Green Day, The Offspring, & the politics of pop-punk

HERE’S the brand-new song from Green Day, “Bang Bang”, an almost-timely exploration of the death-&-fame cult of mass shootings. Its unannounced release, coupled with the news that a new album is due in October, is explosive news for those who were only tided over by the new blink-182 album. They needn’t worry; with a new Sum 41 album due on the same release date as Green Day’s, pop-punk Christmas will assuredly come early.

&, in case you’re wondering, it’s definitely pop-punk we’re talking about. “Bang Bang” occupies a No Man’s Land between triumphant & routine, but what it is not is a continuation of the emo-friendly direction the band took from American Idiot onwards. Punk, of course, has moved in waves through its life like any other genre, & it’s only natural that, 20 years on from the heyday of pop-punk, pop-punk should once again be the dominant punk subgenre. The whole movement began, as any music fan knows*, with artsy New Yorkers like The Patti Smith Group, The New York Dolls, Blondie, Television, the Talking Heads, & the Ramones, only the last of which are really identifiably punk; it took subsequent waves in London & Manchester to produce the classic punk sound of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned & The Buzzcocks. That scene, like a punk rock tune, burned out almost as soon as it had begun, & was replaced within two years by artier sounds such as post-punk, new wave, synthpop, & ska. But almost as quickly as the white rage of punk was dying in the UK, US hardcore bands like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys & Minor Threat were arriving to carry the (now-burning-even-insanely-more-incandescently) torch, & while the UK never really bothered keeping the scene alive, hardcore (including subgenres, such as straight edge & the first wave of emo) ruled Stateside for close to 15 years. In that context, Green Day’s Dookie album not their début, though it might as well have been – represented something truly unique, in that it went back to the British sound that no-one had bothered copying in ages, poppified it by about 20-30%, & added relatable lyrics that moved deftly from fratboy gross-out humour to suburban malaise for maximum appeal. Purists may have, & still may, turn up their noses, but in terms of influence Dookie makes it into any punk Top Ten of albums, & within a few years of its release, every US punk group that mattered had either formed in Dookie‘s wake, or had switched sound to capitalise.

This analysis finds me as objective as it’s possible to be when discussing something as inherently subjective as cultural trends. I’m not biased by nostalgia because, in truth, I’m a relatively new Green Day fan. I was aware of “Basket Case” & “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”, though few others, through MTV2 growing up in the early 00s, bought the American Idiot album & quickly tired of it after heavy rotation, then for ten years almost never thought about them. It wasn’t until, as an anniversary present, I got my girlfriend tickets to the American Idiot stage musical last year, that I was forced to re-evaluate the band, finding fragments of the entire album sticking in my head weeks & months after the performance. I’m an admirer of any composer who knows their way around a pop hook, & Green Day might pip The Beatles for the top spot of catchiest band of all time. So I found myself re-purchasing American Idiot, which I’d misplaced in the intervening decade, & while I was at it buying Insomniac, Nimrod (their best, tune-for-tune), & Warning, the three post-Dookie albums which, put together, form a relatively rare string of records which find a band at their peak in terms of musicianship, songwriting ability, & commercial appeal at once.

I’d missed all this because, during the eight heady years when pop-punk bands ruled the earth, I was an Offspring fan. I was a huge fan, looking back on it: I had all their albums; knew all the words to every song; read their sleevenotes; could name each band member (I no longer can!); I called them my favourite band; & I sincerely believed that they would always be my favourite band. In retrospect, they’re not even my favourite of the 90s pop-punk bands. Green Day beat them in terms of tunesmanship, lyrics, vocals, musicianship, punk attitude, & rad album covers**. Additionally, having switched to a pop-punk sound following the success of Dookie makes The Offspring seem like followers rather than setters of trends, the .5 in a 1.5-horse race. After Green Day’s second time around changing the mainstream face of punk with American Idiot, The Offspring belatedly followed with Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace. Even when playing in Green Day’s shadow, however, The Offspring’s sound was reliant on a thick, quasi-metal guitar crunch courtesy of various indifferent (over)producers, which I tend to find less appealing than Green Day’s authentically thin, wiry, fuzzy punk sound courtesy of Rob Cavallo.

It stands to reason, though, that the two dominant bands of the 90s scene should differ in this way. While Green Day’s biggest influences, from their riffs to their subject matter to Billie Joe Armstrong’s almost mockney whine, were British groups like The Damned & Sex Pistols (& as of American Idiot, The Who), The Offspring played in a characteristically American, characteristically Californian sound that they owed to Black Flag, Dead Kennedys & Bad Religion. The obviousness of these influences is diluted a little on The Offspring’s later albums due to a timely, Dookie-informed switch to pop-punk, but on their first two releases (with songs like “Kill The President” & “L.A.P.D.” respectively), it can be seen plainly, & the metallic guitars about which I complained in the paragraph above are all part of that. Similarly, when words fail Green Day lyricist Armstrong, his fallback is a Beatlesy “yeah”, whereas Holland prefers the “woah-ohs” of the Ramones.

Perhaps related to their British vs. American key influences is a distinctly different philosophical approach. While the scatological humour of Green Day would provide blink-182 & Sum 41 with their sole raison d’être, the band were never apolitical in the way that their imitators were. But there’s a touch of unconventiality of topic to songs like “King for a Day” (transvestism), “Welcome to Paradise” (slum living & missing one’s mother) or “Having a Blast” (being a suicide bomber; perhaps a dry-run for “Bang Bang”) that, coupled with their leavening moments of humour, can make them easy to overlook as political songs. By the time the band performed “Warning” (a warning against, well, warnings) it was hard to tell what they meant & what was classic, British-style sarcasm, & it was sad to see that, by the time of the otherwise accomplished American Idiot, the band’s message had degenerated into standard punk insurrection against a barely-understood but assuredly no-good political machine made up of Bush, 7-Eleven, the military-industrial complex, rednecks, mass media, & one’s parents. It was left-wing music, something Billie Joe Armstrong, an endorser of Bernie Sanders for President, would, I assume, happily affirm.

