In Search of The Worry

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I was watching broadcast television at the beginning of the year at a friends house. My friend and I were babysitting and being forced to endure some inexplicable kids show. During the ad break there was an toy advertisement for something called ‘Worry Eaters’. Children are to write down their worries and concerns and feed them to these knitted creatures who devour and digest the issue and presumably absolve the child. I was struck dumb by this; In a world where children can be prescribed anti-depressants toys are now marketed specifically for the purpose of removing anxiety from children.

The Worry Eater dolls are German in origin and probably have some sort of cultural or folk lore precedence, akin to native American ‘Dream Catchers’. The idea of making an intuitive worry or fear a physical object  so as to dispense with it is an old one practiced by witch doctors and shamans since early man but this was normally perceived as a supernatural concern and one that was not usual to afflict children specifically. The dolls themselves are cute-ified monsters and were apparently quite a hot seller at Christmas so can only be seen as a reflection of something that is a growing prevalence in the young. That they are scared and anxious, even depressed at an age when we assume it is all puppy dogs tails and playing Tag.

In the brief bit of research I made on these toys the highest entry on Google was, alas, the Daily Mail with its typically reactionary and scare-mongering article about how this is an epidemic and no doubt that “something must be done” or “ban this filth”. I don’t know, I didn’t read that far because as I began reading the drivel about why the BBC/the Labour Party/Immigrants/ Benefit Scroungers were to blame for this epidemic my eyes flitted to the side bar of latest articles all containing a montage image with a click-bait headline. Normally involving a half-naked woman or some sort of lascivious detail. This basically explained everything I needed to know.

Historically we have fewer cases of ‘Anxiety’. That’s not to say it didn’t exist but I doubt we had as sophisticated diagnoses or diction to describe this mental state prior to the mid 20th century. Before psychoanalysis developed these kind of mental afflictions were probably described as ‘ Fatigue Syndrome’ or ‘Exhaustion’  etc. You need only read a 19th century novel to see how many people collapsed from ‘Shock’ or a similar ailment  and then put that alongside a modern Panic Attack to see that a similar problem did occur but it does seem to be a much higher percentage of people suffer from these kind of mental health issues today. I wrote about the growing number of Mental Health patients on the NHS in another post but this notion of children suffering to the extent even their toys are used as a way of relieving symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression leads me to some different rather more horrifying conclusions.

Recently I have been reading a lot more Horror. This was prompted by watching the first series of True Detective which under the guise of American Gothic storytelling told a truly murky, bleak and horrific tale of cosmic horror, incorporating the intertextual horror of the likes of Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers and HP Lovecraft. Delving into this world of episodic cosmic horror has been quite a revelatory thing for me. This kind of writing, far from giving you a monster or ghost to fear simply gives you yourself and the cold, uncaring universe which, frankly, is the most chilling thing of all. The fallibility of our minds and our temperaments and the perilous knife edge on which we survive against incredible odds everyday should be enough to chill anyone’s blood. Lovecraft wrote at a time when we were learning more and more about our place in the universe and when civil rights was at a tipping point (Lovecraft himself was a notorious racist with some dodgy opinions on sex and women to boot) and crafted these feelings of being buried under a tide he could not fight or little comprehend by personifying them as ineffable monstrosities from beyond the stars.

Today we are bombarded with information, development and growth of our species that only serves to place us sheep in a vast herd, desperately bleating for significance on a windswept rock on a lonely mountain. That is enough to make anyone anxious. As our populace grows and we create more to distract ourselves and try so hard to ensure the fleeting breath between cradle and grave have some lasting meaning the more we will feel the crushing weight of nothingness that surrounds our little blue dot pressing down on us. The more we search outside ourselves the more we discover and the more alone we feel. The growth of apocalyptic fiction in recent years is a good indicator of this mentality too. we hope for a reset or a recasting in a world that makes more sense, where one person can make a difference whereas in truth there is no purpose and we all know that, probably why so many billions still turn to faith to salvage their sanity and hope there is something beyond that infinite black. All of which recalls Neitzsche’s warning of  “Gaze not into the abyss for the abyss gazes also into you”.

So yes Daily Mail, anxiety and its fellow mental health issues is a more modern problem but is probably a symptom of humanity coming to terms with our own growth and development, a mental evolution following our physical one, the awkward teenage years of the human race as it realises its powerlessness and insignificance in the face of a much larger world. For me as a teenager I took any method I could to relieve that fear and worry so personally I think everyone should have a worry eater doll if it makes you feel better.

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Observation Not Admiration

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This post will be a relatively short one as it revolves around a request and a task I’d like to give you. The next time you are out of the house and walking to the shops or walking down your local high street for whatever reason I want you to have a really close look at everything you see. All the stuff you see day in, day out, that you know like the back of your hand, stop and really look at every inch of it, especially the people you pass. I know this goes against the grain of the British temperament of staring at our feet and not making eye contact in case you get beaten up or whatever but just do it. And when I say ‘look at’ I mean observe.

Sherlock made the distinction to Watson that he “sees but you do not observe”. It’s actually very easy to do as we tend to glance at things we pass anyway, all observation is is absorbing what you see and analysing it as opposed to just letting it slide past for the thousandth time. So don’t just watch, watching implies waiting, observe and digest what you see. Look at the condition of the house or the shop, what do they sell? Is it new or old? What do they have in the windows? What day of the week and what time is it? Does the shop or home look welcoming? What are the people you pass wearing? Are they with anyone? Who are they with? What are they doing/wearing? Are they talking? Do they have an accent? What is the snatch of conversation you hear from them about? How fast are they moving? How are they standing? Are they engaged in a task? Just take a stroll down the street you know so well and look at it with fresh eyes.

The reason I ask is, yes, the Election. What I want you to do is look at your surroundings and really critically analyse what you see, then think about how that influences you. Then, MOST IMPORTANTLY, what you don’t see. Our day to day surroundings are the most influential thing to our political beliefs alongside our family.

I’ve been making an effort to do this as I complain I live in an area that is geometrically opposed to all my political and social values. I am left-leaning (but will never call myself a ‘lefty’) and live in a safe Tory seat. I complain because of all sorts of local bias and so on but I decided this is equally as prejudiced of me as the more conservative attitudes of the locals is. So I took a stroll down the high street with my eyes wide open at the weekend and saw people waving at one another in the street, saw a group of handicapped youngsters in wheelchairs being taken around town by carers, I saw lots and lots of prams with lots of well dressed Mums/Nannys/Grandparents pushing them, I saw a woman taking down a sign for free tea and coffee at the church, I saw form and structure, I saw a lot of elderly people (by which I mean 60+ as the state dictates this is pension age) going about daily errands and an awful lot of well kept cars. I didn’t see any non-white people except one of the people in the wheelchairs, I didn’t see any one not dressed smartly or at least ‘presentably’, I didn’t see any ‘cheap’ clothing, I didn’t see any ‘old’ shops unless they were presented or faked to look as such, certainly nothing that looked like it had been made in the 70s or 80s except some of the people, I didn’t see call signs of poverty (homelessness, poorly tended buildings, a mood of anger or unhappiness), I didn’t see anyone I knew, I didn’t see many smiles and I didn’t see any cars older than 10 years.

I’m not going to tell you what conclusions I drew from that and you are welcome to draw your own but the point was, I observed more than I usually did. You should do the same and think about what you see. We tend to let our surroundings slide by unnoticed due to familiarity and that which we do pay attention we tend to simply admire. There is a difference between admiration and appreciation. To admire is to see something with respect or approval, that tends not to extend to a critical evaluation of that thing. This is not necessarily bad but it doesn’t really benefit anyone. To appreciate means understand something fully, its faults and its favours. To do that you must truly observe it. To observe something means to take notice or literally perceive something. Start observing what is around you: What values do the people in your area have? What values do you have? Are they shared? I want you to keep all that in mind come the 7th.

