Thursday, 17 July 2008

Paint a vulgar picture

I watched the Joy Division film. And I thought it was pretty dreadful, veering off sharply into ghoulishness at the end. There is something fundamentally awful about the rock documentary genre as it's commonly practised anyway: I just don't want to hear from vague critics and scenesters about how electrifying something was or how you just knew you were hearing something profoundly amazing taking place. Presumably because primary video is scarce or nonexistent, or alternatively because it's too expensive, the whole thing seemed taken up with blokes reminiscing, and honestly, everyone's got hindsight.

That is a general complaint. In this movie I got specifically itchy about the absolute lack of thought about the punk rock narrative being assembled - it was repeatedly said that this band was not a commercial product and for its short life it successfully resisted cooptation into the maket and the industry. This is being said in voiceover while we're shown 'iconic' pictures of the group in Manchester, taken of course by a record company photographer who told them where to stand and how to look, and the screen is repeatedly triumphantly filled with approving reviews in music paper after music paper. After a certain point everything that happened to the band was presented as another instance of them 'making it' - going on the BBC, playing in Europe etc. Maybe it's right that Joy Division remained essentially amateur and consequently at liberty, I don't know enough about them to say. What I disliked was the argument that they did being made inside the genre frame of the aspirational artists successfully winning mass acclaim.

And then at the very end of the film when the appallingly sad details of the end of Ian Curtis's life were laid out, I thought that the preceding triumphant phrases about Joy Division's art began to seem almost inexcusably callous and shallow. Not only did nobody appear willing to say that his behaviour and especially his writing could have been picked up as the symptoms of extreme unhappiness that they were, nobody seemed to even be aware of this. It was obscene.

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