Sunday, December 16, 2007

so paint it black and take it back

The essence of punk, to me, has always been to a large part fair use, continued use. Appropriation with meaning, but more than that--making do. Taking what comes to your hands, your heart, and making do with it. There is no disposability of punk, per se--true punk, anyway. There is no 'buying new', there is no 'wait and improve'--you make art, you make music, you write, you act out--all with the tools you have, the things you have in your hands, ragged and patchwork and proud--singing with cracked voices, writing with tattered educations, wearing hand-me-downs and scavenging food from back-alley bins--this is punk. Let nothing be wasted, says one ethos of punk--save for our lives, ends a darker half of it. Rebellion, rejection, independence--these are punk's bywords, in every form punk occurs.

Add the Age of Steam. The Age of Steam was one of powerful invention, people driven to invent, to take what was in their hearts and minds and research it, discover it, map it, to understand the building blocks of nature, architecture, culture, science. Frenzied learning, in and out of institutions of the same, the air of maddened loss hanging over all as the spectre of war grew nearer.

To me, though she comes in very late period for the Age of Steam, indeed, is found the story of Marie Curie--a woman driven to understand radiation, radioactive isotopes, and their interaction with the natural world. She and her husband, Pierre Curie, in fact, named radiation--"radioactive" was their word to describe the active agents of pitchblende, and they named the element radium. In a profession few men excel in, she is notable, but the fact that always sticks with me is the image of her scribbling frantically in her notebooks, trying to get down information for the world before she herself succumbed to radiation sickness--and the fact that to this day, those notebooks are considered too dangerous to be handled.

That image. Paper she wrote upon gone so lethal, just from the radiant dust in the air and the touch of her hands--it won't leave me.

Steampunk. Another odd byway that the Steampunkopedia has led me down--that of My Chemical Romance's Welcome to the Black Parade.

There is no discounting both that MCR is a very modern band, and that "Welcome" as a song is a modern anthem, nigh totemic in its swelling chorus and the wails of Gerard Way, the lead singer.

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(Gerard Way, in a still from the video, belting out "Welcome" with a snarl.)

It was the first single from the "story" album, The Black Parade, in which a young man, the Patient, dies of cancer in an unnamed vintage ward--we get the feeling, from the nurses' attire, it could be anywhere from 1920 to 1945, large war years for many countries--and sets out upon his journey through the realm of the dead. This is mythic, meaty stuph for alt-rock, even post-punk pseudo-gothic rock, yet MCR tackles it and pulls it off with, by and large, panache and style.

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(Alternate cover for the album, The Black Parade, featuring the Patient--in the video of the title song, played by Lukas Haas--and a cast of several of the dead come to guide him.)

Above and beyond the concept behind the album, though, is the video of this song. Note, Steampunkopedia is not naming My Chemical Romance as a band, nor any other video released off this album--just this one song.

Why?

Well, part of it I think comes from Sam Bayer's direction--he envisioned a partially-real, partially-CGI (and expertly blended, btw, it's nigh impossible to tell) shattered landscape of broken black wood and twisted wreckage of former homes and transports. Everything has that run-down, vaguely-bleached look about it, sun-faded, ennui's very soul--save that it's not, for screaming down the one street left is a parade float, black and white bunting streaming in invisible wind as it edges ever closer to the Patient, through whose eyes we see the land of the dead for the first time.

What makes this Steampunk? I think it's half that marvelous sense of using what comes to hand, the melding of various things to make the thing that works, and half, pure and simple, the passion inherent in the band and the song.

Do not give up. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light. Fight back. Try again. Perservere. Learn. Words screamed as cutting memories of abandonment and loss and the will, nonetheless, to keep trying, to keep moving forward, to never give in.

So you didn't make it into the air with this machine. Try again. So you didn't do it with the next one. Try again. There are no absolutes when so little is known, anything is plausible, if not possible--it is only when knowledge ossifies into the things "everyone knows" that we freeze as a people.

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(Ray Toro, Bob Bryar, Gerard Way, Mikey Way, Frank Iero--the current lineup of the band.)

Colleen Atwood designed the costumes for the band, the now-iconic black marching uniforms that have been worn in every video to date. She's done some amazing work, most notably with Tim Burton, but she's also worked on more considered-Steampunk films than Edward Scissorhands--she also designed costumes for Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the upcoming Sweeney Todd, the fashion impact of which is already being felt on the grid. Beyond Steampunk, but I think firmly establishing her design sense, she's also worked on Big Fish, Gattaca, Beloved, and Sleepy Hollow.

