Visions of Reality

published in Stuff No.6, Melbourne, 1983

The voice carries a tone of authority in its delivery, obviously the result of an exacting search in finding the right voice. It is a voice with an air of finality; of precision in its statement; unerring and faultless. Be it in a cinema, on television or radio, it impassively yet powerfully calls out: "Mel Gibson is Mad Max”. I've heard it all before, from “Clint Eastwood is Dirty Harry" to “Marilyn Chambers is insatiable". The voice (as speech though not as writing) provides a shiny smooth surface that glosses over any marks of quotation. Star, character, actor, film, story and title all become one. A centre that is posed as the only given in the situation; a monolith that looms as the only real in a landscape of illusions.

As I flick through a whole stack or books devoted to the advertising of the cinema, I get the impression that even though the films do not purport to be larger than life, their advertising is larger than the actual films. For example, the period from the late forties through to the late fifties appears to have centred on “Realism" in its ads, describing films as containing"realism never before seen on the screen”. These films tended to play not on a construction of reality but on a development in and of realism that always consciously stayed within the boundaries of theatre and drama (the successful screenplays of Tennessee Williams being a clear example of this approach). Similar to the “Hi-Fidelity Stereo Recording" label on records from the fifties, these ads now strike a note of corniness because the seventies saw film use notions of realism (either constrictively or loosely) mainly as a starting point or altruistic structure for the continuing development of film language. In such a climate where realism in recognised as a major semantic code, artificiality in film would be and was construed as slang or bad grammar. Throughout the seventies, film advertising continued to be 'larger than the actual film' by centering on reality, on the real that the films honoured. What was once drama promoted as realism became realism promoted as reality. From STRAW DOGS to TAXI DRIVER to MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. this acceleration of reality in film reached a saturation point, wherein the only way forwards was backwards. In late 1977, SUPERMAN thus prophetically announced what appears to have become the next phase of the film/reality conflation: "You will believe that a man can fly".

Everyone (so they say) hates canned laughter. But what a concept : canned laughter - straight out of the surreal world of Madison Avenue and its neurotic self-enveloping grasp on reality. Square onions, liquid oxygen, canned laughter. In 1975, Henry Fonda agreed to do THE SMITH FAMILY (a precursor to FAMILY) only if they scrapped all the canned laughter in the pilot. Sure, we're all individuals, not monkeys in cages. We know when to laugh, when to cry; we are ourselves, not mimicking representations of images of ourselves. Not surprisingly, THE SMITH FAMILY flopped because no-one really knew whether it was funny or not. The later seasons of HAPPY DAYS assure us at the start of every episode : “HAPPY DAYS is filmed before a live audience". Meaning that they go out human-hunting and get a bunch of dummies who have seen enough sit-coms to know where to laugh regardless of whether the lines are funny. Same old-crap but this time it’s real. Like customers at the counter in society's great cultural department store, we are told over and over again : You want realism? You got it. Demand and supply; supply and demand.

The real can live a life by default, and not necessarily be contrived as usually is the case. There are those fascinating record stores in Melbourne's answer to a Little Athens, Lonsdale Street. Their windows display a continually changing series of record covers that add up to presenting a disorienting cultural view of Pop music. All the glitter, tinsel, pizzazz and flair are there in these portraits of Pop stars, but the style is missing, making them embarrassing facades of stardom. It is then that I notice something in nearly all of the album covers and posters: a microphone. For example. here is a girl with a peroxided Farrah Fawcett hair-style; an unbelievable amount of bright blue eye-shadow; an outfit leftover from a Swagman floorshow; and ungainly holding a microphone. This inelegant object, this element of the real, is always rupturing the pathetic surfaces of depiction in these singers' aspirations to self-glamourization. All these Great Pop Stars all working overtime on constructing themselves into images of Pop stars, but confounding the illusion with reality a dumb microphone. No doubt they are stars in Greek society, but their failure in image short-circuits their star effect. Following a logic of “I am a recording star/here is my instrument – my microphone – my means of communicating to you", their images are too real. I am reminded that realism involves the destruction of reality as much as it involves its construction.

