The Nice Guys and the Campness of Fastidious Villainy

I recently watched The Nice Guys at the cinema, and, seeing as how I work on the 70s, noir, masculinity and crime representations it was enjoyable on several levels at once to me. [Spoilers ahead! Academics love ruining everything!]

One fairly small thing that particularly stood out to me, as someone fascinated by performances of villainy, was Matt Bomer’s character John-Boy.

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check out those numbers eh, that’s what I call impact

 

John-Boy is an assassin, so known because of the mole on his face (which seems to reference Austin Powers’ mole on his face/being a mole bit)The scene in which we first discover him pleasingly nods towards intertext, actors’ star personas, casting choices etc:  Holly’s friend Jessica, on the phone, having previously heard the threat is called John-Boy, is asking “What’s the name of the guy on The Waltons who plays John-Boy? With the hockey puck on his face? It’s driving me crazy”: whereupon, of course, we cut to the face of wholesome, unassuming ‘Dr Malik’, with its ‘hockey puck’ of a mole.

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the original john boy

goodnight John-Boy

His apparent wholesomeness being connected to that of the original character John Boy and The Waltons as a show is also the point: as well as allowing a tense reveal, it is there to provide an ironic set of expectations that will immediately be broken.

John-Boy’s black leather gloves are immediate clues as to his real role. I think they fit into TV Tropes‘ category Conspicuous Gloves, but also, there really should be a subcategory called Nazi Gloves or The Bad Guys Wear Gloves or something like that. Does a character have black leather gloves? Well strap on your torture trousers because someone is losing a limb. Without further research, just off the top of my head, I would also imagine this trope emerges not only out of the visual conventions of Nazi (and Nazi-inspired fictional bad-guy) uniforms but also of the leather clad toughs and teenage delinquents of 60s tv and film and pulp fiction. Another famous example is Dr Strangelove, the cold war mad scientist villain of the 1964 film of that name, who wears one black leather glove on his uncontrollable dead hand. Likewise, if a character has latex gloves, or surgical gloves, or any shiny waterproof variety of gloves on, and they’re not in a hospital, a tattoo parlour, or a fetish club? Just run.

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ooh you’ll have someone’s eye out with that

This, to use another Troper loanword, is part of the construction of Wicked Cultured: a cliché in which the serial killer or psychopath or sadist is more highbrow that other characters around them. Hannibal Lecter is a classic example. Real life serial killers are themselves party to this stereotype, drawing on it to shape their public image, borrowing from the devices of fiction; Ian Brady has boasted of his sophisticated tastes in music, reading and clothes, for example (something representations of him were playing up even before he himself began making claims about it). This trope (and Brady is a good example of this) also overlaps with a subset of this tendency that I think of as more ‘Wicked Fastidious’ (to coin a trope): i.e. characters who undertake violent activities but are at pains to distance themselves from ‘mindless’ violence or ‘thuggishness’. This may not involve consuming highbrow cultural products per se but will entail a painstaking, neat, standoffish interaction with the world around them, exhibiting attention to detail about clothes and perhaps cleanliness, and even somewhat dainty or feminised body language – a sort of elegant cat-like dislike of getting dirty or messy).

In Bomer’s performance of John-Boy I am reminded very strongly of Kevin Trainor’s portrayal of Mr Omida, from the sci fi thriller Utopia, in both his politeness and fastidious appearance, his apparent bland hyper-polite courteousness, and his interaction with – and willingness to dispassionately torture – young girls.

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According to the actor’s wikipedia page,

Trainor earned critical accolades for his appearance in the special flash-back episode that launched the 2014 second series of Channel 4’sUtopia. His performance as Mr Omida, an immaculate and punctillious torturer, was described by Metro as “the most chilling torturer committed to screen in a long time”[2] and by Geeks Unleashed as “the very neat, precise and sinister Mr Omida, who wins the creepiest man alive award”.[3]

A particular element of similarity between the two is their arriving, neatly and with their carry case of implements, in their light grey three piece suits, and brown ties. Omida introduces himself in the manner of a kindly family doctor:

‘Pleased to meet you, my name is Mr Omida. Should the time come, I am to be your daughter’s torturer. I’ve been asked to explain my process to you. Now Jessica’s only four, and, always the difficulty with such an age is maintaining life for the maximum amount of time. So, I will need to monitor vital signs throughout. But, this is just a matter of being attentive.’

