“It flashes before our eyes, and we are not even sure what we have witnessed.”
There is an incongruous moment in Please Leave Quietly (2006), the long-awaited concert DVD from alt-rock musician P. J. Harvey, when an obsessed female fan jumps onstage and tries to dance next to her idol. A wary Harvey backs away from her stalker, who then indicates with a magnanimous sweep of her hand that she would like Harvey to go to the microphone and sing. Security guards rush in to escort the fan out of frame, and amid the transient chaos the star of the show becomes a temporary guest on her own stage. It’s typical of the raw, honest, and sometimes self-deprecating Harvey that she includes this moment in her film, and equally typical of the film’s presentational strategy that nothing much is made of it. It flashes before our eyes, and we are not even sure what we have witnessed.
Much of Please Leave Quietly plays such tricks on our vision, and to this extent it departs somewhat from the linear flow and coherent organization of traditional concert films. Most concert films, like concert albums, tend to fetishize the live experience itself, to make a talisman out of the simulated feeling of “being there.” “Live recording” (itself an oxymoron) is plastic, constructed, a commodity rather than a real experience; thus there is a lie, however well-intentioned sometimes, at the heart of any such simulation. Harvey, who had creative control over this DVD (along with her frequent collaborator, artist and director Maria Moncasz), acknowledges this dualism from the outset, in a backstage interview:
I’ve always hated live shows, live albums . . . I wanted to try to do this differently. I wanted it to be a real ‘patchwork quilt.’ I didn’t want some smooth, slick concert, I wanted more of the ramshackleness that it [live performance] is . . . and the brokenness . . . and the changeability.
The feminist implications of the “patchwork quilt” metaphor do not seem accidental, since Harvey has based much of her artistic persona around dramatizing different aspects of radical female power and powerlessness, swinging wildly between positions of masochistic surrender and opposite positions of snarling aggressiveness. She has recorded a string of sexy, almost fanatical portraits of Woman in extremis, boldly playing such archetypes as Eve, Mary Magdalene and Tarzan’s Jane (where she tells her ape-man mate, “Can’t you see I’m bleeding?/Stop your fucking screaming!”), as well as a host of omnivorous sexual predators — some male (“Man-Size”), some female (“Legs” and “Rub ‘Til It Bleeds”), and some notably androgynous (“50 Ft. Queenie”). This is the kind of raw postmodern feminism that imitates and includes male violence within its critique of the same, and regardless of the problematic nature of such an approach, it makes for compelling rock theater.
Harvey’s female militancy also figures into the way Please Leave Quietly has been pieced together — indeed, exactly like a noisy patchwork quilt. Where a typically male perspective might strive for a stifling kind of method and continuity, Harvey seems to suggest that her own fiercely female viewpoint encourages instinctual leaps, the appearance of disarray, and even a kind of liberating vulnerability. This vulnerability surfaces in the simple fact that Please Leave Quietly eschews the well-known prerogative of live recordings, at their most manipulative or reductive, to attempt to outdo the actual live experience by being less disorienting, less distracting, because they have been streamlined, edited down and pre-selected for the best moments, the best views and angles.
Such a sense of continuity mimics how we think reality “should be” — in typical concert films each song is a discrete performance, we see the guitarist during the guitar solo, the crowd applauds when the song is over, etc. In other words, the typical concert film offers, with all the occasional smugness that this phrase implies, the highly vaunted “best seat in the house.” But what does it mean to be in the house at all (as opposed to standing outside, looking in), and by extension, what does it mean to be an actual eyewitness to any live event? Is any experience, much less a concert, ever as continuous and easily digestible as smooth editing would lead us to believe? In reality, no; one often doesn’t know where to look, one looks at many different things at once, reality itself is broken down, so to speak, and the seat I am occupying, for instance, might yield a completely different viewpoint from someone else’s.
The result is something that openly mocks at the illusion of spontaneity and simulation of reality which live recordings have conventionally aspired to. This becomes evident from the opening song, “Meet Ze Monsta”: Harvey begins singing in a yellow tube dress and red pumps, but by the middle-eight she whirls around and is wearing a black miniskirt and a ripped-up Spice Girls T-shirt. We suddenly realize we are watching a different show, on a different night. Please Leave Quietly was filmed on Harvey’s English tour in support of her 2004 CD, Uh-Huh Her, but rather than featuring one complete show or even discrete, “whole” performances of each song, footage from different concerts is spliced together to turn each song into a fluid medley of moments from different gigs.
