Sunday, 23 September 2018

Moral Bankruptcy and Fast Footwork: Gaspar Noe's Climax (2018)

On Friday, along with a handful of other people, I piled into my local art cinema to watch Gaspar Noé’s new, darkly absorbing club-related movie, Climax. The plot revolves around a talented, multi-cultural group of dancers who rehearse in an abandoned French school, only to find their after-party turning sour because someone has put LSD in their punch bowl.

What follows is an impressionistic descent into human misery, marginally less jarring than Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017), and less venally depraved than Darko Simić’s notorious A Serbian Film (2010). The grim and grubby panorama that Noe paints, however, has moments which are, at times, equally as shocking and cruel.

To understand such recent descent films, I think we have to look not to cinema, but to society in an era of neoliberal capitalism: a time where the rise and rise of ubiquitous internet, reality television, vacuous talent shows, and always-on entertainment is counterbalanced by an accelerating free fall - one reflected in a crisis economy, disenfranchised citizenry, desperate daily life, failed democracy, managerial politics, dismal predictions of collective suicide, and glimpses of emerging nightmare fascism.

After some last ditch, closing credits, Noé’s film starts (!) with interview footage from the dancer’s auditions, shown on a normal TV set, surrounded by prescient books and video cassettes. 

Evoking a strange kind of nostalgia, the interview footage cues us to the present absence of the internet. It is a lovely touch, and reminded me of directors like Michael Haneke. Soon we are led into sexy and spectacular dance scenes, sequences worthy of judgement by Simon Cowell. Everybody, however – the director, cast, and us spectators - goes careering off once the after-party DJ cranks up the music and the group slowly descends into selfishness, cruelty, and various grim subspecies of animosity. As part of this, we also wander off-stage (ob-scene) into a seedy underworld of dim-lit corridors, dilapidated toilets, neglected cupboards, and grubby dorms - places where it seems more natural to unleash the human monstrosity on display.

The controversial director’s work makes few concessions to the mainstream. Part of me was surprized; I was – in the horror fan tradition - expecting people to die in ironic and creative ways. Noé offers that in the plot, but gives little genre-based spectatorial pleasure. Instead, he delivers lingering, absorbing, sensory cinema that slips into an increasingly horrifying whirl of affective moments. Climax touches on many genres – the whodunit, teen film, dance musical, horror flick – yet it answers to none. (I was reminded of the increasing number of academic papers I’ve seen, at all levels, which flatly eschew any critical engagement in favour of pursuing their own elaborate vision. What results is arrogant, audacious, and so much the poorer for it.)

The thing that I found interesting about Climax, however, was how clearly it held me in my seat and tested the sensory boundaries of cinema.

In an age where digital technologies are increasingly attempting to pull us into a fluid, sensory, embodied experience, it seems that cinema can now be understood as a pioneering medium. Students still gravitate towards it perhaps for that reason, as if they know that writing is old hat, an idiom not equipped for the instant immersion of the posthuman era. Yet cinema, even more than TV, remains guardian of the transition.

What Noé deliberately demonstrates is that the cinematic project can only go so far.

The Argentine director regularly chooses immediacy over naturalism. Rather than shot-reverse-shot, for instance, there is a lot of handheld footage. Deprived of cinema’s standard pleasures, I felt I was being overcompensated by deep hues and subtle sound design. The result was engaging: to some extent, I was enveloped into Noe’s nightmare world, and couldn’t escape. Deliberately, though, he refrains from showing inside character’s heads, or if he does, he refuses to announce it by departing from a kind of other focused, dark club realism. As I followed characters into the outer-recesses of the school, I witnessed their suffering, both internally (as the drugs intoxicate them) and externally (as shared madness possesses each)…

I couldn’t help feeling, though, that Noé’s Sartre-eque message (this is a contemporary ‘No Exit,’ after all) starts wearing thin underneath some of his more artful gimmicks.

Gaspar Noé’s club kids are drifters, postcolonial hipsters who have realized that they can achieve something through all the tools offered to them by contemporary youth culture. They’ve got attitude, they’ve got style. They act cool, they dress cool, they dance amazingly well, and they embrace sexual freedom and hedonism with a kind of weary duty. In other words, they both do all that is required, and have an attitude that is also required: a slacker’s distance from it.

From their starting point of being socially marginalized (by youth, by class, by racism, by nationalism, by sexism, by heteronormativity) they have deployed youth culture, and used their illusion to “buy in.” Yet the bargain has failed. The other side has betrayed them. Since their worlds have already been so diminished, Noé implies, their vengeance comes more easily. The LSD in the sangria bowl, in that sense, is a mere nudge rather than a full-on onslaught: beneath the veneer, these are people already simmering with hatred and fear. It is already expressed in the nihilism of their dissociated, party-hard attitude.

In a postcolonial, online era, dancing is “what they’ve got,” but it is also a way to conform to the faux individualism of the X Factor / YouTube world, a place where making a spectacle of oneself is entrepreneurial work for thousands of youngsters: techno-colonized subjects who soon become burned out by high competition, diminishing returns, and the urgent necessity to perform their funky individualism.

Behind the beat-up sofas, the peeling wall paper, and the tressle tables of party treats, lie strewn the nubile, tattooed crumpled, bodies of vloggers, sound cloud rappers, street kids, and ghosts.

“Hey guys, what’s up?... Make sure to leave a comment below this video, and follow us on social media.”

When the line breaks down between work and entertainment, what else can you do except dance the night away?

As the sangria starts to kick in, and you begin to realize the extent of your style drudge work, all your free labour… the conformity and exploitation beneath that mirror ball of flashy, hip, guerilla consumerism…

Is it too late? Is there any possible escape from hedonistic diversion, from infantile thinking, sexual selfishness, mental cruelty, and unjustified violence?

From the enveloping, social media echo chamber?

From hell?

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Developments in Elvis Fan Culture: An Interview with Nigel Patterson (part 3)

Nigel Patterson works for the Australian government and has been a dedicated Elvis fan since 1969. 

