Archive for December, 2001

Wednesday, December 12th, 2001

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa is revered in curiously paradoxical terms, as an iconoclastic icon. With his devilish beard, quick wit and quicker fingers, he’s the patron saint of all those who believe that pop and rock are risibly inferior musical forms, practised by earnestly deluded simpletons, consumed by gullible, dead-eyed suburbanite kids. On his most acclaimed albums, We’re Only In It For The Money and Absolutely Free, he swooped to conquer pop like some musical ubermensch first to parody pop styles (doo-wop, The Beatles, preppy Sixties garage music) showing with what effortless simplicity their inherent banality could be exposed, before ascending into furiously virtuoso avant-jazz and classical excursions, as if to demonstrate to pop bods the humiliating impoverishment of their cheesy culture compared with the ‘Proper’ music of the 20th century.

Yet, despite of his prodigious and eclectic output, despite his undoubted technical abilities, there’s ultimately a sense about Zappa that he actually had nothing to offer. he assembles formidable mosaics of existing genres on albums like Uncle Meat, yet he himself did not conceive any new musical style. He had no “voice” – he couldn’t sing, though we always hear a lot of him on his albums, those amusical, superciliously acerbic tones of his. In the great scheme of things, he was closer in spirit to a heckler than a performer.

His reputation is founded on his earliest albums, with their broadsides against consumerist America and pooping deflation of the aspirations of hippiedom. 30 years on, however, his assaults on “plastic people” sound dated, self-satisfied and the most trite manifestation of the sort of elitist artist’s basic contempt for humankind exposed in John Carey’s The Intellectuals And The Masses. Furthermore, if Zappa found the pop and rock scene of 1967 wanting – arguably its highest watermark – then you wonder if the man was capable of experiencing joy. His inability to experience pop music (even doo-wop, which he actually doted on) without breaking into a sneer is a congenital failing on his part, not on pop’s.

By 1969, the strain of years of iconoclasm, belching into the mic, tiresome parodies and running jokes about Suzy Creamcheese must have told even on him. From thereon, his albums increasingly became showcases for the musical virtuosos he assembled around him – the likes of George Duke and electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, whose endless soloing on Hot Rats and Burnt Weeny Sandwich offered a nightmarish vision of what music would be like in Zappatopia.

As a bandleader, Zappa was autocratic and a stickler for tightness, and that’s reflected in his albums – technically formidable yet ultimately pointless, inexpressive jazz-rock, which transmits no other message to the listener than “we can play this, you can’t”. Zappa’s own guitar solos particularly are fast, twaddly, Flight-Of-The-Bumble-Bee affairs high on skill, low on artistic impression or even invention – sound and fury signifying nothing.

Even many Zappa fans would concede that in his last 25 years he produced nothing but rubbish. When he attempted in the Seventies to revert to the lampoonery of the earliest years, the results were punitively unlistenable. Check “Billy The Mountain”, the comic odyssey on Just Another Band From LA, or the geriatric satire of “Disco Boy” on Zoot Allures. Zappa tried earnestly to establish a legacy as a figure worthy of consideration in the classical canon, encouraged by the likes of Pierre Boulez. But as his turgid orchestral pieces attest, Zappa was to classical music what Prince Charles is to impressionist painting. Indeed, he only tickled the palate of “serious” music buffs who imagined that pieces like “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” ranked him as a debunker of stuffy classical mores.

Therein lay Zappa’s problem – too highbrow to be a lowbrow, too lowbrow to be a highbrow. It’s only the rocktastically onomatopoeic nature of Zappa’s surname that ensures he is remembered (had he been called Frank Capper, we’d hear even less of him). Who among today’s musical generation actually listens to albums like Grand Wazoo or Weasels Ripped My Flesh for inspiration? Towards the end of his life, Zappa may have become aware of the absence within himself. It’s said he spent his last days listening over and over to the doo-wop records of his youth, sobbing uncontrollably – lamenting, perhaps, the soul he never had.

