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Friday, September 28, 2007

 

Horror and sexual Puritanism

Here's another angle on the pontifications of the last post, in which I basically argued that you traditionally get a virginal 'final girl' in slasher films more because they're introvert-revenge films than because they're sexually Puritanical.

But, again thinking of Hostel, and comparing it with traditionals like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, I wonder if sexual Puritanism was ever quite the answer. Because here's the thing: for my money, of those three movies, Hostel is by far the most Puritanical of the bunch.

Nightmare on Elm Street, for instance, may have an unpleasant end in store for anyone who has noisy sex or makes remarks like 'Morality sucks', and our survivior does repulse the advances of her handsome boyfriend early on with the logic that, as they're keeping a friend company in case of nightmares, they're 'here for [her], not for ourselves', which is pretty self-sacrificing of her, really. It seems clear. But then, think about the lascivious presence of Freddy Kruger himself. While not the tongue-lassoo prankster of the sequels, he remains a twisted, visceral embodiment of lust, gloating and glistening in the shadows, chuckling with lecherous anticipation, getting off on everything he's doing to our poor heroes. Let's not forget that his backstory is that he's a murderous paedophile, a sex pest who won't let go, even if you kill him. He's a nightmare personification, but the nightmare is that of an incubus, not just a monster. In terms of invading your personal space, he's a cross between a demon and an obscene phone caller who just won't stop ringing you.

Similarly in Halloween. Laurie Strode is sexually behind her peers, shy at confessing which boy in school she has a crush on while all her friends are throwing themselves merrily into the sexual maelstrom - but then there's Michael, our masked killer. Considering that we almost never see his face, he's still extremely physical: notably, we hear his heavy breathing as he grapples his victims. Even the way it begins, with a Michael-eye view of his nubile sister, conveys a sense of sexual fascination. He expresses this fascination with his knife rather than with more traditional penetration, but from his voyeuristic stalking to his breathy arousal, Michael clearly is a sexual being.

Both monsters, in their ways, are a good embodiment of the dark sexuality you see in some boys whose sexual development is ahead of their social skills. (Obviously not all introverts are like this, she says, posting the basic disclaimer.) This is the boy who stares at girls who call him creepy, who stands under windows hoping for a glimpse because he can't get up the courage to knock on the door, who desperately wants girls but, unable to approach them, becomes more and more frantic in his frustration, until he either grows out of it or twists into resentful misogyny, lusting to punish the girls he can't have. In this logic, the killing of sexually active girls first isn't Puritanical at all. The punishment is not for breaking the rules of society, it's for being tempting yet unavailable. Your classic stalker-slasher, in fact, doesn't kill the girls he disapproves of: he kills the girls he fancies. Think of the psychologist in Psycho: 'He was touched by her, aroused by her, he wanted her...' - and so out comes the knife. The virgin, the kind of girl a shy boy might actually be able to have a relationship with, survives because she doesn't push him past the point of self-control; her attractiveness is less obvious and thus somehow safer, less threatening. The bikini girls provoke such conflicted emotions that the killer lashes out, but the good girl's prettiness doesn't mock him, so it doesn't catch his murderous eye in the same way. Michael presents his lust as a peeping Tom, quietly edging around hoping for a glimpse, while Freddy is Tourettish in his obscenities, blurting out shamelessly all the lust and greed and hunger for attention a shy boy is forced to hide if he wants to be a gentleman, but both of them clearly want the bodies of their victims.

The camera, following such killers around, is, in short, lustful. It acknowledges the enjoyment of bare flesh, the desire to grab, the connection between desire and anger. There's plenty of sexuality in your traditional slasher; it's just that it's behind the camera.

Not to impute anything to John Carpenter and Wes Craven, who I'm sure are delightful men and good partners, but there's something about the sexuality here that's definitely introverted. It takes an introvert to brood, and that's the atmosphere of those movies.

Naming no names, you all know who you are, it's been my experience that the real perverts tend to be introverted. Doubtless there are exceptions aplenty, but as a rough rule of thumb, I'd say it's a fair guess that extroverts get more variety in the number of partners they sleep with, and introverts in the kind of things they do with the partners they have. Rather than support this with examples, which probably would mean none of my friends would ever speak to me again, I'll confine myself to inviting you to consider the people you know. Isn't it generally the case that, if you want weird fantasies, probably you want to watch the quiet ones?

Which brings us to something very strange in Hostel, best expressed by a simple observation: in the torture chamber, the victims get to keep their underpants on.

When you think about it, that's pretty surprising. I mean, they're being tortured; clearly their comfort and dignity is not top of their hosts' priority list. But even more simply, just in terms of access, if you want to hurt somebody, then surely their genitals would be a prime spot. Why is nobody in the hostel getting castrated? Why, in all the rooms we peek into, is nobody getting raped? This is a capitalist venture: it needs clients. If you only cater to asexual psychopaths, that's a pretty small percentage of the population, especially considering that of that one per cent - or less, as most psychopaths are sexually active in an exploitative sort of way - not all of them would be able to afford your services. A lot of them would be in jail, and lots of others would be making their own arrangements. That's too small a client-base to justify the risks. Just imagine trying to present that to the Dragon's Den investors: 'Well, worst-case scenario, you, we and all our employees go to prison for life. But here's the good news: the market could be as many as seven hundred people!' If, however, you add sexual sadism into the mix, then you massively increase your market. There are far more perverts than pure sadists out there; arousal, for most people, is probably the only emotion strong enough to override empathy that successfully.

So, despite the apparent lustfulness of the first half of the film, which plays itself out in some perfectly nice but fairly unremarkable T and A, once we get down to it, the hostel is a surprisingly chaste place. It's as if we were meeting Harvey Keitel's pimp in Taxi Driver, and instead of saying 'You can do anything with her. You can come on her, fuck her in the mouth ... fuck her in the ass, come on her face, man ... But no rough stuff. All right?', he says, 'You can do whatever you like, man. You can drill their bodies, you can cut out their eyes ... but no dirty business, okay?' You can do anything to your victims except, apparently, take off their undercrackers.

As an ethos, this rather reminds me of a story someone told me, where a university lecturer asked the students what people in ancient Rome used slaves for. Some wags suggested 'making them do work'; people mentioned housework, cooking, heavy lifting ... and eventually the lecturer cut in and said, 'Why is nobody mentioning sex?' Because that was a primary use of slaves. You can do anything to someone? Probably you'll fuck 'em. After all, look at the internet: its biggest use is pornography. Whence this sexless sadism?

I gather that the mutilation has shifted to nubile women in more recent movies such as Hostel 2 and Captivity, so maybe it's only a matter of time, but something does occur to me. If you're looking for a non-introspective audience, you're looking for people who watch horror as a social activity. A typical member of that demographic doesn't go to the movies on his own or sit quietly in front of the TV; he gets together with a group of like-minded friends, and, ideally, watches it in a place where they can all comment on the action. Now, in order to comment to full effect, you need something that you can say, preferably with enthusiasm and energy. Naomi remarked in the last thread that recent slashers felt 'as if they're catering to the audience's bloodlust rather than trying to scare you'; personally I wouldn't say it was exactly a lust to see blood, but more a desire to bond with fellow audience members. Everyone yelling 'Ugh!' at the same time is an audience in harmony.

And, to get that harmony, you need nasty scenes. You don't need your audience to be genuinely, profoundly freaked out - in fact, it's probably better if they're not, as that would distract them from each other - but you do need stuff that's definitely, unquestionably icky. I have the sense that gorno fans want the films to provide what I've seen usefully described as social currency: something that you can exchange in conversations, pass on and swap and use to grease the wheels of social interaction. Gornos feel less like films to see than films to go to, to talk about, to share the experience of having seen. This is particularly bonding as they're transgressive: by the act of liking something that reviewers are all hailing as the End of Civilisation, you and your friends have something very strong that unites you. Watching it is a dance on the edge of the acceptable, and you can all get down together.

But the thing is, when you're dancing on the edge of the acceptable, no one wants to be the first person to fall off. And if you have overly sexual sadism in a film, that's genuinely uncomfortable. Even if I liked beer more than I do, I think I'd have trouble heckling Hellraiser, for instance: its atmosphere is too insidious, too contaminating, and it's one of those movies that ends up making you feel kind of sullied. (I say this as a tribute, not a criticism: it takes a really good film to get under your skin that successfully.) It's a film that, whether you like it or not, implicates you in its disturbing ethos. Similarly, if some guy with a knife is ripping up beautiful young women, then I wonder if, at the back of everyone's mind, is a worrying question: am I enjoying this a little too much? Am I enjoying it more than everyone else? Am I, in fact, the only pervert surrounded by a group of normal people who may be just about to turn around and notice me?

