Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Ramsay Horror Picture Show

As it's Halloween, let’s set our sights further east to India, where, for a time, horror films were all the rage.
Interestingly, two very successful Hollywood sibling scriptwriters who specialise in genre movies, and will remain nameless, were looking to make their directorial debut on a horror movie set in India. Their pitch was snapped up by a big production company who immediately dispatched them to India to engage in research and location scouting. They were told to get inspired by the culture and ancient heritage of the subcontinent, but to do it in a way that will positively creep them out. They saw things that they claimed terrified them beyond belief and visited areas they wished they hadn’t. They also caught a movie that had been made in the 1980s which intrigued and perplexed them in equal amounts. The film was an Indian horror movie that featured monsters, but was skewed by the inclusion of song and dance numbers as well as broad comedic subplots that had nothing to do with the main plot. The film was, according to them, a mess and had no redeeming value, say, unlike their own brand of mediocre PG-13 American commercial horror. When they found out that the movie they saw was one of the biggest hits of Indian cinema, they began to wonder if making a horror movie set in India was really the right thing to do.

The movie they saw was Purana Mandir (The Old Temple), a horror film that captured the Indian market like nothing else. Released in 1984, Purana Mandir did something films of that nature weren’t supposed to: it became a blockbuster. Made for about Rs 2.5 lakhs (however much that is), Purana Mandir grossed about Rs 2.5 crores (however much that is, though I suspect it’s significant) and became the second most profitable Indian movie released that year. It told the story of a family that for generations has been hexed by a creature called Saamri. Aeons ago, Saamri killed the daughter of an Indian feudal lord who accidently stumbled into his graveyard lair. The feudal lord’s henchmen capture Saamri and decapitate him, but Saamri promises to have his revenge from beyond the grave, declaring that every female descendant of the feudal lord born after his physical death will die in child birth.  He also states that if ever the day comes when his head and body are reunited then he will come back to life and finish the family bloodline, forever. The curse runs and runs that is until a younger generation decides to take it upon themselves to travel to the ancient site of Saamri’s beheading. It’s at this point the film kicks into gear and the youngsters are, ahem, way in over their heads.
Purana Mandir was put together by a filmmaking family known as the Ramsay Bros., a team of five brothers who struck gold making low-budget horror movies that were shot on location, often set in eerie rural mansions inhabited by ghouls and demons. While the films were anchored in ancient Indian folklore and mysticism, they were indisputably inspired by American horror movies like Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street, where gore and grisly deaths were paraded in style. The Ramsay Bros. films were also identifiable via post-colonial inspiration taken from the British Hammer House of Horror tradition, where reused sets and lighting arrangements, initially designed to cut costs, became a signature brand aesthetic, ensuring their films were, by accident or by design, uniquely identifiable.
Like horror films in any culture, the Ramsay Bros. brand of terror pushed the boundaries of acceptability by including scenes of sex and promiscuity that, though tame by Western standards, sat uneasily with conservative Indian culture. The Ramsay Bros. movies were always rated for adult viewing only, but never engaged in overt nudity or sex scenes. There was a certain innocence to them, modern for the time but very Indian at heart. For example, a scene where the lead actress is taking a shower in Purana Mandir has her character, weirdly enough, wearing a bathing suit as she does so.
Purana Mandir was the crown jewel in the Ramsay Bros. canon. Though much of its long running time is surplus to requirement, the horror, when it arrives, is unsettling and genuinely scary. You care about the characters and the core story is captivating. Perhaps the most successful aspect of Purana Mandir is the creature Saamri, a genuinely startling horror presence played by a six feet seven inch tall civil engineer turned character actor called Ajay Agarwal. Agarwal embodies Saamri, exceeding the screen and creating one of the most visceral horror icons in the process. Agarwal’s performance, in conjunction with an incredible score and terrific sense of atmosphere, ensures that Purana Mandir remains one of the most important horror films in Indian cinema.

The Ramsay Bros. essentially made the same movie over and over again until audiences couldn’t hack it any more. Proving that lightening in a bottle is a onetime thing; the brothers couldn’t replicate the success of Purana Mandir no matter how hard they tried. Yet the incredible thing is their movies were so influential that the Indian censor board insisted on issuing a disclaimer preceding every film to rubbish any superstition they might encourage, fearful that audiences wouldn’t be able to accept them as simple make believe. That’s how effective they were.
The famous Hollywood screenwriting duo that dismissed Purana Mandir may have actually missed a trick. Sure, it’s far from perfect and has more rough edges than you can shake a stick at, but its premise is a potent one. In fact, the film can't be that much of a write off when you consider it was screened a few years back at London's highly prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts as part of a season on Bollywood Horror.

