Charles Shaar Murray (finally) re-reviews Bowie’s Low

Waiting for the gift of sound and (re)vision …

Hey, so nobody’s perfect … not even me.

(ESPECIALLY not me …)

As any veteran of my rapidly-disappearing profession will confirm (especially after strong drink has been taken), it’s often the pieces in which you got it wrong (or, to be more euphemistic, found yourself on the wrong side of a later-emerging consensus) which are remembered longer than the ones in which you nailed it correctly. I still recall, with only the tiniest dollop of schadenfreude, the occasion on which one distinguished former NME colleague reviewed Bowie’s somewhat inglorious 1973 Earls Court show as ‘another nail in the coffin in which the Bowie mystique will soon be laid to rest.’ Or words to that effect.

It was therefore a pleasure (albeit of the bittersweet variety) to be invited to step back four decades and reassess and contemplate an error of critical judgement perpetrated back in 1977. So here we have a mea culpa, a little bit of personal background and an opportunity for me to second-guess my 26-year-old self.

So, whilst clearing a space on your shelf for the next Big Bowie Box (scheduled for landing any nanosecond now), enjoy the following. And cruise the rest of the site when you’re done.

For the reassessment AND the original review, click THIS

Charles Shaar Murray (finally!) reviews LOGAN

Review of Logan, the X-Men film finale (?), by Charles Shaar Murray

(1) The Twitter-length summary for the busy cineaste in a hurry:

This is the Mad Max movie for which George Miller never got around to commissioning a script from Harold Pinter and/or David Mamet.

(2) The Proper Movie Review for the serious movie buff who never got around to seeing any previous X-Men flicks because none of them were directed by Tarkovsky or Godard:

LOGAN

Directed, co-written and exec-produced by James Mangold

Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Stephen Merchant, Brook Holbrook, Richard E Grant and Dafne Keen

First and foremost: Logan is a story about ageing, frailty and failure; becoming ever weaker and more vulnerable in a world turned ever more harsh and threatening. The goal for which the mutant protagonists of the X-Men franchise have worked since the series kicked off in 2000 – to demonstrate to the world that mutants are fellow-humans rather than an existential threat to the species – is in ashes. In Marvel Universe coding, mutants are the all-purpose persecuted minority, providing metaphors for (at various times) Jews, Muslims, black folks, LGBT people, AIDS sufferers … any pariah outgroup vilified, excluded, harassed  or outlawed not for what they may or may not have done, but for who they are and what they might do.

Set in the year 2029, Logan is not so much a superhero flick in the Avengers or Batman tradition as dystopian SF in the Mad Max mould. It finds its former-superhero principals, Charles Xavier aka Professor X (Stewart) and Logan aka Wolverine (Jackman) in hiding and in decline: mutants have been hunted into near-extinction by the Homeland Security Agency, a seemingly omnipotent government department, and their own powers are rapidly fading.

Their deterioration is apparent the moment we see eyes and ears on them. Logan walks with a limp: he can’t be arsed to keep his greying hair greased up into those stupid wolfie ears, or even to shave the negative-goatee out of his now-bristly beard to create those trademark mutton-chops. Xavier is no longer the elegant, steely but twinkly-eyed control freak in immaculate three-piece suits: unkempt and only occasionally lucid, he’s played as if Sir Pat was limbering up for a Lear at the National, with the Clint Eastwood character from Unforgiven as his carer.

(Or, if you prefer, their relationship is now pitched somewhere between The Caretaker and Steptoe And Son. Annoyingly, I’ve only just discovered that Peter Bradshaw made this latter reference in his Guardian review back when this movie first came out earlier this year.)

The previous X-movies have been crowded: jam-packed with characters in cool outfits wielding spectacular super-powers, perpetually barrelling from one eye-boggling, ear-splitting action sequence or SFX blow-out to the next. Logan, by contrast, is slow and sparse: focussing on a mere handful of players (including a tart, campy turn by Stephen Merchant as a solarphobic mutant whose talent is to sense and track other mutants) and set mostly in the desolate outdoors of deserts and forests.The mutant herd has been drastically thinned, leaving no trace of the extended repertory company who’ve populated Logan‘s eight predecessors: all, presumably, dead or in either exile or captivity. It carries as little X-baggage as possible: the movie’s iconic poster— I’m amazed that Momentum haven’t yet adapted it into a Corbyn meme — makes no reference to the X-Men or, for that matter, to Wolverine. Only the trademark claws provide a clue to its provenance.

A puzzled friend commented, ‘I like action movies and Inaction movies, but this can’t make up its mind.’ In fact, what Mangold has provided is a deceptively steady-paced character piece which frequently (and not always predictably) explodes into ultra-violence. Some may find the transitions jarring and the rhythms unsettling, but I reckon it works. Your mileage may vary.

Logan also parts company with all the previous X-flix by carrying an ‘R’ certificate: not because of any sexual content (the only nipples on display are Jackman’s), but because this is the first not to sanitise Wolverine’s visceral fighting style, or to shy away from depicting the kind of damage which can be inflicted on human flesh by a very strong man prone to berserker rages and possessed of unbreakable katana-sharp claws.

In the past, I’ve been fond of describing superheroes as ‘brightly-coloured metaphors on legs’: this distinguished pair of thesps (who’ve now been playing these roles for the best part of two decades) now find their characters decidedly less brightly-coloured and on their last legs (or, in the Prof’s case,wheels). This is a very different animal, as is Wolverine himself.

When we first encountered the paraplegic, wheelchair-bound Xavier back in 2000, he was the most powerful telepath on earth, leading the world-saving X-Men from his Westchester mansion. Now in his 90s and ravaged by dementia, he is prone to seizures during which his mighty brain becomes a destructive weapon capable of killing hundreds of people at a time: one such seizure caused the catastrophe which itself triggered the anti-mutant holocaust.

Wolverine was once near-immortal and near-invulnerable: born in the mid-19th century, he possessed a healing factor which enabled him to recover almost instantly from any conceivable injury (in earlier movies, we saw him regrow a severed arm and sit up almost immediately after being shot through the forehead) and extrude lethal bone claws from his knuckles. At one point, he fell into the hands of a nasty US government programme which coated his skeleton (including the claws) with the unbreakable fictional metal adamantium as well as inducing both psychosis and amnesia, thereby conscripting him into service as a near-unstoppable assassin.

Now, the adamantium is poisoning him. He can no longer instantly heal himself; his eyesight is failing, he medicates himself against constant pain with booze and his sole remaining purpose in life is to earn enough money as a limo driver on the Tex-Mex border to pay for the heavy-duty tranqs which keep the raving Professor X’s potentially lethal seizures at bay whilst saving up to get the pair of them to permanent safety. In all other aspects of his existence, he’s reverted back to the selfish, grumpy, dangerous loner he was when the X-Men found him back in the first movie. He’s no longer fighting giant robots or fellow-mutants, but ageing and himself.

‘This is all about family’ is often a teeth-grindingly twee Hollywood trope, but here it makes sense: Wolverine, the quintessential loner, an orphan whose parents were murdered and whose only living relative is a brother who periodically attempts to murder him, finds himself caring for an enfeebled surrogate father (Xavier) whilst protecting a surrogate daughter (an 11-year-old female escapee from the Horrible Government Lab, vat-grown from Wolverine’s own DNA, equipped with her own lethal claws and played to a turn by Dafne Keen, an equally dab hand at acting and martial artsing) and simultaneously fighting off a surrogate son (a conscienceless clone of his younger self). Sentimental, but this, too, works.

Mangold and his co-writer Scott Frank previously worked with Jackman on The Wolverine, the Japanese-set solo adventure which sort-of-bridges the gap between XIII: The Last Stand and Days Of Future Past. That, too, begins with an isolated, scruffed-out, traumatised Logan in retreat from the world and deprives him, for much of the story, of his healing capabilities. Clearly, Jackman felt that Mangold was the director who could help him reach further beyond the character’s basic schtick of claws, cockiness and catch-phrases as he and Stewart say goodbye to roles they’ve played throughout the current millennium.

Yes yes yes, but what’s it fundamentally about? Weeelllllll …

You might be old, knackered, half-crazed and bent on nothing but survival (for yourself and your very, very closest) in a hostile and deeply fucked-up world … but sometimes when others desperately need you, even when a deafening inner voice is screaming, ‘Don’t do it!’ … you have to step up.

And be heroes, just for one last day.

Not all of us can do this. I can’t guarantee that I would. Nevertheless, those who can do it actually are heroes. Capes, tights, masks and helmets optional but not recommended.

(2) Some note-comparing for seasoned X-geeks. May contain spoilers, and could well be incomprehensible to civilians.

So: X-closure? Of a sort. It’s certainly closure for Jackman and Stewart, who see off their Beloved Character alter-egos with all the dignity, elegance and quality thesping that anyone who’s followed the series could possibly want and expect. And if it actually represented the dying fall of the series, it would be a nigh-on perfect farewell.

Of course, it’s nothing of the sort. Actors age (or get bored, or become too expensive), but franchises keep going as long as they remain lucrative and there will continue to be X films (and I’m old enough to remember when that meant something entirely different) until they start losing money. Unfortunately, the X franchise has painted (or scripted) itself into a temporal corner. The alternative cast introduced in X-Men Origins:  First Class are, by definition, the younger selves of the originals led by Sir Pat as the Prof and Ian McKellen as his frenemy Magneto; so — equally by definition — any future movies must take place before the original movie and should therefore be considered prequels.

