Archive for June, 2003

Wednesday, June 11th, 2003

Robert De Niro

He’s blown it so many times. His judgment has come to suck. He stiffed, literally, in Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He’s mortgaged his reputation countless time, parodying the once-awesome De Niro screen persona in dire outings like Analyse That. And it’s not just the choice of films. Even in Tarantino’s excellent Jackie Brown, he’s barely noticeable, slouched extraneously on a couch like so much reduced thespian goods. The man has descended from Raging Bull (1980) to The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle (2000).

And yet, Robert De Niro is indisputably the most compelling screen actor of the last 30 years. Pacino’s great but he don’t even come close. Pesci’s a psychotic spark but a miniature besides the Man. His reputation doesn’t entirely rest on The Scorsese Years (1973-1983). He simmers with a new maturity and self-possession in Ronin, or face to face with Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s Heat. He’s only half-bad in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables – a stuffed-up stock heavy as Capone but when he goes to work with the baseball bat, it’s one of cinema’s great sphincter-loosening moments. He’s a perfect sport in 1988’s underrated comedy Midnight Run, allowing his twitchy, self-contained persona to be tickled and teased by the brilliantly funny Charles Grodin. And don’t forget Goodfellas or Casino.

Generally, however, the De Niro legacy consists in a sequence of films including The Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, Once Upon A Time In America and King Of Comedy. These were diverse roles. As Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, he’s a fidgety, blundering, volatile young street hood. In The Deer Hunter, he plays a Vietnam vet who, strengthened and saddened by wisdom, is the steadying moral anchor of the movie. In Raging Bull, he plays Jake LaMotta, a brutal middleweight whose body is a primed and bludgeoning weapon of relentless machismo. In King Of Comedy, he plays Rupert Pupkin, a gauche schmuck who’d probably come off second best in a slappy fight with Sandra Bernhard. In each case here, De Niro “became” the part, with a fervour legendarily instilled in him by his Method Acting background. He gained 60 pounds to play an ageing LaMotta. He spent hours learning to play sax for the part of Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York. Stories of abound of his time-consuming fastidiousness, his background research, his prowling flea markets for just the correct jacket.

And yet, as with Alec Guiness, to whom De Niro’s sometimes compared, he is versatile but not a chameleon. In his every performance, there’s a distinct De Niro-ness. That trademark grin, the way he cocks his head and holds a stare unnervingly, a smouldering interiority punctuated by occasional, surprise moments of action. It’s fine acting, it’s screen presence but it amounts to something more than method and skill. It’s something disquieting and inscrutable. For someone who considers himself solely a creature of his trade, those eyes of his, dead-eyed yet piercing, hint at something real, beyond cinema, beyond acting, that burns holes through the screen.

Critics have attempted vainly to fathom what this “something” is, searched for Oedipal clues in his background. Hey, his father was gay – maybe there’s something there. He always dates black women, what’s that about? Inarticulate in interviews, however, De Niro himself gives nothing away, disingenuously claims merely that he chose to be an actor rather than a personality. Yet De Niro’s best work leaves you feeling altered and somehow scourged – especially when in tandem with Scorsese. And what’s distinctive about his most memorable characters is that, while De Niro might have “transformed” himself to get into them, the characters themselves generally undergo no transformation during the course of the movies. They, learn nothing, aren’t themselves fundamentally changed by the experiences they undergo, although they perpetrate a helluva lot of change themselves. Whatever damage was done to Travis Bickle occurred long before Taxi Driver’s opening credits (in his case, in Vietnam). The macho rage of De Niro’s La Motta is preternatural. He’s no nice guy driven to desperate ends. The classic De Niro character is incorrigible, impervious, be it Rupert Pupkin, nodding away, little piggy eyes darting affirmatively as Jerry Lewis’s assistant tries to convey the reality of the situation to him but taking nothing in, or LaMotta, deaf to the pleading screams of those closest to him, set rock solid in his paranoid ways, combative to the final reel.

De Niro epitomises Cool – but he’s cooler than cool, a stone cold, almost psychotic force, tragically “strong”. Interestingly, it’s a force that cannot be softened by women, compromised by romance. In The Deer Hunter, there’s a hint that his Michael character may be a virgin. In Taxi Driver, his idea of a date is to take Cybill Shepherd to a porn movie. In Raging Bull, he has one sex scene with wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty) in which he ice-packs his dick to prevent himself from coming, preserving his power for the ring – then spends the rest of the film slapping her around. Even in New York, New York, Doyle is too ridiculously insufferable to make for a plausible romantic lead.

