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White Bird in A Blizzard (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Last week saw the release of the Mockingbird Love EP, four new tracks by former Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie. They’re all predictably good and conjure up many of those adjectives that critics love to use to describe his former band’s music. Celestial, spellbinding and ethereal for starters.

By a wee coincidence, I finally got round to watching Gregg Araki’s White Bird in A Blizzard from 2014 on the night before I became aware of the Guthrie release.

Sometimes the right piece of music can really set you up for a film. And Sea, Swallow Me by The Cocteau Twins and Harold Budd worked the trick for me here. A perfect mood setter, with Budd’s exquisite soft pedal piano complementing the band perfectly.

You can always rely on Araki for some solid soundtrack choices. He’s one of those American directors like Richard Kelly with a thing for what might loosely be described as British alternative music of the 1980s. It’s easy to imagine rows of shoegaze albums in his record collection, together with everything ever released by New Order, The Jesus and Mary Chain and, of course, The Cocteau Twins. In White Bird in a Blizzard, those three acts are joined by The Psychedelic Furs, Talk Talk, Echo and The Bunnymen, Everything But The Girl and others, while Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd also provide some incidental music.

Unfortunately, after having my hopes built up, it turned out that the music is much better than the film as a whole.

Set in suburban America from 1988 to the early 1990s, White Bird in a Blizzard is the story of 17-year-old Kat, played by Shailene Woodley, who comes home from school one afternoon to be told by a pensive father (Christopher Meloni) that her mother Eve (Eva Green) has gone. She’s been threatening to leave him for years, and he doesn’t reckon she will be coming back any time soon.

This isn’t the devastating blow that you might assume for Kat. Through a series of voice-overs and flashbacks, we learn that Eve was never mother of the year material. Or wife of the year material either. Once, her parents had been ‘the quintessential American couple’ – although Eve’s accent is more Paris than Paris, Texas – but it didn’t take long for their marriage to turn sour, with Eve treating her husband like a doormat and Kat not much better. In one particularly disturbing episode a raging Eve wakes her in the middle of the night to grill her on her sex life.

Kat is said to physically resemble her mother, and Eve is becoming inordinately jealous of her daughter’s youthfulness and potential future. She also doesn’t make much of an effort to disguise her sexual interest in Kat’s boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) and her behaviour becomes increasingly irrational and her skirts progressively shorter, the longer Kat dates him.

‘Not bad for 42,’ a boozed-up Eve boasts one night to the young couple as she stumbles down into the cellar wearing a skimpy outfit. And yep, she certainly hadn’t scrubbed up too badly.

Like Eve, the film gets a little irrational too. Looking like the sort of thing you might expect to see on some porno website where a young man is employed to deliver pizzas (not that I watch that type of thing, honestly!), the scene featuring a barechested Phil in shorts searching for his mother’s cat as Eve sunbathes in her swimsuit is unintentionally funny.

With Eve still untraceable and Phil showing more interest in gaming and ganja than in having sex with her, Kat’s suspicions about the two maybe having had a thing surface, though not to that great an extent, with Kat maintaining a kind of ‘whatever’ attitude to her mother’s disappearance for much of the movie. And if she doesn’t give a shit about the vanishing act, why should we?

Despite this, she agrees to her dad’s idea that she sees a therapist, played by Angela ‘right here, right now’ Bassett. Kat’s voice-over reveals that she feels ‘feels like an actress playing myself’, while Dr. Thaler reminds her ‘of an actress playing a therapist.’ Bassett reminded me of an actress that deserved a better role.

Lines of dialogue might be clunky and draw attention to themselves, but there are pluses. With some striking dream sequences, the film strays into David Lynch territory and Laura Palmer herself (Sheryl Lee) appears briefly as the new woman in Kat’s father’s life. Of course, Kat has no problems with this turn of events. Initially at least.

Shailene Woodley and Christopher Meloni both put in impressive enough performances and Eva Green does a great line in unhinged, although that accent of hers really should have been explained. Ultimately, the film is a disappointment but one that was still worth a watch.

One huge revelation late on, which is difficult to buy into, is delivered by a voice-over (Araki obviously isn’t a believer in the old screenwriting maxim ‘show don’t tell’) and this is immediately followed by a flashback, though not a flashback of Kat’s, which explains the disappearance with a twist ending that was even more difficult to buy into due to a lack of any real clues given. Not only that but the fact that it was never revealed whether Kat was aware of these events did niggle at me.

