Give Us Moor

 

‘Get Out’ stormed to the top of the box office upon release and proved/disproved many conceptions/misconceptions about what makes a popular movie, from a film whose plot is built largely on race and social issues. Most notably it, along with films like Moonlight, Rogue One and Hidden Figures proves inclusion, diversity and representation sells or at the very least does absolutely no harm to ticket sales. A bad film effects ticket sales. And Get Out is most definitely a good film. As a fan of Key & Peele I had no doubt about the kind of quality Jordan Peele could muster but the viewing public and certainly THE MARKET was rather surprised by its success. Garnering near universal praise it is a standout horror/thriller classic already and hopefully marks a watershed moment for racial attitudes within Hollywood. And it is that last point that is so interesting to me. Plenty of films have been made that discuss similar themes and even have a similar story (Peele himself calls it ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?’ vs ‘The Stepford Wives’) so what about Get Out really captured the imagination? There are a lot of answers to this, the most important being the racial tensions at play in societies across the globe right now, but also the idea of gentrification taken to its absurd extreme. For me, it’s all about the last 20 minutes or so.

Much was made of the opening 3rd of the film that displays not just the pernicious effects of negative racism but equally the troubling effects of “positive” racism i.e. delight at a relative losing to Jesse Owens, wanting to vote Obama for a 3rd term, generally over praising the main character and his culture and so on thus excluding as exceptional Daniel Kaluuya’s character Chris rather than including him. But I found the thing that made me most uncomfortable as the credits rolled was my feeling and assumptions as to how the film would end which I discovered were… actually pretty racist. This is 100% because of the way Hollywood portrays POC in movies and as a film fan these assumptions were built into me so I made assumptions as to a twist. What do I mean by this?

At the end, after the family’s plot for Chris is revealed he begins his escape and this is where my ‘I know how films work, me’ assumptions kicked in. Chris flat out murders the entire family in various gruesome ways and you are WITH him the whole way, an excellent display of how Peele has got you rooting for these odious monsters to die despite the fact, as a majority white audience, they – sadly – represent us, but at every turn I constantly was waiting for the about face. “There’s no way he’s gonna make it” I thought, waiting for the rug to be pulled from under me. But he doesn’t. Through wily cunning and determination Chris ploughs on, even trying to help the maid who we know to be with the family as he makes good his escape and destroys the house in his departure. Even up to the last minute I was internally begging for Chris to make it, to survive, to Get Out, but knew, because I know how films work, that wasn’t going to happen. Chris was doomed. The whole finale was a dream, I thought, a hallucination brought on by the hypnosis, or the police car was a real police car and Chris was about to become another young black police statistic, or Rod was in on the whole thing or had been hypnotised too etc. But when the credits finally rolled and Chris Got Out I was left with a horrible sense of guilt at how I had spent the whole film waiting for the black guy to get caught or fail or die, i.e. my own racism. The opening 3rd hadn’t affected me that much, I’m sure I have acted questionably around BAME people but never that bad and was brought up well enough to be polite and genial to everyone whatever their race, gender or creed, but my instant assumption that the black guy couldn’t win, that he could not succeed where so many other white protagonists did (particularly white female protagonists), that the black character could not triumph, made me very ashamed. And that is what is most incredible about the film.

As well as being a tour de force of small scale but big idea filmmaking, with a faultless ensemble cast, a near total lack of CGI, minimal gore but used to wince-inducing effect, pitch-perfect tone and a lean yet well paced script, what amazed me the most is how the very structure of the film itself asks you to question racial assumptions. The very existence of the film in the mainstream demands discussion as to why we expect it shouldn’t be there. For me this is the absolute triumph of this movie. In an interview Jordan Peele expressed his dislike for the sledge-hammer politics that surround the race debate in America, saying that the “conversation is broken” around race, by which I think he means the topic is continually brought up but either side continues to be combative and no ground is made. The miraculous thing about this film is that, on every level, it offers up a question to a white audience and a white industry as to what our assumptions and prejudices about race are. From the surface to the very meta notion of a movie about a black man getting revenge with no comeuppance (just like every white protagonist in cinematic history) being such an alien and revolutionary thing, Get Out asks ‘why do people of colour get treated differently?’ This was brought shattering to the foreground when Moonlight was robbed of its moment at the Oscars by the false announcement of La La Land as winner of Best Picture. An all black cast and crew forced to share their win with an almost all white cast and crew and – most uncomfortably – every pundit who immediately heaped praise on La La Land as a deserving win having to then instantly back track and say exactly the same about Moonlight, quickly proving how hollow that praise really is. Not to insult La La Land at all as I have not seen it yet and heard nothing but good things about it but the response to the screw up was most revealing.

Race and nationality is the topic of our time. As every country closes its borders in support of the fringe voices demanding a backwards step to nationalism and exclusion in its political policy, it is culture that needs to open its borders and be more inclusive and open up the dialogue, something the powers that be are insistent on shutting down. Support for films that are inclusive and take risks (so long as the film is actually good) and condemnation for films that whitewash (I’m looking at you Gods of Egypt) are what shift industry standards and most importantly move the fucking MARKET away from the homogenous white mess we’ve been fed from a shit coated trough for the last few decades. If you’re at the cinema and have a choice between another white populated blockbuster and a film with even just one POC or non-binary character go and see the latter. Its a small start but we can already see the positive results.

