Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Unrecognizable: Ageing in the Age of the Ageist Rule

Dearest Gentle Reader(s),

If you're in your early twenties and you're reading this, you may not quite be able to relate to what I'm about to present as my brief discourse [rant] of the day. However, if you're a bit more seasoned by the years, say 35 or older, or you're just seasoned by being empathic, then you might be able to relate.

I want you to imagine the following: you're at a yard sale, walking around, browsing the goods, and generally going about your business. A few days later, you get an email from the son of an old acquaintance. The email reads, "I was driving through Fern Street the other day and thought I saw you at that yard sale. Wow, you're unrecognizable." The email contains two attachments. One is a photo of you at the yard sale and the other is a photo of you when you were 20; youthful, thin, fine line-free, and cool looking in a baby-faced sort of way. In other words, you, when you were 20. Obviously the person who wrote you the email did recognize you, somehow, because otherwise they wouldn't have known to email you. Why did they do this? Why would they essentially say that you didn't look like yourself simply because you'd grown up? How would this make you feel? Pretty shitty I'd imagine.

Well that's what happened to Axl Rose, front man for iconic eighties Metal band, Guns N' Roses courtesy of a Huffington Post feature and video clip. At first glance, this may appear to be a non-story; an unimportant blip on the radar. But I welcome any opportunity to become one voice of dissent against an increasingly poisonous attitude concerning ageing peddled by narcissistic media climbers and sycophants.

On one level, as a general Rock fan, I have respect for Guns N' Roses, and then on another level, I don't have any particularly deep love for Axl Rose. But it was painful and awkward to watch a couple of people, who had to have been toddlers at the height of Guns N' Roses, break out with hmming and umming their way through an aesthetic criticism of a man who is 51 years old now and has clearly paid his dues for the price of admission into Rock and Roll bad-ass-dom. Guns N' Roses' heyday was in 1985 thanks to their gritty and groundbreakingly catchy album, Appetite for Destruction. Axl was 23 at the time. So now he gets to be physically compared to the 23 year old version of himself? And the commentators on the Huffington Post clip actually mention the fact that he's using a cane, as if needing a cane is some sort of affront to their ultra cool, Abercrombie and Fitch-esque sensibilities. Oh the horror of needing to use... a cane! Are these people on crack?

Take a good look, because this is what happens when you let the Romper Room kids run the media center. These people are products of a post nip-tuck era where you'd be hard pressed to find one clear example of natural ageing, or the honest face of Rock n Roll 'hard living' in the celebrity pool. Just as parents of young adults are complaining that they fear their children won't be able to appreciate a pair of natural breasts once they grow up, thanks to a contemporary internet porn which is rife with breast implants and genital surgery, those of us who are mature enough to remember how people age naturally have a right to be concerned that young humans who have yet to make any sort mark on the world for their intellectual or creative talents are critiquing others through a skewed lens and devaluing them for failing to appear to be in their twenties anymore.

A few years ago I regularly watched the British version of the television show, The Apprentice. My friends and I started discussing a disturbing trend which was emerging: many contestants, when under threat of being fired in Sir Alan Sugar's "Boardroom" and asked what special attributes they thought they offered, began to repeatedly resort to claiming their youth. "Sir Alan, Sir, I'm only 24" some guy would inevitably snivel at some point. This seemed to happen again and again, eventually to the point where you knew it was coming at least once for every episode. This launched an ongoing discussion amongst my contemporaries, who couldn't understand how youth culture had finally reached this low point of young people speaking about their own youth as if they were privy to a big secret that youth has become some sort of prized currency over savvy, intelligence, and experience in the world of business.

My anecdotal scope only extends back to the mid-twentieth century, but here is my take on the monstrous metamorphosis of youth culture: once a youth culture existed where its members looked forward to being viewed as mature enough to make important decisions and contributions. Then that was replaced by a youth culture whose members sought to be left alone to experiment because they were young and needed to find themselves - they'd eventually grow up, they said, but don't rush us. Then that was replaced with a youth culture whose members viewed their age as totally irrelevant - they felt they had something important to say, and nevermind that they were younger; they had a voice too. Then that seemed to finally be replaced  with a youth culture whose members recognize that youth is the desirable commodity against the backdrop of an increasingly younger power grid, so they exploit the value of youth and use it as bargaining currency. And that would be fine, if that sort of manipulative self-awareness didn't read as slightly sinister like an overly-precocious child actor that you grow to hate, and translate into slamming anything or anybody who isn't young looking, usually thin (and usually white, unless you're a black rapper, because ya know, rappers are sooo cool). The 1990s advent of a decentralized media via the internet created an environment ripe to be taken over by people under 30... which would have been great, if they hadn't been the greedy internet self-starters (my generation), who then groomed the 5.0 version of our youth culture to become youth-aggrandizing, cell-texting, porn-addicted, emotionally void, socially alienated, gentrifying, body fascists who now RUN the media, and broadcast these values to the masses.

I remember how we used to say Rolling Stones guitarist, Keith Richards looked like The Crypt Keeper because he'd done so many hard drugs over the years, but I don't ever remember anyone I knew pulling out an old picture of Keith and exclaiming, "Oh, he's SO unrecognizable!" or anyone handing me an article of a similar sentiment. He was recognizable. He was recognizable as a man who had been rode hard and put out wet, thanks to his Rock n Roll lifestyle. That was all. Now we get to listen to a bunch of baby monkeys in the control room call Axl Rose unrecognizable because he had the nerve to age over a period of nearly thirty years.

In the everyday, pedestrian world it has been generally accepted as natural that young people have always looked at people ten, twenty, and thirty years their seniors and called them old, but it is a sign that our society lacks balance and perspective when the people now at the helm of the media machine are products not of the youthful-but-seasoned crowd, but of the generation which frequently likes to remind itself how young it is and creates daily news slamming people for looking like they're not in their twenties anymore... or looking like they've lived a rockstar's life when they have... or looking drug addicted when they are, and the list goes on.

This wouldn't even have so much effect if what every cultural studies theorist has been saying for the past forty years weren't realistic: that in the post-modern era our work lives, social lives, private lives, and consumer lives have completely merged to the degree that these cultural messages are unavoidable, and translate into how we treat each other. There are plenty of us for whom a bit of hair dye and facial treatments aren't the enemy, but we wish not to have to go under the knife and join the ranks of the plastic people, lest our our attractiveness, our value as humans, and our very identities be weighed against images of ourselves from thirty years earlier. I don't like the idea that our culture is becoming a virtual version of Logan's Run, an ageist, dystopian era where people are eliminated once they're deemed too old. The only thing truly unrecongnizable to these people is what the range of the natural ageing process looks like.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Lords of Bullsh*t

Warning; big spoilers here: so I saw The Lords of Salem last night. Brandon Trost's cinematography was very good - it saved the film in a lot of ways with its atmospheric and ominous take on the streets of Salem, Massachusetts - but as usual, the work of Rob Zombie was style over substance. The film was admittedly creepy along the way, with the luxury of some odd ghost-witches hovering in corners and spooky hallway stunts but unfortunately, like most of what I've seen from Zombie, the script and story development felt very undercooked, and the subtext was confused at best.

The setup was this: many moons ago, there was a coven of (evil) witches led by Margaret Morgan (played by classic cult, spooky-eyed actress Meg Foster) in Salem and one Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne burned them at the stake. These witches, who were referred to as the Lords of Salem, swore a curse on the female descendants of the town, and on Hawthorne's female descendant in particular, that she should become a sort of Anti-Mary and give birth to the Anti-Christ. Though Zombie doesn't get into characterizing Hawthorne as evil, per se, he includes all sorts of offensive imagery of priest-monsters in Catholic garb doing obscene things throughout the film, and Reverend Hawthorne himself has actually burned six people at the stake so, it is intimated that while the witches are bad news, Christianity ain't no picnic either.

We come into the story during the modern life of Heidi (played, unsurprisingly, by Sheri Moon Zombie), a rock DJ at a local radio station. She and her radio show co-hosts (played by Jeff Daniel Philips and the legendary, cult favorite Ken Foree) are sent a mysterious vinyl record by a group calling themselves The Lords of Salem, and the radio team inevitably decide to play the record on live radio. The results become problematic when Heidi and other women in Salem react strangely to the odd music and, sure enough, everyone accepts the invitation of these mysterious Lords of Salem when news arrives that they will be performing a concert in town shortly. The enchanted album and the fake concert setup is the work of a group of  three elderly witches (led by legendary actress Judy Geeson) who are the modern day representatives charged with the responsibility of raising of the original Lords of Salem and also with the bringing about the birth of the Anti-Christ. They also happen to be Heidi's landladies. Heidi, as it turns out, is the descendant of Reverend Hawthorne and is therefore tagged to be the Anti-Mary and give birth to the Anti-Christ.

