May 15, 2013 § § link
[This was written as a comment on a blog post by Greta Christina, but it seemed worth posting here, not least because I've written something like it three or four times before, and if I have it here I can just point.]
I’d like to say something in defence of Secretary, because I think it’s wildly kink-positive, and that “their brokenness is intimately tied in with their kink” is a mis-reading. The characters are (start off) broken and damaged, but I don’t think the film suggests that’s because of kink. They’re damaged-and-kinky, not damaged-because-kinky, or kinky-because-damaged. And it’s a drama. If you’re going to portray kinky people in a drama, they’re going to have to be flawed and have issues. What you hope is that the drama doesn’t link flawed and kinky causally, and I honestly think that Secretary doesn’t do that. In fact — and maybe uniquely — it does much better than that: it shows the characters becoming stronger as they become more aware of and comfortable with their kinks.
The film makes pretty clear that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is being slowly fucked up by her family. The cutting is about her taking control of her life when her family situation allows her no control. That’s entirely separate from kink — to the extent that the cutting disappears as she takes control of her life in other ways, and discovers herself through kink. It’s entirely right to argue that most portrayals of kink in popular culture are awful, but it’s a mistake always to read causality in the characters, or intentionality in the writing, because we’re so used to seeing it.
The connection between James Spader’s character’s fucked-up-ness and kink is a bit more complicated, but I don’t think it reflects badly. To the extent that he’s fucked up by kink, it’s not his kinkiness that does that job, but his insecurity about it. That’s actually very real, and makes his character sympathetic (to me, at least). Again, this brokenness disappears as he becomes more aware of and comfortable with his kink. It’s very hard to read that as anything other than kink-positive. It does portray someone for whom kink is — at least at first — massively conflicted and challenging, but I like that. It’s interesting, and certainly reflects my experience of being a man coming to terms with reconciling M/F dominant feelings with feminism. I’d probably have some qualms about a man in that situation who didn’t find that there were some emotional rocks on the road. Too much kink writing portrays two-dimensional dominant partners as monolithically in control and sure of themselves. Spader’s character finds a nice balance between that and a Fifty Shades wanker.
Being kink-positive is great, and, yes, there could be a lot more of that in popular culture, but in a drama it’s just not especially interesting. I’d much rather have drama that explores the challenges of kink — especially in the context of a society where kink is so stigmatised. So long as it doesn’t link kink and character flaw causally, recognising that kinky people are just as fucked up as the rest of society is great. Damaged-and-kinky is how most of us are, isn’t it?
April 18, 2013 § § link
A new story, that I’ve been working on, in some form, for about a dozen years. Usually I have some idea if I think a piece of writing of mine is any good or not. This, I genuinely have no idea. I think there are some good things in it, but whether the whole thing hangs together or not, you’ll have to decide for yourselves. It’s not sexually explicit (nor explicit in any other way, really), but some bad things happen that might be triggers, so be careful.
It was written, in the end, using the brilliant Scrivener, which also was used to generate the Kindle/mobi and Nook/ePub versions. I’ve opened those in previewers, and they look okay, but I don’t have an e-reader, so if there are issues with those versions, please let me know and I’ll try to fix them. My e-mail address is in the column on the left.
The first section of the story follows. You’ll need to download the rest. Hope you enjoy.
Rosa et Sorbus
Sometimes the name of a boy, is just boy. It was all he had ever been called, so it served, though in fact he turned at once toward the calling of any name, to save his backside should he be the one required.
The scullery maids, in their own way, loved him, perhaps as the child they would never have. It was also the love of familiarity. He was always there, somewhere, if not working up a sweat with huge trays, pots and pans, then getting under their busy feet as he snaffled bits of grub like a ravenous ghost. More recently he’d taken to sitting at the tiny window gazing upwards into space, an activity which had earned him more than one skelping already.
He’d grown up as the maids’ odd charge in the kitchens which fired the castle’s belly. They roused him in the morning with a plate of fried bacon and toasted bread — which, to be sure, would have to keep him going through the day besides what he could steal. They covered his curled body as it lay sleeping under the window in the quiet hours. Between, they worked him hard. But then they all worked hard. And, though they were not slow to lift him across their laps and apply a work-hardened hand or wooden spoon to his bared bottom when he was careless or lazy, still they busied themselves with loud, unnecessary jobs when the steward took him by the ear to his rooms to be strapped. His howls made them cry. His wide blue eyes seemed as deep as the sea, Luisa, the small, dark one who had grown up in the mountains of the north was fond of saying. Most of the others had not seen the sea, but they somehow understood all the same. They came to imagine the sea to be as deep as the boy’s eyes.
Though it was an occasional subject for tired, rambling speculation in the quietened kitchens once the castle had been put to bed, no-one seemed to be able to remember a time when the boy hadn’t been around. His being there was just how things were. And, they concluded each time, they would not have things any other way.
He listened to their conversation this time, comforted by its familiarity, and by their presence. This was all he knew, but that did not mean that he was unaware of other possibilities. His bed, such as it was, allowed him to look upwards toward the castle towers which it seemed must pierce the sky, bring it tumbling down like a piece of torn blue cloth. The highest tower of all was dark, but in the tower below that a light still shone. From that window, down and down and down to his, a sound came, a rhythm dimmed but not diminished by distance, a slow, deliberate thrashing of leather against bare flesh. He listened, waiting for it to end, which it finally did. He listened still, waiting for an aftermath of tears. As usual, it did not come.
