Friday, December 12, 2008

The Ethics of Paradise

Sounds like one of those deeply etho-philosophical posts, doesn't it?

Eh, not so much.

R. and I were chatting the other day (poor man made the mistake of asking me what I thought of Chinese Democracy (the album)*--I don't, whenever possible), which led me on to the merry path of the wonders of AFD. During said ramble, I began to wax philosophical about the treatment of GNR in the "Paradise City" video, wherein the boys are featured in front of a cast of thousands of screaming fans--at Castle Donnington and at Giants Stadium. We're talking over 100,000 fans in total. Now, bear in mind that GNR was the OPENING ACT in each case, but the video treatment is masterful. Our leather-bound heroes cavort

**Drift: TG just called me on the telephone. He's in the basement....of the same house in which I sit, typing. Is this a case for justifiable homicide?**

ANYWAY, our leather-clad heroes cavort on the stages, framed to demonstrate their absolute control over the legions of fans at their mercy. R., who was one of the reasons my film class rocked last year, notes as I describe the way in which the video works as a kind of propaganda on the band's behalf, lifting them from opening act to commanders of thousands, that the film, then, seems to follow Riefenstahl's model in Triumph des Willens (which I had inflicted on the class). And, you know what? He's dead on.

If you've never seen Triumph, you should. It is a masterpiece of propaganda, and film students, in particular, have no excuse for never having seen it. While her film is certainly one of the most frightening I have ever seen, Riefenstahl's manipulation of the audience is nothing short of masterful. Take this scene, for instance, of the funeral for Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg in 1934. The high, long shots capture the sheer number of people surrounding Hitler and represent a piece of cinematic mastery that has been copied time and again, including in the final scene of Star Wars IV, where we see three figures, again surrounded by lines of evenly spaced figures in vaguely militaristic garb, parading toward a distant dais. Riefenstahl's images are nothing if not imposing here. The scope of power held by the growing Nazi Socialist Party is, according to the image, immense. These shots, along with those of the adoring crowds that line the streets for the various parades included, are far more terrifying than the words of the speeches, in large measure because we have history to tell us exactly what such adulation would allow the Nazi Socialist Party to achieve and destroy.

Nigel Dick uses similar techniques in the video for "Paradise City" to demonstrate the relationship between stage presence of Guns N' Roses and the crowd, who are, of course, not nearly as well-organized or controlled. And that, of course, was part of the point. Look at the frenzied madness this band generates! Now, unlike the scene in Triumph above, the band is never featured as the "small figures" in the center that grow ever larger until we are forced to look up at the podium in hero worship, as happens in Riefenstahl. Dick generally allows us to be level with the band, often participating from their point of view toward the crowd. The lore of this video is significant as the video was shot over two days, one day at Giants Stadium and the other (complete with footage of the band getting on a Concorde flight) at Castle Donnington for the Monsters of Rock Festival, where, during the concert and video shoot on August 20th, 1988, two fans were killed in the muddy melee of the festival, during Guns N' Roses' set. The story goes that the band decided to include the Donnington footage as a tribute to the two dead fans.

Consider that choice though in a different light. Some 107,000 people were said to have participated in that festival--an absolutely enormous number of folks moshing about in the muddy flats and pushing toward the stage. Two kids slip, go under, and are crushed. The band then includes footage of the event. Yes, it does work as a tribute, in so far as one might expect that the dead fans would have been mightily proud to have been included (however incidentally), but, if one takes a more cynical approach--the footage goes to show the bands' power in the situation. So much energy is generated--instead of the ranks of controlled German militaristic columns, we have barely controlled chaos generated by one group--and the deaths of two fans serve to emphasize the chaos and the danger of "the world's most dangerous band." Mayhem, destruction, and death, the very stuff of rock-n-roll legend; in the lore of this video, those legends become quite real in the figures of Guns N' Roses.

