It’s Been 20 Years: The L.A. Riots…This Revolution WAS Televised.

Today is the 20th Anniversary of the L.A. Riots. 20 years ago I was sitting in a classroom, wearing a Catholic school uniform.

In my personal life, I was listening to Guns’n’Roses, Metallica, Queensryche and Nelson, about to be 14 years old (my birthday is in May), and things were…well, as good as they can be when you are an adolescent girl with a heavy metal-loving and high culture obsessed personality. That is to say, I was a normal kid with abnormal interests and thus…miserable.

But that day I was just like everyone else. I was an Angeleno, and I was terrified, angry, confused and hurting. At that age I had no ability to break apart the confusion of the news footage. And when I say “confusion” of the news footage, I mean CONFUSION. When the verdict was announced, and Los Angeles blew the hell up, these white, privileged reporters had no clue how to handle it. As a certified media scholar and media archivist in-training, I am beyond grateful that they went nuts on live-camera. We now know WHAT NOT TO DO and who not to hire in a city as diverse as the one that I have been born and raised in. Did I consider this at the time? Not a stitch. I was just scared. I had a baby brother. I had a family that I loved (still have both those things, although the “baby” brother is WAY taller than me now, so…maybe not so “baby” anymore). I had a city that I revered and…It had just erupted into pure, unadulterated chaos, and….THAT was NOT supposed to happen. Only was supposed to have that happen. I was the one with the adolescent whacked-out hormonal shit going on. My city was supposed to be my ROCK. What was going on?

The interesting thing is that as the 1992 “Civil Unrest” (and as an aside- I’ve never understood that term- who came up with it? It was not civil in any way, shape or form. Sure, it was unrest, but…these were RIOTS. Pure and simple. Is it more politically correct to candy-coat them? Is “civil unrest” an academic term for what occurred?) is one of the best examples of the term “this revolution will be televised.” Every breath taken, every person pulled out of a car, every store looted, every shop owner who fought back…was displayed in full color on our screens at home, at work, at university, where ever we might have been, 20 years ago today.

Even more fascinating, in looking back on this event, the footage I wanted to find for this, I was unable to find. I could not find any footage from news reporters from that first day and the initial announcement, when everything went crazy and they didn’t know what to do. When they were “off the script” as they say, and things were not exactly going according to plan. I’ve seen that footage twice- once live, when it was happening and then again when I took a class on television studies, and we discussed the racial make-up and transitions of newscasting in Los Angeles post-April 29, 1992.

If you weren’t watching or didn’t see it, it took on a beyond ridiculous architecture. Some people could argue that people in the middle of an emergency simply handle situation poorly and say things that they, perhaps, do not actually mean. However, it soon became ragingly clear that the sheer WHITENESS and economic disparity of the televisual news medium was ultra-present and to have that be the link to what was happening in South Central Los Angeles? Wow. The individuals and authority figures who had been chosen to give The People the information about an emergency situation were, quite obviously, so far removed from anything like this or, quite frankly, from Los Angeles herself, that it was a media disaster. No wonder I couldn’t find any of the footage when I was looking for it today.

It changed soon after, but that was the revolution of this situation on television. After this happened, we saw more reporters of color, we saw more documentation of different economic situations and we saw a different news-reporting engagement. While the ethnic situation still reflects this, news has gone back to fluff and fodder, but for a minute, we had some real “news” events. Now, not everyone reflected this. Certain reporters have always managed to be reasonable. But the vast majority of Los Angeles news reporting collapsed in upon itself and had a crisis, some of which can be reflected in this video here:

Or this one. This reporter’s discussion of her relationship to the Watts Riots really underscores the huge distance that these individuals have from the communities that they are reporting on. While the act of looting is, indeed, illegal, is it not of interest to her that quite a few of the folks they were just looking at were carrying out diapers?

Anyone who was in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992 remembers the smell, the sights, what they were doing, everything about it. Everyone from Los Angeles remembers what they were doing as well, even if they weren’t here. I can’t speak to the rest of y’all. I was in my science classroom with my teacher Ms. Michaels and the rest of the girls. Ms. Michaels had a crazy buzz-type haircut with a rat-tail and spikey-ness in the front. She was pretty cool. She wheeled out the TV, and we sat there, totally silent as things unfolded and we waited for our parents to come and get us.

