The 1950s are calling

•October 11, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I’ve found that in many ways the UK is far advanced over the US in the rights and treatment of women: birth control, for example, is free in the UK. The Church of England allows fully ordained women. They’ve even had a female prime minister over here (even if she was vile).

However, there is still one area in which the men are ferociously sexist: football, or soccer depending on which side of the Atlantic you grew up (which is another, very tedious, debate).

Here’s an example: there is an annual football tournament at work. In previous years, teams that didn’t contain at least one woman had to pay extra money as an incentive towards inclusiveness. This year that requirement was scrapped and none of the teams chose to include a single woman. Those of us who wanted to play had to beg other women in our office to join a separate women’s team. It was a ghetto squad, to be sure, in that we were destroyed by every other team and playing us was a joke between the other teams; it felt like being stuck in a low-rent episode of Mad Men. However, it was fun.

During the tournament we talked about starting a women’s team for the regular 5-a-side company league on Wednesday nights (as there’s no equivalent league for women). I’ve just broached the subject with some of the men who play and, as you can probably imagine, the response was less than positive—there was no discussion, no rational debate, just either sarcasm or complete disregard.

The thing is, any person who is shit at football would be allowed to play as long as he has a penis. No one would ever tell a guy, even if he’s horrible, that he’s not allowed to participate in the league. They might complain about him behind his back, but there’d be no question of disallowing him the opportunity to take part. Not so much with women.

I feel like I’m in a sports movie where the men are horrible to a woman who just wants a chance, until she gets her moment and proves to them all that she, a woman, is as good as they. The problem with this scenario is that I’m actually quite terrible at football. I’m not deft enough with the ball or fast enough on the pitch. I just sort of like playing.

I’m sure that any guy reading this will protest that I don’t understand how competitive football is, how it’s in their manly blood to play to WIN and it’s more than just a game. Or something like that. And I probably don’t understand—I surely don’t respect the attitude that we must win at all costs. That way leads to hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis in an interminable and illegal war. I do like competing, I’m just not ruthless. And it bears repeating that I’m kind of crap at it.

So the truth is that I’m not really into playing with a bunch of people who don’t want me there; that stops it from being a good time (though the woman of The Citadel cry tears of shame for me). It’s just a fun thing that I’d like to do that I’m told I can’t. I don’t like being told I can’t do something. Ask my parents about this sometime.

But even more than that, I think I’m just disappointed and a bit hurt. I was expecting, or at least hoping for, better.

Joy Division

•April 26, 2011 • 1 Comment

I like Joy Division. They are, in fact, my favorite band. They’re not the easiest to listen to or the most prolific but they’re quality.

Bred from the ferocity of late 70s punk, Joy Division embraced the energy and passion of the era but pushed it in new directions, upping the artistry and experimentalism and becoming one of the forerunners of the “post-punk” movement. The four members of the band, Ian Curtis (vocals), Bernard Albrecht (guitar), Peter Hook (bass) and Stephen Morris (percussion) were aided, or possibly forced, in this direction by their legendary and rather brilliant producer Martin Hannett, who channeled their music into discordant soundscapes that matched the emotion and despair of Curtis’s bleak lyrics. Hooks played his bass as if he were on lead guitar, supplementing and enhancing Albrecht’s guitar lines. And Morris’s drums were intense, primal even: listen to “Twenty-Four Hours” from Closer. The drums are just nearly off-beat, creating an urgent but disorienting, almost frightening sound.

In both music and production this band are genius. But I don’t want to be disingenuous. Joy Division were special because of Ian Curtis.

He certainly didn’t have the pleasantest voice; often off-tune, he nevertheless performed his songs with a rawness and passion that made his vocal range moot. Check out his delivery toward the end of “Transmission”: hearing him sing “And we can DAAANCE” brings chills to the spine.

But it’s not Curtis’ passion or even his singing which makes Joy Division so personal, so essential. It’s his despair.

Curtis managed to convey a palpable sense of isolation without self pity or maudlinism; some of his most heartbreaking lyrics rely merely on subtext. For example,  “Atmosphere”: “People like you find it easy, Naked to see, walking on air, Hunting by the rivers through the streets every corner, Abandoned too soon, set down with due care, Don’t walk away in silence, Don’t walk away.” It’s recognition of one’s self as different, as somehow difficult and the turmoil of that difficulty combined with a hopeless need to not be alone. It would be hard to find another song that encapsulates isolation so succinctly.

Isolation, of course, is different from loneliness, which is a more common theme in pop; isolation’s not just feeling alone but feeling like an entirely different species from everyone else. In isolation you’re alone and there’s little hope of being anything but. It’s the profound horror of difference, of remoteness, of existential angst.

Curtis, of course, killed himself at age 23 shortly before Joy Division’s final studio album, Closer, was released. It’s difficult not to interpret Closer as an extended suicide note. It’s brilliant and groundbreaking but it’s bleak as hell and even I can only listen to it when I’m in a really black mood. Still, the album moves me like no other music ever has. It has become essential to me: utterly personal.

I’m afraid this makes me a vampire.

The truth is, Ian Curtis’ isolation and despair help ameliorate my own. And so what I find attractive about Joy Division may be what, in essence, killed a man. A boy really. I worry I’m feeding on the despair and depression of a person who was ill—he was plagued by both serious epilepsy and (likely) mental illness.

Of course, my reasons for liking a piece of music are completely separate to how that music was produced. If I liked Joy Division just for the guitar or the bass it wouldn’t save Ian Curtis’s life.  Do our motives actually matter or do only our actions? If I changed places with Curtis, would I want people to listen to my music regardless of why, and would I be unhappy if someone were listening just because of the passion I put into it? Would what I thought even matter? Where do the production of and experience of a piece of art meet and where do they end?

I think sometimes I think too much. I also think that maybe art is produced to be appreciated regardless of why, and that art, to some extent can, or even must, be divorced from its creator. Maybe it doesn’t matter why art is appreciated as long as it’s appreciated. Maybe art is about communication, and once that communication is sent it belongs as much to the receiver as it does to the sender.

Maybe sometimes it’s ok to be a bit of a vampire.

Paranormal something

•October 27, 2010 • 2 Comments

I went to see Paranormal Activity 2 today. I watched the original Paranormal Activity and it scared the hell out of me so my friend asked, “Didn’t you sleep with the lights on for a week after seeing the first one?” I said I did. He said, “Then why are you seeing the second one?” I looked at him like he was crazy because the question made no sense. Of course I would see the second one. The first one was totally scary. But, thinking about it, it is a really good question: why would I want to see a film that I would find so scary?

People like scary movies. It’s thrilling and yet comforting to be frightened within the confines of a two-hour movie, knowing that when it’s over life goes back normal. It’s seeing danger through a protective, bulletproof glass but not touching.

But this is different. This fear carries over to my daily life and affects one of my favourite things in the world—sleep. So why would I want to see this film?

Different horror movie tropes appeal to different people. I think, for example, some people are into zombie movies because zombies represent utter, mindless conformity and this terrifies them; maybe they feel afraid of becoming exactly like everyone else or perhaps it’s a righteous acknowledgement that the world is full of vacuous automatons.

My monsters of choice are demons. I think it’s because they embody pure, supernatural evil and I don’t believe in evil. That’s not to say I don’t believe in evil acts or evil intentions, but I don’t believe in a supernatural, capital-E Evil.

People do evil things and we judge them according to our own backgrounds. Is murder an evil act? Most people would say yes. Is discriminating against gays evil? I think it is, though many people who consider themselves Christian, who believe in Evil, would disagree. If evil exists outside of us, then it’s not our fault. If we can quantify it as something different from us; something separate and distinct, then people commit evil acts because of Evil. And all we need to do is resist that Evil, fight a mythological fight, and we’re good. It’s simple. There’s no moral ambiguity.

It’s more complicated than that though. People kill other people because they’re poor and desperate, because they’re weak, because they’re mentally ill. They kill other people because they make a choice to. They have lived their lives up to that point and their past and experiences and their own inner natures have brought them there and they make the choice to commit an evil act. It’s not supernatural, it’s human.

But I wish there were Evil, I wish there were demons. It would be so easy. There’d be no grey, only black and white. If true Evil existed the little choices you make each day would matter less because they never truly add up to anything; only the big choices, the decisions you make concerning Evil would really matter and all you’d need to do is recognise those choices. And our daily mundanity would evaporate because there’d be true, righteous meaning. Metaphor would become reality.

