Watching: Blacula

Recently I had the amazing opportunity to watch the film Blacula, as part of Eureka Video’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ series. I have been informed about the ‘Masters of Cinema DVD/Blu Ray series for a while and I find the choices of films particularly interesting, exploring films which have merit from a cinematic point of view significantly varies from what we might consider as the popular opinions of the public on cinema.

 

Blacula was a film that I heard about a few years ago, and I thought just by the name and discovering it was part of the blaxploitation genre, was comedic and not serious. How wrong I was, although there are comedic elements, much of the humour comes from being distant from the 1970s and observing how things have changed. Which leads me to my main consideration of the film.

 

Blacula is a story of an ‘African Prince’, Mamualde. Mamualde has impressed many of the 18th Century intellects of the time and has gained a deserved modicum of respectability. Mamualde, visiting one ‘Count Dracula’ (many of the tropes and lores of vampires are assumed familiar by the audience) who acknowledges the cultural capital and sophistication (i..e. Eurocentric things of value) but ultimately rebuffs and rejects Mamualde’s calls for an end to the slave trade.

 

Dracula entirely unconvinced or unwilling to seriously consider this, traps Mamualde in a tomb after transforming the prince into one of his own kind. Mamualde is given the additional indignity of being buried in a sarcophagus with his wife. Skip 200 years and the Prince now Christened ‘Blacula’ is discovered by a pair of gay antique dealers (one white, one black). It is established and much is made upon that these dealers are both homosexual and presumably partners.

 

Perhaps watching this film in 2014, in an age where we ‘call out’ microaggressions, injustices and the way that our culture of yesteryear was less sensitive to our own time, is the blatant and ubiquitous homophobia of the Blacula world. I am convinced that the homophobia is purposeful as a metaphor to the way that racism against the Black American was ubiquitous in the decades leading to the 1970s.

 

In one scene, a police officer seeking out the antiquities dealers asserted that ‘they all look alike’, making a generalisation about homosexuals that would be familiar to any person of colour who grew up in a white majority and unfavourable society. The way in which many black characters were in varied professions is quite progressive as a part of the story, such as the female cab driver (who refers to Blacula as ‘boy!’) and the coroner/funeral director who described the police pathologist (Thalmus Rusala/Dr. Gordon Thomas) looking into Blacula’s killings as ‘…the rudest nigger I’ve ever seen in my life!’. These are notable black-on-black racial slurs while conversely the white police chief while suspicious of the pathologist’s pet theory does ultimately trust Dr. Thomas professionally as competent at his job.

 

There’s something that I dare say aspirational about Blacula, in the way that the world depicted gives a sense of distinction to many of the black characters who are all doing a job who happen to get drawn into the Vampiric killings. The real thing to make an audience of today think is the homophobia rampant and even presented as comedic. If we can see one form of oppression, we can surely be sympathetic to another. That, I think, is one of the salient messages of Blacula.

 

Blacula: The Complete Collection is released in the UK from the 27th October 2014 as part of Eureka Classics: Masters of Cinema.

 

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On USBM and its alleged uniqueness

Following my discussion on Black Metal hegemonies, and Non-European Black Metal, I thought I would continue in the further vein of the chapters on ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness’ (2012, Stosuy eds.) with American Black Metal.

 

I’ve heard Wolves in the Throne Room bandied about on so many discussions on Twitter, Facebook and the messages I’ve gotten through last.fm. Wolves in the Throne Room are a US black metal band, but are seen to be stylistically unique to the European black metal forbears. Their popularity is also a source of inauthenticity. I’ve often heard through some personal friends the most ‘hurrendous’ allegation that more popular black metal bands, or the infamous ‘post-black metal’ bands have gigs where the performers and audience have….gasp, short hair!

 

This sort of reaction seems to show how embedded some attitudes are within metal communities, or the emphasis on authenticity. Ironically, often these same people complain about the purists who say that black metal is not kvelt enough. You really can’t win sometimes when it comes to authenticity. Although perhaps the best response comes from not giving a shit.

 

Discussion of (in)authenticity aside, some authors have given an attempt at explaining the uniqueness of Wolves in the Throne Room, and the wider so-called ‘cascadian black metal’ that they apparently represent. Brandon Stosuy encapsulates it through the paraphrased Darkthrone album title: A Blaze in the North American Sky.

