Monthly Archives: February 2011

Influences on The King Of Limbs

“Influence” is a very loaded word, and far greater minds than mine have grappled with what it means in relation to popular music in far greater death than I ever could. The great and good Mark Sinker once said something along the lines of “the description of one act being an influence on another is a category error” (paraphrasing). You can read more of Mark’s thoughts on influence in this ILM thread, but essentially he thinks the term is useless, and “sounds like” should usually be used instead of “influenced by” (even though “sounds like” is massively subjective depending on your own experience and what you can draw analogues with).

And broadly, I agree with Mark: “influenced by” and “sounds like” are totally different things, and making musical comparisons is an inherently abstract and awkward process. Joe Strummer was a big fan of Trout Mask Replica but The Clash never sounded like Beefheart to my ears. Damon Albarn proclaimed CAN and Pavement as “influences” on Blur before the release of every album, but it took until the eponymous record for Pavement to emerge as a sonic comparison, and until Music Is My Radar for CAN to do likewise – at least as far as I could tell. Danny McNamara from Embrace has talked up Frank Zappa’s influence on some of their records and made journalists laugh. Likewise I’ve “heard” traces of Fennesz in one of Embrace’s songs but I think it’s unlikely that Endless Summer ever got played in the recording studio. Fennesz himself is a curious one; dissolving, laptop-corrupted guitar soundscapes that claim direct lineage to The Beach Boys yet sound absolute nothing like them, even when covering Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder).

So let’s take this more as a “sounds like” exercise, or a “like this? try these” venture, than a strict list of influences on The King Of Limbs. Because unless Radiohead explicitly say so, I can’t know what they were influenced by or copying; I can only identify what I think it sounds like.

But before I dive in, I’m going to suggest you read this fabulous article by Nitsuh Abebe in NY Mag, for a typically level-headed and understanding explication of Radiohead’s place in popular culture. His point about their brand being about “serious listening”, and how they get leeway from some rock fans that so many other artists making ostensibly the same kind of music don’t is a big part, I suspect, of my usual antipathy towards them. I also agree, however (these days at least), with the idea that it’s cool to have a band capable of the kind of moves and exercises that Radiohead accomplish be this large in terms of units shifted and cultural discourse.

I’m hoping that largeness, that cultural reach, rubs off on some of these artists, I guess, and leads to them selling some more records. A few years ago I would have bitched and moaned about the music that Radiohead sounds like not getting the same level of attention as Radiohead themselves do, but these days I’m more relaxed, and see spotting comparisons as a kind of philanthropy rather than gathering evidence for the prosecution.

One last thing; people keep finding this blog by searching the phrase “King of Limbs too short”. I don’t think so, at all. In fact I think more artists should exercise editorial brevity with their releases. At 38 minutes and 8 songs I find The King Of Limbs to be of perfectly digestible, enjoyable length. And, lest we forget, In Rainbows was only five minutes longer, while Hail To The Thief was far too long.

Four Tet – Pause (2001)
Little By Little sounds, to me, like a studio band playing a track off this record and Thom Yorke singing over it. Given that Four Tet has supported Radiohead on tour and remixed a track from Thom’s solo album, this is hardly surprising. Pause is perhaps the progenitor of the much maligned “folktronica” tag, but it’s reductive to think of this as nothing more than glitchy laptop folk. The drum-hungry Everything Ecstatic from 2005 is also a palpable sound-alike.

Caribou – Swim (2010)
Caribou’s 2003 album Up In Flames (when he was still called Manitoba) is another potential touchstone for some of the rhythms and ideas on King Of Limbs, but last year’s stellar, dance-heavy Swim might give even more value to people looking for stuff that echoes the new Radiohead.

Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma (2010)
An obvious source, given the tumble-down, photocopied jazz beats of Bloom and the fact that Thom sings one track on this record.

Talk Talk – Laughing Stock (1991)
The opening drum beat from New Grass was sampled on UNKLE’s Thom Yorke-starring Rabbit In The Headlights way back in the 1990s, and I’ve heard echoes of this album ripple through Radiohead’s work since (most notably the beautiful Reckoner). It’s in some of the skittish rhythms of King Of Limbs, but also in the swelling, sideways swells in Bloom.

