Monday, 10 December 2012

Mad Men, Dog Days and Dum-Dums

My latest contribution to the South China Morning Post's 'Rewind' column, which looks back at a movie, book and album that share a common thread ... this week's theme was 'days', and the obvious suspect for film was Dog Day Afternoon.

On a sagging shelf in my dad’s dark and mysterious study, past the fraying macramé, the Ludlums, yoga manuals and The Joy of Sex, perched the tattered twin piles of his MAD magazines.

My dad favoured reading them on the porcelain throne, and so like father, like son. I’d grab a handful of dog-eared issues from the bottom of the pile and slope off to the loo, settling in to read my favourites, Dave Berg’s ‘The Lighter Side Of’’, ‘Spy vs Spy’, ‘Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions’ and which ever movie was being lampooned by Madison Avenue’s most subversive talents.

This put me in the somewhat post-modern position of having read, often dozens of times, the MAD satires of many classic 70s films years before I would be allowed to watch them or be fully capable of understanding them.

Of all these warped masterpieces, one stands out: ‘Dum-Dum Afternoon’. I would pour over its pages, troubled and fascinated by these weird, wise-cracking, self-aware bank robbers, the cross-hatched exaggerations of Al Pacino and Jon Cazale – especially Cazale - and the seething cesspit of a city they inhabited.

When I finally saw Dog Day Afternoon for the first time, some time in the 80s, Cazale’s pale, stricken visage as Sal, the dim-witted accomplice of real life bank robber John Wojtowicz, played by Al Pacino, had already been cemented in my brain as the archetypal scary, wild-eyed weirdo.

Wojtowicz and his friend Sal hold up a Chase Manhattan branch in Brooklyn in August 1972, bungle things badly, and in the hostage drama that ensues, New York becomes transfixed when it is revealed Pacino’s character has a second wife, a pre-op transsexual played by Chris Sarandon (in his first movie role).

Pacino gets the plaudits and pimp-suit, steals the scenes, sweats and screams, but Cazale’s pared-back portrayal of a sad, stupid, murderous loser in over his head and about to get a bullet in the brain is a revelation of a performance.

“There’s just something in that face that takes you into an area … that’s very dark. Personally dark … and … heartbroken,’’ said Sidney Lumet, Dog Day’s director. Cazale is the poster boy for New York in the mid-70s; a slouching, cadaverous angel of death in a broken city beset by blackouts, heat waves, muggers, riots, corrupt cops, gridlock, garbage strikes, race hate and decay.

When Dog Day Afternoon is released in 1975, New York City has just been declared broke and in massive debt. Vietnam is still raging, the Attica prison massacre has just happened, and Richard Nixon is seeking a second term.  (Taxi Driver, the other celluloid avatar of this era, is still a year away from its cinematic release.)

It’s an immediate hit, hailed as Sidney Lumet’s career high point, with a fine ensemble cast including Charles Durning, Carol Kane, and Lance Henrikson. Writer Frank Pierson (Cool Hand Luke) receives an Academy Award and a Writers Guild Award for his screenplay.

Cazale would die of cancer at 42 while making The Deer Hunter. Dog Day Afternoon is one of only five films he made, along with The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Godfather Part Two.

Lumet, who died in April 2011, was the embodiment of the bruised Big Apple, the anti-Woody Allen, always ready to shine the spotlight on some new dank corner of rotten Gotham. Pierson, who passed away this July, also kept New York close: his last job was as writer and consulting producer on the much-awarded cable series Mad Men.

Dog Day Afternoon stands as a time capsule of New York at its nadir, and a monument to one of the most creative and exhilarating periods in Hollywood’s history.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Midnight in Janette Slack's Garden of Good and Evil

This piece just appeared in the South China Morning Post's Postmagazine ... meet the one and only Janette Slack .... in fact, meet her in person when she makes her triumphal return to Asia this month following the release of her first album, Torture Garden Session

The biggest DJs don’t always live up to their names. Fatboy Slim was neither fat nor particularly slim. Plump DJs are notably svelte. Meat Katie is a bloke who prefers broccoli to beef. Pale weedy Moby is hardly leviathan. John Digweed does not in fact dig weed. DJ Scratch is a so-so scratcher. Beardyman is beardless. And Hong Kong’s prodigal DJ daughter and rising global star Janette Slack is anything but.

Slack is a force of nature in corsets; a genuine steel wheel diva, self-starter and anti-slacker with killer looks and the skills to back them up. She has become the avatar of Torture Garden, London’s premier fetish club which began with cult nights at Opera on the Green before landing its present home at the sprawling Ministry of Sound. Her glam brand of raunchy tech house infused with electro and breakbeats plus a personal interest in fetish fashion found a perfect home where the freaks come out and the gimps are brought out. Torture Garden’s legion of latex and leather-clad fans include Marilyn Manson, Dita Von Tease, Jean Paul Gaultier, Boy George, Courtney Love and Marc Almond (Adam Ant was famously refused entry for not dressing outlandishly enough). Slack has spun before most of them.