It rather reminds me of something Ali Davis comments in the Porn Clerk Stories:

[Porn Trance] is the odd, timeless zone that people go into when studying the boxes. Lone porn renters go into it immediately and resent being pulled out. Group renters never intend to go into the Porn Trance. They start out laughing together, pointing at the boxes and reading particularly ludicrous copy out loud. They are far too hip to really be interes... and then they see an orifice that really strikes them and one by one they get sucked in and the porn section is quiet again.

That's all very well - but there's always the risk that your friend may turn around and see that the box in your hand is labelled, in effect, 'Gross And Disturbing Tastes In The Really Not Cool Sense Of The Word Three!' When it comes to watching a movie that isn't supposed to be pornographic, you want to stay out of the Porn Trance. Because the standard heckles are not going to be confessional remarks like, 'You know, I find that girl's look of fear strangely titillating.' What you want, basically, is either 'Hey! Naked girl!' - that is, a cry of universally acceptable tastes - or 'Dude, that is the sickest thing ever!' - which is a disavowal, though a happy one, of what's happening on the screen. You want to keep enthusiasm and revulsion separate, so that it's clear which bits you're supposed to like and which bits are supposed to gross you out. You want, in fact, a movie like Hostel, where the naughty nudie bits are comfortably removed from the torture scenes, and the torture scenes are safely insulated from the sexuality.

So when it comes to sexual morality, we may be looking at two strains in films: the secretly transgressive, and the for-public-consumption. Films in the latter category, I'd say, are likely to have a sexuality that's more explicit but less consistent, because if you're mixing pretty bosoms with bloody kitchenware, the least embarrassing thing to watch with your mates is something nicely compartmentalised.

That's my theory, anyway. Anyone got any others?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

 

Extroverted horror

You know what I think? I think we're going through a period of extrovert entryism in horror movies.

Here's the principle. You know the traditional horror movie rules, because everybody does: in order to survive, you have to be the sensitive, well-behaved, virginal one. Anyone who has sex, parties or makes off-colour jokes is shortly going to get a knife in the head. Now, the traditional explanation for this is that horror movies are sexual morality tales, run on the principles of Puritan continence. But actually, there's an explanation that works rather better if you think about film-makers and audiences: traditional horror movies are the introvert's revenge.

Think about it. To an introverted teenager, of the kind that usually survives a slasher flick, the world is a more abrasive place than their peers think. There are dangers their peers don't see, problems their peers don't worry about, limits to the comfort zone that their peers just crash right through. Extroverted kids who are partying, shagging and making a big racket can be annoying, either because they provoke envy, or give you a headache, or genuinely seem to be unaware of dangers that are vitally present to the introvert. So what happens in a horror movie? The extroverts brazenly take risks that the introvert avoids, and in so doing, catapult themselves into the path of danger. The introvert, who knows better than to get reeling drunk when there's a killer around, who's capable of hiding in a cupboard without feeling the compulsion to make a lot of noise, whose social role has always been that of observer and so is simply more experienced at seeing the dangers, the flickers, the hiding places and trapdoors and shadows on the wall, suddenly comes into his or her own. Usually her own, in fact: you can posit various theories about why the killer is traditionally male and the survivor traditionally female, but the simplest, I'd say, is that, assuming a young male viewer, the killer comfortably embodies his anger, while the final girl embodies both the purity of his self-image - it's more acceptable to be virginal and do your homework if you're a girl - while also being the kind of girl that (unlike the girls who get the rapist's knife) he'd actually like to go out with rather than just shag.

In a slasher movie, in short, the introvert is proved right to have worried about all that stuff, and people who blithely insisted on doing it anyway get their throats cut, which finally shuts the bastards up. They are, in fact, the ultimate art form of introvert rage.

Adolescence isn't kind to introverted kids, and the result is that introverts can be, in their quiet sort of way, pretty pissed off about quite a lot of things. Now, think about the people who make films. Your average movie director is probably going to be fairly introverted himself; certainly your average writer is, because you need to be able to work things out in your head in order to make a movie. Art creation is an inturned activity. So, back in the day, slasher movies involved a stalker, often silent and uncommunicative, not to mention masked - an introvert, in fact, who'd finally snapped - or, alternatively, like Freddy Kruger, a grotesque extrovert who gets into the privacy of your dreams, brutally unwilling to let you mind your own business, which is to say, a caricature of how extroverts seem to an introvert in a really bad mood. The stalker goes after a group of kids, and the most introverted one is the one who makes it through. The introverted artist gets to express both their sense of innocence and their fury in the opposed hero and villain, and everybody goes home cathartic.

Except lately it's started to change. Because, while many an introvert likes slasher movies - if you're prey to your own imagination, toughening yourself up by exposing it to the kind of fears that plague you in the night, and calling it entertainment, is a coping mechanism - they started to attract extroverts as well. Extroverts, you see, like mayhem. They like it when things get stirred up. Slasher movies are transgressive and energetic, and they often involve a lot of partying going on at the sidelines, and, best of all, you can watch them with your buddies. You wouldn't exactly get in a keg and shout advice at the screen if you were watching Three Colours: Blue - or at least, you could, you could do anything if you wanted, but it doesn't really lend itself to that experience. The film's contemplative sadness might defeat you, or you might shout it down, in which case you might as well have watched something else in the first place, but either way, you could probably have had a better time. Horror, though? It's all about the jumps, and watching other audience members' reactions is part of the experience. And the axe-wielding killer is the bringer of that experience: in cinematic terms, he's the guy who turns up with the speakers: he brings the music, and everyone else can start dancing. For an extrovert, the slasher is not a punisher who goes around silencing the noisy, but an entertainer keeping things from getting too quiet.

So have you noticed something? These days, it tends to be the extroverted kids who survive horror movies, and the introverts who get killed.

I've just seen Hostel; my boyfriend read me opining on the subject of torture porn and came back from the library with a rented DVD, suggesting kindly that I might like to research said opinions. And I noticed something interesting about it: the character who survives, Paxton by name, is the most extroverted one - but also, by virtue of his unreflecting, live-for-the-moment nature, the one with the least past. Of his two companions, one is a sensitive soul who wants to visit museums and is mourning the end of a relationship; ordinarily you'd expect him to survive, but no, on the slab he goes. The other has less personality, but he does appear to have an ex-wife and a daughter, so presumably there's some past there somewhere. Paxton has no past, or at least, there's a story about seeing someone drown as a child, but it doesn't crop up until after both his pals have had their respective hashes settled. As a result, it's not surprising that Paxton is the survivor because it breaks with genre cliches; it's surprising because he lacks any apparent talents. He doesn't have a cracksman's training, or a tolerance for poisons, or double joints, or an observant disposition, or pyschological skills; nothing is seeded to suggest there's anything distinctive about him. So when it comes to getting himself out of trouble, he has no cards to play. He speaks German, but when he tries talking it to his German torturer, he winds up gagged; other than that, there's nothing we know about him, so there's no way we could expect him to escape.

This puts the movie into rather a fix, plot-wise. Once the trouble starts, our surviving hero's position is handcuffed to a chair bolted to the floor of a secret room, under the supervision of a torture-implement wielding psychopath, with armed guards all through the building, corrupt cops in the area and no train stations around for ten kilometres. It looks pretty bad, doesn't it? If you stuck to the laws of plausibility, you would, with the best will in the world, have to admit that Paxton was pretty much sunk. Perhaps if he had some special skills that we'd seen earlier on, we might expect him to get out - but the problem is, he's just a party animal, and a good head for liquor and an eye for a pretty girl aren't really transferable skills when you're in a dungeon.

The result is that the movie is forced into one of the biggest deus ex machinas I've ever seen. Paxton gets his first lucky break when his torturer slips on blood and accidentally cuts off one of his own legs with a chainsaw. That's a pretty remarkable piece of good fortune, but it doesn't stop there: Paxton then runs into a talkative murderer who decides to throw away his gun so Paxton can conveniently pick it up; Paxton then slips outside and finds a car whose owner has thoughtfully left the keys in the ignition. All of this is a bit unsatisfying, but perhaps it's unfair to blame Roth too severely: given the lack of skills our extroverted hero displays, a fairy-godmother narrative is undoubtedly the easiest way of fixing the problem that the script created for itself.*

(It's also notable that the girl Paxton escapes with, a quiet Japanese sort, kills herself when she realises how mutilated her face is. You'd think once she saw the blowtorch coming at her, she'd have realised she wouldn't look quite like her old self by the end of the day, but that's extrovert logic: introverts are weak and slow you down with their emotionality.)