The Offspring, meanwhile, forged their own path with what is recognisably, though never explicitly, that most unheard-of-in-punk of all political philosophies: libertarianism. Educated, good-natured frontman Dexter Holland never once exhorts us to smash the system, extolling instead a philosophy of privacy, decency &, above all, self-determination. Alright, I earlier cited songs such as “Kill the President” &”L.A.P.D.” as proof of their hardcore lineage. But strip away the fashionable rage, & the key lyric of “Kill The President” is not “Kill the president”, but “A leader’s not the center of democracy”; “L.A.P.D.”, meanwhile, opens with, “When cops are taking care of business, I can understand/But the L.A. story’s gone way out of hand”, functioning like a disclaimer to inform unwary listeners that, even with the early, edgy Offspring, it’s not really an anti-police anthem in the tradition of “Police & Thieves” (Junior Murvin/The Clash), “Hate the Police” (The Dicks) or “Fascist Pig” (Suicidal Tendencies).

Elsewhere self-determination comes up again & again; “Staring at the Sun” is defiant in the face of a lousy world; “All I Want”‘s classic chorus is “Leave me alone, I’m not asking a lot/I just don’t want to be controlled/That’s all I want”. “The Meaning of Life” features the lines “Open wide and they’ll shove in their meaning of life/Not for me, I’ll do it on my own”. “I Choose”, in spite of its absurdity, is nevertheless a song about choice in life, & even wackier songs such as “Don’t Pick It Up” or “Way Down the Line” advocate personal responsibility in their own way; even the pseudo-mystical “Pay the Man” gets in some anti-government paranoia, “The Man is making little bets/Playing with our lives”. The incoherency of left-wing punk rage is repeatedly skewered in Offspring tracks like “Change the World”, “Cool to Hate”, & “One Fine Day”. Meanwhile, “Walla Walla”, “Come Out and Play (Keep ‘Em Separated)”, “Genocide” & “Jennifer Lost the War” are accounts of incorrigible criminality. The concerns of a song like “Neocon” could easily be Green Day’s, but the objection is still against a centralisation of power. “Why Don’t You Get A Job?” ought, at this point, to speak for itself.

You might also notice that both bands’ love songs tend to be addressed to a similar sort of selfish, fucked-up woman; where, however, a liberal would feel compassionate about her problems might, in fact, go as far as to romanticise them, as in Green Day songs such as “She”, “Extraordinary Girl”, “She’s a Rebel”, “Whatsername”, et cetera The Offspring’s back catalogue bulges with songs of disdain for women who are irresponsible in their private lives: “Self Esteem”, “Feelings”, “She’s Got Issues”, “Want You Bad”, “Spare Me the Details”, “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” (again!).

So then is the personal political? Not quite, but it’s long been held that there is a left/right split that is purely philosophical***; leftwing individuals tend to emphasise collective responsibilities, even in apolitical scenarios, hence the collective politics of anarchism, communism, socialism & liberalism. Rightwingers on the other hand believe in personal responsibility, hence classic conservative ideas such as the limited state & the free market which, undiluted, make up some form or other of libertarianism. Given that, Johnny Ramone aside, punk rock’s only dalliance with any form of right-wing politics consists of Nazi punks of the sort the Dead Kennedys memorably told to “Fuck Off”, you can understand why The Offspring’s libertarianism is mostly buried within lyrics that recognisably fit with punk-rock rebellion, at least until examined together. Or perhaps these dancable, fashionable, popular songs were intended mostly as apolitical &, as it is for most people, personal values create entirely unconscious biases in ways of perceiving, feeling, & expression.

O, & by the way, neither band managed to write the perfect pop-punk song. That feat was accomplished by the otherwise unremarkable Jimmy Eat World, here.

pop-punk

*Yes, yes, down in front, put down your hand, I see you. Of course the previous decade gave us The Sonics, The Monks, The Seeds, The Velvet Underground, the MC5, & The Stooges, but all of these groups were (with the noble exception of general weirdoes the VU) parts of regional garage-rock scenes, & that their Beatles/Stones/Dylan/Kinks knock-offs were faster, nastier & snottier than those of their contemporaries does not mean that they, together, constitute a punk scene, only that they were stepping stones. In any case The Stooges & their scion Iggy Pop seemed to mean more to the Brits than they did to the Yanks, while The Velvet Underground’s main legacy is art-rock from Bowie through R.E.M. to Belle & Sebastian. However, it may be instructive to note that, just as pop-punk was dying in the early-00s, the garage-rock revival was reaching its peak, led by The White Stripes, The Hives, & The Vines. Feel free to visualise these briefly-overlapping periods of subgenre dominance as a series of sine waves.

**Proof: The Offspring took the CD reissue of their first LP as an opportunity to replace this badassery with this…thing.

***This footnote probably requires more citations, but a friend recommended Joe Feagin, “Subordinating the Poor: Welfare and American Beliefs”, 1975, available here, & Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, available here.