All this is part of his latent appeal to men and repugnance to some women – especially the rape scene in Once Upon A Time In America. But there’s more to De Niro than this. The frightening, anti-heroic appeal of, say, a Travis Bickle chimes in with an overall sense first darkly intimated in the late, punk-driven Seventies that, despite the Aquarian optimism of the Sixties, things are now brutalised beyond repair. New York is fucked. America is fucked. Bickle is fucked. There’s no going back. All that remains is punishment. (This chimes in with Scorsese’s own Catholicism – he often deploys De Niro as an avenging angel – be it Bickle, come to wipe away the scum or later as Max Cady in Cape Fear, come to avenge Nick Nolte’s guilty liberal lawyer.) The classic De Niro character will never See The Light at the end of the movie because there’s no light to see. Bickle promised apocalypse and yet it’s Pupkin as Jerry Lewis’s stalker and kidnapper in the superb, often-dismissed King Of Comedy who anticipated the actual future, our own, terminally sick obsession with celebrity culture and Warholian fame.

Sure, De Niro has compromised his legacy with a string of dud appearances and MOR flicks. These he has done a) because as an actor he compulsively needs to act, b) he’s need to finance his own TriBeCa Film Center and c) Scorsese apart, few directors have really been able properly to exploit De Niro for the cinematic best. Tarantino signally failed in Jackie Brown. Tarantino’s no Scorsese. We can only hope that De Niro, far from being a spent force is keeping some of his powder dry. There’s one more big one in him yet.

Friday, June 6th, 2003

Cocteau Twins

“Some people know why they make music, I suppose. But we never talk about what we’re doing. Ever.” – Simon Raymonde, 1990

Cocteau Twins were one of the most brilliant, yet utterly opaque groups of the post-punk era. From their earliest recordings, in which they swiftly disabused notions that they were Siouxsie & The Banshees soundalikes indulged by a too-kind John Peel, to their later years when they were hailed as precursors of the ambient/techno era, they have exerted a subtle, moon-like pull on the music scene. Their music was crystalline, precious, a great deal too precious for some – the ultimate 4AD band. Titles like “Frou-Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires” left parodists reeling in despair, while their music, untainted by any prosaic considerations, even language itself, at times sounded like an aural confection, an impossibly luxurious proposition.

Yet it was driven by a relentlessly ecstatic intensity, came at you so hugely, Liz Fraser’s wordless yet deeply expressive vocal performances cathartic to the point of exorcism, that it blew away accusations of whimsy. Most exasperatingly of all for journalists was that, in interview after interview, they came and went away none the wiser about the individuals who concocted these ethereal sounds. Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde were hardly cravat-wearing, pre-Raphaelite sprites. Guthrie liked his beer, Raymonde liked his football. They would deride the more poetic flights of fancy to which critics were wont in praising their albums. (“Crystalline?” “Moon-like?” Opaque?” Exorcism?” What the fuck are ye talking about?”) They greeted attempts at analysis with a wall of non-cooperation, suspicious at these woofling, middle-class types attempting to dabble with their heads. Liz would sometimes attempt to explain herself but then lose it, her half-formed sentences collapsing about her in a heap. Simon Raymonde would take a more urbane, reasoned approach but ultimately offer few more clues than are contained in the quote at the head of this article. Robin, meanwhile, would mutter inaudible imprecations, snarling aggressively at anyone who disliked the Cocteaus, yet snorting scornfully at anyone who actually liked them also, tersely dismissing all their previous recordings as “shite”.They could no more “explain” why they made these records, these sounds, any more than a swan could explain why it glided or a bear why it shat in the woods.

So they said. If they thought that would be an end to the matter, however, they were mistaken. Their crap-cutting reticence only added to the coloured clouds of mystique surrounding them. The less they explained, the more journos would be forced to fall back on their Thesauruses, going into paroxysms of adjectival frenzy, the more doting fans would meditate upon their albums as if they were, as Steve Sutherland put it (at the expense, typically, of much subsequent ribbing from the band) “The Voice of God”. “If there were one thing I could change about the band it’d be the name,” grumbled Robin in 1988. “When we picked it, it was just the name of the band and people started reading all these things into it.” But what were the Cocteaus about?

