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Following up a few scattered hints/tangents from yesterday's helter skelter meditations on the various seductive mediations of the Real / Reel / Seen/ Sung, I remembered this 'think piece' from [I think] 1996; it was published in a special themed issue [I can't remember the theme] of ARENA POUR LE HOMBRE - so I have a feint suspicion that maybe it simply passed a lot of people by.
I'm not sure that I could write this piece now - it seems half in love with freeze frame Death, or some strange thing; but I do think it deserves a wider or second readership. {I.P.}

- ----- +

SCARS & STRIPES


"These myths we can't undo / They lie in wait for you."
- Paddy MacAloon, 'Hey! Manhattan.'


I know the night I was seduced by America. I must have been about 7, parented to the pictures (an open air Mediterranean cinema whose admittance policy was appropriately laid-back) and here I am: fidgety split between a too-deep seat and a too-big screen.

And here we are in Cape Fear and the screen is filled to breaking point with Robert Mitchum, and Mitchum is a thing of outsize myth, bad murmurs, masculinity plus. And at a certain point my father, with the confused good sense of the flailing puritan censor, puts his hands across my little bug eyes to prevent the easy reception of this crooked man - the perturbing monochrome transmission of some carnal tremor or cruel detail emanating from big bad Bob, bobbing through the feary waves like a feral thing, reptilian envoy of dirt, havoc, heat, determinedly masculine detours.

But it's no good: the damage is done. Some damp curlicue seed has been left to germinate in my razor-cut head - I want to be that borderline creature, I want to feel that sour breath of Other life - there to spread its itchy rhizomes and thereby enclose me, decades hence, in supremely gnarly destinies.

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Someone pulls up a blind and noir floods your waiting eye. There were already venetian blinds on the screen that balmy night (or so I will always remember it: stars across the violet sky and stripes across the virgin bed) and they combined with the fleshy slats of my guardian's misguided visor to squeeze the pupil of my innocence. Something went Pop! that night, and my real-time Pa (all too present, all too Protestant) was subsumed by the southern, salty, Dionysian allure of Bob - what shrinks call a paternal imago and what us poor folks call the wild side, a 'way over there' place of temptation, transgression, possibility.

Robert Mitchum, then, was my originary American icon - an all too solid body that fell star-lite star-like into my spry, slumbering head; fell through my eyes like a Peckinpah body through plate glass air. The same thing happened when I was 17 and I went (alone, this time) to see Taxi Driver. Once again: that click! of 'I get it' and the shudder of recognition, the awe of apprehending something which one moment is just an unspooling reel and the next seems like a fever fashioned from your own deeps, your own dreams.

From Cape 7 onwards a succession of dead cool white guys has proved capable of this revelatory potency. If, 30 years on and with the vantage of virtual maturity I now find some of them less than convincing - find some dead black guys more lastingly and culpably resonant, find live white girls more apt to mug my eye (and find Homer Simpson more simpatico than I care to admit) - it is important to remember just how urgent these iconic envoys of U.S. Cool (Mitchum, Chet Baker, Jack Kerouac, Martin & Sinatra, the young Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Tim Buckley unravelling in L.A. lassitude, Kristofferson in Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid and Sam Shephard's horse latitudes) could be. No one dies or goes into decline quite like these guys. And no one burns with such a light.

+ ----- -

A different light, a previous life: unable to sleep, drinking alone, slowly dying in front of a video of a film I hadn't and wouldn't put myself out to see ... just something on Elvis Presley slowly dying like the End was something he thought he could defer with a bad joke and a mumbled half-melody, part re-enactment, part real footage, just the pantomime end of a 90 minute VHS puffing me to sleep along with ten too many whiskies and too much morning light ...

And then you're before a mirror and the mirror's on fire and they could be old flames and then again they could be cold as tears and the screen is a mirror and something suddenly seemed to make a sharp clarifying sense out of this miasmal fug of sleazy mugging and E-z-listening flatulence.
Something like: he never got to leave that stage, ever.
And from out of this nowhere, out of no prior interest, out of no reason, I scribbled down a phrase (a potential chapter title, as I thought) - The Fast Birth and Slow Oedipal Death of Elvis Aaron Presley - and slept, nothing like a baby.

