Garnering attention as the second film directed and scripted by How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor, Liberal Arts concerns the conflict of 35 year-old (“but you look younger”) college admissions assistant Jesse (Radnor, also starring), as he’s increasingly drawn towards like-minded 19 year-old undergraduate Zibby, played with nervous energy by Elizabeth Olsen. Parallel (and catalyst) to this story runs a subplot about one of Jesse’s old professors as he prepares for, and then immediately and humiliatingly repents, his retirement.
There are those, for whom being invited to check-out where the party is by a beanie-toting, joint smoking stranger (amusingly played by Zach Efron) is mercifully a thing of the past, who upon being confronted by a young person named Elizabeth demanding to be called ‘Zibby’ would run to check themselves in early at the nearest retirement home. Jesse, however, sees a tempting opportunity to return to his happiest days, spent reading William Blake on the university quad. Zibby (whose name cannot be written without making the noise of Sideshow Bob stepping on a rake), meanwhile, idolises him as a mature and worldly alternative to the college boys she’s surrounded by (who, we can assume, Jesse resembled prior to his graduation and ten years of further bedding-in to life).
This all may make it sound like the film is ready to go full Woody Allen, a director who has spent a career trying to persuade that plots centred upon a middle-aged man lusting after a young (or infantilised) woman are an arena for the examining of existential angst, rather than just creepy exploitation. But, happily, at the last minute it pulls itself back and ultimately is a sweet, enjoyable rom-com that is, more importantly, on the side of light.
This to one side it’s also, without a shadow of the doubt, home to some of the most unforgivably smug scenes in living memory. As trauma survivors must confront their past ordeals, society demands that any such groan worthy moments be systematically catalogued as a kind of mass purging for those who had to endure them with gag-reflex and acid reflux politely supressed upon the film’s cinematic outing. So, with fingers set to clenched:
- Upon arriving at his old alma mater, Jesse happily sighs and rolls on the quad like a particularly dizzy-headed puppy. This occurs without the people in the vicinity cracking-up or immediately calling campus security
- A central montage features the protagonists writing letters to each other about the romantic poets, classical music and realising that they have hands, with a truly grandstanding lack of self-awareness
- There are endless shots of people reading and walking at the same time
- There are surprisingly few scenes of people walking in front of buses or sliding in dog shit while reading and walking at the same time
- It feels the need to furnish a character who had thus far only been seen lovingly holding books, who looks yearningly at the protagonist as he demonstrates that he also enjoys holding books, who features as part of a film full of people reading and walking at the same time without falling over, who works in a BOOK STORE, with the line “I just LOVE books!”
- After thrashing around wildly for something poignant to say about America in the 21st century, it bravely lands on an until now completely un-lampooned “trilogy of vampire novels”, on the subject of which Jesse reaches the specific and fair conclusion that ‘this is the worst thing ever written in the English language’. If you heard about the retrofitting of the invading forces in the remake of Red Dawn from being Chinese to coming from the considerably smaller cinematic market of North Korea, and made the reasonable assumption that it would be one of the least edifying spectacles of pusillanimity and grasping debasement on offer in film this year, just wait until you see the thirty something male star of one of the most MOR TV programmes in living memory gobbing up snobbish contempt on a book primarily beloved by teenage girls, whilst being too craven to actually name said book.
- A begrudging compromise is reached over what, for the sake of brevity, I’ll dub ‘Twilight’ – “At least it’s not TV”. Previously seen as something of a demagogue in his unwavering commitment to blandness, here Radnor reveals the true purpose of the film: as a platform to revel his heretofore overlooked hinterland of keen intellectual acuity. We now know that the mechanical, robotic affability on display in How I Met Your Mother must be a mask for the kind of seething self-resentment that is only endowed by daily humiliation. Every time he has to produce yet another hangdog expression as Barney makes what basically amounts to a rape joke, his inner-turmoil must be akin to that experienced by Michel Haneke when it’s his turn to read the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire questions at an extended family reunion.
I know what you’re thinking: indie-Hollywood isn’t known for being self-satisfied or preachy. So let’s hope that this is just a minor diversion from a fine tradition. I think I’ll go watch Silver Linings Playbook to cleanse my pallet…wait, why are you yelling?
