Monday, November 25, 2013

The Hard Boiled Male Gaze

The concept of the “Male Gaze” usually pertains to films.  In 1975 Laura Mulvey wrote the essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been
split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze
projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In
their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and
displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire. Mainstream film neatly combined spectacle and narrativeThe presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to workagainst the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative. As Budd Boetticher has put it:
What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.

However, after consecutively reading around 20 novels in a row by the classic mystery/crime writers Dashiell Hammt, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Mickey Spillane, all in a row, I’m feeling a self-consciousness  even stronger than the usual, caused by gaze and endless descriptions of women’s bodies provided by these 4 writers.  These descriptions are somewhat a requirement for this genre, maybe not anymore, but during the time that the  bulk of all 4 writers’ novels were published (1930’s-50’s), pre-dates the women’s lib movement (some of Spillane’s later novels have hippie chicks and feminists in them, but they all suffer violent deaths!).  I think that since so many of their novels existed before TV was a standard part of entertainment, these novels were a popular, populist form of entertainment, so it follows that, since visual T&A wasn’t very accessible, male readers would want a little sex in their reading.  I remember a bit of dialogue in the (1955) movie Marty where two average Joes are talking about the newest Mickey Spillane novel and how his protagonist Mike Hammer really knows how to treat a dame – these days you don’t usually see scenes depicting a couple of Average Joes talking about the latest novel they’ve just read.

I’m not really criticizing the treatment of women in these novels, because with the exception of the truly stupid and inane Mickey Spillane novels, still fun to read, these other 3 writers are kinder to their female characters than I assumed they would be when I started to read these works.  The male protagonists (again, except for Spillane’s Mike Hammer) always spare the female bad guys any bodily injury, and there are several female characters past what we consider their sexual prime today who serve as the romantic interests.  There are several women who are described as attractive who are either in their 30s or 40s or who are big and tall.  I found that kind of endearing, instead of hot 20 year old skinny girls, though I guess these writers may have just had the tastes common to their generation, the women’s bulky suit jackets in the 40’s, and the wide-hipped women of the fifties… still, I was surprised that women pushing middle age were described so often as being desirable.  But oh my gosh, the never-ending descriptions!  These guys just go on and on about the minutiae of the female characters, from the arch of their eyebrows and lips to the way their areolae are a lighter pink than the rest of their nipples, from the circumference of their ankles in comparison with their calves to the way their thighs push against the fabric of their skirts and the pointiness of their canine teeth.  Who knew men noticed such things?; I always think of the male reaction to a women’s looks as a sort of instantaneous bolt of lightning, not a study and extensive pro/con list of each body part.  Maybe after awhile a man will start to notice all the little things and think to himself something along the lines of ‘I like the freckles on her face better than the ones on her arms’ or some other minute observation bred by familiarity, but these male protagonists are drinking in all the finest details the first time they see these women.  And now I’m feeling shy about my outie belly -button and the fact that my fingernails are so short.  I have several big features that deviate from the mainstream beauty ideal, like messed up teeth and hair armpits, but those are features I’ve grown to love, and now I’m wondering what tiny little detail is being noticed.  Do I have a smell I’m not aware of?  Are my lips uncommonly thin?  Are my ankles too bony? 

Usually I don’t like it when women who pride themselves on reading or writing only read female writers, because it seems one should be more well-rounded than that, but after this big bunch of picky male gazes, I’m ready for a year of Alice Munro, Carol Shields and Joan Didion.  This happened to me for years in high school, when I was reading the 4-novel series of Rabbit novels by john Updike, and got fed up with Updike’s ridiculous descriptions of women’s feelings – I truly started feeling sorry for women he knew in real life and the way he must have constantly ignored and misunderstood them.  In these Rabbit novels, it’s not just the way the male protagonist perceives women that’s irritating, but also the way Updike as a writer describes women in the 3rd person omniscient voice; an omniscient point of view is supposed to be like God reading all the characters’ thoughts and seeing all of their actions simultaneously instead of just seeing what’s in front of them, as the first person narrator does – so it was weird to read these novels where EVERY man in Updike’s world was sexist and EVERY woman was a dumb asshole.  After all that Updike I was ready for miles and miles of Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. 

After a while, I returned to male writers, and after re-reading the Rabbit books in my early 20’s, they became 4 of my favorite novels, partially because the male protagonist is such a weak person with such pathetic but grandiose gestures of compassion, just like the male protagonists in the films of Woody Allen, one of my favorite film-makers.  These male anti-heroes are so self-defeating that they become underdogs and I have always rooted for the underdog.  In contrast, the men in the Cain, Chandler, Spillane and Hammett novels I just put to bed are more hero than anti-hero, so I’m inclined to dislike them, and to want to yell into the pages “Hey, stop looking at her tits!”

p.s. None of this means I didn't LOVE reading all these hard-boiled detective novels.  My favorites were Chandler's The Long Goodbye, and James M. Cain's Serenade.  