In Bed with Stanley

The other day I stumbled across a great deal on an evil, unnamed shopping website for two boxsets of Stanley Kubrick films. I realised I didn’t own a single Kubrick film on DVD which seemed like sacrilege to me so I bought the lot. The next day I had almost all of Stanley Kubrick’s major films minus Spartacus, Barry Lyndon and Lolita so decided on giving my Saturdays over to Kubrick marathons and reacquainting myself with his work.

As soon as I became aware of what they were and their influence, I’ve always claimed Stanley Kubrick as one of my all time favourite film directors. Before you go bashing the ‘pretentious’ button I should add others on this list include Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Nolan and formerly Steven Spielberg who are “Popcorn” directors largely. I always state this when asked about favourite directors but when asked about favourite films I rarely name a Kubrick in the top ten. This is typical of the sort of director who makes the same film repeatedly and whilst Kubrick’s films are the polar opposites of one another they do feel like they are stylistically the same film. This can be a good thing and a bad thing: I am not a fan of Wes Anderson and his films are all stylistically identical, likewise I like Tarantino and his are all stylistically identical. this boils down to what film students and cinema commentators call ‘Auteur Theory’.

Auteur Theory has something of a wooly history and definition. It wasn’t something that evolved it was an idea developed by some writers for a french film magazine that was then adopted by directors to feel big and is now part of cinema law. Originally the studio system dictated what films were made and how, this resulted in what was called the ‘conveyor belt’ system (sometimes pejoratively referred to as the ‘cookie cutter’ method) where the studios decided what films should be made in a box ticking exercise to make money. Directors were simply seen as giving direction to the actors, there were formulas for editing, camera placement, sound design that were all strictly adhered to. The producer tended to have more power than the director in those days as they tended to be studio representatives and the money man (now these are called Executive Producers). Slowly though films became more creative under the guidance of more wilful directors like Truffaut, Hitchcock, Kurosawa and Renoir. Influenced by these early talents at making more individual films and the explosion of creativity in the 60s the movie brats moved into Hollywood and the Auteur was king. Chief among these was the likes of Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola and if you really want a lesson in all this read the fantastic book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’. HOWEVER, operating through these various shifts in trend was Kubrick, who, from day one it seems, was bucking the trend.

I have a shaky relationship with Auteur theory. There is no denying when certain directors make a film you can say it is most definitely a Spielberg, or a Scorsese, or a Coppola, or even an Anderson but cinema itself and the making of a film is a massive task, certainly for the bigger blockbusters. As such it requires thousands of people to make a film these days and whilst a director may have influence and certain aspects of production they cannot control the exactness of every person’s involvement in a film. Therefore, especially if a director only directs, is it their film? Are they truly the Author? For me one person really was and that’s Kubrick.

Stan the Man co-wrote and directed all his films but most importantly for his early films produced as well. That meant he had creative and technical control of any project he started, even going so far as to having his own production company just so his films could become financed. (A fact regularly over looked by critics and film historians.) As such Kubrick could then be as deconstructive or transgressive as he liked with little fear of the studio stepping in. This also gained him an ominous reputation for being a perfectionist and control freak but the results are incomparable when you see them in sequence and think of his early films in context.

I’m afraid I’m going to summarise each film now so *spoiler alert* and *boring nerd alert*. I watched them deliberately out of order to try and spot ‘Kubrickisms’ where possible but will write them in order. I have not yet seen his first low-budget feature ‘Fear and Desire’ or ‘Barry Lyndon’ either so they are omitted:

Spartacus I saw as a kid but remember it being long and rather dull. I may feel different now but Kubrick disowned it and considered it not part of his “canon”. He was hired in after other directors left the production, this meant Kubrick had less than his usual level of control and despite winning 4 Oscars is not considered his finest work. Equally Lolita is an uneven one. I saw it as an 18 year old after having seen the remake with Jeremy Irons and was not impressed even as I was by then a Kubrick fan. It is peculiarly comedic especially given Peter Seller’s performance as Quilty. The censorship standards were much more strict then, given that a Ratings system was not in place at the time (did a post about that sort of thing here) which meant the book could not be adapted in a more exact way. Lolita’s age was raised and Humbert’s desire was mitigated to real love. The film was still shocking at the time but feels uneven now, I would have been more intrigued if he had directed the 1997 version as it would have probably been much more shattering and hard to watch. As stated though these were not present in my recent marathon so I could be entirely wrong and operating on the vagaries of memory.

Killer’s Kiss is a classic noir about a boxer and a broad in deep with the mob and trying to escape. In many ways if you’ve seen Pulp Fiction you’ve seen this film as Tarantino, to an almost overt degree, has cribbed from it. Other than the now trademark Kubrick camera work it is unremarkable … until the end. The finale in an abandoned department store where a duel is acted out amongst hundreds of mannequins is a work of macabre wonder and is pure Kubrick. It is tense and bizarre and easy to forget its period setting. The chase along the rooftops are a wonder to behold, seeing New York in all its black and white glory. The framing device of the lead character waiting at the station is also wonderful and another trope stolen by Tarantino.

The Killing is even more Tarantino. It is about a group of men (and a woman) planning to rob a race track. It involves a varied rogues gallery of characters and some stellar editing and camera work. In a revolutionary bit of scriptwriting the sequence of events is told out of order and occasionally in flashback and can easily be identified as a blueprint for Reservoir Dogs, in fact most of Tarantino’s output. It also has truly brilliant ending that is honestly tense and I didn’t expect. Despite being very much dated, Kubrick’s tropes are coming to the fore and you can feel him pushing the limits of the medium already.

Paths of Glory is the first that feels like true Kubrick and the first that feels truly modern. The story of a power mad general ordering his troops to their death amongst the trenches and then making an example of three of his troops by putting them to trial and then firing squad is slightly scattered but utterly cohesive. Kirk Douglas and the three men charged with “Cowardice” turn in performances of astonishing subtlety that would be happy amongst more modern filmmaking and still make an impression. The long winding shots of the men in the trenches and the painfully cold “down-the-barrell” shot of the firing squad is startling and proof of Kubrick’s investment in revolutionary and incomparable cinematography. The strange, unsettling and off-kilter finale is textbook Kubrick and most certainly assured Hollywood’s desire for him to direct Spartacus thereafter.

After Spartacus and Lolita came one of my definite favourite films of all time ever: Dr. Strangelove. A cutting-to-the-bone satire of the Cold War it is not simply intelligent, tense and MAGNIFICENTLY acted by the main cast, it is laugh out loud funny, which for a satire is hard to achieve. So much has already been said about it so I can add little but know that it is totally worthy of it all. Sellers is truly great in his three utterly different roles, the War Room is justly remembered as an all time cinema classic set and the themes in our time of Russian propagandising and war mongering seem sadly pertinent. It still holds up, is still painfully funny and still shocking. I can’t recommend it enough.

And then. And then… 2001: A Space Odyssey was used by Nasa to train its astronauts and conspiracy theorists believe it is proof Kubrick directed the moon landings. To be honest I think that’s all that need be said. 2001 is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is always the film I cite as being what cinema *could* be. It is also the most obvious film showing Kubrick’s desire to tell more than one story in one film. It is alternately about the evolution of early man, then a film about commercialisation and tourism, then about Man’s struggle with technology and then Man’s struggle with “God”, whatever that may be. The name ‘Odyssey’ encapsulates it well. 2001 is often cited as a “Film School” film and whilst I feel this is a rather ignorant statement there is a reason for it. To say the film still holds up is an understatement, it still has a broader palate than most films or filmakers achieve, it is so ahead of its time we’re still analysing it. It is admittedly long and very slow, so with modern audiences who demand Michael Bay style whizzbang, kinetic energy it is not a populist film but if you are willing and prepared it is totally rewarding. What still staggers me is that it was made in 1968. 1968! We didn’t even have a full picture of the earth from outer space yet! Star Wars was a DECADE away. The film was the first of its kind, was utterly visionary and still is and its influence is almost inescapable in every corner of cinema. Re-watching it did nothing to dim my beliefs of it and merely cemented its place in history for me. Kubrick went technicolour in every which way.

