Sunday, November 25, 2007

Some Northern Types: A bad education.

1) The Blue Orchids.

“Sees behind the screens, the strings attached to all things.”

Few people have written as brilliantly about the ambivalence of disengagement as Martin Bramah of The Blue Orchids, of the odd sense of victory in retreat, of the self-assertion in surrender, the serenity, even the generosity brought on by slow, piecemeal self-destruction.

The most famous song on The Greatest Hit ( Money Mountain) ( though by no means the best) is “Bad Education”, possibly a song addressed to the listener but more realistically to some uncomprehending third party, to the workday, square world, to the non-initiates. “I’m sorry to bother you/ but I’m afraid I want your attention,” it begins, and there is, despite the politeness, a very Mancunian swagger to the lines. Bramah has “read too many books, seen too much TV, paid too much attention, to that bad education”. In the grand tradition of the working class auto-didact, resolutely outside the Academy, Bramah has gorged himself on all those things that serious study would keep him away from, and now he has been hopelessly corrupted.

At the start of “V” Tony Harrison quotes Arthur Scargill, “My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.” Whereas at one point the working class auto didact’s aim might have been a grasp of Marxism, a familiarity with history, a desire to be up to the standards of the formally educated in order to better represent his class interest, Bramah, living through the deadlock of the late Seventies and on into the early Eighties knows that all his intelligence and learning are going nowhere, and that the only law now is “ the law of dissipation.”

There’s a conscious rejection of any notion of role or status “ Everybody looks too me, I’m always looking to a distant star,” in “The Hanging Man", or “Woke up one morning/ threw my name in the bin/ ate the fruit of surrender/ surrender to no-one,” from “A year with no head”. The Blue Orchid’s are hardly here at all, even the wind might scatter them, bring about the longed for diffusion into the cosmos, “ just touch the flesh of the breeze/ and feel release.” There is nothing in this world for them, “the only way out is up.” They’ll stick to drugs to see them through the long, dark night of Late Capitalism that they can sense slowly closing in. The Blue Orchid’s are situated at that point where illumination is just starting to slide over into disillusion, where the come down can already be felt, filtering back from the future and whisping through the present, where you’ve been up so long it looks like down to you, where every bright assertion partially stands in its own shadow.“ I climb high above the city/ I climb high, I catch a star,” is counterbalanced by an intimation of a darker state “ I do what I can, but knowledge hangs the man”. The Blue Orchids capture the exultancy and pain of being a seer, of having had the mechanics of the world exposed to you. This giant, absurd contrivance, reality, all wobbling pasteboard and threadbare backdrop. Here is the man of vision’s plight, struck by the light filtering through the cracks and fissures, having partially stepped out of the world. Where is home now, how can he do justice to what he’s apprehended? How much further should he go? How can he explain himself? How can he live? But for the moment, for the Blue Orchids these fundamental questions are still on the horizon.

It’s 1982 and Bramah and his cohorts can still live in that dole-buffered interzone where experiment, play and exploration reign, “Down in the basement/We base our lives on love.” What makes The Greatest Hit such an affecting record is the fragile overlap of personal and political states. These are songs from the Magic Hour, that lambent transition between day and night that swells with loss and possibility, that speaks of old skins sloughed and new becomings. There is still place here for the raw, untested assertion of the working class youth, smarter than his peers who, unable to find a place in the world as it stands turns his back on it and tries to build on his own, both an ascetic and a wild fantasist, haunted and consoled equally by dreams of earthly success and their disavowal. “Sometimes I think, if I try/ climb the money mountain/make a million.”

Ten years down the line it will all look very different.

2) Naked.

“No matter how may books you read there are some things you still never, never, never understand.”

“Naked”, so good it’s hard to believe it’s a Mike Leigh film, recasts Late Capitalism, or rather reveals Late Capitalim for what it is, as Neo Medieval, a Second Dark Age with London as its benighted, labyrinthine heart.

