A decent assembly of essays though not particularly great. As with any anthology, some essays herein are stronger or more interesting than others. My...moreA decent assembly of essays though not particularly great. As with any anthology, some essays herein are stronger or more interesting than others. My personal favorites were the essays on Petzold's Yella and Schmid's Requiem, which are also two of the more interesting films analyzed in this collection. While I appreciate good scholarship on any subject, selecting films like Downfall, Good Bye Lenin!, The Counterfeiters, Sophie Scholl and The Lives of Others (all films I like) seems like playing it safe for an American and English audience. As this is a UK publication it makes some sense, but I can't help but feel a little discouraged that the films gaining scholarly attention are still primarily those that did well in America and England. International appeal is cool, but it isn't the whole story, and often comes laden with preferences and assumptions that themselves need to be interrogated. At its most dubious, choosing such films feels like its own "criticism of consensus," to revise Eric Rentschler's label, rather than opting for a more adventurous and open exploration of contemporary German cinema.
But editors Cooke & Homewood need their book to be marketable, so their choices make sense. They rightly point out in their introduction that in an industry that put out 200 or so films a year, it's impossible for scholars and critics to keep up with everything that's happening. And whether we like to admit it or not, we often gravitate more to what's popular because it's easier, especially for those of us not living in Germany. While the first half of this anthology offers analyses of predictable titles, appealing to a wider American and English audience, it's the second half that was more interesting to me because the films were lesser-known titles. I find Requiem, Yella and Cloud 9 to be films every bit as, if not more, gutsy and artistically substantial as the popular titles receiving all the American accolades. Thus, the essays on those films interested me more, though I felt that McGee's article on Dresen's Cloud 9 opened well and then suffered from an underwhelmingly abrupt conclusion. It needed to be longer, with some closer, more illuminating, analysis. But this was a challenge with several of these articles; they never seemed to really take off and open things up.
When the book is good, it's good, offering a nice starting point to students just getting into some of these films. This is nice, modest scholarship, which I don't mean condescendingly. We need articles like this to get the conversation moving. So in that sense it's a success and I appreciate it. If people were to take the thoughts proposed in the more compelling moments in this anthology and craft a follow-up anthology where those ideas were expanded and deepened, I'll bet that would be an even better collection than this. So all you German film Profis need to get started. (less)
A good introduction to Joy Division and Unknown Pleasures. I doubt there's much here that die-hard fans didn't already know, but that's to be expected...moreA good introduction to Joy Division and Unknown Pleasures. I doubt there's much here that die-hard fans didn't already know, but that's to be expected. The point of a book in a series like this isn't necessarily to expose radically new information, so much as introduce people to an easily digestible and focused reflection on the band and their album. While Ott wanders beyond Unknown Pleasures a bit more than I would have liked, he does a good job of using the album as an anchor, or vital entry point to understanding Joy Division's entire, albeit short-lived, career. Likewise, it's incredibly difficult not to let Ian Curtis' own life over-determine Joy Division's story. Yes, Curtis is the vital center, maybe even the "Heart & Soul," if you will, but he's not everything and it's important to account for the contributions of the other people involved in making this album.
I also liked this book because it was short. Joy Division is an important band to me, but they also are one of the most painful bands precisely because of their story and Curtis' tragic suicide. Curtis was sick. He was a great artist. But he was also deeply misguided in his aspirations and notions of the romantic artist and dying young. He yearned to live a life that was destructive not only to himself, but to others around him. At what cost do we push for great art? It's not an easy question, and Joy Division embodies that crisis better than any band I know--more so than Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, I think. Because of how painfully tragic their story is, I'm often hesitant to delve deeply into their history. The music is devastating enough, while being paradoxically inspiring, possessing its own elusive beauty. Thus, Ott's book is just the right amount of insight into that world, offering me a modest and incisive snippet of a very complex history. Ott's book maintains the tragedy without waxing romantic or melodramatic, which I appreciate because how Curtis' story is often used by fans makes me very uncomfortable, often seeming to miss the tragic point in favor of fetishizing the sickness and self-destruction. I find that appalling. Yet Ott rightfully reminds us that Curtis himself romanticized his self-destructive desires, which strangely enhances the power of the music because it crosses into the darkest and most misguided of territories. There's no resolving this quandary, and Ott doesn't try.
Ott carefully moves through the genesis of the band, their evolution, and the production of Unknown Pleasures, giving credit where it's due and not skirting the album's weaker or more peculiar moments. He appropriately credits different players and producer Martin Hannett for their contributions, getting into the more technical aspects of the album in a way I found very interesting without becoming dry or irrelevant.
As with many great albums, Unknown Pleasures reaffirms Victor Bockris' assertion that "rock and roll records are born out of tension." Some band members really don't like Hannett's production, others like it. Hannett didn't listen to the band and asserted his own creative agenda in its production. Each member tried to make the album into what they individually wanted. This is often the nature of collaboration, but it's a hard reality, and it takes its toll on those involved.
Yet the end result remains an indisputable landmark, be it a satisfying one or not. The album didn't reflect what the band was live, yet it still doesn't sound like anything else either. It's a truly unique record, containing a power independent from the band's live performance. A studio album won't have the same power of a live performance by its very nature--not even the Velvet Underground's albums, which also aspired to capture their live essence, fail to match that sound and feeling. But it doesn't matter. Listen to the album and enjoy the album as a studio album. If you wanna hear a band's live presence, don't look to the studio album, but go to the show. Unfortunately, we can't do that with Joy Division anymore. All we have are live recordings, which are also mediated, confining that liveness. So be it. Ott quite successfully shows the strange divide between recording an album and playing live concerts--they're two different worlds and sometimes musicians have as much trouble acknowledging that as fans do. But the talent of these musicians remains apparent and the results of their work are pretty incredible.
This is a solid look at a marvelous album. It's a crushing story, but in Ott's hands he manages to preserve the weight, complexity, and tragedy of that story without destroying the reader in the process. He doesn't lapse into cheap manipulation and melodrama. He's reflective and careful, and we could learn something from his approach that I think could help us be more devoted and responsible listeners and fans. (less)
The standout essay in here is Lou Reed's "Fallen Knights and Fallen Ladies." All the essays have merit, but Reed's thoughts seemed the most interestin...moreThe standout essay in here is Lou Reed's "Fallen Knights and Fallen Ladies." All the essays have merit, but Reed's thoughts seemed the most interesting to me. But I'm a longtime Reed fan, so perhaps I'm biased. The conversation between Danny Fields and Jeff Nesin wasn't that interesting, and it's unfortunately the longest piece in here. Somma's introduction and John Landau's essay are also quite good. I wish a little more attention had been given to Brian Epstein and Brian Jones, and a little less given to Janis Joplin. It makes sense that in 1971 she and Hendrix would get more attention as they were bigger stars than Epstein or Jones, but in doing so it kind of plays into the popularity, fandom trap that various points in some these essays tried to critique--pop culture never gets out of its own trap, it seems. Still, as an early collection of thoughts reflecting on the tragedies that came with the end of the 60s it is an interesting and useful look into a deeply problematic and amazing decade. The disillusionment that permeated the 70s is also very evident in these essays. Anyone interested in either decade should find this a valuable read.(less)