Sunday, 15 February 2009

Triumph of the Force: Star Wars and Fascism

Thanks to Jonah Goldberg's laughable Liberal Fascism , I've been reading a lot of definitions of fascism lately, both on the interwebs and in the popular prints. What I wasn't expecting was to find similar discussions in a review of '300' which I came across after Wikipedia made that rather cheesy pecs-and-persians flick one of their featured articles. Or for them to involve Star Wars.

Like a lot of people, Star Wars was a major part of my childhood - though unlike some of my contemporaries, I don't feel strongly enough about it to consider George Lucas' work on the prequels an act of pederasty on a massive scale. I do feel strongly about it, though, to the point, at times, of religious mania - I wanted to be a Jedi as a child (and finally got my chance with the 2001 census), but as I grew older, I began to question my faith, rather as Anakin did in the third prequel - though I emerged with all my limbs intact. What caused me to doubt the Jedi cause? Was I groomed by some devious Sith Lord, during visits to slightly incomprehensible theatrical entertainments involving giant balls of liquid? Well, no; but a performance, of a sort, was involved, and a Dark Lord as well. I speak, of course, of Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will
, a film which features a lot less CGI than Revenge of the Sith, but compensates with a powerful performance from its lead actor, Mr Adolf Hitler.

If there can be such a thing as an intrinsically evil film, then Triumph of the Will is it. For those who don't know, it's a Nazi propaganda film, a record of one of Hitler's Nuremburg rallies. But the evil in the film doesn't just come from its subject matter. The Nazis produced lots of propaganda, but Hitlerjunge Quex and The Eternal Jew, as foul as they are, look as foul as they are. Triumph of the Will is far more insidious, because it's an extremely well-made film. Its cinematography inspired generations of later filmmakers (here's Clive James on the pernicious influence of Reifenstahl's little masterpiece.) And one of the people it influenced was George Lucas.

As can be seen from the comments on Roger Moore's review of 300, a lot of Star Wars fans don't like it when you suggest that the films have a fascist aesthetic, but it's clear that it has. The most obvious example of this is the medal scene at the end of A New Hope, which is practically a shot-for-shot remake of some of the scenes from Triumph, but it permeates the whole series. Although the prequels make an effort to mention democracy every now and again, the society of the Star Wars films' 'Republic' is one which is overseen by a superior warrior caste with mystical ideas, who initiate a eugenics programme with the aim of creating a perfect soldier. And they're the good guys. One of the most interesting things in the third prequel is the fact that Palpatine's comments as he leads on his apt pupil are actually pretty sensible: the Jedi do have too much power and they do need to be controlled. From one point of view, the Jedi are evil.

Fans don't like it when you bring this up, but the Star Wars films have a strong vein of fascism running through them. What lessons the impact of its problematized aesthetic is that, as Moore observes, if the goodies are fascists, the villains are as well. One of the reasons for the popularity of Han Solo in the series is that he's the only character who isn't fighting to restore the old Jedi-dominated system. He's a pirate: pirates are fun! And - for a viewer increasingly uncomfortable with the Jedis' place in the narrative structure of the war, the fun that Solo represents is worth latching onto.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Frank Gallagher pulls on his waterskis

One hates to accuse a television show of jumping the shark, but after having watched the second episode of the new series of Shameless, I think the accusation's justified. Which is a shame: for a long time I really liked this show. It was well-written, it had an interesting and varied cast of characters; most importantly, though, it managed to walk the comedy-drama tightrope with an aplomb rarely seen in that portmanteau genre. Shameless could, at times, descend into moments of astonishingly broad (and frankly stupid) comedy, but it was always able to pull back enough that you genuinely cared during its more serious dramatic moments. Being able to pull off that technical feat on its own would be enough, but as an added bonus Shameless had a deep vein of humanism and egalitarianism running just below the surface. It took a social group - predominantly white, council-estate inhabitants, trapped in a world of petty (and not so petty) crime and low-paid work, if any - commonly dehumanised as chavs , and made them human without being patronising or bashing the viewer over the head with politically correct dogma.

So it's painful to say that it's gone past its peak now. Especially because there were moments before when I worried about it. When, in the last couple of series, the cast expanded significantly, I feared that the rise in numbers would turn the show into effectively just another soap opera, but the writers, led by the excellent Paul Abbott , did a fine job of making us care about the new characters, involving them in storylines which added to the drama of the programme and enmeshing them in the fabric of the show. But it now seems that the overload wasn't prevented, just postponed: because now, six series into its run, Shameless has finally fallen victim to the curse of the long-running show: what I call the character-occupation syndrome.

It works like this. You have a show that's been running for a few years, and which has accumulated a large cast of characters. Almost certainly, every one of those characters will be the favourite character of someone in your audience. So you need to ensure that there is at least some narrative focus on that character at least once in the series, and preferably once every few episodes. The trouble is, you've pretty much used up what narrative arc that character has, so what do you do with them?

And it's at this point that you find yourself uttering the words which spell death for your show. You probably know it, too. But damn it, you've got ten episodes of this bugger to write, you've got a hangover, you haven't had anything decent to eat for hours, the coffee tastes like ground-up roadkill, and if you just come up with something then you can finish the script meeting and go outside for a much-needed fag. So you say:

'Hey, wouldn't it be funy if...?'