Friday, November 15, 2013

Short Story: Persecution

When I was 15 years old, I awoke one morning to the vision of a tall, horned, upright creature, with huge talons, a huge erect penis, and sharp teeth dripping black saliva.  This, I knew, was what some people imagined a demon to look like.  I was so tired I didn’t care what happened to me as long as I didn’t have fully awaken, so I turned to face the wall, like que sera sera, and I just went back to sleep.   There were no unexplained wounds on my body when I woke up later that morning, and I didn’t feel any differently than I had the day before – I didn’t feel haunted or hunted or sick, so while I never forgot the visitation, I reconciled the experience to an upsetting experience that made me feel sorry for myself and scared of dying young.  Something else weird happened later that same year.  I was playing Ouija Board with two of my friends during one of our gin-and-Pepsi slumber parties.  I was not scared of the Ouija Board, because it was a mass-marketed toy.  What happened when we asked our first question, though, which was “Is there a spirit in this room?,” is truly unexplainable through fact or objectivity.  Without waiting for us to put any of the pressure of our fingertips all the way on the plastic tool that’s supposed to laboriously creep towards the letters printed on the board, the device scooted quickly with the revolting, mysterious insistence of a Mexican Jumping Bean, and we read as the spirit in the room communicated the sentence, “Yes, Sandy.”  That’s my name, Sandy.  “Ask it why it only spoke to me,” I uncomfortably insisted.  I didn’t put my fingers anywhere near the plastic pointer this time, and the other two girls just barely did.  “Why did you say Sandy’s name?” they asked aloud, and then we watched the pointer spell out, “Hell,” and then it circled around the entire board before spelling “Hell,” again, and then “Pussy.”  I knew my friends, who were both sweet and rather unimaginative girls, weren’t playing a trick on me because I saw it with my own eyes, I saw that they barely touched that little plastic device, and why would one of them, Chris, have started crying and said “You guys, we shouldn’t do this anymore,” if she’d been playing a trick on me? 

When I think about it, which I do sometimes, usually after watching a horror movie or overhearing a conversation between Christians, I can’t believe that I go on living a normal life, considering the vision I had of the demon and the foul-mouthed spirit who singled me out on the Ouija Board.  Why “Pussy?”  Why would the spirit spell out “hell, hell, pussy?”  As I type it out like this, I see how funny it seems, but in truth it’s the irreverence of this curse that most disturbs me.  I’ve read about astral projections a little bit, and there’s a theory that people who are able to control their ability to project their spirits out of their bodies play tricks on those who play with Ouija Boards, using the board as a conduit to spook people who could physically be as far away from an astral projector as, as across the world, across the country.  This is one explanation.

The thing that bothers me the most about these little interludes of evil is something I learned in a course I took during my Master’s program, about the power of myth.  We read a lot about the power of suggestion, and I was particularly interested in some of the compelling proof some people have that Near Death Experiences (NDE’S) are real.  Sometimes a person whose heart has momentarily stopped beating while on the operating table describes the experience of floating over their body, and in great detail, they can often describe the medical procedures the surgeon is performing on them, with surprising accuracy for a person who has no medical training.  As proof of a genuine NDE, these descriptions of the medical procedures their floating souls witness aren’t altogether successful, because there are so many graphic medical dramas on tv these days.  A person can watch a show that takes place in a hospital and see a fairly realistic portrayal of excess fluid being suctioned from a lung or the suture of a torn aorta, so a patient who feels they are experiencing a NDE could in fact simply be recollecting a scene from tv when they return to consciousness and think they have returned from an out of body experience.  There have been tests done, however, to test the veracity of NDE’s, thought up by scientists who supposedly have no belief in the supernatural, only the objective curiosity to understand an experience they don’t believe in.  There have been certain surgery rooms, for instance, where patterns have been painted on the floor that a patient is unable to see when they are being wheeled into the room on a gurney, often already under anesthesia.  In a case where a patient nearly didn’t survive her surgery, losing her heartbeat for a full two minutes, she claimed to have floated above her body, and, compellingly, she described in perfect detail the patterns she saw painted on the floor when she was floating above her own surgery.
It was interesting to read how similarly these NDE’s were described; the patient felt a comforting warmth radiate from an unearthly beautiful white light.  In more than one interview with a person who felt they’d had a genuine NDE, they explained that they hadn’t been religious before the experience, and that, as peaceful as they have felt since basking in that beautiful light, they have not taken the experience as a sign of the existence of God; instead, the  beauty and happiness they felt while temporarily dead was a reassurance that the need for religion is unnecessary.   Just being alive, without placing life in any narrative or moral framework, is enough.  That is what I liked most in the reading we did in this course. 