The first mystery about the origins of this music is that it should have originated in such a place as Grangemouth, a dismal Scottish refinery town where Liz and Robin first met at a local hotel disco, the only place for miles around where anyone of a remotely rock’n’roll mindset could congregate. Robin DJed on a punk night, he spotted Liz dancing. Robin had already formed a band with buddy Will Heggie, named after a track by fellow Scots Simple Minds. Liz, ever lacking in self-esteem, initially refused to join the band, assuming that what passed for her “lyrics” just wouldn’t hack it. However, when she started going out with Robin, she was drawn into the Cocteaus.

Influenced by The Pistols, of course, but also PiL (particularly the aluminium, spiral scratching guitar stylings of Keith Levine), Siouxsie and The Birthday Party, the Cocteaus’ sound was quick to evolve. Heggie’s big, elastic Peter Hook-style basslines were complemented by Guthrie’s scalding, effected but not discordant guitars, an almost funky drum machine backbeat and, of course, Liz Fraser’s somewhat indistinct, distressed vocals. Liz later explained her unorthodox mic manner to a general feeling of fazedness at age 17, a sense of sheer disconnection from herself. “If I didn’t know when I was tired, hungry or had any sleep, how would I know where the lyrics came from?”

At this stage, you’d usually expect the narrative to take a steep gradient with grim tales of slogging it out in poxy venues and fruitless attempts to garner press and record company attention. As Robin Guthrie told me in 1993, however, the Cocteaus had it so easy he assumed it was like this for everybody. “We made two demos, gave one to John Peel (at a Birthday Party gig) and one to Ivo at 4AD. We chose 4AD. It never occurred to us that 4AD might not choose us.”

Both demos did the trick. Peel found an indefinable, pearly something in the Cocteaus lacking in the crashing grey waves of indie bands washed up in the wake of Joy Division, while Ivo divined in them the band who might come to lend a high shine to the 4AD ethos. Their first album, Garlands, was released in 1982 and was instantly well-received among the indie brigade although you could theoretically understand those who regarded them as hollow, blustery post-punk practitioners. Liz appended a lyric sheet of sorts to the album but lines such as “Things from the forest die here, but I don’t; Dead forest things are offered here but I’m not . . .” didn ‘t exactly elucidate matters.

They might have been well-meaningly advised to “sharpen up” or “focus” back in the mid-Eighties, that most soul-tight and aesthetically constipated of pop eras – instead, they became still airier. “Lullabies” was still more lyrically indistinct, “Peppermint Pig” (produced by The Associates’ Alan Rankine) proof that there was, and would continue to be, a distinctly confectionary element to their music, while “Sunburst And Snowblind”, the title of their 1983 EP and also the first words on their second album, the lovesick “Head Over Heels”, was self-descriptive – the Cocteau’s sound now glistened so bedazzlingly, it shed too much light – you could see nothing. That said, Liz’s lyrical modus operandi was at least beginning to make sense – she was using the Joycean technique of verbal superimposition, elisions and abandonment of traditional meanings to create fresh ones. “Fig up my love paramour, ooze out and away, onehow (“My Love Paramour”). Liz herself dismissed her style as “bad diction”.

By 1983, Will Heggie had quit the band amicably and been replaced by Simon Raymonde, sometime collaborator with This Mortal Coil. Son of the producer Ivor Raymonde, who had worked with numerous big-name Sixties acts and even appeared in several episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour, he would add shape to the band’s overall sound, give them other options, without betraying their essential un-vision. Liz and Robin, too, worked within the This Mortal Coil project, most famously on their version of Tim Buckley’s “Song To The Siren”, which they recorded in 1984. Guthrie’s spare, unaccompanied guitar chiming just the right note of remote and subdued melancholy while Fraser’s vocals, floating free in dark space, proved indisputably that indistinct diction was irrelevant besides her harrowingly distinct emotional articulacy. The cover version has become a great deal more famous than the original, has resounded down the years, being used most recently in the BBC remake of Pride & Prejudice (as Mr Darcy leaps into the water). Robin and Liz, however, came to despise it. Robin referred to it contemptuously as “Sludge To The Siren” and the band recently refused to co-operate with the use of the song in a TV ad.