Dick's footage (all of which, he notes on his website, was "directed entirely by phone and headset,") further pays homage--and I've no idea if it was intentional or not, or if Dick studied Triumph directly or merely it's myriad followers--to Triumph in the shots of the empty Giant's stadium, which he then shows filling up, much as Riefenstahl does with her focus on the massive structures that were filled with or surrounded by the people involved in the shoot. Look, the images encourage, look at what we can fill with people. The empty-to-filled arena symbolizes power through the ability to call the masses forward. Riefenstahl has similar footage; take the one at right here, for instance; the crowd fills in a mammoth structure--notice how the long shot (here and in Dick's video footage at left) dwarf the structure, which is clearly quite large, and that serve to illuminate (again) the massive number of people involved in both cases, though even here Triumph illuminates the control over chaos, where "Paradise City" encourages, exposes, and revels in the chaos. And that make sense, of course, as in the first case, the government entity would desire to demonstrate their absolute authority through the images of marching rows and columns of people and flags, just as the film underscores the party's support of the German worker in the utterly bizarre (yet wholly regimented and controlled) chant sequence. Guns N' Roses, on the other hand, has no such need; in fact, it does a rock-n-roll band, particularly one that had already made its name synonymous with danger and madness through the stories of fights and drug/alcohol use and abuse (those stories would likewise be part of the Monsters of Rock legend), great good to whip chaos into frenzy. This demonstrates a form of control, but the control is not manifest here in lines, but as throngs of moshing fans who worship at the stage and threaten to break lose at any moment. "Look what we can do. Look what excitement and danger we generate."

The film and video both use air travel, interestingly enough, to underscore their themes. One of the first scenes in Triumph is an extended one shot from an airplane, showing the city below. While we are fairly used to such in 2008, imagine the power conveyed in those shots in 1934. These are ways of seeing that humans had never had ready access too; the paradigm shift involved with seeing a city from above is similar to that of the ability to see the Earth from space after 1946. And the group able to display that shift has great power. GNR, on the other hand, is working in 1988, long after such images are available, so the video instead shows the Concorde Jet, preparing to whisk the band off to Europe after the Giants Stadium show. How does this demonstrate power? The jet itself is pretty impressive, what with being both supersonic and supremely expensive to travel on, but bear in mind this little nugget: in August 1988, Appetite for Destruction had been out for only a year and a month. The first album. The opening band. Thirteen months. Follow the lore: 13 months from the streets of L.A., these guys are commanding thousands and flying the fucking Concorde. That's an estimation of significant power in a materialist world. The way in which Dick conveys this story is a masterpiece of subtlety. The Concorde shots are crosscut with flashier, color shots of Slash's solo. We see first the very recognizable nose of the plane in Black and White (pictured at left) and then we return to Slash on stage. We cut back to the side of the British Airways jet and pan along the length of it, until we see the nose again, here centered, and, in the right front of the shot, members of the band walking toward the plane (we later see them boarding). Dick doesn't need to tell us who we are watching. Look at the picture at right; Steven, Duff, and Slash walking toward the Concorde. Slash's omnipresent top hat is visible against the white truck behind him. 6'3" Duff, easy to pick out in most cases, is made more visible by the white cowboy hat he wears throughout the Giants Stadium scenes; by this point in the video, we are entirely familiar with the garb. No need to zoom in on the band here, we are simply given the opportunity to watch the exodus to the Concorde. Quiet power here.

That Axl shows up late in the video with symbols associated with the Third Reich is, I suspect, coincidental to my premise, but not to the band's consideration of its power. Propaganda, after all, drives the legends of Guns N' Roses and the Third Reich, doesn't it? And Axl is hardly the first rock musician to play in Nazi garb; Darby Crash, anyone? The chemistry of crowd control is similar in these situations; the personalities on parade, combined with a message that speaks to a working class (the GNR lore often posits the band as working-class heroes of a sort, though, according to Duff and Slash, they were the only two to hold "legitimate**" jobs during the band's formative years). We are one of you, screams the propaganda from both the film and the video, and, more importantly, we can provide control or chaos...whatever you desire.

So, what are we suggesting in this video? Certainly, one cannot credibly claim that GNR aspired to Nazi Power or were somehow influenced in that vein. The power of a stage presence that Triumph presents for Hitler and a score of GNR videos present for Axl--those are undoubtedly similar, and Dick uses a number of Riefenstahl's techniques in order to convey such.

So what is the ethic "Paradise City"? The melee and power over chaos, themes that would continue throughout much of GNR's oeuvre--consider the Wedding Party in "November Rain." The excess, then, is a part of the power and control. Huh. What that says for the 17 year wait for a certain CD (the album) and the excess and control exacted there, is anybody's guess, but, clearly, the video here serves to predict it.

*CD (the co-conspirator) wins for best review of "CD" (the song) (oh my):

As for the first thought was, holy crap this song blows goats. I listened some more and reassessed my view on it. My first assessment was insulting to goats. There isn't a creature that deserves such treatment. So, my final judgment on the song is that it sucks more than a black hole.