His participation in organized fan club activity in the Australian Capital Territory from the mid-1980s onwards led him to start the Elvis Information Network in 1999. It rapidly became a prominent and respected Elvis site. EIN recently reviewed my book Counting Down Elvis, so I took the opportunity to interview Nigel, hoping he might provide a fully-fledged ‘insider’ account of Elvis fan culture. He is living proof, however, of the idea that academia and Elvis fandom are somehow fully separated is a myth: Nigel once ran an academic course called ‘New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema’ at Canberra College. He has also kept up with academic writing on the Presley phenomenon.

This is the third and final part of a three part interview. Click for part one and part two...

You may be unusual as a fan for taking an active interest in the few academic debates around Elvis. The government asks us to justify our research on the basis of behavioural change in the real world. Is there anything you have read in my work that has caused you to change what you do at EIN?

That is an interesting question and not one I’ve previously considered.

I think the value of academic commentary such as yours is that it provides us with a better understanding of the dynamics surrounding acceptance/non- acceptance of Elvis and how ‘connection to Elvis and other fans’ operates on a subliminal level. In this sense it necessarily informs at least some of our articles and commentary.

For example, in your book, Understanding Fandom, you address the issue of whether Elvis fandom was or is religious practice and enlighten the reader to the relevance of Emile Durkheim’s study of the social ecology of Australian clans engaged in totemic religion; the function of the division between the secular and the sacred in society; and as mentioned earlier Durkheim’s concept of ‘effervescence,’ where crowd members (read ‘Elvis fans at Graceland’) experience is so strong that they subconsciously recognise their shared connection.

Also, your work is appreciated by many people as it dispels the notion that ‘fans’ are an overly obsessed group when in fact there is only a small proportion of fans who are obsessive, and in the context of changes in media technology and production, fandom has become a central mode of consumption for people with a shared interest or passion.

In your view, what aspects of the Elvis phenomenon has existing scholarship underplayed or missed out on?

What an interesting question. The only issues that spring to mind are Elvis as an agent of social transformation and the power of Elvis fans to come together to aid those in need, are often not given adequate recognition.

In the case of Elvis’ socio-cultural impact, a number of academics have argued the case but generally it seems to be an understated and under-appreciated issue by many academics and music journalists, although this is slowly changing. In my opinion, it contrasts starkly with academic and music journalism discourse around the Beatles and the social change they ushered in.

Academia has published (and I suspect will continue to publish) many thought provoking volumes which educate, challenge and position the Elvis story in an objective, rather than subjective, framework involving rigorous and analytical consideration. 

Your books on fandom - as well titles such as Elvis Culture (Doss); Images of Elvis Presley in American Culture (Plasketes); Elvis AfterElvis The Posthumous Career of A Living Legend (Rodman); Graceland: Going Home with Elvis (Marling); InSearch of Elvis (Chadwick); Dead Elvis (Marcus); and A Sociological Portrait (Leasman) - offer a broad variety of aspects to and perspectives on how Elvis is perceived and should be viewed in the context of academic analysis.

Regarding the second issue, Elvis fans (through fan clubs) have a rich history in raising money for charities and other worthwhile causes. It would be interesting to compare these efforts in relation to similar undertakings by fans of other celebrities. The findings also may be instructive in informing the issue of a shared morality or charter among Elvis fans.

You are a very avid Elvis reader. Can you tell me about that – do you see that as part of or a separate thing to your music fandom? How do they work together? By what criteria do you judge outstanding additions to the Elvis library?

I have always been a reader – in my youth I devoured adventure and science fiction novels such as Robinson Crusoe, Black Beauty, Tom Sawyer, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. By my late primary school and early teen years, when I was expected to read often dense and slow moving books for high school – think Bleak House by Dickens, my tastes diversified and reading pulp fiction and film/television related books became a favourite pastime. I read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, found pleasure in many of Whitman Publishing’s television related releases such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Circus Boy, Lassie, Spin and Marty and even its series of books targeted at girls, particularly the Donna Parker and Annette series, the latter of Mickey Mouse Club fame and who I had a big crush on as an eight year old. The Whitman books had a generally formulaic but engaging narrative style that appealed to both sexes.

Those genres were a welcome relief from the more complex and less adventurous books dominating school curriculum. I was more interested in exciting adventures that took me away to exotic places far from the humdrum of school lessons.

In relation to my Elvis reading I have quite eclectic musical and literary tastes so I can often find pleasure or things of value in publications others may find not as interesting. I don’t get to read as often as I would like these days. Work is often busy, I am employed in a policy area with the Australian Government, and other interests have increasingly encroached on my time for ‘things Elvis.’ I have many Elvis books I’ve only skimmed though and I expect when I retire I will have time to properly explore them.

When I read an Elvis book I am usually interested in either refreshing my knowledge and understanding of the Elvis story or otherwise looking for something new or something that has historical significance.

I have been an advocate for books written by Darrin Lee Memmer. Some have taken exception to this claiming Memmer’s books are biased and challenged his often controversial conclusions. Personally, I find the books stimulating and a much needed counterpoint to the somewhat tiresome ‘generally accepted’ stories published in most new Elvis books.

I don’t agree with everything Memmer has written or concluded, but I do appreciate his research and often fresh perspective on his subject matter. In particular, some of his most recent books have added significant historical records of ‘things Elvis’ through word-for-word interview transcripts and in relation to the death of Elvis, the author accessed official documents archived in the University of Memphis. These records included fascinating material from the Jerry Hopkins archive and the actual police, medical examiner and hospital reports from August 1977 and transcripts of the official interviews with the paramedics and doctors.

But getting back to a core of your question, to me the intertwining of my appreciation of Elvis’ music and deep interest in books written about him is a complementary thing, although I have to admit I listen to much less Elvis music after nearly 50 years as a fan compared to the number of Elvis related books I regularly read.

What do you think Elvis’s interests in reading and/or film viewing said about him as a person?