Directors, parodies, & auteur theory again

Spielberg Directing Jurassic Park

I’VE POSTED BEFORE ABOUT auteur theory; in that essay I’m dismissive of it as it promotes a misconception of the truly collaborative process of filmmaking. It is, however, undeniable that certain directors are not skilled craftsmen pursuing a trade, but rather creatives with a unique voice embarking on a series of artistic statements; in short, auteurs. Further, it occured to me in conversation with a friend that an indisputable way of testing positive for auteurism might be the following: could you produce a short film incorporating all the hallmarks of that director’s style, & have it be recognisable to a mainstream audience? I think the following list includes every one of the surprisingly few directors who would pass that test although it can, of course, be added to as necessary:

Alfred Hitchcock (hallmarks: black-&-white cinematography; thriller plots; innocent blonde women being put through Hell; Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant; brutal, tongue-in-cheek violence; mistaken identity; protagonists on the run, often from an insidious conspiracy; murder; a subtle self-cameo in each film)

Quentin Tarantino (hallmarks: easy, conversational dialogue frequently incorporating pop-cultural references; borrowings from older, often obscure, genre pictures; sudden outbursts of bloody violence, often played for dark comedy; repurposed pop hits of the 60s & 70s; (over)use of the word “nigger”; larger-than-life characters; men in dark suits; use of anachronic order; selfconscious selfreferentiality; a grating self-cameo)

David Lynch (hallmarks: corny Americana; strange, cold, but likeable protagonists; the mundane treated as surreal & vice versa; this pattern; cryptic encounters with visitors from spirit worlds; coffee; neo-noir; the 1950s; the idea of doubles; strange-looking old men; beautiful young women; the existence of absolute evil; slow-motion shots of electricity or fire; ethereal, jazzy scores, usually by Angelo Badalamenti; a scene in which the protagonist watches someone sing, or lip-sync to, a haunting tune in front of red velvet curtains)

David Cronenberg (hallmarks: body horror; weird sexuality; quack psychiatry; stories in which protagonists find themselves transformed, to their own delight & the horror of the audience; clinical, objectively-shot violence; a sense of sympathy for viruses, parasites or infections)

John Woo (hallmarks: “slow-motion wirework, flocks of doves, dual handguns with infinite ammo, villains as near-identical Shadow Archetypes“)

Christopher Nolan (hallmarks: mysterious stories, often in which some element key to viewers’ understanding is only  revealed towards the end; women in refrigerators; cinematography so dark & glossy it looks like black-&-white; single-minded, obsessed heroes; a cold, staccato Hans Zimmer score)

M. Night Shyamalan (hallmarks: mystery-style films, often with a supernatural element; enormous, sometimes illogical twist endings; gorgeous colour photography; increasingly obnoxious self-cameos)

Tim Burton (hallmarks: big, black-&-white stripes; perky Goths; Johnny Depp; Helena Bonham Carter; ham acting; stories in which misunderstood outsiders are goodies & normal folk are baddies; the comedic grotesque; an obsession with trash culture; an elaborate yet repetitive Danny Elfman score)

Wes Anderson (hallmarks: sensitive, yet damaged American men; Owen & Luke Wilson; super hip folk-pop soundtracks; a style that makes a virtue of its cheapness; dips into jerky stop-motion; anything that might be described as “quirky”)

Woody Allen (hallmarks: Woody Allen as protagonist; New York as setting; charming women improbably wooed by neurotic nebbishes; witty discussions of sex, death, & Jewish identity; jazz music; Russian literature & world cinema)

Sergio Leone (hallmarks: the Western; uninterrupted long takes, especially of breathtaking American landscapes; unwashed, unshaven, morally grey characters; intense Ennio Morricone scores; musical editing with operatic cuts, including close-ups of eyes & hands reaching toward holsters; physical comedy of an often cruel kind; meaningless violence, either senselessly protracted or occuring as quick outbursts)

Martin Scorsese (hallmarks: voiceover narration; long tracking shots; epic, character-driven stories, often of crime or corruption; frequent use of montage; frequent use of montage edited to “Gimme Shelter”; Robert De Niro as star (1973-1995); Leonardo DiCaprio as star (2002-present))

Steven Spielberg (hallmarks: family-friendly films, often centred on families; frequent suburban settings; absent or inadequate fathers; unexpectedly scary scenes in non-horror films; bathing scenes in light, especially to create a sense of eeriness; a love of spectacle & wonder; a sometimes cloying sentimentality; uplifting John Williams scores)

James Bond, Madlibs, & the 007 drinking game

Bond drinking

IT WASN’T NECESSARY for me to rewatch the entire Bond series, in order, with my girlfriend, to recognise that the series is heavily reliant on an established formula, but it didn’t stop me. Indeed, what’s remarkable is not how formulaic the films are, but how successfully a 54-years-24-films-long series has been built where other, equally formulaic, series seem to have stalled (for reference, see the Carry Ons, the Rockys, the Karate Kids, the Friday the 13ths, the Nightmare on Elm Streets, the Halloweens or, really, any other film franchise at all). Another, perhaps related, peculiarity of the Bonds is that no-one really tends to see them as a series, with the possible exception of the more continuity-heavy post-reboot films; they’re more like this year’s model than sequels, which can be tracked in the trends they embrace: blaxploitation in 1973’s Live and Let Die; Kung Fu in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun; disco in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me; Star Wars in 1979’s Moonraker.

So successful & so enduring is the Bond formula that, aside from its imitations in many other works, even within the franchise it has frequently proven possible to deconstruct & reconstruct it however the creators see fit. Like a game of Madlibs, the same elements show up in new combinations across the series, & what that’s given rise to in my household at least, is the 007 drinking game: take a sip of vodka martini each time one of these elements show up.

1. Film ends with Bond & Bond girl on raft

Appears in: Dr. No; From Russia with Love; Goldfinger (a parachute is the aerial version of a raft); Thunderball; You Only Live Twice; Diamonds Are Forever (a yacht is just a really fancy raft); The Man with the Golden Gun (a junk is just a big raft); The Spy Who Loved Me (a miniature submarine is the…well, submarine version of a raft); Moonraker (an escape pod is the space version of a raft); For Your Eyes Only (again, a yacht is a fancy raft); Octopussy; Tomorrow Never Dies

Drink twice if: Bond is actively avoiding a rescue effort in order to get off with the Bond girl (Dr. No, Goldfinger, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, Tomorrow Never Dies)

2. Film ends with Bond & Bond girl hilariously interrupted mid-coitus by an attempt at rescue or communication

His superiors will act shocked at his promiscuity, every time. Appears in: The Spy Who Loved Me; Moonraker; For Your Eyes Only; A View to a Kill; GoldenEye; The World is Not Enough

Drink twice if: Bond is on some sort of raft or other craft when it occurs (see above).