Burial – Untrue (2007)
I’ve never “got” dubstep, be it Burial, James Blake or a couple of ancient compilations I have from the early 00s, but it seems clear that a lot of people, including most if not all of Radiohead, have, especially on Feral.

CAN – Ege Bamyasi (1970)
Jacki Leibzeit’s awesome metronomic drumming for 70s German behemoth’s CAN is a clear touchtone for the first side of King Of Limbs, as are the experimental song structures and emphasis on texture, improvisation, and sonic innovation.

Tortoise – Standards (2000)
Tortoise are associated with a particular sound – a vibraphone laden, elongated, jazzy and organic take on postrock – but Standards took them down a decidedly electronic avenue, and the beat-heavy, unpredictable pathways of this album are a close cousin of Radiohead’s current approach.

Long Fin Killie – Houdini (1996)
Morning Mr Magpie is maybe the most organic, band-played groove on King Of Limbs, and something in its skittering, taut, pulsing profile reminds me of Long Fin Killie’s awesome debut album.

Phosphorescent – Pride (2007)
People have put their finger on Bon Iver in relation to Give Up The Ghost, but I hear more of the mane-shaking, rural acoustic psychosis of Phosphorescent.

Thom Yorke – The Eraser (2006)
Well, it seems obvious, doesn’t it?

More thoughts on The King Of Limbs

Because it seems insane, as a random blogger, to be casting an opinion after one listen, even if every newspaper and music magazine / website in the world seemed to scramble to do the same thing. Predictably, most of them ended up sounding tapped or idiotic, enthusing too wildly, casting crazed comparisons. But that’s the thing with Radiohead – people feel compelled to comment. I certainly do.

So, four or five listens in, a couple in open-air, most over headphones, what do I think and feel now?

It’s clear that this album is very tightly about rhythms, and luckily I find most of the rhythms here compelling, moreish, perhaps even fun. Parts remind me of Caribou, of CAN, of Four Tet. Little By Little (like a live band playing something off Pause by Four Tet, tongue-clicks and squeaky toys and backwards spinning riffs and all), Mr Magpie (so taut, so spidery, such a gorgeous bass sound, such hiccupping in the stereo channels by Mr Yorke), Lotus Flower (handclaps! dancing!), and Separator are all sensuously, rhythmically enjoyable, and deliver tension and beauty alongside the grooves too (especially Separator).

I think the album’s brevity is a big plus – nothing outstays a welcome, even though some people I know think Bloom does when compared to Flying Lotus, who seems like a clear influence for that track (alongside, possibly, Talk Talk, in the orchestration – which means, actually, DJ Shadow or, more appositely, UNKLE feat. Thom Yorke, if you see what I mean). I have to disagree though, as I think Bloom gets to stretch out in a way that Flying Lotus doesn’t let his music enjoy.

I enjoy how low key the whole record is. It almost feels like a compilation of b-sides, and I do love b-sides, except that it seems to flow together. Separator is definitely a closing track; to me it feels like going home, dapples of green light, space, air. The first “side” of the record is perhaps the more action side, the more rhythmic side, and the second “side” retreats into quietude a little more, spreads out with Codex and Give Up The Ghost. I think the latter is the prettiest thing they’ve released in well over a decade, actually; is that the sound of someone thumping an acoustic guitar’s body with the ball of their thumb? A friend tells me it’s been Thom tapping a microphone and looping it when played live.

Feral I’m not bothered by; at first I thought it perhaps had something of James Blake about it, and it perhaps does a little, but it’s revealing itself as closer to the more abstract moments of Four Tet and Caribou, again.

And it’s the influence, or sonic redolence, of those two artists that explains why I’m enjoying this so much more than I usually do a Radiohead record. I had no expectations of The King Of Limbs at all; why would I? I’m not a fan the way (most of) the rest of the ex Stylus guys are, for instance. When Radiohead have been “important”, when they have “mattered”, I’ve not cared for them at all. It seems now as if they don’t care about “mattering”, and I like tem a whole lot more. What does that say about me? It says I should go back and find out if they always sounded as if they cared about “mattering”.

