Glimpses Of The Present

published in Tension No.8, Melbourne, 1985
reprinted in Australian Film Theory and Criticism - Volume 3: Documents, Intellect, London, 2018
Michael Jackson - Beat It (1984); Culture Club - Karma Chameleon (1984)

"All for one . . . "

Utopia? A fantastic concept. A poetic desire. A futile scheme. Does it exist today? Perhaps somewhere between doctorial dissertations on architecture and tile drippy brush strokes of Boschian community murals. But utopia is only superficially about an (the) idealized future, for just as history is not about the 'past' but the present of its reflection, utopia a is about the present of its projection. Whereas the historian is selective in his or her reading and writing of documented information, the utopian is preconceptive in handling the same information, constituting history as a decoding of the past and utopia as an encoding of the present. Hence Engel's socialist view of pre revolution France and H.G.Wells' classical view of the 'new world" of 2056.

All utopias are alike in their desire to construct a world (an environment, a city, a home, etc.) from an encapsulating perspective of holism. The architect's plan, resplendent in elevations and dimensions, utilizes what could be described as a 'utopian process' in its conceptual design encapsulated by logical articulation and graphic rendering. All angles covered, all corners centered, a holistic idea that proves its projected existence by architectural laws. A utopian zone (i.e. a space engineered by a utopian process) encapsulates not 'everything' per se, but all that is relevant to its formulative concept of holism.

Utopian processes have informed our social development ever since the industrial revolution. We are part of an ongoing epoch of experimentation, invention and transformation, living in a present brimful of developments which idealize our everyday existence, from an increase in the world's production of potatoes to a decrease in the time spent peeling them in our kitchens. Continually accelerating and escalating, our developments (manifested most typically through corporate multinationalism, technological globalism, cultural imperialism and - of late - potential annihilation) are always on the verge of being too fast to perceive, too vast to encompass. This promotes a pace of living which virtually discounts the notion of utopia being in the future, as our social and technological developments have 'advanced' us to such a state that further developments are annulled by our current saturation of progression. The present in fact is itself a utopia zone, a space that encapsulates nearly ever imaginable concept of holism short of an idyllic science fantasy or a horrific nuclear holocaust. (Is it any wonder that the most popular utopias which still persist - Heaven and Armageddon - have converged into the one universal notion of Judgement Day, when science meets God?)

Modern times are such that we are nearly all innocent of being out of synch with them, but what few glimpses we get of the present (in an age besieged by the past and the future) are definitely rewarding. So let us for a moment forget pictures of the past and visions of the future and concentrate on some glimpses of the present ...

. . and one for all!"

Band Aid (1985); Concert For Bangladesh (1971)

Around February this year I started noticing that certain social, cultural and economic areas were utilizing one particular utopian process in their efforts to ideally organize their spheres of engagement. Now, it is debatable as to whether I happened to develop this view around February and applied it to the world around me, or whether the face of society was subtly being changed by a peculiar phenomenological force. But at least when I connect together various examples of this particular utopian process they seem to clarify, and magnify each other, giving rise to the possibility that I am witnessing a tangible transformation of social discourse and intercourse. In other words, I experienced a glimpse of the present.

So what is this view, this phenomenon, this particular utopian process? Well, it occurred to me when I first heard the full length version of Band Aid's "Feed The World", complete with its prologue in which the voices of young Rock and Pop stars sign onto the record. Now this is similar in some ways to other theatrical gatherings of famous people for a single occasion - eg. Irwin Allen's or Lew Grade's star studded disaster movies; the great Rock Festival syndrome epitomized by Woodstock, Monterey, Isle of Wight, the Fillmores, and concerts for Bangladesh and Kampuchea; annual high-culture gala benefit recitals at New York's Metropolitan Opera House; corporate sponsored mini series which put together current highest rating performers to blab some mush; world touring art shows which gargantuanly mount a bevy of heavy weight artists from a particular historical movement; etc. But in a 'three minute Pop song'?! The density of fame contained in 'Feed The World' is quite unlike the examples listed above.

