Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Born In Flames

Born In Flames
Howard Hampton
Harvard University Press, 473 pages, 2007
"We are born in flames..."
- Lora Logic

"I'm turning the pages of a book that takes ages for the forward to end..."
- Pete Shelley, "I Believe"

I don't know where to start in describing this book which, like most good things in life, I came across strictly by happenstance. I was at the library and I stopped to pick it up because I liked the cover...and when I started reading it, it blew me away - in fact, I had a phantasmagorical pop-culture epiphany. Howard Hampton's writing style might be called Lester Bangs Meets Roland Barthes, but that doesn't begin to describe how densely packed his sentences are with telling references to film, music, and literature - everything I like, in fact. We're talking Lora Logic compared to Phoebe Gloeckner, Tiananmen Square posited against Charlie Hayden's Liberation Music Orchestra, Natural Born Killers vs. Forrest Gump, Sting vs. Hasil Atkins ("Bring Me the head of Gordon Sumner"), Godard vs. Spielberg, Pennies from Heaven juxtaposed against The Clash's London Calling, with essays on the stare of Hong Kong Cinema superstar Brigitte Lin, not to mention ruminations and contemplations on the likes of Wong Kar-Wai, Seijan Suzuki, Thomas Pynchon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Columbine High, Irma Vep, Tarantino, Takeshi Miike, Anthony Mann, Sam Peckinpah, Pere Ubu, Bresson, John Woo, Nirvana, Oldboy, Sam Fuller, Fight Club, Pixies, Johnny Guitar, Sonic Youth, Czech avant-rockers Plastic People of the Universe, Wire, Rocket from the Tombs, P.J. Harvey, Sleater-Kinney, Cat Powers, Chris Marker, Tsui Hark, and so on and so on, etc., etc., etc. Not to mention inspired passages like this Kill Bill riff: "Quentin Tarantino's massive, two-part uber-B-movie is a celluloid python that lovingly devours tons of lumpish reference points without ever establishing a reason for being" or "A director such as Takeshi Miike will dish out dozens of viciously outrageous cult flicks at a vending machine clip, but while a high school girl shooting darts out of her vagina is a good sideshow act, it seems instantly dated and film-geekish next to the circa 1950 tough-mindedness of Nightmare Alley, Gun Crazy, In a Lonely Place, Les Enfants Terribles, Night and the City, Los Olvidadas, Diary of a Country Priest, or The Furies" (a statement I certainly can't argue with!). Suffice it to say that's it took me a day just to get through the introduction, which far from introducing anything seemed more like a reading a robustly rigorous Russian novel.

As one Amazon reviewer described it:
Howard Hampton's "Born In Flames," is so vividly written, each sentence like a crazed aphorism on some bleak American-gothic apocalypse just this side of redemption-via-imagination, a creatural re-imagining beyond the blood darkness, effluvia, and debris of our times and ordinary lives. One could study how to write essays and to organize cultural collections around wild tropes by such a book. Not sure the introduction gets at what the individual essays are doing alone or in the aggregate, but it is a book that calls out for one to come to terms with it, as a way of reading film and music and US culture as such, as crazed intervention, as a will to create and transform the ordinary in style and cultural-extremity production. He can get from moments in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to larger shifts in the culture, and from Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia to the blood poetry of some US frontier apocalypse, still to come.

I'll be reading this one for a long time and I'll be thinking about it for ages.


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