Monday 20 May 2024

Martha and Me (and Starmer and the Scum)


I don't have Netflix these days, partly due to the cozzie livs and partly due to the fact I have no desire to give some of what little money I do have to transphobic pricks like Ricky Gervais or Dave Chapelle, so I haven't actually seen Baby Reindeer. But I have seen the poster for it, and when I saw it it's fair to say I did a double-take because really, what the fuck? That looks like me, right? All the way down to the shade of lipstick, fat forearms, three-quarter-length sleeves and the cropping of the photo to hide a high forehead. There I am, walking to the supermarket of a Monday evening, confronted with what looks to all intents and purposes like a picture of me caught in the act of suffocating a Borrower. What is going on here? 'A captivating true story'? I've never even met this Richard Gadd bloke! Why would Netflix want to do me like this? Most of the stuff I've been most scathing about has been on Amazon Prime...

Obviously I Googled the show as soon as I got home. This was a little more reassuring, as while the Wikipedia entry informed me Gadd's show was semi-autobiographical, I didn't recognise anything of my own behaviour in that of his self-insert's antagonist, Martha: all my experience of stalking has been on the receiving end. But it didn't reassure me much, because I know the modern-day media environment too well to kid myself that the true-crime-brained gumshoes of the Internet weren't going to burn lean tissue long into the night trying to track down the 'real-life Martha', and all it would take to make my life even more of a living Hell than it already is would be one dickhead posting a pic of me side-by-side with the poster online. Sure, Gadd himself had pleaded with fans not to engage in digital vigilanteism, but when has pleading ever stopped the mob? 

In this version the part of Richard Gadd is played by a Fire Ant figurine

So, to my shame, I have to admit that I was somewhat relieved when the real Martha, Fiona Harvey, announced herself to the world via the medium of an interview with Piers Morgan. Only somewhat relieved, though, because I knew the resulting spectacle would be far from edifying and, more than that, I consider it irresponsible journalism. The kind of stalking which Harvey claims Gadd is unjustly accusing her of engaging in (as opposed to the sort of stalking engaged in by the kind of reporters employed by the likes of Piers Morgan) tends to be the result of a form of romantic obsession called limerence, and it is, to say the least, not mentally healthy behaviour. Revealing Harvey to have been the inspiration for Martha in this manner, whether or not she volunteered her identity readily, is extremely reckless as we don't know what Harvey might try to do to Gadd, or to herself, never mind the fact that it presumably leaves her open to reprisals from members of the public looking to punish the villain from one of their stories. In the past, actors have been abused and attacked by members of the public just for playing villains in TV soap operas: it's all too easy to imagine the bloodlust that might be inspired in the kind of person who does that if they found themself face-to-face with a real life television villain. 

Not that Martha is the only villain in Gadd's series: as well as experiencing stalking and sexual assault at the hands of Martha, his protagonist is also assaulted by a theatre producer, called Darrien in the show, whose identity, according to the presenter Richard Osman, is something of an open secret in the comedy industry. Tellingly, Osman doesn't say whether or not the real-life Darrien has faced any consequences, although Gadd's friend Sean Foley ironically wound up having to go to the police due to being misidentified as the culprit by the online investigators. If I had to guess, I'd imagine there have been no consequences for the real rapist: my own experiences in the poetry scene have taught me that most of the real dangers escape any reprisal beyond being outed on a need-to-know basis by the whisper networks. I'd like to think that's what Osman is referring to when he says everybody knows the identity of the real-life Darrien. 