(And can we say here that while James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender  — the junior editions of, respectively, Xavier and Magneto — are both fine actors, it requires a massive suspension of disbelief to accept that they will age into Sir Pat and Ian Mac? I mean, we’re not talking Robert DeNiro as a younger Don Corleone in Godfather II or Zachary Quinto as a younger Spock in the Star Trek reboots: the high-water marks of such generational recasting. We’re not even talking Josh Brolin and Tom Hardy shadowing (respectively) Tommy Lee Jones in MIB III or Sir Pat (again!) in Star Trek Nemesis. Jennifer Lawrence, who replaced Rebecca Romijn-Stahl as Mystique, gets a free pass because the character is a shapeshifter and therefore can look however she wants to look, but Fassbender and  McAvoy’s performances flat-out don’t work. Actually, Fassbender would have made a better fist of Young Xavier than McAvoy.  All this shouldn’t matter any more than it does when a comic-book changes artist — which is quite a lot if we’re talking Don Heck replacing Jack Kirby — but in practice it does matter. Bigly.)

Like most of its predecessors, Logan makes sense in its own terms, but slovenly and over-hasty retconning means that if you try to combine the entire series into a single coherent narrative, it falls apart. A few frinstances: nowhere in the original movie did we get any clue that Mystique and Xavier were childhood friends, or that Sabretooth is Wolverine’s even-more-psychotic older brother. There are also major plotty potholes concerning exactly when in the saga Xavier sustained the injury which confined him to his trademark wheelchair: we see Stewart on his feet as Professor X in the flashback intro sequence to XIII: The Last Stand and in his unbilled cameo at the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, both of which chronologically post-date what we see in the later-shot but earlier-occurring movies. SF/superhero geeks are touchingly willing to accept the impossible, but they — WE — do demand internal consistency and convincing characterisation.

Just to complicate the above yet further, X-Men: Days Of Future Past introduced the idea of diverging timelines, so technically the 2029 of Logan represents only one possible future for our heroes and villains. Other possible futures, though, will have to be explored without Jackman and Stewart (unless, of course, they are offered truly obscene sums of negotiable currency).

One final thought. In the original metaphor, Professor X and his X-Men represented the Dr King of mutants, seeking to defuse human fear and resentment in the interests of peaceful coexistence, whilst Magneto and his Brotherhood Of Mutants were the militant Black Muslims, seeking to subjugate or exterminate ‘normal’ humans. Magneto and his sect are nowhere to be seen (or even referenced) in Logan. The inescapable conclusion is that while Magneto may have lost his earlier battles with Xavier, he was nevertheless the one who was finally proved right. Humans, rather than mutants, were the most dangerous predator species of all.

Postscript (1): As in every X-Men movie since the launch of the franchise, Professor Charles Xavier’s surname is pronounced ‘ECKS-avier’, which has been a perennial annoyance; presumably it was to forestall the domestic audience from asking, ‘WUHHH, if his name’s ZAVIER, howcum they’re not called the Zee-Men?’ It’s enough to make a Brit person feel somewhat ECKS-enophobic. On the other hand, this X-ccentric pronunciation now has a new resonance: Professor X is, in his dotage, an EX-saviour. However, though Wolverine himself only barely survives to the end of the movie, he nevertheless becomes a saviour in his own right.

Postscript (2): Principal cast: one Australian, three Brits, two Americans. Don’t tell Trump.

Postscript (3): the bonus disk in the package contains a ‘Logan Noir’ version in crisp monochrome. Maybe that’s the one to slap into the machine for the Tarkovsky buffs.

When Ian (Hislop) Met Anna (Chen): Who Should We Let In?

As I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself three years ago to serve out a period of Trappist silence, which commenced when I realised I was not, at the time, capable of writing anything of interest even to myself, let alone anybody else, a silence broken only by a piece mourning the departure of David Bowie.

I’m now determined to be a better friend to the world, so I’m kicking this site back into some semblance of life. THERE WILL BE STUFF.

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Anna Chen on Victorian and Edwardian-era Yellow Peril fears with Ian Hislop on Who Should We Let In?

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In the meantime, as an appetiser, a reminder that Ian Hislop’s rather excellent BBC documentary/polemic Who Should We Let In?, anatomising originally shown by BBC2 on Thursday 22nd June, is still available on BBC iPlayer until the end of July.

And, of course, it features a sparkling guest appearance by Anna Chen, who tells you all about it here.

Check it! And let’s meet again soon …

Kate Bush NME review on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme

Charles Shaar Murray gets his damning review of Kate Bush read back to him on BBC radio, as Kate embarks on 22-gig concert dates.

