Sunday, November 30, 2008

My Name is Bruce: A View to Downplaying the Godly

He’s merely a man, as the title suggests. A fragile mortal, imperfect like the rest of us, subject to errors and the fickle dictations of mood. Why then do I feel obliged to offer grand sweeping hyperbole in introducing Bruce Campbell?

Deity status, a throne of beatitude, a kind of global genuflection, all are excessive children born from an attempt to convey Bruce’s brilliance. Restraint dies and a flamboyant display of tribute takes over. The murk of modesty, clearly a trait of the real man, becomes lit oblivion as quaint words evolve into epic narratives of analogy and metaphor, ending with Bruce upon a summit of reverence, shining glory downwards on a proletarian mass baying for his mercy.

Alas, too soon into this game of mindless exaggeration does comicality arrive to blot out all else. Laughable, lifeless words! Meaning has no place in the stream of overstatement, a surge instigated by justifiable admiration, but left demonically possessed by superfluous gestures.

Bruce is a god. Bruce is a genius. Bruce leaves my underwear steeped in the goo of lust.

Add repetition and in creeps banality. Hackneyed hindrance grasps the soul, drags it to a place where circularity holds sway, the result being one’s condemnation to repetition of the same tired phrases ad infinitum.

Curiously, it’s the endearing humility and incessant self-deprecation amply demonstrated by Bruce that makes him so frequent a recipient of such kudos. While appreciative, deification to this degree would no doubt cause him unease. After all, energies ought to be focused elsewhere (go and eat your Cheerios, son), be done with it, give to yourself the pleasure and resume foraging in the swamp of civilisation. Movement and action are the rightful consequences of inspiration; breathe in Bruce’s celluloid presence with a mind to use and utility. Don’t end at the beginning, Bruce’s omega appears to be an alpha the more one peers at it.

But the problem remains, the idol stands worshipped and cloaked in praise.

It would be disingenuous to call My Name is Bruce an exploration of this theme, some kind of ball-tightening treatise on celebrity, a filmic essay on the assumption of persona and the performativity of everyday life. It’s a comedy where Bruce Campbell plays himself. Enough said. That’s more than satisfactory to constitute a dream scenario for the numberless legions of his fans. But sadly a synopsis is built of slightly more than that and I’d hate to earn the scorn of my readers (more than I’ve already done).

The small town of Gold Lick is plagued by death and destruction as an ancient monster is unwittingly unleashed by a local teenager. Young Jeff (not Fahey) witnesses his buddies’ slaughter and just about escapes himself. Thankfully Jeff is well-acquainted with the work of Bruce, being a member of the hardcore division of the fan base (DVDs of Maniac Cop and Alien Apocalypse lie scattered about his car, nestled neatly alongside copies of Fangoria, probably hugged tight against his Bubba Ho-tep t-shirt on numerous occasions). This kid decides to solicit the services of Bruce to help deal with the monster. Bruce is brought to town, but naturally dubious he considers the entire situation artifice, a mere play orchestrated by his agent. Unities must be forged if Bruce is to see past the fallacy of his foolhardy mind and defeat the evil force.

Bruce’s character is himself. Or rather, Bruce’s character is Bruce Campbell, a spoiled, brash, insensitive B-movie actor who lives in a trailer and is constantly tormented by the thought of his ex-wife. Whiskey is the blood of his soul, his dog his only companion. His career lies wallowing in the pit of schlock, a place of budget-less cliché and inept actorship. A scene being filmed for a dire sci-fi flick called Cave Alien 2 is our first introduction to the man. Stilted dialogue and cheap rubber monsters abound in this unequivocal mockery of some of the real Bruce’s dodgy role choices, the past that dips into splatter pantomime, the genre pieces on which he has built his massive following.

The set of Cave Alien 2 sees Bruce affect obnoxiousness and a prima donna attitude. His grandstanding and self-importance is punctuated only by the lurid sleaze tactics unleashed upon his blond co-star. Looks of distaste and snorts of contempt are universal reactions from cast and crew alike. This caricature of egotistical posturing creates out of Bruce Campbell a new figure: ‘Bruce Campbell’. Or better, Evil Dead’s Ash, lifted from fiction’s prison and employed as a B-movie actor.

