Monday, December 31, 2007

Judith Flanders - Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (2006)

I'm an absolute sucker for well-written books of Victorian cultural and social history, and Flanders' CP fits that bill exactly. Flanders has written two other books on the Victorian period which I haven't had the pleasure to read. However, this one, on a subject which I haven't seen explored at any more than chapter-length in most popular books I've read on Victorian history, was really fascinating, giving both an excellent social history of the explosion of leisure among the working classes, and of mass consumption and the technologies which drove it; and, though treating little with personal narrative, an excellent sense of the concrete, day-to-day realities of Victorian life across the classes.

In terms of subject matter, CP deals with the Great Exhibition, the development of the shop (from retail to department) and advertising, the modern newspaper along with serialised and commercial fiction, travel (especially by road and train), holidays and tourism, theatre and spectacle, music, art (especially the development of the artist from a figure of patronisation to a commercial individual, as well as public museums and galleries), sport, and Christmas. Personally, I would've liked to see a chapter on the commercialism of sex and sexuality (surely the ultimate activity involving 'leisure and pleasure'), as well as on drinking and recreational drugs (and all of these, a two-faced attitude to sexuality, a change in the nature of the 'corner pub' and the substances consumed, or the rise and cultural role of 'opium dens', or example, would be fascinating); but and of these would perhaps be another work, and these topics are already covered, to greater or lesser degree, in other works on the era - besides which, at 500-odd pages, CP is already a fairly significant brick.

As well as tracing the grand outlines (the changes brought to peoples' lives in terms of psychologicality, temporality and geography by the new availability of consumer goods, travel and entertainment, and the struggle, mostly class-based, of what forms these new pleasures were to take and who would be included and excluded), Flanders' work is a wealth of fascinating incidental asides on the less-considered aspects of Victorian life (it was impossible, for example, for a woman to visit a bathroom outside her home until the development of the tea shop and the department store, thereby leading to a considerable increase in her outside-the-home purchasing hours; traditional Christmas plum pudding developed from an earlier standard Christmas-porridge, beef broth thickened with bread, dried fruit, wine and spices, beloved in England but 'a dish few foreigners find to their taste'; or the legal necessity for 'low' or popular theatres, forbidden to perform serious works, to produce Shakespeare in tableaux featuring signs in order to get around the rule against spoken performances of 'high'[er] art). But the book is also excellent at tracing the unexpected synchronicities of technology and discourse, and the non-directed developments, of the period which lead to its classic manifestations; for example, the combination of new technologies developed entirely separately in metalwork and in rubber, a good road system covering a relatively small area, a view of lower-middle class men in office jobs as effeminate indoors weaklings, led to a huge boom in the production and use of the bicycle (first mooted in the late 1860s) among the general population.

The Victorian period is usually understood, with justification, as the beginning of the contemporary period as we understand it. In reading Flanders' book, the embryonic outlines of many of today's practices are quite clear (sometimes even near-fully-formed) and the way in which our primary identities, as self-constructed consumers and possessors of individual and shaped personalities, as well as our mentality of constant growth and 'improvement', can be seen, without explicit links being drawn by Flanders herself. The way in which it traces the connection between leisure, consumption and identity, without specifically addressing itself to this subject as an academic topic in itself, is one of the work's great strengths. However, without specifically laying it out (and particularly in the areas where we venture into the eighteenth century in search of the roots of the nineteenth and the historical context in which these changes were occurring), it also gives some truth to the argument, laid out in other writers' work on the period, that the classic schematic separation between pre- or proto-modernity, and contemporary modernity as we know it, took place halfway through what we consider 'the Victorian period' - and we can understand the period better in this light.

Overall, I'd second A. N. Wilson's description of CP: 'as packed with goodies as a rich Victorian Dundee cake'. To be put on the shelf along with works like Wilson's own The Victorians or Liza Picard's Victorian London to return and be dipped into to at leisure (and, of course, at pleasure).

Sunday, December 23, 2007

James Wan - Saw (2004)

While I'm not at all a fan of the 'new' style horror movie (with the exception of the resurge in b-grade), I like to keep up with major developments in the field, so I'd been meaning to see Saw. for some time now. I'd been somewhat put off by comparisons to the highly overrated Se7en, but I found Saw a lot more pleasing, perhaps because it had no pretensions to be anything other than what it was - a nasty little psycho movie, but with smarts.

The film suffers from the usual modern horror problems - serial killer with no meaningful motive, over-reliance on gore (I prefer my films either b-grade gory, or without, thank you), and my very least favourite - what I call 'Friday the 13th' syndrome - the characters (especially but not only women) never take the opportunity to put the villain out of the action once and for all when they have the opportunity, but instead fail to for the sake of the plot, and in the process entirely jettison the shreds of realism on which the genre trades.

Having said this, however, the 'twist' in this particular example is very nicely done: we follow the characters from a deathtrap situation through a history of how they came to be there, and with what consequences. This format means that we don't get tempted by another sin of the modern-day slasher flick, setting up a line of ducks and shooting 'em down one by one as a substitute for a plot.

It's a clever work - the twists are nicely done so that, when you think you're one step ahead of the film, it's in fact got the drop on your expectations. The twisted, intricate little scenarios the film presents are themselves are very ingenious, and will please those with a mind for complicated death traps in classic crime style, with a modern twist in the upping of the macabre factor. The atmosphere is very nicely done (though nothing out of the ordinary) - I found myself at times conceiving of the movie as a game made in reverse, given the fact that much of it is a series of very elaborate problem-solving exercises - but unlike many films these days which seem empty inasmuch as they're made for or from action-based gameplay, the ingenuity this involves maintains interest in the film medium as well. Overall it's a well-put together little package which is not for the queasy, but which holds pleasures beyond the standard mindless short'n'nasty slasher film that passes for horror these days.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Werner Herzog - Grizzly Man (2005)

I'll come right out and admit it - this is the first Herzog film I've seen, though Aguirre and Nosferatu have been on my list for some time. But, if this film is anything to go by, everyone who recommended his work to me was right about the depth of the impression it leaves on the viewer. Despite its flaws, GM is one of the most thought-provoking films I've seen for quite some time.

The documentary, narrated by Herzog himself and featuring a haunting acoustic guitar soundtrack by Richard Thompson, follows the story of Timothy Treadwell, the 'grizzly man' of the title. Treadwell was devoted to grizzly bears, and spent every summer for thirteen years with the bears, until, in 2003, he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and eaten by a grizzly. For the six years previously, Treadwell had been documenting his sojourns on camera. This footage makes up a great deal of the doco; the rest is interviews with those who knew Timothy or were involved in the events around his death, as well as some gorgeous landscape shots of the Alaskan wilderness where Treadwell lived with the bears.

Treadwell himself is a bizarre, irritating and fascinating character. An actor and a former alcoholic and heavy drug user, he seems to have had a 'conversion' experience which turned him into the 'grizzly man' (who nonetheless took his childhood stuffed bear with him into the wilderness). But his life involved a great deal of myth-making, from his name (which he had changed from 'Timothy Dexter'), to his origins (he claimed to have been born in Australia), to the fact that in the film he took of himself (intended for his own documentary) he consistently concealed the fact that he was not always alone in the wilderness, but was accompanied by Huguenard.

The film's greatest flaw, to my mind, is Herzog's intrusive, heavily accented narration, which is often portentous and pretentious, and adds little to the tragic and beautiful story which unfolds around Treadwell. The material Herzog presents could easily stand alone, and his observations, whether on the random beauty of the shots of the wilderness captured between Treadwell's gung-ho on-film heroics, or his criticisms of Treadwell's very obvious flaws and absurdities, are redundant. There is also a particularly objectionable, crypto-voyeuristic scene in which Herzog is played the six-minute sound recording of the deaths of Treadwell and Huguenard (the camera had been running, but with the lens cap on), after which he tells Jewel Palovak (Treadwell's close friend, and the possessor of the tape and his other effects) that she must never listen to it, that she must destroy it, and that she must never look at the autopsy photographs of Treadwell (his remains and those of Huguenard were for the most part recovered from the stomach of the bear who killed them, which was shot when Treadwell's death was discovered).

Nonetheless, the questions the film raises are even more fascinating than the sheer beauty of the footage of grizzlies and foxes at play. The essential issue here revolves around the relationship between humans and 'nature'. Treadwell came more and more to loathe 'the human world', as he called it, and this was eventually to lead to his death: when returning from Alaska he got into an altercation regarding his plane ticket, and he therefore decided to return to the wilderness, staying later in the season than he ever had before and thus encountering hostile and starving bears with whom he had not previously come in contact. But his view of both 'nature' and of the human role was hopelessly utopian, and this, combined with a massive ego which led to a heavy overestimation of his own capacity to avoid conflict with the grizzlies, was a fatal flaw.

