Friendly Fire– Picking the Scab

*Warning*: Inasmuch as this album/movie has a plot, this review may ruin it for you. But it doesn’t really, so don’t be such a nit.

Perhaps the most perfectly ghastly scene in Sean Lennon’s new movie, which is based on his new CD, which is based on his recent life, is in the “video” for On Again Off Again, which you can see on youtube here.

Sean, playing himself, goes to the movies (to see a movie called Friendly Fire) with his girlfriend, played by his ex-girlfriend, Bijou Phillips. They have a chat about an Avant Garde film, then Avant Garde art in general. Something is strained about the conversation—Sean seems hurt by her vague dismissal of Duchamps’ “Fountain” and counters with some weak and nerdy platitudes which visibly annoy her. A guy in line behind them says “Hey Julian, I’m a big fan!” and Sean looks crushed (so it’s clear this is no pseudonymous character).

They go in and watch a movie starring Lindsey Lohan and Jason Schwartzman. They go through an arty pantomime of a scene that just occurred in the actual movie Friendly Fire. In that scene, Sean, playing his own best friend (without spectacles so you can tell them apart…) and Bijou neck and play head games with eachother while clueless Sean waits outside ringing the buzzer. “Do you want him to come up?” she asks. “Yes,” says Sean-as-traitorous-buddy. She just stares at him, caught in a bluff, then leaves, to continue the farce of her love. Meanwhile, in the theater, as Sean watches this reenactment of his cuckolding with only mild concern, Bijou is getting phone calls from her lover, and eventually slips out to go meet him.

The real drama behind this project, as you may have heard in some reviews, is that Bijou actually did cheat on Sean in exactly this way with his best friend, who subsequently died in a motorcycle accident. But that doesn’t really tell us why Sean would make this movie so self-referential. Instead of just making an semi-autobiographical adaptation of the painful events, he examines the events, then analyses his examination, then examines the process of making art out of the analyses of the examination of the reenacted painful events. This can’t be healthy.

In fact the whole theme of this album is sickness, not redemption. It might be useful to imagine that he is ridding himself of his demons and making peace with the ghost of his unforgiven friend…the songs might have been full of answers and inspirational platitudes. Instead it’s stocked with lyrics like: “You can’t regret what you forget,” and “I don’t want to hear another word from you now… / I’d rather be wrong…” and in the most beautifully harmonious line of Headlights, “Life is only slowly dying.”  In lines like “If life is just a dream …/ Which of us is dreaming  / And who will wake up screaming?” Sean parodies the hippie existentialism of his father’s band—a theme that emerges again in an animated sequence where Sean and some companions fly on a Yellow Submarine-like spaceship to a mysterious other world where they are trapped in a intergalactic zoo by giant five-eyed aliens with other freaks and what appears to be Yoko Ono. Even the gorgeous guitar solo light-show at the end of the video for Headlights seems more like the paranoid hallucination of a dying man than a transcendental drug experience. The guitarist smirks—I’ll save you kid, but for what?

The songs mutter and swoop along, pretty but never uplifting. There are a lot of Elliot Smith comparisons to be made, along with Muse or Rufus Wainwright, but what makes Sean’s songs stand out from these other mopey songwriters is his plain-spoken heartbreak—not just in the lyrics but in the way his voice swoops downward unexpectedly and the chords change almost randomly in the bridges, as if he can’t stand to move forward in a normal progression…(especially in Falling Out Of Love, the last track) like a man so lost in his own head he has to keep changing the channels on his car radio to bring him back to the new moment, a new snatch of melody to keep him, momentarily, away from the emptiness and regret.

I read another review that derided this record for its sense of defeat…That to me is its greatest strength. Instead of crafting some happy ending to the horrible facts of his love disasters, it minutely details the endless and vicious cycle of loss and grief–where the final revelation of the affair is replayed again and again, in real-time and in period dress and in animal masks and acid-watercolor–and arriving at a kind of grim humor about the whole thing. It’s ridiculous, in the end: the levels upon levels of self-reference and melodrama, as meaningless as sticking your pisspot in a museum.

The first sequence in the movie (part of which was adapted into the commercially released video for Dead Meat  but is fully replayed here)
perfectly balances the earth-shaking opera-sized tension with Sean’s bitter self-deprecation at his own pretension. He plays some kind of Spanish musketeer in a crumbling Mexican castle who comes to play cards with the evil cowboys that run the place (or something). He cheats (poorly) and is caught. Instead of running, he challenges the badass boss to a duel, they fence in a pretty decent action sequence as some John Brion flutes toodle and he falsettos thinly above them. He is stabbed and dies. The camera swings around and there is a TV screen showing a grey sky and a field. At the end of the movie, the last video is set in that field, as Sean’s fencer dies in the arms of his lady. Again the camera swings around and we see the TV screen. On it is Sean (in the same set as at the beginning of this video) sitting, writing what will presumably become this album, starting the whole mess over again. Like that video for Spectacle makes clear, his fantasies about triumph, revenge, and reconciliation are just scab-picking…in fact, the production of a record and movie like this is akin to tearing open a wound and stuffing it full of dirt to see what pretty colors the infection might bring.

In my opinion, with this CD/DVD combo, Lennon has brought the role of a recording artist to a higher level…and of course made a morose and beautiful record.

Preview with scenes from the whole movie
Listen to a live concert by him
All the videos from the new record:
Rolling Stone likes it:
Interview with the Vampire


One Response to “Friendly Fire– Picking the Scab”

  1. Thanks for information.
    many interesting things

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: