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Elegy For the Unheroes

Christopher Fowler

Fowler laments the decline of English film and its stories of plucky losers and anti-heroes, its self-effacing comedies, and its dramas that ran against the grain of epic, elegiac heroism.

As the third Harry Potter film steamrolls across Europe, no-one seems aware of its central irony; that this latest example of turbo-retro High English Gothic Peculiar reaches us courtesy of a Hollywood company intent on aggressively selling back to us an image we had hoped to shed; 1950s public school ethics, wedding-cake baroque, potty old dodderers, fog-shrouded chambers, and the rest of the assorted Victorian tat our grandparents inherited from the crumbs of the Empire. We're being sold English ethnicity, repackaged for a world that wants to keep us in a snow globe of quaintness, just as Disney makes films in which a depopulated Africa exists solely to house cute animals.

You can't entirely blame Hollywood; they're simply filling a void left by the collapse of our own indigenous cinema. English film is dead, but will anyone here notice? Only Working Title, the hitmaking family company built on a Hollywood business model, remains alive. There's no one left to finance the English stories enjoyed by discerning home audiences for the past 80 years. Our studios have never been busier, but now we're in the employ of the Hollywood machine. Talking to English scriptwriters is as grim as discussing the death of a friend. No one can believe English cinema has gone; what about The Full Monty, they say. Well, that was funded by Fox. Calendar Girls? Made by Buena Vista. Gosford Park? One of ours, true, but it was another English period romp aimed at overseas sales. So where did we go wrong?

If you've ever wondered why England, with its wealth of creative talent, languishes so near the bottom of the world cinema league table, here's a sobering thought. By the time the English authorities decided to tear down the doors of Newgate Gaol, London's notorious 700-year-old lair of highwaymen and cutthroats, America was already showing its first motion pictures. It's one of those peculiar historical overlaps that seem impossible, like the idea of Oscar Wilde travelling by tube, or the fountain pen being invented after the telephone.

While our venerable literary traditions provided blueprints for taking stories to the world, they restrained us from endorsing the techno-wizardy of cinema. A crippling war shut down production, an exhibition duopoly reduced the choice of outlets and a property boom hastened cinema closures. The great movie-houses were carved into poorly insulated multiplexes, so that you could go to see Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo but hear Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. Audiences came to regard English films as a tepid sidebar to quality television. Our studios produced some of the most creative technicians in the world, but homegrown films were doomed by their quaint parochiality, and faded beneath the razzamatazz of the Hollywood charm offensive. Our habits changed, and now we watch blockbusters, plus a bit of world cinema, which we think does us good, like going to the gym.

So it's easy to forget England's unique moviegoing history. Our cinemas sprang from converted music halls, and our films played like verbose stage shows. We grew up with odd loyalties — why else did we sit through over 30 "Carry On" films? There's a paralysing stiffness in old English movies that didn't entirely disappear until after 1980. English cinema was a world of pipe-clenching chaps in sensible jumpers, spivs, drag queens and dolly birds. It was a world of toilet humour, sexual innuendo, smoke and beer that starred saucy sailors, bureaucrats, hockey teachers, cheery constables, nurses in black stockings and predatory schoolgirls. The common language was "Received English", a cut-glass accent of exquisite clarity that now sounds more alien than rural Chinese. If such films really were a reflection of our lives, they presented an image of a very strange country indeed; bloody-minded but liberal, arrogant but apologetic, class-ridden, petty, proper, girl-shy — and very slightly magical, if only because it has now gone forever.

We needed English films because Hollywood didn't reflect our lives. I watched in confusion as Californian kids went to school in sports cars, and girls with nose-rings were branded "bad". What was it with the brown paper grocery bags that had no handles? How were you meant to carry them? Fathers called their daughters "Pumpkin", boys called their fathers "Sir", the police handcuffed people right in the street, and there were all these guns. To children taught that displays of public emotion were a sign of innate vulgarity, the mix of violence and sentimentality I saw on the screen was thrilling and shameless.

English films acted as a constant alternative to the view from Hollywood, and even though many of them were terrible, we were able to find reflections of our lives there; our language, aspirations, fears, weaknesses and humour. Our attitude to class and culture percolated through most of all; we condescended to the working classes, sneered at the nouveau riche, vilified management, and pilloried the state and the church. English cinema originated in ideas, so content preceded style. Nothing looked very good, but it always had a decent plot.

For a long time, the culture gap was insurmountable. In Hollywood, the word "pilot" conjured Tom Cruise suited and booted in Top Gun. In England you got a gentleman called Terence Alexander in leather flying goggles fondling the ends of a handlebar moustache. Our sheriff came from Nottingham. Hollywood's came from Dodge City.