Rather than engineering a spectacle of excess, the Band Aid song is eerily concise, rigorously regimented in its musical logistics so as to condense what could have been a mega excess into a potent picture of the power of Pop. It is a record (both literally and figuratively) of 'oneness', of streamlining 'everything' into the one thing, of distilling a myriad of functions, effects and operations into the one presence, the one essence. Gone are the days of ridiculing the three minute Pop song and its inability to have an effective voice, of simply rationalizing it into the 'trivial'. We are now in all age where the three minute Pop song quite literally has the potential to do anything in the name of social intercourse. "Feed The World" is one of the first clear examples of this potential, of this utopian ability to be everything in the one thing.

This effect of 'oneness' has typified the power of Pop since the start of this decade. The resurgence of androgyny in Pop stars symbolizes a new phase beyond the seventies break down of sexual stereotyping and expansion of sexual liberation. Although the 'gender benders' of today superficially echo the heady and proclamatory bisexuality of Glam Rock in the early seventies, it should be noted that Glam was more to do with style than sex, hence its historical importance to New Romanticism and the distillate deployment of style in 'modern subculture' (Face magazine, etc.). The god children of Glam (Duran Duran, Culture Club, Marilyn, etc.) ironically carry Glam undertones, but their significance lies in their being in synch with an imploded sexual society (implosion being the result of too much self discovery) where the body is the fundamental performer in and of sex, and all related images, styles and gestures are peripheral, arbitrary and disposable. If anything, the flailing usage of the term 'gender bender' confirms that sexual difference is of no significant consequence here. The new androgyne in Boy George, Pete Burns, Michael Jackson, Prince, Grace Jones, et al thus speaks about sex as opposed to speaking sexily or sexually. Their faces and bodies symbolize a 'oneness' of body, a monadelphic image which is more sexually descriptive than it is erotic.

The name Culture Club is a sure sign of the times wherein no stylistic stone is left unturned in the reproduction of Pop music. 'Oneness' arises again in the connotations of the word 'club': a central space, a prime locale, a container of all that is warranted and desired by a specific cause. With the C&W flavoured "Kharma Chameleon" - at once an obtuse ode to the crowned king of chameleons, David Bowie, and a statement of the group's intention of diversity - Culture Club demonstrated their name in its strategy of being able to replicate any musical style within a contemporary presentation. Brit-Funk, soft Reggae, Salsa Disco, MOR ballads, AOR American-style and Louisiana C&W have all been set up and knocked down by Culture Club. As opposed to the Jazz oriented conglomerations of Weather Report or the synthetic fusions of Material, Culture Club perform what could be termed 'polyglottic Pop': a catalogue of songs which each have an individual musical status but only for purposes of contradiction and contradistinction. Their cover version of "Melting Pot" (an earlier ode to 'oneness' wherein the world could be 'one' a tenet held in "Feed The World") is more about the band itself than a progressive liberal utopia of racial integration. Far from dissolving difference, Culture Club display it.

Raiders Of The Lost Arc (1980); I Spit On Your Grave (1980)

But as is often the way of cultural trends, someone goes one better. The clearest precursor to the Band Aid single was Michael Jackson's "Beat It". In times of liberal imperialism - when whites call themselves honkys - it is easy to forget that the uniqueness of Jimi Hendrix was that he was a black playing white rock. "Beat It", with its radically unfunky rhythms for a Jackson song, revisits Hendrix's musical cultivation. Whilst Prince and Stevie Ray Vaughn paid homage to the Hendrix style, it was Michael Jackson who cottoned on (no pun) to what Hendrix was actually doing with his style. Jackson even went far as having the guitar solo - inserted purely for effect and gesture - performed by Eddie Van Halen, which tends to indicate the one prominent root of the guitar solo in white Rock belongs to a black appropriation of white musical culture. Ping-ponging from black to white across history, "Beat It" captures it all in three minutes. American record charts were thrown into confusion as it charged up the Rock, Pop, Soul, R & B and Disco charts: the one record for all categories.