One reason for that, of course, is that rape is effectively legal in the UK. As the campaigning organisation Women Against Rape points out, only 6.5% of reported rape cases result in a conviction, 45% are no-crimed, and 90% of rape victims never even bother reporting their crimes to the police. And why would they, when doing so can leave them open to the charge of making a false accusation? The stigma of being labelled a false accuser is compounded by the fact that the police follow a policy of prosecuting victims who are unable to bring a successful prosecution against their rapists, and allows the same organisation that for years protected the likes of Wayne Couzens and David Carrick to bully women and girls into dropping the charges. Women Against Rape met with the then Director of Public Prosecutions and current Leader of the Opposition, Kier Starmer, asking him to end this damaging practice - but instead he rejected their advice, and doubled down on the existing policy of prosecuting victims. With a record like that, is it any surprise that Starmer provided such a cheery welcome to the Tory turncoat Natalie Elphicke, who allegedly interfered in the trial of her rapist ex-husband, and is on record as having said that his only crime was 'being attracted and attractive to women', and made disgusting comments about his victims? Between that and his work defending Silvio Berlusconi, anyone might think rapists are Kieth's kind of people. No wonder he's dogged by those rumours about Savile and Worboys...

So it's beyond ironic to see Starmer, or someone in his office, trying to present himself as a victim and steal a little valour from Gadd by briefing the press about his own harassing emails from Harvey - which I assume is what happened, because as undoubtedly unwell as Harvey may be I don't think it's likely she would willingly tell the Sun about how fun it was for her to call Kieth a 'stupid little boy' and 'a free loader on the public purse'. It's hard to say what's more sickening about this really - the blatant attempt to ride the coattails of a media sensation, however sordid, is of a piece with the cargo-cult Blairism of pretty much everyone buzzing about the LOTO office these days, and of course there's the fact that whoever leaked these emails on Kieth's behalf is more than happy to throw a mentally ill woman even further under the bus than Piers Morgan did, but for me it's definitely the simpering attempt to present this man who has done so much to make life worse for rape and sexual assault survivors as the real victim in all this, while Gadd, who has much stronger grounds to feel ill will towards Harvey, has shown an admirable degree of empathy and forbearance towards her. 

It certainly makes me feel much less bad about writing that poem where I describe Starmer allowing his body to be used as the flesh-vessel for the spirit of Jimmy Savile to fuck the corpse of Maggie Thatcher, anyway. Maybe I should email it to him. At least The Sun won't be able to make sarcastic remarks about my 'punctuations' (yes, the spelling of 'Cercle' is deliberate; ask Nadhim what it means). You'd think at least one of their subs would have heard of Muphry's Law...

Monday 13 May 2024

Barbican Garden

Alone in the Barbican garden,
every muscle aching from the fight the night before,
I remembered hard words in Victoria station,
an overnight bus ride, your body, the walk
through the builders’ yard, the cheap hibiscus
shower gel I’ve never found anywhere since. 

Sitting on concrete I wrote in my notebook
(my small joints hurt less than my shoulders),
not about you because you were too present for
words, might still be now: present in the pain-
tings you had recommended, which I made a note
to see. Now, with exhausted pain less of a novelty,

I see how they inspired your own, and I see
why you said what you said to me, what
you saw in a body like mine, how the way 
I held back had frustrated you. But there,
in that Brutalist garden, all I knew
were the bruises you left me with

and my resentment of the fact 
that they would fade.

Sunday 12 May 2024

Card Counter Coda: Major Gordo and the Vanishing Israelis


When I write this blog, I often turn up things during research that are interesting, but which I have to leave out because they complicate the main thrust of my argument or just represent a tangent that I don't have time to go down. In the case of my essay on The Card Counter, there were quite a few such things, mainly to do with the technical aspects of making the movie. For example, one of the reasons the film feels so claustrophobic is that Schrader and his Director of Photography, Alexander Dynan, used an unusual focal length for most of the shots, to leave out as much of the background as possible. That's an interesting thing to know from a technical standpoint, and if I was writing a piece where questions of technique were more relevant (as with Zone of Interest, say), I would have included it, but that essay was more focused on the writing of the movie than how it was filmed, so it gets left out. 

