Sunday, October 27, 2013

The "resurrected" pioneers of shock rock: Coven, featuring Jinx Dawson

I've paid tribute before on this blog to Alice Cooper and the pre-Alice trio of performers who actually began the “shock rock” concept. But I left one act out and will now rectify that error by talking about the very first “Satanic” rock band, their incredible stage show, their hard rock/psych/pop-rock trio of albums, and their talented and devilishly sexy lead singer.

The name Coven is known by all folk of a certain age for the massive early Seventies hit “One Tin Soldier,” from the one really great Billy Jack film. That song wasn't a Coven recording at all, but was instead the selfsame talented and sexy lead singer, Jinx Dawson, performing with an orchestra for the movie's soundtrack.

Coven was a Chicago group formed in the late Sixties that truly was a seminal act, one that influenced a number of other rock performers of the time, but which suffered from mismanagement, record companies that signed them and then worked against them, and the simple fact that they were just too ahead of their time.

To give you an idea of just how radical the group was for its time, listen to this radio ad (yes, this was intended to be played on good ol' American rock 'n' roll radio) promoting their first LP in 1969:

A few years later parents still would've been outraged, but the band would've been headlining arena shows like the Alice Cooper group and Black Sabbath. Coven came early on the scene, laid the groundwork, and in fact got in trouble several times (from promoters, police, and record labels) while the aforementioned acts were still honing their craft. The three albums they made indicate they were talented and very eclectic in their approach, but their showmanship is lost to the ages, as there appears to be no live footage of the band.

And what exactly are we missing? Well, Coven performed throughout 1968 and '69, doing the songs that wound up on their first album, with a little something extra – a stage show that included excerpts from the Satanic mass, the first known appearance in a rock show of “the sign of the horns,” and a finale that included a Jesus-looking roadie who had been upon a crucifix for the entire show coming down off the cross to turn it upside down as lead singer Jinx hailed Satan.

Yes, not exactly your average “peace-and-love era” performance, but it did predate all of the shock rock spectacles that were to come. In the one informal and friendly group interview that can be found on the Internet – in which Coven members Jinx, drummer Steve Ross, and keyboardist Rick Durrett spoke with deejay “Baron Saturday” on WNYU – Coven's live act was discussed fleetingly, but enough to intrigue. One wishes there was video or film footage of one of these shows so we could see how truly bizarre and blasphemous the band got in its late Sixties heyday.

In the WNYU interview, Dawson and her bandmates describe how their act had such a reputation that, when the band played Detroit, they had to do an afternoon run-through for the mayor (!), who deemed that they could perform their songs but could say nothing in English. That sounds insane – and is – but the band did speak in Latin onstage during their black mass segment; one assumes the mayor didn’t get that the dialogue in Latin was far more “dangerous” than whatever the band might’ve said in English….

To contextualize this, I should note that Coven played on the same bill with major acts of the time, the acts that were themselves deemed subversive at one time or another. Among them were Pink Floyd, the Yardbirds, Deep Purple, Small Faces, the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, and a group from Detroit called “Alice Cooper” (Jinx declares that the gents in the Cooper group “were “scared” of Coven).

So here we have the stuff of rock legend. While there is apparently no footage of Coven onstage (but there are a few photos), there are various places online where you can read the vivid memories of the fans who saw their act and were amazed by it (or offended, which really is just as good). 

One YouTube poster has taken it upon him/herself to share the group's music and has included among the stash a few rare glimpses at Jinx Dawson in different incarnations. The first and most important (since it seems to stand as Coven's only TV appearance that has survived) is this clip of them doing a spirited lip-synch on an unidentified TV show to their single “Wicked Woman” (which was written by the band).

Although that seems to be about it in terms of footage of the band in their prime (hopefully someone will come up with something else) there is one jarring artifact of Coven at their most extreme, namely their first LP, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls. The album is a hard rock celebration of all things Satanic, with some tunes that are catchy pop-rock, others pre-metal (which hadn't yet officially begun when the record came out). They have also been hailed as forerunners of “prog.”

My favorite hook-driven number is “The White Witch of Rose Hall,” which was one of several songs written for the album by Jim Donlinger, later a member of the band Lovecraft (who much later became a born-again Christian and who summarized his work with Coven thusly: “It was dark, and it contributed nothing to the world”):

Providing further evidence that some weird and fascinating decisions were made by corporate moguls in the late Sixties and early Seventies, one should consider the fact that this record was released by Mercury Records with a trifold which depicts a Satanic mass, with a naked blonde (who many websites claim is Jinx, but others say is not) lying on an altar as the members of the band conduct a Satanic ritual.

The band are also depicted on the back cover giving “the sign of the horns,” and the album's final track is a mini-black mass (written by producer Bill Traut), performed as if in a creepy radio play (think “Lights Out” or “Inner Sanctum”).