Wednesday, December 12th, 2001

The Marx Brothers

An acquaintance of The Reaper’s once had the misfortune of interviewing Robin Williams. Upon being introduced to the “great” man, he was subjected to a typically breakneck gush of Williams improv – a snatch of James Brown morphing into a camp hairdresser; “you want some tea, some coffee, some cocaine, some heroin?”, the usual spiel. After fully three minutes of this, my stony-faced acquaintance said to Williams, “Can we start?”

Enduring The Marx Brothers, one understands exactly how he felt. Lord preserve us from “zany” comedy. Down, down a very deep well with “inspired lunacy”. And please, if anyone mentions the word “anarchic”, hand me my blunderbuss. Comedy is the most perishable of all the arts, even the classic variety. Extensive footnotes have to be provided to explain why anyone ever chuckled at Shakespearian comedies or the farces of Goldoni. Even recent stalwarts like Morecambe and Wise feel distinctly creaky in places nowadays.

Still, there is no excuse for The Marx Brothers. Chico, who spoke in a-da- mock Italian accent, wore a silly hat and molested women. Harpo, who wore a silly hat, whistled, cocked his leg up, molested women and interspersed incredibly tiresome bouts of protracted slapstick with cloying moments of Harlequin sentimentality. Zeppo, who was about as funny as a plank of varnished wood. And Gummo, or Fucko, or whatever his name was, whom we were spared on screen.

And Groucho. Other than Bugs Bunny and Alan Alda’s Hawkeye in M*A*S*H, both direct imitations of him, has there ever been a smugger, more self-satisfied creation in the annals of alleged comedy? The Marx Brothers’ essence, according to Philippe Soupault is that they utterly disregarded all social conventions, created their own, Freedonia-style anarcho-state of untrammelled delinquency. But they achieved this against such token, straw resistance that it’s impossible to admire. Goosing the perennially clueless and stuffy dowager-type Margaret Dumont was just too easy. Running rings and scoring cheap points round a bunch of hired stiff studio straights huffing and puffing as assorted generals, college professors, gangsters, etc, was like shooting the former lead singer of Marillion in a barrel.

Ah, but what of the immortal one-liners? Well, unless you’re unable to distinguish between someone talking very quickly and actually saying anything funny, they’re little more than a bunch of extremely elderly, puns of the sort that make your pancreas sink (“Why that’s bigamy!” “Yes, it’s big o’ me, too,”), predictable inversion (“How much do you get for playing?” “Ten dollars an hour.” “How much do you get for not playing?” “Twelve dollars an hour.”) or deeply crappy jokes about shooting elephants in pyjamas. Here’s one; “We took some pictures of some native girls but they weren’t developed. So we’re going back in a couple of weeks.” If that had been run as a Daily Star trailer for some topless photofest, there’d be uproar. But coming from Groucho Marx, such boorish play on words is hailed as immortal comic genius.

The Marx Brothers thrived during the Depression years and that’s understandable. If you were an unemployed Thirties factory hand or sharecropper with a family of nine, a bleak existence and a brain the size of a peanut, the sight of a man in a wig smashing up a piano for 20 minutes or three men failing to shake each others’ hands might provide some sort of rudimentary, cathartic joy. But there’s no excuse for subsequent generations. Indeed, as early as 1933’s Duck Soup, American audiences began to tire of the Marx Brothers. Produce Irving Thalberg had to remind the boys, after about 30 years in the profession, of one of comedy’s basic rules – that you can’t just tumble around like monkeys from one prank to another, there has to be some sort of solid foundation to your antics.

Mind you, that didn’t save either A Night At The Opera or A Day At The Races. Following the war, as Western society began to grow up a little, The Marx Brothers were finished. Today, they’re revived and revered by those who equate their rapid fire for hip-smart while contemporaries like Laurel And Hardy languish in unfashionability. Yet there’s far more variety in Oliver Hardy’s gamut of facial expressions than in Groucho’s perpetually waggling eyebrows, far more poignancy in Stan Laurel’s infinitely blank expressions than in Harpo’s wordless attention-seeking. As far rapid fire lunacy, any MGM or Tex Avery cartoon is far more satisfying than the dull, on-screen mess of a Marx Brothers routine. Seriously, for true Marxian wit (and I mean seriously) you’ll have more luck with Das Kapital than Horse Feathers.