3. Shark tanks!

Appears in: Thunderball; You Only Live Twice (a piranha tank is just a modest version of a shark tank); Live and Let Die (which features a functionally similar alligator farm in addition to the real deal); The Spy Who Loved Me; Licence to Kill (which also features a revolting maggot tank)

4. Assassination attempt by deadly (sometimes, not-so-deadly) animal

Due to the prevalence of tanks full of sharks or other aquatic creatures, they’ve been given their own section. Appears in: Dr. No (tarantula); Live and Let Die (snake); Moonraker (another snake); Skyfall (komodo dragon)

5. Villain wears a Nehru jacket

Appearances: Dr. No in Dr. No; Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice; Ernst Stavro Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever; Hugo Drax in Moonraker; Ernst Stavro Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only; Kamal Khan in Octopussy; Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies; Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Spectre

6. Villain bearing some sort of physical deformity or disfigurement

Appearances: Dr. No in Dr. No (metal hands); Emilio Largo in Thunderball (missing left eye); Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (baldness; scar over right eye); Ernst Stavro Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (baldness); Tee Hee in Live and Let Die (missing right hand, replaced with hook); Whisper in Live and Let Die (obesity); Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (superfluous third nipple); Nick Nack in The Man with the Golden Gun (dwarfism); Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (acromegaly; metal teeth); Jaws in Moonraker (acromegaly; metal teeth); Ernst Stavro Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only (baldness; paralysis); Alec Trevelyan 006 in GoldenEye (burns across right side of face); Valentin Zukovsky in GoldenEye (limp due to bullet wound in knee); Renard in The World is Not Enough (baldness; forehead scar from bullet wound, also causing inability to feel pain); Elektra King in The World is Not Enough (missing lobe of right ear); Mister Bullion in The World is Not Enough (gold teeth); Zao in Die Another Day (diamonds embedded in face due to explosion; later, bald, blue-eyed & pale while retaining Asiatic facial structure due to interrupted Caucasiplasty); Le Chiffre in Casino Royale (scar over left eye; cries blood); Raoul Silva in Skyfall (deformed jaw due to cyanide incident); Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Spectre (scar over right eye due to an explosion, also causing blindness in right eye)

Drink twice if: they bear their disfigurement as a direct result of Bond’s actions (Ernst Stavro Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only; Alec Trevelyan 006 in GoldenEye; Valentin Zukovsky in GoldenEye; Zao in Die Another Day (twice over!); Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Spectre)

8. Villain hoist with his own petard

This might be a physical feature, a personality quirk, some sort of weapon or item, or a feature of the villain’s plan, just as long as it causes his downfall. Appearances: Dr. No in Dr. No (unable to climb slippery pole due to own metal hands); Oddjob in Goldfinger (electrocuted via own razor bowler hat); Mr. Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever (set alight with own burning shishkabob); Mr. Wint in Diamonds Are Forever (blown up with own bomb); Mr. Big in Live and Let Die (shot with own compressed-air pistol); Tee Hee in Live and Let Die (wrenched out of train due to inability to free own hook-hand); Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (fooled by own mannequin of Bond); Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me (shot through own gun-pipe in table); Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (attracted to electromagnet via own metal teeth); Dr. Carl Mortner in A View to a Kill (blown up by own dynamite); Brad Whitaker in The Living Daylights (crushed by own Waterloo diorama); Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies (killed by own sea drill); Colonel Tan-Sun Moon in Die Another Day (sucked into jet intake by own parachute; also electrocuted by own power suit)

9. A villain the audience had forgotten about appears to attack Bond & Bond girl aboard moving vehicle

A final, post-climactic action scene particularly beloved by director Guy Hamilton, who used it in each of his Bond films: Auric Goldfinger in Goldfinger (aboard aeroplane); Mr. Wint & Mr. Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever (aboard yacht); Tee Hee in Live and Let Die (aboard train); Nick Nack in The Man with the Golden Gun (aboard junk)

10. Bond challenges the villain, early on in his investigation, in a sport or game

He always wins, too. Appears in: Goldfinger (golf); Thunderball (clay pigeon shooting); Moonraker (pheasant shooting); Octopussy (backgammon); A View to a Kill (steeplechase); GoldenEye (impromptu motor racing; Baccarat) Die Another Day (fencing). This also supplies about half of the plot of Casino Royale (Texas Hold ’em poker).

Drink twice if: the villain cheats, but Bond wins anyway (GoldfingerMoonraker, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, arguably Die Another Day)

11. Henchman with a bizarre method of assassination

Appearances: Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love (concealed blade in shoe); Oddjob in Goldfinger (razor bowler hat); Bambi & Thumper in Diamonds Are Forever (tag-team gymnastics); Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (firing golden bullets from Golden Gun); Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (biting with metal teeth); Jaws in Moonraker (biting with metal teeth); Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye (crushing with thighs); Mr. Hinx in Spectre (pushing thumbs through eyeballs)

Drink twice if: the henchman is hoist with his own petard (see above)

12. Ski scene

The best ones are choreographed by Willy Bogner. Appears in: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; The Spy Who Loved Me; For Your Eyes Only; A View to a KillThe Living Daylights (Bond on toboggan; enemies on skis); The World is Not Enough; Spectre

13. Diving scene

Naturally enough, Sir Ian Fleming had a passion for marine biology. Appears in: Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only, Tomorrow Never Dies

