Notes on Exploitation Cinema

•July 16, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Cumulatively, the period that began in the late 1940s and proceeded all throughout the ’50s and ’60s was one of unprecedented legal, industrial, ideological, methodological and artistic upheaval for the movie-making industry in the United States. Not since the very dawn of industrialized movie making and the subsequent birth of the major studios (RKO, Universal, Warner Brothers, United Artists and so on) had so much suddenly seemed both so tangible and so possible to so many, particularly those who had previously been shut out of the business by the big hitters. Kevin Heffernan, in his terrifyingly comprehensive article Inner-City Exhibition and the Genre Film: Distributing Night of the Living Dead (1968), describes the period as one “during which issues of audience, text, and industrial context intersected.” (p. 75)

The Paramount Decision (United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 334 US 131) of 1948 played no small part in this aforementioned upheaval, as Bill Osgerby indicates at length in his article, Sleazy Riders: Exploitation, “Otherness,” and Transgression in the 1960s Biker Movie. Specifically, he writes that the Paramount Decision smashed the majors’ “”vertical” monopoly of distribution and exhibition” by ruling against “the major studios’ ownership of cinema chains” (p. 2). This wide-reaching decree birthed the possibility of independent production and distribution without reference to, or prerequisite involvement in, the pre-existing and entirely monolithic studio system. Osgerby singles out the independent production house American International Pictures, formed in 1956, because AIP is nothing if not the perfect poster-boy for the diametrically opposed industrial ideology behind ‘indie’ cinema in the ’50s and early ’60s. Osgerby points out that “the majors sought to maintain their appeal through the production of spectacular “blockbusters””, but that the colossal budgetary requirements of such films reduced overall output, creating a “gap in the market that the independents could exploit”.

In practice, what this means is that, in combination with changing audience desires, demands and socio-economic makeup (to be discussed later), AIP flourished as a result of producing reams of films with miniscule shooting schedules, low production values and relatively infinitesimal production budgets. This was by and large the by-product of AIP’s retaining of cinematic powerhouse Roger Corman, whose truly vast output during the period preceding and subsequently throughout the New Hollywood era is a perfect example of the eventual de facto industrial ideology behind the so-called ‘exploitation’ film.

To talk about exploitation film, one must first firmly define the terms on which discussion is intended. Exploitation films did already exist in no uncertain terms during the hey-day of the Production Code and well before the Paramount Decision of ’48 – notorious director Dwain Esper alone can be credited with the production and/or direction of some of the most famous early exploitation films, such as Maniac (1934), Reefer Madness (1936), Sex Madness (1938), How to Undress in Front of Your Husband (1937) and perhaps most incredibly, The Strange Love Life of Adolf Hitler (1948) – and, as well as sharing specific Code-era traits, these films shared a distribution circuit, a prototypical version of what David Andrews, in Sex Is Dangerous, So Satisfy Your Wife (2006), calls the “decentralized circuit of drive-ins, grind houses, and art houses” that “evolved outside the aegis of classical Hollywood” (p. 62) and eventually became the de rigueur places to view ’50s and ’60s exploitation cinema.

Again, what they primarily shared besides places of exhibition was content, however retrospectively tame that content may seem, as seen through the gore-tinted, highly sexualized, post-modern lens we use to inspect the cinematic past: ‘exploitation’ cinema classically came out of a desire to experience, at a distance, transgressive behaviour or narrative material, and is united as an industrial and artistic genre by its focus on lurid (often violent or ‘ultra-violent’, socially taboo, ribald or sexually explicit in nature, either objectively or relative to the ‘mainstream’ cinema of the period) subject matter. For instance, and seemingly describing Esper’s highly indicative body of work to a tee, Eric Schaefer, in Gauging a Revolution: 16mm Film and the Rise of the Pornographic Feature (2002), talks of classical exploitation films couching themselves as morality plays and exposes on social ills, and subsequently “[offering] U.S. audiences sights forbidden by the Production Code as well as by many state and local censorship bodies” by “including moments of spectacle unlike anything seen in mainstream movies: scenes set in nudist camps, shots of striptease dances, and footage of childbirth, victims of venereal disease, and people engaging in a range of vices” (p. 5).

What changed between Esper’s hey-day and the late nineteen fifties/early sixties that produced such a definitive delineation between pre- and post-Decision exploitation cinema? In a word: audiences. Kevin Heffernan, standing on the shoulders of Thomas Doherty and William Paul, points out that ”the target audience for the horror film, like the movie audience generally, had drastically declined in age since the 1950s” (p. 65), a subject on which Doherty himself elaborates in THE EXPLOITATION FILM AS HISTORY: Wild in the Streets, “In the 1950s teen-age Americans, with more leisure time and discretionary spending power than ever before, coalesced into something approaching a distinct group… Television and the acquisitive life made it difficult for Hollywood to lure an adult audience into the theatres”.

Osgerby even finds that his “biker movies”, directly came about as a result of the “cycle of teen exploitation films that rolled out of Hollywood as the film industry responded to the decline in adult cinema audiences” (p. 1) Horror films were, however, the major draw card for young audiences in the period under discussion (David Bordwell in his staple text Film Art briefly concurs, p. 122), leading to the creation of what Heffernan calls the “kiddie-horror matinee” (p. 73), where in (using Heffernan’s examples) films such as Blood of Dracula (1958) and Captain Sinbad’s Magic Voyage (1963) were bundled together to provide a full afternoon’s entertainment. Teens, however, were not the only new demographic to come under the watchful eye of the film industry: African Americans, sensing the first inklings of serious social empowerment, were making a major impact on audience numbers.

In what remains a truly awe-inspiring statistic, Heffernan states: “by 1967, Variety estimated that black moviegoers represented 30 percent of first-run movie patrons while numbering only 10 to 15 percent of the general population.” (p. 62) As such, adult audiences were often treated to the bundling together of racial-drama features such as Black Like Me (1964) and classic horror flicks like Mad Love (1935) (p. 67, Heffernan, here, is again invaluable in the provision of real-world examples of matinee bundling), and it was into this new and strange arena that George Romero’s 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead was delivered (proving Heffernan’s point, the film “played its first-run engagement with the Poitier prestige drama For the Love of Ivy ([1968]…this combination showed up the following week at the Nixon and the Eric Terminal, at 69th and Market” [p. 74]).