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John-Boy, likewise, appears in the guise of the friendly and conscientious family doctor. He is actually referred to in these terms by another agent. And by coincidence, he also has a child named Jessica as a potential candidate for his ‘treatment’. In the novelisation of the film (yes, for some reason the official novelisation of The Nice Guys already exists, and is already on Google Books, if you fancy a look), John-Boy’s demeanour is described as that of a ‘too-friendly fake doctor’: Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 14.36.04.pngFlicking a straight razor or a switchblade open is of course, as good as a Glove Snap in terms of focussing the other characters’ minds wonderfully, and akin to such a sound effect (and the old Audible Sharpness trope) in announcing to the audience Shit Just Got Real. John-Boy’s final riposte in this scene is excellent, not even breaking his stride (and drawing attention to his, now single, leather glove with his jaunty wave):

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Mr Omida, however, is an inherently English kind of punctillious torturer, a fussy little man who exudes an aura of milky tea and Graham Greene novels; a sexless inhuman reboot of Charles Hawtrey in the Carry On films. John-Boy, by comparison, has a very American flavour of sexless quasi-camp fastidiousness (referencing The Waltons!): my immediate reaction was to describe him as “Ned Flanders possessed by the spirit of Crispin Glover”. Indeed, Glover’s camply creepy bit-part assassin in Charlie’s Angels (while not located in any Norman Rockwell American ironic faux-wholesomeness) is in some ways a very similar role, performing a similar function: a small but vital fulcrum in a spectrum of evilness within an ensemble of characters engaged in professional violence within a kitschy fun action period-piece crime comedy star vehicle.

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An umbrella sword: the ultimate in Wicked Fastidiousness (very Cold War too)

The obvious reading list recommendation for screen media and creepiness as a trait of (certain types of) masculinity is Adam Kotsko’s Creepiness. But his book, generally speaking, focusses more on a range of psychosexual and gender presentational forms of creepiness, rather than those of the stylised villain figure per se (check out his Why We Love Sociopaths for more on that). The vibe I’m getting off John Boy is rather less ‘creepy uncle’ and much more ‘unsettling professional bringer of death’. Yet, Kotsko’s formulation of creepy is as excessive, over-friendly, over-desising, with illegible motives, and obscure implicit emotional demands: what do they want? And, furthermore, the incoherence and discomfort can be caused by the mismatch between their behaviour and the emotional freight they give it: the apparent disjunction of action and affect (which of course links up with the creepy character par excellence, Kotsko’s previous area of interest, the screen sociopath or psychopath).

Politeness evolved socially as a way of codifying the avoidance of violence, so, perhaps it makes sense that when we see examples of it dialled up to 11 we feel an unease: it suggests its own artificiality and fragility; that this stilted and brittle convention is the only thing between us and just so much blood. It also suggests a duplicity, a lack of honesty and openness, a containment that leads to outbursts of violence. The image of the buttoned-up person suddenly snapping, and particularly of the closed-off emotionally unavailable male who becomes a killer as a result, is both a commonplace in fiction and popular culture, and sadly in real life as well. The use of medical personas, and quasi-medical equipment (wipe clean gloves; razors) draws upon the uncanniness and unease of the trust and reliance we place in medical professionals, and how the radical manipulation and disruption of the body for either therapeutic or violent ends is a disturbingly intimate and frightening prospect. (This double edged element to medicine is a key element of Utopia, by the way: see this post.) I mentioned Kotsko’s discussion of the ‘creepy uncle’ stereotype; he theorises it thus: an uncle is too close to be not family but too distant to be properly family, “family but not really family”: it is the lack of definition of the role that renders it creepy, its motives and allegiances enigmatic and thus suspect, particularly in a society in which the adult male is not associated with a caregiving role. (Creepiness, p.12) The ‘family doctor’ is also in just such an unheimlich position.

 

 

 

Back With The Killer Again

Well gosh, paint me silver and call me Samantha, hasn’t it been a long time since I’ve updated this blog. And what a terrible decision to do so with a sentence that sounds like Bertie Wooster. I’m sorry about that everyone. Nevertheless, here I am, astonished that it’s been almost two entire years since I have posted here. It feels very strange that an amount of time like that can go past without noticing, when a PhD itself is such a short chunk of a life (but such a LONG slog of a task as well). The passage of time during the thesis-writing process often feels like that of Green Wing, always speeding up and slowing down, glitching and looping, erasing parts of itself and repeating others in a way that is satisfyingly hauntological to write about and disconcerting in the extreme at times to experience.

In the time that’s elapsed half a PhD lifetime has passed. From being a second year, sitting on every committee I could find (mostly in order to avoid feelings of isolation, if I’m brutally honest), run ragged — but, also, having fun collaborating and engaging with colleagues and organising events, and working on my film and tv chapter and the quasi-comic, psychosexual, excess grotesquerie of embodied performances of toxic masculinity — to a sage (and/or haggard) old 4th year eking out the last months of their writing up year like some imaginary medieval saint scratching away in a cell. Since then, amongst other things, I have written a book chapter about the Gothic aspects of Maxine Peake’s Northern star persona (in David Forrest and Beth Johnson’s forthcoming edited collection Social Class and Television Drama in Contemporary Britain, Palgrave Macmillan 2016 (hashtag pluggy mcplugface)) the germ of an idea for which came from this very blog, and I’ve also considerably levelled up my chapter on representations of the Moors Murderers and Peter Suctliffe’s depiction in popular music (which you can see me give a paper on in Liverpool Hope at their Theorising the Popular Conference on June 28th-9th if you’re so minded, and/or read the abstract below:
[edit: I’ve added the abstract in full here, as I’ve realised only people with academia.edu accounts who are logged in can actually see the page I’ve linked to, which isn’t very helpful]

‘Pop Is Always Looking For Trouble’: Popular Music’s Fascination With Celebrity And Violence).

