“I thought it was just about the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen”: The Serious Delirium of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives
“[Nicholas Winding Refn’s] latest theater of the macabre is brutal, bloody, saturated with revenge, sex and death, yet stunningly devoid of meaning, purpose, emotion or decent lighting.” – Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times
“Movies really don’t get much worse than Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. It’s a shit macho fantasy—hyperviolent, ethically repulsive, sad, nonsensical, deathly dull, snail-paced, idiotic, possibly woman-hating, visually suffocating, pretentious… [T]his is a defecation by an over-praised, over-indulged director who thinks anything he craps out is worthy of your time. I felt violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled and bored stiff.” – Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere
“It’s not that overwrought violence and human depravity are unfit grist for art, but without a compelling plot and a modicum of character development, all this film has to offer is a repugnant prurience and heavy-handed atmospherics.” – Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic
“I thought it was just about the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen.” – David Edelstein, Vulture
I love all of the negative reviews of Only God Forgives because they are totally right. Except what the reviewers perceive as failure, I think is total victory. I mean, “[B]rutal, bloody, saturated with revenge, sex and death, yet stunningly devoid of meaning, purpose, emotion…” Are you kidding? That sounds fucking awesome. I want to feel “violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled and bored stiff.”
“Aren’t we begging to lose a fight every time art is made?” writes Sean Kilpatrick, in his a review of Only God Forgives. (continue reading…)
Depthlessness is Not a Word
by Thomas Cook
In a recent review of Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment, I refer to Durbin’s expositional prose as “point-of-view-less” in order to describe the haunting affectless/affecting dichotomy of her transcriptional fiction. Throughout her book, Durbin faithfully depicts, I argue, “the reality of reality television” and “the surreality of the real” by objectively describing the mise-en-scène of Real Housewives, The Girls Next Door, and other reality television successes of the first decade of the millennium. The technical choices that Durbin makes in her video work, “Anna Nicole Clown Mouth,” reaffirm the aesthetics of her prose while adding a dimension to our understanding of the effect (and potentially the aim) of such an aesthetic.
“Clown Mouth” is one shot. It lasts eights minutes and forty-six seconds. The camera focuses on the lower half of Durbin’s face, where a red clown mouth outlined in black is painted around her actual mouth, spreading up to her nose, down to her chin, and out over her cheeks; the camera remains focused on that part of Durbin’s face, stationary for the duration of the video. The only movement in the video is Durbin’s mouth, opening and closing to speak as she reads the entirety of the “Anna Nicole Show” chapter of E!, a story written in the form of a transcript that includes voices from CNN, Anna Nicole Smith, Howard K. Stern, Riley (Anna Nicole’s daughter), and mechanical baby, whose hundreds of “mamas” Durbin reproduces. Here we return to the question of point of view: whose mouth are we watching? It’s not Anna Nicole’s mouth, nor is it Howard’s, Riley, the mechanical baby’s, or Durbin’s. Looking closely at the video (or watching it several times as I did), one is struck by clumsy physicality of a human mouth. Lips flap, a tongue squirms and cavorts, the teeth rise and fall. All of this to facilitate speech, but again, who is speaking? Moreover, does the question whose mouth are we watching and who is speaking have the same answer? In “Clown Mouth,” we watch a mouth, trapped in a close-up, masked and unmoored from body, divorced from identity, a flat and unchanging orifice of the affectless as Durbin neither smiles nor frowns, her voice sounding neither angry nor shrill, happy or concerned. The video takes place in real time with no technical effects. The focus is sharp. Durbin effectively reproduces the flat expanse of televisual experience that her fiction creates through the use of filmic techniques that resist the emotional or affect-based conduit of point of view. What we see is what we get. But that’s all.