Download the complete story:
Rosa et Sorbus | PDF (162 KB) | Kindle/mobi (199 KB) | Nook/ePub (47 KB)
November 14, 2012 § § link
#tinyspankingstory “Not white,” she said. “You start with grey.” I changed, slowly. “Good.” A finger in my collar, pulling. “Come with me.”
#tinyspankingstory 7pm, I told them both, separately. Deadbolt the door as soon as you get in. Ignore any knocks. I lay out the cane; bend.
#tinyspankingstory “One, thank you sir!” “Two, thank you sir!” “Three, thank you sir!” “Sir?” I sighed. The machine readied the next stroke.
#tinyspankingstory By the Rosetta Stone, schoolchildren everywhere.
In my ear: “Aren’t you a bit old for that uniform, miss?”
August 30, 2011 § § link
Well, hello there kinky reader. (And also hello there potentially-kinky-but-not-quite-sure reader.) How does helping to cure cancer by reading 250 pages of high-class smut sound? You with me? Good. Abel & Haron of the Spanking Writers have put together a collection of original spanking fiction by twenty of their favourite authors, including both of them, Pandora, Zille, Serenity, Graham, Casey, and lots of others. Go to their site to get the full details.
Yes, there’s also a story by me in there, “Watching Xanadu”. I don’t want to say too much about it, except that I think it feels to me to be quite dark and edgy. It’s spun from scraps of reality, and this song, but isn’t real, and it’s definitely not fantasy. It contains the words “fucking”, “cosplay”, and “knee-socks”, and might just involve @xan_a_duu and @S_T_Coleridge. To find out more you’ll have to buy the collection. I’ve read all of the stories, and apart from being high-class smut, it’s a brilliant demonstration of how diverse our kink can be. The stories come from all sorts of directions and perspectives.
All of the proceeds are going to Cancer Research UK, so clearly you need to buy a copy for all of your friends as well. You can get very-nicely-printed-and-bound copies at Lulu, and Kindle copies at Amazon. Go to Abel & Haron’s blog to see the other options.
October 21, 2010 § § link
[Many spoilers ahead, so caveat lector.]
Among many other factors – financial, emotional, psychological – the theoretical factor that drove my work towards a PhD (in automatic story generation) off that Thelma and Louise cliff was the growing realisation not just that meta-level processing by readers/viewers of a story is, if anything, a greater part of the entire mechanism than non-meta-level processing, but also that there was no way I could even approach an accounting of that in my model that I would be happy with, given the constraints of time, money, and sanity. Meta-level story-processing is everywhere you look, and the deeper you look the deeper it gets. We learn about stories primarily not from the real world, but from other stories, and to account for how humans process fictional narratives without that reflexive aspect isn’t just limited; it misses the point completely.
To clarify, what I mean by “meta-level processing” of stories is the fact (I would claim) that the relevant and significant knowledge we bring to the table when we consume a story, which creates and determines our expectations of how the narrative will proceed – the assumptions we make and the questions those assumptions raise for us as a consequence – comes at least as much from our experience of other stories as it does from our day-to-day life. Such processing is every bit as culturally-determined as our day-to-day lives, of course, because different kinds of stories proliferate in different specific cultures – and are part of defining what that culture is. There are further aspects of our meta-level processing specific to individual fiction genres: the expected structure of a revenge western is not the same as the expected structure of a whodunnit. Sub-genres refine the expectations even further: Hercule Poirot (or Miss Marple) gradually deduces the identity of the murderer, and typically gets there before we do – otherwise the final gathering and enumeration of motives and alibis would be redundant; Columbo, on the other hand, figures out what’s going on right at the start, not long after we’ve been shown the murder, and what’s left is the cat-and-mouse. The point here isn’t that there are different structures; it’s that these are structures we expect, and that those expectations are part of the whole process. We also, of course, have a unique individual contribution to the process – the narrative analogue of an idiolect.
Yet more levels of meta-processing are attached to the medium in which a story is told. I’m particularly interested in film narrative, which has evolved a highly-stylised and tightly-parsimonious form, characterised by the density of its structure and the neatness of its packaging. These aren’t in themselves markers of an interesting narrative, but since the constraints of modern film push narrative structure to the limit, film is a good place to look at how it all works. Perhaps because of an awareness of its limitations of space, film narrative is sometimes wilfully greedy in its co-opting of other narratives for deliberate effect. This has become a staple for film comedy, for example. Airplane, which initiated a massively-referential style, doesn’t just look back to a fertile sub-genre of disaster film; it takes actual specific character names, plot devices, and even complete lines of dialogue from an earlier film, Zero Hour!. Homage to this degree isn’t crucial to priming the viewer’s meta-level processing, but it reveals the extent to which modern film is often a kind of narrative mille-feuille.
