Monday, 28 September 2015

Why is experimentation dated?

It is tempting in clichéd journalistic parlance to write off experimentation as dated. Its apex was the 1960s and it stubbornly persisted in some quarters in the 1970s. It is seen as a naive and juvenile enterprise. It has little substance. It is nothing more than a cold intellectual exercise in formalism.

A term dished when defining experimentation is 'avant-garde.' The meaning of the word is to radically break conventions and staid practices. In a uber-ironic post-modern art-world that can seem a little trite. The word is, in fact, a little trite. What is the point in breaking all rules when the rules have largely been broken? What's the point in offending pieties when we live in such a liberally permissive society where no-one is ever shocked anymore? Everything about the term is clichéd. The desire to destroy the past and to insult a conservative agenda is in itself conventional - and boring. Shock in and of itself, with no accompanying form or content, is vacuous and childish.

The commercial art world is laughable in this sense. It has institutionalised the avant-garde. It is now respectable to break taboos in a badly framed photographed or an inchoate painting. Many people flock to the Tate to see works by Emin and Hirst. Their work embodies the avant-garde in the way I outlined it in the paragraph above. Both Emin and Hirst mount gratuitous art objects and installations. Or photographs. Or sometimes paintings. Whatever it is they do, their output is the same. It aims to slap the viewer in the face. The viewer is unruffled as he is used to being smacked constantly by other media. The motive, though, is laudable. There is a need, it seems, to institutionalise the edgy and the offensive.

What would the avant-garde of the 1920s, 30s etc. have said about this? No doubt, they would have been horrified. Theirs was largely a clandestine operation. They were effectively terrorists, launching bombs at a po-faced art establishment. The art world, and the avant-gardism it celebrates, now is the establishment. What's more, the avant-garde in the early 20th century was, apart from the shock value, interested in just making something interesting and worthwhile. Most of the artists were poor. It was generally made because the artist felt a desire to make it. Now the avant-garde in the art world can be often be the equivalent of becoming a banker in the financial sector. You can make pots of money. Most importantly, you have to be an astute entrepeneur. You have to know how to sell your specious object.

This is a shame. The desire to experiment, regardless of its putative claims to shock or innovate, is written off altogether. Experimentation is consigned to a by-gone era in cultural history. Why is this? The commercial art world is in a bubble of its own. It is a financial sector, not really a cultural one. Experimentation in film, music and literature is often written off now.

I remember reading an obituary somewhere of the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. It said that his career started with a bang. His music had an audience. It was trendy. Ligeti kept composing arcane pieces nobody cared about. The obituary (I never think an obituary should pass judgement on its subject in this manner, but nevermind) said something like 'The world had moved on and he hadn't.'

I find it distressing how so many people are reluctant to see modern classical music as a continuation of their Romantic forefathers. It is seen by many as an anachronistic 1950s fad. People have moved on from it.

Although post-war composers like Boulez and Stockhousen used the rhetoric of the avant-garde, their music can be seen as an addition to the canon, not an act of destruction. Boulez did heckle at supposedly passé Stravisnky concerts and did assert that the 'Mona Lisa was dead.' He largely moved on from that. Stockhausen, meanwhile, retreated into obscure reclusion. Anyway, both composers added new ideas and new ways of thinking. Their work isn't empty nor gimmicky. (Someone like John Cage might be.) On the contrary, the opposite is true. When you first hear a piece by either composer, there is a sense of sonic overload. It is packed with ideas. When you hear it for the first time, you are overwhelmed. That's part of the attraction. You hear the pieces again and again and you start to hear structures and arrangements. You wouldn't be able to understand all of it. To do that, you would have to have deep understanding of music theory and maybe have some mathematical nous. That's also part of the attraction. They're densely layered works you will never fully understand. They're not cold. They're often energysing and visceral. I find that my mind in particular is exhilarated in the intriacy behind the construction, the aggressive force with which it is played and the strange angular beauty of the voices. It's a shame that it's increasingly uncommon to place, say, a piece by Elliott Carter next to one by Bach. Both are great, so why not?

The literary novel is said to be a dying breed. I hardly think that's true. There is a lot of respectability surrounding people like Jonathan Franzen and there is quite a big market for it. The greatest attraction for literary writing is to have a very individualistic voice and world-view. Increasingly, creative writing courses spew out impeccable writers who are not particularly individualistic nor do they write with a philosophy. If they write a post-modern novel or poem, it feels like a class assignment. Avant-garde poetry and literature has always felt to me like an externalisation of your mind into something scattered. There is a formula behind that now. How could you possibly formulate that? I sense that when I see avant-garde poetry here and there.

I feel that there is less of a need now for ambitious novel of ideas. Publishers are scared. They lose money if they push for something with ambition. The current state of the world is open to myriad analysis and insights. The effective media like these have on our minds is unprecedented. Why can't we have more novels analysing all this? I am aware that there are many. The problem is that they do not seem to have as much grip on the reading classes as the work of, say, Pynchon did in the 1970s.

I'll end with a few words about film. You could say that the golden era was the 1970s. Financial backers were willing to take risks on 'auteurs' with ambitious projects. That kind of complete control is less common today. Woody Allen, Terrence Malick and Martin Scorcese are one of the few remaining directors from that generation. Many arty films hardly ever profit, so why pump money into them whilst trusting some crazy guy? The arthouse market is fragmented. That, in a sense, is a good thing. There is so much to see and there are a lot of great young filmmakers around. It's just tough to find them - unless they get the help of a distributor.