This is why I wanted to see Paranormal Activity 2: part of me likes having to sleep with the lights on, likes being afraid of a supernatural evil that’s lurking in the darkness. I want to believe there’s something out there that’s Evil. I want to believe in black and white and not in this maddening, never-ending grey.

So I went to see Paranormal Activity 2. It’s totally crap. I wasn’t scared at all.

Fear and Loathing in Islington

•September 26, 2010 • 2 Comments

Friday night I was on my way home from a pub in Islington. A friend walked me to the bus stop—it wasn’t that late, around midnight, but we were going the same way. After he left I pulled out my mobile to check my email and a man came up to the bus stop. He was creepy. He skulked. He looked like the love child of Tommy Wiseau and Buffalo Bill.

He saw me sitting on the bench in the bus shelter and, standing in front of me, tried to start a conversation. I couldn’t catch most what he said as he mumbled to me; he was clearly either mentally ill or on some drug I’ve never seen anyone on before. He didn’t seem drunk, or even high. He just seemed off.

“Do you want a cigarette?” he asked me.

“No,” I said, politely but firmly, and went back to my emails.

The man stepped a bit closer. “You look nice,” he said.

I kept looking at my iPhone, having long since gone through the couple of emails I had and tried to surreptitiously pull my cardigan around my rather low-cut top. A female friend of a friend earlier in the night had told me I had “magnificent bosoms”. I’d been chuffed. Then. Now I wished I were wearing a really big sweatshirt and an overcoat.

This man kept talking to me and I was getting more and more uncomfortable. Sometimes, on my way home after a night out, drunk men, or, more accurately, boys, can be a bit assertive in trying to talk. They’ll ask my name, my number. A couple have even followed me towards my flat if I’d passed them while they were coming out of the bars at the top of my hill. But I’d never been scared of them. They were just annoyances, not dangerous. But this man scared me like no one ever has. He just wasn’t right.

The bus was due. I moved to the curb to wait for it and he followed, still smoking. I saw the bus coming and put my hand out to call it. He said, “Please, let me do it.”

I said, “I’ve got it,” and kept my arm out.

The bus came and I climbed on, hoping he was getting on a different bus, but not looking  back to check. Regardless, I decided that a) I would stay on the bottom level and b) I would sit next to someone else, so there’d be no empty seat next to me for him to sit in.

On the lower level of the buses like the type I was on, there are a few rows of seats leading towards the back of the bus, then a step up with more rows of seats. On the driver’s side, perpendicular and next to the first row on the step up, is another seat, facing the opposite side of the bus across the aisle instead of forward. I sat next to a woman in that row on the opposite side of the perpendicular chair, on the aisle. Unfortunately, my cleverness only went so far because the man sat in the seat directly across the aisle from me next to another woman and only about 2 feet away.

He kept trying to talk to me and I kept ignoring him. I considered going up to the top level, but thought he may follow me and it would be better to stay where I was. The man finally gave up trying to talk to me and simply stared. The person next to him got off the bus and he sat himself in the perpendicular seat instead, stretching his legs onto the other seats so he could see me from the front instead of my profile. I never looked at him, but I could see him out of the corner of my eye, staring.

I was beginning to freak out a bit. I didn’t know what to do, so I began to text people who I knew would still be awake. I don’t know why, it doesn’t make any sense, but I felt like I needed to be in contact with people I knew. I think I wanted him to know that people knew where I was, that I had connections to other people, that, I don’t know, I’d be missed if anything happened.

The man began making noises, possibly to get me to look at him, as he continued to stare. At first he started laughing, increasingly loudly and increasingly crazy. Then he began to cough. He coughed a bit, then paused, then coughed again, then paused, then coughed louder and louder until it was impossible to tell if he was laughing again or still coughing. Meanwhile we were heading closer and closer to my stop. I tried to read the book I had with me, but couldn’t process any of the sentences.