In American Horrors, a 1987 Gregory Walled-edited collection of essays on the horror genre as it relates to the United States, it is stated that “1968 could be said to inaugurate the modern era of horror”, (p. 5) the “modern horror film” being “at once business, art and purveyor of entertainment and ideology” (p. 1). It keyed into the desires of the key demographics listed above by combining a (for the time) amazingly capable African American hero (personally, it is my suspicion that we don’t see such a by-and-large successful black protagonist in the independent cinema [barring the character’s untimely death] again until the release of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song [1971]) with the trappings of the horror genre, and ladling on the Vietnam-centric social commentary for a newly socially conscious audience. Off the back of the introduction in that same year of the R-rating into the cinema, Night of the Living Dead reinvigorated the exploitation film not only with its vitriolic bleakness but its visual viciousness.

Like Rosemary’s Baby (also 1968), Night of the Living Dead brings to the screen a visual and thematic frankness hitherto not often seen in the afternoon matinee spot: its cannibalistic scenes share fragments of an aesthetic with Herschell Gordon Lewis’ lusciously enthusiastic Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964). Indeed, it was in this capacity that Roger Ebert first ‘reviewed’ Night of the Living Dead, describing in his article the subsequently oft-reported traumatizing effect the film had on its remarkably youthful daytime audience, “The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.”

Unlike Reefer Madness, for instance, no dollars were being made off the back of cheap laughs to be had at the expense of the film’s material or the paucity of the so-called horrific elements on display, which is amazing considering the film’s independent origins and the competition to be had from the early ‘blockbusters’, films made with almost unlimited access to resources and big-name stars, both things Night of the Living Dead lacks almost entirely. Night of the Living Dead brought about a turning point in the perception, appreciation and distribution of the exploitation film, serving as a amazingly stable bridge between the Corman-styled purely industrial money-spinners of the ‘50s (shot using black and white 35mm film stock, constrained within a single house, utilizing small numbers of actors and sparing special effects shots, Night of the Living Dead is the definitive example of a workably low film budget in practice) and the artistically ‘valid’ works of the New Hollywood, even then percolating in Californian film schools and on studio backlots.

Works Cited

Andrews, David. “Sex Is Dangerous, So Satisfy Your Wife: The Softcore Thriller in Its Contexts.” Cinema Journal 45 (2006): 59-89. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art and Free Film Viewer’s Guide. New York: McGraw-Hill Humanities, Social Sciences & World Languages, 2000.

Doherty, Thomas. “THE EXPLOITATION FILM AS HISTORY: Wild in the Streets.” Literature/Film Quarterly 12 (1984): 186-95. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. Keyword: Exploitation AND motion pictures.

Ebert, Roger. “The Night of the Living Dead.” Chicago Sun-Times. 5 Jan. 1967. Chicago Sun-Times. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?aid=/19670105/reviews/701050301/1023&gt;.

Heffernan, Kevin. “Inner-City Exhibition and the Genre Film:  Distributing Night of the Living Dead (1968).” Cinema Journal 41 (2002): 59-77. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. Keyword: Exploitation AND motion pictures.

Jancovich, Mark. Horror. London: B.T Batsford, 1992.

Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman. 1968.

Osgerby, Bill. “SLEAZY RIDERS: Exploitation, “Otherness,” and Transgression in the 1960s Biker Movie.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 31 (2003): 98. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. Keyword: Exploitation AND motion pictures.

Schaefer, Eric. “Gauging a Revolution: 16mm Film and the Rise of the Pornographic Feature.” Cinema Journal 41 (2002): 3-26. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. Keyword: Exploitation AND motion pictures.

Waller, Gregory A., ed. American Horrors : Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. New York: University of Illinois P, 1987.

Advertisements

The Last Great American Films? Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop, The Exorcist.

•July 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Denying that the period retrospectively known as the New Hollywood (often bookmarked for the sake of conceptual bookkeeping with the release of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde [1967]) produced some of the greatest American films of all time is the worst kind of anathema to most students of the silver screen, and for good reason. For a brief, shining moment, it was possible to be both an artist (an artiste, in fact, or even an auteur if it so pleased you to be) whose work was celebrated in locally circulated underground film journals and, simultaneously, a commercially successful director who was, metaphorically, invited to all the best parties, and under these conditions young, ambitious directors could genuinely thrive.

Michael Shedlin, in his overview (“Police Oscar”) of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) and subsequent interview with Friedkin, post-French Connection but pre-Exorcist notes that, in a statement bordering on the bleeding obvious,  “the great majority of commercial films are produced not to express a particular artist’s passions, but to insure immediate cash income to the producers,” and that, previous to the release of independent darlings like Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, “to annoy the audience by rejecting or questioning its conception of reality [would have been] bad business, and therefore just [wasn’t] done.” (p. 1)

Shedlin niggles at Friedkin’s work and New Hollywood as a whole, but he’s right to amplify, of all things, the industrial aspects of filmmaking at the time: the studios had begun to lose touch with their audience, as detailed by Stephen Farber (no relation, sadly, to the great and now late Manny Farber), writing in 1970 of the financial crisis that struck Hollywood in 1969, not long before the release of the colossal box office flop, Tora! Tora! Tora!: “all the big bad movies are all losing money…almost all of the major studios have risked their futures on giant-budget films…that now will be lucky to recoup a quarter of their initial costs…they know they’re on the verge of an unprecedented financial disaster.” (“End of the Road?”, p. 3)

The New Hollywood was exactly what it claimed to be: Hollywood studios financially backing and distributing the films of young tear away film-makers with bright eyes and bright ideas, giving them budgets and industrial support to lend substantiality to their madcap schemes, as differentiated from the George Romeros or the Cassavettes, who received truly ‘independent’ financing and distribution. Talking of Easy Rider, specifically, Farber says, “none of these are Underground films…they are made for large audiences, with name actors, with very sophisticated Hollywood-level craftsmanship…[but] all are truly personal films in the sense that works by Bergman or Antonioni are personal films.” (p. 3.)

What films? How about Two Lane Blacktop (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), Easy Rider (1968), The Last Picture Show (1971), Scorcese’s Mean Streets (1973), Jack Nicholson’s break-out film Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Godfather (1972) and George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973)? All of these films showed America, by and large, as it had never been seriously and consistently depicted before, as a place without definition or certainty, riddled by crime, drugs and societal angst and American youth, in particular, as listless, unmotivated, desensitized, addled, angry and uncertain, a first for supposedly sympathetic protagonists in the mainstream American cinema: Jonathan Rosenbaum writes in “New Hollywood and the Sixties Melting Pot”, “a multifaceted redefinition of the American cinema was fully in progress that involved not only a re-consideration of what it had been, but also a great deal of thought about what it might be.” (p. 132)

As noted above, it is fruitless to try and deny that filmmakers and filmgoers both owe a great debt to the works of this period. It is not, however, nearly so fruitless to examine works of the time singularly and comparatively and come to the decision that, while they have much to offer, they are not the ideological be-all and end-all of America, nor, as has been claimed, the revolutions in filmic or societal commentary they might once have been considered.

