Film review: Star Spangled to Death (Ken Jacobs, 1957-2004)

(Originally published June 23rd, 2016)

Between its anarchic genderfuckery in the form of Jack Smith, its sociopolitical cynicism and its extended, barbed, and wholly sardonic use of found-footage from throughout Hollywood’s history, Star Spangled to Death may potentially warrant the bizarre honour of being the American Underground’s radical response to Myra Breckinridge. However, and I say this without a hint of sarcasm, compared to the tragically disorganised and honestly quite dull 94 minutes of fairly uneventful camp posturing, Star Spangled‘s 7 hours genuinely fly by.

Building on the avant-garde’s propensity for creating film analysis in the form of film itself, Star Spangled exploits 20th Century Hollywood and TV broadcasting’s dominance over the Western world to, in turn, critique that world itself. By focusing itself multiple times on, but by no means limiting itself to, milestone figures of cinema’s development Al Jolson and Mickey Mouse (and the indisputable influence of blackface minstrelsy over both), it allows the intersectional ideologies of Capitalism and racism flowing through the film industry to be revealed in clearer terms than even Comolli and Narboni might have achieved.

Throughout the film, text appears, sometimes for only one or two frames, often challenging the assertions of documented figures such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and it invites us to become Laura Mulvey’s partially-dreaded “possessive spectator” – disrupting and restarting the film as many or as few times as we care to read Jacob’s comments – in so doing, we engage in some of the same techniques as him.

However, Star Spangled exists not solely as a found-footage documentary, nor as an essay film, rather as the synthetical product of these two dialectics which, in turn, results in what may only be described as “fiction” – Jacobs and fellow artist friends playing “characters” such as Jack Smith’s “The Spirit Not of Life But of Living.” As is the case with Jacob’s Little Stabs at Happiness, there are wistful, tragicomic references to the fallings-out Jacobs experienced with Smith and co. before the end of the film’s production. Star Spangled of course, is all the more poignant for its gestation period outliving not only Smith’s firm friendship with Jacobs, but also Smith, himself, who died of complications related to AIDS the lion’s share of 15 years before the film’s completion. In the final chapter reaches a level of deep profundity when it references Smith’s apparent inability to shake off the internalised queerphobia instilled by a hardline Christian education, believing himself deserving of his fate, followed rapidly by footage of the anti-Gulf War 2 protests in New York, in which Jacobs believed he had encountered Smith’s ghost, in the guise of a similar-looking young protester, leading chants and drum circles.

Star Spangled to Death is a blisteringly angry, bitingly funny, but most of all desperately vital masterpiece of American Underground cinema, documentary and anti-kyriarchal self-expression.


Film Review: The Haunted Strangler (Robert Day, 1958)

A fascinating if flawed picture that celebrates Karloff’s genius in portraying both monster and man, that walks the line of ambiguity beautifully, providing scientific explanations that still leave room for supernatural speculation. Similarly, and much more crucially, the chilling grotesquery of Karloff’s Mr-Hyde-esque transformation is never stressed to a point that it allows the idealism of his social reformer protagonist, and his passionate pursuit of a world in which all accused parties are provided with legal representation, to be obscured. We are shown asylums, prisons and gallows, each one a stern indictment of the treatment of the committed, the convicted and condemned. Although The Haunted Strangler stumbles at times, not quite knowing which lines of investigation need most pursuing, and which revelations need most emphasis, there was rarely a moment I didn’t feel on its side.

Film Review: Dog Star Man (Stan Brakhage, 1961-1964)

(Originally posted June 28th, 2016)

Multi-layered in both content and form, the panoply of holistic vision which Dog Star Man presents makes the magnum opus of this stage in Brakhage’s career a pretty clearly intentional candidate for the lyrical film’s equivalent of the Great American Novel. Wholly representative of the Brakhage family’s participation in the Back-to-the-Land movement, Dog Star Man seems to meditate on in the interconnectedness of all things, from – appropriately enough – dogs, to stars, to men. Gratifyingly, the technical brilliance of Dog Star Man‘s post-production is considerably more self-acknowledged than in, for instance,Window Water Baby Moving or The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, in which descriptions tend to include phrases such as, “completely unedited, except for ____ and ____ and ____,” thus the deftness with which juxtaposition becomes comparison, which in turn becomes abstraction carries weighty meaning in line with some of the more compelling aspects of New Age woo: namely, the similarity between such things as the appearance of galaxies and, appropriately, the human eye.