Wouldn't. It. Be. Funny. If. Those five words kill comedies, because they mean that, in the desperate quest for something funny, characters wind up being shoehorned into ridiculous situations to get a cheap laugh from the audience.

So in last night's episode, we saw Mickey Maguire, son of the Chatsworth Estate's organised crime dynasty, enrol at college in an effort to make something of himself. Nothing wrong with that as a premise: in fact, you could probably explore some interesting issues about class and education in the process, maybe even work a spoof of Educating Rita into the plot somewhere (Shameless actually does parody quite well: witness the riff on Brief Encounter which was one of the highlights of the last series). Instead, however, while at college, Mickey accidentally came across some erotic fiction written by one of his lecturers, decided to have a bash at it himself, and in the process wound up having a lot more than a bash at his lecturer and her bisexual swinger boyfriend. Because hey, wouldn't it be funny if that happened?

Similarly, Norma Starkey, the lorry-driving lesbian ex-love of Frank's wife (a character who, it has to be said, has been essentially just hanging around the plot for a long time now) discovered what she took to be the skeleton of a baby while decorating the estate's local pub. Shocked by this discovery, she investigated and discovered that an ex-landlord of the pub had murdered his child, then spent a great deal of time ranting about how, unless she could find 'closure' for the murdered infant it would be 'in limbo' forever (which makes less than no sense, unless you assume that the child was unbaptised, and Norma is an extremely doctrinaire Catholic of the Archbishop Lefebvre school - an odd theological position for a lesbian) only to discover that - get this! - it was a cat's skeleton all along! Ha! Wouldn't it be funny if that happened?

Well, no, not really. Nor was it funy when local policeman Stan Waterman bonded with his partner Yvonne's son by way of a session on the Nintendo Wii. But it gave the characters something to do. It allowed the narrative focus to dwell on them for an episode, thus satisfying their fans in the audience. It passed the time.

And that's the problem. Both this show, and the characters in it, used to be tightly written. Now it's treading water, involving characters in unnecessary situations just to pass the time. Worst of all, in what's meant to be a comedy-drama, there's no drama in any of these situations. No risk to the characters; nothing to make us care whether they resolve their predicaments or not. And in a show whose chief virtue was that it did make us care about a section of society that's often demonised by the mass media, that's a serious problem.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Third Bookshop review - A Love Supreme

(Note to readers of this blog: the following review does not, as yet, appear on my bookshop's site, so this marks its first publication. As such, I get to post it in its original form, complete with the veiled reference to a certain deeply irritating swing revival artist at the end.)

Music Choice: A Love Supreme by John Coltrane

This record is probably the most perfect distillation of everything that makes Coltrane great as a musician, the point of balance around which his development as an artist revolves. Before this, there were more conventional recordings like Blue Train, still great but in a recognisable jazz idiom; afterwards there was the more experimental work of his late period, perhaps more difficult for the casual listener to grasp. Throughout the middle period, then through his years at Impulse and the formation of the Classic Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones, Coltrane groped his way towards the recording of this album, on which his ecstatic personal spirituality and his technical mastery combine with stunning effect to deliver a record which satisfies the heart, the head and the feet.

Comparing music and poetry carries the risk of sounding pretentious, but when I hear this record I'm always reminded of Whitman and Hopkins, poets who combine an almost prophetic enthusiasm (literally - the word 'enthusiasm' derives from the Greek en theos, 'full of God') with such mastery of their craft that they can do things which shouldn't logically work, which should in fact break the form completely, but which, in their sure hands, hang together in such a way that they feel more 'right', more deserving of a place in the world, than a thousand more orthodox works. Some of 'Trane's ideas about 'praying with music' may carry a slight whiff of patchouli oil these days, but at least they remind us that there was a time when jazz musicians had ideas about something other than getting on the Radio 2 playlist, and that's a very good thing.

Second Bookshop review - Anchorman

(Note to readers of this blog - I think the main value of this review lies in the quality specimen of the cheesy ending with which it concludes.)

DVD Choice - Anchorman

It was a toss-up between this and Zoolander, but Will Ferrell's narcissistic 70s newsreader just edges it over Ben Stiller's cognitively-impaired pretty boy by virtue of a better supporting cast and a much higher laugh rate on repeated viewings. There are so many things that make this a near-perfect commentary: Steve Carrell's show-stealing performance as the impossibly brainwrong Brick Tamland; the vicious off-air verbal sparring between Burgundy and co-anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate); Vince Vaughan's combination of frustration and villainy as Burgundy's chief-rival, Wes Mantooth; the newsreader gang fight (probably the best comedy rumble since the end of Blazing Saddles); and most importantly, the fact that this isnt yet another tedious sports comedy. That's about it really. This is Adam Fish signing off- stay classy, Readers (and thanks for stopping by).

First bookshop review - Cultural Amnesia

(Note to readers of this blog: one of the things you need to take into consideration when working at a bookshop is that when recommending a book, you don't necessarily choose the book you think best, but the one you think the customer most likely wants or needs to read. Readers of this blog are certainly invited to read the book discussed below, but were I recommending a title to this more sophisticated audience, I would choose either Fadiman or Judt, both of whom are operating at the same level as James, but wear their intellect more lightly. And to those who enjoy browsing in second-hand bookshops I also recommend Edmund White's marvellous The Burning Library. Not only does it feature some great criticism and analysis, but White's interview with Burroughs has the effect of confirming once and for all that, yes, Burroughs really was that weird.)

