Jeanne’s Journal

If the word fantasy wasn’t so strongly associated with bearded twats on a horse and the like, then I’d use it to describe Jeanne’s Journal. Because that’s what this book is: fantastic. In fact, it’s outrageous.

Staircases made of solid air, flesh-eating sand, spray-painted sapphire-eyed cats, human plants, high society cannibal parties, paralysed human statues covered in phosphorus… these are just a handful of the impossible phenomena that exist in Jeanne’s world. She often mentions them in passing, as if they were perfectly normal.

Jeanne’s Journal is very unique. It might be described as existing within the French tradition of the fantastique, but perhaps it’s more accurate to call it alchemical S&M. It’s a bit like if À rebours was written with a pulp economy and pace, the delicate, tormented Des Esseintes replaced with the driven, contemptuous Jeanne. Both books feature impossible plants and bejewelled pets, but while Des Esseintes immersed himself in a carefully created synthetic world of sensation, Jeanne already lives in a world where the impossible and fantastic is commonplace. The reader follows her as she descends into ever more visionary and dreamlike environments.

Sex is, unlike in the coy À rebours, always explicit. In fact, all descriptions are explicit, matter-of-fact and to-the-point, which gives the novel’s creations a sharp immediacy. Sadism is often present and the novel exists in a similar tradition to de Sade, working as it does within the dream logic of erotic fantasy. But Jeanne’s Journal is no “livre philosophique”. Its politics are of a vague feminism and aristocratic sexual freedom, its philosophy alchemical.

Mercier himself is – as the back cover has it – “dedicated to the occult and the fantastic”. The book jacket has a number of interesting details. The pink cover has a drawing of Jeanne holding a whip and looking innocent and fragile – quite the wrong expression for her character to wear. The back cover features a photo of Mercier – also holding a whip – displaying the vagina drawn on the palm of his hand, along with a strange blurb that describes him as “[a]n avid reader of literature dealing with the bizarre, he was also a leader of a gang of youths in his village and later became a judo expert.”

As well as all that, Mercier was a film director, making what he called “witch cinema”. In Pete Tombs’ and Cathal Tohill’s Immoral Tales, Mercier’s La Goulve (released in 1972, the same year as the English translation of JJ) is described as belonging to a rare group of films “that seem to have sprung out of nowhere, that seem to have no antecedents, creating their own grammar and going their own way, regardless of our aesthetic or artistic preconceptions.” They describe the experience of watching La Goulve as “like having your skull taken off and blown into.”

As detailed in this article on Esotika, Mercier has had a strange career. Two of his early books, including Jeanne’s Journal, were banned in France and his films never gained critical acceptance. He is now some kind of guru figure and is uncomfortable with his fantastique past.

Jeanne’s Journal is unfairly obscure. As Mercier says in his short introduction, “Death by silence is the fate of all who refuse to follow the safety of the well-trodden paths. But whoever dies such a death can always place his hopes in resurrection.”

Further reading:

http://esotika.blogspot.com/2008/02/jeannes-journal-mario-mercier.html

http://www.fright.com/edge/jeanne%27s.htm

Listless

I was going to do a list of consumer products I liked that came out in 2010. Books, videogames, films, music, that sort of thing. Many people do it. I started writing it a while ago, to make sure I had consumed everything I wanted to mention before the end of the year. It wound up feeling contrived though. There was no connection between any of the products other than the release date. That doesn’t reflect the way I read/listen/watch/play and it probably doesn’t for most people. Usually one work causes me to stumble on another and these works can be in different media, different time periods and they in turn lead me onto the next, perhaps tenuously related work.

The other problem with end-of-year lists is time. I can’t say what my favourite videogames of 2010 are when I still haven’t played Minecraft, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Heavy Rain (although I’m not sure if I can be bothered), VVVVVV, Sword & Sworcery EP, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood or Amnesia: Dark Descent. Partly that’s because I wasted so much time on schlock like Castlevania, but also because – with games especially – there’s never enough time in the day to fit all the new stuff in.

