Same Old, Same Old

Nikki Tranter

Martin Bashir's effort to catch Jackson out, to expose even the slightest craziness, was evident from the outset.

I think Michael appeals to the child in all of us, and I think he has the quality of innocence that we would all like to obtain or have kept.

-- Elizabeth Taylor, 1988

If you want to see the boy next door, open up the door to your kitchen and look at the boy next door, because he ain't the boy next door.
-- Sammy Davis Jr., 1988

I was born to never die.
-- Michael Jackson, "Ecstasy" (1992)

Reporter Martin Bashir's 1995 interview with Princess Diana was revelatory. He demonstrated compassion for his subject, and she said her marriage to Prince Charles was a sham, alluding to Charles's longstanding affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles and her own unfaithfulness. Diana's confessions not only alerted the public to the inadequacies in reports coming from inside the Palace, but they also allowed the world to see Diana's pain and lapses.

With this coup behind him, Bashir seemed the perfect person to get Michael Jackson to open up about his eccentric life. And indeed, Living With Michael Jackson, his contentious interview filmed for Britain's ITV network, featured ramblings from the tainted star, and showcased his unconventional streak with shots of the enormous Neverland Ranch. Still, there was not a lot the singer told Bashir that he hadn't previously said before -- numerous times.

Bashir's interview was conducted over an eight-month period, during which time the journalist was given "complete access." He observed Jackson at home, met his children, and was assured no topic was off limits. Troublingly, Bashir used his access to take advantage whenever an opportunity presented itself -- and even when it didn't. If Jackson didn't say what Bashir wanted him to say, the reporter himself said it, forcing the singer to face accusations.

Bashir's effort to catch Jackson out, to expose even the slightest craziness, was evident from the outset, when Jackson "revealed" he enjoyed climbing trees. "Having water balloon fights and climbing trees, I think that those two are my favorite [things to do]," he said. Not content, Bashir asked Jackson to clarify: "Don't you prefer making love or going to a concert or, you prefer -- you really mean that -- that you prefer climbing trees and having a balloon fight?"

This technique of putting words into Jackson's mouth was evident again during the interview's most confrontational moments, when Bashir asked Jackson to explain how he, a 44-year-old man, could justify having sleepovers with children, in his bed. If Bashir's intention was to get a rise out of Jackson, he succeeded, but only for a moment. Jackson finally pulled Bashir's card, saying, "You're trying to make it sound sexual, it's not." But there was little point in Jackson lashing out or attempting to clarify his statements, as Bashir was unwilling to accept any answers other than those he apparently wanted, often asking, "You're joking, aren't you?"

Bashir tried to expose Jackson as loony, filming him spending millions of dollars on unnecessary items, hanging out with a variety of children (not just prepubescent boys), and sitting in his inspirational "Giving Tree." Yet, all he managed to do was tread familiar ground, while revealing his own underhanded devices, frequently driving Jackson into corners he should never have had to go.

Such cajoling seems especially unnecessary when your subject is Michael Jackson. With a bizarrely altered face (making him look more and more like Disney's version of his idol, Peter Pan), a zoo and amusement park in his own backyard, and rumors that have plagued him since childhood, he's already fascinating and disturbing. Images of Neverland tell us we're dealing with a man so removed from the everyday, so unable to ever grasp the concept of "real life," that he will never offer any straight-down-the-line sense.

And so, Bashir really didn't need to press when the singer revealed some glaring contradictions entirely on his own. When he asked about the mother of Jackson's youngest son, Prince Michael II, the answer was that she is a woman with whom he had "had a relationship," and who didn't want to be in the spotlight. Later on, however, when he was questioned about Debbie Rowe, the mother of his older children, Prince Michael I and Paris, in order to make Rowe's surrogacy sound like the most normal thing in the world, Jackson brought up the mother of his youngest child again, stating that she was someone he had never met, knowing only that she was intelligent and her "vision's good."

Right here is when Bashir might have paused. This was a big deal, perhaps the principal disclosure in the entire interview, something nobody knew. Moreover, why Bashir did not ask the singer to explain why he had earlier lied to him is a conundrum.

This was not the only lie Jackson told Bashir, highlighting another flaw in the reporter's presentation, his embarrassing lack of research into his subject. Jackson scoffed at Bashir's claim that he had had several plastic surgeries to alter his face -- thinning of the nose and lips, implants in his cheeks, a cleft put in his chin. Jackson said he only had two nose jobs, and they were done to help with breathing. The door for Bashir was swinging right open to reveal Jackson either a liar or confused. In Jackson's 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk, he states, "I'd like to set the record straight right now... I have had my nose altered twice and I recently added a cleft to my chin. It's my face, I know."

But research is not one of Bashir's strong points. He questioned Jackson about his severe upbringing and the abuse he and his brothers and sisters suffered at the hands of their father, Joe. This is no secret, having already been revealed in J. Randy Taraborelli's Jackson bio, The Magic and the Madness, La Toya's 1991 self-titled autobiography, as well as by Jackson in Moonwalk. "If you messed up, you got hit, sometimes with a belt," Jackson writes, repeating almost verbatim to Bashir something he had told the world 15 years ago.

He also wrote about his father's relentless teasing of him and his big nose, something he previously told Taraborelli and Oprah. No surprises there. Even Jackson's story about having slept in the same room as his brothers while they were having sex was something that had already been revealed in articles and books. As for the Tatum O'Neal "incident" (Bashir: "So she rings you and says, Michael come to my house, I'm going to make love to you"), both Jackson and Taraborelli told the same story in their books.

If Bashir had, in fact, done his homework, he would have learned about the strip clubs Jackson frequented with his father as a child, the prostitutes he was "given" as an adolescent, his illegitimate sister Joh'Vonnie Jackson, the apparent Anti-Semitism in his childhood home, his obsession with human anatomy, and his interview with Melody Maker in the early '80s, when he revealed he wished never to procreate. All of these are more interesting than the same old "Dad hit me" and "Tatum seduced me" blather.

In the end, though, this lack of news didn't matter. Bashir said during the interview he wasn't "satisfied with Jackson's explanations," but nobody ever is. Otherwise, interviews such as this would be unnecessary. Bashir "revealed" Michael Jackson as the freakish result of years of torment and adulation, as a man who has never had a "normal" relationship with a woman, and who hates his father and loves his children (who came across as bright and unaffected in Bashir's documentary). He was also revealed as a shop-aholic, a star so immersed in his fantasy life that he doesn't know what's true and what isn't, and a man obsessed with the "innocence" of children, and who wants to live forever. But we already knew this, didn't we?


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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