The stupidity (Bruce spends much of the film thinking the monster scenario an elaborate birthday gift), the callousness (a too-inquisitive fan in a wheelchair gets kicked out of shot, the squeal of a vehicular collision sounding as Bruce departs) and the cowardice (when confronted with the reality of the monster Bruce immediately runs away, leaving the local population behind to fend for itself), all are core traits of Ash. On arrival in Gold Lick, the local fanfare gets spoiled as Bruce harangues them, cantankerously complaining and poking fun at the yokel alterity each presumes. Coarse words said against the mayor prompts young Jeff into admonishing Bruce, alerting him that it is the mayor his words are being directed at, to which Bruce hilariously replies,

“I don’t give a shit if he’s the king of kiss my ass!”

It’s genius of this stature that impels one to soar to the highest echelons of highfalutin praise in describing Bruce. Impossible to resist, the tendency gets realised too easily. Especially when Ash-style hysterics get rolled out so often. The twofold sense of awe and expectation expressed by the local crowd harkens back to the similar reaction of the medieval peasantry in Army of Darkness. There’s even a Sheila for Bruce to fawn over.

A history of cinema lives in My Name is Bruce. The obvious send-up of Bruce’s career is there, lovingly arranged on jazzy tendrils of hilarity. But there’s also an array of other allusions and inclusions. Making an appearance as Bruce’s ex-wife is Ellen Sandweiss who played Cheryl in the first Evil Dead (remember the amorous tree?). Dan Hicks, who in a former life was Jake in Evil Dead 2, plays a citizen of Gold Lick, and Timothy Patrick Quill, who was the blacksmith in Army of Darkness, plays his lover. Catchphrases from the past feature heavily, notably used to humorous effect such as when Jeff attempts to seduce a zesty nubile with the words “give me some sugar, baby.” Casual references to obscure films like Assault on Dome 4 also contribute to the creation of this marvellous bric-a-brac Bruce Campbell landscape.

Super special, extreme mention needs to be reserved however for Ted Raimi. As if he wasn’t content with being the highlight of Bruce’s last directorial effort, Man with the Screaming Brain, he offers here another stunning performance. Actually, that should read performances, for he plays three roles. The snivelling agent wears the face of Ted Raimi, as does the painter charged with changing the town’s sign when a murder has occurred, updating the population figure while forever mumbling complaint at the sudden slew of work he’s been handed. Finally, and probably most amusing, he plays an old oriental gent who warns the town about the monster (a Chinese war god). Ted is one of the most underrated comedic talents working today, yet unfortunately it takes the work of either Bruce or his brother Sam Raimi for us to see him onscreen.

My Name is Bruce is an audiovisual massage for the fans’ glands. It’s an eraser of sores, a shield against inferior cinema, an assassin of high-minded pretension. A nutritious aesthetic paradise wherein all expectancy is fed to laughable heights, a delightful reservoir of satiated desires. The intended audience are the owners of Running Time, the squirming bodies queuing for a repertory showing of Mindwarp, the plucky fanboy exalting the merits of Bruce’s Herbie flick. The film’s appeal is to those who need not read the words of the title to know who Bruce is – they can easily recognise the titular presence without recourse to a formal introduction.

The culture is one where each reference resonates. Each in-joke contains the possibility of immense guffaws, the sort of laughter that’s a threat to the control of bodily functions. Indeed, loss of bladder control is threatened by the merest glance of Bruce’s distraught face when the scripts for Cave Alien 3 and 4 arrive in the mail, or when Bruce tries desperately to look knowledgeable about guns before the expectant eyes of the townsfolk.