The end of year list does have its place, especially when it highlights marginal or overlooked work, or when it is highly personal and therefore idiosyncratic. Dennis Cooper’s ‘Mine for yours’ is a good example. It’s probably a list like Dennis’ that I wanted to post – one with all the artwork and titles pleasingly laid out. But for whatever reason it didn’t work when I tried it.

So instead of giving you another list, I’ll recommend only one thing that I liked that came out in 2010.

I first came across Masaaki Yuasa when I bought the DVD of his 2004 movie Mind Game after it was recommended by the (now sadly dormant) Kurutta blog. I thought Mind Game was very creative and unique, but on the first watch it was a little bit too frenetic somehow. Yuasa seems to work better in the TV mini series format. Kemonozume (2006) looks a lot like Mind Game – bold colours with sketchy lines mixed with moments of colour-tinted live action – but has more space to breathe.

The Tatami Galaxy (2010) is the story of an immature university student who, at the beginning of every episode, joins a new extra-curricular club to find his “raven-haired maiden”. At the end of every episode he fails to see “the opportunity [that] is always dangling before [his] eyes” and a large clock strikes as time reverses back to the beginning. This structure enables the show to tell a complex story without needed to include those tedious “Previously on…” sections.

I don’t want to describe it in any more depth because when I do it doesn’t work very well. I’ve been trying for a while to write something about Kemonozume, but I can’t. Masaaki Yuasa’s films always fill me with joy and that seems to leave me with nothing much else to say.

I’ll end with this: His visual approach is variable but recognisable and he doesn’t stick within a particular genre of story. Mind Game is a kind of Bildungsroman, Kemonozume is a horror samurai tale (and features a brilliant neoliberal villain), Kaiba (2008) is a sedate “sci-fi love story” and The Tatami Galaxy is a many worlds romantic comedy. They’re all often funny, visually extraordinary (along with playing games for the eyes, the depiction of nude bodies is very well done) and truly unique.

Frantic illumination

In many ways we live in the flashing lights of the world of the videogame arcade; a blitz of colour and bleeps saturated with boredom. Nothing ever happens in an arcade, there’s only the electric gloss to distract your eyes, ears and mind from the emptiness of it all. It’s a world for teenagers, but now it’s not only teenagers who have nowhere to go and nothing meaningful to do. For adults, the noise and lights decorate the boredom of their homes. The more boring and more meaningless things get, the louder and flashier the special FX must become. TV, film, videogames – all could be accused of administering this sort of spectacular anaesthetic. But it’s videogames we notice now as being the numbing agent that helps us forget, the murky lake we immerse ourselves in to forget about Real Life.

Unlike videogames, TV and film have their classics and exceptions to prove they aren’t merely forms of social control. Of course there are outstanding videogames that rival art in any other media, but none have yet become part of acceptable culture, part of a canon. The call of late has been for a videogame canon, either made up of existing games or to be embarked upon after a future game scales the supposed peaks of that quintessentially canonical work of cinema; Citizen Kane.

But this begs the question – what good has come out of cinema in the last 20-odd years (the years of home consoles and PCs, of post-arcade videogames)? Like in videogames, there have been a small number of notable exceptions hidden amongst a trash vortex of the unremarkable. The majority of the canonical classics of cinema came about before the videogame crash of 1983.

TV is different, though. I’ve been interested in television recently. Older stuff, inevitably. Programmes shown on TV right now seem to be about office work more than anything else and that doesn’t appeal to me. The structure of almost every ‘reality’ programme puts contestants/workers under a small group of evaluating managers. These managers – ‘experts’ – set gruelling tasks with vague directions and demand individuals work as a team while simultaneously competing against and undermining each other. Oh and they have to win over the audience as well. The other form of ‘reality’ on TV is rolling news, which spends most of its time veering between the aesthetics of boredom and the aesthetics of rabid paranoia.

Paul Virilio talks about television “flattening all forms of representation, thanks to its abrupt use of presentation, whereby real time definitely outclasses the real space of major artworks, whether literature or the major arts.” So rather than being interested in television that flattens with “real time” – either by being recorded and/or broadcasted now – the programmes I’ve been interested in are almost all avi files or youtube videos downloaded from the internet. In fact, one can’t really call them ‘programmes’ or ‘shows’ as the time that they were programmed to be shown is often long in the past.