Somewhat surprisingly, given their relatively straightforward nature at inception, in recent years The Bronx have quietly become one of most eccentric propositions in modern punk. (And this in a genre in which a sub-strata called slut rock could maintain a straight face while trying to position itself as a brave new front for feminism). Originally content to loose a bloodcurdling petition for some oedipal blood and clock-off, in 2009 they began moonlighting as a tequila-swilling, new-audience-reaching Mariachi ensemble. But, having arguably now tasted greater popularity with their side-project, this week they’ve returned with a long-awaited new album in the style which with they first made their (original) name. It’s a situation which seems to beg the age-old question: is this a mariachi band playing hardcore, or a hardcore band who have dabbled in mariachi?
What initially brought on their conversion we may never know (or more likely it’s already on Wikipedia, I haven’t checked). But it’s probably true to say that when they picked out their charro outfits they didn’t envisage the successes that said beautifully embroidered suits would cover their modesty for. And, before going any further, there’s surely call for a moment of hats-offing: after all, how many other bands have shown themselves capable of such a competent foray across the musical trenches? Adrian Grimshaw, sure. And there was that time Crass briefly became a barbershop quartet when Penny Rimbaud felt things were getting a bit dark after that track where they called Jesus a rapist. But it’s rare, is what I’m saying.
But are we yet to feel the chilling effects of all this sonic philandering? The group’s last release under their original moniker in 2008 was recorded at the same time as Mariachi El Bronx, and it could perhaps be said to have suffered from split-attentions, much like the fourth season of Angel (where creator Joss Whedon was contemporaneously off working on Firefly). Does their new effort benefit from a new focus, like the fifth season of Angel (filmed after Firefly had been cancelled?) Or is the unpalatable truth that it simply isn’t comparable to any of the seasons of Angel?
On first listen, The Bronx IV seems to miss something compared to the pre-difficult-to-search-for-on-Spotify era: be it the rabid bite of their first album or the muscular ferocity of their second, with nothing to match the simple thrills of History Stranglers’ gloriously vulgar chorus, or the fire under the ass of They Will Kill Us All Without Mercy. Once you accept a certain amount of calming-with-age, though, there’s a lot to enjoy here. Matt Caughtran can still spit out a line like ‘Are you the antichrist or the holy ghost?’ with singular relish, as he does on opener The Unholy Hand, and they haven’t forgotten how to weave a coercive melody without going running for a trumpet, ably demonstrated by the poppy Youth Wasted. While Life Less Ordinary is a lesser entry amongst the band’s plaintive, nostalgic numbers like Strobe Lights and Oceans of Class, Torches is a more successful mid-tempo effort with a crushing chorus. Best of all though is Ribcage, on which the guitars which elsewhere on the album are in danger of becoming a samey dirge are deployed to penetrating effect, like a shaft ‘twixt the titular part of the anatomy.
So it seems that what music has lost with one recent comeback, it has gained with another: as Justin Timberlake’s return to music has Hollywood’s casting directors hopelessly weeping at the prospect of having to once again start hiring Shia LeBeouf, let’s be grateful for the fact that the ebb and flow of human caprice may wash up the occasional gift alongside the kelp-wrapped turds. Mariachi El Bronx deserve kudos for their sterling investigative work in revealing that beneath many a Misfits shirt clad chest has long laid a heart yearning to sashay to a Latin beat. But it’s reassuring to see that, as The Bronx, they still know how to tear up an elephantine riff when they put their minds to it.
Having recently turned 3, Fwaf was beginning to feel the time approached when it should put away childish things and make a concession to its advancing maturity. That new Alanis Morrisette album was twinkling at it from, uh, the What’s New section on Spotify. But then along came Super Luxury and it thought, nah. Here’s to another gang of brash, good-time boys on the prowl!
Super Luxury formed in December 2010 and have been gathering steam – and members – ever since. Rumours abound of live shows featuring crowd-surfing on rubber dinghies, an ingeniously comfy way to avoid mingling with the great unwashed whilst still ticking-off the rock’n’roll fundamentals.
Having already notched their bedpost with support slots for firm Fwaf favourites Cloud Nothings and Male Bonding, the Leeds-based group are hoping to further rotate heads with the upcoming release of their new EP, Mystery Thriller Teen Drama, the title of which suggests some unresolved genre-confusion (don’t worry, everyone experiments when they’re young, guys! You should have seen some of the things we were doing when we were almost 2.) Proving themselves skilful multi-taskers, over the EP’s three songs they manage to celebrate both the callowness of youth and the loudness of electric guitars. The vocals are the kind which bark and bluster in fine, Howlin’ Pelle of The Hives form, and the overall effect is perhaps more Future of the Left than named influences Jesus Lizard and Flipper.
The title track gets things off to a confident start, as drums begin to stomp out a casual groove, happy to leave the guitars fidgeting impatiently in the background. When these do get the nod, however, they abruptly burst into a full-bodied, bluesy rock riff. A similar template serves up ‘Kellogg’s Wasps’, which sees the band fancying themselves as futurologists, boldly mindscaping a cereal even less nutritionally beneficial than the titular company’s ‘Little bowls of sunshine’ (a slogan which cleverly plays on the universal association of life-giving sun with cheap, heavily processed grain). Happily, it boasts exactly the type of ridiculous lyrics teased by the title, with the chorus demanding in a Los Campesinos-esque yelp ‘Show me you love me, keeper of bees’ (it must be those sexy white suits). Although sadly no honey based puns managed to slip through the, um, net.The tempo quickens for finale Ghostesses, which is probably the strongest of the three tracks corralled here. A kind of tongue out, counting on your fingers version of math rock, it delivers agitated, lusting vocals over a catchy, repetitive lead guitar line.
Not on this EP but available on their Soundcloud and also worth mentioning is ‘25 Meters’, which is made up of a languid Cloud Nothings type riff, some harsh whistling and an impressively tortured sound system. It hints at an interesting, experimental side which may have added an extra dimension to what is, regardless, a promising first release. At any rate, grumbling about a lack of depth is something probably best saved for the Alanis Morrisette years…
Mystery Thriller Teen Drama is out on cassette on September 29th. It can be previewed and downloaded from the group’s Bandcamp page now.
Eagulls’ output until now (a split EP with Mazes and the single ‘Council Flat Blues’) had marked them out as members of an increasingly rare breed: the modern punk. Albeit, punks of the sort who could slip in comfortably alongside the more melodic, innovative bands to have been passed the genre’s (Olympic*) torch: namely The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and more recently Fucked Up. With their new self-titled EP, they not only prove that punk can still be an authentic voice of youthful anguish in the age of Plan B’s entrepreneurial protest, they do so in a way which leaves the naysayers saying “well, at least it’s meant to be good luck”.
It’s easy to see where this misapprehension came from, mind (and no, I don’t mean the belief in the fortune-enhancing properties of bird excrement). In the face of the genre’s acute sense of identity and rota of iconic heroes, new punk bands can often seem over-awed into going through the tattoo-riddled, head-banging motions, rather than being genuinely angry about stuff like, say, not having a job, and expressing said anger in the most natural way which comes to hand. Like their contemporaries Iceage, Eagulls stand-out by channelling adolescent contempt for being shafted in a world unmade by their elders through messy guitar music like they’re the first to do so. They sound hungry.
It’s a help, of course, that they also sound good. Coming from a genre which takes great pride in cultivating the appearance of being a bunch of snotty, atavistic knuckleheads (this despite it frequently containing the most intelligent lyricists, from Steve Ignorant to Jello Biafra to Damien ‘Pink Eyes’ Abraham), the tone of this EP is striking: it’s wistful, almost introspective. It eschews the onanistic, juvenile preoccupation with faster and louder (not that there’s anything wrong with onanistic, juvenile preoccupations: see Keith Morris’ great recent Off! album for proof), instead displaying enough confidence in their bewitching melodies to allow them room to spread out. The final song reaches an almost leisurely four minutes.
But to shed all this tribalist nonsense for a moment: the Leeds group’s music would be interesting and comment-worthy no matter what you want to call it. In no small part due to their “Charisma? This kid’s got it in spades” frontman, live they’re so arresting I saw them twice over the same weekend (this from someone who won’t eat the same kind of fruit two days running). What’s more, added to the said singer’s visual presence is a knack for an imaginative turn of phrase – the word “moulting” doesn’t feature at the heart of many choruses, but after hearing it deployed on the track of the same name here you’ll start asking why; it’s strangely evocative, in its Kafka-esque, body-horror monstrosity. And people say punk is irrelevant to the youth of today!
The EP is being released by Sexbeat and will be available through their website or at your local record store. Listen now on DazedDigital.
