Mayhem, Le Divan du Monde, Paris, May 22 2014

It’s been about eighteen years since I last went to a heavy metal gig. Even back then I was more interested in the relatively mainstream output of Metallica, Sepultura and the (still) hilariously-named Pantera. Unsurprising, then, that I was a feeling a little trepidation, maybe even slightly scared as I dithered outside the Divan du Monde for a gig by Mayhem, ready to investigate the darkest realms of the genre: Black Metal. Back in the mid 1990s, I’d only really flirted with the dark side, leering fascinatedly at the pages of Kerrang! which detailed the exploits of the band which, along with Burzum, came to represent the radical Norwegian scene. Mayhem became notorious for their extreme brutalist metal, having pigs’ heads on sticks onstage, wearing corsepaint, making sinister declarations and liberal use of Satanic imagery. There is more than just a whiff of the macabre about Mayhem: they are best known for their off-stage behaviour: the very real-life suicide of their original singer, the appropriately-named Dead, and for their guitarist Euronymous’s murder by Burzum’s mainman Varg Vikernes.

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            Now, I’m old, but curious and (mostly) without fear, I’ve been recently revisiting my old interests in metal, as part of a broader appreciation of sonic extremity. I thought an intimate gig by the black metal legends, generally associated with slots at Eastern European enormo-fests, on their thirtieth anniversary tour was an opportunity not to be missed. I temporarily put my rabid objections to some of the members’ abhorrent comments to media over the years (more of which later), to one side to see what the appeal was and dive headlong into the black void. Loitering on the pavement outside the venue, however, and watching the motley assortment of black leather-clad metal heads, mostly unsmiling and including a fair number of really sinister looking fuckers, traipse into the venue, I was having my fair share of second thoughts. Not the least of these was down to feeling massively underdressed. I’ve never been known for my sartorial elegance, but I thought sporting a specially-purchased Mayhem t-shirt underneath my tatty anorak was going to be enough to let me pass under the radar. How wrong I was, once I shuffled into the already packed venue, I became aware that I stuck out like, well, a university lecturer at a Black Metal gig.

            The venue was also part of the appeal. I’d last been to the Divan du Monde for a sparsely attended gig in what must have been 1999, but back then I hadn’t known that the venue was originally known as the Brasserie des Martyrs, a popular drinking spot for the mighty French poet Charles Baudelaire in the nineteenth century. Baudelaire, lest we forget, was a highly scandalous figure, perhaps most famously for his poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) which is liberally and intentionally provocative, blasphemous, anti-Christian and makes liberal use of darkly Satanic imagery. It is highly appropriate, then, that Mayhem, who do all of the above in their art, are strutting in exactly the same space as their poetic forebear. Le Divan du Monde has been renovated since my last trip, but is now a pretty place, too pretty for the black metal hordes, and has been re-done in a post-colonial style. There is a pretty shallow irony in the interior design, since the décor features busts of exoticized black slave characters, gazing down from the upper balcony. Mayhem’s drummer, Jan Axel ‘Hellhammer’ Blomberg, is on record as saying that ‘Black metal is for white people’. Statements such as these deserve, of course, to be treated with wholehearted contempt. While the venue’s décor is crass and nostalgically twee, comments such as those from ‘Hellhammer’ are acutely damaging and idiotic but deserve repeated mention. Highly inappropriately, and more amusingly, for a black metal public no doubt raised on strong cider, animal blood and freshly-roasted human sacrifices, the bar had a special offer on glasses of house white Vouvray.

            The bill promised ‘Mayhem and Merrimack’ which, quite frankly, sounded more like an Incredible String Band song title or a folk dancing troupe rather than an evening of evil entertainment, latently racist or otherwise. French black metallers Merrimack were first up. It was a solid example of the genre: they were loud; it was ugly; the complex guitar parts and the drums appear to be going in radically diverse directions and the singer, who had the filthiest hair imaginable, half screamed-half barked his way through the songs as expected. The band made liberal use of corpsepaint, which was pleasing to see. I’d have been disappointed if there hadn’t been any in evidence tonight. There is, though, a pretty good reason why grown men are generally wary of face painting – despite the very clear temptation, you rarely see anyone post pubescent queuing up for the make-up artist at church fetes or village hall events. The reason, of which Merrimack are a sorry example, is the unhappy relationship between face paint and facial hair. You never see photos of Baudelaire with stubble – was it, one wonders, to facilitate the corpsepaint?

