Runaway American Dreams
by Ben Tuthill
If you’re in the market for ruining your day, get a hold of some vintage issues of Heavy Metal magazine and read through the first few cycles of Stefano Tamburini and Tanino Liberatore’s fascinatingly reprehensible comic Ranxerox. Ranxerox is the story of Rank Xerox, an ultraviolent robot made from Xerox parts, and his lover Lubna, a young (and notably young-looking) heroin addict, as they travel the streets of Rome and New York in a constant array of blood, sex, and postmodern absurdism.
I can’t say I really like Ranxerox. Like Duck Dynasty or a Ghostbusters comment section, it’s the sort of thing that you fall into by chance and wish you had the willpower to get out of several hours sooner. It’s an equal mix of beauty and inexcusable filthiness – for every striking panel, there’s an equally indefensible plot point (sometimes they’re simultaneous: the panel of Rank crushing a little girl’s hand is postmodern Michelangelo, but it’s also a painting of a homicidal sadist crushing a little girl’s hand). Like the Saw movies or a lesser season of Game of Thrones, the atrocities start to get blasé after the first few cycles. Highbrow ultraviolence is all well and good, but after a while you start to wonder if we really need another depiction of blood-spattered symphorophilia to realize the horrors of modern banality.
What sets Ranxerox apart from its shock-art peers, though, is Libertore and Tamburini’s acute sense of irony. Like a mass media equivalent of a Bataille novel, Ranxerox takes an all-too-conventional trope and exposes it for the horrorshow that lies beneath the surface. Rank’s day-to-day adventures are hideous, but they’re unsettlingly reminiscent of the entertainment media that we consume every day without question. How many times have we watched without blinking as an action hero slaughters hundreds of relatively innocent bystanders for the sake of a McGuffin? How many times have we cheered on a charming male protagonist as he manipulates a female romance-object for our pleasure and amusement? Tamburini and Libertore amplify those horrors to an intolerable degree, but the root of the discomfort –the violence, the abuse, the narcissism– are all present in mainstream mass media. Ranxerox just forces them to the forefront.
If you could pick one image to sum up Tamburini and Libertore’s project, it’s a large panel from the first 1983 Heavy Metal cycle of Rank carrying a half-naked Lubna on his shoulders as she dances to headphones blasting the opening lines of Born to Run. Rank squints suspiciously at the filth of the crowded cyberpunk New York that surrounds him. Lubna is in her own world, proud in an adolescent-indifference way of the hunk of masculinity that protects her. It’s the kind of love that you only see in Bruce Springsteen songs, an us against them where the ‘us’ is only an other used to buttress one’s own rebellious individualism.
Born to Run is an especially nasty allusion, even in a comic full of them (in an earlier scene, Rank hijacks a speaker system and sends out a frequency that kills everyone in the room except his target, a diabolical music critic who survives the assault because he’s listening to Joy Division on his headphones). If you read the Ranxerox In New York cycle as an all-out assault on American values, Springsteen comes as an especially low blow. Attack America, fine – but Bruce? Bruce Springsteen is the great defender of everything good about American culture. Hard work, reckless love, the glory of the individual will – these are the things that Springsteen fought to redeem at a time when it was awfully hard to be a proud American. Don’t drag him into this porny, hateful trash fire.
My love for Bruce is real – I think a lot of Americans feel the same way, even if they’re less fond of his music than I am. Libertore and Tamburini aren’t American, though, and they have no sentimental forgiveness for our best cultural propaganda. And in the context of his Ranxerox panel, it’s hard to blame him. Rank and Lubna lay Springsteen’s project bare – a robotic assembly of masculine tropes, directed toward the defense and subsequent exploitation of a particular brand of infantilized femininity, all in the name of freedom.
Even more than Born to Run, the Ranxerox panel makes me think of Thunder Road. Thunder Road is maybe my favorite song – it gets me to the brink of tears about every tenth time I hear it (since we listen almost exclusively to Bruce Springsteen Pandora at my workplace, that’s quite an achievement). But it’s hard to deny that this most American of classics is the story of an older man trying to convince a recent high school graduate to have sex with him by spitting out a series of standardized car metaphors. It’s verbally abusive, and it’s staggeringly self-interested – Bruce expresses nothing other than the desire to dominate Mary and bring her into his personal liberation project.
No part of me wants to ruin Thunder Road, for myself or anyone else. No part of me wants to ruin any Springsteen song. But what makes Ranxerox so compelling is its ability to force these everyday horrors out of the things that I’d much rather love. It doesn’t keep its vileness to itself – it makes everything else feel just as vile as it ought to. Libertore and Tamburini pull so many of the Americanized world’s sins to the surface – the idiocy of mass media, the fetishization of youth, the mechanization of masculinity. They force us to see those sins not only in Rank and Lubna, but in the media and values that Rank and Lubna consume and imitate. Springsteen, like Rank, is an amalgamation of classic American tropes. The ‘little girls’ of his dreams, like Lubna, are affectless balls of passion who devote their lives to the valorization of a protagonist’s freedom-complex. The love between them, like Rank and Lubna’s, is an instance of co-dependent self-interest that fights with everything it has to present itself as something other than egoistic fulfillment.
For all its transgressive humor and basely appealing violence, reading Ranxerox is a miserable experience. It’s not something I ever really want to read again. It’s not really anything I feel that I can defend. But it calls to the forefront everything that I don’t like and asks me to see it in all the places where I don’t want to see it. It’s one thing for transgressive art to trash what’s obviously awful, but it’s another thing to hone its assault sharply enough to force its reader to question the things they think they ought to love. Some art wants to watch the world burn – but some forces you to realize that there’s more on fire than you’d like to admit.