It is easy to make the assumption that art films are a relic of the 60s. Or that contemporary classical music is cold and intellectual. Or that an experimental novel cannot be compulsively readable. We do have a certain advantage over the cultural era of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Although silly chicness is present now, it does not necessarily mean that it taints the perspective of the artist. Many films from the 1960s no longer get made - and with good reason. The desire for experimentation can be seen as a far more modest one. Instead of breaking taboos and upsetting older generations, it can be seen as a way of exploring interesting ideas in a more unorthodox and idiosyncratic manner. Why should that be dated? Isn't it an impulse shared by many people who aren't even artists?

Friday, 11 September 2015

Just be promiscuous with me!

I recorded this way over four years ago, aged 20. The worse thing is that hardly little has changed. I was very much right to be so anxious and gloomy about my future prospects regarding girls. This is worth hearing for a few laughs - it's so pathetic it's funny. I don't think I'll ever change!

Friday, 4 September 2015

British subversive cinema

Britain and cinema. Sigh. For many cinephiles out there, the two just don't go together. Jean-Luc Godard once cruelly and unfairly quipped 'you could only lose hope in British cinema if you believed in it the first place.' (Inaccurate quote - that's how I remember it. Don't kill me. This is just any old blog on the old inter-web, not an academic paper, so I can get away with this kind of sloppiness!) Cinema is a modern invention. It is an art that spawned out of the dawn of modernistic progress. Cinematographic equipment was a landmark discovery. So much so that it is no exaggeration to rank all kinds of optics as one of the greatest scientific inventions of all time. When cinema came in Europe, before Hollywood became the major industry that it is today, it was a new and exciting art. This was alongside radical politics - fascism, communism, psychoanalysis etc. were wildly popular with those bohemian werewolves who congregated in Viennese and Parisian coffee houses.

Put that alongside the UK and the two don't quite fit. The UK has never really had a tradition of radical politics. (If you were a Marxist, you generally joined the Labour party, which was largely founded to attenuate those radical impulses and to realise them in a more compromised and pragmatic fashion.) The UK had, and still has in many ways, a deeply ingrained class system. You could make the claim, without being at all controversial, that it is the most valuable country in the history of literature. Shakespeare, after all, graced these shores, as did Dickens. But then, British literature has always being considered far too parochial - still is. As great as all those 19th century novels are, I was put off from reading them as a teenager. It's only now, in my mid twenties, that I would dare pick them up and read them with relish. As a teenager, why would I want to read about upper class frumpy housewives, balls and men wearing top-hats? I wanted to read about sodomy, transgression, porn, violence - all of that exciting and lovely stuff! (Or metaphysical philosophical fiction or dystopian fiction... you get the picture. The kind of stuff that excites idealistic, angry, shy, confused, cerebral, reclusive, lonely and neglected teenage boys....) I knew even then that many of these novels satirised class divisions etc. But then, British satire struck me - well, it still does - as a little too gentle. When modernism came along, Britian was quite possibly the top player. (Although Ireland had both Joyce and Beckett, which would put anyone to shame...) But... but... you still can't shake off the pungent whiff of parochialism when you read most of the British modernists. Virginia Woolf might be the best example. Stream of consciousness, temporally non-linear, wordplay etc. etc. - all that kind of stuff. Yet she thought literature should be refined and well-mannered. The content - or lack of content... - was straight out of the most tedious and execrable 19th century novel. About the only reason why she didn't think Joyce was quite the best thing since Shakespeare, from what I can make out, was that she thought his toilet humour was naughty and that it made her squeamish.

Hence, the cinematographic medium and the British sensibility just didn't seem to be made for each other. Granted, the UK made some really great films. But then, they suffered very much from the Virginia Woolf syndrome... or from everything else I was talking about in the paragraph above this one. The brilliant Ealing Studio films summarised this perfectly well. A land of quirky eccentrics, with a peculiar sense of humour, a fondness for a cup of tea and for fish and chips... and always getting into scrapes. They were brilliantly funny and they made for brilliant cinema. But that hardly meant that Britain could even begin to dream that they could compete with what countries like France, Germany and Italy were up to at the time. I really like the Ealing studio films, but those films maybe are a bad example. Maybe I should have cited something with a bit of gravitas... Brief Encounter is often cited as one of the best British films. Great film. It's a film I can watch many times and enjoy. I think that the real reason why I like it is that it makes me nostalgic for a period in history I never lived in but some of my grandparents (mainly on my maternal side) did. (Actually, my parental grandparents went to the UK from Latin America to fight in the second world war. Like me, they also had British passports. So they were there at the time of the film. Don't know why I'm even mentioning this in parentheses.) Real life wasn't quite like that, but that's how the media represented it at the time. People spoke stiffly and bookishly. Very politely. Very posh and deferential. Plummy accents. Because I've now spent so much of my life with my nose buried in books I find that I  speak a bit like that now. Actually, I get that a lot now! 'Why do you speak so posh?'

