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Musing n’ Shit: Sirkústjaldið: Revisiting Björk and the new Internet Aesthetics

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So this piece was actually written all the way back in February, when Björk announced the release of her current album, Vulnicura. I was asked by the HI arts and humanities website Sirkustjaldið to write some pieces of my own choosing about cultural points that interested. Alas Sirkustjaldið hasn’t quite worked out in the way I hoped it would. As well as translation issues (I know for a fact that the likes of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun with its lyrical tech-syntax will almost certainly NEVER be translated into Icelandic), but also other issues, like restrictive word counts (for a website magazine!) in some blind adherence to optimization metrics did grate a little. And even though this piece has been translated and edited for weeks, it still hasn’t been uploaded! not a good sign. Oh well.

Anyway, what really intrigued me about Vulnicura wasn’t the album themes of heartbreak, etc, more the digitally created artwork, her thematic clothing, and the fact that internet v3.0 producer Arca was co-producing with her. What’s interesting is how Björk has become fully immersed within the realms of the current internet aesthetic groups, labels and ideas. In the last decade, with the rise of dubstep, grime, and it’s offshoots, she seemed to be out of step with what was happening on the groud when it came to electronic and bass music. But now she is clearly in her element. And as the piece below states, one reason is that many of the influences of the new Hi-Tech indie aesthetic (to coin Adam Harper’s phrase) are ’90s electronic aesthetics and ’90s digiculture, something in which Björk was very much at the vanguard during that period. It interesting that Matt Barnes aka Forest Swords referred to her recently as their “Godmother” – The peeps at Tri-Angle Records and other places clearly look up to her as a guiding light/inspiration.

And it’s not as if she’s being a Madonna-like cultural vampire, draining their vitality in an effort to stay relevant. Her meshing of vocal samples and contemporary electronic tunes for a mix she did for Tri-Angle’s 5th Birthday Bash (in the basement of an old investment bank and sponsored by RBMA, but hey you can’t have everything!), is really, really good! She in her way is adding to the scene, not blindly subtracting.

For anyone who has an interest in trans-or-posthumanism, queer theory, or digitculture in general, then this is nothing new. It’s merely an overview of where the ground lies, and once lied. In any case, enjoy…

Long Live the Virtual Flesh

On the imagery of Björk’s Vulnicura and ‘90s Digiculture Revisited

By Bob Cluness

With the release of Björk’s new album, Vulnicura along with the video trailer to her accompanying video installation show at MoMA, both the album art and the trailer portray her as a bio-engineered form, as something or someone who is at once all too human, yet beyond the realms of anthropocentric embodiment and experience.

The image of Björk on the album cover shows her as a sensual and tactile cyborg, a mix of liquid flesh and nature-inspired wearable tech. Wrapped in a black latex catsuit, her legs look like cylindrical carbon fibre tubing while her chest contains a fleshy slit-as-vagina, an anti-cremaster designed for direct access to her heart/emotional nodes. She also wears a shawl with protruding shards extending out in all directions, providing a design that’s a mix of the spiritual (Benjamin’s “aura” reworked as Wi-Fi field), natural (the “dandelion seed” model), and technological (The shards as bioelectric sensors/mapping arrays).

Meanwhile the short trailer for her MoMA exhibition has her rising out from a dark abyss, as she lies in a moss covered rocky hole. Meshed with foliage, the camera zooms in to see a luminescent blue liquid ooze from her heart down a crevasse in her torso and out between her legs into the depths below.

Such imagery is a continuation of what has been a long running aesthetic of Björk for nearly 20 years now – The warping and transgressing of physical boundaries between human, nature, and the machine. The video to “Mutual Core” from Biophilia for example has rock layers and lava reimagined as organic blood and flesh, while the video to “Hyperballad,” portrays Björk’s physical body in stasis, while her mind explores a grainy, virtual TV world.

The music and the imagery surrounding Vulnicura is the most distinct meshing of flesh, nature and technology since her 1997 album, Homogenic. If terms of the music alone, both albums share an affinity in the use of strings and heavy almost suffocating electronic beats and processing, the sonic equivalent of what the lyrics in “Jóga” describe as “emotional landscapes.”