The entire patchwork quality extends itself formally as well, in that different kinds of film/video stock are used throughout Please Leave Quietly — some footage is much grainier, like a home movie, washed out with white light, and with the movements of the players as “herky-jerky” as in a silent movie or a webcam broadcast; whereas other shots and sequences are more composed and professional-looking. The total effect is jolting, and almost never lets up, with the images matching the often nerve-wracking fury of the music itself. As the changes accelerate, a feeling of chaos or disintegration is evoked, as if the band was playing in the eye of a storm or a G-force wind tunnel.
Inside that tunnel they often seem to be all but alone. In a further divergence from concert-film cliché, the audiences themselves are largely missing from Please Leave Quietly. There are very few obligatory pans of nodding heads and upraised arms, not much applauding and even less dancing — all of those symbolic acts of the crowd that become a mirror of the staged performance being witnessed. Theoretically, the performer, like a shaman, releases the inhibitions of her audience, but no such catharsis is held out to the viewer here, or if it is, it is only an empty signifier, a kind of shapeless, unfocused energy. The few pans of the audience that have been included tend to be blurred, faceless, an amorphous mass without detail. Also, Harvey shrugs off some of her best-known singles in a perfunctory manner; “Down By the Water,” for example, is given more sluggish treatment than many of the lesser-known songs, and she even starts giggling uncontrollably during the song’s most sinister verse, as if precisely to mock its popularity with the audience.
Significantly, the song that features the most audience footage is “Evol,” a modified dirty-blues where Harvey spits biting lyrics about love at her fans in the front row, held back behind security barriers:
What do you know about love?
You don’t know what I know.
How much, how much will you give me
to tell you what some would kill for . . .?
This cynical lyric about world-weary, nonexistent love seems to be looking for its visual allegory in the spectacle of fans who worship a performer from afar and cannot physically reach her. The actual crowd itself, though, is rather listless and lethargic. Indeed, in Please Leave Quietly overall, there is more attention paid to the sound crew and roadies overall than to the fans, which also strikes me as a radical note. And in interviews, the crew and even Harvey’s band-mates pointedly do not eulogize the rock lifestyle as a romantic one of constant fun and abandon, but instead a kind of job filled with long hours, grinding work and chronic sleep deprivation.
The lack of crowd interaction, or rather the explicit frustration of the kind of crowd interaction which we might expect to see in a concert film, seems to be a larger metaphor for rock music today, in that rock — especially where it is more than Top-40 product, e.g. where it remains bracing, smart, experimental, artistic — has become a rarefied and barely marketable taste, marginalized within the music industry and the culture itself. This position is not uniquely Harvey’s: if anything, her music, and her staying power after more than a decade of recording and performing, speak to her importance. But like so many other musicians of our time, the fact that she exists largely outside of the cultural mainstream (i.e., without much overall impact or influence on the culture itself) is the most salient feature of her art. Her credibility lies within her rejection of commercial music.
For it is precisely the communal aspect of the music itself that feels most distrusted by Harvey and Moncasz in Please Leave Quietly, not only the outdated notion of resurrecting a community based around rock music but a larger mistrust of community in general. Even the members of the band, as close as they are, snipe at each other (with good humor). But it goes deeper than this. As Roberto Calasso writes:
Of the ideas that were to fashion the twentieth century in ways for the most part disastrous, one that stands out above the others, so far-reaching and indeed immense were its consequences, is the idea of the good community, where relationships between individuals are strong and a powerful solidarity is founded on common feeling. Nazi Germany was the most drastic manifestation of this idea . . .1
It was Nietzsche, of course, who, in The Birth of Tragedy, championed the public hearing of music as a rite of Dionysus which would create or re-fashion contemporary myths around the German people’s nationalistic fervor; Nietzsche himself later repudiated many of the ideas in this early work of his, often cited as a proto-fascist text and a precursor of what later grew into Hitlerism. Calasso posits that technology itself was and remains the destructive Factor X in the equation whereby good community flips over into bad community: “Not in the sense that a community cannot be established in a technology-driven world — we know all too well that it can — but in the sense that once established, such a community can only lead to results that are radically different from those intended.”2
