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.


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.’


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.





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.