Monthly Archives: October 2009

Bronson’s Bedlam

I watched Bronson a couple of days ago, a film I’ve wanted to see for quite a while.

My feelings afterwards were mixed. Indeed, my feelings during it were mixed. Even while I was loving the imagery and inventiveness of it, not to mention the stunning performance by Tom Hardy, a little silent voice inside me was already aware of the con that was going on in front of me.

The con is the middle classes feeding off the degradation of the poor and calling it Art. But it isn’t really the poverty that gets them off, it’s the stupidity that goes with it. Just as we all love watching those horror movies where the dumb bitch goes into the haunted house without a torch, while cheerfully saying to her friend, “You go that way, I’ll go this way”, when every single person in the audience knows no-one, no-one, would ever do that, then so are we entertained by the ignorance of the poor.

And how much more enthralling it is if they are poor, ignorant and smart. Or talented. Talented will do nicely. There is nothing more wank-worthy than watching someone who is possibly more gifted or smarter than you are completely messing up their lives.

This is not a new phenomenon. Go back far enough (and not so very far) and you will find the rich traipsing off in their droves for day outings to lunatic asylums and prisons to watch the poor, the mad and the criminally insane in their habitats of squalor. It’s always been fun for us all.

While modern political correctness prevents us all going down to the local loony bin and guffawing at the people who eat their own excrement or masturbate in trees, we can still go to the cinema and see films about that very same thing, all safe in the dark, getting our jollies.

Mike Leigh has made an entire (insulting) career out of this cheap masturbation. I won’t watch his movies for this reason, but a few months ago I was seduced – and a seduction it was, I should know better – into watching his latest effort, Happy-Go-Lucky, because ‘everybody’ was screaming, “Leigh’s latest is so funny and light-hearted!”, “Leigh breaks new ground with a dazzling light comedy!”. And they were all absolutely right – if you found the spectacle of a ‘girl’ who had Pollyanna disorder to a level that was almost a mental illness, being pursued by an emotionally stunted, deluded, paranoid man, whose mental health was equally precarious and who, in the delightfully frothy climax, becomes extremely violent and abusive in an episode of psychotic breakdown, which, of course, our Pollyanna only looks on at bemusedly because she lacks the correct emotional intelligence to recognise a threat when she sees one. Funny? I nearly died laughing.

This dislike of Oxbridge slumming it at the movies, as anyone who knows my work will hopefully realise, is not because I can’t handle harsh subjects, it’s because Leigh stands back in all his moral middle class rectitude and subtly passes judgement on all his lower class heroes and heroines, secretly sneering at their stupidity, their lack of insight, their caricature lives.

I’m never sure, because I don’t read about the man’s work, whether he doesn’t realise he’s doing this or whether it’s because he thinks we’re so fucking stupid we won’t notice that he’s really Outraged of Brighton getting his jollies out of correcting the universe by parading the poor and the mad as he wants us to see them.

His trademarks and ‘style’ are not unique. Anywhere you find such ‘intellectual’ lolling in the quagmires of the ignorant – like reality TV shows; their poor cousins –you will find the same shit going on: the ‘characters’ are always caricatures, screaming hysterics, the over-the-top lunatic fringe. Just as the shopping-addicted chavs who can’t control their children in Supernanny, or the OCD filthy who can’t keep the excrement off their shower curtains in How Clean is Your House? are always bizarrely ‘stupid’ and/or completely lacking in self-awareness so are the dramatis personae characterised in the work of Mike Leigh or in films such as Bronson.