 Interestingly, because things were so up-in-the-air at the time, social mores broke down a lot more and there was a lot of infidelity. Aha, the nuclear family was under threat! After the second world war, the Labour Atlee government wanted to end deference and class division. They didn't quite succeed (ironically, Thatcher really was the death knell to deference...), but they did give us the NHS and the welfare state. Anyway, however interesting I might find them, let's put an end to these convoluted digressions. The main point I'm trying to make is that Brief Encounter is a product of its time - shows a period in history wonderfully and has a lot of Rachmaninov, trains and people drinking tea. It's really nicely filmed, too. Though however well-plotted the drama might be and however fully realised the characterisation is, it's still a little... soppy, no? More to the point, it is a film about infidelity. Because of the time it was made in, and because it is British, it didn't go all the way to satirise and subvert these social mores which were suffocating and restricting moon-eyed housewives.

Hence, Britain could never really overcome this type of parochialism. This was even the case when it tried to be a little more cosmopolitan. The Third Man, another contender for Best British Film Ever, is actually a better film than Brief Encounter. It is set in Vienna just after the end of the mighty Second World War. This is the problem when Britain ventures abroad, either in its books or films: it can only see foreign cultures or anything outside it through the prism of unmitigated Englishness. (Or Britishness. Or whatever. Those are very fine distinctions.) Although the film is about a black market after WWII in Vienna, we hardly get a perspective on the locals... Again, very English. (Or British. Scots aren't as parochial, though. We have the term 'Little Englander,' but have you ever heard of the term 'Little Scottishman'? No! So, I vow, so as not to offend any Scottish readers, if I have any, not to call Scots parochial!) It is very English to go to foreign countries, do quintessentially English things and not take an interest in the culture of the place you're visiting. So it is no surprise that when Carol Reed took over his cumbersome 1940s camera equipment that, when it rolled in the streets of Vienna, that he should not take any interest in the context in which his film was set? Also, would the film be as historic without the fabulous presence of Orson Welles? I think not. Is Orson Welles an Englishman? I think not. The iconic 'Cuckoo Clock' monologue was ad-libbed by Welles; it wasn't in Graham Greene's script. Welles might have been posh and Waspish. But he grew up in the United States, a country founded in the midst of the fervour of the American frontier, the gold rush and Enlightenment politics. Because he grew up in such conditions, he had more of a cosmopolitan outlook. The whole of Europe loved him to bits. So it took all that to push something within really 'great film' territory to something within 'best British film of all time' territory. And let's not forget the terrible legacy of British imperialism. We see this in the Powell/Pressburg films. Brits go abroad and everyone does everything they can to ensure these lovely people with their lovely plummy accents get the best possible treatment. These films came out only a few decades after having plundered many third world countries. When the hero in a Powell/Pressburg flick makes friends with even a German or Frenchman, it is presented as something very exotic indeed. But how could the UK even begin to understand the rest of the world when it cannot understand how much it did to destroy it?

So there we have it. All this is a relative shame. There is so much material in Britain for the subversive to rip to shreds. Many subversives have. The problem is that most British people - and, by extension, most British artists - are so steeped in British culture that they can't recognise that the things they have grown up with for years are very peculiar. They also don't realise that most of their little traditions are horseshit. What other country of the world is so obsessed with its pomp and circumstance? How can it cling on to the House of Lords and its silly wigs for cripes' sake? All this makes them myopic when it comes to critiquing their own culture.

The aim of this blog post is to point out that there are some British films which can be subversive. This makes them unusual. And exciting. And, for all of their edgy material, you could easily say that they are all quintessentially British films! These three films are If.... (1968) by Lindsay Anderson, The Devils (1971) by Ken Russell and Naked (1993) by Mike Leigh. Why do you need to look for one of these seditious artsy-fartsy French (pseudo-)intellectuals when you can occasionally find them in your own backyard? Take that, Jean-Luc!

If.... came out just when the May '68 revolts in Paris were going on. To many, the film tapped in to the revolutionary fervour that was sweeping across Europe. It would, I think, be a mistake to equate it with anything going on in Paris. This is a very British revolution. The Parisian students were Marxists, Sartrians, Foucaultians and ascribed to a load of nonsensical theory that melded a whole swathe of academic disciplines and that no-one really fully understood. (If you went up to, say, Lacan and asked him what his theories meant... if you told him 'cut the bullshit, give me a straight answer!'... and he gave you an answer... I don't think that you'd leave particularly convinced...) The revolts in this film are a response to years of rigid social codes, deference and the imperiousness of the upper classes which had gone in Britain, well, forever.

So, what 'theory' informs the revolts led by Malcolm McDowell and his fellow peers? Let's drop the word 'theory'. It's largely nonsense. What thought informs their revolts? The lads in the film, in many ways, are what I was like aged 17, except that they show their emotions and aren't pathologically shy. They are full of angst, nihilism and seditious contempt for their authorities (the 'dons' who lead their boarding school). Like many a young angry thoughtful boy, they start thinking about death, rebellion and nihilism. Unlike the purely Marxist revolts in Paris, the students in this fictional film take an interest in mysticism and religion. At the beginning of the film, one of the students enthusiastically sputters about an experiment in asceticism (the topic of my masters dissertation, which I will start writing and have finished a year away from now). This is the young pseud we have inside all of us but, over the years, undergoes a gradual death. Mine is alive and kicking, as you might tell. (I don't understand why anyone would want to grow out of all this adolescent stuff - it's great!) So, the 'thought' which leads to the revolt is largely a brew of Nietzsche, Freud (plenty of all that 'unconscious' stuff - more on that later), a smidgen of revolutionary Marx, religious mysticism and anthropological thinkers (like Levi-Strauss, maybe?) who prompted posh idiots/academics to impartially look into foreign cultures. There's some brilliant African music ('Sanctus' by Missa Luba. I urge you to look it up. You won't. So here it is.) that the McDowell character takes an interest in. It's used to great effect.

