Monday, February 7, 2011

Artistic Imperialism and the Leningrad Cowboys

Let us take a look at the film that introduced the world to the Leningrad Cowboys, a product of the fertile mind of Finnish film director Aki Kaurismaki. The tale of Leningrad Cowboys (as far as this film is concerned) is a schoolyard parable of cliques, acceptance and self-image writ large upon the history of Western imperialism. “The East” was defined as an oppositional category to “The West”; an either/or dichotomy. Thus, in the minds of those people at the center of the world1 (y’know, the Medi-terranean) everything to their east, became The East. And of course, the name stuck, largely because of an accident of geography2 which, coupled with this ideology of dichotomy easily justified imperialism. This whole bi-polar categorization scheme makes it really easy to qualify things because the “in” group gets to categorize who does or does not belong, those that do not can do nothing about it except to forge their own path.

Are we, you and I dear reader,3 as a people of predominantly western European origin predestined by our cultural heritage to continue this trend? Will we always be compelled as some would contend, by our very genetic composition to separate and subjugate? To exploit and enslave other members of our species,4 to force their conformity or enact their
Not Darwin
rejection? I would argue that this is not the case, that the urge to dominate is a learned social behavior, not a “natural” one. As you may recall, once again conjuring memories of your early schooling, rejection and acceptance of one’s peers is a really a personal choice rather than acquiescence to justificatory pseudoscientifical Social Darwinist dogma.5


Consider this conveniently abridged history of Finland; Raided by Vikings from Sweden, invaded by the armies of Imperial Russia, attacked by the armies of Soviet Russia, and presently, shackled by the crumbling economies of the Euro-Zone and through it all gripped within the Arctic vise. Finland then is a land familiar with tyranny. Our heroes are of course named after a city in Russia, a city named after its founder, the first Russian imperialist Peter The Great. The Leningrad Cowboys (L.C. from here on out), despite their namesake and roots in the wellspring of Arctic imperialism, exemplify the rejection of social categorization and conformity. Their divergence from the expected is suggested in the prominent hairstyles they sport. Hairstyles which evoke the uniquely sculpted cranium of Oblio, the little boy in 1971’s television film The Point!6

It begins in the first scene when the L.C. audition for a local promoter. He rejects them, suggesting they head to America where “they will buy anything”. In the States they attempt to establish themselves, but again are quickly rejected. This time they are told that they might be more successful if they play something called “rock and roll”. This popular style of music is of course little more than a black hole of trite monotonous garbage, assembled from the occupied territories of a musical style which was co-opted and repackaged for the masses from the tragicomic and cathartic music of a people oppressed and enslaved by European and American imperialism. But, naïve optimists that they are, the L.C. have no idea that they have fallen again into the cycle of imperialism. Conform or perish, if you’re not with us, you’re against us, make a choice.

Their last great challenge comes from within, and this is perhaps most telling for it represents a struggle with the self; man vs. himself. During the course of their journey it has become increasingly obvious that the manager of the L.C. has been taking advantage of the band, drinking up what little income they have in cheap American lager and we later learn, not even feeding the band. Let us be honest with ourselves. There is no artist so stoic as to never even consider the idea of selling out, even for just a minute, to make it all a little easier. After all, s/he has struggled so hard to be true, s/he deserves a little respite, a little recognition, a little love.

Yet despite these odds our exemplar heroes resist the weary temptation and persist, and they discover at the end of their great and harrowing struggle the only truly valuable reward that awaits any artist, be they musician or otherwise; fulfillment. It is in Mexico, at a wedding where our hardy Finns finally find peace and fulfillment, a receptive and appreciative audience, and the freedom to pursue their art without pressure to conform to some predetermined marketable standard. It is fitting that this moment shatters any notions of inherent or “natural” separation or otherness between different peoples or cultures. It rejects the idea that hierarchy and conformity are necessary for survival.

In the modern world, the post sword and castle world, communication is the leading edge of empire. The ability and extent to which one communicates one’s thoughts, ideas and agenda, whether overt or covert often determines the social power one wields.7 It takes a unique and flexible type of aesthetic and moral integrity to maintain a personal standard against the relentless thundering cataclysm of capital motivated music (or any other art for that matter). In other words; it’s easy to sell out, the rewards are many. Not so to retain ones integrity.

Now, having said all of that I’d like you to take a look at this.

Thanks for reading, see more obtuse film criticism at my Trappy nominated blog Lost Video Archive.

1. I.e. the Greek and Roman philosophical/political traditions from whom modern "Western" culture has inherited much of its worldview.

2. According to some people, there are others who disagree, but they’re not like us.

3. I feel safe saying this because of demographic statistics and because those of you who do not fit within my gross overgeneralization are being complimented in a roundabout way on the accident of your birth.

4. And, as some folks with special dietary preferences would point out in reference to the modern practice of factory agriculture; other species as well.

5. And Darwin’s was only one of several theories on evolution. Peter Kropotkin proposed a theory that relied on cooperation rather than Darwin’s competition.

6. An animated film based on the Harry Nilsson album of the same name in which the outcast boy Oblio had a round head, while everyone else had pointed heads. Somewhat the opposite of the Leningrad Cowboys, but you get my point.

7. Consider that in the current ongoing struggles in North Africa, opposition frequently communicates between themselves and the rest of the world through social media. The Mubarak in Egypt regime as we now know, shut down internet access in the country in order to prevent such communication. If no one hears your voice, are you actually speaking, do you even exist? We've long been aware that in U.S. elections the candidate who spends the most on advertising is the most likely to win. Did you know that there were 12 third party candidates in the 2008 presidential election? The numbers tell the story.


Stargraves said...

Magnificent! The Leningrad Cowboys have been one of my fave bands for decades. Their Zombies Paradise album is in my top 10 satire list of all time. Their goldfinger cover is mindblowing. I highly recommend their live DVDs too. Great band to highlight on this hallowed blog. Thankyou very many!

Shelby Cobras said...

Wecome back, Seth! Killed it on this one.

The Goodkind said...

Thanks, for a second there I thought I had cleared the room. Maybe it was all the footnotes. From a weird movie my dad brought home twenty years ago to IllCon, I'm glad I had the chance to illuminate this one.

Stargraves said...

Their thrash metal joke covers of 80's tunes are better than many actual thrash bands.

They do a superb my sharona on that album too - utterly stomping. The paedophlile anthem par excellence.