I didn’t feel so tough then.

I remembered my mother telling me about the gas lines as a result of the 1973 Oil Crisis, so I forced her to get a full tank on the way home…just in case we had to leave town. There was a curfew enforced, and the looting and fires didn’t remain contained to South Central. They were a few steps from my front door, in Hollywood.

But that stuff didn’t disturb me. I watched my city burn, sitting atop a ladder in my backyard. I smelled the smoke, I listened to my girlfriends talk about “looting at the Beverly Center” and shook my head.

I was, quite literally, glued to the television. And I didn’t remember that until I sat down to write this. We were watching every little thing. I can’t count the number of store-owners I saw sobbing outside their property on live-television. I can’t fathom all the people I saw discussing how wrong they thought it was that people were burning their own damn neighborhoods. I think if I had a nickel for every time I had heard something about burning Beverly Hills or Simi Valley, I’d have a better chance of paying off my student loans faster!

Realistically, seeing Reginald Denny getting pulled out of a truck at age 13 made my skin crawl and I will never ever know what it’s like NOT to have that feeling and image and experience now. It wasn’t like a horror movie, it was something beyond a horror movie. It was the horrors of the real world. That is something that you will never come back from. The remainder of my time spent watching the television and watching the footage only exacerbated that situation. Like the Vietnam War footage (another salient example of how visual media has revolutionized our eyes, ears, selves and souls), the live Los Angeles Riot media work really created a new realm for many people like me.

My first experiences with action footage, really. I watched people with guns. Many many guns. And not the  police, either. I do like a good action movie. But when action is mixed with reality with injustice? I’ll take that in my fictional media, but not in my real life. Revisiting these instances has been not only difficult but enlightening. This video was a doozy.

The L.A. Riots was an incredible event that centered on the visual and what was being watched. It was catalyzed by a video (the Rodney King tape), followed up by the court case (I have distinct memories of a goodly sum of photographs from the trial decorating every news station and paper in town) and completed by the event itself with the voracious coverage, from every angle possible. Not only were the helicopters filming, people were filming, photographers were snapping pictures constantly and every news channel was rabidly running around every strata of the city to get it all covered.

The media archivist in me loves this. We have footage of a historical event, and tons of it (provided it has been archived and preserved properly).

The Angeleno in me doesn’t give a shit and thinks it’s all exploitation anyway. How many of the reporters even cared? This was our city; these were our people. They were hurting, angry, in pain. Justice was not done and everything went to hell and people were just trying to pass judgement and get a good story. People died, lost their homes, jobs, physical and mental well-being. People were scarred for the rest of their lives because of this and half of our news media was simply there to TMZ-it, pre-TMZ. No one gets on top of their roof with a gun, prepares to shoot people and comes out of the situation in a happy place, mentally. Well, not unless they’re in an action film. And how many of those guys are truly “stable” when you think about it?

The revolution has been televised. It was done so via the televised events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago  , it was done by the broadcasting of hours upon hours of the bloody Vietnam War. This event was no different. What was different was that with certain figures who were involved, they were able to synthesize their situation, both event and media-wise, and reflect it back to those who would listen.

This example has a few pretty interesting pieces in it, and a great deal of discussion about the Riots from the social and internal perspective of people within the community.

However, the best example I found within my research was an interview that was conducted by Ted Koppel with two opposing gang members.

There’s a song by Iggy Pop and Kate Pierson. It’s a duet on Brick by Brick  called “Candy,” and it has a line in it that keeps running through my head, “The big city, geez, it’s been 20 years…” While that song is technically about a lost love, sometimes I feel like my innocent affection for Los Angeles was lost that spring day in April when I climbed to the top of the cafeteria steps at Immaculate Heart, high up on the corner of Franklin and Western; that cafeteria that meets the American Film Institute campus, and watched all the fires start with the rest of the girls I went to school with. It doesn’t mean I no longer love my city (that would be impossible), it simply means that this set of experiences forced my hand a bit. Instead of a gradual development, I had to open my eyes really quickly and see the “big city” (and its media) for what they really were.