Take, for instance, Easy Rider, the Hopper/Fonda/Southern co-production that launched, once and for all, the careers of both Hopper and Fonda with a kind of stratospheric velocity rarely seen, and I use this term advisedly, ‘nowadays’. Alongside Bonnie and Clyde, it spawned a series of increasingly more drug-addled road trip films, including Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point (both released in 1971).

Featuring two classic ‘unmotivated heroes’, Captain America (or Wyatt) and Billy, who ride east in search of a good time, and who aimlessly discover hippie communes, ranchers, alcoholic lawyers, miles of pristine desert and, eventually, crazed gun-toting rednecks, Easy Rider works towards an overall indirect portrait of a fractured America (contrast this with Two-Lane Blacktop, wherein the film’s aimless protagonists never even conclude their race, the very crux of the film’s narrative!): in “The Allegory of Easy Rider”, Joe Lawrence references the film’s second act acid trip, noting “the orgy of the acid trip in the graveyard is America’s orgy as well. When Captain America says, “We blew it,” he speaks for twentieth century man.” (p. 666)

Which is all fine and good. Commercially, the film worked because it didn’t tackle such a colossally affecting issue from the front. Peter McInerney argues in “Apocalypse Then: Hollywood Looks Back at Vietnam” that this is because, “the Vietnam war has never been susceptible to traditional Hollywood treatment. The industry didn’t know how to be prowar when we seemed to be neither winning nor right. And it didn’t dare to be antiwar, except tentatively…or by inference and indirection: M*A*S*H was about the Korean War and Catch-22 about World War II.” (p. 23)

Taking the broader view, you are forced to admit that you underestimate the effect of Easy Rider down through cinematic time and space at your peril: the image of a young and beautiful Captain America, all sandy blond locks, smiles, sunglasses and sideburns, astride his stars-and-stripes-adorned chopper, is a powerful one: Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, for example, unabashedly idolizes Fonda as a kind of faded icon of the carefree ‘60s, converting him into the logically jaded philosophical extension of his idealist Captain America character. Combined with archive footage of Terrence Stamp from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), The Limey is less a film than a touchingly penned cinematic love letter to a decade long since passed.

This, however, ignores the key fact that artistically and philosophically, Easy Rider is far less revolutionary a piece of socially aware filmmaking than most people presume and that, taken as a whole rather than as the sum of its parts, much like Midnight Cowboy, when you get down to the nitty and the gritty, there’s some glaringly crude work going on just below the surface and the Byrds/Steppenwolf soundtrack: Travis Brown Jr. in “On an Aesthetic of Highway Speed” characterizes it thusly: “it is barely changed in social message from The Wild One (1954), a bike flick of an earlier decade. The country’s still going to hell, mean people still abuse nice people, and kids still do the darndest things” (p. 26) David R. Shumway in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Soundtracks…” laments, “Easy Rider creates a powerful sense of generational solidarity only to undermine and finally destroy whatever utopian possibilities such solidarity might offer. The film leaves us united in our anger and our difference from “them,” but without any hope that our difference can make a difference.” (p. 39)

The method by which we gain the film’s ending, on the other hand, particularly incenses Stephen Farber, who asks, “Why should we praise a hippie-oriented youth film that stereotypes its enemies…ruthlessly…? This film is as crude as the part of America it is attacking.” Easy Rider and its ilk may have created and subsequently divided public discussion on issues of drug use, youth culture, borders and frontiers and above all, politics, but that doesn’t mean that it’s to be congratulated for doing so: its methods are deeply suspect.

The Exorcist is an entirely different beast, and possibly poorer for it, even as it contributes overall to the body of work of New Hollywood. Coming before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) but after The Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist takes one of the oldest cinematic forms, the genre of horror, and attempts to redefine it, both in terms of its explicitness (legitimizing by use of sheer monetary might the juicy splatterflick aesthetics of groundbreaking low-budget films like Night of the Living Dead [1968], Last House… and the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis [1963’s Blood Feast, 1964’s Two Thousand Maniacs! and 1965’s Color Me Blood Red chief amongst them]) and its broad topicality, especially regarding religion (note also the later Fonda vehicle Race with the Devil [1975],  which deals with Satanists in middle America, a viciously ironic juxtaposition, and the early Polanski classic, Rosemary’s Baby [1968]).

However. ‘However’ is never a word one wants to hear, but in this case its use is justified. However, The Exorcist lacks, for all its slickness, a lot of what makes its brethren so interesting. It doesn’t have a true bone to pick like the other films, and enjoys its own carefully engineered and shot technicality to a degree far more pronounced than either of the other films already discussed, to the point where it actually overshadows its own vague ideology, which is all for the better: at its core The Exorcist is, metaphorically speaking, the extremely pretty but very simple child in amongst a family of wunderkind, speaking ideologically, ethically or morally. Friedkin himself says in his interview with Shedlin that, “I intend to do it as a straightforward, realistic film about inexplicable things…” (p. 9). Marsha Kinder, in “The Return of the Outlaw Couple”, takes that to mean that he set out to make a film possessing a “simplistic and reactionary” morality. (p. 9) Regan is a wonderful icon for the innocent-corrupted-from-the-inside, and if anything the true horror of the piece comes from her various journeys through the medical system at the hands of apathetic doctors and uncaring machines, but whatever the film is attempting to say is stymied and stultified by its impressive aesthetic, leaving you to be blown away by its looks but confused by its message, if it can be even said to have one worth discussing.

It is my firm belief, then, that Two-Lane Blacktop, of the three films under discussion, stands up to the test of time and ideological examination with far better results than when the same tests are applied to its kindred: this may be because the film refuses to espouse a distinct philosophical position, relying instead on its meandering to carry it through. Some might argue that the film catching in the projector gate, incinerating the film’s vision of America, is symbolically similar in its incendiary nature to the ending of Easy Rider, in which Peter Fonda’s custom chopper explodes and lies, burning, by the roadside as the credits roll, but I disagree. Rather, I feel that it symbolizes, in a manner very distinct of classic postmodern theory, a disdain for endings, a recognition that they aren’t useful or edifying, that America’s ending remains unwritten and that resolution or revelation isn’t to be found in the cinema, or at the very least in Two-Lane Blacktop, which is refreshing in an era of films so overtly political in nature and artistic disposition. Visually and aurally, it offers the least, choosing instead to reside inside a non-descript kind of minimalism. Again, refreshing: we’re discussing a film that has nothing to say, a rare beauty.

Having described three New Hollywood darlings in quick succession, one must then go on to recall the film brats all struck out, individually and then largely as a collective, inconveniently doing so in the face of the seemingly unstoppable blockbusting machines created by Lucas and Spielberg. The end result of the cumulative failures of Heaven’s Gate, Cruising, They All Laughed, One From the Heart, Apocalypse Now (1979) was that the studios wrested back control from the young guns, chief amongst them Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola. Roll on, the Eighties and innumerable sequels to solid Seventies properties (More American Graffiti [1979], for instance).

