Friday, March 17, 2006

Not much impressed with the Shane MacGowan documentary

I remember, as a young man, being pissed off with Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost, a documentary about jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker. Baker was still alive when the film was made – he fell, was pushed, or jumped from a hotel balcony in Paris near the end of the shoot, depending on which rumour you abide by; I vote for suicide, since it seems to me it’s very unlikely someone could live as dissolute a life as Baker and not be, on some level, deeply ashamed of himself. Weber, at one point – clearly judging his subject – confronts him about the issue of the children he’s fathered, asking him if he remembers all their names. Baker takes offence, and so did I – it seemed to me a lousy thing to do to someone on camera. Weber was also pretty judgmental about Baker’s drug use, getting Baker to describe his intake, his fondness for speedballs, and so forth, while the cameras captured it all in unforgiving black and white – it seems a humiliating thing to do to a human being, a cruelty, and one could easily theorize that the scrutiny of the filmmaker had something to do with Baker’s killing himself, if that’s what, in fact, he did. I recall that at the time I left the theatre more disgusted with Weber than with Baker, and went home and took a shower, metaphorically speaking... I haven’t seen Let’s Get Lost in a long time, but I wonder now if I’d feel the same way about it; having just sat through If I Should Fall from Grace: The Shane MacGowan Story at the Pacific Cinematheque, I suspect I wouldn’t, since at least Let’s Get Lost tries to be about something, tries to give its audience something to think about, tries to take a position in regard to its subject... There’s not much of that in If I Should Fall from Grace; it’s basically a series of rock videos and performance clips punctuated with fairly informal interviews where few probing questions are asked. Here are a few questions that I would have liked to have seen the filmmakers grapple with – that I occasionally found myself trying to think about while the film did its best to distract me with far more trivial matters:

1. So here we are in a commodity-driven consumer culture which periodically seizes on this poor idiot or that and elevates them head and shoulders above the rest, to suddenly be a spokesperson for something; even forms of music that are meant to be rebellious (punk) or defiantly local (like Irish music) are included in this phenomenon, such that angry young men with bad teeth and ears that stick out can become famous as (pop) cultural icons – but only insofar as they assent to their expressions of angst, dismay, alienation, anger, whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it, being made into product and mass-marketed, which in turn will have a deleterious effect on their ability to continue doing what they’re doing... The more successful you are, the better you are at speaking from your local perspective, communicating your authentic experience – which is what being a songwriter is kinda about – the harder it will be for you to maintain your connection to the very conditions that drive and inspire you. In some odd way, the story of Shane MacGowan intersects with the story of Kurt Cobain, because there is a fundamental conflict between their starting point and the fame which it led them to; you can’t be a pissed-off, alienated kid and a superstar goose who lays golden eggs at the same time – and this probably informs the self-destruction of both men. Cobain killed himself, and it looks from the film that MacGowan retreated back into his roots – into pubs, the Irish diaspora in London, and his family life (while continuing to drink far too much, though in a way, that could be viewed as an aspect of his roots, too, rather than as a form of self-destruction -- he is Irish, after all; maybe it's just a stereotype of mine, but there seems to be a larger place allowed for alcoholism in Ireland than in many places in the world; we see Shane piss drunk through most of the film, but seldom, even as he actually dribbles a bit of drool, object to it, as I think we would if someone from North America were THIS intoxicated on film...). Why not examine all this? Why not actually think about what the life trajectory of MacGowan means or teaches us, rather than just filming him talking about the good old days, with a misty golden tint to evoke a mood of nostalgia and lots of clips of his music?