Had I just been caught by what is commonly thought of as the pathos of Greatness in decline? (Ah, but what sins do we think such a spectacle absolves us of anyway? What shabby clowns within do we murder with our stifled responses?) Then why did I feel that his moment of decline contained something at least as 'great' as the world-devouring, awe-inspiring vision of the younger, infinitely more (sexually, aesthetically, symbolically) attractive Presley? How could this flopsweat suicide-in-song unravelling on stage, unable even to take his Song seriously, unable to remember its words or how they once sparkled like clean mountain water, unable to focus on where those words might take him, what it meant to sing them ... how could this sight be as much a part of the designated Passion (and our passion for him) as the mythic 50s Sun god and all his scenic twitch?

Looking back at my ominous video epiphany, I now can see my reaction to Presley's fall as the beginning of a messy era of my own; I was 23, and soon to realise that the real hurts of life could no longer be deflected by quoting a few wistful, torchy lyrics. And at such a time, if someone is going to sing "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" (which I was, but didn't want to acknowledge the fact and wouldn't admit it to anyone but my whisky) then maybe a fat, overdosed, evidently desperate man is just the right person to do it.

No one wanted to believe that Elvis might have awesomely lonely nights - that his whole life might have turned into one long lonseome night in the depth of which only unnatural ups and downs could stir his sluggish blood. Or at least, that's the official Elvis Canonisation Society line, along with: the army it was snuffed out his flame; Colonel Tom was the sole crook - a castrating Delilah in grifter's guise; all pharmaceutical traces are best erased from the memorex tabletop; his Vegas years are a regrettable and forgettable calvary. This attitude is patronising at best, and wrong headed at worst. Who better than his Vegas audience to see, to know that Elvis might be the loneliest man in the world? Who knew better that blue collar dreams don't always end in fanfare and hosanna; that sweet teenage dreams soon turn into curdled marriages that choke and constrict rather than soothe and sustain; that financial windfall can be as much a trap as a treat - as much a messenger of despair as deliverance? Who better?

To be honest, I've never really worshipped at the blue clay feet of the Presley cult. Yes, his pudgy lips let fly a few sad or spunky songs I love; but only in the way I love other true blue American songs like "Wichita Lineman" or "Sunday Morning Coming Down" or "Do You Know The Way to San Jose". And such songs don't necessarily belong to their singers, who are often but the jewel in a crown of already perfected glory; such songs are like Shaker chairs you pull down to convince you that yes, craft too can be a kind of art: the stitching of the words, the stylised cut of the arrangement, the icy swoon of the whole.

I realise I'm alone-ish in my Elvis ambivalence, my Presley crastination, because all those Elvis biogs and theories and tributes and conspiracies just keep coming: a mirror-to-mirror corridor of infinitely reflected suntan, snarl, paste, pose, pomp, pompadour. Yet if it is so simple - if we recognise this King, through his signs (his showbiz stigmata), as being so self evidently IT - then why does all this Elvis rockerabilia persist? You set out to write a sentence about him and the 20th century seems to tremble and tip - like Elvis himself, anything that seeks to reach beyond the diurnal turn seems to become outsize in its turn.
Elvis overshadows everything.
But what if the sober, hagiographical texts have it all wrong? What if it were the tacky imitators - the Quiff In Their Eyes brigade, the curryhouse clones - who had secretly uncovered the salient X file point here? That, in perpetually reproducing him as identifiable surface, as a tick list of self evident glitzy signs, they had clumsily hit on his pure essence? To wit: that at some post-mortem point "Elvis" went beyond reproduction (mere album sleeves, posters, the usual stuff) into being our icon OF reproducibility? Tacked up around the world like the Coke signature, like the MacDonald's arch: singer become sign.

Elvis went bang!, culturally nova, his spangly elvi split and shot and cascaded and bonded everywhere, self-reproducing unto infinity, for ever and ever, our man: Pop obelisk, ambulant phantom, insistent name, holy of rollies. Or, as a wise Father Ted put it, in another context: "We're all Elvis now. That's the problem." The grotesque side of Presley speaks to us, whether we admit it or not; whether we're embarrassed by the whole sad crew who want to be him for a night; whether we like what we see or look the other way. He may have been been superseded here and there, now and then, by other global t-shirt seraphim - Marley, Michael Jackson, Rambo, Madonna - but he was the first, and retains the world-jolting resonance of the first sundered atom.

