You’re My Next Victim – Stephen King’s It

Late one night Stephen King woke me up. I was perhaps nine or ten. At first I had no idea I was lying awake, then – when I realised I was staring into darkness – I realised I had no idea why I was awake. I heard soft chuckling – just a gentle laughter in the darkness – that I couldn’t place in space. It could have been coming from under my bed. I lay still for several moments, a little nervous, wondering if I had heard what I thought I’d heard.

Then I heard it again.

I got out of bed and put an ear to my door, hearing nothing. I opened it and walked out onto the dark landing. I saw my parents’ bedroom light was on so went in to ask if either of them had heard the chuckling. My mother wasn’t there, but my dad was sat up reading It, and it was his laughing which had woke me up. He said he was laughing because the scene he was reading had some kids who were squatted down lighting each other’s farts. I told him his chuckling had woke me up and that it was a little creepy hearing giggling in the darkness, but it was alright now I knew what was going on. I went back to bed and slept without trouble. That was the first time Stephen King disturbed my sleep.

I didn’t know then that the scene in which those bullies light their farts – and it certainly is funny – is followed by a wonderful scene in which a twelve year old boy, Patrick Hockstetter, is half murdered by a swarm of flying leeches. One leech pierces his eyelid and sucks the eyeball until it collapses, and another lands on his tongue, sucks blood until it’s bloated, and then explodes in his mouth. Young Mr Hockstetter passes out as he’s dragged into the sewers by the entity called It, and he awakens only when, in the dark somewhere under the city, the creature begins to eat him. That might be gross, but here’s the thing: Patrick Hockstetter had it coming.

Stephen King’s It was published in September 1986. Thirty years later many fan-polls and blogs still cite the book as either his best or the fans’ favourite. Sometimes fans confuse a writer’s best work with their favourite work from that writer. Defining a writer’s “best” work is trickier than it sounds. It is probably not King’s best work, but it’s one which has its popularity secured by a collection of characters the reader easily sympathises with. The depth to which King thinks his characters into existence is remarkable.

Consider this for instance. Claudette Sanders – the first character mentioned in King’s Under the Dome – is taking a flying lesson, paid for by her wealthy husband, Andy. We are told of her that, although not exactly spoiled, she “had undeniably expensive tastes which, lucky man, Andy seemed to have no trouble satisfying.” At the end of the next page (page two) the control panel of the plane dies, and eight lines of prose later, Claudette’s body parts are falling on Chester’s Mill. Here’s a character created to be killed to open the novel, but King still gives her a whiff of backstory when he mentions her “expensive tastes”. Such a small detail begins to show the character’s character. Yet by the end of page three she’s dead. This is mildly extraordinary. We are forced to ask ourselves, if King thinks this much about a character who doesn’t last even two full-pages of prose, to what extent did King think about his Loser’s Club of kids?

Each of the seven children he creates to battle the entity are losers for different reasons. Bill stutters; Richie can’t keep his mouth shut, and has what might now be called “hyperactivity disorder” – or some other similar nonsense. Ben is fat and a loner; Eddie is the wimpy kid; Stan is Jewish; Beverly is poor and Mike is black. All these circumstances make the kids unpopular in 1958, not part of the “in” crowd at school. This is something which most of us can relate to, either by not having been one of the cool-kids, or remembering some unfortunate kid whose mum sent him in wearing Hi-tech trainers. (When I was a young teenager wearing Hi-techs was more or less a death sentence. Some parents are criminally fucking stupid. And here’s a darker thought: perhaps some parents secretly hate their children?) Thus we recognise something of our past selves in the kids King creates to face the creature. The Loser’s Club has something for everyone’s memory.

Many of us enjoy the regressing to childhood. We look at pictures and video from when we were kids and indulge our sadomasochistic side by going to the “school reunion”. Childhood is idealised in our memory and children, especially babies, are cooed at and fawned over.  This might be why so many of us are wet and feeble weaklings when we grow up. The Romans, not fond of children, thinking them rather gross and needy creatures, used childhood as the time to train and prepare for adulthood, without the cooing and fawning. Who would argue Roman men weren’t made of “sterner stuff” than us males are today?

Although we have a tale in which children are murdered and eaten, the book is pitched at the place where most adults are vulnerable: in our desire for nostalgia and our moist-eyed attitude to childhood. We can be pulled into the novel, let’s say, by Ben falling in love with Beverley Marsh because he sees her ankle bracelet, but we don’t need to understand what he feels precisely; to understand the ache in his belly  we need only to have some memory of our own for comparison.

It’s too easy to decide that King – or part of him at any rate – is to be found in the character of Bill Denbrough. King would have been the same age as the Losers in 1958, and Denbrough is the character who becomes a horror writer, his books inspired by his childhood experiences. Perhaps the Denbrough / King thing is too obvious on purpose? If King – allowing the nostalgia power to work on him as well as through him – puts himself in the book, perhaps he’s split between Bill and Richie. Bill stutters – so can’t express himself properly, while Richie expresses himself too well, yet hides behind characters who find expression through the voices Richie uses throughout.

Bill and Richie, working together, go to the House on Neibolt Street to kill It with Bill’s father’s gun. While in the basement, the creature comes down the stairs to get them in the form of the werewolf from the 1957 movie I was a Teenage Werewolf. Richie has recently seen this movie and it made an impression on him. It made an impression on King, too. Writing in Danse Macabre, King talks of the film and mentions the change from boy to monster. ‘For a high school or junior high school kid watching the transformation for the first time,’ King says, ‘this was baaad shit.’ He then points out the basics of the matter: the unfortunate teenage boy

grows hair all over his face, produces long fangs, and begins to drool a substance that looks suspiciously like Burma-Shave. He peeks at a girl doing exercises on the balance beam all by herself in the gymnasium, and one imagines him smelling like a randy polecat who just rolled in a nice fresh pile of coyote shit.

(For completeness, that teenage girl in the gymnasium was a twenty-two year old woman called Dawn Richard – a Playboy centrefold.)

Richie and Ben might be confronted by a werewolf because that represents what they’re most scared of at that time, yet the werewolf – the one from the movie, and the one in the novel, because the one in the novel is the one from the movie – symbolises something else: a fear of puberty and the sexual awakening which turns pleasant little boys into ravenous monsters. (Beverly – the only girl in the gang – recounts how It appeared to her as spurts of blood from the plughole in the bathroom. This is what she’s most afraid of, perhaps, for similar reasons to Bill and Richie; or because once her father knows she’s bleeding, he might want to take their relationship to the next level.) These fears are wrapped into a colourful package of classic American popular culture – the monsters from the movies – and might be dismissed for that reason as nostalgia for King, or for Americans generally of a certain age, but those hooks are universal, they lurk under the surface and will pierce the psyche somewhere of anyone old enough to read the book. (The cover of Detective Comics 671 has Batman protecting a screaming woman while surrounded by Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Werewolf – all monsters used by It – and that issue, from February 1994, was not aimed at people who were kids in 1955. Perhaps it’s fair to assume that teenage boys, from different eras, have the same preoccupations?)

The novel is pitched directly at the child you once were. In that way, it’s a shameless pitch, and too much of the book force-feeds us on the topic of “the magic of childhood”. This isn’t a vague term, interchangeable with “the best days of your life”, or something similar. King’s childhood magic is exactly that: a force which is somehow aware of the kids and uses them (and helps them) to battle the ancient entity under the city.

For example, Beverly – hiding from the boys lighting their farts, yet watching them closely – is attacked by one of the leeches which punches holes in Patrick Hockstetter. Beverly is the crack-shot of the gang; she’s armed with a Bulleye – a catapult which fires ball bearings. She loads it, aims at the leech she’s just pulled off her arm, and as soon as the metal ball leaves the pouch, she knows she’s missed her target.

But then she saw the ball-bearing curve. It happened in a split second, but the impression was very clear: it had curved. It struck the flying thing and splattered it to mush. There was a shower of yellowish droplets which pattered on the path.

The power the creature has is worth wondering about. It seems to have omnipotence and omniscience when it needs it, but these powers fail It when it suits King. Does the creature have powers or not? Two scenes with the Bullseye allow the reader to wonder.

Patrick Hockstetter is a child-psychopath, easily the most demented character in the book. His dementia means he isn’t scared of anything and this lack of fear makes things tricky when It comes out of hiding after sending the flying leeches. Hockstetter sees the creature come out from behind a junked car. He notices that

its face was running like wax. Sometimes it began to harden and look like something – or someone – and then it would start to run again, as if it couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be.