Book Choice: Cultural Amnesia by Clive James:

I seem to have become addicted to reading collections of essays recently, and of the choice available to you in our store, this is the one I would recommend. That doesnt necessarily mean it is the best; Anne Fadiman's At Large and At Small and the new selection of essays from Gore Vidal, along with Tony Judt's Reappraisals are all equally valid contenders to that title. That Cultural Amnesia gets the nod is by virtue of the sheer heft of the volume: it is an absolute doorstop of a book and could easily act as a lethal bludgeoning weapon should the need arise. The length of the book alone cannot be enough to make it the best, of course: what does is the very readable style in which it is written and the sheer number of now-forgotten thinkers, writers, artists and intellectuals it introduces the reder to, while also providing fresh perspectives on well-known figures.

Some have argued that the style is too digressive, but I think this actually adds to the book's charm: like a good jazz musician, it's fun to watch where James can wind up when he starts riffing on the epigrams from other writers with which he begins each chapter (in one absolutely jaw-dropping essay, he manages to go from writing about Arthur Schnitzler to delivering a long and detailed critique of Richard Burton's hairstyle in Where Eagles Dare, and back again). A more serious criticism is that his habit of constantly reminding us that he's read so many difficult foreign authors in their original language, even when done with self-deprecating modesty, does get irritating after a while; but one has to admit that there is something a little petty in that complaint. If he's put in the hours with the dictionaries, who are we to begrudge him a small chance to show off? After all, if he hadn't, the book would probably have been half as long and ten times less interesting. My advice is to get this first, then read the other books listed, and then join me in twiddling your thumbs and waiting impatiently for Daniel Mendelsohn's How Beautiful it is and How Easily it can be Broken to arrive in this store.

(thanks to Simon Gallagher for tidying up some of the clumsier sentences in the above)

I can do short too, y'know

What I notice about the three preceding reviews is that they're frackin' long pieces, and the reader's spirits may understandably sink when reading through, say the first umpteen paragraphs of my review of The Wrestler and realising that that's only the first part. The long review essay may not look out of place in the New York Review of Books (and the Wrestler review was a deliberate attempt to try writing an essay in that style), but when your reading medium is a bright light source that you read by scrolling down the page, you will probably find yourself praying for brevity when you encounter a piece of that duration.

Therefore, the next three entries on this blog will still be reviews, but shorter reviews. They were written under the aegis of the bookshop where I work, to be entered on the new store web site as book, CD and DVD recommendations for customers. They're a bit breathlessly enthusiastic, but I'm afraid that can't be helped given their mercantile intent. I include them above partly to show that I am capable of writing a shorter review if I have to (and that therefore, of course, when I write a longer piece it's because I have my reasons), and partly because I imagine that some of you actually might like to read something I've written that won't require blocking time out of your diaries.

This low and violent art - reading 'The Wrestler'


In her essay ‘The Joy of Sesquipedalians’, Anne Fadiman writes about a pleasure which will be familiar to many readers of this blog: the joy of encountering unusual words. The title is misleading, as the words that interest Fadiman don’t have to be long: she’s as enchanted by sepoy as she is by retromingent; as enthralled by grimoire as ithyphallic. As those of us know who love language, it isn’t the length of the word, but the uniqueness and esotericism of it that provides the thrill: the sense that the word learned gives us access to freshly opened territory, that it expands our imaginative horizons.
A favourite recondite word of my own, a word which pleasured my intellect on many levels when I first encountered it as a younger man, is the word kayfabe. Like many of the words I particularly treasure (the ‘carny’ term forty-miler, for example, or the military acronym TASFUIRA – look ‘em up), it’s an American slang term. Slangs, cants and argots really are one of the best things about language. They’re the flip-side of the official line of bodies like the Academie Francaise: while the latter continually strive to define language with a kind of Papal Index of forbidden and permitted terms, slang is always evolving, always changing. This is because the creators of slang don’t want to create a language everybody can understand: the whole purpose is to create a language in which people from the same field can communicate, without their meaning being grasped by outsiders.
Kayfabe is a word which dramatises this aspect of slang. It’s a term from the world of professional wrestling, and in its simplest meaning it just means ‘fake’. I say ‘simplest meaning’ because, like many slang terms, kayfabe, lacking the rigidity of a dictionary definition, has a pretty high workrate for such a small word: it can be used as a verb, a noun, or an adjective; it can be qualitative or quantitative; it can have positive or negative connotations depending on the user or the context.
Most simply it means the particular brand of fakery associated with pro wrestling, and, by extension, knowledge thereof. It owes its existence to the fact that, in simpler times – or pre-internet times, at any rate – both wrestlers, and the promoters who ran the wrestling organisations, worked hard to hide or disguise the rigged nature of their sport. ‘Good’ wrestlers, or ‘faces’ (‘babyfaces’, originally, but the infantile prefix has fallen out of use over time) were forbidden to be seen socially with the ‘evil’ wrestlers, or ‘heels’, with whom they were supposedly at war. Wrestling journalists would write magazine articles which straight-facedly maintained the line that a wrestler like, say, Kamala the Ugandan Giant really was an African cannibal rather than, in fact, the son of a furniture-store owner from Coldwater, Mississippi.
Wrestling journalism – there’s an odd thing. There are two basic strands. In one corner, we have the legendary Bill Apter, writer, photographer and eventually editor of a whole stable of magazines, of which the most famous was Pro-Wrestling Illustrated, dedicated to presenting ‘the work’ as a legit sport; in the other, Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, an ‘insider’ publication which covered the behind-the-scenes machinations of the promoters and their workers in detail. Everybody read the Apter mags; only a select few read the WON; and here we come up against the reason why a term like kayfabe was needed.
If you’re in on any con, you still occasionally need to talk about the exoteric side of the business. You need to know which side of the line something falls. But to openly discuss the verisimilitude of the work would give the game away. So you need a slang term: in carny talk, for example, an unrigged game, played by the rules, is called a ‘straight’ game; similarly, in wrestling, a fake angle, aimed at the marks, is labelled kayfabe.
A word which embodies everything that, to the intelligent observer (the so-called ‘smark’, or ‘smart mark’ – a fan who’s in on the work), is interesting about professional wrestling: the spectacle, the performative aspect, the crafting of storylines, the referencing of previous feuds and gimmicks. Professional wrestling, debased though it is, may be the closest thing we have to the earliest forms of drama: a primarily physical form of acting with a ritual purpose, playing out battles between conflicting archetypes of light and dark, virtue and immorality, freedom and submission. It’s The Birth of Tragedy in tights.