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            While Merrimack pressed all the right black metal buttons musically, they were also a shining example of a key problematic of the genre. The big bloody (corpsepainted or not) elephant in the room when it comes to Black Metal and, one suspects, metal more broadly is that it is also deeply, frequently hilariously, absurd, an absurdity that also often spills over into laugh-out-loud ridiculousness. There was a moment near the end of Merrimack’s set where all the guitarists stood at the front of the stage in formation, each one foot on the monitor à la Nigel Tufnell, and I actually found myself stifling a giggle. It is just this ridiculousness that is symptomatic of the genre and, for all of its po-faced seriousness and offensive media comments, is naturally tempting to question just how seriously the BM practitioners take it. I suspect the answer, is very seriously. I’m reminded, for example, of how Mayhem bassist and founder, the hilariously named Necrobutcher, responded on having his band described as ‘the Village People in hell’ by journalist John Doran. For all of the songs about death, murder, Satan and suicide, there is indeed something deeply pantomime about Mayhem that seems to undercut the seriousness: Hellhammer’s oversized drum kit/cage, for example, which comes in bigger than many Parisian apartments and (probably for the best in the light of his comments) completely obscures the drummer from sight; the fact the merch-stand sells Mayhem-branded ‘sexy’ knickers and the stern hyper-seriousness of the guitarists Charles (ex-Cradle of Filth) Hedger and Teloch who flanked the stage, one unsmiling, the other actually wearing a monk’s cowl but you can bet he wasn’t grinning like a crazy man underneath.

            That said, for all of their absurdity, Mayhem certainly pack a significant punch live. Paris audiences have a reputation for being somewhat staid, but there was a genuine buzz around the venue as the lights dimmed and the band’s traditional entrance music, Silvester Anfang, actually composed for the band by Tangerine Dream’s Conrad Schnitzler, kicked off before they raced into Pagan Fears, arguably the standout track from De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994). Happily, the band played a smattering of tracks from this album, also arguably their best, as well as from the semi-legendary Deathcrush EP (1987) alongside less impactful and more generic tracks from their more recent work, including the most recent Esoteric Warfare (2014).

            The centre of the Mayhem circus is undoubtedly vocalist Attila Csihar, who has both a presence and a vocal range that transcends the genre and keeps the band from lapsing completely into pantomime. Indeed, it is pretty much exclusively the presence of the Hungarian Csihar, a respected vocal artist in his own right and soon to release his debut solo album, that makes Mayhem a compelling live proposition. I’d even go as far as saying that his presence, here dressed as a blood-splattered ancient Pagan priest and carrying a human skull and doing his distinctive brand of Black Metal voguing, in at least some small way rebuilds at least a small part of the band’s credibility following Hellhammer’s offensive offstage comments. His performance – vocally and theatrically – for the iconic My Death – as he stalked the stage swinging a noose was, aside from the opening track, a highlight of the evening. He certainly provided a more credible counterpoint to Necrobutcher, oafishly swigging from a bottle of champagne and moronically introducing a song by declaring ‘This song is for your girlfriend….she’s a WHORE!’. C’mon, Necro.

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            In short, Mayhem are a tight and impressively marshalled band but without Csihar’s presence, I’m not sure they’d have sustained my interest for the duration of the set, right up until traditional set closer Pure Fucking Armageddon. For all the dark trappings, the music is at best not much more than a very heavy punk. For me there is, as Spinal Tap memorably declared, a fine line between ‘stupid’ and ‘clever’, and this is exactly the line that Mayhem seem to walk and, despite the best efforts of their frontman, repeatedly stumble over. As my journey into the dark heart of rock continues, I suspect this will be a recurrent trend.