Treadwell, complete with Prince Valiant haircut (concealing his receding hairline), saw himself as a 'kind warrior' and a 'samurai' who, unlike anyone else in the world, was capable of interacting with grizzlies on their own terms. In this attitude, however, we see how monumental was his arrogance, and the way in which his project was all about himself, rather than about the bears. A telling moment is one in which he tells a fox he has named 'Timmy' that he (the fox) is 'master of all the bears and all the foxes'; telling also is the way in which his monologue (which is a bizarre, over-enthusiastic stream of childish enthusiasm and comic-book phraseology, punctuated by exaggerated emotional tantrums) constantly draws on concepts of 'mastery' and martial analogies. One can't help agreeing with the indigenous curator of an Alaskan museum that Treadwell's interactions with the bears (which included a great deal of close contact), contrary to his protestations of love (and he was also a tireless educator, giving free speeches to schoolchildren about bear protection) were the ultimate in disrespect, inasmuch as he did not respect the boundary between their domain and his own.

But why should we consider what Treadwell was doing, living among the bears, more reprehensible than the actions of figures such as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey? While I'm not usually one to champion 'scientific objectivity', this discourse seems to have placed a distance between the abovementioned scientists and the objects of their research which Treadwell, as a self-conceived eco-warrior figure, did not possess (we might also add that, while ego must not be overlooked as a motivation in scientific work, Treadwell's self-aggrandisement seems to have grown from the 'conversion experience' which led to his self-mythologising as 'the grizzly man'). Gender issues also seem relevant, in terms of Treadwell's militaristic conception of his role in mediating between the 'grizzly world' and the 'human world', and in his macho conception of his ability to handle the grizzlies. Having said this, such an interaction is always problematic; Fossey herself seems to have begun to lose the plot in the final period of her interaction with gorillas in Rwanda, dressing up, for example, as a traditional evil spirit in order to scare off poachers and others from the gorilla habitat; and in this case, too, such behaviour may well have contributed to her death.

The publicisation of the work of individuals like Fossey and Goodall led to a much greater public appreciation of the inherent value of the lives of the animals they studied, and therefore can be seen as positive in this regard. However, if GM can be said to have a moral, the one I drew was that the best thing humans can do for wild animals is to leave them alone. Treadwell's utopian view of nature is certainly more benign than an attitude which explicitly values humans above other animals and sees nature as nothing more than a justifiably exploitable resource (indeed, a resource which it is morally incumbent upon humans to subjugate and exploit); but it certainly did him no good, and arguably harmed his cause (drawing a great deal of ire, and the intrusion of 'Treadwell-hunters' into the wilderness on at least one occasion). Here we might also think of the fate of Steve Irwin.

In opposition to Treadwell's naive boys' own fantasies with an eco-twist, Herzog's view, as expressed in the narratorial voice, is the diametric opposite: that 'nature' is a harsh chaos, and that animals are nothing more than mindless eating machines (and, as mentioned above, I failed to see the necessity for this judgmental and heavy-handed intrusion). These two points of view draw on what we might call 'equal and opposite' binary traditions in the Western conception of 'nature': that it is either a hideous, dangerous realm, ultimately hostile to humanity; or that it is a morally and literally unspoiled wilderness which is a paradise for humans. Either concept sees Westerners (as opposed to, for example, 'noble savages') as somehow 'outside' of the realm of 'nature' which they 'encounter' in certain circumstances. Both of these views seem to me equally reductionist, and both revolve around a conception of humans as 'central' to an external 'nature' which can lead to nothing but harm, whether through benign or malign intentions toward that 'nature'.

Ultimately, whatever its flaws, this documentary is beautiful, haunting, maddening and thought-provoking; the intensity of any one of these aspects alone would make it worthwhile watching, but all together, they add up to an experience which, appropriately, enriches the viewer's mental landscape.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Jeffrey Masson - Against Therapy (1990)

Though I read them some time ago, I was a big fan of Masson's books on emotions in animals, Dogs Never Lie About Love (despite the fact that I'd be lying if I said I was a dog lover), and When Elephants Weep. However, when I got to The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats, I felt that he was relying far too heavily on the, in my opinion dubious, claims of evolutionary biology to explain the emotions in animals. What I didn't realise was that Masson has a whole other history in the field of psychoanalysis (not to mention Sanskrit studies).

Masson is a fascinating character. A youthful savant, he was originally a sanskrit scholar before moving into the field of psychoanalysis. He quickly rose to the heights of editing an archive of Freud's letters, which had until then been kept from the public, held by Kurt Eissler, a man devoted to maintaining Freud's posthumous reputation; but Masson soon became disillusioned with Freud as an admirable person, and with psychoanalysis in general, and a massive falling-out ensued. Janet Malcolm describes this in her wonderful book In The Freud Archives, originally a New Yorker article; but, when she quoted Masson as having aimed to change the archives into a place of "women, sex and fun" he sued her for libel, and the ensuing case took a decade before finally being found in Malcolm's favour. Masson, disappointed by the lack of purchase gained by his work on therapy and psychoanalysis, then turned to writing about emotions in animals.

All this is by way of introducing Masson's self-explanatorily titled work, Against Therapy. Masson's position is that all one-on-one therapy is inherently deeply flawed, and that one-on-one therapy should be abandoned as a practice. This is because the therapist is inevitably in a position of great power, as an expert and as someone with the social power to determine sanity and insanity, normality and abnormality, while the patient (or client) is inherently vulnerable; because the therapist imposes his or her own belief systems on the patient in order to shape the patient into a more 'healthy' person, and in doing so, the individual is always considered the problem in need of change, rather than the nature of the society around that individual. Anyone who says that they have been helped by therapy (or by other psychologically-aimed interventions such as electroshock treatment) is either deluded, having been brainwashed into accepting the therapist's understanding of the world (a view which in itself could be seen as denying these individuals agency and telling them that 'the expert knows better' about you than you do yourself); or else has been helped in the same way that conversations with a close friend would help someone in distress, but at a much greater financial cost in a much less equal relationship. In order to expose this, Masson traces individual abuses by therapists, from Freud to modern feminist and radical psychoanalysis.

In some ways, Masson's points are well taken. Classical psychoanalysis is indeed a repressive institution, as its history demonstrates; to my mind, it is a fascinating and productive system of understanding, but of little use as a therapeutic tool. The abuses he details are indeed hideous, and difficult to believe, particularly those which take place in more recent times; and they do indeed support his thesis, that the role of the therapist is to force the individual to submit to the norms of society (particularly with regard to gender and sexuality), as dictated by the therapist, whose own prejudices are shaped by that milieu. Masson rejects the argument that the examples he gives represent a few 'bad apples'; rather, he says, power, of the kind possessed by a therapist, is almost always abused. As well as this, he notes that the psychotherapeutic establishment has done little or nothing to publicise or decry such abuses, and that it has a tendency to protect and make excuses for its own; and that therapists have an interest in maintaining good social networks (given that they rely on other therapists for referrals), and a financial interest in the general practice of psychotherapy, and, on the individual level, of not turning away clients who they might feel they are unsuitable to work with. All of these arguments are well received, and hold some truth.

Nonetheless, Masson's work is problematic. His argument, as outlined above, is never really clearly established; rather, it is pieced together over the episodes he describes. He fails to distinguish between people who are functional but who have issues around their own identity and behaviour that they would like to address, people who are functional but have mental illnesses, and people who are non-functional (to be fair, the lines between these states can be very difficult to draw). Rather, he takes the extreme position that 'mental illness' is nothing more than a label used for those who do not fit into social norms (another well-known exponent of this concept is Thomas Szasz, whom Masson mentions often, though not always, with approbation). Furthermore, although he mentions modern, non-psychoanalytic forms of therapy (which, of course, have their roots in psychoanalysis inasmuch as they involve a one-on-one 'talking cure'), he fails to clearly distinguish between psychonalytic and non-psychoanalytic forms; rather, the sins of psychoanalysis, which are many and varied, stand for the whole.

