Lutheran Letter

This month,
January 2004,
I offer you a
Lutheran Letter;
committed, pointed, piqued,
wintry and pure
in the manner
of Pier Paolo

Lost on Me

I went to see Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.

Although I chuckled along with the audience and enjoyed some of the sight gags, in retrospect I feel the film contained a whole raft of betrayals.

How do we feel when a Hollywood film comes swooping down to cherrypick 'our' subculture, only to leave it twitching on the shore with the 'sub-' pecked right out of it? This was basically Mathieu Kassovitz's take on 'Kill Bill' (like Tarantino he is steeped in Asian action movies, but Kassowitz feels Tarantino is travestying the genre), and it's my take on 'Lost in Translation'. I can relate it to Kid A-period Radiohead too. Sure, if you're on that side of electronica, kung fu, or Tokyo, then Radiohead, Tarantino or Coppola are doing you and themselves a big favour by using them as backdrops for their dramas. They're freshening things up. But if you're on this side of those things, you can't help but feel slightly... betrayed.

There's betrayal of many of the characters: with this type of anglo-saxon 'centre of goodness' scriptwriting, all empathy is concentrated on the principals, Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. This seems to involve all other characters being reduced to something flat and even nasty. Presumably if everyone got to be human beings in the film, the principals might be upstaged and we'd fail to tear up with them at the end.

Scarlett's husband John, a young photographer, is betrayed. He snores, he absents himself, he spouts cliches. So that we empathize with Murray, John has to be portrayed as an insecure, possibly duplicitous, asshole hipster. The Hollywood actress they meet in the lobby is betrayed by being shown to be an airhead. A lot of Japanese bit part players are betrayed when Murray does his sort of Bob Hope 1940s playing-to-the-gallery dry wiseacre schtick at their expense. (Actually, props to Bob Hope: he was never that dreary and mopey.)

In one scene, Murray and Scarlett are in a Japanese restaurant, facing the chef, who doesn't speak English. Murray quips that Scarlett's sore toe would probably be a delicacy to some customer here. When the non English-speaking chef fails to crack a grin, Murray demands 'Why the straight face?'

I squirmed. Does Murray's charisma have to come at the expense of someone else all the time? (Let's not even talk about the portrayal of the prostitute or the commercial director.) In a hospital scene, an old lady asks Murray why he took this long trip to Japan. Murray responds again by playing to the gallery, miming her as if she were doing a ludicrous choreographed song. He's the odd one out, the foreigner, and yet he's treating those around him as if they were foreigners. This is bad manners and bad traveller etiquette. It prompts the question, is it possible to be American and foreign? I suspect the answer is 'No', at least if one is in an American film, wherever it may be set.

Japan is really a red herring in this film, but I believe we can say that Tokyo and Japan are betrayed too when Murray and Johansson fail to explore them much, preferring to stay in their appallingly tacky and overpriced hotel. Murray bonds with Scarlett when he proposes that they 'bust out of this prison together' -- explaining he means the hotel, the city, and the country itself. If only they'd busted out of their vapid, rude and treacherous navel-gazing instead!

Oddly enough, Coppola seems to betray the very 'visual creative' set she forms part of. I've been at Tokyo parties with Coppola when she's had Geoff McFettridge in tow, and of course her husband Spike Jonze is an eminently visual guy. We get glimpses in the film of copies of + 81 magazine and Studio Voice, both little worlds I love and would love to see Hollywood learning from. But the film isn't, for me, driven by a visual logic. (One critic compared it to Chris Marker's 'Sans Soleil' with almost insane generosity.) This film doesn't have a 'body', either in the sense of indulging the human body, or indulging its own filmic 'body'. It doesn't seem to be aware of itself as an artifact. It's being a 'window on the world' in the traditional way. Very unlike her friend Mike Mills' visually startling work.

Johansson tosses aside those copies of Studio Voice and +81. Presumably they belong, along with the visual culture they represent, to John / Spike, the young husbands. Hiromix is given a tiny bit part and a parting wave, without being in any way present as Hiromix. She is mute, not just because she doesn't speak, but because her very distinct visual sense is absent from Coppola's film too. Film itself is betrayed by being made the vehicle for a script, a story. 'Eloge D'Amour' this is not.

Johansson rejects her same-age partner for a much older man: it's l'amour a la papa, a daddy's girl movie financed by... Sofia's own daddy! Youth is trumped by age; another betrayal. And sex is 'betrayed' because it's a movie about sexual attraction which doesn't allow the principals to interact sexually. Is it charming that they don't? Actually, I would have found staunch fidelity or rampant infidelity a lot more interesting than the petulant diffidence we have to endure for so long.

