Bit of a loose collection of bits and bobs this week. I’ve been both sick and very busy.
Firstly, I was recently a guest on the excellent They Must Be Destroyed On Sight! movie podcast, chatting with hosts Lee Russell and Daniel Harper (who is also, as you all must surely know by now, the co-host of the Oi! Spaceman Doctor Who podcast, and an online mate of mine). Check out my episode here (and check out TMBDOS’s other episodes because they’re worth it). In my ep, we chatted about the 1983 Coen Brothers debut Blood Simple (thus making the podcast kindasorta another bit of Eruditorum Press’s now recurring but irregular ‘Minnesota’ series… even though Blood Simple takes place in Texas) and the 1986 David Lynch masterpiece/freakshow Blue Velvet.
Blue Velvet is 30 years old this year, and a restored print is currently enjoying a limited theatrical re-release. It’s almost as worrying, baffling, and brain-frying as it ever was, though obviously it now exists in the context of three decades of subsequent American cinema at least partly shaped by its impact.
On that subject…
Blue Velvet (Just Some Stray Thoughts I Wish I’d Been Able to Develop in the Abovementioned Podcast)
One line of criticism praises the film as an expose of the dark, secret heart of American life. Lynch opens the film with white picket fences and other evocations of suburban American dreaminess. Eventually, of course, we are drawn into much darker and deeper waters. Another line of criticism critiques the film for keeping the dark world and the light world so separate. There are areas of interpenetration, but generally all the evil happens in the seedy, slummy, dark places where disreputable, sleazy, criminal people live. The nice people from the nice neighbourhood nearby might be fascinated by the darkness, but it is fundamentally alien to them. They go to it; it comes to them… but the darkness is not of them, or of their world.
And it’s true, Blue Velvet is not about the hidden horrors of a small town per se. But nor is it quite true to say that the horrors are entirely alien to the middle class and suburban people who discover them. First and foremost, the ‘nice’ characters are irresistibly drawn to the ‘nasty people’. Secondly, they dabble in the same vices… just in their own prettied-up, gentrified, morally-secure, arguably hypocritical ways. Thirdly, they seem less alive than the people in the nasty side of town. Fourthly, they derive their fullest and deepest senses of self from their interactions with the darkness, and the darkness suffers at their hands… though Dorothy ends up better off for her contact with Jeffrey… but then that’s part of the exaggeratedly happy, almost sarcastic, Sirk-esque happy ending.
There is a deeply-rooted ambiguity, much as there is in a film from which Blue Velvet obviously draws, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. (Shadow of a Doubt, by the way, features Agent Jack Graham, coming to Cutesville, USA and loving it, much like Special Agent Dale Cooper coming to Twin Peaks.) In Shadow of a Doubt, ‘Uncle Charlie’ visits his sister and her family in about the sweetest little burby burg in America. Trouble is, he also happens [SPOILERS… for a film that must be getting on for 70 years old] to be a serial killer, who strangles old ladies to get his hands on their money… and also because he really, really hates women. He’s a Man Going His Own Way and, like all such men, he’s obsessed with women, and with how much he hates them. His niece – also ‘Charlie’ – starts to suspect him, and all sorts of tense goings-on ensue, spiced up with all sorts of incestuous and Freudian implications. The story is ostensibly about a nice version of American life invaded by an external evil… and yet ‘Uncle Charlie’ really is family. He is of the bright, cute, picket-fenced world. He left it and came back, but he still grew there. His personality was formed by the same social millieu that formed his daffy, conventional, sweet-natured, domestic wife of a sister. There’s nothing quite like that in Blue Velvet, but there is something in Shadow of a Doubt that is directly mirrored in Blue Velvet. At one point, Charlie and Uncle Charlie end up in a subterranean dive in the icky part of town, and Charlie is recognised by one of the waitresses – they’re the same age, presumably went to the same school, but one ended up underground while the other stayed up in the light. There’s an uncomfortable moralistic edge to the way the aitress is portrayed as dopey, mopey, eyes unfocused, voice drawling, whole personality steeped in lassitude… yet there’s a sense that Charlie’s perkiness is almost in inverse proportion to the waitress’s depression. The falling of one is the rising of the other. There’s a sense that the underground world has to be there, so as to swallow up all the people spat out by the world above. There’s a similar sense in Blue Velvet of the symbiosis of the two worlds. If Frank Booth and his cronies are the bugs in the undergrowth of the sunlit suburbs, then they have to be there so that the robins – the birds that Sandy prophecies will bring love back to the world – can feed on them. There is something going on in Blue Velvet that is far more uncanny than any idea of a ‘dark underbelly’. Dark underbellies are just hidden places that happen to be there. Unfortunate juxtapositions. The classic liberal complaint. Isn’t it a shame that things happen to be this way. Jeffrey himself gives voice to it in the film with his milquetoast whine of “why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?” Blue Velvet implies that the two worlds are actually flipsides of one coin, unified in their separateness, and inextricable…. though the people in each are usually unaware of it, like the people walking on opposed dimensional planes in Escher pictures. But as with those planes, you have to have one in order to have the other, even if they contradict each other. Civilisation entails barbarism, comfort entails misery, peachy keennes entails exploitation and squalor and vice, and vice versa. That’s actually a far more radical notion than any idea of mere hypocrisy. Maybe even more realistic in some fundamental ways. I don’t doubt that the pretty suburbs contain their share of dark secrets. That Mr Respectable of Acascia Avenue is beating his wife or downloading kiddie porn in secret. But in the real world it is all too often true that the dark places which the light places depend upon are heavily segregated, even if they’re right down the street.
I’m often asked why i don’t write about more serious issues. One answer is that I’m lazy. Another is that there are already lots of clever, informed people out there doing it better than I could.
The biggest news story of the moment (not that you’d really know it from watching or reading most of ‘the News’) is, of course, the Panama Papers. For the bemused, here are two very good articles. Here’s something a bit deeper from the ever-reliable The Intercept.
Salvage Issue 3 is nearly here, and here’s an extract from the forthcoming issue, on the subject of some elections that are apparently happening in a place called ‘America’.
On that subject, here’s Richard Seymour’s latest Media Alert, this time on Bernie Sanders.
The latest video from Anita Sarkeesian and Feminist Frequency is one of their best, including a reasonable intro to the concept of the ‘male gaze’ and some of its wider implications. Of course, Anita will still get comments like “LIAR!!!!! HOW CAN YOU BE SURE IT’S ALWAYS A MALE GAZING AT THE SCREEN???!? OMG FEMINISM IS SO STUPID!” but with more uses of the c-word.
Monthly Review has a good article about the rightward slide of the BBC – here.
Paul Mason was recently very, very silly about Trident. Here’s Lindsey German at Stop The War explaining why he was silly.
Here’s Teju Cole on Facebook on Charlie Hebdo’s recent dropping of the mask.
So, we just had April Fools Day. I don’t do April Fools Day. I don’t judge those who do. But I don’t. I think there’s something inherently cruel about the idea of tricking people and making them look and feel stupid. Of course, a lot of people do act kinda stupid a lot of the time… including me… but my question is: do we really need to go around deliberately showing them (us) up and publicly shaming them (us)? I don’t want to come over all Jon Ronson here… for a start I have no idea if he enjoys bukake… and secondly, I think his book about public shaming was pretty rubbish to be honest (a shame, coming from someone who has done good work in the past)… but I do wonder about the point of exploiting ordinary, normal, everyday human frailties like gullibility, bias, laziness about fact-checking, etc, which we all have to some degree, and then holding up someone’s lapses into such things for all to see while jeering like a circle of school children in pitchforks-and-flaming-torches-and-cameraphones mode, or like the old cast of Top Gear. Then there’s the other version of making a fool of someone, the somewhat more private but in many ways nastier version. The secret private trick that is just for your, the trickster’s, enjoyment. I won’t go into details, but this April Fools Day just gone, someone I know was sent an email offering condolences on the death in a car accident of someone very dear to them. The recipient was sceptical, but even so was worried and upset until they checked and made certain it wasn’t true. That strikes me as just plain nasty. Sadistic. The trickster has now been totally cut off by the trickee, and I don’t blame the trickee one bit.
But it did get me thinking about a few things. Firstly, my own online mistakes. First and foremost, I remember making Transphobic jokes at the expense of a member of a writers forum I used to be a member of. Nothing especially nasty, as I recall, but certainly ignorant, unwarranted, bigoted, sarcastic, and belittling. This was (terrifyingly) about fifteen years ago, and way before I knew any better (not that that’s an excuse), but I still think about it sometimes and shudder with shame and self-loathing. Then there was a far more recent incident (about three years ago, I think) when I suddenly, for reasons still obscure to me, took it into my head to screenshot something an online friend of mine said in a private forum and repost it to Facebook, complete with my insulting comments. Horrible, horrible behaviour. Cyberbullying. I was almost immediately called on it, and almost immediately deleted the post. I have apologised to the person I victimised and my apology has been graciously accepted, but still I occasionally remember it… and my skin crawls. I’ve tried to turn these things into motivations to do better, be nicer, think more carefully, etc. After the grovelling apology, that’s all you can do.