Writing elsewhere…

Regular readers of Urban Landfill might be interested to know that I’ve been reviewing books for the Independent on Sunday recently.

My piece on Hélène Gestern’s The People in the Photo can be found here.

I also recently reviewed Decoded by the Chinese writer Mai Jia, here.

Slightly less recently, I wrote about Régis Jauffret’s Severe, here.

A recent piece on Laurent Garnier for the Times Literary Supplement is here (but you’ll need to pay).

Apocalypse Baby, Virginie Despentes (trans. by Siân Reynolds), Serpent’s Tail

Virginie Despentes first achieved notoriety on the French literary scene with 1994’s Baise-Moi, a feminist rape-and-revenge tale that sparked controversy for its blend of graphic sex and comic book violence. Since then, her novels have frequently packed a similarly visceral adrenaline-fuelled punch. Her literary ‘manifesto’, King Kong Théorie (2006), clarified her approach: she writes from the ‘outside’ to subvert the white, pretty, submissive, skinny, maternal, female media stereotype. She writes for the ugly, the undesirable and the unhappy: ‘toutes les exclues du grand marché à la bonne meuf’. Given such a commitment to the marginal, it is perhaps surprising that Apocalypse Baby was awarded the high-profile, and conservative, prix Renaudot in 2010. This mainstream acceptance does not, however, reflect any diminishment in her power to provoke. The uncompromising social vision that has made Despentes such a distinctive voice within contemporary French fiction is still here, but is tightly woven into a highly-readable narrative.

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Apocalypse Baby showcases Despentes’ oft overlooked ability to tell a story. It has a fast-paced and compelling detective plot at its heart. Lucie, the first-person narrator and private investigator, is trailing Valentine, a troubled rich teenager, when the latter disappears. Given the chance to make amends, Lucie teams up with the enigmatic, ‘mythical’ and sexually-charged ‘Hyena’ to track her down. As the search intensifies, the reader is drawn from bourgeois Paris on a road trip to the non-conformist squats of Barcelona. The journey takes in many of the hallmarks of Despentes liminal literary world: sweaty punk gigs, graphic lesbian sex, liberal drug use and underground anti-capitalist groups. Sentences are short and make liberal use of coarse contemporary argot, with Lucie and the Hyena’s snappy mutual distrust particularly well rendered into English by translator Siân Reynolds.

Despentes’ text presents a physical journey, but also a trip into the past of its characters. The novel succeeds in stressing the neurotic insecurities of all of her protagonists – even the most self-assured. Lucie’s narrative is interleaved by shifts of narrative focus to the the characters they meet en route. François, Valentine’s father is a mediocre right-wing novelist, hooked on painkillers and obsessed with his waning literary profile. Vanessa, his ex-wife and Valentine’s mother, is a cynical money-grabber and desperate to cover up her North African roots. Yacine, her cousin, is a knife-carrying bad boy from the banlieu tower blocks and bristling with spite. The Hyena is particularly memorably-drawn: androgynous, alternately charming and acutely aggressive and intensely attractive to both males and females alike, but with a dark secret. Lucie, by contrast, is more reserved and self-evasive, described as a ‘dozy mollusc’ (p. 241) but undergoes a radical turnaround on reaching sunny Barcelona.

Alongside the skilfully-plotted story, Apocalypse Baby is also a highly-provocative novel. It paints a pitiless, unsparing picture of contemporary urban life. Very little is free from the text’s ire. Paris is ‘grey, noisy, depressing and morbid, while the ‘shipwreck of heterocentrism’ is frequently highlighted as a problem (p. 146). Young people, the rich, mothers, Christianity, journalists, marriage, airports, celebrities all find themselves  under Despentes’ acerbic gaze. We live, the novel suggests, in an age where tension, cynicism and ‘vulgar indifference’ (p. 32) are the norm. As the Hyena stresses: ‘There is no dignity, there is no gentleness. All the people who were good and honourable, all the nice guys, have been wiped out’ (pp. 119-120). The novel is also repeatedly critical of the internet which, rather than an online utopia, encourages mindless narcissism. François writes his own glowing Amazon reviews and the Hyena observes a ‘frenzy of desire to broadcast, but without any receivers’ amongst the snap happy tourists she encounters (p. 210).