As it stands today, I look at what everyone else is remembering, and it’s fascinating. I look at what I am remembering and I think that is interesting too.

How far we have come in 20 years and yet…we have not come very far at all. Many of the places that were destroyed during that time are still vacant lots. The dead are still dead and…Rodney King? Well, he is still unimportant. He was only the masthead to the boat. Let it fall, and the larger vessel remains. What will never disappear is the power of the media to change everything and as technology progresses so will the power of the media. A film like KICK ASS (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) used the same Rodney King-DIY-video-principle only constructed it via the internet, having a video made on a cellphone go viral within an extremely short span of time. This is the world we exist in now.

Not much different from the video camera of yesteryear. Just different formats and tools. As we move forward, perhaps we can remember this and try to keep that in our thoughts as we deconstruct both our media and the tools that we use to create it. The more it changes, the more it (and we) stay the same. If we did not take the time to fix ourselves and the problems that we had 20 years ago, how do we expect to move forward with proper and responsible media now? Do we? Can we realistically expect to have a diverse and representative media world if we were unable to rebuild the Los Angeles that broke itself apart almost a quarter of a century ago? Or do we continue to ignore the empty lots?

Los Angeles is a place where you can walk down the street and hear a multiplicity of languages, taste a variety of foods, see a gutload of moving images in different languages. This is a beautiful thing. But awareness is a key feature of any intelligent person and if you think that things have changed much in the last 20 years, you’re dead wrong. The interview that Koppel took with the gang members could’ve been done yesterday. The L.A. Riots changed the landscape of our fair city, but did they solve the problem? Not quite.

To me, the idea that the role of the responsible news media is slowly dying out scares me more than anything else. It means that not only are they no longer being demanded but they are no longer wanted.  When something like this occurs, we are that much closer to Los Angeles Civil Unrest 2: Electric Boogaloo, once more with feeling. Let’s try not to go that direction. I don’t have an answer for what to do, I only know that the first step is awareness and y’know, maybe that’s enough for now.

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The Devil You Know: History, Technology and Family in Warrior

Within the last few years, we have had a preponderance of sports-related dramas released. Notably, many of these films have centered not on football or baseball but on more violent sports, such as boxing or wrestling, and they seemed to serve the dual purpose of revealing certain truths about the sport and about those who engage in it.

But sports films (even violent sports films) are nothing new. Even the revelatory “insignia” of most of these films which seems to be the troubled or remarkably dysfunctional family situation was present back in the days of Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947)

John Garfield in Body and Soul

with John Garfield’s boxer Charley Davis, whose parental situation is compromised or Champion (Mark Robson, 1949), with Kirk Douglas’ Midge Kelly, a boxer with a crippled brother and a unique ability to step on whomever he needs to.

These days, to use this insignia as ample explanation for characters’ motivations towards sports engagement is dreadful oversimplification. Realistically, if anyone were to argue it for the older set of films, I would say that not only were they rejecting the dynamics of genre conventions that these films employ (noir, melodrama) but they are also highly representative of social conditions. These films, whether they are The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008), The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010) or Requiem for a Heavyweight (Ralph Nelson, 1962) are based on more than individual protagonists’ surrounding environments. While not discounting those elements, the characters these movies focus on participate in sports such as this for a multitude of reasons, and the larger “picture” of the picture should not be shrugged off. It’s far too important.

The filmic texts of sports films become even more multi-layered as the years go on, underscoring not only individual reasoning and impetus but a variety of other sociological factors that come together to provide much richer pieces. Even a film as seemingly innocuous or “cheesy” as Over the Top (Menahem Golan, 1987) counts in that it adds an extra patch to this “quilt” in the way that it handles issues of social upheaval within the family unit as well as masculinity (even if arm-wrestling isn’t widely considered a national past-time).

In the world of Over the Top, arm-wrestling can be as professional a sport as wrestling or boxing, and being so…it is accompanied with the same issues: damaged family, economic problems, and many larger over-arching things like, well, concepts of the masculine. Aside from the Kenny Loggins power ballad.

