“I’m in love with that song.”

Finally caught the awesome Big Star documentary the other night, even though I was and remain a Replacements fan and have loved their song “Alex Chilton” for many moons; know some of the people involved with the Big Star reunions; and have been being yelled at by friends to watch the documentary for years. Sometimes I’m slow. It’s okay.
But it’s so good – most everything about Chilton and Memphis, but also the stuff about guitarist Chris Bell is just so weird.

By the mid-1960s, Memphis was teeming with teenage musicians captivated by their hometown’s role in birthing rock and roll, then the most dominant cultural expression of the era. Chilton had acquired no small amount of musical sophistication and talent just by virtue of parental osmosis. Well, that and he had a somewhat gimmicky ability to sing like soul-singers much darker and older than an upper-middle class white kid had any right to do. After a high school talent competition, Chilton was asked to join a local group of older musicians that eventually came to be called The Box Tops. Like Big Star, that name doesn’t mean much beyond music obsessives, but the band’s first single sold a few million copies and remains one of the most recognizable hits of the sixties. When “The Letter” hit number one, Chilton was just 16 years old.

The Box Tops churned out a number of minor hits after that, and Chilton, who had dropped out of school, went on tour with the band and partook in the usual rock and roll carousing. He partied with The Doors, and with The Box Tops’ brief career winding down, he even moved out to California to live with Brian and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. (It was there that he once crashed on the same couch with Charles Manson.) With The Box Tops breaking up, he largely abandoned the pursuit of fame. He taught himself to play guitar, worked on writing his own songs, and moved to New York where he became a fixture on the Greenwich Village folk scene. Along the way he got married, had a child, and divorced not long after. After briefly connecting with Chris Bell, a visionary musician from his teenage days in Memphis, Chilton moved back home to join his band. Big Star recorded and released their first album, the ironically titled #1 Record.

All this happened by the time he was 21. At an age when most of us were still trying to decide what we were going to do with our lives, Chilton had lit the fuse on a bomb that’s still sending shockwaves through pop music. But by the time we get to Chilton’s involvement with Big Star, well, here’s where George-Warren’s book, with its exhaustive details and an impressive authorial command, departs from the traditional rock and roll narrative. (And I do mean exhaustive—the book’s opening chapter traces the Chilton family history back to 11th century Normandy. If you want to know which houseguest Chilton’s mother showed how to make homemade mayonnaise, well, it’s all in here.)

Here’s a heavily abbreviated version of what happened: After a too brief and brilliant career, Big Star simply collapsed. Despite some positive critical notices, they remained largely unknown for a decade afterwards. Big Star’s music was so undeniably good that, over time, critical consensus simply reached critical mass. The resurrection of Big Star in the 1980s was a heartening and surprising event that’s almost unique in rock history.

Anyway… Here’s to tangents, slowness, weird great music, friends.

Consoling Illusions

Jean Baudrillard from 2004 on the “marvelous artefact” of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in his essay “On History, Simulation and Barry Lyndon“:

In a violent and contemporary period of history (let’s say between the two world wars and the cold war), it is myth that invades cinema as imaginary content. It is the golden age of despotic and legendary resurrections. Myth, chased from the real by the violence of history, finds refuge in cinema.

Today, it is history itself that invades the cinema according to the same scenario-the historical stake chased from our lives by this sort of immense neutralization, which is dubbed peaceful coexistence on a global level, and pacified monotony on the quotidian level-this history exorcised by a slowly or brutally congealing society celebrates its resurrection in force on the screen, according to the same process that used to make lost myths live again.

History is our lost referential, that is to say our myth. It is by virtue of this fact that it takes the place of myths on the screen. The illusion would be to congratulate oneself on this “awareness of history on the part of cinema,” as one congratulated oneself on the “entrance of politics into the university.” Same misunderstanding, same mystification. The politics that enter the university are those that come from history, a retro politics, emptied of substance and legalized in their superficial exercise, with the air of a game and a field of adventure, this kind of politics is like sexuality or permanent education (or like social security in its time), that is, posthumous liberalization.

