Tag Archives: Frank Zappa

Unfinished Business In The ALP

Gillard Wanted To Handball The PM Chair To Combet

I like Greg Combet. He’s the only politician I know of who has admitted to being a fan of Frank Zappa. He’s done now, but while he was around, I had hopes for the man. Perhaps these hopes were misplaced, given that the sort of man who likes Frank Zappa might look at Australian Politics and choose to walk away. I have to respect that as a voter, but it’s still sad. Maybe it got too hard to work in Parliament all week and go home and put on a Frank Zappa record and there is Frank singing “Keep it greasy so it goes down easy“. I’d imagine the cognitive dissonance might become unbearable. And so it is that he left Parliament at the end of his term at the 2013 election.

The news today – more like a non-news really – is that Julia Gillard offered to hand him the Prime Minster’s chair, just to fend off Kevin Rudd. This is pretty bleak material.

An embattled Julia Gillard secretly offered to stand down as Prime Minister in June 2013 and secure the leadership for then Climate Change and Industry minister Greg Combet in order to fend off Kevin Rudd, Mr Combet has revealed.

But dogged by months of ill-health, and unsure that a switch to a third leadership contender so close to an election would improve Labor’s position, Mr Combet declined the chance to be prime minister.

‘‘I was struggling a good deal personally by the time June [2013] came around’’ Mr Combet told Fairfax Media in an interview this week. ‘‘I was in constant pain with the problems that I was having, and the thought of taking on additional responsibility and not being 100 per cent fit to do it, in that febrile environment, it didn’t look easy.’’

This ALP factional infighting is pretty awful stuff. It partly goes with the terrain of the Westminster system, and over the years we’ve been made to be inured to its odd outcomes. The ins and outs of these machinations are way beyond the purview of the electorate, and are subject to influences from such things as the Unions and lobby groups. It’s just difficult to understand how they could have cocked up so many decisions along the way.

He says he remains convinced that former Opposition Leader Kim Beazley would have won the 2007 federal election and become a highly successful Labor Prime Minister if Mr Rudd had not dislodged him.

ACTU polling as part of the Your Rights At Work Campaign in the run up to the 2007 election left him ‘‘completely convinced Beazley would have won’’, which would have resulted in a ‘‘vastly more experienced, mature person as Prime Minister presiding over, for want of a better description, a really grown up government, avoiding all the mistakes’’.

‘‘Neither Julia nor Kevin had had a lot of experience in leadership roles and I think that impacted on their capacity to do the job’’ Mr Combet told Fairfax Media.

So at least we were right all along in 2007, that the Rudd-Gillard leadership was a balls-up waiting to happen. It’s a shame I can’t point to neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard as the same kinds of leaders as Paul Keating, Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam before them. The tumultuous six years in government exposed all the problems of the ALP that went unsolved since Keating lost in 1996. The problem is compounded by the fact that neither Kim Beazley nor Simon Crean were able to restructure the party in the way it needed to be restructured, and Mark Latham’s turn was certainly hobbled by the same influences that replaced Beazley twice, that put in Rudd, removed Rudd, removed Gillard and essentially burnt the metaphorical house down.

Oh, and Ms. Gillard, I will never forget the slight you made when you said you were not a social democrat.

Here’s Mark Latham being particularly frank about it.

Faulkner’s reform plan, to be put to State Conference this weekend, is to allow ALP branch members to select the party’s upper house tickets. Having given rank-and-file members a say in the selection of Labor’s federal and state leaders, why shouldn’t they be empowered to preselect upper house candidates? Why doesn’t Clements trust the True Believers who staff the polling booths, who keep their local branches alive, who fight so passionately for the cause of Labor?

Far from restricting rank-and-file union involvement, democratisation encourages it. It says to union members: don’t allow union secretaries doubling up as factional bosses to make all the big decisions. Join your local ALP branch and have a direct say in how the party is run: in picking federal and state leaders, in selecting Labor’s lower and upper house candidates.

This is what Faulkner is trying to achieve: Labor as a membership-based party, rather than a narrow factional-based clique.

Mark Latham’s been made out to be a crazy person by the media which must be galling because he commentates in the media; and once upon a decade ago, he was the guy trying to put together a way back to office, when the party machine had run through both Beazley and Crean and found them wanting. It’s hard to forget those terrible years either, together with the terrible campaign and defeat that followed. And all that time, the likes of Mark Arbib and Paul Howes were fucking shit up from behind the scenes.

It’s really hard to forgive the ALP. Especially if you don’t want to vote for the right.