It could just be, I suppose, that he presents a classically stark parable of starburst and fall, like other US icons; but no one much identifies with a wounded, downsized Mohammed Ali, whereas lots identify raptly with inapt Fat Elvis. Why does his implosion drag us down, on, in, like some irresistible neon pull into the dark back room of blurry disappearance?
You could say that Elvis (like Kerouac, with whom there are obvious similarities: polite white boy in love and hock to black rhythms of release; wanderlust waif forever tied to his mother's elastic apron string; beautiful young dude who ended up a fat reactionary fuck) never really left the womb; that his life was one long circular detour away from the womb's crushed velour recline and back again. In this (half) light, the Life looks like one long road movie in which all the road has been taken out - all the blank space and down time, all the gaps for contemplation, boredom, speculation, change of mind erased or annulled ... so that all that remains are the gas stations and truck stops, cafes and bars: places to fill up a now never dissoluble ache or craving; to replenish a holistic emptiness which is now rarely allowed to resonate and sing.

When Elvis combusted on the commode, jack-knifed on the john, perhaps something even (even!) larger died - and all our subsequent imitations or speculations are just a form of tribute or pennance; a protracted mourning. Perhaps what was extinguished August 1977, along with Elvis, was our belief in American myth as eternal hope, in the certainty of success as infallible investment. (A countercultural echo-mark of the parallel Nixon self-putsch.) The more we found out about his unhappy life the more he became a monument to the reversibility of America's greatest myths - self-sufficiency, perfectibility, making it. Here was a man who started out just so and ended up just fat: the biggest little boy in the world: America's bad double, fortune's ghost; a phreniac without the wit to be schizo; barely ambulant, a coma waiting to happen; a fat wraith poisoned by his own million dollar cures.
That he dies in 1977 is no more than poetic justice, because Fat Elvis - Vegas muppet, barbiturate martyr - is Punk before his time, writ quarter-pounder large; a fleshly portent of other career overdosers and morgue botherers to come: Vicious in a fluffy bathrobe, Cobain with the angst taken out and a hippo pouch of liposuction pumped in. Upholstered Elvis is a piece of furniture - a royal suite, a white elephant. Look at William Eggleston's photos of an uninhabited Graceland exposed to chrysalid midnight light as an a priori sarcophagus. The lazy viewer might call such photos cold, but what is etched in ectachrome here was frigid to the touch already: genuine dreams of democracy reduced to a custom built Laz-e-Boy, a dream that is all outlines and no heat.

Finally, Elvis' pivotal 'v' is the capital 'A' of of America overturned, pointing down and in like a hypodermic, not up-and-at-'em like a signpost arrow; pointing to everything that can go wrong along the way, in the vertiginous trip from little boy (lost) to big god (bust).
Our poor boy retreated from the land and died ... chronically alone, chronically adrift, chronically everything.

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So, fittingly (fittingly outsize), does the capital letter of Elvis stand also for Exile.
There is exile proper from the States (the emmigrations of Paul Bowles, Chester Himes, Gore Vidal) and from a State of clinging, craving mind (the Zen trips of John Cage, Gary Snyder, Peter Matthiessen; the desert redoubt/rebirth of Carlos Castenada); but there is also a peculiarly American self exile of protracted death in life, spirit dearth amidst material plenty, chemically imposed night vigil.

"It was an existence of exile from the world. He never saw a human face or figure, nor even an animal..." {Paul Bowles}

Thus: the grey perpetual dawns of Elvis, Howard Hughes, Dean Martin, Kurt Cobain. Codeine skin pops and a cartoon drip. Percodan and Nappa Valley nectar and satellite golf. Wondering if you can inch through another 24 hrs (or channels) of boundless choicelessness. The sleep-walk terminus of heroic capitalism and Kapital's shock troops: a fatal crossover point where all the choice in the world seems, somehow, now, finally, no choice at all. Overload as starvation. TV static drizzle, room service debris, needles and spoons: you can get it if you really want! But you must try, try and try ... you'll succeed at last.

