Archive for April 10, 2013

Depeche Mode Delta Machine

People I haven’t seen in years were messaging me about the new Depeche Mode album, Delta Machine (2013), because it made them think of me–perhaps because in high school I kind of defined myself with my Violator (1990) t-shirt and pansexual pose as the personal Jesus of anyone who dared to reach out and touch, well, me (few did… remember, I was also a hopeless nerd).

M_DepecheModeDeltaMachine Artwork

“In Your Room” and a couple of other tracks from Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993) inspired a few erotic fantasies, Ultra (1997) was good but not really DM-worthy, and Exciter (2001) didn’t live up to its name. Things were looking grim until the revelation that was Playing the Angel (2005), when the band seemed to recognize what it was–the most important leader in electronic music of the 80s and 90s–and seized the opportunity to create a dialogue with its early self in order to build a bridge into the early 21st century, something the band’s many progeny have tried and failed to do.

I have more to say about how the band has spanned the decades, and how Delta Machine comes close to being the band’s summa theologica that I’ve been praying for since they started reflecting on the art of playing at angelic maneuvers in the dark, but first let me just comment on that one album, Playing the Angel, one of the best alt-rock albums of the last decade. I’ll sum it up in two singles, “John the Revelator” and “Precious.” Both of these songs, and arguably the album as a whole, are answers to Violator, the apex of their career. On Violator, the song “Personal Jesus,” like many a bridge over troubled water, urges us to reach out and touch faith, and it could be about sex, drugs, religion, or all of the above. Similarly, “John the Revelator” has all the same resonances, as John could take us “up to the highest high,” but we’re also putting the Revelator on trial, letting him tell his “book of lies.” The music, while just as pounding, is almost exhausting–an addiction or fanaticism run itself dry. “Precious,” on the other hand, is the later album’s answer to Violator‘s “Enjoy the Silence.” Instead of telling us words are “like violence,” “Precious” tells us that “words left unspoken” leave us “brittle.” While both “Enjoy the Silence” and “Precious” are somber and trance-like, “Precious” borders on a dirge. Playing the angel is playing at wisdom, and it’s fucking beautiful.

Now then, I will devote a paragraph to the larger career of this longest-lasting of bands (ironically named after fleeting fashions), and then I will focus on their most recent accomplishment as a summa. When they began, they pioneered synth-pop with a kind of Marxist bubblegum aesthetic. I say bubblegum in that some of their synth riffs are so pop that one of my favorite early songs, “See You” (1982), sounds eerily like “And Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals (1963). More importantly, I say Marxist not just because teen-gay me had pictures of adorable Dave Gahan and Martin Gore in hard hats and suspenders sans shirts on his wall, but because lyrics to showstopper “Everything Counts” (1983) include “The handshake/seals the contract/from the contract/there’s no turning back.” And of course, “People are People” (1984): “So we’re different colors / and we’re different creeds/ and different people have different needs.” “Lie to Me” (1984): “Lie to me / like they do it at the factory / make me think that at the end of the day / some great reward will be coming my way.” People might be tempted to say that a big turn came in their career with the album Black Celebration (1986), which, as the title suggests, is when they turned quite Goth, and both music and lyrics became more dark, erotic, and introspective. However, just before, on Some Great Reward (1984), which gave us “Lie to Me” and reminded us (again) that “People are People” (the album of that name was released a few months earlier) we hear “Master and Servant,” the wonderfully sexual song that was also purely Hegelian, a fusion of sex and class critique: “It’s a lot like life… let’s play master and servant… in bed or in life/they’re both just the same/except in one you’re fulfilled/at the end of the day.” All the dark, brooding, self-indulgent sex-drugs-religion stuff that came after Black Celebration continues to be a lot like life, in that fulfilling self-indulgence continues to be a product of capitalist exhortations to hyperconsumerism and investments in fleeting fashion (which is what “depeche mode” means in French).