It says only ‘hello and goodbye’ to Patrick in a “bubbling voice”, yet Beverley hears her father say ‘hello and goodbye’. On the surface we understand this. Al Marsh is the person (thing) she is most afraid of (and had Beverly seen what had happened, not just heard it, she would have seen her father drag him off.) But this small scene actually poses problems for the novel’s logic. The creature can’t settle on what image to appear as to Hockstetter because it’s getting nothing from Hockstetter. It seems to be trying to “get a reading” but Patrick’s mind is blank of fears. Now on the novel’s logic, had Mike Hanlon been hiding with Beverly he would have heard It squawk ‘hello and goodbye’ like the giant bird; Richie would have heard the words in the sound of a werewolf’s snarl. So either It can broadcast on all frequencies or it relies on its victims to interpret one signal. Yet if it relies on its victims to interpret one signal, why is It bothering to shape-shift ‘as if it couldn’t make up its mind’? It implies the creature’s shapeshifting runs on some sort of evolved instinct – like an animal changing its colouring to suit the surroundings. This poses questions about the creature’s will, and therefore its abilities. What seems a way of demonstrating just how deranged Hockstetter is, actually dilutes the horror a little because it suggests the creature is simply feeding, rather than being actively wicked. We can get all gooey when the lion tears the baby antelope apart, but we don’t think the lion is doing anything bad. Yet we’re told It uses the tactic of appearing as whatever its victim is scared of deliberately. The fear is what ‘salts the meat’ for the entity. King seems to want things all ways, here.

Another curious scene with the Bullseye occurs back in the house on Neibolt street. The kids are there, armed with the silver-slugs they have made, to confront and kill It. Beverley almost wastes one silver-slug on a rat before Bill roars at her not to fire.

‘It wanted me to shoot at it,’ Beverly said in a faint voice. ‘Use up half our ammunition on it.’

    ‘Yes,’ Bill said. ‘It’s l-l-like the FBI training r-range at Quh-Quh-Quantico, in a w-w-way. They seh-send y-you down this f-f-hake street and pop up tuh-targets. If you shuh-shoot any honest citizens ih-instead of just cruh-crooks, you l-lose puh hoints.’

 This makes surface sense. But this scene, like the one in the junkyard with the leeches, poses questions about the will of the creature. The children believe the silver will kill the monster because that’s what the movies and comics say, and it seems the creature is damaged by what the children believe. Once It knows it’s the werewolf which scares them, it takes on the appearance of the werewolf, but also the monster’s weaknesses. Doing this strongly implies a lack of choice on the part of the creature. This scene is like a portal into the novel’s subtext. The novel’s creature is forced to have weaknesses because the novel’s subtext is that the fears the children have are of their own making, and are strong enough to manifest into reality: fear of bigger kids, of bullies; fear of illness and of monsters from the movies; fear of coming sexuality and the perils of puberty.

This is best shown when Beverly pulls back the Bullseye to fire, knowing very well she’s out of ammo. The creature believes they have another slug because the Losers act as if they do, yet a few pages before the creature was trying to get them to waste ammo on a rat, seemingly knowing what they were armed with.

Here the subtext actually breaches the surface into the action. (Another example is when It chases Mike Hanlon at the derelict ironworks: why doesn’t it morph into a smaller bird, or anything else small enough to get into the smoke-stack Mike hides in? One can only assume it doesn’t because it can’t. This is partially explained on page 990, when, from It’s point of view, we’re told that ‘all living things must abide by the laws of the shape they inhabit. For the first time It realised that perhaps Its ability to change Its shapes might work against It as well as for It.’)

One has to ask if the creature has the ability to change shapes when it chooses to do so or not? If yes, why doesn’t it do so? If no, then this really is where a portal into the subtext could actually be a rip in the dimension between the fiction and its subtext. One must remember that the characters do not know they are characters in a novel.

Most kids are scared of spiders and many adults remain scared of them. So when the empowered kids get under the city and discover the thing’s form – the closest approximation to its real form the human mind can see – is a giant spider, there isn’t much shock in that. Indeed, the spider’s appearance was foreshadowed. On page 404, there’s this exchange between Beverly and her mother, discussing the spider she pretended she saw when the blood spurted from her bathroom sink. She asks her mother if she had seen the spider, and her mother replies

‘I didn’t see any spider. I wish we could afford a little new linoleum for that bathroom floor.’ She glanced at the sky, which was blue and cloudless. ‘They say if you kill a spider it brings rain. You didn’t kill it, did you?’

    ‘No,’ Beverly said. ‘I didn’t kill it.’

It’s a nice touch that King has the mother note the sky is blue and cloudless before she worries about rain. The exchange clearly foreshadows hundreds of pages (and thirty years in time) later when the grownups think they kill the spider and downtown Derry is destroyed in a downpour, flooding the place and destroying the standpipe. The spider is again foreshadowed just prior to Mike Hanlon meeting the Losers for the first time during the scene in which Henry Bowers (possessed by It, as are the adults such as Beverly’s dad and Eddie’s mother) chases him. This drives Hanlon to the Losers, where he becomes their final member and they attack the Bowers gang in The Apocalyptic Rockfight. While chasing Mike, Henry throws a cherry-bomb (an extraordinarily dangerous firework banned in 1966) and in panic, Hanlon scales a fence and Henry follows; he stops on the way up to order his cronies to keep going, and was ‘hung there like a bloated poisonous spider in human shape.’ It’s a safe bet that if you’re not actually scared of spiders, you probably won’t be picking them up and stroking them like you would a puppy. Spiders are a scare catch-all. Spiders lay eggs, and King’s spider lays plenty.

Ben saw something new: a trail of eggs. Each was black and rough-shelled, perhaps as big as an ostrich-egg. A waxy light shone from within them. Ben realised they were semi-transparent; he could see black shapes moving inside.

He has Ben stamp on them and kill the spidery things inside as they squeal while trying to escape. In 1986, this image should have been familiar to horror fans. One month before King published It, James Cameron released Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien from 1979. In one early scene from Aliens, Ripley is talking to a collection of suits who have been trying to get her to justify detonating her ship. She tells them ‘Kane who went into that ship said he saw thousands of eggs there. Thousands.’ Nobody who has seen Alien will forget those eggs, and the spidery, face-hugger things which come out of them. The imagery in Aliens – the humans strung-up, ready to be hosts for the face-huggers; the semi-transparent eggs with something inside; the deadly female creature which lays them – are all repeated in It when the Losers chase the spider, and who would argue the Queen in Aliens isn’t a little spider-like? Even Bill’s wife, Audra, is strung-up in the spider’s web, a morsel to be eaten later, just like the colonists found by the Marines in Aliens. This isn’t a coincidence.

Like the alien Queen in Aliens, King makes his monster female, and there’s something nauseating about that image: a female spider laying eggs. Alien and Aliens tap into this directly with the idea of a human being a host for another living thing; though in King’s novel the spider doesn’t use humans as hosts – and only eats its victims because its victims expect it to – there’s a connection the films share with the novel, and the similar imagery is striking. Entire papers could be written on our fear of spiders and the identical images which the novel shares with the two horror films.

The story is a “coming-of-age” tale and nostalgia trip buried under popular horror wrapped in classic American pop-culture and movie history. The journey, from child to adolescent and then to “grownup” is a hard and depressing one: full of fear which sits in a belly which aches for different reasons. The battle the children have under the city, in the tunnels, is an important one, and those dark, scary tunnels are important, but the most important tunnel in the story is on the surface: the tunnel between the children’s library and the adult library. This tunnel is mentioned several times, and after the destruction of Derry, explodes for a reason which is not explained, leaving both libraries as separate buildings. It is suggested that the trip from child to adult is always going to be a hard one, with no shortcuts:

if you wanted to get from the Children’s Library to the adult library, you had to walk outside to do it. And if it was cold, or raining, or snowing, you had to put on your coat.

There’s no escape for any child; there’s no easy path from kid to grownup, and the truth is that while we happily skip about as a kid, telling everyone we’re doing fine and hoping they believe it, there’s terror going under the surface.

Image result for detective comics 671

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Graceful Monstors

In the genre of horror fiction, many authors have touched upon the same subject matter and populated their works with similar characters. Serial-killers, Cop-killers, Child-killers: they have featured in hundreds of novels and films over the years. The same is true of Lovecraftian demons and spirits. Stories of haunting and possession are as old as history, and the deformed, shape-shifting and deceitful entities that are responsible for those haunting tales, have themselves featured many times across the work of authors whose lives have been separated by centuries. There appears to be nothing original under the sun.

