his friends' and then realising 'I guess I'm just the same as him - but I didn't know it then.' 

It sounds bleak but Cocker's sharp eye for social satire and his own self mockery make it entertaining and even comical. He even lampoons his own unlikely sex-symbol status in the Barry White-esque 'Seductive Barry' which clocks in at almost nine minutes and is perhaps a little testing for the listener.

I suppose another criticism of the album could be that it starts off strongly but then seems to trail off. Cocker himself referenced this in the 'Live Forever' documentary and suggested a stronger ending to the album would have been to replace the song 'Glory Days' with the version they originally recorded which had more biting lyrics and was called 'Cocaine Socialism'. I think he's right that this would have been a bolder statement at the end of the album but it probably wouldn't have sat as well with the other songs. You decide:

Comparing the points of view between Ray Davies' yearning to return to a simpler time and Jarvis Cocker's dystopian yet comical view of a future full of regret, I suppose I'm personally more prone to take Ray Davies side and to romanticise the past like on 'Village Green Preservation Society' - but the past is not really a place I desire to return to. Conversely I don't feel that the future is as bleak as Jarvis Cocker makes out on 'This is Hardcore'. However, on the rare occasion that I find myself doing the dishes (I cook - she cleans up), I do find myself singing the words to Pulp's unofficial anthem for the househusband and the under-utillised - 'Dishes'.

"I'd like to make this water wine, but it's impossible
 - I've got to get these dishes dry"

I even find these words from the song quite comforting:

"I'm not worried that I'll never touch the stars
 'cos stars belong in heaven and the earth is where we are"

Perhaps I'm a glass-half-full sort of guy - it's just that the glass contains dirty dish-water. 

Friday, 16 March 2012

This is Hardcore Preservation Society (Part One)

Two of my all-time favourite albums are from vastly different eras but in my opinion are thematically very similar. The older album is by The Kinks, was released in 1968 and has the lumbering title The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. The newer album was released in 1998 by another British band called Pulp and is called This is Hardcore. Both albums (whether knowingly or not) dealt with transitional periods in music and culture and were delivered by bands that were disillusioned with success and burnt out from touring.

Jarvis Cocker from Pulp turned his gaze towards a dystopian (albeit hilarious) future while Ray Davies from The Kinks turned his attention towards the past with a batch of songs that have more of a pastoral theme than The Kinks usual R&B sound. I could go on and do a very long post encompassing both albums, but instead I'll spread this over two weeks and focus on The Kinks this week.

The Kinks are The Village Green Preservation Society sets the agenda in the eponymous first song. It is basically a call to save an England that is dying (or perhaps never even existed): a world of little shops, china cups and virginity on the one hand and fictional villains like Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula on the other. There's even a call to preserve Donald Duck but I'm not sure how he fits in (I always thought he was American)

The album yearns for a romanticised youth on the village green, the girl Davies left behind when he went to seek fame and speculates about what happened to his old mate Walter (cynically, Davies predicts that Walter is 'fat and married and always home in bed by half past eight'). The end of the sixties and the hippie dream is also foreshadowed in songs such as Phenomenal Cat (The song is about a cat who sits in a tree and eats his way through eternity) and the rocker Big Sky which sums up Davies' existential angst about railing against a universe that doesn't seem to care one way or another. In short it is a soothing album to listen to when you finally come to the realisation that you're 'growing up'.

Photography is also a theme in two songs: People Take Pictures of Each Other and Picture Book. In Davies excellent fictional autobiography X-Ray (Davies recounts his past but also imagines his future self) he posits the theory that photographs always lie and that you can never catch the feeling of a moment through a photograph. Thinking back to all the family holiday snaps and school photos where you're forced to smile when really you'd rather be anywhere else, makes me think he might have been on to something. It's kind of ironic that Picture Book was used in a Hewlett Packard ad when Davies doesn't have much respect for the art-form of photography.

Davies does romanticise the past but he also references his (at the time) fragile mental state in the song All of my Friends Were There in which he recounts a night where he was unable to sing at a concert and noticed that all his friends (and their best friends too) were in attendance. He then goes on to describe laying low for a few weeks due to embarrassment before being thankfully able to take the stage once again and not missing any notes. A spooky song about a witch called Wicked Annabella might even be an insight into his opinion of women at the time.

The album isn't quite thematically linked enough to be considered a 'concept album' but it is a pre-cursor to this form of album. The last really great Kinks album was probably the early 1970s album Muswell Hillbillies which tackles themes of urban renewal; after this The Kinks seemed to fully embrace the concept album and arena-touring spectacular stage of their career which was not as exciting for me.

