Sunday, October 17, 2010

Nostalgia and its discontents

Listening to the new Killing Joke got me thinking about some media from days gone by. Specifically, I was thinking about how I used to blast Requiem from Killing Joke's first album ( which I had on Vinyl, to date this) so loud that the synth-heartbeat pulse would literally cause the walls to vibrate. That got me thinking about other bands I would blast on my stereo, and movies I would dig up at the video store ( to this day, I think I'm the only person who ever rented Forbidden Zone at the Hastings store. Strangely, there's now talk of a sequel....)
This is why I was re-listening to Big Black, and watched Natural Born Killers again.
Big Black, on the one hand, is the reward for nostalgia, like this. That strange three-dimensional guitar sound, and fast, oddly timed pounding beat still have the unsettling visceral kick that they did back in 1985. The lyrics are still as abrasive as ever ( I don't think anyone in their right mind could ever really get used to a song like Jordan, Minnesota ). However, with the added quarter century of experience, I can appreciate some of more subtle art- the funk references in some bass figures, the use of treble to imitate blades, the underlying moralism in doing songs about such antisocial topics (for those who don't know- no one, ever, had darker lyrical topics than Big Black. If you cannot deal, I wouldn't blame you) and the layering of minimal lines to maximal effect. Atomizer, for example, more than holds up- it actually sounds better to me now, than it did back then.
Natural Born Killers, on the other hand, falls apart under scrutiny after fifteen years. Certainly, some things hold up- Woody Harrelson still manages to exude menace, charisma and and goofy charm without any seeming effort, the sound track music is tasteful, and evocative, the desert southwest is beautiful beyond words, and so on. But the flaws mount up, quickly. The biggest flaw is in the sound. I warn you right now, if you like the movie, my next sentence may ruin it for you. The sync on the sound is slightly off, and it makes obvious that whoever they had recording the sound on location screwed up BIG TIME, because almost all dialogue and most sound is dropped in, re-recorded in studio. It's like an animated movie- you can actually hear the room's natural reverb on most of the voices. The next big flaw is how ham-fisted Oliver Stone's direction is. I'm not just talking about heavy-handed, didactic approach in shoving his political agenda at you- I mean his literal direction. The guy blocks scenes like it's an off Broadway production. People face the camera for no organic reason, and there's only interaction between the audience and the actors, not the supposed characters. In several scenes the kissing is so awkward based upon the blocking that you can see Juliette Lewis licking Woody Harrelson's cheek, while he is clearly sucking air.However, the performances themselves are pretty uneven. As I said before, Harrelson does a great job, but Juliette Lewis simply cannot sell the character, and her accent is awful. Robert Downey is simply high and doing a Saturday Night Live style riff on Robin Leach and Geraldo Rivera. I mean, it says something that Steven Wright gives one of the more believable performances! Finally, the plot is just soul-less. The characters learn nothing more than that killing isn't fun, forever- but in small doses- hey, it'll get you what you want. Stone, as per usual, is pushing his point (HEY, WATCHING TOO MUCH TV IS BAAAAAD) to the exclusion of anything resembling humanity. If you have to watch a movie about two young lovers who overcome the odds after becoming celebrities over a mass murder, watch Love and a .45. It even has the same "artistic" touches like the psychological backgrounds, and multiple film stocks- but done is a much more coherent and human way.

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