Friday, 24 August 2012

In Defence of Fiona Apple

It’s faintly embarrassing to admit that I am a Fiona Apple fan (and I'm not the only one). Listening to her new album The Idler Wheel…, my housemate came into my room and very quickly dismissed it as whiny and annoying. In an episode of Sex and The City, back when the writing was halfway decent, Steve asks Miranda to keep him company at the bar, otherwise he’ll have to ‘listen to those NYU kids with the Amstel Lights discuss Fiona Apple’.  Her name became short-hand for pretension. Of course, that was back in 1996 when the world was still recovering from the Fiona of ‘Criminal’, anorexic and fragile, her caramel tones screaming out her conflicted Lolita affectations. Soon after, she wins an MTV award and then throws a tantrum on stage full of teenage incoherence and self-rightousness. Oh Fiona. So biting and yet so afraid of being bit.

But that was the nineties and we all did stupid things in the nineties. In the nineties, I wore baggy jeans that trailed after me when I walked, read Nietzsche like he was a lifestyle guru and wrote quotes from her lyrics onto my wallls.Let’s just say everything has been forgiven. The Fiona of now still has a beautiful deep Alto voice, the kind of female voice that you hadn't heard in the Top 30 for quite a while until Adele and her like became popular. Fiona did it first and her voice is firmly rooted in jazz and blues rather than white girl soul, as well as influenced by the grunge sounds of the decade that made her. She’s not afraid to go ugly with her voice and her piano, banging out discordant notes, singing to the very edge of her register, to the point where it becomes uncomfortable to listen. When it becomes more like a scream or a cry. When it almost becomes too intimate.

The new album has a lot of these vintage moments although it is also a more mature Fiona, comfortable with experimenting and seemingly unconcerned with producing any kind of obvious hit. She’s always been good with a pop melody but that, to me, has always been her biggest weakness, the thing that has aligned her too closely with annoying menstrual cup Lilith Fair girlies. When she starts sounding like she could be too comfortable on a romantic comedy soundtrack, I start to get bored. Not on this album through. The first single, ‘Every Single Night’, is a weird strangely addictive song with its ghostly toy piano, gutteral yoddeling and merciless depiction of inner torment. ‘I just want to feel everything’. I am perhaps over-identifying here, what with my own mental state being summed up in one neat little line, in a way that had me playing this song over and over again for about a week. 'My heart's made of parts of all that surround me and thats why the devil just can't get around me'.Speak for me, Fiona. I have also spent sleepless nights with one eye on spiralling thoughts and the other on the devil. I too have only dodged him through the presence of people in my life, the same people responsible for all of my good parts. I too have been made self-aware that I am no victim except maybe a victim of myself, which makes all victimhood moot. I have nothing to complain about, nothing that is really wrong except my misfiring brain, my ‘little wings of white-flamed butterfiies’. Yeah, like I said, over-identifying.

 But Fiona’s lyrics can so often fall victim to thesauraus speak, to a showy kind of overwriting you might find in a first year creative writing seminar. Here through, they are perfect.  It’s the restraint that does it. Her metaphors don’t get too overwrought, she doesn’t get all caught up in fancy adjectives, and the words stay simple and startling. Whilst the over-writerly Fiona occasionally rears her verbose head, overall, this is her no bullshit album and it sounds all the more extraordinary for it. Stripped back and yet musically engrossingly with odd melodies and erratic jazz-based percussion everywhere.  And while the push, pull and inevitable failure of interpersonal relationships remain, as ever, her lyrical focus, she is no longer just the victim; she acknowledge her own penchant for destruction on song after song. Even while brutally describing the knife twist of rejection on songs like ‘Werewolf’ and ‘Periphery’, she knows that there is blood on her hands too. She may apparently still have plenty of relationship mess stories but she knows that she is the common variable. And yes, it’s still so much navel gazing but at least, on this new album, there is a strength, an acceptance.

The exception would be ‘Regret’ where she decides that perspective can go to hell in favour of some good old character assassination. And who hasn’t felt like that at some point? Since a married Tori Amos let her songs get a little too MOR, I for one, have needed the sound of an unapologetically angry woman who pours it all out into a song. Okay, so it is self-indulgent first-world problem stuff and many interviews with her seem to reinforce this point. But what would the alternative sound like? Politics in songs are often so cloying, so preachy. The truth is that songs do not start revolutions. At best, they provide the background for revolutions. But let’s not shit ourselves, a song only has so much power. And does it really take away from the importance of our current material conditions to use music as personal expression? While I agree that the personal is often political, I don't believe that the terms should become completely conflated. Maybe sometimes the personal is just personal. But it still has its place and when done right, these kinds of intensely confessional songs provide the perfect soundtrack for times of retreat, when you just need to be alone and feel like shit for a while. Before you pick yourself up and get on with your life.

