The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Sunday, July 06, 2003
LIBERALISM HIJACKED BY FEVERED EGO: BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE

To whom do we prefer to listen when seeking advice on how to build and exist in a better world? Historically it’s the shouters, the agitators, rarely the reasonable; and it’s beyond dispute that a humanity unblemished by shouters and agitators would never have ascended the scale from existence to life, even though it is their mirror images who propose to demote us back to the former level. Of certain shouters who profess to be on “our” side it is questionable whether they are actually helping us or simply helping themselves, with us as their portfolio, and thereby prolonging the life of whatever sociopolitical system they claim to hate. They shout that they hate The Man yet are quite content to be published/broadcast by The Man – thereby swelling The Man’s coffers and cementing The Man’s power. They may well make themselves pregnant with so much self-love.

It’s hard to disagree with Andrew Sullivan in today’s Sunday Times that Michael Moore and Ann Coulter are merely mirror images of each other, and geometrically precise ones at that – Moore on the smash-it-all-up left, Coulter on the smash-you-all-up right, Moore scruffy and unkempt, Coulter the white Beyoncé (and more about the latter later). Both smile upon our ignorant brows and inscribe childishly simple solutions to chronically complex problems, and both are ultimately not just unhelpful but actively destructive to their respective ideals. Both philosophies could be boiled down to “democracy as it suits me.” Both must be warily watched.

There is hardly a moment in Stupid White Men when Moore doesn’t feel the need to remind you that he lives in an exclusive Manhattan co-op duplex, as opposed to Flint or Columbine, But Hey I’m Still On Your Side. The privileges of his existence are therefore dependent upon the absence of privileges from the existence of the people whom he pretends to love. And, even with (especially with?) George W Bush’s wife, this writer, for obvious reasons, takes immeasurable exception against other writers wishing cancer upon people. It is Cobbett’s Rural Rides being bulldozed to make way for a (pseudo-) Marxist mall.

Moore’s documentary Bowling For Columbine does not resolve any of these issues. Even the most passionate polemic has to be grounded in a minimally consistent logic. As with Esther Rantzen, Moore’s alleged concern for the downtrodden extends only to how high they would make him stand; finally, it drives one to crave the genuine good humour of an honest Republican like P J O’Rourke. It does not seem to occur to Moore that pressuring K-Mart to ban the sale of bullets is the exact equivalent of, say, Wal-Mart being pressurised to ban the sale of Marilyn Manson records or South Park DVDs – because of an unsubstantiated and unquantifiable damage which such things may wreak in the wrong hands.

Much of the rest of the documentary is exploitative cliché. The sequence of Saddam/Bin Laden covert arming by the USA, with its distorted statistics and inevitable consequence, soundtracked by “It’s A Wonderful World,” is a mere echo of the similar sequence in the equally misguided Good Morning Vietnam. Neither uses the song to the same, genuinely startling effect as David Lynch did in the climactic episode of Twin Peaks - still one of the most terrifying things ever seen on television. The animated History of Evil Puritan Expatriates section looks like bad Fred Hembeck. There is one sequence which verges on becoming something more than Moore’s self-reflection, about a six-year-old child shot by another six-year-old child, who took a gun from his uncle’s house, where he and his mother were staying because she couldn’t afford any rent, having to travel a round trip of 80 miles per day to work 72 hours a week in one of Dick Clark’s themed restaurants and therefore unable to look after her son properly – and so the loop continues – but Moore retreats, preferring to provoke the children’s headmistress to tears in order to Outrage Us.

Perhaps the one moment of truth in the film comes when Moore, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, arranges to interview the NRA’s president, Charlton Heston, at the latter’s home. The NRA had rolled into Columbine shortly after the shootings to hold a gun rally, and Moore intended to berate Heston for doing so, there and elsewhere. Heston at first appears bewildered – no the rally had already been arranged, no he wasn’t told about the shootings until after the rally, no he’s never been threatened but feels safe keeping a gun anyway – and then wanders into some not very coherent comments about “foreign people;” ironically, he is sitting next to a framed poster for Welles’ Touch Of Evil, wherein the Aryan conservative Heston was persuaded to blacken up as a Mexican liberal.