But Depeche Mode never forgot its original politics. They followed Black Celebration with their appropriately named stadium-tour supported album Music for the Masses (1987), which I have always read as a lyrical chronicle of adolescent discovery and eventual alienation culminating in the discovery that pleasure is the little treasure that, like playing master and servant, is the great reward awaiting us at the end a hard day of working at a thankless factory job (or its equally dehumanizing white collar equivalent).

So, now I have chronicled the troubled later phase of DM’s career, saved by Playing the Angel (and not hampered by the inferior but still good Sounds of the Universe, 2009) and then rewound through the Marxist bubblegum progression that brought them to this phase. Finally, to the point: their latest release, Delta Machine, the DM initialization of which receives bold emphasis in the album artwork. It’s the closest they’ve come to a self-titled album. Is Depeche Mode the Delta Machine? Is Delta Machine Depeche Mode’s manifesto? The opening track is called “Welcome to My World.” The temptation, folks, is powerful.

The trouble, however, as many of the album’s critics have noted, is the lyrics. They’re fairly generic–they continue to do that DM thing, mixing metaphors of sex and drugs and religion (track titles include “Angel” and “Heaven”), with very little direct room for reading in politics, which would seem to reinforce arguments suggesting that late DM left behind the commitments of early DM. I don’t think so, though, for two reasons. The first, less important reason, is a turn in lyrical trends that occurs (in the deluxe version, at least, which includes some extra tracks). In “Always,” the lyrics continue to be about intimate relationships, but they emphasize a need to “fight”–indeed, the song repeats that word “fight” many, many times. The final track, “All That’s Mine,” emphasizes that the speaker has lost himself. If “Master and Servant” is correct, and bed and life are the same, then the need to fight in relationships and the feeling of being lost in relationships are both comparable to the need to fight in social relations and the feeling of being lost in the field of social relations. And in 2013, what are we but lost in contradictory political rhetorics and economic helplessness? What do we feel but a need to fight, but we don’t know what, how, or whom?

But the strongest argument I have here is the music, which is really the Delta Machine. While recent DM has intriguingly continued to experiment with guitar riffs, the absence of which helped to define them in 80s, and post-Violator bluesy qualities continue to stand out as a pleasing contrast to up-tempo dance drives, this album is perhaps the most mechanical they have produced since Violator. Delta sounds are the sounds of sleep or, more profoundly, meditation and spirituality, so a delta machine in music is a mechanized production of sound engineered to create a spiritual response. It is, in this sense, a paradox–a machine with a soul. In that way, it is like Depeche Mode on multiple levels. Depeche Mode as Marxist pop embraced industrial sounds to raise consciousness about exploitations of industrialization. And Depeche Mode also named themselves after fleeting fashion and became a decades-spanning shaper of musical trends, an influencer of bands that have come and gone for decades while Depeche Mode themselves were anything but fleeting. So yes, Depeche Mode is the Delta Machine. I’m not willing to say that this album is the summa in that it’s the best they can do. It’s damned good, but I’m not willing to say it’s the end. But that’s just because they continue to wow me with seeming to be at the end of a talent that keeps coming back. Delta Machine might beg to differ, however, depending on how we take this lyric from the song “Secret to the End”:

It seems to obvious to you

You’re feeling what I’m feeling too

The final chapter in the contract expires soon

We’ve come to the end

Auteur sans Auteurism: Why I Wrote DARIO ARGENTO

Okay, misleading title–I wrote Dario Argento because I love most of his movies. I’m a fanboy, but this blog is about why my book takes a very non-fanboy approach to his work.

Dario Arrgento book cover

A recent Facebook discussion, spurred by a not-particularly-flattering review by Clayton Dillard in the online Slant Magazine, has inspired me to elaborate a bit on why I bothered to write a book about a single director, published in a “Contemporary Film Directors” series, no less, while eschewing the “auteurist” approach traditional for categorizing films according to their directors and considering directors as films’ “authors.”