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The Zero Year Of Your Coordinates

Your Mother Should Know

I recently did a bunch of covers of side 3 of the Beatles’ ‘White Album’. What prompted it was a combination of coming off a 12 song set of fairly difficult and challenging tracks which exhausted me and the desire to just play a bunch of stuff I liked as a teen. After I posted them up, it occurred to me that the ‘White Album’ was recorded in 1968, placing it 45 years ago.

Now, I don’t know about you, but that is actually an interminably long time in the timescale of pop music. Paul McCartney is about to come out with a new album (called ‘New’) so he’s still going strong after the morbidly death-obsessed ‘Memory Almost Full’ album, but I sat and tried to figure out how music that old – 45years! – must look like to say, an 18year old today.

If I subtract 45 from the year I was 18, it goes firmly into the late 1930s. Now, I had no shot of owning any music from the late 1930s, let alone being more than passingly familiar with it. Quite frankly I – or my other music listening, record-buying friends- would have been extremely unlikely to be familiar with anything that old.

And yet, Walk-Off HBP went to see Ringo Starr earlier this year because his daughter wanted to see Ringo, so clearly the charms of music that’s 45-50 years old is not entirely lost on kids of today. Obviously it’s going to vary from person to person, household to household, family to family. Even so, you wonder about the distance of this time that separates one from the moment of recording.

Bono was saying in some interview someplace that each time U2 go into a studio there’s a challenge of doing better than before but also an equally large battle to be relevant. So it can’t be easy for anybody to be doing any recording 10years, 20years and 30years in. You sure don’t see Led Zeppelin heading for the studio with Jason Bonham, you don’t see a new album from the Rolling Stone every 2years, it just doesn’t happen.

That being said recorded music has one advantage over literature and movies and it is the ability music has to be consumed over and over again. Even your most favourite movie can only be sat through a handful f times unless you want to make a total study of it. Your favourite albums will be by our side in decades to come, surviving multiple listens upon listens. I think the reason why music drags me back is that in the end I can control my output in a ay that is closed off to me in the cinema. I’m doing more and more recordings because I am able to complete thoughts, ideas, concepts; then execute and finish; and in finishing, I am able to move on to the next thing.

This is in stark contrast to the horrors of being a screenwriter and waiting for people to get back to you about your script; and in most instances, nothing gets made even if people tell you how much they like your writing. Frank Zappa certainly wasn’t wrong when he said “music is best”.  There’s certainly a lot of wisdom in that observation.

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Blast From The Past

Bongo Fury

Years ago, I got ‘Bongo Fury’ back in the day when buying CDs was still a relevant cultural activity, before Napster and mp3s and peer-to-peer sharing sent the music business to the wall. I bought it out of all the Frank Zappa CDs lined up in the shop that I didn’t have on the recommendation that it was Vaclav Havel’s favourite album.

If you think about it today, for one brief moment, all manner of wild things became possible in history. The Berlin Wall came down. Eastern Europe was liberated from the yoke of Soviet Russia. A Playwright was President. He was inviting Frank Zappa over to be the culture minister. Then, George Bush snr. and his administration stepped in and put the kibosh on that one. Yet for a brief moment, the values found in ‘Bongo Fury’ might have had a chance to step forward and do something real.

What values might that be? I don’t know – but I’ve always liked the carnality of  ‘Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy’ and ‘Muffin ‘Man’. I particularly like the sardonic ‘200 years’ and ‘Poofters Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead’.Quoting from it infuriated the faux-American-patriotism of the Angry Fat Man. That’s always good value.

Anyway, somebody brought a copy into work and thought I wouldn’t know this one. Like, uh, yeah.

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Shadow Of Death

Why We Do Creative Stuff

This isn’t an entry about the artist over at iComp who used to go by the handle Shadow of Death.

This is something else entirely.Just thought I’d get that out of the way first.

I’ve recently been thinking about the mission of the artist a lot, in as much as I have been teaching a class full of novices how to produce videos. It’s a 12 week course that I’m teaching so it’s hard enough getting through all the technical aspects, but I keep on having to digress to talk about the whys and wherefores of approaches. That is to say, I’m busily trying to impart a method, only to be forced back to the raison d’etre of creating anything in any medium.

An artist or writer or musician will come fact to face with their work only a limited number of times in their life. This is why death makes the price of artworks by a particular artist go up. There is no such long tail with cinema and film making, but the opportunities to do anything are even more limited than if one’s means of production were more readily accessible. The flip-side of that it is arguable that every time you pick up something to do anything creative is an important moment.