14. Gadget car

There is something of a misconception that Bond receives a new one in each film; in fact, this is only true of the Brosnan era. James Bond’s gadget cars are: an Aston Martin DB5 (Goldfinger; Thunderball; GoldenEye; Tomorrow Never DiesThe World is Not Enough; Skyfall; Spectre); an Aston Martin DBS (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; Diamonds Are Forever); a Lotus Esprit S1 (The Spy Who Loved Me); a Lotus Esprit Turbo (For Your Eyes Only); an Aston Martin V8 Vantage Volante (The Living Daylights); a BMW Z3 (GoldenEye); a BMW 750iL (Tomorrow Never Dies); a BMW Z8 (The World is Not Enough); an Aston Martin V12 Vanquish (Die Another Day); an Aston Martin DBS V12 (Casino Royale; Quantum of Solace); an Aston Martin DB10 (Spectre). Villainous gadget cars are Francisco Scaramanga’s AMC Matador/light aircraft in The Man with the Golden Gun, & Zao’s Jaguar XKR in Die Another Day.

15. Gadget watch

Again, these are only a regular feature of the Brosnan films, though Q’s line in Die Another Day, “Your new watch. Your twentieth, I believe-?” wrongly implies they are a feature of every film. James Bond’s gadget watches are: a Breitling Top Time with inbuilt Geiger counter (Thunderball); Rolex Submariner with inbuilt electromagnet & buzzsaw (Live and Let Die); Seiko 0674 with inbuilt teleprinter (The Spy Who Loved Me); Seiko M354-5019M with inbuilt explosives (Moonraker); Seiko Duo-Time H357 with inbuilt communicator (For Your Eyes Only); Seiko G757-5020 with inbuilt surveillance equipment (Octopussy); Omega Seamaster 2541.80 with inbuilt laser beam & remote detonator (GoldenEye); Omega Seamaster 2531. 80 with inbuilt explosives (Tomorrow Never Dies); Omega Seamaster 2531.80 with grappling hook (The World is Not Enough); Omega Seamaster 2531.80 with inbuilt explosive detonaor & laser beam (Die Another Day); Omega Seamaster with inbuilt explosives (Spectre)

Happy drinking!

Joseph Conrad, 20th-Century cinema, & Hearts of Darkness

Colonel KurtzTHERE IS A particularly portentous moment in Peter Jackson’s King Kong: the ship boy, all along, has been reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, having been attracted to it because it’s a maritime adventure story; however, they’re nearing Skull Island, and he finishes the book, reflecting “It’s not just an adventure story, is it?”. The subplot probably wasn’t necessary in a film that’s already a three-hour remake of a 100-minute film, but it’s indicative of the mythopoeic approach Jackson took on it (by the way, I really enjoyed Jackson’s Kong: I can handle a little pretension). Soon afterwards, there’s a Conradian moment where the crew end up getting themselves bitten by one of the native boys, trying to bargain with him using a chocolate bar.

That what was, in 1933, a straightforward adventure film should become, in 2005, an epic with literary & philosophical ambitions shouldn’t be surprising. The influence of Heart of Darkness extends not only to those intellectuals who embraced it, the T.S. Eliots & Orson Welleses, but to the entire adventure genre. Previously, there had been other writers working within the same broad colonial adventure genre; there was, for instance, H. Rider Haggard, whose novels & short stories present vast imaginative vistas, or the political consciousness-raising of Rudyard Kipling, but Conrad’s stroke of genius his presentation of the journey into the heart of wilderness as a philosophical voyage into the dark heart of humanity has had a transformative, though slow, effect on that type of narrative, & you would now have to look hard nowadays for travels into the wilderness that aren’t Conradian. Even the source material suggests this, with Marlow’s early line that the Thames, too, has been one of the dark places of the world*.

One major early Heart of Darkness was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Parodying R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, where that novel an entry in the prolific “Crazy Island” genre saw a group of British schoolboys create a paradise of reason & order upon being shipwrecked, Golding’s novel has them descend by choice into savagery. Filmed in 1963, 1976, & 1990, Lord of the Flies is a major high-school text, & many subsequent Hearts of Darkness have drawn equally upon it & the original witness, for instance, the Alex Garland novel/Danny Boyle film The Beach.

Hearts of Darkness are, for whatever reason, especially prevalent in the cinema. John Boorman’s Deliverance & Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood, both based on novels, locate their heart of darkness in the forests of America. Rural America is a brutal, cannibalistic place in a huge number of horror films, the most notable of which include Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre & Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (both of which, naturally, received remakes). Lars von Trier’s foray into torture porn, Antichrist, draws on several of the pictures cited here & makes its rural landscape literally hostile.

Great Britain as a setting is largely too small & orderly to accomodate the necessary wilderness, but a few have gone for it anyway. Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs has quiet American Dustin Hoffman move to Cornwall, wherein he is bullied by the local nasties to the point of violent retribution. Rod Lurie’s 2011 remake moves the action to the American Deep South. Eden Lake featured an encounter with a brutal gang of happy-slapping delinquents in the English woods, while Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (based on a novel, Ritual by David Pinner) sends an evangelising Christian policeman to a remote Scottish island full of pagans, with unhappy results. The Wicker Man‘s remake, by Neil LaBute, unprofitably moves the island in question to the Pacific Northwest, while the sequel The Wicker Tree, which was first published by Hardy as the novel Cowboys for Christ, implausibly finds paganism alive & well in the Scottish Borders (“with England”!).

Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust depicts the clash between civilisations in the rainforests of South America, as do a host of lesser cannibal movies. South America was also the setting for Werner Herzog’s twin colonial-satire masterpieces, Aguirre, The Wrath of God &, even better, Fitzcarraldo. Fitzcarraldo is the tale of a Jesuit who goes mad in the jungle, insisting a river steamship be dragged overland up a mountain, in order to deposit it in a different river, & became all too literal a metaphor when its director went mad in the jungle, filming the picture by dragging a real steamship over a mountain. Roland Joffé’s The Mission plays almost like a more respectable, less immediate version of Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

A number of Australian films find their heart of darkness in that strange, mystic landscape: Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout; Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock & The Last Wave**; Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend, which also got a remake by Jamie Blanks, & which plays like a mash-up of Roeg’s WalkaboutDon’t Look Now, in which a heart of darkness of sorts is found in the foul waterways of Venice.

The biggest & probably best of all of these cinematic Hearts of Darkness was, of course, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which brilliantly relocated the novel to Southeast Asia in the Vietnam War. Dense, yet also sprawling, the picture brilliantly identified all of the many inter-related thematic threads of the novel: the insanity of colonialism/war; the inner darkness of humanity; the ultimate failure of language; the façade of civilisation; the brutality of invading cultures to indigenous ones. So complete an adaptation was it that by the time a more faithful version arrived, directed by Nic Roeg & starring John Malkovich as Kurtz, it felt superfluous; not only had it been done better already, but Roeg himself had already gotten Heart of Darkness out of his system with Walkabout (ostensibly based on a minor novel). Even the Apocalypse Now making-of, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, felt more authentic, depicting Coppola, Herzog-like, going mad in the jungle.

Even the less thoughtful pulp adventures, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or certain of Tintin’s adventures, tend to have a touch of Conrad. Videogames, too, have had their Hearts of Darkness, though the otherwise fine Heart of Darkness wasn’t one of them. Spec Ops: The Line draws equally from Heart of Darkness & Apocalypse Now, while setting its action in Dubai. Far Cry 2 explicitly drew on Heart of Darkness, but really every title in the series owes something to it. We might even get a whiff of it in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, a game of jungle survival & weighty introspection, which received two similar sequels. Michael Ancel, who proved a left-field choice to develop Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie, explored another Heart of Darkness with Beyond Good & Evil, which, like the aforementioned game Heart of Darkness, really didn’t owe that much to the text it was named for.

Personally, I hope we see many more of these. It’s probably my favourite novel, & it might well be my favourite genre, too.

*This line, & how fertile the simple idea of transplanting Heart of Darkness to other settings has proven in practice, suggests Chinua Achebe is wrong in asserting that Conrad’s novel relies on a racist, imperialist view of Africans. The rest of Conrad’s bibliography succeeds in imbuing a similar horror to South America, the West Indies, London, & the open sea.

**The Year of Living Dangerously & The Mosquito Coast, too, are suggestive films. Weir must be the cinema’s foremost Conradian.

 

 

Marvel, DC, & 1.5-horse races

Solid & Liquid Snake

DID ANYONE SEE Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? I’m just asking. Personally I didn’t bother; it wasn’t that I didn’t care, it just sort of passed me by. The figures suggest that’s probably the case for a lot of people out there, since the film did a passable, but disappointing, $850m & received damning reviews across the board. Given it was meant to launch a mega-expanded-universe-cinematic-juggernaut-crossover franchise (as was 2013’s uninspiring, but successful, Man of Steel), this is bad news for DC. Once upon a time, they could open massive comic-book movies like 1978’s Superman (plus four sequels), 1989’s Batman (plus three sequels), & 2005’s Batman Begins (plus two sequels & a pretty good animated spinoff), while in roughly the same timeframe, Marvel was producing unwatchable shit almost exclusively, which is funny since in terms of sales Marvel’s always had a competitive edge against the older, more conservative DC. In terms of popular iconography, DC’s always had the upper hand with their Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman trinity, though the depth & variety of Marvel characters is more impressive, & outside of that trinity DC’s never really managed to manage another household name, where Marvel has several (Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, The Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, The Mighty Thor, the X-Men & especially Wolverine plus, of late, Iron Man). Plus, in recent years Marvel have launched hugely successful films even when based on their obscurer characters. Similar attempts by DC have resulted in nothing but flops. Given all of this cinematic kerfuffle, plus DC’s flagging readership since the New 52 reboot, they’d be wise to watch out, lest they surrender the greater market share to Marvel after sixty-odd competitive years, making things less of a two-horse race & more of a 1.5-horse race.

1.5-horse races are surprisingly common; if anything, they may actually be more common than true two-horse races. It’s where one company has a clear lead, perhaps more than 50% of the market share, & their next competitor is almost as visible, almost as famous, almost as acclaimed, sells almost as well.

In fast food, there’s McDonald’s vs. Burger King. In traditional animation, there’s Disney vs. Warner Bros. (appropriate, given Disney owns Marvel & WB, DC); in CG animation there’s Disney Pixar vs. DreamWorks Animation. In cola, there’s Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi; in orange soda, there’s Fanta vs. Tango (Tango is sold in the UK by Britvic, who distribute fellow 2nd-bester Pepsi); in lemonade, there’s Sprite vs. 7Up (again, Sprite is Coca-Cola’s horse; 7Up, PepsiCo’s). In computers, there’s Microsoft vs. Apple. In trainers, there’s Nike vs. Reebok, & there’s Adidas vs. Puma. In American cars, there’s Ford vs. General Motors. In Italian sports cars, there’s Ferrari vs. Lamborghini. In music, there’s The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols vs. The Clash, Oasis vs. Blur, Madonna vs. Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson vs. Prince, & 2Pac vs. The Notorious B.I.G.. In American inventing, there used to be Thomas Edison vs. Nikola Tesla. Many football rivalries also work the same way: Manchester United vs. Manchester City, Arsenal vs. Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool vs. Everton, Newcastle vs. Sunderland, West Ham vs. Millwall, Aston Villa vs. Birmingham City, Portsmouth vs. Southampton,  Norwich vs. Ipswich, Cardiff vs. Swansea, & Crystal Palace vs. Brighton and Hove Albion. Celtic vs. Rangers has become this of late, after Rangers’ bankruptcy/buying-out saga. No doubt other sports have their own examples too. This can even extend to rivalries between cities, for which many of the football rivalries spill out into a larger rivalry. It can even happen with countries: look at Australia vs. New Zealand, South Korea vs. Japan, or for a less friendly example, South Korea vs. North Korea.