Part Eurasian sex bomb, part one-woman self-promotional juggernaut and part relentless energizer bunny, she has barely paused for breath since leaving Hong Kong and a well-paid teaching job for London on a make-or-break mission to achieve international DJ fame. And now she’s on her way back for a triumphal return, following a two-month tour of Australia, with gigs in Hong Kong and Bangkok to mark the launch of her first album, Torture Garden Session, a mixed journey concieved to capture the spirit of Torture Garden featuring six original Slack tracks and ‘re-rubs’, as she pervily terms her remixes, of the likes of D. Ramirez and Meat Katie.

Slack had to overcome parental disapproval and near starvation to make it in a city with ‘more DJs than bus drivers’, as Slack herself admits in ‘Veer’, one of a short film series sponsored by Dr Martens by cult director Doug ‘Scratch’ Pray on ‘people who embody an independent attitude’. The film’s release four years ago marked the turning point for Slack’s career and she’s been riding a rubber-studded rocket to DJ fantasy land ever since.

Slack’s sonic boom-boom has substance. No Eurasian Paris Hilton or DJ bimbo eruption, she is a professional sound engineer who writes and produces her own tracks, which she describes as “cheeky, chunky, twisted and demented ... a blend of rock riffs, funk, progressive melodies, sexy vocals and cinematic soundscapes with relentless basslines and thick, grooving drums’’. The first single from her album, ‘You Can’t Stop This’, a collaboration with Kickflip and Channel 4’s Phone Shop star Javone Prince, is at number four on Beatport’s electro chart and has been granted ‘must have’ status. Next to be released as a single is ‘Slave to System’ with Tyrrell, producer of Sasha’s Miami hit ‘Lalalalalala’ and 90s band PM dawn, and vocalist Kris Widakay.

She’s a Mixmag future hero, she’s won London’s prestigious Denon DJousts competition and Europe’s 2010 Pink Armada female DJ battle, been nominated for Best Breakthrough DJ, hosted the International Breakbeat Awards twice, and secured residencies at Torture Garden and Air. Her apartment has a sound studio and features an authentic replica of Dr Who’s time-travelling Tardis (an old London phone box) as its entrance, and she scoots around London in fetish regalia on rollerblades. As her biography reports, she ‘has the UK breaks and electro scene by its hairy balls and rides around London in a gold-plated beach lounger pulled by a team of pedigree swans’. This hyperbolic missive was penned by Frank Broughton, Mixmag deputy editor and author of Last Night a DJ Saved my Life. Co-opting influential friends to her cause is useful tool in the Slack skill set: she has been bigged up by everyone from Hybrid to Carl Cox and from Utah Saints to Air.

She has appeared recently on SKY1’s Gadget Geeks and spoofing a Eurotrash DJ on former Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond’s new BBC show ‘Secret Service’. She is regularly called up for photoshoots with London's edgiest independent designers, models for Vauxhall and Pepsi, and collaborates with one of London’s hottest makeup and hair designers, Sammm Agnew, while fetish godfathers Murray and Vern, Lady Lucie Latex and Kaori’s Latex Dreams now custom-make her outfits for gigs.

“Even before I got into DJing, I always enjoyed any excuse to dress a bit differently to the herd,’’ says Slack. “Not in a rebelious way, I just saw stuff I liked and got inspired and intrigued by certain characters I saw in movies, TV or in real life. So when I discovered that bindis look good when even just wearing jeans and a tank top (inspired by Gwen Stefani) i did just that I school.

“When it came to DJing, for the first seven years, I did tone it down, as I was playing breakbeat, which is very male dominated compared to, say, house. So I went back to wearing baggy trousers, over size T-shirts and baseball caps, as I didn't want to appear to be a gimmick if I got all dressed up. I de-sexed myself, rather.

“I was in my mid-20s when I got my first gig at Torture Garden. I knew what I normally wore would make me stand out in the wrong way, as everyone makes an extra effort to dress up. So it was a good excuse to go shopping and buy a load of clothes I've actually always wanted but thought I could never get away with wearing. I thought f*** it, I've been DJing for 7 years now, on vinyl and on 3 decks, so I can wear what the hell I like.’’

Of her upcoming gigs, Slack says she loves playing in Bangkok but Hong Kong’s kinetic 24-hour clubbing scene will always be home. “Living in London for the past 13 years, it’s easier to take a step back to observe the countries I visit. When I had a chance to explore Bangkok for a month as a DJ a couple years ago, it didn’t take much time at all to settle in. It really reminded of the vibe in Hong Kong, where people are out every night and there’s always something to do.

“Bangkok is bigger and can afford to have stand-alone clubs like Bed Supperclub and Q Bar and the multi-room palaces of Royal City Avenue. In Hong Kong most of the clubs are part of high rises and are smaller. But both cities are equally vibrant and both have clubbers who demand and appreciate underground music.’’

Janette Slack’s Asian science fiction double feature opens at Club Fly in Icehouse Street on December 22, and then moves across the pond to Bangkok, with gigs to be confirmed at ‘one or two clubbing institutions’. With a brutal schedule of globe-trotting gigs in place for the next 12 months to lock in global dominatrix status, it’s a rare chance to catch the hardest working freak in show business on her home turf.