In the second half of the twentieth century, rock music emerged as a potent myth-making force within American and worldwide culture, generating a similar kind of Protean energy, whenever it was played live, what Nietzsche had envisioned as a way of galvanizing ancient feelings of passionate worship and community. In its heyday, rock was ambivalent about power, however, openly questioning authority and promoting individualism over the loss-of-self within the crowd’s faceless mass. In its decadent period, from the late ’70s to our own time (with its form increasingly split off from its “function”), the fear that rock is yet another manifestation of the twentieth century’s tendency to fascism has been evoked, directly if somewhat ironically, by musicians as diverse as Pink Floyd, David Bowie, the Residents, and Marilyn Manson, in images of the rock star as storm-troop leader. As Patti Smith chanted, in her 2005 live “revision” of her 1975 album Horses, “My generation had dreams . . . and we created George Bush.” Harvey, perhaps wishing to evade any fascist tendencies herself, seems to be going back to the original Dionysiac spirit of abandon, where chaos is embraced, where oneness with nature is promoted, and where music becomes “the amniotic fluid needed to protect an obscure process, thanks to which we would once again be able to ‘feel mythically.‘”3
And yet, wary still of the baggage with which all forms of collective identity are laden, this embryonic-mythic can only be touched on lightly, not insisted upon. This is another reason why the lack of crowd interaction is so striking and feels like a deliberate choice by Harvey and Moncasz. Stripped down, raucous, energetic, Harvey’s music seems more suited for those cramped, smoky punk clubs where the makeshift wooden stage is barely big enough to hold all the equipment, the musicians have to stand on top of each other, and the boundaries between band and audience are often blurred; and yet the arena-sized and festival venues on this tour feature stages that seem almost too cavernous for the four-piece band. (When Harvey slinks across the stage to bash drummer Rob Ellis’ high-hat in time to the music, it feels like a long and somewhat lonely walk.) Something of the small club must be made to remain even in the teeming amphitheater, the festival pavilion — some flagrant, daring flouting of expectation. In one of Harvey’s most powerful songs, “It’s You,” written in the voice of a young girl in the throes of powerful first love, she sings as a combination of muse and seeker; when she performs this song on the DVD (and this is one of the few performances that is not composited, broken up) she moves like a robot, as if the song’s gestural truth were not her own. The ambiguity is striking, and salient.
If “reality” is always happening elsewhere, beyond our scope of processing it fully or capturing it in any comprehensive, definitive way, then art is already once or twice removed from this process. Harvey and Moncasz have found a form for capturing the way one’s attention naturally wanders, as well as the way one tends to see “what one wants to see.” Much of the jump-cuts and shock-cuts of Please Leave Quietly seem to openly court ontological misunderstanding, as if to say, even the actual presence of something before one’s eyes is never a guarantee that it can or will be understood. Moreover, the nearly automatic process by which the image of any star becomes a blank slate for our rampant projections is the most familiar emblem of the 20th century, as Andy Warhol, Disney, Elvis impersonators and American Idol have all inexorably revealed. But what of other, “lesser” images? Perhaps the real itself, even in its humblest quotidian manifestations, is becoming the same kind of blank slate, in the sense that we as individuals today choose to write our own narratives on a daily basis, choose what makes sense in a given unfolding of events and what does not. It could be argued that this has always been the case in human social history, but advanced technology seems to make our cognitive dissonance appear more accelerated today, as is evident in people who pass through bustling city streets obliviously absorbed in their headphones and text-messaging.
A number of recent films, including Haneke’s Code Unknown (2000), Innaritu’s 21 Grams, (2004) and Van Sant’s Last Days (2004), have engaged this kind of cognitive dissonance via the semi-subversive process of undermining the narrative real, using repetitions of key sequences, out-of-sequence or elliptical narratives, de-structured time and other techniques to suggest the ways in which reality itself is already a kind of murky construct. Not only do we all experience reality from differing, incompatible viewpoints (in that all-too familiar Rashomon way), but also time itself is labile: moments can be relived again and again through memory; time can bend, buckle, even break under the pressure of strong emotions, or under the sway of music or drugs. InCode Unknown, scenes begin and end in the middle, and disparate lives are brought together in random and ultimately inconclusive ways. In 21 Grams the continuous return to earlier moments in the narrative heightens the devastation of the Naomi Watts character after she loses her family in a car accident; and in Last Days, the looping or starting-over of certain scenes from different points in time and conflicting viewpoints suggests the atomized social structure of the druggie musicians who will soon abandon their central friend and provider when he needs them most. All of these films are about eternal recurrence, and feature lost souls caught up in seemingly endless vortices of pain, despair, manifestations of “hell on earth.” And in all of them, the subversion of narrative goes hand in hand with the expression of social alienation, people cut off from each other, their stories untold and untellable.