To my mind, however, the biggest problem with his argument is his solution to the problems of individuals who do not like or accept oppressive social norms and structures: that they should work to change them. This is very much in the vein of seventies radical politics: 'don't change yourself, change society' (and the introduction to the work, by Alice Miller, also champions this idea). In theory, this concept has a lot going for it. However, it ignores the fact that there are many aspects of society which change very slowly. While we work against patriarchy, for example, in our lifetimes we cannot escape a patriarchal society; even separatists must work with the norms and issues instilled in them from childhood. Given this, we need both strategies to change society, and strategies to deal with our encounter with a hostile and oppressive external social reality. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Despite these flaws, however, this work is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in psychoanalysis, therapy, concepts of sanity and insanity and their relationship to power and social control, or gender politics. Not being au fe with developments in therapies since 1990 (when this book was published; there was also a revised edition, published in 1993) I can't say whether they address any of the criticisms made by Masson; however, given his stance against any kind of one-on-one therapy, I'd think the answer would be, for the most part, negative. It's also inspired me to hunt down another work of Masson's, Dark Science: Women, Sexuality and Psychiatry in the Nineteenth Century. Overall, for all its problems, this is a compelling and often-horrifying work which is a welcome, if over-extreme, riposte to the grandiosities, hypocrisies and cruelties of psychoanalysis in particular, and therapy in general.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Philip Carlo - The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer (2006)

When I was younger I used to be an avid true-crime fan (interested particularly in serial killers, rather than organised crime), but over time I started to feel too much empathy for the victims, and also to get frustrated with the near-universal (despite some honourable exceptions) poor quality of writing and shallow pop-psychological explanations. So what brought me to this work, and was the return to the genre worthwhile?

TIM is essentially a biography of Richard Kuklinski, both a serial killer on his own time, as it were, and also a Mafia contract killer, who was imprisoned, after hundreds of murders (by his account), in 1986. Though I hadn't heard of him before (and here I thought I was familiar with all the major names in serial killing), the case is apparently notorious, and a number of high-rating HBO documentaries have been made on Kuklinski. The book is based on the author's extensive (over 240 hours, by his account) prison interviews with his subject. Carlo also claims that, where possible, all the crimes Kuklinski discussed were factually verified. I picked it up, firstly because it looked like a cut above the usual true-crime B-grade standard (in which I was partially, but not wholly, mistaken); and also because, from a browse, Kuklinski seemed like a very unusual figure in the pantheon of serial killers.

Carlo's writing is by no means impressive - I often found his 'downhomey' language and style, and the lack of originality in expression, irritating. This does, however, make the book a quick and easy read, 'light' except inasmuch as the hideous acts it describes - which is what I was in the market for. For the most part he avoids the lengthy pop-psychological opining which (as mentioned above) spoils so many works of true crime, leaving Kuklinski to give his own opinions as to how came to be able to commit the cruellest acts (and I'm not kidding about this) with absolute equanimity. The usual voyeuristic material is provided about Kuklinski's crimes, which ranged from impersonal, instant mob-style 'hits' to very 'personalised' episodes of lengthy torture, and I won't pretend that this voyeurism doesn't have a pull - which, however, I'd argue is an often-suppressed part of the human psyche that one shouldn't apologise for, as long as it doesn't mean an idolisation of the perpetrator or a lack of empathy for the victims. A note of warning should be sounded, however, in the fact that all of this material is provided by Kuklinski himself, and none of it is referenced, so its 'facticity' may be doubted - although the picture that emerges is not one of a pathological liar or a man who has an interest in excusing or blaming others for his actions.

The reason to read this work, really, is the contradictory personality of Kuklinski himself, who, unlike some serial killers, is a genuinely articulate and fascinating personality. In general, there is a very clear divide between mob hitmen (no matter how much they take sadistic pleasure in their work) and serial killers - but Kuklinski straddled this divide in a very unusual way. His background seems like that of a serial killer - early, unplanned killings, and murder as a 'leisure activity' rather than a career into which one is inducted - but some of his attitudes are very unlike serial killers - notably, his refusal (by his own account) to kill women or children (despite his terrible ongoing physical and mental abuse of his family), his empathy with children, and a sense, however, terribly skewed, of justice (which is not to say that he was not prepared to kill utterly randomly, as long as the victim was male). As well as killing for his own entertainment and for the Mafia and private individuals, Kuklinski would also kill those who he encountered who he considered 'deserved it' according to this sense of 'justice' - particularly those who abused young children. Kuklinski also seems, unlike most serial kilers, not to have taken a sexualised pleasure in the act of killing, although he emphasises his enjoyment of the planning and execution of a 'hit' over the actual act of killing itself.

Overall, then, while I've certainly read better works on killers (Brian Masters' Killing For Company, on Dennis Nilsen, or Tony Parker's Life After Life come to mind - though I'm not such a fan of 'classic literary' works of true crime such as Capote's In Cold Blood or Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), this book, while by no means free of the typical flaws of most true crime, was above all a fascinating character study and a work which I wouldn't dismiss with the run-of-the-mill, pulp-by-numbers, Anne Rule-style true crime.

Friday, November 30, 2007

R. J. B. Bosworth - Mussolini's Italy: Life Under the Dictatorship 1915-1945 (2005)

'Fascism' is a term which has taken on a life of its own in polemical discourse (if I see the term 'Islamofascism' one more time...) - but, when we think of Fascism (I'd argue) we're thinking of Nazism, rather than fascism in its original and earliest incarnation in Italy. Bosworth's weighty tome (nearly 600 pages) sets out to map the history of Fascist Italy not in terms of 'isms', 'great men', and what is relevant to the more major powers (although all of these are considered), but in terms of the progress of life under fascism, both that of 'ordinary people' and of the fascists themselves (however defined), the way in which an extreme and theoretically all-encompassing ideology wove itself into the lives of Italians, the ways in which people championed, used, were subjected to the control of, and resisted fascism as a force in their lives.

Bosworth (also author of a lauded bio of Mussolini) leans much more toward social than cultural history, and this means that at times the book is hard going (unusually for me, it took me quite a while and a false start to finish it). From external appearances, I had the impression that this work would be much more a cultural history of the lives of 'ordinary Italians' in this period, whereas, in fact, I'd call it a social history of the Italian nation during the Fascist years. The constant flow of factual information can be overwhelming; but once one gets into the 'rhythm' of the work, it has numerous fascinating insights and is not only entirely worthwhile, but a pleasure to read.

Bosworth is very much concerned with dismantling two major stereotypes: that of Italians as 'brava gente' ('good people') who were incapable of Nazi-style brutality, and that of fascism as a movement helmed by madmen holding sway over a propaganda-hypnotised people. In demolishing these, however, Bosworth confirms a number of other common ideas about Italy: that Italian nationalism is not deeply rooted, so that, for the majority, ties to family, to region, to paese, and the ties of the clientelist/recommendation system by which most Italian business is done, outweigh those to nation and to abstract ideals when it comes to action (notwithstanding the small group of highly ideological fascists, very few of whom became leaders); and that cynical and self-serving maintenance of position, influence and comfort, of 'sistemizzazione' (roughly, working out a comfortable place for oneself) were, most of the time, accorded precedence before ideological self-sacrifice.

For the most part, Bosworth does an excellent job of presenting the ambiguities of a time of deep crisis and hideous human misery in Europe in all their complexity. He also has some excellent insights which I haven't seen before spelt out so clearly: for example, the way in which fascism (particularly the Italian version) is not an ideology (the fascists were politicians employing anti-political rhetoric par excellence) but a need for continuous action and continuous revolution. However, I was troubled by his generalities which seemed to suggest (despite his rejection of this concept in many particular episodes he examines) that fascism was 'imposed' on the Italian people and that their inherent response was to resist this artificial, top-down imposition.

Despite this criticism, however, and despite the tweakings and differences in emphasis that I would've liked to see, I would definitely recommend this work. The individual episodes depicted at every level of the social spectrum are absorbing, ranging from the hilarious to the tragic and cruel; while the material Bosworth covers includes a lot of information, particularly on the Second World War and on Italian colonialism in Africa, which has been considered unimportant and passed over in general histories of WWII and of interwar and colonialist Europe. The material about the connections and contradictions between fascism and institutional Catholicism, and fascism and Nazism, are also fascinating in the way in which they tease out the labyrinthine strands of support and resistance, coercion and co-option, striking at preconceptions while not shying away from conclusions about what is particular in a culture. Also much appreciated is the final chapter, which traces the afterlife of fascism and the vexed Italian relationship to a fascist past - especially attempts to rehabilitate fascism through comparison with Nazism, and the rhetoric of Silvio Berlusconi (the populist and right-wing Prime Minister at the time of the book's writing, at whom Bosworth takes a number of swings, while denying the 'neofascist' label with which some have tagged him). Ultimately, this work is both a fascinating historical narrative, and a much-needed corrective to stereotypes and ellipses in the distorted received knowledge of European twentieth-century history.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Jesus Camp (Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing, 2006)

I left my 90 minutes or so at Jesus Camp with mixed feelings... This doco, nominated for an Academy Award, follows a group of children as they prepare to go to the 'Kids On Fire' (less exciting than it sounds) evangelical pentecostal summer camp, run by Pastor Becky Fischer, where they will learn to be tomorrow's soldiers of Jesus.