By all accounts (and his personal library) Elvis had a voracious appetite for reading. While Elvis may not have been well educated in the formal sense, he was certainly well read and knowledgeable on many subjects. In a sense Elvis was, like many others, ‘self-educated,’ had an inquiring mind, and could converse on a wide range of subjects.

In his younger days he was an avid reader of comics, his favourite being Captain Marvel Jr (with his cape!) and western novels. In his adult years his personal library was an eclectic collection comprising books on American and British politics, history, war, guns, and a range of sports including martial arts. As most fans know, he also had a substantial collection of spiritual/religious and metaphysical books. 

One of Elvis’ favourite books was The Impersonal Life  - he was so taken with this book he bought bulk copies and gave them away to his family, friends and other people he met.

He certainly wasn’t “tsundoku” as the Japanese would say - acquiring reading materials, but letting them pile up without looking at them.

Given the breadth of Elvis’ interests and reading I think it is fair to say that he was a person interested in the world and interested in bettering himself as a human being.

What widely accepted stories about Elvis do you think are false?

The first story is the recurring theme that ‘Elvis was racist.’ The theme largely arises for two reasons: the view that Elvis ‘stole’ or ‘appropriated’ Black American (race) music without properly repaying his dues to that community. The second reason is the long discredited article in Sepia magazine that claimed Elvis said “the only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.” The theme has recently resurfaced due to Eugene Jarecki’s documentary film, The King, which compares the current state of America to Elvis’ demise and is currently screening in American cinemas.

Two articles (here and here) provide a reasonable overview and debunking of the issue.

A second theme is that Elvis was not well educated. This issue regularly appears in online commentaries, on TV, and in scholarly articles. While the claim may be true in a formal academic sense, as discussed in my previous answer, when we consider how ‘well read’ Elvis was, and the breadth of knowledge he had on a wide variety of topics from politics to history and spirituality, it is untrue. Elvis became self-taught and could hold intelligent conversations on many different subjects. In any case, the theme is, by nature, value laden.

The third theme is that Elvis didn’t die on August 16, 1977 and faked his own death. I briefly touched on this in an earlier question. That a national survey in the US in the 1980s identified that more than half of the American population thought Elvis was still alive may surprise some people, but reflects the strength of the idea in its heyday. The theory once sold millions of books, generated more than a dozen different newsletters, many online discussion groups and countless mass media articles.

Today, there are only a handful of websites still promoting the theory and there is at least one Facebook page, but otherwise it seems most people have now accepted Elvis did die in 1977. For those who still believe Elvis didn’t die in 1977, I recommend they read True Disbelievers: The Elvis Contagion by Professors R. Serge Denisoff and George Plasketes.

Do you think the people closest to Elvis have been straight with fans about what he was like? To what extent do you think people like Joe Esposito have slanted or even made up stories? How can we discern what’s true out there?

First, let me say the Elvis world has always been full of fanciful stories.

I do understand the motivation for those who were close to Elvis to write books. There is a high level of demand for these releases, albeit on a lesser scale than around 1987, which seems to have been the peak for Elvis-related book sales. And people have to make a living. Several of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia only knew working for Elvis and found it very hard after he died. Only a few, for instance Joe Esposito and Jerry Schilling, had a career they could move to after Elvis’ death.

I have had the great pleasure of meeting and/or interviewing many of Elvis’ inner circle, including Vester Presley, David Stanley, Joe Esposito, Jerry Schilling, Charlie Hodge, Lamar Fike, Marty Lacker, George Klein and Dr Nick. They were all great people to talk to, and usually they presented a very positive view of Elvis. That is often quite a natural thing to do in relation to people we are, or have been particularly close to.

Undoubtedly, a few people were very adept at changing the subject if they were asked a difficult question. Others were/are very adept at repeating the corporate line strategically promoted by Elvis Presley Enterprises.

Have any of those close to Elvis made up stories? Pragmatically, one would expect some would have, as we all know people who do make up or embellish stories. In fact, surely we are all guilty of this at times.

In the case of Elvis the situation is muddied by the fact the media will pay for interviews that ‘sell,’ ie. they need a juicy piece of information to attract readers or viewers. This can be attractive to those who may be struggling financially.

Separating truth from embellishment can be difficult. Consider for example the different accounts of the same incident(s) in Elvis’ life, as recalled by Billy Smith, Marty Lacker and Lamar Fike in Alanna Nash’s great book, Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia.

In a world that is ever increasing in complexity and shades of grey, it is wise to consider the possibility of falseness and critically assess claims by asking questions and reading/researching widely in order to improve one’s chance of finding the truth.

Priscilla Presley and Jerry Schilling now seem to be some of the chief curators of Elvis’s image. What did you think of their HBO documentary, Elvis Presley: The Searcher, in terms of the way it portrayed its subject?

Generally, Elvis Presley: The Searcher was an excellent two-part documentary which examined the Elvis Presley story with an emphasis on his musical influences and music.  

It was somewhat let down by the involvement of Priscilla Presley and Jerry Schilling as Executive Producers as it meant the viewer received a sanitized version of Elvis’ life. For instance, his declining health and over-dependence on drugs in his final years was glossed over. I understand the motivation from a marketing perspective, but from a historical perspective it is disappointing that a full and proper account of the Elvis Presley story was not expressed. In my opinion the documentary was a rare opportunity sorely missed.

I have a few Elvis mysteries you might be able to help with… To your knowledge: Did Elvis play on Roy Orbison’s Odessa, Texas, TV show in the 1950s? Did William Faulkner really write to him?

That Elvis appeared on the Roy Orbison Television Show is one of those myths that periodically crop up in the Elvis world, in blogs and on fan forums. I am sorry to have to disappoint, but the story is just a myth. EIN published a detailed article on the issue by noted Elvis researcher, Shane Brown, which can be found here.

