Friday, 23 December 2011

Jeffrey Lewis is a cult boyfriend

Overheard at his recent gig in Bristol: "Everyone here thinks that they know Jeffrey Lewis". And it's true; Jeffrey Lewis invites a sort of over-familiarity, both on and off record. It may be to do with the fact that he doesn't so much sing as he does speak with little affectation and a blatant disinterest in technique. Raw vocals are an obvious summation of his voice, perhaps but it’s a perfectly apt description. He has a distinct conversational tone which suggests that there is no distance, no skin between him and the listener. It is easy to feel like you are on intimate terms with him, especially when his American drawl breaks into a squeak ('Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song') or when he can't help laughing at his own sexual inadequacies ('Life'). As he pours his stream-of-consciousness lyrics into your ear, you believe every word that he is saying. It's like being involved in an intensely personal and private conversation with a good friend in a public place. Other people might end up hearing their words but still, their words were only ever intended for you.

Jeffrey Lewis is losing his hair. In Bristol, he tried to hide it by having it longer in the front and sweeping it into a cool guy haircut. But when he bends down over his guitar, the bald spot is there for everyone to see. But that is the appeal of Lewis. He feels so achingly human, so very accessible, so easy to relate to. He does not look down upon the masses as this blasé, cooler-than-thou rock star; his popularity and relative success has not turned him into one of life’s winners. After all, his songs have always concerned his failings in life: both the big ones which slap you in the face and the small ones which persistently itch. He is hopeless with women; he is no good with drugs. And when they’re at the best, his songs manage to walk the line between emotional honesty and a suitable level of self-awareness. ‘ Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror’ is still his best ever example of line walking. It’s a dark tale, a jet black comedy for our times, instantly recognisable to anyone who has had artistic pretensions. With lyrics that are as tight as telephone wires, Lewis both laments and lambasts the hipster indie rock lifestyle, where studied aloofness masks a desperate need to be validated: ‘noble starving artists fighting hard to feed our egos’. Lewis is making fun of Williamsburg scenesters but he also knows that he is part of that crowd and he shares their concerns and their fragility. He knows too well their insecurities. The lingering fear that behind dark glasses and great art, there is nothing but unoriginal and unpoetic brutality, is quite horrifying but also, quite funny.

Jeffrey Lewis with the amazing Peter Stampfel

Jeffrey Lewis is, in many ways, the culmination of his influences. He knows this, naming himself as a ‘cover artist in disguise’. The only way to get over the anxiety of influence is to accept that it exists. Lewis’s strength lies in a respectful and deferential deconstruction of his influences in order to produce a reading of folk/ punk/ rock music that is his own. Sure, he often gets it wrong, usually by tipping the balance between irony and sincerity, therefore, becoming either disingenuous or melodramatic. He always risks the possibility of becoming a parody of himself, not a cult boyfriend but a self-proclaimed cult boyfriend, too affected, too self-absorbed, too navel gazing and stoic to be any good in bed. But the majority of the time, he comes across as someone with no interest in trying to be cooler than he is, happy to expose the jugular, to write down the bones, to lay bare. And he’s probably a good lay as well.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Devil Knows My Name: The ambivalence of motherhood in 'We Need to Talk about Kevin'

There are very few mainstream anti-mothering films. Those that do exist tend to be horror-films which essentially take the pregnancy-as-infection/invasion discourse to its logical conclusions. Considering the massive physiological and hormonal changes the female body is forced to undergo through pregnancy, along with an ever growing baby bump which looks exactly like a massive tumour, it seems that pregnancy is uncomfortably close to being a disease. Films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Brood express this instinctual fear that pregnancy is not necessarily experienced as a powerful maternal bond which connects mother and baby as kin but rather, as an outside colonisation of the female body where a woman is forcibly disconnected from her own body, unable to recognise that which grows within her as a part of herself. This feeling can only be made worse by the societal expectation that she will be suddenly transformed into a paradigm of maternal instinct from the moment of conception. In this way, those films that do explore pregnancy as disease function as one of the only ways to offer up an alternative narrative of motherhood, one replete with the anxieties and fears that are so thoroughly jettisioned from normative ideals. Of course, they can only do this under the protective guise of horror or science-fiction which ensures that any controversy can be made palatable through an insistence on its fictive nature.

We Need to Talk about Kevin refuses to hide behind such notions although its director, Lynne Ramsey, has described it as a psychological horror. A few genre conventions aside, the film concerns itself with the reality of mother-hood, with the unsettling fact that it is possible to mother a child and from the moment of birth, feel nothing but absence. After giving birth to Kevin, Eva (Tilda Swinton) sits in a hospital bed, staring into the distance as her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) dissolves into his own deluded world, in love with the new baby. In one image, we see how isolating it must be to feel so separate from what is undeniably your own flesh and blood. And of course there are reminders of this everywhere, from the accusing looks from other women as she pushes a crying Kevin in his pram, to the similarity of their faces as Kevin grows into a coldly beautiful young boy. Precocious and dangerously intelligent, Kevin very quickly begins to actively participate in Eva’s ambivalent experiences of motherhood because he refuses to recognise her as kin either. Actually, he more than refuses to go along with her attempts to fulfil the traditional duties of mother as play-mate, teacher and confidante; he reveals these enactments as pure performance, reminding her that she is merely going through the motions. ‘Just because you're used to something doesn't mean you like it’ he says to her. ‘You're used to me’. She knows there is no point in contesting his implication.