 

Instead of retelling the Norwegian mythology of the 1990s black metal scene, the US bands who call themselves cascadian, draw from their own sense of mythology, from their own environment and in this way do not end up as derivative as genres such as raw black metal, true black metal etc. are.

 

The US scene has different origins, different founding texts. For one, Death Metal was more influential, as Stosuy points out, and a defining moment of Darkthrone’s second album showed the cultivation of mixing Death and Black metal aesthetics and sound. Often the two scenes are kept seperate or even with some disdain for each other.

 

Stosuy points out how USBM is seen often as a joke, but focusing on the positive mythologies of the Cascadian scene shows how it has something unique to offer. Often these groups draw from more identifiably American genres, such as Punk and Shoegaze. On the other hand, some also point out how the term of USBM is just as cynical and market-y as the same kind of derision to say that it is largely derivative and a carbon-copy. That is a problem of upholding any genre label, the fear that it doesn’t actually fit!

 

It is true that Norway has a different social and economic climate to the US, and the ideal of USBM would presumably reflect that, as Thrash metal reflected the dissent of youth in the 80s, Black Metal should come from its social context and reflect that status quo. Stosuy ends his essay with an interesting reflection:

 

Those who view USBM as inauthentic tend to do so because America seems an unlikely place for the icy, grim strains of Black Metal to flourish. But as the US dollar continues its nosedive, our Black Metal impulses become validated. We’ve become a nation of scrappy, lo-fi underdogs. Have you ever tried to buy a diner in Norway – one of the wealthiest countries in the world – with converted US currency? […] While Americans are often accused of lacking a history, we more than make up for that lack with our bleak view of the future. [Stosuy, 2012]

I have been continually thinking about this notion of being derivative against listening to one’s own sense of sensibilities cultural. It’s important to use those things around us as a source for our creativity, and much more enabling than simply copying what is currently done and what is currently in, in a given scene. I think about how Chopin turns the Nocturne (a genre invented by Irish composer John Field) into an expression of his more polish cultural sensibilities. It’s fair to say that often in European music history through the Modern period, that certain centres of power emerged between Italy and Germany – the lingua franca of written music still is Italian. Chopin expressed his cultural uniqueness by drawing from their sense of identity and context. The same could also be said for Bartok, perhaps even more so, as Bartok tried to do two things: firstly, to embrace and preserve select local folk traditions of central-eastern Europe through his Edison recordings, and also through a slight influence on his own music; and secondly through his attempt to help establish a unique American cultural identity. Bartok was not the only person with this project. One of my favourite composers (even if he’s not a ‘great’ composer like Beethoven), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor inspired the African Americans of his day to engage in the public life through culture, and the evidence seems to suggest, also politics.

 

Often in my Adorno-themed commentaries, there is a focus on the negatives of music and culture, such as homogeneity or the conformist way of cultural thinking leading to dullness of social imagination. However, movements that emphasise uniqueness or identity, such as the so-called Cascadians, may give potential for authentic expression, may give a genuine sense of cultural freshness and originality. It may even give a way of perceiving the world differently.

 

Michael

 

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (4): ‘Sonority’

In Adorno’s two essays ‘Sonority’ and ‘Colour’; Sonority pertains to the significance of Wagner’s chromaticism and the harmonic choices applied in his operatic works; Colour relates to the effective application of instrumentation in Wagner’s score-writing. I will focus on the subject of ‘Sonority’ and Adorno’s reading that Wagner uses Chromaticism as a form of emotional regression, which in turn is an analogue for social regresion.

 

Sonority 

 

Regress 

 

Adorno points out the regressive tendencies of Wagner, even comparing it to the pre-historic alludings of the later composer Stravinski (Adorno 2009, p.51). Within the theme of historical and cultural regression to a previous time, The social subject can find himself within Wagner’s regression (Ibid, p. 52)

 

What is the significance of Regression? The significance is that in the regressive mentality, the subject sacrifices sovereignty to the totality of the music. Regression is in a dictionary sense, the antonym of progress. However, we may establish the equivocation of that term in a similar way. Namely, Adorno’s reading of an emotional and cultural regression of the subject enjoying the Wagnerian work, surrenders a capacity for critical thought or reflection upon the possibility of any alternative to the status quo beyond the options provided in the text, namely, present day, or regress.