Some writers do have an original take on an old story or character type, though. For example, in his novel, Cell, Stephen King has battalions of flesh eating zombies doing some nasty things to the population of Boston.  Zombie tales and movies tend to keep to a standard pattern: zombie eats you alive, you then become a zombie yourself, and you eat your mum or another dispensable support character. No explanation tends to be offered why the dead have decided to rise – or why they are so hungry – and the main plot of these stories revolves around the survival attempts of a few desperate groups of humans. Some of these elements are true of Cell, but there is one remarkable and original difference to King’s Zombies: they are alive.

The un-dead – or phoners, as King calls them – have received a mysterious signal through their mobiles which sends them violently insane. Their behaviour is similar to run-of-the-mill un-dead flesh-eaters from books and movies of the past, but only up to a point. King soon takes his readers away from the conventional as his story unfolds.

The movie Wolf Creek is another example of giving a tired format a decent revival. A serial killer, roaming at his leisure across Western Australia, kills tourists visiting the Wolf Creek meteorite crater. The psycho-is-chasing-you format has been done in dozens of movies – hundreds, more likely – though in this film we have a refreshing change. The psycho is a decent bloke. There are no funny facial ticks, no talking to voices in his head; the killer is played straight by John Jarrett, and is much scarier for it. Even at his most violent, Mick Taylor, Jarrett’s character, never falls into parody: Jarrett plays the part as if he was influenced by no other performance on stage or screen – a remarkable achievement, actually.

Wolf Creek has another piece of originality going for it: there is no double-take used by the director. This shock technique features in so many horror films that its effectiveness has been diluted. We all have seen this at work. The camera stands behind a scared character; they look left, and the camera looks with them. There is never a baddie to be seen. Then, they look right – again the camera follows to show the madman is nowhere around. And then – guess what – they look left again and the psycho’s face is inches from theirs. You never saw that coming.

Actually, there was a time when cinema audiences were scared to death by that now much over-used technique. The double-take was first used by director David Lean in his version of Great Expectations (1946). It was used to introduce Pip to Magwitch, and, famously, to introduce Magwitch to the audience. It worked brilliantly. So much so, less original directors still use it

Murderous psychopaths belong to no-one – they can’t be copyrighted, so there is no quality control in place. The same is true of all types of horror villain and monster. If you get lucky, you watch or read something that catches the attention because it breaks the normal way of telling that story or presenting those characters.

Richard Matheson’s Vampire novel, I am legend (1954) has a protagonist who is considered a terrorist – an outcast, because he is in a minority (a minority of one, as it happens) and the rest of the population of Los Angeles is a blood-sucker. The novel offers the theory that vampires are the next evolutionary step for mankind. This is better than presenting them as Satan’s disciples on earth, who avoid garlic and drink virgins’ blood. That version of vampires has been overdone.

But then vampires are the one of the most popular horror novel or movie creatures; it is not surprising there is so much pap printed on paper and celluloid about the fictional blood-suckers; but, there are writers who offer an intriguing and original take on this type of story.

Anne Rice is one of them. Her novel, Interview with the vampire, (1976) was a best-seller, and the first of eleven novels collectively known as The Vampire Chronicles. The series tells of the adventures of Lestat De Lioncourt, a French aristocrat and actor, who was kidnapped and turned into a vampire in 17th Century Paris.

Lestat is posh but penniless. He ventures into the big city with Nicholas, his companion to expand their horizons and make their fortune. Nicholas, a talented violinist, takes work in the orchestra pit of a theatre while Lestat, ever the show off, treads the boards. Life is perfect. They take-in the sumptuous city: the people; the wine; the food – they indulge their passions, but Lestat becomes un-easy at the sight of a curious white face in the audience each night. Someone is stalking him.

Rice offers a mix of Dickens blended with Dorian Gray. There is the overpopulated metropolis with the detritus-ridden underbelly, and slopping about upon its surface are the beautiful people; drowning in decadence and drunk on wine and passion.

Lestat, for all his foppish, Wildean extravagance, has a killer’s blood pumping through his veins. Before eloping to Paris, he killed a pack of wolves that had been slaughtering people from his home village. On horseback, with his beloved Mastiffs by his side, he hunted and killed them. Doing so cost him his horse and his dogs, but the starving villagers and their cattle had a chance to make it through a cruel winter. He was a hero, but the folly of setting off alone demonstrated his maverick side. It is that – along with his physical beauty – that captures the attention of Magnus, the vampire with the ghostly white face who has been stalking him.

It is here that Rice begins to deviate from the norm as far as tradition and popularity in vampire stories go. Vampires in her world are capable of love and passion, they are capable of guilt and sadness – they are monsters, they are un-dead – but why should that mean they must be mindless demons, automatically slaying any human they spot? Rice’s vampires choose how they behave. Too many times in horror fiction vampires are portrayed as being enslaved by the insatiable thirst for blood; they kill because of it. It’s their addiction and their food. Not so with Anne Rice.

The thirst is nothing more than a demonic craving, leading to madness if not slacked, but not required for continued existence. Her monsters are a human / spirit hybrid; the spirit element craves the blood, but the human side – the physical body – no longer requires nourishment. As her vampires age, slowly the thirst subsides until the ancient ones, those at least a thousand years old, no longer need it at all. And with age comes ever increasing powers.

Magnus is one of the ancient ones. He chooses Lestat as his heir after murdering hundreds of similar looking victims. Lestat has the perfect balance of beauty and aggression and Magnus, after taunting him in his dreams – calling him wolf-killer – takes him to his lair and turns him, and does so, much against Lestat’s will.

Rice’s hero continues his life, but as a vampire. He still visits his favourite places and enjoys the culture of the time. He is frequently found in the theatres, cafes and strolling along the banks of the Seine. The circumstances of his existence have changed, but his tastes, and his entire thinking mind, have not. It makes her characters far more engaging than the one-track-mind demons that meander from one virgin neck to another. It also demonstrates Rice’s skill as an author. A lead character needs to elicit sympathy from the readers of a novel or the audience of a movie. Rice’s Lestat is a mass murderer, and she still makes him engaging and sympathetic.

Play it straight and tell the truth, that is the safest way. It is too easy to make a murderer lose credibility by getting carried away with the killer’s dark side. Even a murderer has a sense of humour. John Jarret played it this way in Wolf Creek, but he’s not the only one to get the portrayal of a killer spot-on.

Harrison Ford did a similarly grand job in What lies Beneath (2000). He gives, possibly, his best performance as Dr. Norman Spencer, an academic who puts his research first. In one scene, Ford’s character is explaining to his wife how her death will bring him and her daughter closer together. It is clear he means it; he will look after his step-daughter, and provide the very best for her. As he explains this to his wife, he is filling the bath to drown her. It is the incongruity written into the scene, topped off with Ford’s delivery that gives the scene its power. Even allowing for Dr. Spencer’s insanity, he never once comes across as dangerous. He is a graceful monster. And where is it written that madness has to be dangerous? Who decided insanity must lead to murder?

One film comes to mind with a lead character so psychologically damaged that it is remarkable not a single member of the cast gets slaughtered; a movie with the most deranged protagonist: The King of Comedy (1983) is that film.

Robert de Niro plays the psychopath, Rupert Pupkin, a stand-up comedian with delusions (literally) of grandeur. It is one of the most disturbing movies I have seen. Not a single murder, hardly any violence, yet the impression left by this film lasts long in the mind. It is very uncomfortable viewing. It proves dead bodies and gore will always come second to a quality script and decent actors in the race to disturb an audience. To creep under the radar requires no trickery. It requires you pick the lock of their critical shields and slip inside using truth. This is why gore-sodden celluloid like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) will make an audience squirm, will make them jump, but will never get access to the place where humans are truly vulnerable.  Movies such as Saw and Hostel – and many others, of course – will try and batter their way in using boring tricks and double-takes.

Those blades are blunt.

A Different Coast

It is the dead of night

 The long dead look out towards

The new dead

Walking towards them

There is a soft heartbeat as the dead embrace

Those who are long dead

And those of the new dead

Walking towards them

They cry and they kiss

As they meet again

For the first and last time.