Perhaps it's an innovative break with tradition to have the guy you'd expect to die first live, but then, some traditions are just there because they make sense. It doesn't make sense for the guy with the least personality, intelligence or talents to be the one who manages to get out of an impossible situation unless you resort to saving him by sheer blind luck, and that's less fun than crafty plotting. Usually, if you want someone to escape, it's because of a plausibly small mistake on the part of his captors. Hannibal Lecter's minder accidentally leaves a pen in his cell, and all the rest of it is Lecter's cleverness; the Count of Monte Cristo exploits a ten-minute window of time that depends on the death of his friend and the fact that the guards can't see into his cell unless they open the door. The escapees, in fact, have to depend on their wits, because the narrative isn't going to help them very much, and that's as it should be. Having a guy escape an impossible trap because everyone else keeps obligingly disarming themselves is simply less fun to watch.

Hostel is an example of extroverted horror, but there are others. In The Host, for example, the monster appears in broad daylight right at the outset rather than lurking in the dark - well, you wouldn't want him to be bored, would you? - and one of the most prominent early deaths is a girl who's listening quietly to music in her own little world, minding her own introverted little business. The fictional predecessor Saw's maniac is most obviously based upon, John Doe of Se7en, is definitely an old-school introvert, going around savaging people for such crimes as lust, greed and pride - sins that an introvert probably keeps to himself, but doesn't enjoy seeing other people flaunt - and, in an act of spectacular introspection, decides that he himself embodies one of the seven deadly sins and should die as a result. That's a pretty inturned killer. Move to Saw, and there's no such self-examination: both killers are envious of their victims, but in Saw, we see a killer who is angry with people not for having too much fun, or the wrong kind of fun, but for having too little fun: the people who get punished are suicide survivors who have turned inwards and refused to get out there and party like it's 1999. The very concept of torture porn, as opposed to slasher movies, is a move in the extroverted direction: rather than the cat-and-mouse dance of social avoidance, you get the good guy and the bad guy thrown together in a chamber of horrors with a locked door. It's nasty, but at least it's not lonely.

Hostel, at least, feels like the child of The Evil Dead more than anything else, a film that's equally inexplicable in its choice of survivor. In The Evil Dead, the sensitive psychic girl gets killed first, a nice but unremarkable boy makes it through the night alive while all his friends are briskly dispatched, his repeated cry of 'Why are you torturing me?' never answered by the narrative. The actual answer is that he was a mate of the director, in the same way that I suspect Paxton survives Hostel primarily because he's the character who bears the closest resemblance to the director, but those aren't artistic answers. This may be an obvious observation, but there is a point here: in general, extroverted horror tends to take the foundations laid by introversion and reproduce the structure quite precisely - except that it decides, heck, this time we'll save a character that I like.

And that's why such films feel strangely off. They seem like a misunderstanding of the whole point, a revelling in the flash and gore with none of the anger and soul. It's not that I resent extroverts winning - I know some nice extroverts, after all - but in the context of a horror movie, having the party animal be the survivor just seems weird. It's like having a costume romance where the heroine leaves the Byronic dark horse in the last chapter to go with the shallow rake who's been proven an all-round bounder. Sure, you could make it work, but you'd have to do some character writing; the bounder would have to be redeemed somehow, or else the heroine would have to be shown to be more of a bounder-fancier than a home-and-hearth type. Extro-horror could similarly make it work to have an extroverted survivor; after all, there are plenty of characteristics - physical strength, leadership skills, charm, decisiveness, daring, aggression - that are perfectly compatible with an extroverted nature, and would probably also help if someone was brandishing half the contents of their garden shed at you. But it doesn't seem to happen in the movies I've seen: we get a standard intro set-up, and then the extrovert survives for no particular reason.

I don't think the jar I'm feeling here is just artistic conservatism: the whole structure of the Bad-Thing-Out-To-Get-Us story depends on the principle of danger threatening out of the shadows. And when the shadows have monsters lurking in them, heedlessness is not a survival trait. It just doesn't work to have the survivor be someone who has no qualities that separate them from their cannon-fodder peers. The result is that it feels random, not in a reflecting-the-randomness-of-uncaring-fate way, but in a this-story-is-weird way. You can imagine the production meeting:

'Who shall we kill next?'
'How about that one?'
'Are they an appropriate choice?'
'No, but it'll be fun! I don't especially like him anyway, so he'll do, won't he?'
'Shouldn't there be some kind of logic to the structure?'
'What? No! Who let that guy in?'

The terrors of the imagination begin in the mind, most particularly the minds of people who spend far too much time in there, and horror movies are, fundamentally, imaginary terrors. That's not an easy thing to get away with disregarding, and if you do it too casually, you get a disunity of vision in the piece.

And there's another reason, to do with something that's hard to explain in the context of horror without risking garble but nonetheless important: the concept of justification, of necessity. It's not that sticking a knife into someone is ever justified in real life; it's more that there are different emotional reasons for choosing to do it in fiction. Introvert horror movies are about fury, about pent-up anger finally finding expression. That's an intense emotion, and it's difficult to express in a low-key way. It becomes necessary to find an extreme means of expressing it; the slashings become, in some way, artistically justified, because they're the only way of saying it. But it's harder to justify a fictional killing if the reason it's there is just to make a provocative film, to stir up the audience and keep things energetic. There are lots of different ways to do that. It's hard to explain, but the extro-horror films I've seen lately simply feel less necessary than the intro ones, like they have less reason to be saying what they're saying, and are simply killing characters for the fun of it. Violence is a dire thing, and if it's artistically necessary, that's fine - but violence purely for its own sake? That's not so good.

I'm not arguing against violence in movies per se: I've seen far nastier movies than this latest crop and thought them really good, such as Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hellraiser, all of which are more gruesome but less gratuitous. In a way, a problem I have with extro-horror is that it lacks conviction. If you're just killing people for a few jumps and a laugh or two, or because you liked other horror movies you've seen, then you're taking the deaths less seriously. You're treating them as fictional. That makes them less shocking, not more: I'd hesitate to rewatch the recent gorno films because they weren't particularly enjoyable, but I'd hesitate to rewatch the old ones because I'm not sure I could stand them. They're so grisly that they're very close to being unbearable. And, again, that's how it should be: if a film is out to shock me, I want it to work. I remember a documentary accompanying the Wes Craven box set I watched remarking that with Hitchcock, you felt in the hands of a master, but with seventies slashers, you felt in the hands of a maniac. Either's fine, but the recent gornos don't feel like either. They feel like being in the hands of an intermediary who hasn't completely understood the point of the genre, and that's a pity.

I'm entirely sympathetic to the idea of extroverted horror in principle; extroverts are often lovely people and deserve a lot of good art, and it's not as if any one psychological type owns any one genre. But I do believe that if extros really want a horror genre of their own, they need to do more rethinking of the basic structure than most of the gornos I've seen are displaying. If a movie's going to be extroverted, it needs to be extroverted from the ground up. There are a lot of things that extroverts are likely to be angry about, or frightened of, so there's got to be a lot of potential for good scary stuff. I just don't think that the horror genre, if it really wants to enjoy an extroverted phase, has quite tapped it yet. Right now, it feels like extroverted icing on an introverted cake, and that's a taste that won't quite satisfy anybody.


*Actually, I can think of an alternative, just to prove that introverts are just as unsqueamish as extroverts when we try. (If you don't like gore, look away now.) The solution is this: Paxton has both his hands clamped to a table, and the torturer breaks one of them with a hammer, a la Casino. Gritting his teeth, Paxton pulls the now-crushed hand out through the clamp, punches his torturer so hard that he skewers one of the guy's eyes with a protruding finger-bone, grabs the hammer in his blood-soaked fist and rips out the torturer's voicebox with the claw end. While the guy is struggling to deal with his newly-adjusted circumstances, Paxton then grabs the nearby drill or chisel, uses it to unscrew the bolts that are holding down the clamp on his other hand - these things, after all, are meant to be used for DIY - avails himself of the numerous tools and weapons that the cell is bristling with, and makes good a dramatic and somewhat sticky escape. No doubt it would be painful for him, but if his situation has any advantages, it's that the sound of screams combined with drilling isn't going to stir his guards' interest.

Monday, September 24, 2007

 

Darfur charity

Here's a harrowing article I read over the weekend about the rape of Darfur. There's a horrible genocide going on. Anyway, the charity Save Darfur is having a big drive, and some donors have promised to match any donations given by the public before September 30, so if you feel like donating to stop this awful destruction, this week is a good time to do it. Here's the link.

Friday, September 21, 2007

 

An old man playing at see-saw

I've been reading Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and have struck a piece that has an oddly familiar ring - familiar, that is, from conversations in real life. Anyone else find it familiar?

Catherine, our heroine, meets the egregious John Thorpe, a vulgar, opinionated and generally tiresome young man, described by the expressive noun 'a rattle', and, being an enthusiastic novel-reader, tries to talk to him about books. Unfortunately, she runs up against a conversational brick wall, because he's not really very interested in books. However, there's a particular bit that you, my dear readers, may find striking if you've ever got into conversation with someone and can't make much headway:

'I was thinking of that other stupid book, written by that woman they make such a fuss about, she who married the French emigrant. '[John Thorpe says; Catherine answers...]
'I suppose you mean Camilla?'
'Yes, that's the book; such unnatural stuff! An old man playing at see-saw, I took up the first volume once and looked it over, but I soon found it would not do; indeed I guessed what sort of stuff it must be before I saw it: as soon as I heard she had married an emigrant, I was sure I should never be able to get through it.'
'I have never read it.'
'You had no loss, I assure you; it is the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man's playing at see-saw and learning Latin; upon my soul there is not.'

Am I the only one who feels like they've also had this conversation? It's the harping on the detail about see-saws that does it. Camilla by Fanny Burney is the book being referred to, and Austen thought Burney 'the very best of English novelists', according to her nephew, and considered the 'old man' character, Sir Hugh Tyrold, 'extremely well drawn'. So Thorpe has obviously missed the point - but it feels like he's almost deliberately missing it: that he saw one detail - a fairly insignificant one at that - and, finding it unlike anything he'd want to do himself, is now using it as a reason to dismiss the whole thing.

Doesn't that sound familiar? The way someone will strike a particular detail about something, a fairly minor one, and because it's not congenial to them, blow it up to such proportions where they've got nothing else to say about the whole issue? I should say, in case anyone I know is reading this and feels accused, that I'm not referring to a recent conversation; it's more a general conversational pattern that I've encountered at various points in the past. But it's always frustrating to try and converse with someone who's refusing to think. Mental flexibility, that's what we need.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

 

My feet are cold

I have Achilles tendinitis, and the osteopath told me I should be wearing slightly higher heels than usual to support my tendon. It seems to be working - there is less pain, anyway - but the only shoes I've got that answer are a pair of strappy summer sandals.

Now my toes are cold.

It's a hard, cruel world.

I've decided to cheer it up with this: a song I always loved as a kid. Kermit the frog singing 'Carribean Amphibian'. It's hard to feel down while watching that song.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

 

Catwalk queenlets

The always-interesting Naomi Wolf wrote - some time ago, but hey - an intriguing article on a curious phenomenon: the rise of books for teenage girls in which the heroines are mean, fashionable, manipulative and, generally speaking, the kind of kids who'd be the villains in most stories. But they're the heroines, not because they have inner turmoil, not because they're redeemed and learn the value of kindness over social status, but because they don't. A straight-out celebration of Queen Bee bullying.

What's the psychology here? Because these books are selling. Clearly they're appealing to something in many teen girls - or they were, they may have gone under to some other fad by the time I read the article. What makes teen girls genuinely enjoy stories in which it's right to degrade a girl for not having expensive enough accessories?

I've just been reading On Killing by Dave Grossman (recommended), so a concept in my head is the author's thesis that, in conflict, there isn't just fight or flight, there's also posture (flourish a weapon rather than use it, shove, shout, ask if someone's lookin' at you) and submit (drop your gun and put your hands on your head, say 'okay, just take what you want and go', back down before someone gets killed).

Now, in teen hierarchies, pack behaviour and conflict are a big thing. And what occurs to me, particularly with girls who are brand-oriented, is that clothing can be an assertive-to-aggressive stance.

Think about it this way. A teenage girl wants, say, a Prada handbag. She doesn't have to buy it for herself, or at least, not with her own money, because, short of hooking, the only way a teenager can get that much money is if somebody gives it to her. She doesn't know from experience the number of years training and ladder-climbing it takes to get a high-paid job that would let you even consider spending several hundred quid on something that could, as far as function goes, be adequately replaced by a free plastic bag from the supermarket, or at most a ten-pound knockoff - and then giving it to someone else. Neither does she know from experience how many billable man-hours of work a Prada handbag represents. She doesn't have to earn the bag, she has to ask for it, and if parents demur, she has to argue, beg, wheedle until they give in. Which is to say, basically she has to get her will to prevail over theirs. Very few parents are dying to spend thousands per month on kitting out their little princess; expensive clothes require pressuring your parents. In effect, this is similar to a kid who's dressing in a way that her parents disapprove of: she's dressing how she wants, not how they want. In both cases, the girl's outfit announces a victory: I got my way over people who have financial and legal control over me. I win!!!

Which is to say, it's an aggressive form of that traditional teenage desire, to be governed by your own wishes rather than by your parents'. But it's also, if the girl is a fashionista, an aggressive stance towards her peers: I've got a better bag than you. I'm cooler than you. I win!!!

And, if the girl is fashionable, she is by definition invested in impressing her peers rather than her teachers, family, rabbi, shift manager at her Saturday job or other authority figures. That's what being fashionable requires: impressing other fashionable people, and authorities aren't fashionable among teenagers; other teenagers are. Hence, she's likely to see an element of push-and-shove in who's got the best clothes. Impressing your peers is serious business, and that's what she's geared towards. If her clothes are good, then she is, in effect, posturing: don't challenge me, I'm bigger and better than you.

Another fashionable girl is posturing back, but an unfashionable girl, in this cosmology, is submitting. She doesn't have the right shoes? To a girl for whom fashion is a coded form of status indicator, that's not a sign that the girl doesn't particularly care about shoes, or does care about shoes but has parents who simply can't afford expensive ones: it's the fashion equivalent of 'I'll open the safe, just don't hurt anyone.' It's submitting. Submitting is basically saying, 'I know I can't win this fight so I'm going to acknowledge that before we actually have to have it.' Cheap shoes say 'I know I can't outdress you so I'm not going to try, hence I acknowledge your superior status over me' - or at least, they do to a teenage girl for whom shoes are the primary status measure.

Meanness comes in here, because by her nature, a girl who's interested in competing for status among her peers is more likely to jostle them. A girl who thinks it's all about who gets the best grades is going to feel she wins if she comes top of the class, but she's less likely to rub it in to her peers because it's about pleasing the teacher, an external figure, rather than about her peers per se. A girl who thinks it's about who's the coolest is tuned in to her peers in a more intensive way; she has to keep asserting herself the same way the grades girl has to keep doing high-grade work. Which means continually asserting herself.

A girl who isn't interested in fashion doesn't keep asserting herself socially because that's not where her status anxiety is going. But to a girl whose primary indicator is expensive or fashionable clothes, this looks like submissiveness. Rather than investing her energy in getting what she wants from adults by defying or manipulating them, the unfashionable girl invests it in getting what she wants by pleasing them. Classic submission behaviour: rather than chest-pounding 'I want that back you're so mean you have to get it for me or I'll cry', you have compliant 'Don't mark me down I'll do the homework the way you set it'. That cheap-shoes homework girl is a sap, according to Miss Fashion.

Now, actually that's inaccurate: not everyone is competing in the same game. And in fact, the girl most submissive to Fashionista is probably the girl who's trying to dress like her: 'I'll dress the way you think best, if you'll please like me'. But teenagers aren't always high on empathy, especially the ones who are after social dominance, and status is relative; if your primary concern is your standing among your peers, you're always going to be checking who ranks where to make sure you aren't slipping. To a girl wearing cheap shoes, Fashionista is starting a fight over nothing; Fashionista, on the other hand, is maintaining pack hierarchy according to the terms she understands.

There's no real conclusion here, except that it's probably better to be nice to people, but I'd be curious to hear opinions. I personally hate clothes and would prefer it if everyone spent their lives in pyjamas, and the school I went to didn't have that kind of competition over expensive clothes - at least, not in the classes I was ever in - so I'm writing speculative fiction when it comes to Miss Prada's motivations. Does anyone have a real experience to test the theory against?

Monday, September 17, 2007

 

Author versus reality

I had an interesting discussion with a friend the other day about film sequels. The gist was this: I'd seen the Alien movies (at least, some of them; I'm not sure how many there are nowadays, but I've certainly seen the first two), and she hadn't, but I remarked that the characterisation of Ripley, the heroine, seemed very different in James Cameron's sequel from the characterisation in Ridley Scott's original. Though played by the same actress, they seemed to me to be basically different people: the first movie's reserved, private, by-the-book strategist did not much resemble the second movie's confrontational, improvise-on-the-fly leader figure.