Get Out’s budget was a paltry $4.5million (that sounds a lot but it really ain’t. That wouldn’t even cover a Marvel movie’s food budget), it has so far made $160million at the Box Office and it’s still going. The studio that sponsored the project, Blumhouse, have a track record for sniffing out a success. Saw, Insidious, Paranormal Activity, The Purge are all multi-sequel box office smashes from that same studio which indicates they understand audiences and Get Out is no exception. Film studios realised recently (prior to the Marvel boom) audience numbers were slipping again thanks to streaming services and 3D being the giant pile of dogshit that it is wasn’t helping, so they very sensibly attempted to diversify and take a few risks. Pleasingly this paid off and over the last few years we’ve seen the biggest studios go out on much greater limbs and surprise, surprise it has paid off. It is laughable that making a film with two female leads or with non-white or non-English speaking actors should be considered ‘Risky’ but that’s the kind of dumbass hacks we have in charge, be it a film studio or a country. What Get Out is the poster boy for is that inclusion matters, representation is beneficial to everyone and most importantly don’t patronise your audience. Get Out is a multi-layered GEM of a movie that doesn’t talk down to its audience whilst confronting a large part of it with a very real, very horrific issues that is quite literally killing people. Now if we could just get just one film, just ONE, with the positive portrayal of a Muslim man or woman then we might really be cooking with gas. With films like Black Panther from Marvel on the way though and I don’t doubt Jordan Peele’s ascension to the Hollywood director A-list the future is looking a lot darker. But, like, in a good way.

Post Script: So chuffed to see British actors like Daniel Kaluuya, John Boyega, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba being the leading men in all the modern cinema classics as an antidote to white guys named Chris. If you haven’t watched Daniel Kaluuya’s episode of Black Mirror do so now. It’s a pip.

One For Sorrow, Two for Joy, Three for…

January 2013 I was (as seems to be a regular fixture with me) unemployed and without my own home. I was staying in my friend’s box room for the winter and I had been very sick. Being painfully bored too I began writing songs and eventually had a whole album’s worth of material ready to go that was set to be a FunkNSoul/RockNRoll epic. For a catch up I  met up with my friend and frequent musical collaborator/guidance counsellor James at Platt Fields to discuss the said musical project and my usual existential angst which he so generously tolerates. As we walked around the pond I saw a magpie and offered my habitual greeting of “Good Morning Mister Magpie” as it swept by. James laughed and asked why I did that. It is a learned superstition from my Mother who insisted on saying it as it was bad luck to see a lone magpie according to the rhyme ‘one for sorrow, two for joy’. Convenient that magpies are solitary birds due to their unpleasant habits and nature but anyway. I’m not superstitious its just a habit I picked up from my Mum and magpies are very distinctive birds. James grinned and said “that’s album four’s title, the one of all piano ballads”. I laughed and we carried on chatting but as these things so often do the idea took root and by the time I got back to my friend’s house where I was staying I already had the whole album planned out. It is of no small portent that it was that month I also downloaded the video app Vine…

Over the next year I bounced back and forth between Kent and Manchester (as usual), but in May 2014 I was renting a room in a house that had my Landlord’s 120 year old Bechstein upright piano in it and the other album project was looking a long way off and expensive whereas here was a world class and unique instrument next to my head when I slept. So I bought some tapes and dug out my brother’s old 4-track Tascam Portastudio and over the course of two weeks recorded 12 tracks on the piano. Once recorded, my fear was that they sounded too similar to my last album ‘He Hath Made Me Glad’ (also named by James) in that it was me alone with an instrument and as I seem pathologically averse to repeating myself (stylistically at least) and my favourite artists always genre hop I needed to add stuff to it. By this time I had gained a following on Vine that later that year would result in a month long trip to America that changed my life. But at this stage I simply put the feelers out to see if anyone wanted to contribute their talents to the album? I got one hell of a response and subsequently got takes of vocals, clarinets, brass, strings and more.

It’s taken 2 years to amalgamate all the recordings and contributions as they slowly drip fed back to me but it’s finally finished and I love it. Whilst I am proud of the material its the contributions that have made me love this album, it’s nothing like what I originally assumed it would sound like and I couldn’t be happier about that. I am so pleased so many talented people agreed to help me out on this and make it better than I ever thought an album I recorded in my bedroom would be. So thank you to all the contributors.

A note on ‘Bedroom’ albums: This is my 3rd album and the first I recorded at home, the others were both recorded in professional studios. If you want to make an album but think you can’t afford to pay for the studio time, don’t. You have more technology on the device you are reading this through than any major band up until the 80s had. Many great musicians have recorded No.1 albums on the cheap: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’, Bon Iver’s ‘For Emma’, The Streets ‘Original Pirate Material’, David Gray’s ‘White Ladder’ are all “bedroom” albums. My favourite album of all time, Whatever & Ever Amen, was recorded at home by Ben Folds Five. Every computer comes with recording and mixing software that the Beatles would have killed for. An iPhone has a dynamic condenser microphone built into it. With a bit of know how you can make an album for practically nothing. Or an EP. Or just a single. Point is, it should be the songs and performance that matter the most. Ignore the gear heads and muso snobs who say it just HAS to sound this way or whatever, the Stones got yelled at by sound engineers to turn down because the guitar amps were distorting. Raw Power was refused by everyone except David Bowie because it was too aggressive. In an age where the likes of Pro Tools have standardised the recording process to a near conveyor belt level it is an act the utmost creativity to make an album the way you want to make it and that may be with Pro Tools but what I’m getting at is: that album you’ve always wanted to make but thought you needed a record contract to do it with, not only can you make it without that, you must. There’s no excuse not to. Not only that, you can get it on every major digital download site too. What are you waiting for? Get recording.