“Meeting” – Harold Pinter

 

 

I told my wife I was going for my usual stroll. My usual stroll was through the park and along through the cemetery, and then I’d loop back again and come back. The particulars of the walk are unimportant. I went that way because I liked the peace in the cemetery. There was never more than a few living people in there at one time, and it was easy to get some quiet.

Occasionally I would read some of the graves. I would read the names on the headstones and any inscription. I like history. Acknowledging those who lived here, long before I existed, seemed a correct thing to do for some reason. I’m unsure exactly why. I suppose those who are buried are the lucky ones – much luckier than those who are cremated. A headstone is a blue-plaque for the unknown.

One time, on my usual stroll, I stopped and sat on one of those slatted wooden benches they have in the cemetery. It’s got a brass plate screwed into it which says ‘In loving memory of William Brown – a real gentleman’, though I’ve never been able to find his headstone anywhere.

I sat down and took a sip from the flask that I carry. (A small, silver one – a present to myself – which slips in and out of the old inside pocket with agreeable ease and frequency.) I looked about, taking a minute. Then I saw something which held my attention. I was sat close to a small shed – not much more than a wooden box. It looked like a place where a gardener would keep some tools, or a wheelbarrow or something. Leaning against the side of it was one of those tall bins on wheels. What caught my attention was the message daubed on the front of it. The message was ‘No Hot Ashes’. I looked at it for several seconds, as if I was trying to decipher what it meant. I realised soon enough what it meant wasn’t what bothered me about it. That there was a rule which said a bin should have no hot ashes placed in it was clear enough. What bothered me was lurking just under the surface of my thoughts, and didn’t want to be uncovered. I know myself well enough. That message made me change my usual stroll for another one. I didn’t want to see that message again.

From then on, I took a different route for my stroll. I’d still go through the park, but rather than going through the cemetery, I’d turn towards the shops, dart along a footpath which lead to a set of steep steps up to the cliffs. There was a splendid walk to be had along the cliffs, so long as you could manage the climb up and I suppose not everyone could manage it. A quick snort from the old flask usually gave the required boost. It was worth the effort for the view.

Along the cliff-path were more of those slatted benches where you could sit and admire the view out to sea. The water would carry you out to where it touched the sky if you allowed it to. The view was as clear as that. You know what people say, that on a clear day you can ‘see forever’? The view was a bit like that.

I was sat on a bench, wondering how far the horizon was, when a man appeared at the top of the steep steps and strolled over. He sat down and caught his breath while dabbing his brow with a black handkerchief. I offered a polite nod – just an acknowledgment. It seemed the correct thing to do. Once he had his breath – and I knew he was going to do this – he decided to speak.

‘Takes it out of you,’ he said, slapping his lap. ‘Worth it, though. Look at that view.’ He looked at me. ‘Worth it?’

‘Always,’ I replied. ‘Better when it’s quiet like this, though: no dogs barking or running about the place.’

‘Absolutely,’ he said, looking out to sea again. He pinched his nose, sniffed, and slapped his lap. ‘Right,’ he said, standing up, ‘enjoy your day.’ With that he got up and carried on along the path which dipped slightly and within a moment or so took him out of view.

He was friendly enough, I thought. I admired the view for a few minutes longer, then set off the way the man had gone. I knew well enough where the path I was on would lead. It dropped slightly, stayed alongside the cliff-edge for about 100 yards, then turned away from the edge and dropped, steeper still, down to the normal world of traffic and shops and noise.

That night I woke up some time in the early hours, sweating a little, and trying to catch my breath. I rolled out of bed in something of a panic, and my wife woke up and wanted to know why I was kneeling on the floor, gasping for breath like I’d just run a marathon.

 

*

I explained I’d had a nightmare, that it was nothing to worry about. She persisted in telling me to get ‘looked at’ and make sure everything was okay. She acted worried, though for someone worried was calmed easily. I didn’t hold that against her – why should I? I’m not a romantic in any sense of the word.

She looked up something called ‘sleep apnea’ online and decided to become an expert in this topic, thinking that my little ‘moment’ of breathlessness was due to this condition. I pointed out that, if that were the case, then moments of breathlessness would happen most nights, but it had only happened once. She did agree I had a point.

I decided to get out the house and go for more walks. My wife didn’t want to come along but agreed exercise was a very good idea. It was always worth it.

The next afternoon I ventured out again and, after stopping at the newsagent to buy a discreet bottle of top-up for the old inside pocket, went up to the cliff-path by the way I had come down the other day. It wasn’t as steep as the steps, but still hard work; as always, the view was worth it.

The man I had spoken to briefly was sat on another bench, staring out to sea. I was huffing and puffing a bit, so decided to sit down next to him. He didn’t acknowledge me, though: he was concentrating on the horizon.

‘Dammed fine view, that,’ I said. Then he looked at me, expressionless, like he was in a trance brought on by the horizon.

‘Could I have a quick drop of the old you know what?’

‘Sorry?’ I said.

He nodded in the direction of my jacket.

I twigged what he was getting at. ‘Oh, right – yes!’ I took out the silver flask, unscrewed it, and offered it over. He took two good swallows then handed it back.

I quickly put it back in the old inside pocket.

‘Thanks,’ he said.

I nodded as if to say you’re welcome and was about to introduce myself – you know the thing, offer out the old fashioned handshake – when he got up, and quite calmly walked toward the edge and then walked right over without looking back.

For a moment I had to question if I’d seen what I knew I had seen. You know how your brain registers and event, but if it’s unexpected, the mind sort of suffers a delay in recognition? I’m no expert, but it was something like that. I hurried over to the edge and got as close as felt safe and peered over. It was a few perhaps a hundred feet to the rocks and water below, but there was no sign of him. He’d been wearing red trousers, which I thought would have been easy to spot, but there was nothing. My heart was thudding and I looked around quickly, wondering if anyone else saw him go over, but there was nobody about. I couldn’t hear even a dog barking in the distance.

I grabbed at my coat pockets, in a panic to find a phone, but there was only the familiar lump of the flask. I thought I had my phone with me, but obviously not. I was thinking I’m supposed to be phoning the bloody coastguard or someone now, but the way he calmly stepped over the edge made me think all was well about things. That might sound weird, but he was so calm about it.

I thought then that calling the coastguard was a waste of time in any case, because nobody hitting those rocks would survive. What would they do? There was actually a little bit of beach down below a person could get to, but the geography made things difficult, and it was a twenty minute walk to get back down the steps, then take the scenic route almost out of town before doubling back along the main beach; and even then things were fiddly because there was a walk across the rocks to get to the bit of hidden beach down below. I’d been all over the rock when I was a kid, but that was some time ago.

I didn’t know what to do. If I ignored it, I couldn’t tell my wife, but If I didn’t ignore it, I’d have to tell her. I decided I’d call the police and report the incident, explaining I didn’t call earlier because I had no phone on me at the time. This felt like a solid plan, so I made for home.

 

*

I told my wife excitedly what had happened. I left out no details. I’d seen this chap before, and that this time – after no more than a ‘hello’ – he just got up of the bench and walked calmly off the cliff edge! I told her I’d seen nothing like it and that he didn’t even hesitate – not for a moment did he hesitate! I thought she’d be somewhat more excited, but she just smiled and said, how terrible it was that someone would do that.

‘I’m going to call the police,’ I said.

My wife gave me one of those ‘good-for-you’ play punches in the shoulder and passed me the phone. I called them, but not on the emergency line, just the normal ‘report something’ line: the same line people use for reporting cats up trees, noisy neighbours or a stolen car or something. It wasn’t long before I was through all the ‘push one for whatever’ business. I started by telling them my name and address, and then got down to it. The police person didn’t seem in any kind of hurry. It was an older sounding voice, possibly male.

‘And they didn’t say anything? The man just jumped off the cliff?’

‘That’s right. Just like I said: we said hello, then he just got up and walked off. He didn’t jump, though. He just walked off. He just calmly stepped off the edge.’

‘And nobody else saw this? There was nobody around from whom you could have borrowed a phone. It was an emergency, after all.’

‘I get that but if there was nobody there, then what could I do?’

‘Are you sure there was nobody else there? Think about it. Are you sure there was nobody else there? Maybe you just didn’t see them?’

‘No,’ I said – although it made me think for a moment – ‘there was nobody else there. I would remember seeing them.’

There was just breathing down the line for a moment or two. Then the voice spoke again.

‘Maybe there was somebody else there, but you just forgot you spoke to them for five minutes?’

This made me scared for some reason. Who was on the other end of the phone?

