Holy Late Capitalist Allegory, Batman!

Saturday 28th March 2015.

I finish Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Despite its stark, Hemingway-esque language, I can’t find myself as gripped by the story as the praise of the cover promises. I think it’s because I never was a fan of post-apocalyptic survival stories – or survival stories full stop. Robinson Crusoe repelled my interest up until the hero finally saw The Footprint (a scene mirrored in The Road). For all my love of being alone, I still need the knowledge that society is out there, burbling on reassuringly.

Two police officers hand out leaflets outside Highgate tube station. There’s been a spate of mobile phone thefts around the station exit. The thieves’ modus operandi is to drive up on mopeds, mount the pavement, and pluck a phone out from someone’s hands, before they realise what’s happened. So the police leaflet urges people to watch out for mopeds driving on the pavement. This would be a noticeable sight enough, I’d have thought. But no: the hypnotic effect of phones really does blind people to their environs. Heads in the clouds. Or rather, heads in the Cloud.

* * *

Sunday 29th March 2015.

Afternoon: to the BFI Southbank with Ella H, for another film in the Flare festival: Regarding Susan Sontag. For once, it’s a tribute that’s not approved by the subject or their relatives. Even though Ms Sontag’s son and sister appear, it’s clear that the director’s own agenda has priority. As it is, the sister admits that SS ‘was never honest with me all her life’.  There’s no new interview from Annie Leibovitz, her last long-term companion. Instead, the film uses lots of archive footage and readings from her works, including the recent diaries. Its theme is more biographical than critical, so it feels at times gossipy, and at others frustratingly cagey; but then that was rather the fault of the subject. There’s no attempt to either completely praise or condemn Sontag: the film just wants people to regard her, as the title suggests. Make up your own mind. One old girlfriend tells outrageously filthy and possibly unreliable anecdotes. A bow-tied critic says ‘Do you really need to ask the author of ‘Notes on “Camp”’ to come out?

In fact, coming out is demonstrably still news in 2015. This week has seen newspaper stories about Ruby Tandoh, the 22-year-old former contestant of The Great British Bake Off, coming out as a queer woman (in her words). What’s interesting to me is that (a) she prefers ‘queer’ to ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, and (b) that she recently wrote an article about camp as a form of personal empowerment, as inspired by Molly Ringwald’s prom dress in Pretty in Pink. She quotes Susan Sontag’s 50-year-old essay.

* * *

Tuesday 31st March 2015.

Evening: to the Tottenham Court Road Odeon with fellow Birkbeck student Jon S, to see Get Hard. Jon’s suggestion. He suspects it’s not exactly My Sort Of Film, but I’m happy to give it a go. It turns out to be an undemanding, broader-than-broad Hollywood comedy. It stars Will Ferrell as a pampered businessman, who has to prepare for time in jail. Kevin Hart plays his car wash manager, who teaches Ferrell how to, as it were, ‘get hard’, so he’ll survive. The film seems to be trying to ape those rich-white-versus-poor-black comedies from the 80s, like Trading Places. Except it’s now 2015, and the places have done a fair amount of their own trading. Things have changed.

It is safe to say that this film is not going to usurp Citizen Kane from the canon of peerless art. The plot is risible, the jokes are obvious, tired, insulting, and the whole thing is doubtlessly offensive to many. But I find the tone intriguing – it uses racial and gay stereotypes for many of the jokes, then goes to pains to paint the characters as anti-racist and anti-homophobic. Interestingly, the one type of prejudice which it uses for comedy, but doesn’t apologise for, is sexism. Perhaps this is due to the in-built ‘male gaze’ of the Hollywood machine. As some female critics have pointed out, even the Oscar-winning Birdman gets away with sexism, in the guise of defining its male anti-heroes.

Still, the force of the performances – especially the manic Mr Hart – carry it along. There’s enough decent jokes to get the Tottenham Court Road Odeon’s mixture of students and tourists laughing loudly for much of it. Although it’s not nearly as witty as Appropriate Behaviour, I enjoy being in a room of laughing popcorn-guzzling strangers, as opposed to a silent room of arthouse fans, the kind who regard laughter as uncool.

* * *

Thursday 2nd April 2015.

Morning: to the V&A with Heather M, for the exhibition Alexander McQueen – Savage Beauty. It’s somewhat more than a collection of fashionable frocks. The late Mr McQueen was a pure artist, without a doubt, but also a very popular one – a kind of rock star designer. He managed to convert oddness and incongruity into mass-market glamour (see also Lady Gaga). In this exhibition, his short life’s productivity and range of invention leaves one dizzy, particularly in the room that becomes a gigantic Cabinet of Curiosities, with compartments spiralling upwards until the exhibits are out of sight. There’s screens, lighting effects, theatricality, lots of nods to animals and horror films, a room in mock-catacomb décor, and spooky mannequins with gimp masks and horns. It’s at turns beautiful, bizarre, frightening, and, like a lot of posthumous celebrations, life-enhancing.