We Need to Talk about Kevin has been called an anti-Oedipal film but I think that it is precisely the spectre of Oedipus which haunts its main concern- the relationship between Eva and Kevin. Really, Kevin is absolutely devoted to his mother in that his only desire is to destroy her. It is a commitment which becomes obsessive. Poor naïve Franklin barely comes into it except as a pawn in a terse battle of wills between mother and son. Kevin only pretends to be close to his father in order to more thoroughly torment his mother. Any identification is pure simulacrum; the mere fact that he can so easily manipulate Franklin means that there is no fear of castration here- Kevin does not see Franklin as being anywhere near his equal. Updating Freud’s original theory, Jacque Lacan envisioned the Oedipus complex as that which ‘superimposes the kingdom of culture upon the person, marking his or her introduction to Symbolic Order’ (Escrits). If we were going to read this film purely through a psychoanalytical lens, it could be argued that it is no surprise that Kevin becomes the amoral creature that he is. No resolution of the Oedipus complex means that he never has to recognise a symbolic system that is independent of him i.e. a societal moral code. Instead, Kevin is a grossly exaggerated Ubermensch, pure cartoon nihilism as read by a smart but stubborn teenager. ‘There is no point’ he says, dead eyes staring at the computer screen whilst his mother looks at him with hopeless despair.

And of course there is a vague sense of sexual tension between the two, although it’s hard to say if this was intentional or not. A lot of this comes down to the actor himself, Erza Miller, who is all pouty-lipped and snake hips, already sort of screaming sex anyway. The camera emphasises this physicality as it focuses in on specific parts of his body, the male gaze in reverse. He is nearly always shirtless or in tiny t-shirts which ride up to expose his stomach. It all adds up to an overt and somewhat disturbing sexiness, considering that Kevin is supposed to only be fifteen. But it adds a layer of Freudian complexity to what was already a deeply ambivalent relationship between him and Eva. He is not embarrassed about his sexuality; if anything, he parades it in front of her. In a scene where she catches him masturbating, he barely flinches. Instead, he continues, his eyes fixed resolutely on her until she closes the door, disturbed and offended. There is definitely a fuck you attitude there but there is also a sense of him displaying his sexuality as a dark threat. When he speaks in aggressive sexual terms about the girls in school, he is almost pushing her, daring her to admit that she has no traditional maternal feelings for him. With every languid movement, with every smirk, he forces a sexual element into their relationship which reminds her and us that this is no traditional mother and son paradigm. Indeed, what we understand to be natural and essentialised regarding being a mother or a son is suggested to be a societal fiction which has merely been naturalised into our present discourse.

Of course, despite everything, Eva and Kevin cannot do without each other. Ultimately, Kevin goes the way of Oedipus Rex, disposing of the father, finally alone with the mother. Towards the end of the film, we witness Eva fixing a room for Kevin which is identical to the one in their old house. It is understood that even though he has committed awful crimes against her, he will come back home after he is released from prison. She continues to visit him. She takes the punishment for her son’s sins with mute acceptance. And she accepts that he cannot really tell her why he did what he did. Perhaps because she knows deep down, that everything he does is about her. She is his entire life. Really, until the day that he enacted his will against a bunch of unsuspecting school children, the only person who knew what he was capable of was his mother. She was the only person he allowed to see it; in a twisted way, she is the only person he trusts. ‘It was the most honest thing you ever did’, he says, referring to a moment of domestic violence which he used as a gun held up to her head until the day of his crime. Her disavowal of motherhood means that she sees Kevin for whom and what he is, unlike Franklin who buries his head in blind paternal devotion. Despite his sociopathic lack of empathy, he seems to respect her for this. It is hard to tell whether his emotional reaction in their final scene is genuine or just another manipulation but therein lays the importance of the film. Everything is resolutely ambiguous when it comes to these mother-son interactions. There are no easy and ready answers.

And so too is this film’s honest and unflinching presentation of motherhood as it exposes the myths surrounding that strange ontological status, those very myths which continue to isolate and imprison women. Motherhood hangs over Eva like a dead weight, like an ill-fitting jumper. She never quite embodies it. But who can ever really embody that word, that notion- mother- when it is so heavy, so stuffed full with connotation and expectations and demands? We Need to Talk about Kevin is unique amongst modern mainstream cinema for daring to ask and encourage debate around central questions regarding motherhood. What does it mean to be a mother? Are you made a mother by virtue of giving birth or do you become one? What if you never really become one despite giving birth? What if you give birth to something that you despise? What to do if the devil doesn’t only know your name but shares your name and your blood?

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Excerpt from short story collection

Excerpt from a short story written by me. It will be part of a four story collection (illustrated by Andrew Godfrey) which you will be able to buy from me for £1.50 if you come to the Bristol Comic and Zine Fair on the 25th.

" After paying for their room, they seem to forget about sleep and invite me in to share their alcohol. They have a lot of stories and they want someone to tell them to. There was doing coke in a Memphis jazz club, where they were later thrown out for trying to sing along to the trumpets. There was passing through New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina and trying to communicate with the dead that they truly believed still haunted there. There was running out of gas halfway through Tennessee and having to sell Jenny’s vintage clothing at the side of the road for gas money. They picked up a stray kitten there, which they later gave away to some kids. They regretted the decision now. ‘Those kids were evil’, Steve says. ‘Tough little shits. They probably burned the kitten alive for kicks. But we were too stoned at the time to realise’.

The road stories keep on coming but I hear nothing about who they were before they started driving, whether they are married or having an affair, what they do for a living, not even their ages. It’s as if the past doesn’t exist for them, as if starting up that car erased all that had happened before. And in fact, the absence of past does not seem like an absence at all because it’s all about now, right now. What others might call absence is only irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. I wonder if that is what freedom is; having no past and not even noticing that you have no past."

Monday, 1 August 2011

Mini-comic on Borderline Personality Disorder

The beginnings of this collaboration between myself and a close friend can be found on the blog 'Better, Drawn' here. It is a bit unsettling to start the process of being open about something that has previously only ever been revealed on a need-to-know basis but also, strangely exciting.