Dog Star Man ventures on a journey of sight that includes the spectacular cosmos and details, actions and events of the human anatomy, external and internal, beautiful and shocking. The miracle of birth and the flow of blood through capillaries share space with stars and the trees of the Colorado mountains. However, predictably, at the centre of it all does seem to be Brakhage himself, journeying through said trees, up said mountains, felling for firewood. As with any (proto-)hippie-esque piece of artwork, man’s interaction with nature is one of ambiguity, Brakhage himself describing the act as “man felling the tree of the world.” However, sensitive as Brakhage may on occasion consider himself, he is frankly a bit too much of a patriarchal caveman not to tip the balance in his favour: he with his axe and his dog, trudging through the snow, was always going to end up looking more majestic than ecocidal and why wouldn’t it? It’s his visual poetry, and I’m sure he left considerably less of a carbon footprint on this planet than the most of us.

The parenthetical sections Prelude and Part IV are, to my mind, simultaneously the film’s most kaleidoscopic and strongest points, with the middle sections focusing on his mountain-climbing and his baby the least engaging, simply for being the most standard bits of filmmaking. The direct engagement with the celluloid itself, most particularly through the method of scratching patterns into it, is a beautiful precursor to the painting films of his last 15 years. Dog Star Manis wonderful in its ability to express so much of Brakhage the man – both the poetic genius and the patriarchal jerk, and both somehow come across with flair and charm in this essential milestone of the American avant-garde.

Essay Review: “Necropolitics” (Achille Mbembe, 2003)


Achille Mbembe’s inquiry into his conception of “necropolitics” is one that expands upon the political-philosophical notion of biopolitics, to account for both the phenomenology and ontology of power when experienced within areas and subjects not typically considered within the demographic of the Western global north. Mbembe’s position contends with Michel Foucault’s own that contemporary expressions of power can be largely understood as control through techniques of making and maintaining life. However, this is not to suggest that Mbembe is arguing instead that the earlier model of the sovereign, who rules over the State “by the sword” is still in existence, unchanged. Rather, that there are areas of seemingly expanding territory – from the camp, to the colony, to the warzone, in which traditionally definable subjectivities / subject positions are now considerably more ephemeral, perhaps other than when regarding their respective relations to death. Such ecologies of spatialized terror produce death-worlds, in which populations take on a perpetual state of living death.

“Necropolitics”’ central thesis is founded upon conditions of paradox, which can be understood as reflected in the format of the text itself: its opening sentence is indeed an invocation of Foucault’s model of the original notion of sovereignty, whose “ultimate expression…resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.” However, he immediately introduces a long list of questions, relating not simply to the implementation of this sovereign power, but also crucially to the socio-political concerns: not merely the ramifications, but even the implications necessary already for this power to be exerted. He ends this list with: “what place is given to life, death, and the human body (in particular the wounded or slain body)? How are they inscribed in the order of power?” In other words, what does the political involvement in the question of life and death do to the question of life and death? Noting that much political theory has remained focused on notions of democracy and, stemming from it, the relations between reason and freedom, Mbembe instead declares interest in opening discursive areas of political inquiry focused on implementations and experiences of human destruction, founded initially on the tensions between Hegel and Bataille on the place of death within life. Hegelian dialectics find the subject defined in relation to death, thus defining politics in its control over human life as being interpretable as an instrumentalization of death’s shadow, whilst Bataille understands death (correlated with sexuality and sovereignty itself) in a sense that transgresses the Cartesian boundaries of subject-object distinction upon which Hegel extrapolates. Accordingly, within this tension, Mbembe finds his thesis: that politics – even and especially the politics of sovereignty – are defined as a deathly violation of prohibition, a thanatological bypassing of boundaries.