As if to middle finger everyone after making cinematic art of such titanic scale, his next film was A Clockwork Orange a character drama and a return to satire. Much is made of its greater influence than its source material, the Novel by former fellow Manchester resident Anthony Burgess, and I feel that is justifiable having only recently read the novel. I saw this on its debut in the UK which is not something many can say for 29 year old who wasn’t even born when it came out. This is because Kubrick pulled the film due to our delightful print media destroying it before a frame was shown and he sensibly said “if you can’t hack it, you can’t have it”. To that end it was only formally released in the 2000 after Kubrick had died which is when I, and most people in this country for that matter, saw it. It is a very close adaptation of the source it must be said (minus the ending) and is yet another tour de force of filmmaking. Malcolm McDowell is nothing short of brilliant playing the smug and menacing Alex, the production design is a little dated but still striking and the ever present “Kubrick Eye” of cinematography is another standout. The fact so many references are made to it in other novels, films, graphic design, band names, etc is testament to its influence.

The Shining is a tough one. It has been analysed (too much), parodied and pilloried to such a massive degree over the last 30 years it is hard to remove it from all that but the simple fact it IS so ingrained should be enough a testament to its influence. For me its Nicholson’s best performance, its not subtle but it is utterly believable. The editing is still unmatched, staggering considering we now have far more powerful editing techniques available to us and I rate it as Kubrick’s best shot film. The cinematography is pure artistry and is equally unmatched to this day. It has been called camp, slow, long and even (this one is beyond me) “not very scary” but it is a masterclass in atmosphere despite or maybe because of those reasons. I am a fan of horror when it is good. I define a good horror movie as being atmospheric, psychologically affecting, with a simple yet solid plot and good characters. For me that makes The Shining the perfect horror movie. It sits just below Don’t Look Now for me in this regard. Also, spot how many other films reference this one either in parody or homage or even without realising it. Undoubtedly a classic, love it or loathe it. I love it.

Seven years later Kubrick returned to the war movie genre with Full Metal Jacket which looks like it could have been made yesterday. It practically was. War films are still using it as a template. Saving Private Ryan would not have been made were it not for this film. Nor The Thin Red Line. Again Kubrick seems to stitch to different films together: Hartman’s abuse and bullying of Gomer Pyle and his ultimate descent into madness and suicide which shocking conclusion introduces us to the story of Sergeant Joker and his travels through the war zones of Vietnam. Kubrick is firing on all cylinders with jaw dropping cinematography from slo-mo to atmospheric lighting, chilling and deliberately juxtaposing sound design, documentary style shooting, black humour, character drama, satire, cultural comment and much more besides yet as always it remains cohesive and steady. As ever it is slow and luxuriant in its pacing but not to its detriment. It is probably the most readily accepted of Kubrick’s films, being a war movie, but is unmistakably his. It is a haunting and deeply affecting movie and, yet again, changed the genre in which it is set completely.

A full twelve years after that, Kubrick finished Eyes Wide Shut just prior to his unexpected death. It garnered middling returns on its release and came in for something of a critical pasting despite being one of cinema’s greatest at the helm and the two biggest box office draws at the time in the lead roles. Telling the story of a Man’s exploration into sex and desire over a two day period ending in a possible plot on his life and a conspiracy amongst the wealthy it was perhaps still a little ahead of its time. It seems more suited to now. I think it is odd that it is Kubrick’s least ambitious film of his career yet took the longest to shoot. It is also sad that something relatively slight was his swan song yet it does not make it any less brilliant. I had not seen it until the other day and decided to watch it last after having seen all his others in close succession and it does seem like a natural conclusion to his ‘oeuvre’ for want of a better word. With a far greater focus on character it watches like a cinematic version of Joyce’s Ulysses (that is mere conjecture, I’ve not read Ulysses); long, meandering and contemplative it is equally funny, erotic, chilling, frightening, tense, awe inspiring and sad but fiercely contained. You get the impression Kubrick is trying to narrow his massive talents to a single point which, in my opinion, he succeeds at but this is probably why it was so poorly received. Despite being wonderfully grand (the COLOURS!) it only contains a few Kubrickian flourishes which to an idiot might be what you want. It is admittedly slight in comparison to FMJ, 2001 or Clockwork Orange but it is no less a film for that. It initially left me chewing it over and reluctant to state an opinion due to its candour and density but now I feel like it is one of his best. The biggest drawback for me is the casting of Nicole Kidman whose attempt at breathy femme fatale is simply annoying. She delivers every line like a narcoleptic just awoken in what she mistakes for sexy and is generally just a functional character that goes nowhere and Kidman adds nothing to. Luckily Kubrick focusses on Tom Cruise, on fantastic form, and the ancillary characters instead giving them all tragic pathos, the odd funny line and real arcs whether on or off screen. Its sexual politics and already dated appearance will cause problems for many but I think in the future it will be regarded as a classic and have much further reaching influence.

Watching all these in a row many things came to light. First and foremost, for me as a photographer, they are the most cinematically interesting, arresting and innovative pieces of art I’ve seen. Even his earliest films use his trademark unsympathetic, active camera work. Using hard lines, distance, foreground objects, vanishing point perspective and very wide angles, every frame is a picture and truly epic meaning you focus on the figures within these pictures more and that they inhabit a real, large world just like us. Secondly, Kubrick’s preoccupation with Sex. Nudity is not something Kubrick was shy of nor the topic of sexuality at all. Lolita, Clockwork Orange, 2001, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut all concern themselves either overtly or covertly with sex and sexuality. This is often taken as an inditement of Kubrick’s character alongside his other well noted character foibles, that he is a sexist and pervert who is preoccupied with sex. Watching all these together this is not the impression I came away with. Kubrick forever simply observes and the naked bodies of women (and plenty of naked men) are viewed coldly, dispassionately and anatomically whenever in a scene. Kubrick knows that sex is a MASSIVE part of who we are and simply represents that either literally or through imagery (riding the bomb in Strangelove, “getting your gun off” in FMJ or the space child in 2001). He seems to treat sex like a curiosity, an alien brought to earth wondering why humans are so obsessed with procreation. Finally and most pleasingly for me, his misanthropy.

Much is made of Kubrick the oddball, Kubrick the perfectionist, Kubrick the Shut in, Kubrick the tyrant and to me these all speak of a man who – and I flatter myself to compare myself to the great man – like me, largely loathes people and the societies we have created. I may  be utterly wrong but the central theme of each film is almost always: Fuck the Big Guy. Whether its the mob, societies laws, enforced sexual identity/conformity, the chain of command, the military itself, the government, the patriarchal figure, or even the idea of God himself, Kubrick endeavour’s to focus on the individual in any given circumstance and say: “Do what you want to do. People always have done. People always will.” This notion that we are our own masters is refreshing and seems to be something Kubrick believed to his core, separating himself from the glitteratti of Hollywood, it studio system and making his own films his own way seems indicative of what this ideology. As someone who also believes no one has the right to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do as they are just as stupid and self-interested as you are, this is probably why Kubrick’s films speak to me as a whole.