Managing exist in both “real time” and timeless internet (infinite) reruns, quality TV is known to reside on the US subscription channel HBO. HBO makes good, worthwhile TV programmes (or so I’m told – to be honest I’ve never seen a complete set of any of their shows as they tend to go on forever, though I catch the odd episode or series) that don’t constantly insult the viewers’ intelligence or attention span. Much of it is like an American version of the stuff the BBC used to make, before it developed its own submissive ‘special relationship’ with the culture of that country. Unafraid to be slow-paced, thoughtful and troubling, this sort of television is notable for being so easy to watch episodes of it back to back for hours on end. I would be loath to watch a three-hour film, but not three episodes of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (replace with HBO show of your liking). Videogames can have the same effect, quickly eating up time at a lugubrious tempo.

What is interesting is that much of the canonical films and TV were either made in the past or by state-subsidised institutions (Europe) / subscription channels (US). To be thought of as commercially viable, TV/film/videogames have to be exciting in one way only; to work like the audio/visual equivalent of a sugar rush or a line of cocaine. To exist without this requirement needs alternative sources of funding. Videogames have come of age in a time of massive cut-backs to the welfare state, to a dismantling of the infrastructures that subsidise culture and the arts. Left to its own devices, the market throws up more and more of the same. Videogame development is expensive and when profits are your only metric of success then artistic risk-taking is not an option.

This doesn’t mean that the pace of a box-set doesn’t exist in videogames. There are overload-style games, but the big ones right now – the sandboxes especially – have as a mean tempo one of cautious calm punctuated by occasional action. They are large, long and slow. But they’re also often quite dull. Red Dead Redemption has the dignified pace of a quality box-set, but says nothing. Games like this are large in order to give players ‘value for money’. They are slow because it takes too long and costs too much to make enough stuff to fill them with. Unlike Mad Men – which is loved for the clothes and the smoking and the period references, but also for the way it explores modern feelings about advertising, propaganda, consumerism, health, sex and sexism – Red Dead is for the most part an uncanny-valley pastiche for the sake of it. The question is, if we want more than that, do we have to do more than just pay for it?

Trash Humpers

Cinema distribution in the 21st century is a joke. Films even slightly outside of the mainstream may never get picked up, may get left behind and instantly forgotten or – at best – live half-lives on torrents. Despite being made by a filmmaker whose work a number of people look forward to, this looked like it was going to be the fate of Trash Humpers.
Made in 2009 on VHS technology, the film features four actors in face prosthetics playing the role of a strange gang of elderly troublemakers who do indeed hump trash in Nashville. A distributor bureaucrat would look at this synopsis and decide that there is no profitability in Trash Humpers and pass on it. So we should be grateful to Warp (and Drag City in the US) for stepping in to save the movie from oblivion. Trash Humpers had not even managed to appear on torrents before they stepped in, so that it has now been screened at cinemas (outside of a few festival one-offs) and will soon be pressed onto DVD is a good thing.
But being instantly forgotten is what a part of Korine wanted for this film. He didn’t shoot it on VHS just because it would be cheaper. He wanted it to seem occult, secret, backwards:

“We thought of not putting titles or anything at all on the film. There was even a conversation at one point about just making a bunch of copies and leaving them on the sidewalk somewhere, and seeing what would happen.”

Inevitably, perhaps, he didn’t do that and now Trash Humpers finally has a proper release. The screening at the ICA on Thursday 10th June was hosted by the film blog Ultra Culture. They put a lot of effort into their hosting duties. A man from the website (whose name I don’t know and will hereon be referred to as “Ultra Culture”) took the mic and started talking to the audience about Junior Apprentice and who is good on it. He then asked for a volunteer who won a can of coke and some sweeties. He then asked for volunteers to wear bin-liners and do Trash Humper impressions to be judged by Harmony Korine, who was there via Skype. He made everyone at the end of the aisles stand up and gave them prizes of DVDs and books. He asked if anyone in the audience had a birthday coming up. He then made everyone sing “Happy Birthday” to that person. She won a chocolate cake. There was a surplus of prizes, so the rest of the entertainment included Ultra Culture asking who wanted the rest of the prizes. He asked who wanted a James Bond t-shirt and then gave it to them. Then he asked who wanted a Star Wars t-shirt and then gave it to them.
The whole thing was like a children’s birthday party hosted by T4. I had come to the cinema to see a movie, not to participate in the mandatory up-for-a-laugh activities of an 18 to 30 holiday. If Ultra Culture had asked audience members to pass a balloon to each using only their legs, then I wouldn’t have been surprised.