It needs to be said that this panel is not going to be completely indicative of the work as a whole. It would be easy to just write about BPD negatively but I don't want to further perpetuate the stereotypes and associated stigma of the illness. It is certainly possible, with time and the right treatment, to live life well around and alongside BPD, if not recover completely. I don't think that this is said enough. Having BPD- or any mental illness- doesn't turn you into some cartoon version of a lunatic or a bunny boiler or someone incapable of rational thought. That said, whilst it is important to remove the stigma of mental illness and demonstrate that mental health/ illness always exists on a spectrum, it is also important to legitimise the very real presence of mental illness when it does strike. Otherwise, we risk suggesting that it doesn't really exist, thereby negating the validity of diagnosis and subsequent treatment. And then, what was meant to be liberating could only end up repeating prior injuries.

I was diagnosed when I was nineteen but it wasn't until last summer that I, my family and my doctors started taking my treatment seriously (being sectioned tends to do that). It shouldn't have taken so long and so much for all of us to get to that point. Recovery is hard enough without the incredible delay of treatment. A year later, I am nowhere near done. I may never be truly done. But in the meantime, the culmination of medication, treatment, good friends and vigilance has meant that I am coping. I laugh a lot in an obnoxiously loud way which I'm no longer embarassed about because I am truly grateful for that moment of joy. I try to enjoy myself and try to make sure other people enjoy my presence. I immerse myself in as many good things and good people as I can. I believe that one day I really will believe that I'm resilient enough to withstand the battle wounds of BPD.

And actually, I'm okay with the half-light between well and unwell, considering where I have been. With the actual possibility that one day, the lingering shadows will recede and I'll find myself bathed in a light that somehow makes my skin shimmer.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Judith Butler and Materiality (from dissertation)

"Butler’s definition of materiality may differ from those who consider the body as that which is before signification but still, there is a kind of materiality to be found in her work; that which can be best be described as materialisation. These emerging bodies, implicated as they are in discourse, are important because their very presence, which can never truly be made abject, has the power to threaten and subvert the hetero-normative matrix. However, she is also insistent on the contingent and non-foundational nature of identity referents as this is the only way to ensure that it can become ‘a discursive site whose uses are not fully constrained in advance’ (Bodies That Matter, 231).This is a hugely important statement and one which I believe must be taken seriously. We cannot presume that it is possible to discuss materiality as a pure and sanctified ontology. As we continue to navigate the complicated terrain of materiality in terms of female bodies, Butler’s work becomes more important than ever in its commitment to the opening up and democratising of the terms in which we speak of the body."

© 2011 Emma Mould

Monday, 18 July 2011

Mutual Predators

My dad was at the pub in his usual seat. He didn’t look up when I came in, didn’t look up until I was standing awkwardly right in front of him. He looked tired. He didn’t have a drink in front of him and his fingers kept rearranging themselves in restless lattice patterns. His yellowed nicotine fingertips looked strangely beatific, like stigmata. The pub air felt heavy like the start of a migraine.

‘You gonna get me a drink or what?’

I automatically put my hands in my pockets, traced the outlines of a few coins. What I had to live on for the rest of the week.

‘Buy one yourself’.

He sneered at me. He had a devastating sneer. It felt like someone pulling your trousers down in front of a girl you really liked. And of course, she catches a glimpse of your sad flaccid cock and laughs, all mean-mouthed and gorgeous. ‘Look, it’s the least you can fucking do. I’m the one that’s been dead a week, after all’.

‘That’s why I’m quite surprised to see you here’.

‘I’m not going anywhere without a drink’.

I glanced at the bartender. I knew her, sort of, and was pretty sure that she’d sub me one if I put in a few words about my current circumstances and looked suitably distraught. I had been hoping for a bit of privacy, a bit of space to drink myself into somewhere new. I was in no mood for a reunion.

‘What are you doing here? What do you want?’

‘Are you thick or something? I want a drink’.

‘That’s what killed you’.

‘So? Better to be killed by that than something less enjoyable’.

We eyed each other, on guard, mutual predators. He broke the silence. ‘Alright, forget it. Just sit down here for a minute. Come on, sit down next to your old Dad’.


His eyes flashed and I knew then that the tug-of-war was over. I was to do as I was told. ‘Just fucking sit down’.

I sat down.

‘Do you remember when I first caught you with one of my beers?’

I tensed up with the cold steel of bad memories. I waited for a second until I was certain my voice was steady. ‘Yeah. You took me down to the off-licence and we spent the whole of your dole money on alcohol. All kinds. Then we went home and you poured it all together in several of mum’s mixing bowls. I remember that it smelt horrible. Then you made me fill up every cup in the house with the stuff. Then you made me drink it. After a while, when I felt really sick and started to refuse, you held me down and pinched my nose until I opened my mouth’.

He nodded. ‘Well, you had to learn. You threw up a lot, do you remember? I got you to throw up into that piece of shit fruit bowl your mother found at a jumble sale’.

‘And then you made me drink the vomit as well’.

‘Well, I wasn’t about to clean up after you’.

‘No. Of course not’. It was the texture of it all that was actually worse than the taste. The remains of my school dinner swimming in bile and acid. To this day, I can only drink vodka, neat, over ice. Anything else tastes like a contamination.

‘Anyway. That’s why you owe me a drink. I got you drunk once; you can return the favour’.

I’ve had enough. Even dead, he can be an unimaginable bastard. I get up to leave but then suddenly, he grabs my hands from across the table. His eyes bore into mine and they look like dead space.

‘You should hate me’, he says. ‘Why did you never hate me?’

I have no real answer for this. ‘You were my father’.

He shakes his head slowly, deliberately. ‘You should try to start hating me. It might help. Promise you’ll try’.