With further bloody-mindedness, the band also refused to appear on TOTP, to support the modest but significant chart success of 1984’s “Pearly Dewdrops-Drops”. “We were caking ourselves at the thought of success,” confessed Liz later. Cacking themselves, perhaps, at the thought of the exposure it would bring. By now, moreover, in a pop era dominated by Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw and Phil Collins, the Cocteaus were among the very few viable indie options – there was less and less crossover. Bands like The Mary Chain, R.E.M. and themselves were uneasy propositions, remote from the top 40.

That said, with the further success of 1984’s Treasure, their most beautiful yet oblique offering to date, they were becoming Big In Japan, mobbed by screaming fans who had originally imagined that they were an all-girl band but, undeterred by the realisation that Robin and Simon were less than girlish, continued to adore them. However, they were a tad aghast when the Japanese took it upon themselves to publish what they considered to be the “lyrics” of Cocteaus songs. “Tell me if any of these words are what Liz is singing, right?” hooted Robin indignantly in Melody Maker in 1985. ‘Let us rock you so/Rock you so good . . . .’ ‘The wave of the earth has got me all fooled now . . .’ ‘Take this fish/Harder than roe/Who sauntered away.’ Jesus!”

Still, while their interviews were boisterous, jolly affairs, the antics were a distraction – they continued to give nothing away. “I’m still completely at a loss to understand what people want to know,” protested Robin. “I’ll tell all. We do tell all. That’s the thing. I can’t understand, what more can I say?” The next few years saw the Cocteaus release a series of EPs, all desperately beautiful stuff, with titles like “Echoes In A Shallow Bay” and “Aikea Guinea” reflecting the vast, topographical dimension the music was beginning to take on. 1985’s Victorialand (the name of a region in Antarctica), recorded without Simon Raymonde, then busy with This Mortal Coil, was their sparest, most ambient work to date, like drifting segments of broken ice floes (“ice floes? Jesus!” – imaginary Cocteau voice).

Their 1986 collaboration with American ambient landscape composer Harold Budd, The Moon And The Melodies, seem logical. Recorded in a fortnight, the album, though hauntingly well-etched, is inevitably sketchy and the band were adamant that it not be seen as an official Cocteaus release. By the late Eighties, rock musical discourse was dominated by talk of the revival of rock, a sort of pre-post rock, with bands like A.R. Kane, Sonic Youth The Pixies and My Bloody Valentine re-exploring the material surfaces of guitarsound, making expansive, distorted records whose players were shrunken in near-catatonic awe at the noises they were creating, specks on their own sonic landscape. In this period, the best rock wasn’t merely the means whereby singer/songwriters amplified their lyrics, but a thing-in-itself. The Cocteaus had already arrived at this point some years earlier, via their own route. So when they made Blue Bell Knoll, their first album proper as a group on four years, it wasn’t just their own most definitive musical statement to date but a keynote album of 1988.

The result of their policy of recycling their profits into their London studio bore strange fruit here, with every track a sheer supernova, dreamily cinematic yet electrically alive, “emotion liberated from cliche” as Steve Sutherland once put it. It made many of the new vaunted pretenders sound tentative, incomplete. Yet there was the irony. Once again, in a round of grudging and obfuscating interviews, Robin in particular disowned all the Cocteaus’ previous work – here, at last, was the one, the only one, worth bothering about. (He would later similarly disown Blue Bell Knoll, stating that its spectacular sonic flourishes were a cover for songwriting deficiencies). Yet it was, palpably, the album on which the Cocteaus had succeeded in sounding the most like themselves. Titles such as “The Itchy Glowbow Bow” were Cocteaus in extremis – they were revisiting the same place again and again, albeit bringing back bigger and better treasure.

1990’s Heaven Or Las Vegas, however, did represent a slight sea-change, most significantly in the direction of greater intelligibility on Liz’s part – though not much greater. One of the band’s more sugary delights, it featured the single “Iceblink Luck”, plus several distinct and loving paeans to Robin and Liz’s newborn child Lucy. A hit, a child, a winning sound. Prince, Boy George and even Robert Plant could be numbered among their admirers. Redoubled bliss, surely.