I’ve also been telling my students that whatever it is that they choose to do or make, they have to work it with the utmost of their artistic convictions – otherwise they are cheating not only the audience but themselves of the opportunity to do something truly transcendent. The good news is that as Frank Zappa says, if you can put a framework around it you can call it a work of art. at one end is the austere challenge of doing something worthwhile and at the other is the liberation for all approaches; I sort of wonder if my students can keep both things in my head.

The truth is, I tell them so many things I don’t know what is sinking in and what is washing off like water off a duck’s back. All the while the elephant in the room seems to be the challenge to do something worthwhile. They asked me if I was a tough marker. I said no, but in looking at how I’ve marked their essays, I have to admit that I am tough. In turn, Ive been sitting on a desk job for 3 years now just to pay the rent and as the summer rolls around, I’m beginning to feel a real yearning to go back to a creative life. Perhaps my own creative frustration is seeping through unfairly.

I don’t offer any new insight into any of this except perhaps all of this is in sharper focus for me this month because I have had to think about this stuff more with students at hand. We do what we do because it pleases us, and we do what we do because we want it to delight somebody. If somebody did a sculpture of a dog turd and called it art, it probably has somebody who takes delight in the object sitting in an art gallery as art. The point is do more, do as many, mean it when you do it because you don’t know how many shots you get at it.

In any case, all our work – be they films, songs, novels and poems – mark out time unto our ultimate ends. All our creative works are done in defiance of the impending doom, affirmations of a life lived under the shadow of death.

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Movie Doubles – ‘Human Centipede’ & ‘Unthinkable’

The Horror, The Horror

I don’t know what’s more frightening; knowing you’re going to be hit with something and being hit with it, or not suspecting what you’re about to be hit with and being hit with it. That’s exactly what we had here with these two films and really, moral repugnance of the subject matter in both these films is quite extraordinary.

I knew what was going to happen in ‘Human Centipede’ and when it hit, it was as gruesome as I had been told. But I was totally blindsided by just what ‘Unthinkable’ was going towards and in many ways I found the latter a lot more challenging to digest. What separates the two might be scale of the depravity in one and the consequences of the depravity in the other.

So here’s the spoiler alert. I will have to talk about pretty specific things to make this movie double entry work. There’s just no choice.

Both films are horrifying but one goes in a very transgressive personal way while the other commits to pushing the logic to the point of absolute horror. How do we in the civilised world countenance torture, let alone conceive of a methodology and a system for torture? Both these films shed immense light on just what it is that takes us to torture

The Sadean Vision

First, ‘Human Centipede’ is not as bad as the reviewers say it is. It actually has quite a bit of artistic ambition and pretension. In many ways it lives up to its ambitions as it goes inexorably to its central image, the human centipede. The human centipede is the surgical combining of 3 human beings, anus to mouth so that one long alimentary tract is created.

The logical ramification of this is that the second party is forced to eat the shit of the first party, and the third party is forced to digest the shit of the shit coming out of the first party through the second party. Why exactly a mad scientist wants to do this is not really well explained except for his one line, “I hate humans.”

As gruesome as it is, there is a great deal of black humour in the conception. The director Tom Six is reported to have said that the film started a s a joke in a pub where he argued that child molesters should have their mouths sewn to the anus of fat truckies and forced to eat their shit. Well, this is that film all right in all its loving rendering.

It is a horror worthy of something straight out of the Marquis de Sade’s collection. Indeed, even the story of how 2 tourists end up in the dungeon of despair (as Frank Zappa would have sung it) is similar to de Sade’s ‘Justine’ where a girl wanders through the forest and wanders into an inn full of evil people. It’s even in line with Hansel and Gretel, except the genders are reversed and the horror is coprophagy instead of cannibalism.

The Orwellian Vision

Compared to ‘Human Centipede’, ‘Unthinkable’ is flat out Orwellian. The film is about a desperate interrogation that entails significant amounts of torture. We don’t quite know where the film is going until well into the second act when Samuel Jackson’s character ‘H’ starts hoe-ing into Michael Sheen’s Yusuf. This film is what happens in Room 101, extended out to its logical extreme.

There are a few caveats on this point. In 1984, the state’s motive is gratuitous or so arcane as to be indecipherable. In ‘Unthinkable’ the state’s motive is clear as daylight – it seeks to stop a nuclear catastrophe from taking place.  There is a big reason for the torture to take place because the guy is holding some vital information, It has to be extracted or millions will die. To that end of extracting the information, ‘H’ pulls out all stops from his bag of torture tricks trying to break Yusuf. Representing our relatively civilian and thus cozy point of view is Carrie-Anne Moss’ Agent Helen Brodie.