The doco takes a very hands-off approach: no narration, and only a few titles, generally giving factual information. Scenes of the children, Becky and others preparing for camp, and episodes during the camp itself, are intercut with long car-window shots of suburban America, overlaid by an atmospheric soundtrack, which were alright to begin with, but became irritating as they continued without necessarily adding anything to the film. We also cut periodically to a radio show host, who is a non-fundamentalist Christian (Mike Papantonio) who opposes evangelical attempts to knock down the wall between church and state, and who we finally see debate and challenge Becky on air. However, if his presence is intended as a counterbalance demonstrating that not all Christianity is of Becky's stripe, it doesn't quite work - whether you agree with his views or not (I do, as far as the ideal relationship between politics and religion goes) his arrogance and repetition, though perhaps desirable qualities in a radio show host, don't make him a sympathetic or admirable character.

Overall, the doco takes on a number of questions without really answering them. On the one hand, we're presented with American evangelical Christianity in its full, loony (casting out of demons in the electronics, anyone?), unswerving, righteous, morally contradictory glory; but this isn't, I would think, anything anyone doesn't know about - and the same applies to the way in which this religion is passed on to children. So, if you want to be amused and horrified by the fundamentalist Christian Right, you've come to the 'right' film (boom tish).

There are some very interesting questions raised by the film: what's the difference between indoctrination and education? What right do parents have to control the circumstances of their children's lives, particularly in terms of education? What effect does heavy early religious indoctrination have on adult life? Do we need to protect children from the realities of adult life, or teach them what they are and how to deal with them, and, if so, how to do this in a sensitive way? What is legitimate action by a pressure group within a nation-state, where do the barriers start to break down, and whose responsibility is it to police them? But these questions aren't really answered in any meaningful way. To my mind, this is because the doco focusses entirely on acts of religion without putting them into any context (perhaps because the interviewers' role in any interviews is cut out). How did the adults who indoctrinate these children come to their own perspective? What is the background of the participants, adults and children, in terms of class, race, community, life experiences, and how does this relate to their practice of religion? In this sense, although the film is not in any overt way editorially judgemental, I didn't feel that it was in fact any kind of in-depth analysis of the meaning of fundamentalist Christianity, either personally in the lives of its subjects, or on a broader social level, despite some mention of the appointment of Samuel Alito, Jr., which seemed to be a nod to politics, and of course the actual politics which the children are subjected to, particularly around the makeup of government, around global warming and abortion. Context is also a problem inasmuch as we have no idea how these kids got involved in Becky's ministry in the first place, when she set it up, where the physical events of the film are taking place, and other minor but important details.

The doco shows, rather than telling the viewer anything, leaving one (as mentioned above) amused and horrified, but not satisfied. In this sense, the documentary style of allowing the subjects to present themselves 'unmediated' seemed disempowering to the subjects (although to external appearances, at least, they all seem as happily empowered as you can imagine anyone being) - presenting a doco which strives to seem neutral, but in fact has something of the 'look at the freaks' about it. I don't mind a voyeuristic peer and laugh at the freaks, but I'd also like to know why and how they got where they are.

I don't usually watch DVD extras without a good reason, but, being left with this feeling, I watched the outtakes, and found scenes which I'd think were stronger than any included in the film - for example, a young girl talking about her long-term plan to 'take care of' (convert) her friend and next-door neighbour; or a cringeworthily hilarious scene in which Ted Haggard teases the cameraman mid-sermon (the only time in which the filmic fourth wall, the illusion of there being no documentary maker, is ruptured).

Overall, the film certainly has amusement value, and there are also scenes which this viewer at least found disturbing, not because of the dissimilarity between one's own views and those of the subjects, but because of the similarity - for example, I felt a shock of recognition at Becky's description of the world as a 'sick ole world' and her relationship to what she saw as an immoral and decadent society. Ultimately, this is definitely a thought-provoking work - but not so much for what it does right, as for what it fails to do.

Monday, November 26, 2007

30 Days of Night (David Slade, 2007)

These days, any genre horror that doesn't disappoint me I consider successful. That's not meant to damn by faint praise - 3DON is not a film that'll leave you thinking or change your life, but it's an enjoyable little horror confection which stands above its peers, though by no means a classic.

The film is based on the comic book miniseries by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, which I haven't read (intriguingly, the comic was originally an unsuccessful script pitch - how postmodern!). It is at times, however, evident that the plot, which is jumpy and jerky, and at times seems written simply for the purpose of advancing the action, is taken from a longer narrative. It is set in Barrow, Alaska, a small town above the Arctic circle where midwinter sees the eponymous period of darkness. As the last day nears its close, Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), the town sheriff, is troubled by strange, macabre pranks... meanwhile, his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George) is stranded in town. As the dark descends, we become aware that a gang of vampires has descended to terrorise the town, and our protagonists must play a deadly game of hide and seek for the next month.

These are not the sophisticated vampires of Anne Rice or Poppy Z. Brite; rather, they're brutish predators. The against-type casting of Danny Huston as Marlow, the head vampire, is nicely done; imagine a nondescript businessman become an archaic, blood-drenched fiend. The others, however, are stock-standard horror-movie fare. The script also at times clunks along in horror cliche mode, but there are some unexpected lines, and also some unexpected action, which lift the film above the standard Hollywood horror I-want-those-two-hours-of-my-life-back standard. Indeed, the male characters' reaction to blood and horror plays nicely against film cliche. It's a beautifully made piece, and the bleakly picturesque setting doesn't do any harm either, while George and Hartnett are both on par in their respective roles.

Overall, it won't go on your list of must-see classics, cult or otherwise - but for some entertaining horror that's got a twist more originality than standard Hollywood genre seatfiller, you could do a lot worse.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Murrell, Spencer & McFarlane - Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader (1998)

This compilation of works on Rastafari and by Rastas is an excellent example of a sociological work which is nonetheless also 'of' and engaging its subject/s. Rather than a general introduction, this is more a work for someone with a specific interest in depending their knowledge of Rastafari culture generally - though there is an introductory preface, it certainly helps to have some background knowledge of Jamaican history and the development in the 1930s of Rastafari, a belief system centring on the Hebrew Bible and the worship of Haile Selassie I, from its roots in the Jamaican slums to the international spread of reggae and (shallow) knowledge of Rasta culture. As such, the work is divided into four sections: ideology and culture, roots and history, music and film; and theology and hermeneutics.

Some of the strongest, most interesting analysis comes in the early stages of the book, in essays on the Rasta use of language to reclaim English from the Babylonian masters (whites who controlled, and control, the system) - a notable example is in the firt-person joint singular-plural term 'I'n'I' referring both to the individual and his/her connectedness to others and to Jah Rastafari - and on the personal experiences, generalities and specificities of gendered life as a Rastawoman, and of how this has evolved over time, as women negotiated 'outsider' to 'insider' statuses (or failed to do so) under various conditions, particularly as this relates to periods of socio-economic change, as Rasta moved from its heavily patriarchal working-class roots, into the emerging Jamaican middle classes as traditional Western (and therefore also, Westernised) culture was undergoing a huge series of shocks (in the '60s and '70s). Overall, one of the work's strongest points is the use of modern non-Rasta and Rasta academic voices, the voices of non-academic adherents, and the reflections of long-term researchers to allow the material to speak without a unifying voice and representing a diversity of perspectives, both from the 'inside' and the 'outside'.

Material dealing with the historical development of Rasta from one poor, Christian-based theological cult among many in 1930s Jamaica, and particularly its relationship and the Jamaican relationship with Africa, with pan-Africanists, and with African leaders (most notably, of course, Haile Selassie I) is also of real interest, as is the history of the development of Rasta (sub)cultures in diasporic communities and in majority-non-black countries. Equally fascinating is the story of how this 'cult' came to be the foremost known manifestation of a nation, to have a hugely disproportionate influence on world music, and to shape politics and artistic culture within that nation itself.

The third section pays, to my mind, overmuch space on Bob Marley, who has already been represented and discussed ad infinitum elsewhere - more in-depth material on other Jamaican reggae musicians would've been appreciated. Material on the fraught connections between roots reggae and dancehall would also have been appreciated (1998 being, however, before the notorious clash between dancehall musicians and fans, and anti-homophobes, would reach its height). Material on rasta in cinema perhaps takes its subject a little too seriously in the light of negative films (New Jack City, anyone?) which have now completely disappeared from the cultural raidar (not to say that issues of representation are not important and desering of serious consideration).