*As a British citizen, I’m legally obliged to mention the Olympics at least once in any article written in the run-up to our longest sports-day. I tried to make it as jarring as possible.
Haim are an immediately intriguing proposition. Three sisters (and a shadowy male drummer – a new Jim Corr in the making??), they first grabbed attention with their hitching of R&B beats to an image which suggests nothing more than the Smack the Pony team doing a Little Mouse of the Prairie sketch. Dig deeper, however, and you’ll find their debut EP is less momentarily diverting gimmick than impressively versatile showcase. It breathlessly leaps from one unlikely influence to the next, and has a way with a good tune that seems to come so easy it’s almost embarrassing.
Forever is three-tracks strong without a duffer in sight, and currently free on their website. ‘Better Off’ leads with playground a cappella harmonies before introducing the aforementioned biting urban production (recalling The Boxettes, recently featured in Fwaf’s Great Escape preview) and an intimidating message of intent – ‘You fucked me up, what am I to do now?’ ‘Forever’ features some zealous percussion and a wired, slightly off-kilter pop feel that’s reminiscent of Phoenix, while Go Slow has 90’s girl-group harmonies with 80’s girl-group studio-sheen and layers up in a wistful, ‘Army Dreamers’ era Kate Bush kind of way.
Amidst all this genre weirdness, the robust vocals give you something to hold on to. You may not have thought you wanted to know what Patti Smith circa Easter meets Taylor Swift would sound like, but the answer is here anyway, and it’s compelling: suggesting at once a truculent long-haul driver who’s somehow found herself singing breezy pop songs, and a Country-style hinterland of hard-times overcome by sheer grit, moxie and a readiness to eat squirrel. What’s more, the well-appointed running time of each song gives room for your imagination to limber into action, and they make sure to leave you in quite a different place to where you started. Unless you started in inner-city Squeaky Corner’s Way, obviously.
With civilization comes first-world problems. Unlike those whose festival of choice is, say, Glastonbury or Leeds, attendees of Brighton’s Great Escape don’t have to worry about waking up to find their tent doing its best Huckleberry Finn impression on a newly formed estuary, or smouldering on what is unlikely to be a properly licensed bonfire. But, being in a city, it seems the new music showcase/industry conference can’t shake the problems of the rat-race – meaning the possibility of lengthy commuting distances, staying glued to your smartphone for service updates and having to set-off early to avoid the rush. Yes, it’s an event at which the most carefully planned itinerary (assisted by the intuitive Great Escape app, the main function of which occasionally seemed to be to cruelly point out all the bands you didn’t stand a chance of seeing, but surely a mainstay of this kind of thing in the future) can quickly fall victim to the harsh realities of distance between venues, unannounced schedule changes and, of course, mammoth queues.
Initially setting-off with a relatively blasé approach, we quickly adjusted tactics after leaving a few songs into Shabazz Palaces set (ft. the most intense maraca playing I’ve ever seen) to catch the second half of Friends, only to be greeted by a soon-to-be-familiar re-buff of ‘one-in-one-out’. The following night, jaded from having to arrive an hour and a half early for Grimes (totally worth it, but still), our desire to be able to just walk in somewhere perhaps led us to play it overly safe, with Lianne La Havas and Rolo Tomassi enjoyable but not perhaps the most exciting options available. With no chance of seeing everyone, and a willingness to get there early a must for the more hotly-tipped acts, letting-go and surrendering to serendipity is the order of the day.
The over-riding atmosphere of the weekend is one of barely-shepherded chaos, but it undeniably creates a great buzz: Twitter is a hive of rumours, tips and a certain amount of misinformation about secret gigs and the chances of getting in somewhere at any one time. It also leads to a feeling of intrepidly making new discoveries, which, as the organisers would be quick to point out, is the whole idea. One of the performances of the festival for me came after having wandered into a pub expecting to see Fossil Collective and instead catching a spellbinding set from the apparently brand-new Lowpines: a male-female duo whose lo-fi Americana demands your full attention. Performing with sparse instrumentation – finger picked electric guitar, occasional bass, no drums – they delivered delicate, hushed harmonies and instantly memorable melodies. Artists at the head of growing momentum such as Cloud Nothings and Spoek Mathambo also delivered, the former frazzling a packed out crowd with their yelpy post-hardcore (an experience marred only by a patience-stretching monoto-jam that took over half their set), the latter giving a high-energy performance as he rapped and crooned over math-rock guitars, climaxing with a radical reworking of Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’.