Thus all of the Seventies and Eighties bands that claimed adherence to the church of Satan were preceded by Coven, and their records continued to be sold in stores and through the mail – the Witchcraft... LP was pulled by Mercury after it was mentioned in an article in the March 1970 issue of Esquire about the Manson murders and the new “craze” for Satanism called “Evil Lurks in California.”

The album was never officially issued on CD, but is available from Jinx's own label, Nevoc, on eBay (strike that – reverse it...), and the original LP now goes for hefty prices (even in crappy condition). You can hear the album on all the usual platforms before rendering unto Nevoc what is Nevoc's.

Then there's the matter of the band from Birmingham that usually gets credit for bringing the Horned One into rock 'n' roll. This gets debated endlessly on the Internet, with Black Sabbath fans claiming that they took nothing from Coven, while others with a sense of chronology argue that they did.

Suffice it to say that Coven was doing a black mass as part of their live shows for months before the band Earth became Black Sabbath. The two bands later toured together, and it is noted in various places online that in Memphis in 1970 the members of Coven painted inverted crosses in blood on Sabbath's dressing room door (that's one way of dealing with someone who stole your image).

Did I forget to mention that, bizarrely enough, one of the founding members of Coven is a bass player named Oz Osborne? In Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs noted that Sabbath was “something like England's answer to Coven” (adding, with his usual acid sarcasm, “well, they're not that bad, but that's all the credit you can give them”). Here is Sabbath stalwart Tommy Iommi on MTV denying any knowledge of Coven.

And, just to make the coincidences even stronger, the first song on the Witchcraft... album (released when Ozzy and company were still called Earth) is called “Black Sabbath.” (Maybe everyone involved were just gigantic fans of Karloff and Mario Bava?) Here is a fan-made music-video using images from Benjamin Christensen's still-startling 1922 film Haxan.

Now, the question of course is whether Coven really was into Satanism, or had they just discovered a good way to shock the public. In the interview on WNYU, the band maintains that “we lived the whole thing. It wasn’t shtick — we were a practicing coven.” When asked to clarify, it’s noted by Rick Durrett that the band wasn’t Satanic per se, but they were performing magic(k) rituals at the time that they lived together in Chicago and L.A. (they were “definitely” into sex magick, he adds). 

In an earlier solo interview, Dawson told WNYU’S Baron Saturday that she currently has “no religious affiliations.” She is “neither Wiccan nor Satanist,” but is “a ceremonial magician of the left-hand path,” who was initially exposed to this kind of magic from her great-aunt and great-grandfather. She confirmed that the band actively practiced magic all during the recording of the albums, and that the other key members “still practice magic, except for one.”


If Coven were just a gimmick band I wouldn't be writing about them at any length. What's most interesting about them is not only that they staked out new territory that effectively got them banned and drubbed at every turn, but that they made two great albums and one good one. Sure, the black mass included on the Witchcraft... album sounds like a radio play (or, to put it in a more contemporary vein, “performance art”), but the songs written by the band and Jim Donlinger are memorable, and the vocals by Jinx are terrific.

Dawson is a mysterious figure in show business. She was in and out of it for something like three decades (see below), and has reappeared in the last few years as a cult figure, described by many fans on the Net as “the goth metal goddess.” Her cred as a rock vocalist is unquestionable – one or two of the songs on Witchcraft find her sounding a bit like Grace Slick, but by the second album she has her own style and a voice that works beautifully in a number of genres, from hard rock to pop to new wave and syntho-pop, and even country. Ann Wilson has never claimed her as a heroine, but Jinx's rock vocals surely laid the groundwork for what Heart did in the Seventies and Eighties.

She also happens to have remained a stunning looking woman. If the recent pictures posted of her are of a woman who should be 62 or so in human years (and who survived a major heart attack a few years ago), she truly must have a portrait melting somewhere in the attic.

The greatest curiosity about her career, besides the fact that Coven never became an arena-sized act, is that she never became well known as an actress or a model. The “goth” part of her goddess label in fact relates to her glamorous “witchy” look – not many blondes are “goth chicks,” but Dawson seemed to have the look down several decades ago (despite sporting L.A.-ready long blonde hair).
As I noted at the outset of this piece, the reason most of us know her voice is from a track she did as a stray assignment outside of Coven, the Billy Jack theme song “One Tin Soldier.” She got the job because of her connection to Bizarre Productions, a company run by Frank Zappa's manager Herb Cohen (the cousin of Funhouse guest and former Mother of Invention Howard Kaylan!).