Mbembe thus approaches a series of examples of what would typically be considered extremely boundaried environments, ones in which “the state of exception and the relation of enmity have become the normative basis of the right to kill.” Addressing the Nazi death camp as a site of the materialisation of Foucault’s definition of racism as a technology to catalyse “that old sovereign right of death,” Mbembe acknowledges it as a conflation of war and politics to a level of indistinguishability, but denies this phenomenon as having any particular specificity to the walls of Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka. Rather, there are multiple historical examples of the interrelation between political technologies of death, and discursive economies of “reason” that have ensured the political category of Populus transfers from a material to rhetorical plane that allows for greater malleability, both at the symbolic and imaginary orders. Such malleability allows for the “triple loss” of the slave condition: loss of home, loss of rights over their own body, and loss of political status as ensuring ultimately an “expulsion from humanity altogether.” Such a status of non-humanity places the slave within the horrific liminal state of one with no considered intrinsic value, and yet a prized recognised ability to have value extracted, resulting in being kept in a state of injury, that may logically necessitate cruelty as manifestation of the existential violence already caused. Thus, for Mbembe, “slave life…is a form of death-in-life.”

Such forms of existential degradation have now expanded in contemporary modes of colonisation and coercion, as seen in Palestine, Kosovo and African countries Mbembe declines to name specifically. For all the importance of borders and barricades, Mbembe notes many ways in which definitions and categories become less defined: he acknowledges the ways in which the power of necropower is increasingly other than that of the State. Indeed, the State becomes an ever-hazier category in itself: through an absence of distinction between combatants and noncombatants, or law-abiders and criminals (laws becoming ever more fractured) people can no longer even “respect each other” as enemies. Rather, the conscious destruction of infrastructure confers onto all inhabitants a status of “survivor”-dom which feels much like a nightmarish translation of Hegel’s subject: “one who, having stood in the path of death…standing in the midst of the fallen, is still alive…each enemy killed makes the survivor feel more secure.” But, of course, the “enemy” can here be anyone. Life and death may now be the only parameters of subjectivity, and even the barriers between these concepts erode for political purposes, as Mbembe notes in his discussion of the suicide bomber, perhaps the ultimate figure of the walking-dead. Thus, what may have begun as (and is still produced in the Western global north as) State power over citizen subjects produces in these death-worlds no discernible state, no citizens, and no subjectivity.

Mbembe’s “Necropolitics” provide a crucial alternative perspective on the development and experience of power, and a much needed-antidote to the practice of political philosophers to speak in predominantly universal terms about the experience of sovereignty, with cursory acknowledgements of what might be accused of ethnocentric myopia, remaining ultimately unaddressed. “Necropolitics” introduces necessary caveats to the “productive” nature of power, and where the remainders of this production may be felt. It may also be a particularly useful model for theoretical critique, for its ability to criticize earlier works of political theory, predominantly through the form of expanding upon them, rather than engaging overly in a system of disavowal: the concept of biopoltiics has not been thrown out by this essay, rather its flaws have been addressed, answered and, I would suggest, rectified. Accordingly, as much as “Necropolitics” is an invaluable contribution to post/de-colonial theory, I also posit “Necropolitics” as a particularly beneficial academic text, to see how one can respond to and contradict previous inquiries into a subject.

Film Review: Hard to Be a God (Alexei German, 2013)


(originally published August 13th, 2015)


“God…If you exist…Please stop me.”


It was impossible, in the days leading up to seeing Hard to Be a God, not to think of it in terms of Tarkovsky. Sharing authors with Stalker, and a setting not unlike Andrei Rublev, I assumed I’d be on similar ground. Five minutes in, however, it became clear we were walking through a profoundly distinct territory.

Hard to Be a God is no Tarkovsky film. It is nastier, uglier, squelchier, more unforgiving, more visceral and with an entirely different philosophy of humanity as it perceives a world made of mud, shit, piss, and blood. Concepts of human dignity are met with undying cynicism, as we would expect better from animals than we see from these people (being not from Earth, their status as “human beings” falls into a degree of pedantic uncertainty, as well as a moral one).

