Tuesday, 30 July 2013

A Found Object

"A close equivalent to Brutalism's avant-garde quotidian is in the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.  Banham makes a more than punning connection between the techniques of concrete brutalism and those of musique concrete, in that both are based on the use of manipulated found objects, both have a disdain for harmony but not for structure.  The Workshop applied musique concrete to TV jingles, soundtracks, mundane everyday sound.  What made both so valuable is that they were so totally immersed in everyday life.  Switch on the radio or walk out of the door to find yourself in a new world."

- Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

A Clarification

If you think this...

...is what Chinese people actually look like, then guess what:



An explanation is probably in order.  This post is in response to an assertion made on the aforementioned 'Talons' thread, an assertion agreed with more-or-less by several other posters, that one might mistake John Bennett in his yellowface prosthetic make-up (see above) for an actual Chinese person.  Yes, human beings - people with brains and opposable thumbs and everything - actually felt comfortable making that assertion in public... though, they do use pseudonyms on Gallifrey Base forum, so maybe that anonymity helped.  

Some of the people in question have been engaged in inventive games of circumlocution and tactical point-missing around the subject of the racism in 'Talons of Weng-Chiang'.  The usual disingenuous special pleading, most of it.  'There's a stupid white policeman - does that mean it's racist against white people?' and 'I've shown it to Asian friends and they weren't offended!'.  Y'know, the sort of cretinous, spurious, trivial, entitled, privileged, desperate, dishonest bollocks always trotted out when these waaaah-waaaaahing manchildren feel that their untroubled viewing pleasure may be even slightly complicated by being implicated in the injustice visited upon people other than them.

However, the idea that it might be possible to mistake the above image - in all its Fu Manchu-y and rubbery and yellowy inglory - with an actual human being of Chinese descent... well, it's simply breathtaking.  How is one to respond to people who evidently

a) base their notion of what Chinese people look like not upon the actual appearance of, y'know, actual chinese people, but rather upon racist stereotypes conjured into life by immobile, expressionless yellowface prosthetics, and

b) think that their own comfort with this racist elision is itself an alibi against charges of racism?

There's something often said by fans about 'Talons of Weng Chiang': "ignore the rat".  It means, decide to see past the extremely unconvincing giant rat monster in the story (which looks like exactly what it is: a combination of a real rat in a bad model set and a fluffy puppet) so that you can see the quality of the story beneath.  Well, 'Talons' is a good story in many ways... and no guilt need be felt by anyone who watches and enjoys it (another straw man set up by the point-missers club).  But it's devastatingly revealing that any fan should be more worried by the unconvincing rat than by the unconvincing yellowface.  It reveals priorities that are so insular and narrow-minded as to be... and I don't think this is too strong a word... inhuman.  

However, it's yet another quantum leap to the point where you find the rat unconvincing but not the yellowface.  And you're prepared to say so in public.  This reveals a shameless thoughtlessness, a terrifying absence of self-examination, an arrogance born of privilege.  And it also seems to reveal a willingness not simply to be unconcerned by the monstering of a whole race of people, not simply to delude yourself that its not happening in the text (because you've never bothered to avail yourself of the myriad opportunities now freely available to anyone with internet access to educate yourself about how representations of people work in the texts you consume) but to actually think that the representations (of, say, Chinese people as expressionless, rubberfaced bogeymen) are accurate and true to life.  I know that isn't literally what is being said - and the people I'm talking about would doubtless clutch their handbags in offended and petulant injustice (they notice and care about injustice when they think they're the victims of it, natch) at what I'm implying about them.  But it is what their attitude amounts to: that they care more about the travestying of a rat than the travestying of human beings of a different ethnic background.

I'm sick of being nice about this.  Racism is not some abstract concept that people unaffected by it get to define so that they are always absolved of it.  Furthermore, racism is what racists do and racists are those who do racism.  So, if the above image fails to trouble you, especially if it fails to even strain your credulity, then, as I say, you're a fucking racist and, as far as I'm concerned, you can fuck the fucking fuck off you fucking fuck.

It's a whole other order of problem, but a guy was just acquitted of murdering a kid because a jury seemed unable to notice racial profiling when it lead to bullets being fired.  We should be long past the point where we're prepared to tolerate this shit politely.  It doesn't warrant politeness.  Or quiet reasoning.  Or patient explanation.  It warrants anger and contempt.  Even down at this low level.  Even at the level of an old episode of Doctor Who... precisely because, as Dr Sandifer says, that old episode doesn't exist in 1976 anymore; it exists now.  And it is now long past time that we all grew the fuck up.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The Dr Speaks

Against my better judgement, I allowed myself to get dragged into the latest "is 'Talons' racist?" debate at Gallifrey Base. (You'd think, wouldn't you, that this one would've been settled long ago and been filed away in the same drawer with "is the world a sphere?" and "is the Tomorrow People reboot bound to be shit?" but nope, apparently not.)