That’s not to say that the more ‘established’ acts disappointed, however. Grimes proved she is a star: hopping around in white-face paint in between a couple of zombie dancers, endearing even when realising the reason she couldn’t hear her keyboard was because she hadn’t turned it on (“Oh geez that was my fault”); Beth Jeans Houghton and The Hooves of Destiny again mystified as to why they aren’t bigger, combining playful operatic vocals with proper tunes; and EMA translated her atmospheric debut album into a commanding live-show, strutting and throwing angular poses to her band’s intoxicating drones as she felt every word of her emotional, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Perhaps most surprisingly, Mystery Jets gave a rousing set that improbably – given their ever-dwindling original line-up and status as one of the last bands standing of the early 2000s’ glut of indie-guitar acts – felt like a greatest hits victory-lap. They laced in several new songs, stand-outs of which were ‘The Hale Bop’, which saw them transform into Bee-Gees nodding disco stallions, and ‘Take Me Where the Roses Grow, where excellently-fringed Sophie Rose lent her impressive vocals to a sweet duet with guitarist William Rees.
Elsewhere the character of the respective venues shaped the performances as much as the bands themselves. Heading back into town en-route from watching Perfume Genius holding court in a reverb-drenched church with his short confessional audio sketches, we discovered a punk band bouncing off the walls of a laundrette, their singer gamely (but not particularly successfully, it must be said) trying to overcome a dead microphone with plain-old fashioned screaming. The Eagulls’ ferociously loud set on Friday evening was given an unruly, incongruous charm by its placement in what for all intents and purposes was a conference room – ‘The Sandringham Suite’ – of a faded glamour seafront hotel. The mix of their immensely watchable singer – whose all American looks and fevered stage persona (eyes clenched, head tilted up, stumbling back and forth) made me think of a skinny punk Dean Moriaty – with Hüsker Dü/Fucked Up style rolling distortion made them one of the acts of the weekend.
With everyone’s personal programme being marshalled by so many impossible to predict forces, it’s harder to pinpoint ‘bands of the festival’ than it is at more traditionally-situated events. Perhaps, then, it’s better to marvel at the quality on display in general: while a few bands passed by relatively anonymously, there was no one who actively stood out as bad. Given that it seemed to represent most genres in one form or the other (or even invent entirely new ones if the pictures of Trippple Nippples are anything to go by), that’s got to be something to celebrate.
It’s the night before the sprawling, seaside festival that is The Great Escape lurches into action, and music venues all over Brighton are presumably busy putting up party bunting and making little sandwiches in preparation (that is what an urban festival is like, right?) In the spirit of helpfulness, Fwaf rolls up its sleeves and mucks in by revealing the fruits of months of intensive research into some of the lesser-known names you should be paying attention to. (Note: we definitely DID NOT just put the official Spotify playlist on random and review the first few things that played. That would be completely unprofessional.) Also, stay tuned for a review coming shortly.
The Boxettes – Hattie
This track by A Cappella group The Boxettes achieves the enviable feat of managing to recall both the Dirty Projectors and TLC at the same time, with sweet-yet-malice-laced female vocals coming together and tearing apart over spluttery beatboxing. Starting off on similar territory to one of The Unthanks surprisingly-grim folk chants, it takes an unexpected detour half-way into exploratory, quasi-spiritual vocal gymnastics. Bonus points for surely being the only song in history to be written about someone called ‘Hattie’. And for having swagger at that.
Husky – Hundred Dollar Suit
Country-tinged troubadours in the manner of The Villagers and Bright Eyes, whose vocalist inhabits an ostensibly small voice with poise and an edge of mischief in a similar way to the aforementioned acts. Add fun to their performance of this song by imagining it being introduced by Gob from Arrested Development.
Alby Daniels – New Dawn
The UK always seems slightly suspicious of the homegrown R’n’B loverman; we’re far more comfortable with our male singers in the cheeky-chappy mould of Olly Murs, or following the eunuch check-out boys of One Direction and their ilk. This is un-self-consciously sensual, but the dubby hush through which all the sonic caressing is filtered should be enough to dispel residual disquiet at the prospect of a cockney R. Kelly.