Quite reasonably, on Facebook, Mr. Dillard asks, “the idea of a book titled with the name of a director — that does NOT take an auteurist approach — is a fascinating one, without question. But, doesn’t the very structure of the book (having to talk about all of his films) resist this kind of desired examination?”

The series resists my approach, but I followed all the series’ rules: I focused on the majority (not the entirety) of a single director’s works, I provided some juicy biographical notes, and I showed chronological developments and trends, emphasizing critical perspectives without merely providing a chronological history of the director’s production. What I refused to do, however, is focus on questions of stylistic development over time, particularly as they pertain to the director’s personal relationships, psychological struggles, personal visions, or individual prejudices or hangups. I am not interested in what Mr. Dillard refers to as “a more existential explanation for Argento’s cinema.” I think Mr. Argento is someone I’d very much like to know, but I don’t know him, and I don’t feel like I need to know him to find meaning in his works. I see trends of meaning in his works without needing to delve into the mysteries of a singular human being behind them. I am interested in psychoanalysis as a phenomenon, but I am not a psychoanalyst. My goal in Dario Argento is to develop a methodology for approaching the oeuvre of an auteur for which the actual identity and interiority of the auteur is more or less irrelevant. I think I succeeded. If “Dario Argento” turns out to be a group of quadrupedal aliens posing as a single Italian man who likes to cast his daughter in strange roles, my arguments will not need to change significantly.

The bottom line is that auteurism, the politique des auteurs, was useful in its day, but that day was a long time ago, and it’s over. Its originators in the Cahiers du Cinema have more or less admitted that they exaggerated their cases for political ends. The idea that art was great depended on it coming from the imaginations of great men, so, in order to be treated as art, film had to be attributed to great individuals rather than great collaborations, hence the Godards and Truffauts and so on. Timothy Corrigan and others have usefully helped us to keep thinking about auteurs as marketing phenomena; the director as master artist is still a useful and meaningful concept. I mostly think of “Dario Argento” as a brand. In my book Dario Argento, “Dario Argento” is a brand that marks a series of films with common rhetorical strategies.

My book divides the strategies into four movements. The first movement pits the Argento brand against criticism, particularly feminist criticism, which I epitomize through Laura Mulvey and other commonly anthologized figures (after all, the book is supposed to be accessible to undergrads and layfolk). Mr. Argento may or may not be misogynistic (I think not, but I don’t know, and his films’ violence will always lay the films open to such accusation), but they rhetorically open dialogue with accusations of misogyny that are potentially productive. The second movement pits the brand against psychoanalytic interpretation. The third, against narrative. The fourth, against genre conventions. I feel my job was to give the most attention to the best-known works, so there’s more on Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) in relation to Psycho (1960), the intertextuality of which got Argento dubbed “The Italian Hitchcock”, than on lesser-known works. I also provide lots and lots of commentary on Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). I do give Argento’s later works less space (but MUCH more space than Maitland McDonagh’s 2010 reissue of her 1994 book version of her master’s thesis). I think these works are worth consideration, and I do have things to say about them that I think indicate important contributions to film history, but proportions reflect market interests in addition to general assessment of the films’ importance. However much I may like Sleepless (2001)–which is brilliant–it’s nowhere near as important in film history as Suspiria, so I’m not going to apologize for giving it fewer pages in a book that’s supposed to give readers an intro to the director’s oeuvre.

If you really want a good auteurist take on Dario Argento, I can’t offer a strong enough recommendation of Alan Jones’s work. When working on my book, Jones’s was called Profondo Argento, but now he has Dario Argento: The Man, The Myth, & The Magic (2012). Jones has been right beside Argento through almost every step of the maestro’s career, so no one is likely to top his insights into what makes the man tick. If you want plot summaries, production notes, and trivia, James Gracey’s Dario Argento (2010) is pretty darned useful. There are lots of other popular books on the maestro out there, the only ones of which I can recommend are Chris Gallant’s Art of Darkness (2002) and Luigi Cozzi’s Giallo Argento (2006… pretty much have to order it directly from Rome). The only other academic book I know of in English is Maitland McDonagh’s, and other than it being first, I only commend its Jungian and Proppian analyses of the first two of the Three Mothers films. Otherwise, well, read my book instead.