‘Good Morning Mr. Magpie’ is my 3rd LP and will be available online from Monday 1st August. It is the album I am most proud of that I have recorded and I would really love people to hear it. There will be a link to download it on here on Monday but you can hear it on Spotify, iTunes, Tidal, Amazon Streaming and more too. Please give it a share and tell your friends, I love talking about the recording process and how well the contributions turned out so come and chat to me on Twitter or here. Happy listening!

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No Darling, Kill Your Heroes

William Faulkner told us to kill our darlings, good advice. Advice none of us listen to.

Faulkner was referring to a myriad of things with his quote but ultimately it has come to mean ‘get rid of that thing you love the most in your writing, as it is bogging it down’. What this ultimately is is an advocation of objectivity. Something you dearly love probably will not convey to a separate audience because they do not have the same intrinsic level of familiarity with whatever it is as you do and therefore do not understand the significance of that beautiful filigree patterned coffee table that keeps appearing in every scene in the Mother’s house. In short: fuck the coffee table, explain why he murdered the Dad. I hate writer’s explaining how to write as if they’re some sort of authority, so that’s all the explanation that needs for now but I do think this is not applied to our lives enough.

Hero worship is endemic in western society today. And I hate it.

Too often I see interviews, news stories or posts online praising the heroism of someone and what a testament they are to our race, a paragon of humankind. Despite being lazy hyperbole and clickbaiting the nuance of what made this person embody the qualities of heroism that we as a people so love this is dangerous as it usually ascribes the title to a group. Policemen, Soldiers, Firemen, etc are all regularly called heroes or similar breathless superlatives to that effect positioning the individuals into that of a totem for the role. The trouble is this does not account for the foibles of the individual within the role. Not for one second do I question the courage it takes to talk down a man with a weapon or view a crime scene, fight a blazing inferno or travel across the world to enforce the agenda of a safely ensconced wealthy man with fatal intensity, nor do I undersell the mental and physical cost this would place on the individual but what we should be recognising is that these are people. People come with baggage. Not every cop is a saint, not every soldier is a noble warrior and not every firefighter is a gentle giant. Sorry. As repeated new stories remind us day in, day out, the badge or coat of arms the jobs represent is a only as good as the person serving beneath that banner and sadly, sometimes these people can become power drunk or susceptible to coercion, and in some cases were just bad eggs from the start. These people do indeed sully the institutions they work for. I do not want to live in a world without police, fire fighters, doctors, soldiers or any of the luxuries I have as a tax payer. They make my life infinitely easier and I feel safer knowing they are all there. But we must recognise these are fallible systems too.

Someone once said to me that “Mums are amazing, every Mum I know is a hero”. I whole heartedly disagree with that. I have some very unpopular views when it comes to kids. I think we are over populated enough and additional members to this race that we are all fast losing is a savage blow but more relevantly whilst the creation of life is undoubtedly a miracle of evolution it is biology, and it happens several hundred thousand times a day and as unpleasant as it is to hear, some of these women aren’t very good at it. I know that will get me in a lot of trouble but unfortunately some Parents just aren’t good at their job, some of them even know it but the fact of the matter is every Mother is not a hero. Most are great at their jobs and it astounds how strong a love and bond can be that makes you not care it has been crying for 8 hours straight and get up in the middle of the night to feed it but a sad and unhappy few bring the name of motherhood down. I realise I will be lambasted for criticising the wonder of childhood and motherhood as a straight white dude and… well fair enough, I should probably shut my fucking mouth you’re right but my point remains: hero worship blinds us from the unpleasant realities of human flaws.

We are all people whatever role we have in life or society and we all make mistakes, we all lie, we all say mean things intentionally or unintentionally and when you burden someone with responsibility often they will rise to the challenge but occasionally the person will buckle. The point I’m trying to make is that we see roles, jobs, not the person serving them. If a cop gets killed the whole department goes apeshit looking for the scapegoat, a soldier is killed and they’re held up as another lost hero murdered by the forces of evil to help compel us deeper into conflict, a terrorist blows up a building and they are displayed as a dead eyed monster with webbed feet and red eyes not the scared, foolish, misguided, angry, railroaded and manipulated individual they are, or equally they would be held up by ISIS as great and holy martyr. A hero.