WHITE MATERIAL: Obscene Whiteness as an Occidental Residue in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgive
In his post yesterday, Johannes made an interesting observation in passing on the Thai setting of Nicholas Winding Refn’s widely reviled Only God Forgives:
Like Sylvia Plath’s “Fever 103″ it takes place in the orient, where imperialism discovered modern beauty in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Xanadu, Coleridge built an opium den…
One of the film’s obscenities is the obscenely patent Orientalism of Refn’s mise-en-scene. The film unfolds in a claustrophobic Bangkok-as-‘Chinatown’ , on sets reminiscent of The Lady From Shanghai, Death of a Chinese Bookie, and Polanski’s iconic so-named film in which Chinatown stands in for Hollywood’s Heart of Darkness, complete with reddish-green lights, drug haze, voyeuristic, curtained chambers, catwalks and corridors, sightlines which don’t match up, and theatrical spaces like operas, burlesque stages, go-go cages, boxing rings and nightclubs. The obscene is that which should remain hidden but is not; in Refn’s film, the latent racism of Orientalist tropes so common in Western film is right out there into the open, neither ironized nor dressed up as Keanu-ish spiritualism for the benefit of the Western individual’s soul.
An effect of this Orientalist palette is to make the white figures seem particularly artificial. More than ‘American’, they read to me as white; the phrase ‘white material’ comes to mind, after the semi-autobiographical Claire Denis film about French colonists in North Africa. The mother character, played by Kristen Scott Thomas, is not only a sexed-up outre Mommy MacBeth, part-Real Housewife, part -Freudian bingo card, but she is in whiteface with blonde extensions, golden dusting powder that simulates clublight or the mandate of Heaven, an impractical manicure, and elaborately painted on eyemakeup that obscures any kind of ‘natural’ eye.
Why is it significant that Refn’s protagonists are in whiteface? [In Refn’s previous, not-reviled Drive, blondissima Ryan Gosling wears a white and gold jacket to drive this point home.] Refn’s mise-en-scene re-renders whiteness not as an originary, natural term from which all other terms are derived and against which they fail to measure up, as in Imperialist logic, but as an artificial mask made from dusting powder, hair extentions, eyeshadow, hairdye, Western suits, acrylic nails, foiled tips. These toxic, inhuman substances truly are the ‘white materials’. In the context of Western imperialism and colonialism, structural violence comes from the West, from the Heart of Whiteness. Evil, which only God can forgive, is a white material which can be piled up or smeared on in various configurations and manifestations.
Finally, as Johannes’s observation indicates, so much of the Modernism which is so beloved to me carries with it the trace of colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism and Orientalism. A chief offender is my beloved Artaud, whose Theater of Cruelty (ahem) derives from his febrile, Paris-World-Fair impressions of Balinese dance. I recognize the racism inherent in this theatrical encounter, and I hope I do not replicate this relationship of colonization in my writing or reading. Yet if I am not willing to discard Artaud’s body of work, I am also not willing to divorce this racial element from his work. Instead I keep it always in view when I think about Artaud, because it becomes a site where Art’s violence, its unwholesomeness, its predatory tendencies, as well as its theatricality, its artifice, its relationship to Evil, comes into view—that is, where Art becomes obscene.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk…
(Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”)
It seems a lot of people are troubled by Lana Del Ray saying that she wish she were “already dead.” Seems that’s not an “empowering” thing to say. We should all be energetic and as alive as possible. Working for a change in the anthropocene. Something I love about her songs is that she does sound already dead. They all seem written from a haze, from the other side.
It’s in the new one:
But it’s even more in some of the old ones, like “Summertime Sadness” and (duh!) “Born to Die.”
What sets her apart from predecessors in provocation like is that she celebrates the bacchanalian excess of peers like while immolating herself in themes of co-dependency that make smart people squirm. Her songs exude the pain her paramours repress through drugs and sport sex, and their implicit subject is addiction.
In other words, unlike so much contemporary poetics for example, this is not poetry that “critiques,” that gives us an ethical position. Unlike Hollywood, pop music etc: it’s not uplifting. Unlike both: it is not “empowering.”
She gets hit by her lover and it feels like a kiss.
This haziness of death is of course the feverish state of art. It is a kiss but it feels like a punch.
It’s an addiction.
[Marty Cain has a very insightful review of Lucas de Limas’s Wet Land up on HTMLGiant. Here’s an excerpt:]
“In her response to Stephen Burt’s recent essay in the Boston Review, the poet Joyelle McSweeney criticizes Burt’s concept of the Nearly Baroque: “forget ‘nearly’ and ‘almost.’ I want to go all the way… All the way and out to the other side, which is this side, but eschatologically inverted.” Wet Land may be a perfect example of what McSweeney seems to be calling for. Rather than hiding behind an aesthetic mask, de Lima fully embraces artifice, deliberately taking ownership of the inherent violence in poetic representation:
MY BULLET CRACKS THE GATOR’S SKULL LIKE AN EGG.