The following is, in a line, the totality of the argument for the last great American films being made during the industrial lifetime of New Hollywood: New Hollywood died and American film makers have been (apparently) pathologically incapable of making such films since then. It is, by its very nature, a theory for the deranged alone. What of Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Goodfellas (1990), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) or Requiem for a Dream (2000)? How is it possible to discount out of hand the considerable body of work belonging to the Coen Brothers, masters of the art of bringing Americana to the big screen, or Stanley Kubrick’s latter works, such as Full Metal Jacket (1987) or even Eyes Wide Shut (2001), or octogenarian Sidney Lumet’s strikingly vicious Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)? How is Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as the maddened Daniel Plainview in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) any less captivating or complex than the sum of Robert DeNiro’s screen time in Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976), a film that Jonathan Rosenbaum, for instance, doesn’t have a lot of time for and dismisses as “a violently Calvinist, racist, sexist, and apocalyptic wish-fulfillment fantasy, complete with an extended bloodbath, that is given all the allure of expressionist art and involves very few moral consequences for most members of the audience.” (p. 151)

Films such as I have listed above, and many others far beyond the scope of this short essay, are clearly as worthy of close analysis and celebration as anything the drug-addled children of the Sixties ever put together. To draw a line in the sand where the year 1979 slipped over into 1980 is the most arbitrary thing in the world: when America ceased to collapse in on itself at the end of the Seventies, as it failed to do a decade earlier and again a decade before that, it called as it always has for a new body of cinema to deal with that fact, and to discount all the cinematic work that has taken place in this new space, this new fractured America, is to do all of cinema a gross disservice.

Works Cited

American Graffiti. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford. DVD.

Bates, Robin. “Connecting to Film History through Writing.” Cinema Journal 39 (2000): 83-89. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Brown Jr., Travis. “On an Aesthetic of Highway Speed.” Journal of Architectural Education 30 (1976): 25-27. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Carroll, Noel. “Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings.” Film Quarterly 34 (1981): 16-25. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Easy Rider. Dir. Dennis Hopper. Perf. Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson. DVD.

The Exorcist. Dir. William Friedkin. Perf. Linda Blair, Mercedes McCambridge, Max Von Sydow. DVD.

Farber, Stephen. “End of the Road?” Film Quarterly 23 (1970): 3-16. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Horwath, Alexander, Noel King, and Thomas Elsaesser, eds. The Last Great American Picture Show : New Hollywood Cinema in The 1970s. New York: Amsterdam UP, 2004.

Ingebretsen, Edward J. “Staking the Monster: A Politics of Remonstrance.” Religion and American Culture 8 (1998): 91-116. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Kinder, Marsha. “The Return of the Outlaw Couple.” Film Quarterly 27 (1974): 2-10. JSTOR. La Trobe Library.

Lawrence, Joe B. “The Allegory of “Easy Rider”” The English Journal 59 (1970): 665-66. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

McInerney, Peter. “Apocalypse Then: Hollywood Looks Back at Vietnam.” Film Quarterly 33 (1980): 21-32. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Michaels, Walter B. “The Road to Vietnam.” Modern Language Notes: Comparative Literature 94 (1979): 1173-175. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Shedlin, Michael, and William Friedkin. “Police Oscar: “The French Connection”: And an Interview with William Friedkin.” Film Quarterly 25 (1972): 2-9. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. Keyword: “the exorcist”

Shumway, David R. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Sound Tracks and the Production of Nostalgia.” Cinema Journal 38 (1999): 36-51. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Two-Lane Blacktop. Dir. Monte Hellman. Perf. James Tayler, Warren Oates. DVD.

Wonderbread: The Next Generation

•July 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Wonderbread, for the first time in full surround sound and Smell-O-Vision. A free-standing domain name and hosting autonomous of WordPress.com (incredibly generous though their pre-installed WordPress service happens to be), from which we’ll be doing our publishing and posting from now on.

Catch us on the flipside: http://www.pleasantfluff.com

Drama, Narrative and Restricted Fields of Action

•July 12, 2009 • Leave a Comment

RelativityESCHER-410px

Critical couple David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, in their jointly authored textbook Film Art, argue that the concept and physical actualization of ‘setting’ is key to the art of film-making. Far more so, in fact (they claim), than in the realm of the theatre to which they so directly compare and contrast the cinematic, in doing so arriving at the conclusion that “[cinema settings] need not only be a container for human events but can dynamically enter the narrative action.” (pg. 179)

It is ironic, then, that the methodology of the ‘restricted field’ of action or setting is, if anything, based on an explicitly theatrical convention that plays to the limitations of the stage: many famous plays are set entirely in one room or area so as to capitalize on the intimate and generally static nature of the stage area, including Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer-winning 1958 play J.B. (set entirely in a circus ring), Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men (adapted into a single-set Academy Award-nominated ensemble film, directed by Sidney Lumet) and Patrick Hamilton’s Rope’s End (adapted into the single-set film Rope, famously directed by Alfred Hitchcock), to simply name a few. Establishing a restricted field to mean the restriction of the narrative to the fewest possible settings and the least amount of physical space, why, then, does a restricted field of action still work in a cinematic context?

Firstly, from an artistic point of view, one of the most obvious advantages is that it allows your audience to focus entirely on the performative aspects of the piece.

Quentin Tarantino, in a 1994 interview with Film Comment coinciding with the launch of his Oscar-winning film Pulp Fiction, discussed his intentions behind setting the majority of his first, independent, picture Reservoir Dogs (1992) in a single warehouse, and came to the conclusion that, “…it plays with theatrical elements in a cinematic form–it is contained, the tension isn’t dissipated, it’s supposed to mount, the characters aren’t able to leave, and the whole movie’s definitely performance-driven.”

Tarantino has a point. It’s the very tension implicit in the constriction of spaces and spaces between characters used in films built around restricted fields that leads to moments of memorable dramatic tension, such as the famed “They’re coming for you, Barbara!” outburst in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, or the endlessly imitated Mexican standoff (and the preceding hour’s worth [Tarantino again: “…it takes longer than an hour…because you go back and see the Mr. Orange story…every minute for them in the warehouse is a minute for you.”] of overly-verbose bickering) from the final moments of Reservoir Dogs. Stuffing your characters into (figuratively speaking) a little box together forces them to interact, and (a favourite technique of Romero’s, though also in vogue with John Carpenter [see 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 and 2001’s Ghosts from Mars]) often with time and the necessary ratcheting-ever-upwards of the tension factor, brings out the worst in them as an advisory on the worst excesses and tendencies of human nature.