The song was written and first recorded by a Canadian band called the Original Caste (snappy!) in 1969. Someone associated with Billy Jack (1971), perhaps Tom Laughlin himself, chose the song and wound up with a theme tune that was a top 10 hit in two separate years ('71 and '73) thanks to the catchiness of the melody and Jinx's powerful vocals.

“One Tin Soldier” was a gigantic fucking hit, and it should've made Jinx Dawson a household name. Instead it spawned a second Coven album that is good, but isn't as powerful as Witchcraft or as earworm-ish as the following LP, Blood on the Snow. The album found them backing away from the Satanic image – although there still is a not-too-hidden “sign of the horns” on the cover.

Whatever transpired, the band did their best to craft a mainstream pop-rock album (with, again, terrific vocals from Jinx). But the people who produced and released the record – who may or may not have included Tom Laughlin himself, since the album is co-produced by someone named “Frank Laughlin,” and that was Tom's onscreen pseudonym as the director of The Trial of Billy Jack – decided to totally “erase” the band from their own record's packaging.

They are not identified by name anywhere on the cover, and their faces were “whited out” on the cover. A commenter who claims to have known one of the band's guitarists insists they were indeed contracted to Laughlin and had to break the contract in order to keep performing here.

For her part, Jinx noted here that the band had a “financial arrangement” with the renegade indie filmmaker (whose recent spate of YouTube videos must be seen to be believed). And the last item I discovered online were pics of the band performing outside a movie theater showing Billy Jack in Milwaukee – if Laughlin was indeed managing their career at this point, he certainly got them some great gigs....

That said, there still are some catchy tracks on the record. Here is one of them, “Lonely Lover."

At this juncture, when talking about Dawson as a performer and person rather than as “the goddess,” I should note that there is one very interesting, touching interview with her that appears on the website for the Indianapolis alternative paper Nuvo. Since so many of the sources on the Internet repeat the same information (or mythology) about Jinx and Coven, this article is enlightening, in that it paints a picture of the real woman behind the “goth metal” image. She reveals that she studied opera at age 9, joined her brother's band (called "Him, Her and Them") at 13, and worked on the Coven stage show as a way to use her opera background in a rock context.

Her family was quite well-known in Indianapolis in the early to mid-20th century, and she in fact moved back to Indy in the late Seventies to work on a “private event and concert venue” situated on “the Dawson Lake and Lodge property” in town.

She then worked with her father on the creation of a gated suburban community, but the centerpiece of the article is surprisingly not her landmark work with Coven, but the experience she had as a caregiver for her father when he got sick with cancer. She lost hundreds of thousands of dollars while caring for him, and the house she lived in (located on Dawson Lake) was lost in a sheriff's auction.

This sobering aspect of her life makes the prospect of a memoir (which she has talked about writing for the last few years) even more interesting. She's spoken in other interviews about her affairs with different rockers, from Jim Morrison to Roger Taylor of Queen, and has even mentioned a fling with Charlie Chaplin (now that really should be chronicled, since “Le petit Charlot” would've been pretty damned old when he met Jinx).

Another article (actually a chapter from what looks to be an independently published book) that paints a very human portrait of the “metal goddess” is this item from the website of Franklin College in Indiana. She talks about the ups and downs of show business, discussing the different moments where she and the band were on the precipice of major fame – including the moment that they turned down producer Neil Bogart's offer to become a made-up, costumed band (an ensemble of “four Alice Coopers” named KISS took up that offer).

She talks about her work as a studio singer (her vocal range is indeed incredible) and how she became a designer of clothing and jewelry for such disparate acts as Led Zeppelin and Barbra Streisand (not forgetting Liza with a Z and Motely Crue); it should be noted that she currently sells magic- and Satanic-related jewelry on eBay. Reflecting on her fortunes and that of the band she declares "I've made some major-league mistakes in my career at least three of 'em... It seems we were always a little bit early on everything, or a little bit late." 

As with all of the interviews she's done, the Franklin College article not only sketches a fascinating life, but one that intersected with a bunch of different pop-culture movements from the rock-festival world of the late Sixties to the glam Seventies and the “new wave” Eighties. Hopefully Jinx will make good on her promise to write a memoir soon.

In the meantime two clips from other Dawson incarnations. Here is a rare clip of Coven in its reincarnation as a “new wave” band called the Equalizers. With her trademark blonde locks hidden away, she looks like a sorta glam biker chick (and the voice, as ever, is terrific); the band is still an incredible amount of fun:

And, updating this piece since it was initially written (ten years later!), I should note that the barely released horror film “Heaven Can Help” (1989) is now available in its entirety on YouTube. Jinx looks terrific in this film, but it's got a pretty mundane script. It most resembles entries in the Witchcraft franchise (naturally!) that was released straight-to-video in the Nineties:

I want to close out with the best evidence that Coven was a talented band and could've overcome their Satanic image. Their third and final LP, Blood on the Snow (1974), is a terrific concoction produced by the legendary Shel Talmy (who worked with the Kinks, the Who, and the Creation in the Sixties). 