Bronson, of course, is that more dangerous species of animal. It’s alluringly seductive with that delicious veneer of ‘Theatre’, that gloss of MTV rock video that makes it so edgy, so now. It appears even to “glorify” (where have I heard that before?) its subject. In Bronson, he is lovingly photographed, repeatedly naked, so we can see the raw majesty of the man (look at what a lumpen brute, ape-thing he is – yum). His violence is orchestrated to opera so we can see the tragic quality of his rage, the sheer grandeur of his aggression (look, it’s just like ballet and we get to see that thuggery in slow, slow motion. Let’s rewind.). His explanations of the reasons for his biblical ‘fall’ are limited to two throw-away sentences because he has too much dignity, he is a warrior (oh, who cares how he got that way? We just wanna see him fight, because we daren’t.) How kind the director was to involve him, his family, in the making of the film. How respectful. (We got to rub shoulders with a famous criminal. And his family’s so dumb and greedy they won’t notice we’ve done nothing but show him as a fame-hungry moron without a thought in his pea-sized brain.)

It’s so beautiful as a movie, so poetic, so artistic. Oh, how many sins we can cover with ‘artistic’. What a lovely word it is. God bless the man who first invented it. Even the director, Nicolas Winding Refn, in the ‘Making Of’ said the film is really about how a man discovers his Art. Yes, we’ve just watched 90 minutes of a beefed-up Tom Hardy, naked in blackface (yes, honestly), beating the shit out of everybody and anybody, while saying nothing very much, but all of it cryptic, to discover a man’s inner artist. We know that because there were pencils involved. Oh, and a pan round an art room with a handful of ‘tortured’ drawings. And a fag art teacher from Liverpool, of course, that Bronson just had to hold hostage. But he painted him like something out of Magritte, so that was okay.

Oh, these zany outsider artists – don’t you just love their naïve charm? Who cares why he didn’t just go to art school, or maybe an evening class, or just pick up a fucking pen, or what made him waste his whole life in solitary confinement for trivial almost non-crimes. Not me, I’m watching his penis sway in slow motion as he beats up pigs in full riot gear. Awesome.

After all, Bronson himself (he’s a real-life criminal; really should have pointed that one out sooner) wrote in his autobiography (assumably) that his parents had been ordinary ‘middle class respectable folk’, so why waste time considering that they might not have been? He’s happy with it, why not us? Except when you see his mother and cousin in the ‘Making Of’, even in their thirty brief seconds of air time you can see they look far from respectable, or middle class. They look like what they are, scrubbers that would appear on Jerry Springer, if they only came from Texas.

In short, there’s a story in this man’s life somewhere, it just isn’t in this film. What is in this film is a disturbing and disquieting portrait of the man who made it. And while that’s probably true of a lot of art, it’s more transparently so here.

And this is where it all becomes really offensive to me. When you go to see Terminator, or Die Hard, or a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie you know what you’re getting: the same stripped-off males kicking ass, in the same stylised slo-mo way, only minus the arty shots and the slowwwwwwwwwwww dialogue, such as it is. What you’re not getting with these action movies is some hypocritical ‘portrait’ of a real man. For all their alleged ‘popcorn entertainment’ and ‘cartoon violence’ they do not offer up a real human life as cheap entertainment for middle-class boys who are too chicken-shit to take a pair of pants back to M&S, never mind star in a bare-knuckle fight, so that they can get their strangely homosexual rocks off at some chunk of male stupidity doing the equivalent of hitting his head off the prison bars because he’s some poor thwarted soul who’s so afraid of who he really is he’s created a screaming, raging monster to represent himself in the hope that other men will admire him, or at least be thrown off the scent of what he really is inside – be that gay, artistic, ‘sensitive’ or just plain different.