Consider, for example, the scene in Alien where Ripley confronts Ash: he's broken quarantine against her express orders and let a contaminated person into the ship, which has angered her for two good reasons: one, she outranks him so he should do what she says, meaning he's failed to respect her, and two, she thinks (correctly) that he's endangered everyone's life. She is, in other words, extremely provoked, and you can feel the tension and dislike in her performance. But the scene is very restrained: she never raises her voice, or speaks aggressively; it's one of those angry-polite scenes you get between two people who are entirely at odds but dislike confrontation. Compare that with the second film's short-temperedness: 'Did IQs drop sharply when I was away?' she demands in a frustrating meeting. 'They can bill me!' she snaps when someone points out she's proposing blowing up an expensive installation. The rulebook is out the window, and so are manners: this is someone who takes the short route and is quite happy to shout if need be. The scenes between Ripley and Burke, in fact, resemble nothing so much as a confrontation between an angry director who's determined to get it right and a parsimonious producer who's trying to pull rank on behalf of the money-men, a situation of which, based on what I've heard about James Cameron, the director is probably a multiple veteran.

So what's the way to respond to this? My friend remarked that, if she were to see both films, she'd consider Cameron's Ripley a further exploration of the character, and that any differences should be seen as reactions to the strains of the previous film. I had an entirely opposite reaction: they're two different characters. They're the work of different writers and different directors, and while they have the same name and are played by the same actress, essentially they're different heroines from different stories.

Which brings us to the topic of the day: how to handle the unreality of stories, and the effect that authorial presence has on them.

Stories aren't real, and even the most cunningly-told story in the world is, not to mince words, a total pack of lies. Yet at the same time, they are how we hear about truth in the real world: people tell us things that have really happened. There's a disconnect between the two that writers jimmy their way into: presenting utter fabrications with the air of honest historians, they can convince you of all sorts of rubbish. The only thing they have with which to pull off this con trick is their ability to sound believable - which is, basically, talent.

But here's the thing. Talent isn't a measurable quality like water, present in various writers to various levels, like a row of partially-filled jugs sitting on a table. Talent is unique; every talent is different. What an author has to work with is their own sensibility, their own understanding of truth, because you have to understand something in order to be able to imitate it. Nobody understands absolute, Platonic truth; instead, truth is always an interpretation, a way of seeing things. A writer uses their own feeling for truth, their own sense of what truth is shaped like, what texture it should be, what sort of sound it should make if you tap it, and out of that, work out when the story sounds ready to be told.

It's for this reason that, to my mind, stories about 'the same' characters told by different authors are just not convincing as continuations. Show James Cameron Ridley Scott's picture of what truth looks like, and he'd just blink at it, wondering what it was. The same applies vice versa: the way people tell stories is the closest they can get to representing their sensation of truth, but you can only tell the same story if you have exactly that same sensation. And you won't, because your sensibility will be slightly different. Continued stories may be reasonably harmonious with each other, close enough that they don't jar if you don't squint at them too closely, but they'll never be exactly matched.

Here's another angle on the same thing: you can get a similar feel for truth, even in self-contradiction, if it's the same author telling different stories. Here's my favourite example, largely because it's one of my favourite books. Antonia White's Frost in May sequence is a lightly fictionalised autobiography - which is to say, there actually is an element of truth, or reality, mixed in with the artistry. In the first book, the story is almost entirely taken from her own life, but in the second, White decided she wanted to write something more fictional, so added some events that didn't happen, and, crucially, changed everyone's names. Nanda Grey, full name Fernanda, daughter of John Grey and an unnamed mother, becomes Clara Batchelor, daughter of Claude and Isabel Batchelor. Both names are to some extent adaptations of White's own name dilemma: she was originally named Eirene Botting, a name given to her by her father Cecil Botting, which she never liked; her mother Christine called her 'Tony' as a childhood nickname, and when she became an adult, Tony adapted that nickname, added it to her mother's maiden name, and came out as Antonia White. She never completely liked the final name, feeling it something of a blank, but you can see the traces: elaborate Eirene/Fernanda shorted to a pet name; colourless White to Grey; staccato, mundane-sounding Botting to Batchelor. Here we see a reverse of the Ripley dilemma: fundamentally similar characters by the same author are cast as, in effect, different people.

Stranger still, events change and change back. Nanda in the first book is expelled from her convent school for writing a 'scandalous' novel, to the fury of her beloved father. (Actually a very naive novel in which which the characters behave as badly as a cloistered fourteen-year-old can conceive of them acting, intended to climax in a series of sensational conversions, renunciations and entries into convents and monasteries, which would have allowed for an interesting story while remaining an acceptably edifying work. Disastrously, the book is discovered and confiscated by the nuns before the uplifting ending can be written, leaving only the dens of inquity, kisses during Hungarian balls, and thrillingly elaborate dressing-gowns of the Byronic hero). The second book, The Lost Traveller, cycles back in time several months, starts with the death of Clara's grandfather, and then moves to her departure from the convent with a much less drastic reason: her family can no longer stretch to afford the fees, and, being middle class (unlike most of her aristocratic classmates), Clara will in any case have to get an education that will fit her to earn her living, an education that the convent, catering to girls who will inherit family fortunes, does not provide. The scandalous novel is not mentioned; however, in the third book, The Sugar House, reference is again made to her father's fury about the novel, the novel that its predecessor wrote out of existence.

Yet despite all these changes, there's a fundamental continuity. The reality being represented or fictionalised is White's own life and emotional perceptions, and the way the story shifts to accomodate them is simply a nuanced reflection of a complicated psyche struggling to accomodate conflicting emotions. The real girl's removal from the convent was, in fact, a situation in which both stories were true. Tony was suddenly taken away from her convent school after the nuns discovered she'd been writing a novel in. But it was complicatd by the fact that Cecil Botting wasn't honest about his motivations. He had been meaning to remove his daughter for some time, on the grounds of saving money and getting her professionally educated, and the novel she wrote only affected the timing of her removal - but when he came to take her away, he gave no inkling that money was the real reason, instead blaming the 'sink of filth and impurity' that was her first innocent attempt at fiction. It was only years later that she discovered that money was the real reason; prior to then, she entirely blamed herself and her abortive first attempt at novel-writing. (A scarifying experience that left her wrestling a lifelong writer's block.)

Frost in May, then, represents the emotional reality as it seemed to the fourteen-year-old White; the calmer, financially-motivated departure in The Lost Traveller represents the practical motivation, and if the novels don't completely integrate the two conflicting realities, that only conveys more vividly just how difficult it was for White to reconcile the two in her own mind. A fractured narrative is the ultimate expression of a fractured self: for all her talent (and White was superbly talented), the violation was so severe that nothing could piece it together, either in fiction or in life. In short, the unusually strong authorial presence strings together inconsistent storytelling.

So there you have it: sometimes, with a strong author around, inconsistent plotting can be more harmonious than consistent plotting. Funny old world, eh?

Death of the author my eye.

Friday, September 14, 2007

 

Etymology is funnier than the name makes it sound

If you don't believe me, check out this article. Or at least, this page, which lists a wonderful assortment of flapper-slang synonyms for the 'bee's knees':


'cat's miaow', 'elephant's adenoids', 'tiger's spots', 'bullfrog's beard', 'elephant's instep', 'caterpillar's kimono', 'turtle's neck', 'duck's quack', 'gnat's elbows', 'monkey's eyebrows', 'oyster's earrings', 'snake's hips', 'kipper's knickers', 'elephant's manicure', 'clam's garter', 'eel's ankle', 'leopard's stripes', 'tadpole's teddies', 'sardine's whiskers', 'pig's wings', 'canary's tusks', 'cuckoo's chin' and 'butterfly's book'.


I think 'kipper's knickers' is long-overdue for a revival, but my nostalgic heart still belongs to 'cat's pyjamas', which is what we used to say when I were a young'un. It was fixed in my attention by Roald Dahl's immortal couplet in Revolting Rhymes, where, as he retells the tale of Snow White, the magic mirror tells the wicked Queen:


You are the only one to charm us,

Queen, you are the cat's pyjamas.


I feel a return to childhood coming on. Knickers! Kniiiiiickers!!!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

 

Speaking of authoritarian stuff

... which we have been this week, I think I'll take the opportunity to share a theory that emerged in a conversation with some friends a while ago.

You recall the movie The Incredibles? Lovely animation and good plotting, as per Pixar's usual - but when it came out, I think everyone knew at least one person who emerged saying, 'Well, I enjoyed it, but - did it seem a bit right-wing to you? You know, all that stuff about how some people are just better than others?'

And it's a tricky question. Because on the one hand, well, Ubermensch, superhero, I say tomato, you say pop cultural ketchup ... but on the other, there were definitely strains of left-wing thinking in there too. The nastiest two characters are the hero's boss, a grasping capitalist insurance manager whose entire raison d'etre is preventing poor people from getting the insurance cover they've paid for, and the villain, who's made a fortune in the arms trade. It's not your left-leaning liberal who's going to jump up saying, 'But we need a free market!' when you discuss people like that, is it?

Now, the simplest explanation is that it's just a story, and things that are artistically consistent aren't necessarily politically consistent. But they have to mesh somehow, and in cases where they seem incompatible, it comes back to authorial temperament. What kind of artist, or audience, is going to find all these things fit comfortably together?