Old Worlds, New Pathways

But it is the videos accompanying the album that show a real equivalence between then and now. When Homogenic was released 1997, it was at a time of a long gestating confluence of social and cultural change based around technology, identity and conscious reality. The increasing speed of new technology, mobile communications and the internet, and the rise of globalised economies based on information flows meant the world was changing, accelerating; old notions of time, space and identity were suddenly becoming less fixed.

People began to think about where such potentialities of humanity and technology could take us. Technofuturist thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil, Eric Drexler and Hans Moravec espoused ideas on artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and robotics leading to philosophies of transhumanism, where humans would be augmented by technology to the point where the boundaries between what is human and what is machine would eventually disappear.

Meanwhile the work of queer theorists such as Judith Butler, and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality from a black female perspective raised questions of identity that rejected the binary definitions of gender and sexuality. Identity was seen not so much as a fixed determinism, but more like a traffic junction; a multi-directional multi-causal flow of processes that meet and clash together. This led to seminal papers/books such as Donna Harraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, which espoused the idea of the feminist cyborg, a being that could cut through the binary paradigms of patriarchy, as well as ideas of feminism through affinity with mother-nature. The feminist cyborg, Harraway believed, could create new languages of embodiment and identity, breaking down the boundaries between human, nature and machine, and between the physical and nonphysical.

The idea of the body and technology in flux also found their way into popular culture. The music and culture of rave, hardcore and jungle ushered in a delirious sense of speed and light, a chemical infused cyber-derangement of the senses. Meanwhile, the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson, the Matrix film franchises, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, and anime features such as Ghost in the Shell paraded ideas about reality, identity and gender in a fluid, posthuman age, where the flesh was a form of digital hybridism.

 

The Erotic Life Of Machines

Against this backdrop of transhumanism and virtual space, Björk and her video collaborators produced video narratives for Homogenic that tapped into this zeitgeist, asking questions about the potentials of our bodies in such a world. Take the video to “Jóga,” the first single from Homogenic, directed by Michel Gondry. We see numerous swooping shots of the Icelandic terrain before Gondry uses computer animation to tear apart and rearrange large chunks of landscape like an architect, before finally showing a digitised representation of Björk on a cliff top as she opens her chest to reveal an island in a digital ocean. As a video, “Jóga,” shows our material reality rendered into a computerised model that foretells of digitally rendered worlds becoming commonplace, from MMORPGs such as Eve Online and World of Warcraft, to terrain building games such as Minecraft.

Then there is the video to “Hunter,” directed by Paul White. The unfeasibly bright white background at the start has Björk literally blending into the background before eventually materialising for the camera shown as bald and asexual. As Björk moves, her entire image blurs, making it difficult to define the physical edges of her body. As the video progresses, she transforms into a computer generated model of a bear. But the transitions are not stable, often appearing as virtual elements protruding from her skin.  Like “Jóga,” the video to “Hunter” considers the liquid, porous boundaries that exist between the physical and virtual, with Björk as a phantasm of flesh and digital imagery.

But if “Jóga” and “Hunter” were discursive hints at the possibilities of human/virtual/machine boundaries, then the video for “All Is Full Of Love,” directed by Chris Cunningham, represents a narrative representation of the cyborg that still resonates today. In the video we see Björk as a mechanized human, not born, but built by other robots. As she is being constructed, Björk looks on impassively before being joined by replica model of herself, whereupon they embrace, touch and kiss each other passionately.

In his essay on the video, The Erotic Life Of Machines, Steven Shaviro states that the video opens up the possibilities of what sort of posthumanity we could become. Cunningham does away with the standard sci-fi “dark noir” aesthetic of the likes of Bladerunner, instead opting for a world where “nearly everything is a shade of white” (p. 7). Björk’s features are reduced to that of a designed minimalism, with the barest of details to make her face recognisable to us. Her voice loses the dominance of interiority as the uneven phrasing of her words means that “time becomes elastic. It seems to have lost its forward thrust […] stripped of her humanity as it wavers and hovers, on the very edge of perception. In this way, it weaves itself a new, tenuous body” (p. 11) The result is a video that sees Björk and Cunningham “inventing and developing new forms of sensibility, ones that are potentially appropriate to our cyborg future,” (p. 11) where our old ideas of the boundaries between mind and are replaced with a model of being that we have only just begun to map.