To surmise, Kubrick should be on everyone’s watch list. Similar to the Beatles he is inescapable. He revolutionised cinema practices and storytelling inside and out. Spielberg, Tarantino, Aranofsky, Sophia Copolla, Lucas, Scorsese, Eli Roth, all have visible references to Kubrick – conscious or not – in all their films. As you can see from the list above and not forgetting the four I have omitted, Kubrick was not confined to genre and completely restructured every type of film he touched be it sci-fi, war, satire comedy, relationship drama, histroical biopic, horror, whatever your favourite film is, it is safe to say Kubrick will have influenced it in some way. Also look how varied each film is! Not including his shorts he only released 13 films. THIRTEEN! And look at his influence! Also I would argue he never made a dud, they are all wildly different and polarise opinion but are undeniably near faultlessly constructed pieces. Masterfully executed and wildly differing it is easy to see why he is the director’s director. It boils down to the fact that whether you believe Auteur theory or not, Kubrick’s influence on, not just his own films, but Hollywood itself is unmistakable, far reaching and profound. For such a small body of work made over a lifetime his quality control was set to maximum something no other filmmaker has done since.

In an industry that is very much returning to the classic studio system what with superhero films ruling cinema, adaptations, remakes and rip offs being stock in trade for every other type of film Kubrick’s belief in his ideas and abilities is rare today but equally his ability to challenge himself and his audiences in different ways with every film something that no one is doing anymore and not just in cinema. Cinema is the largest consumed form of entertainment next to computer games. Computer games garner none of the discussion, criticism or awards films do yet are so wildly different and becoming more and more challenging year by year it seems like real Auteurs who might be the next Kubrick would be better served making the switch to computer games where rules are more blurry and where the future of storytelling and audience involvement may lie. Suda 51, Ken Levine and Peter Molyneux are evidence of this altering trend but I for one have meagre hope in cinema thanks to the likes of Christopher Nolan (who seems to be setting his career on Kubrick’s own), Ben Wheatley, Lars von Trier, Tarantino, Matthew Vaughn, Jonathan Glazer and a few others who still try to bring innovation and depth into their medium.

I would urge you to pick up any Kubrick film either again or for the first time and give it a very attentive watch. They are all rewarding films and as a whole speak of an actual creative genius that is, by me at least, sorely missed.

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Very Language

…Such word.

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During a conflab with my good buddy and sounding board the other night we got onto the notion of trigger warnings and ableist speech came up. What we were discussing was their practicality. Now before I get every hardcore right wing or left wing political activist/commentator leaping all over me, we were not questioning their merit we were discussing their practicality. Every day a new issue is brought up (almost exclusively on the internet) about these two practices that requires a furthering of their reach. My argument is that anything can be a trigger and almost anyone (that isn’t a white male, ‘playing life on easy mode’) can have discriminative language used against them. So whilst correctly identifying someone’s choice of sex/gender/partnership and sensitively considering the impact of your topic on someone’s mental health is noble and ultimately the decent thing, language and active discussion on almost any topic becomes somewhat over burdened. The problem being that when talking about anything there would have to be drawn out parenthesise, asides, footnotes or explanations for any nouns or adjectives. This can kill a discussion stone dead and is actively inhibitive of necessary arguments that need to be made to further the cause of the topics that necessitate trigger warnings and ableist/gender language.

I am well aware of this being an unpopular view. The journalist Helen Lewis was drummed off Twitter for saying much the same thing but to be honest that’s not really what I want to talk about. I wanted to talk about language’s continued evolution and how it is being forced to evolve quicker thanks to modern technology.

First and foremost, I write poetry and prose so words are close to my heart. I am biased but you would be a fool to ignore the fact that human’s ability to speak (in whatever language) along with our awareness of mortality is pretty much what defines us as a species. Without language we would not be where we are. We are almost entirely made of language. Every language the world over be it French, Cantonese, Finnish, Spanish, Russian, English or any of the multitude of other languages we have on earth, have developed and evolved over the centuries. I recently read Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ which is over 2000 years old and am currently reading Anne Carson’s ‘Red Doc>’ published last year and the leap from translation of an ancient text to modern speech and syntax is staggering. Obviously Art of War is a modern translation but the context is that much more different when Sun Tzu wrote it and let us be clear – this is the whole thrust of my argument – Words have definitions, context gives meaning.

Picking someone up on a (perhaps admittedly poor choice of) word I feel is counter productive, in the same way I want to smash grammar nazis heads in with a fucking rock. The sanctity of language is something humans defend with their last breath WITHOUT the need for its policing. We need language and we need to be understood, even the most wilfully illiterate troll needs his words to get his asinine and prejudiced view across. As such I really feel the aggressive nature with which a misspelled or mistyped word or a poorly chosen word is used and the user actively eviscerated, helps no one. If the speech they are trying to make is generally for the good I’d rather take the whole than the pieces. Details can be deceiving and often a case of not seeing the woods for the trees.

Nietzsche once wrote “I’m afraid we cannot give up God as we still have grammar”. I only heard this quote last week and it struck a deep chord. What (it is my understanding) Nietzsche meant by this is the fact we still use phrases like “It is raining” or “They wouldn’t let it happen”. The ‘It’ and the ‘They’ are non-specific references to some form of linguistic deity. So “God”, in some form resides with in our language. NOW; Due to the world becoming more secular in general and with the advent of the internet (originally a platform for discussion without militant censorship) being an ideal place to foster this notion it seems this particular hiding place for The Man Upstairs is finally being over turned. What do I mean? Ladies and gentleman, I give you: Doge

In the world of the internet Doge is not the first trend of his kind to come along, who can haz forgets LOL Cats? But Doge to me is an indicative point of reference for the use of humour (its always humour that makes the most progressive ideas popular) to disassemble our language. I hate the word “Meme” because its origins lie with someone I detest but seeing as that is how they self-identify I shall use the term: Memes have always deliberately used language badly to make the funnies and give all the lols. To the point where I actually said the word “Obvs” out loud in conversation the other day in an entirely un-ironic way. This is not new.

“He’s going to bring up Poetry again isn’t he?” YES I BLOODY WELL AM.

Modernism is a good place to start when considering how forcefully it tried to “Make It New!” as Ezra Pound once said. James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are exemplars of a case to be made for the deliberate and systematic destruction of syntax and words being used incorrectly or at least strangely. These are traditionally seen as being the ‘outsiders’ though, not mass consumed literature or art like Memes and such. Yet for the last 15 years read any self-confessed ‘Literary Fiction’ *spits* and you’ll see the same attempts to reappraise language, Cormac McCarthy being a prime candidate. ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘The Road’ are sparse, practically barren texts with barely any punctuation beyond a full stop and the odd comma. But for me it always comes down to poetry. Poetry has been doing this since it started being composed and language used in such a way. I remembered a poem by Robert Herrick the other day from the 17th century called ‘Dreams’:

“Here we are all, day by day; by night we’re hurled

By dreams, each one, into a several world.”

Firstly, what a fabulous poem. He wipes the floor with a lot of other poems about dreams in two lines of pentameter. Secondly, check out that last phrase: “A several world”. “A many Cat” “Very Dog” “Such Piglet” “So Poem”. Poetry was body slamming linguists and grammarists from day one. It is where language goes when it wants to cut loose or breed and that fundamentally is the problem with the world’s dogged adherence to by turns ye olde grammar or “must-include-everyone-and-everything” language.

Language is its own thing, whatever language that may be. Like water it finds its quickest path and goes that way weather we build a dam or not. It is a living breathing, creature that grows limbs and shoots lazers from its eyes and has an Adamantium skeleton. Which is why getting on your high horse and berating others for the “your/you’re” SIN seems almost tragically quaint. You can beat the irony drum as much as you like too but bad grammar and silly linguistics are everywhere. It is almost the sole mode of communication on some websites. Use “Meme Speech”, as some nitwits pejoratively refer to it, on Twitter or anywhere on the web and expect a flood of very reply, so response. In many ways, language itself is God. It is our creator and we are at its beck and call all the time. Fascinating then, that so many religions have been built around it. I should stress I am no christian and do not have any fealty to any faith yet nor do I, or would ever, pronounce myself as Atheist. There are just as many churches and doctrines with that particular faith as any that adhere to a deity. Equally words being that which I hope to make a career out of, I most certainly do not feel the need to be its staunch defender. Language doesn’t need my, your or anybody’s help to develop and accommodate new ideas of gender, ableism, race or trauma.