A crappy view

As someone who’s racked up over 8,000 tweets, been using Facebook since it was a closed network available only to those with “prestigious” university email addresses, been running blogs for very close to a decade, and spent half of last week traversing the country from Loughborough to Falmouth in order to demonstrate to people how to use social media in a higher education context, I often take it for granted that everyone can see the value of these online tools we use everyday. But this is resolutely not the case.

For instance, the talk I gave in Loughborough was split into two parts: 50% how we built our new university B2B website, and 50% hints and tips on social media usage. I expected everyone to be more interested in the latter; people in higher education are, surely, by nature, more open to new ideas, are they not? But no; the people who rushed to speak to me before I jumped back in the car and drove southwards were interested in the website development, which I took to be old hat and common sense in 2011. Social media and online networking seemed to scare them.

But HE isn’t the only sector still behind the times, far from it. The enterprising manager of a local multiplex cinema chain set-up a Twitter account for the branch she managed, which she used to publicise screenings, network with customers and local businesses, and generally engage with the local community. Normally my wife and I would feel obliged to go to the local independent cinema, which usually shows the kind of slightly leftfield films we enjoy (foreign films about the desolation of the human spirit, for instance).

But a rash of mainstream films we liked the look of (from Toy Story 3 to Inception), combined with less comfortable seats and viewing angles at the independent, plus a vague irritation with the fact that much of the independent’s clientele seemed like the kind of people who attended a local independent cinema in order to avoid riffraff rather than enjoy a great film, and, of course, the manager’s engagement with Twitter, meant we ended up feeling more comfortable at the multiplex chain, and it became our cinema of choice.

In fact, the manager’s willingness to engage with her customers lead to a little bit of lobbying and campaigning on my behalf and the midnight screening of a film (psycho-sexual gene-horror sci-fi Splice) that no other cinema in our area was going to show. I was told if I could guarantee a dozen bums on seats, it would cover costs. The first night it showed there were about 22 people there, maybe 8 of whom I didn’t know at all (the rest were friends, colleagues, and film-buff associates of mine). It felt like an awesome little event, a private cinema club that made for great goodwill towards the cinema brand and which was thoroughly enjoyable for all (even if the film wasn’t quite to everybody’s taste!).

Splice played at midnight for the rest of the week, and I gather there were people there for each screening. Had the manager not been on Twitter and chatting with her customers, this wouldn’t have happened. The manager also organised, via Twitter, for various local business people and customers to have a tour of the cinema, seeing projection rooms and so on, which garnered yet more positive comments and appreciation of the brand online (this I couldn’t attend; I was,frankly, more than a little gutted).

How is this showing a misunderstanding of social media, I hear you ask? Early on in her Twitter engagement, the manager asked for justifications that she could give to head office for having a local presence. I listed a load, and I doubt I was alone. This morning she tweeted that the branded account she’d been using for the last year or so was regretfully going to cease, and that we should follow her personal account instead (which I have duly done). It’s not been said in so many words, but my inference is that word has come from the top that she’s “not allowed”.

I understand fully the value of protecting your brand; a big slice of my day job is spent trying to convince researchers that they don’t need a logo for every little project and centre when we have a perfectly good, very well recognised and valued one for the whole university. But social media allows people who love your brand to spread that love around, allows a peep into the personalities of the people behind the brand. When it became obvious that the manager of our local chain cinema loved films as much as we did, and was willing to engage with customers, absorb ideas, enterprise, innovate, and connect, we felt a sense of loyalty to a brand that we had absolutely none for before.

Head office has just put a big dirty black smudge over that loyalty.

Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

It’s been a long week, so no blogging. I’ve driven 700 miles up and down the country, to Loughborough, to Cornwall, for work, spent three evenings apart from my wife in a row (the most since long before we were married), and explained to dozens of people how to use the internet without actually having time to use it myself much at all.