Kayfabe was never really that much of a secret, of course, and for that very reason few Hollywood movies have ever been able to deal as effectively with the spectacle of wrestling as they have with boxing. Excepting the surreal world of the Mexican luchador movie – Santo vs the Vampire Women, for example – I can think of few wrestling flicks that are genuinely worth watching. There is Paradise Alley, a Sylvester Stallone curio released after the first Rocky film but prior to the sequel; there is All the Marbles, an odd movie directed by Robert Aldrich, which features a good performance from Peter Falk as the manager of a female tag team; and there is, of course, No Holds Barred, in which that fine method actor Mr Hulk Hogan...but no. I have better things to do with my time than write a review of No Holds Barred, and you, reader, have better things to do with yours than read it.
Wrestling movies have always suffered from this problem of verisimilitude. Audiences will flock in their droves to see a simulated boxing match between Sly Stallone and Ex-Fulbright Scholar (no, really) Dolph Lundgren because it is a simulation of something they know to be real. But a movie about pro wrestling is a tougher sell, because it takes as its subject a sport which is actually fake but which is presented as real, so the suspension of disbelief vital to cinema-going is forced to operate at one remove. I had intended, in this paragraph, to look more deeply at the levels of reality and fiction which operate in a pro-wrestling movie which maintains kayfabe; but I have to confess that the mental strain was too much for me, and, for a brief time, I became like a character in a Philip K Dick novel, trapped in a terrifying ontological labyrinth in which I was no longer sure who I was, what I was, what planet I was on or whether I possessed any definite existence. That’s a mood that works well in some films, but it isn’t what people want when they go to see a sports movie.
The odd thing is that good sports movies operate like good wrestling storylines. The Rocky movies, for example, are basically pro-wrestling angles sublimated into boxing. You have a face – Rocky – and a heel – his opponent. The heel is usually a massive stereotype: Apollo Creed in the first two films is a cocky, preening champ in the mode of Ric Flair in his heyday; Clubber Lang in the third is an unstoppable monster from the streets, and Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago is an even more unstoppable Soviet Superman. There’s even what smarks call a face turn in the third film, when Apollo decides to help Rocky train to beat Lang.
The most famous real boxing matches in history, too, are those we can easily situate in the context of a narrative. Think of the Rumble in the Jungle, think of the Eubank/Benn rivalry of the nineties, think of Louis vs. Schmelling: all of these fights are memorable not just because of the fights themselves, but because of the stories in which they became enmeshed. Wrestling can be more interesting than boxing at times because the story is part of the deal: not just an additional element of the fight, but an essential part of the action. One of the biggest compliments a wrestling fan can give a performer is that his last match ‘told a story.’
Films, of course, are also in the business of telling stories; and a story about the telling of a story is difficult to make; or, at least, difficult to make well. You can do it well if you have Tom Stoppard on board, or Charlie Kaufman: but those are rare talents, and not every writer can turn in a script like Shakespeare in Love or Adaptation. When writing about the creation of a work of art, it’s easier to write a novel than a film, because a novel can be digressive, can fly away from the story and go down strange tangents – a novel can ‘think’ about a work of art in the same way that we do, but a film can’t. Because a film is more time-bound than a novel, it has to be more direct: it has to tell a story.
Good wrestling matches, like the movies, rely on the suspension of disbelief (it’s a rare smark indeed who hasn’t, at one time or another, found him or herself screaming at the television during a particularly good bout), but suspension of disbelief is hard to manipulate at a distance. For a cinema audience to believe what they see on screen, they have to believe the story they’re watching is real; and any wrestling film which is going to truly work as a movie is going to have to follow the example of Meltzer, rather than Apter: to break kayfabe, take the viewer backstage, and tell the real story.
That real story is not an edifying one. Wrestling has been compared, usually by detractors, to ballet, because of the choreographed nature of the bouts: but, if you actually like ballet as well, it’s not a bad comparison. It’s a performance; it’s dramatic, and ritualistic; it takes a high degree of skill, and superhuman fitness, at the top levels. And, too often, the performance makes a wreck of the performer.
The wrestler only looks physically perfect. Even at his short-lived peak, he will probably be carrying one or two injuries which have left their mark on him: by the end of his career, he may as well be made of glass. He will probably be addicted to painkillers, because only severe doses of drugs will help you to work shows with torn muscles and broken bones; and, if he is serious about getting over in the flashier, muscle-driven American promotions, he will have used steroids at some point; and sometimes, he’ll have used drugs in such quantities that his heart will have became grotesquely enlarged and inefficient. Not a lot of fit-looking men have heart attacks at thirty-eight: but it happened to Eddie Guerrero, a popular WWE star in the main event program, being groomed for a championship run.
It happens to Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler, as well. In real life, mystery and controversy surround Guerrero’s death, and its connection to drug use; but, in Darren Aronofsky’s film, we’re left in no doubt that the drugs play a part. Rourke’s character, Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, a washed-up grappler who once main-evented Madison Square Garden, but is now reduced to working indy shows in school halls and ballrooms, picks up his supply from a gargantuan connection at his local gym, as part of a training montage which subverts the usual sports flick conventions. The absence of inspiring soft-rock is the least of it: Rocky never began his training by inserting a syringe full of steroids in his right buttock. After that, the other subversions of training montage convention are small beer, but the point has been made: The Wrestler is a wrestling movie which refuses to honour the kayfabe convention. It may be fiction, but this is the real story.
And it isn’t a story in the manner of Stallone – not even the Stallone who wrote the first Rocky movie – but a story in the vein of Raymond Carver or Charles Bukowski. Aronofksy has gone for a very terse, pared-down style, best demonstrated in the film’s few comic moments. In one, Rourke’s character, looking to up his hours working at a local supermarket, walks in on his boss watching porn on the office computer; in another, he wakes up in a strange room after picking up a young woman during a night of heavy partying. Looking around, he notices an inordinate number of posters of firemen, then looks down at his feet, to discover he’s wearing a pair of fireman’s boots.

