Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Peep Show: The Death of Amy Winehouse

You’ll never get my mind right
Like two ships passing in the night
Want the same thing when we lay
Otherwise, mine’s a different way.

Amy Winehouse “In My Bed.”

A week ago Saturday, I was preparing my film clips for my lecture series Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma at the Revue Cinema when the breaking news on television announced that singer Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her apartment. While the news could hardly seem surprising given her continuous struggle with substance and personal abuse, not to mention her disastrous recent concert tour (which seemed to invoke any number of Hollywood melodramas you cared to call up), it still seemed unreal. As the day wore on and my work was finished, I turned to more television coverage only to see that many others seemed to share my unsettled reaction to the news. While some writers trotted out the usual clich├ęs about “the good dying young” and the eerie coincidence of her joining “The 27 Club” (which contains other dead 27-year-old performers like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain) others grappled with words to describe their grief. While I searched for my own, I realized that some of the answers were right within the lecture series I was doing.

In Forbidden Desires (which I wrote about on July 24th), I was looking at how both Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma used our basic voyeurism (part of what attracts us to movies) as a dramatic strategy. In doing so, they implicated us in our desire to watch things we normally wouldn’t feel so comfortable watching. As I thought about Amy Winehouse, one question kept running through my mind. Is there any other pop singer who has been so visually scrutinized and drawn such voyeuristic attraction? Unlike other rock legends who met an early demise (but more in tune with Hollywood starlets like Lindsay Lohan), Winehouse’s problems became daily fodder on YouTube. We watched with both horror and fascination as she put on a lurid display of self-immolation, done with a willful defiance that trashed the aching artful touches she brought to the masochism in songs like “Love is a Losing Game” and “Wake Up Alone” (on her 2006 masterpiece Back to Black). 

Whether it was Amy getting drunk with Pete Doherty (gee, there’s news), passing out in an alley, making up racist nursery rhymes, or losing touch with both her work and audience in her meltdown in Belgrade, we saw it all. And, like peeping toms, we continued to watch but could do nothing to stop it. It was if we were wondering which of her best songs, on both her debut CD Frank (2003) and Back to Black, might fulfill themselves in her final flame out. In fact, you could swear that she seemed to know the dynamic being played out in those online videos, where followers and fans just seemed to be waiting for the moth to be consumed by the fire. Sometimes you could watch Amy Winehouse simply taunt the camera by staring into the eyes she sensed were spying on her. Her music may have initially attracted listeners who longed to touch the depths of the despair she plunged into in “Take the Box” (“I just don’t know you, but you make me cry, where’s my kiss goodbye?”), but in the past few years the episodes of total collapse became her true follow-up album to Back to Black.

Janis Joplin (1943-1970)
The daily chronicling of Amy Winehouse’s road to perdition was far different from the self-destruction of other pop heroes. When Jim Morrison died in his bathtub in Paris, his demise was viewed almost worshipfully. After all, people only remembered him taunting his audiences and whipping his dick out onstage in Miami. Fans saw those indulgences as performance art rather than a love affair with death. But YouTube, digital cameras and cell-phone cameras weren’t even on the horizon to capture Jim falling down drunk and not able to perform while his band, The Doors, scrambled helplessly behind him. Janis Joplin’s neurosis might have been gleaned best from her powerful reading of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. But what if we also had daily video updates of Janis falling over due to her large consumption of Southern Comfort? How would her work measure up against that? The performers of the past could have some semblance of personal privacy while their music gave us windows into their troubled souls. Even Kurt Cobain, whose dark future could be read not only in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but also in his harrowing performance of Leadbelly’s equally nightmarish “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” from their Unplugged Concert, was spared the equivalent of a snuff film circulating on the Internet.

My friend Donald Brackett wrote a fascinating book a few years back called Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter (Greenwood-Praeger, 2008) which examined with bold insight the dynamics between conflicted musical partners (Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards and Simon & Garfunkel) as well as the solo artists who are divided within themselves (Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Brian Wilson). One of his chosen performers was Amy Winehouse. Unlike those books that clinically dissect the inner torment of the artist, in Dark Mirror, Brackett wrestles with their work like a sailor caught up in a windstorm at sea. He doesn't provide easy answers, or obvious critical assessments either. He often talks rhetorically to the artists; sometimes in a running spree he moves through the grooves in their tracks, and wringing from them the tantalizing process that drew him to their music. He does occasionally get his facts wrong, but the nuances are always dead on. He uses a fan’s zeal and curiosity not for prurient fascination, but to distill the impact of the artist’s work while sharply examining their discontent. Although Brackett is certainly a critic, he simultaneously rehabilitates the notion of what it is to be a fan. In describing Amy Winehouse, he actually asks a pretty significant question: “If the pop song evolved into the soundtrack for the last century, as it so clearly seems to have done, what does that tell us about the emotional movie we all live in?”

What indeed? His pertinent question is perched right on the cusp of the continued fascination we’ve had for the many emotional movies of Amy Winehouse that have hit the Internet in the years that followed those words he wrote in 2008. “When it comes to making your life into your material and your material into a breathing emblem of your living sorrows, Winehouse seems to have achieved a new high watermark for such rare creative transformations,” Brackett continued to write. “[There’s] also a new low depth for such deep and deranged personal indulgences in a private and public hell.” In essence, he’s saying that her torch songs might soon become torch movies; in fact, become the videos we’d soon witness. “Her whole frail and bony being seems to be but one sharp No,” Brackett explains. “Something tells me this particular swimming pool seems to be filled with tears, and there is a rather garish sign preventing potential casual swimmers from even considering the arc of a dive from its lyrical depths.” With the endless parade of Amy Winehouse-in-distress videos soon to come that garish sign seemed to entice those casual swimmers.

Perhaps our sense of regret (even guilt) that followed Amy Winehouse’s death might have been the recognition that, as viewers to this travesty, we became implicated in the artist’s most disturbingly vivid plans. In Dark Mirror, Donald Brackett quotes John Updike’s famous line about celebrity as a mask that eats into the face. But now, in this new technological world, we have become party to the munching. This is why, I suspect, there is a look of unease on some of the faces now seen mourning her. If in those unsettling videos we kept her misery alive in our mind’s eye, what will we use now that she’s gone? As her nakedly exposed songs come back on the radio and her CDs once again begin to sell, will their power ever overcome the travesty of the endless peep show that followed them?

 Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. His four-part lecture series, Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma continues at the Revue Cinema on Monday, August 8 at 7pm with a look at Rear Window and Blow OutYou can listen to Kevin interviewed about the series on CBC Radio's Fresh Air which is linked here.                  

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