A Hero never saved anyone. A person saves someone everyday. Hold that person up. Praise that person. A person will do good all the time. A person will be a great mother, nurse, firemen, policeman, soldier, but people? People are stupid. People are a mob and a mob is only as smart as the stupidest person in it. Use independent thought and treat others the same way so that you don’t just lump wheat in with the chaff. People often complain there are ‘no more heroes anymore’ I wish that were true. That way anyone criticising an institution might be heard out and evidence found to support that criticism and not immediately shot down and vilified. We can be Heroes but just for one day because any longer than that and you build cults around them and these once selfless individuals can be corrupted by that sense of invincibility. For crying out loud I have been called a hero! If that doesn’t sully it’s worth I don’t know what will. So for heaven’s sake if someone does something great praise the deed, praise the person but end it there. Heroes don’t exist except in films and television. Good vs Evil doesn’t exist in the real world, I wish it did cause I’d be Indiana Jones by now. The villain deserves justice, the hero deserves death. They never helped anyone.

A hero ain’t nothin’ but a sandwich.

 

The Revelry of Reverie

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With post-modernism came all of history in it’s carry case (we call that an iPhone these days) and we delight in pouring over our past in minute detail. We have immediate access to everything in human history which I believe is a great and useful thing but I am curious as to what that is helping us with. I have written before about how we seem to have reached the singularity of in that regard, nearly all previous visions of the future have all but come true (except those flying cars) and all writers and artists can see ahead now is some form of apocalypse. Perhaps this is why we take such delight in our past today?

Nostalgia is no longer the thing Grandad indulges in by the fire of a Sunday evening its a hard and fast brand. We have Instagram filters designed to ape old photography, vintage posters are all the rage, we all wear ‘retro’ clothes, women use winged eyeliner again, even politically we seem to be sliding backwards further and further to the conservative point of view of yesteryear. As a culture we are now obsessed with the aesthetic of the past, and I stress the word aesthetic there. An actual deep and nuanced understanding of history evades most of us as any information we don’t have is but a google away. We even use older methods of philosophy and analysis today.

Churchill once said, “those who do not learn from history will be forced to repeat it” and a thorough knowledge of where we came from undeniably helps us know better where we are going I really don’t feel like most people do know or understand where we came from. History is a complex and malleable thing, we all know how subjective personal accounts of a past event are and how totally open to interpretation even hard evidence can be so an investigative and skeptical approach to both our past, present and future is a must, whereas all culture does now is uses a given piece of history as a glib reference or out of context evidence to bolster a claim or legitamise a work of art. This surface level of historical knowledge can be extremely damaging however as is regularly proved over in the United States of America.

Constitution

The United States Constitution is the road map for American Democracy. It is a piece of paper created in 1787 and ratified in 1788 on which the foundations of that country are built. It was laboriously devised by many (white) men, poured over and adjusted then signed by thirty nine men and then enshrined in law. It dictates how the country should be governed and the rights of the populace and along with the Bill of Rights added in 1791 offers what many consider to be the leading example of democratic justice and reform for an independent country. Except, no. Even at the time the Constitution was contested. Benjamin Franklin, one of the great intellects and overall badasses of history, even said at the time “There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall ever approve them.” It was initially riddled with holes, it didn’t even clearly explain who was allowed to vote and following the Civil War had to be amended again. Amendments have constantly been written and rewritten to adjust a 200+ year old document to bring it more in line with contemporary thinking and the world at large. It was also entirely based on and borrowed heavily from European social philosophy, namely John Locke and the Magna Carta, both British, the country the USA wished to secede from. Adherence to the constitution is something all Americans believe in, understandably, it is what made their country and some stick to it doggedly. Most well known is the US right wing and their love of GUNS. Enshrined in the constitution as a right they have the justice of history on their side when people have the audacity to question whether it is sensible for them to own these murder sticks but they are citing a 200 year old precedence that is so woefully out of context it is entirely irrelevant in the modern age. Written at a time when roaming militia were likely to kill you and your family for supporting the wrong cause, owning a gun was probably a wise move, that is not remotely relevant to our fast food, on demand, iPhone generation.

Culture’s love of historical ephemera without regard for context or nuance is worrying. We are quick to label Trump – sorry Drumpf – a Hitler clone and we may not be far from the truth in overall rhetoric but Hitler was not a “litigious serial liar with a string of failed businesses” he was a military man with a sharp mind, coherent policies and an understanding of international politics. Nostalgia is being used as a shield, a defence mechanism that hides us in a cloud of the good-old-days, a threadbare comfort blanket that offers no comfort and barely resembles a blanket anymore. The weight of history is crushing as is the pressing thrust of the future meaning we are sandwiched in between and we are giving neither the fair amount of thought. Every day a troubling revelation comes to light that effects us all yet we shrug it off and carry on with our Netflix and Chill. To ignore these dire warnings, as history has repeatedly shown us, will be to our cost.

So consider the Black riots next time you add a grainy filter to your photo to make it look like the 60s. Consider the sexism inherent in the 50s when you use those retro graphics. Remember segregation inherent in the performance and lyrics the next time you sing an old blues song. Remember the various individuals who have died for rights that would not have been afforded you 50 years ago when you discuss 200 year old legislation. Consider the context of what you say and do, nothing was made in a bubble and the old days were as good as they were bad.

Seeing A Different Aside

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A little while ago on Vine (my social media app of choice) a trend developed, started by Tony Oswald called ‘Besides’. This grew out of his starting a second account for ‘B-Sides’ vines. Instead it developed into a narrative using a verite style of still shot video combined with a third person narration in the description box. This got very popular very quick and has been endlessly homaged, copied and lampooned. For my part I created an account called ‘Leo’s Asides’ where I spoke directly to the camera within a similar shot which was a pun on the idea of A-Sides and the theatrical technique of an Aside. I thought this was a highly witty but was little more than a one off gag and didn’t really ‘have legs’ so I abandoned it. I later returned to the account and turned it into an homage to Jackanory, a favourite kids TV show of mine, that revolvese around people telling stories directly to the camera.