2. And what ABOUT nostalgia? I mean, there’s something kind of suspect about it, ain’t there – something that has all too much to do with the way the marketplace functions...? In the 1980s, I clearly recall that a LOT of the music you heard on the radio was from the 1960s; everyone talked about the 1960’s as a special time, and valorized its heroes – Hendrix or Led Zep or the Who or the Beatles or whatever – and films about them played on TV and their successes were made to seem glamorous and significant. In the 1990s, there was a resurgence of disco and funk and so forth – remember Boogie Nights? Now we’re busily re-consuming the music of the 1980s, punk and “New Wave” and all that, and re-experiencing how wild and rebellious we all were back then… It’s not that one decade is in fact more significant than another, it’s just that mass culture is perpetually about 20 years out of sync; the youth of any given generation have fuck all purchasing power, and little access to the channels by which information is disseminated, so their own “authentic” cultural expressions are more or less ignored at the time when they’re happening, until such a time as they’re old enough to actually start laying down some money and/or making films themselves. This is why we now have films about artists like Townes van Zandt, the Minutemen, and Jandek being made – I knew who these guys were when I was young, but certainly none of my friends knew or cared, and they received zero attention from the mainstream media; even the Pogues were a fairly obscure band, up until “Fairytale of New York” beat the odds and got a smidgen of radio play… Most media attention was either focused on transparently plastic and forgettable mass-produced crap – the stuff we want the kids to buy, rather than what the really bright ones were trying to seek out – or on the music of 20 years previous…

What this probably means is that there’s in fact a fair bit of interesting music being made today that I have no idea exists, being produced and consumed by extremely eager and attentive youth, like I was back in 1985, and being completely ignored by the media and by the generation who can actually afford to support it – who are too lost in their narcissism, too busy (re-)consuming the tokens of their own youth, to take any interest. (The media, busy selling their own image back to them, certainly won't try to call anything current to their attention). Many of these artists will retire or die in obscurity (like d. boon of my day) or stop making music long before anyone makes a documentary about them or before they attain iconic status, and there’s something really tragic and unfortunate about that, which this film does nothing to acknowledge or even mention. (Are there young bands, influenced by the Pogues, who are doing stuff that's attracting attention in London or elsewhere? Did the Pogues play a part in the development of any trends in music that currently exist? Are there current roots-music-revivalists whom MacGowan admires? No such questions are asked... No NOW is allowed to interfere in our comfortably basking in THEN). No wonder the audience at the Cinematheque was uniformly in their mid-30s... Wherever the hip kids were in the city -- it was probably more interesting.

3. ...And while we’re talking about the global marketplace, what exactly IS the relationship between consumer culture and folk culture? Songs of the sort MacGowan sings predate punk, predate pop, predate CDs and LPs and recording technology of any sort, and have deep, deep roots in traditional/folk culture. In fact, that’s a lot of what people are trying to connect with when they buy CDs by bands like the Pogues; they’re trying to find some connection to roots, to place, to a people, which is increasingly hard to find in urban life in North America, and generally has to be packaged with a generous dollop of postmodern irony (which, really, the Pogues didn't trade much in -- they had a bit of that rare commodity, authenticity, to them). Much as there are things I like about life in Vancouver, there’s not much sense of belonging to a human community, of being a person with a people in a place that has meaning; I spend far more time wandering through an impersonal concrete market, shopping for meaning, than I do in groups that I feel profoundly personally connected to. It’s precisely because of this condition – and the need to compensate for it – that one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve ever been to was seeing the Pogues perform with Joe Strummer at the Commodore Ballroom in the 1980s. Even tho’ I’m not Irish and don’t have any great connection with the half-Celtic blood that runs in my veins – as my last name, MacInnis, attests, my father’s side of the family is Scottish, by way of Nova Scotia – coming together to share in the experiences and feelings sung about by MacGowan that night (as he passed whiskey bottles down into the front rows and a young fan, riding the shoulders of her boyfriend on the dance floor, flashed her tits at him, to his clear delight), I felt like I belonged to something, that I had a place in a community (pressed there up against hundreds of other happy fans, singing along to the songs and swaying to the music). Briefly, hearing MacGowan belt out his own alienation, I didn’t feel alienated any more; hearing him sing his desires, I felt mine validated and expressed and made real, which is, in fact, an increasingly rare and precious feeling… Why not explore the connection, between this deep need for authentic expression and belonging, and the alienation and dislocation that are its ugly urban twin?