The massively-layered meta-processing of modern film extends upwards to the casting process. Witness the fuss made over the fact that Steven Seagal – at the time an action-movie top banana – was killed off halfway through Executive Decision. Just as often, casting distorts or pre-empts the narrative in ways that the filmmakers didn’t see – or didn’t think significant. In the otherwise sure-footed film of Dennis Lehane’s novel Gone Baby Gone, Morgan Freeman plays a police chief whose significance to the narrative seems, for much of the film, to belie the actor’s stature. But right on cue, there’s a late twist which reveals him to be the centre of a villainous plot. Film critic James Rocchi calls this the Suspiciously Good Actor Effect. The effect is familiar – although not with regard to casting – from Scooby Doo, in which a meta-level expectation quickly develops that it’ll be the janitor at the disused funfair scaring everyone away by pretending to be a ghost, for some nefarious purpose. In the case of Scooby Doo the expectation partly derives from the paucity of possible suspects – it literally could hardly be anyone else. I’d like to add my own meta-rule:
The bigger the star, the closer their big scene is to the end of the film.
This rule isn’t always followed, of course, but it’s typically our expectation, so we notice – even if not consciously – where it’s not and are genuinely surprised when it’s explicitly not followed (cf. Seagal and Executive Decision). A meta-level flaw in the structure of the film of The Silence of the Lambs is that Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal Lector so dominates those scenes of the film that he’s in that we genuinely expect him to reappear as part of the conclusion – which he does not, except in the epilogue, to deliver an ill-advised punchline. This expectation is motivated by nothing within the film’s narrative; it comes only from the meta-level expectations we’ve learned about film as a narrative medium.
A curious and paradoxical effect can occur when we sometimes fail to distinguish between those narrative expectations we have based on our knowledge of how the real world works, and meta-level narrative expectations based on the stories we’ve seen so often they’ve become internalised. We react with an irrational impatience or disbelief when a character seems to be unaware of what sort of story they’re in, and what its rules are. The teenage girl creeping up to the dark house seems oblivious to the fact that she’s in a slasher flick. She later turns away from the prone body of her vanquished assailant, apparently unaware that he’s obviously not quite dead yet, despite the fact that they never are.
A more concrete example. Tony Gilroy’s estimable Michael Clayton turns on an entrapment scene in which our hero wears a wire while drawing his corporate enemy – by now way out of her depth – into revealing all. Gilroy stages the scene perfectly: it’s Clayton’s last throw, and he’s fully aware of the risk and the low likelihood of success; Karen Crowder, his nemesis, is close to a breakdown, and not thinking clearly. Despite the fact that the motivation for the scene – and its outcome – is sound, it nevertheless drew criticism for being implausible. Such criticism – that Crowder would never fall for such an old trick – is instructively muddled. On a superficial level it assumes merely that the viewer doesn’t buy Gilroy’s careful exposition of the characters’ motivations. But the crucial muddling is between the viewer’s real-world and meta-level expectations. The entrapment scene isn’t intrinsically implausible; nor is it implausible within the world of characters and events that Gilroy has constructed. It’s only implausible if the viewer expects not only that the characters are familiar with the – somewhat clichéd – narrative device of entrapment by someone wearing a wire, but also that the characters are aware that they’re in that sort of narrative. It’s a droll, comedic observation that fictional characters don’t inhabit worlds in which they themselves exist as fictional characters – James Bond isn’t aware of the James Bond character, for example – but that’s not quite the point here. For the scene to be implausible, it wouldn’t be enough for Crowder to be aware of the entrapment cliché in (her world’s) fiction; she’d have to be aware of that cliché and believe herself to be in a work of (her world’s) fiction. In our real lives we don’t (usually!) bring our meta-level expectations about fictional narratives with us as we assess what’s likely to happen. Yet there is, at least for some viewers, a dissatisfaction which manifests itself in claims of implausibility when fictional characters fail to do exactly that.
An unfortunate conclusion might be drawn here. It is entirely possible that narrative devices can be so overused that they more or less permanently breach the line between how we perceive stories and how we perceive the real world. Such devices are then rendered practically unusable in stories, not because of any actual real-world implausibility, but because we can no longer suspend our disbelief that the characters aren’t aware of them. At that point we fail to distinguish between the real world and the story world.
Most of the above is scene-setting for a discussion of a remarkable aspect of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go – and its recent film adaptation, written by Alex Garland. The response to both novel and film by their readers/viewers – as even a casual glance through feedback at Amazon and the IMDb shows – pivots to a large degree on a single question: and not so much how the question is answered, as whether the question is asked at all. Ishiguro’s story of cloned children raised to provide spare parts for “normal” humans is, on a superficial level, a familiar one. A recent comparison is with the sound and fury of Michael Bay’s film The Island; an older comparison – not involving cloning, but with a congruent dark secret – is the 1976 film Logan’s Run (somewhat modified from an earlier novel). Both The Island and Logan’s Run involve a BIG REVEAL of the fact that life isn’t what it has hitherto seemed; a protracted chase sequence, at the end of which the protagonists manage to escape their pre-arranged fate; and a conclusion in which the facade is smashed, and tyranny is destroyed.