An Aside is a very old theatrical technique whereby a character on stage turns to face the audience and express a short quip or thought. It is similar to a monologue or soliloquy but shorter. This is still popular in theatre but has always had a shaky relationship with television and film, in those mediums it is referred to as ‘breaking the 4th wall’, the fourth wall being the one that the camera points through and in a studio doesn’t even exist. It has come back somewhat tentatively in recent years, most successfully thanks to Kevin Spacey’s grounding in theatre on House of Cards, but is often seen as cheap or lazy unless done with purpose and I’m interested in why.

On the stage the audience is present in the room with the actors, we are part of the fiction, we are sat in the theatre and interactivity is encouraged be that simply through applause or laughter so an actor turning to face us as an audience seems natural; why wouldn’t our hero want us to be on his side and so explain his reasoning? Or a villain attempt to justify his actions? The falsity is apparent throughout a theatre experience and the amount of tools available in theatre (originally at least) are far less than those in cinema so it is useful to explain the motivations of a character especially when done so eloquently as when Shakespeare does it. In film or television however you have things like score, editing, voice over/narration, CGI and many other tools to help make a character’s inner monologue or motivations apparent on screen but for some reason a wink to camera or an aside can induce a wince from an audience. Most of the time this sort of expository stuff is handled through conversation, normally quite clunkily, so you would think a quick aside might speed things along but apparently not, they just seem cheap or cheasy. Can you think of many moments where this is done successfully in a film or TV? I struggle. Why is this? I think the real problem lies in one big question it poses that should not be posed whilst watching a film or TV show: Who are you talking to?

In the really rather excellent opening to series 2 of Netflix’s House of Cards (not the original BBC adaptation) the whole episode goes by without an aside and so much happens in that hour you are totally engrossed so it is with genuine shock and deep unease that you watch Underwood look into the camera through his mirror and ask “Did you think I had forgotten you?” This question comes loaded with a great deal: Who is this ‘you’? In the internal logic of the show why would he have not found time to talk to me/us/you? Another episode later in the 3rd series ends with him glaring at the lens and saying “What are you looking at?” a directly confrontational line that initially uses an old phrase people use to dismiss people who have witnessed something unpleasant but underlying that: what are we looking at? Are we voyeurs? Does Underwood know this is all fiction, a game? Or is this Spacey adding commentary to the events (an unpopular point of view as that robs the show of its painstaking lengths to get an audience invested)? For me I have my own theory on who Frank Underwood is talking to, along with every other aside or monologue I have seen.

All monologues/soliloquy pale in comparison to Hamlet’s now cliched ‘To Be or Not To Be’ but love it or loathe it, its a fucking BARNSTORMER. At once revelatory, prophetic, poetic, beautiful sad, witty, insightful, profound and completely baffling it conveys enough thought and emotion to have sustained it for centuries and centuries to come but with every production of Hamlet comes the question that all directors and actors fear: how do we do this? Who do you say it to? Ultimately you choose one of two ways, to the audience or to themselves. For me that is who you are talking to in film or TV when performing an aside: you are talking to yourself. More often than not a soliloquy is an attempt to justify their actions and we feel and understand and sympathise with this because we all do this everyday. We all attempt to explain or justify our actions or reasoning to ourselves every time we do anything, for theatrical purposes a monologue/aside/soliloquy is an effective way of expressing that. In literature, certainly from a first person perspective, it is nothing but a long open monologue on the part of the author.

For me it boils down to immersion, how deeply immersed do you want your audience? By adding the internal conflict or reasoning of a character you allow insight and by extension identifiable emotions or logic and it allows for greater understanding and sympathy for the person. This is why some of the most memorable or effective chats with the audience are with “villains”. To sympathise with a monster is an unsettling feeling but one that can only be achieved to that extent through a whispered, private conversation between you and them. When you do not have this you are projecting your own feelings onto the character’s words and deeds which can be equally affecting but seeing the depth of character that can be achieved and how memorable a good aside can be I’d hope this is a trend that will return. True Detective 1 achieved a certain level of soliloquy with Rust as he explained his rationale and philosophy to the two detectives interviewing him in monologue form but House of Cards use of a direct to camera soliloquising far from distancing the audience by confronting us with the reality (or falsity) of our watching position it draws me deeper in and engages me directly with someone whom I would consider a monster but 3 series in consider to be a well reasoned man.

In an age of snooper’s charters, wikileaks, Snowden and every other threat to our privacy not least our compulsion to tweet, facebook or vine every thought we have to the world, the intimacy and even comfort of a private word, one to another, is a rarity I’d like to see less turned aside.

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Sex, Violence, Language, Bother?