The William Faulkner issue is interesting, and one I can’t answer. That Faulkner came from a privileged, well-educated upper class background while Elvis came from one which was working class suggests there should have been a wide chasm between them in socially conservative 1950s’ America. However, when Elvis broke nationally in the US, Faulkner, nearing 60, may have observed a shared sense of rebelliousness with Elvis. While I personally don’t think Faulkner would have written to Elvis, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility, and like the claimed telephone conversations between Elvis and opera icon, Mario Lanza, it makes for a very good story which is yet to be substantiated by ‘hard evidence.’

On the subject of Elvis and Faulkner, Professor Joel Williamson in his excellent and controversial biographic study, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford University Press, 2015) noted that Elvis and Faulkner were born within seventy-five miles of each other in north-eastern Mississippi. He posited that perhaps Sam Phillips and William Faulkner who both spent time in the Gartley-Ramsey Hospital and who both “struggled with racial and class orthodoxies in their native South, sat in rocking chairs on the broad front porch of the Gartley-Ramsey [Hospital], watching Elvis Presley, the shambling teenager, making his less-than-eager way down Jackson from his home in the courts to Humes High.”

I find Williamson’s thought to be an interesting one.

What Elvis mysteries do you think are left to solve?

One could proffer the view that what mysteries about Elvis are left to be solved might better be left unsolved. Once the mystery is gone interest wanes.

Issues that spring to mind are Elvis as an agent of cultural change/social transformation and the power of Elvis fans to come together to aid those in need. These important issues are often not given adequate recognition. I discussed them earlier in our interview and it is interesting that was in the context of issues existing scholarship/academia has underplayed. One could posit that there is a correlation between them remaining unsolved and that academia has underplayed them.

Thanks, Nigel, for a fascinating interview.

Developments in Elvis Fan Culture: An Interview with Nigel Patterson (part 2)

Nigel Patterson works for the Australian government and has been a dedicated Elvis fan since 1969. 

His participation in organized fan club activity in the Australian Capital Territory from the mid-1980s onwards led him to start the Elvis Information Network in 1999. It rapidly became a prominent and respected Elvis site. EIN recently reviewed my book Counting Down Elvis, so I took the opportunity to interview Nigel, hoping he might provide a fully-fledged ‘insider’ account of Elvis fan culture. He is living proof, however, of the idea that academia and Elvis fandom are somehow fully separated is a myth: Nigel once ran an academic course called ‘New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema’ at Canberra College. He has also kept up with academic writing on the Presley phenomenon.

This is the second part of a three part interview. Click for part one and part three...

Elvis fans form a living culture around a dead celebrity. Does that ever seem like a contradiction?

To some it will (laughs). However, throughout history people have worshipped their idols, both religious and profane. It appears to be a natural human reaction or need in at least some of us. It is interesting that in the expansive body of research and literature around Elvis as a religious symbol, consideration of the phenomenon as contradiction is largely, if not completely, missing.

An interesting aspect of the living culture around Elvis is its potency and longevity relative to interest in other dead celebrities. The Elvis experience resonates with greater power and at a higher frequency.

You have taken delight in describing Elvis not just as a person, but also as a social phenomenon. In your view, what does that phenomenon encompass? To put it otherwise, what are the boundaries around the phenomenon?

I am not sure if I’ve taken delight in recording Elvis’ ongoing impact in terms of it being a social and cultural phenomenon rather than a music phenomenon, but I agree I have strongly put this view on many occasions.

The concept of Elvis being essentially a ‘music’ phenomenon does not satisfy me. I have long thought he is clearly a socio-cultural phenomenon. Undoubtedly, his music is the core element which drives fandom around him but his impact goes way beyond his songs.

However, on any given day you will notice a direct or indirect reference to Elvis: from an ETA visiting your area, or the use of his catch-phrases like “Thank you, thank you very much” and “Elvis has left the building” (often amended to someone else, for example in the film Ant-Man, “Ant-Man has left the building”), to another star celebrating Elvis, for example teen idol Justin Bieber’s recent profile photo shoot, where his quiff and high collared shirt mirrored an early shot of Elvis. Another recent example is Miley Cyrus donning her white jumpsuit in a tribute to Elvis.

In the entertainment area, Elvis has been celebrated as the primary or important sub-theme in numerous films.

For example, Finding Graceland; 3000 Miles to Graceland; Elvis and the Colonel; Elvis and the Beauty Queen; Elvis and Me; Eddie Presley; Bye Bye Birdie; Sing Boy Sing; The Idolmaker; Elvis Meets Nixon; Bubba Ho Tep; Evil Elvis Christmas; Elvis’ Grave; Elvis Has Left the Building; Honeymoon In Vegas; Lilo & Stitch; It’s Only Make Believe; The Game Plan; The Woman Who Loved Elvis; Touched By Love; and Heartbreak Hotel.

There are also several Elvis-related projects, apparently either in or about to enter production - including films based on Peter Guralnick’s seminal two volume biography, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, and Alanna Nash’s fascinating book, Elvis and the Colonel.

In the television medium, a multitude of shows have been inspired which were heavily influenced by Elvis, or incorporated an Elvis-related episode. For example, Memphis Beat, Sun Records, Elvis, Miami Vice, Sliders, Alf, WKRP in Cincinnati, Designing Women, Quantum Leap, Johnny Bravo, Sledge Hammer, 7th Heaven, Las Vegas. The list is endless. In addition, variety programs will often feature performers dressed as Elvis (the white jumpsuit has particular resonance).

In the area of literature more books have been written about Elvis than any other 20th century celebrity, with those about his music a minority. Every aspect of Elvis’ life has been written about, from the expected to the unexpected - the latter including releases about Elvis and the John Deere tractor, Elvis as a spiritual guide, Elvis and UFOs, Elvis and the ‘John Crow’ sessions, and arguably the most unusual and intellectually challenging release, Christopher Byrnes Mathews’ three volume set, The Name Code: The God of Elvis. The Name Code, which comprises more than 1,600 pages, is the Elvis world’s Da Vinci Code, a meticulously researched and frustratingly confounding analysis of hidden messages not only Elvis’ full name but also those of American presidents, British prime ministers, names in the Bible, and more.