4. And though, really, the politics of all that is fine and well by me – I mean, what else are we supposed to do? We need to compensate for how fragmented we are by some means or other, need to find community where we can – here’s the catch: it’s still not great art. Pop music (and even consumer capitalism) latches on to real human needs, sure, let’s grant it that; but the fact is that I just spent about two hours of my time and ten dollars of my money watching what mostly amounts to the rock videos of yesterday, interspersed with the commentaries of the people who made them. I doubt anyone watching the film with me learned much of anything at all, particularly given that the only questions the film asked (did the band fire Shane or did he use a passive-aggressive strategy of self-destruction to quit?) shed light on nothing much larger than the personalities of the people on the screen, who, in the big picture, just aren't that important. It amounts to merely another manifestation of celebrity worship, which is basically just narcissism by proxy. There are better things I could have done with my time, better uses of music, better uses of cinema, and I mildly resent having had my time wasted, even by people who try so hard to flatter my former tastes. Fond as I am of pop music, enough is enough; the audience, whether it knows it or not, basically just spent two hours masturbating to its own image, and its starting to seem like a far too common vice... The premise that the film proceeds on, that the music and the celebration of it after the fact is enough, is in fact a little scary, as was the applause and happy buzz with which the film was received. Most people in the audience seemed to have had a satisfying experience -- but why?

These are a few questions that I struggled with while watching as Shane MacGowan’s front teeth steadily decayed as the archival footage progressed towards his present vast gap (and why is it that the British Isles have such atrocious dentistry, anyhow?). It would have been interesting, too, to think about the relationship of alcoholism to music; I recall the question coming up during one of the interviews in the (only marginally more interesting) documentary on Townes van Zandt that played the other week – why is it that musicians, more than any other group of creative people, seem so inclined to fuck themselves up on alcohol and/or drugs? And just how fucked up is MacGowan, anyhow? He seems like a more or less happy man, though it would have been interesting to see what he’s like sober, to get a proper sense of that -- he likely isn't, very often. One imagines that at least some of the people around him suffer from the fact that he constantly drinks, and that he has a few bad days himself -- he doesn't look particularly healthy or alert, and his songwriting and singing certainly don't seem to be what they were. The film doesn’t probe too deeply into these questions, either. It interferes with the audience being able to get off, I suppose, like seeing the track marks on the arms of a pornstar might intrude in one's pursuit of orgasm. Easier to stay on the surface, to not interfere with the happy vibe. Because that's what we want, a happy vibe. So we can keep up the rituals of production and consumption, so we can maintain our own shallow coast through life... To that end, we'll indulge MacGowan his drinking and basking in past glories -- as long as he's not so far gone as to interfere with our good time.

Ach: I guess the only conclusion I can draw is that I need to start being even more discriminating about the films I attend. I really was a big Pogues fan, once -- I thought it would've been enough. I hope the documentary about Daniel Johnston coming up is going to be more interesting… I’m almost tempted not to attend.

Post-script: those not completely dissuaded from their desire to see the film can catch it one last time at 3:45 PM Saturday, March 18, at the Pacific Cinematheque, 1131 Howe St.


ORCA7 said...

No one ever commented on this? Well... hell...

Here it is, many years later, and I, with a bone up my arse this week, for no particularly good reason, about what I've just now caught myself up on, which is the historic state of the frontman of the Pogues. Not having been more than a casual, mostly ignorant fan, I had no idea... He and all those supporting him to this extent (I'm sure everybody made a fuck ton of money at that O2 gig) are, in my view, disgusting.

Looking for anybody having written about this bizarre and ugly legacy, I found your posting. It's just plain great. So there.


-- trg7,
San Francisco

Allan MacInnis said...

Hey, thanks for that. Interesting to look at my own opinions from the remove of several years, writing about a film I've long forgotten about. I sound pretty annoyed with it!