Tuesday, December 11th, 2001

Saving Private Ryan

The critical approval rating for 1998’s Saving Private Ryan was, according to Rotten Tomatoes website, 98% – eat your heart out, George Bush. The best-grossing movie of the year, it was feted for brilliantly conveying the true, visceral horrors of combat and in honouring America’s war heroes. Critics, it seems, were too misty-eyed with patriotic fervour, too goggle-eyed by the opening 27 minute gorefest, to recognise its grotesque shortcomings. Meanwhile, star Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg are dishing up precisely the same recipe of blood and guff in the form of Band Of Brothers.

The film tells the story of a squad of US soldiers led by Hanks, who having made the difficult landing at Normandy are ordered on a mission to retrieve a Private Ryan, whose brothers have been killed in combat and who is therefore to be sent home to his Mother, essentially as a PR exercise. Hanks and his detachment are naturally cynical, moan away an hour of the movie, rather echoing the thoughts of the more sceptical viewer such as who the fuck is this guy, why should we care and, look, Hanks, just rescue the twat so that we can get out of this multiplex and all go back to our families, already.

Of course, when Ryan turns out to be Matt Damon, and a thoroughly annoying goody two-shoes at that (“I will not leave behind the only men who are my true brothers!”) everything is supposed to make sense. Truth is, however, that despite Spielberg’s grandiosity of scale and ambition Saving Private Ryan reveals the all-American parochial smallness of his vision. Thematically, this is a negligible, deeply reactionary movie.

Take the much-feted D-Day sequence. Visceral it may be but what does it tell us? a) That bullets probably hurt and b) That if a grenade is flung your way, your best bet, to paraphrase Blackadder, is to throw yourself 30 feet in the air and scatter yourself over a wide area. It’s a pornocopia of blood’n’guts, most obscene in that it treats the Germans as distant targets, little better drawn than the lead-eating Fritzes and Jerries of Warlord comic. The wider historical or ideological context of World War II is ignored in the movie. In Spielbergland, there are no Allied forces of other nationalities (as the Brits loudly complained), nor even black Americans. These are white Americans, bonded by “brotherhood” who are combating a foe as senseless, dehumanised and malevolent as the shark in Jaws or the juggernaut driver in Duel or, indeed, the evil “terrorists” who, for motives Americans have never made any effort to understand, lash out at the US and who must be obliterated. Spielberg shares the narrow, America-is-all mindset of his countrymen.

The film is riddled with flaws – the splash of blood on the camera lens during the D-Day sequence was doubtless intended as an audacious piece of cinematography. But what is it supposed to signify? Are we to suspend disbelief to the extent of imagining that this is actual D-Day footage, or that, for authenticity’s sake, real extras were genuinely massacred with actual machine gun fire? What? There’s the bowel-curdlingly mawkish bookending of the movie with the veteran in the graveyard, there’s John Williams’ score, all manipulative strings, as syrupy and turgidly sentimental as his score for the wretched Amistad – it’s as if Spielberg makes films to suit Williams’ music rather than vice versa.There’s the murmuring tedium of the film’s mid-section and the failure to invest any of the squad with discernible personalities – Lord forbid screenwriter Robert Rodat should have watched The Dirty Dozen or even Dad’s Army, for lessons in characterisation.

What’s most worrying, however, is that Spielberg’s po-faced confections are taken as ersatz cinematic history. Yet Schindler’s List, for instance, shows no awareness of the best and most recent scholarship on the holocaust, the work of Lucy Davidowitz or Daniel Goldhagen. It peddles the naive nonsense that the Germans temporarily fell under the sway of psychotic mass murderers like Ralph Fiennes’ young commandant. Saving Private Ryan, meanwhile, for all its pretensions to authenticity, merely passes off as screen gospel the Spielberg lie that wars are about decent white Americans showing their moral mettle against jabbering foreign badness (and boy, do those Germans jabber). Like Schindler’s list it is luridly gut-churning and crudely heartstring-pulling but offers nothing to the brain. It’s a farrago of the sort of sentimentality and symbolism which in these times above all, must be resisted.