However, there was also something I read that I don’t like to remember.  In some cases, a person, a person with no sign of unkindness or belief in heaven or hell, would die for a few moments on the operating table and feel that they’d transcended their bodies, but instead of the warmth and the comfort, they were bombarded with terror and visions of viciousness more perverse than these victims thought they could ever dream up.  For these poor few, they would feel an unending uneasiness afterwards.  

I wonder why this would happen to some people.  Why would one person be treated to a transformative vision of peace, and another person be singled out for a first-hand knowledge of true ugliness?  I think there is a bottomless pit of horror.  I don’t know why this would be, and who, if not a god, would possess such an omnipotent disgust with humanity.  We are just flesh and blood, like a steak or a cat who dies under the tire of an SUV.  We swim like fish, unaware of how expansive is the ocean, how heavy the weight of the water.  I just walk and breathe and work and love my family and sleep and sometimes cry or go out somewhere new.  
Why me?  

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Interview with Vic Godard

My husband and I were listening to the Vic Godard & Subway Sect "What's the Matter, Boy?" cd, driving around, and it struck me it'd probably be a shot in the dark but I should try to contact him for an interview.  Vic Godard is a living legend, and, as it turns out, a gentleman who responded sweetly to my request, and has provided very interesting and insightful answers, better than I could have ever imagined.  


Vic Godard (born Vic Napper in London, England) is a vocalist, Subway Sect frontman, songwriter & postman.   Vic's musical adventure which has taken him from post-punk to postman began in 1976 when he formed the Subway Sect with assorted South London soul boys, Rob Symmons (aka Simmons/Miller) on guitar, Paul Myers on bass & Ray Price on drums (replaced later in 76 by Paul Packham (aka Smith) then Mark Laff, then Bob Ward). They formed at the suggestion of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (who wanted another band for the line-up of the 100 Club Punk Festival) after spotting Vic, Rob & Paul at a Sex Pistols gig. Despite their inexperience, Subway Sect made a successful debut at the festival. They went on tour with The Clash on their White Riot Tour in 1977, as well as becoming a regular feature on the new Punk scene.

Other incarnations of Subway Sect, with different sounds (London Soul/Funk, Jazz, Swing, Motown), and Mr. Godard has worked with other bands as well.  Here's a discography:

1. What's The Matter Boy?                   10. Sansend
Vic Godard & Subway Sect.                   Vic Godard
Oddball/MCA LP 1980                         Motion CD 2002

2. Songs For Sale                           11. Singles Anthology
Vic Godard & Subway Sect.                   Vic Godard
MCA LP 1982                                                                  Motion CD 2005

3. A Retrospective (1977-81)                 12. 1978 NOW 
Vic Godard                                   Subway Sect
Rough Trade LP 1985                          Overground CD 2007 

4. We Oppose All Rock & Roll (1976-80)       13. Live In Stereo 
Subway Sect                                  Vic Godard   
Overground 2xCD 1996                         GNU INC CD 2009   

5. T.R.O.U.B.L.E.                           14. We Come As Aliens              
Vic Godard                                   Vic Godard & Subway Sect
Rough Trade LP 1986                    Overground CD / GNU INC vinyl 2010             

6. In T.R.O.U.B.L.E. again                  15. Peel Sessions 
Vic Godard                                  Subway Sect
Tugboat CD 1998                             GNU INC CD 2011 

7. End Of The Surrey People                 16. Live & Rare Vol1 
Vic Godard                                  Subway Sect
Postcard LP & CD 1993                       GNU INC 006 CD 2011  

8. LONG TERM SIDE-EFFECT                    17. Live & Rare Vol2 
Vic Godard                                  Subway Sect
Tugboat CD 1998                             GNU INC 007 CD 2012 

9. 20 Odd Years                                               18. 1979 NOW! 
Subway Sect                                  Vic Godard & Subway Sect 
 Motion 2xCD 1999                            AED LP COMING 2013 



What do you like about being a postman?  How did you fall into the profession?  Is it a profession you have a particular more-than-professional interest in, like have you read Charles Bukowski’s writing about being a postman?  Do people often recognize you as Vic Godard from Subway Sect?  

I like the adventure of being a postman as I never know where I'll be from one day to the next and from an early age I've always liked Human Geography. I've never read any Bukowski, but in the late eighties several workmates told me about him.I do get recognised now and again.   

What is your favorite song of your own?

Nobody's Scared-the first one I wrote.
I’ve noticed that many English or Irish singers have an American accent when they sing, with the exception of some bands, like The Arctic Monkeys, The Undertones, and of course, Shane MacGowan.  Have you noticed that?  If so, do you have a theory about why this is? 
 I loved David Bowie singing in English when I was a kid and still listen to his old stuff like Did You Ever Have a Dream and London Boys.I think its very natural for singers from  Ireland and the North[except Mark E] to sing in American as its closer to their language than us in London.