So now, Radiohead, The King Of Limbs, named after an ancient oak tree. In 1996 I had my brain squeegeed clean by Orbital’s In Sides album, my first encounter with full-on techno. One day I’ll write about that experience here in depth, but for now I’ll just say that it altered by relationship with “rock” music forever.

In 1997 I had my brain squeegeed clean once again, this time by Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, which further cemented that change in my relationship with “rock”. I heard it way before I heard OK Computer, and as a result, when I did hear OK Computer, despite the ravings of my friends and the music press, I was pretty much nonplussed. At the end of the year I was surprised that people were talking about the Radiohead album more than the Spiritualized one (albeit only just), as it was the latter that seemed to me to be both more tuneful, more human, more emotional, more experimental, more radical, and more of an artistic achievement.

I’ve remained nonplussed by Radiohead ever since. I like, perhaps even love, the sporadic song – Paranoid Android, Reckoner, The National Anthem, 15 Steps, Where I End And You Begin, Airbag – but I’ve never been able to fully embrace an album and I’ve never understood the hyperbole, the greatest, most important band in the world claims. Kid A was only radical if you were a Pearl Jam fan to my ears, but I guess that most people being radicalised by it were more likely into Pearl Jam than Squarepusher. Crucially, it didn’t, to my ears, ally that experimentalism to songwriting or to… something, some indefinable thing that I feel I know when I hear it but cannot extract or isolate, something that I feel lacks in a lot of Radiohead. In 2000 I got all the experimentation and radicalism promised in Kid A from XTRMNTR, perhaps, and Kid A seemed mathematical, cold, unexciting, and wan by comparison.

But I think a lot of my antipathy towards Radiohead is kicking too hard against the tide. What they do, have done, for a mainstream “rock” band, is pretty incredible. They have taken avant-garde influences and, if not popularised the source, fully integrated them into their music and made them accessible via their own music to millions of people. They’ve made “weird art”, to steal a phrase from Noel Gallagher, into a mainstream rock concern, and they’ve done it by and large on their own terms. I just wish they moved me more.

There was much discussion at Devon Record Club on Thursday night about how they’ve brought the communal listening experience back for a great deal of people through the release tactics for In Rainbows and The King Of Limbs. This is something to be admired too; I’m not sure if it’s an ironic juxtaposition that the music inciting these communal experiences is so isolationist, so cold. Last night I picked my wife up from a gathering of friends and colleagues, wine, olives, chit chat around a dining table like young professionals do, and they were playing the best of Blur. I don’t imagine people choosing a Radiohead album or playlist for an equivalent gathering.

So, The King Of Limbs. At this stage in their career, 20 years from debuting (if not quite debut album), Radiohead have been arch, frosty experimental isolationists rather than a rock band (if we take Kid A as a turning point) for more than half of the length of their career and for the considerable bulk of their recorded output. That The King Of Limbs features skittering rhythms, echoing, strangulated vocals compressing and corrupting a formerly strong melodic influence, thrumming, oppressive bass, mournful, uncomfortable brass, interwoven layers of electronic noise, and pointillist, beautiful, but shy patinas of guitar, should be of no surprise to anyone. It sounds entirely of a lineage with Hail To The Thief (but blessedly more concise) and In Rainbows (but cursedly less approachable). There is a song (Feral) that could be construed as post-James-Blake (how accelerant is our culture now that we are “post” an album released less than two weeks ago). There is less of the organic swing that made much of In Rainbows pleasurable, more cutting, more glitching, but not so much as on Amnesiac. There is nothing quite so absent as the most absent moments of Kid A but also nothing quite so strident as the most strident moments of Kid A. If you heard These Are My Twisted Words then you will know the aesthetic that runs through The King Of Limbs; rhythmic, kraut-y, subdued… the sound of Radiohead in the 21st century. I’d suggest, if you find The King Of Limbs too short at 38 minutes, that you append this stand-alone song somehow.

