Reviews

Gene

Devon Powers
Gene

Gene

City: Hoboken, New Jersey
Venue: Maxwell's
Date: 2002-09-18
S E T    L I S T
Haunted By You
The British Disease
From Georgia to Osaka
Where Are They Now?
Yours for the Taking
A Car That Sped
Let Me Move On
We Could Be Kings
Walking in the Shadows
Long Sleeves For the Summer
Olympian
Fighting Fit ENCORE
Speak to Me Someone
For the Dead
Be My Light, Be My Guide
When I first heard Gene, it was 1995, and I was a senior in high school. "Sleep Well Tonight" -- as far as I know, the only song that got any airplay in the US -- was a regular staple on my local college radio station, and I picked up Olympian used at CD resale shop not too far from campus. My Anglophilia was nascent, but growing, and I voraciously purchased anything where the lead singer had even a slight cockney. (Still do). And oh, what a boon Olympian was. Martin Rossiter's mellifluous vocals nestled into the crannies my psyche and stuck sweetly there, like a kind of aural honey; their rollicking brand of brash yet benevolent Britpop electrified my muscles and stealthily stole my heart. In my mind, Gene were poised to take on the world -- and I was readied to assume the presidency of their Lansing, Michigan fan club. Alas, none of that ever happened. Gene were lambasted early on in the UK music press for trying too hard to mimic the Smiths; here in the States, they were cast off as nothing more than one of those British bands coming in at low tide before the monstrous wave of Oasis came crashing in. In 1997, I ran out and bought their release Drawn to the Deep End, but even the other Britpop fiends I knew could care less that "Gene who?" had released another record. Alas, without camaraderie, Gene was destined to remain my own, personal fetish -- an odd fate for a band which I to this day consider to have all the trappings of Britpop legendaries. So at the tiny Maxwell's in Hoboken, beyond the natural high of seeing the Londoners for the first time in action was another added bonus: finally being among a significant enclave of other Gene die-harders. For could a band like Gene really have casual fans? Gene are one of those groups that it took effort to follow and wherewithal to know -- and if music is a unifying force, goddammit these concertfolk were damned if they weren't my brethren. Believe you me, when it comes to live performances, there's nothing like standing in the company of other true believers, getting the Ghost thank to sweet gospel from the Man In Charge. They don't call rock & roll the church for nothing. And the Gene clan -- Steve Mason on guitar, Kevin Miles on bass, Matt James on drums, a guest named Angie on keyboards and the irreplaceable Martin Rossiter singing away -- certainly played like they wanted to deliver us. Rossiter, devilishly clever and handsome to boot, keyed up the theatrics from the get go, already standing on the speakers and posturing pompously by the night's first number, "Haunted By You" off Olympian. On stage, he's the jester to his band mates courtly posture, unafraid to play himself the fool or get a bit naughty in order to rile the crowd. "I'm going to use my tongue on all of you later!" he threatened, exposing it in all its pink glory, before charging into "The British Disease", from the band's 1999 Revelations. Everything about Rossiter was over the top -- the drama of his singing, the countenances and gesticulations - and in tandem with his mostly stationary band mates, it's truly a thrill to watch. But listening is even better. Live, their sound is honed and studio-ready, while maintaining a dynamism that responded to the cues they were giving one another. During "From Georgia to Osaka", off 2002 Libertine, the twangy yet soulful guitar work of Mason played coyly off the sensual singing style Rossiter invoked; a brighter track like "We Could Be Kings" found the musicians shimmering and high-flying to the highs and lows of Rossiter's crooning. But the crowd were just plain lacking. The energy Rossiter emanated from the stage simply petered out once it got to the audience; all around me, though nearly everyone was singing along to Gene classics, no one was giving Rossiter what he needed to feel as if his stage antics had a point. While such soberness may have made sense on the melancholy fare which Gene are loved for -- like "Speak to Me Someone" or "Long Sleeves For the Summer", which they played for the first time on this tour at this show -- when the energy level went up, the crowd stayed totally flaccid. Eventually, the audience's lack of animation seemed to take the wind out of even Martin Rossiter's overpuffed sails. Though it never soured their sound -- songs like "A Car That Sped" and "Where Are They Now" coursed through my veins in a wild sensory rush -- the accoutrements slowly started fading as the show went on. Fewer jokes cracked between songs, less screwball movements -- the whole thing deflated with the sad sinking of a falling helium balloon. Newer material had an even rougher go than the better known numbers; though Libertine came out here in August, it was obvious that much of the crowd had not heard it, thus rendering their responses practically moribund. By the show's end, every attempt to get the crowd to do anything besides clap politely was a sad and sorry exercise. I have a theory to explain what may have happened, and I won't go the cheap route of dissing New Jersey to do it. (Come on, most of the people at Maxwell's came over from Manhattan on the PATH train, anyway.) When you've spent so long listening to a band in private -- sequestered away, with little resonance to your fandom -- translating the experience into the public sphere might prove an utter impossibility. And since Gene do slow and solemn as definitively as they do raw and pop-rocky, it's possible that there was simply a chasm between the Gene that took the stage and the one that the audience came to see. The bands we listen to in our darkest moments aren't supposed to have fun -- just like Morrissey isn't supposed to have sex, right? And while Morrissey might be content to allow form to follow content, Gene aren't afraid -- dare I say, they're downright proud -- to show their many faces, dependent on context.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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