But then Heston suddenly snaps into focus. Moore asks Heston to apologise to the people of Columbine for holding the rally. Thunder rolls across Heston’s brow for the briefest of moments, but when he mouths the question “You want me to apologise?” it is not asked with anger but with real astonishment, as if Heston had suddenly spotted, and was looking directly at, something rotten in the centre of Moore’s heart. Heston gets up to leave, giving Moore a genuinely sorrowful and pitying look as he does so. He has realised the contradictions which strangle Moore’s arguments, has lived long enough to know that there are too many things which Moore cannot, or chooses not to, understand – knows that there is no talking to this mind far more closed than his, and walks away. Moore leaves a picture of the murdered six-year-old girl in Heston’s yard – but he is her real exploiter.

BEYONC? KNOWS LESS

It’s faintly pointless to ask of Beyoncé Knowles why, like too many other pop stars (all of them in the end, except perhaps Kim Fowley), she feels obliged to grow up; because, try as hard as I might, I cannot picture her as a child or a teenager, even though she was the latter when Destiny’s Child began. She is a stern, unbending capitalist – a Religious Right one at that – with the deadest eyes I have ever seen on any pop star. It was said of Kenneth Williams that the reason he could never work as a legitimate actor, or even a stand-up comedian, was because of the essential deadness of, and in, his eyes, which betrayed no wish for his audience to be entertained. He hated his job and made little effort to disguise his immense resentment. One has only to look at something like Channel 4’s An Audience With… to glean the essential truth of this. Williams’ eyes are positively anti-comedic, expressing little beyond the desire for a swift and painless end to his torture (there’s a thesis to be written somewhere about what it is that attracts essentially misanthropic loners to the Conservative or Republican parties).

But look at the photos on the sleeve of Beyoncé’s new album Dangerously In Love, and especially look at these eyes. A terrible blacked-out blankness is unavoidably present. And despite the obligatory thanks to her fellow DCers, there is a cut-and-paste picture of three Beyoncés gleefully bumping and grinding. Obviously this is what she would prefer Destiny’s Child to look like.

If the album as a whole lived up to its explosive first four tracks, none of this would have particularly mattered. For in these four songs Beyoncé achieves the immaculate blankness of Grace Jones circa 1981 – similarly mistress of and slave to the cornices and curves of the backing tracks. “Crazy In Love” is of course a single of the year, its unstoppable power stemming from the fact that, via its Chi-Lites sample (“Are You My Woman,” appropriately enough), it seems to consist of nothing but build-ups – just as Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” never, as it were, quite comes. Nevertheless it is the only valid use of the exhumed Washington DC Go-Go rhythm in pop since La Grace’s “Slave To The Rhythm” – I’d like to imagine that chant as morphing into “Ho ho, ho ho, ho ho Madonna,” because this is much more interesting than tired cod-philosophising about “the difference between right and wrong.” Does Jay-Z need to be on this record at all? Does Thompson the reporter need to be in Citizen Kane? Only if you assume that they are actually part of the record/film, as opposed to the audience. The ROC’s jerking off over the Lady B just as we are – and it looks like he’ll have to do that from now on, as their affair is apparently, and conveniently, off – he’s deconstructing and admiring the ruthless bliss of the record, just as we do. And yes, there is a climax of sorts – just before the final build-up, Beyoncé exclaims “I’m not myself!” and finally comes at 2:58 with her exultant “BABY I DON’T CARE.” The song ascends to that one peak and then returns for some more climactic build-up. The fuck could go on forever, even if, as Nathalie says, the Fiorucci trumpets suggest that she may be satisfying her own shopfront reflection.