We follow the stumbling journey of the scientist known mistakenly as Don Rumata, believed to be the son of a pagan god, navigating through the city of Arkanar, rendered a pogrom in a pigsty by a culture of brutal suppression of anything that gives the slightest nod towards Renaissance, as he engages in the strangest, adulterous relationship with this code of ethics that, above all, precludes him from interfering violently with the practices of this unnamed planet’s deranged inhabitants, eventually breaking it fully.

As primitivists, who drown letter-writers in latrines, clash with zealots who lacquer hanged men, opposing factions mirror and seem to blend into one another. Major political shifts seem to take place, invisibly within ellipses, and throwaway lines relating to incomplete abstracts seem to repeat endlessly. This world seems devoid of linearity, and we as spectators and Rumata too seem to feel trapped in a state of defeatist, relentless perpetuity – an inescapable present tense of brutal squalor.

Hard to Be a God offers not a satisfying story, but a deeply astute insight into just how unsatisfying it may be for God to oversee and interact with us, after all. This film is a direct line to the ultimate thankless task that perhaps warrants more comparisons to the sisyphean angst of Woman of the Dunes or the woefully determined reparative violence of The Virgin Spring than the earnest spiritualism of the better known master of Russian cinema. This is a film very much worth watching, just don’t expect to leave happy.

Book Review: “Eros and Civilization: a Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud” (Herbert Marcuse, 1955)


Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization is, albeit not the first, one of the most significant contributions to the Marxist psychoanalytical canon. However, while one who attempts such a theoretical or philosophical synthesis would typically self-identify with (or at least warrant) the prefix “neo,” be it either neo-Marxist, neo-Freudian, or indeed both, Marcuse appears anxious to disavow such specification, making consistent critical reference to the latter. Indeed, what appears to be central to Marcuse’s thesis is rather that, even though Freud himself affirms what he considers to be the necessity of repression, namely the ego and super-ego’s repression of the id, one may still interpret (in, what Marcuse would seem to insist, is an ultimately traditionalist manner) Freud’s analyses with a liberationist intent.

Throughout the first several chapters of Eros and Civilization, Marcuse illustrates Freud’s fundamental theories about the psychological formation of the subject, and proffers such theories’ application to social theory, although he makes it clear that such social critique is not dependent on an adherence to Freud’s writing as psychoanalysis, but rather as something more akin to philosophy. The main thrust of the argument is as such: civilisation and culture (Marcuse indicates uncritically Freud’s equivocation of the two) constrain the subject’s libidinal urges, countermanding and displacing the pleasure principle with instead the reality principle: the result of the id’s containment in the face of exogenous responsibilities and expectations, to allow for artificial and productive pursuit of satiation: “The reality principle supersedes the pleasure principle: man learns to give up momentary, uncertain, and destructive pleasure for delayed, restrained, but ‘assured’ pleasure.” Thus, although Eros and Civilization is unquestionably founded upon a repressive hypothesis, it is one that not simply allows for some pleasure to be experienced by the subject, but is instead dependent upon it, although what seems to be satiated is by no means a desire for happiness; rather, it is a sense of freedom, albeit with the firm caveat that it is a “freedom in civilization,” (p.19) which Marcuse would – and indeed does – argue constitutes an objective unfreedom.

One significant reason Marcuse gives for the opposition of this “freedom in civilization” to a state of happiness is, in reference to Totem and Taboo, the genealogical (and, indeed, generative) guilt, descendant from the cannibalistic patricide of the “primal crime.” This guilt is a phenomenon upon which Marcuse’s conception of civilization is wholly dependent. Accordingly, “the progress of civilization” is enacted via reproduction and reaffirmation of a reality principle which, through affect of guilt and ideological dispositifs of delayed-gratification sublimates libidinal drives toward a plane of increasing unfreedom.

