Writings and Letters

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Category: non-fiction

An Artist’s Palimpsest: Otherwise Known as the Sequel to the Berlin Trilogy (David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’)

You probably know by now, but the almost 70-year-old David Bowie came out with his 25th album: Blackstar (or ): on his birthday last Friday (Feb 8th). And man is it a humdinger! Overall, he covers themes of mortality, morality, fame, feminism, capitalism, modernity, (possibly incest) time and being, (maybe castration) time and spatiality in direct relation to a lot of the aforementioned, and some more I’m sure. He also revisits an experimentalism with horns and synth that was heavily prevalent in his Berlin Trilogy days.

Needless to say, I’m sure he knocked more than a few people on their asses when they put this album on. I know it happened to me.

So now I’d like to go through the album and discuss what I think ole Davie is getting at with each song. Now of course, subjectivity, subjectivity, blah, blah, blah, art is very open to interpretation, yada, yada, yada, just one opinion, you get it.

One thing in particular that I would like to touch on, though, before diving in is how I read lyrics in general, but especially David Bowie lyrics. I have found this particularly helpful, and perhaps you will too. Approach Bowie’s lyrics much like you would an Impressionist painting. Move in too close, focusing on a specific portions leads you to experience cerebral dissonance. It is only once you are able to remove yourself and observe from afar that the entire image begins to take form. This will make more sense when considering the lyrics as they contemplate the obfuscation that is modernity, or more generally: life. It also may add the pleasurable effect of interweaving yourself with the “work of art.” As you begin to interpret the piece, it begins to take new shapes, which then affects you in a new way, and a lovely interplay takes off.

So without further ado.

***

“Blackstar” –  The title track has a rather chimerical quality to it (like many Bowie songs). At first it purports to be a contemplation of mortality and religious iconography, not-so subtle hints of Scott Walker (no, not that one, this one–though sans the meat punching), and then an abstract doom over self-reflection, and introducing a vaguely Arabian phrygian scale, breathing faint whispers into our ears, acting like a trigger warning in this age of terrorism to conjure thoughts of the Middle East (Bowie has denied any allusions to ISIS), shapeshifting almost every other minute until falling back on what it originally started as: a contemplation of a death foretold. It’s atrabilious quality is matched only by its amorphous one. Then, halfway through (in lovely progressive style) he transcends once again from the sorrow, loss and brutality into a euphoric ascension of synth and vibes constantly reminding us what he is through a series of chants and negation: he’s a blackstar, he swears! But it leaves us to think: What is a blackstar, David? What can that mean? And as we press him for this existential meaning (by listening on) the repetition begins to present itself almost as a state of delusion, and by the time we start to doubt Bowie’s legitimacy our confusion is signaled by the ghoulish moans that fade in from the abyss and then we descend back into the darkness when the woodwind plays that familiar but unnamed phrygian scale again.

Bowie is knee-deep in a meditation on humanity’s impermanence, and the perturbation that unfolds from it. And similarly how in songs like “Warszawa”and “Neukoln” from Low and “Heroes” respectively, add to our sense of dread over the modern world (more precisely how they evoke imagery of the Cold War and nuclear hellfire), so too does “Blackstar” help us deal with our imaginations over impending calamity, unspeakable violence seemingly on the verge of takeoff at any point, hauling up these dreggy moments of human history and laying them bare on the foreground of our minds. And in addition to the fear of everything outside, we still have to deal with the uncomfortable fact that even on the inside, we’re a threat to our existence. Perhaps not the most exciting, fun topic to introduce right off the bat, but many Bowie album’s often have the opening track act as an informal thesis to the rest of the album. It’s no different here. And if certain people aren’t comfortable with that… well… then bring in the whores!

“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” – [Quick background: The song title is in reference to the 17th century Ford tragedy’s: “‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore”. Since it’s where I went, and I have no intension of implying I knew this information from the outset, I defer to Wikipedia to provide the Synopsis of the play. The relation to the song is discussed below.]

Again in a Walkerian maneuver, Bowie begins the song with a man inhaling and clearing his throat, this seemingly useless fricative noise then becomes utilized, looped and incorporated into the song itself along with the drumbeat, synth, and growling horns. This is important, it goes on to form the idea of the song from the outset: something ugly and unwanted (a guttural sound that would usually be cut out during the mixing process) becomes subsumed into the very fabric of “‘Tis a Pity” and takes part of a new form.