The film doesn't celebrate revolution because it believes in the idea of a better society. That's a very socialist idea. This isn't a socialist film. It celebrates revolution because it destroys a society that is decadent and repressive. It wants law and order to degenerate into anarchy. (By anarchy I don't mean in the collective organised sense. I mean in the everyday use of the word - pandemonium on the streets.) We must bear in mind that all the hippie-dippie 'let's make love, not war' stuff was turning into something nastier in parts of the world. The drugs these flower power kids were taking were turning a lot of them into psychotic murderers. Think of Charles Manson. Paul Thomas Anderson's Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice makes this point. The idealistic political yearnings of this generation evaporated very quickly. The 'hippie dream' collapsed. It collapsed because of all the drugs they were taking and also because their free-spirited lifestyle just wasn't financially sustainable. (The film is a very literal adaptation, apparently, so by extension it's really Pynchon's idea. I haven't read that particular Pynchon book, so I'm going by what I saw in the film.) Going back to If.... .... ('Jesus'! you're thinking. Your eyes are rolling! 'Just stick to the bloody film you're meant to be writing about!' Aha, I retort! These tangents are relevant! Anyway, reader, you are right to an extent. And I really shouldn't assume what you are thinking. I may or may not know you. Most rude.)  So, this is a nihilistic conservative film. (I must admit, I am partial to a bit of jargon. Especially when it is italicised.) It is individualistic, not collectivist. It doesn't care a jot about improving the lives of others. It sees humans as intrinsically flawed, not good. Nothing can be done to improve humans. Everything, essentially, sucks. What to do? Get some machine guns and start shooting people.

So, like Freud and like Nietzsche, Lindsay Anderson believes that there is an evil animal lurking inside all of us. My favourite scene in the film is where McDowell character/friend go to a café where a sexy young girl serves them some yummy coffee. (Coffee back then was very yucky in the UK, so I'm told. One of the things I am thankful to Thatcher for is good coffee. Daft point, I admit, but the good coffee you can get hold of in the UK is thanks largely to globalisation. So that coffee wasn't yummy, it was yucky. Instant stuff. It just looks yummy because it is served by a sexy young girl. Geeeesh.) McDowell/compadre reveal said inner 'evil animal' (sounds trite, I know, but people do generally resort to this kind of language when discussing all this unconscious stuff) when approaching the girl sexually. McDowell puts the 'Sanctus' record on. (This bit is odd. He goes to a jukebox. How on earth would any old café in 1968 have an African record available? ...) The girl starts talking about how 'sometimes I think that I am a tiger. When I look at my eyes in the mirror they get bigger and bigger. I like tigers. Grraaaar!' They start to hiss at each other and to chase each other around the room. After that they have sex on the floor. What makes me slightly uncomfortable about this scene, I  must admit, is that Anderson recourses to African music to represent the id. (I am more than comfortable with the raunchy sex...) There is a sense here that Africa is baser and more animalistic. British imperialism covertly at work again?

And, of course, another thrilling bit is saved right for the end. You know that I said that a lot of British traditions are 'horseshit' before, right? What's so thrilling about the closing sequence is that it giddily, childishly even, says likewise. It essentially says 'You know, deference is a stupid idea, as is class. A lot of British traditions, actually, are fucking stupid. You know what? Let's blow it all up. Let's send them all to hell.' And they do. There is a lot of humour in the film. Before, there are a lot of absurd 'what the fuck is going on?' moments. Here it just gets ridiculous. It was pointless for Monty Python to parody this scene. The entire sequence is incredibly Pythonesque as it is.

It is easy to write If.... off as an inordinately dated relic with no relevance to the present day. That would be a huge mistake. These public schools, as you well know, still exist. They are thriving. Their students still graduate and get all the best jobs in politics and in the media. The politics in the film at a micro level still applies. Buggery, bullying, petty competition and psychological abuse still take place in these schools. As a matter of fact, with digital media, it is accentuated. (At Eton, parents have been urging teachers to teach their children about the alleged dangers of internet porn at sex ed.) At a macro level, the kind of hierarchical structure we see in the school still persists. For all of the efforts of 1960s political idealism that this film is associated with, the privileged few still tower above the many. (Ughr. Horribly put. Sorry.) In fact, income inequality is a lot worse than it was in the 1960s. In fact, the historical period in which the film is set is actually the high point in terms of equality and wealth distribution in the UK.