So overall, for the sake of 'horror scares' I was willing to allow for the shrivelled, "evil" witches bit, though anyone who knows me knows how I feel about that sort of characterization of witches and the avoidance of serious discourse on the persecution of persons accused of witchcraft and by association, allegiance with evil. I was willing to suspend my political views on the reality of the matter for some quality scares. However, the real problematic lies in the display of Zombie's obvious disdain for Christianity while combined with a reliance on the very woman-as-evil conventions typical of Christian tradition. But okay, if you're going to play that game, then play it full tilt boogie with conviction, is what I say.

If Mary, mother of Jesus, is set up as an untainted virgin - and Mary is mentioned several times in the film - then it stands to reason that a character like Heidi, who will become the mother of the Anti-Christ, should not be set up as a friendly, average dreadlock-donning rock chick with a cute, happy golden retriever. Heidi should have been set up as someone primed for being the vessel of the Anti-Christ; the antithesis of the likes of Mary - and no, creating a vague recovering addict backstory doesn't count as a character having a history which primes them to become the mother of pure evil. Zombie should have set Heidi up as a far more hedonistic, reckless character from the start; a person void of empathy and purity by default, if still unaware of her flaws as precipitating her fate had Zombie wanted to go down that road, especially given that Heidi's the descendant of the murderous Reverend Hawthorne. Alternately, Zombie could have set Heidi up as a good character who really fights and struggles against her inclinations and terrible fate, which would have upped the stakes, created more tension, and made her plight feel more tragic to viewers but, alas, he didn't do that either. But these are all details, compared to the fact that the big payoff is not big at all.

In the end, Heidi falls off the wagon and "does drugs" (dun, dun, dunnn), is rounded up by the three elderly witch ladies who get her all set up to become impregnated by Satan (a sort of tiny, potbellied Rumpelstiltskin mandrake root looking creature), then bring her to the fake concert they've orchestrated where she ascends (or descends as it were) to an audience of thirty Salem women, and gives birth to something that looks like a wagging mandrake root. Her eyes roll back into her head as she floats there, suspended above the variety of lifeless, naked bodies of the 30 Salem women. The whole thing is labeled as a mass suicide with a missing person case trailing behind it, as Heidi is never seen again.

Zombie means to tell us that all this stuff, big, catastrophic stuff like the arrival of the Anti-Christ has been orchestrated... and it ends with the suicide of thirty people and a missing woman? The resolution is way too microcosmic, provincial, pedestrian, and overall inconsequential to be preceded by big concepts like a woman being groomed, then impregnated by Satan, followed by the conception, and then the arrival of the Anti-Christ. Isn't that sort of arrival earthquaking, reality shattering in nature? Has anybody seen The Omen and its sequels (which weren't very good, but you get the point)? Some might argue that Rosemary's Baby presented a pedestrian approach to the arrival of the Anti-Christ, but then again, Polanski didn't choose to have Rosemary hovering above ground, backlit with celestial light, immortalized in an classic religious ecstasy pose as one of the final shots of the film. The setup and the iconographic visions in The Lords of Salem don't fit the anti-climactic and low scale resolution of the story.

I'm calling it like I see it: Rob Zombie is a lazy, lazy filmmaker who lacks broad vision. His only vision is to make sure we all see his scrawny wife naked. That, and to make a stamp for himself in the genre because, you know, bein' a horror director is "cool" and evil stuff is "neat-o". If you want to see an extended music video, then go for it, but if you're looking for a John Carpenter, or even Joss Whedon style apocalyptic payoff, you've come to the wrong place, friend.

Between the poor payoffs and style over substance, I always come out of the Rob Zombie experience - whether it's his films or his concerts - feeling like I've just visited an online rock paraphernalia site or received one of these catalogues through the mail: t-shirts with peace symbols are right there next to SS style lightening bolt pendants and dark angel figurines are right there next to atheist posters; anything goes because all these items fall under one general genre and all rolled together they cancel out all politics because they're trinkets appropriated from previously important social movements, now presented for mass consumption, with no political conviction or meaning anymore. Rob Zombie is like Rock n Roll junk mail to me. And the ultimate problem with Rob Zombie as a director is that the majority of his fans don't seem to have the will to cast a critical enough eye to hold his feet to the fire and tell him to evolve and mature as a director, if directing is what he wants to do. Most of the criticism that he's going to get will be from non-Rocker, nerdy horror genre fans whose genre tastes are stuck in 1983, so that they're primed to dislike virtually anything new or perceivable as too trendy, and Zombie can tell himself that all his critics are simply random, jealous haters and ultimately ignore any potential pressures to creatively evolve. Considering his resources, the crew talent at his disposal, and his apparent affection for the genre, it's a real shame that he can't or won't do better.