Bowie then starts to sing. His voice strains, at times gargles and distorts completely. He exposes his fragility. He struggles with notes, utilizing his vocals much like the horn section in a jazz session, or as Fitzgerald or Holiday might have. Here we have Bowie taking his approach to jazz much like he does with many different types of music he encounters: rock, soul, funk, disco, Krautrock, etc. We get to see his (what I’ll call) “Plastik Jazz” on full display, and it will remain with us throughout the album. He sings as an old man remembering the sexual encounter with a whore during a war. The lines “That was patrol//This is the war” repeat throughout. So through this repetition of opposing demonstrative pronouns we are to gather a sense of difference. What happened on patrol was somehow different from the war. But it is a slight of hand, a misdirect. They are as uncoupled as entangled, and with this understanding of paradox we can see the war as both literal and figurative.

The patrol was this single encounter between man and whore (I imagine the dark-haired Temptress of Romantic legends, the one who breaks the will of men, the quintessence of lust, of sin, more appropriately the powerful passions that emerge in the face of fatality). It was where he was able to experience this sexual encounter. A sexual experience that obviously moved him enough to sing about it, now in the elder stage of his life in this haunting nostalgic ode. Both during and apart from the war, from the world, he had this moment [Note: it is unclear what the sex was: consensual or not, pleasurable or not, between strangers or not, etc. etc. All we are left to gather is that they were uncouth by societal standards.]. The lines “‘Tis a pity she was a whore” imply his remorse over the loss of that encounter, that he will not be able to experience such a moment again: such a pity.

It is his “fate,” his “curse,” he tells us to have these taboo desires that can only be satisfied through the conduit of the market, aided by this demimonde, while he is “out on patrol,” (again think of the cleared throat at the beginning of the song and now think of how “patrol” useless on its own enters another context, “patrolling” for the next whore who can satisfy his lust) but in the larger context of the “war” this interaction cannot be allowed by women who are not filles des joie. What Bowie points towards is a topic of conversation in feminist circles that is: in patriarchy, men have sex, women provide it.

Of course, the whore in Ford’s sordid play was Giovanni’s lover/sister: Annabella. So, if we want to make a bridge here, we can swap the idea of man sleeping with whore to man sleeping with sister, or sister-whore, and the incestuous aspect of the song takes it in a truly Gothic territory, which is fun. (Again, think of the spirant introduction and how it changed within the song. The same evolution is taking place here with the lament: “‘Tis a pity she was a whore.”) The taboo remains, of course, and the lessons of patrol and war can still be applied–though in a darker turn.

However one chooses to infer, we cannot enter this whirlwind of concupiscence unaffected. The swirling attack of the horns and thunderous pounding of drums environ us in this horror story of depravity, but it is what spurs this untowardness that is most intractably interesting.

Again think of the imagery of war as a backdrop, with the threat of death on the precipice, human beings double-down on their obsessions for life. Facing the inevitable with existential uncertainty breeds a certain mania, which seems to breed certain perversions such as sadomasochism in an act of desperation. It lends a helping hand to the patriarchal in the form of prostitution, and even devolves in the ugliest fashions: incest, rape, gelding or other sexual mutilations. These are all on display in “‘Tis a Pity” and you begin to realize the present and past-tense application of “to be” in the song’s hook is meant more chronological than progressive in difference; that the behavior of men towards women (and vice versa in other cases) “is” just as much as it “was” when dealing with one another in life and death.

Speaking of life and death…

“Lazarus” – Once more we see Bowie utilize religious imagery to focus on the themes of life and death. Though here with “Lazarus” the song appears to be contemplating a career as well as human temporality. The song is also featured in the new play by the same title, which Bowie co-wrote and produced. It is a sequel of sorts to the film he starred in: The Man Who Fell to Earth (which one of the film posters was also the cover art for Low).

In a unique way, the song stands as a form of paralleling between reality and fiction. “Lazarus” (both play and song) follows the character Thomas Jerome Newton as he has to deal with his reality now decades removed from the events in Man Who Fell. At the end of the film, Newton was a drunken wreck, who failed in his mission to save his world and family, instead living lavishly in a penthouse on Earth, left only with the ability to drink his riches away.

At the time Man was being filmed, Bowie shared similar doldrums with Newton. He had wealth and fame, was living in Los Angeles and being afforded with the pleasantries celebrity can provide a rock star: in David’s instance, cocaine. Lots and lots of cocaine. [There’s a particular story about Bowie that I find both tragic and fascinating. And that is while he was making Young Americans he was sustaining himself on a healthy diet of cocaine, peppers, and milk. And he kept his semen in jars out of fear witches might steal it from him. I don’t know if any of that is true, but hot ham and cheese is it a story!] Shortly after the release of the film, Bowie fled LA for the confines of France, and what would soon become known as the “Berlin Trilogy” as he started work on Low.