Siege films may have perfected a manner in which to draw out the dark, exploitative heart of a restricted field, but submarine films deserve a mention for putting the sordid technique to a better, more illuminating use: Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981), clocking in at anywhere from two and a half to nearly five hours long depending on the version under discussion, is regardless of its extreme length almost entirely set aboard a cramped, claustrophobic German submarine and is incredibly revealing in its depiction of men under intense pressure and forced to live together, a sensation and experience replicated with somewhat less success in by a film emanating from somewhere closer to the heart of the Hollywood system, The Hunt for Red October. Indeed, Das Boot may well simply be the modern expression of a tradition in naval films extending at least as far back as the pioneering The Enemy Below (1957), a tradition promptly and firmly secured in the new year by Run Silent, Run Deep (1958).

There are, of course, always exceptions, films that set themselves strange restrictions outside of the generically imaginable: Die Hard‘s Nakatomi Plaza is an exception to the rule by virtue of the skyscraper’s sheer colossal size: it singularly comprises the vast majority of the film’s sets, including carparks, offices, veritable labyrinths of air vents, elevator shafts and sub-basements, a hefty rooftop, and that’s only at a glance). The semi-documentary Russian Ark, too, falls into this category (filmed as it was in its entirety in the Winter Palace), restricted to a single location but exempted from the standard constraints by the scale of the locale. Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000) makes more than fair use of the semi-barren island on which the film is mostly set, with its network of caves, expanse of beach and rocky peaks, and all in a fashion very similar to that of John Boorman’s 1968 Lee Marvin/Toshirō Mifune vehicle, Hell in the Pacific.

I’d posit, here, a key difference between ‘restricted’ and what, for want of a better term, I’d have to call ‘restrained’ fields of action. Taking Rope as my foremost example of a film with a restricted field (that is, the story plays itself within the apartment), compare and contrast a film like Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo (2002), which has few locations but is narratively gifted with geographical and physical freedom and mobility, no matter how relatively scant. The most restricted set of films that come to mind are those issued by notaries of the original Dogma ’95 manifesto (Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration [1998] and Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots [1998] are perfect examples of how this short-lived attempt at crazed purity-minded avant-garde extremist minimalism worked).

Conversely, films stuck in a kind of cinematic No Man’s Land regarding the whole issue might include those belonging ‘road trip’ genre (prime examples include Bonnie and Clyde [1967], Wristcutters: A Love Story [2006], Easy Rider [1969], Sugarland Express [1974] and Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]), explicitly about travel, mobility and movement but constantly constricting their characters within intimate vehicle interiors, bringing incredible technical restrictions with the decision to film on the road, and as such these films are often more concerned with fetishising the sheer joy of motion and travel than depicting the places where the film might stop for a while.

I think, so that my point might be outlined in a slightly more vivid set of colours, it would be best to contrast all of the aforementioned with, for instance, the sheer breadth of geographical focus present in Francis Ford Coppola’s disarmingly diverse Apocalypse Now (particularly in its recut three-hour-plus Redux form), the Italo-American transnationalist attitude towards geography of The Godfather, the city-wandering aesthetics of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Sunset, the glamourised globe-trotting of the Indiana Jones tetralogy and James Bond: 007 series, or even the vast fantastical world-creation of sword and sorcery epics like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. These films are all lousy with, if anything, a lack of restraint and restriction: they instead revel in their own narrative freedom. Take Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series (2002, 2004, 2007), for instance: the titular heroic character is based at a fundamental level on the dynamics of movement, which in turn causes the film to run along similar lines; where would it be without those trademark city-traversing Tarzan-esque sequences of swinging from building to building? Films like Babel, with their postmodern insistence on the conflation of time and space and their globalized attitude towards narratives, jump from continent to continent and socio-cultural background to background with the ease that might otherwise come from the flicking of a switch.

Leaving the previously-elaborated artistic considerations of a filmmaker to one side, then, let’s consider the slightly more pressing and always over-riding financial considerations involved in the ever-industrial process that is movie-making in today’s braver, newer world:

The locating of a filmic narrative within a restricted field can often be related as much to the financial impediments of a geographically or visually wide-ranging period of principal photography as to any personal attachment on the parts of the writer and/or director to narrative or creative minimalism. Take, for example, Vincenzo Natali’s remarkable independent sci-fi effort Cube (1997), a “low-budget” film financed by the Canadian Film Corporation: it takes place on a single 14′ x 14′ set endlessly replicated throughout the film.

The early works of George Romero, most especially Night of the Living Dead & its slightly more ambitious bigger brother, Dawn of the Dead, are similarly restricted to a single house and a mall respectively, and Day of the Dead, while made with access to a relatively larger budget, focuses its attention largely on the inside of a claustrophobically self-contained military installation. Peter M. Nichols of the New York Times suggests that Romero made Night… with $114,000 American dollars and Day… with a reduced budget of $3,000,000, figures that Katrina Onstad concurs with in the same paper but a decade later, simultaneously pointing out that the far less contained and more recent Land of the Dead (2005) cost roughly $16 million to make by comparison, which is telling in itself.

Another bastion of indie hope would be Kevin Smith. His Clerks (1994) was made on anywhere between $25,000 and $27,000 American dollars (see Peter Mitchell’s interview with Smith on the topic, or Brian Johnson’s similar piece filed with Maclean’s, or even Owen Gleiberman’s short piece on Clerks II for Entertainment Weekly , all of which concur roughly with the above-quoted figure), and is set almost entirely inside a tiny convenience store and carried in a similar fashion by the sheer eccentricity of its rapid-fire dialogue, all, I’d posit, as a result of such a tiny budget.

Even today, your budget severely restricts one’s options when it comes to how widely and freely you may range: independently produced Scottish BAFTA winner Outpost (2007) was completed at a cost of two hundred thousand privately raised British pounds (‘Govan zombies taste film success’, BBC Scotland, Apr. 16), and is set entirely within a cramped, supposedly abandoned Nazi bunker, but features almost exorbitant amounts of gun-action and professional-level special effects sequences, I’d suggest as a result of its investment in staying in the one location. Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), which predates it by nearly three decades, was made on a shoestring budget, but has almost obnoxious amounts of splatter and latex-based gore to make up for the fact that the whole film takes place in a small wooden cabin, empty bar for two poorly constructed bookshelves.