In an era where horror remakes and adaptations of foreign films are rampant, perhaps Purana Mandir may have been an ideal project to bring to a new auidience. Great story, relatable characters and solid scares, Purana Mandir is screaming out for an expensive studio treatment that will tap into the massively lucrative Indian market as well as the horror hungry American crowd. Just remember who gave you the idea.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

-Music Videos on my Mind- King Krule’s “Rock Bottom”

There are some songs that you sit on for months hoping they’ll gather traction and the record label will do the honourable thing by commissioning a music video. Alas, a lot of the time that simply doesn’t happen.
In the case of 18-year-old King Krule, the lack of a music video might actually be a good thing. A BRIT School alumnus, which is never a good thing as it’s the same institution singers like Adele and Jessie J were assembled, Krule has eschewed any notion of fame academy stereotypes and positioned himself as a no frills musician. His sound recalls Paul Weller’s early years with The Jam, yet his less than handsome visage perennially roots him as an artist for the radio.
And let’s be honest, if you looked like this kid then appearing in music videos wouldn’t be your top priority.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Jeans are so much more than X and Y

Let’s talk about fashion. To be specific, let’s talk about Replay Jeans because, as their corporate profile elegantly stipulates: “Jeans are perhaps the only truly successful alchemy of the individual and the universal, because every pair exclusively mirrors and represents the wearer – just like a strand of DNA.
Such poetic interpretations of casual denim elevate jeans unto something more metaphysical, something beyond just clothing.
Truth is that Replay Jeansa European brand that sold its products to gullible Euro kids by implementing a completely Americanised promotional toneis arguably one of the most fantastic manipulators of consumer awareness that ever existed. To follow Replay Jeans’ advertising campaigns is to learn something about how much brands will alter their approaches to selling stuff in accordance to generational attitudes and expectations.
To illustrate, we need to examine:
Exhibit – A

Exhibit – B

Ain’t these a pair that totally sum up the generational shift from X to Y? Notice how the actual product being sold never feature in the commercials. Why is that? Well, it’s because Generation X’s young populace was a different breed. They were a generation that strived to not ‘sell out,’ and to keep things ‘real.’ They were more than willing to buy shit they didn’t need but demanded a degree of artifice on part of the seller, a level of chicanery whereby they were happy to be exposed to brand awareness as long as it was masqueraded in layers of earnestness and value-positive messages. Therefore, monochrome vignettes of a stand-up comic wanting to extol the virtues of respecting ones parents and sepia coloured clips of a young man caught in some existential travelogue was all the rage for Generation X. Materialism was cool as long as the advertiser contemporaneously stuck two fingers up at it.
To bring this argument full circle, click:
Exhibit – C

It’s still Replay Jeans pretending to be all-American but notice how much of the seriousness has been dialled down. This new Replay commercial for 2012 puts jeans at the core and embellishes it with big explosions and silliness. There is barely a frame in which denim and/ or flannel doesn’t take centre stage. This is Replay Jeans for Generation Y, a young populace that’s totally cool with being a bunch of ‘sell-outs.’ Generation Y is completely comfortable with the prospect of brands selling them shit they don’t need and they will not coerce the manufacturer into feeling guilty about promoting its overpriced products to them just as long as it’s fun to watch. In that sense Generation Y is arguably more honest than its predecessor, albeit, somewhat less overtly demanding and conceited.
Looking at the Replay Jeans commercials for its Generation X audience is a reminder of just how much trends have changed yet remained totally the same in other respects. There’s slight suspicion that had either of those first two adverts been made in 2012 then both protagonists would be caked in tattoos and superficial attitudes. The meditative comedian of Exhibit A will have to find something cooler to do than go on a road trip with his kid. Rather than coming home and mumbling sweet nothings to his implausibly young parents, one suspects that Exhibit B will now be about some dude who puts on a pair of jeans and goes partying with hot chicks in exotic destinations. Both these Replay Jeans commercials are as corporate as Exhibit C, but there’s something absorbing about them, perhaps even meaningful.
One suspect that the branding of Replay Jeans will forever evolve, though its fake American stance and phoney messages about how denim is close to Godliness will never alter. If every generation has its own sound then every generation also has its jeans, only the material stays the same, the ways to get you to buy them modifies.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Have Middle-aged White Men Killed Rock ‘n’ Roll?