Never Let Me Go has radically different intentions. Ishiguro’s goal is to set up a world in which clones reared as organ donors know, and accept, their fate – more or less – and then to explore the nature of such a life, and such a death. He very conspicuously is uninterested in being distracted from his task by either the lure of the dizzying plot twist, or getting stuck in fastidiously accounting for the mechanics by which the clone world is managed and secured. Exposition is gradual and open to the reader, much as it appears to be to the clones themselves as growing children. There are no great secrets. By barely even touching upon methods of enforcement of the system of clone rearing and organ “donation”, Ishiguro permits himself the freedom to take them for granted, and to focus on the emotional and interpersonal, rather than the mechanical and schematic. He also, paradoxically, perhaps implies to the reader something even more terrible than we could ever be actually shown: a reason that we’re not shown a system of enforcement might be that it is so complete, so draconian, so assumed, that escape is never even considered. (Garland’s screenplay actually breaks this silence by showing – albeit gently, and in passing – the older clones wearing electronic tags by which they log their movements. This very mention of the idea of a security system raises the issue, and might be seen as a distraction from the purity of Ishiguro’s focus. It is perhaps a more knowing, pre-emptive nod to the requirements of the medium of film.)
Notwithstanding Ishiguro’s clear design and interests, and that which he takes to be axiomatic, many readers/viewers seem compelled to ask: Why don’t they run?
That is, why don’t the clones of Never Let Me Go do everything they can to escape their fate – like the protagonists of The Island and Logan’s Run? This is the question which appears to comprehensively divide readers/viewers of the story: whether the question is even asked, and whether a satisfactory answer is found.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider the question at face value. Why don’t the clones run? They’re perfectly aware of a world outside of their own, and would seem to be indistinguishable from non-clones; blending in is at least an option worth considering. The facile answer – but also in a real sense the correct answer – is that the clones don’t run because Ishiguro doesn’t want them to. They’re his characters, and he’s just not interested in that sort of story. As readers/viewers, that might be enough for us. We might also ask whether Ishiguro has created a world in which the clones not running is plausible. Although he’s not interested in spending much time constructing systems and mechanisms of enforcement, he does hint here and there at how it’s achieved. At Hailsham, the school – somewhat isolated, we’re led to understand – where the clones spend their formative years, rumours of vague but violent things happening to those who stray out of bounds circulate among the students. Later, once the clones have been granted a measure of autonomy of movement, Ishiguro shows how their extreme social ignorance and clumsiness serve to reinforce their awareness of separation and differentness. It’s clear to them that they don’t belong, and quite likely couldn’t pass. It’s notable that the enforcement mechanisms Ishiguro does refer to are non-technological. To the extent that Never Let Me Go is science fiction (and it’s hard to argue that it isn’t), it’s science fiction which doesn’t much care about technology; the system of electronic tagging is Garland’s addition for the film adaptation – or at least credited to him.
It should not be overlooked that the protagonists of Never Let Me Go do in fact attempt to break free from their situation. Following a series of rumours, which seem to be passed down as a kind of false folk-memory among the clones, they seek out those in charge of their school – long-since closed – to apply for a “deferral” in their schedule of organ donations, which they have been led to believe is available to clones who can prove that they are truly in love. This attempt, of course, pathetically naive and misguided as it is, and conducted within the system they belong to, rather than to escape from that system, merely reinforces that the clones cannot genuinely conceive of any other possible life for themselves. The failure of the application for a deferral – because no such contingency has ever existed – essentially constitutes the end of the narrative, and the end of their lives.
Given, then, that Ishiguro’s intentions and interests are clear, and that he describes a coherent but alternate reality in which clones are raised in such a way that thoughts of true escape simply do not occur to them – and, crucially, the first-person narrator is herself one of the clones, so we’re not required to infer how they think – why is the question of why the clones don’t run nevertheless so significant for so many readers/viewers? It’s even an issue for some top-of-the-range critics, such as Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian:
Michael Bay’s The Island, however ridiculous, did feature people who raged against the truth when it was revealed to them, and tried to escape. This never seems to occur to Ruth or Kathy or Tommy[...]
Faced with the undeniable fact that it genuinely doesn’t occur to the characters, the reader/viewer can react in one of two ways: they can accept Ishiguro’s axiomatic “what if”, and proceed from there to the internally-logical conclusion that he draws; or, they can simply refuse to accept the axiom, and consequently refuse to accept the conclusion. It will come as no surprise when I claim that different meta-processing of the story (and of stories generally) is the key here; specifically, whether the reader/viewer’s meta-processing allows acceptance of a fictional world – no matter how well imagined, no matter how sound the internal motivation – in which clones created as organ donors are aware of this situation and do not attempt to escape it.
I’m going to suggest two aspects of a reader/viewer’s meta-processing that might be significant here – with no claim that other aspects might not also play a part. The first aspect is the extent to which the first act of Never Let Me Go causes the retrieval for the reader/viewer of other, (superficially-) similar stories, which process then creates the expectation that this is that sort of story. This might well begin even before the story itself is processed, of course, as the reader/viewer reads reviews and sees promotional material. Besides The Island and Logan’s Run, there are many other examples in popular film alone of a protagonist discovering – or being shown – that they have been living in a deceptive or illusionary world, and then seeking escape: The Truman Show, John Carpenter’s They Live, Total Recall, The Matrix. Particularly if Never Let Me Go is approached as science fiction – and the central premise of cloning makes this likely – the stories most liable to be retrieved as part of the meta-processing which involves predicting how this story will pan out are those in which a protagonist does in fact triumph against the powers of deception and illusion. To be sure, there are those readers/viewers for whom the discovery that this isn’t one of those stories is itself a pleasurable experience – confounding the conventions of genre cliché has its own merits. But for many, perhaps most, that same discovery has the bitter flavour of betrayal.
