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Aux Catacombes: Documenting Art in the Belly of Paris

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, June 17, 2010 08:20pm | Post a Comment
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If it can be said that the freshest of the fresh artistic creations bubble up from "underground," then it should come as no surprise that the vast network of tunnels that comprise the coiled entrails of Paris' infamous catacombs has long served as a place where creative Parisians bent on escaping the trappings of society, hemmed in by signs and signifiers girding the city's surface, retreat to the "freedom" of the damp and hard-cut, cramped lawlessness that thrives beneath the streets, expressing themselves with dim-lit abandon. Veteran graffiti artist Psyckoze has spent more than 25 years traversing, tagging, sculpting and mapping the catacombs beneath Paris, a perilous proclivity that makes the documentary Dead Space infinitely watchable.


The Parisian catacombs have always held a certain fascination, whether it be a fear of the dark-generated late night creepshow vibe (must be because of all those skulls 'n' things down in there) or a more sensationalist ghost-hunters of "reality" television programming feel, the mere mention of the mdead space documentary dvd paris catacombs psychoze art artist graffiti undergroundysterious, bone littered underworld beneath the French capitol always stirs the imagination. In following Psyckoze on several adventures throughout the underground maze, documentary film-makers Marielle Quesney and Jean Labourdette nearly destroy their camera (they claim it was held together by duct tape by the end of shooting) and find themselves lost on more than one occasion while Pyschoze, or Psy, encounters graffiti and scrawls of years (sometimes hundreds of years) gone by, often stopping to update his own tags with the fresh designs of his evolved artistic style, and discovers a myriad of threats and claims laid bydead space documentary paris catacombs feature psyckoze psy art artist graffiti sculpture relief freehand candles stone various catacomb clans, gangs (like the Rats, who were prominent in the eighties) and wanderers who have at one time or another called the catacombs home. There is even a faction of preservationist catacombers who seek to stop taggers like Psy, arguing that the tunnels should be cleaned and restored to their natural sandstone tones (which is not unreasonable, really, when you consider the quarry origins of the catacombs, which were once used to mine and transport building materials as far back as 1000 years).

Shot on a shoestring budget over the course of two years, Dead Space follows Psy as he conducts a surprisingly cohesive tour of the catacombs below Paris (clad in his habitual rubber boots and mining helmet catacomb gear), stopping here and there to highlight several of the more famous subterranean hang-outs like "the Beach" (a large, sandy chamber with a huge painting of a wave --- styled after Hokusai's famous woodblock print --- where parties often rage underground for days) and revealing Psy's personal secret hideaways, including his "castle" --- a sprawling freehand relief sculpture of breasts, faces, battlements and turrets comprising what has to be Psy's ultimate psychedelic masterpiece, laden with personal significance (example: Psy carved a turret in the castle for paris catacombs dead space documentary psyckoze psy bones candle graffiti art every year his good friend and fellow catacomber spent locked up in a Thai jail, nine altogether). However, it is clear that most folks who venture down into the catacombs have something other than artistic creation and personal reflection in mind.
It would seem that those crazy enough to descend to navigate the dank and muddy tunnels of the catacombs have serious partying in mind and, apparently, those who do go down there to indulge in dark and lawless soirees get so completely wrecked that they usually lose track of when and where they are. In one room Psy laughs gleefully when he discovers a block of severely dried hash, speculating, while he makes ready to smoke it, how completely high and disoriented the owner who left it behind must have been. After all, there are but a few maps of the catacombs and it would seem that the ones that exist aren't that reliable. Perhaps that accounts for Psy creating his own map, or Plan des Catacombes. Even still, Psy himself often gets turned around and has, in his longest stint underground, spent over 72 hours in the maze.
dead space documentary paris catacombs psyckoze art artist graffiti bones candles
It was really lucky for Psy to find a thick, if aged, stash of weed in his underground haunt, because there are so many more unsavory things to be found in the vast blackness of the Parisian catacombs. The makers of Dead Space discovered and captured on film Psy encountering all manner of human elements from lost, sleeping and partying catacombers (and subsequent piles of puke) to tunnels riddled with the tea-stained remains of Parisians of years gone by. The "bone room" sequences of Dead Space are so jaw-dropping that this viewer could barely keep her trap shut. The image of Psy as he crawls carefully, stopping every six feet or so to light a candle and plant it in a skull or fixture of bones, through a tunnel way so stacked with human remains that he can barely fit though the open spaces is burned into my brain forever. This may look like Goonies, kids, but this is the real shit.