With this in mind, the song “Lazarus” becomes more complex than its face-value appearance of an alien, or ghost, angel, (Lazarus himself perhaps) who is looking down at the earth, reminiscing about his time spent down there, and he absentmindedly drops his cell phone down to the living world. A rather docile song about the interaction between earthlings and extraterrestrials, or living and dead, how the relationship between the known and unknown is an interwoven blur. The song instead, in the larger context (i.e. its relation to Bowie’s career and life) takes things one step further and looks to be about the rockstar (or ) coming to terms with himself, both past and present.

When remembering that Newton experienced his life in multiple times, perhaps it is not too far-fetched to think Bowie (through Newton) is exposing a simultaneous conflation of past and present Bowie. Nearing death, he can look back at a time in his life where he seemed both alive yet dead, in this purgatorial state (much like his Newton) and he had to be risen by force (in this case physically removing himself from Los Angeles) to become alive again–much like our biblical Lazarus. That his savior was music, which pulled him from the Cerberus-like clutches of a lifeless materialism and hedonism.

“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” – In keeping with this idea of a failed materialism, and the crisis of Self that arises from it, Bowie introduces us to “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” halfway through the album. This is key positioning, in my mind. “Blackstar” introduces us to the thesis of the album: coping with our existence: with the admittance of our ephemerality. “‘Tis a Pity” looks at how this knowledge affects the way we behave sexually (with specific focus on the male perspective). And the previous song reflects on how spatiality and time are simultaneous in the human mind, allowing us to contemplate our worth. Hanging on to this notion of worth, Bowie explores how we attempt to satisfy ourselves in the maelstrom that is modernity.

By far, “Sue” is the most frenetic song on Blackstar. The guitar and drums really drive the song along while the horn section lays out some of the most splenetic melodies (verging on cacophony), at the same time Bowie tries his best baritone crooning à la Walker. The kinetic nature of the music mimics the automized modern world, propelling us so quickly forward, heading straight on towards oblivion at high speeds. Before we know it, in that mad dash for accumulation and debt-aversion, we’ve managed to meet our end so abruptly.

On the surface of Bowie’s sad projections, we learn of a man who kills his lover for she lied about being with another man, or having another family; or it is a story about a woman who is depressed and takes her life while pregnant, or dies of an illness, or some combination of the two, or other impressions, it depends on how certain lines (“I pushed you down beneath the weeds” and “Sue, Good-bye”, “You went with him” and “You went with that clown”, and a few others) are interpreted. Perhaps the “him/clown” is a man, perhaps the angel of death. He might even be the ghostly Lazarus we left in the previous song. Who knows?

More importantly, we see the failure of the man as he tries to construct an alcove from the chaotic world around him through the auspices of wealth. He gets a job. He buys a house. He takes Sue to the doctor. He takes full advantage of the capital he has accumulated in this modern world to help satisfy Sue and bring about some level of comfort and joy in the world, but despite these best efforts, despite the best intentions of affluence, Sue still ends up dead (or, however you see it, he loses Sue).

His best is as meretricious as buying a tombstone. There he pays for the lapidary false admission of purity (“‘Sue the Virgin’ on your grave”). Even in this sentimental act, capital can only help bring about the end of life, not fulfill it. In the most obvious sense: “you can’t take it with you.”

The title points to this grim fact, and is laid out in the song. Exchange value renders human life null and void as monetization of a human’s being is reduced to a commodity, where satisfaction can only be realized through market practice of buying and selling. When the political economy eliminates the humanity from a society, we should not be surprised by the results, after all: “In a season of crime, none need atone.” So when Sue dies, or leaves him, or whatever, it happens while he is at work (“Ride the train, I’m far from home”), and all he worked for appears to be as full of meaning as the materials that helped him realize that moment.

The story of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” appears to suggest the limitations of capital and its helpless quality when facing our common malaise of modernity.

“Girl Loves Me” – This next song is perhaps the most pop of the whole batch. It’s no surprise as Bowie liked (or hated) to throw at least one or two populist bites out there in his more exploratory Berlin Trilogies–“Sound and Vision” from Low, “‘Heroes'” and “The Secret Life of Arabia” from “Heroes” and “Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ” from Lodger. Though the switch is that this song will probably not be played on the radio. Despite the hypnotic bass line and drumbeat that permeates down to your toes and gets them a-tappin’ more than any other song on this album, and despite the catchy (though NSFW) hook of “Where the fuck did Monday go?” and chorus “Girl loves me” repeated over and over again, the song intentionally plays more satiric than sensational–at least for mainstream airwaves.