I won't rehearse it here, since everyone likely to read this blog is likely to be able to imagine exactly what has been (and remains to be) said. 

I just wanted to post this...

...which occured during my (increasingly and pointlessly irate) involvement.  Click to make it bigger.

You know, I disagree with Phil Sandifer about a lot... but the above just made me want to hug him.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Awe & Slaughter

As expected, having been posthumously put on trial for his own murder, Trayvon Martin has been found guilty.  He committed the heinous crime of being black and in possession of a hoodie, armed with fizzy drinks and sweets, walking round George Zimmerman's neighbourhood.  What else could Zimmerman do, given that (in his words) "these fucking punks" "always get away"?

Also, how long before Law & Order does a storyline based on Trayvon Martin, in which they bravely confront the issues and break PC taboos by depicting him as a junkie gangbanger, his family's lawyers as slimey liars, any professional black activist involved as a cynical demagogue and all black protestors as unreasoning, flailing idiots who assume racism without evidence and who frustrate the good faith efforts of the police and DAs office? Just like in all their other 'race' episodes that they've ever done ever.

(Edited for clarification on one point, and to add a subject label.)

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

A Role Model

In an age when the suffocating omnipresence of the imperatives of neoliberalism has penetrated every single corner of culture - aggressively colonizing even the formely overlooked, underpoliced nooks and crannies where eccentricity and offbeatitude used to be free to spring up like hardy weed - and even the supposedly nerdy heroes have to be marketably thin, sexy and dressed in geek chic, it might do us all good to remember...

My.  Fucking.  Hero.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Carry On Screaming

Trigger warning / Spoiler Warning

Just watched Peter Strickland's amazing film Berberian Sound Studio.  It stars Toby Jones as Gilderoy, a repressed (or is he just normal for his home context?) British foley artist and sound mixer hired by Italian filmmakers to create sound effects for a satanic exploitation flick.

Berberian Sound Studio is a study of male fear and hatred of women.

The horror movie that we hear (never see) being made is about the undead revenge of women who were tortured and killed as witches.  The slimey director spouts pretentious bullshit about how his film is an important social document, intended to honestly portray and condemn the abuse of such women, to recognise their suffering, etc... yet his film rests upon the assumption that the women who were accused of witchcraft were, in fact, witches.  Otherwise, how could they come back from the dead in satanic rituals?

The torture - involving, at one crucial point, a red hot poker being inserted into a woman's vagina - is shown lovingly on screen... though, as I say, we (that is, the viewers of Berberian Sound Studio) don't see it.  Gilderoy sees it though.  He sees it again and again and again.  He has to wait until the crucial moment to come round on a loop so he can drop fat into a frypan, thus creating the appropriate sizzling sound.  He has to rip the stalks from radishes to simulate the sound of hanks of hair being ripped from women's scalps by the priests.  The film is comic in the way it shows the sound studio repeatedly ringing with the sounds of the hammering, stabbing and general abuse of various vegetables... yet, the comedy decays as we see the mangled fruit and veg decaying in buckets.

Like the tomato soup that gets splattered all over Gilderoy's face as he uses a blender to simulate the sound of a woman being carved up with a chainsaw, the rotting cabbages and melons make us think of mutilated human flesh, dehumanized by abuse and then dumped like rubbish.  Gilderoy, who spends his normal working life in the UK making gentle documentaries about nature rambling, has never imagined such horrors.

In the studio he is surrounded by women who are working for the men in charge of the picture.  It is quite disconcerting to see the women co-operating (if reluctantly, in the probably vain hope of being paid one day) in the production of such a blatantly misogynistic film.  The men, needless to say, are unconscious of any such irony... with the possible exception of Gilderoy, who never manages to raise much resistance despite his qualms.  The only woman who seemed uncowed by the relentless male dominance in the studio is the surly secretary Elena, whose legs and bum Gilderoy furtively stares at when following her down a corridor.  Part of his transformation is when he learns to be rude and dismissive towards her. 

Silvia (one of the voice actresses dubbing the dialogue, hired for her ability to scream) is being sexually harassed by the same director who claims to be making an important meditation on the victims of witchcraft trials.  At one point, she sarcastically equates his wandering hands with the hands of the inquisitors that searched for witches' marks.  She says she is marked.  He has made her feel that way.  The producer harasses her too, bullying her for more realistically terrified screams, ignoring her thoughts on characterisation, putting her down with savage rudeness, suggesting that she gets jobs by performing sexual favours for casting directors, etc.  When she is performing in the sound booth, the producer sneers that one of her screams sounds more like she's faking an orgasm.  He disapproves of his Director 'directing with his dick', but he clearly also blames the women who have to suffer his attentions.  He evidently senses that she's trouble, that she may well refuse to accept more harassment and thus cause them trouble, because at one point he tells Gilderoy that "there's poison in those tits".