7" Fix: The Cairo Gang "Holy Clover"

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, May 28, 2010 10:08am | Post a Comment
Cairo Gang Holy Clover 7" empty cellar  Emmet Kelly endless nest tin angel disneyland reform party will oldham paul oldham
Will Oldham, or Bonnie "Prince" Billy, as he often styles himself onstage and on wax, seems to have naturally great taste when it comes to singer-songwriter types native to or otherwise rambling through the backwoods and beachheads of Northern California. Of his latest collaborations I've taken a shine to the Cairo Gang or, more specifically, the vocals and guitar styling of one Emmett Kelly & co. --- lending a little of this and that to a handful of recent BPB albums as well as offering gentle listeners something on the side with the release of their 7" EP Holy Clover (out now on Empty Cellar Records).

Each of the four songs captured here recall proper feelings of seasonal impermanence and the sort of wisdom-beyond-one's-years that many modern singer-songwriters attempt to brew but seem to have trouble getting just right. Kelly (besides having a fabulous name) is blessed with a voice that not only pairs remarkably well with Oldham's wood-smoked yet crystal-fragile vocals but suits the well-crafted folk/rock vibes his band lays down (I've always thought Oldham's voice, while folksy, was more country than rock), especially when he lets loose in "Get's Me Back" on side B --- a jam with stellar guitars (Kelly is joined here by Chris Rodahaffer) sounding something like America high-fiving Neil Young with an echo of Kyle Field's (a.k.a. Little Wings) sentimental Soft Pow'r glowing 'round the edges. On the whole this little gem plays languid and pale in a light what shines one of the best of Bonnie Billy's partners in crime. Below is a little clip of Emmet Kelly and Will Oldham performing "Midday" (the A side to the 7" that accompanies the Bonnie "Prince" Billy & the Cairo Gang Wonder Show of the World CD and LP) --- their "Afternoon Delight," as it were --- in a Brooklyn basement.

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Nothing Mean About These Reds: GWAR meets Joan Rivers!

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, April 25, 2010 01:54am | Post a Comment
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GWAR
or Joan Rivers, at the moment I don't know who I love more. GWAR has always been near and dear to my heart as hometown RVA homeboys, familial connections notwithstanding, and as general criminal art-students against society, popularizing songs with lyrics like "this is your ass/ and I'm in it" and proliferating blood-stained concert tees as "you had to be there" tour souvenirs (including, ladies, your white undergarments which will forever be a faded shade of pinkish-red a.k.a. your "GWAR bra"). Like the fiercest of Drag Queens wielding a gaudy bauble of accessories, milady Joan Rivers, on the other hand, never fails to hypnotize me with her keen wit, fathomless fashion sense, talk show know-how and Dot Matrix/lady-robot realness in Mel Brooks' Spaceballs; I'm pretty sure I've loved her my whole life. But what happens when Gwar meets Joan Rivers? The answer is: everyone wins! Don't you just love that she thanks God for GWAR's Scumdogs of the Universe CD release and that she dressed from head to panty-hosed toe in rich reds. This is how I prefer to spend my Sundays, ya'll. Check it out:

The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, April 8, 2010 09:51am | Post a Comment
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For many citizens of the Western hemisphere Japan remains a strange place chock full of exotic and inscrutable cultural asymmetries. It is a place where paying to "fall in love" with a stranger you cannot meet outside of a designated place, you cannot call upon as need dictates and, in many cases, you cannot touch under any circumstances whatsoever is sometimes preferred to falling in love the complicated way, the old fashioned way, for mutual appreciation's sake. But then perhaps that is what makes so many Japanese justify the risk of succumbing to economic ruin to patronize hostess and host bars, financially worshiping their quarries, spending as much as $10,000 a night to ultimately "fall in love" with their fantasies. Seeing this kind of scenario playing out over and over again like a demented, downward spiraling carousel in The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief, a documentary feature that vignettes the life and times of Rakkyo Cafe (a popular Osaka host bar) with special focus fixed on their top selling host, Issei (22), and the staff of twenty young male escorts who all benefit from Issei's tutelage, is a compelling voyeuristic experience so emotionally harrowing that it almost made me wish my heart were a stomach so that it could barf.
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I remember my first exposure to the world of hosts and host bars in the form of a brochure put into the basket of my bicycle as I passed through a busy intersection in Osaka. I had no idea what manner of publication it was; upon first glance I assumed that it was some kind of fashion magazine judging by the pretty girls on the cover, but perusing it later I realized that the the girls were actually boys and the fashion magazine was more like a catalog of host bar "menus" displaying glossy over-lit portraits of the boys whose companionship you would purchase for a spell buffered by ads calling for young women who fancied designer goods and other expensive sundries to consider employment of a certain kind to support their extravagant tastes. The general obscenity of these ads, however, took a backseat to my immediate fascination with the appearance of the hosts, whose hair-stories and accessorized flair shared a similarity of outlandishness that baffled my mind delightfully. It was like flipping through a guide for a zoo that specialized in Japanese peacocks who all toiled to attain a similar high-style reminiscent of any tough British rock star who sold out in the eighties. I have to admit I was taken with the absurd cocksure posturing, but do these men really possess a vision of what women want by Japanese standards? Definitely one of those things that make you go hmmm...
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While watching The Great Happiness Space wasn't a total downer, it packed none of the laughs I expected to glean from my limited exposure to what I considered to be the most ridiculous existence of hosts and the host bar phenomenon. Though I think this film would make for great conversation concerning gender issues, I also didn't get the impression that the lady patrons of Rakkyo Cafe's hosts were winning anything back for the oppressed women of Japan like I had expected. Indeed, their role in the host/client relationship signifies a double-victimization for women in that the men exercise absolute control of their many paid relationships plus the fact that the majority of Rakkyo Cafe's regulars interviewed for the film held jobs in the mizu shobai, Japan's nightlife working sector, whether they be employed at cabarets, hostess bars, touch bars, "soap lands," or engage in outright prostitution in order to capably afford satisfying their need to feel needed by their host of choice and, at Rakkyo Cafe, Issei-san is most definitely in high demand.
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But what makes Issei so popular? According to his co-workers he's a master of his trade, saying and doing anything women want of him, all the while reading any situation he finds himself in and playing the role that best suits his clients' needs and his desire to ultimately maintain command of the money flow. This has also put him in a position of getting as much ass as he gets cash, "I was having nonstop sex," he says of his ascension to the top-selling host in his district and his willingness to let women have their way with him -- "sex with 365 girls a year." So many of Issei's regular girls openly claim an addiction to his person, one completely whacked chick claiming that her "life without Issei is unimaginable right now," that watching his interactions with them casts a shadow over his character, a demonizing that Issei himself recognizes as one of the many hazards of the job. He also is forced by trade to consume more alcohol in an evening than most folks do in a month, as much as ten bottles of champagne per night, drinking, throwing up and drinking as many times as necessary just to keep it up. "I think my liver is fucked," he says. Of course, the hosts at Rakkyo Cafe are available by the hour for their company but they also depend on generating revenue by pushing pricey drinks on their patronesses. Bottles of champagne, consumed by the disco-lit pitcher-full, range from $250 to $600 for average priced fare and up to $5,000 for the high rollers. There is also at least one exclusive seat in the house: if Issei is entertaining ladies in the main part of the bar a client can pay a premium for a private audience with Issei in a special seat secluded from the crowd for an additional charge of $50 per hour, which, now keep in mind that average hosts earn a monthly paycheck of $10,000, for Issei-san a good month usually nets $50,000 --- cha-ching!
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However, the scene fades to its bleakest when the hosts, after hours, talk each other out of feeling any moral conflict for leading their clients forever onwards, breaking hearts, emptying wallets and enabling young women to sell flesh for the purpose of supporting such an costly addiction as pleasurable soul-searching with the boys of Rakkyo Cafe. This film draws the viewer into the never-neverland that is the Osaka host bar scene, portrays the twisted interrelationships inherent to the varied and never-short-on-creativity nightlife industries in Japan without taking sides, and forces viewers to explore their own conclusions in the end. Thanks to this excellent documentary I am pleased to know more about this subject than I'd have ever learned flipping through my slick souvenir host catalog I received once upon a time in Osaka and I find that I am plagued with a host, pun intended, of real questions concerning the host bar phenomenon that weren't answered or even addressed by this film. Here's hoping there are others like The Great Happiness Space director Jake Clennell who seek to shed more light on the intricacies that lie down the darkened corridors of Japan's modern "Floating World."

Perennial Melodies: Sukiyaki for the Sentimental

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, March 28, 2010 02:39pm | Post a Comment
A few weeks ago the vocalist Eduard Khil and his heart-swelling vocal flexes were nothing to me, but now I cannot think of a day gone by without my acknowledging the impression his song has left on my heart. For those who've yet to encounter Khil, his claim to international stardom comes of the internet meme known as "Trololololololololololo," a video clip circa 1976 that features a dapper dandy (Khil) vocalizing a song called "I Am Glad To Be Finally Returning Home" with plenty of laughing ha-hahs and hearty bellowing tro-lo-los as he gestures with casual fluidity, occasionally directing viewers to consider the paltriness of the set pieces that flank him. It is an aural and visual happy-pill dressed in sunny yellow, an upper to be taken when the spirit lags and, for about the last two weeks, it's been the very first thing I enjoy in the morning. 