This paper will use popular music representations of the ‘Moors Murders’ and ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ cases as case studies to examine the ways that pop culture has responded to and shaped the figure of the celebrity criminal in general and the mythology surrounding these crimes specifically, and, the ways in which it has questioned official history and what has been designated as exceptional and what as unexceptional violence.

Featured in songs from punk and industrial music in the 1970 and 80s, to indie from the 1980s onwards, these killers’ proliferation as musical cultural commodities has emerged alongside the development of ‘alternative’ popular music and out of (and in turn fed back into) its mixed and often self-contradictory concerns around authenticity, fame, image, commodity, creativity, self-determination, ediginess, auto-didactism, rebellion, working-class emancipation, contested models of gender and sexuality, and suspicions of official establishment narratives.

Of the many songs available I will use the following texts as my main examples, providing both close analysis of lyrics and context of the publicity artefacts and reception around these cultural acts:
Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Very Friendly’ (1975), The Moors Murderers’ ‘Free Hindley’ (1978), Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Night Shift’ (1981), The Smiths’ ‘Suffer Little Children’,  (1984), the satirical depiction of pop music’s depiction of these killers in the TV comedy Brass Eye (1997), and Luke Haines’ ‘Leeds United’ (2007).

Drawing on Lisa Downing’s work on the construction of the figure of the murderer as exceptional, overlapping with the figure of the artist, and, the epitome of the individualised neoliberal subject (The Subject of Murder, 2013), and David Schmid’s analysis of the particular cultural forces that have shaped the modern serial killer into the apparently obvious and self-evident figure of fame and fascination (Natural Born Celebrities, 2006), I will demonstrate that the construction of these celebrity killers and that of the celebrity musician share many important facets and are mutually self-supporting in their mythologies and the kinds of cultural intertext they draw upon to create and maintain their exceptionality and commodity status as society’s ultimate outsider insiders.

I’ve also moved from Birmingham, which I wasn’t a fan of living in, but was lucky enough to have use of a shared office, and, rather than isolation or lack of cv-boosting projects, often feeling too much opportunities came my way, to Manchester, which is a brilliant city, but where I have no affiliation with a university, no jobs, no community other than as a drifting dilettante at the margins, but also free as the air from meetings or organising anything.

Sometimes that feels very floaty in a scary and sad way, cut off from reality, like a ghost, or a little balloon that someone has let go of the string. But other times it’s relaxing and exhilarating to know I can plan my own time as I choose. Right now I am glad to say it’s the latter. I’ve just got back from a lovely long holiday (9 days! heaven), my first proper one since I started my PhD, and I’m not even being sarcastic when I use the cliche that I feel “refreshed”. I didn’t take any work with me, no laptop, no books, but I had a conference abstract (for Birkbeck’s True Crime Fictions conference on July the 1st) deadline while I was away, so I have decided to write it on my smartphone rather than have either the physical or mental burden of Taking Work With Me and thus allowing my thesis to remain in my thoughts feeling like the little ghostly You Should Be Writing fairy is hovering over me the entire time:

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And so, that’s exactly what I did, and, as mundane a plan as it sounds, I was really pleased at how well it worked out.  I used dropbox in safari on my phone to access my drafts to copy in a few phrases and refresh myself on ideas and then just wrote the abstract on the notes app whilst lying in the sun in a beautiful park in Barcelona. It might not be the most beautifully phrased or finely wrought abstract that has ever been written, but, I think it’s ok and gets my ideas across, and I count it as a big win in that I made and sent an abstract for an event that I’m really excited about but that unfortunately I otherwise wouldn’t have had time to apply to be part of, without feeling like I had sacrificed more than a tiny scrap of my lovely luxurious holiday.

If you’re interested, here is the abstract (which I am super excited to say I have since found out I will get to present in July — registration is here):

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(this painting needs a delicate little trickle of blood at the corner of one cup to really represent it, but, I think you can see what I’m going for here :D)

Modernism and Materiality in True Crime 

The key internal elements of true crime, in my analysis, are its intertextuality, its meta-presentation of media and history as constructed artefacts, and, most of all its materiality. As a genre it is strikingly homogeneous in its presentation of a close up view of the physical and commodified: of objects, spaces and the body.

In this paper I would like to demonstrate some of the formal uses of these features, first of all in a more straightforward form of true crime, drawing examples from a variety of canonical true crime texts including In Cold Blood, Happy Like Murderers, Killing For Company, Handsome Brute, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, and Beyond Belief.

Secondly I will trace some of the ways in which true crime emerges from, and draws upon the techniques and traditions of, literary modernism. This is most strikingly the case firstly in its repurposing of the Bildungsroman novel form — by which true crime creates a dark shadow narrative to this form’s dramatising of the moral spiritual development of a young man — and secondly in its crowded and minute attention to things, to the physical and commercial meanings of spaces, bodies and things.