And in The Incredibles, there's a very simple explanation. It's not trying to make a political point; it's the fantasy of an aging jock.

(I'm not assuming that this is what Brad Bird of any of the Pixar team acutally are. They could be; making a movie about superheroes using computers is not where you'd expect the captain of the team to end up, but stereotypes very seldom tell us anything. But since Pixar refers to Cars as its 'red-state movie', I think we can assume they're capable of presenting more than one attitude about the world.)

Think about it that way and it all makes sense. For this mindset, the story is a poignant life-trajectory. When you were young, you were golden; stronger, faster, more famous than everyone else, you got endless encouragement and validation for doing something you loved, something that feels at once a fun, exciting game and a way of standing for a system of good, old-fashioned, character-building values. Think of the way Bob, our Mr Incredible of super-strength, keeps checking his watch on the way to his wedding and saying, 'I still got time', slipping off for one more hoop before he has to settle down. Think of the way that he confronts villainous Bomb Voyage: they face off, shouting each other's names like a salute. They're completely opposed, but the minute the dorky little kid butts in, they're completely united: this is clique business, loser, you're not fooling anyone. They are, in short, like nothing so much as captains of opposing teams meeting before a game: sure, they want to beat each other, but fundamentally they're delighted to see each other, because without both of them, they couldn't play the game.

Then the golden age passes. Suddenly you're stuck in a dull job, because the thing you're best at wasn't a very marketable skill. You love your family, yes, but it's all responsibilities and no more adulation; your pretty wife has moved on from being the head cheerleader and is busy being a mom, and doesn't want to play the games that brought you together any more. The geeky kid who used to worship you is a millionaire while you're stuck in the same old grind, with no more highs and lows, no more applause. You don't know what went wrong, but somehow, the glow has gone out of everything. It can't be your fault, because you only did what you always did, but somehow, the world has gone out of kilter, and nothing is the way it should be any more.

Doesn't that account for some of the oddities? The way, for instance, Bob's son Dash wants to go out for sports, despite the fact that he's so fast he can run on water and it would be about as much of a challenge as an adult racing a two-year-old? The way that book smarts don't get any respect (irritating Buddy, the klutzy Mozart-fixated babysitter), despite having an exceptionally intelligent set of creators? The way that Bob accuses the villain of having 'killed real heroes' rather than killing, say, people, or even of killing his friends? The way they beat the robot with a 'Go long!' football throw? The way the Q of the film, Edna Mode of technological wizardry, isn't actually a scientist but a fashion designer, a freaky cool kid rather than an outsider techie? (I love the Edna Mode scenes, she very much reminds me of a friend of mine, but still.) The way the adult Bob isn't even slightly impressed, or even interested, that twelvish-year-old Buddy can invent rocket boots?

It's not that this is meant to add up to a philosophy; it's more a hierarchical way of looking at types of people, so deeply hierarchical that it isn't fully aware of itself. If someone spends their formative years being told that they're superior because of a morally neutral talent, you'd expect some compartmentalised thinking to emerge, and in one of the compartments, separated from the 'Beauty is skin deep' box, would be a tendency to assess people's worth based on their physical prowess. The two villains may be right-wing, but they're also geeks, and ugly ones at that: a tidy-minded squawking insurance nebbish and a potato-shaped ginga fanboy who can make fantastic tools but, crucially, doesn't have the physical skill to use them. The schoolteacher whose chair Dash puts a tack on is a balding, big-headed four-eyes, and hence doesn't get very much sympathy: Dash's mother gently points out that he needs a 'more constructive outlet' for his talents, but doesn't give him the scolding he deserves for hurting and humiliating someone, or even for Using His Powers For Evil, which is what he was doing, the little villain.

In this worldview, some people simply matter more than others. Non-super people aren't exactly inferior, but they're background noise, not part of what's important. They are, basically, an audience. It's noteworthy that, having destroyed the evil robot, the heroes are rewarded with applause: it's applause that Bob's been missing, even more than the sense of helping people. Similarly, I think, Dash's desire to go out for sports: doing well in the race doesn't challenge his powers at all, but it allows him to get some public recognition, which is the only thing he can possibly get out of a race that's so much a foregone conclusion that it's practically cheating. He can run fast on his own, but he needs to be on the track to get applause.

The film is, in short, the dream of a mindset that's spent its youth experiencing the reality that, if you have a physical skill, you deserve more admiration than people who don't - and doesn't know what to do, but is sure the time must be badly out of joint, when that reality changes.

I'm not attacking the movie: I like it. I don't think it speaks any deep truths about the human condition in the story it tells, though I think it may be eloquent in expressing the bewildered frustration of the office-bound former athletics star, but it's very well-made indeed. Mostly I'm saying all this because it's interesting when an idea suddenly explains a lot of previously puzzling things, and when my mate suggested this about The Incredibles, suddenly the whole movie made perfect sense.

Monday, September 10, 2007

 

Everyone's talking about conservatism this month

... and through John Scalzi's blog, I see that includes neuroscientists.

This is what they say in the Los Angeles Times:

Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.

... Participants were college students whose politics ranged from "very liberal" to "very conservative." They were instructed to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, researchers said. Liberals and conservatives were equally accurate in recognizing M.

...Based on the results, he said, liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas.


So basically, if you're polically conservative, you have more trouble changing your habits. Pretty much makes sense if you apply it politically, but if you apply it psychologically? Hoo boy.

Apropos of what we've been talking about, would that mean that people who were 'conservative', to use the study's definition (though exactly what they consider 'conservative' to be defined as, the article doesn't say, which is always a recipe for vigorously confused debate) are more likely to be artistically conservative?

I think if you have the kind of mind that's particularly habit-forming, it seems likely: you repeat habitual behaviour, so you always make for the same shelves in the library, and are less receptive to new ideas, so are less willing to try different kinds of books. And the latter does involve receptivity to new ideas: if you've never read a certain kind of book before, it may take you a while to get your ear in, which can demand open-mindedness and patience while you're getting used to the new thing. If you're not inclined to take new ideas on board, it's more likely that you'll read a couple of pages of a new kind of book, think, 'Bah. This doesn't do what I like!', and put it back on the bookshop shelf.

Does that necessarily mean that genre books are more conservative, though? Big question. Personally I always think art has to start with people: 'Genre X is conservative' sounds less likely than 'Conservative-minded people are more likely to find a genre that they like and then stick with it'. That genre could be anything, but I'd guess that quest-story fantasy, crime and romance would be high on the list, as they have template plots, literary habits, which you can depend on new books to reproduce.

What do we think? I say all this partly because it's an interesting article, and partly also to suggest that everyone who's debating conservatism/authoritarianism and genre, of whom there are several people all making interesting comments on various threads, might like to get together on a single thread. I'm enjoying hearing from you all, but I'm starting to lose track of who's saying what where. Can we move it to here?

Friday, September 07, 2007

 

Weekend graffiti

Banksy's take on anti-climb paint rocks.


That's pretty much all that needs to be said about it.


Except for a few more rats. (Click 'next' repeatedly if you want to find them; they're on the last screen. Or just, y'know, look at all the nice art.)


:-)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

 

Reading the whole series

Anthrophile and I have been having a discussion about - well, a whole buncha stuff in the 'Conservative controversy update' post. Anyway, she raised an interesting point that I think is worth pursuing.

I was saying, you see, that I don't think you have to read a whole series before you can judge it. Anthrophile disagrees.

I said: I've never understood the argument that you can't judge a series unless it's completed and you've read all of it. Of course, you can't judge how well it ends, but you can judge whether it's well-written, with good characters, suspenseful plot handling, perceptive insights and all the rest of the things that go towards making a book good or bad. If someone doesn't like how the first book in a series handles those things, I wouldn't blame them for taking an educated guess that they wouldn't like the other books either. I noticed that some of Martin's defenders seemed to feel that you had to read all his books before you were allowed to call his writing good or bad, and I thought that was unreasonable. To paraphrase Teresa Nielsen Hayden, you don't have to drink the whole pint of milk to know whether it's sour or fresh.

Then she said: I'm with you inasmuch as I don't feel I should need to read an entire series in order to tell you whether or not I like it or am willing to put up with it, but if I'm going to write a treatise on its moral merits, overall message, and world view -- well, frankly I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that even now, and I have read all the existing books in the series so far. So it depends on how we define the word "judge" and exactly what it is we're judging -- and hoo boy, was that the Comp Lit major in me talking. I promise not to try to redefine the word "is."

What does everyone think? Come on, pick a side and join us! (Without talking about George R.R. Martin, if you please, as if you do that I can't join in.)