MY BULLET SHATTERS THE GATOR THE WAY A WORD BREAKS OPEN THE LORD.
MY BULLET IS BEAUTIFUL.
IT SHIMMERS IN THE QUARTER-SIZED KILL SPOT ON THE GATOR’S NECK.
MY BULLET MAKES MY FATHER PROUD.
(from “KILL SPOT”)
In this invocative moment reminiscent of Frank Stanford, de Lima suggests that the artistic process is complicit in a circle of violence, death, and rebirth. The gator killed Ana Maria, the book symbolically kills Ana Maria again, and de Lima enters the pulsing door of grief, emerging on the other side with Wet Land, a text that inhabits a different world altogether—exhumed from a swamp, winding along a chaotic figure-eight in a cycle of violence and tenderness. It would be too predictable if de Lima chose to vilify the alligator, but fortunately, he resists the easy route. On the first page of the book, de Lima tells us that the alligator’s blood is “so potent it can destroy HIV,” and that he feels he has an “alliance” with the creature. The alligator becomes evocative of a transcendent presence, embodying both life and death, eros and violence.”
I want to follow up on James’s great post about Persona Peep Show with a post about the most obvious topic relating to the film: that is “fan-fictions” or “kitsches” Ingmar Bergman’s supposed Masterpiece Persona (a lot of the text is in fact from Bergman’s movie). What Mark Efrik Hammarberg and Sara Tuss Efrik picks up on in their remake of Bergman’s movie as “peepshow” is exactly the scandal of the image that James talks about in his post, the “peep-show-ness” of Bergman’s movie. And like many fan fictions (this is why I’m drawn to this para-genre) it takes this elements and blows it up, pushes it out of balance, find the excess, the ghosts, the pornography in the masterpiece.
Their peepshow fan fiction was first shown as part of the gurlesque-themed 2013 Stockholm Poetry Festival, and it revels exactly in the kind of mask-playing, superficiality and viscerality that has caused so many people to be troubled by the gurlesque.
Like James, I think Steven Shaviro’s a wonderful reveling in cinematic fascination. Shaviro points out that what troubles people about cinema is often this flatness of the image, which has no interiority but which nevertheless is tend to cause fascination, a strong bodily response (which as he points out is often seen as apolitical but which can be highly political).
1) Sara Tuss Efrik and Mark Efrik Hammarberg’s Persona Peep Show starts off with a close-up of lips inviting us into the video. The close-up reminds me of the famous shots of Isabella Rossellini’s mouth in Blue Velvet. The invitation includes phrases such as “Come to me,” and “It begins now” and “Are you ready?” The video seems to be asking us to become the “you” who is such a central figure in the piece, a “you” that also seems to be the speaker’s “me,” that which is in me which is deeper than myself, as Zizek might say, or, inversely, a “you” that seems wholly other, alien, like the revenant figure with green hands and red sneakers that wanders through the woods halfway through the video, beating tree-trunks, humping them, placing masks on large broken branches and swirling them around. Or the “you” in the early part of the video that is simultaneously doll, Adam and Eve, and Frankenstein.
2) Persona Peep Show is an incredibly visceral work, and, as such, I can imagine it making some parts of the American poetry scene uncomfortable. It’s easy to imagine the standard criticisms: it’s too grotesque, too image-based, it’s too pleasurable (in a funhouse sort of way), it doesn’t properly “critique” or distance itself from XYZ. Its use of fairytale is anachronistic, and therefore conservative (God forbid we should ever disturb the laws of Hegelian-inflected historical linearity). And yet this video makes such criticisms seem old-fashioned and academic. As I’ve written about before on Montevidayo, there is a strong contemporary tradition in the art scene of masquerade, theatricality, excess, color. Jack Smith, Cindy Sherman, Matthew Barney, Ryan Trecartin. And a film like Persona Peep Show is very much related to that sensibility.
3) After the mouth, we see a woman getting dressed in white, and a green face speaking about the dresser. The face says such things as “Are you going to a party?” and “You dress up white because we’re playing a game today,” and “You’re full of shit.” The split screen (green mouth, woman dressing in white) emphasizes both the notion that dresser and speaker are one, and the possibility that the speaker is watching the dresser. The words emphasize this sameness/difference: the speaker says, “You’ve always wanted to be a copy. Of yourself. A copy.” It reminds me of those various narrators in Beckett’s The Unnamable who morph into one another, a voice talking about another who eventually becomes the voice too.