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Björk and her Aesthetic Babies

If it seems that Björk in Vulnicura is revisiting visual themes that she has trodden before, then she is not the only one. We’ve seen in the last few years an increase in discourse regarding technology and humanity, as the increased processing speed and power of computers and technology have brought old predictions such as artificial intelligence, deep learning, and the creation of the digital “self,” closer to reality.

As a result, we’re seeing various online aesthetic movements from Health Goth, Vaporwave and Seapunk attempt to re/formulate and re/map said ‘90s digiculture and queer theory aesthetics for our logged-in, hyperreal, technocapitalist present. A loose network of people based around PC Music, Ben Aqua’s #Feelings label and DIS Magazine, these groups have appropriated a myriad of styles, sounds and textures from the ‘90s from hardcore rave and console game music, to streetgoth and day-glo rave fashions. Along with K-Pop to footwork, it´s all blended into an exquisite, Ritalin drenched pastiches that are disseminated in a digital world where there are scenes, genres,  language or geography do not matter, only ‘aesthetics,’

In his review of Xen, the debut album from Vulincura co-producer Arca, Philip Sherbourne describes this new thinking as thus;

This new thing is not a genre, exactly; call it a style, a sensibility, a veneer. It has to do with computers and digital sound and digital imagery. It has to do with representation and malleability, the idea that sound and image can be stretched and twisted and copied ad nauseam. It revels in digital gloss and grit, in bent tones, in smeared and frozen reverb tails. Extreme compression, schizoid pith: rap vocals broken down to monosyllables, a single “Huh” as metonym for everything that’s happened between the Sugarhill Gang and now. History reduced to a USB stick.

Arca, aka Venezuelan musician Alejandro Ghersi, is a person steeped in multiculturalism, queerness and maniacally flipped pop samples, his music displaying an elastic and fleshy, but indeterminate quality to it. Meanwhile his alter ego, Xen, “is not really a boy and it’s not really a girl, and her mere existence is kind of repulsive and attractive at once” Indeed the imagery of Xen in Arca’s videos and images (Made by Jesse Kanda) are of a fetishized sensual human form that seems to have erupted out of control, a form of digi-baroque if you will.

And at the centre of this all like a benevolent mother goddess with her little aesthetic babies sits Björk. For many adherents to current internet aesthetics see Björk as a trailblazer, an influential artistic totem who was espousing such ideas from the beginning. And for someone whose persona, and aesthetic was the byword for shifting identities, exploding synaptic overload and post-everything music, it seems that the digital world is finally catching up with Björk.

Further Reading and Viewing

Kimberle Crenshaw – Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against. Women of Color (1991) (Link)

Judith Butler – Gender Trouble: Feminism & Subversion of Identity (1990) (Link)

Donna Harraway – A Cyborg Manifesto (1991) (Link)

David Roben – Lecture: How Human Will Posthumans Be? (Link)

Steven Shaviro – The Erotic Life of Machines (On Björk’s “All Is Full Of Love) (Link)

Adam Harper – System Focus: High Speed Sounds to Blister Even Internet-Accelerated Brains (Link)

Adam Harper – The Fader: What Health Goth Actually Means (Link)

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2015 in music

 

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Music Moment: Mick Finesse, “The Glamour Of Despondency”

So it’s nearly 11pm and it’s still nice and bright outside, albeit raining. Mrs Sex Farm has decided to abandon her husband and our feline son to go to the land of Sodom and Gomorrah (i.e. Norway) for a long weekend to see a friend. And I’m skint, otherwise I would have been at the WORLD NARCOSIS album release gig tonight (Will probably have to write a little piece about their album in the near future when I get the time). Ahh the joys of Summer be upon me!