Keep Shelly in Athens – DIY
A track built around two hammering, brooding keyboard notes, which puts a slightly manic lilt on the low-key use of trumpet and cloistered, atmospheric vocals which follow. Added to the melodrama of the name (Is Shelly being kept in Athens for her benefit or ours??) and what you have here is intriguing, down-beat dance. Surely the best kind?
Com Truise – Ether Drift
One of those lazy spoonerific names, yes, but also angels playing 8-bit harps over some sharp low-end noodling. Fully 80s nostalgia, but done with such soft-top, shoulder-padded aplomb it’s difficult to care. What you have here is sunny, optimistic dance. Surely the best kind?
As we’ve previously established here on Fwaf (see our hard-hitting treatment of Frank Ocean), glumness is synonymous with the intellectually edifying. What is perhaps more surprising, however, is that the saturnine is currently having a ‘moment’ amongst those of less high-minded interests. Yes, it seems that being sad isn’t only clever, it’s fabulous too. If, as Aristotle said, ‘to perceive is to suffer’, then the taste-makers of the world have worked out they can save us all some time by just presenting us with exclusively gloomy opuses in the first place. In demonstration of which, we call to the stand Daughn Gibson, with his excellent new single ‘Tiffany Lou’.
The cover is almost a one-shot synecdoche for this new aesthetic: black and white (naturally), it depicts an ‘oh, I didn’t see you there’ Daughn buttoning away a rugged chest in front of a seedy dressing-room mirror, brows furrowed in unforgiving appraisal of his mien. You can see the logic: Drake is currently being feted for managing to have ‘emotions’ at the same time as being a ‘man’ (which manifests via some whinnying about all that shagging he has to do), and the Pennsylvanian former-trucker seems to be suggesting he’s capable of a similar degree of post-coital reflectiveness, or at least consciousness. And If Lana Del Rey’s doomed pouting earns her a Mulberry handbag, then surely there’s a line of clutch purses with Daughn’s (admittedly hard to spell) name on it after this.
As for the music, much has been made of his James Blake-alike breaking-down-and-re-working-from-its-constituent-parts of the staples of the Country genre, like if the hurricane in the Wizard of Oz didn’t whisk Dorothy of into a Technicolor odyssey, but rather mashed up her grey Kansas dustbowl into a ghost-stricken dreamscape. Although The Earlies – early 2000s’ band composed of “musical pen pals” from Texas and Manchester – also seem like a relative reference point, in terms of ideas if not execution.
On ‘Tiffany Lou’ Daughn showcases his Ian Curtis style wet sandbag of a voice, as he croons over lugubrious samples of acoustic twanging, sustained piano chords and massively slowed down vocal dirges. At the chorus his voice catches suddenly and lifts upwards into a pretty, totally unintelligible lament, presumably for the lost-lady of the title. Though he could just as easily be saying ‘box car on a miffany moo’, or even just sighing melodically. Either way, the end result is as affecting as it is strange.
Recently Fwaf has been worried by a late-surge in favour of lightness of touch which looked like it might force a revaluation of the trope of the ‘happy idiot’– as Joss Whedon muddied the waters by releasing not one but two movies featuring scripts full of really rather clever non-sequitur gags to which the only sane reaction was to smile maniacally till the end credits started to roll. That’s why Gibson’s arrival on the scene is so timely, as it reaffirms our faith in a tradition that runs from The Smiths to Leonard Cohen right back to wise King Solomon, who lest we forget was prone to such charming ruminations as ‘there is nothing good under the sun, save for a man to be content in his work and die’. Now there’s a man who deserved his own handbag.
Those of us still mourning the loss of Test Icicles (they’ll come back to you eventually, don’t force it) will take succour from this messy, brattish Aussie pairing. Coming on like tag-team bonehead troublemakers from a John Hughes movie, they meet the understaffed racket-making of recently resurrected power-duo Death From Above 1979 with the gleeful snottyness of the Beastie Boys.
Their most recent single starts with a swaggering drum intro reminiscent off Peaches vs Iggy weird-off ‘Kick It’, has some judicious cursing before we’re fifteen seconds in, and boasts a main riff which sounds like it’s falling heavily down some stairs. Best of all though is the wilfully silly chorus of ‘No sleep till you pass out, you gotta!’, delivered more like they’re demanding to be allowed to stay up to watch a Rastamouse special than cheerlessly psyching themselves up for a grim night of cocaine and hookers. The sense of fun is compounded with the video, which apes the Chevy Chase featuring promo for Paul Simon’s ‘You Can Call Me Al’ and features the wily deployment of Dave from Flight of the Concords. That guy cracks me up.