And this is where things get weird get weird and uncomfortable. If.... is David Cameron's favourite film. I know what your reaction is - 'he's trying to be trendy and cool.' (I'm really not selling this film to you, am I?) I think not. This isn't like Gordon Brown trying to get down with the kids by saying that he liked the Arctic Monkeys. To point out the obvious, Cameron can see himself in these characters because he also went to a posh boarding school. To dig in a little deeper, could Cameron see If.... as his ultimate wet dream? I don't think Cameron is particularly fond with being deferential to these old fogeys from the Second World War. He is the party's moderniser in that sense when it comes to social issues. He did, after all, send his party into cahoots by legalising gay marriage. Perhaps he, too, relishes the idea of getting machine guns and grenades and killing all the old-fashioned teachers he had at school. (If (!) a film were made about people getting machine guns and grenades and blowing up poor people on benefits, perhaps that would knock If.... off its pedestal for Cameron. But he wouldn't own up to liking that particular film, would he? And, after he slashed funding for British cinema, it is not like that film is going to be made any time soon, is it?) The film also is ambiguous about the bullying that goes on in boarding schools. Perhaps Anderson looks back on that somewhat affectionately, or at least a little ambivalently? And Cameron, having no compassion, does so too?

If.... (1968)

And now let's move on to Ken Russell's The Devils. The reason why I think I'll have less to say about this film is that I am at odds to explain why I like it so much. It's bizarre, 'out there,' fantastical, exciting, thrilling, funny - all that stuff. But why? Ineffably so, in many ways. But there's no good for me to write a blog post about a film (well, maybe less than 1/3 of a blog post about a film...) and for me to say 'oooooh, it's so ineffable and mysterious.' So I will try to explain why I like it.

I just noticed that I said nothing about the visuals in If, either about the cinematography or its mise-en-scene.... (There's quite a bit to say about that. It alternates between black-and-white and colour, out of pecuniary expediency rather than an intentional aesthetic choice.) So I'll start talking as to how The Devils is such a visually ravishing film.

It is somewhat tawdry, yet elaborately baroque. The director Derek Jarman built sets for the film. In the image below, you can see how a nunnery is made out of materials for a toilet. (Obviously, this is very sacrilegious...) There are many ridiculous, somewhat camp, costumes. So that accounts for the tawdriness. The main reason why I want to emphasise the visual aspect of the film is that it reminds me of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, a painter that I am very fond of. There is all of the sexual stuff - nuns are dying to have sex with priests, Jesus Christ wounds are licked and everyone is  fucking right-left-and-centre - so there is a sense of this very sanctimonious society going down a moral, as well as a literal, hell. Bosch painted during the Renaissance. As such, his painting were cryptic cautionary warnings. They were definitely preaching piety. They were images portending an apocalyptic hell. Yet many of his images have led many critics to view him as a forefather of surrealism. You could easily look at some of his images and mistake them for something by Salvador Dali. They look surreal to us now, but there is no way, considering the epoch in which he lived, that Bosch espoused the worldview of the surrealists. The Devils not only looks like a Bosch painting because of these resonances. (There are alligators been thrown into furnaces, for example.) It also goes to great lengths to capture the density of a Bosch painting, the level of detail. It suffused with the symbolism, which is the inevitable baggage which comes with Catholicism. Many scenes are crowded with ridiculous figures. There are tonnes of statues all over the place. I can look at a painting by Bosch for hours because I keep spotting new things. The Devils is pleasing on the eye because it is has a similar kind of visual richness.

Russell converted to Catholicism a few years before this film was made. I'm not sure how seriously he took it. I think he liked the spectacle, the abundant iconography, of this religious denomination. I think this aspect of this filmmaking is perhaps is why I'm not so keen on him as a director. I saw his film Mahler. By God, was that crap! I was especially keen to see it because I like Mahler's music and I really like novels and films about the lives of composers. I have written a few short stories based on composer biographies. But these fantastical scenes were so outlandish and ridiculous... ughr. I've been warned that his film on Franz Lizst is worse in this sense, so I'll steer clear of that. In The Devils, this kind of visual 'spectacle' is a lot more controlled. It stands out from the rest of his output for this reason. Though many critics have also criticised this film for being overblown, too.

If you want to be transgressive, religion has to be one of the easiest targets you could go for. You can do something aesthetically really bad, offend religious pieties and still get lauded. Piss Christ by Andrés Serrano consists of a crucifix of Christ... well, submerged in a glass of piss. Just a photograph of that. End of story. And, because of the silly commercialised art world that I've vented my spleen on in this blog before, it attracted a lot of praise. If you want to be edgy, raising a middle finger to the church is a facile way of going about that. Religious pieties are sensitive. They are deeply entrenched. Most religious people, it goes without saying, get easily upset if you say something blasphemous. Most of of our taboos are because of religion.

I'll just develop that last sentence a little bit more. Transgression involves the overcoming of taboos. Since most taboos have been installed by religion, all transgression in a sense is about the upsetting of religious codes and practices. The Devils isn't gratuitously blasphemous. It's hard to say that about a film which involves a nun's sexual fantasy about licking Christ's festering wounds. The Devils principally wants to understand the (here comes a veeeery convoluted phrase - apologies) psychology of the madness in religion. (Couldn't think of another way of phrasing that more succinctly. Well, I could. And it would take about ten minutes. And I really should go to bed now.) The nuns in the film are crazy and sex-obsessed. Psychological studies have revealed that religious people do have a tendency for all kinds of hallucinations. This is a film about religion, for sure. But it's also a film about a descent into madness and paranoia. The idea of taking a vow of celibacy is a bit problematic. Just masturbating every day of your life would make you a bit crazy, wouldn't it?

