Archive for 1999

Thursday, November 11th, 1999

Pulp Fiction

It’s not that it’s excessively violent. The bodycount of the average blockbuster far exceeds Pulp Fiction’s. It’s not the gratuitous use of of the “N” word, odious as the relish is with which Tarantino delivers the “Dead nigger in the garage” speech. If Samuel L Jackson says it’s okay, then it’s okay. He is, after all, as Quentin would say, a nigger. It’s not even that it’s a bad movie. If it were an incompetently made movie there’d be no problem, much as if Brian May were an incompetent guitarist, he’d be no problem – ie we’d never have heard a note from him, he’d be lecturing in obscurity in engineering at Loughborough University, ironing his chords on Sundays.

The problem with Pulp Fiction is that it’s Cool, in the pernicious, Johnny Vaughn-ish ‘How cool is that? sense of cool. Once, Cool was to do with countercultural leanings, questioning the culture and conventions of your parents and campaigning against war, forging a newer and better identity that dispensed with the habitual fust of yesteryear. Pulp Fiction signifies how all that’s turned around. It’s about the over-the-counter culture of burgers and fries to go, about doing what you’re told to do (so when Eric Stolz’s dealer says “Coke is dead . . . heroin is back,” life obediently imitated art and heroin came back). It’s about listening to the music of your parents (from Neil Diamond to Kool & The Gang, both on the soundtrack here) and fetishising guns. Cool.

Cool – that’s what’s at stake in Pulp Fiction. The words generic viagra “Are we cool?” are a refrain throughout the movie. It’s also the question that preys on its Nineties audience, for whom Cool has become a pitiful ultimate, a thing in itself, beyond good and evil. We should all want to carry ourselves with the insouciant, self-absorbed, self-contained swagger of Keitel’s Wolf, Travolta’s Vega or Thurman’s Mia. The way the camera trains on and trails after them certainly urges us that we should. We’d all like to possess the sangfroid of Samuel L Jackson’s Jules, able to bandy thoughts on the Old Testament and fast food prior to blasting some gibbering, less Cool wretches of the demi monde to death. Cool is the grail in Pulp Fiction. When Willis’s Butch extricates himself from the rape basement, having taken his time to select the Coolest weapon of revenge, he’s rewarded with a super Cool motorbike. Strangely, Vincent Vega seems to be “punished” more when, like Jules, he’s made to dress in an uncool t-shirt than when he’s blown away by Butch, an event so placed in the time sequence it’s as if he comes back to life in the second half anyway.

Pulp Fiction doesn’t engage you but bars you from its world like a purple rope outside a nightclub. We couldn’t possibly enter this world of retro-chic and amoral don’t-give-a-shit wit because it only exists in Tarantino’s mind. Ironic, really, that Tarantino is so uncool himself, a geek with a near-autistic obsession with cinema – also, that when you snap out of the hype-nosis, you realise that the two main protagonists, Travolta, fat and overgreased and Jackson, a silly-haired parody of Tarantino’s archaic superfly notions of blackness, don’t actually look that Cool at all.

Pulp Fiction isn’t renegade cinema but a post-modern, post-moral neon shrine to all of the hip non-values of Planet Hollywood. It’s as bereft of a “centre” as the LA in which it’s set. Its circular structure is cute but indicative of the fact that we haven’t been on a dramatic journey here, merely a carousel ride that brings us back to where we began. The only acts of honour are among thieves – Butch rescues Marsellus so that they can be “cool”, Jules lets Tim Roth’s Pumpkin take his wallet out of respect to a fellow, albeit less Cool criminal. At its heart, the move consists of nothing, the nothing Butch feels when he finds out he’s killed Floyd.

Contrast with Goodfellas, similar but vastly superior to Pulp Fiction. With Scorsese, there is always a genuine sense of souls in torment, a centre of reckoning all the characters swirl in towards. Goodfellas is the real meat, bloody as hell – Pulp Fiction is a mere Royale with cheese. Cool indeed. But no warmth, no fire.