The message seems clear: the less you spend on your locations, the more you have to spend on your film as a whole. Which is not to say that these financial and artistic reasons for reining in your own film don’t cross over: Dan O’Bannon’s spaced-out sci-fi comedy, Dark Star (John Carpenter’s first major film, 1974) takes place entirely on a tiny junker of a spaceship, and while the film itself was a tongue-in-cheek student film shot on 16mm, O’Bannon went on to reuse the skeleton of the script as a foundation for the much higher-budget science-fiction classic Alien [1979], validating the set-up, which remains basically the same (alien gets loose on a cramped, poorly-lit spaceship filled with late-seventies Average Joe types and subsequently wreaks havoc to the tune of wholesale slaughter, the thought of being locked in with an nigh-invincible biomechanical nightmare without any hope of escape amplifying for the audience and crew alike the atmosphere of horror by at least a hundredfold).

Extended consideration would suggest that, though films with unrestricted fields of action make up a significant majority of the number, restricted film making quickly carved out for itself a niche worthy of critical and commercial praise far beyond the realms of your average ‘art’ film, and justly so, coming as it does from a proud history of staged drama and allowing as it can, verifiably, the opportunity to free filmmakers with even the tiniest of budgets from the requirements of an unrestricted classical narrative, and instead to produce a character-based screenplay with many potential strengths and minimal associated costs.

Works Cited:

Apocalypse Now: Redux. Dir. Francis F. Coppola. Perf. Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper and Harrison Ford. DVD. Miramax, 2001.

Before Sunrise. Dir. Richard Linklater. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy. DVD. Columbia Pictures, 1995.

Before Sunset. Dir. Richard Linklater. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy. DVD. Warner Independent Pictures, 2004.

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art. New York: McGraw Hill, 2002. 179.

Dark Star. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Dan O’Bannon. DVD. 1974.

Das Boot (the Boat). Dir. Wolfgang Petersen. Perf. Jürgen Prochnow and Herbert Grönemeyer. DVD. Columbia Pictures, 1981.

Die Hard. Dir. John McTiernan. Perf. Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Alexander Godunov, Reginald Vel-Johnson, and Paul Gleason. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 1988.

Gleiberman, Owen. Entertainment Weekly 28 July 2006: 44. ProQuest. La Trobe Bundoora, Melbourne. 3 June 2008.

“Govan Zombies Taste Film Success.” BBC Scotland. 16 Apr. 2008. 9 June 2008 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/7351019.stm&gt;.

Johnson, Brian D. Maclean’s 24 July 2006: 53-54. ProQuest. La Trobe Bundoora, Melbourne. 5 June 2008.

Mitchell, Peter. “–.” AAP General News Wire 31 Aug. 2006: 1. ProQuest. La Trobe Bundoora, Melbourne. 7 June 2008.

Nichols, Peter M. New York Times 12 July 1998, Late ed., sec. 2: 24. ProQuest. La Trobe Bundoora, Melbourne. 4 July 2008.

Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley. DVD. The Walter Reade Organization, 1968.

Outpost. Dir. Steve Barker. Perf. Ray Stevenson and Julian Wadham. DVD. ContentFilm, 2008.

Onstad, Katrina New York Times 10 February 2008, Late ed., sec. AR: 8. ProQuest. La Trobe Bundoora, Melbourne. 4 July 2008.

Reservoir Dogs. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen, Lawrence Tierney and Chris Penn. DVD. Miramax, 1992.

Smith, Gavin. “Interview with Quentin Tarantino.” Film Comment 30.4 (1994):  32-42. ProQuest. La Trobe Bundoora, Melbourne. 8 June 2008.

The Sugarland Express. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Goldie Hawn and William Atherton. DVD. Universal Pictures, 1974.

Two-Lane Blacktop. Dir. Monte Hellman. Perf. James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird and Dennis Wilson. DVD. Universal Pictures, 1971.

Wristcutters: a Love Story. Dir. Goran Dukic. Perf. Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Tom Waits, Shea Whigham and Will Arnett. DVD. Autonomous Films, 2006. 

The Noir Protagonist With Reference to Neo-Noir and Gone Baby Gone (2007)

•July 11, 2009 • Leave a Comment

GoneBabyGonePoster

Traditionally, New York and Los Angeles have formed (and informed, with their distinctive architectural sensibilities) the environmental backbones for any number of films noir. Chicago, too, has had at least a little exposure in its time, on account of the masses of gangster lore directly associated with the Windy City. Boston, however?

Not so much. That is, not, at least, until 2003 (with the release of Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-nominated and -winning Mystic River, based in turn on a book by Boston crime writer Dennis Lehane). Before that, the last certified noir effort ostensibly set in Boston was 1950’s Mystery Street, starring Ricardo Montalban and directed by John Sturges, who went on to direct The Great Escape and also incidentally produce The Magnificent Seven. The writer of Mystery Street, Sydney Boehm, penned roughly ten certifiable classic-period films noir (including several that starred the ever-reliable Edward G. Robinson) in his time, many of them A-listed (Sylvia, Hell on Frisco Bay, Black Tuesday, Rogue Cop, The Big Heat, Second Chance, Union Station, The Undercover Man).

With the success of Mystic River, Boston (a city sorely in need of cinematic attention) suddenly became of interest to Hollywood, and within four years, we were gifted with Scorcese’s The Departed and Ben Affleck’s Lehane-optioned Gone Baby Gone. Lacking the cosmopolitan nuance of New York, the plain-to-the-eye vice of Las Vegas, or even the colourful reputation for ethnically-diverse casual violence commonly associated with South Central Los Angeles, this working-class Irish-Catholic town has become the new center of a seemingly conscious movement, an emergent school of ‘Boston Noir’ (Lehane’s words) interested in questioning the kind of workaday existences played upon in, for instance, Paul Schrader’s Detroit-based 1978 directorial debut and subtly noir-influenced ensemble piece Blue Collar.

For all that the ever-ephemeral noir owes to early Weimar expressionism and the tastes of French cineastes, it’s what J.P. Telotte calls above all a “distinctly American creative form” (p. 3), and can be (indeed, often is) used as a way to parse the social undercurrents of America without coming to necessarily feel the appropriate amount of societal guilt.

The seminal American noir text, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, while being in no way as comprehensive as one might still like, opens on a cracking high when it concurs, and subsequently notes that film noir is “literally ‘black film’, not just in the sense of being full of physically dark images, nor of reflecting a dark mood in American society, but equally, almost empirically, as a black slate on which culture could inscribe its ills and in the process produce a catharsis to relieve them”. (p. 1)

James Naremore, the last of the critical big guns in the everlasting war to justify and/or discredit the validity of the much-vaunted auteur theory, argues in “American Film Noir: The History of an Idea” that, since “nobody is sure whether the films in question constitute a period, a genre, a cycle, a style or simply a phenomenon,” (p. 12), then “a plausible case could indeed be made that, far from dying out with the old studio system, noir is almost entirely a creation of postmodern culture–a belated reading of classic Hollywood that was popularized by cineastes of the French New Wave, appropriated by reviewers, academics, and film-makers, and then recycled on TV.” (p. 14) Naremore  seems to be arguing for a loosening of restrictions, greater fluidity between genres and the lessening of categorical requirements: that is, he’s indirectly making an argument for the existence of so-called ‘neo-noir’, the postmodern re-imagining of noir through a modern lens and sans the monochrome, a category into which a film like Gone Baby Gone must surely fall.