The record includes the band playing in a number of different genres, from gentle pop-rock and country-rock to all-out Satanic harder sounds. Listening to it today one wonders what went wrong – did the record label just not promote it, was it dwarfed by other bigger releases of the time, or was the band just being too eclectic to score with any particular audience?

Whatever the case may be, the record is terrific (though it seems to be out of print entirely on CD as I write this) and definitely qualifies for numerous re-listens (and yes, it arrived on the scene two years before Heart released their first LP).

My favorite song from it isn't “hard” or Satanic at all, it's “This Song's For All Your Children,” a sweet, peace-and-love (gasp!) type of tune. It's a catchy recording that sounds a lot like the AM hits that Todd Rundgren had in the early Seventies, and it definitely demonstrates that Coven could've, and should've, had Top 40 hit singles.

The third track on the album is another light, MOR tune that sounds positively country-fied. “Lady O” (not to be confused with the Judee Sill song recorded by the Turtles) offers another example of Jinx's vocal versatility.

“I Need a Hundred of You” is another great pop song that foreshadows the kind of thing that was done by Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie in the “Buckingham Nicks” iteration of Fleetwood Mac – which began a year after “Blood on the Snow” was released. Here is the song accompanied by yet another great fan-made photo montage:

It has been lamented by the present-day music critics who revisit the three Coven albums that the band was just shuffled too much from label to label (four labels in a half-dozen years, since the “One Tin Soldier” single was on a label, Warner, that never released a Coven album). They had a following at the time they were making records, as is evidenced by the folks online who fondly remember their live Satanic “rock opera” shows (Jinx's phrase), but aside from the Billy Jack single, massive fame eluded them.

The upside of the cult that has arisen around the band online is that, according to Jinx's Facebook posts, the group is recording their first album in close to four decades. God knows (oops, Lucifer is aware) that Jinx still looks terrific and sounded wonderful in the one release that saw the light of day since Blood on the Sun, a CD (again, seemingly waaaay out of print) called Metal Goth Queen – Out of the Vault, which contained later Dawson tracks (including a synth dance number!).

I will say I'm looking forward to the reappearance of Coven, whether they put on a blasphemous stage show or not. Here is track from that “Metal Goth Queen” collection, another earworm-ish item, called “Come Out of the Rain.” Since I write this on the week before Halloween, I embed this video not just because the song is catchy rock, but because the fan-made video is made up of images from the b&w “haunted nanny” years of Dark Shadows!

The video I must close out his “survey” post with is the publicity film made for “Blood on the Snow.” Coven definitely loved “transgressing,” and so, even while they were releasing an album with several extremely radio-friendly tracks, they created a little film for the album's closing song that is purely Satanic.

The band has spoken about how the film was funded somehow by Disney, and this early “music video” was, naturally enough, shelved and never seen on American TV – for the reasons why, just take a look (and try to place yourself back in 1974). Now we can rejoice in it 365 days a year, but it seems particularly appropriate on Halloween.

UPDATE: My review of the new Coven album, Jinx, is here.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Adam Curtis, the contrarian documentarian (part 2 of two)

I was so intrigued by Curtis's answer to my question at his lecture, and the fact that his documentaries – and the Armory show in particular – boldly contradict what he had said about the avant-garde (in that they contain avant-garde moments, or entire passages) that I looked online to see if he'd been asked about his influences and his visual style. Some interviewers have indeed asked him about those elements – and they've gotten the same oddly dismissive answer that I received at the lecture.

In a June 6, 2011 piece in The Guardian by Ross Biddiscombe, Curtis states outright that he “is not a documentary maker, but a journalist who tells stories that 'take serious journalism and fine tune it with low-end trash and jokes' and he dismisses anyone who considers his films – with their unique convergence of quick-fire visual images and off-beat music and background noises – to be some kind of modern art form.”

In an interview done by Nathan Budzinski for The Wire website in July of 2011, Curtis again dismisses that his telefilms have any artistic aspects. He says his style is a matter of “Trash pop. All I care about is trash pop... In the films, the inner DJ comes out. That is what it is, it's me nicking all the stuff I like."