I pull my hands away, wipe them on my jeans. ‘I’ll give it a go’, I say as I turn my back on him and leave the pub. Outside, it’s beginning to get dark and it’ll keep getting dark. Nothing can stop the night from falling.

© 2011 Emma Mould

Image: Larry Clark, 'Untitled 1963' from Tulsa

Wednesday, 29 June 2011


This was how it started:

He cut a kind of Dickensian figure, curly red hair, skin and bones, sad eyes. You liked how he said your name, how he emphasised the MA. Your friends, all girls, watching Monty Python and laughing, then you in your new world, your different world, on the sofa with him. You were shy because you were shy with everyone. It took touch to open you up. You kissed and your teeth clashed, he tucked his hands under your shirt and up your boyish body, you planted a hand on his crotch because it seemed like the right thing to do. You'd describe it to your best friend later as like trying to tame a snake. You were eleven.

Is there any way to make it sound less sordid? How about that he was only a few years older and your friend's brother, that it all happened in his room surrounded by Star War's posters and school certificates, that it was your direction, your idea, your need to know what made these creatures work? Boys. It was a fascination because it felt good without you knowing why it felt good. And from that moment onwards: boys on the brain and sex like an adventure before it began to feel like a battle.

© 2011 Emma Mould

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Bukowski on cats

'Having a bunch of cats around is good. If you're feeling bad, you just look at the cats, you'll feel better, because they know everything is, just as it is. There's nothing to get excited about. They just know. They're saviors. The more cats you have, the longer you live. If you have a hundred cats, you'll live ten times longer than if you have ten. Someday this will be discovered, and people will have a thousand cats and live forever. It's truly ridiculous.'

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Excerpt from short story-in-progress

"She could count on one hand the number of men she had loved. She knew now that, like viruses or the weather, love could change unexpectedly, that it could mutate into surprising shapes. Sometimes a feather, sometimes a blade. Too often, a blade. She was tired of this inconsistency; she could no longer stomach it. Love was making her nauseous. Her body was rejecting it like bad medicine. She would pass couples on the street; slobbering all over each other, their needy bodies desperately intertwined and bile would rise in her throat. It wasn't hatred or even jealousy, not anymore. It just made her feel kind of gross. It made her want to take a bath. She wanted no more of its strange sickness, its strange weather. She wanted to feel clean and healthy. She wanted nothing but a stable, reliable climate."
© 2011 Emma Mould

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Bookmunch review now live

Read my review of 'Mr. Fox' for bookmunch here.

Folks of Bristol can see Oyeyemi be interviewed as part of ShortStoryVille on July 16th.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Sweat Collects: Chuck Palahniuk's 'Snuff'

(Written to convince the editor of bookmunch to make me a contributor)

With ‘Snuff’, Chuck Palahniuk continues to explore a kind of post-modern macabre where all human relations descend into ridiculous and gross depravity. Porn legend, Cassie Wright, is intending to end her porn career by putting Annabel Chong to shame- having sex with six hundred men and breaking the world record. The event unfolds through the perspective of four interlocking narratives; three nameless men waiting for their turn plus Sheila, the talent wrangler who initially pitched the film to Cassie and is in charge of organising all six-hundred ‘pud-pullers’ as she calls them. The male characters range from the naïve to the disgusting- Palahniuk is fantastic at creating everyday monsters, characters whose inhumanity are never as showy or glamorous as say, Bret Easton’s Ellis’s. Instead, they are empty and cold in a dull and pathetic way and Palahniuk manages to convey this superbly in sparse and unforgiving prose. Sheila too, seems as cold and detached as anyone who has spent too long turning sex into a commodity but her cynical denouncements of the men around her and the sex industry are both humorous and astute: ‘Going to Spring break at Fort Lauderdale, getting drunk and flashing your breasts isn’t an act of personal empowerment. It’s you, so fashioned and programmed by the construct of patriarchal society that you no longer know what’s best for yourself’.

Of course, none of these characters are quite what they seem and as much as they think that they’re in control of the preceding actions, they’re not. As Mr. 600 says, ‘didn’t one of us on purpose set out to make a snuff movie’. Even the wannabe Macaveillian of the novel cannot anticipate how things end. ‘Snuff’ essentially portrays individuals who desire power but are in fact trapped- literally and figuratively- in a squalid environment. Palahniuk’s ability to invoke just how gross this environment is, is effective to the point of nausea: ‘Dudes swallowing and farting at the same time. Belching up gas bubbles of black coffee from their guts. Breathing out through wads of Juicy Fruit gum’. Human beings are nothing more than animals bathing in their own filth and Palahniuk makes sure that the reader can feel this in their own gut.

Most of the novel involves waiting. The woman all these characters are circling around does not appear until towards the end of the novel. Until then, Cassie Wright looms as a spectre over the character’s memories, her image as porn star queen continually re-circulated through the TV monitors erected in the green room. As might be expected from a porn star, she exists as a dream or a fantasy, a springboard to restart a faded career or a maternal sanctuary. But Cassie does, in fact, have her own plans for how her porn career and her final film will end and Palahniuk builds up the tension with a deft hand as the reader is drawn compellingly forth towards a culmination that has car-crash appeal. You just can’t look away. And actually, the ending is still unlike anything that was expected. It is brilliantly deranged and dark to the point of gothic. It manages to be both surprising and disturbing, an absurd and gruesome finale to a novel that begins quietly as a study on the mundane barrenness of a culture where sex is product.

Any good? The source material, detached prose and underlying nihilism will be nothing new to fans but with ‘Snuff’, Palahniuk proves that there is still plenty to found when mining this particular type of dark vein. And he still has the ability to shock.