I began to plan what I would do if he followed off the bus. If he tried to talk to me again I would tell him firmly to leave me alone. If he persisted, I would go into the off-license on the corner where the guys behind the counter know me since I buy milk there a couple of times a week. They would surely intervene if I said I was being harassed, call the police or something. If he didn’t follow me into the off-license but appeared when I came out, I would go to the nice, rather large bouncer outside the club up the road from my flat and explain to him what was going on. He could call the police or scare the man into leaving me alone or even get someone to walk me down the road to my flat. At the very least, I could carry my keys and use one to stab him in the eye if he physically threatened me, something we’d learned in mandatory self-defense classes in high school.

We approached a major stop on the route and he began waving his arms violently in front of his face. By now I couldn’t tell if he was still trying to get my attention or if he’d just completely had a psychotic break. But, miracle of miracles, he got off the bus at the next stop without talking to me again. I nearly cried with relief.

Thinking about it now, I wonder if I didn’t overreact. Maybe he actually was just high or a harmless eccentric, or someone with a harmless mental illness, I don’t know. But I’m not easily spooked by people. There was something seriously wrong with this guy.

What I do know is that I felt vulnerable and exposed and in danger and I didn’t like it. I don’t like it. I’m not freaked out anymore, but I’m angry. Nobody has the right to make someone else feel like that.

In college, whenever I walked from the campus center or between quads in the middle of the night, any one of my guy friends would insist on coming with me. Though I understood, and understand, the need, and totally loved them for doing it, I resented that it was necessary. There’s something diminishing in needing to be escorted around after dark, as if I were a child instead of a woman. It takes away from your identity, your sense of self.

I don’t want to change how I dress because of some crazy freak, and I won’t. I don’t want to change my social habits or the hours I keep, and I won’t. But I know that this is the world we live in, and there are certain comforts and protections we give up for the freedom to wear what we want and do what we want. I think the key is to make yourself feel less vulnerable, less defenseless, whether by carrying pepper spray or taking a self-defense course. Me, I think it’s time to find a class in Krav Maga. Even if I never have to use it, there’s power in knowing that I could.

My Own Criminal Mind

•September 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment

British people (or at least people who program British television) really love American police procedurals. At any time of the day, somewhere on my 500 or so channels there will be multiple Law and Orders, CSIs, NCISes, Mentalists, Mediums, Castles. I like watching the Law and Orders because they’re filmed in NY (CSI: NY—epic FAIL as it’s taped in LA), but I’ve found lately that I’ve become increasingly addicted to Criminal Minds. I’m not completely comfortable with this.

The show is about a group of criminal profilers in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. The murders they investigate, generally serial killings, are unusually grisly and disturbing, which I don’t exactly have a problem with. What makes me uncomfortable is that Criminal Minds seems to take nearly as much delight in showing the torture and agony of the victims as it does in the pursuit of justice, which makes it exploitative. It’s like TV’s answer to torture porn, though it tries to moderate this by taking itself VERY SERIOUSLY.

It also luridly focuses much of its violence on women. Granted, if most serial killers are men and most serial killings have a sexual component and, percentage-wise, most men are straight, then the majority of people killed by serial killers will be women. It’s just that it takes such a prurient glee in the violence and then tries to cover it up with pithy moralizing.

I’m not priggish. I understand the need for some violence in plot development, for artistic purposes, to make a point. But something about the way Criminal Minds focuses so much on that torture leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

So I’ve thought long and hard about why I actually like the show. It’s not especially well written. It’s not especially well directed. It’s not even filmed in NY. Finally, I realized my reason can be summed up in three words: Matthew Gray Gubler.

Anybody who knows me and has seen MGG on Criminal Minds would realise immediately how much I’d fancy him. He’s thin to the point of sickly and desperately needs a haircut while his character, Dr Spencer Reid, is brilliant and absurdly logical. Dialogue sample:

Dr. Spencer Reid: A popular theory among leading astrophysicists estimates that the hyper-matter reactor would need about 10³² Joules of energy to destroy a planet the size of Earth. Now, Lucas said it took 19 years to build the first Death Star, right? If you look at the universal chronology, there’s a tested prototype for Superlaser – where’re you going?

Derek Morgan: To take back the last five minutes of my life.

I love him! The first time I watched Criminal Minds with my parents and Dr Spencer Reid came on screen my mom said to me, “You like him, don’t you.” It was a statement, not a question. And of course I did: he’s Spock and Data and the Tenth Doctor all rolled into one.