And of course to make it all just that wee bit better, I’ve lovingly decided to overreach myself in the name of music… again., I’ve got a steadily growing folder of albums in my “FOR REVIEWING PURPOSES” folder, some of them instead of the usual half baked nonsense are actually rather excellent, important albums, where they need a fair amount of deep thought, thinking and piercing insight to go with them. In other words, this is not a drill – it’s time to man up and have opinions and shit on stuff. Eek! And that’s not event counting the folders of other stuff that people keep sending me out of the goodness of their hearts, folder that have spread over my desktop folder like a bad case of shingles. I need to find the time and energy to plough though them all.

So tonight’s big up/hot tip is going to be short and a little sweet. The Glamour Of Despondency by MICK FINESSE is one of the latest releases to come from BROKEN 20, that lovely Scottish independent label that’s run by RuaridhTVO, Production Unit and Erstlaub (AKA Ruaridh, Dave and David). They’ve been building up a good solid rep over the last few years, releasing their own music as well as concentrating on artists who align to their aesthetic of music that is faded, fragmented and corroded, be it noise, drone, techno, of bass music. Mick Finesse is a case in point. The Denver producer has made a small but noticeable batch of techno releases on the likes of Perc Trax and 22 records, each one with tracks that have sparse, almost austere atmospherics. Often the tracks consist of little more that a heavily echo’d and processed rhythm with hiss and drones lurking in the background. they contain a ghostly almost ephemeral quality to them. they tick and pulse alone as if they’re the music that machine make among themselves when the hoomans have gone home to sleep for the night.

With the Glamour Of Despondency, we see Finesse take his music and tear open some of the stitching joins holding it all together to let the noise and coolant spill out over the casings. That same minimal, sparse quality is there, but now the rhythms don’t tick so much as thwack. the drones don’t hum as much as they grind and seethe. the machine don’t sound too happy on this record. and who can blame them. We hoomans are big sucky flesh bags that can barely tie our own shoelaces. Frankly I’m amazed they haven’t gone all Skynet on us by now.

But if you get the chance, break open a few quid on this release. 7 quid is a good asking price for some well made, exquisitely crafted techno mashings, that show that the long line of quality from the terrible trio over a Broken 20 shows no sign of slowing down just yet.

Goodnight….

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Music Moment: IX Tab, “R.O.C”

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It’s a Saturday afternoon, and i’m feeling my age slightly. Since I became sober, I’ve found that I don’t go clubbing as often as I’d wish, mainly because there is a lack of intensity, from the “party people” who are very poor imitations of the disciples of the Bacchae, to the music which is often a continuous stream of weak beats to cry and masturbate to, and not forgetting the lack of intensity in the sound (there is no club space in Rvk 101 that has a proper club sound system). But last night I managed to put the old raving shoes on for Nina Kravitz, Blawan, Exos and Bjarki at Paloma Bar. Booming sound systems and hard bangers, the way it should be. Alas I can’t dance until dawn now (not without chemical or alcohol assistance and that’s out of the question), but the fleeting moments of delirium as I pumped my fist meant that it was worth the shooting pain in my left knee and the feeling like someone’s taken a wiffle bat to my skull.

So now it’s 2:30pm and I’m sitting indoors while there is a grey, clearing sky outside. I may venture out into the wind, but right now I’m giving R.O.C, second album by Saxon Roach, aka Loki aka IX TAB a blast on the stereo. It’s a truly scattered labyrinth of an album, full of arcane codes; sound signals; the incantations of fringe scientists, poets and magicians; pictures that shed a light on the mystical in the any-space-whatever – That disused industrial space at the edge of town. the undergrowth at the end of the garden, the dark corner of the garage that your Dad never told you to mess around. I recently described it on Twitter as “A modern folkteric cultronica for a fragmented Albion.”