© 2011 Emma Mould

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Squirrel Thing

Connie Converse is the sound of aloneness (not loneliness) grown so familiar it has become part of the furniture. The characters she sings of, the roving women and the playboy’s of the Western world wear their separateness like a badge of honour. They can entwine themselves briefly into other people, sample them like a light snack but they know that this can only be temporary, delicious but temporary. As we wander through the grass, we can hear each other pass but we’re far apart, far apart in the dark. Love is only a masquerade and you can hear in her imperfect, detached voice that she knows this. Her voice is not beautiful, her guitar playing not particularly accomplished, but there is by turns a resigned weariness or a knowing sneer to her music which is allowed to glow malevolently from the simplicity, the nakedness of her songs. What foolish girls who look up to the sky in search of love, wishing and waiting until they die. Even their dreams will betray them. The man in the sky isn’t married yet.

She is not immune through. In ‘Talking Like You (Two Tall Mountains)', she hears some lost love everywhere. Echoes of him everywhere (I can relate). That is when you know for sure that a break-up has bruised you, infected you to the very core. It doesn't matter what you do or where you go; reminders of him follow you around like your shadow. The whole world becomes a minefield of memories. Up that tree, there's sort of a squirrel thing. Sounds just like we did when we were quarrelling. Brilliant rhyming aside, this image is cute but so very sinister in the way you can be so tied down, so trapped by someone who is no longer there. But there is a edge of defiance as well. You might think you've left me all alone but I can hear you talk without a telephone. Connie know that she has been able to capture something as well. The memories are hers. He does not get to take away what he once gave so willingly. The bravado is ironic, of course but also, sincere. Its almost like she's saying 'Fuck you, I will always own a piece of you, it's mine'. She is endlessly pragmatic even through loss. And so stoic. She sounds like an emotionally repressed person forced to talk about their feelings in family therapy.

Connie Converse recorded these songs in the 50's. In 1974, she wrote letters of farewell to her loved ones and then left, never to be seen again. Too few are the days that will hold your face. She is still missing to this day. It is hard to separate this biographical information from the songs themselves. The whole album sounds like the thoughts of someone too used to everything disappearing, who herself is not immune to disappearing. All of this is only temporary. But so delicious anyway. How sad, how lovely. How short, how sweet.

© 2011 Emma Mould

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Some stuff regarding Kurt Cobain in a Dress

In 1991, Kurt Cobain appeared on ‘The Headbanger’s Ball’ wearing a ridiculous and ostentatious prom dress. This act could be seen as an example of gender performativity because of the way it complicates hetero-normative ideas of masculinity and parodies femininity. By wearing the dress, he was not destroying gender roles but rather, queering them or challenging their boundaries. His image is not somehow above or beyond gender but is a playful and insidious mixing of masculinity and femininity which is all the more effective because of his delicate physique and particularly feminine beauty. His image refers to the hetero-normative model’s concept of gender but not without subverting and destabilising its rigidity. I'm not saying he choose to wear the dress with these particular intentions in mind- probably, it was little more than a fuck-you attitude thing- but the great thing about any kind of performance is its potential to become more than it was ever expected to be.

© 2011 Emma Mould

Thursday, 10 February 2011

To Be a Catfish

Does anyone still believe that the internet is a direct reflection of someone's personality? The internet is fantastic for casting us all in a generous and brilliant light, showing only our best parts, our most flattering angles. We get to put forth a perfectly controlled idealisation of ourselves. It's highly unlikely that anyone will admit on their OKCupid or Facebook profile that they can be petty or selfish or rather ugly first thing in the morning. On the internet, we never stumble over our words. We can edit them or delete them all together. We do not stutter. We conceal as much as we reveal. We get to slip into our very best selves like clothes. But that's exactly it; clothes do not make the man and the internet cannot possibly convey the real self. Where words do not always trip so easily off the tongue and when, once they are out there, you don't get to call them back. We are too far gone into the internet age to any longer believe in its transparency. And with all this known, 'Catfish' fits into our present discourse in a curious and fascinating way. It is worth seeing for that fact alone.

The question of whether this film is ‘real’ or not is beside the point. The reason the film works so well is precisely because of its ambiguity in this area. Its presenting of itself as warning of the danger of taking a readily available and oversaturation of social media as constitutive of actual reality, is deeply deeply ironic. How could it not be? With its heavy use of augmented reality, Google Earth and reality TV conventions, it becomes impossible for the audience to not wonder whether they are also being duped into believing that this all actually happened. And isn’t that the point? The brilliance of ‘Catfish’ lies in its ability to have become more than itself, to ceaselessly produce what it claims to negate. If anything, it does not demystify the strange smoke and mirrors of our internet age as it makes that smoke thicker, those mirrors even more opaque. Of course, this is nothing that fiction hasn’t been doing since the eighteenth century. But still, that doesn’t detract from the fact that ‘Catfish’ is an insidiously clever and compelling film about those bloodless internet ciphers we encounter on the internet everyday and our causal assumptions that such ghosts in the machine are absolutely duplicated in flesh and blood reality. This is why I can’t quite understand why the film-makers are so desperate to hark on about the whole thing being real. It’s annoying and patronising and it just doesn’t matter because fiction or not, the film’s importance still stands. It’s not like the fact that something is made up has ever detracted from its worth as a piece or art or a cultural product or whatever.

The discussion surrounding the film is almost as interesting as the film itself. The film produces its own discourse which has worked to its advantage. Even those reviewing the film have had to continue its mystique by being unable to really discuss the film in any way without spoilers. This can only ever add to increased curiosity and interest in the film itself. It has produced meditations on exploitation; often condemning Angela for her manipulations but also acknowledging that the film makers have also exploited her for their own means. What these discussions tend to leave out are the clear gender politics in the film which beg the question: what got Angela to the point where she was telling so many lies she could barely keep up with them? Can her acts simply be labelled as exploitative or is there a way of contextualising them to make them less so? This is what I'm going to attempt to do.