The difference comes with our intent and that is the context in which it is said. If you have an hour these guys make the point but funnier and more in depth than I do but to put it succinctly: If you are talking about a topic in its defence and either through ignorance or poor choice of humour use language someone deems insulting, rude, insensitive or triggering then I’m probably not going to call you on it A) Because millions of people are lurking in wait to do it instead but B) Because the chances are I’ll agree with your argument and want other people to hear it, poorly phrased syntax and all.

We do not own language, it owns us. It shapes and defines us as our identities shift and as our “isms” become more abstract and psychological and so language will move to accommodate. The internet, text talk and literature are actively trying to dismantle preconceived notions of the English language and are transmuting it as I write. Trying to rigidly enforce a set of archaic rules on a system that is already being collapsed so that minorities or the well being of others can be better met seems counter productive as whatever happens with language in the generations to come will be designed around our new method of thinking and broader inclusivity. The language of the 20th century will be as unrecognisable then as Chaucerian English is now.

God may be in the grammar but the Devil is certainly in the detail.

doge copy

In Defence of Curses

*This post will contain very strong language start to finish so if you are of a sensitive disposition or are easily offended don’t be a cunt about it and fuck off now*

I recently had a poem published in Penguin’s ‘Poetry of Sex’ Anthology edited by Sophie Hannah. As you may gather from the title it was a collection of poems about the ‘Physical Act of Love’ i.e. Shagging, Fucking, Doing it, nobbing, slap and tickle, how’s your father, knee trembler in the alley, boning, screwing, buggering, dicking, the old in and out, scissoring, on the job, posh wank, bit o’the other, etc etc etc.

My poem has come in for a bit of a pasting it must be said: A friend of mine described it as fucking misogynistic (which I don’t think it is) and a reviewer in The Times described it as “irredeemable in its witless procession of profanities”. What I am not twatting well going to do is write a long piece defending my poem. Fuck that. Its a poem, it speaks for itself, it can defend itself and certainly doesn’t need me to stick up for it. I am going to defend my use of language within the poem as this seems to be what has warranted such arse-fondling ire.

‘Haikus to Fuck To’ is my poem and as the name implies its about fucking. Not having sex, not procreating, not ‘making love’, not shagging or anything else; its about fucking. To my mind fucking is a great description. There are plenty of different types of sex but the word fuck and in this case its verb form is wonderfully articulate and summons up the exact sense of mind I wanted to present. ‘Making love’ sounds like a slow and romantic act, sex just sounds slightly dismissive like the couple who have been at it for a few days and are relating the third bout, a shag sounds like something you’ve done that’s a bit naughty spur of the moment, and there is nothing wrong with any of the above and I have indulged in all of them but I wanted to write a poem about Fucking. Fucking is carnal, lustful and passionate, something the word itself relates wonderfully. It also imparts the necessary secrecy and the, not in the way you imagine, violent nature of the act itself. Fucking was the perfect word. ‘To fuck to’.

Swears are shitting necessary. Stephen Fry said it really cunting well when he said “The English language has its stately homes and castles and equally has its slums”. As any economist or sociologist knows extreme wealth cannot exist without extreme poverty, likewise buggering sumptuous words that impart the best in us cannot exist with out the cocksucking hideous and mother fucking blunt elements that portray the worst. We need swear words to counter balance what we say everyday, it is in a very small way an act of resistance on our part to use them in everyday speech let alone in a book or public address.

Curse words as they are sometimes known are just fucking that. Words of curse.

“curse |kəːs|

noun

1 a solemn utterance intended to invoke a supernatural power to inflict harm or punishment on someone or something …”

So says the dictionary. These could be long speeches condemning the object of hate to a woeful end or a “magic word” that cast its spell over something in hopes of destroying it. These curses were no doubt well thought out and – early on – probably in Latin so they probably extended to some sort of versification i.e. They were lyrical. This meant they struck a subliminal chord with someone hearing it so it sounded cruel and nasty even if you didn’t know what it meant. This is immediately apparent in our ‘curse words’ now. The way we have whittled down our swear words to almost extreme economy is because not only do they have the weight of hundreds of years of usage and the arseing horrible meanings they inflict but they are also perfectly sculpted works of auditory art.

Lets look at the big three: Shit, Fuck and Cunt. All four letters and they all end with those crashing stops – ‘T’ and ‘ck’. They are physically harsh to say. You cannot soften the ends of these words without dropping the letters entirely. The ‘T’ at the end of shit can be dropped but the blunt end is still implied as the ‘i’ sound is unresolved. Fuck sweeps open with the ‘F’ sound before crashing to a halt with the double tap of the ‘ck’. That’s impossible to deaden. Cunt is still considered the worst. Not least because of its sexually derogatory and sexist overtones but because it is the harshest to say. It starts with a hard ‘c’ a hard ‘uh’ sound followed by a hard ‘en’ and finishes with a solid ‘t’ that is practically a smack in the face. There is no letter you don’t pronounce and every single one is a hammer blow. These words are tailor made to be curses and could not be anything else, even without their connotations.

For this reason I still maintain they are works of fucking art in the English language and are some of the only words that carry impact or make people shy away or simply refuse to say them. In short that is gold dust for a poet. Words being a writer’s main currency, swear words – like archaic or forgotten words – are like shit-gargling £50 notes. But like anything of this nature it is the rarity that makes them impactful, overuse and repetition will kill a word or at least strip it of its meaning (another thing poetry deliberately dwells on, as I discussed previously). There is a wonderful South Park episode where they are allowed to say Shit continually through the episode and has a counter tallying up the amount of times it is said in the episode. It literally treats Shit as a “Word of Curse” and it awakens a group of magical warrior knights who bring down armageddon with a giant fire breathing dragon. Obviously this is hyperbole for comedic effect but it rings true. Having slums next to every stately homes, school, hospital and museum might be a bit much in city planning, likewise with language. Swear words serve a purpose but overuse removes them of their jizz-palming purpose.

My poem used these words for purpose. I tried my best not to repeat myself and use as many differing swear words as I could within the poem so it would have an accumulative effect. The words I used in the poem that are deemed not fit for children or mixed company: Tits, Cock, Dick, Wank, Pussy, Cunt, Cum, Fuck and Minge, each word being perhaps wince inducing but with such high density and consistency would make for an impactful poem. What I think was more unpleasant for people was their sexual context, it is a very anatomically descriptive poem and such strong language in a sensitive area of discussion was perhaps too much for some. In this way it worked too bloody well and what I discovered is how for all the right wing press’ arguments for us being a promiscuous society with no morals or taboos left to break, it seems a few little four letter words set in an ancient Japanese poetic form can still turn people’s stomach and rile them to revolt. For this reason swear words are really sodding GOOD. They make a point better than most words and in less time and syllables than other words.

Having lived alone for some years now, I found my language gets worse and worse (or more colourful as I like to cunting think); akin to that sailor talk people frequently speak of. As such when out with friends I find I swear a lot more freely and realise people look slightly embarrassed or at least look around the pub to ensure no one heard me. I remember getting sent indoors while doing a reading of a play about Thomas Beckett at school due to a, in my opinion highly literate and articulate, slew of profanities. The reason I resist the use of the word ‘Profanities’ is for this reason. The idea that these ‘Curse Words’ being ‘magical’ or in a true sense ‘pagan’ are “Against God” and frankly: Fuck that. There is far more cause for ‘Profane’ language than saintly language. We have obtained more from nautical and service language in everyday speech than anywhere else so “sailor talk”, to me at least, is far more valuable than any saintly speech. So my delightful reviewer who (for some reason) perceives wit as being the chief weapon in a poet’s arsenal, declaring my poem in equally cliched journalistic alliteration a “procession of profanities” I consider the shart-darting highest compliment.