Alongside the jejune melody, are largely nonsensical lyrics that evoke the slang of A Clockwork Orange and elsewhere. Bowie uses Burgess’s “viddy” and “cheena” and more throughout the song. He does so to disguise the more coeval lyrics one might hear from many pop songs today: mainly trying to sleep with women, get money, and/or score drugs. [Fun experiment: when testing the level of objectification a woman is experiencing in a song, simply see if the “woman” could be replaced with any other inanimate object that the singer seems to be equally keen on. For example, a man can easily “sleep with” a woman, just as he can “get” with her, “score” her, or “grab” her. In these instances, the woman is about as equivalent to whatever object the man covets. She’s just another form of fetishism. Ain’t sexism a bitch?] It feels as if Bowie is puckishly exploring our contemporary notions of taste in this brave new world of entertainment. And ultimately it is just superficial nonsense, and about as useful as the market in terms of trying to assuage our coming doom. [There might also be a nod to the Millennial generation in here. Whether it is a praise or damnation, I’m unsure, but I will confess this is probably my favorite song on the album…  :P]

The song also stands as a marker in the album. Here Bowie begins to ease us down from the headier, more macabre attention of the album into more tranquil, though still sullen tracks.

“Dollar Days” – In many respects, this acts as a coda to the previous songs in terms of lyrical meaning. Musically, it is Bowie’s atmospheric ballad for the album.

Bowie is looking back on his career as a musician, and the idea of making this album, trying to reunite that spark that made him want to be a musician in the first place, now with an added importance for the meaning it brings him so late in his life. He opens with an admittance of his wealth and fame, and with a bit of false modesty (or ernestness) he proclaims “It’s nothing to me//It’s nothing to see.” And if he does not achieve the goal he has set out (in this instance seeing the “English evergreens”–I think we can assume this is some form of paradise), it too will mean very little to him. He tries to convince himself by trying to convince us that he is rather irreverent about the whole thing, but the way he sings it, and the next lines suggest otherwise. He focuses on trying to write songs that audiences will enjoy “And fool them all again and again//I’m trying to” obsessed and frustrated with his own celebrity, and by the record label executives perhaps, or critics who claim he doesn’t care anymore, or is a hack. He vacillates between one moment being aloof, and then the next so impassioned. He is “trying” and “dying” to get to some ineffable something that he never tells us. We are only left to assume. But his message is genuine, the emotions all real. He is in the crepuscular phase of his life. The previous successes that he has reaped have little meaning for him at this stage, and he is now looking for some deeper connection with something and he knows it exists within him, and in some fashion is realized through his connection with the listener (“Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you”).

He wants to hear those words just as much as we do. Like him, we too are “trying” and “dying” for something.

And what is it? Well…

“I Can’t Give Everything Away” – The true final track on the album acts as a kind of afterword. Literally coming in off the tails of “Dollar Days” the synth ushers us in front of the Goblin King as he attempts one last time to hint at the cri de cœur of the album. Again the Berlin Trilogy is elicited as the harmonica from “A Career in a New Town” and the wailing guitar from “Red Sails” or numerous other Bowie tunes from that era book end the song. Is there something to gain from this allusion? “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” he tells us.

We hear of returning pulses for prodigal sons, and “blackout hearts with flowered news” and wonder what he is pointing us to, which he simply replies: “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

Then in his most lucid stanza, he confesses to: “Seeing more and feeling less//Saying no, but meaning yes//This is all I ever meant//That’s the message that I sent” and the song shifts. Not melodically, it still remains the same, but in essence it changes from being about him to being about all of us. Bowie and the listener blend as we become the “I.” And when we return to the lines of prodigal sons and “skull designs upon my shoes” we see a portrait of people who only start to have a pulse when around extravagance, and how this materialism distorts our appreciation of our existence. Our privilege is standing in our own way of finding some kind of meaning. And the lines “I Can’t Give Everything Away” start to take a darker shade–one of bloated self-love and aggrandizement. The more we see, the less we start to feel, and our cynicism and desensitization allows our irony “saying no, but meaning yes” to run rampant adding to this effusive inauthenticity that becomes all we ever mean, and that is the message we send out to one another.

Me: Isn’t that right, David?

DB: “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

Me: Goddamn you!

But before we can get anything more out of him the instruments reach crescendo, and then fade, and next thing we know the album is finished. Leaving us to try and make sense of the remnants left behind.

***

So what to make of Blackstar? Well… right off the bat, this ain’t for everyone. Bowie fans who didn’t particularly care for his Berlin Trilogy, or some of his more experimental moments will probably not have any patience for this album. And that’s fine. I like Let’s Dance, too. It’s a great album. And for those who might be interested in getting into some Bowie, well, this is a great place to start if you like more progressive, art rock and lyrics that heavily focus on the above.