Wednesday, October 13th, 1999

Charles Manson

(First appeared in NME’s Banging On section in 1999. Little cunt)

It’s 30 years since Charles Manson dispatched a posse of his disciples to uptown LA to murder a bunch of showbiz-affiliated “pigs”, including Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski. The event is being commemorated in Hollywood with an exhibition staging a photographic recreation of the events featuring underground “faces” including ex-members of MC5 and The New York Dolls.

The anniversary of the slayings, coupled with the build-up of pre-millennial tension among the more feeble-minded, should mean that we’re about to hear a lot about Manson and his goons. In the otherwise ultra-pacifist world of rock’n’roll, Charles Manson is regarded fondly, as an icon even. He’s honoured by good old old Marilyn, as well as in innumerable “Charlie Don’t Surf” t-shirts. He’s seen as rock’n’roll’s ultimate revenge on the bourgeoisie, an Angel Of Death who’d divined from the lyrics of The Beatles a hidden message urging him to overthrow society. An ultra-cool little fucker, man.

Let’s remember what Charlie was really about. Sitting in the desert with his addled hippie chicks and demented bikers, here was the plan he hatched. By instigating random murders of rich white folks, Manson hoped to spark off a race war in the USA, since blacks would erroneously be blamed for the massacres. In spite of being outnumbered in America one to ten, the blacks would somehow win this race war. Meanwhile, Charlie and his followers would be camped out in the desert for the duration, only to re-emerge once the blacks had triumphed. Whereupon, being black and therefore having no idea how to run society, they would turn to Charlie and his crew for leadership, whereupon Charlie planned to kick them back to the cotton fields where they belonged and assume leadership of the USA.

This, then, is our “ultra-cool” rock’n’roll icon, cherished by avant-goths everywhere – a loathsome little racist and a complete and utter fuckwit. Not so cool. All he’s good for is demonstrating the dangers of bad rock criticism in his take on The Beatles’ White Album but also, as with Hitler, the dangers of upsetting bad artists – what was really annoying him was that he couldn’t get a recording contract for his dubious folk songs. What Charlie deserves isn’t iconic status but to stay down the hole he’s in right now, forgotten by the outside world, mocked and occasionally buggered. Charlie is not just bad but sad. Don’t do him, kids.

Saturday, May 8th, 1999

Beck

For a man who kick-started his career with “MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack”, Beck has kowtowed assiduously to their demands since hitting paydirt. He is the ideal cipher for them – white, blonde, pliant, all things in his ephemeral, bric-a-brac way but ultimately nothing.

To begin with, he was different. Take the threadbare, punk/folkish Mellow Gold. Songs like “Truckdrivin’ Neighbours Downstairs” and “Beercan” demonstrated their empathy with poor white trash by being similarly poor, pallid and trashy. It comes across like Nirvana, minus volume and urgency and that quality of being any fucking good which comes in so handy.

However, in “Loser”, he coined a sufficiently glib, cartoon encapsulation of early Nineties US rock’s whiney, heavily inverted comma’ed self-loathing and self-pity to wow MTV. With Odelay, Beck somehow confirmed himself as Man Of the Nineties, by dint of a Canal Street-style second hand aesthetic. Odelay is the sonic equivalent of cheesy shirts and loud shiny trousers. Some heavy fuzzbox, some tablas, a sample of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”, some squiggly noises, and drolly delivered lyrics reeking with self-congratulation at their oblique satire and suddenly, American critics, gormlessly and blinkeredly accustomed to rock music being about real white men playing straight-ahead guitars in real t-shirts, were enchanted at the sheer novelty of it all. Beck was hailed as a post-modernist pop genius.