There is a societal dimension to all public acts of creativity and performance. The live performance has long been lauded by Luddite and post-hippie quarters for its ultimate authenticity as a kind of ineradicable time-capsule. The Grateful Dead famously embodied the idea of friendly strangers coming together within a limitless space of music: their music had to go on and on and on — in those extended jams which the band was often criticized for as a lysergic self-indulgence — precisely because it prolonged the space of the communal encounter. (The short fast songs of punk rock, by contrast, threw people together and apart like bits of flint, which is exactly the motion of punk dancing, or “moshing.”)
One thinks of the ultimate rock concert film, Woodstock (1969), which attempted to net the experiences of the concertgoers with the performances themselves by means of split-screens. A Baroque device that has had a checkered history in film, split-screen has always been used to denote the simultaneity of an extended crowd. (Even two people having a phone conversation, a common usage of split-screen in B-movies from the ’30s and ’40s, form a kind of “crowd,” however limited in number, because of the intimate sense of collusion and the spanning of spatial distance.) But these denotations have served different agendas. The pioneer of split-screen, Abel Gance, used it in a reactionary way, to glorify and multiply the image of the dictator (and the multitudes of followers subsumed within him) in Napoleon (1927); here, split-screen resembles the mania for production in industrial capitalism, where the same item is reproduced to endless and dizzying dimensions. It took Warhol, as a gifted film amateur, to hit on his discordant use of split-screen in Chelsea Girls (1967), the equivalent of atonal modern music, where the multiple activities of the Factory’s demimonde are spliced into an unparse-able “exquisite corpse.” Both, however, are still metaphors for the crowd at work, as in Woodstock, too, where the goal of coming together (as an entire generation, no less) is explicitly and implicitly invoked.
No such totalizing vision, however, is offered by Please Leave Quietly; in fact, quite the opposite. Here, the spectacle of the show, as well as the fans who flock to it, gets broken down as a series of isolated, shifting gestures, rarely matching up, and which, at their best moments, flash exactly like the snakes so often mentioned in Harvey’s lyrics: powerful, organic-mystical creatures who impart wisdom and delusion in equal measures.
Again, I believe this fragmentary form is meant partly as an ironic commentary on the diminished importance of rock music in today’s cultural scene. Rock, once radical gospel and a nascent art form unto itself, has become mere commercial fodder, a trend which Harvey’s experimental music fights against. But in postmodern fashion she acknowledges and includes this struggle in the form she has chosen for her DVD testament. Each song is dragged through a corridor of changes which threatens to derail it, much like the animated-effects psychedelic ending of Ken Russell’s Altered States(1980), where the de-evolving hero tries to piece his bio-molecular structure back together by crashing into the walls of a hallway — becoming, at each moment of impact, ape, superman, nobody, normal. This same visual motif has even made its appearance in the world of music video, borrowed by the Swedish band A-ha for their 1986 video “Take On Me.” Indeed, Please Leave Quietly is very much a post-music-video concert film, in that videos have, since their inception, treated the performance of a song as a plastic thing, employing cutaways, superimpositions, inserts of the band, even sound-dubbing as signifiers within an artificial mise-en-scene. Harvey’s performance of “Dress,” for instance, begins exactly like a music video, with an overhead shot of the stage and a time-elapsed sequence of crew members setting up, testing the lights, etc. It isn’t until the song’s second verse that the camera descends to “normal” eye-level with the stage, where all the musicians are in place and playing.
Finally, these kaleidoscopic collisions within each song/performance suggest the fragile nature of music and performance themselves, always under threat of disappearing altogether, or being mutated into something else, something less artistic and more generic. At one point, we are shown a giant outdoor TV screen in an urban center broadcasting one of Harvey’s performances — a moment where Harvey briefly examines her own larger-than-life image, her image as product, and then quickly cuts away from it as if it didn’t matter, or more to the point, as if it bored her. (Famously shy and reclusive, Harvey has never sold herself as a media creation.) The title itself,Please Leave Quietly, which we see at the end of the film in big printed letters over the exit of one of the concert halls — an injunction that nearly rewrites Dylan Thomas’ most famous poem, “Do not go gently into that good night . . .” — suggests that we no longer expect music, even great music, to change the world or spark riots or even ameliorate our own loneliness, but only, like life itself, to offer an hour or so of pleasure, insight and excitement before moving on to whatever might be next.