And the themes of the album are not foreign territory for the Thin White Duke. He’s visited and conquered these lands before. He is merely returning. He reconnects with previous albums from the seventies (specifically the Berlin epoch), as he also absorbs jazz and musicians like Scott Walker, reusing and altering all he knows to create something quite familiar, but brand new.

If all that sounds like something you want out of your David Bowie, then Blackstar is going to be right up your alley.

But with all that has been discussed, I cannot help but sit back and still ask: What is Blackstar? What does the word itself mean? What can be drawn from it?

It is a contradiction. An oxymoron. For it cannot be both the representation of the brightest form of light we have in the solar system, and the quintessence of its absence, and yet it is. And from this understanding we can both extrapolate its meaning outward to how the world behaves in blatant contradictions. And we can recall David’s words at the very beginning: “I’m a blackstar” and start to believe him now, and believe in ourselves. That we too are blackstars.  That such significance can be drawn from such meaninglessness (such tenor from a baritone!), is nothing short of miraculous. And yet… we still find ourselves logically insensate because of the impossibility of the task at hand–the answer is the work, not the answer. So we go back at it, time and time again. We forget the lessons we learned in search for the answer, taking search from a different angle, thought up in a new way, ignored, criticized, revisited, accepted, forgotten all over again, and again, and again, and again.

We go through it. Bowie too. He visited these thoughts over time, specs of them run heavily through his earlier work. They are present in the Berlin Trilogy. Like us, he works on these. Album after album, over the decades he has collected a library of his own thought on the subjects. Adding and erasing notions, only to return to them later, different but brand new. The aporia is, in a sense, what leads to the palimpsest. A paradox that cannot be rectified. A pathos un-pacified.

In German, there is a rather profound compound word: “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” and it basically means “to cope with the past.” More specifically, though, the word is utilized by Germans when talking about reconciling their identities with their past in direct relation to the horrible atrocities of World War II, mainly the terrors of the Holocaust.

I’m not foolish enough to make a cursory comparison here, and state Bowie’s experience is in any way, shape, or form close to the philosophical, moral soul-searching German people have to go through as part of their identity. But I do like this idea of trying to come to terms with one’s past as a way of informing your current state of being–in a more general sense it’s what some people call “history.” With respect to Blackstar, I think their is an existential “Todesbewältigung” going on, a “coping with death” that Bowie is taking the listener through with him. He is struggling with the ideas, reaching back through his lifetime to help him better understand that this has been a Gordian knot he has been wrestling with all this time. In his intellectual sparring match, his search for catharsis, he has brought us along for the ride and with any bit of luck we too have participated in this dissonant thinking about our own absurdity.

Contemplating your mortality never gets any easier, especially when you draw nearer to it with every breath. To consider all the fame and fortune the man has wrought himself, the listener should take comfort in the fact their beloved Bowie shares a similar melancholy. And there is some comfort in that knowledge, at least for me.

The struggle is real. But you aren’t alone. David Bowie is there, too.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Power of Legacy

Like most people I know, and strangers all around the world, I recently saw Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Now, this isn’t going to be some rant about the “plot” or “character development” (or any other screenwriting parlance) of the film. Fans of the series have pretty much consumed, contemplated, and ossified their opinions of the movie, so a lot of good it would do to throw out yet another opinion on the topic. Frankly, I’m much less interested in whether certain decisions made by the storytellers were the “right” or “wrong” ones, and much more intrigued as to why they wrote the film they did.

Of course, the cynic will say: “Money.” And that is certainly true. Holy hell have you seen what they’ve been peddling in the past week alone? All the corporate tie-ins and multi-media marketing of this film. Man… you have to give it up to Disney. When they want to whore out a product, there is no better pimp in town. Some are already forecasting the movie will gross about $3 BILLION dollars in it’s theatrical run alone. Seeing as it is already a third of the way there in the first two weeks… that doesn’t sound too far-fetched. And to think, Disney only paid $4 Billion for the franchise to begin with. Now that’s some amortization, folks!

And this is where the crisis begins, you see. Because one can obviously begin to understand the market aspects already in play forming the constriction within which the film must live. I like to visualize a stressed-out Mickey Mouse standing over bar graph projections and Excel reports spread out all over his desk. He’s only managed to sleep for a handful of hours in the past three weeks, his eyes are bloodshot and his diet consists of a jar of pickles, cigarettes, and milk. He’s screaming at JJ Abrams in that folky wholesome voice about how much money they’ve dumped on the series and how much of a success Episode VII needs to be. “Big bucks,” Mickey says. “We need to bring in the big bucks, huh huh. So don’t fuck it up!”