Even the Cold War, when you really think about it, resolves itself as another of these 1.5-horse races, with the Soviet Union stretching itself too thin in trying to remain competitive with the United States. But, as you can see from perusing the list above, it’s rare for one side to ever get enough of an upper hand to really drive its rivals into the ground, so both sides keep hanging on while an indifferent public tends just to go for the brand they prefer.

Asimov, Lovecraft, & promiscuous continuities

Aliens

HERE’S A piece of news for you: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus 2, formerly known as Paradise Lost, Prometheus: Paradise Lost, & Alien: Paradise Lost, is now called Alien: Covenant, until a new title for it rolls around. Pfft, who cares? Prometheus was rubbish, & the whole world is much more excited for the same-franchise, rival-movie, Neill Blomkamp’s maybe-one-day-to-see-release Alien 5. And if we have to see Ridley Scott revisiting a gritty early sci-fi classic, aren’t we all way more excited for the Blade Runner sidequel? Yeah? Kind of? Yeah.

You know, in another world, both movies would be the same thing. Scott stopped just short of including explicit reference to Blade Runner‘s Tyrell Corporation in Prometheus. Given the visual & thematic similarities of Alien & Blade Runner, it only makes sense to bind them together as sisters in continuity. But, it could be argued, it doesn’t even require a Prometheus to do that. The recent videogame Aliens: Colonial Marines had absolutely no qualms about including a cheeky nod to Blade Runner. OK, given it also includes nods to Prometheus & Spaceballs, it may not be that significant, especially since Colonial Marines has trouble even fitting itself into the franchise. But the more authentic Alien: Isolation also enjoys a good Blade Runner nod.

& then, of course, there’s the matter of Soldier. Released in 1998 & forgotten shortly thereafter, the film was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson & written by David Webb Peoples, also credited for Blade Runner. Sharing many elements of continuity with Blade Runner, & incorporating several references to other Philip K. Dick works (Blade Runner was based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Peoples admitted to seeing it as something of a sidequel to Blade Runner. But freeze-frame enthusiasts would also have determined that it shares a continuity with Aliens, thanks to a reference to Kurt Russell’s character Sgt. Todd 3465 having received training with the M41A Pulse Rifle & the USCM Smartgun. Those even fonder of freeze-framing may also have discerned the wreckage of Event Horizon‘s Lewis & Clark alongside a wrecked Blade Runner spinner. It seems appropriate, given that Event Horizon, also directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, so effectively aped the look & the mood of the Alien series that it was more satisfying than the same year’s Alien: Resurrection. About the only property it seemed to resemble even more closely than Alien was the videogame franchise Doom: in Doom, an experimental teleporter on Mars accidentally opens a portal to Hell; in Event Horizon, an experimental FTL engine in space accidentally opens a portal to Hell. Doom, the most influential first-person shooter game in history, had begun life as an Aliens licensee, before legal issues required a quick reskin & change in backstory. & what other weapon should Todd have been trained in the use of? The DOOM MKIV BFG! Perhaps we shouldn’t take all of this too seriously: the really really freeze-frame-savvy would also have spotted references in Soldier to Executive Decision (in which Kurt Russell starred as Dr. David Grant), Escape From New York & Escape From L.A. (in which Kurt Russell starred as Snake Plissken), Stargate (in which Kurt Russell starred as Colonel Jonathan O’Neil, & which also deals with aliens contacted via experimental portal technology), Tango & Cash (in which Kurt Russell starred as Lieutenant Gabriel Cash), The Thing (in which Kurt Russell starred as R. J. MacReady, & which owes its structure, mood, & nightmarishly-designed alien villain to Alien), Captain Ron (in which Kurt Russell starred as Captain Ron), Backdraft (in which Kurt Russell starred as both Captain Dennis McCaffrey & his son, Lieutenant Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (& thus indirectly every other iteration of Star Trek, too), & the Dexter Riley trilogy: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, & The Strongest Man in the World (which starred Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, & whose use of Medfield College, a fictional university setting shared with The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, & Flubber, recalled the use of fictional Miskatonic University in the works of Lovecraft). Soldier was clearly having its fun, & “Tannhauser Gate” has become almost an obligatory reference for science-fiction works.

But, at the same time, there might be something to this. Science-fiction giants of the late-twentieth century, Alien & Blade Runner both established handy ready-made references that later films could easily piggyback on, aiming perhaps to gain a bit of easy credibility or, less cynically, just to make audiences smile. Both were accepted into a wider canon of what we might call “promiscuous continuities”: fictional shared continuities which were a) open to new entries, b) proved to be attractive continuities for other writers, & c) could have continuity easily established with a throwaway line or references. Most of these pre-established promiscuous continuities came from pulp literature, in which originality is uncommon, but so is litigation. Prominent promiscuous continuities include: the Cthulhu Mythos, a cosmic horror continuity established by H.P. Lovecraft & others; the robot stories of Isaac Asimov, whose Three Laws of Robotics are sufficiently simple & sensible to be adopted whole by numerous other writers; & the world of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, in which mech armour is deployed against alien “bugs” (probably shares DNA with the aforementioned Doom: just as Aliens FPS games look like Doom ripoffs; just as the Doom movie, when it finally appeared, looked like a ripoff of Aliens, Event Horizon, or even Resident Evil, itself a videogame-to-film adaptation by Paul W. S. Anderson; just so, the eventual Starship Troopers movie owed a fair debt to the superior Aliens).