Agent Brodie’s moral dilemma is thus, should she be willing to commit acts of evil in order to  save a great many lives? She recoils in horror, but gradually her duty to the state forces her to tacitly condone H’s methods. H, has long ago made ethical choices to affirm torture as his means of extracting information. In H’s view, it is a moral weakness not to embrace the full ramification of committing to interrogation and thus torture. It’s a joyless sadism in stark contrast to the joyous sadism of Dr. Heiter in ‘Human Centipede’.

The Point Of Cruelty

It’s never explained why the evil character Dr. Heiter came to hate humanity so much that he could commit such atrocities as they are portrayed in ‘Human Centipede’. We can’t even begin to guess at his disgust and thus it is hard to understand the whys and wherefores of ‘Human Centipede’. Dr. Heiter is not seeking to squeeze out the truth or information from his victims like ‘H’. He just likes the look of three people daisy-chained through surgery, which is to say his choice is an aesthetic one.

The aestheticisation of violence and cruelty is the hallmark of Marquis de Sade’s work, which in turn explains things like Nazisms and the curious pleasure its meanest bastards took in devising concentration camps. Many people ask “how could the Nazis have done such terrible things?”  The answer was already written down by the Marquis who at least lived to see the French Revolution’s high ideals devolve into the ritual of the  guillotine.

What then is the point of cruelty but pleasure?

At least, that is the point put forward by de Sade, and when you plug that through Freud, you can see how pleasure and cruelty can be conjoined and suddenly you have Nazism and concentration camps and Josef Fritzl the Dungeon Dad. Josef Fritzl for instance would not be such news if his crimes didn’t push upon a bunch of our taboos but also our self-understanding about cruelty and pleasure.

The Torture Never Stops (The Uncle Frank Vision)

What if you then found joy in your work as a torturer? Or found that you were good at it, and that the state had great need of your services? The addition of duty makes for heady mix. Perhaps this is the big difference between say Fritzl’s essentially domestic and private atrocity and the humanitarian catastrophe that was the Extermination Camps?

The character of ‘H’ is possibly the most honest representation of the ugliest face of American Imperialism. It is the face of all imperialism that has taken place in history. Here are the lyrics to Frank Zappa’s ‘The Torture Never Stops’. Check out this verse:

Flies all green ‘n buzzin’ in his dungeon of despair
An evil prince eats a steamin’ pig in a chamber right near there
He eats the snouts ‘n the trotters first
The loin’s ‘n the groin’s is soon dispersed
His carvin’ style is well rehearsed
He stands and shouts
All men be cursed
All men be cursed
All men be cursed
All men be cursed
And disagree, well no-one durst
He’s the best of course of all the worst
Some wrong been done, he done it first

That is how the character of ‘H”s handler works. ‘H’ is the very instrument of torture of the state.

Talk about misanthropy. ‘H’ has done so much torture in his life, he no longer feels any joy in it any more. He is jaded by his one talent, that used to give him so much joy. What he doesn’t understand is that the duty allowed him to do all those tortures, but it is duty that slowly killed the joy in him. If it isn’t perverse enough that our most important character is a Sadist, he is a sated Sadist.

Dr. Heiter can’t restrain his joy as he yells, “Feed Her!” as the first person in the centipede defecates into the mouth of the second character. There’s none of that with ‘H’, because he’s just done it once too often. This is more frightening than Dr. Heiter, though that may be hard to believe. ‘Human Centipede’ is a black comedy next to the ethical direness of ‘Unthinkable’.

The Utilitarian Ethos As Challenge

The direness of ‘Unthinkable actually stems from a philosophical challenge that is being laid down to us. It’s the re-imagining of the ‘Star Trek: Wrath of Khan’ and ‘Star Trek: The Search for Spock’ problematic of “Needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” versus “The Needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many”, but applied to the present day problem of terrorism.

Let’s imagine for a moment we take the irrationalist Kirk position of the latter “needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many”. Just how many of the ‘many’ are we willing to sacrifice or ignore before we come back to the rationalist “Needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” position of Spock? In ‘Unthinkable’, it is made very clear that the rational view has to prevail when there is a nuclear threat to 3 cities – enough to compromise high principles of the society not to commit torture. Is this good? Morally speaking, absolutely not. But if you want to save those millions of people, then it becomes incumbent upon the interrogators to use any and all means necessary to squeeze the answer out of the one person.