In 'Catfish', there are two primary ‘real people’: one (Nev), a good-looking New York hipster; the other (Angela), a bored housewife living in Nowhere, Michigan. What connects them both is a need to be seen, as if the only way their life can have meaning is if it is reflected back at them through social media. Except this though: one uses social media to have his life seen by others whilst the other uses social media as a way to escape and evade her reality. Why? Perhaps simply because one is a pathological liar whilst the other is a naive ingénue with a penance for falling in love with people he hasn’t even met yet. But I doubt it is as simple as this. Firstly, without wanting to sound cynical, said ingénue is a little bit too good-looking to have not done his fair share of double dealings to get what he wanted from a girl. And I’m not saying this makes him a bad person; I just don’t buy the wide-eyed innocence thing. And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Nev would have never given Angela a second glance if she had passed him in the street. She knows this. And she is, for whatever reason, desperately in love with him. This is obvious from their interactions with each other, from the way she pays him compliments, from the way she looks at him with a yearning which has made peace with the knowledge that it will remain unrequited.

But I think that her desire goes beyond him as a person; it is also a desire for his life, for the things he has, for his freedom. After all, he is an affluent urban male who doesn’t only get to express his creativity but gets to make a living from it. She is an intelligent and talented woman who has had to stifle her creative ambitions to become a house-wife and carer to her severely mentally-disabled stepsons. It is as if 'The Feminine Mystique' never happened for this woman. Her husband unknowingly articulates her situation when he tells the camera that whenever she is in despair regarding her life, he reminds her that she 'cannot have it all'. She can have her big art career or she can have the sometimes stifling security of a husband and kids but to have both is an impossible dream. No wonder then that she fills her time- she literally spends hours each day updating a complicated and self-contained network of Facebook profiles- breathing life into these young, cool and prodigiously talented characters who encapsulate everything that does not exist in her real life. No wonder that she immerses herself so much into her creations that she disappears. Isn't that the point? Most writers of fiction identify themselves as such but then Angela doesn't simply want to show how good she is at tall tales. She wants the fiction to devour her up, swallow the banalities of her life whole, forever change everything inside and outside of her. This need is so great that she desperately produces lies and stalls for time just so she can enjoy one more minute of the fantasy-as-reality. It would be difficult to condone what she did- especially when she lies about having cancer. But I think it can be understood. What woman hasn't felt the trappings of gender? Who hasn't- male or female- wanted even for one moment to be somewhere or someone else? Angela is really just the absurd and painful result of that feeling taken much too far, allowed to sink in much too deep through the confinements of her class and gender. Because of this, I can forgive her deceiving of Nev (after all, he and his buddies got a fairly successful film out of it). I can certainly forgive her using the film's notoriety to garner an audience for her paintings. It is a sad but inescapable fact that this film is her best chance to achieve the success and artistic expression that has so long been denied her. It's an uncomfortable but necessarily pragmatic move on her part to go for a life that doesn't compel her to exist within a ghost house of fiction and lies where she can, in fact, have it all.

The seemingly inscrutable title of this documentary is explained late in the film in perhaps too shrewd and poetic a way to not be scripted: when transporting live cod from China, a couple of catfish’s were used in each barrel to fluster and annoy the cod into constant action, ensuring that they arrived at their destination fresh and alive. It is clear by now who the catfish is in this film. And it's hard and thankless work, existing only to keep others agile and lively. How sad, how lonely to be a catfish with no one snapping at your heels, no one caring enough to keep you moving.

© 2011 Emma Mould

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Illyas Ahmed 'Between Two Skies'

Like the sound of the desert. At night. Whilst the echo of Sufism closes in on you. Why can't all new(ish) music be as utterly compelling as this?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Dusty Grooves

Published in SMITHS magazine, 2010

Record collecting comes on like a sudden disease, like that cold you never saw coming that keeps you in bed for a week. I don’t know if anyone intends to start collecting records. It simply seems to be the inevitable consequence of not being able to get enough of new sounds, of simply not being able to stop with a Finders Keepers or Jazzman compilation which does all the digging and research for you. Offering an enticing glimpse into all that lies above and beyond, there is no way to resist delving into all those hybrid genres with hyphenated names: space-jazz, acid-folk, psychedelic-soul, sister-funk etc. Eventually, you will find yourself spending hours at record fairs, trawling through Ebay and reissue company websites and chatting to like-minded folk on record collector forums. Now, despite what mainstream films like ‘Ghost World’ and ‘High Fidelity’ suggest, record collectors are not boring. They tend to have a wide range of interests, are highly articulate and have an unforgiving sense of humour. They live and breathe their particular passion and are very generous when it comes to sharing information about music. They’re laidback. They like weird B-movies. Basically, they’re pretty good company.

And yet, as you immerse yourself in the culture, become acquainted with the language of record grading and categorisation, contentious issues start to arise. It is generally accepted that vinyl is superior to CD’s and any other formats. The reasons for this tend to come down pure visual and tactile appeal (record collectors love to fetishise that modular groove) and, somewhat predictably, the question of authenticity. To extol the virtues of vinyl is to speak to it as living history, as a product of formal classicism flying in the face of an incessant modernity. Essentially, it is implied that to exclusively own vinyl is to prove your commitment, investment and attachment to music itself. Because it pre-dates tapes, CD’s and all other formats, it engenders a sense of ownership or discovery of originality. It is perhaps not unfair to say that the obsession with rare records has everything to do with a sense of satisfaction and bragging rights as it does the actual music itself.