So yes, in a way, the realization of capital was able to “force” the storytellers to “awaken” the kind of film they created (no more intentional Star Wars puns, I promise). But I don’t see that as the only factor. Indeed, I’m sure there were many factors in what led to the final product being what it was, but the one I think contributed most impact was the idea of what Star Wars is. To put it another way, the legacy (not just financial) of the beloved series is so immense that it renders any and all sequels (here I mean chronologically following the first trilogy) unable to escape its impact on the minds of those who have come across it–especially those who encountered and still remember the true** originals.

For many Star Wars fans, there is an idea of Star Wars. It represents many things: a movie series, a mythology, a piece of nostalgia, an exemplar of Science-Fantasy, et al.: containing some of pop culture’s more memorable characters or lines, and harboring some of the soundtracks to fans’ childhoods. Even those who are not fans will recognize or concede a few of the above points–certainly the pop culture aspects of the films. With such an influence on these peoples’ lives, and indeed many lives who are not even fans or want to have any part of the series, it is hard to build upon such a consecrated, well-known, yet variegated thing with much success. In other words, so many people have an idea of what Star Wars is that it becomes impossible to construct a version of the franchise that is satisfactory. In addition to this, one must contemplate Star Wars completely outside its universe (as that is how people consume entertainment) and understand the added pressure (and knowledge) of the failures that were Episodes I – III (not financially of course, or even critically necessarily, but if you ask fans of the true** originals… yeah, it was mostly a total let down). Not only does the next movie have to live up to these undefined expectations of the faceless masses of fans, but also pick up the torch that was perceived to have been dropped (by the creator himself!) and keep the flame burning. (Then again, one might ask: “Why even continue the story? The original trilogy is all you need. Why not come up with something new? Something that might be just as good, but–you know–different.” Which is a valid point, one that is–SHUT-UP IT’S STAR WARS AND NOTHING CAN POSSIBLY REPLACE IT GAHWAHGAHGWHAGWHGAWHG!#!##!$!@!!)

So, in the face of such daunting odds, it appears the storytellers did what storytellers do when they want the audience to walk away satisfied: they give the audience what they already know it likes. And that’s what Force is: a soft reboot of sorts.

This leads to what most critics of the film have been labeling as a “rip-off” or “plagiarism” or “pile of shit.” It is this “mirroring” effect going on that displeases them most. (Thought: I wonder if Richard Rorty can be applied to this idea of “mirroring” in anyway… any philosophers care to opine? Email me at: writingsandletters@gmail.com) It leaves fans of this ilk feeling as though they have encountered yet another fraud in the series. Something purporting to be Star Wars, only to not deliver the goods.

But I cannot fault JJ and Crew for the decision. They were charged with creating a new film that would reinvigorate the franchise, bring people back to the fold. What is the easiest, safest way to do this? Give the fans what they want. What do they want? All the crap they already know. In many respects, its the sin all sequels take on. You not only find this in movies, but in music, television shows, video games, etc. etc. And JJ did a good job when considering all this, I think. It’s a fun movie. It’s hard to deny that. There is genuine enjoyment to be extracted from this film. Moments in which you lose yourself in the movie and think: “This is Star Wars!” But those moments are also deeply saturated in pablum, in which the movie caters to fanboy expectations (and Disney’s bottom line) instead of achieving enough creative authority.

This is what left me feeling a little ambivalent when I left the theater. I enjoyed most of what I experienced in there, but partly because I had already experienced it before–some time ago when I was a younger lad. And that was the problem for me: déjà vu. I suppose I was just looking for something a little… well… different. But it doesn’t look like people want that. It appears the central idea of Star Wars focuses solely on a certain fetishism of the franchise. It appears to have more to do with light sabers, blasters, Storm Troopers, the Millennium Falcon, Luke, Han and Leia, clinging to that nostalgia of what was Star Wars. And this fetishism of the Legacy of Star Wars will not allow the series to expand beyond the boundaries that it knows so well. It can only fall back in on itself, collapsing, creating an inward vortex in which nothing can escape.  

But in the end… who cares? It’s just a movie. Let’s dance!

** By this I mean the original trilogy that was not altered by Lucas in the late-90s, in which he performed his own “Great Purge” and rid the world of the Star Wars trilogy as it had been seen in theaters. Replaced with his “true vision” of the films, this new trilogy was complete with added CGI tomfoolery and revisionist history of Star Wars events. (Han shot first!) Anyone who has seen the Episodes IV – VI since say 1997 has encountered a counterfeit. You live a lie, a horrible, terrible lie.

