Back With The Killer Again

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.

 

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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.

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.

photo 2

[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.