Now, however, the schisms were about to crack through the pink ice. In 1991, the band split with 4AD. Explained Robin in 1993, “I felt we’d outgrown one another. It had stopped being a priority for them that we should be successful. It was just . . .oh, another Cocteaus LP, let’s put it out. It’ll sell loads.” The band signed to Fontana. However, their private, personal woes were on the point of becoming public. Simon Raymonde’s father had died a year earlier. Liz, meanwhile, in press interviews for Heaven . . . .was cutting an increasingly fraught, incoherent figure. “I’m scared. Really scared today,” she laughed nervously to Chris Roberts in Melody Maker. “I don’t know what’s happening here. I’m getting increasingly paranoid. I don’t know what I’m talking about! I shouldn’t be allowed to speak! But there’s always medication. I’m just a very confused woman who’s looking forward not to being confused.”

The source of these dysfunctional effusions would later become clear. She was on the point of breaking up with Robin. Having a baby, it turned out, had been a last-gasp effort on Liz’s part to save the relationship. Robin, it seemed, had never been easy to live with. “My lyrics are about Robin,” she once confessed. “About coping with him.” Robin was a lifelong boozer and coke fiend, who later admitted that he only took on certain production jobs for other bands in order to feed his habit. By 1992, however, the overdraft on his health and sanity had way exceeded its limit. He became convinced he could not make music without drugs. His habit, which fed his obsessive, untrusting nature, his uncommunicativeness, his loathing of all his previous work, was now on the point of killing him. After a spectacular bender following the Heaven Or Las Vegas tour, he went into rehab. Simon Raymonde went through rehab with him, by way of holding his hand. “I’m not talking about a little cocaine high once a week, I’m talking about it being your first waking thought,” he told NME’s Sylvia Patterson in 1995. “Then you go on tour and end up messing with loads of guys called Vinnie with fucking Uzis in Harlem.”

Liz, meanwhile, suffered a breakdown and went into therapy in the US, during which she confronted her past as a victim of child abuse. “I found out I was a bulimic. I found out what I went through is called incest. ” Her unimaginably miserable home life saw her abused by her brother-in-law , perhaps even her late father, before being thrown out of the house at ahe 16 for becoming a punk. “All you do is just cover up for these people, even when you’re trying to remember.” Small wonder the Cocteaus had left Scotland the moment they could, describing the place as a “toilet”, and stating that they had cut off contact with all friends and relatives, describing them as “psychopaths”. Most eerily, Liz blurted of Robin in an interview with Alternative Press in 1996, “He really looks like my perpetrator.”

Finally, it could be seen that The Cocteau’s records were a little like nature documentaries about whales – vast, beautiful grandiose images of apparent play and serenity belying the actual frought and stressful existences of the animals involved. The Cocteaus emerged the other side of all this, with 1993’s semi-confessional Four Calendar Cafe in which Liz, having benefited from speech therapy sang with lucid melancholy of her estrangement from Robin (they were no longer lovers but greater friends than ever) and 1996’s Milk And Kisses, a fine record yet one on which they suffered not from having become “irrelevant” but, like Kraftwerk, too relevant for their own good. These honeyed textures were now commonplace. Everyone from Seefeel to Bjork was doing it. Moreover, something was gone . . .

So what were The Cocteaus about? What’s the connection between this sweetly ethereal music and its taciturn, life-hardened, occasionally boorish, abused and self-abusive perpetrators? Maybe it’s this. Unable to face up to, articulate or relive their appalling personal problems through their records, they made of their music a beautiful surreal, sugar’n’spicecoated refuge, a magnificent, mental fortress of sound, a “Heaven in Hell’s despite” as William Blake wrote. For Robin, this meant great anaesthetic, blissful bursts of guitar, for Liz a retreat into a sort of amnesiac patchouli-scented babble. The need for such respite was intense, hence the sheer force and scale of their sound, but the reason they needed it was unspeakable – hence Liz’s impassioned but incomprehensible vowel-shapes. Hence the lack of communication between the band, hence their sullen embarrassment at having to go to this place and back. They never talked about it. Now they do. And if the music has lost an edge as a result, it’s an edge worth waiving. And the place they built still stands.