In the second half of Eros and Civilization, Marcuse naturally notes the hypocrisy in such ideology, certainly inasmuch as the excess of productivity of this system – what the entrepreneur would call profit, and what the Marxist would describe in terms of variable capital and surplus-value – is itself indicative of how much is done that need not be done, and thus is indicative of the manner in which contemporary civilization does indeed operate not through necessity brought about by the “struggle for existence,” but rather operates to prolong this struggle (130-1). Indeed, such an ideology of progress is indicative enough of a foundation of Hegelian positivism (or, indeed, materialism) that wrapped up in the process in “the vision of a higher form of reason which is the very negation of these features” – an aufheben that would itself undo these technologies: from sublimation to sublation. Accordingly, with this excess of productivity already lies an excess of libidinal energy: a repressed to return. Thus, for Marcuse, the solution to the problem lies in the problem. Just as, for traditional Marxism, it is the most alienated who upon whom we can most rely for revolution, it is for Marcuse that which is most displaced (phantasy, the unconscious, the aesthetic, the id), which prefigures organisation upon which we may locate the potential for a non-repressive civilization.

Although Eros and Civilization is compellingly (if repetitiously) written, Marcuse’s assertions are often too emphatically made: he makes various significant departures from classically Freudian thought, including a historically-unwarranted optimism regarding the unconscious, whilst insisting upon a classically Freudian approach, but also undermining this by arguing against its validity for its originally intended purpose. In many ways, Marcuse’s actual placement of “civilization” within his analysis of the psychological parallels of sublimation to it is woolly, whilst his liberationist invocation lacks the prerequisite materialism for a traditionally Marxist theory, and yet remains too dialectical in approach to fit neatly within a poststructuralist or postmodernist tradition. Nevertheless, within Eros and Civilization is a span of ideas that have proven crucial to neo-Marxist, poststructuralist and postmodernist thought, even if only at the stage of embryonic propositions, in the works of Lyotard, Bataille, Foucault and Deleuze & Guattari. There is certainly value to this text, if predominantly as a conceptual milestone in the development of social theory.

Film Review: INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, 2006)

(Originally published November 5th, 2017)

Lynch’s cinematic masterpiece, and I won’t countenance any opposition, INLAND EMPIRE is a challenging development on the möbius strip structure of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive and into what appears to be a meditation on a murdered Polish sex worker, quite possibly from the 1930s, trapped simultaneously in a Sartrean (albeit this time seemingly purgatorial) hotel room and in a state of Deleuzian eternal recurrence, experienced both by her and we the spectators (she watches all the filmic events through a television screen, herself) as a rhizomatic system of assemblages that serve to investigate genealogies of gendered violence, ultimately in search of a line of flight.

Or, at least, that’s how best I make “sense” of INLAND EMPIRE. The keenest interpretation is one that doesn’t necessarily accept any (I say “any,” rather than “either”) of Laura Dern’s characters as the true protagonist. Characters merge, they fracture, they exchange roles, become each other’s mirrors, avatars, spiritual doppelgangers. In so doing, INLAND EMPIRE reflects on the ways in which we can become our own victims and perpetrators and, accordingly, how much self-liberation may feel like self-murder.

Constant motifs of holes speak to the permeable membranes of ontology and identity that come to define the constellation of bodies that make up the assemblage of characters and situations of INLAND EMPIRE, the folded silk reflecting the foldings at levels both spatial and temporal which Sue/Nikki/? as the Lost Girl’s avatar/s must strategically navigate to a point of self-realisation and radical self-realignment to achieve meaningful deterritorialisation and liberation. When that moment finally arrives, it is perhaps Lynch’s most sublime, moving and beautiful moment in his whole career. Indeed, it expresses a similar sense of pathos as the ending to The Tempest in which Prospero’s letting go is clearly Shakespeare’s as well. It comes as no surprise that INLAND EMPIRE was announced as Lynch’s final film for entirely the same reason: it’s a film, made of endings. It may not be an ending everyone likes, nor one everyone understands, but it is nonetheless perfect in its philosophy and its execution.

Film Review: We are the Flesh (Emiliano Rocha Minter, 2016)


(originally published 1st July, 2016)

I hesitate to give any real synopsis as part of this review as it is a delirious enough experience to make it unclear what would be a spoiler and what would not. Suffice to say, my assumption of Tenemos la carne / We are the Flesh‘s premise on the basis of the (still very good) trailer with regard to narrative events and character dynamics was pretty much erroneous, though for all the better, as my anxieties about this simply being a Mexican answer to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were quickly allayed.