The final body of material deals with Rasta theology (though there is no formal dogma, Rasta theology draws heavily on the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, and is ambivalent toward Jesus Christ, but accepts Haile Selassie I as a divinely-prophesied Incarnation). Here, some debate takes place between Rasta and Christian positions, while much is made of the relationship between South American liberation theology and Rastafari. Each appropriates the Bible in the voice of 'the sufferers', challenges 'the system' through politics and lifestyle, and recasts the image of God in that of the oppressed, not their oppressors. In doing so, some interesting commentary is made on anti-White prejudice as originally expressed in Rasta, and whether it still exists in the age of 'one love'. While some criticism is made of the misogynistic and racist texts which have become revered Rasta works (most notably Leonard Howell's The Promised Key, overall I would've liked to see more analysis of the way in which the use of the Biblical text can be counter-liberation, particularly in terms of sexuality (an issue this work unfortunately does not address at all) and gender. The question which kept nagging at me, though it's in some ways the classic question of a non-believer, is: if the Bible is to be reinterpreted so as to wipe out imperialist prejudice, who gets to decide what's valid (the prohibitions of Leviticus, for example) and what isn't?

This issue brings us to a final question about the future of Rasta (already looking somewhat different in 2007, with the rise of many 'Rasta' dancehall singers whose idea of the Rasta way of living or 'livity' would seem very different to that of singers of the classic roots era, than in 1998) - in an era of global religious revivalism and of the swelling strength of African Black christian churches, and since the 'disappearance' of Selassie, will Rasta become simply another denomination among many (some organisations seem to be going down this path, creating formal congregations and churches), in which the political and the spiritual are disconnected or yoked together so as to continue that very oppression (as in conservative religion in the U.S.)? Or will it continue to find common cause with 'sufferers' protests against enslavement and 'downpression', and if so, which oppressed groups of the new century will be able to adopt or be comfortable being heard in a Rasta voice?

Indeed, my only complaint (apart from that it would've been nice to see an entire article devoted to ganja - but perhaps this would've seemed like promoting the stereotype) is that many of these articles implicitly celebrate the liberatory nature of Rasta, without also asking what orthodoxies are thus papered over, not only in terms of gender but in terms of theology, sexuality and other issues relating to minorities within a belief system or organisation, however amorphous. For example, what implications does the fact that rasta in Jamaica is a force much closer to the mainstream than it is anywhere else, have for the 'meaning' rasta there as opposed to elsewhere? Will the opening-up of Rasta to women as autonomous individuals (by no means universal) have liberatory consequences for sexual minorities? What will happen to belief systems as they are negotiated between 'cyber' communities of Rastas in the age of the internet, as well as between physically-located individuals and communities? All these questions remain to be answered. This volume, however, does an excellent job at replying to their preliminaries, giving an insider-outsider perspective on Rastafari as a uniquely influential confluence of religion, community, lifestyle and culture.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Jeff Lieberman - Blue Sunshine (1976)

I've been meaning to watch this film for a long time, because it's referenced both in the title of the album by Robert Smith and Steve Severin's criminally under-known project The Glove, and also in lyrics by The Meteors. However, despite some nice moments, it didn't altogether live up to the expectations I'd had raised...

The narrative follows Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King), who's at a groovy party when his friend rips his hair off, and begins butchering his fellow party goers. Zipkin, under police suspicion, begins to do his own investigation; and, as other bald murderers surface, he becomes convinced that the deaths are related to a batch of bad LSD from their (common) wild student days.

The initial murders, in particular, are done nicely, and the wild-eyed, bald killers are a nice theme (though I did wonder why the men retain strands of hair while the women become egg-bald, and their behaviour starts to become less scary and more farcical by the film's end). However, there were none of the psychedelic touches I was hoping for - genre-wise, this is more or less a straight-up multiple psycho killer story, if such a thing is conceivable, complete with red herrings and a heavy-handed 'Drugs: Just Say No' message.

Zipkin's actions seem more necessary to further the plot, than realistic for someone in his situation (if, for example, you were trying to warn someone that they might turn into a psychotic killer because of some bad LSD they'd once taken, wouldn't you, well, warn them that they might turn into a psychotic killer because of some bad LSD they'd once taken?). The plot itself meanders, and seems to lose its narrative sense as the film progresses, and a psycho-on-the-disco-dancefloor scene, which could've been well played, disappoints. So, although there are some original touches, overall I found the film a let-down.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Tahir Shah - In Search of King Solomon's Mines (2002)

Having recently become interested in Ethiopian history, but at the same time doing a lot of other heavyweight reading, I thought that Shah's ISOKSM, a travel book which recounts Shah's attempts to track down the legendary, eponymous mines, might be a good place to start. I've looked at some of Shah's other travel books with interest, but this is the first I've taken the time to read. However, I wasn't overly impressed.

In any travel book, the personality of the author is of huge importance, and I found Shah quite irritating. His attitude to the local people was patronising and insensitive, which wasn't as amusing as he seemed to find it - and, after some interesting history in the first part of the book, this aspect lapsed and we were left in a culturally interesting but ahistorical present (with the exception of the white colonialist explorers in whose footsteps Shah follows, and whom he seems to hold up as models to some extent). Ethiopian religio-mythology is fascinating: Solomon is said to have been visited by the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia, according to the story), who returned bearing his child - from this ancestor, the royal line (the final ruler was Haile Selassie I, deposed in 1974 by a Marxist-influenced junta) claim descent. Speaking of Selassie, there are some interesting Ethiopian perspectives on Rastafari which don't often get a hearing; and a poignant scene in the abandoned village of the falasha, Ethiopian Jews who were ultimately evacuated to Israel; though I would've liked more on the contemporary impact of the brutal Italian invasion and occupation of the 1930s.

Essentially, that's my complaint - while there is a great deal of colourful description and Shah puts himself into serious danger and hardship, any depth of understanding of the circumstances, while present, is shallow - which is, perhaps, implicit in any quest for gold, even if it's not for personal profit. Meanwhile, this deficiency is only exacerbated by his self-congratulatory neo-colonialist leanings. So, while there's definitely some interesting material here, and contemporary travel works on Ethiopia aren't exactly thick on the ground, next time I might reach for something a little weightier.

David Cronenberg - Eastern Promises (2007)

While David Cronenberg's works tend, in my opinion, to be flawed gems, I always approach a new Cronenberg feature with excitement and expectation. This was particularly so with EP because the preceding film, A History Of Violence, is one of my favourite Cronenberg films, and, like EP, stars Viggo Mortensen; it also features Naomi Watts, who's a favourite of mine. However, I found EP quite disappointing.

The film, set in London, follows the story of Anna (Watts), a woman of Russian ancestry, who works in a maternity ward. When a Russian girl of fourteen is brought in miscarrying, and dies in giving birth, Anna determines to use her diary to find the baby's family (Anna herself, we are told, has recently suffered a miscarriage). Her search takes her to a Russian restaurant, where she soon finds herself ever more deeply and dangerously entangled with the Russian criminal underworld, the vory y zakone, specifically Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his flaky and unstable son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), to whom we are introduced as Semyon's chauffeur.

Though I like Cassell (his rather two-dimensional character here gives him little to work with), and Mueller-Stahl is excellent as Semyon, the Russian accents, to my ears, sound more like caricatures. Mortensen is also good as the enigmatic Nikolai; however, one of my favourite aspects of his character in AHOV was the way in which his rugged all-american-ness played into the deceptive layers of the film, and there is no shadow of this to be found in EP. The film is beautifully made, and, as all the critics have noted, there is a breathtaking fight scene in which a naked, heavily tattooed Mortensen is pitted against two thugs - this scene conveys both the vulnerability, the grace and the human-ness of the male body in a way which is incredibly rare in film.

However, the negative aspects of the film heavily overshadow its strengths. The plot is essentially preposterous, and the narrative veers sketchily into the didactic (explanations of Russian prison tattoos, for example, which is a fascinating subject in itself - I recommend the work Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia II, introduced by Anne Applebaum, author of the also-excellent Gulag: A History), and into emotional appeals to cliche, while the characters' motivations are so blindingly obvious as to make the work heavy-handed in the extreme. Anna's naivete, in particular, is difficult to believe, and seems to exist merely to set up a moral contrast between the (good, blond, Westernised) heroine and the dark masculine world of the Russians. I was also troubled by the morality of the work, the Orientalist use of Russia (and the European East) as a place and a symbol of dark barbarism (despite Anna's Russian background), and the way in which we are led to sympathise with the character of Nikolai. Finally, the ending is not only highly unbelievable, but is nothing short of embarrassing - some critics have suggested that this is a purposeful slap in the viewer's face and to the expectations aroused, but if so, it's a failure, at least in this viewer's opinion.