Academics would call this wealth of pre-established suggestive connections intertextuality, though the key difference is that, where intertextuality requires only that another work is being referenced, these are cases of it being invoked, i.e. the use of elements from that work are to establish that both take place within the same wider narrative universe. Connections to these promiscuous continuities are often so casually established that it’s easy to miss &, like invoking magic with spells, there are usually certain preferred phrases with which to do it. For Blade Runner, you just have to say “Tannhauser Gate”. For Asimov, it’s “Three Laws”, while for Lovecraft it might be Miskatonic University, the Necromonicon, or Cthulhu. Alien is often referenced via the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, while the Terminator films, sharing much cast & crew with the Alien series, are invoked in Aliens with Cyberdyne Systems.

Aliens just couldn’t stop namedropping, so it only made sense when a Freeze-Frame Bonus gag in Predator 2 led to a full-fledged crossover film directed by Paul W. “him again!” S. Anderson. In the comics world, things were taken even further with an Aliens versus Predator versus The Terminator comic. Aliens came out in a more innocent time, & writer-director James Cameron was probably only aiming for window-dressing in hitting the big promiscuous continuities: the android Bishop, we are told, is Three Laws Compliant, while Starship Troopers, required reading for the actors, was invoked in one throwaway “bug hunt” line. Meanwhile the first Alien film, without ever directly referencing Lovecraft, has also been suggested to do a better job recreating the mood & themes of his works than most official adaptations, & between it & Prometheus, Lovecraft’s celebrated At the Mountains of Madness has pretty much been covered.

If one has to go to Alien for their Lovecraft fix rather than to other, more official sources, this is likely because most official Lovecraft film adaptations were by either Stuart Gordon or Brian Yuzna or both, whose successful Re-Animator set a comedic tone influenced by The Evil Dead & Ghostbusters, both of which suggested themselves as unofficial Lovecraft films. Lovecraft’s sphere of influence, however, extended beyond the cinema; it was a sufficiently promiscuous continuity for Doctor Who, who found himself battling Lovecraftian Old Ones several times in the novels; more officially, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos & Robert E. Howard’s Hyperboria (home of Conan the Barbarian & other, less successful, creations) were mutually dependent. Conan the Barbarian even became a part of Marvel Comics continuity, which also included G.I. Joe, TransformersStar Trek, & another promiscuous continuity of the cinema: Godzilla.

Pub food, pulled pork, & culinary conspiracies

pulledporkclose

AS SOMEONE who enjoys the finer things in life – for proof, check out this recipe for Marmite sushi rice I wrote – I often have occasion to eat in pubs. & as such, I often have occasion to read pub menus. Actually, reading menus is a particular pleasure of mine, whether I’m eating or not; I’ll even read the descriptions of food I wouldn’t purchase, since I don’t buy meat. As such, I’ve had occasion over the last year to notice a number of trends for particular ingredients.

The way these trends usually work is strange & baffling; it’s not like they’ll slowly grow, fed by increased consumer demand. Instead, overnight you might suddenly find that now, it doesn’t matter which pub you go into, anywhere in the UK, they’re all serving, say, hot dogs. Not street hot dogs, where you get a little Frankfurter in a six-inch white bun, but gourmet hot dogs, laden down with five-bean chilli or sauerkraut, about ten inches long and served in a crusty French baguette. One thing you’re extremely likely to find on top of your gourmet hot dog is pulled pork, a substance no-one had heard of two years ago which now comprises approximately 50% of the menu in every single pub. It’s even spreading to places like Subway, Burger King, and even Pret a Manger. Not having ever tasted pulled pork, I can’t tell you if it’s as exciting as you might expect from its overnight world domination, but it doesn’t look like much. It looks like a sort of sticky mess of recycled food. It looks like a movie prop for dog vomit. It looks like some sort of living mass of crab meat that kills your crew after you leave it in the fridge for too long.

Of course, pulled pork isn’t the only foodstuff to have undergone this overnight ultrapromotion, it’s only the most prominent (& the first I happened to notice). We can assume the pulled pork revolution took place due to a discovery that it was a great way to save money on serving pork, which is tastier but more expensive than, say, chicken, though that said there is also pulled chicken. The prominence of some other foodstuffs is less explicable. The presence of halloumi, a chewy & extremely salty Mediterranean cheese, as an optional extra on every burger & in every salad, can obviously be attributed to the shadowy influence of the Hallouminati, a secret society with nefarious interests that go to the heart of government. Then there’s also quinoa, a grain a little bit like cous cous but fifty times sexier. You probably can’t find a veggie burger made of veg anywhere anymore, but you can get a quinoa burger simple as. It probably contains halloumi too. If not, then it’s probably not a burger at all but a grilled Portobello mushroom advertised as a burger; Portobello mushrooms also get advertised as steaks & roasts, but when you find them as burgers, they may well be accompanied by fresh avocado. You may even find smashed avocado; smashing is not a cooking process like scrambling or poaching, they just smash the shit out of that avocado & smear it on your toast. Except your toast is certainly not traditional toast, but rather grilled sourdough. But if the avocado’s going in your Portobello mushroom burger then you’ll most likely also find that it’s served on a brioche bun.

Brioche buns, grilled sourdough, smashed avocado, Portobello mushrooms, quinoa, halloumi, pulled pork, pulled chicken, gourmet hot dogs: what does it all mean? That pub chains are exactly as generic & identity-free as you might imagine? That we have no choice in what we eat as our very lives amount to no more than pawns in the power games of culinary interests? That if you want a decent meal, you oughtn’t to go to a pub for it? Yeah, probably.