It’s right that Beyoncé should invoke Donna Summer in “Naughty Girl.” Both this and the following track “Baby Boy” may be about the last trump with regard to Bollywood-sampling R&B; the last juice which can be squeezed, so to speak. In both she plays with being dominant and submissive, sometimes at once. Sean Paul on “Baby Boy” sounds dislocated, as if Beyoncé is bouncing him around like a ball against the flexible walls of the music. Even if she can never hope to cry or afford to be vulnerable – we’ll never hear a Once Upon A Time from her.

“Hip Hop Star,” however, is Beyoncé’s Charlton Heston moment, when she stares her consumer in the face and demands to know what you want from her. It’s also where Beyoncé goes electroclash, and slugs the shit out of the Oldkrapp of Goldfrapp. Glitter/Moroder cliffs of riffs dehumanise behind her as she asks us, “Are you infatuated with me?” her voice as woozy and distended as McGoohan in the stoned party sequence in the “A, B and C” episode of The Prisoner. “I sit and wait for nobody” she adds, but warns “I dare you to undress me…when I blow you away.” Listener, let her know. If not quite playful, these tracks do at least offer us a facsimile of playfulness, as if Beyoncé had shrugged her shoulders and what-the-fucked her way into the studio, and simply exploded.

Unfortunately, there then follows an unbroken sequence of ten – that’s ten - soporific slowies. As if the shareholders had shaken her awake and reminded Beyoncé of her job, namely to maximise their profits. She must adhere to what it says on her job description. “Be With You” revisits “Strawberry Letter 23” to markedly less effect than Vic Reeves did on “Born Free,” while with “Me, Myself And I,” despite its belief-suspending Milesian Tutu descending chord in the middle of the fourth line of each verse, we are back in the unlovable land of Survivor - the I-exist-and-that-is-sufficient-pay-me-for-the-shag-and-fuck-off ethic which has proved so successful for American society over the last two years. “From now on, I’m gonna be my own best friend.” Advertisements for capitalism are never attractive on a pop record. “Yes” has a good glitch intro which could have come out of Kid A but the song fails to match its adventure. “Signs” sees Beyoncé discussing astrology with the increasingly irrelevant and embarrassing Missy Elliott, and only served to remind me how sublime a record “Float On” by the Floaters was, and is (“Caaaaancer! And my name is Laaaaarry!”). There is little more to say about the rest of the increasingly coma-inducing record, except that a second Jay-Z duet (“That’s How You Like It”) is even more nauseatingly self-satisfied than “Bonnie & Clyde ‘03” (does anyone else remember Zoë Heller’s terrible Sunday broadsheet column of the mid-‘90s? “Boyfriend boyfriend boyfriend my BOYFRIEND said my boyfriend” x 1000. Useful for wiping up undercooked rice pudding) and that the Luther Vandross duet – a cover of Flack/Hathaway’s “The Closer I Get To You” in the same way that a sheet is used to cover the corpse in a mortuary – sent me to sleep. By the time we reach “Girl From Virgo” and its motif of “Yesterday I tried to paint you/But the colours weren’t beautiful” it might be enough to turn you into Michael Moore.

FAR FROM CINEMA

Or perhaps Todd Haynes. On watching his current film Far From Heaven - and not being allowed to forget just how startling a film Safe is, and was – 1950s cinema certainly came into my mind, but not that of Douglas Sirk, much as this picture would have benefited from being an unalloyed, straight-up-and-down melodrama. No, the name which sprang to mind was that of Stanley Kramer, he of the suffocating conservative liberal cinema.