Budzinksi cuts right to the heart of the matter by asking Curtis about his father, who worked as a cameraman for the legendary British documentarian Humphrey Jennings. Curtis's response? “'Well, we musn't fetishise it. Yes, he was his cameraman, that's it really. And he [Curtis's father] took me to see a lot of pretentious avant garde films when I was a child.' I ask if he remembers any of them. 'I think they were Jean-Luc Godard films, but I don't remember. Basically I thought they were a bit boring [laughs]. I just remember them having a lot of energy.' "

Curtis is also asked by Budzinski about influences. “Guy Debord's Society Of The Spectacle or Chris Marker's films spring to (my) mind. But Curtis is elusive. He says that Marker is an admirer of his and that they've met through a mutual friend, but doesn't admit to having watched his films. He thinks Debord is too intimidating and obscurantist.” [emphasis added]

In an interview posted on July 7, 2012 by Chris Darke on the Film Comment site, he is again asked about Marker, for obvious reasons. He says that he was told by mutual friends that Marker liked his work, but “I don’t really know that much about art film history. I nick good ideas I see, but I don’t really know that much about him. All I know is that he’s like a god of that world so I’d be terrified to meet him. I do like his films a lot, but I don’t really think they’re like mine at all..... He can do sustained things, and I wouldn’t know how to do that. I wouldn’t know how to begin.”[Emphasis added.]

In the Film Comment piece, he also goes off on “the art lot.” When asked to clarify, he says, “People who make art! For some unknown reason they’ve decided they like me and I’m always incredibly rude to them. This goes back to my fear of Chris Marker, that there’s another way of portraying the world, which I don’t understand because I have a deep, almost nerdy, desire to explain....”

There is a heavy element of teenage rebellion in the way Curtis speaks about well-respected filmmakers; it has the air of someone who feels that things deemed to be “high art” aren't entertaining and should thus be mocked and rejected entirely (but only after you “nick” ideas from them). It also curiously smacks of the “populist” attitude that Curtis himself attributed to Rupert Murdoch in this segment he did for Charlie Brooker's 2011 Wipe:

There is something oddly disingenuous about this line of argument – there is an evident glee at “rebelling” against the older generation of documentarians (including his dad and his colleagues), “the art lot,” and anyone who respects their work.

The final key point in the Wire interview is one that he raised in the lecture at the Armory, and one that immediately occurs to anyone who is trying to assimilate his opinions: he feels that present-day society is being buried under the crushing weight of images and music from the past, and yet he himself assembles documentaries that are perhaps 75% old footage (depending on the project). How can he reconcile that?

He admits that he is indeed “part of the problem.” At the lecture he noted that there was a moment at the close of the “MA vs. AC” show that would acknowledge that both he and Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack indulge in the same kind of romanticizing of the past that he's condemning. I witnessed no such moment in the show, simply a blanket condemnation of viewing the work of “dead stars” on a daily basis on the Internet (at this point an image of Michael Jackson moonwalking heralded the Attack playing a great cover of “Bela Lugosi's Dead”).

So we are confronted with an incredibly talented contrarian who dismisses the notion that he is an artist, and yet he assembles gallery shows and multimedia events for performance spaces. He's in a lineage of filmmakers for whom he evidences a dismissive, often disdainful attitude. His questioning of the “government line” and expertise at connecting the dots in his documentaries has also brought him an audience of, for lack of a better term, “conspiracy theorists,” whom he dismisses completely in his blog.

So is his work art, journalism, or a “lark” [his phrase] he's having with found footage? Three final thoughts on these contradictions:

– Curtis has been proud (as he should be) that his documentaries have gotten very good ratings when they've debuted on the BBC in prime time on weeknights. The UK is obviously very, very different from the U.S. Here, Ken Burns' more staid docus do run in prime time but on PBS, where they have a viewership of the folks who generally watch PBS: free-thinkers, usually liberal or left-wing; seniors looking for “something intelligent on TV”; those who still read as well as consume cable/Internet culture; and, yes, those dreaded intellectuals.

Curtis's work hasn't been released on DVD (in either the U.K. or the U.S.) because it contains footage that has not been “cleared” for other media. Thus the only way to see it as an American is to wait for it appear at a local documentary film-festival, catch it on the Internet, or be exposed to it by an enthusiastic friend with a collection of British television on DVD-r (or perhaps by a local cable host like yrs. truly).

In the process Curtis is developing a cult of admirers over here, made up of all the people he claims to disdain: intellectuals, Lefties, conspiracy theorists, pop-music cultists (those who can deal with a political narrative disrupting their favorite tunes), and cinephiles.

– The missing element in Curtis's work thus far is a positive statement about any school of political thought or a past movement that was on the right track. As I noted in the first part of this piece, artists are not responsible to offer solutions to social problems.

But if the artist states that his message is to show the viewer that he or she can “take control” of society and the media, some kind of direction should be indicated, if only by way of showing a historical movement that did work (as friend Charles pointed out, all historical regimes eventually “fell,” that's what history is all about). Possibly there is one solitary Utopian philosophy that Curtis believes can succeed? Perhaps the inclusion of this would make a “bridge” between the sytems-that-failed and the “you can take control” finales.