It has come to my attention that the simple “he came from the wrong side of the track/bad family life” summation is trite and kindergarten analysis for the depth of these examples of cinema. There are much more fascinating treasures within these films to be unearthed, and it is our job as viewers to look a little deeper. These films work on contradiction and criticism: their narratives pivot upon the carnivalesque celebration of primal, base acts. If we take these simply at face value, then we are doing something wrong.

This year’s example of what I am speaking of is a film directed by Gavin O’ Connor called Warrior. Although at first glance, the film may seem to play off the same tired clichés of alcoholism, bad family life, economic tension and the “east coast,” Warrior is a multidimensional film that methodically examines the themes of conflict and technology all underneath the waving banners of family and sports. O’Connor manages to communicate his story within terms of familial struggle as well as within terms of media complicity. In doing so, Warrior becomes a tale that makes the audience at once aware that they, themselves, are complicated figures in the schema of the film as they are at once made active participants and passive empaths, no matter what age they might be. O’Connor’s multigenerational technological “mash-up” creates a space in which any viewer can find an avenue through which to join the narrative. It is all intentional.

Reality v. Fiction

Posters for the released film, when put together, were intended to create the one face

This lay-out of the film poster exemplifies the way in which the film was intended to run: a match-up game that didn’t quite match-up. Instead, it was more of a mash-up game. From a distance, one might mistake the two posters as one singular image, one person. Up close, there was no question that it was the actors playing the two different roles, Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy. This visual division of the one “pseudo-image” into two, is the reiteration of the narrative split of the characters. However, this is the first example of how conceptions of reality and fiction are played upon from the very beginning. Had you chanced upon the two posters previous to seeing the film, you might have mistaken them for one whole person (together), or, seeing them separately, each poster might’ve appeared to be half of the same person (unless you were quite familiar with the actors in the film). Either way, the message behind the poster was the enmeshing of the two different beings into one; incongruous realities coming together, not fitting, creating a fiction, a trick for the eye.

The next time this reality/fiction mash-up plays itself out is within the actual film itself. Like other recent films, Warrior placed actual sports figures into the quilted layout of its story. Darren Aronofsky’s may have hired real-live wrestler Nekro-Butcher and assorted other wrestling announcers to give The Wrestler that true-to-life flavor, but O’Connor hired the flavor, turned up the heat, and added one more element: he mixed it up.

Kurt Angle as the MMA badass from Russia, Koba

Kurt Angle was the pride and joy of the WWE for many years. He was the one person that they could say had gotten a “real Olympic gold medal” and they played that for all that it was worth. Angle, in playing the character of Russian-MMA champion Koba, also played that part for all that it was worth. It is true that Kurt’s career has included a modicum of MMA bouts in the last few years, but his primary celebrity has always been within the world of televised wrestling. It’s what he is known for. Additionally, it is important to note that Mixed Martial Arts, as we know it, would not be what it is without the showmanship and the carnival-like atmosphere that Vince McMahon brought to the extreme sports-world. Kurt Angle’s appearance within the MMA spectrum is both shocking and also a historical “post-it-note” to the past, reminding those “in the know” where MMA came from.

While there are a variety of announcers and other real-life MMA-figures in the film, it is Kurt Angle’s appearance within the Warrior text that is one of the bigger reality/fiction matches. Like any non-fictional performer put in a fictional storyline, it hinges upon the audience’s familiarity with the real-life extreme sports world. In wrestling terminology, can O’Connor truly “put him over” as a MMA-champion and not the all-American wrestling hero that he’s been known as for years?

The use of non-fiction characters, whether they are big champs like Angle or just well-known announcers, represent the attempt to invite audience members into the front row; make them feel like they are part of the V.I.P section. Realistically, in a certain sense, they are. It’s like knowing a secret or being part of a tribe; you’re the one who gets those jokes, you get those “in” moments, you are the film’s reality. This makes a huge difference on how familiar you are with Kurt Angle. If you are familiar with who Kurt Angle is, his placement in the film relays a sense of history and gives the MMA-world a context to exist in. For people who are aware of Kurt Angle, he is history. Seeing as the Mixed Martial Art world is still a relatively new sport, and Angle himself has been wrestling with the WWE and then TNA for an inordinate amount of time (ok, maybe not Ric Flair amount, but a goodly bit of time!), recognizing him as a major wrestler and not a MMA fighter is pretty much a no-brainer in this arena, literally. The other bit of traction here is that, aside from the history, as a walking part of fan culture who has just been sewn into the filmic text, you are also well aware that everything is a little upside down, a little bit in conflict. The reality is in the fiction, the old history (wrestling) is at odds with the new (MMA), and there is nothing you can do about it but be fully aware. Because you know what only other fans know.