In another kind of film, the director and performers would linger on these moments – it’s easy to imagine what, for example, Judd Apatow or Will Ferrell would do with either of these scenes. But in The Wrestler, they’re there, and that’s that. The camera holds on neither the boots, nor Rourke’s expression; we don’t get three minutes of improvised zingers about the filth on the boss’s PC. These things happen in the character’s life; we get to see them; and that’s all. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Carver’s spare sentences, and it’s applied as much to the tragic material as to the comic.
It’s a bold move, because by presenting his material in this way Aronofsky sidesteps both the spectacular aspect of wrestling (which, in the end, takes over even Aldrich’s All the Marbles), and the canon of sports movies in general. Both usually function by direct, melodramatic appeals to the emotions. These emotional appeals, however, are familiar to the audience as aspects of the genre, and rapidly become hackneyed. Their effect dulled by repetition, sports movies have to keep upping the ante to get a pop from their audience, and rapidly wind up either going over the top or descending into parody, whether knowingly or not.
Again, the Rocky franchise, and Rocky IV in particular, provides the example. Ivan Drago can’t just be a tough man to beat – he has to be der ubermensch bolshewismus. He doesn’t just beat Apollo Creed to establish his boxing bona fides – he literally kills him. And he doesn’t just have a training camp to prepare him for his grudge match with the Italian Stallion – he has a space-age facility which wouldn’t look out of place in Stallone’s futuristic action flick Demolition Man. Well, at least that explains why the Reds couldn’t hold Afghanistan: they spent the entire military budget on Drago’s gym. To underline the sophistication of Drago’s apparatus, we see Rocky retiring to a cabin in the mountains and running about with a log.
And it’s at this point that the movie enters parodic territory. If Rocky and Drago were shown training in even vaguely similar set-ups it would be believable; it might even be more interesting to set the finale up as a battle of the technocratic titans, bodies sculpted to perfection by Kathy Acker’s beloved Nautilus machines; but to have a man hailing from a country whose economy was falling apart at the time training on what looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, while the champion of the world’s greatest economic power resorts to jogging around with a piece of timber on his back, beggars belief. The only sane response is to laugh cynically, then retire to a private place and weep for a culture which produces such dreck.