– The filmmaker who was able best to able to explore historical failures and still leave viewers with a sense they could “take control” was (wait for it) Chris Marker.

In his absolutely brilliant Grin Without a Cat (1977/88), Marker juggles several narrative strands about the political upheavals of 1968. He chronicles what was effective about the New Left and also what made things “go horribly wrong.” In The Last Bolshevik (1993), Marker explores a program that failed (a “film train” intended to introduce the production of art/entertainment to the average Soviet citizen), pointing out how it has left a legacy of promise for those who study it today.

And lastly, The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004) is Marker's last full-length video work (running only an hour). He shows us current protest movements and argues that today's “young people” are not apolitical, they just need to be stirred into action. It's a very moving work, and, yes, it does present Marker's favorite whimsical touches, including much doting on images of cats. (In interviews Curtis has noted he likes to "sneak" footage of animals into his docs, especially marmots.)

I look forward to seeing what Curtis will present us with in the next few years, but have no idea what to make of his filmmaking put-down shtick. Is he forging a brand, rehearsing for the eventual move to the Right that usually accompanies mid-life crankiness about the futility of political change, or simply being a contrarian on a much larger scale (and with the no-interviews-on-camera decision, again “nicking” from Marker)?

Only Curtis can answer the above questions, and the responses above delineate his position thus far. But I want to end this entry on an “up” note (well, musically at least). Thus I will close out with his trippiest work, the 2009 fantasia It Felt Like a Kiss. You can decide whether it qualifies as journalism, art, an op-ed essay, a lark, “pop trash,” or a serious social statement. I think it should be required viewing for Americans who like Sixties culture but who mostly avoid thinking about the tumult of the decade, and for those who are interested in seeing a kinetic way to assemble found footage.

But, then again, I'm a cinephile and an admirer of Curtis's work. I would think that, wouldn't I?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Adam Curtis, the contrarian documentarian (part 1 of two)

Viewers of the Funhouse TV show already know about my enthusiasm for the documentaries of Adam Curtis; I've done six shows featuring discussions of, and clips from, his work. I've become even more interested in the last few weeks in his very unusual, almost uncategorizable (and at points nearly inexplicable) political stance, as well as the fact that he maintains a dismissive attitude about his literally overwhelming visuals and his technical-yet-playful approach to filmmaking. He's an incredibly talented filmmaker who doesn't want to be called a filmmaker, an essayist who prefers to be identified as a journalist, and a stylist who puts down style in his interviews.

First a little background for those who are unaware of his name and his work. I was introduced to Curtis via short segments he did for Charlie Brooker's brilliant series of “Wipe” programs (Newswipe, Screenwipe, and the annual editions).

Curtis is a documentarian who has full access to the archives of the BBC and uses that access to fashion brilliantly edited films that are comprised of rare archival footage he has discovered, along with talking-head interviews he conducts and a deadpan narration he delivers (which has now been melded with his very Godardian – that name, don't mention that name to him! – practice of using on-screen titles to move his “story” along).

I have noted on the Funhouse TV show that he is without question “the anti-Ken Burns.” Whereas Burns is a reverent, extremely staid documentarian who works entirely on the flat, level plane of history, Curtis fills his essays (and yes, his telefilms are essays) with editorial commentary in the form of unique edits, the use of jarringly eye-catching footage, and his trademark narration in which he begins each film with the phrase “This is a story about...” and then at some point announces that “it all went horribly wrong...” (Or “but it failed completely...” You get the drift.)

He takes an attitude towards his stories (he “plots” his documentaries, sometimes juggling several strands of historical events) that is both deadly serious and refreshingly playful. I value his work most for the way that it “connects the dots” between what otherwise would look like very disparate events and locations. He also is the foremost 21st-century chronicler of regimes, political movements, and social systems that failed.

Thus when I showed scenes from his work on the Funhouse I received much email from viewers saying they really enjoyed his films, but as my presentation of the documentaries moved on chronologically, the word “depressing” began to creep into the reactions – his lively and superb use of pop music brings matters “up,” but the actual subject matter, and his laser-sharp emphasis (one might say obsessive) on systems and programs that failed, brings the viewer “down.”

I was certain while watching his documentaries that he was drawing on the pioneering work done by artists whose styles he seems to cite frequently – from Marker (whose Grin Without a Cat is the decisive precedent, minus the pop music and rapid-fire editing, for what Curtis currently does) and Godard (with the theme from Le Mepris showing up in two Curtis docus, and his frequent use of onscreen titling, a method that JLG made famous) to Mark Rappaport (whose discussion of sexual subtexts from Rock Hudson's Home Movies is mirrored in Curtis's terrific It Felt Like a Kiss) and Kenneth Anger, whose use of pop-rock music hangs over the work of everyone who uses “music-video” editing (most especially when they use the r&b and pop of the Sixties and mythologize – or, in Curtis's case, de-mythologize – those who made the music).