Before MTV established itself as a major component in the American Record Industry, what few rock video shows there were most often insisted on featuring the 'act’ in a ‘live’ situation. Clips throughout the seventies in America were viewed not as record promotion devices but more as informational units that swept across the continent, cluing people in on what the act would be like in a 'live' situation. By no deliberate manipulation, the roots of the language of Rock videos come as much from the state of Rock’n’Roll (i.e. live onstage) as they do from the strategic marketing flows of Rock product. The intersection between sound and image is then probably more organic than technological; more archeologically lost than traceable through the 'medium' of video and television. Historically, this state of Rock'n’Roll lives an illusory existence more than an actual unmediated one, for the image of a band 'live on stage' in a rock clip requires just as much direction and predetermining as the group dressed in Renaissance costumes wandering around a Martian landscape. The tension caused in such a dichotomy testifies to the level of image at which Rock is currently situated, in that the denim-and-sweat conventions of the former are less questioned than the overt stylization of the latter. Through a reliance on this lost history, this mythical state of Rock’n’Roll, the image of the sweaty band on stage is viewed as the real - not simply in opposition to obvious theatrical excesses, but because the reality of Rock’n’Roll is the living presence of myth.

Few clips escape this real/unreal ‘imagification' in Rock, though one does come to mind: “Runaway Boy” by the Stray Cats. Here is a clip that actually functions as documentary, because the physical reality of the group (their dress, hair, manner, look, etc.) is their image reality. Transferred to film, it survives as a restated image that sardonically taunts “this is how we look like this off-stage". The real nostalgia of the Stray Cats lies not in their style, but in their image/reality relationship which harks back to the documentary feel now contained by early Elvis footage. The image of the Stray Cats (in its original formation) is neither dependant upon the conventions of Rock videos (the image-manufacturing of the state of Rock’n’Roll) nor resultant from exercises in excessive art direction (the image manufacturing of the language of Rock videos). The real and the image are fused in the same way that life and life-style are fused: fully lived when happening, but disposable and retrievable at will and whim.

It is not surprising that Nick Cave's “From Her To Eternity" enjoyed considerable success overseas. The most cited (and most telling) is his version of Elvis' “In The Ghetto". Typical of the inverted realist direction that underground Rock has taken for the past three years or so, Cave's "In The Ghetto” is an example of the impregnation of realism - of taking objects whose artificiality betrays them by decrying their theatricality (Elvis’ version) and reconstructing their form by building onto their facades an emotional intensity that gives the impression of coding the version (Cave's) as the original, the real. In late 1973 David Bowie and Bryan Ferry released, respectively, “Pin Ups” and "These Foolish Things”. As a mixture of controversy, novelty and innovation, these albums enforced just how much stylization had become and would continue to be a major element in Pop and Rock music of the seventies. Ferry and Bowie presented. themselves as dandys whose aesthetic stated a love for the music they covered whilst their versions were knowingly bound to offend purists through the songs' modes of stylization. What Cave, Bowie and Ferry have in common is an approach to assembling objects out of surfaces. But their difference lies in what is reflected in their surfaces. Far from the dandy (despite Cave spending his time in the Boys Next Door as a punk-art-student-meets-Bryan-Ferry singer), Cave is now a posture of the real; a breathing body of emotionalism that surprises its audience (and itself) with the effect of emotions – for what was once the affecting of emotions is now the effecting of emotions.

But so what if Cave's “In The Ghetto" makes you shiver; or Elvis Costello’s “Psycho Momma" makes you tingle; or This Mortal Coil's “Song of the Siren” makes you cry? Perhaps such works and workings only happen for an audience where the manipulation of emotions as a felt process in an alien practice. FLASH DANCE knew exactly what it was doing in subtitling the film “What A Feeling!”. That's all the film in about: the generation of feelings. It is the emotional counterpart to the Big Dipper Effect. Cave's “In The Ghetto" might be emotional - but so might be FLASH DANCE. And so might be everything, anyway. It used to be said that life is cheap. Life in actually very expensive today - it is reality that is cheap. It drowns us out. It doesn't simply ‘exist' - it controls us. We live in an age of alchemy, where everyone searches for gold, buying Televend offers for mail-orders of 18ct, 9ct, 6ct - even 0ct gold is still gold. The alchemist finds gold by making it. We find reality in precisely the same way.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.