American filmmaker Harmony Korine in an interview with GQ magazine last summer said: “I don't listen to music made by white people. I especially hate anything where a guitar is used. I don't listen to white people and guitars.”
It is a tough statement to understand because back in 1995 Harmony Korine and musician Lou Barlow oversaw arguably the greatest movie soundtrack ever in the form of Kids. The soundtrack for Kids was as incendiary as the movie itself, featuring the rawest New York hip-hop and American alternative guitar music of the period. Barlow’s own group, Folk Implosion, featured heavily, but other bands like Sebadoh (another Barlow side project) and Slint nestled brilliantly well with rap acts such as Lo-Down and A Tribe Called Quest (though the latter was only used in the movie). It was the perfect marriage of yin and yang, encapsulating a skater youth culture that had omnivorous music tastes, with rock and rap holding equal importance. It was a soundtrack assembled by angry young men who love music, including that made by white guys with guitars.

Korine may now only favour black music, but why has white guitar music suffered in recent years? It’s only fair to say that black music has cheapened itself by prostituting its services to manufactured pop outfits (Wiz Khalifa being Maroon 5’s bitch-for-hire, for example), but it still has not received the backlash that rock music endured.
The truth may be that alternative music remains a genre presided over by relics of an older age. Take for example Green Day, the celebrated Californian rock band that has been in existence for over 25 years now. Green Day will release ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡TrĂ©!, a new trilogy of albums that will be issued within months of each other. For diehard fans this news will be heaven, but one has to question why it is the same old faces that refuse to call it a day, putting out records every few years that sound remarkably like everything else they’ve attached their name to?
Green Day’s newish video for Oh Love demonstrates a great reluctance to do anything from the ordinary. Directed by ‘90s music video helmer Samuel Bayer, Oh Love has Billie Joe Armstrong and co. playing an intimate concert to a group of barely dressed models that are young enough to be their daughters.  If anything, the video exemplifies exactly what Green Day has become: A bunch of middle-aged men that have nothing new to offer other than an established formula and common denominator tropes.

Green Day hit the big time in 1994 with their first major record label release, Dookie. An entire generation has passed since its coming yet the interim has struggled to offer another, younger, global rock band to take their place. In fact, the case of middle-aged rockers refusing to call it a day means that we have bands like the Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers insisting consumers take them as seriously as they may have done when they first came to prominence. Even more ‘recent’ acts like Linkin Park, The Strokes, Muse, The Killers and My Chemical Romance have been in circulation for over a dozen years now. These people are essentially sat on their jobs, turning rock music into an embarrassing joke that wallows in an anachronistic stubbornness, refusing to be invigorated by a new generation of musicians that may take the genre into fresh directions.
Before this post is vilified for being an attack on middle-aged white guys with guitars, it must be pointed out that there is no issue with musicians of a certain age continuing to make music just as long as the material they create actually demonstrates progression. Although a band like Radiohead may be accused of being stuck in a rut, one cannot say they’re not trying to evolve and discover new sounds. What is absolutely certain is that the Radiohead of 2012 is in no way what it was back in 1993.  The band has an innate desperation to avoid ground already covered, keen to circumvent looking like mature people attempting to pass themselves as being younger than their years. Although the middle-aged rockers of Green Day, Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chilli Peppers will do everything from emblazoning themselves with fresh tattoos to applying liberal amounts of guyliner and purchasing corrective cosmetic laser eye surgery in a bid to keep relevant, Radiohead has aged admirably and maintained their importance in the music arena.
Middle-aged rock musicians refusing to bow out gracefully is as much the fault of the bands themselves as it is of the music industry. As piracy and alternative means of acquiring music proliferates, the music industry is less willing to sign up new acts that will require heavy promotion and distribution in order to register with consumers. Britain’s sage middle-age rocker, Noel Gallagher, recently told the Daily Express that rock stardom is an endangered species primarily because it is impossible to make the vast amounts of money that previously came with the territory. Gallagher said: “There was a way of making money and selling records that got happened upon in the 1960s, and it worked for 30-odd years.” He went on to say, “Then all of a sudden, in under a decade, it’s gone, never to return."
Therefore, the music industry would rather preserve established acts, regardless of their sell by date, and have them reproduce the same style of music that worked for them when they first came about.  2012 has seen albums by Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden, alternative rock acts that were a breath of fresh air a generation ago, but have little to contribute in a post-millennial music culture steeped in diminishing sales and a stagnant music broadcasting culture.
Harmony Korine may have given up on rock ‘n’ roll but its salvation will be compromised further if bands which have had their time refuse to accept that there is something fundamentally wrong in trying to insist they are as important as they were when record companies first took a chance on them. Likewise, if record companies don’t discover new guitar bands then there will eventually come a tipping point in which younger generations will completely turn their backs on a music scene identifiable by having artists that are as old as their grandparents.
But maybe such an arrangement is cool. After all, this is a generation that is more attuned to the tastes of its parents than perhaps their parents were to their own folks. As long as money is being made and nobody is complaining loudly enough, then maybe 40 can be the new 20. After all, rock music is the gateway to transcendence.