But I’m not an extreme sports fan, you say. I don’t know who any of those big muscle-y guys are! That makes no difference to me. It’s simply a film. I can watch it without being troubled by outside issues. Koba/Angle doesn’t matter to me! Well, my dear friend, you may be right. Unfortunately, there is the distinct possibility that you are not. If you have borne witness to film and pop culture in the ’80’s, you (very likely) have access to Koba in a different manner. If you cannot engage in the fan’s position of Angle-intimacy, you can also access him through the cinematic analogy. Within the narrative he is being used as The Russian aka the Ultimate baddie, the “anti-American” antagonist. Hrmm. Sound familiar? Well, Rocky IV (Sylvester Stallone, 1985) fans, it really should. Kurt Angle had a predecessor: Dolph Lundgren, the most Soviet Swede (if ever there was one) played the incredibly intimidating Ivan Drago, threatening America and Rocky Balboa, should he not beat him in that boxing match!

Rocky (USA) vs. Drago (USSR)…politics, sports or hair?

So even if you are unaware of Koba from his reality as Kurt Angle, there is bound to be the analogy between fictions, causing a similar rift between sports types as that which came up within the Angle-intimate situation. Boxing, like wrestling, played its own part in the creation of the sport of MMA, thus helping to give it a certain groundwork. Here once again we are shown another example of the clash between that which came before (boxing/Rocky IV) and that which is here now (Mixed Martial Arts/Warrior), a battle between kinds of histories and physical techniques, or, one could almost say, technologies.

Mixed Martial Arts itself is a mash-up. As has been shown through the discussions of the influencing filmic and non-fiction works, it is not a pure discipline. The very name of it states that it is Mixed Martial Arts. Warrior uses this sport as its playground for precisely this reason. Instead of using a stripped down, unadulterated athletic field through which to conduct a narrative, as David O. Russell did with boxing in The Fighter (2010), Warrior is playing in an arena that is so jam-packed with elements that it’s ready to explode. The sport is a combination of various different combat sports, all of which are brutal in and of themselves. MMA takes boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, muay-thai, kickboxing, karate and other martial arts and lumps them all together into one vicious mass. That blend is indicative of the film itself, as it seeks to reflect its characters and their own issues with personal history, familial structuring and emotional maturity. The quickness and complexity of the various styles of martial arts play against the very basic nature of the more simple (but no less valid) boxing or wrestling. MMA as a battlefield for the inner fights of these men only underscore how much more complicated any singular fight can be, let alone the variety that are going on within the narrative of the actual film.

Instruments of Terror v. Instruments of Truth

Warrior confronts many different things, but none so interesting as the idea of technology. History is a major theme within the film and technology helps to highlight that in a variety of different ways.

One of the first technological introductions comes in the form of Paddy Conlon, the father character, played by Nick Nolte. When we first meet him, he is leaving a church and upon getting into his old, out-of-date car, he flips on a cassette tape recording of Moby Dick being read aloud. The idea that this man is still attached to various old kinds of machinery is a clear cut sign that he has been stunted on his path somehow. Throughout the film we find this to be the case. His relationship to his tape player (which includes a walkman) and book-on-tape signify his character more succinctly than almost anyone else in the film.

Paddy Conlon meets up with his past in its current state: his youngest son, Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy)

Paddy is an alcoholic, and he spent the majority of his life letting down his family. His wife and children left him due to his patterns of drinking and violence but that didn’t stop him from repeating them. His behavior in respect to technological instruments in the film reflect his personal history which means he will continue to do the same things over and over again. He broke himself of his pattern of drinking through AA, but he is so stuck on the great machinations of the past that he continues to use out-of-date technology to tell him the same fictional story over and over again about a man whose pride was too great and the endless pursuit of what he believed was right cost him everything he had. In a sense, Paddy is punishing himself daily for the loss of his family by showering himself in ancient history. While there are flickers of change that we see occur due to other characters appearances and catalyzing factors, they do not last for very long, and when they are there, they cause such pain and conflict that Paddy is forced out of the present-day-era. In Paddy Conlon, what we see is a broken ghost of a man who lives in the past; the ever-present cassette-player, the semi-old-fashioned clothing and the tired and resigned countenance all part and parcel of his daily equipment.