In many ways this has made me think of swear words more as ‘Curse Words’ than before because they do almost seem to cast a magic spell. Like JK Rowling’s brilliant subversion of “Abracadabra” in Harry Potter into “Avarda Kedavra”, the worst of the ‘Unforgivable Curses’, the ‘Killing Curse’, swear word’s meanings have altered and changed but their power is still present. Depending on how or where or when they are delivered a curse can be as powerful as those magical curses wizards and witches would bring down on their hated enemies. Love me or loathe me for my appreciation of such ungodly words but as a self-proclaimed “wordsmith” they are some of my most precious fucking tools in my cunting wonderful shitshed.

Poo cum titty willy bum.

P.S. The path to good swears is a long one and the path to enlightenment is and always will be Viz and its saintly work ‘Roger Mellie’s Profanisaurus’. Buy yourself a copy and cry with laughter. Contrary to newspaper criticism some of the sharpest and funniest WIT comes from portmanteau swearing, crass imagery and out-and-out silly words. Pick it up in a bookshop, pick a page at random and scare people around you by collapsing in a fit of very loud guffaws. You fucking well deserve it.

Some Unseen Censor

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I went to see the modern remake of RoboCop on Monday as I had some cash to spare for a change and treated myself to a day out. My favourite nerdy film site Den of Geek gave it a thumbs up so was willing to give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised by a rather nuanced and intelligent film with a very interesting argument at its core with some of the trademark satire that made the original so great. Sadly the original hangs over it like a big black cloud. Verhoven’s masterpiece cannot be bettered purely because of its context and impact at the time. It is a razor sharp parody of 80s culture, a comic book action story par exellence, a cops and robbers thriller, a pitch black comedy and quiet meditation on humanity all in one bombastic package. The new incarnation is actually much slower paced and is much more interested in the human argument, something it argues very well. The satire is funny and occasionally bold (Samuel L Jackson’s expletive deleted and the so-near-the-knuckle-its-practically-touching-skin opening act are good examples) but in general its slightly toothless. The reason for Verhoven’s original having such punch is its excess – like the 80s itself. Excessive sex, excessive money, excessive drugs and, most importantly for this post, excessive violence.

The modern remake has a lot of “action” but no real violence. The most it offers is some robot shooting and wrestling but few humans are killed and the one scene where there are is enacted in the pitch dark. Verhoven’s on the other hand (pun for fans there) is out and out gore start to finish with a wonderfully satirical take on the “cut throat” business world and board rooms in the first scene, to the sadistic torture of Murphy himself. And yet. I watched the original LONG before I was eighteen and by-and-large was unaffected by it, it was and is a brash hell-for-leather action movie with a lot of gore similar to the comics I read. For me it swam by in a haze of tongue in cheek silliness and exciting explosions and gunfights, the latest incarnation cannot be said to do the same. Its strength is also peculiarly what makes it feel it should have been rated higher than its 12a rating. The human element of Murphy’s story, well portrayed by Joel Kinnaman and Abbie Cornish as his wife, is affecting and is the focus of the film. The psychology of Murphy being put into an armoured and walking iron lung is investigated well and for me was horribly sad and quite affecting, something a younger audience (12 or under) would either not understand or not care about. Additional to this is the numerous scenes in which Murphy’s remaining organic parts are revealed without the suit. In these scenes he is shown as a pair of lungs, a throat and spine and a head with the skull removed exposing his brain. I am not shy to say this made me wince and suck my teeth at the reveal, making me more and more uncomfortable as the scenes lengthened and the disembodied biological matter talked, argued and wept. To my mind this is not material aimed at 12 or under. Not because it is too grisly or frightening but it is confronting a child with stuff it perhaps would find difficult to understand or at the very least not want to know. So why is it a 12a?

I have ruminated a lot over the last few years over the classification system. I am not a prude by any stretch and believe overt censorship is (like that being practiced by our own government on our very existence these days) reprehensible and, frankly, evil. However, censorship is necessary. The word derives from the latin ‘Censere’ meaning ‘to assess’, critical thought is the foundation for human evolution. Without assessing and revising our stance on everything we would still be monkeys in the trees, so censorship and self-censorship is – I believe – necessary when it comes to such mass consumed entertainment as cinema. Yet who dares be the one to censor these films and what gives them the right? In this country we have the British Board of Film Classification who explain themselves jolly well on their website. In fact there is a page that gives a breakdown of the original RoboCop’s film classification on there which is worth the read.

The BBFC separate films into the following age restricted classifications depending on their content: U for Universal, PG for Parental Guidance, 12a for cinema release and 12 for home/DVD release, 15, 18 and R18. U and PG are accessible by anyone of any age and are merely guides for parents or guardians so they might ascertain the content of the film before allowing their charge to go and see said film, 12, 15 and 18 are legally enforced classifications that prohibit anyone below that age seeing the film. I recall most of these being on VHS cases and cinema posters my whole life apart from 12. I was very young when Tim Burton’s Batman came out but I do remember being pissed I couldn’t see it because it was a 15 rated film. I loved Batman (as I still do) and wanted to see the film. A year later when the film was available to rent (yes kids that’s how long it took in those days) it had been changed to the bizarre new rating of ’12’. I wasn’t 12 so still couldn’t see it but it was a new certificate which was interesting. How did this happen? Well like PG and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom before it, 12 was invented to appease both the censor and the studio/director. You see a film will be made based on the story (as it should) and then it will be put up for classification, the BBFC in this case will view it and give it their rating and their explanation for it. Then the problems start. You see Indiana Jones and Batman are undeniably characters for younger people to watch; a man with a bullwhip and fedora and one who dresses as a bat are hardly Hamlet and Citizen Kane. Unfortunately artistic integrity on the filmmakers part meant in those cases making Temple of Doom a lot darker than its predecessor and similarly the same with Batman. In doing so the censor wanted to rate them higher as they were deemed unsuitable for children but if they did that the film loses half its audience and largely its key ‘demographic’ i.e. Young Children. That means losing a lot of money. So the filmmakers and studios fought the MPAA in Temple of Doom’s case and the BBFC in Batman’s case for a new rating that would not ostracise their key ‘market’ but allay fears to parents and warn of the stronger content. More recently this happened with Sam Raimi’s original Spiderman for which the 12a rating was invented so that children younger than 12 could see the film if accompanied by an adult.

Lately though I have noticed this swing in a reverse direction. With film studio’s desire for larger audiences and therefore more money they are essentially trying to manipulate the system so a film can be made adhering to the strict Classification rules and therefore be able to be sold to children of 12 or younger but also be broad enough to speak to adults. This designed by committee mentality has ruined a lot of films to my mind and feels like a return to the old days of the studio system. But what I find most strange is the BBFC’s classification for films that are, to my mind, not for children at all. Most of the time this is not because of horror, strong language or violence but purely because the film itself is not made to cater to children. The most recent film to garner complaints for too low a rating was The Woman in Black which the BBFC upheld their classification of, admirably. Films such as The Dark Knight, Skyfall, Iron Man 3 and yes, Robocop all have got 12a ratings at the cinema but perplexingly are barely tailored for younger viewers. The properties they represent may have an appeal to children but the tone of the above listed films at no point approaches ‘light hearted’ or ‘fun action’. The Joker is a homicidal psychopath, Bond goes through Oedipal torture, Stark suffers PTSD and kills a lot of people and cracks wise about more adult stuff throughout and Robocop pensively ruminates on the meaning of free will and human nature and its desire to play god. Yes there are bangs and whistles throughout each but the overall piece is solely aimed at a mature audience. For me this raises the question of why mitigate your work purely for a larger audience share? If the new Robocop had the balls to put a decapitated head and independent lungs on display why not just go all out and have Samuel L Jackson say “Mother Fucker” and have Murphy cruelly shot to pieces for the same inherent shock value and thus deepen the argument for maintaining our humanity?