Finally I will compare true crime’s use of these elements to their subversion and repurposing in true crime fiction (ie fictions based on and making use of traditional true crime) particularly in David Peace’s ‘Red Riding quartet’ and Jean Rafferty’s Myra, Beyond Saddleworth – both of which especially provide a meta commentary on history as narrative and ‘write back’ to official histories of their respective criminal cases.

 

Joseph Ernst: Red Riding Graphic Designer Of My Dreams

This Red Riding promotional picture (ident?) by Joseph Ernst is the best thing I have seen not only this week but possibly, idk, ever. *hearts for eyes emoji*. Pylons! Cooling towers! Other excellent landscape features! Maxine Peake’s beautiful haunted face looking beautiful and haunted! Different filters demarkating different time periods!

somebody's heaven

The torn paper palimpsest (shout out to everyone else who first learnt that word from The Handmaid’s Tale) effect looks like the peeling posters of yesterday’s entertainments pasted up by Bill Stickers and left to decay in the rain. It’s like a microcosm of the kind of media quotidian milieu — everyday life sculpted from the cultural artefacts of a given time and place, that carry within them the aspirations and anxieties of that society — that I love banging on about in my thesis and anywhere else I get the chance to.

My only complaint is that it could do with a bit more Sean Harris and a bit less of the massive number 4, but then again, couldn’t we all?

The ident is otherwise perfect. It’s such a pungent distillation of the kind of Northern neo noir visual tropes that really gives off the flavour of ‘Yorkshire noir’ that Peace has sought to establish: pure ‘gritty bafta’ iconography. I strongly recommend clicking on the image for a bigger version and having a good old gawp for a bit, and also maybe clicking aimlessly around Ernst’s website for a while.

Re: Harris’ absence from this picture, I partly say this in jest because I am known to be a big fan of his, but also, were I blocking the positions on this image, I would have placed Harris (who plays Bob Craven) where the character Bill Molloy (Warren Clarke) is standing. It would have been helpful to me if Ernst had in fact done so as I could have used it to support my interpretation of the texts that suggests a northern true crime -inflected re-mapping of the kind of situation described by Eve Kosofsky Segewick’s theory of homosociality. She adapts Rene Girard’s conception of triangulation, whereby the classic two dudes competing for one lady love triangle is a sublimation of strong social and/or sexual feelings between the men in question. And I in turn re-imagine this triangulation in a different context — more twisted power play than classic love rivals.

In the second Red Riding film (Red Riding: In The Year Of Our Lord 1980) the three characters played by Paddy Constantine, Sean Harris and Maxine Peake, who are all police officers and all find themselves working on an internal team looking into the possible mishandling of the Yorkshire Ripper investigation, have a fraught set of relations. Peter Hunter (Constantine) has been having an affair with Helen Marshall (Peake), now over, and Bob Craven (Harris) not only makes it his business to both hamper Hunter’s investigation as much as he possibly can, whilst being openly rude and obstructive to his colleagues, but to use Marshall as the object of explicit verbal sexual harassment, and also to threaten Hunter in a weirdly intimate and homoerotic style (the classic Harris move, featured in several of his roles, of rubbing his head down people’s faces whilst mumbling cryptic threats: master of the Creepy Bastard role). This all leads up to the blood-drenched hammer-clutching twist reveal.

So, basically, the three of them have this weird quasi-love-triangle dominance struggle thing going on, which forms the nucleus of the second film, in my reading of it at least, so, wang us some Harris in the left corner Ernst so I can use your picture as an example of how other people can see this too I didn’t just totally make it up. #academiainanutshell

Roles 2014

But, that was a minor nitpick. I’m trying to work on turning my paper about this theme that I presented a paper (partially) about at the Roles Sexuality and Gender conference in May into an essay for Roles’ forthcoming edited essay collection (WATCH THIS SPACE) based on the proceedings of that conference, and so, obviously, I have a bee in my bonnet about this facet of the RR films.

Delicious Research

delicious research

This week’s #AcWriBloMo is draw your research in the form of a cake or other foodstuff. Because #yolo. My thesis is about representations of the Moors Murders and Peter Sutcliffe in popular culture. I don’t know how well I summarised it but the tiny haircuts took me ages so, wevs.

Next week’s theme, in honour of the start of term, is about new stuff – new ideas, new directions, new beginnings.

 

This reminds me that I did once make murderer biscuits for a fashion/talent show (Hamburger Queen). To be honest I misunderstood how coherent my stage persona was supposed to be, so, because I was doing a talk about the aesthetics of murder for the talent round I thought, welp, better run with this. I got my comeuppance for this foolhardy (AND WILDLY INAPPROPRIATE, PROBABLY) idea; the judges weren’t very impressed with either the taste or the aesthetics. One of them said my Fred and Rose West looked like the Beatles, and then the host Scottee accidentally dropped my Hindley biscuit down a gap in the stage because it was crumblier than expected. Here she was:

hindscuit

I’m definitely a proper academic.

Gritty Bafta

Gritty. Bafta? Gritty Bafta.