The video-clip for "Beat It" extends the notion of a utopian song, the ideal record/video which can be related to all audiences, all markets, all industries. The story goes that Michael Jackson single handedly (well, perhaps with a little help from Quincy Jones, Bob Geraldi and John Landis) 'saved' the American recording industry, and as much by his videos as by his records. His image as a messiah is therefore substantiated beyond the superficial image of Pop stardom. The utopian style of Hollywood musicals (from Gene Kelly dancing in the street in An American in Paris to the opening street dance sequence of West Side Story) found an orgiastic rebirth in American video-clips, a rebirth celebrated in Michael Jackson's 'cinematized' videos for "Beat It", "Billy Jean" and "Thriller". They each projected an imagery with a life of its own, unlike the subdued 'state of the art' video effects for the clips from the preceding Off The Wall album.

Strangely enough, the clip to "Beat It" was 'old style' utopia: racial harmony, anti violence, productive youth, etc. (Remember all the stories of the 'real gangs' used in the clip?) However just as androgyny is now used as a surface identikit for the body and the face, the utopia style of Hollywood musicals is essentially a projected image and not a transmitted message. The prominence of "Beat lt" in reworking such utopian themes and styles is exemplified by its many immediate imitators: Lionel (I wish I were Michael) Ritchie's "All Night Long"; Pat Benetar's "Love Is A Battlefield"; Donna Summer's "She Works Hard For The Money": etc. In the end, though, none of these clips ("Beat It" included) accurately replicate what is actually happening in the music. (The videos of Devo are probably the only ones that can self consciously achieve such a feat. Their latest video clip, by the way, is for their cover version of Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced").

In Pop and Rock music in general, Punk is possibly a key factor in the disillusionment of utopian ideals in music, what with its slogans of "Anarchy In The U.K." and "No Future". Ever since, songs have had to suffer the pressure of being self destruct utopias, ideologically blissful for their limited time on the charts yet ironically knowing of their broader social impotence. No wonder anthemic songs became rampant toward the end of the seventies, their reverberations still felt today in the booms of Big Country and the bellows of Bruce Springsteen. In the Pop/Rock anthem it is the feeling of utopia that is expressed rather than a utilization of a utopian process. Anthems are superficially connected to oneness', but the technological hymn of "Feed The World" and the cultural zeitgeist of "Beat It" are fundamental exemplars of this contemporary utopian process of 'oneness' because they not only reflect modern times - they also will have been responsible for shaping them.

The global success of Michael Jackson has been synonymous with an incredible expansion of entertainment in all fields of the arts. Just as Pop music benefited from cinematic input (in clips, styles, promotions, etc.) the cinema has certainly been economically rejuvenated by the power of Pop. Entertainment This Week now easily has as much coverage of the recording industry as it does the film industry. The face of film has been changing as much as the sound of music.

Shell service station; Barbeques Galore warehouse

Australian film culture (both as industrial production and critical importation) has always had a suspiciously European (or anti American) edge to it. The 'progressive reactionism' of the arts journalism in the pages of papers like Melbourne's Age ("breakfast for the brain"!) provide an example of this cultural cringe tendency. This really isn't of any importance - I ask "who reads the Age anyway?" Not I. But the advertising tack taken by Hoyts and Village for their drive ins in February this year alarmed me. By the start of the year twelve out of twenty four drive ins had closed down in Melbourne, something that had been on the cards for some time what with price rises, changes in 'traditional' family structures (which affected notions of 'family entertainment') and the rise of domestic video usage (which affected the advantages of informality afforded by drive in viewing). The remaining twelve drive-ins merged (Hoyts and Village) and told us confidently "No More TRASH!" as the spray canned a big X across posters of Blood Sucking Freaks and I Spit On Your Grave and announced that they would be showing "great movies for the whole family to enjoy" concurrent with the city cinemas. Away went the sex doubles, the horror triples and the dusk-to-dawns. On came doubles that didn't even match: Educating Rita with Cannonball Run III, Body Double with All The Right Moves; etc. Something to please everyone, nothing to offend anyone - a utopian programming whereby the fracturing of audiences is discounted in the assumption that 'everyone' must like films like Ghostbusters, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T., etc. The new Hollywood genre is a genre of 'oneness', of broad appeal blockbusters (B.A.B.B.) which project for a universal audience and also keep the whole film industry afloat for another eight months during which 'specialist' movies (i.e. those films that aren't one of the five cinematic saviours per year!) just don't bring in enough popcorn for those great theatrical distribution tapeworms.