“Ur-uh… the Start of a Writing Project: Ruminations on Historicity and Mission Statement”

Just the other day a video was brought to my attention. It concerned a particular filmmaker (T Patrick), who claimed he filmed Stanley Kubrick some sixteen years ago in 1999 confessing (before his mysterious death) he helped President Nixon, NASA, the United States stage one of the most (I’m told) profound, important, moving moments in human history: the 1969 moon landing. There, in the crudely edited video, a man sat in monochromatic orange, or soft red (I’m not really good with colors) and confessed to the off-camera filmmaker that he, Stanley Kubrick, helped the government stage the moon landing.

Needless to say, I was intrigued by the possibility (though highly unlikely) that the moon landing was, in fact!, a staged film operation to dupe the world into believing the United States had won the Space Race. So I watched the fascinating work:  https://vimeo.com/148297544

Though immediately, as the large text of T Pat’s presumed production company came on screen, I could not shake the feeling I was being had. Perhaps it was the amateurish nature of the 45+ minute documentary that I could already perceive some sort of joke being played on my wits, there was a disturbance in the force–so to speak. Perchance it was the element of truth! about to be imparted to me. So… I pressed on.

Seventeen minutes into the documentary, before getting to the confession, that coveted payoff I was waiting for, the overtones of duplicity were stirring. The word “FRAUD” crept up in the background of my mind. It was visible throughout the video like the unspoken violence witnessed in the aftermath of a crime scene. 1) the very deliberate, at times comical, disjointed “rough” editing style, 2) the insistence of T. Patrick to inject himself into the documentary again and again with his voice-over to tell this overdrawn 48-minute story that easily could have been five 3) the terrible lighting of Kubrick that suggested chicanery, half his face cloaked in the dark (why? for shame? for shame!) 4) in conversation Kubrick had lost his typical low-end New Yorker timbre, 5) even poor lighting aside, Kubrick just did not look like himself.

After about 20 minutes, I had enough. This could not be true, right? So I did a little further digging. I found a second video that claimed to be a “raw” version (even though there are edits) of the interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rR4pf6pp1kQ  This time without the sophomoric editing and heavy splash of Orange Crush, the argument grew slightly more compelling. Partly one must wonder why not release the first five minutes or so of this footage and call it a day. That certainly would capture the imagination of all those who watched it: though it would still have to answer for the fact that (gaudy aesthetics cleansed) the Kubrick in this interview still did not look, or sound (essentially “act”) like Stanley Kubrick, and even more there was a type of playacting, a sense of improvisation afoot. T Pat would egg Kubrick on with a question that would lead Kubrick to answer exactly what (one must assume) T Pat and the rest of the audience wanted to know.

Still unsatisfied, still dubious, I marched forth through time.

After perhaps a minute longer, I found yet a third video concerning this confession. It was titled (most aptly): Beware of the FAKE Stanley Kubrick confession” and consisted of about 18 minutes of my now favorite filmmaker (T Pat) instructing Kubrick–actually his name is Tom–on how to best tell the story of the faked moon landing.

So problem solved, it was all a lie. But it got me thinking.

I cannot recall the moon landing. I was not there along with the millions of upon millions of other human beings, sitting/standing in front of their television sets around the world all those years ago watching the moment happen. Even more, some of those people who were there might not even remember, they might lean back hard on the footage they have seen time and time again, letting that become their memory, their historical consciousness, their truth when in fact they never saw the event, only read about it in the newspaper the next day and then later seen the footage retroactively reconnected the two and thought: I was there, I knew what it was like. So when the moment this video came along, I could not rely on my own personal memory to say: “No. This is bullshit.” before even watching it. I had to do some research. I had to stretch back into the past and dig up some bones on the Internet that might help paint a more accurate picture of what was happening. [Of course, the part that is so fun to me about this Kubrick “confession” is the idea that no one, presumably besides the astronauts that were there, can be absolutely certain there was a moon landing. Similarly, no one can know for certain that this interview was inauthentic other than those involved. Such a wide gap between the primary and secondary memories is what in part allows such “theories” to arise and threaten the authenticity of the historical narrative… and that’s fun to me.]

So what was happening? Setting aside the fact I believe (like many hoaxes) this was created in jest. How else does one explain the overall incoherence of the editing, or the obvious self-aggrandizement of the filmmaker, the humorous likeness to Kubrick’s own idiomatic lashings when the actor does not execute his vision of the scene or dialog (seeing the un-edited version where poor ole Tom is chided for not understanding what he is saying reminded me of the real Kubrick verbally working Shelley Duvall like a punching bag on The Shining), how to explain the ease with which one can refute the evidence with its own extended rawness in the matter of an hour or less? How indeed. What I am more interested in is what this fake-documentary (“fokumentary”) means to memory, then therefore historical consciousness, and ultimately historicity. How this fokumentary was able to use film to alter (for however briefly) a consciousness of the public (however few) and open a niche for an alt-narrative to fester in the historical understanding of that thing in the past we call “the moon landing.”