I’ve decided to use this blog/my #AcWriBloMo challenge to directly engage with texts as I go along. So here is a kind of microblog closely looking at the comedy sketch ‘Gritty Bafta’ from (the otherwise unspectacular) The Kevin Bishop Show:– a response to and engagement with the famously bleak and northern ch4 drama series Red Riding (2009), consisting of a 3 part film set of adaptations of David Peace’s quartet of novels. {No I’m not going to properly format the title because nuts to you, you’re not my thesis.}

Its title references ‘grit’, in the context of a term for something which is both style and a genre of crime drama — a mode perhaps? a flavour? one that hinges predominantly around conveying certain types of locations and masculinities (and that is also found elsewhere, not just in crime, the Western for example is another – a genre that Red Riding plays with, and pastiches with noir, in a way that is in the direct lineage of both film and novel The Third Man). The other half of the title is the BAFTA (British Film And Television Award), creating a specifically British context, but also poking fun not only directly at Red Riding but also at the conventions of ‘serious’ drama and the tendency for such kinds of drama, dealing with “difficult” topics (in specific kinds of ways) to be over-represented in award success. This is alluded to in the glibly vague voiceover

‘it’s the 70’s, someone’s in care, probably, there’s a prostitute, almost definitely […] coming soon to channel 4, and all award ceremonies’

The genericness and vagueness of the pitch (‘probably’ – ‘and other people you sort of recognise’) combined with the use of a nonsense filler phrase rather than sample dialogue — the equivalent of ‘rhubarb rhubarb’ or ipsem loren — highlights the genericness and thus keeps the focus firmly on genre. The lack of verbal content also puts emphasis on the visual, spatial, sound elements, and the performance of the bodily actor as well as the meaning of the actor’s persona and how this inflects the text.

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[This bit where Kevin Bishop plays Sean Bean (in a mash up between the character he plays and the police setting, which we never encounter him in) is also a great nod towards the way RR deals with location and the frequency with which characters are portrayed in corridors, staircases, entrances, underpasses, underground car parks,  and other labyrinthine architectural structures — for an excellent blog post on Red Riding‘s use of this theme (also referencing The Third Man, go here.]

The star personas represented here are united by their status as high level British character actors, but low level celebrity staus (‘Samantha Morton, Sean Bean David Thewlis, and other people you’ve sort of heard of’), perhaps rendering their connection less of a ‘star system’ a la Richard Dyer’s conception, and more an ‘actor intertext’ (to use, as I frequently find I do and that it has filled a pressing need in my research, a term coined by Bethan Jones) — these actors, all northerners, also all have resumes stuffed with the gritty as well as the bafterous. (And indeed we may recall that Morton famously played Myra Hindley in the, award-winning of course, 2006 film Longford.)

In The Guardian’s Pop Culture 2009 list, just before mentioning the ‘Gritty Bafta’ sketch alongside its source material, RR was  described as having

‘an all-star lineup of maximum grit. Paddy Considine. Maxine Peake. Sean Bean: even the actors’ names sound like something you’d see written on a long-haul truck.’

Likewise, Justin Quirk, in his otherwise extremely sharp, astute and searching review of Red Riding, lists some of the cast in a throwaway fashion,

‘Lesley Sharp, David Morrissey and Maxine Peake also crop up, chinking tumblers of whisky and crying, “To the north – where we do what we want!” ‘

when quite patently only one of the actors listed (significantly, and hardly surprisingly, the only male one) is shown doing this. It may seem nitpicky, but, these kind of generalisations create a cumulative effect of implying that the northernness of these actors is of primary importance over their specificity, and that they, as is anyone othered in this fashion, are general, interchangeable, replaceable.

rr colour

 You may have already read some of my tangential musings on Red Riding‘s use of colour on my previous post about Utopia; well, if brown is the colour of history, washed-out is often the colour palette of late twentieth century grit. Gone are the stark black and whites (mostly black) of noir, in favour of murky mid-tones.

I found an a good summary of this by Christina H on comedy list website Cracked,which actually (sort of) works as genuine critique in spite of its humorous intention

‘the visuals need to get the point across that this is a bleak, joyless world with no easy answers and no happy endings, which is equivalent to no distinguishable colors. In a world where you can’t tell an enemy from a friend, it just seems logical you wouldn’t be able to tell green from red.For example, Man of Steel showcased a Superman so conflicted he couldn’t even remember what colors Superman wears.

 (bonus points for how Christina’s example image gets in a bit of gritty corridor marching seriousness for good measure)

If you think trawling comedy sites for potential cultural studies references is bad, you should see how many eons of time I waste on tv tropes, counterbalancing my laughter by sighing that no-one’s written an academic book on most of it yet. My good friend Dewi Evans, the author of brilliant Agatha Christie blog Styles of Dying,  once said something to me along the lines of cultural studies is what starts when you stop laughing at something  and start examining it. I’m paraphrasing because we were probably in the pub when he said it, but, it’s a pretty excellent summary of the whole process (as well as a salve for my constant feeling of being gazumped by Chris Morris all the time). Comedy usually gets in first and laughs botyh last and loudest, but academia is (relatively) easier to get into, and involves far less being booed offstage in the initial stages.