 

It is a fact often mentioned that the most interesting and varied productions for mass consumption are not films anymore but rather television. It has been a slow change but for me the most noticable moment when a television show became more of a cultural phenomenon that was not simply the usual fodder and had a bigger budget was Lost. People now often decry that series for its woeful 3rd series and unsatisfactory finale (what would have satisfied you?) but the first two series were undeniably hugely popular and totally unexpected. I love Lost personally, and another series at the time was and remains my favourite television show ever. House, to my mind, is yet to be surpassed in the writing department. It established its characters and developed a formula that every episode adhered to yet within these bounds created a vast and expansive mystery comedy farce drama thing that is unlike anything else I have seen before or since. But there have indeed been many American television shows that have come before and since.

I think Buffy is a good example of a long running show that allowed for experimentation with the form from episode to episode and did so with aplomb. Now we take this kind of risk taking in our stride but just look what we have on offer today. Where once it was the regular ‘family values’ kitchen sink drama or your crime drama now we have hackers, corrupt political intrigue, vampires ghosts and werewolves living together, dragons and sorcery, motorcycle gangs, costumed superheroes, hard boiled Baltimore cops, middle aged meth cooks, serial killer good guy cops, time travellers, advertising execs and the Muppets. The wealth of material available is so wide and varied I can’t even think of half of them but what interests me the most about these is the element of risk inherent in all of these programmes. What do I mean by Risk?

I have talked about Cinema’s now required 12a certificate in cinema on this site before but to paraphrase: Hollywood, in an effort to sell to the broadest possible market ensures all its films are tailored to appeal to adults but without anything that can breach the censors requirements for a 12a certificate so kids can watch it too. What this creates is a strange, toothless, annual crop of films that satisfy neither market. The reasons for this are myriad but the main one is financial (as ever). Blockbusters and even indie films cost a lot of money to release in today’s saturated market and with behemoth franchise films costing hundreds of millions to produce, this is a worrying and high risk investment so anything that can guarantee a high audience share and good box office returns is a must. Sadly this compromises the artistry and individuality of whatever feature is being made. In television this risk is vastly reduced largely because in America people are either already subscribed to a pay to view channel or the network already has their established brand to use to distribute. Also, importantly, payment is not taken immediately at the door while watching, it is either via subscription or from advertising revenue (or in the BBC’s case the TV License). As such profits can be high and with your own studio and staff to help produce a show you can afford to take a few risks, be that with writing or casting or topic. To their credit HBO was really the leader in deciding creativity was worth the risk but every network was quick to follow suit but it is only recently I feel these shows have really started aiming towards a higher age market. Whilst the tone or topics of most shows could be mature often the content of an episode wasn’t necessarily. By this I mean those usual dogs of censorship: Sex, violence and bad language.

Almost all lauded and hailed television shows of the last 10 years have included sex, nudity, strong language and middling to strong violence if not all of those episode to episode. I very rarely see anything like that in cinema today and if it is, it is tame and/or sanitised in some way. And this is what is so funny, films have restrictions on entering or buying the product, television does not so it cannot be for whatever hollow reasoning of protecting children Hollywood may give as they have access to gratuitous violence and nudity on any channel on television. When I was a child in the 80s I knew the grown up stuff and was largely in awe/fear of it. I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of stuff I really wanted to because it was too violent or grown up. Some of my favourite films, Aliens, Predator, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, even Batman, were banned from my viewing (completely understandably) but these were films. I watched whatever TV I wanted though I was made aware of the still weirdly undefinable ‘watershed’, but generally most TV was never that extreme or challenging to my child sensibilities. I imagine today the reverse is precisely true.

I am not the biggest fan of TV shows today however, I must confess. Most are great but I lose interest after a few episodes or the 1st series, I prefer film, but a few have gripped me. True Detective immediately dropped in alongside House and Edge of Darkness as favourite TV of all time, Breaking Bad is undeniably one of the best things ever committed to tape, but two current favourites are Netflix exclusives. For me the addition of online shows was a game changer because suddenly you had even less restrictions and even more subscription money coming that could pay for the truly staggering production costs and glossy look and feel of the utterly sublime House of Cards which deals with every possible vice you could think of and is deliciously pitch black. My other new favourite is Daredevil which until recently was the first attempt by money printing behemoth Marvel/Disney to try something R rated. The violence and strong language in the show was a delight for a comic fan like myself as it most closely resembled its source but in addition to that the excellent writing for each character and interest in development therein was so enjoyable and so surprising I was completely gripped.

As young teenager I remember much being made of the legitimacy of violence and explicit nudity that was being used in cinema at the time. Does violence and sex and swearing lend authenticity to the work the artist is trying to produce? Well it depends on what you are trying to produce or what story you want to tell but if you are telling the story of adults and their lives then I don’t know about anyone else but my life as an adult, and certainly the most exciting and noteworthy moments, have involved sex and violence in some way and involve swearing nearly everyday. I have been watching a lot of films from the 70s lately (for another post) which also feature a lot of Sex, Violence, Language, Other and are all the more rich and entertaining for it. For me cinema is slowly becoming neutered by its need for higher and higher profits, a trend that is not abating anytime soon. Almost no films produced today are not an adaptation, sequel or reboot of a pre-existing creative work and even those are not creatively produced. Television now seems incapable of being anything but original. This saddens me because cinema is such an effective medium and is able to do things television cannot but the industry’s complete lack of interest in doing anything different or new means the best writers, actors, directors, crew must go to television to tell their refreshing, violent, sex filled, sweary opuses and seeing how successful they all are seems proof that there is a more than big enough audience there for it not to be a risk for cinema to appeal to it. The likes of the R rated Deadpool doing so well and rumours of an R rated cut for Batman vs Superman give me some hope but equally I think this will be a flash in the pan. For now I’ll stick to the few really challenging Television that I have latched on to both of which have new series out this month so I can’t complain.