In contrast, Aronofksy’s less sentimental approach sharpens the emotional impact of The Wrestler. When, in flashback, we see the brutal ‘hardcore’ match that precedes the Ram’s heart attack, the director’s refusal to engage in the cinematic rhetoric of heroic bloodshed actually makes us more aware of the character’s pain, not less. This is what the Russian Formalists called ostranenie, ‘defamiliarisation’: we’re wrenched out of the usual celluloid context in which we bear witness to masculine suffering (even in a film like The Passion of the Christ, quoted ironically in an early scene), and that makes it new for us and, therefore, more difficult to endure vicariously.
Paradoxically – but oddly fitting, given Aronofksy’s subject – this defamiliarisation is achieved through a rigorous naturalism. The photography is a revelation: things look like themselves, something a lot of movies will run a mile to avoid. Indeed, it’s in a scene where Rourke’s character heads off to the forest for a post-infarction training run that you first notice this. The trees look like trees: the landscape is not romanticised; there is no chance of running into Sylvester Stallone taking a caber for a walk. Compare this with a film like Mamma Mia!, another movie in which the photography is excellent, but in the other direction: everything looks better than life. If you actually went to that island, you’d be disappointed: the sky would never be that blue, the sand would never be that white, the moonlight would never play invitingly on the waves in just the right way. Whereas you feel that if you visited the grim New Jersey backwoods where The Wrestler was filmed, you’d see it exactly as it appears on screen. And not just the forests: everything. In one absolutely perfect scene, a near-empty bar on a grey afternoon looks as desperate and desolate as it should: the temptation to engage in Edward Hopper fantasies is successfully resisted.

The primary motor of the film’s disarming verisimilitude, though, is Rourke’s performance. Much has been written about the physical challenge of a fifty-plus actor learning the skills necessary to perform in the wrestling sequences, but it’s in the film’s more quotidian moments that Rourke really shines. He inhabits his washed-up, beaten-down character with such quiet, restrained intensity that it got under my skin in a way that no performance has since Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast: it took me over. When the final credits rolled and it was time to leave the cinema, I felt as awkward and insignificant as Rourke had. I slumped in my seat; I pulled myself together, shuffled my feet, then fumbled with my bag strap as I picked it up to go – and a look around the cinema showed that I wasn’t the only person so affected.
The Wrestler hit me like a hardway, headfirst fall through a folding table, and not just because of the photography, or Rourke’s performance, or the way it bends the conventions of the sports genre. Like everyone else who enjoys this low and violent art, I found myself questioning my enjoyment. Is it right to love a spectacle which does these things to people? All I can say, on reflection, is yes and no. Wrestling has its problems, and neither its fans nor its promoters can afford to hide behind the mask of kayfabe and keep ignoring them. The obsession with grotesque musclemen has to go. Mexican luchadors, and the puroresu stars of Japan, are nowhere near as freakishly ripped as their American counterparts – and they’re a lot more exciting to watch. And the talent needs to be better looked-after. The one flaw in the ballet/wrestling comparison is that, while ballet does exact a harsh toll on the performer’s body, the ballet world, a more respectable, high-culture milieu, can and does do more to protect its performers. Wrestlers should not be expected to work matches while suffering from debilitating injuries, and they should be given proper medical attention, not dosed up with painkillers and sent out for another show. And medical attention should also mean proper care of their mental health: there’s a frightening rate of suicide in wrestling, and that has to stop.

But The Wrestler also gives an affirmative answer to my question. You can see it in the adulation Rourke’s character receives from his fans; in the backstage smiles of the many real wrestlers who make up the film’s supporting cast; and you can see it in the final scene, where the Ram climbs the turnbuckles to perform his finishing move. Yes, it’s insane; yes, it’s tragic; and yes, it’s something he categorically should not be doing, and if saner heads prevailed in wrestling promotion he wouldn’t: but for a moment you can see why he does it. Like acting, music and boxing, with which it shares a great deal, wrestling is a way in which common men can taste some kind of glory, and a tale told by an idiot can, for a moment at least, take on the numinous glow of great art.
Now, at last, in The Wrestler, those of us who enjoy what Roland Barthes called 'the spectacle of excess' have a film which can transmit a sense of that spectacle's damaged, compromised beauty to a more mainstream audience. They had to break kayfabe to do it, but that doesn’t make them heels. Aronofsky and Rourke for the win.


In Flat Earth News, the journalist Nick Davies writes, among other things, about the decline in investigative journalism at Britain's papers and TV channels. Where Panorama and the Sunday Times Insight team used to rake through the muck and expose the wrongdoings of the powerful, these days an investigative journalist is more likely to spend his time filming other people emptying their rubbish as part of a tabloid-style investigation into corruption among Britain's binmen. Students of this decline in the work of the Fourth Estate could have asked for no better illustration thereof than last night's primetime BBC1 'documentary', On the fiddle?, which presented an example of journalism so debased as to be indistinguishable from propaganda for the Department of Work and Pensions.

On the fiddle?, in case you missed it, was an 'investigation' into disability benefit fraud, and took the form of an extended ride-along with two inspectors from the DWP. I couldn't recall their names when I awoke this morning, and checking the BBC website only reveals that one of the inspectors is called Terry - I'm assuming he was the older of the two, a thickset, grey-haired chap who seemed to suffer from an inability to button the cuffs on his shirtsleeves. Terry was - and who would have imagined this, of a man who enjoys spying on his fellow citizens - an intensely dislikable human being, a pompous bag of slime who seemed to genuinely believe he was some kind of instrument of divine justice, rather than just a voyeur in the pay of the state.