** I feel it necessary to point out that my use of "legitimate" may be problematic. Even Slash called Duff's L.A. job "phone theft," but that's, again, part of the lore just as much as the "Izzy the Heroin Dealer" is.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Serious 80s Kitsch

I've got a real post full of ponderment, but this bit of viral goodness came across my radar, and I had to share.

Take a few moments and watch this video, which will surpass just about any fit of excess you can imagine. And this remark comes from the Guns N' Roses fan, so, dammit, I know excess when I see it. Sadly, no dolphins were sighted in this particular video, so it doesn't *quite* live up to the bizarre world of "Estranged."**

After watching the video, I was curious enough to wonder a) who in the hell this guy was and 2) how the holy hell he affords a fleet of Gretsch guitars. Yes, yes, I am petty and jealous. I admit it. When I googled him, I discovered that there is no Wikipedia entry as of today (itself a bit of wonderment); that I am not alone in this quest--others are just as baffled as I; and, my favorite, a page that asks who Chris Dane Owens is, and answers with Great Dane worship: "My Dane is 3 years old. A total baby at home. The friendliest dog ever." Now that, my friends, is good comedy.

Here is some information about the dude--may or may not be specious. Is definitely self-congratulatory.

So, why did this warrant a post, other than the goodness of sharing? It struck me as I watched the video (in mild horror), that it's a pretty good example of the kind of 80's kitsch that I adore. The song even reminds me of 80s radio--there is a specific song rolling about my head, but I can't put my finger on it at the moment (go malaprop chick! Sheesh); reminds me of a Chris Issak song a bit--and the worshippy 80's videos of the Robert Palmer variety. Beautiful but largely expressionless women cavorting with the ostensible know the drill.

Why do adore such vapid peaons to excess and the silenced female? I'm a self-described feminist who struggles with the limits of sexuality and power in her studies of and participation in "raunch culture"; my favorite band, as I have noted before, is hardly a place to find positive female images--the lyrics are replete with degredation, derision, and dismissiveness. Yet, they are appealing (the tunes, not necessarily the images). Perhaps the possibility of being adored--for how ever silenced the women are and how ever objectified, the camera practically worships them, often viewing from a low-angle shot, rather than at eye-level or from above. Such angles, of course, generate the sense of looking up onto a pedestal.

Now, pedestals are not all they are cracked up to be. The angel typology for women is limiting; it denies women (or anyone put on a pedestal) their humanity. If I may use my favorite pedestal-perched whipping boy for a moment-->Duff openly struggles against this tendency in his fan-base and the media. His long-running" don't call me a rockstar" bit (seriously, he's been saying this since 1988) speaks very much to the denial of his humanity (aka "normal dudeness") by celebrating the image he projected (or was projected for him) at any given moment. He often uses grocery stores, as I have noted before, as his touchstone--"See, here I am. Normal."

But, I think many of us, myself included, yearn for the pedestal--to be idolized, worshipped, or somehow marked as different/better/more worthy/whatever. For instance, when a teacher finds a student who "gets it"--who isn't just sucking up, but is really engaging the material and us, we tend to get much more energetic. The notion that someone out there is genuinely interested in what we have to say affirms why were were called to the classroom in the first place. The excitement generated by such a student has carried me through several semesters, though he was last in one of my classes in late Spring.

We (not just teachers) want for someone to point out our worth, particularly when we are unable to see it clearly. And, I would argue that there is nothing necessarily wrong with wanting recognition from time to time or from desiring acknowledgement (or even the pedestal). And these videos, I think, are a kind of logical end for pedestal-desire: they are acts of fantasy, acts of excess where we can imagine ourselves as the witch or hero to be worshipped. They are also, ultimately, safe and controlled spaces, where the pedestal does not show its negative face particularly readily. If, though, the only images we see are the silenced/the perfect--if the image has only one face, that is where we get into a more pointed sociological problem. If the images refuse to accept the possibility of imperfection...that both reflects and shapes the global conversation and the incomplete image can then be damaging.

Escapist fantasies, when treated and viewed as such? Not such a bad way to spend 5 minutes. Especially if it involves laughter.

The best part of all of this is that I keep misreading the guy's name, because it is so similar to CD's. I half expected to find CD in the video, reveling in some glam-glory. Alas, no such luck.

**ETA: Realized in talking to K. earlier that this video is "November Rain" taken to it's logical conclusion. Seriously. I grant that no one jumps through a wedding cake, but it's the whole fantasy writ large.