Betrayal, for me, is the key figure in the movie because Sofia basically uses youth culture, hipness and Japan (cultures she is part of -- she's in Japan a lot, runs a trendy clothes brand, and has married a hip young director) as a series of buzzy backdrops, only to trump them in the end with their opposites: values I'd call 'middle-aged', 'mainstream' and 'domestic'. (Maybe this is why so many middle-aged American film critics loved the film, and why it's up for so many awards in the US.) Now, why Coppola does this is open to conjecture. I think it's a hip, privileged Hollywood insider selling out her own values in an attempt to placate the mainstream. And yet I feel that she is realising, with this film, that those values were only temporarily her world. It's the 'lesbian until graduation' syndrome, and Sofia is definitely interested in graduating. The world she's graduating from -- Japan, visual culture, youth culture -- is my world. That's why I feel betrayed too.

To get my revenge, I recast the film in my mind with Woody Allen and Hiromix in the lead roles. It was much, much better.

Listen To Your Boredom

Months ago Stereo Total asked me to contribute something to their new album. Bretzel mentioned he'd been reading Andy Warhol's diaries, so I proposed a song based on that, called 'Taxi $5'. It's clearly organised in my mind, that song. I know what it says and what it sounds like. It's just a question of joining the dots; slinging it into stanzas and making a chord sequence for it. Hack work.

It won't happen. My song bores me already, and I'm more interested in that boredom than I am in the song. I'm bored even when I imagine 'Taxi $5' being sung and drummed by the fantastic Francoise Cactus, with Bretzel's abrasive arrangement skills propping and popping it up. The best band in the world! I can't be bored with them. I must be bored with pop itself!

But I'm not bored with my boredom. In fact I'm rather interested in it. I feel I should listen, pay attention. What does it mean, my boredom? Who sent it? What is it trying to tell me?

I wrote Francoise a letter telling her that since working with Anne Laplantine -- and making what is certainly the most beautiful record I've ever been involved in -- I seem to have lost confidence in my own songwriting. I mean specifically that formula of wit-plus-MIDI which is one typical way I work. Anne has been pretty scathing about that, and I've found myself unwilling to put up much of a fight defending my (MIDI) patch. Francoise wrote back saying that she also experienced writer's block from time to time, and that the hard thing for her was to get the balance right between what's funny and what's strange.

That was a nice thought, but not really what I meant. I don't have writer's block. If anything, I have writer's gush. I've just come to mistrust my own fluency, my fertility. It shouldn't be this easy, this habitual. I should be doing something that startles and challenges me.

'Summerisle' fits the bill, but it's not all my own work. I got around my kneejerk work habits on my part of the record by basically doing a mumbled sort of automatic writing, reciting surreal mantras and half-heard Japanese, recycling folk tales by Trad. & Anon. Anne did the rest by providing the musical estrangement. But how to approach my own next record? Should I make some bossa nova concrete? A Fluxus-acapella album inspired by the wonderful Tomomi Adachi?

One solution would be never to work alone again, never to let myself fall into lazy habits. I could simply always collaborate, the way I've done on the last few records.

'Summerisle' with Anne Laplantine, 'Oskar' with John Talaga, 'Travels With A Donkey' with Shazna Nessa, 'Mashroom Haircat' with Emi Necozawa -- everything I've made since 'Folktronic' has basically been a collaboration of one sort or another. That's pretty normal in music, which tends to be teamwork, but it's not normal in the discography of Momus, which tends to be the work of one man and a bunch of machines he's programmed.

But there's another way to look at that discography: as a series of 'invisible collaborations'. I was never alone on any of those records, because the songwriting was a collaboration between me and ghosts. The ghosts of Brel, Brecht, Bowie, whoever. I was always chanelling ectoplasm, mingling their spirits with mine. Stuck, I would ask myself 'What would Brel do?', 'What would Brecht do?' or 'What would Bowie do?' (At some weird points in my career, as if I were dead and invoking my own ghost with a ouija board, I'd even find myself asking 'What would Momus do?')

These 'invisible collaborations' were based on a very simple principle: if something glitters, grab it. Advance by appetite. And right now my appetite is pointing at two artists: Tomomi Adachi and Bernhard Gal.

Romanticism is Back! (...but not on our side)

I wrote a piece for Vice magazine called Leaf Beats. A satire on / recommendation of the new generation of laptop girls.

Although this might seem to be a satire on the way Romanticism projects silly stuff onto women and nature, I can't claim to be immune to such thinking myself.