While I was correct in my perceptions about the work, as the films bear out everything I say above, I wasn't quite prepared for the man himself to denigrate “the art lot” and say that he has no filmmaking influences (the last time I read a very talented director saying that, it was Spike Lee at the moment he became a prominent filmmaker – in later years Spike's hubris faded and he went on record citing many direct influences on his filmmaking). I mean, I knew that Curtis was a political contrarian, but I had no idea how deep his contrarian instincts run....
Before I get into the specifics of the ways in which Curtis apparently wishes to shut himself off from the world of cinema (while making works that clearly invite those comparisons), I should first discuss his recent show at the Park Avenue Armory, the overwhelming, wonderfully crafted “Massive Attack vs. Adam Curtis.”

The show is an immersive experience that I did enjoy, with the exception of a “you can change the world” finale that came literally out of nowhere, following in the wake of more expertly visualized “stories” from Curtis about things – movements/people's lives/political dreams – failing in spectacular and often tragic ways. I will discuss a lecture he gave about the show below, but suffice it to say that he underscored in the lecture that the true message of the show was indeed that the average person could “change the world.” (For 85 minutes it wasn't, then it was.)

Perhaps it is just the expert way that Curtis depicts things failing, but I have yet to be convinced by this message, both in the Massive Attack show and in the final narration of some of his telefilms. In the live show, it followed a literal spree of stories in which something “went horribly wrong.” Curtis also takes care to criticize Left and Right politics, and thus the obvious question remains: what can be done to save society when the whole political spectrum is seen to be corrupt?

Aside from this structural/philosophical problem, the show did for me what Curtis's documentaries have done: it overwhelmed with vibrant images and sound, the latter coming from both old recordings and the live MA band, who were absolutely wonderful (as were vocalists Elizabeth Fraser, formerly of the Cocteau Twins, and Horace Andy).

The two “stories” upon which Curtis rested his narrative were the tragic lives of the British pop-artist Pauline Boty (profiled in the wonderful 1962 time capsule “Pop Goes the Easel” by Ken Russell, which Curtis showed scenes from – it was unfortunate that Curtis didn't follow up “Unkle” Ken's example and left out images of her striking collage art [see right], thus relegating her to tragic “dollybird goddess” status) and a Siberian folk singer who dated a leading punk rocker and wrote a beautifully evocative anthem of despair (yes, there are a *lot* of wildly depressing elements in Curtis's work – then again, please keep in mind that I watch Cassavetes for enjoyment).

Here is the whole Russell docu. It is lively, vibrant, and brilliantly imaginative. It also shows “Swinging London” before the town began to officially swing (which would probably be dated as '65-'66):

Curtis proceeded to overlay on top of those two stories a number of other narratives from the second half of the twentieth century that, as is always the case with his work, did much to explain the political mess we're currently in (“we” being the world, not just the U.S.). The result – if you discount the upbeat and none-too-convincing end – was a fascinating, deeply troubling piece that “reorganized” history and found Curtis again “connecting the dots” in a profound way.

Viewer-friend Whit noted to me that his main objection to the show was that the event was designed so that immense video screens surrounded us on nearly all sides, and then Curtis used the screens to simply display one image over and over, with few variances (often the side screens might have a closer, somewhat digitally blurry view of the main image). What I liked about the show, though, was that Curtis once again enthusiastically used cinematic techniques to tell his stories (I now know he would openly reject the phrase “cinematic,” but often the art is more articulate than the artist).

The other element that was intoxicating was the powerful mix of music, which had the power to counteract the sadness engendered by the stories being told. At the shows' end, the Massive Attack crew, including the guest singers, received no final applause or introduction, presumably because they were intended to just be one element in the multi-media “assault” (attack?). They were visible through one of the screens, and their faces were prominently displayed on the screens in the front of the room whenever a vocalist did a number.

Now onto the Curtis lecture that I attended, but first for “full disclosure” (much will be made about the notion of journalism below, so I don't hesitate to use that phrase): I did approach Curtis for an interview for the Funhouse TV show, but he informed me that he has a policy of not doing filmed interviews. A counter-offer of doing an audio-only interview went unanswered, but led me instead to some fascinating research on what he has said about his cinematic forebears in interviews. I offer information disclosed in the lecture and those other interviews below – again, in the spirit of journalism (or, as it could more properly be called both here and in Curtis's telefilms, “op-ed” writing).