The BBFC are (as a friend put it) “sophisticated readers”, contrary to popular belief they do not have a tick list of how many F words, sexual thrusts or pints of blood are used and certify accordingly, they approach each film autonomously and judge it in isolation. Their guidelines state they classify a film based on: Context, Theme, Tone and Impact, Discrimination, Drug Use, Imitable behaviour, Language, Sex, Threat and Violence. To this end a thorough reading of the film is not just what you see or hear in the film but what is implied by it and what its intent is. This requires a serious engagement with the source. A prime example of this is in 1979 the BBFC returned Ridley Scott’s fantastic space horror ‘Alien’ with an “X” certificate (equivalent to an 18cert now). This upset Scott and the studio apparently so they asked for an explanation, the letter was available online at some point but I can no longer find it (if you can please do put the link in the comments or tweet it to me). It was a rather fascinating read as it explains its reasons thoroughly. The chest burster itself was not their cause for concern, nor the jumps, the decapitated robot or scary pitch black corridors all of which they said would have put it in the “AA” category (equivalent of 15 cert today), no their distinction was its overriding sexuality and sexual violence subtext. Giger’s drawings are and have always been phallic or related to genitalia, the alien is no exception and amounts to little more than a giant Penis stalking the ship and murdering people. Not to mention the Vagina like face-hugger that impregnates poor John Hurt which as Mark Kermode accurately pointed out is building on the mass hardwired fear among men of male rape (something commentators/psychologists have said is one of the reasons the reverse is so hauntingly prevalent in society). This sexual imagery combined with the violent context is genuinely unsettling and psychologically disturbing making for a much more affecting and thrilling film but one which can be perceived as being rather damaging to someone too young to perhaps discriminate these processes brought about by the film. For me this shows how well the BBFC viewers do their job. A sophisticated appraisal of the content and most importantly its message – be it overt or covert – is necessary but this returns me to the rather bizarre recent trend for hovering around the 12a mark for almost ALL modern blockbusters.

The film Hanna was the decider for me. It is an excellent, almost arthouse, hitman chase thriller starring a young Saorise Ronan in a fearless performance as an ass-kicking young assassin. This film included a strange sadistic pimp, a climactic, murderous battle in an abandoned fun fair, a worrying parent/child relationship, sexual awakenings from two central teenage characters, a 12 year old breaking men’s necks and a man murdered, hung upside down, pierced by arrows and bled like a pig. It was rated 12a. I mention nothing of the slow pace, pitch black tone, sophisticated terminology and complicated espionage plot. To this day I honestly don’t understand that certification. As stated I do not wish to censor another’s voice but I feel this film was not only too strong in its content but just simply not for children. Its a complicated and subtle film for adults. Its only appeal to children would be the fact the lead is young herself but equally the Shining has a young lead and no one would ever class that as being for children.

This raises a point that really sticks in my crotch over the certification “Game” film studios play: Horror. A lot of horror films are now purely toothless monsters that rely on startling jumps, murky instagram filters and clown make up to make them scary. Or purely gore and nudity. Sex and violence seem to be what people get most up in arms about censorship wise (especially when combined) but something as a subtle as ‘Alien’ in its combination of the two as opposed to the trashy, obvious and pointless ‘Hostel’ films it is far more affecting and horrific. A lot of horror films are being passed as 12a or a very light 15 which is indicitive of the fact the studio demands as big an audience as possible so robs it of any weight or depth. Films like The Exorcist, The Ring, The Descent, The Thing, Nightmare on Elm Street and even Psycho are inherently terrifying not because they are gory or make you jump but because they deal with child possession, distrust of technology and fear of the unknown, fear of the dark and claustrophobia, fear of one another, fear of our nightmares, deep-seated parental abuse and in the case of the Shining – our own minds. They are justifiably all 15 or above and don’t pull their punches as horror should not. Horror in context should allow us to question ourselves and the world around us as it preys on basic fears like I said waaaay back in my werewolf post. If they were to self-expurgate you would have nothing of any great worth or interest so by lessening the certificate you are lessening its impact and to my mind, its purpose.

Blockbusters are going through something of a renaissance of late. Some of my favourite films have been the biggest grossing in the last 5 or 6 years: Christopher Nolan’s output, The Marvel Films, Skyfall, The Hunger Games yet all of these have “played the game” of cutting the bare minimum that allows it to pass with a 12a rating. A good point to be made here is I don’t remember the last time I saw a PG certificate on ANYTHING. Its either U or 12a at the cinema. What I find interesting is the certifications themselves. U, PG and 12 use the traffic like psychographics of Green, Amber and Red as progressive signals for warning. 12 and 15 share exactly the same colour scheme in their ident whereas 18 is a much deeper hue of red to relate a more aggressive warning. Between the ages of 12 and 15 there is only 3 years, so why the distinction of two separate certificates that don’t actually look any different? Why indeed? The desire for a wider audience against artistic expression and a questioning mind has boiled down to a 3 year age gap. Yet the same is true for 15 to 18 but 18 is the national age of adulthood. You are officially an adult at 18 and as the BBFC’s guidelines themselves state: Adults should be free to choose their own entertainment. Anyone below that age and it becomes a very careful game of “Simon Says” with the industry and nannying to the audience and a 15 year old requires less “Nannying” than a 12 year old but this does not mean a 12 year old is the same as, say, a six year old which is what the 12a certificate implies.

Ultimately for me I feel this means we have lost the meaning of the an age restriction and considered censorship. Filmmakers and studios simply see them as irritating restrictions to be loopholed out of or worked around and this is very much to cinema’s detriment. Risks aren’t being taken and as such films aren’t allowed to experiment and less is actually being said in cinema. For the reasons of certification films that are rated higher tend not to get seen or buried beneath the mass consumer friendly entities. As I say some of my favourites have been rated 12a but they tend to be based on existing properties and therefore require a certain element of experimentation so as not to repeat themselves with existing depictions/adaptations. Case in point: RoboCop whose meditative tone and graphic depiction of biology, medicine and psychology would have been far more impactful and would have made a more noteworthy film had they pushed the content over the 15 certificate mark. It would then be more likely to stand shoulder to shoulder with the original as opposed to in its shadow. Ultimately it bears little resemblance to Verhoven’s classic and to be frank would have probably just been a better film if it had dropped the moniker altogether. But that’s another massive audience share you’ve just lost…

My favourite current director is Ben Wheatley whose still relatively slim output has been of a staggeringly high quality and extremely experimental within cinematic confines. And they have almost ALL been massively violent, obscene, unsettling, unhinged and affecting. His forthcoming adaptation of JG Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ looks set to be no different and I’m hoping will gain nothing less than a heavy 15 but more likely an 18 as it will mean he has taken the source material seriously and is making progress which if you recall is what I said censorship was all about. Critically analysing ourselves and the world and voicing the wrongs so they may be changed. This is what art does to us and that is what a censor will do and should do to art.

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Post Script: The BBFC website will be launching its new revised guidelines on February 24th and you can look at the specifics here (pdf alert!). I have emailed them directly with a link to this article and a query regarding my concerns. Whether they will reply or not remains to be seen but if they do I will add that to this post. They do a tough but necessary job that we all pay attention to but rarely acknowledge, cinema and all art would be a very unpleasant minefield to negotiate without some form of censorship. This article does not seek to criticise their work or necessity, simply to wearily reflect on the fact that yet again “MARKETING” is ruining great art. Or even its mere possibility. Please check out their website and continue to view with discretion.

Collected Unconscious

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One of my favourite quotes I like to think back to when I realise I’m wasting my time writing poems no one will ever read was said by Sigmund Freud: “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me”. What he means by this (I suppose) is that any discovery he makes he will find examples of it in literature from previous times. His preoccupation with Hamlet and Shakespeare is well documented. The fact most poetry is continually reassessed is evidence of the truth of his statement. A curious thing is why this might be the case.