Sometimes, though, things come up which mean you have to return to the material you left out. One such thing, this week, was the revelations from Israeli whistleblowers and former Palestinian detainees at Sde Temain detention centre, as reported by CNN. The tortures described in the report will be familiar to anyone who's seen Schrader's film, or is familiar with the Abu Ghraib case: detainees kept for hours in stress positions, menaced by dogs, subjected to sonic bombardment and physical beatings, piled semi-naked on top of each other...The torturers in this case at least seem to have avoided being photographed giving thumbs-up gestures beside naked prisoners, though. Perhaps some of them still have a sense of shame. 

This pinged something I'd read while looking into the background of Janis Karpinski, the officer in charge of all Iraqi detention facilities at the time of the atrocities who, I wrote in the essay, also got gender-swapped by Schrader, into the extravagantly-moustached John Gordo, played by Willem Dafoe. Like everyone else in the film, though, this isn't a one-for-one correspondence: for one thing, Gordo is only ever presented as having been in charge of one prison, rather than the three Karpinski was responsible for; for another, and more crucially, in The Card Counter Gordo escapes prosecution by virtue of being a so-called 'independent contractor', while Karpinski, being part of the chain of command, was prosecuted. 

Such are the exigencies of creating drama out of history, of course: you collapse a number of real life figures into one person to create an Aristotelian unity; you fudge some facts and leave out others - it's not verbatim theatre. Gordo's getting off scot-free is the primary driver of Schrader's plot, after all: it's why Cirk wants to get revenge on him for what his father was ordered to do, and why he feels Tillich should help with his scheme. The thing is, though, that there's a little bit of Karpinski's testimony which maybe - maybe - gives us a better analogue for the mercurial Gordo. 

In an interview with the BBC, Karpinski claims to have met an Israeli individual at Abu Ghraib, who told her he did 'some of the interrogation here'. Which Israeli organisation, if any, that this guy belonged to, Karpinski never specified; the journalist Seymour Hersh, corroborating Karpinski's story by reference to his own sources, believes he would most likely have been with Israeli intelligence, who were interested in accessing Iraqi detainees to find and interrogate Iraqi intelligence agents who specialised in spying on Israel. Here we have a figure, not part of the official chain of command, like Gordo, who, also like Gordo, is employed to 'assist' with the interrogations and who, again like Gordo, slips out of the story discreetly and is never prosecuted. Officially, this guy was never there. 

Just as, officially, Derek Chauvin never learned the specific choke he used to kill George Floyd during an official 'seminar with Israeli secret services', as claimed by Maxine Peake in an interview with the Independent. Rebecca Long-Bailey's enthusiastic sharing of this interview - off the back of other comments Peake made in it about socialism, rather than this alleged collusion between Israeli secret services and racist US cops - was seized on by Kier Starmer's media outriders as an excuse to force one of Kieth's only major challengers out of the Labour Leadership race; while others in the media ran cover for the Israeli regime by focusing on the nice distinction that Chauvin personally could never have been told about that particular choking technique officially. The denial presented to the Indie by an Israeli spokesperson is actually quite revealing in this regard: 'there is no tactic or protocol that calls to put pressure on the neck or airway'. There was no tactic or protocol which called for detainees at Abu Ghraib to be smeared in human faeces and forced to masturbate in front of US soldiers, but it still happened.

However, as Antony Loewenstein points out in his book The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World, 'the IDF routinely uses this suffocating move on Palestinians' regardless of whether any official protocol 'calls for it', and it is a matter of record that the ADL runs a program to send US police officers to Israel, where they can learn about the techniques that country's authorities have pioneered in how to oppress a rebellious population. While the ADL's stated aim in facilitating this exchange is to build support for Zionism among US cops who, as Loewenstein points out, hardly 'need Israeli training to make [them] violent or racist', the interest in these programs from the police themselves is far more about learning about tactics and techniques than it is about gaining an insight into Zionist ideology. Revealingly, despite the official line that there was no connection between these programs and Derek Chauvin's knee, the ADL themselves discussed the possibility of ending them in response to the death of George Floyd, writing in an internal memo that 'we must ask ourselves...whether we are contributing to the problem...We must ask ourselves if, upon returning home, those we train are more likely to use force.' Don't worry, though - they kept the programs going. No force on earth can stop pigs enjoying a junket. 