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Perhaps aptly (if we're talking US-UK trade offs) one of the most keenly distilled essences of this great lost State - rock'n'roll as suicide, anomie as glamour, breakdown as apotheosis - is the definitively-titled Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones 1972 masterpiece of Americana rip-chord & refuge. For a considerable while (in terms of pop life / time) these impish mad-dog Dionysians, these effete, elitist Englishmen and their un-American wives, seemed the very epitome and essence of contempo America: the faint pulse-flutter embodiment of a certain - uncertain - Seventies mood. Their foolishly resilient Boswell proper, Stanley Booth, was as American as lapsed health insurance; their demoniac apogee lies curdled (like blood spot embarrassment) beneath an windblown American place name: Altamont.

Like Mitchum, and unlike Elvis, the siren lure of Exile dissimulates real hurt (past death, imminent collpase, white out) behind a fascinating front. Signs faintly glimmer across international time zones, behind whose resplendant font is a different syntax - one of brute force and awesome organisational power; snake eyes and snakeskin boots; Euro bankers and fridge-shaped bodyguards, court dwarves (Capote, Warhol) and Lear jets. Spaced out in a mapless ether. Waking up in another continent with the same chick on your arm or spike in your vein.

The Main St sleeve - a scrappily stylised collage of genuine Americana and sinister Robert Frank stills - gives off a smeggy aroma like molten tarmac or four-day sheets. (Sticky fingers, indeed.) The songs inside were odes to American itch and sniff and dishabille demand, motel chill and morphine swirl, honeypot squeal and needle buzz and strychnine shakes. Greil Marcus: "Exile was a nice tour of morgues, courts, sinking ships, claustrophobic rooms, deserted highways; the whole album was a breakdown, one long night of fear." It turned corruption into an offer as queasily irresistible as a flute of Krug on an empty jet lag stomach. It ushered in a neo-Blues star-white with expensive drug pallor, Klieg lights, tour blur - a dirt-farm art-form played with all the practised blue-chip hauteur these middle class dandies could muster. (Exile was recorded in a villa in the South of France.)

This stoned and tony Exile became a grail for generations of cocky, scrofulous young men with too-tight trousers and skunk-tail haircuts. Lots of American rockers discovered their own heritage through its murky grille, although very few have since recaptured the elusively sludgy alchemical spark. Guns n Roses gave it perhaps the best crank: I still think their apocalyptic cover of Peter Laughner's ferociously honest "Ain't It Fun" is one of the great (lost) records of the last decade - Pop as psychopathology; Wagner for the detox generation - but I'll leave it to someone more Mojo than I to precisely tabulate and cross-index all their homegrown stylistic tics and ties and tips of the brim: self help howls, bandit earrings, leather bar shorts, Sunset Strip second-hand scarves, surfer insouciance, biker tats, prison cabal insularity ... but however you dress it up, whatever pick'n'mix swathes you pull out and veil yourself in, the vibe can be fairly summed up in one word: Badass.

The white mythology of Badass can deck itself out in Frontier raggle taggle or Point Blank fluorescent sharkskin; it goes all the way back to Billy the Kid and all the way (very) fast forward to Scarface (1983) and The King of New York. Billy was just a Kid, and a fairly unprepossessing figure by all accounts (it's easy now to detect the lineaments of the original Grunge martyr: bad teeth, bad manners, good press, early death) but he has been endlessly revisited and recast by the cinema just as Exile is picnic'd every summer by swallow flocks of sallow repertory rockers.
It's hard to say what makes a genuine, bred-in-the-bone Badass.
Thomas Pynchon: "There is a long folk history of this figure, the Badass. He is usually male, and while sometimes earning the quizzical tolerance of women, is almost universally admired by men for two basic virtues: he is Bad, and he is Big. Bad meaning not morally evil, necessarily, more like able to work mischief on a large scale." It seems that in the 60s the genuine-article Badass Mafia guys all preferred diminuendo Dean to craven fanboy Sinatra, and even had an admiring Sicilian slang word for the former, which translates, rather poetically, as 'one who does not give a fuck'. You can be thin as a reed and strung out in watery West Coast sunshine and still be a Badass (Charlie Parker, Miles, Chet, Art Pepper). You can even be not a guy and still be a Badass - indeed, I have named two of my cats after distaff Badasses: Billie [Holiday] and Bonnie [Parker]. But you can also want to be one so bad, that, well, it just cancels itself out. "You know I'm BAD,' said Michael Jackson, and we all just tittered into our near-beer and argula.