Village Green Preservation Society probably got a re-release in the late 90s because The Beach Boys' 'Pet Sounds' was being discovered by a new generation of fans. Many people believe Village Green is Ray Davies' 'Pet Sounds' because it is similar in that it was considered a flop at the time, featured more intricate and personal arrangements and was released at a tumultuous time in the bands' career. I don't think The Kinks were ever allowed a budget to record anything as intricate as Pet Sounds, but I think that works in their favour because they work quickly, don't over-think things and the urgency comes through in the performances. To this day I'm more inclined to put on Village Green over Pet Sounds.

Maybe music fans were also aware that the alterna-rock craze that was dominant in the 1990s was also coming to a close and that the melancholy vibe of Village Green was a good soundtrack to the changing of the guard as mainstream rock gained dominance again. Personally, after a few years slogging away in unheralded and mostly forgotten indie bands in Brisbane, it was the perfect soundtrack as I considered returning to the workforce and explaining to employers what I had been doing for the last few years.

God save The Village Green.

Next Week: Pulp - This Is Hardcore.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The End

Okay, I've been doing this blog for a  month now and it's time to address some criticism: 


No, seriously, the thing most mentioned (in fact the only thing) is that I said the ending to Blazing Saddles was a 'major flaw' in the film. This is not contrary to my opinion that Blazing Saddles is my favourite comedy. Have you tried living in the real world? There's not much around this place that's perfect. Blazing Saddles is like a beautiful Persian rug - there is a deliberate flaw built in so as not to upset Allah (or something). Okay, the ending in Blazing Saddles wasn't deliberately bad (nobody sets out to make a bad movie) but it was unsatisfying and similar to a lot of other endings that were around in the late 60s - early 70s.

I suspect a lot of directors and scriptwriters were so out of their heads on hallucinogenic drugs back then that none of them could get it together to finish a film. Examples off the top of my head include Peter Sellers' The Party where everybody ends up in the swimming pool and the previously mentioned Monty Pythons' Search for the Holy Grail where the police unexpectedly turn up before an epic battle. In a way the Monkees' film 'Head' is just a series of weird endings strung together (RIP Davy Jones). I don't want to even get into the ending of my favourite sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey (What is it with me and loving films that don't end properly?)

I suppose these endings at the time seemed to represent the carefree anything-goes spirit of the 1960s but in hindsight a lot of these films just look like the directors just ran out of ideas. Things that can seem revolutionary at the time can end up as a punch line later on: Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's dad, The chick from The Crying Game is really a man, The main character was dead all along.

When I was at University my scriptwriting teacher always said he hated Agatha Christie novels because you could always guess who the murderer was - it was always the person you least expected. In a way trying to always deliver a twist ending is a trap in itself. Just look at M. Night Shyalaman's filmography and all the weary jokes that come out whenever he announces a new film.

For a story to be truly resonant it has to be remembered for something more than an ending - there have to be themes that stick with you after you consider a movie or book. This is why most of my favourite stories I usually feel luke-warm about upon completion, but enjoy immensely when the rusty penny drops.

One of my favourite authors is Raymond Carver. He wrote short stories which were mostly ambiguous slice-of-life tales about ordinary people. The stories dropped in at a certain points in characters' lives and then left again with no obvious resolution. There were some films made of his books, the most famous being Robert Altman's Short Cuts, but other notables include the Will Ferrel film Everything Must Go and the Australian film Jindabyne which is based on the Carver story So Much Water So Close to Home.

The story  focuses on some buddies going on a fishing holiday who discover the body of a murdered woman. If this was a Hollywood story this would be a jumping-off point for some sort of 'let's catch the bad guy' thriller, but instead the guys just tie the body to a tree and continue their fishing trip for a few days, only reporting the death when they return to civilization. The story really concerns the main protagonist's  wife and how she reacts to her husband having so little regard for human life and the discovery of being in a relationship with a man whose behaviour borders on sociopathic. In the film Jindabyne the action is transferred to Australia and the body discovered is also of Aboriginal descent which further comments on how Australians treat their Indigenous countrymen.

There is no real resolution in this story, just degrees of guilt and complicity in a crime that is never solved, but there is a lot to consider which makes it a satisfying tale in my book. I'm less likely to complain about a stock ending in the myriad of superhero films that pop up every summer and it always surprises me when people complain about weak plots in films based on two-dimensional worlds where people are clearly defined as good-or-evil. In most genre films the hero has to win the day to keep the fans happy.

So in the interests of not over-intellectualising this blog I would just like to finish with some satisfying endings for you:

He rescued the girl and saved the entire planet.

And that is what I did on my Summer holidays.

And they all lived happily ever after.

And then he woke up!

The End