Instead, We are the Flesh appears to be the brainchild of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, not to mention Jean-Luc Godard, the late playwright Sarah Kane and a whole host of video artists, devised theatre groups and installationists. The premise meanwhile combines what appears to be Catholicism, folklore and fairy tales, with a central figure whose name may be Mariano who appears and acts all at once akin to Charles Manson, Rumpelstiltskin and the Devil incarnate (no pun intended). The first act, amongst other things, details the transformation of an abandoned floor on an abandoned office building in an unexplained post-apocalyptic landscape into a womb-cave that may act as venue to each character’s Id to fully express itself. The film’s themes of sexuality, violence and cannibalism all have direct connections to psychoanalysis, as much as they do to the concepts of sin, and both are exploited to full symbolic effect in the film. Meanwhile, We are the Flesh rallies between states of modernism and post-modernism as the “film itself” struggles and seemingly fails to contain the jouissance within – visuals break to singe photographic frames as someone foams at the mouth; a sex scene turns into a music video shot in heat-cam and, later, another sex scene reaches a level of volatile intensity that the film distorts and colour-shifts into oldschool anaglyphic stereoscopic vision.

At pivotal moments (though I may not intend the pun, I’m not so sure the filmmakers don’t) throughout the film, the camera appears to spin 360⁰ in a style highly reminiscent of other recent Satanic Mexican art film Lucifer (interestingly enough, I believe the titular character’s actor, Gabino Rodriguez, may make a cameo in We are the Flesh though I’ll have to check when IMDb is more accommodating)’s use of “tondovision.” At others, it exploits a fantastic score, masterful editing, and psychedelic post-production values to elicit anything from empathetic lustmord to kolpophobia (at these points, one may detect faint echoes of William S. Burroughs’ writings in Central and South America, above my personal favourite, all Cities of the Red Night).

If We are the Flesh may be understood as a response to anything, I feel inclined to view it as a response to Ben Wheatley’s infinitely disappointing adaptation of High Rise, whose ironic detachment from the narratologiccal grisliness was far too distant in the former and far too “stylish” in the latter – certainly a word of which all film-goers should be wary, due to its typical indication of little more than plenty of shiny things in the mise-en-scène. In the papier-mâché catacombs of We are the Flesh, nothing shines, though the entire film glows with an intoxicating, evil beauty of which I cannot wait for my next fix.

Book Review: “The Evolution of Goth Culture: The Origins and Deeds of the New Goths” (Karl and Beverley Spracklen, 2018)


(This was a commissioned review from January 2019 I ultimately didn’t submit as I considered my first published work shouldn’t be me denigrating other academics. Nevertheless, I think this blog is a safe enough platform)


Karl and Beverley Spracklen’s The Evolution of Goth Culture is an ambitious project in tracing a paradoxical subcultural phenomenon, simultaneously defined by its aesthetic morbidity and startlingly consistent longevity, from its origins in the late 1970s to the present day. Acknowledging the undoubted breadth of their endeavour, the Spracklens are generous enough to the reader to approach the matter from an angle of profoundly welcoming legibility, and with a well-clarified a priori frame of analysis in their third opening chapter, “Constructing a New Theory of Alternativity.” Modelled upon a constructed hypothetical discursive relation between Adorno, Habermas, Butler and Lefebvre, the Spracklens approach the question of an often self-identified “alternative” subculture on a pre-agreed set of principles that may best be précised to three realisations:


  1. The culture industry is an apparatus of the state, and accordingly any aesthetic of rebellion or life à rebours can (if not will) ultimately be co-opted into state-approved hegemonic reproduction.
  2. Nevertheless there remains, even within the space of capital, a capacity for discursive practice that maintains the continuation of “the life-world of the public sphere,” contrary to capital’s order of enclosure.
  3. Accordingly, we should distinguish the “instrumental” from the “communicative.” Whilst the former may well become repackaged and commoditized, the latter will maintain both an ontological and relational alternativity that may achieve a consistent effect of resistance, despite potential fluxes of signification.