4) Steven Shaviro: The real is not abolished when interpenetrated with artifice or reduced to its own resemblance so much as it is affirmed in its residual subsistence (the image as trace) and its irreducible surplus (the image as embellishment). The cinema’s icy exaltation of surfaces, its capture of people in a state of “pure objectivity,” and its subjection of all images to the indifference of the “pure look” — all this precludes any radical destruction or negation…In Warholian simulation, images and traces rise repeatedly from below, rather than being imposed once and for all from above…all this implies a multiplication of physical presence, rather than its effacement. The anxiety about image — fear of an empty image, a hollow simulation — is really an anxiety about authenticity, no matter how much it might be dressed up in theory. Persona Peep Show is not a work searching for authenticity, but a video of “This. This. This.”
5) As in the scene where a figure wears a series of gothic masks, and with the appearance of each mask says “This. This. This.”
6) “You’re faking it.” “That’s just a copy.’ “That’s just a toy.” “I am nurse Alma.” Then the image turns X-ray green, with the witch-like figure stuffing a small balloon into its mouth.
7) The film leads us further into the haunted woods, into the funhouse of convex and concave mirrors. There are no words spoken in the last minutes of the video: images shake, morph, dance, sway, a figure with three breasts appears at times, the screen doubles, one side mirroring the other side, until near the end, when the witch-like face appears again. The video is unabashedly influenced by sci-fi films, horror films, B-films. Like Smith and Trecartin, Efrik and Hammarberg purposely play with low-budget effects, effects that 1) give us a democratic, anyone-can-do this feel and 2) are a kind of fuck you to the cult of elegance and good taste (and all the class implications that tend to be the DNA of that rhetoric) and 3) a blurring of art and life since we’re constantly aware, via these low-budget effects, that this isn’t some seamless, airless work of perfection. It’s the guerilla-filmmaking approach to poetry-videos, a pixelated El Greco-ian vision.
[Another installment in my on-going interview with Clemens Altgård:]
Johannes: In 1995 you and Håkan Sandell co-wrote a two-part manifesto “Om Retrogardism,” drawing in part on the Slovenian arts collective NSK/Laibach. Could you talk about what interested you this work? What was the reaction of the Swedish literary establishment? To what extent are you still interested in this line of thought?
First the idea was that we should write one long text together. It soon proved to be impossible. So I wrote about the Slovenian group Laibach and the NSK. Håkan Sandell wrote things like that true inspiration is impossible without rhythmic fixed forms.
We were both negative to the established but by then outdated modernist school of writing. I had picked up on some postmodern thinking but Sandell was more into a premodern way of writning. As a matter of fact he wanted to reconsider the whole creative process from an almost primitivist point of view. What we both could agree on was the thought that the techniques of oral literature could be used in the writing process in order to strengthen the expression. But in a way you could say that we created different versions of what retrogardism could be in a Nordic context. What interested us both was how the Slovenians managed to use old mannerisms, even the totalitarian language of the enemy and put it all together in brand new and amazing works of art and music. I was very enthusiastic at first. I could see no limits to what we might accomplish.
But our book got a lot of criticism. Many liberal and leftist intellectuals got anxious and seemed to think that we had some kind of hidden fascist agenda. They got it all wrong, to say the least. But that was bad enough. Some literature critics understood the concept and that we presented two different ways of creating in a retrogardist spirit. Some people though got the naive impression that the two essays should be read as one coherent text. If you do that, well then you will get confused. For me all that became a bit of a problem. It was like a big backlash of some kind. For me it took many years, a decade or so, to get over all that and sort things out for myself.
For Sandell it was different. He moved to Norway and still lives in Oslo. Some kind of exile, you could say. In Oslo he started something that gradually grew bigger. Sandells ideas attracted a group of young Norwegian painters that went the classicist road, some of them trained by Odd Nerdrum. That was Sandells new context. He got pupils and followers. Sandell has said that his young Norwegian pupils – he gave them lessons in metrics – opposed him in the sense of becoming more classicist/traditionalist than he had ever been himself. But instead of rejecting them in return, he joined them. In Sandells words: “I took the side of my pupils, against myself! And there followed the second wave of retrogardism, in close community with the painters. The painters came mostly from what has sometimes been called the ‘Nerdrum School’, after the painter Odd Nerdrum.”
