Howard Hampton

  • Irma Vep

    FROM THE OUTSET, Olivier Assayas’ breakneck behind-the-camera satire Irma Vep immerses the viewer in the heady desperation of moviemaking. The first shot slowly pans over fresh-faced production assistants blithely hustling investors and creditors with phone solicitations worthy of seasoned bunco artists. Enter cheerfully self-effacing Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung as herself; she has arrived to play the title role of a latex-encased femme fatale in a projected remake of Louis Feuillade’s legendary proto-Surrealist 1916 serial Les vampires. This is ironic inasmuch as virtually everyone involved

  • GOOD-AS-DEADFELLAS: THE FILMS OF TAKESHI KITANO

    WATCHING “BEAT” TAKESHI KITANO’S sardonically oblique Sonatine, it’s easy to imagine his nickname coming from Elvis Costello’s “The Beat,” where the singer boasted: “I’ll do anything to confuse the enemy.” Kitano—who besides starring in the film also wrote, directed, and edited it—is master of subterfuge, and casual displacement. Sonatine surveys nihilism with a bemused gaze: it turns the gangster film into a still life with blood. Kitano lets the camera linger on figures and spaces, holding shots an extra second or two while his actors (taking their cue from his taciturn manner) move with a

  • Neil Young

    Released this summer and immediately dismissed by trendspotters everywhere, NEIL YOUNG’s Broken Arrow (Reprise) finds him once more turning the garage rock of Crazy Horse into a Paleolithic scrawl—a sonic cave painting. The album is lo-fi archeology, excavating the past for signs of a world burled alive. “I’m still livin’ the dream we had,” he maintains quixotically, the voice of a man both behind and ahead of his time.

    On Broken Arrow, he keeps returning to what he knows best: “Talkin’ ’bout the enemy / Inside of me”—the fatality and doubt that has sustained his music down the scattershot decades.

  • BLUR AS GENRE: WONG KAR-WAI

    THE ETERNAL CITY OF YOUTH beckons anew: romantic urban ciphers (cops, gun moll, stewardess, fast-food gamine) bathed in neon reflections of themselves, style as metaphysics (sunglasses at midnight), gaiety and sorrow entwined in a hungover reverie. That’s the mood of Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, the 1994 Hong Kong movie-cum-international-sensation that finally opens this month in America under the banner of—who else?—Quentin Tarantino. Wong, though, goes in for cerebral Pop abstractions instead of brain-splatter pulp. A dazzlingly adroit synthesis of art cinema and MTV, Chungking Express

  • Howard Hampton

    LIQUID ASSET

    “Imprison those alive as rioters,” a corrupt army officer orders after his troops have nerve-gassed a crowded train station in the post-atomic Hong Kong fable EXECUTIONERS. “Bum the corpses,” he mutters, in a moment that carries tremendous bitter echoes of the Tiananmen Square massacre. As with any good HK film, the images are so startling you can scarcely believe your eyes: martial arts acrobatics, glances loaded with aching emotion, grandiose violence infused with contemplative beauty. It’s as if the three resistance fighters (Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung, reprising

  • MUSIC

    HOWARD HAMPTON

    We’ll Always Have Paris

    Lourdes, 8 July 1940: a refugee sensing fate closing in around him, Walter Benjamin writes Hannah Arendt and ruefully quotes an aphorism that will shortly be an epitaph: “His laziness supported him in glory for many years in the obscurity of an errant and hidden life.” “This ain’t Paris,” mutters Babylon Dance Band singer Chip Nold on the group’s belated debut (Matador), “It’s not the 19th century.” This incandescent one-shot reunion recorded over a decade after their break-up offers “errant and hidden life” as pure revel (and reverie). Desperation is Nold’s

  • the Plastic People of the Universe

    THE SCENE IS RIGHT out of a dialectical fairy tale: a band that once upon a time became a subterranean legend, an avatar of freedom and refusal, reunites to record a live album. The group reaches back almost a quarter century into its repertoire to dredge up the now-quaint signature tune “Waiting for the Man.” Only this isn’t the Velvet Underground finally paying a call on a stadium-full of adoring fans somewhere in Europa, but a much more obscure and mysterious outfit that sprang from such fandom itself in the waning days of 1968: the Plastic People of the Universe.

    Born in the wake of the

  • the West-as-Metaphor

    Richard Slotkin, The Myth of the Frontier of Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum), 850 pages.

    Jane Tompkins, West of Everything (New York: Oxford University Press), 245 pages.

    Reading Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation and Jane Tompkins’ West of Everything reminded me of a line Lindsey Buckingham sang years ago, on his album Law and Order. Donning imaginary chaps and jingle-jangle spurs, the Hollywood cowboy slumped dreamily back in his saddle: “I’m just a shadow of the West.”

    That mythic landscape—wide-open spaces and closed caskets, Monument Valley and Wounded Knee—casts a tall shadow

  • WHEN IN VIDEODROME: TRAVELS IN THE NEW FLESH

    AS RONALD REAGAN’S PROJECT of managed alienation found its hidden voice and set about infiltrating every sphere of communication, a bizarre omen of the times to come appeared. In the guise of a horror film, Videodrome evoked a muffled terror that was simultaneously private and political—Sade at play in the field of capitalist spectacle. The director was David Cronenberg, a cult favorite specializing in psychosexual mutation: the human organism in revolt against itself. A related theme of his was the parasitic relation of malignant systems (viruses, institutions, government) to the body. But

  • Peckinpah

    Rattling along the backroads of Mexico in a scrap-heap convertible, Warren Oates is taunting his passenger. Sodden and borderline incoherent, he’s full of bile and paranoia and woozy sentiment: a drunk on a terminal bender, spewing out the poisoned remains of an undigested life. Strangely, the top is up, and the car is permeated with flies and stench. This may have something to do with Oates’ silent companion, who impassively receives his stream of verbal abuse. However, as the actor’s friend is a severed head in a bloody burlap sack, the conversation is an easy one to dominate.

    We’re in Sam

  • Heavy Metal

    IN THE WANING MONTHS of 1991, as America passed from recession to “economic free-fall,” a struggle for the hearts and minds of the white teen proletariat took shape. Reaching the top of the charts, heavy metal’s established meanings and ingrained signifiers—the boundaries of what can and can’t be said, of what constitutes the genre itself—were suddenly in a free-fall of their own. A civil war began within the borders of a semiotics that time forgot.

    Representing fanatical sonic fundamentalism, raising disillusion to a fiercely mystical pitch, Metallica mount a jihad against everything craven,

  • REST IN PEAKS

    From the shadow zone a voice repeats, I will tell you something. Bring your ear to my lips. What you seek is right in front of you: a passage from the prison of the present age, a ticket to the end of this world. A record plays, the needle stuck at a soft, echo-laden plea on behalf of “Just you and I.” It's saying we'll meet again where the known universe intersects with its dreamed double. Please don't be late.

    SUMMER VACATION, 1991: a visit to the ruins of Twin Peaks, U.S.A. Lovely Washington scenery (what kind of incredible trees are those?), remarkable view (a majestic waterfall seen from