I fail to see how this exploitation of others’ misfortune, their squalid little lives, differs from parading around the viewing gallery at Bedlam, watching the man who thinks he is a cat catching mice and eating them live, or following the woman who thinks she is giving birth to Jesus squatting and taking a turnip top out her vagina. Just because we’ve scored the raging beast to music, with his desperate, needy permission, does not alter the fact that we are essentially watching a man destroy himself, and instead of either showing that for what it is, a tragic and futile waste, or giving us some insight into it, we parade it as a form of peep-show: we strip him naked, oil him up, paint his body; we lock him in bars, tiny cells, ugly places, so that we can watch his suffering more minutely; we set him against an endless stream of caricature effeminate males so that his gladiatorial magnificence will be even more pointed; we bloody him up and beat him up and lock him up; we give him music, lights, theatre; we put him firmly centre-stage with the expensive lions we brought from Abyssinia and for which we can charge all the plebs an extra ten Sestertii because, after all, how often do they get see a dangerous beast like Bronsonus Maximus stripped-off, growling and roaring like one of said big cats? Oh the nobility, the grandeur.

And when he dies, when one of the expensive felines mauls him to death, we can go home in comfort and ease, knowing it was what he wanted. He wanted to be a famous gladiator, a warrior. It was nothing to do with us being greedy for gore and aggression, for rebellion and insurgence, and him being poor and ignorant, a slave in a system he can’t beat or rise above. It was nothing to do with him having no other way out of his squalor, his captivity, his gaol. No, he is a naked wonderful man-beast and we love him for it.

Bronson. Certificate 18. At a cage cinema near you……… Widgets


Hidden in LOST

“‘This literature course has made it easier to find the deep, hidden meaning,” my college students sometimes write on evaluation forms. Occasionally they remark, ‘I like the way we discussed this novel’s deep, hidden meaning.’

“‘Where is it hidden?’ I once cried, flipping a book upside down and shaking it. ‘Come on! Where’s that deep old thing hidden?’ I peered into the binding. I tossed the pages all about. But my students gazed knowingly, arms crossed over chests, slight smiles on their lips, as if to say the meaning was indeed hidden in there, they were not fooled.” Bonnie Friedman

Hidden meaning. Every good novel should have some. If it doesn’t it’s just a pot-boiler, not proper Art, not real writing. All great literature has a hidden meaning, or two. Really important literature has lots of hidden meaning. Sometimes so much hidden meaning it’s difficult to find any meaning at all, on account of all the hidden hiding that’s going on. This is where big, fancy and obscure words come in so handy. Instead of the author having to hide his meaning through hard work, he simply describes something with a big word that no-one knows and – bingo! – his meaning is lost forever – or at least until you get off your arse and go to the dictionary.

I have hidden meaning in DANNY; lots of it. I took it all to pages 224, 876 and 569 and buried it there. Yes, you will find the deep hidden meaning of everything in DANNY right there, and it will answer all “the unanswered questions”.

I saw a review today of Lost season 1 (Click here to read this and the two other priceless reviews of our on-line critic); it was the very first review up on the page and the author was complaining that the series’ writers obviously did not know what was going on. He had liked the series at the outset but now it was losing the plot and, subsequently, he was losing interest.

To quote many, many people on the internet, WAHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! Oh, how little he knew. There have been five more seasons since then, mate, and still no questions answered. Every new revelation has brought new questions and no fucking answers whatsoever. But here’s what I want to know – did Skekurc keep watching? Or did he give it up for The Dresden Files or Supernatural; you know, something where you can see telegraphed in the first two minutes what’s going to happen – and it never disappoints.

I recently bought The Dresden Files and sold it again after episode 3. We had intended to persevere through the first four episodes at least, to give it a fighting chance, and couldn’t face it. Maybe it gets great at episode 10, but I won’t be there to see it. And not because it kept me baffled and annoyed but because it had a faggy ghost living in a skull (not as fun as it sounds), and ‘cases’ that an eight year-old might find taxing in terms of wanting to keep on watching.

But did Skekurc keep going with Lost? Did the fact that he never got an explanation for “the monster” straight away send him packing? More importantly, was he able to fight the peer group pressure to keep watching? How many people sit through shows on TV they don’t really like simply because all their friends are watching, or because all the media they see hypes them to hell and back, so that it feels like ‘not fitting in’ (a sin worse than death) to not like what you’re so obviously supposed to like?

