February 13th, 2005


Fop aspic, fop lab

A town without pretension is a poor place indeed. I say this with some feeling, because I'm sitting in such a place right now, a town without arthouse cinemas, alternative music venues, trendy designer restaurants and bars or the ludicrously self-important, overwrought people required to populate them. A town like Hakodate is all traffic and food. It's a circulation system superimposed on a digestive system. It reminds me of David Byrne's song 'The Big Country', a song about a snobby, skinny, nervous, culture-crazy big city guy looking out of a plane window at 'flyover country':

Look at that kitchen and all of that food
Look at them eat it, I guess it tastes real good
They grow it in the farmlands and they bring it to the store
They put it in the car trunks and they bring it back home, and I say
I wouldn't live there if you paid me

Creative energy, cultural stimulation, the dense, uneasy co-existence of wildly different kinds of people, and, yes, preposterous preening pretension... these things are the true glories of big city life. I cannot tell you how many times, after seclusion in some dead provincial backwater, I've returned to a big city, seen my first preposterous human peacock, and almost wept with relief. Thank God, I have exclaimed, or Mammon, or Narcissus, or whoever has given these people the right, the license, the sheer gall to experiment! To wear flip flops over their ears! To ride micro-bicycles! To invent new and absurd catchphrases, to call ever-odder noises 'music' and nod along to it knowingly! Thank Christ we're back in civilisation!

Sitting in a small town in the middle of winter, you're grateful even for a satire on such metropolitan excesses, like Channel 4's Nathan Barley, the first part of which I watched yesterday. And watched again. And freeze-framed and watched in stop motion jittershots, picking up all the graphic design satire, the T shirts and magazine covers and typographic canards, shrieking and squirming with embarrassed recognition and, well, delight. Wait, why am I saying 'even a satire'? I was especially grateful for a satire. Because satire caricatures and exaggerates all it touches, fop satire is a double shot, an extra-jittery red-eye frappucino fix of foppery for the fop-starved. Bring it on! Hit me with that ludicrous big city pretension! More! More! More!

Because the satirist is above all a moralist, he fails to see the glamour of his subject, especially when the subject is a subculture defined, mainly, by aesthetics. By exaggerating its style and pushing it to new extremes of pretension, violence, and flamboyance, he unwittingly increases its glamour and charisma. Think of The Rake's Progress, or Hair, or A Clockwork Orange. They seem on one level to be dismissals of the subcultures they portray, but often end up preserving them more thoroughly than the subcultures can do themselves. They can even feed their 'victims' with fresh ideas. David Bowie has said that the look of Alex and his Droogs was a big influence on Ziggy Stardust. Burgess and Kubrick's dystopian nightmare scenario, a moralistic satire on ultraviolence, actually ended up on British streets in the early 70s as a new and much more extreme fashion look. Rather than making people recoil in horror, the extremism of Burgess' vision of delinquency gave everyone a hard-on and a yen to copy. It became part of the brainstorming, part of the Style Lab, a wind tunnel for tests that produced a harder, better, faster, stronger subculture.

Nathan Barley is intelligent enough to be entirely aware of the cockroach-like unkillability of fop subculture, its glorious or exasperating inescapability, and to incorporate it as its major theme. The show's Dan Ashcroft character, an ageing, disillusioned style journalist who writes an article entitled "The Idiots" about the scenesters who surround him, is appalled to find himself being worshipped by them like the second coming of Christ (or perhaps Brian). Ashcroft's big problem, rich in dramatic irony: how to hold up a mirror to The Idiots without them loving what they see? How to focus on attention-seeking narcissists without validating them beyond their wildest dreams? How to hold a magnifying glass up to their achievements without making them seem bigger? It's the writers' problem too. How to pump ludic and colourful innovations up into something absurdly ludicrous without making that bright and playful world seem very attractive indeed? In the opinion of this provincial, Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker have failed. Fabulously.

(The rest of my thoughts about this wonderful show are stored up here. Part two of six airs on UK's Channel 4 next Friday at 10pm.)