The sketch this post discusses is engaged in identifying and re-presenting  important tropes in

  1. The text (RR)
  2. In the genre it more broadly lampoons

I mean, that’s basically the entire essence of satire, that it replicates that which it critiques.

We have, the body of an attractive female victim (which is a constant in visual crime forms – but the slab use felt particularly Prime Suspect-y to me), a brief salute in the direction of a dream, delusion, supernatural or occult element in her waking at the end, we have the typical locations, the use of faded, dim colours, the dialogue delivery style and type of actors we would expect (the stars of whom add to it’s ‘quality drama’ feel as well rather than the kind of jobbing actor training school — whose alumi retrospective create a set of star references — provided by, say, The Bill), we have the rain, the police, the costumes and styling. And furthermore, we even have the type of credits and moorscape that strongly resembles that of See No Evil (2006) – which I find a particularly interesting reference because of the use of the ‘Samatha Morton’ character is kind of a feint for Maxine Peake, who also played Hindley, but in See No Evil, and Helen Marshall in Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 . The sketch also creates an excellent miniature pastiche of Dickon Hinchliffe’s (amazing) soundtrack to this same film, merged with ‘generically drama-y music’ – nodding both to the generic audio tropes we expect from this kind of television but also to the specifics that made RR stand out.

Down the Mr Rabbit Hole: some initial thoughts on Channel 4’s Utopia

The 2nd series of Utopia finished a couple of weeks ago. I was planning on doing a long post about it straight after, but, I just had too many ideas spiralling off in different directions.
If you haven’t seen the programme yet, firstly, mate, you should know right now that I’m going to spoiler it up so badly for you if you keep reading. And secondly, the gist of it is it’s a conspiracy thriller in which a mismatched group of comic-book fans find themselves on the run from (and attempting to the foil the plans of) “The Network”, which is a shadowy organisation of terrorists who have infiltrated the highest levels of the scientific and government establishment, and who intend to sterilise the majority of the human race in order to prevent the future famines, wars etc that they posit will occur as a result of the current levels of demand on the earth’s dwindling resources unless they intervene.

As such, the programme’s central theme is one of medical, political and environmental ethics. It poses a classic philosophical thought experiment that raises such popular imponderables as the prisoners’ dilemma, do the ends justify the means, the greatest good for the greatest number, utilitarianism, and so on and so forth.

Series 1 is all up on Netflix and series 2 on 4OD right now.

Apparently 3rd and 4th series are under consideration and rumour says David Fincher has already been planning an American remake for HBO. Like David Peace’s ‘Red Riding series’ (also adapted by channel 4), has a strange feeling of alarming prescience that  makes it not merely topically but uncomfortably close: a distorting mirror held to a disturbed reality, a bad dream threatening to come true. Even the most cursory awareness of current events should make it all too easy to feel the possibilities this programme enacts.

Warning: spoilers; really long post; more ahead. I’m sorry.

Pharmakon: the god of writing’s cursed medicine and the ‘scientist who does a deal with the devil’

One might readily describe Utopia as a pharmaceutical thriller, and the tension between the positive, health-enhancing potential of scientific research and its equally murderous, corrupting, ruinous side is both the central core of the tv programme itself and the source, I would imagine, of the name ‘JANUS’ for the virus. Sharing a name with the two-faced Roman god of transitions, beginnings and doorways, Janus is a term used metaphorically in general speech to mean a paradoxical object or situation that contains its own opposites – and that suggests the flavour of god-like-ness that the text foregrounds so clearly, particularly in the first episode of the second series where Milner repeatedly calls Phillip a god.

We see this double-edged medical sword refracted in both more minor plot elements, such as Phillip’s experiment with Arby (/RB) as a toddler to try and ‘inhibit violence’ which has precisely the opposite effect to that which was intended (which is something that so-called genius scientist Phillip Carvel seems to be all too familiar with), to the complex business surrounding Becky’s (alleged) illness.

The JANUS virus is intended to sterilise the majority of the human race by altering their DNA. The Network has insisted that this be alteration be determined by ‘junk DNA’ that has no racial or ability-based application – i.e. that sterility is assigned on a random basis, thus preventing the virus’s potential application as a tool of eugenics. This is the idea, anyway, but as we see Phillip decided to racially link the virus after all. But since the vaccine part doesn’t work anyway, he’s just, you know, condemned everyone to death, because he is terrible at literally the only thing he is supposed to be a genius at. You had ONE JOB, Phillip, maybe two, and you stunk at both of them out loud.

[Fun fact: famous murderer Ian Brady wrote a book called The Gates of Janus: Serial Killing and its Analysis (Feral House, 2001); perhaps we might vaguely bear this in mind when considering a man who would play god in determining the worth of other human lives.]

In ancient Greek, the word ‘pharmakos’ (φαρμακός), and its variant ‘pharmakon’ (φάρμακον), can mean, apparently, all of the following:

medicine, drug, potion, spell, sacrament, remedy, poison, druggist, poisoner, magician, sorcerer, talisman, cosmetic, perfume, intoxicant, philtre, recipe, charm, substance, artificial colour, paint

and in ancient Greek religion meant a ritualistic sacrifice or exile of a human scapegoat or victim.