Thus, it is with this predominantly neo-Marxian understanding that the Spracklens approach the evolution of Goth. It should perhaps come as little surprise, then, to see their account of gothic rock’s origin as the resultant synthesis of a dialectical materialist journey between questions of aestheticism and political sincerity and, with the Northern setting of so many first-generation bands e.g Salford’s Joy Division and the plethora of West Yorkshire bands including Skeletal Family, The Sisters of Mercy and The ((Southern) Death) Cult, between the eerie pastoral and heartlessness of industrialisation that characterizes so much of the background to the gothic tradition. However, as much as one may situate the gothic rock movement within Leeds, the Spracklens’ willingness to overlook the many aspects of the scene’s provenance located in the Midlands, the South and, indeed, parts of the world other than England does not only their investigation a great disservice, but the scene itself. 

The Spracklens’ narrative voice shifting as regularly as it does from the academic to the journalistic to the anecdotal serves the approachability of the text well, but the lucidity and consistency of vision poorly in several regards, even with the aforementioned established framework. In “The Origin of the Goths,” the authors accept at a remarkable degree of face value Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy’s disavowal of a goth label – “If taking on this Nosferatu role on the stage were not real to us…how could it have been to the audience?” – commenting “they never wrote anything as cartoonishly grotesque as ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ again,” an assertion with which anyone familiar with “Stigmata Martyr” would contend hotly. And yet, The Sisters of Mercy’s frontman Andrew Eldritch’s similar protestations are duly noted, then discarded as “disingenuous,” while later still the Spracklens reach the conclusion that, since the mainstream believes Marilyn Manson to be goth, both Marilyn Manson and goths accept this to be so, despite both knowing it not to be true. Within all this, what is perhaps most notable of all in its absence from the discussion is the fact that such a large number of black-clad, pale-faced, kohl-smeared Fields of the Nephilim fans deny the label “goth” for themselves, goth denialism is in fact one of the most prevalent stereotypes and in-jokes of the scene.

Nevertheless, the Spracklens’ choice of The Sisters of Mercy as their only main case study for goth music – even if they are the band most defined by this aforementioned ”goth denialism” – is a sadly unoriginal and unhelpful one which betrays a regrettably myopic conception of Goth’s locus within the sub/cultural realm. The study’s conclusion, that The Sisters “were the most important band in the genesis and evolution of Goth, [perfecting] the sound and the look” suggests that the goth sound is best characterized by a repetitive verse-chorus-verse rock and roll structure employing a drum machine, bass-baritone male vocals and a black leather jacket dress style largely indistinguishable from that of Motörhead or the Ramones. The pattern that emerges is one that ultimately suggests the Spracklens’ knowledge of goth music being restricted almost entirely to the Leeds scene of the 1980s, and a general unwillingness to research further before writing The Evolution of Goth Culture. Absent is any meditation on the goth/shoegaze crossover known as ethereal wave that defined labels both sides of the Atlantic including 4AD and Projekt. Club genre EBM (“Electronic Body Music,” erroneously called “Electronic Beat Music” in Evolution) is given passing reference, with no artists mentioned, but instead mainstream metal bands such as Cradle of Filth are alleged to fill goth dancefloors, despite my never having experienced this in well over a decade of goth club attendance.

My criticism here is not to partake in a music trivia competition with the authors. Rather, it is to indicate the lines of inquiry not followed that would better address the breadth of investigation implied by the title. By representing Goth as a phenomenon that revolves almost solely around the most belt-and-braces examples of the ‘80s, who mostly dissolved into hard rock by the end of the decade, the Spracklens suggest that what and who constitutes “Goth” is today at the whim of the mainstream populace. Such a statement would bolster the authors’ rallying cry for Goth to return to its radical leftist roots, but the reality is both simpler and more complex than this. With regard to the former, the reality is that Goth never has been as rooted in radical politics of any wing as the authors suggest throughout Evolution. Indeed, the only evidence they seem to provide is that it came from post-punk, which is often typified by leftist principles and band names (Gang of Four, The Durutti Column). Regarding the latter, it is Goth’s paradoxical emphasis on the external, as well as questions of inner anguish that has allowed it to penetrate wider culture through aesthetic diffusion, from the long list of post-punk revival bands with Ian Curtis and Siouxsie impressionists on vocals (Editors, Savages), to techno producers sampling Birthday Party guitar licks (Regis, Surgeon), to the influence of goth fashion on designers including Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford. 