Sometimes the pain of the clash of then and now coming together can be too much, as Paddy finds out when he attempts to update himself to the “now”

Digital technology plays a large part in this film as well. If it wasn’t for the digital technologies that are shown within the narrative of Warrior, Tommy wouldn’t have much of a story, which says quite a bit about Tommy. When we first see Tommy, he has come to meet up with Paddy, his dad, and he confronts him about a variety of issues and tries to get him to drink with him. Paddy declines, but Tommy continues to drink. As the film moves forward, it turns out that Tommy wants to be back in touch with his dad, but only to get Paddy to help him train for a big MMA match, to which the elder man happily agrees, thinking that it will be a way to “update” his history; move him out of his “dark ages” and help him bond with his son. But Tommy will have none of that. He is as cold as steel and as non-emotive as a piece of computer equipment. Even when his father reaches out to him with old “training items,” Tommy shuts him down quickly.

While at the gym one day, Tommy volunteers himself to fight one of the main fighters.

What he doesn’t know is that it’s being recorded on a cellphone. Shortly after the match, it makes its way from cellphone to YouTube, and goes viral. Due to this, Tommy gets recognized from another incredibly significant chapter in his life. The audience watches the lightning-fast progression as yet more digital machinery is utilized (a handheld HDcam) to show footage of Tommy from somewhere deep in his past. The face from the HDcam tape is compared to the one on the YouTube clip. Clearly, it’s the same guy. Tommy’s relationship to the digital world is a fascinating one. While his entire personal story within the film would have been skeletal without the meat put on it by the above incidents, technology is where he maintains a certain level of similarity with his father. Tommy would rather reject modern media than revel in it. While his reasoning is different from his father’s, it is still a maintained relationship with technology that is strongly significant within the view of being a major participant in a large sporting event. To not only decline but rebuff media and the technological bathing that comes with huge sporting events could be likened to listening to a cassette-player in the age of the iPod. It just doesn’t make sense to the majority of the world- why on earth would you want to do such a thing?

When Tommy gets accepted and goes to Sparta (the huge MMA event he has been training for) he refuses all the standard “bells and whistles” that come with being a main competitor. When all the rest of the MMA fighters have theme songs, Tommy had nothing. Where all the rest of the MMA fighters had outfits shellacked with sponsorships and loud colors, Tommy walked out onto the floor in a simple hooded sweatshirt. Even his style was “unsexy”- one hit, and the competition was out like a light. Was Tommy doing this in order to try to garner less attention (in which case he failed, as the choices he made only made the spotlight on him grow) or did he do this as part of a self-destructive plan, meaning he had more in common with his father than he thought? By negating his history, stubbornly denying the past and not participating in standard athlete’s ritual and behavior, his past caught up with his present much in the same way that Paddy’s did, and the conflict became unbearable.

Technology was the catalyst of Tommy’s evolution in the film and, more importantly, the technology associated with his character’s storyline was totally out of his hands. As a young man who had always felt like his life was beyond his control, it seems only fitting that we watch as he works out his raging pain and anguish against the technological forces and historical situations that ripped apart his plans and ruined his life in a physical manner. In a sense, the grande finale of the film has echoes of Ahab/Tommy battling the white whale/his past, only this time, he finds a way to achieve success without ultimate destruction.

