A Longing I'll Never Dispel
152 · 25 December 97
Adrian Borland: 5:00am
Here's a method for judging the approximate general intellectual level of a community: go to the local movie theater on a Friday or Saturday night, and see a film that involves at least a nominal amount of thought (if no films involving thought are playing, you don't need this test). Sit up front. Watch the movie, and when it ends, sit and watch the credits. When the entire film is over, studio insignia and all, then, and only then, turn around and see if there's anybody left in the theater other than you. The more people you see, the smarter the place. This isn't a test for individual intelligence -- plenty of smart, thoughtful people don't watch the credits of movies -- but a place in which nobody cares to see the list of people who spent a sizable fraction of their lives to give you a couple hours of flickering distraction, that's a place that probably doesn't care much, collectively, about a host of other potentially important things, either.
This test occurred to me because I see most movies at one of two theaters. The good one, a Landmark built a couple years ago in Kendall Square, not far from MIT and a hundred East Cambridge software and biotech offices, is clearly Boston's best first-run "art" house, where by "art" we mean "no Die Hard movies". I sit up front, because I like my big-screen experiences to be big, and I watch credits, myself, because I was a film-making major in college, and if film students don't watch credits, who will? At the ends of films there, as esoteric as Fast, Cheap and Out of Control or as popular as The Full Monty, I am never alone. The theater is also clean and attractive, the seats are comfortable, the screens are large and the sound is good. I'd see every movie there, if I had the choice. I live, and the relationship between my community test and this fact is not coincidence, around the corner.
Unfortunately, a complete film-going life also requires the occasional expedition to a mainstream megaplex, to see Claire Danes in a bit part, or something that cost too much money to make it all back playing the same theaters as Shall We Dance? If I'm lucky, the movie I need to see will be playing at the theater in Harvard Square, another decent one, but usually I'm not. My bad theater, then, is a Loews complex in Assembly Square, sandwiched in between a mall that all the good stores moved out of a long time ago, a sprawling Home Depot, and two highways that take you nowhere useful. Here, I am always the last to leave. People begin bolting for the exits the moment the soundtrack starts making concluding noises, in fact, frantically swarming out into the parking lot in their haste, I assume, to get on with whatever the next mindless distraction in their lives is scheduled to be. I don't understand how people can live that way. The only thing that keeps me going to movies is the hope that each new one will, like a handful do every year (this year's list: Chasing Amy; The Substance of Fire; Ulee's Gold; Career Girls; My Best Friend's Wedding; The Designated Mourner; Sling Blade; A Life Less Ordinary; I Love You, I Love You Not; All Over Me), affect my life for longer than its running length. But these people clawing over each other on their way to drive-through burgers, or whatever else is open in Somerville that late, don't even give movies the chance. They come late, and leave early, and probably miss at least five or ten minutes in the middle getting popcorn refills, or answering their cell phone. They watch movies like they watch TV, I guess, and if movie theaters had remote controls they'd probably be flipping, impatiently, from one screen to the next, scanning for nudity or explosions. They fill me with a misanthropic queasiness (or perhaps that was the drive-through burger). The films I see there often exacerbate my misanthropy, as well. The house I was on the verge of buying, before I found this one, when I had almost given up on finding one I both liked and could afford, is two blocks away from this theater, and I suspect my life there would have been tinged, indelibly, with disgust.
The latest film to necessitate a trek to the bad theater was Titanic. I'm normally wary of each new most-expensive-film-ever (I still think it was cowardly of the people who made Waterworld to not call it Wet Max), but the previews for Titanic hooked me, not with the teasers for the wreck itself, but with the moment where Billy Zane, up to his waist in water in a flooded ballroom, emptying his pistol after the fleeing Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, barks, venomously, "I hope you enjoy your time together". The line echoes Gaff's parting shot, in Blade Runner, for me, both in manner of delivery and emotional content, a spray of bitter vitriol at the thought that somebody has found happiness where the speaker did not. And the idea that three people could be so caught up in their romantic travails that one of them is shooting at the other two while the ship they're on is sinking gave me hope that the monumental expense of the film had gone, at least partially, as Independence Day's, for example, did not, toward telling a worthwhile story.