Spectre at the Feast

Ambrose Bierce wrote a short story printed on Christmas Day in 1886 called ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’. It’s a creepy story told in first person mainly about death and the afterlife. In 1895 Robert Chambers published a collection of short horror stories under the title ‘The King in Yellow’. The name is taken from a fictional play that drives anyone who reads it mad that is mentioned in most of the stories and serves as a connecting tissue for the whole collection. Quotes from the play introduce certain stories, one of them containing the line “But stranger still is Lost Carcosa”. Carcosa is mentioned in many of the stories too. Chambers made no secret of his homage to Bierce  and the stories from ‘The King in Yellow’ themselves share a similar dark atmosphere to ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’. Some years later in 1926 a writer called HP Lovecraft began having stories published, now dubbed the Cthulu Mythos, concerning themselves with a genre he termed ‘cosmological horror’, the notion that the vast universe contained horrors we could not comprehend and how insignificant we were in the face of them. Lovecraft equally payed homage to Bierce and Chambers using similar techniques as theirs in his shorts: first person and unreliable narrators, dark and pervasive atmosphere, a book – the infamous Necronomicon – that reappears in many stories and many other themes, styles and settings that they used. Many writers have added to the intertextual horror of the Cthulu Mythos over the years but it seems there has been a rather pointed resurgence in popular culture in the last two years.

My interest was first piqued when I was watching the first series of True Detective, which remains an absolute favourite, and the murderer and his accomplices talk explicitly about Lost Carcosa, the Yellow King, and talk at length about theoretical physics and humanity’s entirely redundant place in the universe and at a key moment a character demands Rust “take off your mask” which is a direct quote from the King in Yellow. This is more of a subtext in the inferior second series but still there in many ways. This added a deep and dark extra layer to something that was already pretty grim. Then there was a computer game released for the latest console generation entitled Bloodborne. Bloodborne is, in its entirety, a fond doffing of the hat to Lovecraft with its sanity meter, Shoggoth-type monsters, dream-like horrors and continual references to the Great Old ones and cities beyond the stars (how Carcosa is often described), all set in the Gothic Victoriana of a fictional city populated by werewolves and madmen. These are two very popular, very well-known pieces of cultural ephemera making explicit references to little known horror stories over a century old.

This weekend I went to see a play at the Royal Exchange in Manchester called ‘Pomona’. It is named after the bizarre and empty island between the canals in the centre of Manchester. It’s poster features someone wearing a Cthulu mask. The play itself is set in a maybe-future-maybe-now Manchester where girls are disappearing and the lives that are thrown together because of this. It shares a lot in common with True Detective in its themes but more so in its references to cosmological horror. Characters in the play are playing a role playing game based on Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu and this may or may not be reflected in their real lives. The same paranoia, insignificance and helplessness infused within Bierce, Chambers and Lovecraft runs through the play like a stick of rock. Independently I could perhaps see that I was simply following my nose to seeking out these things being a fan of this type of high concept horror but it was then that the most subtle but definitely most striking entry into this canon showed itself without me having any idea it would be there.

I took a day trip to London to see Spectre as Skyfall had not only set itself as my favourite Bond but hands-down one of my favourite films and I had high hopes. Largely it delivered, it wasn’t as good as Skyfall (it was never going to be) and was rather long and flabby but was a hearken back to the late Connery/early Moore Bond films and was enjoyably fun and a bit daft. What truly amazed me, however, was its own references to the same intertextual lineage of cosmological horror present in Bierce, Chambers, Lovecraft, Bloodborne, True Detective and Pomona. I’m sure at this point I am being scoffed at but let me explain… and if you haven’t seen Spectre please do so but don’t proceed beyond this point as there will be spoilers.

Spectre-Poster-1

First and foremost Spectre opens in the festival of the dead in Mexico City,  a hardly subtle planting of the flag in the same arena of the uncanny as the other entries but still a similarity. The concept of a shadowy organisation and corruption and paranoia and insignificance in the face of such a force are overriding themes in the others too and certainly in Spectre. The organisation itself is depicted as all pervasive and Bond having no idea what he is in for, “a kite dancing in the wind” but these are more general themes and ideas that I could easily just be bringing to the analysis without their overt presence within the film. As such let’s look at some specifics:

The most obvious is the meteorite. Blofeld (parenthetical aside: why the FUCK did they not just say who Christoph Waltz’s character was before hand? We all knew. The film’s called Spectre for fucks sake. Shit I hate marketing) brings Craig and Seydoux to look at the asteroid that created the crater where his base is, giving a little speech about the insignificance of man against the cosmos. Not only that but the asteroid is shaped with circular divots and drop lit creating the impression that the stone is covered in eyes. In short: it’s an inert Shoggoth from Lovecraft. Lovecraft also wrote a short called ‘The Rats in The Walls’ about a man driven mad by the scratching of rats in the walls of his house where he and his colleagues then explore discovering lost horrors in the foundations of the building. In Spectre Bond comically/drunkenly asks a rat who he works for only then for the rodent to disappear into the walls revealing a secret room beyond. Also worth mentioning a similar rat story is told (badly) by Vince Vaughan in True Detective 2. I did not catch the image but on the cork board above the picture Seydoux snatches in the secret room is a Victorian illustration that looked rather gothic horror. I’d be willing to bet on a freeze frame that is some thinly veiled reference to ineffable monstrosities from beyond the stars. Oh and then there’s the mysterious Mr. White from Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace  (intertextual again) referred to as ‘The Pale King’. The safehouse towards the end is called ‘Hildebrand Prints and Rarities’ a reference to Bond’s own mythos and a Fleming Short called ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’ about a rare fish that Bond goes fishing for (side note, Cthulu and associated monsters are beasts of the deep), the safehouse bears a striking resemblance to the description of the residence of Mr. Wilde in ‘Repairer of Reputations’ by Robert Chambers. Mr Wilde also has a cat, a scar and is well versed in everyone’s business using it for his own Machiavellian ends. Sounding familiar? There was also a wonderful moment where a crowd of drones tapping at keys suddenly halts and turns to face Bond in silhouette. A brilliantly chilling moment that isn’t a reference per se but definitely feels straight out of a Chambers/Lovecraft story.

The most blatant reference to Lovecraft/Bierce/Chambers however is in Spectre’s imagery and symbolism. In True Detective 1 the imagery of a vortex is seen throughout the series, either in the scrawls by the occultists or in the swirling flock of crows until it culminates with the swirling black hole of space Rust finally sees at the end of their case. In True Detective 2 two rorschach-like blotches seen above Vince Vaughan’s bed and on the tablecloth eerily reflect the empty sockets of his murdered colleague’s eyes. In Spectre the repeated imagery is the octopus logo of the organisation itself. Seen repeatedly throughout the film on the ring, it crops up in the corners of frame at regular instances but most subtly when Bond shoots the bulletproof glass which cracks in the same way as the film poster into the shape of the octopus. The octopus itself is shown in gargantuan size in the opening credit sequence, wrapping itself around naked and scantily clad women and none-too-subtly resembling every image of Cthulu available. If you think I am reading too much into this imagery Mendes put plenty in Skyfall, most notably the film’s use of Maritime paintings to convey Bond’s struggle for relevance in today’s world. For real, check it out. This kind of foreshadowing is used a lot in film, sometimes called a callback, and certainly if it is unstated this kind of visual storytelling is profoundly effective in conveying tone but also a deeper sense of a plot or subtext. Humans use symbolism to work through problems. Confronting our own failings is painful and difficult and not always rewarding which is why we tell stories with universal themes and identifiable characters and settings so we can project these feelings and thoughts onto the fiction and process our problems better. It is this cathartic process that can be refined and almost subconsciously adapted to tell a story or convey a point. Horror utilises this particularly well.

My favourite horror film is Don’t Look Now. It is not, on the whole, a scary film but it IS deeply, deeply unsettling throughout and it is the finale that is most terrifying. Roeg uses symbolism and imagery throughout the film to tell the story and to give the shocking ending such weight and horrifying depth. He uses three small things: broken glass, spilled water and the colour red. One of these will be in every scene in that film, maybe even every shot and it has a cumulative effect. From the opening shattering scene involving the broken glass spilling water onto the slide of a red hooded girl that mirrors their daughter’s awful drowning outside to THAT ending that will never leave me, the three pieces of symbolism and imagery connect the whole story start to finish and make it all the more haunting. It’s wonderful stuff. Spectre isn’t quite so involved but the use of its own symbolism that it undeniably cribs (maybe not intentionally) from those early horror writers lends the darker moments much more depth and weight.

So why now? Why is modern culture suddenly so keen on the cosmological horror of writers and stories from over a century ago? The pre-civil rights/post-war world Lovecraft wrote in, paranoia and the feeling of insignificance in the face of larger threats was ever present in society at the time. Lovecraft was also an indefensible racist and anti-semite, something that sadly pervades his work but goes a long way to explain where this resurgence of his and Chambers & Bierce’s brand of intertextual existential and worried horror in mainstream popular culture maybe coming from. We live in a world where (as Spectre also points out) the Snooper’s Charter is in headline news, we’re being watched by drones, innocent black people are being gunned down, school shootings are a near weekly occurrence, each new discovery from a comet to new pictures of Pluto places us in a inconceivably vast universe, wars abroad causing influxes of refugees to all shores across the globe and economic depression are almost all events shared with the time Lovecraft was writing.

‘The spectre at the feast’ is a turn of phrase in reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (oh look at that, another recent film) where Macbeth’s feast is ruined by him seeing the ghost of Banquo, indicating he cannot hide from his guilt as it is his burden. Some people sometimes call this ‘the elephant in the room’. We live in scary and uncertain times that we are struggling to find our place in and it should be deeply troubling to all of us that such massive global blockbuster fare as James Bond would be, intentionally or not, using iconography of a hundred years ago to reveal the horrors being wrought on the planet. This current crop of creative writers, directors, playwrites and game developers who are returning to these stories as they strike such a deep chord, are addressing our own Spectre at our own feast and I worry that this “fit is not momentary” and we should heed better this “very painting of our fears”.

6xjOR