As an interlude here, I turn you over to the single-best intro (if you have a bit of time on your hands) to Curtis's work, his 2002 documentary miniseries The Century of the Self:


Curtis's lecture took place on Sunday, September 29th at the Park Avenue Armory and was essentially a discussion of the “Massive Attack vs. Adam Curtis” show with clips (including items from prior Curtis docus and odd items like private photos of Boty's daughter that weren't included in the show). The audience was a classic Manhattan smart-chatty group who decided to debate the finer points of Curtis's politics and not the show itself (or his documentaries).

And what are Curtis's politics exactly? Well, a quote that is highlighted in his Wikipedia entry finds him siding with the Libertarian view, but when he speaks at length, one finds him, for lack of a better word, deeply annoyed at the way things have gone in the U.S., U.K., and Europe.

He has maintained in his documentaries that the social reforms put in place by liberals have all “failed” to change society for the better. Interestingly, though, he still takes the classically dreamy view – commonly associated with the Left – that the people can rise up and “take hold” of society, bringing about change through letting their voice be heard. This inconsistency in his political view hadn't bothered me when watching his documentaries, as I have become used to, and enjoy, his focus on systems-that-failed.

I also have always felt that it is not the artist's place to provide us with concrete solutions – if they shed light on problems in their work that is more than enough “clay” for us to work with. Costa-Gavras (someone I'm almost certain Curtis would distance himself from) made the point just this last week on an episode of Democracy Now – he maintained that filmmakers don't provide answers, they just ask questions.

But then there is the issue of whether Curtis is an artist. I would argue (I guess even with him) that he is, since he has chosen to put his journalism in the form of highly stylized telefilms that are loaded with cinematic editing techniques. Curtis himself said twice in the lecture (and I have since read it several more times) that he considers himself a journalist and not a filmmaker.

His work illustrates that he does indeed do an incredible amount of research on the “stories” he tells, but one is again confronted by the “package” he places them in. In his blog on the BBC site he writes extremely thought-provoking essays on political, social, and historical topics. He also provides scenes from rare BBC documentaries, or posts them in their entirety – his blog is definitely worth reading, and watching.

His documentaries, on the other hand, are sensory experiences that might indeed be “overlaid” on a basis of historical research, but one could hardly call a fantasia like It Felt Like a Kiss (2009), “journalism.” Reportage, no; essay and/or fun history lesson, yes.

In his telefilms his knack for editing runs wild – the talking-head interviews he conducts himself may be in the spirit of Errol Morris (he has even borrowed Morris' technique of including his final question in most of the segments he uses), but his penchant for musical montages and other “grace notes” remove his work from the journalistic sphere. Here, btw, is the only footage that I could find on the Net of Curtis on-camera, him hosting an interview with Errol Morris for the BAFTA folks:

To return to the lecture: I noted above that the audience in attendance was a classic Manhattan group of would-be intellectuals who, during a Q&A, raise their hands to state an observation rather than ask a question. If they do ask a question, they then expect to have a conversation with the speaker. They will also dote on certain things at the expense of others – in this case, they disputed the political contents of what Curtis had said, rather than in any way questioning him about his profession (perhaps none of them had seen the Armory show, and few if any had seen his telefilms).

I asked a question that was solely about his filmmaking, the simplest one of all – about influences. I recorded my question and his answer, losing only one (inaudible) part:

Q: “Are you influenced by people like Godard and Chris Marker in terms of your essay films, or even Kenneth Anger in terms of putting together music videos? Who would you consider your major filmmaking influences?”
A: “None of the above. [laughter]… I'm a journalist and I have a great belief in being simple and clear. I believe that you can take the most complicated ideas and make anyone understand them.”

At that point, Curtis acknowledged that “I think Jean-Luc Godard is quite fun,” saying he has liked his editing in the past (a dismissive gesture was made at this point, as if he were discussing a “guilty pleasure” he had to admit having sat through). He acknowledged he has probably used Godard's edits at times.

Back to the tape (when his voice was again discernible): “I'm actually influenced by writers and people who write about ideas. Editing is sort of like... I have real problems with the way a lot of avant-garde art is appropriated and used as a way to block people. I'm perfectly happy to go and steal an idea off an avant-garde artist and use it to make a television program that gets out to ordinary everyday people like myself.

“I never use the word ideology or existentialism, or the sort of terms they use. I believe in clarity. I believe that a lot of art isn't about clarity, it's about obfuscation. That's just me being populist, I'm sorry.”

And back it went to the broad-based political questions, from an audience of NYC liberals who were surprised that Curtis was so curtly dismissive of liberal and Left politics and social movements.

To close off this part, I refer you to a gent who has put up the entirety of Curtis's very important 2004 documentary miniseries The Power of Nightmares on Vimeo. You can find the whole thing here, along with the 9/11 "truther" docu Loose Change. Curtis has put down "conspiracy theorists" in the past (most notably on his blog), so I doubt he'd be happy the two docus were put together. You can't choose your audience....