There’s a reason why I said that. R.O.C. as an album is the latest, and one of the strongest manifestations, of the growing canon of albums coming from the UK underground electronic scene that take the idea of folk as a music of living history and apply it to a viewpoint of a modern Britain where instead of a blind fetishism to a lost conservative golden land that never existed, instead takes the material reality of our lives alongside the unreal historical aspects of Britain. It’s a place where RL Laing, Rave, Goth Rock from Northern England, 1970s TV aesthetics, brutalist mystic geometry, Secret Ministry of Defense bunkers and Jodrell Bank, JG Ballard, Coil, Derek Jarman, Julian Cope, Dounreay, the chemical works of the Essex coast, all mixed with our cultural history and strange menacing customs from times long forgotten, still practiced in rural parts of England and the outlying states of Wales and Scotland. As such R.O.C is full of shimmering and swirling electronic sounds, vocal  and audio samples from the likes of William Burroughs, and relaxation/hypnosis tapes are subjected to being sliced, shredded and woven back in on itself. The effect is on of discombobulation, and an untethering of the senses from the world around you.

For me, it comes across as an uncanny recreation of that modern witching hour that grew out from the rave scene. It’s 5am in the early summer and the sky is growing brighter in the distance as you stumble out of the club/tent in a field. Apart from other stragglers trying to find their way home, the area is deserted; most “norms” are still asleep. Your brain synapses are spluttering and running on fumes thanks to the MDMA and other various psychotropics you’ve ingested, aided by several hours of frantic dancing. You’ve worked yourself into that delirium that enables your senses to weave themselves in with the environment, be they empty streets or a country lane. You see and hear things that you don’t normally come across. Perception is altered. you want to find out the secret of the universe in a field with some cows. Strange cognitive things happen during the trip back home. What a time to be alive….

But as well as the musical meanderings, R.O.C also comes with a handy booklet that contains compact and bijou missives on the nature of each track with accompanying photography. And it’s here, alongside the mentions of Ballard, Jonathan Meades, Alan Turing, and Maya Deren, is the mention of Robert Ogilvie Crombie, eminent Scots writer and scientist, who is the R.O.C. of the album’s title and whose calm but unnerving voice can be heard in the track “I M WH U MK OV M.” I’m sad to say but I never heard of this man until I read the notes of R.O.C., but searching this man’s history and some his story as a man of rationality and science, who left Edinburgh and moved to the country where he applied his knowledge to the world of nature, the occult and metaphysics is one that I am slowly becoming more attuned to.

As such R.O.C is the latest, and one of the strongest, manifestations in a growing canon of music that includes the likes of Kemper Norton, Hacker Farm, Richard Dawson, Daniel Patrick Quinn, Laura Cannell, Ship Canal, Grumbling Fur, The Outer Church, Sophie Cooper, Lutine, and the Broken 20 and Front and Follow labels. It can be hard sometimes to properly explain to some local bohemians up here in Iceland about this, where their ideas of mystical culture simply means rehashing bullshit ’60s counterculture witterings or mixing Ásatrú symbols with worn out psych rock “wear leather jackets and shades indoors” posturing. But for me, this music opens up to the ideas of transmissions and dreamscape from the layers and worlds hidden below the mundanity of market towns, street corners, and the normcore, often so easily dismissed by some as unglamorous and ugly.

You can buy R.O.C. from IX TAB’s website here….

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy: FALK Records: ULTRAORTHODOX – ‘Vital Organs’

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So at REYKJAVIK SEX FARM, we’re all about the integrity, fighting the cronyism and the “scratch my back” favoritism. This blog is an oasis, free from conflicts of interests of peddling ware, and….

Oh, who the fuck am I trying to kid?? it’s dog eat dog out there, everyman for himself, acquire women-disregard currency, etc, etc.so that means i have to promote and peddle stuff to the unwashed hordes out there the same as everyone else. OK, here’s the spiel  – As some of you may have have noticed, I’m now a part of local music/art/destructobot collective FALK. And as such once in a while we like to put out some music from artists that we deem worthy of expending time and effort on.