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Here’s another of those inspired Araki soundtrack choices. Sung by Gordon (now Cindy) Sharp, formerly of The Freeze and an old pal of The Cocteaus, this is Fond Affections from This Mortal Coil’s 1984 collection It’ll End in Tears (the video is unofficial in case you’re wondering):

Finally, back to Robin Guthrie, whose new album Pearldiving should be out next month on Soleil Après Minuit. For the time being, here’s Copper, the opening track on the aforementioned Mockingbird Love EP:

For more on Robin Guthrie:

https://www.facebook.com/robinguthrieofficial/

https://robinguthrie.bandcamp.com/

This Is My Happening and It Freaks Me Out!

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Last time around some inventive dancing from La La La Human Steps and David Bowie. To start with this time, some not so inventive dancing from Mark E. Smith and a (presumably) random drunk guy that happened to pass by as the promo for L.A. was being shot and somehow found himself invited to join in the fun. I’m not sure Smith’s pal Michael Clark would have approved.

Never keen on talk about the ‘Brix era’ of The Fall, one of Smith’s resentments was the idea that during this time his then wife glammed the band up. ‘I’ve always tried to dress smart,’ he protested in his book Renegade, where he also pointed out that ‘nobody takes a scruff seriously’ and ‘you don’t want to be walking around like an urban scarecrow.’

The ‘Brix era’ produced some of my favourite Fall albums with This Nation’s Saving Grace maybe edging it as the finest of them with I Am Kurious Oranj not far behind. As for Brix glamming up the band, I’m not so sure Mark E. could ever be glammed up but she certainly injected a glamourous individual element into mix the day she joined. Up until then Fall members had all looked like they spent most nights supping pints of Boddingtons in some dour Prestwich boozer. This didn’t strike Fall fans as a likely habitat for a blonde Californian with a beaming smile but unlike most British independent outfits of the time, The Fall were always good for a surprise.

During 1985, Brix was going through something of an Edie Sedgwick phase and in her parallel career as leader of The Adult Net, she released her tribute to the Warhol superstar on 45 in the wake of This Nation’s Saving Grace hitting record shops. On L.A. Brix provides a mesmerizing Rickenbacker riff and the repeated line borrowed from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls heard in the final quarter of the track that gives this post its title.

Oh, how I missed regularly staging happenings during lockdown even though they have been known to freak me out too!

Equally madcap and melodramatic, if you haven’t seen it, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a trashy exploitation film that was frequently screened as a midnight movie in Britain in the mid-1980s, such as when it was paired with Valley of the Dolls at one of the weekend double bills shows at the Grosvenor in Glasgow. I’m guessing Brix saw it around this time, as in addition to that line, she launched her offshoot Adult Net career with a cover of The Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Incense and Peppermints, which was featured in the movie.

Here is L.A., which is said to have been John Peel’s least favourite Fall song. File under ‘Things Peelie got seriously wrong.’

In his foreword to the book Excavate!: The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall, Michael Clark recalls that the first time he saw The Fall live, a member of the Lyceum audience took to the stage and punched Smith. The singer carried on as if nothing had happened. Clark was intrigued by the singer’s response, and his interest in The Fall grew. Soon that interest was reciprocated, and the band would go to see Clark and his troupe dance, sometimes to Fall tracks. They began collaborating, and the highpoint of this would be I Am Curious, Orange.

This was a ballet based let’s say very loosely on the ascension to the British throne of William of Orange and how the consequences of this were still being felt three hundred years later. I wasn’t lying when I said The Fall were always good for a surprise, was I?

Flamboyant and frenetic, with The Fall playing live numbers from their I Am Kurious, Oranj album (not sure why the album and show were spelled differently), there were dancing fruits, a moving phone box and a game of football onstage which wouldn’t have had Alex Ferguson rushing to wave his cheque book at any of the players involved. Michael Clark was King Billy. Brix was wheeled out while sitting on a Claes Oldenburg style hamburger and a gigantic poke of McDonald’s fries was lowered from the ceiling and spilt onto the stage, killing the dancers. Swan Lake this was not.

I saw the show at the King’s Theatre, where it was part of the programme for the 1988 Edinburgh International Festival no less. None of yer Fringe Festival for The Fall. I didn’t remotely understand most of it – I doubt that was the point – but appreciated its anarchic exuberance and, of course, the music.

And I really don’t think King Billy would have approved.