Last Sunday marked the quantitative halfway point of my Seattle International Film Festival adventure. It took me quite a long time walking around in the rain on Capitol Hill to realize that the "Broadway Performance Hall" is located on the campus of Seattle Central Community College; it wasn't until I saw the line of early-bird pass-holders that I realized I'd been obliviously and repeatedly passing my destination by. As I sheepishly joined my fellow second-class-citizen ticket holders in the segregated ticket holders line, I started noticing that Seattle Central's campus offers a much more collegial feel than that of my school of choice, North Seattle Community College. with its tended lawns and red brick buildings, SCCC has a very urban-academic look and feel that's very similar to Portland State's downtown campus. Conversely, the hopelessly suburban NSCC, with its impenetrable fortress of gray concrete, its dungeon-like outdoor staircases, and its Byzantine rat-maze passageways, feels like the punitive holding pen for high school dropout miscreants that most community colleges are probably presumed to be by those who've gone to "real" schools.
The film was Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, a documentary by Robert Stone. My exposure to some of the finer pop culture of our time- the films of John Waters, some of which have costarred Ms. Hearst, Network, Black Box Recorder's "Kidnapping an Heiress"- have led me to cultivate a strong interest in the strange little cultural/political episode where a nation watched, bemused and horrified, as a little girl who exemplified the cream of the American Dream spat at them, via recorded messages, the propaganda of The Symbionese Liberation Army, a ragtag group of malcontents who, in the wake of the Vietnam War and the intransigent Nixon presidency, were intent upon finding something to make armchair America wake up, pay attention, and maybe even do something about a seemingly endless wave of violence, injustice, and economic depression/oppression. Their infamous plan: Kidnap the progeny of a dynasty that controlled a significant portion of the money and media of the machine.
Stone uses very little present-day footage- mostly just a couple of videotaped interviews with surviving ex-members of the SLA who, though they offer some insight and context, seem like annoying hippie burnouts. These interview subjects come off quite differently than the SLA members we see and hear in the archival footage comprising most of the rest of the film; Stone has masterfully edited it all together chronologically to form something resembling a plotted narrative, and because he includes footage of Vietnam and Nixon and sets up the SLA story as one of disillusionment with the failure of the peace-and-love hippie movement to alter the course of atrocity America seemed intent on, the SLA people come off like desperate, idealistic kids who've taken a radically misguided course of action because the more reasonable methods of protesting and talking had had no effect (a speech by Nixon in which he proudly boasts that he won't pay a bit of attention to the masses of antiwar Americans was, to me, as chilling as anything the SLA had to say).
Hearing Hearst denounce her family's way of life and taunting them when their provisions for the poor- an SLA condition for her release ("The food you were giving out didn't seem like it was the kind of food we used to eat at our house")- was like the first time I heard "God Save the Queen"- a rush of truth with a healthy dose of bile from having been held back for so long (all of Hearts's voice recordings were later alleged to have been coerced). There an almost Hitchcockian mythology to Hearst's transformation from bubbleheaded, apolitical California blonde to beret-wearing bank-robber with a gun and a confrontational ideology. I hope the word "glamor" doesn't trivialize what's represented by a placid, compliant young woman disappearing into the pinko underworld that, in the context of her upbring and social status, is truly a trip through the looking glass, and emerging as something that exposes, undermines, and intimidates the silly world and people she came from.
Simply put, the kidnapping and transformation of Patty Hearst is, on its surface, a powerful symbol of weakness becoming strength, of blindness becoming clear sight, of lazy mindlessness becoming hard-nosed intelligence. Who really knows, or will ever know, whether Hearst was an opportunist or chameleon who believed the bobbing and weaving succession of the things she said as she said them, or was actually "brainwashed" by the SLA, or some jagged combination of the two? These are questions for one person- Patty Hearst- to ponder. For the rest of us, the mythology of what happened, and the disturbance it represents to another, more dominant and destructive mythology, is what maintains the relevance of the whole anomalous event.