 

Perhaps one way of illustrating the power of regression is through the recent Del Toro film ‘Pacific Rim’. There is a scene where a character, Mako, is placed in a machine where (for complicated reasons) she is suddenly stuck immersed into re-living a childhood memory. This memory was so powerful and tragic to Mako that she was unable to pull out of it and return to the present. Mako’s present was a situation in which she was vital and required her agency to effect change. Mako’s disposition to give her past trauma so much power became a hindrance to moving forward. Perhaps this might be a way of trying to illuminate Adorno’s wariness regarding the idea of regress.

 

Regress as a musical notion 

 

Musically speaking, Wagner’s rich harmonies fill the physical space of a venue and emotionally give an otherworldly feel. Adorno describes this other-wordliness specifically as non-temporal. The choices of harmonic decisions in Wagner’s composing are compared to the Impressionists of decades later. The impressionists in Adorno’s view percieved their reality and abstracted from it, and the result was their work of art. Musically speaking, this otehr-worldiness can have very powerful effects. The dreamy nature of Debussy in his most famous piano pieces (such as Clare de Lune) gives an otherworldy nature of perhaps introspection, natural beauty. The celesta in ‘The Hut of Baba Yaga’ of Korsakov’s ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’ has an otherworldly quality of fantasy worlds that do not exist but in the world of paintings and human imagination.

 

I want it to be clear that other-worldy can mean very many things. However for Adorno, Wagner’s other-worldliness, his sonority, is specifically about a specific mental state of introspective regress. Music as a medium is distinctly non-representational, however the medium of Opera, which is also a dramatic and visual medium, gives the audience a specific leaning towards the meaning of the harmony.

 

Adorno says (p. 54) that Romanticism made Chromaticism a thing of progress, but Wagner turned it bland. Adorno puts forward a notion of Romanticism where suffering is expressed through chromaticism (p. 56), and chromaticism shows the poles of suffering and sweetness are blurred. Wagner presents pain in a pleasant way.

 

Wagner’s use of enharmonics as a way of transitioning in a way that alludes to the ‘old’ and original chord (p. 58-9):

 

But, by a strange reversal of the norm, these devices come to occupy the centre of the musical process and this endows them with an unprecedented power. They become fully comprehensible only in the light of a comparison with the most advanced material of contemporary music from which the inexorable presence of the Wagnerian transition has been eliminated (p. 59)

 

Sonority and regression – coda 

Why is this issue important? This issue reminds me of what is at the heart of a concept that I’ve been establishing in my mind that I may call Musical Conservatism. Musical conservatism is the notion that preserving aspects of past music in new music is a good. Musical conservatism is also by such a definition, resistant to innovation and emerging new idioms.

Regression is one aspect of musical conservatism, and I see conservatism everywhere in much current music. As a genre becomes established, new deities are made. Metallica, Slayer or Black Sabbath are deified in metal circles. In Black Metal, it is abit of a cliche to hear lots of underground bands referring to themselves as ‘true black metal’ or ‘raw black metal’ or ‘kvelt’, and despite the originally dire and revolutionary tendencies of the aesthetics of the bands of 20+ years ago in the early black metal scenes, what these ‘raw’ and ‘kvelt’ bands do are simply valorising the now-old Gods, and adding to their mythos by replicating their sound and aesthetic.

Regression is everywhere, even in the revolutionary mindset. The most dangerous aspect and the biggest threat to authenticity of revolutionary movement, political and aesthetic, is a fan base that valorises. Adorno’s discussion of Sonority is far more widespread than Wagner’s romanticism. Such regressive aesthetics permeate within any movement. What is particularly notable is that the forward thinking of the Romantic aesthetic eventually subverted through Wagner, into the repressive.

Michael

Non-European Black Metal

The one thing I really like about Black Metal, is how many countries have made it their own. Yes, there was all the stuff about the satanism and the church burnings and Burzum’s activities. But Black Metal means many things to many people. I’d like to talk about a blog I’ve recently been following. The blog Black [sic] Spring often hosts a lot of self released material, material that is purposely made available by bands for free in the bootlegging spirit.