Pace Hersh, this perceived expertise is probably the real reason an Israeli intelligence agent might have been at Abu Ghraib. As Loewenstein documents meticulously, for repressive Western security forces Palestine serves a role similar to that which Northern Ireland served for the British police and army during the years of the Troubles - a place at the imperial periphery where troops and cops could be sent to get a taste of the mindset and tactics they could then bring back home to use in suppressing internal dissent. One wonders if, in a few years, we'll learn that techniques like those in use at Sde Temain are also being used on the Bibby Stockholm, or the camps our government wants to set up in Rwanda, or the ones they'll probably eventually get around to sending all of us queers to. 

Monday 6 May 2024

God's Clubbable Woman: The Card Counter, Paul Schrader, Lynndie England and White Feminism

Recently, inspired both by reading Jack Graham and Elizabeth Sandifer's excellent essays on the Star Wars movies, and the fact my Disney+ subscription is coming to an end, I decided to embark on a project of watching those movies in what some fans call the Machete Order (or rather a variant thereof which I devised in order to include the Andor TV show and Rogue One). Between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, however, I found myself somewhat sick of the series' cookie-cutter morality and needing an injection of cynicism. I got that cynicism in spades when a family movie night saw me having to bear witness to the fourth iteration of the Expendables franchise, a film which pussies out of its one interesting idea in its final moments and doesn't even have the decency to give us the Iko Uwais/Tony Jaa duel I assumed would be its only highlight. What I realised, I needed, wasn't the cynicism of roided-up Hollywood pensioners, but the cynicism which comes from ideals disappointed, with having to live with and in a world which you know to be fallen, where the possibility of redemption isn't offered hope, but sharpened torture. 

You can always depend on Paul Schrader for that sort of thing. 

The Card Counter is a 2021 film written and directed by Schrader in the aftermath of the more successful and comparatively bigger budget First Reformed, and, like that film it follows another of Schrader's favourite type of protagonist, 'God's lonely man', a reclusive and walled-off individual who spends his days passing time in a fallen world and his nights furiously journalling in an effort at making sense of it all. Where First Reformed's Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a faithless saint contemplating the commission of an act of eco-terrorism, however, The Card Counter's William Tillich, played by Oscar Isaac, is very much a sinner. An Iraq War veteran imprisoned for a decade for acts of torture committed in Abu Ghraib, when we first encounter Tillich he is eking out a living as a low-rent gambler, practising the trade he taught himself in prison at the blackjack tables and always peacing out just before the pit bosses make him. Eschewing the casino hotels - and the surveillance that comes with them - he prefers to sleep, sometimes fully clothed, in anonymous motel rooms he methodically strips of what little identity they still possess, pulling pictures off the walls and wrapping all the furniture in grey sheets he carries with him. Tillich begins the film by telling us he would not have considered himself 'suited to a life of incarceration', but it's clear that he is recreating the conditions of his prison cell in the 'free' world he's been released to, confining himself to quarters and wrestling with his guilt and his God in the pages of a notebook. 

It isn't a happy life, but it's one he's in control of, until a chance encounter at a security convention, and the ministrations of a poker stable boss, appear to give him the shot at redemption he's given up on. When the son of one of his former army buddies tries to inveigle Tillich into a scheme for revenge against his former commanding officer, whose status as an 'independent contractor' allowed him to get off scot-free while Tillich languished in Leavenworth, he makes a counter-offer: asking the boy, Cirk, to accompany him as he makes the rounds of the celebrity poker circuit, a Faustian endeavour Tillich barters himself into in the hope that he can wipe out Cirk's debts, see him reconciled with his estranged mother, and put him on a path to something other than revenge. 