A second aspect of meta-processing relevant here is the extent to which the reader/viewer seeks/wishes to identify with the protagonists. Such identification transforms questions and expectations about what the protagonists will/should do, into idiosyncratic assessments of what the reader/viewer would do in their place – or, at the very least, emotionally-invested hopes that the protagonists behave in this way, or make that choice. With regard to the latter, it would be a strange reader indeed who hoped that the protagonists would die on the operating table after donating one organ too many. But more or less any identification with fictional characters is based on a muddling of real-world and story-world expectations, and a simple refusal to take seriously the author’s intentions. In the case of Never Let Me Go, it is likely to make the story more or less unacceptable.
It might further be argued that the plain, unremitting sadness of Never Let Me Go – its theme of the failure to escape – makes the story unacceptable to many, for whom the purpose of fiction is itself escapism. This would be too simplistic, I think. The story is certainly tragedy, but so is James Cameron’s Titanic, and a more dreamily romantic story than that could scarcely be found. The essence of the tragedy in Never Let Me Go is that the protagonists (by design) lack the resources to even think about running. Jack might drown as the ship sinks, but he tries, and he dies saving Rose.
A better comparison might be with the knowing advance of First World War infantrymen to their deaths – the whole exercise suffused with the rigidity of class and status that marks Ishiguro’s work. Dignity and nobility in the face of madness are qualities Ishiguro’s clones do possess, and it could hardly be argued that the clones do not likewise go willingly to their deaths in the service of others. Why, then, is a story of First World War heroism acceptable, in a way that Never Let Me Go might not be to many readers? The difference, of course, is the inevitability of a historical account, which anchors the tragedy, and resists the creation of competing expectations. If it were a story of tragic history, Never Let Me Go would play quite differently. As fiction, it remains vulnerable to the many and varied expectations, needs and desires we bring to it, so it’s a different story for each of us.
February 13, 2010 § § link
Watching an episode of Miranda Hart’s new sitcom tonight pulled me back to something I’ve been thinking about for a while – and slightly unsettled by. The co-writer on much of the series is James Cary, whose work I’ve come across a few times. He’s also co-written the majority of Milton Jones’s recent radio comedy, which I enjoy a great deal.
Here’s the thing. Cary is an evangelical Christian. Not a cultural Anglican whose expression of religion is mostly defined by folk memory and inertia, but an actual godbothering believer. Reading the blog on which this figures most into his writing, I’m struck time and again by the combination of jaw-dropping amazement – surely he can’t really believe that? – and visceral repulsion that’s my essential response to those deluded into what seems to me the area of actual mental illness. A sample post, from which this bit of choice loony:
In order to understand why creative works – and indeed why anyone works – we need to understand the past and the future. All things were created by God and men and women were made to fill the earth and subdue it. To tend the garden and increase in number. This would involve learning how to raise children, how to feed larger numbers of people, how to build houses, how to organise cities, how to develop science, economics and academy in general – not to work out how to fight sin and minimise the curse, because there was not meant to be sin or curse. With or without the fall, the plan was – and is – to take God’s glorious creation, rule over it and bring him ever increasing glory.
Religion itself bothers me on its own terms, but the bothering goes oddly deep in this case, and I think it has to do with how I view comedy, rather more than how I view religion. I spend a lot of time with comedy in all its forms. I love trying to figure out how it works, when it does, and why it doesn’t, when it doesn’t. I watch the good and the bad, and find the bad just as interesting as the good. Perhaps most importantly, I find sense of humour the most crucial way to connect to another person. If I can express my – very dry, very cynical, sometimes very silly – sense of humour with them, we’ve got a good chance of becoming friends. If not – and, honestly, usually not – then we probably don’t have a chance.
So comedy for me isn’t just a diversion; it’s a core part of who I am as a person. My botherment with Cary isn’t exactly about his religion, then – although that on its own would be a biggie. It’s more to do with the fact that a shared feeling for what’s funny draws me towards someone, makes me appreciate them more than in almost any other way; yet someone’s outward expression of religion repels me more than in almost any other way – those expressions are so unfathomable to me, so alien, that I feel I can’t possibly understand who they are, can’t possibly feel any intellectual kinship.
The combination of both in the same person disturbs me partly because I’m surprised by it. There’s a sense in which I don’t think it should be possible. To me, comedy is an almost pure expression of someone’s view of the world. It’s an intellectual exercise, and it’s the taking of a position. When we create something that’s funny, we reveal a great deal about ourselves; when we laugh at something, we both also reveal something about ourselves, and share the intellectual space.
The intellectual spaces my mind allocates to comedy and religion are more or less entirely disjoint. I see comedy as an essentially rational process – one which involves a clear-headed, unsentimental honesty about our world and our own lives. One of the aspects of comedy is precisely to see the delusions we fall prey to. Religion, on the other hand, is sentimental, irrational by design, and feeds off those very delusions – the evangelical variety all the more so.