Of course, such arguments are not exactly new. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin wrote any reproduction of a work of art will always lack the original ‘presence in time and space, its unique existence of the place where it happens to be...that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’. Much later, Baudrillard defined the postmodern age as that in which the simulacrum has effectively replaced reality. The former decries reproduction; the former accepts its inevitability as ‘reality’ as we have understood it, no longer exists. It’s not hard to figure out what side most record collectors would be on. And yet, you don’t have to adopt Baudrillard’s mode of thought wholesale to offer up a counter argument. It is certainly true that records have a very particular sense of history but, as it always has done, history comes at a price. Original copies nearly always cost considerably more than reissues and reissues on CD are considerably more available than records. When it comes down to either waiting desperately for an original first pressing of excellent weird psych-folk artists like Coven or Simon Finn to show up and then paying hundreds of pounds for it or buying it a much cheaper CD copy from Amazon, I know which one my desire and bank account will go for. Perhaps there is something to be said about patience but the only way someone becomes a collector of music in the first place is because they love to listen to it. It is the listening experience and the desire for that experience that needs to come first. When all of that is placed secondary to its format, it seems that the way in which record collectors privilege vinyl is more to do with the values of collecting than the values associated with being a music lover. That is, cataloguing and assessing its monetary importance rather than sitting back and enjoying the music for what it is, in whatever format it is available in.

Let’s be clear: I’m not at all suggesting that record collectors do not care about or appreciate the music. Nor am I endorsing bad quality music, illegally bootlegged and given away for free on the internet. Nor do I have anything against vinyl. I own vinyl. I also own CD’s and MP3 copies of super rare records that I will probably never have the opportunity to own (kindly sent to me by the record’s original owners). My point only has to do with those occasional moments in record collector culture when it seems that it’s possible to lose the wood for the trees. Records are not like antique figurines or dolls, destined to collect dust inside a glass cabinet and look pretty. Yes, they do look pretty but the privilege of owning them should lie squarely in the fact that that attractive modular groove produces all manners of interesting and exciting sounds. And maybe sometimes, its lack of ‘aura’ needs to be forgiven. Beside, regardless of its format, music is always so much more than a mechanical reproduction.

© 2010 Emma Mould

'Nothing to Say': 'Black Skin, White Masks' and Gender

Excerpt from academic essay entitled 'Dismantling The Master's House: Strategies of Resistance in Post-Colonial Feminist Writing', 2010

Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks is an excellent example of a powerful critique of colonisation which nonetheless replicates the rigid colonial attitude in his negating of gender differences. In the chapter entitled ‘The Woman of Colour and the White Man’, Fanon uses his criticism of Capecia to generalise about all women of colour. Unlike his careful consideration of the psychology of the native man, he is resolutely rigid and simplistic regarding that of the native women: ‘It is because the Negress feels inferior that she aspires to win admittance into the white world’.[1] There is a dogmatic fatalism to this statement which suggests that, for Fanon, native women cannot transcend either their inferiority or their desire to assimilate. It must be compared to the native man who, whilst also under great pressure to assimilate into the white world, can produce modes of resistance:

If the white man challenges my humanity, I will impose my whole weight as a man on his life and show him that I am not that “sho’ good eatin’” that he persists in imagining (my emphasis).[2]

It should be noted here that my analysis does not aim to re-inscribe Capecia’s particular dialectic as a feminist one, ‘immortalised as the lamb at Fanon’s sacrificial altar rather than victim of the sexploitive, anti-black colonial condition’.[3] However, it is the way Fanon uses her position as indicative of all women of colour that I deem highly problematic. It seems that he cannot help but use the insufficiencies he finds in Capecia’s texts to make a universal statement on women of colour: ‘For, in a word, the race must be whitened; every women in Martinique knows this, says it, repeats it’ (emphasis mine).[4] By refusing to problematise his use of Capecia as representative, Fanon not only bypasses any discussion regarding how gender differences operate within the psychology of colonisation but also subsumes that very difference into what he calls his ‘concentrat[ion] on the psychic alienation of the black man’.[5]

Indeed, Fanon’s consideration of the native women is understood ultimately as nothing more than either a barrier or an aid towards the native man’s struggle towards agency. The idea that native women would have their own particular struggle towards agency- other than desiring to become white- is foreclosed. When writing on Fanon, Bhabha’s relegates this issue to a short note at the end of his essay. Anne McClintock argues that this choice defers women ‘to a nowhere land, beyond time and place, outside theory’.[6] More specifically, in regards to Fanon’s work, Bhabha’s ‘note’ has the effect of implicitly legitimising Fanon’s sexism by explaining it away as a desire for locating ‘a shared origin’[7] between sexual and cultural differences. As I have argued above, the way in which Fanon disregards the native female is far less innocent than this. Ultimately, there is no shared origin because the issue of gender is simply not as pressing for Fanon as the liberation of the colonised man. In fact, it is seen as almost entirely irrelevant to his decolonising project. Furthermore, Bhabha’s curious insistence that a discussion of gender in Fanon ‘goes well beyond the scope of my foreword’[8] only further reveals an acceptance of the patriarchal terms of Fanon’s dialectic. Here, Bhabha also perpetuates Fanon’s disregard for gender by implying that gender is not important enough to be included in his foreword aside from a brief note. By suggesting that any charge of sexism would be ‘facile’, he mimics Fanon in his avoidance of gender and how it impacts the native’s identity formation. Essentially, his comprehensive discussion of Fanon does not view gender as integral to any project of decolonisation. He either fails or simply refuses to highlight that such a glaring omission can only hinder the liberating effects of Fanon’s work. As bell hooks crucially points out, ‘there can be no freedom for black men as long as they advocate subjugation of black women. There can be no freedom for patriarchal men of all races as long as they advocate subjugation of women.’[9]