I wouldn't say it isn't a film worth seeing, particularly for Cronenberg fans - the stunning visuals and exploration of human viscerality and malleable identity, themes which run through all his works, are evident in spades - but in toto I expected more from a director with Cronenberg's record of complex, transgressive and thought-provoking works.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Mary Douglas - Purity and Danger (1966)

At times I condemn the modern self-helpish propensity to locate the self as both the source of all problems and the source of their solution. There's a narcissism here which I find problematic, and a political propensity to elide the defining impact of external conditions (particularly those outside the immediate family). But at the same time, the issues that we face as individuals are very much issues that are created by the post/modern condition, with its focus on identity, information flows, internal an external surveillance, and distance technologies; and as such, they need to be dealt with at this level. Also, approaching issues either as external (change yourself) or external (change the situation) is not a zero sum equation - rather, what's needed is a recognition that, in order to implement positive change, both these strategies need to be adopted in permeable concert and applied where they're possible - that is, to think outside the defining binary structures of Western (and perhaps human) thought, to exist in the permeable, liminal zones in which one doesn't strive for control in terms of mastery and lack of necessary connection, in which security is maintained by adaptability, not by inflexibility, in which one doesn't fear the contamination of the internal by the external and vice versa - in which one welcomes, in fact, the mingling and dissolving of these binaries.

Mary Douglas, the social anthropologist, has just died at the age of 86. I would highly recommend her book Purity and Danger (1966) to anyone who wants to understand the way in which modern society constructs the boundaries and oppositions which I mention above, and which demonstrates the construction of the dangers of contamination and pollution which maintain them. The work, and Douglas herself, is most famous for her fascinating analysis of the meaning of the prohibitions of Leviticus (which she later rethought, concluding that God cares equally for those creatures which 'man' must abominate); but the work goes far beyond this to demonstrate the way in which 'dirt', and hence pollution, contamination, defilement, is not an objective fact but rather a manifestation of a system in which matter is out of place - and that the fear of contamination is a fear of lack of control, of the inevitable permeability of boundaried and binaried systems into the construction of which huge social and individual labour is put.

For me, it's been a foundational text, both in terms of my academic work, and in terms of my understanding of my own self and my relationship to others and to the social, my understanding of desire and fear (each in the broadest sense) as manifestations of my person/ality. And, as I do with foundational texts, I've returned to seeing how central these ideas are to an understanding of those on my own individual level. This kind of work on the self, particularly in tumultuous externally-imposed (or, it might be better to say, unchosen) circumstances, is difficult: it helps to be clearheaded, which, for me at least, has been a struggle in itself, but one in which I've made a lot of progress (having not touched any substance of possible abuse stronger than caffeine and cocoa for, oh, about three months now); it involves taking risks and the fear and psychic discomfort that that entails - but they pay off amply; and (incidentally, since we love binaries so much, why do only trinities feel complete?) it involves the willpower to make change, while at the same time giving up the fantasy of total control. Most of all, it helps to have a hand to hold on that journey (the presence of which inevitably alters and defines its course), a beckoning finger to show where you can choose to be led, a companion in both fear and joy, a safe place when the difficulties seem overwhelming... possibilities are the bastard children of circumstance, but it's what we choose to do with them that relates to and creates both who we are - and who we become.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Querelle (1982)

Fassbinder's Querelle is a film I'd been meaning to watch for a long time. It left me, however, vaguely disappointed. It's a gorgeous film, resplendent in dark smouldering colours, shot entirely on evocative sets with heavy-handedly metaphorical scenery. The music is also well done, with classical themes both accompanying and contrasting the stylised, dark and violent action; as well as Madame Lysiane's (an excellent Jeanne Moreau) Piaf-esque musical version of Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol, a haunting refrain which accompanies us throughout the film.

However, one is left asking what this book adds to Genet's masterful, erotic and bewildering Querelle de Brest (it is specifically noted that this is a film about Genet's novel, but for all intents and purposes it is an adaptation). Brad David is certainly attractive as Querelle; but to my mind he loses Querelle's vulnerability, and this could be a metaphor for the work overall. The strong presence of the abject in Genet's novel, of shit and stench and dirt, is transmuted into a Pierre et Giles vision in which dirt is only present when it highlights perfection. Genet's stylised dialogue sits oddly in (this) film, as do the highly stylised ritual fight scenes which stray into absurdity. Genet's heady fusion of the emotional, the erotic, the intellectual, the abject, of the slums and the ivory towers, becomes awkward; while any rendering of his unreliable and ever-shifting authorial voice, always a hallmark of his work, is not attempted. The decision to insert slabs of text between scenes (not, it should be added in fairness, in any way intended to further the plot) seems already an admission of failure to fully translate the work into its new medium.

Overall, then, I would class this work a failure, in that it transmutes Genet's complex work into little more than a piece of homoerotic kitsch; nonetheless, an interesting failure, when considered as a piece of more than usually complex, and visually arresting camp kitsch.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Stephen O'Shea - The Perfect Heresy: The Life and Death of the Cathars (2000)

As someone whose field of study deals with the worst elements of human behaviour en masse, I often think that, much as I wouldn't want to be, I've become inured, at least to some degree, to the acts which people will perpetrate upon each other in the name not only of power, but of abstract ideology. This book was a reminder of how capable of being shocked and filled with incomprehension I remain.

TPH is perhaps one of the best-written works of popular history I've come across - by no means a doorstop, it reads easily and compulsively without losing its usefulness as a detailed historical account with useful academic references.

The narrative deals with the Cathars, a heretical Medieval Christian group, their ascendancy in Languedoc in what is now southern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Crusades organised by the Pope to destroy them and, in the process, the region, and the aftermath of their destruction. This episode (now incorporated in works such as Eco's The Name of the Rose, and, lamentably, the mythology of works like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code) is fascinating for its exploration of Catharism, something like a mix between Protestantism and Eastern religions. This was a more-or-less dualist belief holding that life on Earth was in fact Hell, and that the material world was a creation of a dark force, identified with the false God of the Old Testament; and that, therefore, the Catholic Church itself, in its materialism and power hungriness, was an extreme manifestation of evil. Reincarnation eventually allowed the person who lived a good life to escape this Hell-as-earth. Cathar 'perfects' could be female as well as male, and renounced the material, including monetary wealth, meat, and sexual relationships; while 'credentes', or believers, were free from the restrictions placed upon individuals by the Church (sex only within marriage, the paying of tithes, the threat of excommunication, and so forth).

Understandably, Catharism (similar believers included the Bogomils in Eastern Europe, from whom the term 'bugger' eventually derives due to Church descriptions of their proclivities) gained a growing following, strongest in the Languedoc area. And this is where the subject begins to shape the present. Successive Popes, (the first, ironically, Innocent III, followed by Gregory IX) organised Crusades from Northern Europe to crush the Cathars and their regional strongholds. This included hideous mass mutilations, burnings, and the mass murder of entire towns. The Cathar wars shaped the states of Europe as we know them today, defining Languedoc as a part of France as it fell under Northern control, rather than, as could otherwise have been, an area incorporating Languedoc and Aragon in Northern Spain. The aftermath of the ultimate victory of the Catholic Church played out in the establishment of the Inquisition, and of both the Franciscan and Dominican orders; and, argue some, instituted the same 'persecuting society' in which we live today.

The senselessness of the wanton destruction and murder, the crushing of a relatively benign and culturally flowering feudal troubadour culture as well as a decentralised system of governance, and the chillingly relentless persecution of a sect which seems, to modern eyes light years ahead of other belief systems at the time, brings one to ask how anyone could believe that this would be what the biblical Jesus wanted, and to meditate on the fact that the content of systems of belief is not particularly important; the nature of human society ensures that they will be used for the same ends, that is the violent establishment of domination. Nonetheless, despite not being much of a Francophile, this book incited in me the desire to visit the landscapes over which the narrative roams; and so, as a reading experience, horror is tempered with romance and fascination. Recommended for anyone interested in the medieval period, in organised religion and dissent, in French or Western European history... or simply for a work which is at the same time edifying, horrifying, and fascinating.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Essays On Dolls - Heinrich von Kleist, Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke (1994)

This slim volume, in Penguin's Syrens series, collects three essays: von Kleist's On the Marionette Theatre (1810), Baudelaire's The Philosophy of Toys (1853), and Rilke's Dolls: On the wax dolls of Lotte Pritzel (1913/14). It's a remarkable collection, demonstrating the casual yet weighty essay style which in our age has become the realm of the polemicist alone.

von Kleist's conversational, but dense, essay, concerns a master dancer's discussion of marionettes, dolls which are attached to those who manipulate them only by one string placed at the centre of gravity. The joy of these dolls, says the dancer, is that they are unselfconscious, free from affectation, and weightless. Grace (and here we see a confluence of divine grace, and gracefulness), argues Kleist, exists in opposition to thought. In the human form, it can only be reconciled in the inanimate (the soulless), or the divine (the infinite soul).