Casey Affleck’s baby-faced private detective is quite clearly another in a proud line of bitter, defeated, streetsmart gumshoes that extends all the way back to Rick Blaine and Mike Hammer, living on the edge of criminality and at the edge of their means, though his quick temper leaves him more surely in the company of Hammer than Bogart. Robert Lang suggests, in an analysis of the homosexual and homophobic overtones of violent early film noir titled Looking for the Great Whatzit, that the “steady weakening of the professional identity of the detective–observable, for example, in such noir films as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder My Sweet (1944) and Out of the Past (1947)–ends in the figure of Mike Hammer who, as neither cop nor crook, appears in both the film and the novel to have lost all traces of a professional code by which he operates as a detective.” (p.35.)

It isn’t simply Casey Affleck, however, who finds himself tarred with the necessarily black brush of noir disaffection. The entire cast, with their machinations and intrigue, violent appetites and misanthropy, are torn straight from the same kind of cloth from which Chandler, Hammett and Cain once wrought their own Machiavellian agents. Tolette again, in “Rounding up “The Usual Suspects”: The Comforts of Character and Neo-Noir”, finds that “film noir has always provided us with a host of characters who seem to challenge our expectations, whose motivations are far from transparent, whose desires seem to cut across the grain of the status quo” (p. 14), a judgement he subsequently uses to justify the character-driven sensibilities of early neo-noir’s self-appointed poster child: Christopher McQuarrie’s The Usual Suspects.

But what of the aesthetic? What of the deep golden tones and the blue shadows, the fantastic oranges, the sunsets and the dingy, bronzed backstreets of Gone Baby Gone‘s Boston? Arguably, the film’s strangely varied palette makes for a film just as tonally dark as anything David Fincher ever burned into a piece of celluloid. Gone Baby Gone is optically noir in the same way that subversive serial-killer-killer show Dexter is: a sunbleached Miami coastline and Alan Ball-esque suburban fantasy imagery working hand-in-hand (coexisting happily, in fact) with blood and grit on a fairly colossal scale.

Rian Johnson’s 2005 indie-film Brick, also, is set in ever-sunny early ’90s California, and thus bears almost none of the traditional visual cues and hallmarks associated with classical noir, with its cast composed entirely of disaffected SoCal teenagers. Still, it imbues its very firmament with the correct noir sensibility we have all come to know and love, exhorting vicious nihilism from every unblocked pore and topping it off by tearing wholesale huge chunks of Dashiel Hammett from the Jungian ether in the name of postmodernism.

The film seems to penetrate the need (indeed, seeming prerequisite) for a black-and-white aesthetic, for “oblique camera angles, low-key lighting, unbalanced compositions, reflective surfaces [that] logically suit its dark subjects (crime, corruption, the eruption of desire)” (p. 4, J.P. Tolette’s “Self Portrait: Painting and the Film Noir”), and come out the other side with its attitude still well intact, as is the nature of ‘neo-noir’. We can see from these examples and, notably, Gone Baby Gone, that film Noir is here to stay. Like the proverbial return of the dark past we cannot escape the dark interior of the world we inhabit, nor the creative works of those who seek to draw it out.

Works Cited:

Gone Baby Gone. Dir. Ben Affleck. Perf. Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan, Ed Harris. 2007.

Lang, Robert. “Looking for the “Great Whatzit”: “Kiss Me Deadly” and Film Noir.” Cinema Journal 27 (1988): 32-44. University of Texas Press.

Naremore, James. “American Film Noir: The History of an Idea.” Film Quarterly 49 (1996): 12-28. University of California Press.

Silver, Alain, and Elizabeth Ward, eds. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook P, 1979.

Telotte, J. P. “Rounding up “The Usual Suspects”: The Comforts of Character and Neo-Noir.” Film Quarterly 51 (1998): 12-20. University of California Press.

Telotte, J. P. “Self-Portrait: Painting and the Film Noir.” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 3 (1989): 3-17. University of Chicago Press.

The Herd: Summerland

•July 9, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Summerland

Some time ago I promised you good people and The Herd that I would review their stunning album Summerland. That was about ten months ago. I’m sorry. I got distracted with uni and other writing projects and, after a while, I felt the moment had passed and it was too late. This morning, however, I was like ‘No, Dammit! That album is still awesome and the people must be told!’ So here it is. The Herd’s Summerland. Better late than never.

The Herd: 2020

Right off the bat we can hear that any of my previous complaints about the Herd’s music and production have been rebuked with extreme prejudice. The opening track, 2020, makes the perfect statement to new and old fans of The Herd. The lush production and amazing performance of the band produce a lyrical and melodic slap in the face, expertly designed to shake the listener out of complacency. Ozi Batla and Urthboy are, as always, stunning in their ability to produce simultaneously moving and entertaining lyrics, while Jane Tyrell continues to belt out the catchiest, most soulful original hooks in Australian Hip Hop. The manner in which the three play off one another is masterfully seamless. In every respect, 2020 encapsulates everything that is great about The Herd. It also firmly establishes one of the central lyrical themes of the album (and that of all of The Herd’s albums), Australian politics and socio-cultural criticism. The title itself is pun relating to both the notion of 20/20 vision and the 2020 summit called by Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd in 2007. This song alone touches on such topical issues as Afghanistan, Iraq, the AWB scandal and the change in government from the incumbent conservative, John Howard, to (relative) political newcomer, Kevin Rudd. Which brings us neatly to the album (and band’s) emblematic anthem, The King is Dead.

The Herd: The King is Dead

In their previous releases, The Herd made their political affiliations pretty clear. In fact, roughly 80% of the content of their previous albums was concerned with condemning the presence and policies of the Australian Liberal government of the time. Howard was, for The Herd and the political left-wing in Australia, public enemy number one. It should be no surprise that, when Howard was defeated after four terms as Prime Minister, The Herd would produce this celebration of the end of a dark era in Australian politics. The chorus is, as is the whole album, the most overjoyed and happy thing that the group has ever produced.

We danced like new years eve
We danced from relief
Everything must change, nothing stays the same

It will be hard for those outside of Australia to appreciate all of the cultural and political references in this song and, indeed, in Australian Hip Hop in general. It is, however, no worse than the American cultural and political references we have to decode when listening to Nas or Dr. Dre. Those interested in a full synopsis of the election which resulted in this song (and album) can find it in the links above, to the John Howard and Kevin Rudd wiki pages. There is much, however, that doesn’t relate to the political landscape of Australia in this album. The greatest and strongest quality of The Herd is their social conscience.