Skekurc couldn’t find the hidden meaning in Lost. In fact, he sat in his high chair, expecting the writers to bring the hidden meaning right to him: “Now, half way through the first series, it seems long and drawn out. I get the feeling that we will never know the answer to the mysteries of the island, I get the feeling it will end on a cliff hanger or at least ambiguous, I get the feeling that none of the characters will even speculate about their own existence on the island and i get the feeling that the writers/producers are making it up as they go.

“i find this not very compelling watching anymore, and get bored by how drawn out it seems.

“I wish the programme makers had the courage to answer a few of these questions before they move on to other questions….”

It’s so plaintive, so sad. He’s sat there, diligently waiting for the monster to show up again. Listen to how excited he sounds in the very opening line of his review: “The first episode of the first series was excellent. I thought to myself, this is interesting, they have included a monster.” But only two lines later he is already disillusioned: “…there are so many questions they keep raising about the island and they never solve or even speculate on any of the riddles. The monster, which seems like a hook to get the viewers watching is hardly mentioned. And they keep deterring [sic] from one unexplained story to another.”

His distress is palpable. As is his mystification. He simply cannot understand why they do not resolve or embellish his monster. He doesn’t want hidden meaning. Not unless it’s only hidden for the forty minutes of each episode. He wants Smallville, Buffy, anything where Monster of the Week shows up and we get just enough intrigue before they find a note/mystic medallion/special power that allows them to tidily ‘fix’ the hidden meaning so it is no longer a mystery. Hooray!

But Lost goes on and on, piling mystery on mystery, non sequitur on non sequitur, nonsense on nonsense, intrigue on intrigue, until there are so many plot threads running you can’t begin to imagine the story-board they must have at ABC to keep the Writers’ Room straight. Unless, of course, they’re winging it and they don’t have the slightest idea what they’re doing, like the telegram Raymond Chandler once received from his editor asking him who had killed character X in his latest book, to which he replied, “How should I know?”

Hidden meaning, of course, is far deeper than mere plot mystery. Hidden meaning is when DANNY is an allegory about the British class system, as one reviewer criticised it for not being (Steven Hart). Hidden meaning is when “layered narratives” become satires on American life, or politics or religion. The implication of hidden meaning is that the surface meaning is irrelevant. Unless you can see something deeper, more valid, it’s not a real book.

Like Stephen King, for example. Stephen’s early works in particular had incredibly elaborate, complex stories, but don’t expect to get them past any academics/critics any time soon, unless you can find deep hidden meanings in vampires and reanimated pets. (Truthfully, I’m up for that. Bet I could prove it too.)

Take John From Cincinnati. Unless you’re American (and even then you’d have to be a diligent ‘alternative TV’ watcher), you probably won’t have heard of this, let alone seen it. I watched the series recently – just before Lost, in fact, which I’m re-watching from scratch because I recently bought Series 4 so I’m catching up, see if it helps any… But John From Cincinnati… obscure doesn’t begin to describe it. We watched the entire series and not one single episode (of 10) made any sense whatsoever. There was an ongoing mystery of who John was, and some individual mysteries about the characters, but the bigger mystery was what was it all about?

I’m quite smart, as is Max, and even with both brains together we didn’t have a clue. Not one. I am less edified after I watched it than before. Part of me would dearly love to give it to Skekurc for review. No doubt he’d get fixated on the levitation (a character finds himself floating) and spend the entirety of the rest of the review plaintively whining, “I don’t think the writers have the courage to tell us who John is…”

The big difference is he could dump John From C with ease, as did the studio, unresolved (nowhere near resolved) at the end of the first series, leaving us all twice as mystified as we were before watching it. His friends would not watch it; there would be no peer group pressure. In fact, he could cheerfully join the many message board threads headed, “CRAP!!!! Worst show on TV!!!” , which John of Cincinnati has a-plenty.