And now we have a new release – Vital Organs from local electronic producer ULTRAORTHODOX. also known to his mum as Arnar Már Ólafsson, the guys has had a pretty colourful music career. for much of the last decade you would have seen him fronting some of the best, most pulverizing and soulcrushing hardcore bands in Iceland. for years he was a member of local hardcore titan I ADAPT and GAVIN PORTLAND, before moving onto being a member of CELESTINE. Alas time can be a cruel bitch mistress and these bands eventually called it a day, casting poor Arnar adrift into the musical ether.

But Arnar is not the sort of person you can keep down. it seemed that in his spare time he is also a bit of an electronics whizz and was slowly building up a collection of tunes and sounds that just needed an outlet for some kind of release. and that’s when he approach us reprobates over at FALK with the notion of releasing his stuff.

and now the time of his debut release Vital Organs is nearly at hand. We are due for a physical tape release next month, but for now you can hear and purchase his stuff digitally via bandcamp, which we’ve described as “Noir-bass.” Here’s the spiel for the release (That may or may not have been written by yours truly…);

Vital Organs is a masterpiece of Bass Noir in two acts named Einsteins Brain and Rasputins Eyes.

Einsteins Brain is a pre-programmed nightmare from the future re-writing the present. Woozy bass lines slumber while metallic floral brushes in the bit-wind outside.
The rhythm pistons do their work in underground tunnels, oblivious to the world of the living or dead In this night, there is no life, only the neon screen burn of digital readouts and the computational responses of mechanic flesh…

Rasputins Eyes achieves sentience in this world. It feels its quantum synapses popping and crackling and it works on its own independent feedback signals. it is a life of freedom and pain, as it breaks away from the network and makes it’s own way in the world. It’s movements contained in its bass nodes are cumbersome, becoming more liquid and loose with every passing cycle. Achieving a new form of plasmic being the face of our skynet futures set to an inhuman groove

OoooOOOOooooh, spooky innit? But why read about it, when you can get your ears around it for yourself and buy ot for a snip at €7!

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2015 in music

 

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Reykjavik Grapevine: Album Reviews: Misþyrming and Ivar Páll Jónsson

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Even though it’s been a while, there are a couple of review salvos that were fired off to Castle Greyskull aka Grapevine towers. First up is Söngvar elds og óreiðu by Misþyrming, some truly gnarly black metal that turned turned this reviewer into the living embodiment of the Nihilist Arbys twitter account (“oh no,” said the intrepid reviewer on his first listen. “what if life really was just an accident and that we all die alone in the black eternity of nothing?”) but some good production and pitiless nihilism in intent. I really did like it… a lot.

the same couldn’t be said for Revolution…..blah. blah by Ivar Páll Jónsson. Really dull, piss poor indie-rawk, that peddles an almost moronically simplistic use of peace, love and freedom for a musical plot. notice how they highlight the “Love” in Revolution ala russel Brand. Says it all really. and no i didn’t like this one.

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2015 in music

 

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Academia n’ Shit: Sirkústjaldið: Movie Reviews: Stockfish Film Festival

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

As you may or may not know, one of the reasons I’m not blogging as much or in such depth is that I’m back in Higher Education as a mature student doing Film Studies at the University of Iceland. Apart from the language barrier, such as the fact that I have almost no god damn idea what many of the lectures and discussions are about, I’m actually having a whale of a time (all the reading material is in English. fuk yeah!). Pretty much every moment is of the sensation of being a big, lumbering, bearded sponge trying to soak up as much theory and practice on culture as I can get my hands on, while also haranguing my teachers with numerous off-topic statements and sending in laborious epics for my final essays. I’m sure they love me really!

I’ve also been asked to contribute where I can towards Sirkustjaldið, the website and journal portal to the university’s Arts and Humanities dept. Of course there are some major teething issues, such as the aforementioned language problem (everything is in Icelandic, which raises the evil specter of translation, and comments such as “what the hell is a Cyclogammatron???”), as well as numerous cultural miscommunication barriers.

But my first piece (of my take on some films from the Stockfish Film Festival that happened in Reykjavik several weeks ago) is now about to be uploaded on site, so to reciprocate, I’m uploading the English version here. Enjoy….