Heather M is a member of the V&A, which means we can take tea in the member’s café. This is tucked away in the glassware gallery on the fourth floor. I never get tired of the way one has to access it behind a mirrored door.

* * *

Afternoon: at the London Library and British Library, researching my essay on American post-9/11 anxieties. I read some essays on capitalist symbolism in the 2008 Batman film The Dark Knight. It can be argued that Heath Ledger’s Joker is zero-hours capitalism taken to an extreme: he kills off his own henchmen as soon as they’ve completed their task in hand. Then he sets fire to all the money they’ve helped him steal, in a huge, blazing pyre of dollar bills.

Other essays read the film as an allegory for the War On Terrorism, but I prefer the capitalism-allowed-to-go-mad reading. I suddenly thought of Shelley’s apocalyptic poem The Mask of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo massacre of 16 August 1819. An old, old story: a political protest leads to government violence upon crowds, with the result that new laws are rushed in to tackle the scapegoat of ‘anarchists’. Shelley’s point is that the government are the real ‘masked’ anarchists.

So I’ve decided to link this to mask imagery in 9/11 texts, such as in the aforementioned Batman film, in Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel In The Shadow of No Towers, and in Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalists. I’m also bringing in Native American ‘trickster’ mythology and a story by Henry James that describes the first NYC skyscrapers as having ‘sinister masks’ (in his American Scene of 1907, James really hates skyscrapers). Today I find a quote by Ralph Ellison on identity – ‘America is a land of masking jokers’. You can imagine how smug I felt after that.

* * *

Evening: to the Queen’s Head in Acton Street, Kings Cross. A birthday gathering for Ms Shanthi S. My anxiety levels are over the top already, what with the ever-approaching deadlines for college. Tonight there’s the double worry of having to arrive to join a group by oneself – I always feel a torrent of awkwardness when I do that – made worse by realising the birthday table is full up. But after an interval of getting in the way of the ladies loos, eventually the table is moved to allow more space for chairs. I squeeze in, have a glass of rosé, and calm down.

One of Ms S’s friends at the table is Bill Drummond. He was one of the men behind the 90s hit band The KLF, who went on to did Situationist-style art-pranks with all the money they made. One such project was the simple burning of a million pounds in cash, and filming themselves doing so.

I don’t manage to speak to Mr Drummond. It seems rude to go up to him purely to ask one question, the one which immediately occurs: did he see the cash-burning scene in The Dark Knight and think, ‘been there, done that’?

Mr D is speaking to a man who apparently is an advisor to the Labour Party’s business spokesman. Jokes about the burning of cash write themselves.


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Do I Sound Tough?

Saturday 21st March 2015.

I bump into Ms Hayley Campbell on the tube back to Highgate. ‘Hey neighbour!’ Her father, the comics artist Eddie Campbell – of From Hell fame – has just moved to the area. I go into local knowledge mode, and tell her about the Boogaloo and Highgate Wood, the area where the early Pink Floyd rehearsed, and the place where the second Suede album was written. I should do walking tours, really.

Hayley C now writes books about Neil Gaiman and articles for the Buzzfeed website. Buzzfeed is becoming quite a success story – from being a colourful, youthful web magazine full of ‘list-icles’ – articles based around lists – and now branching into serious news journalism, holding interviews with Prime Ministers and so forth. But their speciality is still their list-format stories, usually illustrated with animated gifs. I ask Ms H whether ‘gif’ is pronounced ‘jiff’ or ‘Giff’ at Buzzfeed. The latter. Hard G.

I finish studying Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty, for my dissertation on camp. A complete pleasure: well-crafted and concentrated prose, clever symbolism, social satire, a good sense of London locations (especially the Men’s Pond on Hampstead Heath) and moments of camp comedy tucked within the Henry James-style sobriety; hence my thesis. He writes parties so well, too – up there with Fitzgerald and Waugh. I re-watch the 2005 TV adaptation on DVD, with Dan Stevens in pre-Downton mode. It’s nicely written and acted, but I find the 80s hair and fashions are not quite garish enough – Mr Stevens just has tastefully big hair, rather than the bouffant he should have.

The other shortcoming is common to screen adaptations: the loss of the third-person narration. In the book, you have detailed access to the protagonist’s thoughts. In the TV version, all Dan S can do is stand around, looking like he’s thinking something. First person narrators transfer fine for some dramas – like Jeremy Irons talking over most of Brideshead Revisited – it’s just third person narrators that rarely work.

* * *

Sunday 22nd March 2015.

I convince myself that I can’t continue doing any work until I’ve bought a book stand, the kind that can hold a paperback open at one page. Browsing for one in Foyles and Ryman uses up most of my afternoon.

* * *

Monday 23rd March 2015.