Small matter that The Jam had already filched The Beatles’ “Taxman” riff years earlier. The Jam were haircut English guys. Small matter that The Beasties had done a far defter job of funky bricolage on 1989’s Paul’s Boutique. Those guys were rappers (who’d also been doing this stuff for years). The important thing is, he was the first white American rocker to do it, so therefore he’s the first one that matters, much as Livingstone is credited for “discovering” The Victoria Falls on account of being the first white Englishman to visit his attention upon it.

It’s bad enough not even being first person to think of stealing the stuff he steals but worse to steal without panache. Take last year’s single, “Tropicana”, with its pointlessly flip Thompson’s Holiday Brochure bossa nova rhythms and contrast it with Arto Lindsay’s far svelter, subtler treatments of Brazilian music. But then, Arto Lindsay isn’t, never was, MTV’s It Boy. Beck isn’t an eccentric but the embodiment of the zeitgeist of the white college 20something American consumer, in all their arrogant doziness, quietly mocking the world with deadpan irony but too lazy and cynical to energise modern culture with something new. They use the idleness they’ve been afforded by the world’s richest state to opt out of making any meaningful contribution of their own but look on at the wealth-creators and the culture makers with flippant scorn, even as they’re gulping feebly on their teats.

Beck’s camp fascination for the myriad of pop styles he affects to adore reflects a typical American hipster’s basic contempt for modern culture. He refers to The Gap band’s “fat beats” as “musical hamburgers” which sums it up – pop is fun but not especially nutritious and even though we know better, we can’t help ourselves. That’s his attitude that has him eat up American folk music and r&b, yet mock it in his silly rhinestone outfits or the lampooning dance steps of his 1997 MTV Awards performance.

Beck is an energy-sapper, a taker. His vocals rise from his viagra online records listlessly, as if really wanting another hour in bed. Either you’re alienated by his yawning absurdism or sneer along to those clever-clever ditties about the poor saps “with the briefcase blues” (“The Devil’s Haircut”). A classic “slacker”. Yet ironically, Beck isn’t even that. He actually works very hard as a good little major player in the record industry should. Beneath that lame duck surface persona there’s a lot of furious paddling going on. He’s as busy as a busker, writes a song a day, has another album out soon. His slowness, his innocence, his “laziness” are themselves affectations. Beck is the biggest fraud in modern American music today.


Friday, April 16th, 1999

Fawlty Towers

It’s not the most-loved British sitcom. That’d either be Dad’s Army or Only Fools And Horses . It may not be the best sitcom ever made – Seinfeld, Simpsons and Sanders have recently pressed strong challenges. But it’s undoubtedly the greatest British sitcom of all time.

Fawlty Towers is actually closer to farce than sitcom. John Cleese was always a stickler for form and structure. Each FT episode took four months to write and went through 10 drafts to achieve their byzantine, choroeographed riot of opening and shutting doors and leaping in and out of wardrobes. But Fawlty Towers takes farce beyond the usual realms of Lesley Phillips as philandering junior foreign minister in search of lost trousers. Underpinning the verbal and physical comedy of desperate exasperation are strong themes – death, xenophobia, the class system, psychology, the transatlantic cultural divide.

And, of course, sex. Only, the masterstroke of Fawlty Towers is that it steadfastly keeps lechery and innuendo to a minimum. Take “The Psychiatrist”. There’s much mirth involving an Australian blonde whose boobs Basil keeps inadvertently handling but the real comedy arises from the fact that, though Basil may timidly fancy the girl, he’s far too deeply sexually repressed even to entertain consciously the idea of fooling around with her. His marriage to Sybil is the most loveless, sexless, affection-less any sitcom has ever dared to depict. Yet this sexlessness is probably a truer indictment of the English psyche than the more staple sitcom fiction of roving bird-fanciers. Thinking that the psychiatrist is talking about sex when he’s actually talking about how often he and Sybil holiday, Basil replies with unconvincing stiffness, “About two or three times a week, actually,” but the psychiatrist probably is inadvertently correct when he remarks “My wife didn’t see how you could manage it at all.”