These shenanigans culminated – half an hour later – in the screening of a short video where a different Ultra Culture showed clips of Trash Humpers to tourists in Trafalgar Square. You may be surprised to find out that many of them didn’t get it. Maybe this could become a running series of vox pops? Show an arty film to tourists in Trafalgar Square and watch them not get it. Most of those questioned play along gamely, but the whole conceit is so dull. Basically the attitude is, “This film is mental LOL!” The general public is by now so used to the idea of being asked stupid questions by people holding microphones that they can quite easily slot into the role of interviewee. The video is saved by the appearance of Stephen Bayley, who says, “I don’t like music or film or theatre. I don’t like things that unfold in time.”

I’ve one more example of Ultra Cultures’ “LOL wacky!” approach before I get to Trash Humpers itself. The website provided a print-out to audience members that shows a still from Korine’s video The Devil, The Sinner and His Journey, which features Johnny Depp. The text around this still says, “Let’s take a break and look at a picture of Harmony Korine in blackface sitting on a sofa next to Johnny Depp. Awesome.” Apart from the fact that Korine is wearing corpse paint, not blackface, this is a completely moronic statement. It also neatly sums up Ultra Cultures’ dumbed-down mentality in one word: “awesome”. The idea that maybe there’s something more going on in this video or in Korine’s work, the idea that his work might sometimes be unsettling, sad, bleak or scary as well as funny, that he might have been going for something other than ker-razy – all gone, with one word. It’s awesome, dude.

The Trash Humpers aren’t just a joke, they’re demons. Fucking, masturbating, shrieking, singing. Acting like juvenile delinquents with progeria, they are neither old nor young. They are both. They are the two groups that scare the middle ages of society and haunt public space: teenagers and pensioners. Neither have anywhere to go. Some are institutionalised, many wander or hang out in non-places. Empty places like carparks on the side of country highways in the middle of the night or the back alleys of suburban sprawl. But the demonic Humpers do more than loll about aggressively with nothing to do. They furiously dry hump bins and toss off plants and cackle like witches. They fraternise with prostitutes and a transvestite street poet. They fuck the former and kill the latter. This murder, along with many other events, makes a nonsense of the “awesome” reduction of Ultra Culture. The murder is not awesome. The dark colour of the blood, the casual nature of it’s insertion into the narrative after the (not shown) event, the (non) reaction of the Humpers to their murder and the embodied documentation of outmoded VHS technology all cause the aftermath of the murder scene to be anything but meaninglessly or hedonistically “awesome”.
But there were clues before the murder scene that this film wasn’t just “awesome” in a one-demensional, braindead way. The scene with the little fat boy with glasses for one. All the acting in the film appears improvised and the inclusion of the fat boy in this scene looks like it came about because he just happened to be there. The Trash Humpers laugh at his poor basketball skills and sing and play in a creepy manner with a baby doll. The fat boy does not look comfortable during this and has the anxious expression of a child who is not sure if things are going to turn worse, but is outnumbered and kowtowed by older, bigger people. The scene is nothing like the murder aftermath, but the boy’s obvious anxiety makes the scene not about comedy, but about the true strangeness and chaotic nature of the Humpers.
The humourous aspect of the film does deserve a mention. Korine often talks about using comedy, especially old school vaudeville-style comedy, in his work. Jokes and the structure of jokes have played an important function in his work throughout his career. Trash Humpers is no exception. One of the characters, conjoined with another at the head by a stuffed pair of tights, delivers an old fashioned stand up routine and the humping of the Humpers is so ridiculous it is usually either funny ha-ha or funny-peculiar.
The Ultra Culture print out cites Jackass as a precursor to Trash Humpers and I think this is right. In particular there is a Jackass prank where Johnny Knoxville and Spike Jonze wear facial prosthetics to look old and then fall over in public. Sometimes they rap or break dance or display fake erections. All of these things could have happened in Trash Humpers, but the mood and humour is very different.