The Herd: Black and Blue

I wanted to end the review with an examination of Black and Blue. The group has an amazing ability to tap into the plight of those who are forgotten, marginalized and mistreated by mainstream society. In the past they have produced offerings such as 77%, The Plunderers, a striking cover of Redgum’s I Was Only 19 and Under Pressure; each offered a plainly sympathetic view on an ignored section of society. While other examples of this kind of song exist on Summerland, Black and Blue is the finest example. Exploring the failures of the education system on children with special educational needs (such as those with autism or Asperger’s syndrome) and the social and mental degeneration which results from such a failure is painfully yet elegantly expressed in the chorus of the song:

I don’t wanna go today,
I don’t care for the punishment you’re teaching me
Your methods are not reaching me
I’ll disappear
This place is gone for me

Even for those who did not experience such educational abandonment, the song is loaded with the pathos of an ignored or otherwise wronged teenager. Once more, the instrumentation, production and vocals are immaculate and completely appropriate to their subject matter. This song, along with the whole album, marks a musical maturation for The Herd and confirms them as Australian Hip Hop royalty. Copies are available here and on iTunes, for those who like what they hear above.

The Short of It: Horrorshow’s ‘The Grey Space’ is Beyond Superlatives

•July 7, 2009 • Leave a Comment

We have moved! If you enjoy this article, and the many others on this site, please come to our new site at www.pleasantfluff.com.

Horrorshow: The Grey Space

Horrorshow: Uplift

Obsessed as it so openly is with the “grey” space between worlds, sub-cultures and people, it seems overly fitting that The Grey Space, the debut release from Elefant Traks-backed Sydney-side duo Horrorshow, should happen to be both the very definition of a out-of-left-field, “indie gem” release that fuels its exploits with a combination of sheer hi-octane musical moxy, a vision verging concurrently on the deeply personal and the joyously irreverent, and that raw, devil-may-care spirit peculiar to those with nothing to lose, while being simultaneously an LP possessing of such deft polish and a meticulous eye for detail as one might otherwise have only come to expect from a well-established and tour-honed act.

In a year that saw the release of Bliss ‘n’ Eso’s monolithic Flying Colours, The Herd’s razorblade-laced production bonanza Summerland, Astronomy Class and their full-flavoured, reggae-rich inauguration Exit Strategy, Muph + Plutonic’s And Then Tomorrow Came, Downsyde’s All City, Drapht’s Brothers Grimm, TZU’s Computer Love, Pure Product’s Eviction Notice, Sydney-side compatriots Spit Syndicate’s Towards the Light and The Tongue’s Shock and Awe, The Grey Space is ably capable of trading evenly matched musical and lyrical blows with any of the aforementioned luminaries. Purposefully lacking in the bombast, antics and nigh-glossolalia of B’n’E, vocalist/lyricist Solo instead projects at every level what is, for my money, one of the most sincere portraits of an artist in love with the nature of his work and the turning of his world ever laid to tape, perhaps best captured on the heart-stoppingly charming and mind-bendingly catchy “All Summer Long”. In search of a comparison, it may be fair to suggest he channels Urthboy at his most romantic and his least embittered, even if his sentiment lies perhaps somewhere else, somewhere closer to the momentary and slightly wretched wistfulness of The Tongue (for comparison, sample “That Word”, a highlight from Shock and Awe, an otherwise largely unsympathetic album predicated on The Tongue’s fairly one-note self-imaginings as a roustabout and understated raconteur).

Horrorshow: Put it to Your Head

Producer Adit oversees the installation of incomparably tasteful and surprisingly (nay, refreshingly) prominent bass lines reminiscent of the work of Marcus Miller into feature pieces like “Put It To Your Head”, What’s Going On-era brass arrangements into the undeniably playful “The Headline”, and a searing, funk-laden electric guitar that solos over “Note to Self (No. 81)” and that wouldn’t sound at all out of place on a hot slab of classic Isley Brothers wax. That he is a relative newcomer to the scene is made even more remarkable by the fact that, at his best, Adit can cut a soul track to challenge any in the game, up to and including the work of Plutonic Lab on Muph + Plutonic’s seminal 2004 release, Hunger Pains (“Paracetamol”, for instance, equally notable for its featuring Muph in a moment of rare and bemusingly sincere modesty). As a pair, they’re certified dynamite: the brighter Adit’s flair for sumptuous production burns, the more self-effacing Solo becomes, documenting (with naught but intricate rhymes and an easy, nigh-laconic drawl to his name) a world of sad-eyed girls and ancient-eyed adolescents, vague regrets and small pleasures.

Horrorshow: All Summer Long

Moving with commendable efficiency and yet without undue haste, Solo covers everything from the glamour and the soul-sucking drain of the endless party circuit (“The Party Life”) to nostalgic recollections of a misspent delinquent youth (“Uplift”, “Waiting For The 5.04”, [another “train” song in the Aussie hip-hop canon, and one that compares favourably with The Hilltop Hoods’ “Station to Station” and Seth Sentry’s “Train Catcher”]) and the ramblings of a depressive (“Celapram”), and between meaty, unabashedly vital verses even finds time for jazzy interludes to make True Live proud (“Days Past”) and a little freeform spoken-word poetry (“Dire Straits Pt. 1”). Though I’m naturally averse to making such a declaration, I can’t manage to get around the simple fact that, from end to end, The Grey Space is that rarest of things: an album, complete in every sense of the word and almost Brutalist in its construction, such is the clinically brilliant and uncompromising nature of its track listing, the quality of which is sufficient to make one wonder wherefore art the B-sides?

The Grey Space: a new and devastating salvo loosed from the ever-swelling and increasingly variegated arsenal of an Australian hip-hop scene that has finally and resolutely come of age. Everything that Eminem is to readily courted controversy, introspection on the vaunted nature of celebrity and meta-textual examinations of the fabric of West Coast hip hop or that Bliss ‘n’ Eso and The Hilltop Hoods are to spirited celebrations of the ties that bind the inebriated antipodean brotherhood of man, Horrorshow is to the tumult of exuberant and irrepressible youth. If you like what you hear, we strongly urge you pick up a copy and support some world class Aus Hip Hop.

Track Listing:

1. Uplift

2. Waiting For The 5.04

3. Choose None (feat. Just Enuf)

4. The Party Life (feat. Nick Lupi)

5. Days Past

6. Dire Straits Pt. 1

7. Celapram

8. All Summer Long

9. Put It To Your Head (feat. Fame)

10. No Rides Left.

11. The Headline

12. Note to Self (No. 81)