Well, I was not into that, not at all. I kept writing poetry but did not publish any new book. Instead I did collaborations, art projects, with my friend the artist Ola Åstrand. And that was something quite different from the “second wave” retrogardism in Norway.
Laibach has continued to develop their aesthetics. They still make ironic manifesto-like statements and they still display a negative attitude towards authority. I went to see the Laibach concert in Malmö 2011 so their work still interest me. I still listen to their music but as a poet I have moved on. The world has changed a lot since we wrote the essays “Om retrogardism” and I have changed a lot too, I think. I’m not really that interested in traditional writing techniques, for instance.
Drew Kalbach’s Spooky Plan is spooky—an uncanny directive working in and out of time. The speaker operates the paradoxical technology of the lyric like a drone pilot, virtuosic and remote; immobilized, isolated, instrumentalized, and lethal. Meanwhile, the lyric lines toggle between literally ancient modes of address—graffiti transcribed from the walls of Pompeii—and the ultra-purposeful/ultra-random language of SPAM-bots. What is the strange—spooky—texture that knits up in the oscillation between these poles? Spooky action at a distance? The illusion of consciousness and intimacy that makes the universe, and the lyric, and the Internet function, while each is in fact a mass of dazzling, unparaphrasable relays? What wonders is the Sublime sitting on, somewhere over the paywall? Spooky Plan sez, “Drop down and get your worship on.” Bow down. Bow-wow.
–Joyelle McSweeney, author of Percussion Grenade
In his wonderful first book, Spooky Plan, Drew Kalbach manages to write short lyrics that are somehow incredibly punchy even as they pile up the refuse of centuries together with defecations, nocturnal emissions and other bodily fluids/media. “You are coming to blow me but not until later. I learned this while I was alive”: time spasms and drags, while “the baby girls” “grind and booty shake” and “put me under.” The dance of this menacing, hilarious, sexy (in possible an illegal way) group provides if not a narrative then something like a volatile pattern to the otherwise formless excrement of the narrator’s “post-continuity” visions of the body and sexuality. With this book, Kalbach joins a growing group of younger poets – poets like Jennifer Tamayo, Trisha Low, Monica McLure – who are changing American poets with their irreverent lyricism, performativity and media obsessions: “goodbye giggling in the carwreck”!
– Johannes Göransson, author of Haute Surveillance
These are the dreams for the commercials in post-surveillance capitalism. Kalbach’s poems are real guns, real volts, real gifts, and they’re usually about how we live today—even as we’re afraid to admit it. His poems are in community (ethereal and ethernet) while recovering isolation (in sickbeds and video games). His visions defer to an ethos, but it’s a post-integrity kind, where the body’s fallen into corporations and hostile takeovers and hostage situations, and the tremendous cost crushes thoughts into what you’d expect: flickering sadness, blinkered rage, but best—this roving curiosity for finding a better way to be electric and dead and still wanting one more try at the slots. You can’t “glitch it back together,” Kalbach has noted elsewhere. But the attempt is a funny, bracing instrument, and it’s exquisite.
Johannes: The most famous member of the Malmö Gang, especially in the U.S., is Lukas Moodysson, internationally acclaimed film director of such films as Fucking Åmål, Together and Hole in My Heart.But he started out as a teenage-poet and member of the Malmö Gang, as you have already mentioned. Do you want to say anything else about him?
Clemens: When we got to know Lukas Moodysson he was still very young and unexperienced. I think that we taught him one or two things but he was a very fast learner. He already had a style of his own when he became a member of our group. But his style would change over time. As he went to Borum’s school in Copenhagen Lukas started to write in a new manner. Then he quit and began to write more maximalistic again. As a matter of fact I wrote a poem about him that was published in his book “Kött”” (Flesh/Meat). But Lukas had to move on. In fact he became a world famous director! How about that?
Johannes: Which is your favorite of his films?
Clemens: I’ve seen all of them. If I should pick av favorite… I´ll choose Container. It’s very close to his poetry.