Some of these little white rocker boys - so ashamed of an occupation as feckless and effeminate as mere singing - often go to extremes to applique compensatory poses across their willowy ribs: boxer poses, gangster/gangsta poses, Hells angels poses. Transferred to the arena of spandex and anthemic hysteria, this bruised need to PROVE your Badass authenticity can slip over into churlish paranoia (as with Axl Rose's 20 minute on-stage harangues) or just seem plain risible, as with the lukewarm Pot Noodle Americana of Primal Scream's Give Out But Don't Give Up. You have to live (and sometimes die) exile, not Rough Guide it for six record company chaperoned weeks. As recent Rap War fatalities and court cases - and the US prison population as a statistical whole - show, a lot of black guys don't need to ape the myth of Badass with carefully cultivated drug habits or geographical slumming: they live every day under its dark jive and stifling weight. (Even the jaunty myth of the Mack has its unsubtle payback, as Mark Morrison found to his cost.)

But the Primal Scream thing (strike a pose, nick a riff, lift a 'b' movie sample) fit with its times, with the sign writing of a certain early 90s post-modern Post It-note approach to culture, in which 'reference' was everything and 'irony' was king and everything was a 'package'. Everyone in Adland was coke-a-hoop, wanted to be David Lynch, thinking it was all Instant Kinky and mood-appliqué and forgetting just how truly deeply madly sui generis Blue Velvet was. You cast someone like Dennis Hopper and he brings a formidable history to the table. What a history! You could write a piece like this on 40 years of American culture just by following Hopper's singular trajectory - you name it, he was there first and plunged in up to his sickle-moon chin.
Like other artists who're Badass by temperament rather than Vanity Fair stylist - Bukowski, Crews, Ellroy, Keitel, Walken - Hopper seems to be the genuine article, and you wouldn't want to rent a place in the neighbourhood of one of this lot's bad days. You believe their distress flares; believe that without regular infusions of cathartic art these guys might live in a strange land of unmanageable highs and unbearable lows, long nights ... and even longer nights.

+ ----- -

There is another, cheaper-entry America, though, where sorry-ass excuses for excess of purzone-ahlitty are pounded down into the cheapest tack possible. Or, as that hep cat Adorno put it: "The individualities imported into America and divested of their individuality in the process, are called 'colourful personalities'." Self help, self abuse and self love all come together in one delirious spasm in the shape of the Cult Personality, whose get-rich-slick id-fulfilment fantasy is separated from the murderous sicko's 'psychotic desire for public recognition' by the thinnest of films.
Howard Stern (the Ur-Evans, the proto-Lad) has based his schtick on boosting what rednecks and retards already say and think, as though this was somehow 'risky' and 'dangerous' and highly 'individual', when it is really the opposite of all those things. True grit would lie in not parroting a mean discourse - but rather in eliding it, moving sideways and beyond into some more hurtful or contradictory or ambiguous territory. Which is what a lot of the best vernacular American art (from WC Fields to Beavis & Butthead) does - deploying forms of 'stupidity' or genre obviousness as a launch pad into murkier places. There are crucial differences between a Lenny Bruce or a Bill Hicks and a Howard Stern; or between a Sam Peckinpah and a Roberto Rodriguez. The media-blip 'personality' just uses outrage as leg-up, a narcissistic sounding board, an adrenaline boost. You can maybe admire them for their crude no-cavil pragmatism - as with that early bank robber who in answer to the earnestly pained query 'Why do you rob banks?' answered 'Because that's where the money is'. Or you can call it lazy and mean-spirited and money-poisoned pseudotainment which appeals to the worst instincts of a cowed and fearful populace.

There is a more benign side to 90s sleight-of-handism, though, a more vibrant side to pick'n'remix culture. The Beastie Boys are about as good as it gets in this respect - skateboarding thrash, Shaft-video bad-ass self-parody, console Buddhism ... American culture is like some gigantic balloon they've rubbed against themselves and against which, they find to their infernal delight, everything sticks; a hesitant aesthetic which could have painted itself into a painfully snob-cult corner, breaks out into volleys of gorgeously sinuous silliness.
A slightly darker version of this tone can be found in John Waters, David Lynch, some underground comix, and too many dubious Web sites. (Autopsy neck-breathers as the price we pay for 'freedom of expression'.) The precursors are Crumb and Warhol, the modern day practitioners guys who say things like 'neat' and 'wow' a lot, wear disturbingly straight clothes and who often harbour a not-incidental glazed fascination for serial killers, thug monsters, Manson men. In art, this beyond-zero Cool can be like a cold shower on a bland and muggy day; in life, it can mean the killer with mercury for emotions and a brain programmed to REPEAT.

One of the odder strains of recent cult life is the emergence of an unlikely anti-hero rehab programme initially and insistently carved in Stone (The Doors, JFK, Nixon) and taking in Larry Flynt, Jimmy Hoffa and others. Bio-pic as seance - but no one knows what they what it is they want to ask the dead. It's as if America is trying to put its finger on something BIG [and BAD], but doesn't know what it is [or how Bad things might truly turn out after the lights go up ...

There's also the echt-Beat and ersatz-Boho wing of this vague nostalgia. We've had Basquiat and Bowles, Bukowski and Burroughs and The Baseball Diaries ... all brat acted and agency packaged into terminally dull "Based on..." bombs. Coming soon: On The Road, Fear and Loathing ... it's a new (goatee?) growth industry; the L.A. Take-A-Meeting meltdown & makeover version of all our own home-grown haircut and haycart adaptations. (E.M. Forster: He's Back and He's A Little Bit Miffed!)
Before 2000 it is likely there'll be no Penguin Modern Burnout classics left that haven't been star-neutered and honey-glazed for the box office. All those 'B' names (Paul and Jane and Henry and June) become a debased currency used to finance aimlessly arty films, become skin-pop perks for a hyperactive but arid Now culture. Nostalgia for a page yet to come. Envy for a time when even the name for disappointment had a sexy name: existentialism. We recline in our multiplex seats before this rerun, retouched Real, weighing it against the thin plasticity of today's post-modern [s]mallscape. It's like those Levi's ads which feature cool cats like Kerouac and Raymond Chandler - but just the cool chino surface, not the messy private hell underneath.
Outside of a Gus Van Sant take on Huckleberry Finn (Huck and Tom Go Boating, anyone?) or Abel Ferrara (over)doing Mailer's American Dream, just don't bother us with any more of this stuff, OK? America's best cinema consists of 'B' movies, not 'Art' Films. Economic noir plots and gnomic Western pauses dissimulate real desires under their unreal vocabulary: things hard to admit to, harder to ditch. Which is why you find ordinarily nice-guy liberals cleaving to these Bigger Pictures. We know what's wrong (morally, technically) with these pictures, but they subsist in our cloudy mind's eye for years: the savage prowl of a Searchers, the underwater glide of a Vertigo, the testoserone apocalypse of a Raging Bull, the symbols crash (Peyton Place weclomes Ted Bundy) of a Blue Velvet - they jolt us out of every rationale, every modern-guy alibi.

Elsewhere, for similar reasons, one can find a residual let's-move-to Montana by-the-backdoor admiration for the likes of the UniBomber and the whole looming, loony free-militia movement. This anti-Corporate America vibe goes all the way back to a Frontier suspicion of lawyers, contracts, signatures, legalese: City shit. The written word.
It's the common thread - blast labyrinthine bureacracy, do it yourself - that links our secret admiration of Dirty Hary, Mafia efficiency, Frontier self-sufficiency - our Clint leanings and coyote longings. We know it's a trick of the light - infa red rather than healing sun - but still we line up to go into this 2-D desert and be burned by the flagellant rays.

