“He hit me and it felt like a kiss”: On the Death-Art of Lana Del Ray and Nicholas Winding Refn

by on Jun.25, 2014

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk…
(Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”)

It seems a lot of people are troubled by Lana Del Ray saying that she wish she were “already dead.” Seems that’s not an “empowering” thing to say. We should all be energetic and as alive as possible. Working for a change in the anthropocene. Something I love about her songs is that she does sound already dead. They all seem written from a haze, from the other side.

It’s in the new one:

But it’s even more in some of the old ones, like “Summertime Sadness” and (duh!) “Born to Die.”

Here’s an interesting article about Del Ray and her detractors from NPR:

What sets her apart from predecessors in provocation like is that she celebrates the bacchanalian excess of peers like while immolating herself in themes of co-dependency that make smart people squirm. Her songs exude the pain her paramours repress through drugs and sport sex, and their implicit subject is addiction.

In other words, unlike so much contemporary poetics for example, this is not poetry that “critiques,” that gives us an ethical position. Unlike Hollywood, pop music etc: it’s not uplifting. Unlike both: it is not “empowering.”

She gets hit by her lover and it feels like a kiss.

This haziness of death is of course the feverish state of art. It is a kiss but it feels like a punch.

It’s an addiction.

The NPR article is a really nauseating however in the beginning because it posits the “gothic” as a “safe spin” in which girls get to try out woman issues… Gross… It’s of course old news to say that the gothic is feminine, old news to say that it’s temporary, something you grow out of… I’m sorry I won’t. Because the bees are dead and so are we.

What happens when the gothic is “male”? Often it becomes intolerable for folks. Think about the time Seth Oelbaum wrote about Teddy Bear violence and immediately tenured professors threatened to kill him.

Watched Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” the other day and thought it was brilliant:

It’s a saturated movie -the colors, the violence, the decor – about incest, addiction and violence. The kisses taste like ultraviolence. Like Sylvia Plath’s “Fever 103” it takes place in the orient, where imperialism discovered modern beauty in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Xanadu, Coleridge built an opium den…
Thanks to Matthew Suss, I found these negative reviews of the film:

“[Nicholas Winding Refn’s] latest theater of the macabre is brutal, bloody, saturated with revenge, sex and death, yet stunningly devoid of meaning, purpose, emotion or decent lighting.” – Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times

“Movies really don’t get much worse than Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. It’s a shit macho fantasy—hyperviolent, ethically repulsive, sad, nonsensical, deathly dull, snail-paced, idiotic, possibly woman-hating, visually suffocating, pretentious… [T]his is a defecation by an over-praised, over-indulged director who thinks anything he craps out is worthy of your time. I felt violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled and bored stiff.” – Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere

“It’s not that overwrought violence and human depravity are unfit grist for art, but without a compelling plot and a modicum of character development, all this film has to offer is a repugnant prurience and heavy-handed atmospherics.” – Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic

“I thought it was just about the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen.” – David Edelstein, Vulture

… This sounds a bit like the attacks on Del Ray, but they are even worse. The strange thing is that they are very perceptive (as reviews often are): it is a “suffocating” movie in its “heavy-handed atmospherics,” it is “over-indulged”, it has to do with shit, it is both boring and over-stimulating, it is unfit, it has little plot. We cannot see through the heavy atmosphere, we are left in a haze, we cannot transcend the haze, cannot make meaning out of the art. It hits us and it feels like a kiss.

It might seem strange that something is both “hyperviolent” and “sedated.” Can a violation feel like boredom, narcotics? Just listen to the Lana Del Rey video above for affirmative answer.

Both Del Rey and “Only God Forgives” IS suffocating art, art that disturbs, art that is overly arty and saturated without the nice little plot that would redeem all the art, make it meaningful, progressive, good for us. And that’s exactly the kind of art that scares the hell out of people because we are already dead.

That’s the only art I want to watch, write, read, inhale, kiss.

(By Carole King)


14 comments for this entry:
  1. JT

    JOHANNES! we must be connected through our cancer-claws. I just developed a performance to this song. a tap dance in fact.

  2. Johannes

    Sounds lovely, I want to see it.


  3. Thomas Cook

    Would Lana Del Ray be a better fit for the popular music of twenty years ago? It occurs to me that in 1994 these kinds of things happened: Layne Staley’s gravelly, morbid, monotone leads Alice in Chain’s Jar of Flies to debut at #1 on Billboard, Kurt Cobain approaches and then achieves death as the public eyes, envies, and elevates, and of course Trent Reznor releases the death-in-life industrial opera, The Downward Spiral, to unanticipated commercial success. Moreover, it was just a few days ago that I was enjoying the end of long jog, feeling my own mortality (morbidity?) blister while listening to “Like Suicide,” the epic closing track to Soundgarden’s Superunknown (also 1994).

  4. Johannes

    Interesting that I first heard about this debate via facebook posts about Francis Bean Cobain criticizing LDR about her deathiness. / J

  5. Phil Estes

    I liked Only God Forgives a lot. I think there are some problems with it, sort of colonial, I guess. With Gossling’s character is a little too removed. Vithaya Pansringarm is the best; he kills a bunch of white people and sings karaoke. The negative reviews forget this constantly. Suss’ quotes are great; those sound like critics who think they’re clever.

