The first time I saw the black plastic lapel badges they had been pinned to two well groomed young men on the Tube. The men wore dark suits and had the pleasant, alienated directness so irresistibly simulated by Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks. They were sitting either side of a student with a laptop yet did not appear to be accompanying him. As I idly watched they started chatting to their fellow passenger. They had good teeth and all of their conversation took the form of questions. They seemed very pleased to make his acquaintance and more or less took turns asking him pleasant things whilst smiling.
Because this was London and we don’t talk to strangers my interest was piqued. Where was all this going? At the next station the student got off. The badged Jimmy Stewarts from Mars continued to look quite pleased and I turned my attention to their badges. One bore, in incised white letters, the words ‘Elder John’ and the other was similar, with a name I couldn’t read. I felt I should know what this meant but I couldn’t place it.
On the train back from Dorset with my younger daughter and her friend we found ourselves sitting across the aisle from two American women in their early twenties with pleasant smiles and black badges pinned to their dresses. One was Sister Harriet and the other’s chest wasn’t in my line of sight. They smiled at me and my teenage companions. I donned my headphones and started reading my book. Some decades ago I would have allowed them to question me pleasantly in order to rebut them spiritedly but that was then and now I can’t be bothered. Reading is much more fun.
The teenagers plugged a headphone set into an iPod and took one earpiece each. They could pretend to be engrossed in Taylor Swift whilst actually listening to what was going down in stereo nearby. Unfortunately for the man sitting right behind me his son of perhaps five was sitting with him. The boy was saying things quite loudly. Sister Harriet and her sister Sister beamed at him and asked him questions. His responses were apparently delightful. The Sisters congratulated the father and began asking him questions. According to my daughter, who had been rolling her eyes and mouthing conspiratorially to me throughout this leg of the journey, they had secured the names of father and son, the occupation of father and wife, the town in which the family lived and, the cherry on the cake, a phone number. By the hesitant way in which the father gave the number to the Sisters, it was plain to my daughter that he was making it up.
The Sisters disembarked at somewhere or other, presumably to work the town, leaving the father to contemplate his good luck. Just before they left they asked him “Do you believe in the message that family is for ever?” The father mumbled his reluctant acquiescence. The Sisters said they looked forward to talking more on the phone. If it was a fake number then that shouldn’t be a problem – they could work whoever answered.
When I was a film student in the mid 60s I read a translation of Antonin Artaud’s four page play ‘A Spurt of Blood’ (1925) and was gripped by the blunt but poetic directness of this remarkable work. Notwithstanding the author’s preoccupation with a punishing God and his fastidious unease with the sexual activity of women, the playlet is simultaneously pantomimic, florid, grotesque and grave.
The Wikipedia article on ‘A Spurt of Blood’ supplies a synopsis which supports the notion that the show could be a good night out, if a rather brief one. In my own production of the show (see below) we almost burned down the elaborately panelled ceiling of the Royal College’s Gulbenkian Hall when an ‘exploding star’ failed to fall from on high to the stage level. But that’s another story.
The extremity of the play also elicits a sort of delirious laughter in its audiences (as far as I know, Peter Brook (1964, Theatre of Cruelty season at Royal Court Theatre) and myself (1968, Royal College of Art) are the only directors to have mounted full-scale public performances of the work, which was not, it is thought, performed in Artaud’s lifetime), akin to the nervous delight aroused by some horror films – John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ (1982) is a fine example of this, as are, in what can only be called the Lynch genre, David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986) and ‘Twin Peaks’ (1990-91), not to mention the rest of his work apart from the untypically charming ‘Straight Story’ (1999).
Peter Bradshaw, in a re-release preview for The Guardian captures the alarming humour of ‘Blue Velvet’ in a summary of the opening sequence that establishes the director’s mastery of deadpan excess – ‘(Jeffrey’s) capacity for obsessive rapture and scopophilia is unlocked by the bizarre discovery of a severed ear in some waste ground after walking home from the hospital where his dad is recovering from serious spinal injuries.’ The same species of horrified delight can be experienced most recently in the utter melancholic darkness of HBO’s ‘True Detective’ (2014, writer Nick Pizzollato, director Cary Fukunaga), which provokes dread-filled giggling in its rotating passages of philosophy, sociopathy and redneck homicidal occultism.
‘True Detective’ is not devoid of cliché insofar as the obligatory naked, tortured, tattooed, decorated and decaying female corpse is revealed within the first few minutes of Episode 1. Images of the extreme and homicidal abuse of women have become common in ‘dark’ film and TV dramas and have supplanted other lesser darknesses (drug retail and dependency, mainstream murder, police corruption etc) associated with the contemporary thriller genre. The ultimate plot driver now, it seems, is something so foul that it will appal and energise all who choose to endure it.
Certain crimes are deemed ‘unspeakable’ but they do, in fact, frequently prove to be describable both in words and images. Their unspeakableness is a function of the fact that they are, as far as the complainant is concerned, ‘undoable’ – one cannot imagine doing them oneself. (You can see the point of robbing a bank but do you really want to dismember women?) The crimes are not wholly unfamiliar, however. The horror that they provoke is partly comprised of uneasiness about the possibility that the darkness from which they arise is without boundaries. That is, it may reside in oneself, not just in psychopaths. It is possible, therefore, that one could imagine doing those sort of deeds oneself. But one would not do them. And one would not wish to test one’s imagination in order to see if they are imaginable. Because what if you started imagining then you liked what you saw? Unthinkable. But all sorts of cultural products will do it for you instead.
None of this is particularly contentious. Dark films and TV only thrive if they strike a chord, after all. And there’s no doubt that a violent, pervasive misogyny is on the rise. But why is it on the rise? Do we watch these dark programmes because we all somehow became psychos fairly recently? Or has the prevailing economic and political ideology reached the stage of development at which its hitherto obscured internal logic is steadily emerging and finding expression in extreme behaviours? If the latter is the case then the misogyny in dark films and TV is not only a psychiatric articulation but is a product of political formations that marginalise empathy and generate an extensive murderousness.
It can then be argued that the fashionable and apparently fascinating dismemberment of women is ‘successful’ in current fiction partly because it offers a coded indictment and partial analysis not of individual psychopaths but whole social systems. Such an analysis is hard to formulate, we see symptoms easily enough but causes are mysterious – we want to know whodunnit. But it seems to be transpersonal, taking place on a global scale. It would be objectionable to imply that widespread misogyny is no more than a symptom of a grander but less tangible scheme, but perhaps useful at least to make links between economic ideology, alpha masculinity and a hatred of women.