- ----- +

Another movie, another mouth full of American myth and masculinty, mimesis and monotony: a great scene in Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth with a Sarf London wide boy bent out of shape by bad drugs, rocking and ranting, railing by proxy, reeling off the Dennis Hopper speech from Apocalypse Now by heart.
Oldman has got it just right. In the grey penumbra of the TV screen we sit with our hearts in our mouths and our remotes in our hands and our lives in hock (to dreams, to drugs, to American damage and dementia) and we lip synch these loveless scenarios: Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Scarface, Blue Velvet, King of New York, Bad Lieutenant. Generations of wounded boys and would-be fuck-ups sit watching the night moves, studying the form: how to waste every advantage, every grain of good sense God gave you. (There's a great exchange in The Gambler, where a sleazy drug dealer gloatingly asks James Caan's eponymous loser how "he got in such a hole again?" Cool beat. Caan's eyes flicker in cool triumph: "I manouevred.")

If Apocalypse Now is about anything (the something which keeps dragging us back into its backwash, its mournful wake) it has to do with primal scenes (twilight idols, murdered Fathers) rather than primeval conflict. We identify with it not because we've all been to tropical war and were psychically brutalsied before we had a chance to grow, but, well, because the apocalypse here has less to do with exploding choppers and a slow Wagernian burn and more to do with a deadened and fractured and gone-to-flab masculinity: Brando, the ultimate 50s man-actor (white t shirt, bulging biceps icon: post war Hope in a perfect package), stranded, sweaty, exiled; Fat Elvis in fatigues, out on the last stop of the Waste Land itinerary. (Look at Brando and wonder: would you really like his life - ALL his life? Not just those Levi's ad moments, but the whole weighty Faustian package deal?)
For similar reasons, some of us prefer Orson Welles' far darker Touch of Evil to the lionised Citizen Kane - especially the definitive, valedictory closing moments, when corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan lies dying in the middle of nowhere, Elvis fat and Nixon sweaty and Brando marooned, face like a bruised and rotten peach. Inky sky. Pyramidal oil rigs. Icy Marlene Dietrich's parched obit: "Isn't somebody going to come and ... take him away?"

- ----- +

Maybe behind all these identifications - for Badass and Burnout alike - is a longing for a time when masculinity was literally more definite, more defined: sharp suited, razor barbered, martini on its lips and Marilyn on its mind. It had edge, it had swagger - it had imperial and imperious certainty, easy charm, balls of steel. The darker flipside of this takes in the enduring cult of the cold-eyed killer (be he syndicate or serial), some aspects of our Ellroy pash, our Rat Pack [g]nostalgia, and the viral nightmare of the Ugly American - like those sober bureau goons in Apocalypse Now who parrot a sterilised vocabulary of 'terminate with extreme prejudice' and guiltlessly despoil whole futures because they think it's their God given right. But even ugliness can look rosy in retrospect; as Hunter S Thompson put it: "I thought Nixon was the worst until I saw Bush. Bush is sort of like Nixon without the guts, without the spine - Nixon without meaning."
Now we look back in ardour, because today's Uber Nerd culture (Beavis and Bill Gates and all Quentin's faddish mannish boys) is all about failing rather than falling; full of dim fools, half-stars, cameo clowns, card index minds, store clerks, mallrats, bozos, buttheads. The toxic grump of Gen X disgruntlement has turned into stagnation, trivial pursuit, nothing close to tragedy or turmoil. It may be that, frightened by the slamdunk of the Real (Cobain, Basquiat, Phoenix) the culture retreats into either a kind of prophylactic Friends-y-ness (a Foo to Nirvana's fiery fie!); or a blanket weariness, shrug, mumble.

You look at today's boy-worshipping nerd-stuffed culture, and then you remember that Mitchum moment, something that defined what it meant to struggle to be a man. You look at today's whinging 'I'm-a-victim-too' generation and you think of a time when vices were secrets, flaws were cultivated like tough little bonsai, and you put a blank face on the bad stuff. Full of deepening cracks, you wisecracked.
Which brings us back to Bob and Fear and fall, and things that make fools of us all. And maybe make us stronger in the process, who knows. . .

--------------------------
[R.I.P., Jeff Buckley]




posted by Ian 6/04/2003 11:43:00 AM

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