And this is the horrible little secret of our society with all its wealth and privilege over other parts of the planet. It is exactly the truth we cannot handle, as per what Colonel Jessup says in ‘A Few Good Men’. All our high principles and morals and ethics are luxuries upheld by the willingness of certain parties – the armed forces and black ops – to undertake unspeakable brutality in order to preserve the lifestyle of the many.  Every day we in the so-called civilised world are the beneficiaries and the many whose needs are outweighing the needs of the tortured.

If ‘A Few Good Men’ took us to the portal of understanding this problem, then ‘Unthinkable marches right in and shows us how the house of horrors is furnished. Compared to that very real house of horror, the house of horrors created by Dr. Heiter is very tame. ‘Unthinkable’ grabs our moral sensibility by the scruff of the neck, and shoves its snout into the shit that comes from the hypocrisy we practice by preaching our moral sensibilities. For some this would be a surprise. If you’ve been reading politics for a while, you will know that this is indeed the be all and end all of our pretty civilisation: that we live and die by our hypocrisy. Mostly, we thrive happily, oblivious.

Coprophagy And Other Taboos

Any time a film is made that transgresses a taboo, the critics line up to condemn the film for getting made. For instance, ‘Pink Flamingoes’ by John Waters has Divine eating dog shit and caused a furor. Incest in ‘Chinatown’ also disturbed critics. ‘Happiness’ which featured a family man who happened to be a child rapist could not get rated. ‘Salo’ continues to be a problem for the Australian censor board.

It’s interesting that ‘Human Centipede’ gets this critique from Roger Ebert:

I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.

It’s funny that he thought it was that bad. It’s not. Meanwhile there’s hardly a review for ‘Unthinkable’.

Between the two films, you’d think that ‘Unthinkable’ would be the film that might be the most threat to the decency of our society given what it says about who we are. What’s perhaps even more disturbing is that critics and censor boards think that torture by the state is okay, but private torture is not.

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Some New Sounds I Bought

Zappa Plays Zappa

This one’s a bonus CD that comes with a Double DVD of Dweezil Zappa leading his band through the sonic adventures of his old man Frank. I saw them over a year ago and it was a revelation to hear the songs played live and it didn’t hurt to have Napolen Murphy Brock and Steve Vai playing on stage with them. My review of that show is here.

Since seeing them I’d seen the DVD set in various J&B hi-Fi shops I’ve been trundling into, priced at anywhere between $30.00 and $45.00. Having seen them live, and not wishing to let the memory totally fade, I decided to buy the thing only to discover there was a bonus audio disc. (Hooray!)

The songs are culled from their stage shows that have slightly different interpretations of the songs. The more standard takes are on the DVDs. They songs are played immaculately, and lovingly. IF there’s one complaint I have, it’s that they seem to go just a little too slowly. I’ve been listening to the ‘You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore’ Series on my iPod in the car for months now, and I’m used to hearing these numbers zip by with gusto and over-rehearsed casual abandon. It’s no biggie, but you can hear on these recordings at least that Dweezil’s band is still climbing the heights Frank’s band found.

One more thing: Dweezil censors his old man’s lyrics a lot. ‘St. Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast’ was missing the word cock in the line “He stumbled over his cock.”

Not sure if Frank would have approved of that.

Sting Plays Reneaissance Stuff

It’s a real drag to find the most pretentious impulses are the ones that get Sting a record from the immensely revered, all-conquering, Von-Karajan-inflected  Deutsche Grammophon label. The album I speak of is the ‘Songs from the Labyrinth’ where he sings the songs of John Dowland accompanied by Lute. I guess the curiosity got the better of me an I shelled out the bucks for this album. I might have been better buying the deluxe edition of ‘The Who For Sale’, but I thought, “no, buy something you wouldn’t know the content thereof!”

I dunno.

Maybe I should stick with stuff I know I like at this stage of my life. Sting makes a fine job of huksing and crooning his way through this album to the accompaniment of a gorgeous sounding lute, but I just feel this is as phony a classical recording as my Beastie Bach, if not worse in as much as he just seems to make his delivery as straight as possible to put across the point that this is somehow a ‘serious recording. I mean, it’s a fine enough album but Deutsche Grammophon? Come off it Gordon!

To be blunt, I would have preferred if he played updated rock versions of these songs rather than this pseudo-historical, pseudo-intellectual quest for some kind of authenticity that fails because he’s Sting. He should leave this stuff to people who do this stuff because they can’t do anything else. He does rock, well. This is just perverse.

And I bought it like the sucker punter that I am. 😦

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