Mostly, Fawlty Towers is about a certain kind of little Englishness under siege, as signified by Basil’s furious little Enoch Powell-ite pencil moustache. In between slapping Manuel and running up and down stairs, he’s constantly muttering about Wilson, British Leyland and the disgusting excesses of the permissive era. The series was based on the experiences of the Monty Python team when they visited a Torbay Hotel in 1971 managed by one astoundingly rude Donald Sinclair. But while most people’s stock mental recall of Fawlty Towers is of Basil’s rudeness to the guests, that’s only part of the story. Fawlty Towers is about the indignity of a man with pretensions to be Lord of his own manor, King in his own castle but who doesn’t have the wherewithal to maintain it and must invite in paying punters to keep the place solvent. It gives him much pleasure to be able to stipulate “No Riff-Raff” on the invite to the Gourmet Night but like all Basil’s pleasures, it’s a short-lived and doomed one.

Basil’s rudeness is his assertion of his place in the class system. As Sybil points out to him, “Either you’re crawling all over them licking their boots or you’re spitting poison at them like some Benzendrine puff-adder.” Top of the pile are doctors, leading rotarians and the aristocracy, bottom of the pile are the open-shirted younger generation, such as the Romeo in “The Psychiatrist” (“Have we got enough bananas this week, dear?”), the regular guests (“just leave them a trough of baked beans and garnish it with a couple of dead dogs”) and unmarried couples attempting to room together (“Sorry, it’s against the law.” “What law?” “The law of England.”).

Basil sees himself as somewhere around the upper-middle, though he’s probably more cheap viagra like lower middle. Fawlty Towers has barely dated. Often, it’s only the ghastly attire of the younger, “trendier” characters which reminds it was made in the Seventies. It doesn’t entirely escape its era however, occasionally dealing in stereotypes which wouldn’t do today. The weakest episode is probably “The Builders”, which relies too much on Sybil as battleaxe wife, thick Irish builders and Manuel as “dago twit”. Generally, Manuel’s foreign-ness is dangerously associated with dim-wittedness. John Cleese, however, always denied that the object of Manuel was to make fun of Spaniards. He insisted Manuel’s inability to get the point was a device to add to Basil’s intense frustration, to provide yet one more obstacle for him to have to clamber over in his mountingly frantic efforts to extricate himself from the predicaments he’s plunged himself into, like that little red car that splutters to a halt in “Gourmet Night”, in spite of the thrashing Basil administers, or that moose’s head which won’t stay up.

Basil always ends up victim of the thing he struggles hardest against and precisely because he struggles so hard – fear of embarrassment, mortification. Fawlty Towers is the house of all his pains but worst of all, it’s a public house, with those doors always popping open with witnesses to his follies and breakdowns, whether it’s parading around with a mop, quacking like a duck or bouncing around in a froglike, foetal position. It’s because of this, because he is always doomed to lose that in spite of his obnoxious far-right leanings we feel so intensely for him, identify so strongly with him.

That, and the fact that he is the inventor of contemporary sarcasm, of ground-breakingly cruel phrases such as “Nothing trivial, I hope?” The best ones came in threes. To the man who has the temerity to insist on breakfast in bed; “Rosewood, mahogany, teak? Sorry, I was wondering what you wanted your breakfast tray made out of.” To the little boy who complains that his chips are the “wrong shape”. “Really, and which shape would you prefer them? Mickey Mouse shape, amphibious landing craft shape, poke in the eye shape?” And, to the deaf Mrs Richards, who complains about the view. “Well, may I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay window? The Sydney Opera House? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wilderbeest sweeping majestically . . .?”

John Cleese never subsequently approached the ridiculously sublime standards of Fawlty Towers, except fleetingly in the Michael Frayn-scripted movie Clockwise. Perhaps the collaboration of Connie Booth has been underrated. And it’s only with Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge that British comedy has come close to matching his encapsulation of the small, embittered, frustrated spirit of This England.