The things that inspire me are Romantic, because they involve a romanticization -- and inevitably a misconstruction -- of otherness. I am mostly inspired by childhood and artists and nature and far-flung cultures, predominantly Asian ones. And though I have been a child, come from nature, am an artist, and have been to Asia, this doesn't mean I have the right to speak of these things as an insider, or to say I can speak of them without projection. I don't want to be an insider. I want to feel that these states, these ways of seeing, are just something I might be moving towards. They are different, other. It's okay -- in fact, inevitable -- to project, to put them on pedestals. What we must do, above all, is project well, project kindly, project with a big heart.

I've decided that the only thing worse than romanticizing exotics is not romanticizing them -- in other words, the only thing worse than making 'Madame Butterfly' when you send gunboats to Japan is not making 'Madame Baghdad' when you send them to Iraq. (Clearly the best thing to do is not to send gunboats at all. Does that mean that I would prefer that Japan had remained closed? Yes, as a matter of fact it does. I would prefer a world in which great differences were able to co-exist peacefully, rather than the world we have, where there are constant interferences and merely different flavours of the same system.)

The criticism 'orientalist', which implies that we ought not to construct a romantic otherness around foreign cultures, is fine in itself. But people use it as an excuse for not dealing with difference at all, for assuming that, since 'the other' is 'just like us deep down', it's okay to ignore them or certainly ignore their cultural difference from us, seeing it as a stage we went through in our own historical development, or a simple material lack.

The criticism of 'orientalism', and the objection that 'they are not so different from us, we all want the same things really', could even be used as a pretext for intervention and invasion. This is clear when the same people who object to the romanticization of the other fail to object to the invasion of the other. So this rejection of Romanticism (the good part of the 19th century) is not, in the end, a rejection of Colonialism (the bad part of the 19th century). Why, if we have neo-colonialism (and we do) can we not have neo-romanticism to go with it? Must we re-run the 19th century without its saving grace?

But reading this article in today's Observer, which begins with a description of the 'pop star good looks' of an Al-Quaeda terrorist and continues with a lot of cloak and dagger stuff, quoting Al Quaeda recruiting agents who say things like 'I want those who will strike the earth and make iron rise out of it ... I'm looking for those that were in Japan [ie, kamikaze or suicide bombers]', it seems clear that Romanticism is back. Just not on our side. The terrorists themselves even have an 'orientalist' construction of Japan.

Whatever we may feel about Al Quaeda, they surely do have a lot of the old Romantic iconography going for them. And this stuff works.

Dying young for one's beliefs -- check!
Fighting imperial power and the status quo -- check!
(Powerful entities like the Christian Church and the USA were born in exactly such struggles with empires: the Roman Empire and the British Empire respectively. The 'Romantic' myths they formulated proved more powerful than the merely military might of the predominant imperial powers of the day, who ceded.)
The poor rising up and defeating the rich -- check!
A rich figure-head who abandons his family and nation and founds a sort of religion -- check!
(Because of his wealth, the parallels between Bin Laden and Siddhartha Gottama are stronger than those with Christ.)
Living in wild regions, going back to nature -- check!
(The caves of Afghanistan, the mountains, the wild, unpoliced border regions of Pakistan replace the Lake District.)
An oppressed people in chains -- the Palestinians, check!

They're weak, obviously, on non-violence, on admiring children, and on projecting their fantasies onto foreign exotics, although I have heard Japan cited by Bin Laden as a victim of the US' aggression in the form of hydrogen bombs, and it's interesting to hear it again cited as a model of valour for the kamikaze pilots.

Now, imagine a strategy meeting in Washington. 'They've got Romanticism on their side. This should not be underestimated. This is how the Roman and British empires were undermined. How can we recruit glamour and otherness and get it working for us? What about a space project?'

Metonymic Sops

Religion and Romanticism, which I'm bundling together here with some sleight of hand, do have something in common: they appeal to losers, and they tend to resist 'earthly' powers. In this they resemble socialism (where they differ is that socialism proposes an earthly remedy, whereas religion and romanticism prefer to level things up by proposing immaterial rewards). There's a promise in these ideologies of remuneration, restitution, reward.

The thing about losers is, there are a lot of them about. Power and wealth are concentrated in very few hands. Losers are the majority in any system. Sure, you can placate people with 'the metonymic' -- make them feel that, although powerless, they are 'represented' politically, and you can try to ensure that, although they're losers, they 'think with the winners': although moneyless, they can at least fantasize about the 'lifestyles of the rich and famous' and feel somehow 'enriched' by the dream.

But finally these 'metonymic' sops are not convincing, and people turn to religion, Romanticism, or socialism.

We're hearing the phrase 'the battle for hearts and minds' a lot these days, and I think that's exactly what this is about. You could rephrase that as 'the battle to keep the losers on the side of the winners'. Put that way, it's clear how easily it could become a losing battle.