 

I really found this blog interesting because of the non-metal albums it refers to. There’s a lot of ‘folk’ music from North Africa and broadly Arab countries listed. I admire how a particularly sensitive attitude is being displayed about the music. The music is often referred to as ‘folk’ but also acknowledges how some of it embraces more popular and western styles, often in subtle ways. I love how this music local to countries like Algeria or Egypt are drawn from as insightful from and directed to an audience who would normally listen to raw black metal cassettes. I love the renaissance attitude of openness towards difference, and a Romantic openness towards the folk culture, and using it as a cultural and idiomatic resource.

 

As the bands of Sweden and Norway became more polished after the 90s and a commercial culture emerged around Black Metal. The African, Latin American and Asiatic demo tapes that have come out of places like Colombia, Sri Lanka, Algeria or even Iran and Iraq continue to express a rawness and despair coming from their local situations. Black Metal is daring from those places, often they are stylistically interesting. Particularly when the distinctions that many black metal conosseurs make about subgenres do not hold.

 

When I think about writing that commentary on ‘In Search of Wagner’, an open question is in my mind about Adorno’s outlook: is there a possibility for cultural defiance, is there a possibility for a radical reform of our social consciousness through culture, in the light of the cultural industries and the European history that has preceeded the Second World War? I am increasingly convinced that Black Metal is an answer to that question, and that answer is Yes.

 

I wonder what Nietzsche and Schopenhauer would have thought of the radical potential of Black Metal, the nationless underground nation, and the way it has been adapted to various localities, including to political ideologies that are deeply uncomfortable. I recall an interview (I think it was with Fenriz from Darkthrone), where it was said once the news went international about scandals about murders and church burning with the Norway scene of Black Metal, black metal at that point was no longer theirs, it became something for everyone. Non-European Black Metal is a frontier within a frontier, showing that there is still underground potential, and still an expressive capability within the genre. Another frontier is DSBM, which in a way has an opposing direction, instead of being internationally expansive, it is inward.

Michael

Black Metal Hegemony

I’ve finally started to read ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness’ (Stosuy Eds). My recent penchant for musical thinking reflects a cultural and intellectual sensibility that art should aspire to be radical and affect change.

 

One of the things I like about the anthology is that at the outset, it tries not to tell the same old story about Black Metal, instead, portraying Black Metal as a scene, a mindset, an art form that has been claimed by many people in different ways. There are many documentaries and places where the same old stories are told about Mayhem, Burzum, Bathory and even the British band Venom. In a way those stories have formed an hegeomonic claim to the genre, and this is wrong.

 

I like the notion of hegemony as a conceptual frame here. I was talking to a friend who brought up to me how certain cultures have hegemonic loci that relate across cultural and linguistic boundaries: for example, how India forms a cultural hegemon to Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, or the USA to many parts of the English speaking world. Some voices are more prominent than others. When it comes to Black Metal, it is my view that the really interesting voices come from plurality, and avoiding the temptation (and it is particularly strong for me), to generalise too much.

 

I really liked the chapter on the overview of concurrent black metal scenes at the same time as the Norwegian movement. Poland and France have particularly brutal reputations when it comes to ‘rawness’. Greek Black metal (which I have more familiarity with in terms of 2000s bands) emphasies mysticality in their own unique way that is not imitating anyone else. One author wrote an essay about their own band from Latvia and how cultural contact was limited due to economic and cultural conditions such as the ‘Iron Curtain’ and scarcity of outside music. I thought it was interesting when Kvetkovskis of Skyforge points out how the pirated cassettes of outside metal music was brought alongside more popular outside music like Madonna.

 

Growing up I spent a little bit of time in the Philippines and saw the way that cultural products from outside came in. Often there aren’t really hard distinctions made between say, rock and metal; or likewise, extreme metal genres (black metal, grindcore, death metal etc.). Each country, due to their own circumstances, draws from it in a different way. It would be far too judgmental to critique a band because of the ways they categorise metal genres.