The ‘Elvis is alive’ conspiracy story occupies a library shelf in its own right, as do comic books, children’s books, art books and cookery books all based on Elvis. There are several hundred novels featuring the Elvis character (often portraying him as a private detective).

In the area of philosophy there are titles such as What Would Elvis Have Said? and What Would Elvis Do?

Pleasingly, the academic section in the Elvis library is also of formidable size, thanks to your work and that of professors Cantor, Doll, Doss, Denisoff, Plasketes, Chadwick, Rodman, and many others.

More than 30 books have been published about the Elvis tribute artist phenomenon, which itself is another symbol of how Elvis has transcended just the music. Certainly, when fans attend an Elvis tribute artist performance, they do so on one level to experience Elvis and his music, but the sheer number of ETAs in existence, which far outnumber the tribute artists for any other celebrity individual or group, suggests another dimension to their role. Consider the number who have their own fan clubs or who are invited to speak at civic functions.

On the subject of ETAs, I always find it interesting that in articles, fan club meetings, on Elvis forums, etc, many people are critical or dismissive. Such fans are singularly focused on what they see as the most important aspect of the Elvis Presley legacy, his music. They seem not to appreciate the ongoing cultural significance of others imitating him.

The widespread use of ‘Elvis’ in a book’s title, even when there is very minimal Elvis Presley content, is instructive of the power of his name in selling books.

Another example of the socio-cultural resonance of Elvis is the vast array of folk art. ‘Elvis on velvet’ is only a sub-genre of a much wider body of work. In Mexico, where they celebrate the Day of the Dead, there is a proliferation of Elvis-related full body skeletons, calaveras and the like. There is even a sixteenth century fresco in the Augustinian chapel at Malinalco, Mexico, which features the grim reaper standing beside a religious figure surprisingly resembling Elvis. Readers can make of this what they will.

The point is that Elvis fandom or worship, whatever people want to call it, has long shifted from being just about his music to a much broader and more complicated mosaic of what Elvis means within society and how that meaning is celebrated. Unlike the experience of fan worship for other celebrities, with one or two exceptions, there is a material case that the psychological and emotional forces at work in relation to many Elvis fans are much more dynamic and deep seated than exists in the case of most fans of other performers.

Do you think Elvis fans have an unwritten charter - a shared, collective ethics or morality – and if so what does it include, or is that an over simplification?

Mark, another excellent question. You are taking me back to my days studying psychology and philosophy at university. The terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ have strong underlying assumptions and discourse around conduct. Your question concerns whether the latent or overt tension between the rules (‘ethics’) of society/group and what a person (individual) considers to be right or wrong (‘morals’) manifest itself positively or negatively in the Elvis context. I suspect opinions will be polarized.

From my perspective, I think you could easily argue there was generally a ‘collective understanding’ or ‘charter’ in the early days of Elvis’ popularity. At that ‘pre-Internet’ time Elvis was the new idol and fans were joined together by their shared reflective enjoyment of his music and career, and life was not as complicated as it is today. I need to qualify my comment about that shared enjoyment: the nature of Elvis fandom meant that it was shared in the context of ‘local’ gatherings of fans rather than in a broader sense, even though the emotional and psychological experience was similar.

Fast forwarding to today, there is another dimension, as fans can share their enjoyment as part of their ‘specific Elvis interest group’ either in person or over the Internet, and for some the experience is as part of the group of fans who make the annual pilgrimage to Graceland for Elvis Week. 

As you draw attention to in your fascinating book, Understanding Fandom, fans congregating together often experience a subconsciously recognized, shared connection, one that Émile Durkheim described as ‘effervescence’ (I hope I have described that correctly).

However, as happens with other things that are new or enjoyed by many, over time there is a maturing and changing of relationships – a function of the group life cycle. In many cases, the self-interest(s) of the individual start to percolate in competition with the group or collective interest(s). The ‘honeymoon period’ wears off and the powerful psychological drivers of ego and need for control surface causing tension between people.

The operation of locally based Elvis fan clubs well illustrates the issue. While people initially work together with a common aim, when the ‘honeymoon period’ ends, not unusually there will be different views on what direction the club should take, resulting in a splintering of interests and often the formation of a competing club in the same area. The “life cycle” is such that clubs can operate in competition with each other until membership numbers dwindle and/or the personalities driving the club retire or move on.

The experience since 1956 around the establishment of centrally run Elvis fan clubs reinforces an aspect of the issue from a different angle.

Attempts to establish a national fan club in America - there was an EPE (Colonel Parker) operated fan club in the mid-1950s – were unsuccessful as a long term proposition. Arguably, trying to get 50 plus State-based fan clubs to work together under one umbrella organization was ‘too big an ask.’

A centrally run (controlled) fan club worked in the UK because the tyranny of distance was not such a factor and Albert Hand had the foresight to establish and nurture fan interest from the beginning. The Hand organization was adept at satisfying fan needs for information, images and regular communion with other like-minded people.

Of course, in 2018 the UK has other very active Elvis fan clubs and organizations besides the Todd Slaughter run British Fan Club, the ‘competition’ largely a result of the ‘global connection’ offered by the Internet.

Timing is also an important consideration. In the late 1990s Sony Australia floated the idea with EIN of a national fan club in order to focus its marketing directly at fans, but it was agreed that the time was long gone for such an arrangement, with the major Aussie fan clubs well entrenched in their regions and fan interest not as potent as it once had been. Instead, a Coalition of Australian Elvis Fan Clubs was formed to provide regular ‘Elvis’ news from Sony to the major Australian fan clubs.

The difficulty in establishing and/or sustaining a centrally coordinated fan club network is hardly surprising. The experience reflects what happens across all areas of shared interest in all societies when ego and politics come to the fore, and fragmentation occurs with breakaway organizations, be they new political parties, sporting codes or competing Elvis related organizations.

While the Internet has allowed fans to ‘bond’ with fans in other countries it has also allowed them to gravitate to those fans with similar interests rather than to ‘generalist’ Elvis organizations, ie. the access to a worldwide community of Elvis fans has facilitated the growth of ‘splinter’ groups focused on a particular area of interest, as I touched on earlier - be it Elvis’ music, his films etc, and, dare I say it, even ETAs. This ‘splintering’ works against a cohesive shared purpose, although not against a commonly shared appreciation of the importance of Elvis.

What debates, in your view, divide Elvis fans the most?
An obvious issue is what is Elvis’ best musical and/or performing period.

Older fans, who grew up when Elvis broke nationally in the US and internationally tend to favour his Sun and early RCA recordings above his 1960s and 1970s output. Younger fans who discovered Elvis in the 1960s or 1970s tend to prefer recordings from those periods. Similarly, the young Elvis in his gold lame outfit, versus the more mature, white jump-suited Elvis period in the 1970s, both have their admirers.

Elvis’ films also elicit considerable debate among fans. Were they all inconsequential celluloid fluff or did some have merit?

Another issue was the ‘Elvis faked his death’ conspiracy theory which was especially prominent within fan circles and the mass media in the late 1980s to early 1990s. You were either a ‘believer’ or you thought it was all a load of nonsense. But, boy, did it sell books and records and generate vigorous debate among fans!

In years, now thankfully long past, academics aimed to preserve ‘objective’ critical distance from fans, while fans dismissed what they saw as an outside, over-intellectualization of ‘their’ subject and/or decried academic elitism. Academia, however, also formed a way to legitimate fan objects… Expanding your interests, you ran a module on Elvis’s feature films at Canberra College called New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema, which morphed into a distance learning course. Tell me about how that was received.

Mark, that was a fun time. The seed for the course was a weekend exploration of Flaming Star by the Australian National University (ANU) Film Group around 1980. Years later I read Professor Susan Doll’s ground breaking book, Understanding Elvis: Southern Roots vs Star Image, which analysed Elvis’ films in the framework of film theory, and it was this release that motivated me to consider Elvis’ much maligned films in a more even and analytical light.

The commonly expressed view that Elvis’ films were all the same, inconsequential and sub-standard, is far from the truth, with there being four distinct periods in his film canon, each with its own set of narrative structure, recurring themes, and political intonations. For instance, saying King Creole, Blue Hawaii and The Trouble with Girls are similar films is erroneous. They may have a few similarities - Elvis is in all of them and there are songs - but there are many important narrative and structural differences between them. Undoubtedly, various Elvis films from 1956 to 1969 have artistic and musical merit.

The course, which was completed over 8 or 12 weekly sessions, was run a number of times at the Canberra College during the 1990s and early noughties before being run solely online for a year or so. Most of the students were Elvis fans. I did have one or two who were students of film wanting to broaden their knowledge base. Sessions used basic film analysis concepts such as narrative structure, themes and texts, camera techniques, editing, and the role of incidental music to analyze how Elvis’ films were constructed, not only to present entertainment but also to influence the viewer. Of course the concepts were transferrable and participants could use them in deconstructing any film or television program.

New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema had the distinction of being the first subject offered by the Canberra College that was run both in class and online. I was asked to present the course again at the College but I felt that it was too narrow a subject to attract much more interest - at the time Canberra had a population of less than 300,000. In total, New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema was conducted six times and was well received. I still receive feedback about it and Elvis’ films today, and there are still calls for it to be offered again. Maybe… if I can find the time.

As far as my role was concerned I’d like to think I was perceived as an ‘aca-fan,’ but pragmatically I fit the ‘scholar-fan’ mould. As with any teacher, I had a knowledge and understanding beyond those who were participating in the course, and I think the students viewed me as such. Many of the concepts we discussed were quite ‘film technical’ and as such foreign to most students, and, in the case where students were familiar with a concept, it was often a ‘lay person’ understanding rather than a technical understanding. I never perceived that my role as an Elvis fan interfered with what I was teaching. I found that course participants were eager to learn and expand their appreciation of ‘Elvis film.’

Click for part three.

Developments in Elvis Fan Culture: An Interview with Nigel Patterson (part 1)

Nigel Patterson works for the Australian government and has been a dedicated Elvis fan since 1969. 

His participation in organized fan club activity in the Australian Capital Territory from the mid-1980s onwards led him to start the Elvis Information Network in 1999. It rapidly became a prominent and respected Elvis site. EIN recently reviewed my book Counting Down Elvis, so I took the opportunity to interview Nigel, hoping he might provide a fully-fledged ‘insider’ account of Elvis fan culture. He is living proof, however, of the idea that academia and Elvis fandom are somehow fully separated is a myth: Nigel once ran an academic course called ‘New Perspectives on Elvis Cinema’ at Canberra College. He has also kept up with academic writing on the Presley phenomenon.

This is the first part of a three part interview. Click for part two and part three... 

You've been a fan since 1969. Tell us more about Elvis fan culture in the 1970s. What was the fan world like back when Elvis was alive?

The Elvis world in the 1970s was very different to how it is today. With the easy communication and immediate availability of information offered by the Internet still decades away, fans had to wait weeks, if not months, for the latest Elvis news from overseas. Discussions around Elvis were generally localized within the myriad of Elvis fan clubs in each country. Clubs were active all around the world, in the US, UK, Australasia, Japan and South America. Many clubs had regular meetings and other activities and as is well known, Elvis fan clubs have always been at raising money for charities and other worthy causes. However, even within countries, the sharing of information between fan clubs was usually minimal and characterized by the odd phone call or snail mail letter. 

As far back as the mid-1950s the Colonel, quite astutely, had initiated contact with Elvis fan clubs in the US, and the large British fan club headed by Albert Hand (and following Albert’s death run by Todd Slaughter). Both Hand and Slaughter cultivated a strong and enduring relationship with the Colonel.

The British fan club model of a well administered central headquarters with branches (local clubs) scattered across the United Kingdom meant British fans were arguably the most informed of any fans in the world. Fans in other countries weren’t as fortunate: the Colonel’s office made contact with their fan clubs on an infrequent basis, and usually in response to an enquiry to Elvis and the Colonel. 

The Colonel’s strategy regarding contact with fan clubs was generally the same throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Strangely, England was the primary driver of fan club activities and distribution of Elvis related information in the 1960s and 1970s.
Apart from their strongly run UK wide fan club, British fans also benefited because Albert Hand operated the Heanor Record Centre which had lucrative publishing and merchandising divisions. Undoubtedly, the publishing arm allowed Hand to capitalize on the public’s interest in Elvis from the outset.

The publishing arm allowed Hand and then Slaughter to cost effectively release a series of different Elvis publications. The British fan club’s slick bi-monthly members magazine is now in its seventh decade of being published while Hand’s most famous publication, the pocket-sized Elvis Monthly (a veritable institution in the Elvis world), was available from local newsagents in the UK, Australia and several other countries for an impressive continuous 483 months (from 1960 to 2000).

By comparison, the Beatles Book (aka Beatles Monthly only managed 321 issues during its two stage run) while Elvis Monthly’s record was eventually broken a few years ago the by Doctor Who (magazine) which is now approaching its 530th issue.

Interestingly, when I spoke to Todd Slaughter about the demise of Elvis Monthly, he told me sales were still strong and it was the distributor’s desire for it to be in a larger format that sounded its death knell. Todd wanted to retain its pocket-size, while the distributor felt a larger size would work better on newsstands; I guess the thinking was it would be less likely to get hidden behind larger sized magazines.

Complementing Elvis Monthly was the British fan club’s popular Elvis Special, a hardcover book (except for its debut edition) that was published annually between 1960/61 and 1984/85. Hand and Slaughter also published a variety of one-off or semi-regular publications over the years including A Century of Elvis, The Elvis Presley Appreciation Society Handbook (several editions), Elvis The Man and His Music, Elvis A-Z and The Elvis They Dig.

The British Fan Club also published a glossy bi-monthly members magazine, occasional information bulletins and was instrumental in promoting Elvis throughout Great Britain and its colonies. It was also active in undertaking several campaigns attempting to bring Elvis to Britain.

Another very popular British based publication was the Worldwide Elvis News Service Weekly run by Rex Martin. Published in the 1970s Rex (who sadly passed away in February 2013) distributed his renowned newsletter to thousands of fans around the world. Its weekly publication (and sometimes semi-weekly when there was a surfeit of news, reviews, articles, etc, on offer) offered an immediacy that the monthly magazines lacked. The Worldwide Elvis News Service Weekly was the precursor to what fans now expect and enjoy thanks to the Internet. As many readers will know, Rex Martin was also a film buff and amassed an incredible collection of footage of Elvis ‘live’ on stage.

Elvis Monthly lacked widespread distribution in the US. Rocky Barra’s Strictly Elvis filled the void, albeit with a different tone and emphasis. First published in 1968, it was not associated with any fan club. Rocky and his network of contributors attended many of Elvis’ “live” performances in Las Vegas and on the road in the 1970s. Rocky himself saw Elvis in concert 68 times! He provided a well-produced magazine full of up-to-date news, reviews and topical articles.

Rocky informed me in one interview that the monthly distribution of Strictly Elvis was between 5,000 and 7,000 copies. He was approached at one point by a large American publisher which wanted to produce the magazine commercially and print 125,000 copies a month. Rocky decided to maintain editorial control of Strictly Elvis and keep it from being overrun by ads, but the offer signifies the high level of interest in Elvis at the time.

The triumvirate of Elvis Monthly, Worldwide Elvis News Service Weekly, and Strictly Elvis were the regular publications that fostered fan culture around Elvis, particularly in the first half of the decade. While fans were geographically separated and often deprived of news, these three major Elvis publications, together with the myriad of local fan club newsletters and activities, provided a sense of shared community. Strictly Elvis ceased publication in 1975, however, and the Elvis Worldwide News Service Weekly lasted only until late 1978.

Albert Hand, Todd Slaughter, Rex Martin and Rocky Barra are thus deservedly recognized as the key drivers of ‘things Elvis’ outside of Colonel Parker during the late 1960s and 1970s.

By the mid to late 1970s a number of organizations began operating in the US, distributing Elvis merchandise and unofficial material, such as bootleg albums. Paul Lichter’s Elvis Unique Record Club and Paul Dowling’s Worldwide Elvis became prominent players. Lichter also started publishing Elvis books with his 1970s releases Elvis: The Boy Who Dared To Rock and Elvis In Hollywood selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

In the 1970s we knew little about what was happening around Elvis in non-English speaking countries. South America was a virtual unknown and while we knew there were flourishing Elvis fan clubs and high quality record releases in Germany and Japan, the tyranny of distance, language and inefficient information channels limited what we knew.

What would you say have been the biggest landmarks in the culture of Elvis fandom over the years since 1977?

There are three events that stand out in my mind.

First, Priscilla Presley’s foresight to open Graceland to the public in 1982. This provided a focus and meeting place for fans to come together. 

It facilitated an annual pilgrimage to Graceland, where for many, they could build and reaffirm friendships and share their memories and feelings about Elvis. In a sense this opened up fans to a broader experience as it was a shift from the more insular world of the local fan club and its particular culture of often ego and politics. Apart from safeguarding the costs of maintaining Graceland and its grounds, the opening of Graceland to the public also allowed Elvis Presley Enterprises to develop plans to build on Elvis’ legacy and enhance the experience for fans worldwide both through attractions at Graceland and an often mouth-watering (if occasionally tasteless) array of merchandise.

The second, and probably most important, event was the Internet. Its arrival ‘connected’ fans globally and provided timely and often more cost-effective access to friendship, news, information, foreign records, CDs, books, and so on. For the first time, fans could ‘share’ Elvis with others on a global stage ‘today rather than tomorrow or next month.’