‘Don’t be scared – just think about things. How did he know you had that flask on you?’

I started to feel a little dizzy, and the hairs on my arms were standing up. I quickly looked about but my wife had disappeared.

‘How do you know that?’ I asked. ‘How could you – ‘

‘Go back and do it again. But this time pay more attention.’

The line went dead.

 

*

I bought two small bottle of the old top-up at the shops and started up the steps. I’d walked the steps plenty of times but they were heavy going. The air was heavier this time. By the time I was at the top I was out of breath and needed to take a minute. I decided to sit for a minute and that’s when I saw him sat on the bench.

It was the same man, no mistake. He even wore the same red trousers. It was obviously him, but at the same time it obviously couldn’t have been him. I walked over and sat down. He didn’t look at me.

I got my breath a little more and spoke, but I didn’t look at him. For some reason I couldn’t do that yet.

‘Takes it out of you,’ I said. ‘Worth it, though. Look at that view.’ I looked at him then, but wished I hadn’t.

He was smiling, but had tears in his eyes.

‘I suppose you prefer things when they’re quite?’

‘Yes,’ I said. That’s all that came out.

He kept smiling and turned towards the water. ‘Who’s go is it? It’s your turn.’

I knew he was right.

The weather was good, there were no clouds in the sky and the sea was calm all the way to the horizon. There was a breeze, but the air was still warm.

You can’t fight the tide, you can only ride it as best you can, but there’s no stopping it. I stood up and left him on the bench and walked towards the edge, feeling the breeze and the warmth on my face. I peered over the edge and saw the waves breaking against the rocks far below. As the rocks rushed closer I knew I was smiling.

This never hurt for long.

The In House Drive-by

London Has Fallen is the worst film I’ve seen for a long time, and that it has received (so far) a rating of 5.9 on IMDB is one of the mysteries of the universe. 5.9 on IMDB is unimpressive, but trying to reconcile gravity with the Standard Model would be easier than working out why this film has received an IMDB rating twice as high as it deserves. It really is appalling.

The problem with the film is that it tries to be ‘serious’ yet is predicated on the stupidest premise in fiction: the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent enemy.

America itself is personified in one man, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler): a hero so good at what he does, so fucking American, that not even God can kill the President when Gerard Butler is around.

In other words, goodness will always survive when America is there to protect it.

The omniscient and omnipotent enemy is the laziest type of convenient enemy to have. We see that the terrorists have infiltrated not only the British Army, but also the British police, and done so to such depth that terrorists are (somehow) sufficiently undercover to be vetted for official ceremonial duties, and can whip-out the old shooters at just the right time. What would be the back-story for just one of these under-cover baddies? How did they get in the police station and listen to the first briefings? How did they get in the barracks and into their uniforms without being noticed or questioned? How did they drill themselves to walk in step?

The enemy is God, here. Only God can do anything; only God can put anything or anyone anywhere He wants. This is one reason why the film fails. It is an excuse for a lot of preening and posing by Mike Banning.

(Footage of an American body-builder, in stars and stripes pants, poncing about on a stage for an hour and a half would have offered the same message, and a more credible one, too, because the stage on which the posing happened would have had a solid foundation.)

Banning’s doings are the usual ruthless-yet-witty-action-hero-by-numbers fare. Consider two absurd examples.

Banning has grabbed a terrorist while driving at speed in the obligatory chase-scene. The bad guy is leaning in the window, and Banning has grabbed him by the crash-helmet. The terrorist is deeply committed to his cause, and says to Banning: ‘fuck you.’ Banning replies, ‘fuck me?’ and then deliberately swerves the car into a barrier, decapitating the terrorist and leaving his severed head in Banning’s hand. ‘Fuck you’ he tells the dead head.

What is going on, here?

He decapitates the guy in reaction to the insulting language, so we are free to ask why Mr Banning is so easily offended. What would Banning have done had the terrorist not said ‘fuck you’?

His witty quip is without any irony. When the Terminator, or John McClane, offer the old one-liners, there’s an element of self-deprecation, and an acknowledgement of the movie universe in which they live without acknowledging they are fictional characters; but Banning’s ‘fuck you’ isn’t that sort of one-liner. Who is he talking to? The terrorist is dead, so is his line and sense of humour for our benefit? The only thing missing here is Banning looking at the camera and winking after chucking the head out the window.

That Banning doesn’t look directly at us when he speaks doesn’t mean the line isn’t spoken to us. The decapitation scene unintentionally breaks the fourth-wall, and to break the fourth-wall unintentionally is unforgivable. It means the director and writer(s) don’t care about the psychology of fiction, or the relationship between fiction and the audience.

The second example has Banning use the expression ‘fuckheadistan’ when suggesting the bad guys might want to go back to where they came from.

It’s daft enough that the apparently loving, caring, soon-to-be-a-father nice-guy slowly tortures a man to death to annoy another bad guy listening over the radio (making one wonder about Banning’s stupidly unrealistic light-switch personality) but to use such a hicksville expression is to appeal somewhat to the Toby Keith foreign policy school.

These are two examples of straightforward absurdity, and more could be offered.

For instance, where do the millions of London’s public disappear to? As Banning and Mr Goodness-personified run about through London, we are supposed to take seriously the idea that the public will simply vanish, leaving our two heroes alone in a deserted capital city which minutes earlier was conducting a normal day’s business.

I mean to say, this is just stupid.

Deadpool can be taken much more seriously, even though it’s a comedy, because to be a stupid film is perfectly acceptable if the film knows itself, and isn’t pretending to be anything else; but London Has Fallen presents itself without any irony or humour and without any tongue in any cheek: it wants us not laugh out loud, but to punch the air shouting ‘Go Gerard!’

Go Gerard?

Fuck you.

Anything Goes. Again.

An imbecile has suggested the violence in movies might have contributed to the motivations of Jo Cox’s killer.

I have a question. Why does nobody ever question the violence and rape and horror which is found in poetry, drama, opera, sculpture and painting – yet the violence in popular fiction, is deemed to be morally dangerous?

Anyone?

Every decade has its cultural moral panic, because every decade another bunch of unintelligent, unthinking cretins become adults and begin spouting off about the latest ‘dangerous’ cultural phenomenon.

When I was late teenager / young adult in the 90s – we had the Eminem moral horror; in the 80s it was the Beastie Boys and ‘video nasties’moral horror; in the 70s it was Led Zep and Black Sabbath moral horror (You might remember they tried to turn the world’s teenagers into devil-worshippers); in the 60s The Rolling Stones were destroying the moral fabric of society; in the 50s Elvis tried to do this by swinging his hips; in the 40s Hitchcock had to have Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kiss multiple times in one scene in ‘Notorious’ because one long snog on screen would destroy the moral fabric of society; it got so bad back then, Cole Porter had to write ‘Anything Goes’ – a revolutionary protest song against moral collapse; and back and back we go……

…In 1863 Edouard Manet painted ‘Olympia’ and this painting was shown in 1865. It caused moral outrage and panic. Olympia, bless her, was a prostitute, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the painting’s gaze. She looks directly at the viewer, making the viewer a customer. This painting almost destroyed the moral fabric of society.

It’s a miracle we’re all still here.

Edouard Manet - Olympia - Google Art Project.jpg

A Ragged Review and an American Beauty

In the late 1980s Thames television made a documentary about a young chef whose restaurant – ‘Harvey’s’ –  in Wandsworth, London – was considered one of the best in the country. The head chef, Marco Pierre White, was only in his twenties but considered a genius. The man’s philosophy was simple: less really is more; let your ingredients speak for themselves and don’t clutter up your plate trying to be clever. One dish demonstrated this philosophy perfectly. His ‘panache of foie gras with pan fried sea scallops and carrots’ was exactly what it claimed to be – just three ingredients.

Restraint requires confidence.

If The Rag were served to me on a plate then I could believe that the chef really knew what he was doing, for The Rag has but three ingredients: prose, poetry and art.

Issue 5 – Winter/Spring 2013 comes with a cover featuring a bloodied rendition of Carlos the Jackal: the blood around the mouth suggestive of his taste for it – though there’s more going on inside his head if you look closely. In another picture there is a human figure, cuddling a rabbit, though the figure is sporting a wolf’s head; another human figure, this time with a cheetah’s head, is doing the same.

The notion that a human has, perhaps, his savagery restrained by societal expectations, while just under the respectable surface there is lust, blood-lust and a truly carnivorous sexual desire, is one which could well be suggested here; though perhaps such an interpretation is too close to the surface meaning of those mentioned images to have much worth.