Equally well, of course, you have people who will not watch a show (or read a book) unless it is obscure. I once had a friend who collected vintage movies, and animation in particular, on Super8 (a small gauge film stock, for those not in the know). I remember him being a cross between crestfallen and furious when a British company made available a cartoon short that previously had only been available as an import. It wasn’t because he’d lost the £46 he’d paid (in 1985; why, that was worth £782 then), but because it was no longer obscure, inaccessible, elite. He’d been rendered ordinary. It’s these people who love writers who construct whole novels about nothing much, or who like to insert every second chapter as a historical flashback complete with minutely researched politics-of-the-day accuracy. But we should be thankful for readers such as these. Where would novelists such as Booker winners be without them?

It tells you something about television, or TV watchers, that it can’t support such a cognoscenti. There is no late night cult of John From Cincinnati watchers for whom the studio continues to run season after season on some forgotten time slot. It either gets the ratings, has the ad revenue, or it hits the decks like a dead fish. No matter how good it is.

I’m not even sure how good John From C was, but I’m not sorry I watched it. I’m only sorry I didn’t get to see more of it so that I might have stood some chance of understanding it. Now I never will. It’s the Skekurcs of the world who are deciding this for us. They are beyond the realms of hidden meanings. Hidden meanings are an anathema to them. They have no pain threshold for not understanding. Skekurc couldn’t stand not to have everything about the very first season of Lost resolved just part of the way through it. He had to see the writing on the wall, and if he couldn’t that was because the programme makers lacked “the courage” to tell him everything was going to be okay by flagging the plot clearly with Denouement To Come Shortly. Now. No delayed gratification or discomfort at all.

It’s hard not to visualise Skekurc like Homer Simpson, standing in front of the microwave yelling, “One minute?! One MINUTE?! Can’t you go faster?!”

There’s nothing wrong with Skekurc being Skekurc, needing certainty, blaming his lack of tolerance on others’ cowardice, but it’s all the Skekurcs who are driving your movies and your TV, if not your books. Even there they are driving the bestsellers, driving what the publishing houses, the shops and Amazon wants to sell (and therefore buy).

Skekurc is demanding less of everything creative. He wants less intrigue, less mystery. He wants less back story, less character. He wants more genre, more monsters. He wants everything to follow the same predictable plotline; he wants less diversity, less originality, less disruption. He wants the same, always the same. If he doesn’t get more of the same, where he expects to get it, at the speed he expects to get it, and in a form he both understands and approves of, he will change channels along with all the other Skekurcs, taking all that ad revenue with them, off to Smallville, 24, CSI Miami – the list is endless… And you will no longer be able to watch John From Cincinnati, Carnivale, Life, Dirt, and all the other quirky, weird series with no pat endings, conventional characters or predictable story arcs.

I don’t have to have a hidden meaning in my art. I don’t have to have obscurity, difficulty and confusion, but it doesn’t hurt me when I do find it. I can take a little pain, a little uncertainty. Contrary to what Skekurc would have us believe, it takes immense courage for a TV writer to produce a show like John From Cincinnati. He knows it’s going to be a hard sell: to the producers, the studio, the public. He knows it probably won’t test well because he knows all the Skekurcs will be in the focus group, scratching their heads and muttering, “I don’t get it…” He’s seen them so often before, and he knows how the studio loves them; they’re Joe Average, the dumbed down that the studio relies on to make sure nothing – nothing – goes over Everyman’s poor addled head. It takes huge courage to write something you know people might not like or understand, to go against accepted literary or entertainment traditions, to fly in the face of Skekurc wisdom.

Fortunately, every once in a while something left-field becomes sufficiently mainstream, like Lost, to make it through the turbulent waters of not being predictable enough. And, equally well, sometimes drivel like The Dresden Files, finds itself axed because it’s just too bloody boring to even pull in the bottom-feeding mediocrity that is Skekurcs. Surely there is some kind of karma in that…