Are there any newer bands or musicians you like, and if so, who?

Some of the groups I like- Sexual Objects,Mates Mates,The Embassy[Goteborg] and Flo Fernandez,Kill Pretty,The Blue Orchids The Bitter Springs, although they are not all new.
What are your favorite books and movies and do they influence any of your lyrics?  Assuming you’re a Jean-Luc Godard fan, what is your favorite film of his, and is French New Wave cinema a particular interest of yours?

My favourite books are too numerous to mention but they all come from the 1770's to the late 1800's and would be bracketed as European Romanticism but here are some books that have influenced my lyrics:

My Phantoms, Spirite and The Mummys Romance by Gautier, Valois Tales by Nerval, Colomba by Merimee,The Devil's Elixir of ETA Hoffman,The Devil in Love by Jacques Cazotte and Undine by de la Motte Fouque. 
French New Wave was a formative influence on me as I used to go and see a lot of late night films in the seventies.Godard and Malle were particular favourites and Truffaut's Les 400 Coups is still my favourite film.

What was your childhood like?

Nothing like Antoine Doinel's [thank goodness]. I spent a lot of time outdoors and had lots of adventures with my friend Peter like helping the milkman do his round, visiting a railway signal box and once we found tickets for a Chelsea match (I'm a supporter). I loved school after the first week but had nightmares about it before I went. Luckily I could already do the three Rs thanks to my family who encouraged an enquiring mind.When I left secondary school I was devastated -it was like the end of the world.... but luckily I recovered. 

Any outstanding story you’d like to tell from the White Riot tour with the Clash in 1977?  I was born in 1979 so this was before my time, but when I see documentaries like The Filth and the Fury or Clash Westways to the World, or even the punk band family tree in the liner notes of the “Generation X: Perfect Hits 1975-1981” cd, it looks like you guys were all friends or acquaintances and all in each other’s bands and would just like go to a Sex Pistols show and start some new art revolution while running into each other.  Was at all like this, or is this a hindsight romanticizing.

I haven't seen the documentaries but from our point of view we felt like outsiders although the other groups we ran into went out of their way to help us as It was obvious we were hopeless, so I think they felt sorry for us.The other thing was we were terrified and it showed, at our first gig at the 100 Club it was mostly down to Ray Burns from the Damned and Johnny,Steve and Glen from the Sex Pistols that we got through it. After that we got guidance and assistance from the Clash and from the Buzzcocks. I do remember one memorable night on the White Riot tour when we swapped places with the roadies for the night- they did a set of VU numbers and we ran around the stage with gaffer tape pretending we knew what we were doing.   

What is your favorite incarnation of Subway Sect? 

I've enjoyed playing with every incarnation of the Sect-the set lists are so different from one line up to another so I never get too comfortable with what I'm doing. Musically speaking the 1981-1982 Sect were in a league of their own compared to the rest but that came about by hard work -practicing daily and a huge amount of gigs.We had the punk attitude that came with doing supper-club swing just as sequencers drum machines and synths were becoming a dominant force..

You have a song inspired by the death of Johnny Thunders?  Were you two close or was he just someone you admired and/or pitied?

 Pity certainly never came into it-he was someone I looked up to and when he brought his group The Heartbreakers here in the winter of 76 we were not disappointed. He was also Sid's idol and Chinese Rocks was the first song I learned on the guitar thanks to him.I'd never seen chords bent till Pirate Love,and Born to Lose is one of the Punk Classics.I never met him but he did phone me asking for advice on drummers in London, I suggested Terry Chimes and he did join the group briefly. What was amazing about the call was that he phoned while Babylon was blaring from my record player so I put the phone up and told him. In my book he is up there with Berry and Diddley Daddy.  

I’m American and have never heard “Subway Sect” as a phrase.  I know what a subway is, and that a sect is like a small group within a larger group who have different beliefs than the majority.  Did you make up the name and if so what does it mean? 

We took the name from the subway under the one way system in Hammersmith near where we lived.Sect came from a group from the sixties who also came from our corner of South West London called The Downliners Sect,who used to dress up as Sherlock Holmes,which we liked.Our main template at the time were the Velvet Underground so the Subway bit also fitted with that.The first name we came up with was The Numbhearts so I'm glad we arrived at Subway Sect. 

Any closing thoughts to impart to this interviewer (A HUGE fan) and her blog readers?

Keep a look out on the website or facebook for gigs and releases-30 Odd Years double CD will be out in January, followed by 1979 Now, the northern soul LP and I'm also recording a new batch of songs in 2014. On the gig front I'm off to Scotland this month singing with The Sexual Objects, playing the whole of Whats The Matter Boy, then Subway Sect Gigs in London Newcastle and Brighton and doing a couple of Blackpool songs with The Bitter Springs at their London gig.