The film itself was, for its purposes, a success- some of the stylistic choices seemed a little too VH-1, but then again, VH-1 stole and mangled documentary style from the documentarians). It was very noticeably to me much of the audience wasn't up to taking it all in. There was a lot of derisive snickering, which I find fairly intolerable coming from ironically superior indie brats, but it was positively teeth-gnashing coming from the suburban-middle-class, SUV-driving film-fest contingent (the ones who are participating in the Cultural Activity designated by the Seattle Times as The Place to Be), who apparently had come to revel in the long-ago defeat of a force that had tried, in their clumsy and misbegotten way, to challenge exactly the presumptuous, arrogant mindless-American attitudes these people had brought with them. It might be easy to laugh at the ineptitude of the SLA, their strident, overearnest idealism, the language they used (the audience seemed to find "fascist insect" a real howler), but I was very irritated by the amazing glibness of these reactions, as if the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and the SLA's demand that a crumbling nation wake up and take care of its people were some fictionalized episode of retro-chic nostalgia, as if we've gotten beyond all that crazy stuff and can laugh now, Bush administration and war in Iraq be damned. It was the worst kind of stereotypically myopic Generation X response: "Remember those cheesy Brady Bunch lunchboxes we had? Remember Leif Garrett? Remember our laughably shitty TV shows? Remember our parent's divorces? Remember Patty Hearst, the SLA, and the anger and frustration of a country ripped apart by war, with a complacent silent majority smugly crushing the efforts of those who cared about this country, its people, and the world? Remember the national mood of doubt, despair, disillusionment, and crisis? Isn't it all just a blast-from-the-past scream? Aren't we somehow magically above it all now?"
The accusations made by the SLA leaders and members- of systematic racism, sexism, economic injustice, and warmongering- were (and are) inarguably true, and the snarky laughter of a bunch of exotica-seeking conformist hypocrites at a film festival can't erase the what Stone's film doesn't exactly have to strain to reveal to those of us actually paying attention: What created these misguided American guerillas is precisely the penchant of the comfortable American middle class for ignorantly blissful, self-serving amnesia of the sort that allows one to laugh derisively at those who see the hypocrisies and contradictions of public policy and social norms and are willing to make an effort to expose them. In the same way a Communist sympathizer is not a Communist, I would never join or actively support a group like the SLA, with its very dubious, reckless, and ultimately unconsciencious tactics. I do, however, sympathize; I've felt the same kind of impatience and anger they felt. It seems impossible to me that any intelligent, principled person could be either capable of cheering their criminal activities or incapable of understanding what motivated them.
My Saturday night was much more eventful than I’ve become used to over the past month and a half of work, school, and intermittently revisiting my usual film/book/music pastimes/obsessions. As it happens, this was only half a good thing. A friend of Jason’s, a fellow UW DMA student named Clint Kraus, was giving an organ recital at St. James Cathedral, your premier location for Puget Sound Catholicism. The setting was gorgeous and ritualistic in that inimitable Catholic way, with beautiful stained glass, statuary, candles, and flowers. (I find certain Protestant churches very beautiful, too, but in a different and even opposite way, obviously. Cathedrals are colorful, rich, vibrant, Fellini-beautiful; the good Protestant churches are stark, symmetrical, utilitarian, expansive, Bergman-beautiful. It’s a very Southern European vs. Northern European archetypal mythology.) A Hispanic woman who seemed to be some sort of employee or volunteer kept passing back and forth in front of us, and each time she crossed the spot placing her parallel to the altar around which all the cathedral seating is situated, she made a little bow of obeisance; I have to admit, I found it fascinating and a little exotic.
The concert itself, which included pieces by Liszt, Bach, and some others I’d never heard of prior to that evening, was pretty amazing. The St. James organ is one of those massive, old-fashioned pipe organs the sound of which fills any space that comes into its path, the acoustics of the wide-open sanctuary provides much sonic space to fill, and Clint was able to make the organ sound like a symphony of bass-like doomsday rumbles and synth-like airy melodies (I’m sure I’ll never be able to listen to any classical music without using such pop reference points for descriptive vocabulary). The whole affair lasted about an hour, which seemed to me about as long as you could maintain the interest of a single instrument without other instrumental or vocal accompaniment.