Silvia confides to Gilderoy that she has been used and cheapened, made to feel like a whore.  It is implied that she may have been coerced into sex, though she may be talking metaphorically about the way working on the film has made her feel.  (It is also possible that the conversation is a dream of Gilderoy's, since it seems sexually charged in an unlikely way.)  In any case, Silvia rebels and erases the tapes of her own performance before disappearing.  Another actress is hired on the strength of her looks, after the producer and director skip through a series of photographs of applicants (front and side views, so they can judge the women's bodies... despite the fact that they're hiring a voice actress who will not be seen) and see one actress that, according to the director, "would give a dog a hard-on".  The actress, however, proves unable to provide satisfying screams.  The producer tells Gilderoy to go and get her ready by making her cry.  In a moment that represents his tipping point, Gilderoy succumbs to the order/temptation to torture the woman, in a passive and technical way entirely in keeping with his repressed and nerdy character, by sending increasingly loud feedback into her headphones.  Under orders, he turns up the volume, despite her cries.  It's reminiscent of that experiment where, under the comforting impression that scientists (complete with authoritative white coats) were giving them orders, students happily administered electric shocks (as they thought) to other test subjects.  But this isn't just about the brutalising effect of authority upon a compliant subordinate, this is specifically about the exercise of male power over a woman reduced to material.

The whole film is about the men reducing women to bits and pieces.  They are made into their voices, spouting lines written by men.  Their bodies are cut into pieces on the screen, to the bored professionalism of the producer and the salivating delectation of another sound engineer.  Those female bodies, represented in the sound studio, become melons and radishes and cabbages, stabbed and hammered, rotting in a bin.

There are other potentials.  At one point, Gilderoy entrances Silvia by showing her how he can transform her voice... but the moment is immediately squashed by the intrusion of the filmmaking process.  There's another scene when, during a power cut, he reduces the entire company - men and women alike - to gasps of wonder when he makes a light bulb emit the sounds of a UFO.  At home, Gilderoy uses this trick for "children's programmes".  (I can't help thinking about those eccentric geniuses at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop here... especially since the film is obviously set in the 60s or early 70s.)  Again, the moment is sadly curtailed once the lights come back on.  The commercial imperatives of the work make the prolongation of such a magic moment impossible.  The lights come up and the director snaps back to business.

Ultimately, Gilderoy's sympathies with the women - which he, in his passive way, can only express via troubled frowns and quiet communications when the other men aren't looking - come to nothing.  His nightmarish internalisation of the film entails a woman sneaking up on him the darkness of his own bedroom and attacking him, whereupon he overpowers and dismembers her.  He literally takes on the persona of the violent man, suppressing the vengeful woman, whose antics so shocked him when he first saw a clip of the film.  His guiltly co-operation in the exploitation of female bodies and voices has brought him to internalise the terror of female revenge and the fascination with the idea of violent suppression, with the reduction of the female menace via violence.  This, of course, is the whole meaning of the film he's been helping to make... the abused witch/woman returns for revenge (as did Silvia) and this is a terrifying threat that must be put down.

The female scream echoes through the film and through Gilderoy's mind, waking and sleeping... but the effect of this is not ultimately to engender sympathy, or a refusal to co-operate in the film.  Rather the scream becomes Gilderoy's own scream, confronted by women.  He says, early in the film, that he's "never worked on a film like this before".  Does he mean a film that involves being surrounded by women?  Has he ever been in a recording studio filled with young actresses when dubbing those nature films and kid's sci-fi programmes?  It's strongly implied that he's an unmarried virgin who lives with his Mum.  Repeatedly, members of the Italian production team more-or-less force him to consume articles of the fruit that has come to symbolise female flesh.  This is also an echo of the primal temptation, of course, but with woman made the fruit itself rather than the tempter.

There's a problem, of course, in that Berberian Sound Studio, just like the film-within-the-film The Equestrian Vortex, is told almost entirely from the male perspective.  The women characters in Berberian Sound Studio are reduced to the figurative meat in the grinder of misogynistic entertainment and male privilege, just as are the women in the Berberian Sound Studio itself... and just as the women characters in The Equestrian Vortex are reduced to literal meat.


There's a very good review of Berberian Sound Studio here, by my old buddy Simon Kinnear... who is a proper cineaste and who can therefore actually say something intelligent about the film as cinematic art.  Unlike me.