What I'd say in response to Anthrophile's (pretty reasonable) argument has to do with sensibility, and probability. To my mind, it's silly to say that you can't know anything about how an author thinks because of what they write. Writing is a form of self-expression, and self-expression is how we always learn what other people are like. If it's reasonable to form an opinion about someone's character from what they say - and we all do that - then it's reasonable to form an opinion from what they write.

What they write is more hemmed in by the necessities of story than what they say, but that in itself can be revealing. Think of people you know, and ask yourself: what kind of anecdotes do they tell? Those anecdotes express something about them, because the stories we tell are the stories that represent the world as we see it. Somebody self-righteous will tell stories about wrongs being done and fought against; somebody melancholic will tell stories of misfortunes; somebody who wants to be upbeat will tell funny stories; somebody who thinks well of people will tell stories about kindnesses and heroics. If someone is always telling stories about how they got back at people who cheated them, you can be pretty sure that they're a suspicious and aggressive person. Nobody always tells exactly the same kind of story every time they open their mouths, of course, but if you look at the general trend of the stories they tell, you're looking at their worldview in microcosm.

Because of that, you can get a sense of how someone's stories are likely to go quite early on. There might be a massive twist ending, of course, but did you really not see it coming? You may not have foreseen how the twist would happen, but I'd be prepared to bet that you had the sense that the story might have a twist in store from fairly early on. A story that slaps you with a totally unexpected twist takes the risk of leaving you feeling cheated and confused: it has to signal that, at the very least, the idea 'things are not always what they seem' is part of its ethos. Similarly, if you read a first chapter and find it's about a woman eating chocolates on the sofa because her boyfriend has left her, it's a fairly safe bet that romance is probably going to be seen as important. If, in the first chapter, the hero triumphantly blasts his way out of a tight spot, you probably won't be wrong to assume that this story will consider violence to be an essential part of life. If the first chapter involves nothing but nasty characters trying to screw each other over, it seems likely that this will be based on a dark view of human nature.

Having got a flavour of that, I think you've got at least a blood sample of the kind of beast you're reading. You may not be able to construct its skeleton, but you've got its DNA. In writing, every word is down there on the page because the writer made a deliberate decision to put it there. Writing is profoundly decisive; what is writer's block other than chronic indecision? And in many ways, personality can also be expressed as a series of decisions. Everyone has thoughts sometimes that are paranoid, affectionate, greedy, naive, self-sacrificing and mean; which thoughts we decide to trust are a good indicator of character. Confronted with the thought, 'Is my brother trying to get more than her share of the inheritance?', for instance, one person will think, 'I bet he is, everyone's out for themselves,'; another will think, 'No, I shouldn't mistrust my own family, I'm a bad person even to think it,'; still another will think, 'I'm not going to worry about this, everything usually works out for the best.' That's a hostile, a dutiful and a laissez-faire personality, all expressed in a single thought. Similarly, morality is a question of decisions. We may all have hostile thoughts sometimes; moral people are the ones who decide not to act upon them. Writing, worldview and morality all involve choices - and while it's not an exact forecast, we can usually take a pretty good guess as to what kind of choice someone will take next time, based on how they chose the last ten times.

Given that, I think it's reasonable to at least guess that you don't like the morality or worldview of a series you haven't finished. You don't know how the last book will end, but you know how the first chapter ended. Every plot is made up of a series of incidents, and every incident can be a holographic minature of the larger story. That's why I think it's legitimate to decide that you don't like an author's worldview without having read their whole series. After all, we don't apply that standard to non-series authors; you don't have to have read all of Graham Greene before you're entitled to say he was pessimistic. And every book is, or should be, a complete work of art in itself.

So that's what I think: a series may sometimes surprise you with its ending, but its general ethos should be evident from pretty early on. If it's not, it's an inconsistent work of art, and nobody likes those. I think you can get a feel for an author's morality almost as quickly as you can get a feel for their quality, and it's fair enough to make a call on that basis.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

 

Grindhouse

I gather that they're re-releasing Quentin Tarantino's half of Grindhouse, after changing their minds about releasing it at all over here after it bombed in the States. When I was a teenager Tarantino was the hottest thing anyone had ever seen. Who'd have thought?

Why do people think it sank so badly? I've got a few speculations, but I'd like to hear other views. I can, at any rate, speak from my own experience, which is to say that I didn't plan on going to see Grindhouse when it came out. I had a couple of basic reasons for this, both of which were to do with possible strategy mistakes on Tarantino's part.

The first was that it sounded, rightly or wrongly, like it was part of the torture porn fashion that's been splashing across our screens lately. That, as I've said elsewhere, is not a trend in movies that I particularly want to watch - dismemberment is fine as long as it serves a plot function, the way I see it - The Last King of Scotland was one of my favourite movies this year - but the current horror fashion seems to be for giggling-little-boy glee at dismemberment for its own sake, which doesn't appeal. In little boys, fine, but to my mind, there's an element of I-can't-believe-I'm-an-adult-and-getting-away-with-this to such films, and I'd rather watch something where the director can believe he's an adult and directs accordingly. As I haven't seen Grindhouse, I may be doing Tarantino and Rodriguez an injustice, but that was pretty much the impression I was getting from the hype.

Now, I'm probably not the audience for those movies anyway (though I would have been part of the audience for a film that was like Reservoir Dogs) - but for the people who like torture porn, who would have gone to see another such film, I wonder if Tarantino may not have accidentally sawn the feet off his own movie by mentoring Eli Roth. Roth, after all, is the current enfant terrible of the torture porn trend, and a big part of his success is down to the fact that he was able to put 'in association with Quentin Tarantino' on his PR. But the thing is, that means Roth wound up the figurehead of the fashion. Roth is making movies that, from what I can gather, are more or less the descendants of the kind of films that grindhouses showed anyway. With new grindhouse movies available, why go to see a revival of the old kind? By supporting his mate, Tarantino seems to have inadvertently put himself out of fashion.

That's just a theory. The second part of the theory, I think I have more grounds for: it sounded too long. Two-for-the-price-of-one works on occasion - but the trouble is, being a Tarantino fan doesn't make you a Rodriguez fan, nor vice versa. They like each other's stuff, but audiences can be perverse; I'd be prepared to bet that a fair proportion of potential viewers ended up saying, in effect, 'Meh. I'd kind of like to see the latest Tarantino/Rodriguez, but I don't think I want to have to sit through a Rodriguez/Tarantino film to get it.' It was a bold artistic experiment, but faced with the prospect of a two-parter, where possibly you'd only enjoy half while suffering the seat cramps and bladder strain of a full-length long movie (as well as paying the full price), I wonder if many people saw it as half-a-movie-for-the-trouble-of-one instead - especially as the fact that they were a double feature meant that each part was unusually short, meaning less of your favourite to make room for the other guy. It's kind of a shame, as experimental collaborations sound like a nice idea in theory, but I think practicality may have defeated it.

I have another reason which is personal, but which again I suspect others may have shared: I saw Kill Bill, and I didn't enjoy it. Now, I'm not going to knock it; it was a slick piece of film-making, and probably very funny - but here's the thing: I wasn't in on the joke. It was a prolonged in-joke about kinds of movies I've never, ever seen. And nor have a huge proportion of the movie-going population. As a result, I just don't think I can judge it on its own terms. I can judge it on my terms, and say that it seemed to me plotless, bitty and rather meaningless - but that may well be because the meaning of it was a comment on certain kinds of schlock films that I'm in no position to pick up on. And Grindhouse sounded like more of the same. Making the kind of movie that the original grindhouse posters always promised but couldn't deliver; that was the rationale. But I don't think I've ever seen a grindhouse poster, or a grindhouse movie (except Night of the Living Dead, which got attention by being lifted out of the grindhouse circuit), so I had no way of knowing whether they'd succeeded in achieving their aim. I think most people will share this difficulty with me; most people never grew up near a grindhouse. Tarantino's early work was brilliant, hilarious, marvellous entertainment - but the fact that I loved watching his films doesn't necessarily mean I'd love every film he ever loved, and that's what Grindhouse seemed to be about. I think he and Rodriguez may have picked too obscure a standard to be judged by, and audiences have ended up begging to abstain.

There was a lot of press about Grindhouse before it actually-didn't-come-out in the UK, and I suspect there was plenty in the States as well, so the movie was failing despite a considerable build-up. But a lot of the stuff in the press wasn't really about the movie; it was about something that I, at any rate, thought sounded more interesting: the grindhouse as a social phenomenon. The original grindhouses, as described in the press, were less a cinematic experience than an anthropological one: a shelter from the rain for transients, alcoholics, prostitutes, the mentally ill, deviants, people hiding, people bored and lonely, and generally speaking, an audience divided between people for whom the main lure was a fairly warm place to sit undisturbed, and people who had serious problems. And the odd horror-movie buff, no doubt. It's not often you get to see a cross-section of society that stark, and I have a shrewd suspicion that the life story of the average audience member was probably more interesting and dramatic than the plot of the average movie onscreen.