Afterwards, Jason, myself, and Jeremy (another fellow student who rode along with us) met up with Clint and his gang of gay fellows at Seattle’s atrocious Man Ray. I always try to be as pessimistic and defeatist as I can, so I honestly have no idea why, when I was told we would be going “out for drinks” at “Man Ray,” I was able to imagine a cozy, funky-hipsterish sort of gay hotspot- Hamburger Mary's meets MoMA- where the boys would gather ‘round, recap the concert, congratulate Clint on his phenomenal exertions, and take a moment to get to know those they’d never met before. “Man Ray, what a cool name for a bar. I bet it’s ‘arty,’” I thought to myself as an image of the famous early twentith-century Surrealist photographer’s (and cofounder, in 1917, of the New York Dada group- how cool is that?) legendary, eminently artificial, immortal photograph Tears appeared in the thought bubble over my head.
But ah, no-one should know better than I that bubbles are made to be burst. After surviving the real Man Ray, the one quite unlike the way too idealistic one I’d pictured, the only photographers I would associate with the joint are Herb Ritts or Bruce Weber. The place is modern, all right, in the clinical-diguised-as-aesthetic mode. It’s one big white room with glass fixtures and video screens everywhere, with an oval-shaped bar in the center taking up all the floor space and looking exactly like the “cash-wrap” island you’ll find at your local Gap (in fact, I wouldn’t blink if someone were to inform me that the place is literally nothing more than an abandoned Gap, architecturally speaking). Tables were few and far between, a precious commodity. One can’t very well pose and cruise while seated at a table, and I’m afraid that's pretty much the extent of what you go to do when you go to Man Ray.
On this particular Saturday night, the place was packed, literally teeming, with men dressed after bad Out magazine spreads (one should never pay attention to Out), trying to impress and looking to be impressed in ways based on concepts I have to believe are purely received and mindless; everyone trying to be a whole lot of nothing, following the same old International Male fashion codes (they change and change, but always stay exactly the skintight, Eurotrash-gigolo same), accepting the same different-in-the-same-way binaries.
Conversation was, as usual for places like Man Ray, a challenge. The music was much too loud, not to mention terrible. I saw enough videos by Madonna, J. Lo, Nelly Furtado, etc. (all sped up to match the frenetically predictable remixes, making the video-star divas look like they were in fast-motion slapstick silents, which was actually the most interesting thing about the place) to more than keep me current on my crap, and to top it all off, there wasn’t even a place for anyone to dance (not that anything other than the miraculous intervention of “Town Called Malice” by The Jam or any of the other equally unlikely selections I’d consider danceable could’ve made me dance in this disco inferno). I wondered what I was being punished for; Dante himself couldn’t have imagined a more aptly nightmarish punishment for me.
Once I finally got home and was Febrezing the smoke stench out of my clothes, I wished that those horrible animal-testing corporate whores at Procter and Gamble also made a spray-and-forget product for experiences that stench up one’s consciousness.
-Clint Kraus’s facility with the organ brought to mind what I think of as the most exemplary pop-music organ deployments I can think of: Those heard on PJ Harvey’s two consecutively absolutely-perfect albums (not including 4-Track Demos, which I consider a sort of essential supplement/companion to Rid of Me, rather than an “official” album). The organ on songs like “Reeling” (the b-side of “50 Ft. Queenie”) and “Hook,” like so many other instruments on that violently physical record, screams; the organ on To Bring You My Love drones majestically (the title track), buzzes ominously (“Teclo,” “C’Mon Billy,” and, especially, “Down By the Water”) or washes over the other melodies like a wave of sweet purity (“The Dancer”).