Even in the most horrific of episodes, I find myself mesmerized by his pedantic monologues, his awkward interactions, his possible borderline schizophrenia. So I watch each episode my DVR records (and it records at least two a day) and cringe and roll my eyes during most of it. But then, like some gawky, geeky dreamboat Dr Spencer Reid appears and soothes away all my moral qualms and objections.

I’m not proud of this. But, as they say, the heart wants what the heart wants, even if that means watching someone else’s heart being ripped out and used to make wind chimes.*

* I’m making that up. It was really just human rib bones that were used to make the wind chimes in an episode, not the actual hearts.

Take 3-D…please

•August 26, 2010 • 2 Comments

I love movies. When they’re good they are the most collaborative of art forms—individuals working together to craft something beautiful, a whole that’s greater than its parts. Unfortunately, not all movies are good. Many of them are, frankly, awful, especially when making money usurps creative expression as a film’s driving force. Hence my impatience with the latest gimmick to part moviegoers with cash and buffer sub-mediocre story lines: 3-D.

In the interest of full disclosure I should admit that I can’t actually see the 3-D in movies. Literally—I have no binocular depth perception. I had strabismus as a kid and never developed 3-D vision; it’s why I’m so bad at softball (OK, maybe not the only reason). So these new school 3-D effects that are supposed to add lush depth to film are completely lost on me. Instead, I sit wearing pointless red and blue plastic glasses staring at a screen that would look no different were it in 2-D. But that does put me in a unique position to be able to judge the merit of the films beyond the gimmick.

To be fair, I’m not a special effects person. Or I think it’s more that I’m a story person. I like heady, convoluted plots that twist and turn and surprise. I was livid, for example, when Titanic beat L.A. Confidential for the best picture Oscar in 1998. Sure, Titanic looks pretty and it’s kinda cool when the boat splits in half. But L.A. Confidential is simply brilliant. There’s one scene early in the film, when Guy Pearce’s Ed Exley discovers the massacre in the restroom of the Nite Owl Café, that is the cinematic equivalent of a descent into Dante’s Inferno. The brief depiction of the carnage is at once poetic and visceral; Curtis Hanson (the film’s director) manages to evoke profound horror and dread with the simple act of opening a door. Titanic’s insipid story and grandiose direction can’t come close to matching the effectiveness of this one scene. But, hey, Titanic has special effects.

The problem is that effects too often mask movies that are otherwise awful. Compare The Empire Strikes Back to Attack of the Clones. Both films have special effects, but in Empire they take a subservient role to the actual story and hence it is a cinematic gem, one of the best action films ever made (fact). In Attack of the Clones, however, the effects ARE the story. And Attack of the Clones sucks.

(Once, in the years between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, I couldn’t remember if the second Star Wars film had been released yet. That’s how much impact it had on me—I couldn’t remember if it had ever existed. I had to look it up. Even now I can’t remember anything that happened in it, except when I occasionally have a flashback to some awful, stunted scene between Padmé and Anakin.)

Or take Chinatown. Chinatown didn’t need to be 3-D. Why? Because, unlike Avatar, it has an actual plot, at once brilliant and compelling. On the other hand, I still don’t understand what all the fuss over Avatar is about. It has the most hackneyed of plots, so much so that I was able to predict the entire story arc less than 5 minutes into the movie. At one point during yet another so dramatic slow motion scene I sighed really loudly and then felt guilty about disturbing others around me. Until I heard my brother-in-law in the next chair start to snore.

The point is, effects should be secondary to plot. They should accent it and flavour it and never outshine it. The transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London is amazing and groundbreaking, but it works in service to the rest of the story. Not in substitute.

So my point is that 3-D has become just the newest way of obfuscating the lack of story in bad movies. I fully admit that I may lose something in not being able to see the 3-D, but no special effects can completely make up for a terrible story. Give me a great plot over visual grandiosity any day.

Apparently my honour needs protecting…

•August 11, 2010 • 1 Comment

I believe in gay marriage. Without a doubt, without question, without hesitation I believe that members of the queer community have every right to socially and legally commit to the person they love and wish to spend their life with, and to be able to call it the same thing as everyone else in the world. Not separate but equal, but exactly the same. I honestly don’t understand why anyone would even think of creating legislation outlawing it (especially since the US separates church and state and may not legislate according to religious beliefs). As my dad once said, why the hell would anyone care about gays getting married besides gays who want to get married?