Cries of genius and wailed positivity, deafening acclaim and romanticised imagery, these constitute the impossibility of discussing Bruce Campbell in a modest way. The obstacles of sheer sublimity, alongside words like maestro and ubermensch, make the impossibility a permanent symptom in the analysis of his work. Yell fool at the exaggerator and he’ll point to My Name is Bruce, hurriedly mumble something about “watch it, you ballbag,” and scamper off to a mental land of Bruce Campbell decadence and sumptuous reverie. It’s the only way it can be.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Suggestions for a Transcultural Narrative: When Beckett and Fonzie Collide

Like words paroled from the page, free to travel to the inviting face, few actions enrich the soul more than the gentle throwing together of high and low culture. Films and music, novels and television, marked by difference, joined into something new, mated and left pregnant with the unseen and unheard. Take that universally-respected icon of Modernism, sidle up beside it the pornographic must of a 70s sleaze flick, and leave them to intercourse, merge and birth. Miscegenation it might be; a levelling of tiers it is. The erasure of bourgeois elitism. A unique gift of praise words to art adapted to be bereft of such opinion, to be deaf to an enviable avalanche of criticism.

Amalgamation is a nice label. Determined to avoid accusations of pretension, to have spit-laden “artsy bastard balls” invective snorted at your body, let the quick, easy wave of citing low culture assuage the risk. Find yourself writing an essay on Manuel Delanda’s Deleuzian analysis of expressivity? Include a problematising reference to Jeff Fahey’s loss of bodily oneness in Body Parts. Halfway through a delineation of Gogol’s class commentary in Dead Souls and despairing of the dry, academic tone permeating it? Figure out a method whereby Hellraiser VII: Deader becomes the main focus, perhaps hypothesise a situation in which Kari Wuhrer is condemned to life as a serf, freed from the confines of a truly awful film.

Sure it’s contrived. It maintains, to an extent, the original hierarchy. By recognising the layers of difference, whether or not situated in perception, we perpetuate the separation of high and low culture. Such a division lives in our treatment, in the mindsets through which all is dredged. But all action has potential to be realised, all is kinetic energy in the limbs, and a new cultural edifice can be born. By blindness to past categories can we transcend a narrow and simplistic compartmentalisation that sees Persona and Evil Dead defined so far from each other as to be constituents in two completely different worlds.

Labels of quality force the issue. Moulded preconceptions make the actions of cultural hierarchy important. Preordained good and preordained bad, these are effects by which we forget about the quality of Con Air, or From Beyond, or Gunmen. Discrimination elsewhere is being weeded out (as it should be), yet the music of Municipal Waste is automatically perceived as inferior to, say, Vivaldi. The fact that Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ is essentially heavy metal is deemed unimportant. Necrophagist’s winding musical compositions, because of distinctions laid culturally far and wide, fed into by a saturated media landscape, is victim to the needless rancour brought with it by the descriptive term ‘death metal’.

No levelling-out happens spontaneously. Walls of division can only be chipped away – a long process arduous and replete with contention. The natural human inclination to classify has to be fought, or rather remoulded. What needs reconfiguration are the labels, the terms that create the illusion of guaranteed quality. Time at a premium leaves us powerless in the face of a vast field of culture, body shaking in insignificance, an overwhelmed nose leaking blood, pus and snot. The words dropping in the rain dance of indecision come ideologically invested, they are products of their sociocultural domain – inscribed upon each are signifiers signifying the superiority of Dostoevsky over Bukowski. Let us advance to each undeterred by external pressure and deal death to assumption by capturing the ideas of egalitarian politics. A freedom born of equality, an equality born of eroded distinctions. Feed education by breadth of experience. Eat the fruits of niche and mainstream, high and low. Disregard in turn the nagging obligation to unthinkingly place one above the other.

Transcultural coupling is one route to undermining the hegemony of cultural labels. Yet the route is laced with troubles. Annoyingly we are reminded that such amalgams are rarely undertaken on equal terms. A victim meekly murmurs disenchantment all too often, the loser in a game devoid of balance. A dramatisation of Marx’s Capital, for example, starring Steve Guttenberg as linen, an important part in the early chapters on exchange value. Initially one assumes that this pokes fun at Guttenberg, it revels in his position as someone once famous, now languishing in TV Movie hell. But does it not also mock the dry rigor of Marx, the hoity-toity intellectualism of his treatise?