 

Perhaps the one thing I thought notable about many of the European black metal scenes described in the book, is how they have differing relationships to the issue of their nationality and the connection to their folk culture, particularly the relationship to Christianity and their folk culture. As I’m reading another book on Wagner at the moment, the comparisons are inevitable and too obvious. I feel that the more I read about black metal, the more I seem to understand Adorno’s perspective on Wagner. I see a certain blackness/negritude to the cultural politics of Wagner; and I also see a certain Wagnerian Romanticism about some elements of black metal scenes too.

Michael

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (3) ‘Motiv’

Introduction

 

In this essay I will address a view that I acknowledged in a post last year in an extended discussion I had about film soundtracks and leitmotif, in my critique of a Chris Bateman talk. I will examine Adorno’s view of Wagner’s use of Leitmotif, where the former effectively thinks that leitmotif has been diluted to become simply a marker of a character’s presence. Adorno also has specific points of critique to make about the nature of how leitmotif is applied by Wagner.

 

I shall firstly go into an attempt at exegesis on this essay, to try and get down to the charitable perspective of Adorno’s reservations about Wagner’s use of leitmotif. I should also say that I’ve had a struggle reading and trying to work out this essay. I might read this essay again in 20 years and have a completely different reading!

 

Exegesis – motif 

 

Adorno makes the bold point that leitmotif is being degraded in some way, cheapened even. It is suggested by Adorno that Wagner inter alia reflect the degredation of leitmotif to what it had eventually become:

 

“The degeneration of the leitmoti[f] is implicit in this: via the ingenious illustrative techique of Richard Strauss it leads directly to cinema music where the sole function of the leitmoti[f] is simply to announce heroes or situations so as to help the audience to orientate itself more easily.” [p.36]

 

Adorno makes the point that Wagner makes no progress beyond Viennese Classicism. Wagner advances a particular heritage of classicism that emphasises individuality, which then led to Wagner’s exploitation of communicating ambiguities. I take this kind of ambiguity to refer to a generic sense: psychological, musical (harmonic) and symbolically.

 

Adorno quotes Paul Bekker, a contemporamous music critic, who says that expression is fundamental ‘category’ of Wagner’s work. Adorno examines expressivity specifically through the development of the motif. A motif is a recognisable unit that can constitute melody, harmony or rhythm at its most basic sense. Leitmotif is the effective use of repeating a motif in a notable way. If I were having a cafe conversation with limited time, I would probably say ‘its sort of like a theme tune’. However, it is exactly Adorno’s point that leitmotif should be a more superior thing to just a theme tune. It is this revulsion to considering leitmotif as theme tune-motif  that I want to try to explore, Adorno’s critique of Wagner’s use of leitmotif.

 

The specific allegations 

 

Adorno points out the ambiguities in Wagner’s motifs, of lacking a temporal nature but rather appearing ‘totalising’ like some kind of Kantian or Post-Kantian system of metaphysics. Adorno also points out, with the specific example of the Tristanunde Isolde leitmotif, the use of chromaticism and its consequent ambiguitiy which has an allegorical nature.

 

Adorno says something that almost sounds like a compliment. Wagner’s richly forged chords (with a very overly complicated terminology for non-musicians) allows for a variety of possible interpretations, which could lead to different places, that do many things simultaneously. At the same time this richness of harmony I think Adorno considers as creating an other-worldly unity. One which is very much outside of the established principles of Viennese Classicism.

 

I think Adorno acknowledges that some of the innovations that Wagner makes in his harmonies are very clever. The use of secondary dominants and the particular harmonic progressions that Wagner makes, are psychologised to have a particular philosophical significance. Adorno considers it to be totalising, like the thinking of systematic philosophies, such as (allegedly) Kant, or Hegel, the refusal to return to the tonic is psychologised as a form of psychological regression. This is a very bold claim and one I am almost willing to take seriously.

 

Adorno considers such motifs regressive. There is an irony here. Adorno acknowledges how Wagner is refusing to be classical stylistically in the vein of Mozart, at the same time he uses the innovations of the ‘First Viennese school’. This very fact is an interesting contradiction. Wagner is classically informed, yet romantic. Anti-romantic, and yet anti-classical. I would consider this an interesting form of subversion. Very clever.