The other thing April Fools Day has made me think about is Donald Trump. Well, a bit more broadly, about political fools. I don’t just mean ‘people in politics who are foolish’. That’s a somewhat broad category. Broad in the same way that Valles Marineris on Mars is broad. No, I’m talking about people whose political persona is that of The Fool.
Remember that in King Lear, Lear’s Fool rails at his master for giving away all his power. The Fool is allowed to insult the king, to explain his own folly to him. The Fool’s job is to, if you’ll pardon the cliche, ‘speak truth to power’… but the king is no longer powerful. The Fool no longer has a potentate to satirize. Now he just has a helpless old man to rail at. The new rulers of his world won’t listen to him. He and the old man share a similar, hapless fate in a world gone mad. In some ways, Lear’s daughter Cordelia – the only one of the three who stands up to him – has already usurped the office of the Fool (fitting, since the same actor probably played both characters in Shakespeare’s company). Meanwhile, the other daughters have no one to keep them in check.
There was a not-entirely-bad article on Salon recently about Trump recently. Partly it complains about Trump controlling “the news cycle”, which is ironic given the avalanches of gubbins Salon publish about Trump. But it takes seriously the question of Trump’s clowning. The writer, Andrew O’Hehir, says:
We keep being told that Trump’s evident viciousness and venality, and his lack of anything resembling a coherent ideology or a policy agenda, will eventually bite him in the ass. We’re still waiting, while the asses of others continue to get bitten. It’s now become routine to say that those things are his strengths, because the people who vote for him are angry and ignorant, but it goes deeper than that. I called him a clown in the opening paragraph, and I think it’s a powerful metaphor. Trump seems only intermittently aware that he himself is ridiculous, which is one of the reasons he’s so dangerous. But he is keenly aware of his ability to make others look ridiculous, which is precisely the social role of the clown.
Remember that bit of Brewster’s Millions where Richard Pryor launches a ‘None of the Above’ campaign and nearly wins the election as a result? I’m not drawing direct parallels but I think there’s something there. You see it a lot on the populist Right. Trump. Glen Beck. Alex Jones. Ann Coulter. Sarah Palin. Berlusconi. In Britain there’s Boris Johnson, the floppy-haired dildo of a bumbling public school class warrior, who gets away with murder because he handles the murder weapons like a naughty schoolboy with a bag of gobstoppers raided from the tuck shop. And then there’s former MP and World’s Finest Living Auto-Satirist Louise Mensch. (You might wonder how I square such snark with my intention to be nicer… well, the people I’m snarking about now are powerful and, as Stavvers memorably observed, you can’t shit up a pyramid.) It’s moot how deliberately these people play the fool (some of them just are idiots), but the antic dispositions of all of them are also a vital part of their appeal (to the extent that any of them have any). The clowning is said to make them ‘relatable’ to ordinary people, and it’s certainly true that a great many ordinary people do get heartily and understandably sick of the utter phoniness of so much performed political rectitude, professionalism and slickness. It reeks of insincerity and deception, and of mediocrity and passionless devotion to Things As They Are. You hear it again and again that people enjoy Trump because he ‘says what he thinks’. The apparently unguarded spontaneity and forthrightness is appealing, and the mechanisation of politics has only itself to blame for this. (Of course, it also appeals to those who imagine that their frozen peaches have been taken away by the PC-Nazis.)
More broadly, these clownish Righties can look like anti-establishment radicals to people who are fed lots of form by the media but very little content. Trump certainly likes to present himself as a challenge to ‘the Establishment’, as have generations of populist Rightists. There are all sorts of technical problems with calling Trump a ‘fascist’, but it’s certainly true that populist courting of the discontent of the masses with ‘the establishment’ is an essential and perennial part of the fascist strategy, and of the Right-wing strategy generally. It’s the essence of such appeals that they combine a brutal defence of existing structures of hierarchy with a radical-sounding critique of them. Trump seems to have stumbled upon a formula that serves him well with the seething masses of the relatively privileged who nevertheless see their security and their standards of living being chipped away. It is one of the great achievements of the modern Right that they have managed to push the idea of the ‘elites’ as ‘liberal’.
I have next-to-nothing to say about Batman V Superman. It was bad, certainly. But if you think it’s especially or unusually bad then you’re fooling yourself. Best thing in the movie was Gal Gadot’s face during the big fight. Wonder Woman was getting off on that rumble.