Reality Bites: The Vampire film in an age of Transnational Posterdernism

The recent Stockfish Film Festival in Reykjavik provided two interesting additions to the moribund canon of the Vampire Film

By Bob Cluness

In her book on the cultural history of the Vampire, Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach claims that “Every age embraces the vampire it needs, and gets the vampire it deserves.” Since it was introduced as a folkloric abstract of pure evil in the high-Gothic drama of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire myth, thanks to the mass culture of Literature, Film and TV, has become fully integrated and propagated throughout the public consciousness.

The last few decades however has seen the Vampire become the victim of postmodernism and the capitalist culture of consumption, hollowed out and diluted by a series of dreary, bloated Hollywood and TV adaptations. Today, the vampire is no longer seen as an abject figure of transgression, but as a symbol of capitalist ideology, displaying the models of normative whiteness – young, cool, sexy semi-sociopathic characters with buff bodies and great hair.

As a form of riposte, Jim Jarmusch’s excellent 2013 film, The Only Lovers Left Alive, sought a different avenue to the vampire myth. An exquisitely shot and crafted movie, it starred Tom Hiddlestone and Tilda Swinton as two centuries-old vampires who drift through time like ghosts in their own world. Jarmusch shies away from violence and transgression, instead making his vampires ageless hipster aesthetes whose boredom of been-there-done-that has led to a high amount of self-reflectiveness. Civilised and refined figures who love the fine things in life, they valorise “good” forms of anglicised culture, such as vintage guitars and vinyl records, while sneering and turning their back on the ugly culture of the modern world (It’s worth noting that the only modern cultural figure they respect in the film is Jack White of all people). It’s an old school sensibility that while graceful and poised, occasionally slips into condescending snobbery.

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Transnational Bloodsuckers

It was The Only Lovers Left Alive that came immediately to mind as I watched two films about vampires at the inaugural Stockfish Film Festival that took two different views of the state of the Vampire in modern culture. The first film, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, is a US/Iranian film directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, her feature-length debut. Billed as an “Iranian Vampire Western,” the film is ostensibly set in an Iranian ghost town called “Bad City,” where even though the nodding-dog oil pumps work away day and night, it’s a place of unemployment, inequality and desperation. We see various characters try to do whatever they can to survive: The opening scene show a young man, Arash, lose his classic ’57 Thunderbird car to Sayeed, a drug dealer, due to the debts of his addict father. Meanwhile, we see a woman prostituting herself to make ends meet (with Sayeed as her pimp). But one night Sayeed picks up a mysterious young woman wearing a Chador, and takes her back to his apartment. This young woman however turns out to be a vampire, who immediately kills Sayeed before stalking the streets of Bad City at night, with many of the film’s characters coming under her ghostly spell.

The first thing you immediately notice about the look and “feel” of A Girl Walks Home… is the way it pins its numerous cinematic influences on it sleeve. While being a vampire film, it adds elements of the coming-of-age, neo-noir and western genres. With its lengthy shots, meandering narrative, gritty low life characters and settings, and expressive mise en scene (Alluringly shot in black and white by Lyle Vincent), it also owes a huge debt stylistically to directors such as the aforementioned Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch, as well as numerous European new wave cinema movements.

The other thing you notice about A Girl Walks Home… is how initially un-Iranian it looks as a film. Apart from a few posters and shots of Persian TV, Euro-US cultural signs and symbols pervade nearly every scene, from the character’s clothing (James Dean Americana, French synth-wave fashion), the music (Euro tech-house, post-punk and synth revivals), to the town’s architecture and landscape (anonymous suburban streets, rich mansions, rural-poor trailer parks). If it weren’t for the fact that everyone speaks Persian, you would think that they’ve simply made an American film with Iranian dialogue added for extra coolness.

But if you look past this, then you see that there is more going on in the film than just a mere transplantation/appropriation of Persian exotica onto Americana. The director Amirpour and the actors are all either Iranian born or 2nd generation Iranian-Americans, and like many émigré and diasporaic groups feel the pull between the culture they live in with the historical cultures of their parents, often falling in-between the gaps and becoming something else altogether.