  All I ask from my music is sincerity and innovation and Fiona Apple has that in spades. Perhaps the most challenging song on the album, ‘Left Alone’ mimics the painfully felt contradictions of mental illness in both structure and content. The sudden changes of speed. Pointless rhetorical questions. The self as a blank page. Your own hand, the knife.  But not always darkness either.  ‘Anything we want’ is surprisingly optimistic about the early blooms of love, when it makes you feel like rebellious teenagers. ‘Hot Knife’ is just sexy and fun and catchy. Basically, Fiona sounds as horny as hell and it’s really quite refreshing to hear her sing about sex as a good time rather than as a trap or a distraction.

Despite the underlying feelings of embarrassment, her latest album reminds me of why I still like Fiona Apple even though at times, it feels like I should have grown out of her. What seems to have happened instead is that I have grown with her.  From ‘Sullen Girl’ to ‘Paper Bag to ‘A Better Version of Me’ to ‘Anything We Want’, I can trace the lines of my life from weird outsider to boy crazy teenager to suicidal self-hatred in my early twenties to now, or at least, the best parts of now. The best parts of now: living in the moment, finally enjoying the simple things in life, fierce loyalty to the ones on my side, gaining a sense of acceptance over the past and myself, feeling young and full of possibilities. Fiona Apple used to be one of only a few artists I listened to when I was in my early teens. She said everything I needed to hear. Now it says something about my life that I have a large music collection with many different genres and that I only play Fiona Apple CD’s at particular points in my life. My life has many different colours in it now and so many different songs. But still, it is nice to meet up with an old friend again and see how far you’ve both come. And that yes, the music has grown with you.

"It used to be that everyone else was wrong and I was right. Maybe that's growing up or something, because I absolutely don't think everyone was so bad to me as I used to think." Fiona Apple

Monday, 30 July 2012

Friday, 13 July 2012

Bristol, I love you

In the 1964 constructed documentary The Newcomers, we witness a young artisan couple, Anthony and Alison Smith living and working in Bristol. They are not natives but they’ve been in Bristol for a while and are fixtures of the Clifton artsy crowd. They count the young Tom Stoppard as a close friend. He has moved to London but comes back to visit often, staying with the Smiths. As the three of them head to visit the camera obscura up in the Downs, the narrator says ‘For Tom, Bristol is an obsession, a kind of cult which is caught and expressed by the camera obscura’. A panoramic view of Bristol from way up at its highest point. A majestic reminder of the shared identity of those who don’t merely live in Bristol but who also have Bristol live in them. 

At one point, Antony speaks of his relationship with Bristol while the camera pans over the landscape of the city. He says that when he first arrived here, he imagined the city as a blank piece of paper which his pens were going to scrawl all over. But after living here for enough time, he realised that it was in fact Bristol that was writing all over him. It is very easy to believe that we merely inhabit cities. Especially now with all our technology and highways and gated communities and security alarms. It feels very much like we are adept at bending and shaping our cities to our will. But the truth is that cities still get inside us. They become buried into the deepest fissure of our memories, they can reveal desires we didn’t know that we had and they can remind of old desires that we have been forced to discard like favourite bits of clothing that have been worn to death. 

More than that, they are their own characters. There are days when Bristol feels like my sworn enemy; spiteful, hard, delaying me from where I’m trying to go, overwhelming me with too much noise, too many harsh words. But there are many other times when it is beautiful and kind, undemanding, accepting, brimming with comadarie. At those times, I don’t need anything or anyone but Bristol by my side, these streets, these lights, this music. I feel choked by the suburbs and although I’m appreciating the countryside more and more, it too often remains too quiet for me. The city breathes, it vibrates and even though we fall out sometimes, it remains a true blue friend, forcing me to grow like all good friends do. I have been deeply bitten by Bristol; it has changed me and still, it is changing me, writing all over me, stealing my heart.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

What isn't being said: Reading the non-dialogue of Steve McQueen's films

Steve McQueen's films aren't exactly what you would call wordy. His previous film Hunger reduced most of its dialogue to one frenetic scene between Bobby Sands and Father Dominic Moran. Instead, Bobby's infamous hunger strike is conveyed through painfully long and intimate takes, the camera fixed on Michael Fassbender as he disappears before our eyes. The unimaginable pain of starving to death is represented by the unblinking witnessing of an absence, growing ever greater and more and more awful. So, the dimming light in Fassbender's eyes, the paper-like quality of translucent skin stretched tighter over a ribcage, the stillness, the silence.

Steve McQueen is one of those directors who remind us of the enduring appeal of film as a form. The moving image, stripped of speech, can still hit you in the gut. McQueen knows this and he allows his camera and the viewers the time to appreciate its impact. It helps that he works with excellent actors, the kind of actors that could have bewitched silent movies audiences in the 1920’s. Fassbender, for example, is the kind of actor who can carry an entire scene with one look.