The great event of this period, the great trauma, is this decline of strong referentials, these death pangs of the real and of the rational that open onto an age of simulation. Whereas so many generations, and particularly the last, lived in the march of history, in the euphoric or catastrophic expectation of a revolution-today one has the impression that history has retreated, leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references. It is into this void that the phantasms of a past history recede, the panoply of events, ideologies, retro fashions-no longer so much because people believe in them or still place some hope in them, but simply to resurrect the period when at least there was history at least there was violence (albeit fascist), when at least life and death were at stake. Anything serves to escape this void, this leukaemia of history and of politics, this haemorrhage of values-it is in proportion to this distress that all content can be evoked pell-mell, that all previous history is resurrected in bulk-a controlling idea no longer selects, only nostalgia endlessly accumulates: war, fascism, the pageantry of the belle Žpoque, or the revolutionary struggles, everything is equivalent and is mixed indiscriminately in the same morose and funereal exaltation, in the same retro fascination. There is however a privileging of the immediately preceding era (fascism, war, the period immediately following the war-the innumerable films that play on these themes for us have a closer, more perverse, denser, more confused essence). One can explain it by evoking the Freudian theory of fetishism (perhaps also a retro hypothesis). This trauma (loss of referentials) is similar to the discovery of the difference between the sexes in children, as serious, as profound, as irreversible: the fetishization of an object intervenes to obscure this unbearable discovery, but precisely, says Freud, this object is not just any object, it is often the last object perceived before the traumatic discovery. Thus the fetishized history will preferably be the one immediately preceding our “irreferential” era. Whence the omnipresence of fascism and of war in retro-a coincidence, an affinity that is not at all political., it is naive to conclude that the evocation of fascism signals a current renewal of fascism (it is precisely because one is no longer there, because one is in something else, which is still less amusing, it is for this reason that fascism can again become fascinating in its filtered cruelty, aestheticized by retro).

History thus made its triumphal entry into cinema, posthumously (the term historical has undergone the same fate: a “historical” moment, monument, congress, figure are in this way designated as fossils). Its reinjection has no value as conscious awareness but only as nostalgia for a lost referential.

This does not signify that history has never appeared in cinema as a powerful moment, as a contemporary process, as insurrection and not as resurrection. In the “real” as in cinema, there was history but there isn’t any anymore. Today, the history that is “given back” to us (precisely because it was taken from us) has no more of a relation to a “historical real” than neofiguration in painting does to the classical figuration of the real. Neofiguration is an invocation of resemblance, but at the same time the flagrant proof of the disappearance of objects in their very representation: hyperreal. Therein objects shine in a sort of hyperresemblance (like history in contemporary cinema) that makes it so that fundamentally they no longer resemble anything, except the empty figure of resemblance, the empty form of representation. It is a question of life or death: these objects are no longer either living or deadly. That is why they are so exact, so minute, frozen in the state in which a brutal loss of the real would have seized them. All, but not only, those historical films whose very perfection is disquieting: Chinatown, Three Days of the Condor, Barry Lyndon, 1900, All the President’s Men, etc. One has the impression of it being a question of perfect remakes, of extraordinary montages that emerge more from a combinatory culture (or McLuhanesque mosaic), of large photo-, kino-historico synthesis machines, etc., rather than one of veritable films. Let’s understand each other: their quality is not in question. The problem is rather that in some sense we are left completely indifferent. Take The Last Picture Show: like me, you would have had to be sufficiently distracted to have thought it to be an original production from the 1950s: a very good film about the customs in and the atmosphere of the American small town. just a slight suspicion: it was a little too good, more in tune, better than the others, without the psychological, moral, and sentimental blotches of the films of that era. Stupefaction when one discovers that it is a 1970s film, perfect retro, purged, pure, the hyperrealist restitution Of 1950s cinema. One talks of remaking silent films, those will also doubtlessly be better than those of the period. A whole generation of films is emerging that will be to those one knew what the android is to man: marvellous artefacts, without weakness, pleasure simulacra that lack only the imaginary, and the hallucination inherent to cinema. Most of what we see today (the best) is al ready of this order. Barry Lyndon is the best example: one never did better, one will never do better in … in what? Not in evoking, not even in evoking, in simulating. All the toxic radiation has been filtered, all the ingredients are there, in precise doses, not a single error.