There is a conflict between good/evil, justice/deceit, piety/sacrilege etc. in the film. What I like about seeing a lot of those Renaissance paintings, of seeing devils whispering naughty things into the ears of angels, is the level of conflict and tension. It's two polar worlds at war with each other. This is why I found the bits I read of Milton's Paradise Lost so exciting. I think that if you transferred the same level of tension in one of those paintings into the narrative of a motion picture, you would end up with something like The Devils. A war between heaven and hell. This is despite the fact that nothing supernatural happens. The principal priest is accused of witchcraft by a horny nun infatuated with him. Once she finds she can't get to have sex with him, she grows to resent him. The priest is sexually promiscuous, impregnates a young girl, she finds that she he won't do anything to help her and she also plots against him. He breaks another major Catholic piety by getting married 'for love' with a sensitive and pious girl by having a secret ceremony in his house. ('Aha!' you say. 'So only now you are divulging something about the plot! Some people do watch these films mainly because of the story, you know?' Well, so do I. I am partial to a good yarn, too, and I like the story in this film! I already promised not to tell you what you are thinking because I already said that it's 'most rude.' I have broken that third wall a lot of times in this blog post. And it's not like I'm being remotely original or interesting with it. Woody Allen made it mainstream when he addressed the camera in Annie Hall. It's even a bit of a cliché now! Ahgr!)

The film is based on events that occurred in 17th century France, in a town called Loudon. The horny and irreverent priest was called Urbain Grandier. Many heroic religious figures who confront authority and get accused of blasphemy go on to become saints. The whole Loudon affair was a little too lurid, even for a denomination as obsessed with sex and death as Catholicism, for that to happen. Many theologians, occultist weirdos, historians and philosophers have since written at length about the event. It has been dramatised a lot. This particular version was based on the play by the 'author of ideas' par exellence, Aldous Huxley. (He was a fucking clunky writer, though. If you have both great ideas and you don't write clunky prose I salute you, sir! Or madame.) Huxley also wrote a long essay (longer than this stupid blog post, I can guarantee - it was a whole book!) on the topic and it informed Russell's film, too.

I mentioned the word 'lurid' in the paragraph above. The whole film could be said to explore the aesthetics of luridness. (I think that I'll just italicise a phrase of mine when it just gets too ridiculous.) There are lot of gory wounds. There's a lot sex with gory wounds. As a result, this film tends to appeal to horror fans. As a matter of fact I think it is even considered by most to be a horror film. If this film appeals to any film scholar, it would appeals to a scholar of horror films. David Cronenberg, the main go-to guy if you want to know anything about 'the aesthetics of luridness,' is a huge Ken Russell fan. (He is also very scholarly for a film director, let alone one who makes horror movies.) Cronenberg is fascinated with people who become obsessed and who develop sexual fetishes for wounds and gory stuff. Cronenberg is an atheist. Atheism is a very variegated field, if you can even call it a field! (It's not as a matter of fact. Most atheists are blassé about being atheists. When you press most of them about it, they just go 'meh.' It's only a select few who develop whole thought systems around atheism.) Cronenberg looks at these pathologies almost from a psychiatric point of view. How does a crazy fucked up person develop a sexual fetish for yucky wounds? Russell is a Catholic. Wounds and all that gory stuff are central to Catholicism. If nuns develop sexual fetishes for wounds, then it's because that means they get turned on by the figure of Christ. If you think about it, that's not at all odd. (In the secular societies which Cronenberg dissects, it is.) They spend their whole lives locked up in convents. Like the rest of us, they are human. Like the rest of us, they have sexual proclivities. Like the rest of us, they get horny by looking at certain sensory stimuli. If they are homosexual, they'll get horny by looking at other nuns. (Lesbian nuns. Exciting. For the love of God, let's not get into that!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) If they are heterosexual, they'll get horny by looking at whatever male sensory stimuli is available to them. If they see many figures of Christ, they'll get horny over that. Christ is also a figure they revere more than any other. They are told that they shouldn't even think of him as a human; they should look at him as someone who transcends human limitations. It's taboo to look at him sexually. Breaking taboos is exciting to anyone, especially in repressive clerical societies. Hence, they'll get horny over the figure of Christ and they'll have fantasies about licking Christ's wounds. Many nuns must have wanked themselves stupid over that thought for thousands of years!