There is no fuss to this magazine – no unnecessary garnish. After Carlos’s cover, there’s a contents and credits page, then we are into the work – the main ingredients.

The first bite offered is a story, Momemto Mori, written by Stefanie Demas, and if the first bite seduces the taste buds, then one knows the dish is right. So what can one say about Memento Mori?

It is a remarkable piece of work. The narrator is a complicated creation. Innocent, charming – and therefore probably friendly; intelligent, intuitive and utterly, hopelessly – yet beautifully – deranged.

Our narrator is driving to a funeral home to steal a body and spirit it away to secluded spot for sex. However, grim and ghoulish this is not. And it is that which makes the story so wonderful. It must be no easy task to have a narrator describe sexual feelings towards corpses and have that narrator sound quite so reasonable.

‘I was five years old when I remember seeing death for the first time,’ we’re told. ‘I knew even then I was interested.’

We’re given a scene in which the young narrator watches a bird hop about before being set upon and quickly killed by a cat, and this sight captivates her and there begins a healthy interest in death.

The narrator seems to have rare access to those considerations of beauty reserved for the high-brow and the aesthete, but with reservations:

‘I will not say that it was beautiful. Beautiful wouldn’t be the wrong word, necessarily, but it would give you the wrong idea about me.’

Could that wrong idea be the notion that our narrator’s interest is purely aesthetic? That could be the case because her interest is definitely physical. Here we have a synthesis, a merger between the low and the high, the closed-eye humming to classical music while the fingers get sticky.

Death, to this narrator, however, is more than an aphrodisiac.

When considering a corpse one might see the sinking of the cheeks or the new prominence of the bones as the signs of a person transforming into a cadaver – the new physical status: the first stage on a journey which sees a person’s atoms return to the universe.

‘I could see that his shoulder blades had begun to form themselves into wings.’

In that we have the aesthetic, the optimistic and the deranged – all brought together in a simple, beautiful line.

I don’t much care if this is an example of Demas showing her own art through her character, or – as a student of Stanislavsky could appreciate – a form of method-writing, either way it is beautiful. Death: the invisible chrysalis.

Of course, ultimately, there is no hope for this narrator. No reader could sympathise with one who harbours such exotic tastes, so removed as they are from regular experience. Such people are disturbed. Or are they?

Consider the following:

‘What about the widow who kisses her husband’s waxy face, clenches his frigid hands, as he lies in his cushioned box? How do we define that kiss, those touches? As love. As nothing unusual. And never, never would we call it by that name. How can we name-call and persecute when the distinctions are so shaky?’

This is clever because it sounds exactly like a person who has thought about their tastes and wondered what they might say under questioning. What we have here is the tip of a philosophical iceberg, a logical argument. And who can argue with the logic? Step by logical step we can unravel the argument for ourselves. Doing this leaves us unsettled because we are forced to answer a new formulation of ‘the paradox of the heap’ – and who can answer that?

It is some feat of creativity to have a narrator who is a rarefied aesthete; gentle; logical; and also one we can sympathise with. Yes, this is a caring narrator. The evidence is in the prose.

While driving to her final destination, her cargo stowed in the back of a stolen hearse, our narrator is passed by trucks on the highway:

‘The trucks sounded like whales as we passed them in the night. With the radio off, we could hear that their deep rumbles were accompanied by low, mournful cries – a searching call through the dark ocean expanse. My heart wanted to break for those trucks, my eyes wanted to cry for them. Whom had they lost? Whom did they need to find?’

What skill, yet again, it takes to synthesise the sympathetic with the gently deranged. One wants to kiss the narrator on the cheek, to stroke her hair. How could anyone have anything but affection for such a kindly soul?

Before reading this story I was reading Mailer’s Fire on The Moon; today I have just started Philip Knightley’s biography of Kim Philby, and after that I have the collected works of Nathanael West. But now my reading is disturbed. Now I want more from Stafanie Demas. I want more from this American Beauty.

And what skill it takes the editors of this magazine to select ingredients such as these and to let those ingredients speak for themselves.

I’ve given The Rag five stars.

Michelin would have given them three.

Sexcrime

I have made two attempts to read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, succeeding on the second attempt. I gave up the first time (about a third of the way in) because there was ‘something’ wrong with the book, though I could not identify it. About half way through, on the second attempt, I realised what the problem was and identifying it brought a thought about what is wrong with Orwell’s 1984. The problems with these books are different, though caused by the same thing and I will explain what that is.

The Communist Manifesto calls for the abolition of the family. The communists want this because the family fashions bonds which are stronger than patriotism; and traditional, life-long heterosexual marriage is the sealing bond which keeps the family together. A communist state cannot have its subjects living like this because their first loyalty will not be to it, but to each other. This will never do. But a stroke of a bureaucratic-pen cannot abolish the family, as the manifesto demands. No matter how great the state apparatus is, abolishing the family can only happen in slow-motion, and it takes decades.

The first way to start the slow-motion change is to introduce sex ‘education’. Sex education was the idea of a man called George Lukacs. He was an education commissar during the Hungarian revolution. The point was to debauch the minds of children who were religiously brought up. That is why sex education exists. Do not swallow the pathetic and weak excuse about preventing unwanted pregnancy; the truth of sex education is the other way about.

Huxley made sex one of the key ways in which persons are conditioned in Brave New World. Babies and small children are encouraged to indulge in ‘erotic play’ and learn that sexual promiscuity is natural and normal. The exact opposite is true of 1984, in which females are coerced into the ‘anti-sex league’ and chant enthusiastically for the abolition of the orgasm.

Huxley understands that sex leads to children and that means continuing the existence of the family. He sorts this by having humans not born, but decanted, and this further allows the state controllers to tinker with the growing humans to determine their intelligence and class and so on.

Orwell’s proletariat simply live under tyranny and ludicrous intrusion into their lives by the big-brother bureaucracy; and, remember, the thought-police kick the doors in when Winston and Julia are together. No illicit love-making permitted in Airstrip One.

The methods of the two tyrannies are exact opposites of each other, in other words. The thought-police will torture and batter you with clubs, but the authorities of Huxley’s book play soothing sounds from loud-speakers and spray the rioting crowds with soma to deal with mass disorder.

I don’t think Orwell missed the connection between totalitarianism and the destruction of the family by encouraging sexual-freedom, but he was pushing the bureaucratic tyranny to it utmost, and that meant that sexual conduct had to be monitored and controlled, along with everything else.

I am unsure which regime is worse. Orwell’s slaves do not resist because they dare not – the power of the state is total; but Huxley’s slaves do not realise they are slaves to begin with. Both societies are horrid in different ways but for the same reasons, arrived at by different methods. And both writers make a mistake (in terms of story telling) which makes their societies less awful than they might have been.

Orwell’s mistake is to make his society a circle, not a pyramid. There is nobody at the top, living in luxury while the lower orders suffer. It is such a vast state-machine that it seems to function for its own sake; but there needs to be a hierarchy, a pecking order, because it is that which keeps those closest to the top loyal. They are waiting for their turn in the chair, and each person, on each rung, is doing the same, waiting to move up one place. That is how a hierarchy works. Orwell is honest enough to follow his logic and take things right to the edge, but in pushing it so far he reduces the horror slightly. The world of Winston Smith would have been worse if there had been man at the top, keeping power and devising ever more twisted ways of keeping it.

Huxley does the same thing, follows his start-point to its logical conclusion and reduces the purity of the soft-horror he envisioned. Some call Huxley’s book a utopia, or a negative utopia. You can call it whatever you like but it may not be called a dystopia; and it may not be called a dystopia for the very reasons Huxley tried to make it one: The abolition of the family.

Without love and loss, without heartbreak there can be no human tragedy. If everyone belongs to everyone, and can take whoever they like as a sexual partner whenever they fancy it, then no-one is special, no one is loved, and without those things, when persons have no family or emotional ties, there is no horror because there is no loss. Without horror there can be no dystopia.

Huxley, like Orwell, honestly followed his thinking to its conclusion and the book is certainly worth it for that reason, but the Alphas in Brave New World don’t have much to complain about it seems to me. The book is neither a dystopia or utopia, it is a work of social and science fiction theory.

Both could have been more horrific than they are; that they are not shows the authors were dealing first in testing ideas (and remorselessly driving those ideas forward until they ran out of road) and were writing fiction second, not for its own sake but as the medium of delivery for their thought experiments.