The greatest difference was in our heroes, who were cut from different cloth; they had trouble falling in love, solving crime, or tackling evil because they usually in a state of emotional turmoil. They tended toward the Boy-Next-Door cheeriness of John Mills, the elegant sturdiness of Richardson and Gielgud, the daydreaming Tom Courtenay, the effete charm of Alec Guinness, the neurasthenic mannerisms of Peter Sellers. The starring roles in postwar English films were eccentric (The Man in the White Suit), driven (Lawrence of Arabia), dishonest (The Wrong Arm of the Law), elderly (The Ladykillers), black (Mona Lisa), intellectual (The Draughtsman's Contract), Jewish (Chariots of Fire), gay (My Beautiful Laundrette), Asian (Bend It Like Beckham), anarchic (If . . .) or simply operating under false illusions (The Long Good Friday). There was often something apologetic and embarrassed about them. They dressed in sensible jumpers, caught buses, and lost their confidence. It was a hell of a long way from John Wayne.

And yet Peter O'Toole, Dirk Bogarde, David Niven, Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Peter Sellars, Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, and Julie Christie were raised into the pantheon of world stars. Throughout our history the prim and wholesome images — Moira Shearer inspiring a generation of girls to take up ballet in The Red Shoes, Noel Coward keeping a stiff upper lip in In Which We Serve — were balanced by those of the English Peculiar — Norman Wisdom singing an eye-chart in On the Beat, Michael Redgrave silencing his ventriloquist dummy in Dead of Night, Joyce Grenfell's gormless Miss Gossage ("Call me Sausage") in The Happiest Days of Your Life, Barbara Windsor's airborne brassiere in Carry On Camping.

The Union Jack minis that never broke red, white and blue file in the original Italian Job weren't the only iconic '60s image from England (trust the English to come up with a car chase involving the least glamorous cars on the road). Ken Russell dominated with a spectacularly strange string of films that included Roger Daltry riding a giant phallus in Lisztomania and Ann Margret being sprayed with tons of baked beans in Tomy. There was the perverse paganism of The Wicker Man, featuring a sexually rampant Britt Ekland and Christopher Lee in drag, offering a masterclass of English peculiarity, and the haunting power of Witchfinder General, the only English western ever filmed, from dead-at-24 genius Michael Reeves.

English films were always different from Hollywood films. We didn't have too many sex bombs, although Diana Dors offered blowsy charm and Vanessa Redgrave had hippyish hauteur. The luminous Julie Christie operated from a place above everyone else, in the way that Catherine Deneuve does for the French, but generally, English women went from the Celia Johnson school of buttoned-down frigidity, via a brief period of adult frankness in films like The L-Shaped Room, to being treated with a mixture of fear and schoolboy sniggering in endless smutty sex-comedies. Our women rarely exhibited the frontier emancipation of Hollywood heroines.

English performers had grown up handling the twice-nightlies and provincial tours. They eschewed method acting and considered their work a craft. While making Brief Encounter (a coded love story written by a gay man in which a doctor seduces Celia Johnson by describing the symptoms of lung disease), the actress asked David Lean if he could hurry up shooting her big romantic scene because she had a train to catch.

We excelled in presenting absurd dark comedy, horror and melancholia, often in the same package, in films like The Whisperers, Brimstone & Treacle, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The National Health. Few were highly regarded by English critics. The moderate reviews that greeted The Whisperers, for example, contrasted markedly with the enthusiastic reception it received in the US, where Dame Edith Evans was nominated for an Academy Award.

English fiction remains peppered with weak men who observe the action of their lives from a distance. They originated in dozens of satirical monochrome comedies featuring casts so familiar it was possible to name every single speaking part in them. Our films starred boffins in libraries and laboratories, chaps on the sidelines, headachy women who apologised about their nerves and arranged flowers, and men who never loosened their ties.

The English nature still seems drawn to such stories; we admire plucky losers and anti-heroes. English comedies were self-effacing. Our dramas ran against the grain of epic, elegiac heroism. We liked our books dry and our films drier. Our writers could afford to be cruel because they were ultimately liberal — as warm, at any rate, as the English ever get. English humour still takes a great deal of explaining. When an American friend asked why we found Mike Leigh films so funny, I had to explain that everyone could manage a quote from Abigail's Party, a comedy in which a man lies dying of a heart attack on the living room rug. (I saw Mike Leigh's Life Is Sweet in New York, where the audience fell about laughing every time anyone offered to make a cup of tea.) Our cruelty is tempered with humour, but it makes us allergic to cuteness.

The idea of English cinema as a separate canon with its own stars, dreams and themes has now gone for good. As I look up and see Ben Affleck's toothpaste smile, as big and bland as a supermarket, I long for the return of my flawed heroes. It's too late now, of course; Princess Diana's death drew us into public displays of emotion, and unwittingly helped to close the door on the hushed, private world of English cinema. The films that accompanied my moviegoing life now lie unloved and unrestored in damp basement facilities, awaiting a new breed of hero to come to their rescue.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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