Certainly, one of Evolution‘s best avenues of investigation is that of the goth chat forums, providing a detailed analysis of the rise and fall of and others. However, goth online presence is not simply discourse between consumers, but has been the space in which new creative forms have emerged: consider the “witch house” movement of c.2010, which not only combined goth, industrial, shoegaze and techno with hip-hop and trap, but also through so many artists’ use of special characters (e.g †‡† pronounced “Ritualz”), maintained, through practical un-searchability, a communicative alternativity between intimidatingly young bedroom producers across the globe. In these areas has the self-consciously parodic aspect to Goth developed away from the Sisters-style mean-spirited barbs at fans and former colleagues, and toward playful reappropriation of small-town moral panics against goths and metalheads in the 80s and 90s. Subsequent internet-based alternative genres, including “#seapunk” and vaporwave, have continued this parodic line into a more overt analysis of 80s conspicuous consumption, whilst also influencing popular culture at the level of Rihanna, and the widespread social media memeification of the idealised “goth gf” by those in no way connected with the scene as it exists today.

Goth Culture has evolved considerably further, and in many more directions than it seems the Spracklens have themselves realised, and may be argued to have finally developed the radical leftism they erroneously apply to its origin. Whilst The Evolution of Goth Culture is an astute collection of case studies, the extent to which its scope is limited to what I imagine are the authors’ personal interests (I notice they are Leeds based), at the expense of a detailed survey of the developments of Goth culture mean I cannot agree the book lives up to its title.

Review: Luz (Tilman Singer, 2019)

A compellingly oblique representation of demonic possession via psychological police procedural, Luz is startling in its economy, at 70 minutes, whilst maintaining such a degree of intensity. I have seen some criticism of Luz as a “long short film,” but I honestly feel this works to its advantage, giving itself just enough time – and not a minute more – to establish atmospheric introspection on the part of its titular character in particular, but not so much time that it feels obliged to fill the space with exposition. Indeed, the opacity of the narrative is as such that one must interpret the events before us, especially as the police in question are so clearly ill-equipped to do so, and ultimately the grand majority of conclusions drawn will be unspoken and entirely affective.

Curiously, the film with which Luz shares most tonal parallel is in fact Beyond the Black Rainbow; not simply due to the presence of a menacingly patriarchal analyst pursuing a powerful yet reticent young woman, but instead the remarkably nuanced atmospheric cues both relationships seem to evoke, relying solely on what we may emotionally recognise in the face of what is otherwise a relatively incoherent plot. When a plot is as unforthcoming in terms of explanation as Luz (or, indeed, Beyond the Black Rainbow) is, the main question becomes: do I believe in the world? If I do, then I can accept my role as a visitor to a set of events whose justification may not be clear to me, but is nevertheless extant. If I don’t, then I’ve simply paid the ticket price to be presented with the work of someone who wants to write punchlines, without bothering to construct any jokes. I’m happy to say there was no question to the credibility of Luz‘s world.

The representation of possession as a phenomenon of contagion is a welcome break from the typically insular scope of such a film. Indeed, the themes of escape, travel, pursuit and re-encounter are central discursive elements. Rather than being so simple as a good vs evil narrative, symbolised through a corrupting exogenous demonic influence on a young girl who, more often than not, meets the requisite racial and economic criteria for society’s a priori assumption of innocence, Luz utilises possession as a manifestation almost of a genealogy of guilt and narrative itself. As with all possession horror, identity is at the forefront of Luz‘s concern, but rather than identity simply being a concrete notion now threatened by invasive factors, we reflect on its construction through external regimes of discourse, memory, accusation and dream.

It will take at least one more viewing for me to solidify my interpretation of the film exactly, but for a film as relatively short and laconic as this to carry such weight is as worthy as it is impressive.