Terry was assisted in his peeking expeditions by an unnamed young man with a face that would have given Cesare Lombroso nightmares. This second kegebishnik was in the habit of remaining silent when Terry 'interviewed' their victims, fixing them with what he no doubt imagined was a stare of coiled menace. Unfortunately the effect was more one of blank, unthinking incomprehension, as if Terry's assistant - let's call him Julian - had just come across a particularly difficult word on page three of the Daily Star.

One got the feeling that Terry and Julian spent a great deal of their time scratching their simian heads and trying to puzzle out the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary. Stoicism, for example, was a concept that had clearly never found room in their heads, perhaps because it would struggle to fit in the space left unoccupied with their sense of self-importance. Time and again, Terry delivered himself of the opinion that his targets couldn't be disabled because they didn't look like they were in pain.

If you're spluttering with shock at this point, imagine my reaction. It needn't be said that Terry wasn't a doctor. How, then, could he have such penetrating insights into the feelings of others? Does he possess psychic powers, like the baby mind reader? Or is he some master of deduction? Or could it be that he's simply a self-righteous dingbat who's too utterly bereft of empathy to consider the possibility that some people may bear their pain with a dignity he will never comprehend? Utilising my own powers of deduction, skills honed by many hard hours watching Jeremy Brett, I reason that it has to be the last possibility. If Terry were really gifted with profound extrasensory powers, he'd have a show on LivingTV; and if he really had superior deductive skills, he'd be working as a real copper, instead of in a mickey mouse branch of law enforcement where he gets to use all the trappings of a proper detective without ever running the risk of encountering a really violent and dangerous criminal. It's not that Terry's a coward: it's just that his idea of a fair fight is taking on someone on crutches.

Mystifyingly, given the absurd lengths the BBC will go to to display 'balance' in its programming when discussing issues like global warming, the producers of this programme didn't feel compelled to offer any counterweight to its heroic portrayal of these state-sponsored spies. Nobody suggested that Terry might not be some unholy combination of Sherlock Holmes and Derek Acorah; no-one suggested that, by following his suspects around with a video camera, he might be breaching their human rights; nor did anyone bring up the highly salient point that benefit fraud costs the exchequer a mere one billion pounds a year, while corporate tax avoidance from the kind of thrusting entrepreneur offered the breathless worship of Evan Davis on Dragon's Den costs a whopping £100 billion. In vain did I hope that a journalist from the honourable British Broadcasting Corporation might beseech Terry, in the bowels of Christ, to think it possible he might be wrong; but no such balanced view was forthcoming.

If there was no true balance there was, at least, a half-hearted attempt at symmetry. Clearly the producers were of the opinion that they needed a 'deserving' recipient of disability benefit to offset the 'undeserving' claimants outed by Terry and Julian, so we were introduced to Ross Smith, a wheelchair-bound young man who needed 24-hour care, and was about to begin his first job. Tellingly, we never witnessed a meeting between Ross and Terry, probably because Terry would complain that Ross didn't really need his wheelchair, and Ross himself would be too hypnotised by Julian's 100-yard stare to react. But what we did see was, in a sense, sadder. The clearly-disabled Ross was able to get a job - but, disappointingly, it was with Ofsted, the 'Office for Standards in Education' or, as we used to call them in less euphemistic times, the School Inspectors. In this hymn to the octopus of state surveillance, Ross was held up as a success because he had got a job working for one of the tentacles, and, worse, he had to send all his payslips off to the DWP on a regular basis, lest that tentacle should fasten on him and choke him into poverty. Franz Kafka would have loved it: 'you ask if there are control officials? There are only control officials.'

But his absorption into the kind of monolithic bureaucracy that haunted Kafka was the least of poor Ross Smith's humiliations. The nadir was his presentation in this programme as the deserving face of disability, a wheelchair-bound Horst Wessel being victimised by the kind of eintartete individuals that Terry and his gimlet-eyed crony took such delight in 'exposing'. How far, I wondered, would Terry and Julian go, if they were given greater powers, a wider range of targets, perhaps a dashing black uniform? Would they beat their suspects? Humiliate them? Kill them?Of course they would. We all know what people like that are capable of when given license by the state; and we know the lengths to which a state will fall which licenses voyeurism, thuggery and prejudice. It should be the role of the media to hold such people to account: when instead it holds them up as heroes, we should worry.

This Blog Will Not Change Your Life

I've been reading Joyce Carol Oates' new novel, My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike. The title suggests a parody of that modern publishing phenomenon, the misery memoir: and so it is, but its satirical intent ranges far, far wider than that. It is, quite simply, the best novel I've read in ages.

Describing your reasons for liking any book to someone else is always a difficult activity. There is a task I sometimes have to undertake in my work at the bookshop which is both infuriating and, to a writer who loves the challenge of working with restricting forms, irresistible. If you've ever been into a branch of the bookshop I work in, you will have seen various books wrapped in weird ribbons of paper, on which some member of staff or other has scrawled their opinion of the book.
In the language of the trade, these are called 'belly bands'. On my more optimistic days I think of them as a kind of championship belt, showing the world the esteem the book has received in our eyes; on my more cynical days, I find myself imagining them as some kind of truss, strapped on to support a book fatally herniated by the strain of trying to extend itself further than Shopaholic and Daughter or The Business. But whatever metaphor you want to employ, the challenge of the belly-band is this: you have to compress the whole bizarre complex of feelings you have for this particular book into a space that's as long as the book you're describing is wide, and is about two-and-an-eighth times the size of a bus ticket.