Baudelaire takes us from a childhood experience in a rich woman's fantasyland of toys, to a discussion of the way in which playing with toys is the first expression of abstraction and imagination (though Baudelaire excludes from this those children who 'merely' recreate adult situations - and here there is a certain misogyny in evidence in his scorn for female children playing at childish women - and also excludes 'men-children' who collect, rather than play with, their toys - a problematic argument, to my mind, since this might be read as a symptom either of anxiety or of possessiveness, but not, certainly, as a lack of creativity). But the ultimate desire of a child is to see the soul of a toy, and for this reason, at some time or another, the child breaks the toy. Just as playing marks the beginning of abstraction and imagination, so the failure to find the soul gives the first sensation of stupor and melancholy. And so, we might conclude, imagination and creativity are inextricably linked with disappointment and melancholy...

Rilke takes us to darker places yet. He begins with an examination of the dolls, made for artistic exhibition to adults, of Lotte Pritzel - these, according to Idris Parry, the editor and translator, were elongated, emaciated figures dressed in weird gauzy costumes suggestive of dance, decadence, and a Beardsley-esque atmosphere of eroticism and melancholy.

This is Rilke's introduction to his argument on the way in which dolls, in contrast to other everyday objects which gain by their integration into human life, are 'gruesome foreign bodies' on which our affection is entirely squandered, dense repositories of forgetfulness, so devoid of imagination that, at an age in which it was impossible to truly interact with other humans but only to lose ourselves in them, they can be used to establish distance between the self and the external world, as they become repositories for split or opposing parts of that self as it expands. But we rage at these creatures, because they do not need us, and we have wasted our affection on them (and the doll's lack of response gives us the lovely thought that silence confers considerable importance in a world where both destiny and God 'have become famous mainly by not speaking to us'). The doll helps the child become used to things; but it also inspires the first bitterness of wasted tenderness. Of all toys, the doll is soulless, or rather the self is uncertain whether the doll's soul resides in the self or in the doll; dolls have a quality of not being present. They are thus kept in existence only by a monumental mental effort combining anxiety and magnanimity, but we can never entirely detach ourselves from this experience of the uncertainty of the other, our desire to create them, our rage at the fact that they will never return what we gave in the spirit of expectations with which we gave it. And these adult dolls of Pritzel's? They are are dolls who have 'entered into all the unrealities of their own lives', have become an unnerving symbol only of the permanent sensuality of the doll, 'into which nothing flows and from which nothing escapes'.

These reflections on creation in our own image essentially concern the constructed nature of the self and the sensual, the physical, the material and its relation to the soul or the spirit. They inform our understanding not only of their subject but of works from Coppelia to Hans Bellmer's Doll, and the perennial fear of dolls and mannequins expressed in films from House of Wax to Child's Play. It's no coincidence that that most of the earliest examples of works of creativity are human forms, or that man made god make man in his own image...

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Books and Films: In Brief

Having determined to see a film in the German Film Festival, I went to see Grave Decisions (Wer Früher Stirbt, Ist Länger Tot), a cute and sometimes fantastic story about death and immortality, which follows Sebastian, a mischievous eleven year old boy whose discovery that he 'caused' his mother's death in childbirth kicks off a quest for immortality, with various misadventures along the way... while it was a fluffy comedy, it was beautifully made, well acted, funny, and, in the way that European comedies can be, lighthearted without being irritating or cliched (the tone, though not the subject matter, reminded me of The Closet and similar films).

And, since the pile of books I've read without having had the chance or the time to review is growing out of control, I thought I'd just do a quick roundup here.

John Lanchester - Mr. Phillips (2000)
I loved Lanchester's The Debt To Pleasure, so I approached MP apprehensively - but while it doesn't have the same refined nastiness which is one of my favourite things in a novel, it's still worthwhile. The story follows the eponymous accountant, who, rather than going to work, spends a day wandering around London, thinking about sex, and quantifying everything, while stumbling into various more and less dramatic situations. Lanchester has a gift for knifesharp observation of the minutiae of everyday reality which is apparent here - and the very English tone of the work, its workmanlike but Larkinesque language, the exploration of the bleak and sordid without being depressing, and of London as an environment - made it both an easy and an interesting read.

Maurice Gee - The Halfmen of O (1982)
Not, as you may think, a children's version of The Story of O - I seemed to remember this book from my childhood - but, sadly, it doesn't live up to the work of the New Zealand children's fantasy author who I most think of when I think of childhood reading, Margaret Mahy. It's not a bad work, but not entirely gripping - and the premise is problematic: that, in an alternate world, an act of power hungriness has divided human beings into those who are purely good and those who are purely evil. Not terrible, but disappointing.

Hilary Mantel - Vacant Possession (1986)
I love Bernice Rubens and Alice Thomas Ellis, so to complete the square of politely dark and nasty Thatcher-era English comedies of manners I needed Beryl Bainbridge, and Hilary Mantel. Vacant Possession is the story of Muriel Axon, unhinged and just released into society as part of the era of de-institutionalisation - with dangerous consequences for those with whom her former life had become entangled: Colin Sidney and Isabel Field. This novel is very much concerned with class, and no class avoids a satirical serve from Mantel's poison pen; its other concern is the nature of intimate relationships. I enjoyed the novel, though not as much as I do either Ellis or Rubens - and it gained momentum as the story unfolded and events folded together - my main criticism was the ending - I wasn't sure if it was intentionally ambiguous, or if my intellect wasn't up to understanding what had happened. Still, very much my kind of thing, and recommended to those who share my literary proclivities.

Catharine Arnold - Necropolis: London and its Dead (2006)
This work takes us through burial practice in London, from the earliest records to the present day. For the most part, however, we find ourselves in the pre-Victorian and Victorian eras, exploring a growing cultural obsession with death and burial and changes in discourse around these issues - and the gruesome consequences of the burgeoning field of medicine, and of the massive disparities in wealth which meant that the rich had a black couch and eight while the poor were thrown into huge, open mass graves to decay. Arnold's writing isn't perfect, which sometimes bogs down the narrative. However, her subject matter is easily interesting enough to hold the work, and to hold the reader's interest. A fascinating work of cultural history which not only explores the enthralling intricacies and historical trivia of death and dying, physically and culturally, but which also has a great deal to tell us about the more general nature of societies through its exploration of its subject.

Hubert Selby Jr. - Last Exit To Brooklyn (1964)
I hadn't read Selby, as I'd classed him, along with Bukowski and the Beats, as one of those substance-addled, masculinist chroniclers of alternative life who have little to offer anyone except the adolescent, or mentally adolescent, male. How wrong I was! While I often like my darkness with lashings of the fantastic, rather than grimy reality, that's been changing over the last few years with my growing interest in figures like Jean Genet, Lydia Lunch, and now Selby. The book is a series of connected stories, sometimes vignettes, treating the seamy sexual, narcotic, criminal underside of life in Brooklyn in the forties and fifties through a series of characters. The writing is absolutely gorgeous, spare but poetic, as is the dialogue and observation - and I must say, if it wasn't for this, the depressing and awful nature of the lives depicted would have had me closing the book long before. This is a work which in one sense is entirely located historically, but in another is still entirely relevant to and reflective of the dark underbelly of civil society - in particular, how its outcasts inflict their pain upon each other. It still reads like a paean, an indictment, and a slap in the face. I'll be reading more Selby - when I'm emotionally recovered.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

John Kennedy Toole - The Neon Bible (wr. 1953; pub. 1989)

Before being given this book, I hadn't realised that John Kennedy Toole, who killed himself at the age of thirty-two, had produced anything other than the wonderful, rollicking black satire A Confederacy of Dunces; and the story behind the publication of that work (due entirely to the persistent efforts of Toole's mother, Thelma, after his death) seemed astonishing enough. In some ways, the publication of The Neon Bible was even more unlikely. Written when the author was only sixteen and located after the wildly succesful publication of Confederacy, due to a complicated but somehow appropriate set of legal circumstances stemming from the oddities of Lousianan inheritance law, Thelma Toole attempted, succesfully during her lifetime, to stop the publication of the work. We have reason, however, to be grateful that she was ultimately unsuccesful.

This is an entirely different work to Confederacy, and one which will not appeal to everyone who enjoyed that novel. It is in a certain sense a classic example of the American outsider bildungsroman, following the development of its protagonist, David, in a small Louisiana town in the period preceding, during and after the Second World War.

In the first place, it's astonishing to consider that this is the work of a sixteen year old. While at times this is clearer than others (for example, in the hasty, out-of-character, and temporally overconvenient events leading to the end of the book and David's departure from the town), overall it displays an emotional maturity and a use of language which bely the author's youth. To me, the work didn't have the narrative pull of Confederacy; but it's more of an exploration than a story, a work in which the town itself is a character in the same way that New Orleans is in Confederacy, and in the classic American tradition of the centrality of geographical location in fiction. This may also be understood as one reason for the novel's sombre tone; as in Confederacy, we are concerned with outsiders, the way in which they deal with their status as such through complex and shifting alliances and acts of acceptance and rebellion - and to be an outsider in a small town is a very different question from being an outsider in a big city. The depiction of the torments and vicissitudes of this life are moving without becoming a litany of cruelties in the manner of more recent 'loser literature'.