Following tonight’s imminent premiere of the first Kate Bush live show in 35 years, preceded by yr humble’s appearance on Radio 4’s PM to discuss it, requests have been received for a post of the text of the 1979 NME review of which the PM team made such a delicious four-course dinner.

So by, as Aswad used to sing, SPESHAL REQUESS AN A PUBLICK DEMAHN, and gracelessly but gratefully nicked from Rock’s Back Pages — here it is. Enjoy already.

And Ms Bush – break a leg.

Kate Bush: The Palladium, London
Charles Shaar Murray, New Musical Express, 28 April 1979

TWO MEMORIES: recalled first are the days when rock and roll was swamped with failed classical pianists and violinists who knew that they could make it in rock and roll because certain strata of the rock audience have an inferiority complex about Real Culture and no standards by which to judge it.

Recalled second are all the unpleasant aspects of David Bowie in the Mainman era. Successfully shoved under the cerebral carpet by the passing of time and the ghosts of all those dynamite gigs, it only takes a whiff of Kate Bush’s tour programme and the haughty condescension of the little notes from the Kate Bush Club that you find on your seat when you arrive to bring it all back.

No photographers. Stay in your seats and worship, you dumb bastards!

The Kate Bush show that’s been wowin’ ’em (as in “Wow, wow, wow, wow, we think you’re unbearable”) all over the country is a tribute to hard work, lots of money and the old-style ideology that defines the relationship between artist and audience as purely that between worshipper and worshipped. Described (elsewhere, natch) as some kind of apex in the mating of rock and theatre, it is simply the most complicated and expensive extant collision between theatrics (there is a difference between ‘theatre’ and ‘theatrics’, but if Kate Bush is aware of it, she certainly isn’t letting on) and MOR pop.

An endless stream of sets, costumes, pantomine-conjuring special effects, back projections sound effects (ranging from wind and rain to her brother’s awful crypto-poetry read in a portentous, echoing elocution-competition voice to audible sniggering from people who hadn’t paid the statutory fiver for their tickets) and things that would be described as ‘gimmicks’ if they occurred in the course of a performance with less lofty ambitions as this one, the KATE BUSH (she prefers capitals) experience is an exercise in the time-honoured art of battering an audience to death and making them like it.

Ms Bush herself is the evident product of an awful lot of strenuous self-improvement. One can only imagine all those years of ballet training, mime classes, piano lessons…she is Supergirl: the range of her skills aspires to be breathtaking and the end result is that she is capable of doing enough things passably to convince large numbers of people (only a few of whom are equipped to know better) that she is doing them brilliantly.

Her piano playing is competent but characterless: unlike Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell – whose work she evidently admires – the style is neither distinctive nor expressive. Her songwriting hints that it means more than it says and in fact means less: she hints at mystery and uses it as a cloak whereas true mysteries always stand naked. Her singing is at least unusual: her shrill, self-satisfied whine is unmistakable.

Altogether, a lightweight talent with one good song (‘Wuthering Heights’) to her credit.

Her dancing is more perspiration than inspiration: completely lacking in sensuality or funk, it relies instead on a supple, well-exercised frame and enough ballet moves to impress people who know nothing about ballet just as the Emersons and Wakepersons of yesteryear were able to bullshit people who knew nothing about classical music.

Her mime is elegant sham: great mime expresses everything, good mime expressessomething and bad mime expresses nothing other than somebody’s been to mime classes.

Backed by a cast of a dozen (seven musicians, two dancers, two singers and the real star of the show, illusionist Simon Gray), Bush twirled and skittered and trilled her way through a series of tableaux vivants which almost disguised that if it had actually been performed and staged as a straight concert it would have been tedious in the extreme.

For the climax – centred around ‘James And The Cold Gun’ – she dressed up in cowboy togs and methodically shot Gray and the two dancers, complete with fake blood, rimshots and dry ice, before retreating to the stylised womb at the back of the stage from which she had originally emerged, shooting at the audience. It was the first time that she played direct to the crowd and the only emotion expressed was hatred.

It has been pointed out that she’s terribly young and oh, so talented. She certainly works hard: the show runs over two hours and except for when she’s seated at the white piano, she’s in constant motion, using a radio mike on a kind of telephonist’s headset so that she can move freely the whole time. The trouble is that she’s completely entranced with the idea of her own stardom and the concept of presenting an almost superhuman facade.

Tony DeFries would’ve loved you seven years ago, Kate, and seven years ago maybe I would’ve too. But these days I’m past the stage of admiring people desperate to dazzle and bemuse, and I wish you were past the stage of trying those tricks yourself.

Sure, what you do takes talent, but it ain’t the kind of talent I respect.

Enjoy your success.

© Charles Shaar Murray, 1979

Charles Shaar Murray’s next Hothouse Project writing course starts Tuesday 30th September in West Hampstead.