On one level FFH is all about colour, and how we exist with, and sometimes against, it. You will note how the lavish primary colours which introduce us into the film gradually fade and darken as the film progresses, such that in the final shot, with Julianne Moore’s car driving away from the train station, the screen has been practically drained of colour. Her red coat is perhaps as symbolic in its own way as that of the little girl in Schindler’s List. And, just as there is one (misguided) use of colour in that monochrome film, there is but one swear word in the whole of FFH. As with Beyoncé’s “BABY I DON’T CARE” the arc of the film builds up to the peak of Dennis Quaid exploding, “I just want this FUCKING thing over and done with!” before stately descending again. As with Sirk’s melodramas, FFH attempts to be a study of the slow strangulation of petty bourgeoisie mentality, caused by the equivalent desire to retain the standard of life which this mentality justifies. In extremis this causes Quaid’s closet gay husband and Moore’s dissatisfied wife to live as actors for the entirety of their existence. The seams can only break, of course; yet why is Moore’s the only character in the film who seems to end up with nothing (apart from her two children, who don’t quite trust her and whom she doesn’t quite trust)? Quaid comes out of the closet and begins a benign life with his new partner; Dennis Haysbert’s gardener, driven out of Hartford by prejudice and the consequent need to protect his young daughter’s life, beams affably and knowingly at a near-tearful Moore as he departs in the train for Baltimore (he doesn’t of course know what he’s letting himself in for, as any admirer of Nina Simone’s reading of Newman’s “Baltimore” will retrospectively realise).

Haysbert’s character and performance seem to me to be the roots of the problems with this film. One suspects that, had Haynes concentrated on the slow degradation/destruction of the Whittakers’ lives, we could have had an inkling of what Revolutionary Road as filmed by Sirk might have looked like – talents slowly wasting by dint of self-hatred and co-mutual pretence, though the dyes of the waste would be entrancing to observe. But far too much time is wasted on the very clichéd (Kramer does Brief Encounter) non-affair between Moore and Haysbert, and the film turns into another over-obvious, dreary and ultimately patronising anti-racism tract. At its worst it’s as bad as The Defiant Ones or Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and Haysbert’s character never rises above the standard Driving Miss Daisy Lowly But Omniscient Black Employee stereotype. Nor does Haysbert himself help matters much – his bass voice and overemphatic carriage are like witnessing treacle congeal and he never escapes from the trap of You Are Watching President Palmer. In fact, when Haysbert is on screen one is reminded of the dreary What About Our Family debates which were always the signal in 24 to go and refill the kettle. Yet, as in The Hours, Moore’s gradual, methodical breakdown is always compelling to watch, and Quaid makes a good stab at the Robert Blow-My-Stack persona, with vulnerability always underlying his outward aggression. Even if the unapologetically black-and-white Magnificent Ambersons had perhaps made the definitive Sirk melodrama before Sirk did (because of course with Welles it was never just melodrama); even if there isn’t an atom in the immaculately constructed world of Far From Heaven with the simplest impact of Celia Johnson’s husband at the end of Brief Encounter thanking her for coming back, or the profoundest impact of Richard Bennett musing about the Sun and the Earth before the dying fireplace in Ambersons.

A BRIEF WORD ABOUT BARRY WHITE

Even if…oh, what’s the use? You’ve seen the obituaries. He Was The Walrus. The same age, unbelievably, as Bryan Ferry – 58. Not a word about, much more so even than Isaac Hayes, he took elements from ‘60s psychedelia – the flutes, the harpsichords, the occasional backward drum tracks, the introduction to “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up” with its atonal, rising string crescendo worthy of Ligeti. How he invented the Art of Noise and the Cocteau Twins (listen to side two of 1974’s Stone Gon’ for irrefutable proof of the latter). Instead, perhaps listen to the quietude of “Love Serenade” or the drowning pool of his one duet with Hayes, 1991’s “Dark And Lonely” and disappear into a blissful emptiness. If he might have been construed as camp, it was only in the strict Susan Sontag sense of the term, insofar as camp can only be achieved when the artist is unaware of its potential existence. But he has finally to be remembered as one of the greatest sonic architects pop music has known.


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