These words are where we get the term “pharmacology” from.

Immediately I am sure we can see how this is relevant to Utopia, on several levels. The emotional sacrifices made by The Network’s members, and the sacrificial deaths of those who would stand in their way. Think of Becky’s symptoms, illusory in cause but real in physical experience, derived from the heroin she has been tricked into thinking is medicine; think of the vaccine that is instead to be also (and ends ups as only) a steriliser, a pre-abortant, a preventer of future humanity.

The term ‘pharmakon’ is one that Derrida famously nuances in his reading of Plato’s Phaedrus (in ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, Dissemination, 1972), following and pulling apart this chain of meanings like Carvel’s tinkering with the chain of DNA, to demonstrate a contingent and illusory relationship at the heart of various philosophical and conceptual binaries: apparent opposites that, Janus-like, face both ways, containing their own negative image.

In Phaedrus, King Thamus is offered writing by Thoth (the Egyptian god of writing) as a pharmakon or ‘remedy’ for memory. Thamus declines this gift because what it will bring him forgetfulness rather than memory – rather than fix the memory problem that he has it will serve instead as a reminder, a crutch that will weaken the afflicted part – and so writing is a poison not a (or as well as a) cure.

Derrida’s use of pharmakon is also something that resounds throughout ecocriticism (critical writings from an environmentalist perspective or on subjects relation to human interaction with the natural environment), which, when you think about it, makes perfect sense. [There is also a strong strand of political criticism to Derrida’s pharmakon that I would like to think about in terms of Utopia in a future post, but right now I haven’t considered it enough to write about it.]

Through his interpretation of this myth, he argues that the apparent oppositions of medicine/poison, good/bad, true/false, right/wrong, negative/positive, interior/exterior and so forth, already contain their own antonyms, and that the pharmakon of writing itself is irreducible to binary concepts that it constructs. I can’t help thinking of Futurama’s joke about horse-racing:

‘And it’s a dead heat! They’re checking the electron microscope. And the winner is — number 3, in a quantum finish!’ ‘No fair! You changed the outcome by measuring it.’

[This is a joke about the Observer Effect, a theory that suggests that the act of observation will make changes to a phenomenon being observed/recorded. Anyway, let’s steer away from my shaky understanding of science and merely sum up the idea that I was aiming for: that is, by writing something down you have altered it.]

Not only is JANUS a binary-deconstructing pharmakon of poison/medicine, but also, the graphic novel that Phillip creates is simultaneously a reminder, preserving to memory the events surrounding JANUS, and an encoder, obscuring them, and ultimately of course Phillip is both mentally ill, morally compromised, emotionally conflicted, at war with his own past and purposes, and also engaged not only in an act of remembering that can only rewrite his perception of the events that took place, but in recording them, he is altering them using the cursed medicine (of writing) too.

Off-Colour:

One of the many connotations of the pharmakon is ‘artificial colour’ or ‘paint’: this seems strangely relevant to Utopia. First of all, we see impossibly bright, lush, over-coloured grass (or grass-like substances like corn fields) in the landscape shots that are so prevalent, both in sub/urban settings and rural ones. And secondly, how much that type of the highly saturate, hyper-real highlighter-bright colouration is one of the most noticeable features of the show as a whole.

U06

it’s like looking into the eye of a duck, and sucking all the fluid from its beak

The neon, acidic green and yellow of the show’s palette – which uses fluorescent, eye-searing shades not only for objects and settings but also credit screens and marketing materials — emphasises artificiality and a kind of verdant, sterile abundance in which nature appears to flourish but something is not quite right, something is subtly, off. 

As Vilte from The Next Simulacrum puts itUtopia is both ‘absurdly stolid and exquisitely cruel’, and her relating of this to colour is exactly on the mark. It raise our hackles immediately from the first scenes. Indeed, I would go further and say the cruelty of the comic shop murders scene is woven into its very fabric (infiltrated into its very cells) by the use of colour; we can see the bright acid yellows of the shop fittings reflected in Arby and Lee’s dispassionate, expressionless faces, quite literally colouring their outlook — making them seem as lifeless and cold as wipe clean surfaces or strip lights. The greenish cast to their skin makes them inhuman, alien.

One is reminded of the eerie glow like something radioactive or kryptonite, the chemicals in a mad scientists’ lab. It is an acidic, bile-like colour of corrosion and bodily ill-health, ofsickness (e.g. someone ‘looking green’ when they might throw up). The artificial colour palette inscribes the things we see with a combination of advertisement-like commoditised over-perfection that lends so many of the interior rooms impersonality, fakeness and unease — like a paint catalogue or a Habitat show room — but also of something tampered-with, not to be trusted, a visual lie. It is like the invisible threat of contagion made visible, made patina, that covers the programme as a whole.

utopia collage

The main effects of the show’s use of colour is a sense of unreality or perhaps hyper-reality, that somehow our own eyes can’t be trusted to tell us what is really going on, that what we are seeing with such stark vividness can’t really be real, or perhaps is just too real for us to be able to process. The fact that such bright colours can actual hurt our eyes makes a clever analogue for the pain inflicted by the organisations we witness and by the uncovering of the truth.