The thing about Bush is that he is so patently the face of America in its role as imperial hub: a mean, beady-eyed, corrupt, selfish, destructive little man who favours the rich and connected over the poor and alienated. Now, this very well may be the objective role of the US in the world today. But it behooves the US to present the opposite image, and Clinton's genius was that he was able to present a relatively romantic, egalitarian image, one that kept the losers onside. Under Clinton the US could really boom, and could dominate covertly. The Bush gambit is one that relies far too much on 'full spectrum dominance' (nobody has ever been that dominant) and assumes far too much masochism and metonymic identification on the part of losers the world over. It doesn't work. It has provoked a huge backlash around the world. The fact that it seems inevitable at this point that Bush will get a second term only means that people both inside and outside the US are agreeing that Bush really is the true face of the objective status, the mythical meaning, of the US in the world now. And that is very bad news for the US. Until you get a leader who at least pretends to be working on behalf of the losers, prepare for more hatred and more attacks. Prepare to be overtaken soon by your real strategic rivals, Europe and (especially) China, who have no such image problems.


The German new year was shockingly noisy, with firecrackers being let off for days before and after the 'Silvester party' itself, being let off on subway trains and in tunnels. I was defeaned and really rather irritated. I've been in Italy at New Year and it was nowhere near as noisy, though the Italians are louder in their normal daily lives than the Germans. This made me start thinking about diffusion and concentration.

Germans are somewhat alien to me when sober -- too restrained -- and also somewhat alien to me when drunk -- too wild. They very much don't take the Buddha's famed 'middle way'. They bottle things up and let them go with a bang.

Moderation diffuses, sublimation concentrates until the 'hoarded' contents explode at the weekend or the end of the year. There seems to be a north-south divide here. Southern behaviour is much more diffuse. And an east west divide too, no doubt, with the east (perhaps trained by Buddhism) much less likely to bottle up - splurge out (though the Japanese do it to some extent).

I am attracted to sublimation and rigidity, though. I enjoy the deadness of Germany. That's one of the first things I noticed and noted when I came here in February of last year. A 'magical deadness'. It's the inevitable explosion I can't really deal with. I find too much vitality in one place, especially the vitality of crowds, troubling, especially when it's connected to holidays, carnivals, alcohol. This model of suppression / expression is not one I find healthy or sympathetic. It seems, basically, pathological.

Now, after living a year here, and after seeing its corollary, I have more mixed feelings about the German deadness. I live in a dead building, silent as the tomb, of monumental proportions, redolent of a dead ideology (it's a 'Stalinbau'), and inhabited mostly by very old people. I draw no electricity from this place, because there is no vitality to steal. It's a pleasant change after the milling, chaotic, muslim 17th arrondissement of Paris. When I go to Kreuzberg, though, and wander through the Turkish market there, I find I miss not just the high density vitality of Paris, but its immigrant life. I am very interested in the dense, medieval elegance of the muslim traders, the simple, cheap goods they sell, the mingling of many types of fluorescent light. This gives me an energy that German culture cannot. There's a vital and yet puritan beauty here that Europe has probably lacked since the middle ages. The Turks are much more vital on a daily basis than the Germans. They don't bottle things up. They don't drink and splurge. Their vitality is diffused in a way I find civilised.

I began to think about other ways in which our models of social interaction could be more diffuse, less concentrated.

Money, obviously, could be more widely and fairly dispersed through our societies.

We could stop concentrating on finding 'the one right person', the basket into which we want to put all our eggs, and try to spread our affection more widely through everyone we meet. (This very much relates to my objection to the treatment of the secondary characters in 'Lost in Translation'.)

We could stop electing politicians to 'represent us' in a kind of false metonymy (by which the part is said to stand for, or represent, the whole) and take political decisions on each issue as it comes up.

In religion we could stop designating God and churches as massively and exclusively holy, and find everything, instead, slightly holy (down with monotheism, and up with animism!)

We could give attention to 10,000 tiny stars instead of one giant Elvis.

We could value amateurs more highly than professionals.

The place where my 'rediffusion utopia' breaks down is in urban planning. There, concentration means high density city centres like the ones I love in Asia, and diffusion means suburban sprawl and the car.

And I have to concede that I can't easily let go of what Buddhism calls 'craving'; excitement. Many forms of excitement -- orgasm, for instance -- do rely on long stretches of boredom, sublimation and accumulation. These lead up to sudden supernova bursts of focused, blissful attention accompanied by extreme sensation which, by their nature, can only be brief and violent. I guess I'll always be too much of an epicurean to make a good 'diffusion monk'.

Essay Index