Part of that comes from the lack of punch lines – the lack of any release valve – in the humour. Another part is the degraded nature of the VHS which is exploited throughout. Visually it either looks hideous or beautiful. Light sources bleed across the tape and ordinary colours become sharp and intense, the shapes that contain them become blurred at the edges. The use of outmoded and/or very degraded reproduction technology is a hallmark of Korine’s work and could make one reasonably describe it as hauntological. In fact, when I first saw the inlay of Ariel Pink’s album The Doldrums (especially the inside back cover), my first thought was that it reminded me of Harmony Korine, in particular his art works.
One important point to make about this film is that – in the context of the 21st century – it is revolutionary because (like julien donkey-boy) it doesn’t have a conventional script. To get a film made a script is a necessity. This reliance on text is the reason why Peter Greenaway claims we have never had a cinema, only illustrated text. Harmony Korine has taken a big risk by making this film, as without a detailed dialogue script it would be impossible to finance it through the conventional channels. Not only that, but because of the deeply conservative nature of the film industry, this film almost disappeared after being shown at only a few festivals and the plans to release it on DVD have only just materialised, two years after it was made. That it took the film arms of record labels to get this film out should tell you something. To put the late arrival of the film in context, many films spend only a few weeks at the cinema before being released on DVD. This cannot be blamed solely on torrents. The film industry has been timid and conservative since the 90s. Like many areas of culture, the rot had already set in before the internet released cultural by-products from their former, inflated pricing structure.

Korine had already set Humpers up to disappear, to fail commercially. If the film never resurfaced after doing the rounds of festivals, its mythology would serve perfectly the status of a lost artefact. The in-cassette edits and lack of explanation as to who or what the Humpers are play into this concept of a hidden world. Throughout his career Korine has focused on unseen, roughly-hewn, backwards, forgotten and unpalatable elements of culture. From blackface to glue sniffers to albino rappers to black metal iconography to Macaully Culkin, the wrong and the gone are what fascinates him.

“I wanted to make something that was its own thing, with its own logic. It’s more like found footage, or an artifact. The kind of thing you could imagine being buried somewhere in a ditch, or floating down a river in a plastic bag”.

All of this gets lost in Ultra Cultures view of the film, even though the above quote featured in their print out. They want people to see this film, but they aren’t prepared to ask them to meet the film on its own terms. The problem with taking the fun-day-out style of Secret Cinema is that once you’ve treated people like children at a birthday party the most challenging form of culture they’re going to be able to cope with is Ghostbusters. Trying to trick people into thinking that Trash Humpers is just a bit wacky isn’t going to work. Trash Humpers is funny, but it’s also quite disturbing and unsettling. All that’s going to happen when you focus – for a full half an hour before the screening, no less – on the former at the expense of the latter is you’ll confuse the Secret Cinema crowd and annoy people who are interested in the film. Trash Humpers can’t fit into the simplistic idea of empty fun and for that alone it is worth your time. Just don’t expect a prize and a coke.

Four Lions

When I saw this film, in an almost empty cinema, there were a couple sitting behind us who laughed loudly at practically everything anyone said throughout the screening. They were obviously stoned out of their brains. It was very irritating. So if I underestimate how funny this film is, then that’s why.
Four Lions, Chris Morris’ “terrorist movie”, has been gossiped about for a long time. There was talk of him putting in a great deal of research before writing it; attending lectures, speaking to various experts and ordinary Muslims, while making fun of Martin Amis’ ignorance along the way. There were also rumours that the film, because of its subject matter, was having difficulty getting backers. I think it’s more likely that the time it took to come to cinemas is more of a reflection of how hard it is to make films in Britain, especially films that aren’t cheap Hollywood copies, or financed by Hollywood itself.