Perhaps the emphasis ought to be shifted. Rather than posit as the subjects of attack Marx and Guttenberg, the real subjects could be the consumers of Marx and Guttenberg. The empty leftist posturing of those first flicked pages of Capital from people in love with the image of revolt and marginality is surely worthy of attack. Here Guttenberg is the site of criticism, a reminder of another culture, acting as a grand decimator of pretension. The interstice between Marx and Guttenberg is a place where the very definition of high and low is mocked, a Golgotha where the carriers of hierarchism are showily crucified.

The term transcultural tends to be used apropos geographical reality. Cut up the world into nations, regions, continents, steep for long enough and an individual culture arises – clearly identifiable characteristics and conventions giving individuality to the culture. However much this usage predominates, the application to our western, capitalistic culture seems more than appropriate given the strength of our penchant for having culture separated by such gargantuan chasms. Translate and transmit, yield to gestures suited to transcend the myopic and ignoble state of affairs.

And the Beckett/Fonzie subtitle?

It’s too obvious and probably done elsewhere. There’s the echo of laughed joy in its genesis – an imagined past indissociable from the act. Each name connotes other names. To know that the latter was a central character in Happy Days and to know that the former wrote a play called Happy Days is enough information, a veritable glance into the future. The only question the wedding of the two asks is which direction shall be pursued?

The image of American youth culture in the 1950s, nostalgically and colourfully created by Happy Days, scripted by a man who specialised in showcasing the bleak arbitrariness of everyday life. Or perhaps take Richie and the Fonz out of their milieu – and Potsie too, if the mood is one of generosity – and have them scramble around within the abstract walls of a Beckett play.

Outlandishness is the priority, below which stands everything else. I quite like the idea of Richie and Fonzie doing the Winnie and Willie roles in the Beckett-created Happy Days. Sitting atop a grassy knoll, Richie would fastidiously lay out a range of items, lipstick and whatnot, probably stolen from Joanie, occasionally using them to beautify himself. (Already gender lines have become blurred as Richie Cunningham indulges in transvestism and, let’s say, turns out to be an incestuous pervert.) Meanwhile, Fonzie sits half-concealed on the knoll reading a newspaper, interrupting Richie’s staccato monologue every now and then with the words of a headline. Much would be the same with the Fonzie/Willie role, except of course every headline would be followed by a very Fonzie-esque “aaay!”

As the play progresses, Richie’s imprisonment in the routine of banal everyday practice would begin to gnaw away at his brain. His cries for recognition in the desire of the other would be ignored, his sole companion being his own fractured subjectivity. Speaking to Fonzie’s only visible appendage, an elbow jutting through a tuft of thick green, he’d continually deny the knowledge that it is himself to whom he speaks. The final scene would see Richie’s body almost entirely buried in the mound, kidding himself about a fictitious happiness supposedly forthcoming, while Fonzie stumbles down the side of the mound to jump the shark at a nearby beach.

Too many words have been given to this. An existential play sounding a new timbre, a result of the insertion of two sitcom characters, is too playful a prospect not to consider. As is also the idea of a Beckettian Happy Days (Mr Cunningham would make a great Hamm in Endgame). But alas, in the end, the act becomes a mere coda to the words.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Opeth - The Roundhouse Tapes DVD

The passing of time is an odd thing. Ticking silently perched in the background or roiling noisily in clear sight, it’s a thing too easily forgotten about. In fact, to forget is natural, for time remains the dark side of the mind, cast in shadows of forgetting and indifference, passed over in the quotidian slipstream. Why count the seconds, why have time’s digestible chunks at the forefront of the mind? You wouldn’t – a canvas it is and a canvas it remains. Yet, too often the drift of minutes sheds its truistic shell and becomes a subject of cognizance, something that evokes thoughts and feelings, time’s reality giving way to timeless reflection.