So from Hunger to Shame. From starvation to sex addiction. Both, in their own way, are a denial of need although the roots of their behaviour are distinctly different. Bobby Sands was motivated by the kind of political commitment that goes far beyond his concern for his own body. Whether you agree with his politics or not, his destruction of his body is single minded and coherent. It doesn’t flinch. Brendan, on the other hand, has no such connection with his body. His sexual addiction is paradoxical in that it really has nothing to do with desire. He does not have sex because he truly wants another person. He has sex to forget, to become invisible, to erase the past and the future. There is nothing spontaneous or sensual about Brandon’s addiction. It is all ritualised behaviour, as boring and functional as the daily loops he makes around his apartment from bathroom to bedroom.

McQueen goes to great length to emphasis Brendan’s dysfunctional need to maintain order in his life. His apartment is spotless, his clothes impeccable. The camera does not move around him, he moves around the camera. But not in any way that could be considered free. Brendan’s insistence on order and control is there, simply because his life is impossible without it. There are some pretty big and scary ghosts inside Brendan, looming just beneath his immaculately groomed surface, and he could not even begin to put them to rest so the best he can hope for is sex as a vital daily distraction, the centre-piece of his airtight routine. The wordless scene Fassbender shares with a married woman on the subway is an acting master class on subtlety but also, demonstrates the tenuous grip he has on his sexual compulsions, loaded as they are with his demons. Yes, we see that so far, he is still a respectable member of society, still able to command a woman's attention without descending to the cringe-worthy leechery of his boss. But this veneer of respectability is wearing thin. We can see this in the way her gaze goes from flirtatious to uncomfortable, in the way a sexy two-way exchange becomes more like a one-sided assault. As he urgently follows her off the subway carriage, as she, just as urgently, tries to get away from him, we glimpse the kind of predator Brendan could become.

This is the kind of slippage which repeats itself in the central relationship of the film. The woman from the answer phone messages is not an ex-lover; it is his sister. Except that their filial relationship becomes murky and uncomfortable when he barges in on her in the shower and neither seem concerned about her remaining naked throughout their entire exchange. When she sleeps with his slime ball boss, their foreplay coming across loud and clear through Brendan's apartment walls, he gets more disturbed than this admittedly uncomfortable situation calls for. As he sits in a fetal position on the floor, desperately trying to keep the sounds out, he loses all sense of being self-controlled and self-assured. He looks like a child. And like a child, his only solution is to run away from the problem, literally and figuratively. And then we have McQueen's most beautiful scene from the film, one long continuous shot following Brendan jogging through the streets of New York to classical music. It is a scene which manages to depict movement and stillness simultaneously, the sounds of the city drowned out to produce a paradoxical sense of calm through physical exertion. Which, of course, makes sense when we consider what we already know about Brendan. The music and the distance of the camera also acts out the defense mechanisms deeply embedded within Brendan. He becomes obscured to our view. This Recording suggests that the way in which McQueen forcibly distances us from Brendan betrays a lack of depth, a commitment to style over substance and a lazy evasiveness.

But it could also be argued that the extra barrier McQueen erects between an already elusive protagonist and the viewers is necessary to further illustrate Brendan’s deep emotional detachment. As Brendan runs, he rebuilds the walls inside himself. He regains a tentative sense of control, which for him is detachment. In this way, rather than being lazy or ill thought out, McQueen’s stylistic choice accurately mirrors Brendan’s dysfunctional psyche. Which, looking at Hunger, is something that McQueen is quite partial to. Also, McQueen has never really been interested in mimetically giving the viewer all his character’s secrets. He prefers the art of inference. Which, when you think about it, is closer to reality than the disembowelment of a life in under two hours. Very rarely do people go into the gritty details of the worst things that have happened to them, even with people they are close to. Sharing is one thing; a blow-by-blow account is quite another. Trauma makes its mark on people in subtle ways, in ways that can become painfully obvious, even without words. As you spend more and more time with someone, you might learn snippets of their past but you might also be rendered dumb by the way a look, a gesture, an action, reveals what they simply cannot say.