I immediately thought of Stalin–because that’s appropriate. I thought of how he manipulated photographs and literally eliminated political adversaries (or more accurately perceived adversaries) from the picture. In other words, when Uncle Joe was tired of the Old Bolshevik comrades, not only did he have them liquidated, but he also purged their very existence from photographs, as well as included himself in a few. Then I thought of the Egyptians–because whatever. How Hatshepsut claimed to be the rightful heir to the throne. She created images of herself with more masculine features including the manly pharaoh regalia of a false beard, and insisted the gods intended on her to be ruler. This was all evident in the art and writings that were created during her reign. A great deal of which was almost destroyed by her stepson, Thutmose III. He tried to destroy or alter all the iconography and written word about his former stepmother-turned-regnant-turned-pharaoh after she died (of cancer it is believed).  

In all three instances, mediums through which we recall the past (tools on which we are so dependent, especially when we ourselves cannot recall, or recall accurately) were manipulated in and effort to force the narrative in an alternative direction: a “revisionist” approach to history in all three cases. And that is really where the similarities between these three disparate characters begin and end (unless you want to say both Stalin and Hatshepsut both worked in government–be my guest).  But it brings to mind this notion of historical fragility.

I recently read a novel by the late, great EL Doctorow: Ragtime. I highly recommend it. I had been thinking about the fragility of history, how difficult it becomes at times to be able to separate fact and fiction, and then I came across the very first few pages of Doctorow’s work in which a fictitious New York family has their summer day interrupted by none other than Harry Houdini as he crashes his car in front of their house. The beauty and genius of this simple moment when the historically real (Houdini) crashes into the world of the fictive (Doctorow’s imagination). From there onward the book is an amalgam of these two seemingly contra styles of narrative playing together on the same page. There were moments when reading I had to stop and think: “Is this a real person?” Some were. Some not. “Did this really happen?” Some did, others no. It was this great expression of the duality in our doxa.

What’s more is what can be said about the novel when considering its depiction of the past (the novel being set in pre-World War 1 New York) through the contemporary understanding when it was being written. When Doctorow wrote Ragtime (presumably between 1971 and 1975), he was diving back into the past to write about this “Progressive Era” United States. But because he was writing about the past from the present, he could not help but inject his time with that of Ragtime‘s. In trying to write a story concerning the past, he had to leave his present finger prints all over it, tainting its authenticity along the way. Using facts until they no longer served his purpose and allowing fiction to carry on forth. He had to cut corners, fill in the gaps, elongate and contract in order to tell the story. In part because he is a novelist and Ragtime is a novel. But also because he could not recall the early 20th century, but (more importantly) no one can. [Fredic Jameson explores this at more depth in his exhaustive book: Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Don’t let the title scare you away, the prose will do that just fine.]

It is difficult to understand the past when the ground on which one stands is so loose and ever-shifting, and so goddamned expansive! To put it another way: If you throw a hula-hoop into the ocean, everything inside the hoop is HISTORY and everything outside it is PAST. There is a great deal of the past that is not being accounted for, and therefore the fragility begins to play. Furthermore, even when we start to dip into the past we begin to taint it with our contemporary state. The further we become detached from a person, moment, event, and/or the further the gap between actual and collective memory becomes, the more we begin to place ourselves into that past and erect a narrative called history.  So in this sense, we cannot help but create “story” in our understanding of the past.

This is not to suggest that all history is lies (like the fokumentary) or historians liars (like our friend T Pat), but it tends to point in a direction that capital-T “Truth” is very hard to come by and the lines between reality and fable can become quite roily. It is better to understand history as the best attempts by humans to connect with the specters and try to make the most sense out of them, and that’s not easy. But it’s important work goddamnit! We need that connection to the past. We need to have an understanding (however partial and imperfect) of our origins and hope that will provide in us a sense of closure and comfort for our mortal selves. We know there was a person, or a place, a moment, an event that occurred out in the distance, we know “it happened” by virtue that we are here now. But to reach back into a cognitive void and pull forth an understanding of it requires story.

And I like that idea. It’s fun for me. It’s fun to think about, write about, discuss.

So, I imagine, in a very strange, circuitous way this becomes a bit of a mission statement as well. Here at “Writings and Letters” there will be, with any bit of luck, a “pious yet playful” approach to the real and unreal. There will be fiction, non-fiction, stories from the present, the past, some maybe even the future! and political or philosophical musings (why not?), then right back to talking about slaying dragons, and a review of an obscure General Public album (just kidding, it’d totally be on All the Rage), and… others…

A panoply of pastiche.

Join me, won’t you?