Is there, then, an overall message to Apocalypse Baby? It can be hard to tell since there is an overall unsettling ambivalence to Despentes text. The novel appears to desire a change to what it paints as the contemporary patriarchal capitalist status quo, but stops short of proposing any conclusive solutions. Indeed, the extent to which it ultimately endorses the novel’s unexpected, and explosive, conclusion remains devastatingly ambiguous. If there is a moment of hope that challenges the nihilism within Despentes’ bleak yet skilfully drawn novel, it comes from within human relationships, friendships and even love that can blossom against the odds, and often when least expected.

Salò o le centoventi giornate di Sodoma (dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini: 1975)

Salò is regularly both celebrated and decried as being the most obscene film ever made. It has been wailed about by critics and regularly tops Internet top tens of cinematic excess. Its relentless depiction of the torture and humiliation of Italian youths held prisoner and presided over by four sadistic libertines certainly isn’t easy or comfortable viewing. The subject matter is about as bleak as imaginable: an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s blackest book set in an occupied chateau in fascist Italy. Pasolini’s film has been understood in many different, and legitimising, ways. It has, naturally, been understood as a reading of Sade’s thought, a comment on totalitarianism or, as the director himself suggested, a critique of consumerism and a consideration of sexual politics. But what if we read it as a comedy?

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I’ve seen Salò twice now. Some might suggest this is two times too many. The first viewing, at a sparsely attended screening at the Cornerhouse in Manchester in 2001 was, of course, unsettling. My most recent viewing was at a packed Paris Cinématheque as part of the current Pasolini season and the experience was a little different. Yes, the film was still difficult to watch, but the screening was notable for the sniggers and ripples of laughter that spread out throughout the film once the torture scenes got underway.

Why laugh at Salò? It could, of course, have been uncomfortable laughter as the audience struggles to process the brutal scenes of sexual abuse, humiliation and coprophagia. Maybe the laughter was one of relief that the film wasn’t as shocking as the hype had led them to believe it was. An uncharitable observer might note cultural differences between friendly Mancunian and colder Parisian crowds. I’m not quite what sure the nature of this laugher actually was, but there were however, more giggles at Salò than at some more traditional comedies I’ve seen.

Writing about the film in October, Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, have noted that there are a number of jokes or straightforward old-fashioned corny verbal gags in the film, easily overlooked amongst the more striking scenes of torture (Vol. 13, Summer 1980, pp. 22-35). At one point, as Bersano and Dutoit note, the head libertine, or President, asks: ‘What is the difference between the number 8, a gate and a family? An 8 is always closed, a gate is sometimes open. “And the family?’ asks the other person. “They’re fine, thanks,” answers the President, overwhelmed with glee’ (p. 29). There are, I think, other comic moments to be found throughout the film. Rather than purely horrific, there is a sustained slapstick quality to many of the scenes as the libertines’ frenzied excitement sees them often literally fall over themselves to realise their desires. Equally, the sheer extremity of the ‘narratives’ that are provided to accompany and inspire the libertines sexual excesses have their own degree of burlesque, if very dark, humour. The incongruous ridiculousness of the libertines’ drag attire, particularly that of the bearded libertine Duke (Paolo Bonacelli) and the acutely strange looking and cross-eyed President (Aldo Valletti), prime candidate for a comic lead, if indeed the film has one, also clearly add a degree of humour.

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The film has been pored over by theorists, but the humour in Salò has been noted by John Waters, himself a controversial film director. For me, there are even striking resonances between Water’s comedy Pink Flamingos (1972), released three years before Pasolini’s film in both Divine’s outrageous drag, that of the libertines, and, of course the scatological preoccupations of both films. Is Pasolini making an intertextual nod to Waters?