In fact, Titanic is dedicated to its story so passionately that the tale threatens, at least for me, to upstage the special effects. I think James Cameron has finally made the movie that Shakespeare would have made, had he modern means and history. DiCaprio and Winslet reek of Romeo and Juliet (class differences taking the place of his missing family, to hold them apart) (and ah, what I would give for it to have been Winslet in Baz Luhrmann's film, and Claire Danes in this one), the supporting players execute their cameos with an aplomb that suggests Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead shadow lives, the action returns to themes and sets with a dramatic single-mindedness, and the ocean full of bobbing corpses, at the end (I hope I'm not ruining anything for you: the ship sinks, and lots of people die), is as arresting a tableaux of the consequences of human hubris as anything Shakespeare's plays ever ended with. He would have flooded the Globe and ripped it open down the middle if he could have, I know he would. The spectacles in this movie, though, as in his plays, are there to enhance the storytelling, not substitute for it. There was no narrative point, in Independence Day, to having the alien destructo-rays be narrow and coherent, and strike through the center of urban landmarks; they did because the filmmakers knew audiences would cheer at the sight of the White House being blown up. Independence Day was not a story, it was an anthology of special effects, tied together with the thinnest, shallowest plot they could conveniently steal from the same better films they were stealing special-effects ideas from, already. Titanic, on the other hand, is a desperately tragic period love-story, cleverly woven into a modern frame tale, and the point of setting it on and around the most famous sinking ship in history is to emphasize love's power to transcend any context. It wasn't simulating the death of the Titanic that cost so much, it was simulating its life. I don't necessarily think it is a great movie -- there's a little more sledgehammer foreshadowing than I'd like, and the twist in the frame tale isn't quite enough to keep me from feeling like Winslet's character goes from depending on one man to depending on another -- but I did not leave the theater thinking, as I often do after seeing big-budget movies, about all the better uses the money could have been put to. We make films like this, like previous generations build pyramids and castles, because they demonstrate our collective power and will, and give us something to look up at, so we aren't always staring at our own tired feet.
I fear, though, that many of the people with whom I shared this experience, physically, didn't really share it at all. They suffered the long pre-wreck section of the film restlessly, and I don't know if the scale of the payoff was sufficient. Titanic, after all, did not explode, it sank, and slowly at that. The visual climax of the film is, compared to the manic final battle of Independence Day, or the white-knuckle pursuits of Jurassic Park, surprisingly restrained. The scary shot of a man, in mid-fall from the upended stern of the ship, hitting a railing and spinning into the water, far below, stands out because the gruesome ends most of the victims meet are just not very histrionic. There is nothing to cheer for in the wreck of the Titanic, no slimy lawyers to have their heads ripped off by T. Rex, no metropolises to be swallowed in lava, no terrorists to get drop-kicked out of an airplane hatch without a parachute. The villains, to the extent that there are any, all either get away, or accept their fates with enough humility and grace that it's hard to be gleeful about it. And frankly, to me, some of the most ambitious special effects are the least effective. We will get to the point, I'm sure, where computer animation is essentially indistinguishable from live-action footage, but we aren't there yet. The massive pistons of the ship's engine lacked massivity; the stiff motions of the figures on deck in the dramatic fly-over made the ship seem more like an architect's model than an actual ocean liner; the propellers, when they finally rise out of the water in the distance, were missing the distance cues that would have made me see, as well as feel, what the people in the lifeboats experienced. "The actual experience", Rose explains, drily, after being shown a diagrammatic reconstruction of the sinking, "was somewhat different." At a few points I'm pretty sure this is true of the ostensibly photo-realistic reconstruction, as well.
But spectacles still pull crowds. Take the sinking out of Titanic, and you'd be left, cinematically, with The Wings of the Dove, and nobody in their right mind would have underwritten a $200-million mannered historical romance. The trailer for Godzilla was shown before Titanic, and my guess is that most of the audience were sold on the mere idea of watching an hour and a half of state-of-the-art monster dismantling New York. They watch these movies like they watch Fourth-of-July fireworks or, for that matter, sunsets: the scale of the pyrotechnics is its own justification; there's no need for it to mean anything. The mysterious thing, to me, is that this superficial slavery to spectacle doesn't currently appear to obtain in music. There was a while around the end of the Seventies when sounding like you had a thousand guitarists playing at once was enthusiastically encouraged, and U2, at least, owe their global stardom, to some extent, to the cinematic grandeur of The Joshua Tree, but none of the other bands that, to me, best translated epic drama into musical arrangements, like Big Country, the Alarm, the Simple Minds, the Waterboys, Midnight Oil, Hunters and Collectors or the Call, did anywhere near as well. Bono may soon be rich enough to just purchase Northern Ireland and render all the politics of occupation moot, but the rest of them are lucky to get their records released in the US at all, any more. The roll call of past heroes of The Big Music is a depressing census of people whose survival is a testament to their own determination, not a product of how the economy would operate if I ran the world.
Adrian Borland is a particularly emblematic case. His old band, The Sound, wasn't all that successful in what passed for their heyday, even, and his solo career has had, at least in the US, virtually no visibility. Perhaps his closest brush with fame is that ex-Chameleons singer Mark Burgess, on another album that wasn't released here (Paradyning, Mark's collaboration with Yves Altana), wrote a song called "Adrian Be" about him. But I discovered the Sound belatedly, last year, when Renascent reissued The Shock of Daylight & Heads and Hearts and In the Hothouse, and this resulted, inevitably, in my trying to track down Adrian's subsequent solo albums. The one I found first was 1995's Cinematic, which was released in the US, in 1996, by the Hoboken label Setanta. The title boded well, but the album itself actually arrested my Borland binge before it got to the importers to order the rest of the catalog. The music had an impressive sweep to it, but the production seemed to me to emphasize the mechanical repetitiveness of the arrangements, which Gary Numan can sometimes carry off (on the albums, at least, that aren't clones of their predecessors), but Borland, I thought, couldn't. Much of the singing also pushed at the lower end of Borland's dynamic range, where, to my ears, the lack of air flow began to affect his ability to sing in tune. So perhaps, I concluded, my energy would be better applied to scouring used-vinyl stores for the rest of the Sound's albums, instead of worrying about what came after. In fact, I passed up the first copy of 5:00am I spotted during my recent London rounds, thinking that there, at least, was a £16 I could avoid contributing to my own personal trade deficit. But I couldn't find any Sound records in London, either, and the pro-Borland sentiments I thus failed to give outlet to turned on me, in their exasperation, and demanded that I give him the only other chance available.