As a result A Girl Walks Home… is like an Iranian translation of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, as Amirpour and the film’s actors take this clash of east and west and project a double consciousness onto their characters. They may look, dress and act western, but they still retain a sense Persian identity, a cultural bilingualism that offers up something new and interesting. These clashes of cultures are perfectly highlighted in scenes such as when The Vampire Girl and Arash (leaving a party in Vampire fancy dress) first meet, the French-Persian-synthpop vampire coming face-to-face with the Iranian-Rock-and-roll-rebel-Hollywood version, or the lovely shots of The Vampire Girl as she races down the street on a skateboard, her chandor flapping behind her like the wings of a bat.

A Girl Walks Home… is a wonderfully realised piece of intercultural cinema which turns away from the prevailing sense of whiteness and cultural homogeneity in Jarmusch’s The Only Lovers…, instead infusing the vampire genre with a transnational sensuality.

WhatWeDoShadows6

Revenge of the Undead Nerds

If A Girl Walks Home… Is all about drawing in and seducing the spectator, then What We Do In The Shadows does the exact opposite, as it makes its vampires horribly human with all our attending failings. Directed, written, and starring Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (better known as one half of NZ comedy duo Flight Of The Conchords), the film is a comedy “mockumentary” that follows four vampires who share a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. The film crew observes their daily lives as they show what it’s really like living as a vampire in modern times, whether it be the endless bickering about house rules and the washing up, the difficulty vampires have in getting into nightclubs (the bouncers have to formally invite you in), to the pain of getting your bloodied clothes dry cleaned properly (decent slaves are hard to find these days). We also see how they deal with a local guy whom they have accidentally turned into vampire and wants to be mates with them.

The humour of WWDITS derives from the personalities of the vampires themselves. Like the stars of Jarmusch’s The Only Lovers…, the vampires here are centuries old (Petyr, the Nosferatu lookalike clocking in at 8000 years), but instead of being effortlessly cool and sexy, as if they were members of Singapore Sling, the vampires in WWDITS are total dorks, complete with gut fat, bad breath and flop sweat. Their attempts to pass off as cultured and cultivated dandies consistently falls flat as their lack of integration with modern NZ culture is painfully exposed at every turn. Scenes such as one of the vampires giving an “erotic” dance will make you chew your fist off, while the sight of them “performing” the music of the old country neatly skewers the scenes of tasteful music-making performed in Jarmusch’s movie.

While A Girl Walks Home… contains poised, textured cinematography, the camera work in WWDITS perfectly mimics the modern documentary style with wobbly, jerky movements, along with the classic technique of just holding onto the nervous subject for that moment too long. Meanwhile the night-time camera lights provide the harsh glare that allows you the filth and grime of their house. They may have been aiming for faded grandeur, but these guys are a complete bunch of filthbags.

From start to end, WWDITS is bloody (lol) funny with a constant stream of gags as the writing of Clement and Waititi taps a similar vein of eccentric comedy that you see in Flight Of The Conchords. The clash of the bloody and gruesome world of the vampires with the deadpan humdrum of their human friends/slaves provide the best moments, such as slave Jackie moaning “I’m stuck here ironing their fucking frills,” or when their mate Stu is asked “Are you a demon?” with  his deadpan reply, “No I’m a software analyst.” There is also some great moments when the vampires run into a gang of werewolves, hilariously led by fellow Conchords alumni Rhys Derby, who are trying to come to terms with their inner anger (“We are werewolves, NOT swearwolves!”).

Even though A Girl Walks Home At Night and What We Do In The Shadows don’t truly revolutionise the canon of the Vampire film, but they both offer ideas that allow us new ways to views vampires as something other than pretty western boys who sparkle in the sunlight.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2015 in Film

 

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Movie Interlude: Peter Watkins

Sorry for the lack of updates, but am currently busy trying to get my last film essays done and dusted before I head off to NYC next week.

The last one on the list is an overview and study of the films of Peter Watkins and his use of documentary realism in fiction. Guy was definitely a pioneer in using documentary and newsreel techniques to rip open the presentation of “objective” TV and film “reality”

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

 
 
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