    Whiteness and orientalism are the film’s concerns, though, and I think they’re complex, more so than Django. Especially because of Pansringarm. And Kristen Scott Thomas. She’s beautiful.

    Gossling becomes a sort of vessel; he gets you in, and then you spend time with more interesting characters.

    I think about the images, the tone, all the time.

    Tarantino is great, and I like his career long project: his films are always, distilled, down to the revolutionary vs. the sell-out, but that’s too easy and he forgets he’s white sometimes. Can we even have that conversation anymore, the truther and the sell-out? At least in this old way? It’s easy to consider this when the believer looks like Jeff Bridges. Tarantino always needs a white guy to guide the hero through.

    Refn isn’t concerned with the binary and that’s why he’s so good.

    You should watch the Lone Ranger. That was the best Hollywood film made in a long time. No one gets it; it’s a mess but it ends the Western and that’s the point. Best thing I’ve seen Depp in. Steals El Topo’s imagery briefly too.

  6. Thomas

    Was the word deathiness used? Lethe-wards = synonym.

  7. Johannes

    I thought of Tarantino too. Not in terms of sellout (when wasn’t he?) but the opposite. Refn is without Tarantino’s irony, which is what keeps his movies from being b-movies. Tarantino makes postmodern invocations of b-movies; Refn might be making actual b-movies. / Johannes

  8. Phil Estes

    I think so about Refn, I think that’s what I like about him: his films aren’t so much “serious” as they are films that “embody” the spirit of b-movies. Refn wants to exist in the space. There’s no psychic distance in his films. You kind of live in them as you watch them, I think Only God Forgives does this in particular.

    I think Tarantino wants to do that; you can see it in Inglorious Basterds the most, in particular the final “act.” But there’s still a wink, and that wink ain’t bad, it’s just not the same. There’s something normative about winking. As if Tarantino wants to be “one of the good ones” when it comes to white fascination with the “Orient.”

    Is it more “significant” for an artist to have a white-hetero-male character exist so that the others speak (Ryan Gosling) or is it more “significant” to have a white-hetero-male-ponius-pilate “guide” another “voice” (Christoph Waltz)? That’s a bad word, “significant,” but it’s the only that comes to mind right now. I feel like the latter is more acceptable; that’s why Django can seem more “fun” than Only God Forgives.

    I think there’s something to thinking about this with poems, but I’m not sure how to articulate it yet. If Tarantino wants to be Refn but can only innvocate, then CK Williams probably wants to be Amiri Baraka (I’m thinking of a particularly awful poem from that book in 2002 where William’s “speaker” tries to talk to an “intimidating” black kid listening to music on the street).

  9. adam s

    I’m fascinated to learn that Fever 103 takes place in the Orient–it never occurred to me that that poem had a geo-politic! I always assumed it could be anywhere where there could be sky, boiling metal and petticoats! But the gold-beaten skin (with the wonderful modifiers of precious and expensive and infinitely!) now makes me hear echoes of Yeats Sailing to Byzantium! It’s cool to read something that alters a work I have read dozens of times.

  10. Johannes

    Yes, I think that’s right Adam!

  11. Kim

    We saw the movie last night. I found myself loving the first half of the movie up until somewhere around the dinner scene and the dress afterwards but once the violence started it seemed like the movie mounted itself on a too familiar linear narrative of revenge and all must die a gruesome death routine. Apart from some really gorgeous scenes. I kept looking at the movie case (an actual movie case!) to see if it was a Badalamenti soundtrack. That sort of low bass flimmer. Something very Lynch about the atmosphere, the sound, the fragmented dialogue, the colors, deadpan acting, fetishes, bodies posing and staring and of course the singing. Made me wonder if that’s why so many of Lynch’s movies completely changes halfway through, a kind of refusal to play out what you’ve set up, often through radical identity swapping, identity erasing, mask swapping. Similarly I sort of wished Gosling’s character hadn’t developed so much, he almost has a hollywood shaped conscience at the end. Or maybe that’s the point.

  12. Kim

    It was dedicated to Jodorowsky too, no? I can see that. I haven’t seen El Topo in a long time but I remember a similar kind of arch, and dread, toward the end.

  13. adam s

    Too, it’s delightful to read the opening of the Nightingale Ode–I think excerpting the first four lines works beautifully in terms of highlighting the beauty of that poem; I love how trancy Keats can be; everything fits–enjambment just so etc–everything is perfect, but not in a way where it can be dismissed as merely really competent and actually not amazing; instead it’s perfectly amazingly perfect! Do you like Tennyson’s In Memoriam?

  14. adam s

    Tap-Dance–I havn’t had that term come to my mind in ages, so this makes me happy! On an I guess different note, my neighbor here at the Quality Inn called my room to ask if I smoke weed–which I do–but then it became clear that I would have to smoke crack to get to the weed, and I am not comfortable with crack, so I am depressingly un-stoned, lol. To top it off, the dude was wearing a shirt and no underwear and making it clear I could engage in whatever way with his awkwardly there–albeit not hard–penis. Surely this is a good experience to go through seeing that it isn’t actually a stranded kind of dubious.