An oft repeated phrase from me regarding poetry, when asked, is that Poetry itself is a method of failure. By this I mean poetry continually tries to give voice and form through language to the ineffable. Ultimately a successful poem will always fail to achieve this but come very close. Poetry is always at the avant garde of language, most of the great neologists were poets and phrases we quote and aphorisms we spout are often written by poets of yesteryear (Shakespeare mostly). Poetry is also a method of compression. William Goldman in his book “Which Lie Did I Tell” speaks insightfully, especially for a non-Poet, about poetry being a method of compression; Meaning that a poem’s narrative and meaning should not be able to be expressed to the same extent in less words, i.e. you cannot condense a poem. Yet despite all this and the fact that on initial reading a poem can be indecipherable, we will still revel in it and take something away from it. Well, those who like poetry do anyway… TS Eliot after reading Dante’s Inferno in its original Italian claimed “it communicated before it was understood”. This is tricky to believe but I do feel that poetry is more often than not part of an innate human gene that poets tap into and that we can all feel even if we don’t immediately understand it.

The reason I have come to this rather wild and unfounded conclusion is because I have recently got into a poet called Louis MacNeice. I say “got into”, I mean he has fast become my favourite poet of the 20th century. He is the only poet I have bought the collected works of and it was largely for this post. Reading basically all of the man’s output I noticed something rather interesting that I agree is nothing more than wild speculation and ghost connections but that may be of interest the bored nonetheless.

I posit that Louis MacNeice in his poetic output predicted the internet before his death in 1963.

I’ll let you gather up your socks that have just BLOWN OFF after that statement and then elucidate:

Whether or not you believe in a collective unconscious within the human race its pretty obvious that humanity does certain things at the same time that become a trend and there are definite societal “moods”. Traditionally at a time of great societal stress too. Say A World War for instance. MacNeice’s Autumn Journal is a poetic tour-de-force that is a magical and biting appraisal of Britain about to move in to the throes of World War II. He captures the zeitgeist brilliantly and you can practically smell the tension in the air as Europe begins to crumple. In his poems, particularly his last collection The Burning Perch written in the early 60’s, he shows an aptitude for understanding the cultural sways throughout the country (and in many ways, the world). He was also a television producer for the BBC and understanding your audience is undoubtedly a key component to that job. So having a finger on the pulse and being able to express this at a close and personal level to his reader and adding texture by being intensely specific in his imagery, MacNeice is clearly pressing forward using poetry.

He can clearly see the need society has for a closer communication, seeing the arrival of telephones in most houses as he did and living through a war that was essentially all about communication. The inception and development of computers was also no doubt apparent in his mind, what with Bletchley Park being a hub of technological development and our needs for better decryption and encryption equipment. Predictions of the future were also a constant throughout the 20th century, since Jules Verne and HG Wells began their adventures into science fiction there have been predictions of video phones and powerful computer brains until they became a reality. But it is MacNeice’s specificity that astounds with regards to the internet. Peculiar turns of phrase in some poems could now be viewed as everyday day speech despite using (at the time) very alien imagery. What do I mean? Examples:

I cannot reproduce whole poems unfortunately but I heartily recommend picking up any of MacNeice’s work and most of his collections are available online. I am referencing the collected poems for this article.

One of the theories of societal changes brought about by the internet is one of ‘Plurality’, which means the fact or state of being plural i.e. among a large number. Looking at mainly Facebook and Twitter we can see this idea in its basic form: Many existing as a hive. All knowledge, history and information about one another shared. Opinions, hopes and fears all broadcast moment to moment through 140 characters or less. In this realm of 1s and 0s we traffic in personalities and indentities at the blink of an eye the whole of human life as a plural, a group, rather than as individual. The societies and civilisations of various social networking sites have developed in very quick time and with them have brought their ‘Discontents’ as, again, Freud put it. MacNeice was already on this theory with his poem ‘Plurality’ way back in 1941. MacNeice is already resisting our urge to combine into a homogeneous collective that we seem to have arrived at in Facebook et al: “The smug philosophers lie who say the world is one” he begins, going on “postulating a dumb static identity/ of essence and existence which could not fuse without/ banishing to a distance belief with doubt/ action along with error, growth along with gaps”. He condemns the constant need for a “history” or perhaps as we would have it now a “Feed”: “a man is what it is because/ it is something that began and not what it was,/ yet is itself throughout, fluttering and unfurled,/ … the row of noughts where time is done”. The whole poem reads like an angry poet being published in the Guardian today railing against the tidal wave of modern social media. Its quite long sadly or I would type it up here but I recommend you read it in its entirety.

Another interesting piece of prediction is in his collection Springboard from 1941 in his poems The Trolls and Troll’s Courtship: “they don’t know what they are doing,/ all they can do is stutter and lurch, riding their hobby, grinding/ their hobnails into our bodies, into our brains,” or “a wrong – in the end – assumption.” Troll’s Courtship is even funnier: “I have knocked down houses and stamped my feet on people’s heart,” or  “my curses and my boasts are merely a waste of breath,/ my lusts and loneliness grunt and heave/ and blunder round among ruins that I leave” and my personal favourite “Utter negation in positive form,/ … Of dissolution and the constant pyre/ of all desirable things – that is what I desire”. I think, all in all, that is what most people define as an online ‘Troll’, isn’t it?

Or how about his poem Budgie from his last collection The Burning Perch published in 1963 which contains the alarmingly prescient line: “I Twitter Am – and peeps like a television/ actor admiring himself in the monitor.” Not to mention the hilarious mention of “A barrage of Angry Birds” in Autumn Journal XIV. But most profound perhaps his line in Autumn Journal XXIII “Humanity being more than a mechanism”.

This is a small selection, I could go on a lot longer. Reading MacNeice is like reading a poet who has written most of this today or is still writing. The very definition of being ahead of your time is that your work remains current in the future. Every form of art has this. The great painters, thinkers, artists, filmmakers, photographers, architects, writers, musicians all are referred to as ‘Poets’ if they are felt to have hit a nail on the head or are clearly portraying something not yet understood. MacNeice seems to accomplish this on a page by page basis while still referring directly to current events at the time of his writing them. All of the above quotes are taken out of context and bent to fit my means. Plurality is about Theorists and Newspapers, the Troll poems are about a bombing raid he lived through, Budgie is about preening celebrity (that one’s pretty dead on actually) and Autumn Journal is an up to the minute commentary of life in Britain during the settlement in Munich and the slow defeat in Spain but nonetheless the similarities ARE there. In an admittedly abstract form, I confess. What this could show is how language is updated to suit our times and our needs in the way TS Elliot speaks of history aligning with current art and culture as opposed to us aligning with history, but I prefer to subscribe to the idea that perhaps humans plot a course for ourselves. A course that the more attentive can perceive.

MacNeice wrote a poem called Babel referring to the Tower of Babel and the scattering of the populace by speaking in tongues. Its another classic and contains the refrain: “Can’t we ever, my love, speak the same language?” The fact seems to be: We all still do. The world has never been so connected. You are reading this very post in our own newly formed Tower of Babel but unlike an outdated and supposedly saintly scripture would have it I don’t see this as a bad thing. And apparently neither did MacNeice. We are a society of people, a mob of individuals that struggles to find common aims or enough space, we are justly saddened when this power is abused or misused but when suddenly a good cause goes “viral” within the close confines of this tower we are amazed at the results. A friend was seeking a Kidney through Vine and due to the mass communication it created she was able to gain the possibility of helping her husband where once little hope had been.

The internet is merely an extension of Humanity’s recognition of ourselves in others and our desire to communicate these individual expressions to others through a variety of mediums as we have always done, most notably and, in my opinion most successfully, in poetry.

“Have we no aims in common?”

P.S. If you liked this post please checkout my own sonnet sequence available for free over at theanatomy.co.uk