In many ways, you could argue that only a Catholic could appreciate this film. 'What?! This film is an insult to all Catholics! It is blasphemous!' Well, oddly enough, I think that I'm in the right on this one. So does none other that Mr. Revered Transgressive Author himself, J. G. Ballard! When David Cronenberg's adaptation of Barllard's cult classic Crash came out, there was mass uproar in parts of the world. Where did this uproar take place? In the UK. In the US. In Germany. In Scandinavia. It took place in Protestant countries. Ballard claimed that protestants couldn't handle Cronenberg's provocative adaptation because 1) Catholics have death at the centre of their religion, 2) Protestants have a grey view of the world where you can never have fun whereas Catholics, to some extent, do allow themselves to have some fun now and then, largely out of frustration and 3) they don't put much emphasis on free will. When The Devils came out in the UK, it was also very controversial. (It was a big hit in Japan, though, because they like their gory sex over there. Japs have such great taste.) But then, protestants are such dullards, aren't they? Theirs is such a desiccated world-view. Luther said (again, I'm just going by memory, so this is once more inaccurate): 'I believe in free will, but it's only for grazing and milking cows.' He took all the passion and excitement out of Christianity. Now that Europe and the US is secularised, that means that they just inherit the Protestantism of years gone by. If they criticise films like Crash and The Devils, they do so out of moral outrage couched in Prostestant rhetoric. The real reason might be, and I am speculating here, that British cinema is largely a bit dull because of its Protestant heritage. Britain is also very parochial, not only because it is an island but also, again, because of its Protestant heritage. This is perhaps why someone like me, who was raised in a Catholic country like Chile, is pulling his hairs after living 13/14 years in the UK and can't wait to leave.  This is also, perhaps, why I chose as an undergrad to study something with a more cosmopolitan slant like Comparative Literature. Modules in English courses largely looked tedious to me.
If you were a Marxist and, as a result, were a dialectical materialist, you'd be inclined to read a lot of the historical accounts in Loudon as a farce. Huxley was a bit of a hippie-dippie guy (or a proto-hippie-dippie guy...) with mystical inclinations. Most Marxists, come to think of it, wouldn't even be interested in this in the first place. Most Marxists are extremely well-read, but I think they'd just gloss over this historical incident. Anyway, Huxley was something of a mystic. He was, however, someone with a training in biology and he came from a family of distinguished biologists. He abandoned a career in biology because of poor eye-sight. Anyway, he is one of the commentators of this event who read it from a materialistic stand-point. He said that the people who mounted the accusations on Grandier manufactured them. 'Aha,' you say! 'Anyone would think that! Anyone with half a brain would think that!' The thing is, dear reader, is that it's only since very recently that we don't believe in spirits and miracles and all that stuff. That's why it was so novel for Marx to say 'I am going to look at history from a materialistic standpoint. What's more, I am going to do it dialectically.' So, Huxley, who was not a Marxist, but came way after Marx, said that in his essayistic book about Loudon. (He was interested in Marx, though. The main character in Brave New World is called Bernard Marx.) And Russell incorporated it into his film. Although a Catholic, he sided with Huxley. And although he was a Catholic he did have a wild imagination, so he also saw Grandier as a heroic figure. If Ken Russell had been the pope - he wouldn't exactly have been a model figure considering that he he drank a lot and had a lot of wives - then he might have beatified Grandier.  

The Devils (1971)

So there we have it. I thought I wouldn't write very much about that film, but I ended up writing more about it than If.... .... Now onto Mike Leigh's Naked. I know that this will seem daft. No, it will seem disingenuous. No, it will seem like I am having you on. And, by the time you have finally finished this interminable drivel, you'll have thought: 'This guy ripped me off, even though reading this crock of shit was free. I want to punch him in the face.' Anyway.  I really think I'll really have less to say about Naked. I can't say with any certainty because, well, these things just seem to groooow. It's like that cliché those writers say when interviewed: 'Oh, well, you know. I, I.... I don't really know what my novel really means, you know. I started writing it and it just grew... the end result really surprised me. These characters took a life of their own.' And you, dear reader, may have been reading me for way over six or seven years. You might have thought that a lot of my posts have been a bit humourless, but you do expect a degree of self-control and discipline. By the time you finish reading this, you'll have thrown the towel in. You'll cease to read my blog. This is a pretty radical stylistic change on my part. I had a tiny little audience and it will have deserted me after this. How could I have possibly held your attention for this long, anyway? 

The reason why I think I'll have less to say about Naked - I promise I'm not bullshitting you with this one - is that I only saw it once, six years ago. It struck me as an overpowering piece of work. After all these years, I'm really itching to see it again. The other two films I wrote about I saw for the first time a few years later and I have seen them twice. So with my little analysis-cum-waffle below, I'm relying on fairly hazy memories. I did see a few scenes from the film on You Tube to refresh my memory earlier today, though.

The main thing to write about is the main character, Johnny, played the magnificent David Thewlis. Johnny is a street-philosopher, a tramp and a rapist. He is aggressive, intelligent, a bully and a misogynist. I generally identify with unusual fictional characters and this is no different with Johnny. I would probably have ended up something like him now if I hadn't gotten my life back on track aged 17. (Minus the raping, I hope.) When he speaks, his words are just a stream of unmediated bile, a violent riposte to a world he hates and that seems to connive against him. There was one line that struck me in one of those You Tube videos. It struck me as one of the horrible things I would say as a 17-year-old: 'No, I wasn't fucking bored. I'm never bored. That's the trouble with everybody, you're all so bored. You've had nature explained to ya' and you're bored with it. You've had the living body explained to ya' and you're bored with it. You've had the universe explained to ya' and you're bored with it. So now you just want cheap thrills, and you want plenty of them, and it don't matter how tawdry and vacuous they are as long as it's new, as long as it's new, as long as it flashes and bleeps in forty different fucking colours. Whatever else you say about me, I'm not fucking bored.' This signifies a kind of restlessness I shared at time. I felt restless to learn, but I was just overwhelmed by the body of knowledge. Still am. Other people's complacency unsettled me. Fads unsettled me. The educational system I had just gone through was bemused by me, didn't know what to make out of me and had branded me an idiot. I was angry against this world which I perceived  as idiotic and that seemed to perceive me as idiotic. 