A variety of other technologies are littered throughout the film, adding strength to ideas of history and the connective presence that machinations have between our past and our future. The high school kids that Paddy’s other son Brendan teaches organize a Pay-Per-View event at the local drive-in so they could watch their teacher “large and in-charge” at Sparta, Brendan’s wife refuses to turn the television on or deal with her cellphone until she finds out he’s succeeded in his first match and then she’s “in.”  In a picture that is highly corporeally-bound, there sure is a lot of reference matter to old and new machinery. Perhaps what Warrior tells us then, finally, is that by shutting away our histories, our emotional responses, our familial ties, we become fragmented. We may, like the poster, look whole from far away, but we are not. We are divided and will remain so until we can physically beat ourselves into some kind of submission and finally connect to what is really good for us.

This is the way, step inside: Joy Division and Me, pt. 1

The silence when doors open wide
Where people could pay to see inside
For entertainment they watch
his body twist
Behind his eyes he says I still exist
This is the way, step inside

And with these lyrics, Joy Division begins their album, Closer. The song? “Atrocity Exhibition.”  The aural impact? INFINITE.

Released 2 months after Ian Curtis’ suicide, and recorded just before his neurological dysfunctions reached the height of their horrors, this album is nothing short of brutally brilliant. And it is brutal, make no mistake about it. Emotionally, aurally, sensually, and erotically brutal. Whether it is Curtis’ plaintive but angry voice growling, “I put my trust in you,” or the dark and dingy basslines that make you feel like you’re existing in a chasm of nothing but pure, unadulterated shadow that has been physically manifested, this collection of songs is the unintentional culmination of a band that no one has seen the likes of since. Fuck the Interpol comparisons. One good, PROPER listen to Closer, and your world will be forever changed. But it has to be at the right time.

A while back, I was having drinks with an old friend, and we hadn’t seen each other in a while. We were catching up over beers and such, and discussing things we had seen or were currently working on. Both being media academic-types, that was the primary focus of much of our conversation. However there was one key part of our conversation having had its origins in an online encounter (great term- online encounter- Sounds almost naughty, doesn’t it?) from a day or two previous.  This was not your run-of-the-mill critical theory conversation (although I suppose that that is not quite “run of the mill” bar chat for most of the world, but I digress…). Oh no. This was a discussion of the most masterful YouTube video that I had seen in a very long time, which I had recently posted on my Facebook, and had illicited quite a response from a few choice people I knew. A clip I will now submit for your own viewing enjoyment.



At any rate, while we lamented the fact that not everyone seemed to enjoy the video as much as we had, I mentioned that, for me, it was quite possibly one of the most intelligent pieces of YouTube-ist fare around today, primarily, because the video had used the song “She’s Lost Control,” one of my favorite Joy Division songs.

While he agreed that it was indeed a good song, he seemed to feel that there was better work in the Joy Division oeuvre. In my defense, as I related to my companion, this song has always had a special meaning to me, as Curtis wrote it about a girl having a seizure and I, myself, have seizures. Thus, “She’s Lost Control,” has, in effect, been “my jam” since I first heard it, in college. However, as we continued our conversation, I thought about it more intensely. In fact, I took this opportunity to re-exam my relationship with Joy Division, Ian Curtis, and my seizures with a much more discerning eye. The results of my contemplations and my residual experiments were almost as intense as the music itself.

When did I fall in love with that song? What made me do it? And why that song over all other Joy Division work? Why did I want to play THAT song over and over, negating the possibility of me appreciating or learning about the breadth and depth of their work? Surely the simple fact that I had a seizure disorder (which was so very minor at the time, and did not ACTUALLY become a real issue until the most recent few years) wouldn’t have affected my critical judgement? The conclusion that I came to was that it very well might have.

See, having epilepsy isn’t fun. I remember my first seizure (well, not the actual seizing part) as clear as day, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I was 13 or so years old, brushing my teeth before bed. As most teenage girls of that age do, I had locked the bathroom door. When my parents heard loud banging sounds, they had to break the door down. I was wearing underwear and my Max Headroom t-shirt. I miss that shirt. My life as I knew it, as a normal kid, ended that night. From that point on, my life has always involved MRIs, blood tests, sleep deprivation tests, and a whole slew of different neurological meds…and this was before I could even DRIVE.

This was also when they told me it was probably going to go away, and I would probably be off medication by me early 20’s.