In its exploration of small town hypocrisy and the stifling of the individual and the outsider, particularly as regards Christianity, and in its quasi-gothic sense of place and spare, stilted, yet still eloquent language, TNB reminded me of works from Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood to Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw The Angel. The other great strength of the work, to my mind, is the character of Aunt Mae who, like the central characters in Confederacy, is a creation who lives and breathes in the imagination of the reader beyond the confines of the novel itself.

Overall, while it is evident that this is the work of a writer in the process of formation, it is a better book than many written by succesful adult authors; and one which can be given interesting multiple readings, both in light of Toole's life and Confederacy, and in the tradition of the obsessions of the American novel.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Scientists + Howard Arkley

The Scientists rocked my socks on Saturday night - I got my three favourite songs (Set It On Fire, Swampland, This Is My Happy Hour) plus an impressive, blistering We Had Love. Quite a contrast from the last time I saw Kim Salmon, as part of The Darling Downs (with Ron Peno of Died Pretty)... they seemed to have acquired a non-original drummer who, despite her chissenefrega air, gave the music the irresistible tribal repetition which it works on - and Salmon himself was in fine form both as vocalist and guitarist.

I also headed to the Howard Arkley exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales today. Arkley's work was panned by John McDonald in this weekend's Spectrum for being formally awful (Arkley claimed that there was no irony or kitsch present in his work, either in his choice of subject or colour) - but I thought there was more to understand here, particularly considering that, since the death of the author, we needn't be guided by the way the artist intended her/his work to be read (and Arkley sounds like a typical, if amusing, tortured artist - McDonald retails the story of how, at the only major exhibition of his work during his lifetime, he signed catalogues at $25 a pop til he had enough for a fix, and promptly disappeared. He would, of course, die of an overdose).

I love Arkley's day-glo colours, his hyper-real airbrushed depictions of suburbia with their vague air of the sinister and the contrast between the airbrushing, which gives them an opacity belying the fact that they're painted on canvas, and the sharp relief of the wallpaper and pop art patterns he uses, so reminiscent of your auntie's parlour and of Liechtenstein (and there is a derivative element here, which doesn't necessarily undercut the work, to my mind at least). The earlier works, and those from just before his death in 1999, don't necessarily have the strength of the classic period, although there's a beautifully day-glo picture of the junkie's shot, so different to the usual and understandable darkness in which the subject is wreathed, and a striking portrait of Nick Cave... and I'm always interested to see suburbia taken as an ambiguous subject, without the old cliche of suburban utopia or the new cliche of the darkness that utopia hides (in the Australian context we might also think, as McDonald did, of John Brack) - one wonders whether Arkley cunningly anticipated the shiny consumer dream of the McMansion now being realised everywhere at such great cost.

Perhaps, also, this work, which transforms the physical moments of suburbia into something garishly gorgeous is speaking to me at the moment for other reasons - the joy that I'm taking in suburban moments, and in colour, the vivid green of bus-stop weeds, the electric artificiality of traffic lights, the oilslick purples and greens on the wing of the crested pigeons which my mother feeds on her balcony. And this is something which I've painstakingly created myself over the past months; but which also owes a debt to another presence, of which I won't mention anything more here, except to say thank you.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Pet Shop Boys + Jarvis Cocker + The Pixies + V Festival

It's been a gruelling two weeks of gigs, to which I have subjected myself in the name of edification and the pursuit of musical knowledge.

The unquestionable highlight was the Pet Shop Boys last night at the Hordern. I haven't been to the Hordern since my teens, but it's still more or less as I remember it - and since I was there with an absolute fanatic, I turned up at seven to get a place centre front, just behind the barrier. Now this, gentle reader, is something I don't usually do at gigs, because if there's one thing that makes me unable to concentrate on watching a band it's fear for my physical safety - but Pet Shop Boys didn't seem like it'd be that kind of environment, and it wasn't (now if only I could do something about all the people with cameras - whatever happened to good old fashioned memory?). They certainly know how to put on a show, complete with dancers, backup singers featuring the formidable diva Sylvia Mason-James, and even a giant dancing top hat to, ahem, top it all off. The thing the Pet Shop Boys do so well, and which few other bands manage, is the transition between the sublime and the ridiculous, between deep, heartfelt emotion, detached irony, self-reflexive as well as non-overtly-political satire, and silly hats.

Chris maintains his detached stance (despite a rather gorgeous yellow fluorescent hoodie - and I never though I'd call something fluorescent yellow gorgeous) behind the keyboards, while Neil, who gives off just the nicest vibe - you'd love to have high tea with him - is a still, anchoring presence, with a raised eyebrow and a half-smile, in the midst of the performance. The visuals also add a great deal to the work - I'm With Stupid, for example, which is not a favourite of mine, gains a new dimension with British and US flags splashed across a giant screen. And I got Flamboyant, my current favourite PSB track, which I'd been hoping for. But the absolute highlight was an understated, moving version of Rent.

The other solo shows I've been to, Jarvis Cocker and the Pixies, were both more mixed. Jarvis's new work is to my mind rather banal and forgettable - and seeing him live didn't do much to change my opinion on that score. On the other hand, it's Jarvis - you almost wish that he'd just abandon the music and do standup. His stylised dance moves have suffered not the slightest with age - and neither has his banter. Perhaps the most amusing moment was his interrogation as to the nature of Ipswich in Australia - which in one of his songs is used as an exemplar of a place you really, really wouldn't want to go (I don't think he quite realised the aptness of that in the Australian context...) Or, on the other hand, it could've been his interrogation of the pair of undies that was thrown on stage. And, dash it all, he's just so incredibly cute. Despite the musical blandness, I didn't for a moment regret going to the show (I would've liked some Pulp material, and could've done without the Springsteen cover - but I understand why he wouldn't want to play that, and cover-wise you can't win 'em all...)

If Jarvis was a larger-than-life personality but muscially bland, the Pixies were the obverse. Though the sound at the Big Top left a great deal to be desired, it was great to hear them - I was particularly excited that they opened with In Heaven, a cover of a song on the Eraserhead soundtrack, and I got the song I'd been hanging out for, Nimrod's Son, along with the majority of their other well-known work (although they've apparently disowned Bam Thwok, which I think is a shame, as I've decided that is actually a good song). But there just didn't seem to be much else happening - except for the dowdy Kim, who was a chain-smoking sweetheart, they simply stood on stage and played, which is something I don't like in a performance - and at times seemed fairly unrehearsed, as in the chaotic La La Love You. So, again, I wasn't sorry I'd gone - it's the Pixies, after all - but it did leave something to be desired.

And, finally, the V Festival, at which I saw all of the above and, well, the only other band I payed any attention to were Nouvelle Vague (even though they'd mistreated me by doing only a secret sideshow - but I hear they're coming back soon). Despite the utter inappropriateness of the venue for their loungey bossa nova covers of seventies and eighties alternative classics, they were a joy to watch, with their oh-so-French charm and a singer who was rather cute in that classically European, au naturelle way. The only thing I would've wished for is that they would've done some of the lesser known songs, which are my favourites of theirs - Sorry For Laughing, say, or Making Plans For Nigel - rather than a run through of the best-known songs they cover (Too Drunk To Fuck, Love Will Tear Us Apart, etc).

I haven't been to a festival for years, and though V had somewhat of an amateur-hour feel (you could tell that it's the first time it's been put on), it had a fairly laid back atmosphere - at least if, like me, you weren't drinking (the bar queues stretched halfway across the festival). But it reminded me why I dislike festivals - drunken yobbos in particular - and also of the way in which, for all my faults, I was raised with a communitarian consciousness. Doesn't the girl sitting on her boyfriend's shoulders ever think for a second that her pleasure is thirty other people's displeasure?

That aside, though, it was a fun and relaxed afternoon. Pet Shop Boys were spectacular, though I was glad I was going to the solo gig, as their set was essentially a best of; the Pixies (I only caught the end of their set) seemed to have it a lot more together, and with a lot better sound quality (which is saying something, given that it was outdoors); and Jarvis was, if anything, cuter than in his solo show, noting for example that Australian 'gobstoppers' wouldn't stop anything, except maybe a dog's arse - if it was cold enough...

So I now have, oh, two hours or so to breathe before I head out tonight to continue my unwonted live musical odyssey - not to mention what might be the last time I do the closing set at Ascension for some time... I was thinking of doing a 'greatest hits' of my closing sets, running through deathrock, oldschool industrial, and, of course, my signature eighties... but since I won't be drinking, don't expect Mickey or Belinda Carlisle. You've been warned that you don't need to be warned...