Is it possible, then, for me to find an evangelical Christian funny? The question itself needs some clarification. The reason it doesn’t seem ridiculous to even ask it – as it would to ask, say, if I could possibly find a cake baked by an evangelical Christian delicious – is the intellectual aspect, the fact that I very much associate sense of humour with the essence of who someone is. I don’t intend the question to carry any particular pejorative weight, as might my asking whether I could find a racist funny, for example. Notwithstanding my feelings about religion in general, the question here is mainly about how the two intellectual spaces of comedy and evangelical religion seem to me to be sufficiently far apart to be more or less unbridgeable.
Clearly there are some bridges, though which bridges they are might be instructive. Cary’s work with Milton Jones – also a Christian – occupies Jones’s own world of puns and word-play. This is the comedy of phonological and syntactic ambiguity, rather than anything more substantial – which is not meant to imply criticism. That sort of humour skates across the surface of cultural experience. A pun doesn’t involve taking an intellectual position, or revealing anything other than that words sound alike and can be mixed up. Which – again – is not a criticism, merely a recognition that, no matter how much I might find cultural kinship in the fact that someone else likes puns as much as I do, it’s not a sharing of intellectual space in the same way that liking the comedy of Stewart Lee might be, for example. Tim Vine, another comedian whose stuff I love, and who is explicitly Christian – though perhaps not quite in Cary’s woo-woo mould – has honed word-play into what amounts to his own sub-genre.
Maybe, then, it’s possible to see the comedy of Cary, Jones and Vine as closer to the analogue of cake-making than to that of comedians whose acts are infused with their world-views and the taking of intellectual positions. It might provide a partial answer to my question. But are there comedians and comedy writers out there whose work is as infused with their religious world-view, and whose stuff I might connect with intellectually? I doubt it, honestly haven’t seen any, and might almost be afraid to find out. Perhaps Cary, Jones and Vine – and the others like them that I’m not aware of – do see their work as taking an intellectual position infused with a religious world-view, and not just in some less significant way consistent with it. Perhaps there’s something divine I’m missing in silly word-play. Blessed be the cheesemakers, indeed.
November 10, 2009 § § link
Two quick thoughts on the Berlin Wall’s 20th. The first is how moving it was to see the photos of Gorbachev with Merkel in the middle of the crowds on the bridge that I mostly – in a cheap, pop-culture sort of way – associate with Michael Caine and the film of Funeral in Berlin. John Naughton gets it exactly right, I think, that Gorbachev’s was the real hero’s role. I suspect the true distance of history will end up seeing him that way.
The second thought was being reminded of an idea for a story I had years ago. I’m not sure it would work – it’d be tricky to pull off, in any event. Call it Souvenirs, perhaps. Basically, we follow the triumphant collapse and dismantlement of the Wall, its gradual destruction, but also the extent to which pieces of it are scattered across the world as souvenirs, many of which are held in places of honour by governments, statesmen, and the like. The opening scene might well be the unveiling of a piece of the Wall in some significant civic or political space: the White House, say.
But something very bad happens to spoil the day. Some sort of lethal toxin, or virus, or other deadly macguffin, springs from the piece of historic Wall at a crucial moment. It starts to kill everyone within reach. Pull focus outwards, and we see that the same scene is being repeated across the globe, as pieces of the Wall are suddenly transformed into a sort of human Kryptonite in the hearts of the world’s political powers.
Probably a flashback at this point, to the lair of a band of nefarious plotters – powerful, military types. It’s not clear when this is taking place, but we assume not too long before the Wall falls. Their scheme: to plant in the Wall the seeds of the terrible carnage we’ve just witnessed. We see the technical details, and it’s enough to convince us that this is very serious. Their motive seems to be more or less nihilistic destruction of the civilised world, so it’s clear that if the plan works, we’re looking at Doomsday. But if the seeds of destruction are being planted only in the Wall, how can they destroy people and countries thousands of miles away?
The fiendishness of the plan slowly becomes clear. Since each nuclear warhead in each opposing arsenal is more or less matched by a mutually-assured brother, they cancel each other out, and none can prevail. But there’s a much longer, much subtler game. What if the weapon were not only welcomed – a modern Trojan Horse – into the enemy’s city, but given a place of great honour, in its parliament, its palace, its council and its congress? What if the weapon could be disguised as the very symbol of victory?
Smiles and dark laughter. Pull focus outwards again, and what’s revealed is devastating. We’re not shortly before the Wall comes down. We’re way back at its beginning. The terrible plot we’ve seen both planned and executed, wasn’t the cause of the Berlin Wall being destroyed. It was the very cause of the Berlin Wall being built, safe in the knowledge that its collapse decades later would be so celebrated that pieces would be carried into the hearts of the most powerful democracies in the world, leading inevitably to their doom.
We watch as the Wall is methodically constructed.
[Not a happy story. I think it was originally meant to carry some sense of how bizarre it seemed to me that actual physical bits of the Berlin Wall had acquired such value - both political and monetary - since it came down. If such a plot had existed, this is how successful it would have been.]
March 26, 2009 § § link
An idea for a short story, told as a sequence of diary entries as written by the first-person narrator. It’s called ‘The Library People’, or perhaps just ‘Periodicals’. Maybe it’s a screenplay. Maybe it’s been done already.