The third event was Sony’s establishment of the Elvis collector’s label, Follow That Dream (FTD). For Sony it helped combat, but not eradicate, the ongoing release of Elvis bootleg material, not to mention a steady, virtually guaranteed, additional Elvis income stream, albeit on a smaller scale than the profits usually generated by global Elvis releases. For the fans, it offered access to a best quality alternate recording material, soundboard recordings of Elvis’ ‘live’ concerts and eventually high quality and well researched ‘coffee table’ book plus CD releases. All-in-all it helped increase interest in and discussion of Elvis’ music at a higher level than it would otherwise have been.

Was moving online a continuation or a watershed?

That is a very good question. My view is that moving online was a natural shift for Elvis fandom due to technological change. While a natural shift, it was also a watershed moment. As mentioned earlier, with one or two exceptions, historically, Elvis fandom was generally a geographically and communication restricted collection of local fan clubs. The advent of the Internet fundamentally changed this. Elvis fan clubs and Elvis fans now had access to the latest news and discussion without having to leave their homes or wait for the next fan club newsletter to arrive. This ‘new Elvis world order,’ with its introduction of Elvis discussion groups and forums, meant that more fans could become involved in issues, more fans could express themselves globally, and more fans could build friendships outside their local area. An outcome of the Internet was that fan clubs had to adapt to the ‘new Elvis world order’ or see their membership shrink.

Can you give us a brief overview of the scope, operation, history, and audience for the Elvis Information Network?

EIN had its genesis in a Canberra based fan club formed in 1986, the Elvis Presley Appreciation Society of the A.C.T. Before interest started to wane, the Society flourished for around five years as a ‘local’ fan club. In the mid-late 1990s, I renamed the club as the Elvis Information Network and prepared to take it online as the Internet started exploding. 

In 1999, EIN was launched online and we quickly lived up to our middle name (“Information”) with authoritative and widely read news, articles, reviews and interviews on a broad range of ‘all things Elvis,’ including our surprisingly popular Conspiracy, Almost Elvis (ETA) and Odd Spot pages. EIN’s core continues to be first rate, balanced information and reviews on Elvis news, new releases and issues in the Elvis world.

Some of EIN’s highlights include the establishment with Sony Australia of the Coalition of Australian Elvis Fan Clubs in 1999, and coordinating the first Online Symposium of Elvis Aaron Presley, which published papers by academics, fan club officials and fans in 2003. The themes expressed in the symposium were diverse, eclectic and stimulating. Some were also provocative, dealing with issues from Elvis as racial and musical integrator, his role as a social transformer, and the worship of him as a religious figure.

Now in our 20th year online, EIN’s popularity continues to increase. Our ‘hits’ vary in number, between five and seven million each month, with major spikes in January (Elvis’ birthday celebration) and, especially, August (Elvis Week). We have readers in more than 20 countries and, based on the messages that we receive, they range from primary school age to over 90. 

From almost two decades of the Network’s existence online, what have you discovered about Elvis’s fans that you didn’t already know?

That we’re all mad (only joking). I believe that thanks to the Internet the positive, collegiate and caring nature of most Elvis fans has been re-affirmed. Undoubtedly, contact with fans globally has also revealed a wide array of different, intriguing and sometimes baffling interests among Elvis fans – who would have thought (and I don’t mean this in a disparaging way) that there are some fans whose primary focus is on Elvis’ film co-stars, or in collecting Elvis buttons.

On the negative side, mirroring the experience in other of society and culture, the Internet has given rise, very unfortunately, to the baser/primeval inclinations of some fans who, usually under the cloak of anonymity provided by the Internet, engage in denigrating, bullying and trolling other fans they disagree with or, for some reason, dislike.

Of particular note here, is the infamous ‘Elvis underground’ which peaked in the early years of the Internet and was a place where death threats and the like were routinely expressed. It was incredible how posters could proclaim the virtues of the latest Elvis album release in one sentence and in the next spit forth nasty, vindictive vitriol. Thankfully, its once prolific message board network is now only a faint shadow of its former self.

Elsewhere you have made an articulate and critical case for taking Elvis’s feature films more seriously. Do you think that the movies were the best use of Elvis’s time in the 1960s?

I think this is a case of ‘with the benefit of hindsight.’ Arguably, the Colonel should not have tied Elvis to long term movie contracts. Had he not done this would have given Elvis greater flexibility in where his career went. There were a number of reasons for the long term contracts. We know the Colonel was an illegal immigrant to the US and was likely concerned that he may not be allowed to re-enter the country if Elvis toured overseas and the Colonel accompanied him.

My view is that given the Colonel’s contacts with influential people and his role in making Elvis one of America’s most profitable brands, he probably didn’t need to worry.

We also know that the Colonel realised the film medium allowed him to put Elvis in front of a worldwide audience in a timely and logistically effective way. Not surprisingly, Elvis’ ‘three pictures a year’ deal stifled him creatively and this was exacerbated by his inability to develop his acting in serious films. 

In this respect, to a large extent Elvis was trapped by his ‘star image’ (aka typecasting) and a Hollywood marketing machine that had become increasingly sophisticated and profit driven. So, unlike Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra before him - who proved that singers could be very good actors, with both winning an Academy Award for their acting - Elvis was generally constrained by an entertainment culture dominated by ‘star image’ (as were other stars, such as Rock Hudson and Dean Martin).

Crosby and Sinatra were able to move to serious acting roles in an era which had a different modus operandi, and in the case of Sinatra, also because his star was on the wane.

Undoubtedly, for Elvis touring outside the US would have been possible, but likely only sustainable for a number of years. If we are honest, in terms of his career, Elvis was a person who became bored with doing the same thing for any length of time. He needed fresh challenges. It is a great pity very lucrative offers to tour Britain, Australia and Japan were not taken up, not to mention what would have been a spectacular show: the $10 million offer by Saudi billionaires, Adnan and Essam Khashoggi, for Elvis to perform ‘live’ in front of the Giza Pyramid in Egypt. What a stunning backdrop that would have made!

Click here for part two.