In the wake of the impossible re-election of the Tories in 1992 and long before Blairism’s false dawn England is slowly grinding to a halt. This is a dark, static Universe, post-eschatological, an eternal present in which random encounters and exchanges succeed each other without bringing any sense of movement or completion. This is neither time’s arrow nor time’s cycle but Lumpen Time, time as a vast temporal rubbish heap that the prophet of our own End Times, Johnny, picks through as he waits for Revelation. A Gothic London of filthy backstreet, bedsits and smoking industrial ruins, populated by idiots and desperate men and women locked into meaningless work or scavenging after physical pleasure and some sense of contact, with violence around every corner.

The ghosts of both Lear and Endgame haunt Naked’s streets and it’s hard not to reflect on Lear’s “promised End” in both it’s implications, as the “ foretold” end and something desirable one has been guaranteed. In the absence of any secular eschatology, of both the Utopian promise of Marxism/ Modernism and the equally infernal promise/consolation of Mutually Assured Destruction thickening experience, time has simply unravelled, lost its elasticity, it’s immediacy. Late capitalism has done violence not merely to the social but also the temporal fabric of life. The “Paranoid style”, the overlap of Christian Apocalypticism with politics is just one of the modes of thought that Thatcherism has imported from the US and here, with Johnny, it fills the gap in meaning and orientation post the dissolution of the working class and the break up of the Soviet Union, in the form of elaborate eschatological theorizing. Johnny’s world is Gnostic, God is simply malign, the world corrupt and overrun by the Illuminati, yet hope, such as there is, is a question of waiting out for the shift, for the next evolutionary stage. In this way "Naked" overlaps with Houellebecq, ideologically, intellectually we’ve reached the end. There’s no thinking our way out of the impasse, only science can save us, and if not science then some metaphysical mutation, a kind of Hegelian Armaggedon, will offer the possibility of transcendence.

The Yuppie character in Naked, Jeremy, is always judged to be yet another manifestation of Leigh’s inabilities to draw rounded, sympathetic middle-class characters (actually Leigh can’t draw sympathetic, rounded characters, middle class or working class, he’s brilliant with misanthropes though, being a misanthrope-in-denial himself) but Jeremy and Johnny are really mirror images of each other, powerfully charismatic, death obsessed, only capable of expressing themselves sexually through violence. Johnny's advantage is in his wit, his cultural capital, and he exercises his power there. There is a strangely moving moment of recognition between the two when Johnny finally returns, badly beaten, to the house and reaches out in his stupor to touch Jeremy. Jeremy pulls violently away. Upper-Class Matter and Lower Class Antimatter must never meet and recognize how much they have of each other within. All the men here are fucked-up, desperate, harrowed by their inability to create meaning, lost. The women, in typical Leigh fashion, largely represent a certain stoical reality-principle to which the men must become reconciled.

Manchester, home for both Johnny and his ex-girlfriend Louise operates as a kind of touchstone for what there is that’s still decent with the world, “people talk to you,” Louis explains early on. By the end of the film she has decided to return there and it seems that Johnny will go with her after his odyssey through the London night. It’s an act of surprising aesthetic integrity on Leighs part that he doesn’t. The final line in the film is, “ When will the world ever…….. end?” the final, uncomfortably long shot, Johnny, with the money he’s stolen, on his last legs, limping toward us through another darkening day, receding further and further into the distance as the future he’s aiming for outstrips him. Where is home now, how can he do justice to what he’s apprehended? How much further should he go? How can he explain himself? How can he live?

He can only keep moving, keep waiting, keep pushing himself toward whatever impossible conflagration, whatever consummation he sees on the horizon. Otherwise death has him.

1 comment:

Biggie Samuels said...

Another great post, Carl. I've signed the "Greatest Hit" petition and I'll be digging my copy out of the vinyl vault for a spin just as soon as I've catered to the cat's every whim and fancy.

One thing you didn't mention, though, that is pretty hard to avoid when talking about The Blue Orchids: heroin. But I suppose it was implied.