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I think we’d be wrong, and perhaps slightly twisted, to watch Salò exclusively as a comedy. Although I believe there is humour in the film, it is ultimately, however, overwhelmed by the relentless torture and excess. What role, then, does laugher play in the film? Perhaps Salò’s relationship with resistance is revealing from this perspective. At a key moment, when one of the chateau’s prisoners is discovered having unauthorised sex with a serving girl and is about to be shot for his transgression, he confronts the libertines with a raised first, a universal leftist symbol of resistance and rebellion. This gesture is, however, futile as he is shot after a brief, but tense, stand-off. There is also a similar sense of futility in the film’s absence of narrative progression. As Éric Marty has suggested Salò is in many ways a very shallow film – there is no development of character or plot (Pourquoi le XXe siècle a-t-il pris Sade au sérieux?, Seuil, 2011). In this way, any value, meaning or satisfying resolution that a viewer would be able to take from the film through a happy ending, or any conclusive ending at all, is not supplied. This reinforces the overall inescapable horror of the Sadean, fascist and consumerist systems sketched out by Pasolini’s film. A satisfying narrative pay-off would, like the raised fist and, ultimately, the humour in the film, be futile in the face of these systems according to Pasolini’s pessimistic vision. If not, then, a comedy, comedy plays a role in the film in a way that captures a spectator off-guard but closes off the possibility of a redemptive reading of the film. Sniggering is futile.

Call for papers – Intoxication

ULIP Postgraduate Conference Summer 2013, June 28th, 2013

Throughout literary history writers have consistently been drawn to intoxication. They have used their work to ponder the temptation of intoxicants, and the altered states of perception they produce. Writers have also regularly intoxicated themselves to aid the creative process, or to escape the pressure of artistic creation and the monotony of humdrum reality.

The intoxicant of choice can take many forms. It can be legal highs: cigarettes, strong coffee and alcohol favoured by the café-frequenting auteur. It can be ‘recreational’: cannabis and so-called club drugs such as ecstasy and ketamine. It can also be more radical, pushing the writer towards the edges of both legality and experience: heroin, crack and cocaine.

Intoxication can also take a more mundane form: prescribed medication and, in particular, antidepressants. It need not involve drugs at all: adherents report that asceticism and religious fanaticism can create equivalent states of intoxication. The very act of writing itself has also been posited as exhilarating or intoxicating. In turn, the process of reading has been celebrated for its capacity to produce a similar effect.

French writing, and French writers, have been particularly fascinated by intoxication, and have frequently been intoxicated. In the nineteenth century, Rimbaud called for a ‘dérèglement de tous les sens’, Baudelaire, Gaultier and Flaubert were attendees at the Club des Hashischins, whilst the shadow of Thomas de Quincey’s opium eating has loomed large over the French creative imagination. In modern and contemporary writing, Henri Michaux and Claro have explored LSD, whilst Frédéric Beigbeder published his Nouvelles sous ecstasy. Alcohol has also had a strong grip: Debord, Houellebecq and Duras all drank heavily. Paris itself has been a frequent port of call for foreign writers seeking intoxication: Miller, Burroughs and Hemmingway all famously indulged decadently in the French capital.

This one-day conference at the University of London Institute in Paris will consider the relationship of intoxication to writing produced both in French and in France. It invites proposals for twenty-minute research papers in English or French from postgraduate and early career researchers as well as proposals for interventions around the theme from writers working outside the university community.

Themes for exploration could include, but are by no means limited to, the following:

-       Ecstasy, raves and writing

-       Uppers and downers

-       Cigarettes and alcohol

-       Writing and rock

-       Hangovers and comedowns

-       Parisian expatriate intoxication

-       Writing and hedonism

-       Alternative intoxications

Proposals (maximum 300 words), together with a short biography indicating your academic background and research interests or short CV, should be submitted via e-mail to eugene.brennan@ulip.lon.ac.uk by April 5th 2013. Please include your name, academic affiliation (where appropriate), and contact details.

This conference is organised by the ULIP Postgraduate Society: Russell Williams, Eugene Brennan, Katie Tidmarsh and Alastair Hemmens.