And this is what we get in Shame. A look, a gesture, an action; all very powerful illusions. Even the words, as little as they are, speak volumes. Kitty’s answer-phone message to Brendan: ‘We’re not bad people. We’ve just come from a bad place’. Vague, it may be but it is just enough to confirm what the film has been very quietly exploring. Anything more would have been, in my opinion, too heavy-handed for such a subtle film. Like well-written poetry, Shame understands the importance of blank spaces, of what isn’t being said. In its biggest moments of melodrama, McQueen insists on moving away, on obscuring, on silence. And this is a brave decision when it might be easier to fully explain Brendan and Kitty’s dysfunction with some good old-fashioned exposition. But then he would be a far less fascinating film-maker. If the pathos of film comes from it reflecting life, the importance of McQueen’s films comes from his understanding that so much of our lives exist between and beyond language. Even when not damaged or addicted or dying, words often fail us and then, as McQueen knows, the space left can become truly cinematic.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Extract from new comic 'Special Language'

If anyone's at Laydeez this Monday, the whole thing will be available to buy for £2 there. After that, it will be available to buy online in some way or another before me and Godfrey head to Comiket.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Excerpt from new autobiographical mini-comic

Andrew Godfrey and I are completing a new mini-comic in time for my talk at Laydeez do Comics (so nervous!). As usual, it's on a cheery subject: my time in a mental institution. When I started writing, I realised I had a lot to say on this subject so it looks like this one will just be one of three issues, loosely centered around a particular focus. The focus on this one is on the strange and intense connections I made with my fellow patients and both the positive and negative ramifications of this.

And here is a little excerpt from the text:

"I have never, in my life, made friends as quickly and easily as I did when I was in hospital. This says something about me, I'm sure, but it also says something about the place I was in. A mental institution is no ordinary hospital ward. Here, the distance between patient and staff spans miles and miles. Whether they meant to or not, most of the staff treated us like we were contagious. And the more alienated from them we felt, the more we gravitated towards each other. We were kin, connected by disease.

We were all here, in this place, and no signifier was more obvious: there was something very wrong with us. No wonder then that we looked to each other for companionship, for some simple humanity. Our recognition of each other proved that we were still human."

Image by Andrew Godfrey

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Notes on 'Dreams of a Life'

- The title is perfect for the subject matter. Somebody's life story told by everyone but the person whose life it is. Of course, that is what everyone's life becomes eventually. Someone else's memories; faded imprints worn thin by the ever mutating construct of recollection. The impression those who knew her give of Joyce Vincent tells us more about them than it does about her. We see more clearly the changing light the subject was cast in rather than the subject herself: outgoing, secretive, independent, needy, fun, tortured. The many shades of Joyce Vincent do more than suggest someone who was highly complex. They also illustrate the needs of those around her, their need to fit her into a particular type of role. The deeply human need to distil another person into a single adjective and then see any behaviour that deviates from that as an anachronism. We all do it, this film reminds us. Our minds long to connect the dots, we tend towards abstraction.

- They do all agree that she was beautiful. They reiterate it again and again; her beauty. This goes beyond desire and sexuality although that was a part of it. She was certainly sexy and men wanted to fuck her but more than that, her beauty turned her into an object of awe and adoration. You don’t defile idols with something as dirty or as base as sex. Notice who has the agency here and who doesn’t. This is where Joyce’s beauty seemed to exist as a two sided creature. It gave her power, a spellbinding power over men and she knew it. But it is also about the most passive power you could possess; it is utterly out of your control and liable to turn toxic at any time. It becomes too much about just being the object of someone else’s gaze. There is a reason we put great works of art behind glass. Beauty must be protected and preserved; it must remain pristine and kept in a static position where it can be seen. After all, beauty has no intrinsic value by itself, it only means something if it is viewed by others. It only exists for other people. No wonder then that the constant reminder of Joyce’s beauty makes it even easier to turn her into that which has no meaning in and of herself. She becomes a symbol of our disenfranchised society or a reminder to call your friends and family more often. Who she actually was gets lost.

- Zawe Aston plays another imagined incarnation of Joyce Vincent with a subtlety you’d never know she was capable of if you’d only seen her in Fresh Meat. She has almost no dialogue at all in stark contrast to the verbosity of the talking heads. She captures a sense of deceptive stillness, as if storms are raging just beneath the surface. Like the viewers, she watches her friends and lovers discuss her on screen. Again, the film emphasises an absence, a removal from one’s self, a dependency on the gaze of others.

- A friend who was clearly a bit in love with Joyce: ‘It’s like she never really existed, she was just a figment of our imagination, she was a story. It was like someone that we almost made up, almost. Partly because of the fact that we just let someone disappear off and die that we all knew and that we all thought we cared about’. A former lover: ‘Joyce died alone because she wanted to be alone’. The tension between feeling some sense of responsibility and wanting to believe that people make conscious choices.

- The last image of the film: Nelson Mandela in Wembley Stadium. The camera cuts to the people in the crowd. And then she turns around, a small smile on her face. The real Joyce Vincent captured on camera for a couple of seconds. It's an arresting and haunting image, not least because she really is as beautiful as they said. It's disconcerting to see a real person after all the conjecture and reconstruction. It's like seeing a painting come to life. An important reminder of the reality behind the dreams. Joyce Vincent, a flesh and blood Mona Lisa; beautiful, mysterious, with secrets we'll never know.