Tarantino Six

In the opening scene in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino gave us what was something of a novelty at the time. His characters were talking. That’s not the same as having characters exchange dialogue to further the plot. His characters talked to each other. From the speech about the subtext to Madonna’s Like a Virgin to the bullshitting about tipping, the easy, realistic dialogue made us another character at the table: we were listening to ordinary folks talk, and because we’re ordinary folks, an invisible wall was removed and we were sat having breakfast, too.

The dialogue is one of the immediately recognisable things in a Tarantino picture. The exception to this rule, the Tarantino movie which isn’t rammed with Tarantino dialogue, is Inglorious Basterds, but that movie still has two scenes which are two of the best scenes in the Tarantino canon.

So what are six of the best scenes in Tarantino’s writing?

Reservoir Dogs in not going to be included in the six scenes. Why should it be given what came after it? On the fair logic that the more you do something the better you get, Dogs should be his worst film, right?

This list runs in no particular order and I’m not bothered about the release sequence. The list is simply six of the best scenes and why I like them.

 True Romance (1993)

Drexel Swings the Lamp

This scene is beautiful because Tarantino understands Drexel’s savagery, and also how a savage thinks. Those thoughts are demonstrated by the dialogue. In this scene Christian Slater has gone to the HQ of his new girl’s pimp to get her stuff and tell him Alabama – the peachy chick in question – isn’t coming back. She’s had to tell him that old Drexel is only just human, and that’s a compliment. He sniffs out Christian Slater instantly, and knows he should have nothing worry about.

The whole psychology of the scene rests on the Chinese food. Drexel invites X to sit down and have a bite, and that’s a move to see how confident Clarence is. Tarantino has Drexel explain this to us. He shines the lamp at Clarence and tells him ‘You’ve already given up your shit.’ Straight away, we wonder, what? How’s that? And that’s when Drexel explains had Clarence sat down for food, and acted like he wasn’t worried about anything, then Drexel might have thought Clarence didn’t have anything to worry about, and the implication is that he would have then started to wonder why not – and begin worrying himself. It’s a beautiful bit of psychology which shows the instinct developed by animals like Drexel and the innocence of old Clarence. It reminds me of an old wildlife documentary I saw where two tribesmen jogged right towards some lioness and her cubs, and she picked them up and ran from these two skinny humans. It also strongly implies that Drexel is not just quick, but fucking dangerous.

Which he is.

It’s written beautifully. The audience starts off with Clarence’s POV because we don’t know what to expect, either. Clarence’s first look at Drexel is ours, too. When he’s explained the psychology of Chinese food, us and Clarence both know there’s a wild animal sat over there, but we don’t know what Clarence has planned. Then we shift over to Drexel’s POV, as we don’t know what’s in the envelop, either. When we and Drexel see the envelope’s empty, and Drexel correctly updates his assessment of Clarence and states we’ve got a ‘mother-fucking Charlie Bronson’ in the room, we’re primed for action.

And we get it.

Clifford Smokes a Chesterfield

Clifford is Clarence’s father, a security guard and former police officer. The clichéd Italian mobsters (possibly clichéd because wrote them that way on purpose) interrogate him to find out where his son has gone with Drexel’s drugs. What’s important, here, is Clifford refusing a Chesterfield to begin with, then asking for one a little later. In between these moments, he’s decided the gangsters are going to kill him and there remains a possibility he was mistaken about that.

Upon thinking he’s about to be topped, he asks ‘Can I have one of those Chesterfields, now?’ He then delivers the famous ‘Sicilians are descended from Niggers’ speech. This is not a ‘racist’ speech, there is depth, here: the speech is actually a condemnation of racism. The kind of casual racism Tarantino is condemning here is the kind Eddie Murphy brilliantly jokes about in Raw when he does the sketch about Italians after just seeing Rocky. Eddie Murphy is taking the piss, but Tarantino isn’t. He’s going for the throat with this speech, and the whole speech is clearly motivated by a hatred of racism, and aimed at one category of casual racist.

When I first watched this scene, I didn’t understand what was happening until Clifford began smoking the cigarette. It was the sound of it burning as he sucked it, and bits of ash flicking off it, that made it clear he was really fucking enjoying this cigarette, enjoying it like it was his last, and that’s when I ‘got’ what was going on. The scene ends with the tragic irony that the whole speech was a waste of time because, although Clifford keeps his mouth shut about where Clarence and Alabama have gone, they leave their address on his fridge, so it was all for nothing. At least he got the Sicilian speech in.

 Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Landa Drinks the Milk

This is the entire first scene to Inglorious Basterds, which begins with Landa’s strangely pleasant manners and ends with the murder of the Dreyfus family who are hiding under the floorboards. Talk about a scene having an ‘arc’.

What actually happens, here?

The film begins with a dairy farmer and his daughters going about their normal business, when a Nazi staff-car – with motorcycle outriders – approaches the house. The farmer, Perrier La Padite, tells one of his daughters to get him some water and go inside, but not to run. Running looks ‘guilty’.

The man in the car is Col. Hans Landa of the SS, and he sits at the table. He is offered wine, but – and this is oddity number one – Landa, because he’s on a dairy farm, chooses milk instead of wine, and drinks his glass down with theatrical pleasure, praising the farm and its cows for the delicious milk. What does drinking the milk do?

Drinking the milk is one way we learn something about Landa’s character. He’s on a dairy farm, so he drinks milk. He blends in with his surroundings, in other words, and he makes something of a show of enjoying it. This is important.

What follows is a pantomime.

Landa questions La Padite about the Dreyfus family – a Jewish family, hiding from the Nazis – and wants to know what La Padite has heard about what happened to them. La Padite tries to shrug this off by saying he’s heard ‘only rumours’ and this animates Landa, who says he loves rumours because, whether they are true or not, rumours can be revealing. La padite then, as he lights his pipe, says he’s heard ‘rumours’ the Dreyfus family escaped into Spain . Landa asks, ‘So the rumours you’ve heard have been of escape?’ I would have liked to have seen Landa’s face when he gives this line, but the camera stays on La Padite and drops slightly to show the pipe in La Padites’s mouth looking like Pinochio’s nose. We already know they are under the floorboards, and now, thanks to the ‘rumour’ about their escape, Landa is now convinced they are, too.

I think this is the confirmation he needed, as he always was suspicious. Consider the information he asks for. What number of children in the family? Ages of the children? He doesn’t ask for more than that because he’s not really there to find that out, he just wants confirmation that they are under the floorboards.

It’s here that Landa gives his ‘rat’ speech. He tells La Padite that if the German shared any characteristics with a beast it would be the predatory cunning of the Hawk, and if the Jew any characteristics with a beast it would be that of the Rat.

It’s here that he explains why he drinks milk while on a dairy farm.

He engages the farmer on his dislike of rats, and suggests the farmer wouldn’t be too kind if one scampered in the door. The farmer agrees, then Landa suggests that any filth spread by a rat a squirrel could equally carry, and he also points out that rats and squirrels, aside from the tail, look quite similar, yet he bets La Padite doesn’t have the same feelings for squirrels as he has for rats. La Padite has to confess he doesn’t. Landa then explains that he can ‘think like a Jew’ and that he understands the kind of behaviour a person is capable of after they have ‘abandoned dignity.’ It’s this ability which allows to work out the family are under the floorboards.

Landa is probably a homosexual, and therefore member of a minority persecuted by the Nazis, and he’s hiding by acting like an enthusiastic Nazi. This is how he knows how to ‘think like a Jew’. He knows how persecuted minorities think, and what a person will do to stay alive.

Donny Swings the Bat

This is one of the most memorable scenes from Inglorious Basterds. A German soldier is questioned about the positions of his comrades stationed ‘up the road a piece’ and he refuses to reveal their locations. He is told, quite simply, that Sgt. Donny Donowitz, the Basterd nicknamed The Bear Jew, is going to beat him to death he if doesn’t talk. The Sgt theatrically raises his hand and respectfully refuses, while touching the Iron Cross he got for bravery.

In one version of the script I read, there’s some backstory shown of Donowitz getting his Jewish neighbours to sign the baseball bat he’s taking to Europe to beat Nazis to death with. It’s an American kind of brutal death, being battered with baseball bat, Imagine if Donny was instead Donald, and English officer who used a Golf club or a Cricket bat. Would it have worked? I don’t think so. In addition to having this very American death imposed, the Americans are seen scalping the dead Germans, like the ‘Indians’ did to some white Americans. In one simple stroke, Tarantino equates the holocaust of the American ‘Indians’ with the genocidal doings of the Nazis. So while the American punishment is being dealt to the heads of the captured Nazis, we are reminded that Americans have their own ‘history’ to remember, so perhaps we shouldn’t take too much of the moral high ground.