I hope I’m not encouraging more bad reviews by responding at such length to them, but really, I appreciate Clayton Dillard for saying things that were smart enough to be worth responding to, agreeing in large enough part to disagree in small parts worth explaining. Thank you, Mr. Dillard. You are an insightful critic. I hope this dialogue is but a first.

Public Reading, No Audience: Ballsy, Crazy, Stupid?

Turns out that actor Bill Moseley is intelligent and, at least after talking to him a bit, a heckuva a nice guy. But he freaked me right out when he interrupted the reading I was doing this morning at the Full Moon Horror Festival in Nashville, TN to tell me I was being unfair to atheists. To have someone I didn’t immediately recognize march up on stage and interrupt a public reading that already had me nervous as hell was bad enough, but then to realize that the dude is, in horror circles, pretty much a superstar (Devil’s Rejects, 2005, and many more) felt like my career had just dived into the hungry mouth of an active volcano.


Mr. Moseley can be quite scary but quite nice, too.


Let me back up a bit. To support that novel I keep writing about, Burning the Middle Ground (read it yet? why not? you’re really missing out!), fabulous BlackWyrm Publishing sent me and my partner James to the aforementioned horror festival. Since I was the only author in the BlackWyrm booth, I decided to keep it interesting by doing readings from my work.


The 10′ x 10′ booth that I tried to make interesting by doing creative readings.


If you’ve ever been to one of these festivals, you might be able to imagine the scene around this booth: loud music, people walking by in bizarre (but fascinating and often impressively artistic) costumes, chatting, drinking, and doing anything but paying attention to whatever is being shouted by the vendors lining every aisle and vying for attention. So I was doing the nerd convention equivalent of standing on a street corner in midtown Manhattan reading from an obscure (allegedly holy) text and expecting to convert passersby on their ways to things they actually think are important. But hey–it was either that or do nothing, right? Between crazy street preacher and nothing, I’ll take crazy. Faulkner said that.

Sadly, this morning, I was on the edge of losing my voice from shouting passages from my novel, and my whole plan had been to read the big Easter passages from my novel on Easter morning, so I had to do something. So I got special permission to use the mic on the temporarily unoccupied stage. Eureka! I read a scene in which my good preacher Jeanne Harper preaches the gospel while besieged by demonic ghosts. Before I got to the part where bad preacher Michael Cox starts burning people alive, Bill Moseley concluded that I was actually delivering an Easter sermon.

I almost lost my nerve, but, well, on the edge of total humiliation, I have a tendency to jump right over instead of running and hiding. Mr. Moseley left the stage, and I not only finished my reading, but I marched right over to his booth, broke into his autograph line, and asked him how exactly a story about a preacher who burns people alive is unfair to atheists. A really smart conversation ensued–Moseley needed about two minutes of discussion of what my novel is really about to realize that it’s a quasi-Marxist critique of religion and that my work and his really have quite a lot in common. I gave him a signed copy as a gift, and we parted on good terms. My stomach was in knots, but I think it all turned out for the best. He even said he’d read the book… if the book is ever optioned, I’m imagining how he might perform in the role of my evil preacher Michael Cox… very intriguing….

Not a lot of sales at this convention, but some potentially good exposure, and maybe even a couple of other good stories I could tell. I felt crazy and stupid doing my readings without a (visible) audience, and after I did the reading with the mic, a couple of strangers (who I didn’t even know were listening) told me it was really ballsy. I can’t believe tomorrow is Monday–I totally need a weekend to recover from my weekend, as my nerves are completely fried–but until I really do go crazy or lose my nerve, I’ll keep acting stupid in public in order to share my fiction with fellow aficionados of scary stories that touch every part of the nervous system, brain included.