In fact, Bhabha’s praise for Fanon takes on far more resonance when applied to colonised women: ‘the colonial subject is always “overdetermined from without”, Fanon writes. It is through image and fantasy- those orders that figure transgressively on the borders of history and the unconscious- that Fanon most profoundly evokes the colonial condition’.[1] Under the Spivakian double-bind, it is clear that no one has been more ‘overdetermined from without’ than the native female. As well as the Manichean discourse of the colonisers, they also find themselves codified within the patriarchal discourse of native men, whether through the nationalist trope of mother-land or decolonising projects like Fanon’s that, whilst denouncing Manichean colonisation, continues to perpetuate its own binary logic in regard to gender. Moreover, some work by Western feminists on ‘third-world women’ has had the unfortunate effect of employing ‘various analytical categories and even strategies which codify their relationship to the Other in implicitly hierarchical terms’.[2] In these cases, western feminist discourse is also guilty of homogenising native woman, establishing themselves as the normative referent and continuing a binary didactic. It becomes self-evident then that native women are positioned within a matrix of intersecting power structures.

© 2010 Emma Mould

[1]Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto Press, 2008), p. 42

[2] Ibid., p. 178

[3] Sharpley-Whiting, T. Deanean, ‘Engaging Fanon to reread Capecia’ in Fanon: A Critical Reader ed. by Lewis Gordon, T. Deanean Sharpley-Whiting and Renee T. White (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996), p. 161

[4] Fanon, p. 33

[5] Ibid., p. 34j

[6] McClintock, Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 363

[7] Bhaba, Homi, ‘Remembering Fanon’ in Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory, ed. by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) , pp. 123

[8] As above, pp. 123

[9] hooks, bell, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (London: Pluto Press, 1982), p. 117

[10] Bhabha, pp. 115

[11] Bulbeck, Chilla, Re-Orientating Western Feminisms: Women’s Diversity in a Postcolonial World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 15

Barefeet and Hot Pavements- Some Thoughts on Shoes

Published in SMITHS magazine, 2009

Let’s get the formalities over with: I have a love-hate relationship with shoes. I love nothing more than going barefoot; in an ideal world, I would go every day sans footwear. The soles of the feet may be the most under appreciated part of the human body, buried within socks and shoes like an uncomfortable secret. I have had friends and lovers who have felt closer to me than my own skin, who have shared their bodies and souls with me, but have remained strangely reticent about taking their socks off, citing dislike and embarrassment about their feet. My mother tuts disapproval whenever I go into the garden barefoot. And yet we seem to forget that it was only relatively recently, with the onset of mass production, that wearing shoes became commonplace for most of the world’s population. Now there seems to be something faintly indecent about going without footwear which of course makes doing so almost rebellious and certainly quite sensual. You definitely haven’t really felt grass or sand or marble until you’ve felt them with the soles of your feet. And there is something so sexy, so Parisian laissez faire about somebody in public, maybe in a coffee shop or late night bar with their shoes kicked off, bare feet curled under them or propped up on the lap of a friend. It’s the polar opposite of the shoe as status symbol game where it’s not just the shoe but also its label and price tag that must be displayed so that the wealth and success of its owner can be appreciated. Expensive and desirable footwear speaks so much of our modern Capitalist culture; bare feet, by contrast, hark back to previous eras where we all lived a lot simpler and closer to the ground.

This is not to say that shoes don’t always carry their own type of memories. So much of our autobiographical memory is produced by sensory-perceptual details, inanimate objects made three dimensional through the events and emotions we associate them with. I put on my battered vintage loafers and suddenly, my very bones tingle with the thrust of memory. I remember difficult conversations where I’ve been unable to look anywhere but down at them, long heady nights at university where I’ve danced in them and split beer on them and exciting first dates where I’ve used them to play footsie under the table. Shoes can offer a source of protection and reassurance that goes beyond their ability to allow us to more deftly navigate physical terrain. When I went out to meet my ex-boyfriend, painfully aware that he was going to break up with me, I wore a pair of satin ballet slippers that have moulded perfectly to every contour of my feet. I knew that having to walk away from him was going to be hard; I wanted to make that walk a little easier by doing it in shoes that reminded me of ballet classes at the age of seven, of a time before men and sex and matter of the heart made life so messy. And they did make it a little easier.

Maybe then it’s not so much that I have a contentious relationship with shoes as it is that I must have a relationship with them for them to mean anything. When I come across a new pair, it’s not whether I need them that comes into my mind. It’s whether these shoes will be able to travel with me whilst I engage in the blind fumbling I call my life. They must fit my life, not the other way around. This above all means that they must be wearable and functional. Putting them on must remind me of who I am, where I’ve been and how much I have left to do. As much as I admire the space-age geometry of an Antonio Berardi heel-less boot or the complicated molten beauty of a Rodarte by Nicholas Kirkwood heel, I know that I would never wear these shoes. I may as well just put them behind glass and stare at them like the work of art they are. I’m clumsy and careless; I’m always falling down and tripping over myself in more ways than one. I need shoes that can handle this kind of rough and tumble. I don’t need shoes that are too beautiful to be touched, let alone wear. I learned this the hard way after saving for a stunning pair of dove grey Kurt Geiger courts with chiffon bows at the heel whilst I was still a student. I worked hard for them and was ecstatic when I was finally able to take them home. But after one outing with them, after arriving home after several falls and the bows unravelled and muddy, I realised that I was never going to wear them regularly. Three years later, I’ve worn them twice and whilst I love to look at them, they don’t evoke an emotional response in me the way my more practical and far less artless shoes do. When it comes down to it, it really isn’t as much about the shoe as it is the distance travelled in them. For the new season, I have my eye on the utilitarian leanings of shearling lined hiker boots and sturdy clogs paired with cable thigh-high socks. I need shoes that will keep me cosy and encourage me to walk tall and confident. I need the promise of new memories and miles to go before I sleep.

© 2010 Emma Mould