 

Django Unchained (dir: Quentin Tarantino, 2013)

In some ways, a new Tarantino film is a very much like a pair of Clarks, a Vauxhall car or a bottle of seven quid wine from Sainsbury’s. Reassuringly, you know pretty much in advance what you’re going to get.  Unlike the desert boots, the Corsa or the Rioja, though, you can generally count on a Tarantino films to show enough sparks of cinematic magic to make the whole affair live long in the memory.

Django Unchained certainly looks like it fulfils most of the expectations that a cinema-going public weaned on Tarantino’s earlier work will have. It follows heist-movie Reservoir Dogs (1992), martial arts revenge film Kill Bill (2003-4) and war romp Inglorious Basterds (2009), by again paying fond tribute to an unfashionable genre. This time, Tarantino has remade a western, but with a twist: picking on Carbucci’s Django and Francisci’s Hercules Unchained to inspire a story of a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) wreaking revenge on the white men who dominate nineteenth-century American society and have hold of his wife.

Tarantino’s treatment has lent the film a reliable whiff of provocation: its subject, liberal use of the n-word and its par-for-the-course bloody violence, have already sparked debate with Spike Lee kicking off online and Krishnan Guru-Murthy rising to the bait too easily on British TV. Of course, we’ve seen controversy with Tarantino before. The ‘is it too violent?’ question  being a particularly limp one.

Like Tarantino’s previous films, Django Unchained provides both a platform for stars from the past we thought were long forgotten (think John Travolta in Pulp Fiction or Pam Grier in Jackie Brown) or shows us stars we though we knew in radically different ways (Uma Thurman as sword-bearing ninja or Robert De Niro as a weed-smoking small-time crook). Here Django casts, Titanic whimperer Leonardo DiCaprio as a menacingly evil plantation owner whilst the iconic cool Samuel L. Jackson loses the Kangol and is cast as Stephen, his simpering right-hand-man.

We can also generally expect a Tarantino’s film to feature a somewhat toe-curlingly embarrassing cameo from the man himself (check) and for the films to be slightly over-long and rather clumsily put together at the final edit. Kind of clunky. That’s OK though, because the music will be good and there is enough going on to keep our attention. The bloated-yet-compelling Pulp Fiction being a case in point.

Django Unchained has most of this. It is most effective when it comes to character. Christophe Waltz gives a notable turn as dentist-turned Bounty Hunter who frees Django from his irons and kicks off the movie’s plot. A performance not as memorable, however, as his as a particularly sinister Nazi ‘jew hunter’ Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds. It is Jackson, who is almost unrecognisable from his previous Tarantino roles and, in particular, DiCaprio who steal the show. The latter, as Calvin Candie is alternately charming and brutal, echoing, in fact, Waltz’s role in Basterds.

You can normally count on tense set pieces to be the highest points of Tarantino movies. These are scenes that stay in the memory long after you’ve forgotten the rest of the film. Reservoir Dog’s ear surgery to a Stealers Wheel soundtrack set the mark. This was followed by Pulp Fiction’s adrenaline shot through the heart and Jackson’s fire and brimstone hitman speech. Even the woeful second half of Death Proof doesn’t seem quite so bad when you remember Vanessa Ferlito’s lapdance. A highlight of Basterds was, equally, a set piece, set in a Munich beer cellar where an Allied undercover agent infiltrates some heavy duty Nazi drinking. This is, however, where Django Unchained lets us down. The film has its fair share of good moments, most of them stating DiCaprio and Jackson, but nothing approaching the sheer heart-thumping tension of his earlier works.

Yes, there is excitement, yes there is violence. Yes, it looks great – I particularly liked the flashbacks, themselves shot on pseudo vintage film. Django Unchained is a good movie, but mediocre Tarantino: Tarantino restrained. Maybe describing it as the movie equivalent of a warm Pinot Grigiot or a Vauxhall Astra is doing the director a disservice, but Tarantino is here on, what is for him, uncharacteristically comfy territory.