Of course it all goes wrong, but that's not what I'm interested in here. What has preyed on my mind about the movie since watching it is something the film never draws much attention to, but which is obvious if you remember the events it's based on, which is that Tillich is, essentially, a genderbent Lynndie England

You could argue otherwise, of course. While England is the name and the face most people remember from the Abu Ghraib torture photos, she didn't serve a decade in jail for what she did - neither did the only member of her happy band of sadists who was sentenced to ten years, Charles Graner, come to that. And she wasn't even the only woman in those photos, smiling at the camera and giving a thumbs-up while pointing at naked and humiliated Iraqi men: Sabrina Harman was another, and although she claimed, in a letter to her wife, that she wanted the crimes documented as a warning, both her mouth and eyes are smiling in the photos; and so was Graner's eventual wife Megan Ambuhl, though she seems to have been smart enough to keep her face out of the pictures. But England is the headline name, the one that sprang most readily to the minds of the people I asked in my admittedly unscientific survey of Facebook and Bluesky associates when I asked if they remembered anyone involved. 

Interestingly, Tillich's CO, Major John Gordo, played by Willem Dafoe, is also a gender-swap: the officer in charge of all detention facilities in Iraq was Brigadier-General Janis Karpinski, who was demoted to Colonel as her punishment for overseeing these enormities. Like many of those involved, Karpinski has sought to minimise her own role in events and shift blame onto others, and she isn't entirely wrong - as the torture memos told us, the buck stopped with Rumsfeld, if not Bush, and one of those men died comfortably in bed while the other is being rehabilitated in the media as a sort of qlipothic Jimmy Carter who paints charmingly naive portraits. 

This game of passing the buck is, of course, one of the key things which indicates that for all the grittiness of his character, Tillich is a fantasy on Schrader's part: none of the people involved in the torture carried out at Abu Ghraib has wholeheartedly embraced their guilt, and certainly not to the extent that Tillich does. But Schrader's transformation of Tillich into his preferred gender of protagonist gives him an easy out in another way, too 

You see, one of the things I remember with shame about the revelation of those photos is that there were some women - and it goes without saying that these women were white and cisgender, though I've met enough racist white trans women in my time to know some of them probably thought this too - who got a thrill from those pictures. Who saw them as revenge on Evil Misogynist Muslims like the Taliban, who had forced women into burqas and much, much worse in Afghanistan. That this position was politically incoherent as regards the secular Ba'athist state of Iraq ought to go without saying, but white fantasies of racialised revenge have never really cared for nice distinctions. 

And it's that element Schrader loses the opportunity to address by turning England into one of his trademark Lonely Men. For one thing, a female card counter would have to spend a lot more time dealing with men in casinos hitting on her. It's not that Tillich's world of casinos is entirely homosocial: the stable boss La Linda, played by Tiffany Hadish, is the person with the most power that we see in that world, though even she is just a middle(wo)man for her own financial backers. But, even though it's clear from the beginning that La Linda's interest in Tillich is more than just monetary, it would have a very different dynamic if the genders were flipped. But what interests me much more is how the meet-cute between a female Cirk and Tillich would go. 

Because Islamophobia and transphobia tend to be comorbid ideologies. The loudest voices fantasising about violent revenge on us trannies are the same voices which exult in philosemitic abandon at every Israeli atrocity (hi Julie! *waves*). And I can't help but wonder about the story you could tell if a female version of Schrader's imagined protagonist found herself sat next to one of those women in a hotel conference auditorium and got to talking. That would be a very different story - one in which the temptation proferred to the hero is not redemption but reintegration, acceptance into a twisted social fold made all the more tempting by its acceptance in the so-called 'mainstream' media. A female William Tillich would be even more marketable than her male equivalent - women in professional gambling acquire a glamour simply by virtue of their comparative rarity, and in a world where transphobes have seriously attempted to rehabilitate bigot and serial paedophile-befriender Mary Whitehouse, is it really far-fetched to imagine them doing the same for a war criminal? Especially in times as mask-off as our own with regard to which war crimes count...

I don't fault Schrader for not wanting to tell that story: it's pretty clear from his filmography that he's just not really into girls. But I can't help but wonder about the story that could have been told. 

Who knows? Maybe one day I'll write it. If this fallen world gives me the time.