Going down? Reviews for the descent

With such a rich cultural history to choose from, why not look to some classics. To pull everything together Mark Chapman closed his eyes, planted a digit on a page of the nearest book (Will Self’s short story Scale, in case you were wondering) and ended up with the word down.

Grey Area and other stories
Will Self
Penguin Books, 1996

Scale itself is a good starting point. It’s a combination of an exercise in wry literary grandstanding, as Self attempts to squeeze every single usage of the word ‘scale’ into one narrative and a somewhat bleak ‘fall and fall again’ story that somehow combines the pathos of Marion and Geoff with J.G. Ballard’s concrete and motorway slip roads obsession. A great introduction for anyone intimidated by the idea of reading Self, which can be found in the short story collection, Grey area.

Downfall
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel
2004

Moving on to inevitable decline on film, and although the name suggests otherwise, Downfall doesnt actually chart the demise of the Third Reich from beginning to end, choosing instead to focus on creating a rounded fictional account of those last few days in the bunker. Its not even really about Hitler per se, although the film caused controversy for daring to show a softer kindly uncle side to the Führer.

The film caused controversy for daring to show a softer ‘kindly uncle’ side to the Führer.

In large part, and where its most effective, is in telling the stories of the women in the bunker – the wide-eyed and lamblike secretary, Traudl (upon whose real life account the film is based), the brittle Eva Braun, and the stern, fanatical Magda Goebbels, who kills her own children because she cant bear for them to live in a Germany that has lost the war. It is in these personal stories, rather than in the tanks and explosions, that Downfall offers the most richness.

Harsh times
Dir. David Ayer
2005

Harsh times, on the other hand, is all about the boys. It follows, mostly in extreme close up, as Christian Bales tightly wound US Ranger leaves the army and cruises the streets of LA with his best chum (played by Six Feet Unders Freddy Rodríguez) while he waits to find out if his application to join the LAPD has been successful. This leaves Rodríguez’s sensible wife, played by the inevitable Eva Longoria, rather sidelined.

Harsh times lets you know from the start that it’s all going to turn to shit, and eventually you stop caring.

In other words, more or less the same story as director David Ayers earlier Training day, except while in that film the tension kept ratcheting up and it was impossible to tell quite what was going to happen next, Harsh times lets you know from the start that its all going to turn to shit, and eventually you stop caring. While the performances are tense and magnetic, the story is all over the place, and keeps starting threads it never does anything with as a means of filling time.

The Wrestler
Dir. Darren Aronofsky
2008

Much more convincingly charting another downward spiral despite not a lot happening in the grander sense, is Darren Aronofskys The wrestler. The film follows the titular grappler, beautifully and subtly played by Mickey Rourke, as he agonises over whether to put his failing body through any more punishment after 20 years in the ring, or settle down with a normal job and a family, a new and alien experience for him. The film plays out like a classical drama – the old warhorse coming home from war, only to find a society that has no place for him, and by the oddly satisfying ending, Rourke has you really feeling for the big, dumb lummox.

Snuff
Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday, 2008

Dropping briefly back into books, Chuck Palahniuks Snuff looks at wrestlings spiritual twin in peroxide, fake tan and over-inflated body parts – the American porn industry. The setting of the book is one of those porn shoots where the female star tries to set a record for the number of dicks taken in whatever orifice (as popularised by Sex: The Annabel Chong Story), and the story is related in consecutive chapters from the viewpoint of three of the male performers and the stars female PA.

Chuck has no idea how to write women, so his female characters are all either man-hating psychos, peroxide sluts or some combination of the two.

The problem with this book, as with a lot of Chucks oeuvre, is that the characters exist purely to churn out wacky factoids and to eventually succumb to a fate reminiscent of the more graphic end of Bizarre magazines pages. Chuck also has no idea how to write women, so his female characters are not only afflicted with the above peccadilloes, but are all either man-hating psychos, peroxide sluts or some combination of the two, and any characterisation is usually exactly the same as the male protagonists. While Chuck has an enjoyably flowing prose style, and many of the factoids are intriguing, by the ludicrous ending of Snuff Id grown tired with his lurid schoolboy obsessions.

The curious case of Benjamin Button
Dir. David Fincher
2008

Going downwards in the temporal sense, erstwhile Palahniuk-adapter David Finchers The curious case of Benjamin Button follows the life of the titular character, who was born an OAP, and ages backwards during the course of the film. This film, adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, includes dewy-eyed actorly performances from both Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

The main problem is that they are both roughly the same age for a long time, so it might as well be another romantic drama.

Neither actor appears for quite a while into the film though, as Blanchetts character is played by some precocious stage school brat to start with, and Pitts by what appears to be Gollums granddad. The first hour of the film is pacey, fun and rip-roaring, as Fincher makes full use of his effects department to show Button growing younger, taking a job as a trawlerman, and having a fling with Tilda Swinton, but when the two main protagonists finally meet, the next third of the film hits a thick streak of treacle. The main problem is that they are both roughly the same age for a long time, so it might as well be another romantic drama. Benjamin Button does thankfully pull itself back together for a sensitively handled and fun finale, but it would have been nice if the pacing problems werent quite so apparent.

Joy Division
Having so far largely avoided the use of down in the miserable sense, I decided to be unashamedly bleak in my music reviews and revisit a couple of downtuned, downbeat and just plain grumpy classics. First up, you dont get more of a reputation for being miserable than Joy Division, from the bleakly challenging band name and cold, urban wasteland image to the hollow, bleak production and the haunted vocals of Ian Curtis.

Unlike some other miserablist bands, their music genuinely doesn’t have an optimistic subtext.

And in truth, unlike some other miserablist bands, their music genuinely doesn’t have an optimistic subtext – the band’s songs are the distillation of Curtis’ obsession with his own emptiness, failure and loss of control. Both of Joy Division’s studio albums, Unknown pleasures and Closer, are excellent, and for a primer on the band’s entire career, you couldn’t do much better than the Substance compilation. Anton Corbijn’s film on the band, Control (2007) is also well worth watching.

Nico
Nico, she of Velvet Underground and not-being-a-very-good-cyclist fame, was pretty much destined to write mournful sounding albums, as she has all the range and vocal cheer of a washing machine on spin cycle. That is not to say her voice is bad, because its very flatness has a hypnotic, almost luxuriously lonely quality.

She has all the range and vocal cheer of a washing machine on spin cycle.

On the albums The marble index and Desertshore, recently re-released in a set titled The frozen borderline, Nico twins her voice with eerie, queasy harmonium-playing, and a variety of hollow, lonely instruments added by the estimable John Cale, to produce what can only be described as heroin sea shanties of insanity and desolation.

I was hoping to end with a review of Ayn Rand’s objectivist epic, Atlas shrugged, as it is about a society in decline, but I have both run out of space here, and not made a huge dent in the book’s thousand-plus pages as yet. So maybe next time.

Mark Chapman is a London-based writer.

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