On her new release, Uh Huh Her, it’s obvious that our West Country girl is following her muse- everything sounds like it’s PJ Harvey, not PJ Harvey imitating herself or someone else, and I think it’s clear that she’s enough of an artist never to do a Liz Phair on us- but her pesky, unpredictable inspiration has landed her in even more of a mixed bag on this one than it did last time, on 2000's Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (I definitely could’ve done without “Horses in My Dreams” and the Starbucks compilation-ready “You Said Something”). On Uh Huh Her, “Cat on the Wall” seems particularly flat-footed and skippable, with “You Come Through” being the Starbucks one, although much better and certainly more musically engaging (are those steel drums?) than “You Said Something.”
Still, about half of the dozen or so songs are interesting, engaging, and even exciting (as Stories’s “Big Exit,” “This is Love,” and “This Wicked Tongue” were). The first single, “The Letter,” features propulsive, tambourine-jangling choruses, fast, blues-tinged guitar, unusual, stereo-centric left-ear/right-ear backing vocals and, with its fetish-y panting over the stationery-and-inkpen particulars of correspondence, manages to be both unusually chaste and uniquely naughty.
“Who the Fuck” is the easiest, most obvious favorite, but that doesn’t stop me from designating it such for myself; there’s nothing more unstoppable in this set than these barely two minutes of vented rage. It’s like something off of Rid of Me, although Steve Albini would never create something quite so sharply caffeinated in quite this staccato-raunch style (his patented sonic model is the woozy, barely controlled drag/scrape/surprise-lurch). It’s a victory cry of self-made identity over limitation- physical, gender, social, take your pick- and it gets me all riled up.
Other favorites: “The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth” is an intriguing title, and if the song itself is a bit more realist-direct than the title might imply (I thought it would have more specificity, something more along the lines of a Nick Cave character study), it gets by on being catchy, very engagingly structured and performed, and easy to find yourself singing along to.
“It’s You” and “Shame” are both about dangerously excessive love, or the dangerous excesses of love, a subject our Polly always, always gets top marks in. The former has a creeping, swampy fuzz-guitar that rises from the crystalline opening piano bars, with the two melodies never ceasing to vie for the top spot in the mix. The latter has a weeping-melody that perfectly fits its theme of emotional masochism and the accompanying guilt. “The Slow Drug” has the exact aura of an uncertain morning after, a clear-eyed emptiness reaching out for reassurance, and it contains the melody and atmosphere to truly move us. “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” is a very spare folk-country tune, very Johnny Cash-like (complete with heaven-hell tug-of-war), and works wonderfully. The other homespun-folksy one, “The Pocket Knife,” only half-works; it promises some sort of breakthrough or at least some juicy details to come, and although it is diverting along the way, it never really arrives at either.
Maybe it was the vim and vinegar of youth that allowed Polly Jean to create Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love; I do remember an Is This Desire?-era interview wherein she described To Bring You My Love- the tour and the album- as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” and it generally sounded as though she’d been unstable, unhappy, and unwell for much of the perfectionistic experience. And if her natural maturity and creative growth (and relaxation) never allow her to give us a Rid of Me or a To Bring You My Love again, Uh Huh Her is reasonable enough proof that a new PJ Harvey will, in the foreseeable future, remain something to look forward to.
-Once more allowing Morrissey to lead me gently by the hand into musical discovery, I set aside my Arvo Part for a bit and foraged into Jason’s sizable collection of classical discs, digging out his recording of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, Opus 36 performed by the London Sinfonietta (the very same venerable ensemble that’ll be performing the piece, composed in 1976, at this year’s Morrissey-curated Meltdown festival, though this it the 1991 version). The three movements are variations on the same gorgeous, expansive melody (which, with its repetitions, strikes my extremely limited classical frame of reference as rather Arvo Part-like); my favorite is the first, which begins almost inaudibly, gradually accumulates volume to a rich, full level of sound, retreats for the vocalist to offer the lament of all mothers who’ve lost sons in wars, and then, as the vocalist strikes a high note of anguish, the melody bursts forth once again before very, very gradually fading away to linger in the ears and in the mind.
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