As if the simple joy and outdated charm of that performance alone wasn't enough to make me fall head over feet for Eduard Khil, he has since been featured in another recent post, a Russian press interview, showing Khil sitting down to view his viral video along with several parodies of it added into the mix (including one starring recent Academy Award recipient Christoph Waltz as seen on Jimmy Kimmel Live!). Khil's delightful reactions to these parodies and subsequent video statement in which he addresses the people of the world to invent lyrics to the much beloved song (which, according to Khil, originally flaunted rather raunchy lyrics --- so naughty in fact that they were never published, but decidedly ditched the for trololo vocalization in hopes that the song stood a chance at being appreciated but for its melody). He then suggests that everyone choose a time to gather and synchronize (via the internet ) to sing their version of the song all together, in their own tongue, in the style of "We Are The World." Okay, so he doesn't mention "We Are The World," but of course he doesn't have to, the sentiment is there, especially as, according to Khil, the song is about returning home and, in his mind, the newfound popularity of his tune represents an eternal homecoming of sorts, and a happy one at that. Bravo Eduard Khil and Спасибо.
sakamoto kyu kyuu ue wo muite arukou single sukiyaki 45rpm cover art
Digesting Khil's suggestion that the world set out to celebrate our affection for a singular melody, his melody, by independently crafting original lyrics to accompany a borrowed tune recalled to mind a sweet, bewitching song that I first heard many years ago in an elementary level Japanese class: Sakamoto Kyu's (坂本 九) sentimental hit "Ue wo Muite Arukou" or "I Walk With My Head Held High." Though introduced as a classroom exercise, I became one of many folks in that class who couldn't shake the lovely melancholy of such a tune, even if we couldn't understand everything Sakamoto-san crooned. Like the Russian "homecoming" song, the sentiment of acute longing and heartache expressed in Sakamoto's song, regardless of the presence of meaningful lyrics (and the potential inability to make sense of them), is clearly understood simply because of its perfectly crafted, jaunty-yet-melancholy melody. In fact, this song topped the U.S. Billboard charts for three weeks in 1963 under the title "Sukiyaki" (renamed because the execs at Capitol and HMV thought the original title too difficult to pronounce and/or remember). To date, Sakamoto Kyu's hit single has been the only song sung entirely in Japanese to ever top the charts in the states and it is the only Japanese song to ever enter the U.K. Billboard charts. Indeed, it must be all about that [sigh] sentimental melody. 
a taste of honey sukiyaki sakamoto kyu japanese song cover single hit sentimental song
And it's that melody that has been, for better or worse, shanghaied halfway 'round the world, the old fashioned way (that is, without knowledge of its being taken until it "arrives"), as a borrowed tune dressed in several languages, most notably as the sentimental slow jam "Sukiyaki" performed in 1981 by A Taste of Honey, the disco ensemble famous for crafting the hit dance single "Boogie Oogie Oogie." All I have to say is thank heavens they resisted suggestions to turn Sakamoto's tune into a disco jam, instead opting for turning it out as a soft-focused ballad which probably has everything to do with the song becoming Honey's final number one single of their career. Unlike Eduard Khil, however, Kyu Sakamoto cared not for the Misses Honey's take on his wistful walk-a-long hit and reportedly sued Capital Records for copyright infringement, a litigious action that pantsed those who had thought the song fruit of the public domain tree, ripe for the taking, and so plucked the tune and inanely kept the altered name "Sukiyaki."
sukiyaki hot pot japanese dish sakamoto kyu a taste of honey love song
By the way, sukiyaki (a Japanese steam-pot dish) has next to nothing to do with the original lyrics of Sakamoto's song or the romantic interpretation laid down by Honey's Janice Marie Johnson, who found that English translations of "Ue wo Muite Arukou" could be viewed three ways: as a man on his way to his execution, as someone trying to be optimistic despite life's trials, or as the story of an ended love affair (of course she opted to paint the English lyrics in the waning light of a love gone bad). My favorite quote related to the ridiculousness of naming a song for a word that is short, catchy, recognizably Japanese and familiar to English speakers comes from a Newsweek columnist who reportedly likened naming Sakamoto's song "Sukiyaki" to issuing a popular tune like "Moon River" in Japan under the title "Beef Stew," a total wah-waah.
4pm sukiyaki a taste of honey sakamoto kyu
Of course there have been other takes on the popular tune, mostly covers of A Taste of Honey's "Sukiyaki" rather than further takes on Kyu Sakamoto's crooning hit, but there's certainly nothing like the real thing. Featured below are several videos, the first being a 1963 video of Sakamoto himself walking and singing "Ue wo Muite Arukou" with his head held high ("so the tears down fall from my eyes" according to the original Japanese lyrics) followed by a live performance of "Sukiyaki" by A Taste of Honey complete with the aforementioned Johnson and bandmate Hazel Payne clad in kimonos, koto accompanyment on the song, finished with a whispered "sayonara" at the end. Then we have a 1995 version of "Sukiyaki" delivered by American R&B ensemble 4 P.M. (p.s. did they gank that set from that Heavy D & the Boys video for "Now That We Found Love" or what) and then a live version of "Sukiyaki" en Español as performed by Selena on the Johnny Canales Show.

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