Given that title, the subject matter (it’s a documentary looking at death row inmates) and director Werner Herzog’s reputation as not one to shy away from the darker extremities of human nature, and you’d be forgiven that Into The Abyss might make for punishing viewing. But while it’s undeniably intense – as it should be – it’s what comes after the titular comma that sticks with you. For a film ostensibly about why we kill (‘we’ being both individuals and the state), it’s remarkably life affirming.
Focusing on the lasting toll of a triple homicide – on both its perpetrators and the famlies of their victims – and those who’s day-to-day involves watching people be put to death, he walks us through the mundane details of senseless crimes (Sandra Stotler was making cookies at the time she was murdered) and their unthinkable consequences, in doing so prompting comparisons to Capote’s In Cold Blood.
It’s true that in isolation it’s composed of parts we’ve seen many times before, starting with Herzog retracing the murders at the scene with the aid of one of the investigating officers. He later visits the convicted in prison and interviews the victims’ families surrounded by photos of their lost loved ones. But what may provide the driving thrust of other films is all context here. He’s not trying to solve, or even explain the crime; rather, he objectively confronts us with all its shattered pieces, in the belief that surely no one could do anything but balk at the horror of proceduralized execution when given enough pause to consider it properly, away from the noise of polemic.
Herzog lays out his stall near the beginning while speaking with Michael Perry – to paraphrase, ‘I don’t have to believe you, I don’t even have to like you, but I do think human beings should not be executed’. But there’s none of the hectoring, the baiting, the disingenuousness of, say, Michael Moore. And there’s certainly no prurient titillation as we wait for a mystery to be unravelled (that the accused are almost certainly guilty is revealed as almost as an incidental detail).
In many other hands so much here would seem ripe for parody – the soundtrack of swelling, minor-key strings; the slow tracking shot of a flock of birds breaking across a grey sky; the way the camera always lingers, often to the point of absurdity, on the interviewees after they’ve finished speaking, as if trying to impose a profundity onto a subject who looks more like they’re uncomfortably waiting for Herzog to say something else than contemplating the big questions. It’s amusing to imagine what the critical reaction would be if another director employed phrases like ‘ecstatic truth’ to explain their modus operandi.
But, for all of this, the film succeeds, largely because of one thing: its humanity. Herzog has an ability to feel real empathy for each of the people he encounters, rather than viewing them as a means to an end, a narrative cog to propel a story he’s already drawn-up. Anyone vaguely familiar with his work will know that he clearly cultivates an eccentric persona (which makes him incredibly easy to send-up) – but so what when it comes with a perspective, a style and of course, a voice which are so undeniably engrossing? Who else could disarm someone so completely by asking them to ‘describe an encounter with a squirrel’? And yet at the beginning of the film Herzog does just that to the pastor charged with holding the feet of men as they die, thereby breaking down what Herzog called his ‘Disney’-like prevarication and ultimately moving him to tears. But not once does it feel manipulative.
Speaking via satellite link up from the Gate Picturehouse in London after the showing I attended (at York’s City Screen) Herzog spoke of how he ‘fell in love’ with not one but two incidental characters (the former captain of ‘Death House’, Fred Allen, and a ‘working man’ friend of Jason Burkett), making them heroes of the tale based on the briefest of interactions. The truth, unlikely as it may seem, is that the man who pronounced ‘I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder’, who waves off insignificant bullets, is a sentimentalist at heart.
Like Dostoevsky in The Idiot, with this film Herzog imagines the terrible effect that the foreknowledge of death must have on a person (although here Dostoevsky was speaking from experience, having been subjected to a mock execution himself). But, also like the Russian author, he sees the flipside of this, with the new appreciation for life begat by being forced to confront its approaching absence (‘What if I didn’t have to die!…I would turn every minute into an age, nothing would be wasted, every minute would be accounted for’). Significantly, it’s this insight he chooses to end the film on, as Fred Allen speaks touchingly about his new found ability to appreciate the smaller things, having quit his job at the expense of his pension. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of the preceding 100 minutes that a sentiment which would normally appear trite through overuse seems to have gained new vigour. As you walk out of the cinema, don’t be surprised if you start to notice the birds that bit more, too.