“You don’t have epilepsy,” they reassured me while prescribing me Phenobarbitol, a drug that turned me into a early 90’s metal-head version of Linda Blair from The Exorcist, minus the cross-fucking (hey-I’m Jewish!) and head-spinning. Needless to say, not only did I get off that medication pretty quickly, when it became perfectly clear that a barbiturate was NOT good for a highly emotionally raw and sensitive 13-14 year old, but I believed them and felt confident that by my 20’s, I would be a normal kid. Just like my friends.

cortex

Never once did they explain to me what seizures were. How they worked. What was fucking wrong with me. So when I continued to have them in a highly muted form (ie not doing the dying fish routine with my body, aka grand mal seizures), I never told anyone. Hey- I wasn’t talking to my parents anyway- just one MORE thing not to tell them. Not once did I realize how bad all this was. Until they got worse. And I had a few more. But then they found a good medication after a few failed attempts (one they had to take me off immediately, as it was killing people by anemia, ooo fun!) and I was safe at last. Seizure free. Basically.

It was approximately at this point that I found myself living in Santa Cruz, and that I found Joy Division.

Let me preface this by saying, I have never been “cool” or up on things the way I would like to have been, except perhaps in the worlds of literature and film. I may have read/seen some stuff ahead of other folks in that particular area. Other than that, I spent a good long time trying to play “catch up,” mostly because all of my friends were a great deal older than I was. They were probably drinking beer and singing TV Party while I was still getting through the Narnia books. At any rate, I had heard Joy Division, never got “into” them, but knew that a lot of people I liked really liked them. So the day that my housemate who worked at the corporate record store downtown next to the Santa Cruz 9 (was it the Wherehouse?) brought home the 4-disc collection, Heart and Soul in order to sell it to the other record store in town (he’d stuffed the box set down his pants on his way out the door), I knew it had to be mine instead. And it was.

b00005mkhq01lzzzzzzz1Unfortunately, what this prevented was the first cohesive aural experience of a Joy Division album. True, I did get 4 discs of pure, unadulterated amazing music, but I did not get an album.

See, here’s the problem with that. In this day and age, albums do not carry a whole lot of currency for most people, or so it seems. However, with the musics that I happen to love, albums mean a whole lot. Sure, you can listen to “Pinball Wizard,” from Tommy, and it’s a great song on its own, but without the context of the album it loses a great deal of its power. The same goes for most of my favorite albums, to be honest. They are albums.

But within this context, having only really had intimate familiarity with “Love Will Tear Us Apart Again” (as anyone who has spent ANY time within 50 feet of a goth or goth club does), I was immediately drawn to “She’s Lost Control.” Once I read about the background story….even more so.

Sure, it was ego. I wanted to find myself in there. I was that girl. Because also, at that time, I was in my late teens/early 20’s (aka Second Adolescence, only gotta pay your own way this time ’round!), and so many other things seemed…out of control. In fact, the only thing that was not out of control was what I was studying, because I had fallen so deeply, madly and passionately in love with film and media studies that every pore in my body, every hair on my head, every beat of my heart seemed to exude it. I lived for it. But that song……

Confusion in her eyes that says it all.
She’s lost control.
And she’s clinging to the nearest passer by,
She’s lost control.
And she gave away the secrets of her past,
And said I’ve lost control again,
And a voice that told her when and where to act,
She said I’ve lost control again.

I must have listened to that song 10,000 times. It was kinda like the song “Swamp Thing,” by the Chameleons, UK. I heard it and I simply. Could. Not. Get. Enough.

And that was it. My story. That was how I met Joy Division.

Things have changed now. But that’s another story for another time. Part 2.

But I wonder if my world would have altered had I been introduced to a full album instead. Was my musical maturity level at the time up to par? Could I have understood it? Would it have done anything for me? More inportantly, does it mean I am less of a fan because I have done my listening in such compartmentalized doses that were so separated? And what is fan-ness of this individuated and personalized genre anyway?

To me, this song meant a great deal. Little did I know how much the band and its singer would come to mean when my own illness became more advanced, 10 years in the future. Stayed tuned, true believers, that part comes up next…




Damn Fine Panties

Yeah, so I’m failing right now on the blogging thing. Been reaaaaaaaallly busy….work, school, etc.
So the good stuff- the writing- it will come.
I found this today, though, and had to share.