Circumstances force a man to work in the big local library for a significant period of weeks. He finds a nice quiet spot in the periodicals section, which becomes his usual place, despite the occasionally annoying presence of the marginally crazy who spend their days occupied with impenetrable busy-work, obsessive research through newspaper archives, and scribbling in elastic-bound notebooks. It’s like a halfway-house for obsessive compulsives, but, hey, they have to spend their days somewhere, so he’s tolerant, so long as they don’t smell too bad.
He works steadily as the days pass, but from time to time he just sits and watches the crazies around him, trying to figure out what their OCD tasks involve, what the rituals mean and what they’re writing. They see him most days, just as he sees them, so inevitably they talk a little, nod with recognition, but they’re reluctant to explain what their work is.
One man in particular guards his notebook fiercely and with apparent paranoia. He’s crazy, obviously, but our hero becomes more and more intrigued day by day. Becoming less interested in his own work, he spends most of his time looking for opportunities to eavesdrop on conversations around him, and to catch glimpses of what’s being written. It’s what he looks forward to each day. It’s eventually why he comes.
Bit by bit, as if becoming acquainted to the rhythms and cadences of a new language, the scraps of crazy babbling around him slide into focus, and he picks up conversation fragments. And he’s more amazed the more he picks up. This isn’t babbling at all. In its own way, the periodicals section is a hive of political intrigue. Names of major politicians, bankers, heads of government and state. Talk of plots, coups, assassinations. What are they up to? Who are these people?
One day, an altercation between the seeming head crazy man and a new security guard gives our hero his chance. He slips the man’s closely-guarded notebook into his bag and makes a quick exit, dashing home, scarcely even looking behind him. Safely home, he turns every lock, closes every curtain, disconnects every device, then opens the notebook and reads.
And whatever he’d imagined, the truth is so much bigger. The book is essentially the minutes – encoded, but he has the key now – of a secret, shadow world government, pulling the right strings to its own nefarious ends. The book contains irrefutable proof, plus details of its future plans. Within which is the biggest secret you can possibly imagine. A Dan Brown sort of secret, orchestrated by those hiding in plain sight in the periodicals sections of public libraries across the world, because they’re the very last people anyone would suspect, in the very last place.
Our hero is shaken to the core, but resolute. He takes what he has to the newspapers, but they laugh in his face. He takes it to the TV people, but they laugh even harder. By now his own work has been neglected, and he’s lost his job, but this is important enough that he can’t let go of it. What can he do? Perhaps he’s the only one who knows, so he must do something. He must get proof. He’ll make them believe him.
Obviously he can’t go back to the same library – they know him there now – so he hitches to Washington [or London, if this is set in the UK] and heads for the Library of Congress [or the British Library]. Whatever he needs, it’ll be here. He heads for the periodicals section, and sets up camp in a space he can make his own, with the few belongings he has left. He begins digging. Within days this is his home.
One morning, a few days later, a businessman, clearly new to the library, sits down at the next table, plugs in and opens his laptop. Their eyes meet, and the businessman’s look is one of disdain and pity.
Our hero has, of course, become one of the Library People.
March 25, 2009 § § link
[An augmented version of a comment posted on Boing Boing concerning the public release of Chris Crawford's 'Storytron' interactive storytelling engine. I should write something longer and more thoughtful about this endeavour, because I've never believed that there was anything to be gained from the approach, and yet Crawford's passion is real. I presented a paper years ago at an academic conference at which he was one of the star speakers, and he's the mad prophet of the gaming/interactive fiction world - Howard Beale without the rage.]
I also tend to think that Crawford is barking up the wrong tree. Worse, I have a nagging feeling that there isn’t a tree there at all. Notwithstanding his talent for grandiose self-promotion – not that that’s unusual in AI circles – his insistence that what he’s doing has anything much to do with stories is making a rod for his own back. What he’s doing is (still) interactive game design. Nothing wrong with that, obviously, except when it pretends to be something it isn’t.
This sort of story-world as pinball machine – build all of this machinery, give the user some small element of input, analogous to flipper control, and then expect what comes out of the other end to be a story – is a problem in all sorts of ways. Firstly, building the worlds is extraordinarily difficult. It’s basically the AI world-knowledge problem. That means almost no-one can/will take the trouble, as I think Crawford has discovered. Secondly, a sequence of events – even a perfectly coherent sequence of events – is not at all the same as a story. Stories need an authorial hand, not just the laws of physics.
I’m also far from convinced that ‘interactive fiction’ is something people even want. Maybe I’m lacking imagination, but the most profound value in fiction is that we don’t interact with it. It’s a time when we get to enjoy the skill of the author, into whose hands we willingly place ourselves.
March 12, 2007 § § link
Some thoughts about Children of Men (and some spoilers, so caveat lector), which I eventually saw today – though the lateness of things didn’t seem to hurt: the cinema was virtually empty and the print was more than fine.
I came out – after listening to Jarvis Cocker singing about cunts still running the world (must have missed that one at the Oscars; Jarvis is several gangly steps ahead of even the pimp’s lament) – musing about the final scene, and how its simple sense of resolution seems not to fit the rest of the narrative. It echoes the incongruously sunny postscript rescue of 28 Days Later – though in that case the sunniness is somewhat mitigated by the several alternative endings on the DVD: it’s clear they didn’t really know how to end the thing, so the chosen ending doesn’t come with more than a tentative stamp of approval.