Tellingly, on the penultimate song (Give Up The Ghost) Yorke reinforces his main vocal with a tired sounding backing vocal requesting, “don’t mourn for me”; immediately afterwards, in the beatific, laconic Separator, he croons, “if you think this is over then you’re wrong”.

I have listened to The King Of Limbs once. I enjoyed it.

So, Arcade Fire won a Grammy (and still got nuked out of the news by Radiohead)

Last night we watched the BAFTAs, which is quite a regular occurrence (well, once a year) because Em loves film award shows. And to be honest I like them too: it’s a bit like watching people win medals at the Olympics; as I get older I get more and more of an emotional rush from seeing someone work hard for something and be rewarded for it. Of course there are the off-putting, gushing acceptance speeches to deal with from time-to-time, but that’s par for the course. And occasionally you witness a nice, deserved surprise.

There were very few surprises at last night’s ceremony though, bar David Fincher beating Tom Hooper to the Best Director accolade; as predicted, The King’s Speech cleaned up, with best actor, best supporting actor, best supporting actress, best original music, best film, and a load of others too, I imagine. (Toy Story 3 ended up with “best adapted screenplay”, wtf?)

But there was a surprise when I woke up at about 4.30am and checked Twitter; Arcade Fire won the Grammy for best album. wtf?

I hadn’t even realised the Grammys were on, because I really couldn’t give a damn about them in the slightest. This is because the Grammys give ridiculous awards that make no sense. For instance, in 2011, giving an award for Best Male Rock Vocal (a stupid category to give an award in anyway) to Paul McCartney for Helter Skelter. Now I love Helter Skelter, properly adore it, listened to it very loud just the other day, in fact, and consider it to be without doubt a very great performance by everyone involved. But it’s on The White Album, and came out in 1968, and only a crowd of braindead moronic music haters could possibly even consider giving it a Grammy in 2011.

Several years ago I interviewed a band and the guitarist, who is very English and very Northern, said something along the lines of “every time you sit down to write a song you imagine winning a Grammy”, which I always considered to be a massively odd thing for anyone other than a country singer from Nashville to say. But, you know, people are different and that’s cool.

So at 4.30am I was greeted by various American music people who I vaguely know going either batshit and tweeting shocked responses or else completely insane things like “we won!” and “we did it!”, or, amongst the slightly more sceptical, things like this and this, both of which I agree with way, way more than the outpourings of triumphalism.

Don’t get me wrong; I quite like The Suburbs (which is a lot more than I like Funeral and a little bit more than I like Neon Bible), and I know people who know and/or have worked with Arcade Fire, and it’s a great, massive, career-highlight achievement to win a Grammy, which are normally reserved for the likes of Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Norah Jones, and Steely Dan (i.e. massive irresistible crossover hip hop, straightforwardly massive country, sensitive but popular chanteuses, or horrific AOR), or, you know, The Beatles.

But it’s still a Grammy, and the Grammys are, well… Everett True said it best, perhaps. Although a part of me feels as if crowing about how stupid and useless the Grammys are, from a flat in Exeter, is even more small-minded and indie than the whole “we won” and “we did it” nonsense.

Which is what grates me the most about this, I think. I’m not going to write a think piece about what “indie music” is, because the term is pretty stupid and efforts to define it just make the writer look stupid by association too. But it seems pernickety in the extreme to think of a band whose latest album hit number one on both sides of the Atlantic in its first week of release, who sell out Madison Square Gardens, who are lauded with “album of the year” plaudits all over the shop, as some kind of underdog. This isn’t Mega City Four or even Spoon. (They both have songs called Underdog; dyswidt?)

I suppose I used to feel to an extent, about some bands, that being a fan wasn’t all that far removed from following a football team; the sublimation of self within a crowd, being a part of unravelling narratives that are bigger than yourself, the joy at measurable triumphs (3 points; a top ten single), validation that something you care about is good, is successful, is liked and respected by others. But not all that much and really not these days.