The colouration of the landscape conveys that this is some kind of utopic or dystopic future or another place from the world we live in – a sort of no-time no-place unreality. It also helps to underline the show’s recurrent theme of artificiality, of sterility, messing with nature, connotations of scientific labs. It makes me think of those the well-known experiments with getting people to eat food coloured blue or black and their subjects feeling disturbed or repulsed by the unnaturalness of it. (I think Eric Schlosser talks about this in his book Fast Food Nation). Certainly that same sense of dis-ease, of off-ness, is a lingering presence throughout. (Which in turn reminds me of the recurring trope of Arby’s raisins: the cursed treat, the poisoned nourishment, the visible sign of childhood innocence exploited and destroyed.)

A forum poster describes it as ‘the mirror opposite of Hannibal [‘s] colour palette’. Likewise this visually beautiful but disquieting use of colour reminds me, as does the shot construction and filters and use of landscape, of a reverse-coloured version of Red Riding. When I was teaching film studies last year one of my students, talking in an exam paper about British ‘heritage’ film making and its visual markers, said “brown is the colour of history.” I absolutely loved this statement, it’s so true and so amazingly bluntly put like that, it really makes you think about what it is the filters and visual effects in film and television convey to, and construct for, us as viewers. Everyone jokes about Red Riding being entirely brown — and indeed many of the films I work on for my thesis are so dark visually, that I have to edit the images to make them lighter if I want to use them in slide shows, hand outs etc. There was a great Steve Bell (I think?) cartoon on the back of either the Guardian or the Observer around the time Red Riding was on (2009) with brown suits and brown interiors and a character saying (words to the effect of) ‘In the 70s everything were brown. Me house were brown, me car were brown [etc]’, which lends credence to the brown = ~the past~, as my unknown student surmised.

[Sidenote: I constantly regret not cutting this cartoon out when I saw it, because no amount of inventively phrased google searches will yield me a copy of it — in fact I will give any reader who sends/links me a picture of it an actual genuine prize through the post, I’m not even just saying that.]

As we recognise that using dark and murky colours is a way of visually coding ‘the past’ and grittiness and probably ‘elsewhere-ness’ onto things, it also becomes perhaps more clear what Utopia is doing when, first of all it creates the opposite of that effect, and second of all strategically deploys and adapts it to visually indicate that the 1970’s episode is a one-of departure from an otherwise broadly linear narrative, while still remaining such intense hues.


Bibliography:

http://nextsimulacrum.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/utopia-tv-series/

http://www.denofgeek.com/tv/utopia/24542/11-questions-left-unanswered-by-the-utopia-finale

http://www.denofgeek.com/tv/utopia/24540/utopia-finale-review

http://jforjetpack.com/sf-alive-well-kicking-tv-land/

http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=866729

Derrida, Jacques ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, from Disseminations [free PDF here] http://thowe.pbworks.com/f/derrida.platos.pharmacy0001.pdf

http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/pmahon/pharmakon.html

JUST SAYIN IS ALL: Part 2

Finally someone else has noticed this too:

I’ve been telling people this for EVER. The outfits are even identical. They are making this series SUCH A TROLL.
Which two guys famously had a feisty younger female companion to help them pick up young people and put them in harms way? 

told you so

But in all seriousness, you do have to wonder if the iconic Brady mug shot image has, in permeating the cultural unconscious to the extent that it has, made itself available as a template to be plucked from the ether when an actor who resembles him and a strangely similar logistical and power dynamic happens to come along. I know it is at risk of trivialising to compare the two, but, allusions to elements of these famous archetypes are how popular culture quickly and efficiently creates certain atmospheres subtextually without having to ever explicitly announce a connection. It seems almost disingenuous to deny that the makers of Who and Capaldi himself have been making claims for how much “darker” etc this series is going to be. Emulating the Brady mugshot suiting (or rather, the kind of masculinity and dark austerity of purpose that it has come to signify) doesn’t exactly hurt when emphasising that facet of the Doctor. And of course, all texts by virtue of their very existence automatically are in dialogue with all other texts, be they pictures or murderers or episodes of alien adventure shows.

what time of year was it what jumper were you wearing

However unintended, there is certainly the possibility for an extremely creepy reading of the Doctor (thanks for taking this and running with it, Moffat): one that foregrounds the quasi-imperialist, instrumentalist, gendered power-imbalanced implications of this 900-odd year old alien from a ~more advanced race legging it from his war-related crimes and coming to earth to almost exclusively pick up young earth women for unpaid PA duties and sort of semi-romantic pseudo-sexual relationships.
(Which of course only became yet more noticeable as he got made the king of the gin and bunting nationalist brigade. We might know him by the company he keeps and so forth..)
Just batting around some ideas, but, ultimately: HMMMM.

*Sits back and waits for all the Whovians who haven’t already wtf-ed at me IRL about this to pile in*