Ever since Judge Vaughan Walker overturned California’s Proposition 8, though, there’s been an even further hysteria among conservatives who fear gay marriage will somehow impinge upon their lives. Today I read an article on slate.com which distilled the points made in a couple of opinion pieces criticising the judge’s decision, and something that I’ve always known inherently was suddenly crystallised in my mind: the battle for gay rights and equality is inextricably entwined with the battle for women’s rights and equality.

So beyond the moral and ethical and constitutional questions of restricting the rights of a minority group, my opposition to Prop 8, and all legislation that seeks to define marriage, is that they’re subversively anti-feminist. Take Ross Douthat writing in the NY Times a couple of days ago. He doesn’t argue that allowing gay marriage diminishes an ancient tradition (because, obviously, the ancient tradition of marriage is of a business transaction between two men, a father and a potential husband), but instead devalues an institution that is the rock upon which western civilization currently rests because it is the only one that naturally bears children.

The unspoken assertion here is that the highest aspiration in society, what’s sacred, what must be protected at all costs is the unit that produces children. We elevate child rearing as the pinnacle of human endeavours.

And that’s where I start feeling a personal threat in the whole conservative idea of marriage and family. I’m a straight woman. I’m single, though I’m not averse to the idea of marriage. And I never want kids.

So while I’m not specifically included in the moral outrage against gay marriage I’m still uncomfortable by its tacit assertion that people who have children have a higher status in the community, a life with greater meaning.

Look, I don’t hate kids. I love my friends’ kids and I like playing with them and seeing them grow and buying them things. I look forward to my brother and sister having kids so I can be a really cool aunt. But I just don’t feel any need to have my own. I don’t see this as selfish: it seems to me that succumbing to a biologic need for procreation isn’t any less selfish than deciding that shouldering the responsibility of raising another human being is not for you. I respect everyone’s right to make that choice.

But in elevating couples who rear children above all other relationships, the Prop 8s of the world demean this choice. They insinuate that part of my inherent value is that I can produce children and since I don’t and any relationship I enter into won’t, I and it matter less.

So when this tool in the Christian Science Monitor writes:

Marriage is not about couples or lovers it’s about the physical and moral integrity of women. When a woman’s sexuality is involved, human communities must deal with a malign force that an individual woman and her family cannot control or protect.

My first reaction is: wait, what?

My second reaction is: no, seriously, what?

What Schulman seems to be saying is that my sexuality, my physical and moral integrity, must be protected by my community. I think he means against being seen as an object of sexuality instead of a holy vessel inside which life is nurtured and created. If it weren’t for marriage then men, evil, bad men who would never consider regarding me as a full person but only as a virgin, mother or whore, would rape me and turn me into a concubine or prostitute.

And there’s a serious inference of ownership in there. Not only does modern western marriage tame the wild rapist that exists within every man, but it gives him ownership over the sexuality of the woman he’s protecting. A husband doesn’t run around raping other women partially because marriage forces him to see women as bearers of his children, and also because he knows that these other women have men who will protect them from his aggression.

So not only do my relationships and my person mean less than a woman’s who marries and bears children, but I am also leaving myself open to be defiled by lust-filled guys; and, conceivably, this is my own fault for not having yet availed myself of the protection that marriage brings. Wow. That’s a little too Taliban-esque for my liking.

I don’t even think I can be snarky over this. It’s just asinine drivel. Maybe in Sam Schulman’s weird fantasy world women are weak flowers who need to be protected and cosseted, but in my world women can take care of themselves and own their own sexuality without needing a man to guard their moral and physical integrity. Slate says Schulman’s and Douthat’s arguments have “the virtue of targeting two of [conservatives] favourite demons: gays and uppity women”. I agree: it’s so ridiculous it can only be propaganda. In reality, relationships, and marriage dammit, are not about ownership and protecting the (ostensibly) weaker sex but about commitment and love. And occasionally about affording a mortgage but that’s a whole nother story.

I’m kidding. Jeez.