It's a near-impossible task. You want to hook the reader, you want to give them some inkling of the plot, and you want to give them some idea of what it is that makes the book so goddam good. Invariably, this leads to reductio ad absurdam. So Cultural Amnesia becomes 'a history of the twentieth century told in a series of potted biographies'; The Book of Revelation has its plot summed up as 'A charismatic dancer is abducted, held prisoner, and tortured by three mysterious women'; and so on. Both of these are accurate enough, but not true. The first book is far more digressive than just biography; the latter deserves a better summary than the Hostel-movie-written-by-Sacher-Masoch pitch that I've reduced it to. But you do these things. You commit these atrocities, because you work with the space you have.

The easiest way to hook the reader into wanting to read My Sister, My Love would be to describe it as a novel inspired by the murder of the American child-beauty-queen JonBenet Ramsey. Which is true as far as it goes: Oates has changed names to protect the accused, made the victim an ice-dancer rather than a pageant idol (a decision which serves her well, allowing the author of On Boxing to convey the drama of her victim's performances in a sporting context which remains as prurient a milieu as the profoundly unsporting world of the beauty contest), and messed with the timelines a little, so that in this narrative the paedophile who issues a confabulated confession to the child-victim's murder emerges in the immediate aftermath of the event, rather than ten years later: but, in the unforgiving space of the belly-band, it seems a superficially acceptable summary.

Except, of course, that it isn't. It's a complete disaster, because it creates the impression that the book will be of interest to a demographic who will probably fail to get beyond the first five pages; and it makes the book sound sleazy and disgusting to those who would actually enjoy it.
The first group are, of course, that subset of the book-buying public that every bookseller regards with at least a little reserve: the habitues of the true crime section, the devotees of the misery memoir. Such individuals, scenting a whiff of puerile blood, will inevitably be drawn to a novel based on the most sensational American murder of the last decade; but they will not stay long, because they, and many of their own sacred cows, are among the targets which come in for a fierce satirical attack. Not least of these revered bovines is the idea of the misery-memoir itself: despite such genre-staples as an unhappy childhood, unloving parents, encounters with paedophiles, drug-addiction, mental illness and the later intervention of an inspiring, religious mentor-figure, Skyler, the novel's titular narrator, remains defiantly miserable throughout, while it is his despised mother who embraces the narrative of suffering, faith and redemption, appearing on tabloid talk shows to hawk 'inspirational' memoirs with titles like From Hell to Heaven: 11 Steps for the Faithful and Pray for Mummy: A Mother's Pilgrimage from Grief to Joy. Betsey Rampike is a woman determined to prove Fitzgerald wrong: her life is all second-act, her fame the unintended consequence of her daughter's murder, a murder which, it's implied, she may well have had a hand in.

While it will frustrate readers drooling to devour accounts of harmed children, one of the joys of this novel for less prurient readers is the way in which Oates skewers the language of a particularly toxic strain of American culture: the language of self-help, and the way in which the facile narratives of this genre have colonised other areas of discourse. Betsey Rampike's 'faith' is not the deep, inner struggle of the true, thinking believer who wrestles with the angel of his dogma, but a self-justifying, self-aggrandising hoodoo which she resorts to when praying that her daughter will win ice-skating competitions and as a way of emerging, unscathed and perversely triumphant, in the aftermath of that same daughter's horrific death; her husband, Bix, speaks to his son in a bizarre argot of business-biog and pop-science cliches, with a few misrendered foreign expressions, picked up in his Cornell days, thrown in; and the Rampike children, like all the other children in Fair Hills, New Jersey, swim around in an alphabet-soup of newly-discovered 'syndromes' and 'disorders', some of which are familiar to this psychology student's eye and some of which, though invented, sound frighteningly close to the kind of thing we may one day see in DSM-V, especially given the ever-closer collusion between psychiatrists, psychologists and the manufacturers of the now-ubiquitous 'meds' that the Fair Hills kids pop and trade like Pokemon cards.

With the exception of the novel's twisted and self-confessedly unreliable protagonist/narrator, almost nobody in this book speaks anything that sounds like truth. Certainly none of the adults do. In place of self-examination, they substitute cliches, ecclesiastical tidbits, misunderstood latin and therapy-talk, all with the aim, not of coming to terms with their predicament, but of 'affirming' themselves and 'moving on.' Someone may have moved their cheese but, by golly, they're going to damn well get back on their horse and ride down the road less travelled until they reach the tipping point that will shift their peaceful, chicken-soup-eating warriors' souls into a purpose-driven life. Drowned out by self-affirmation, reason sleeps, producing monsters.
I began this piece with the intention of using Oates' novel as an entry-point into a discussion of the corrosive effect of the language of self-help on our culture and, in the process, seem to have gotten sidetracked into a full-blown review of the thing, on a scale which would be impossible to reproduce on a belly-band: but in a way, I think this has still been effective. There really is no better discussion of this idea, which is perhaps the most important issue of all for those of us who deeply wish for a return to a more serious culture, than My Sister, My Love. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it will change your life: but it will certainly make you think a lot more deeply about the health of the culture we inhabit.