Four Lions is a quiet tragedy with jokes. We know and the terrorists know that they are going to die, but like them we find, at the actual moment of their deaths, that the shock isn’t lessened by this foreknowledge. The contentious issues that are the centre of most debates on Islamic terrorism; the role of women in Islamic society, the oppression, violence, ineptitude and cover-ups of the police, the “madness” and “brainwashing” behind terrorism as a political act are all subtly embedded, in order to move beyond two-dimensional platitudes and present a portrait of human beings who have decided that terrorism is their only option. We don’t see their radicalisation, we don’t follow them on their path to a decision. Instead we see a poignant farce that is their stumble towards suicide bombing.
There is still a subdued allegorical nature to this portrait, however. The key scene for me is when the group are in their van on the motorway, driving to the marathon – to their deaths, in fact – and they’re listening to Dancing in the Moonlight at top volume while singing along. Their enthusiasm for a song that couldn’t possibly be less cool marks them as innocents. Barry shakes his head at them for comic effect, but also it illustrates that he is not an innocent. Omar, the leader, seems to be willing himself to be innocent, to follow his heart, rather than his head, as he often says. This gets at the core of the dynamic between the four, and to something of a message, if there is one. That people will look for a message in a film like this is inevitable and Chris Morris makes a good job of never simplifying things to that level. However, if there is a message it’s that most terrorists are frustrated and powerless people who blow themselves up, taking other powerless people with them, for revenge and glory that can only ever be symbolic. Barry, the white convert, represents the ideology behind the move from frustration to terrorism. He is the Western ideology at the heart of Islamic terrorism.

The song is important because it shows these British Muslims engaging with something very Western, but in a way that’s “wrong”. Terrorism is a very Western concept; it relies on the idea of individual freedom. The Toploader song, by current Western logic, should be a perfectly reasonable song to listen to; it’s popular, catchy, it sold a lot of copies, it’s a song about hedonism, the singer has a cod American accent and it’s inoffensively retro. Except it isn’t perfectly reasonable to listen to – non-ironically at least – and for arbitrary reasons. Reasons as arbitrary as the ones Western powers use to justify bombing civilians in the name of freedom while condemning Muslims for bombing civilians in the name of freedom. Barry, who thinks their jihad should be to bomb a mosque, demonstrates the paranoia and spiteful egoism behind individual liberty at the expense of a collective project, at the expense of solidarity.
The mood of the film is a departure from Morris’ usual style; more naturalistic, sympathetic and with less of the exaggerated language he often employs. Morris himself appears at the end of the film in voiceover, doing a now familiar impersonation of the crassness of TV journalism. This is the only instance of the type of satire that people most associate with Morris. The reason that the rest of the film doesn’t impersonate news media reporting in this way is that the version of events given by the news media is one we all know, one that doesn’t need to be retold, not yet at least. It is also in many ways beyond satire. Things don’t get much more ridiculous than secret, hollowed-out, Bond villain-style mountain lairs, just one of the many instances of ludicrous propaganda that the news media, in the US and the UK, reported to us in all seriousness as fact.

Morris has gone to great lengths to make a film that doesn’t portray a cartoon version of Muslims. Perhaps the likes of the Daily Mail would call this “political correctness gone mad”, but, on the contrary, Chris Morris’ thoughtful efforts strip away the media-madness and takes things down to a more human level. That Morris has bothered to do his research, has bothered find out about Islam, about British Muslims and about Islamic terrorism means that he can build on that knowledge to create an intelligent film that finds humour in the bumbling nature of terrorists and anti-terrorists alike. At a time when British Muslims feel under attack from the rest of British society, this level of engagement is very important. While much of the research will of course remain under the surface of the film, the work will be appreciated by everyone tired of the crass stereotypes and ill-informed assumptions of recent years. A reflection of this would be that even in the sparsely attended screening I saw the film at, the majority of the audience, including the stoner couple, were Muslims.
One thing about this film is that, while there are some laugh-out-loud moments, it’s not first and foremost a devastating satire – in terms of laughs and critique – in the mold of Morris’ previous work like Brasseye. In fact, it’s probably closer to Jam in that it’s more about mood than the carnivalesque, just less surreal. Nor is it a political polemic against the ignorant crusaders fighting “islamofascism”. Instead, the film is “merely” the first sensible portrayal of radicalised British Muslims and a sad and funny elegy to their mistakes.