I think he was going for a small act of moral fairness with the German Sgt by having him sit calmly and with immense bravery while The Bear Jew comes out the tunnel swinging. Indeed, he stabs at the Iron cross on the German’s chest and asks if he ‘got that for killing Jews?’ showing a little bit of obsession on Donny’s part. ‘Bravery’ he replies, sitting as like a Buddhist.

Donny looks almost sad as he tees up the bat, ready for the first blow. But by the time the German’s head is battered this way and that a few times (which is shown in a long-shot which is somehow unsatisfying) old Donny’s blood is flowing to where it’s needed, and he’s shouting about ‘Teddy fucking Williams!’ whose knocking one out the park and so on.

There’s no attempt to hide or in any way sweeten the near psychopathic violence of the Americans, and it’s this which is important, too. How do you deal with Nazis? You can’t talk to them, or reason with them in any way. You just gotta kill the fuckers.

 

Death Proof (2007)

Mike offers Pam a Lift, not a Ride

Consider the following scene. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) throws his car keys along the bar because Pam (Rose Mcgowan) asks the bartender if there is anyone he will vouch for to give her a ride home. It’s a classic western shot. Most of the time what gets slid down the bar is a shot or bottle of whisky, but this is a modern movie, so it’s a bunch of car keys. (Pam actually asks Mike if he’s a cowboy.) There is irony there, and it’s at the expense of Pam, who knows less than the audience. Of all the guys to ask for a lift, Stuntman Mike is the last dude you’d want driving you home. She doesn’t know it, but we do.

(Think of all the movies you’ve seen where the scream queen wanders down to the cellar without a torch. It’s a cliché. It aint believable, but it’s popular. It works. Why does it work? It works because an audience enjoys knowing more than the characters on the screen. Knowing more than the characters do is irony in action.)

That’s one type of irony, but what about other types? This is where things get a little complicated.

After the car-key slide and a little conversation Pam asks Stuntman Mike if he is offering her a ride home and whether he’ll be okay to drive later. (For completeness ‘icy-hot’ is a logo on the back of Mike’s jacket.)

Follow the conversation closely:

PAM: So, icy-hot, are you offering me a ride home?

MIKE: I’m offering you a lift if when I’m ready to leave, you are too.

PAM: And when are you thinking about leaving?

MIKE: Truthfully, I’m not thinking about it. But when I do you’ll be the first to know.

PAM: Will you be able to drive later?

MIKE: I know looks can be deceiving, but I’m a teetotaller. I’ve been drinking club-soda and lime all night and now I’m building up to my big drink.

PAM: Which is what?

MIKE: Virgin Pina Colada.

Notice that Stuntman Mike corrects Pam. It’s not a ride he’s offering her, it’s a lift. Once you get that the rest of what this exchange actually means should fall into place and allow you to see where old Stuntman Mike is coming from.

Run the same conversation again, but have them say what Tarantino actually means. Pam is just checking if old Mike is going to be getting ‘friendly’ later:

PAM: Do you want to have sex with me?

MIKE: No

PAM: Will you try to have sex with me later?

MIKE: I know looks can be deceiving, but I’m a dickless virgin who’s terrified of women. I’m not really interested in you because I’m building up to my big crash scene.

PAM: Which is?

MIKE: The virgin’s penis collider.

So the irony is double layered. There’s what the conversation really means, and in addition there’s poor old Pam who has no idea just how unfriendly Mike is going to become.

 

Django Unchained (2012)

Django takes the Dynamite

This wonderful scene comes toward the end of the movie, and by this time, we know Django is heading back to Candyland to have a word or two with the white folks over there. This scene is splendid for a few reasons. First, it allows the murdered King Shultz to be proved right, even after he’s dead. He tells Django to keep the handbill of his first kill for luck, and it’s this handbill Django uses to get the interest of the guys taking him to the mining company, so it’s nice that Schultz’s wisdom is in play after he’s dead.

Django sells the idea of going back to capture the outlaws, and shoots the men transporting the slaves. Well, one of them gets blown up. Just as he’s about to ride back to Candyland, he goes to the slave cage where the slaves have been watching him go about his ruthless business, and takes the dynamite. It’s here the scene is superb. What does Django say to the slaves? What bit of inspirational pep-talk do they get which will change their lives for the better?

None.

Django takes the dynamite, rides off looking like an Indian, and leaves them there; and it’s in his silence that he fucking roars at them and us. If you want to do something, do it. Don’t wait around for anyone’s permission. Django’s speech is conspicuous by its absence. This is smart because, had he spoken, what half-assed motivational bullshit could he have spewed? Much better to say it by showing it.

Get off your own ass.

Goodbye Rick: The Kneeling Dead

It’s got to be Rick who gets his head smashed in. Well, okay – it doesn’t have to be him.

The first thing which is weird after the The Walking Dead season finale is that Glenn is actually the safest member of the group. The producers already messed about with him with  the fake-death thing from earlier in the season, and they removed his name from the credits to play with us some more.So to mess with Glenn again might seem a little lame.

Also, Glenn is the character who gets killed by Negan in the comics, so it would be too obvious to make it him who gets battered.

How to think about the likely victim?

First, if it’s not a major character, then what’s the point, right? A supporting character’s death doesn’t justify the off-season wait to find out who it was, and it would irritate the fans to wait that long for a minor character be revealed as dead. So logic requires it’s a major name.

So who are classed as major names? I’d say – and in order of majorness:

Rick, Daryl, Carol, Glenn, Michonne, Abraham, Maggie, Carl, Eugene, Morgan, Sasha, Rosita, Gabriel, Tara, Aaron.

It’s an order which can be argued about, but no matter.

Okay, so does long-term character or series regular mean the same as major character? I think not, so the list becomes:

Rick, Daryl, Carol, Glenn, Michonne, Abraham, Maggie, Carl.

I’ve alread discounted Glenn, so the list becomes:

Rick, Daryl, Carol, Michonne, Abraham, Maggie, Carl.

But Carol isn’t there because she’s off with Morgan, getting shot, so the list becomes:

Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Abraham, Maggie, Carl.

Now, who of those could die without the viewers caring too much? Abraham. So that leaves:

Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Maggie, Carl.

At a push, Carl could die without too much uproar: he’s already tainted goods in anycase because of his eye, so I don’t see the audience caring too much if it were him. So that leaves:

Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Maggie.

If Negan wanted to show he was a real evil shit, he’d kill a kid or a woman; if Carl’s discounted, that leaves Maggie. But why would Negan kill the most vulnerable of them? Surely he’d want to weaken their group by taking out a strong member? He wants to make sure they know he’s now in charge. That leaves:

Rick and Daryl.

The best way to assert your authority is by killing the enemy leader. That leaves…..

Rick is the character to die.

He’s the least likely because everyone would consider him the safest.

Spolia Opima Baby.

 

Is Daryl Dixon dead?

I’m betting that he’s not dead. I think this is a safe bet, but there’s still a chance he might be. Why is it likely he’s not dead?

Because Daryl is one of the show’s most popular characters is one reason. It’s also the main reason, actually. I mean to say, if the producers didn’t have the nerve to kill off Glenn, then they won’t have the nerve to kill off Daryl, right?

Well, here’s the thing. The producers pulled a stroke when they made us think Glenn was getting his guts munched, so doesn’t that mean they’ve used-up that trick? Why would they risk making the audience groan by pulling the same stunt? So maybe he will be dead come the season finale?

Why didn’t we get to see to whom the shooter was talking when he said ‘You’ll be alright’ under a black screen? Was he talking to Daryl, telling him his wound isn’t all that serious, or was he talking to Rosita, letting he know that she’s not getting shot because a bunch of outlaw men can make use of her? Or was he talking to the others tied and gagged and sat down?

We’ve got to go back to the Governor cutting Hershel’s head off to get a death of a lead character which is actually shocking. Since Hershel, they’ve just been surprising. That’s not the same thing at all.

I don’t like this ‘an episode a week’ crap. Netflix needs to buy The Walking Dead from AMC so we can sweat an entire season on one lazy Saturday. I know AMC wouldn’t sell it – I’m just annoyed at having to wait.