I saw two movies the other day that I didn’t expect to have much in common. When they turned out to be about pretty much the same thing, it inspired the ramblings below.
Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster is a long (2 1/2 hours) documentary examining how and why the world’s biggest metal band chose to go so drastically wrong in the process of making their last album.
For those who don’t know, Metallica lost their longtime bass player due to inactivity (he felt like, y’know, going out there and making music instead of sitting home watching his bank balance grow), then they went into the studio with no ideas at all and attempted to spontaneously generate an album, then James Hetfield went off to rehab, then they came back and wrote a whole bunch of shitty songs with the therapist they’d hired to get them through the agony of their vast wealth, then they hired a new bass player who seems to have way more of a stake in Metallica being good and respectable than any of the three senior members, and then they released their self-indulgent piece of shit album, and that’s where we are today.
The biggest lesson of Some Kind Of Monster comes in the lyric-writing/therapy scenes. Not only is James Hetfield writing songs jam-packed with self-help clichés, the band’s therapist is actually seen passing notes to him with potential lines. This is where any right-thinking metalhead knows that the album is going to be a piece of shit.
Why is this? Because metal is not a music suited to introspection. It’s loud and aggressive because it’s about men (and/or adolescent boys) engaging, or learning to engage, the larger world. Metal songs are about a very few things: the evil of society (everything from Slayer’s “Angel Of Death” to the gore fantasies of Impaled and Mortician), sex (about half of Motörhead’s output), or the brotherhood of metal (Manowar’s whole oeuvre, and Metallica’s own “The Four Horsemen”). Metal is not about solipsism. It’s about communication within a group.
Fine art should also be about communication; that is, it should have something to communicate to the larger world. This is exactly what’s wrong with the movie Sick: The Life And Death Of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. Now, I felt bad for Bob Flanagan, watching this movie. Not just because he had a nail through his dick, either. Flanagan had cystic fibrosis, and was coughing up phlegm so thick it looked like baby food for almost every scene in this documentary. During other scenes, though, he was doing his art, which was all about him getting slapped around or otherwise abused, mostly by his mistress/life partner, Sheree Rose.
I understood the basic message. Bob’s whole life was pain, so he chose to undergo more pain in order to exhibit control over his body. I got that in about thirty seconds.
Trouble is, making a performance piece out of that has nothing to communicate to anybody who isn’t in that kind of pain, or who doesn’t themselves choose to make that choice. It’s just carnival geekery, with a side order of medical fetishism.
This is the problem with a lot of “body art,” from Chris Burden and Vito Acconci on down. It doesn’t say anything. It’s just “hey, check that guy out, he’s hanging from the ceiling/crucified on a Volkswagen/jacking off under a ramp over there in the corner.” The most abstract painting has 1000x more to communicate to even the densest viewer.
There was one part of Sick that made me more disposed to like Flanagan, though. At the same time that he was dazzling the jaded art crowd, he spent 20-plus years working as a camp counselor for kids with cystic fibrosis. He played guitar and sang songs with them, to make them more comfortable with the realities of their disease and to make them laugh and have fun. Those little songs said more than all his gallery performances put together.
Oh, yeah: I finished reading John Leland's Hip: The History, so that's two books down, 48 to go. It's not bad; it glosses over a few too many things, assuming knowledge on the reader's part in ways it probably shouldn't, but Leland's a pretty solid writer and his conception is clear all the way through, and he's cynical about his subject/subjects when appropriate, so it's worth checking out.