I guess and it comes down to solipsism again. That or age. I grew up discovering music in a bedroom in Devon, on my own, exploring stuff that revealed new worlds to me, which made my existence more beautiful or exciting or mysterious. It wasn’t a tribalistic thing for me particularly because I had no tribe; none of my friends liked Orbital or Björk, even if they did like The Stone Roses or The Verve. And The Suburbs is explicitly about tribalism, and musical tribalism at that, about adolescence and slowly leaving it, about driving from the drive-in cinema to the mall to the middle of nowhere and defining yourself and your friends by what you listen to and what you wear; about feeling outcast by mainstream society by embraced by your own subculture. I’ve read Dick Hebdige. So it’s not surprising that, when a band who makes music about those themes wins an award like a Grammy, it should feel, to some people, like a well deserved triumph, like a mutual success, like a validation.

Which makes it even crueller, or funnier if you’re in that sort of mood, that Radiohead have announced today that their new album will be available to download on Saturday, and thus that, even though it’s only a few hours since the Grammys finished, Arcade Fire’s success is already old news. Because if “indie” fans are anything, it’s fickle. I should now. I’m the ficklest of all.

Top Ten Search Terms

Please forgive the marvelous solipsism of this post, but I find the ways that people discover things on the internet absolutely fascinating, especially when they relate directly to the content I’ve posted on this blog.

I spend quite a chunk of time at work looking through search engine terms that have referred people to the university website, but I’m not sick enough of it to prevent me doing exactly the same thing at home.

If I’m being honest, part of the reason I’m blogging is to investigate this, to autodidactically teach myself search engine optimization. At least that’s the theory; in practice I’m doing a combination of trolling for hits and lolling at the strangeness of the world.

Anyway, this morning I checked my search engine referrals as usual, and there was such an awesome way into this blog that I thought it’s time for a top ten. So here they are; not chosen purely for how many hits they’ve brought in, nor purely for how much they’ve made me lol or smdh or go wtf, but for a combination of all three reasons, and then some more, that I don’t even understand myself.

1. chick masturbating in black swan
This is the term that caused the list when I spotted it this morning. Technically I think the googler should have used the term “cygnet”, but you can’t have everything.

2. asthmaticrap
I have no idea what “asthmaticrap” might be, but if you search it there are 6 results from google, the top two of which lead you to this blog and me using the term “asthmatic rap” in relation to Kanye West.

3. jamie oliver turkey and leek pie
Literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people have found this blog due to that term, which was a blatant attempt to trawl people in. It worked. It also turned up a billion variations on the phrasing – from “turkey pire jamei olire” to “sat nav cover jamie oliver turkey leek pie”. I mean, wtf?!

4. sick mouthy bog
Many variations on “sickmouthy” and “sick mouthy blog”, mainly used by my wife who is too idle to bookmark me, but the above typo (I think by my wife) remains my favourite. Another notable variation is “sick mouthy = twitter”. Stephen Fry is looking over his shoulder.

5. elongated uncut dick
I have no idea what they found, but I suspect it wasn’t what they were looking for.

6. too much of everything can make you sick
Again, not sure what this person was after, but I’m happy to oblige. I really like the phrase. Maybe I’ll title a blog post after it one day.

7. faceless techno bolloks (sic)
Brief and to the point. I just about recognized Dan Snaith at the Caribou Thekla gig in November, to be fair.

8. mouthy expander
Again, not sure my blog would have actually helped this person. I dare not ponder why they want to expand their mouth.

9. top films of the noughties
Leading to an old post from before I knew I could get such rich analytic data from WordPress (and thus before I started actively pimping), this search (and its variations) has brought a few hundred people here in the last 12 months or so. Hopefully it’s lead to some people watching some good films, too.

10. kanye west fantasy mastering
Again, several variations on this, including “kanye twisted overcompressed” and many others, heartening proof that I’m not the only one who thinks Mr West’s latest sounds like shit.

Home of the Black Swan

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in Dawlish, famous for being where Seth Johnson, arguably the fiscal straw that broke the camel’s back of Leeds United in the early 00s, grew up, and for having Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway run through it, and for meaning “Devil’s Water” (it’s not actually famous for this, but it is what Dawlish means), and not a lot else. Aside, possibly, from being “the home of the Black Swan”, after some philanthropic naturalist brought a colony of them here from Western Australia hundreds of years ago. For the last 40 years, the Black Swan has been the town’s emblem.