For this, perhaps her most accessible design task, she used a sheaf of papers that Gerard Way, also a graphic artist, had sketched out during a series of discussions with his bandmates on what the fictional band "The Black Parade" would look like. Colleen pored over these sketches avidly, and pulled from both her wide knowledge of historical costume, and her personal trove of collected memorabilia--the braid of the trim, for example, is several decades old, and to further age it, she scrubbed dirt, soot and leaves deep into the weave.

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(Still shot from the video of the band performing.)

The video itself relies a great deal on half-remembered histories, the knowledge gained from overhearing grandparents speaking, not in school or on one's own. Images of blimps and balloons, images of the dead walking, images of loss, of grief, all surmounted by that powerful, echoing refrain--We'll carry on!

Mother War, in a gas mask and a deconstructed petticoat draws our eye--motes of something, undoubtedly toxic, float in the air around her, and it takes some time to realize that her lungs are the vehicle by which the air is becoming filled with drifting specks.

The draping of the medal around the Patient's neck, the tracing of the unseen scar down the singer's face--resonance, meaning, beyond the symbols, the actions, we see on the screen.

Fear and Regret, twin girls, kiss the Patient as they walk away--he is done with them.

The sign, which could have been written anywhere from 1800 to 2800--Starved to Death in a Land of Plenty--resonates with everything else.

The oddly kinescoped feel of it, the screen closing down to the spot, reminiscent of machines most of us don't remember remembering, or have only seen in distant echoed visions like these.

The set evokes strongly distant memories-not-ours, tales of Dresden, tales of the London blitz, the bones of our world brought down.

Two of Gerard Way's favorite films, two films that influence a great deal of his art, are The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, and their influence is powerfully felt. German expressionism in general seems to have some intriguing link to Steampunk, and that ties in this video as well.

But more than anything else, the triumph of the human spirit, the will to go on--the will, moreover, to make your presence known, to be remembered for as long as you can make that memory last--to discover knowledge, that one step further, which will aid everyone who follows after you--that is the heart and soul of all invention.

And that is what powers Steampunk, perhaps.

"Welcome to the Black Parade"

When I was a young boy,
my father took me into the city
to see a marching band.
He said,
"Son when you grow up, will you be
the saviour of the broken,
the beaten and the damned?"
He said
"Will you defeat them,
your demons, and all the non-believers,
the plans that they have made?"
Because one day I leave you,
A phantom, to lead you in the summer,
To join the black parade."

(screamed) When I was a young boy,
My father took me into the city
To see a marching band.
He said,
"Son when you grow up, will you be
the saviour of the broken,
The beaten and the damned?"


Sometimes I get the feeling she's watching over me.
And other times I feel like I should go.
When through it all, the rise and fall, the bodies in the streets--
When you're gone, we want you all to know
We'll carry on,
We'll carry on
And though you're dead and gone, believe me
Your memory will carry on
Carry on
We'll carry on
And in my heart I can't contain it
The anthem won't explain it

And we will send you reeling from decimated dreams
Your misery and hate will kill us all
So paint it black and take it back
Let's shout it loud and clear
Do you fight it to the end
We hear the call--
To carry on
We'll carry on
And though you're dead and gone believe me
Your memory will carry on
We'll carry on
And though you're broken and defeated
Your weary widow marches--

On and on we carry through the fears
Ohh ohh ohh--
Disappointed faces of your peers
Ohh ohh ohh--
Take a look at me 'cause
I could not care at all
Do or die
You'll never make me
'Cause the world, will never take my heart
You can try, you'll never break me
Want it all,
I'm gonna play this part
Won't explain or say I'm sorry
I'm not ashamed,
I'm gonna show my scar
So give a cheer, for all the broken
Listen here, because it's only..
I'm just a man,
I'm not a hero
Just a boy, who's meant to sing this song
Just a man,
I'm not a hero
I -- don't -- care

We'll carry on
We'll carry on
And though you're dead and gone believe me
Your memory will carry on
We'll carry on
And though you're broken and defeated
Your weary widow marches on
We'll carry on
We'll carry on
We'll carry on
We'll carry
We'll carry on...


If we do nothing else. Invention. Passion. Making do with what we have. Making it work. And always, always, going back to the plans, making it better, stronger, faster, weirder if we have to--

Steampunk.

It's as good an explanation as any as to why this video was tapped. Though me personally? I think it was the fashions.

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