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.

you'll have someone's eye out with that 2.png

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.





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:


I’m definitely a proper academic.


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*

Pictures Of Hank Williams Lovingly Drawn By People Who Apparently Hate Him

{{THIS IS A REPOST. Do not adjust your perception of time or sense of deja vu if you happen to know me and thus have been subjected to this already. There’s an extra bit at the end now though, featuring NEW art that wont make you have nightmares.
This internet artefact I bring you almost verbatim is from the Last Days Of Livejournal, a doomed-bourgeois-in-love sardonic comedy about …yeah that joke sort of tailed off a bit there, sorry. Let’s move on. INTO THE PAST.}}


What up. Turns out since I have a PhD proposal to write, I thought I would waste like an hour of my life blogging about terrible pictures of Hank Williams I have at various points prior to now found on the interweb. It’s like partially technically research anyway, this well counts as visual culture/social memory. Cough. Yes. Anyway.
If you’ve never listened to him, he sounds like a horse with a headcold, his songs are pretty yodel-heavy, and as such he is a genius. As a basis of comparison, here is the man himself, unmolested by the pencils of maniacs, and in my opinion not half bad looking really:

I didn’t actually even have to go out of my way to find bad drawings of him. If you google him, these are the drawings you get. There a few good ones, and a LOT of boringly bad, uninspired, mediocre ones.

And then there are these: the creme de la creme of crap:

This is clearly making reference to the fact Hank Williams’ death was drug-related. Classy. At the time of his death (aged 29) he had consumed alcohol and sedatives. However, the morphine found in his body had been administered by a doctor.
It’s an even more classy way to depict him when you consider that an important factor in his use of drink and drugs was that he suffered from spina bifida which gave him lifelong pain, and then he sustained a back injury in the 1950s which made his spinal pain even worse. #justsayinisall #prettycrassyo
Add to that the lurid fried egg sunset and the wonky car and it’s just beautiful.

I’m not sure I fully understand what I’m seeing right here. But hey, I love goth covers of country songs, so who am I to question this visual mashup?

“I’m planning on painstakingly crafting a likeness of my hero, Hank Williams. What do you think I should paint it on?”
“I dunno dude, how about this piece of wood I just found lying in the road? I think it might even be part of an old-timey toilet seat.”
“Cool! Ok. I think I’m going to try and make him look like his face is made of spam too. In homage to the other great love of my life.”

Just what is this. I know Django Reinhardt became an unbelievably amazing guitar player with the use of only two fingers on his left hand (I think?). And I’m not having a go at anyone who genuinely does have only one functioning hand, because, well, that would be an awful thing to do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s going to make you look much cop as an artist if you go round drawing people who have two hands as if they have only one and some sort of tiny weird looking appendage poking out of their massively oversized sleeve because you’ve just remembered they’re supposed to be playing the guitar. See also: giving them someone else entirely’s face.

It’s not the artwork here I have an objection to. I like the pace and the way his death is cut with scenes from his performances. It has a very cinematic quality that I like. But I’m including it because it makes me feel really uncomfortable depicting a real-life person who existed in living memory soiling themselves in death. Does he have to be weeing himself? Really? I mean, it’s not even like he’s some sort of hate figure. While that added detail does create pathos, it feels a bit cheap and unnecessary to me. Have a little respect for the dead.

Possibly this artist has confused Hank Williams with Gollum.

NB this is obviously a nightmarish copy of this photograph, in which you can clearly see his arms are the same length as one another and he looks like a human being.

Possibly this artist has confused Hank Williams with The Insane Clown Posse.

I recommend staring at this for a good few minutes. It’s like some sort of out of body experience.

Words cannot convey how utterly terrifying this is. Seriously. Look at the face. I can’t even.

Another goth/country mashup: vampire Hank Williams. Now with added Cold Dead EyesTM.

This is my favourite. Every time I look at it I cannot stop laughing. I think it’s something about the look of angry yet weary resignation on his (weird, wizened, lopsided) face, as if he knows some bastard is doing this (incredibly detailed, painstaking)drawing of him, and there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s somehow quite aesthetically pleasing really, despite every single thing on it being wonky. His jawline. His eyes. His ears are drastically different distances up his head. If he wore glasses they would be permanently aslant. Even the spot light that he’s standing in is in no way circular or symmetrical. It’s a triumph of feeling and detail over any kind of visual sense.
And it’s the gift that just keeps on giving: it wasn’t until the third or fourth time I looked at it that I even noticed he has got two (weird, wizened) arms poking out of the same sleeve, playing guitar. Presumably to redress the balance on the other odd-handed picture we saw earlier.
This is a masterpiece of the shit pictures of Hank Williams oeuvre, and I like to think his expression of wry yet accepting annoyance is his comment from Heaven on the genre as a whole.

And, if you’re not all Hanked out already, check out these ones that were not drawn with malice or cackhandedry, and actually are great:

Howard Finister was a Baptist minister. Which sounds like the start of an excellent song. Maybe I’ll write it one day. Anyway, he was an outsider artists who did devotational art featuring famous people like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Elvis. His work was discovered by the mainstream media in the 80s and he did album art for Talking Heads and R.E.M. Here’s a sample of some of his Hanks:

Hank Williams in cake form:

You can read all about how Alicia, a wonderful human being and apparently a great cake artist, made it for her friend’s birthday here.

BREAKING NEWS *clutches earpiece*: I have just been informed that vampire Hank Williams is on the loose and appearing in rubbish Dr Who spin offs near YOU. Members of the public are advised to be on their guard, as he had no known weaknesses apart from perspective, anatomical accuracy and shading.


In an added bonus to this totally enthralling and not at all massively TL;DR post, check out some ACTUALLY GOOD art of Hank Williams:

These are by a guy called Jon Langford, who’s drawn 30+ portraits of the ‘legends of honky tonk’ (which I would LOVE to see collected in like an Osborne mythology guide), and thanks to whom I had the unalloyed pleasure of googling the phrase “Hank Williams nudie suit” in a public place and potench facing los consequences. APAZ his famous white music note suit was designed by Nudie Cohn (IMAGINE having Nudie as a first name), who, according to Professor Wikipedia was a Ukraine-born American tailor who designed decorative rhinestone-covered suits, known popularly (and hilariously) as “Nudie Suits”. It’s amazing the things you find out when you’re avoiding redrafting a chapter about serial killers having a hand shandy.