As if that preamble wasn’t obvious enough, we went to see Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan o Thursday night. It was good; possibly very good indeed. Natalie Portman’s performance as a disturbed, repressed, cracking-under-the-pressure prima ballerina is absolutely convincing. Winona Ryder’s casting as the ousted, fading former star is a stroke of meta-genius. The ballet sequences are shot cleverly and stylishly. The special effects are low-key and natural and all the more effective for it. Set design and clever visual motifs – like every scene bar one featuring a mirror or other reflective object (admittedly not hard to achieve in a film set largely in a ballet studio) – are recognisable but not obtrusive (unlike the edit-frenzy of Aronofsky’s former film, Requiem For A Dream). There are moments of heightened tension and fear that match with almost anything I’ve seen for expressing psychological and physical distress.

But, bar one or maybe two moments when I was physically jolted in my seat, I didn’t find it shocking, which I almost found a little disappointing given that a lamentation of people we know (is that the correct term for a group of swans? A ‘lamentation’?) had described it as shocking, as uncomfortable viewing. Having run a film library I’m probably spoilt for “uncomfortable viewing” (Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible; Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy Of Hell; Em and I still have a vague desire to watch Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist); Black Swan didn’t seem to me to be all that shocking. But then again, we are in February; Black Swan is Oscar-fodder and not confrontationally sexual and violent European arthouse.

I tweeted as much: that we had enjoyed Black Swan but couldn’t understand why people were finding it as shocking as they had expressed to us. Matos replied, and succinctly nailed it: “Its charge comes from its craft.”

Aronofsky, through Cassell, makes the film’s narrative explicit early on, when the ballet director spells out the plot of Swan Lake: beautiful girl turns into a swan, needs love to escape the spell, cannot find love, experiences painful duality of desire, kills herself, and in death finds release. The procession from there to Portman’s blissful, perfect denouement was inexorable; the film’s quality is in how it gets there. Aronofsky’s never been a narrative trickster, an inventive storywriter. He tells stories we already know, fills them with images, techniques, ideas and emotions that make them stand out (I’m making him sound better than I think he is: I’m a fan, not a stan). It’s a standard American horror trope, for instance, that if a girl experiences any kind of sexual awakening then she must die before the end of the film. What does that say about our attitude to female liberation?

So girl-on-girl cunnilingus is not shocking (we watched The Girl Who Played With Fire earlier in the week, which does the same thing but with an actually sensual, sexual edge rather than cold, chemical detachment) unless your attitude towards homosexuality is prehistoric. A girl masturbating (and not at all graphically) is equally not shocking unless your attitude towards women is prehistoric (go back and watch Pleasantville again). In fact, and I’ve seen no one else mention this, one of my biggest pleasures watching Black Swan was the flash of humour when Portman was almost caught masturbating by her (sleeping) mother.

Is Black Swan a horror film? Almost. But you don’t win Oscars with outright genre-films; I think it may have been better if it had been an outright horror film. I think Aronofsky could become as good as he wants to be, as he thinks he is, if he lightened up a touchand pursued this aspect of his work. The palpable fear when Portman’s character was alone in the darkened theatre was more effective than the guilt/lust/jealousy of her finding Cassell and Lilly at it behind the stage curtain.

Perhaps the biggest tension, though, was the one within me as I watched Black Swan; the tension of knowing that the feathering of her skin, the webbing of her toes, the killing of her rival, the speaking mouths of her mother’s portraits, were all in her mind, and my desire for the film to launch itself fully into magical realism, for Portman to actually turn into a black swan onstage, for it not to be in her mind, and for the film to embrace ludicrousness and shun tastefulness fully. But that doesn’t win Oscars.

In a first for this blog, today’s photo is not by me, but rather by Tom Ledger, because, amazingly, I’ve not got any in my Flickr archive of black swans – a side-effect of having bought our DSLR after we moved from Dawlish to
Exeter.