I’ve fallen a week behind my proposed schedule for the dissertation, but find that sheer panic helps me speed up. One troublesome chapter is finished for good today – I don’t let myself stop until it is.

* * *

Tuesday 24th March 2015.

1000 words added to the dissertation. Half the chapter on Hollinghurst. Spend some time considering whether to quote the Sebastian Faulks introduction to a new edition – The Line of Beauty is now a Picador Classic, only eleven years after publication. Faulks calls it ‘a comic novel about mostly shallow people’, which isn’t quite true. Nothing comic about the final section.

* * *

Wednesday 25th March 2015.

Another 1000 words, finishing the bulk of the thing. 10,972 words and counting. Still have the conclusion and the introduction to do (one must always do those last). A small problem for a project with a maximum word count of 8800, but for me it’s a personal milestone: the first time I’ve written over 10,000 words of any one piece, ever. Quite a thrill to see the Microsoft Word odometer clock over into five figures. First of many, let’s hope.

* * *

 Thursday 26th March 2015.

Morning: I write all of the conclusion and half of the introduction. I have two possible candidates for a main title, to prefix the subtitle of ‘Subversive Uses of Camp In Twenty-First Century Fiction’. One is poetic and serious – ‘The Self-Aware Surface’, one is arch and jokey – ‘A Wink and a Pair of Claws’. I ask a few friends on Facebook, then decide to go for the serious one. I compromise by keeping the ‘Wink’ title for a chapter heading. Humour can be so subjective, and probably should be avoided in analytical, academic essays (seminars can be fun, though). As it is, I’m quite proud of calling camp ‘the self-aware surface’, and want to give the phrase something of a spotlight.

Afternoon: to BFI Flare, formerly the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, at the BFI Southbank. The rebranding of the LLGFF makes sense – it was beginning to sound dusty and out-of-date, to the point where it nearly closed down a few years ago. ‘Flare’ as a word sounds less worthy, more inclusive and forward-looking: it suggests a signal being shot into the sky – ‘we exist too’.

The film I’ve chosen is Do I Sound Gay?, a personal documentary by the Brooklyn-based writer, David Thorpe. It explores his dislike of his own voice, which he thinks sounds too gay – by which he really means effeminate. He interviews his old school friends, who remind him that he picked up the voice after coming out at college. So in his case it was acquired organically, in the same way some people pick up different regional accents when they move (I’m thinking of Hugh Laurie’s current US twang in his English accent). Mr Thorpe goes in for speech therapy (without much success), and discovers one theory of ‘the gay male accent’ – that it’s based on a combination of admiring women, as learned from mothers and sisters and screen idols, and on admiring notions of aristocratic European behaviour – notions of ‘queenliness’. All to define an identity that signifies as different from the average US man.

Of course, this only applies to those to whom it applies, and Mr Thorpe is careful to include examples of gay men with ‘straight’ voices, and straight men with effeminate voices. David Sedaris and George Takei appear, both contributing thoughtful insights, and giving very honest accounts of their personal lives. It’s worth seeing the documentary for these sections alone.

I think in Britain the idea of manliness in voices is a lot less of a concern, partly because America rules the world, and so cares more about how things appear to others. But also because the US suspects the British accent for having aspects of effeminacy anyway.

In the final scene of the film, Mr Thorpe interviews a group of young gay men on a beach. He asks them if they think he sounds gay. They chorus back as one: ‘Hell, yes!’

At the time I think, ‘that’s a very American reply’. Hours later I watch the latest pre-election TV interviews. Jeremy Paxman, rude as ever, asks Ed Miliband if he’s ‘tough enough’ for the job of prime minister. ‘Hell yes, I’m tough enough!’ says Miliband. Though he does stammer it.

After the film, there’s a Q&A with the director. One audience member asks if Mr Thorpe has heard of Polari, the gay language of 40s and 50s Britain. ‘Yes I have,’ he replies. ‘Thanks to Morrissey’.

* * *

Early evening: with Anna S, Senay S and friends, to the Museum of Comedy. This is in the crypt of St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, and turns out be one largish room, plus a performance space for live comedy nights. The current exhibition is a rare early 80s photo shoot of The Comic Strip – featuring a young Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, French and Saunders and so on. The permanent collection includes Max Miller’s patchwork dressing gown, Steptoe & Son’s stuffed bear, Irene Handl’s belt in a bell jar, and a huge amount of old books, videos and vinyl records, which visitors are invited to peruse or play at their leisure.

There’s framed transcripts of classic comedy sketches on the wall, with the Python ‘Silly Walks’ skit signed by John Cleese. ‘I’ve never found Monty Python funny’, says one of our party.

I forget that even comedy that has been proven to be funny for so many, and for so long, can still be considered unfunny by someone.

And I think to myself, ‘definitely don’t go with the funny thesis title’.

* * *

Friday 27th March 2015.

First draft finished. 12,373 words. Now I have to decide which 4,000 words needn’t have been written in the first place.


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