Cool, cold pleasure, not even aesthetic in the strict sense: functional pleasure, equational pleasure, pleasure of machination. One only has to dream of Visconti (Guepard, Senso, etc., which in certain respects make one think of Barry Lyndon) to grasp the difference, not only in style, but in the cinematographic act. In Visconti, there is meaning, history, a sensual rhetoric, dead time, a passionate game, not only in the historical content, but in the mise-en-scne. None of that in Kubrick, who manipulates his film like a chess player, who makes an operational scenario of history. And this does not return to the old opposition between the spirit of finesse and the spirit of geometry: that opposition still comes from the game and the stakes of meaning, whereas we are entering an era of films that in themselves no longer have meaning strictly speaking, an era of great synthesizing machines of varying geometry

Is there something of this already in Leone’s Westerns? Maybe. All the registers slide in that direction. Chinatown: it is the detective movie renamed by laser. It is not really a question of perfection: technical perfection can be part of meaning, and in that case it is neither retro nor hyperrealist, it is an effect of art. Here, technical perfection is an effect of the model: it is one of the referential tactical values. In the absence of real syntax of meaning, one has nothing but the tactical values of a group in which are admirably combined, for example, the CIA as a mythological machine that does everything, Robert Redford as polyvalent star, social relations as a necessary reference to history, technical virtuosity as a necessary reference to cinema.

The cinema and its trajectory: from the most fantastic or mythical to the realistic and the hyperrealistic.

The cinema in its current efforts is getting closer and closer, and with greater and greater perfection, to the absolute real, in its banality, its veracity, in its naked obviousness, in its boredom, and at the same time in its presumption, in its pretension to being the real, the immediate, the unsignified, which is the craziest of undertakings (similarly, functionalism’s pretension to designating-design-the greatest degree of correspondence between the object and its function, and its use value, is a truly absurd enterprise); no culture has ever had toward its signs this naive and paranoid, puritan and terrorist vision.

Terrorism is always that of the real.

Concurrently with this effort toward an absolute correspondence with the real, cinema also approaches an absolute correspondence with itself-and this is not contradictory: it is the very definition of the hyperreal. Hypotyposis and specularity. Cinema plagiarizes itself, recopies itself, remakes its classics, retroactivates its original myths, remakes the silent film more perfectly than the original, etc.: all of this is logical, the cinema is fascinated by itself as a lost object as much as it (and we) are fascinated by the real as a lost referent. The cinema and the imaginary (the novelistic, the mythical, unreality, including the delirious use of its own technique) used to have a lively, dialectical, full, dramatic relation. The relation that is being formed today between the cinema and the real is an inverse, negative relation: it results from the loss of specificity of one and of the other. The cold collage, the cool promiscuity, the asexual nuptials of two cold media that evolve in an asymptotic line toward each other: the cinema attempting to abolish itself in the cinematographic (or televised) hyperreal.

History is a strong myth, perhaps, along with the unconscious, the last great myth. it is a myth that at once subtended the possibility of an “objective” enchainment of events and causes and the possibility of a narrative enchainment of discourse. The age of history, if one can call it that, is also the age of the novel. It is thisfabulous character, the mythical energy of an event or of a narrative, that today seems to be increasingly lost. Behind a performative and demonstrative logic: the obsession with historical fidelity, with a perfect rendering (as elsewhere the obsession with real time or with the minute quotidianeity of Jeanne Hilmann doing the dishes), this negative and implacable fidelity to the materiality of the past, to a particular scene of the past or of the present, to the restitution of an absolute simulacrum of the past or the present, which was substituted for all other value-we are all complicitous in this, and this is irreversible. Because cinema itself contributed to the disappearance of history, and to the advent of the archive. Photography and cinema contributed in large part to the secularization of history to fixing it in its visible, “objective” form at the expense of the myths that once traversed it.

Today cinema can place all its talent, all its technology in the service of reanimating what it itself contributed to liquidating. It only resurrects ghosts, and it itself is lost therein.