Johnny baulks at the idea of ever being 'bored.' For all of his snide cynicism and sarcasm, he is a Romantic and idealist. He is a rugged individualist. To be bored in such a rich world teeming with knowledge, to him, is a crime. To divert oneself with faff, to him, is a crime. He won't compromise and take on a job. He thus ends up on the streets. I remember being 17, with long unbrushed hair and dishevelled clothing, and very much looking like a tramp... I remember walking past the streets at night and seeing middle-aged women ironing in their cosy living rooms in front of the TV set. Seeing this, for some reason, filled me with rage.

His character might seem incongruous. A philosopher, rapist and a tramp? Surely philosophy is incompatible with the other two? People who read too much philosophy, who are already a bit mentally unstable as it is and who think too much can end up being psychopathic. This can lead to, perhaps, something nasty like rape. Someone as staunchly individualistic and non-conformist as Johnny, can easily end up on the streets. I'm not saying that this warped logic applies to everyone. I'm not generalising here. This warped logic applies to Johnny. The character, I am saying, is believable. 

Ok, I'll admit that calling Johnny a philosopher is a huge stretch. But that's only by modern standards. And educated standards. (Come to think of it, all sorts of crap seems to qualify as philosophy, especially the 'pop' variety. A lot of new age drivel calls itself 'philosophy.') A philosopher is someone who is incredibly rigorous and logical when presenting an argument. Johnny isn't at all rigorous nor is he logical. When he rabbits on about his strange and complex ideas to strangers, he is led to a myriad unconnected thoughts. He is led to some rather mystical conclusions. And to some conspiracy theories. But then, philosophers generally just have conversations with other philosophers. Most of them are academics. They are Ivory Tower types, not tramps scavenging the streets. This, largely, wasn't the case in the 19th century. A lot of philosophers then weren't academics, they were like novelists. (Ok, so Kant - 18th century guy - and Hegel might represent the archetypal academics. But then there were people like Rousseau, another 18th century guy, and Schopenhauer.) Johnny might have felt more at home at some point in Ancient Greece. He would have led the lifestyle of a tramp, but people would have paid attention to his utterances. He may have garnered a following. Others may have started mimicking his lifestyle and deliberately chosen destitution and his demeanour. Philosophy then was largely seen as a way of guiding life. It was ethical. It was not seen as some abstract, almost mathematical, enterprise in solipsistic self-absorption. It was just one big thing trying to understand everything. This is very much Johnny's prerogative. Now philosophy is more modest and compartmentalised.   

So this is Thatcherite Britain in a nutshell. This is how an individualistic society repays the ultimate individualist. This is how an incredibly intelligent guy ends up in the bottom of the rung in the most veritable meritocracy. You see a similar kind of despair in a lot of social realist films depicting working class people in 1980s Britain.

Mike Leigh is drawn to the dregs as well as the polite middle classes. This is one his films about 'the dregs.' A lot of his films involve characters who are messed up and struggle to make ends meet. A lot of them live in shabby apartments or end up like Johnny. The real poetry and the real philosophy lies with these people. In a society as deferential as the UK, most poets and philosophers are Oxford graduates. And that is why there is oh so little subversion. 

Naked (1993)

So, a few closing remarks. What makes these films subversive? If.... is about destroying tiresome conservative British practices. It argues that destruction is healthy, necessary and beautiful. I mainly used the word 'transgression' when looking into The Devils. Let's be a bit discerning. What's the difference? 'Transgression' is about overcoming barriers. It is about breaking moral codes. It is about doing something society thinks is forbidden. It is definitely more moral whereas subversion could be seen as being more in the realm of aesthetics and politics. I also, perhaps rather weakly, argued that it is subversive because it came out in a protestant country like the UK and thus offends British sensibilities. Naked is subversive, in many ways, because it is a positive treatment of an anti-hero. In this case, a rapist.   

I like this new style. It's sillier. It reads like this: You get together to drink coffee with me. After I have finished drinking black coffee no. 2 I am high as a kite. You tell me, 'Simon, please talk to me about British subversive cinema. I am all ears. I won't interrupt you.' So I prattle on and on for an hour about British subversive cinema. You have brought recording equipment with you. You press the play and pause buttons on and off. You transcribe the recording. It is an incredibly laborious process. You end up with this. But I must say, I prefer this type of writing. It is very much on an academic topic. If I were to submit this as an academic paper, though, my lecturer would return it with a shit mark and would tell me: 'I really enjoyed reading this, but you didn't adhere to academic standards. Hence, I have to give you a shit mark.' (The lecturer would own up to enjoying it because he/she secretly would like academic writing to be this way.) I wouldn't be able to get it published in any publication. The person who runs whichever magazine, if pressed, would tell me: 'A few of your ideas here are vaguely interesting. Most of them are just eccentric. The article is an unstructured mess. Go back and work on it a lot. Come back with the tenth draft. Only then will I read it again.' That's why blogs are such handy devices. Fuck writing in a faux-academic style. Fuck writing in a faux-journalistic style. You can write like this.