The upshot is that the films grindhouses showed weren't really the point. The point was the grindhouses themselves. To my mind, the fact that the posters promised horrors the movies couldn't deliver wasn't a moviemaking failure that deserved correction, it was an essential part of the ethos. The interesting part of the carnival show isn't the six foot man eating chicken, it's the cleverness of the manager who came up with the scheme and the skill of the barker who makes you believe in it. Many of the original grindhouse movie makers were originally carnies, and used to bait-and-switch spectacle: they were deliberately putting their intelligence into the build-up rather than the payoff. That may have made for disappointing movies - but the movies weren't where the thought was going. If they'd been thinking more about the movies, they probably would have been making and promoting different movies in the first place.

I'd have liked to see a movie about a grindhouse, rather than a 'grindhouse' movie. You could put whatever grindhouse in-joke movies you liked playing on their screen if you wanted to have fun with it, but it sounds to me as if grindhouses themselves were the really interesting thing. With the two-hander Rodriguez and Tarantino came up with, for a start, I think they missed one of the most important things about a grindhouse, which is that you could buy your ticket at any point, wander in halfway through, watch till you got bored, then wander out again whenever the fancy took you. If cinemas had tried running the films on a loop and selling the tickets any time, (financially tricky, but if any director had the kudos to swing it, then surely Tarantino's your man), they might have got a better response. The seat-cramps-and-bladder anxieties, and the do-I-like-both-directors-or-just-one issues would have been alleviated, if nothing else. But as it is, I don't think I'm alone in feeling that, as a non-grindhouse-goer, once I'd heard about what a grindhouse was, I felt like I'd heard the best part of the story. After all, the movies they showed were supposed to be bad.

Would you have gone to see it? Reasons? Let's hear from you interesting folk.

Monday, September 03, 2007

 

Conservative controversy update

Incidentally, if anyone's been following the debate on Jonathan McCalmont's blog about the article I wrote a few days ago, it would seem that the response he's had has been so distressing to him that he's decided to stop talking about fantasy altogether for a while. I hope that isn't my fault, but I don't think it is; actually, calling it a debate about my article is not really accurate, as most of the debate seems to have been people arguing over whether one of the examples he used when talking about conservative fantasy, George R.R. Martin's books, as a fair one. As I said nothing about Martin - I've read a few of his books, years ago, and have very few opinions about them and none at all about his politics - I suspect that I may have acted more as the spark to a barrel that had been filled with gunpowder by his previous comments on Martin's work. Oh well. Let me once again take the opportunity to thank all the lovely people who post on my blog for always being so polite to me. (And, indeed, to all the lovely lurkers for at least failing to write in and tell me I suck.)

A couple of people on the thread pointed out that 'authoritarianism' wasn't being properly defined on McCalmont's blog. As I'm the one who brought the word into the discussion - his word was 'conservatism', which has a somewhat different ring - I figured I ought to clarify it, so I've pasted a definition to the original post I wrote, in case anyone wants to read it over and update themselves.

 

Left Behind, anyone?

Now here's something interesting. You know those Left Behind books? Bestsellers in America, written by two premillenarian dispensationalists - that is, fundamentalist Christians who believe that there's going to be a Rapture where all the good people are lifted up to heaven, leaving behind only the bad ones, to whom all manner of bad, Apocalyptic things are going to happen? The Left Behind books are a story of what happens after the Rapture (nothing nice, unless you get with the theological program), basically a religious revenge-fantasy thriller series.

The Slacktivist blog, written by an evangelical Christian who doesn't believe in the Rapture, and disapproves of revenge fantasies on the grounds that Jesus probably meant it when he said things like 'Judge not lest ye be judged' and 'Blessed are the peacemakers', has taken such exception to them that it's proving an almost line-by-line critical analysis. I've never seen such detailed reviewing: it goes through the book page by page, quoting sections, discussing the writing, reflecting on the message, considering the implications and arguing with the writers. It's fascinating to watch, an impassioned, detailed analysis that puts astonishing amounts of time and energy into the longest review in the world.

In brief, the blog writer calls the books 'evil', and goes into a lot of detail about why. The basic points are that the books substitute vengeful triumphalist fantasies for supposedly Christian virtues like love and forgiveness, that they're misogynist, callous about human suffering and self-flattering. Another point, and a worrying one, is that they support a worldview in which care for the environment or the infrastructure, and a desire to avoid war, are seen as bad things: the end is coming, and the worse things get, the more we'll hasten the end, so the sooner we can get into heaven, hence it's good to start wars and pollute. To quote a couple of passages:

That word -- "peacemaker" -- practically screams Antichrist ... For those not initiated into the cabalistic logic of PMD [premillenarian dispensationalist] prophecy freaks, this seems counter-intuitive. Peace, after all, is generally regarded by Scripture as a Good Thing. Peace is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). The Messiah is described as the "Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6-7). Peace is often spoken of by God's angels, including the heavenly host of the Christmas story in Luke 2 (cue Linus), who sing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." ... But none of this matters to the prophecy nuts who are convinced that the Antichrist will be a man of peace. And since they believe that the most important thing for Christians to do is to be on the lookout against the Antichrist, and vigilantly opposed to his evil ways, they believe that Christians must oppose anyone who speaks of, pursues, or tries to make, peace.

This is one of the most astonishing and dangerous aspects of the popularity of the End Times heresies promoted by people like LaHaye and Jenkins. It is one of this biggest reasons why this matters -- deeply, truly, seriously matters.


and

This eagerness, this enthusiasm for apocalypse, is theologically malodorous, but it is also politically dangerous. Here again are L&J and their 50 million readers cheering for entropy, celebrating calamity, wars and rumors of war as the confirmation of their desires, and railing against peace and progress as setbacks to this consumation for which they devoutly wish. They believe that things must fall apart and the center must not hold, because even now the beast is slouching toward Jerusalem.

They want this to happen. And, whenever they can, they vote for it.


I haven't read the Left Behind books, and I don't think I'm going to - for one thing, with this site up and running you hardly need to, and for another, the Rapture is not something I personally think likely to happen, so the spiritual message of the books is not likely to ring many bells with me. (Though here's a very compassionate and intelligent article.) But it's a curious idea, and, at least as presented in these books according to Slacktivist, on a par with the way religions sometimes tilt.

A few years ago, I went on a holiday to Venice and spent a fair amount of time looking around the churches and museums. And it left a profound impression: for at least some of its life, in some of its incarnations, Christianity has been a dark faith. Venice, of course, is Catholic, and most of the art was medieval. Crucifixions you can expect in any church, and Stations of the Cross art you can expect in many Catholic ones, but Venice didn't stop there. Reliquaries were on all sides, each containing part of a saint's corpse; display cases with more than a dozen brown, fragile arm-bones or hands from saints; pieces of the flagellation post with little gold figures whipping a little gold Christ; beautifully painted eight-panel strip cartoons showing the martyrdom of this saint or that, involving intestines being wound round a block or an upside-down man being sawn in half from the crotch upwards... Depictions of gruesome death and actual fragments of dead people were in all the sacred places. Christianity was manifesting here as a death-cult as grisly as anything the Aztecs could have dreamed up; the Way, the Truth and the Life were getting much less wall-space than martyrdoms and relics.

This is an accusation that's often levelled at Catholicism: that it's a morbid religion. Standing in front of some of those Venetian display cases, I'd find it hard to argue. But it's interesting to see that an extreme version of Protestantism can wind up in a similar condition, though a kind of reversal takes place: Slactivist argues that the problem with the Left Behind position is that it's based, not in excessive interest in death, but in excessive fear of death:

L&J [the authors, LaHaye and Jenkins] are not interested in resurrection. Resurrection is something that happens to dead people, and L&J don't want to die. Death scares them. And that, more than anything else, explains what rapture-mania is all about.

Christianity is about death and resurrection, not about the denial of death. Not about "Jesus coming back to get us before we die."


The result is a faith that prefers war-making to peacemaking, destruction to construction, because they'll hasten an end that will spirit believers up to Heaven without them having to go through the process of dying. That's also a pretty dark faith. It's a case of extremes meeting, as is often the way.

(I should say here and now that I'm not saying anything about premillenarian dispensationalists in general; I don't know any, but I'm sure there are good, kind and pious people among them, as there are in every faith. I don't much like the attitude of these particular authors as described in Slacktivist, but that's only two people, not the whole denomination.)

Anyway, have a look at the site. It's an intriguing example of educated but non-academic close analysis, funny in many places, and quite possibly an important social docmument. (To begin at the beginning, you have to read from the bottom up, as most recent posts are at the top.)

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