The problem with Children‘s final scene isn’t that it presents a simple resolution, exactly. It’s rather more that the neatness doesn’t add anything to what’s come before – except on a rather superficial level – and in not adding anything it serves to subtract. The boat’s arrival – and the rescue and sense of hope it strongly implies – isn’t a deus ex machina, because we’ve spent the majority of the film knowingly working towards it, but so far as the narrative is concerned it’s just as empty.
The emptiness derives mostly, I think, from the scene’s poor fit with the film’s essence, which is its examination of society collapsed into martial law, extreme stratification, persecution, paranoia. That the collapse was engendered by universal infertility isn’t important. This is made all-but-explicit by the screenplay’s refusal to go into details: the infertility just happens, with no apparent cause; the new pregnancy after so many years also just happens; there’s no real investigation of exactly how lives have been changed in a world without children. The baby is a kind of double Macguffin: it (or rather its absence) is an easy motivation for dystopia; it’s also, in the more traditional Hitchcock sense, the object everyone in the story desires, for their own reasons – it motivates action.
But the conspicuous lack of filling-in of back-story and causal machinery, which pushes the social commentary to the foreground, makes the semi-mythical existence of the Human Project more or less irrelevant. By the time Theo, Kee and child are waiting in the boat at the buoy, the narrative’s work is done – unless it were then intending to extend its social commentary to the location of the Human Project itself. But that doesn’t happen. It’s a rescue uncomplicated by anything other than Theo’s cheaply-written death. That the Human Project is believed to exist is important; that it actually exists is not.
Echoing Hitchcock in another way, the surface level of the narrative takes the form of an extended chase sequence, complete with crosses and double-crosses. Theo and Kee are handcuffed together as securely as Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, first by the poorly-motivated ‘transit papers’ which require them to travel together, and then by the baby itself.
But even this more genre-friendly reading of the narrative struggles to make friends with the easy rescue of the final scene. At the buoy, the narrative has collapsed to two alternative branches: the boat comes; or the boat doesn’t come. As a viewer, it’s quite clear to us that these are the only possibilities: rescue; or death. And, once this situation has been reached, the narrative adds nothing by simply choosing between them, except to achieve a redundantly superficial resolution. The processing of possibilities in the viewer’s head is not enriched by cashing-out one fully-mapped branch rather than another.
There’s a very good analogue: the climax of The Italian Job might have been a last-minute expedient pushed in against the writer’s wishes in the absence of any better ideas, but it works astonishingly well. It’s memorable not simply because of the novelty of the lack of resolution at the moment of a literal cliffhanger, but also because it dares – albeit unintentionally – to resist exactly that cashing-out of fully-mapped branches. It presents essentially the same two possible branches: the crooks rescue themselves (and are heroes); or they plunge to their deaths. Show the film to someone who doesn’t know what’s coming, and they might groan as the credits roll, but they’ll always remember it. Cash-out either of The Italian Job’s two remaining branches, and the film is significantly diminished. Since an attentive viewer is capable of imagining the crooks righting the bus and speeding away home, but also the terrible plunge – and, importantly, since an attentive viewer is unable not to imagine both of those things – choosing between them adds nothing that’s not been played out already in their head. It becomes a resolution with no resonance whatsoever. Retain both possibilities, however, and an irresistible calculus is triggered: the viewer tries to perform resolution himself, by projecting forward what’s been seen. Cheekily, The Italian Job’s final line explicitly encourages this process:
Charlie Croker: Hang on, lads; I’ve got a great idea.
Leave Theo (alive) and Kee in the boat, conclude with an exchange such as:
Kee: So, what happens now?
Theo: We wait.
and then cut to black. What would happen, other than general whining about lack of resolution? The Human Project would remain perhaps-mythical, and the same irresistible calculus would be triggered.
This is not, of course, to deny the power of resolution in a narrative. But it’s worth asking this question of narratives such as those of Children of Men and The Italian Job: What difference does it make? What difference does it make if one of the two explicit branches is chosen over the other? The characters are not real people, so it matters nothing to them. And yet, we often fall carelessly into talking about characters as if their lives do project somehow beyond the stories they inhabit. Discussions ensue about what exactly Charlie Croker’s ‘great idea’ is. But of course we don’t know that any such idea exists; all the narrative tells us is that he says those words. People talk about whether they think the crooks ‘do’, or ‘don’t’ get the bus from the cliff-edge, as if the film is merely a small window on another fully-functional world. Character motivations are examined as if they are intrinsic to the characters themselves, rather than tools for the author to use in order to choreograph the plot.
Rather than wondering whether Theo and Kee ‘do’ or ‘don’t’ get rescued by the boat, the only level on which it makes sense to talk about resolution in this case is that of its effect on the viewer. What difference does it make to the viewer if they get rescued or not? I’d like to argue for a third case, in which a narrative such as those in Children of Men and The Italian Job, which reduces to a simple choice between two mapped-out alternatives, resolves perfectly well without needing to choose. Leaving Theo and Kee in the boat in the fog, and leaving the bus on the cliff-edge, is a form of resolution. The narrative has completed its work, and that’s the best place to stop.