And, hearteningly, 5:00am turns out to sound exactly the way I wanted Cinematic to. Borland's voice, when he sings like he means it, is a glorious amalgam of Burgess, Ian McNabb, Ian McCulloch, Mike Peters, Jim Kerr and Then Jerico's Mark Shaw, the breathy intimacy that for me misfired on Cinematic here filling, elegantly, the roll that hoarse fervor played in his singing with the Sound. If punk's vocal lesson was that people who can't sing can be singers, New Wave's corollary was that people who don't sing that well can be awesome singers, passion substituting admirably for technique. The production, similarly, seems to me to regain its bearings, and here brings out the alternately atmospheric and pulsing synthesizers, the alternately roaring and echoing guitars, the galvanizing backing-vocal wails, the unhurried snap of the drums, and the odd flugelhorn flourish. The swirling, anthemic "Stray Bullets" is everything that made the Big Music intoxicating and New Wave charming, like a cross between "With or Without You" and "Don't You (Forget About Me)" that translates Jim Kerr's elfin dancing into U2's expansive landscape. The sighing "Dangerous Stars", with a scratchy drum loop percolating under twinkling synthesizers and Edge-style ping-pong guitars, is like an excerpt from the smaller, quieter follow-up to The Joshua Tree that U2 never made. "Vampiric" sounds like a Catherine Wheel song tempered by a long weekend, just before recording it, spent listening to Echo and the Bunnymen's Ocean Rain. "Baby Moon" mixes in chiming acoustic guitars and pixie-dust synth shimmers, the churning "City Speed" wouldn't have been out of place on the Simple Minds' Sparkle in the Rain, and the muted, moody "Kissing in the Dark", when it erupts into calliope keyboard glissandos, reminds me obliquely of Gardening by Moonlight. "I'm Your Freedom" is spare, organic and haunting, mostly Borland's acoustic guitar, producer Tim Smith's whirring harmonium, and some violin credited only to "Smudge", with a bit of gruff, Shriekback-like backing vocals towards the end. The verses of "The Spinning Room", contrastingly, are determinedly mechanistic, a beepy keyboard whine bubbling dreamily through them like an early draft of an alarm-clock sound that they found, in testing, people would happily sleep through. The choruses are all resonating guitar chords, though, and the ragged "Redemption's Knees", with blaring guitar, near-rockabilly vocal slapbacks, slinky shaker percussion and a sturdy drum stomp, could be a Mike Peters song. Then again, "Between Buildings" has a static-y drum loop Borland could have borrowed from Gary Numan, glassy keyboards that might have come from a Simple Minds instrumental, a rubbery Jah Wobble-ish bass line and thin, buzzy vocal processing, and the sweeping, massed guitar and piano chords in the chorus can only increase the solemnity of the pace. The album kicks in the pop rapture once more before it ends, with the galloping, affectionate "Over the Under", all ahhing choruses, sunny Waterboys-esque trumpets and wiry keyboard hooks, which sounds to me like what the Alarm might have evolved into if the atmosphere of Eye of the Hurricane hadn't turned out to be a tangent.
Borland opts to end the record, however, with a quiet song, the slow, mostly acoustic "Before the Day Begins". "When you drowned in the sea of life, / Did your own one make no sense?", he asks, and this has, for me, the ring of self-awareness, as if he has learned, through painful experience, that reaching the cusp of revelation in a song doesn't always correspond to crossing over into it back in the world of clammy movie-theater floors, belligerent impatience, mass-produced aggression and a decade of music that would rather stew in its own transient, small-world street-toughness than yearn, vulnerably, for bigger things. And one could contend, reasonably enough, that the cathartic swells of songs like these are no different, qualitatively, from movie explosions, attempts to cater to one reflex or another in our system of perceptions, whether or not we agree with the content of the gesture (if, indeed, it has content). But fireworks and sunsets are, to me, aesthetic atavisms, things our primitive ancestors would have understood just as well. Movie explosions are even worse, because they combine our brainless fascination with bright lights with an ability to ignore the amoral perversity of being pleased by a picture of people dying, if it's only shiny enough. A song like these, on the other hand, or a movie like Titanic, however much it relies on visceral appeals, is also the sound of a human mind searching for a path to transcendence that can justify ever picking up our clubs and walking away from the warm, pretty, flickering fire. It echoes in my head, for this reason, changing and being changed, long after my retinas have forgotten about the flash.