Adorno points out another juxtaposition. Wagner stylistically is classical in an atomistic sense, but in a wider global sense is anti-structure. Wagner gives the interesting impression of accessibility to the philistine. I think it is worth having in mind Adorno’s views on totalitarian thinking here, which he exhibits in another essay. Adorno is cautious of instrumental thinking, of rationalisation and totalising thought. Although these are from other essays beyond this collection.

 

Adorno considers the way in which Wagner’s motif is applied as bourgeois. Why? Because within the totality of it, there is a constant allusion and development and emergence of a single motif, that motif is constantly played with and treated as an individual. But it is an illusion, Adorno says. There is a lack of dialectic or antagonism towards the development of such a motif. These things make Wagner distinctly different from Viennese Classicism.

 

The contrast to Viennese Classicism is a significant one. I consider this to underpin the formalism imbued within Adorno’s musical criticism. I think that Adorno is advocating the view of formalism, namely, that it is the structural components of music that construe its aesthetic merit. It is often considered that the ‘First Viennese School’ were the great masters of such form. The allusion to Viennese Classicism is significant for the same reason I am constantly referring to it as the ‘First School’. A first school surely requires a second school, and the second school of Viennese Classicism would be Schoenberg and his disciples.

Adorno speaks of how Wagner appropriates disperately contrasting elements. Wagner attempts to combine opera seria with opera buffa. Wagner is genuinely altering the bourgeosie sensibilities of the time yet also entice a new set of sensibilities while gaining the respectability of a more ‘serious’ or learned audience. Wagner creates an overall more intensive musical experience as the drama and libretti merge with the musical composition and the directions of the conductor.  This sense of unity represents politically repressive themes of Wagner’s overall outlook: the totalisation of his music represents: “a halt to the action and […] the life process of society”.

Perhaps another way of communicating this is when we think about fictional worlds, we often take it at face value due to our lack of familiarity, and rarely, unless the text allows us to do so, critique it. When we look at a film like the Lion King, we are in awe at what is portrayed as the natural order and we do not question it. We become in more modern terminology, passive consumers, accepting the vision of the text that is given to us, because the construction of the cultural artefact encourages that limiting interpretation.

Michael

Wikileaks as the hostile ‘other’

I have resisted writing a post on the Wikileaks phenomenon for quite some time. Partly because I’ve not made up my mind as to whether they are liberators and a stronger social critic by the evidences they release alone than any ‘theorist’ or countercultural stirrer, or, if as the official dominant discourses say: they are a threat to international security on a variety of fronts. I’ll leave that topic for another day, and more evaluation.

One thing that can be said of late is that the latest leaks of the diplomatic cables, and a proposal that there is even more data which will come from banks and energy companies which promises to change our perspective on world affairs permanently, is that it is certainly an interesting and unique situation. It is interesting how virtually all nations (except noble Ecuador) have called for Wikileaks’ head Julian Assange’s proverbial and literal head. If one is to buy the mainstream media story, Wikileaks is some universal threat which would in some ironic way (ironic in that the documents reveal many diplomatic tensions) unite everyone against a common enemy. I am reminded of two insights, one philosophical, and one literary.

1. The case of aliens. In the last chapter of Paul Churchland’s ‘Matter and Consciousness’, the subjects concern somewhat eccentric or ‘new’ philosophical issues concerning consciousness and the mind. If we are introduced to a consciousness which by virtue of other reasons is somehow entirely unlike us (e.g. it is an artificial life, or nonhuman or ‘post-human’ life form), all differences between human beings are diminished as the ‘other’ which is largely unlike us, highlights the similarities human beings have. That can be a good thing, but it can also undermine the subtleties of difference that make individuals unique in a positive way. I am interested in how this ‘other’ of wikileaks will fare as it emerges as a political actor in the global world. In a sense, it is like terrorism, or multi-nation coalistions in that it a non geographical actor.

2. I am also reminded of the character ‘Adrian Veidt’ from the Watchmen comic. Whose strategy is (spoiler alert) to dissolve the impending doom of the cold war by posing threat of an ‘other’ for world nations to unify against and in so doing pursue a course for peace. Veidt’s notion of heroism was of a dark, almost Pax Romana manner. In order to save the world, he must make something so big that everyone feels threatened enough to forget their disputes.

This looks like an interesting turn in historical events. I just hope Assange doesn’t consider himself to be an Ozymandias figure.

Sinistre