The drive-in was the last bastion of 'specialization' in its catering to culturally denominated 'minority audiences' who love sex, drugs, rock, action and horror. This cinema of exploitation (which I maintain means that it is a strain of the cinema where the audience exploits the film as opposed to Spielberg's and Lucas' mundane yet powerful manipulation of their audiences) was quite outside any notions of 'film culture' - especially in the European vein of Australia. The programming of the major theatre chains in this country have thus fractured those modes of specialist viewing into the void of domestic video. Frighteningly, information of films is more tightly controlled. It is even less likely that you could stumble onto a picture thriving in the shadows of a B.A.B.B. now that city theatres have cut back on B-billing, and drive-ins have stopped programming the risky off-beat films they used to. Theatrical exhibition takes on the appearance of being one big regional cinema: if you don't like what's playing - stiff shit! A utopia for 'everyone', but not for everybody.

In the entertainment industry the lowest common denominator duplicates the massive illogic of democratic mob rule. Facts and figures substantiate every move, but they are pulled out more for justification than explanation and they only have power when held by the winning hand. As if desirous of the philosophical success of such reasoning, modern criticism (say, in this second half of this century) centres on artistic success as contained within the one work or spread across a singular artistic identity. The popular success of B.A.B.B. films is preempted by the critical reception of the skill involved in compounding so many elements into the one sophisticated package - drama, action, romance, humour, love, sex, family, horror, music, suspense, fantasy, violence, moralism, etc. Whereas the first half of this century (please bear the generalization for a moment) lauded expoundings of universalism in the arts, the second half of this century applauds encompassings of technologicalism in the arts - images, emotions, sounds, effects that are too 'real' to consider otherwise. Popular critical modes of today operate along lines of singularism, where a work of art is interpreted through a broader cultural context (inevitably) but evaluated in isolation. Good art then performs a miracle of 'oneness' in synch with critical desires and mandates for ultimateness in performance over and above either universalism or socialism in meaning.

This decade might see new meanings in the concept of 'the masses' which may echo previous notions of moralistic constriction. With so much converging and not so much emerging, 'non-mainstream' activities (and that's a big mass itself) become even more isolated, more disconnected, and more threatened. As a network of individualisms, it becomes viewed in terms of 'not oneness' - a view which itself is a method of 'oneness', i.e. viewing all that is not to do with a particular dominant ideology as the same. Perhaps the ultimate utopia is a world not without conflict, but without difference.

The fear of cultural specialization, critical fragmentation and artistic separation increases more and more. You know that things must be changing if small businesses are being affected. Consider for a moment petrol stations, milk bars and chemists. Ever since the introduction of the late-night American domestic retail chain 7-11 (how they rewrote certain union laws of retailing still mystifies me), small domestic businesses have had to find ways of accommodating the changes brought about by its inception. Specialist shops such as petrol stations, chemists and even milk bars took on a Zelig quality and resembled each other more and more. Supermarkets look more like department stores and department stores look more like supermarkets. Videos can now be hired from just about anywhere while radio blares out of just about every shop imaginable. Commercially speaking, 'otherness' is qualified by specialization - which used to be a golden rule for successful business. Those businesses which totally specialized have now taken monstrous measures to survive - warehouses become retail outlets (whilst small shops get blown up for the insurance money) and carry titles like Barbeques Galore, Book City and Carpet World. One-stop shopping in the sense that they each attempt to be the only shop to carry everything in that particular retail field. This is the post shopping-centre phase of domestic retailing: a reassemblage of the breakdown of the utopias of Northland, Southland and Eastland shopping centres. Rather than a specific location being set aside as a commercial utopia, our whole commercial environment is adapting so that the logical conclusion (as illogical as it seems) would be for all shops to totally resemble one another. Just as our visual environment increasingly verges on having the one textural surface, our whole commercial environment may become the one economic surface.

One shop, one cinema, one record, one criterion, one everything. This is what 'oneness' is all about: a cultural monadism that illustrates the present as a zone where utopias exist now; where ideals are superceded so quickly as to give the illusion of them remaining; and where elements lose their individuality and specificity through continual unification. Unlike historical utopias, this utopia of 'oneness' is a functional concept, a gratified desire, an extant scheme. Concentration, distillation, intensification. All for one and one for all.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.