Although Proust may have left it to cakes and such emo frivolity to summon the past, today’s past lives in technicolour and surround sound. No more must we trust in imperfect memory. Coming in coruscating images and the numb rumble of mediated representations is a pre-packaged past. Stolen from antiquity, a boon to the memory already hitting capacity. Consign memory and its shortcomings to the trash heap of obsolescence, DVD’s here to take its place. Like the substitution of simulacra for the events of history, personal experience becomes increasingly subject to recreation in the form of media. It’s an objectification, but an objectification carried out by hands not one’s own.

It smells slightly of postmodern pretension and the faddish hunger to mirror someone like Baudrillard or Virilio. It’s more than enough to bring bile to the back of the mouth, to have one shake when faced with the very depths to which they have descended. But this is what I think about when I approach Opeth’s new DVD, The Roundhouse Tapes.

Recorded on a cold, winter evening in London at the tail end of 2006, the show has taken an alarmingly long time to be released. Two years, in fact. The live album was put out one year after the event. Now two years later, we have the live DVD. Evidence it may be of how slowly things move in the music industry, of the restrictions felt by smaller record labels (Peaceville in this case), of video production companies overstretched, of red tape draped liberally upon all corners, how obstacles and the forward march of time unite to delay sights and sound for our eyes and ears – that may be the actuality of it, but the temporal remains the most interesting part for me as I was one of those present in the glow of Opeth that night.

The metal concert is a site of congregation, of fraternity, a place of common feeling and shared energy. Individuation has no place, the group takes centre stage. It’s an experience powerful and elating, a place where the body and the mind are dealt concurrent blows immediately both private and public. The expansive intimacy of the metal concert is what gives such resonance to viewing the recording of Opeth’s sublime performance. Attention is drawn to the two year gap, one’s mind operating in the present and the past: remember that time spent in line, shivering against the icy winter sky? remember the breakneck riffs raging across the crowd as on stage guitars are wielded and drums pummelled? remember beers in a local pub afterwards? Past and the present are interwoven, alternating in micro-movements, creating a vortex of a life, living one moment in a sweaty London music venue, another watching that moment recreated on screen.

The reminder is not just a personal one. It puts on display Opeth’s towering live presence, their faultless musicianship, that ability to play tough, technical passages while maintaining a captivating and galvanising stage presence. The audio has been carefully mixed and mastered and a great deal of kudos must go the band with this in mind. Not only do they successfully perform the music but they’re able to capture the depth of sound that appears on the albums, to capture the vast aural space that their recorded music generates. The juxtaposition of hard and soft, the epic quality evoked in the progressions, the mesmeric creative talents needed to construct these songs, all are on show. I was stunned on the night by Opeth’s live power. Watching the DVD, my opinion remains the same. There is only one word to use: amazing.

On the side of the negative, the DVD does suffer from somewhat dodgy editing. Shot lengths are seriously short, cuts are too abundant. A sight of Peter Lindgren soloing quickly morphs into a circle pit, hirsute bass throbbing is supplanted by frantic ride cymbal bashing. The aim, I suppose, is that the editing conveys a sense of being there, of the viewer having bodily presence in the energetic melee of the gig. However, it’s used far too frequently in concert films, the MTV aesthetic is assumed too broadly. Nevermore’s recent Year of the Voyager DVD, despite the music being absolutely phenomenal, is afflicted by such horribly jerky, impatient editing. The Roundhouse Tapes isn’t quite so extreme and isn’t constant in its flickering visual journey. Occasionally we do get a moment to see what chords Akerfeldt is playing, but sadly it’s rare. Luckily the strength of the performance allows one to overlook the editing; a few songs in and the music becomes the focus.

Alas I was not able to spot myself in the crowd, despite my keen narcissistic eyes being ever alert. Then again, the spotting of some dude with long hair dressed in black at an Opeth gig is going to prove quite difficult. Next time, to make it easier, I’ll wear a pink fluffy pimp suit.