Pimpinela and Dyango vs.
by Jordi Costa
What’s a music video? Is it a beneficial tool to set free the implicit images a song keeps within? Or is it a devilish instrument to submit something as evanescent and free as musical expression under the yoke of an imposed narrative?
Since it’s too hot to enter such a pointless debate, I’ll take advantage of the kind invitation to join this alien section by choosing a video that frees me from having to try and solve a theoretical mess of that calibre, because there are also explicitly narrative songs, like an O’Henry or Roald Dahl story. Or like a Warren horror one, with their final turn of events crowning a painstaking, and allegedly perfect, construction.
The case study is Ese hombre, which began the happy collaboration between duo Pimpinela and singer Dyango. So it’s not a duet, but a tercet. Or, rather, a threesome… Well, no, not a threesome, and neither a ménage à trois, but the (melodic) report of a love betrayal, ridiculed. Aestheticized.
As we all know, Argentinian duet Pimpinela, made up of brother and sister Lucía and Joaquín Galán, has popularised a form of sung narrative based on the dynamics of an argument. It’s a very proletarian way of living the feeling: the Galáns don’t sing a lullaby, but an affront. Their thing isn’t union, but fracture. After what we hear in a typical Pimpinela song, we can guess that what awaits the male voice is an immediate future of moving out, spending nights at an aparthotel with right to use the kitchen, lawsuits and regular payment of child support. The female voice will from then on spend afternoons at the hairdresser’s, flipping through the pages of Hello! magazine with her eyes full of tears and with the support and camaraderie of her friends. Before that dialectic model of a sung discourse, Dyango’s broken voice introduced in the Spanish romantic broken heart ballad something of the Italian style harsh voice in the tradition of Ricardo Cocciante, the man whom, according to Paolo Sorrentino in his novel Everybody’s Right, has taken the most (lucrative) advantage of the melodic exploitation of being cheated. Dyango’s look, before the conventional incarnations of the eternal masculine and eternal feminine of the Galán siblings (almost seventies photonovel stereotypes), marks a premonition of modernity or future: his way of holding a cigarette, the curled hair from when male hairdresser’s started being called “psycho-aesthetic cabinets”, and the fatigued temperance of someone who’s undergone a vasectomy in order to go on with his rotten behaviour without leaving any collateral damage behind, reveal a kind of sketch of what, later on, would be known as the New or Metrosexual Man.
Ese hombre, the song, made both Pimpinela and Dyango go beyond their respective aesthetic landmarks: the former moved from the dialogued duel to inhabiting two reality planes, while the latter abandoned his universe of introspective self-laceration to become a dialoguing voice and the third vertex of a dark love triangle. Ese hombre, the music video, the film, managed to distil all that tension into images in a certainly superb way, as only pure kitsch (that is, the one which hasn’t been pre-manufactured, the one that doesn’t know about ironic distance) could do it. The song already includes the keys of a particularly intricate dramatic structure: two friends talk about an absence, while one of them, punctually, evokes the voice of the absent woman, who talks (and sings) from the platonic space of sentimental satisfaction (which doubles, at the same time, as the space of betrayal for, notice, the only character who is dressed in pure white in the music video, a circumstance designing him as innocent, or immaculate). In other words: two men talk about pain in a material urban space made up of dark alleys half-illuminated by the dim light of the lampposts; stairs misted by the steam of melancholy, and Castilian decorated bars serving cheap wine and other drinks in clay mugs, while they invoke the voice of a woman who sings from the gardens of L’année dernière à Marienbad in the celestial flight that hypothetical hydraulic support confers her (apparently tranquilising, but brutally painful for one of the interlocutors) words an aerial quality. We know a sentimental breakup has taken place and also that the guy dressed in white (the hurting side of the breakup) knows that his old love has already found someone to soothe her heartache. Dressed in a leather jacket and yellow lumberjack shirt, Dyango immerses himself in a titanic work of dramatic triplication: at first, he’s the shoulder to cry on, but also, the spokesperson for the woman’s happiness… and, what’s more daring, the one defending the good intentions of ese hombre, “that man,” giving the song its title. The two men represent a confrontation between two forms of masculinity: one already dated (the guy dressed in white, with a Geyperman beard and gestures of punished romantic-cartoon-style ex gallant) and one starting to conquer the present (Dyango’s look wouldn’t be seen as strange in a liberal wife-swapping club). The woman, with her print dress, pamela hat and the way she touches her hair at a given moment, incarnates a sort of quintessence of a femininity not so much out of time as evoking an old Florita cartoon: could a sophisticated man with a foot in the future, as the one represented by Dyango, really feel attracted to such a dated image? Probably not… Hence, thus, a possible alternative reading of the story: the feeling guiding that cunning male character isn’t love, or desire, but the imperative of tarnishing an ideal, of twisting innocence. That’s why, maybe, it all ends up with the bluntness of a horror tale: closer to The Caterpillar –the hair-rising episode of Night Gallery‘s second season– than to any regular instalment of The Twilight Zone. After the final revelation –“ese hombre soooooy… yo” (that man… is me)– there follows an emphatic approach, with abrupt editing cuts, to the unmoved face of Pimpinela’s male half: no emotion seems to emerge from that impassiveness, although we perfectly know that, behind that cardboard face, there’s a broken soul. In case the darkness of the story wasn’t clear enough, the end of the film is marked by the image of a burning photograph: the snap of a friendship that was the breading ground for this theatre of cruelty is consumed by the infernal flames of ingratitude and disloyalty. Pimpinela and Dyango shone, no doubt, in a Horror Masterpiece that Narciso Ibáñez Menta and his son Narciso Ibáñez Serrador would have envied.