Radio Gaga

You have a lot of time on your hands as an only child and one thing I used to do was pull faces in the mirror to see how unlike me I could look. Another thing was to experiment with noises, sometimes using my lips and fingers, more usually just vocalising without equipment. Again, the goal was to create sounds that didn’t sound human. I never thought of it like that, of course. Just trying out shapes and sizes and pushing air through cavities, sometimes trapping it and squeezing it along with tongue clicks and tongue rolls and various vibrations. You see kids do this sort of thing in the street or in the classroom – you can’t tell if they’re only children or not – why would they be? Maybe they had competitions with their siblings. Maybe they even tried unhuman choral effects.

It may dawn upon the young vocal experimentalist with time on their hands that although foreign languages feature noises that are simply not present in the English language, these noises can be imitated and may have a generative effect on the youngster’s private work to the extent of introducing not just variants but invasive species. (It should, of course, be acknowledged that the learning of foreign languages involves precisely such exercises. It is arguable that if only a few ‘foreign’ sounds can be competently imitated then other unfamiliar sounds within that language will be more readily reproduced. As in ‘Good – you can get your tongue round that, now try this…’)

I think I have a reasonably serviceable French accent and I attribute this to being made to intone, along with my classmates, a series of French vowel sounds over and over at school, at least three times a week. Several of these sounds were weird and on each occasion some rogue class members were lured away from the exercise at hand in order to push these novel sounds further than required by the French language as conventionally constituted. To our East Anglian ears the proximity of these sounds to those of the farmyard and field was a gap eagerly to be closed. The squealing pig was the most sought after candidate and our teacher, obliged to remonstrate in French, as was already the progressive foreign language teaching protocol in the 50s, would attempt to re-herd the room with exasperated demands for ‘Votre attention, les élèves!’

Schoolboys would have derived some encouragement for their abuse of the spoken word from postwar radio comedies that were richly populated by actors with distinctive voices or the ability to maintain distinctive voices that were not their own.  Sid James, for example, stuck with his lecherous Cockney growl throughout his career, despite having been born in South Africa, while Jimmy Edwards presented bombastic variations on a voice that drew on his experiences as a choral scholar who subsequently became an RAF flight lieutenant in WWII. June Whitfield was a versatile actor adept at comic voice work who ranged from Eth of The Glums in Take It From Here to the fuller sitcom role of Edina’s mother in Absolutely Fabulous. Irene Handl specialised in a remarkable, slightly frail, lightly grumbly yet cheery working class barmaid or charlady persona whose voice was so eccentric that it won her small parts in over 130 films and countless TV series.

Although very much a signed up member of the 50s funny radio voice community, Kenneth Williams stands out insofar as his vocalisations moved beyond the parameters of sketch and sitcom scripts and seemed to strike out for shores at that point undefined. Williams found some possibilities for the ventilation of his concealed gayness in pushing what was, in the 50s and 60s, a standard camp drawl way beyond the limits established by other intrepid comic actors who had been given ‘tolerable because amusing pansy’ roles.

Williams responded to his scripts as if merely to analyse them sentence by sentence was a dereliction of duty. His view appeared to be that every single word was worthy of assault and if that meant respecting the meaning of the lines within the context of their location in fictional situations then so be it – it was a price worth paying and he had the acting skills to deliver what was required.

These line readings could, however, if one so wished, be lifted out of their radio sketch setting, stripped of their function within these frameworks and regarded as remarkable and unhinged exercises in a proposal for the almost human, the humanoid or the post-human – the latter in the sense that if a person could speak but had no world in which to express this ability then his vocalisations would still command respect and inspire awe in all those who came upon them from deep and outer space.

Williams’ voice would swoop, purr, croak, elasticate, shudder, nasalise, whinge, slide, climb, yowl, thunder and groan as he saw fit. Were there proper criteria for such achievements then he would certainly have been honoured with the creation of an annual Award – the Kenneth, perhaps – for outstanding contributions to the development of non-musical vocalisation in the service of higher post-syllabic communication.

It was in the mid 50s that my schoolmates and I became aware of The Goon Show, a radio comedy series that had been broadcasting on the BBC Home Service since 1951. This was a show without peer. It seemed to have no precedent at all. Other radio comedy programmes were amiable, intermittently a bit risqué, delivering a continuity, comfort and relief that recuperating post-war audiences deserved. They were not, however, fevered, free-form, comprehensively illogical or scrambled to the point of unrelieved delirium. The Goon Show was all of these and evinced a programmatic indifference to the conventions of ‘the programme’. In its eruptiveness and disorder it was a frenetic barrage that had some of the texture of war. In this respect it marked an early departure from the measured caution of a traumatised public withdrawing from years of dread and, in many cases, injury and bereavement. Among that public were younger listeners – perhaps in their late teens and early twenties – who had not seen military service and were ready for less cosy entertainments.

All of which is to say that if comic actors of the time who were blessed with voices and vocal effects of distinction had been exposed, in the early 50s, to writers and producers responding to early indications that a ‘post postwar’ sensibility was emerging, then The Goon Show might not have been, for several years, the lone rider in popular radio absurdism. It launched on the BBC Home Service in 1951, three years before Hancock’s Half Hour set out an alternative to manic excitability with its droll celebration of the melancholy of a failed actor who barely believes in his enduring delusions of grandeur. In 1969, nine years after The Goon Show concluded, Monty Python first aired on TV.

The baton passed from the Goons had not immediately been seized but for those born in the early 50s, to be 15 years old or more in the Python era was to be ushered into an exhilarating expression of demented sketchwork that appealed especially to drugged youth and those who had enjoyed the cultural fruits of the final release from the PTSD caution of their parents that had characterised the 60s.

Where Williams had paved the way for what The Goon Show had to offer as far as decomposed speech went, he had also demonstrated what a visionary voice artist could achieve within sitcom scripts. The writer of the Goon scripts, Spike Milligan, clearly felt that there was no pressing reason to establish a recognisable bedrock sitcom reality – as obtained in Hancock’s Half Hour, for example – for comic actors to pitch up against. In radio you cannot see the walls. The imagination is relieved of any debt to theatre or the novel.

In the bike sheds of the mid 50s animated discussions of and noisy quotations from The Goons almost eclipsed the usual thrilling and outrageously folkloric lectures and debates on questions arising from an overheated fixation on female anatomy. School was tight back then and while The Goons was intermittently saucy it was the utter abandonment of plausible narrative in the shows that was revelatory and, for many, life changing. The war was ten years over and had been profoundly traumatising for all concerned but it had also provoked in some the view that the centre had just about held but mere anarchy was well overdue.

There are countless examples of coherent comedic incoherence to be found that are indebted, whether knowingly or not, to the epoch-making collaboration between writer Spike Milligan’s at times clinically marked mania, Peter Sellers’ mastery of so many funny voices that he once confessed, in all seriousness, that he could no longer remember what his normal voice was like, and Harry Secombe’s booming, screeching parodies of the straight (as in not mad) man to whom preposterous things Will Always Happen.

One magnificent vocalisation not usually found in the standard funny voice genealogies is actor Edward Tudor-Pole’s (aka Tenpole Tudor) contribution to Julien Temple’s The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle (1980). Tenpole has doubtless been accused of wantonly mangling the lyrics and delivery of ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ but this would have been the not inaccurate view of people who know nothing.



When you’ve finished Netflix it becomes necessary to adjust the viewing criteria. I generally resist seeing films more than once but, with a few exceptions, will do so if cornered. A more enterprising move would be to seek out films that you don’t think you’ll like. An example would be the John Wick movies, with Keanu Reeves taking the titular role. Wick is some kind of agent or something and people are always after him so he shoots them. I liked the first John Wick but should have waited a few months longer before trying the second one, which I abandoned because it was just the same as the first one. Such fastidiousness is easily overridden in lockdown and John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum becomes singularly unpromising within the first ten minutes. So resolutely unpromising that you say to yourself things like ‘You’re kidding me. We don’t even know who he works for or what his mission is or who wants to kill him or why they do yet within minutes everyone is running and shooting the fuck out of everybody or to be precise they come at him with guns and kicks and he wastes every single one of them using skills with no backstory not the tiniest of pretexts.’ The skills consist of being good at kicks and ducking like his attackers are but he does have one thing over them which is his very special way of offing them. As with the movies of John Woo, the gun is not reserved for the remote resolution of irritating interpersonal conflicts but becomes a handheld propellant assisting flights through the air.

A lot of thriller/cop/gangster films make the mistake of showing you the broken marriages, clandestine affairs, wayward children, destabilising addictions, betrayals, debts and dreams of the principals, as though this were going to somehow disguise the fact that certain other quite basic things simply have to happen or else it wouldn’t be a genre but if they put in emotional difficulty and what are imagined to be complex travails then we won’t notice they are just put in but nine times out of ten these add-ons are so lame and bolted-on we just want the car chase and fuck everything else. Which only makes it worse but in John Wick they don’t make the slightest effort to pretend on your behalf that you are into higher things: he never had wives or children or a dying dog (maybe he did but who cares?) but he does this strange and entrancing thing with guns where despite his martial arts skills with kicks, chops and jumps, he will suddenly close with an adversary, apparently for fisticuffs, but still holding a gun and instead of punching him will hold the gun two inches from the person’s head and blow the head off. It’s kind of cheating but it’s terribly efficient. Reeves is fluidly adept and will be halfway through one of those flying kicks where you do a 360 with your leg raised when he will twist round in the air even as an assailant comes at him from behind and stick the gun in his face as previously described and blam no face.

This is daring stuff. It’s pure. They realise we don’t really pay attention to all the human context stuff and are quite content to watch characters with only, say, two characteristics act out the delirium of undomesticated impulses after which you don’t have to go to prison. John Wick 3 is a film poem – not that you would wish to share this insight with people like John Wick. It’s pure. It has absorbed the idea that often the ‘good bits’ are profoundly satisfying and doubtless help people not to act out bad things in an antisocial way etc etc and it has matched the immoderate urgency of the suppressed impulses with the suspension of the patronising polystyrene packing peanuts that serve to muffle and tease – as if unmuffled and unteased we will not appreciate the facetless force of the uncut, unshaped plasma that bursts forth once push having come to shove is loosed.

If Spiral, for example, is a faultless example of the proper integration of coplife and the extracurricular to the extent that you care, then the Danish procedural The Investigation can be seen as having some of the purity of John Wick 3 but with the psychopathy firmly located in a single character who is never named and whom you never see. The show features exceptionally skilled naturalistic acting from a cast whose members resolutely, almost sacrificially, eschew the pauses, tics and poses of good actors to the extent that were you to turn the sound down on some of the scenes you would conclude that you had chanced upon a well-lit passage from a CCTV installed in a rest room in which three or four people in pullovers sat dispiritedly and without charisma around a table doing very little indeed. This is because, with the sound turned back up, you would recall that the murder investigation is going exceptionally badly and none of the cops has any idea what to do next. There are no leads. It’s probable that a dismembered body has been scattered over a large area of deep water and the only way to determine cause of death is to send divers down to comb the vast acreage of the seabed hoping to find a head or leg or any part, really. Other scenes having a comparable lack of forward impulsion feature police divers repeatedly surfacing from their explorations and signalling to the escort boats that they have found precisely nothing. Over and over and over again. Or scenes in which various cops and experts discuss wind speeds, currents, depths and the fact that some things (arms, torsoes) will drift along the seabed and others (mobile phones) will sink into the sand. No drama. Nobody fancies anybody else. The worst thing in the extra-curricular is the main cop getting a phone call drawing him away from the dinner table just as his daughter announces that she is happily pregnant and he goes into the garden to take the call for several minutes and she is understandably very upset.

Again: this is daring stuff. And entirely gripping. Police work is made neither attractive nor unattractive. It’s a job. Certain positive outcomes are achieved whereupon some of the detectives and cops smile briefly. And the guy gets to hold his granddaughter which pleases his daughter. It’s refreshing.


Further to Outlandish

Some afterthoughts on the recent ‘Onlandish Inlandish Outlandish’ essay

My re-viewing of ‘Solaris’ was a lockdown choice at a point where I had finished Netflix. Both versions of the film have preoccupied me for years and this time round I continued to appreciate the suggestion that bereavement or loss can generate an intense yearning that may induce hallucination and this apparition, from the point of view of the bereaved subject, is real. The psychology of this phenomenon is long understood and is used to explain the fact that a great range of experiences that are preposterous to some are credible to others. The psychologised interpretation is benign to the degree that it is implied that the subject is the passive witness to the unusual phenomena: the subject is ‘seeing things’ but the things are actuated by psychological operations that cannot be detected by the subject.

The psychology is partially explanatory but the physiology is entirely mysterious: a very strong desire can somehow reconfigure perception to a degree whereby everyday perception is overridden. What are the neurochemical pathways and subsequent optical modifications involved here? I have no idea.

If it is the case that desire can never be satisfied then it may also be the case that this state of affairs is sufficiently destabilising to warrant banishment from consciousness. But there is always leakage. And this may contribute to the incubation of magical thinking wherein not only will desire be satisfied but the mind will strive to give material existence to whatever is desired.

It is at points like this that I tend to introduce a raft of examples that would give context to my claims. The examples in this instance would be of the many types of magicality that persist in a post-magical world. Rather than retread that territory and then fail to return to the starting point I will just submit my view that the ultimate objective of all thought is to give material existence to its figments. May all my dreams come true. I would like a big cake. Ah – there it is! I would like more trees in my road. Ah – see how shady they are!

Outlandish Inlandish Onlandish

I wrote a novel in 1988, called ‘A Diet of Holes’. It featured a man the objects in whose dreams would appear on the pillow beside him in the morning. Initially it was just pound coins but it escalated to the point where cascades of random items would pile up around his sleeping form.

I interviewed the prolific science fiction writer Michael Moorcock for something or other some years ago and was keen to ask him about his four-book series ‘The Dancers at the End of Time’ in which a group of eccentric immortals uses power rings to conjure into existence just about anything that takes their fancy. I wondered if he did not find this device so flexible that it would neutralise any event that took place in the fictions. How were you able to get round that? I enquired. He stiffened very slightly and replied, crisply, “Experience.”


Outlandish Inlandish Onlandish

“He’ll never die – he costs too much.” I said this to myself but I was imagining that I was saying it to my daughters. Neither of them was present at the time. I was referring to the possible fate of George Clooney who, only halfway through ‘The Midnight Sky’ on Netflix, was attempting to retrieve a suitcase of vital technology from a cabin module that was rapidly sinking beneath a wasteland of melting Antarctic ice. It was a well designed jeopardy, almost too well designed. If he got the case he would drown in icy water for sure, thereby abandoning the eight year old girl who was accompanying him on their fraught pilgrimage from one frozen place to another. But, of course, he didn’t perish and he saved the tech. I mean, he was also the director and you don’t kill off your lead, especially when it’s you.

I imagined I was George Clooney directing the scene where he loses the little girl in the snow storm that cut visibility to a couple of meters and wolves were circling and George has this rifle apparently made of bone like the guy had in Cronenberg’s ‘Existenz’ (1999). I remember the gun more than the rest of that film possibly because the rendering of the various VR worlds was quite lame, as if Cronenberg, for once in a career full of cysts, gristle and bursting body parts, had climbed on the wagon a little late. The gun was bone so you could smuggle it through metal detectors. It shot teeth.

First of all I would equip the young actress with a tracking device concealed beneath her anorak then I would provide three runners with tracker receivers and radios and despatch them in a crescent around the girl but just outside the visibility range. Before each shot, one of the assistants, stationed by the camera, would do a radio check in the course of which each runner would confirm that they have a tracker signal from the actress.

That’s not quite right. It would be me, as the director, not an assistant, calling the radio check. The reason is I feel fatherly towards girls of that age because my daughters were once that age. I felt and feel fatherly at all their ages, I should add.

After each shot I would tell the runners to converge on the actress to see she was bearing up okay. There would be a chaperone there anyway but they would stay behind the camera.

The thing is, however, that at no point in the scene I’m referring to are the girl and Clooney visible at the same time. Clooney runs about in the snow storm shouting at wolves then realises he can no longer see the girl. So the girl could spend that time in her trailer, keeping warm, along with the chaperone. At no point does she walk out of shot into the swirling white-out.

But that’s how I would do it, anyway. In the film the little girl only speaks about six words but when I, in my role as George Clooney, go on Graham Norton with her to promote the film, Caolinn Springall, who is 7, would prove to be charmingly and unstoppably chatty, much to the benign amusement of the host and assembled guests. From time to time I would be seen smiling fondly, paternally and with a hint of proud surprise. I’m not sure how you pronounce her first name but obviously I would have found out in the course of the casting.

The thing is, however, that at the end of the film she disappears anyway. Not in the snow or anything but because she is a figment of George Clooney’s imagination that he had conjured in order to get him through the chill task of taking tech from one frozenarse installation to another. Which, again, is lame. Seen it all before. So when he nearly loses her in the snow storm and almost falls into deathly sleep in the snow it’s control over the figment that he is losing rather than someone’s real daughter.

If you want to do this figment stuff and not be lazy then you could pick up some tips from George Clooney, who plays Chris Kelvin in Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Solaris’ (2003) and encounters, to his initial delight and astonishment, on board an orbiting space station, his dead wife Rheya, played by Natascha McElhone whom I saw walking along in Brick Lane once but did not approach in order to assert that “I love what you do”. The stark uncanniness of the situation doesn’t stop Kelvin from becoming increasingly enchanted by the figment, which is generated by incomprehensible forces radiating from the water-covered planet around which Kelvin’s space craft is orbiting.

If Soderbergh’s work was overly legible, a view held by some, then a more substantially credentialed, elusive and earlier version of Stanislaw Lem’s original novel was made by Tarkovsky in 1972. At almost twice the length it drifts in and out of the ponderous but it got there 20 years earlier and has fuelled my thinking on the figment ever since.

Lem, I was amused to discover, thought both versions sucked. He “never really liked Tarkovsky’s version” and despite never actually seeing Soderbergh’s film wrote “…to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space… As Solaris’ author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled “Solaris” and not “Love in Outer Space”. (Wikipedia re both versions.)

Kelvin gets over his astonishment and finds that if you fire your figment into deep space in a capsule in order to annihilate her she will reappear a few hours later as if nothing had happened. Which, in a sense, is very much the case. The haunted Kelvin then decides that getting back the wife who had, in the real world, committed suicide ten years ago, could be quite agreeable, especially if you can overlook the fact that you know perfectly well she is a figment, somehow condensed from the probings of an intelligent planet into your unconscious while you sleep.

Rheya, however, develops a tentative autonomy which takes the form of a frustrated introversion:

I do remember doing things but I don’t remember being there. I don’t remember experiencing those things…These strange thoughts keep coming into my mind and I don’t know where they’re coming from.

Strip out the genre trappings and ‘Solaris’ becomes a treatise on invasive, unwanted, unwelcome thoughts, experienced by many and, I would venture to say, all people. The especially perturbed hosts to these invaders may on occasion report to doctors and therapists who might, it is hoped, help to dispel or at least cauterise the vile inbursting outbursts.

In the absence of sage counselling some of the sufferers from unwanted thoughts will feel colonised. The thoughts are so unlike them that they must be disowned, at which point a question of relocation arises. The thoughts are not a sign of madness. The thoughts are demonic. The thoughts are messages from those we have angered or betrayed. They are beamed by extra-terrestrials, they come from God.

Such thoughts, experienced as alien and inescapable marauders, may be thought of as symptomatic of the inhabiting of a culture in which a proliferation of fragments exerts an attritional pressure on unitary identity. As the shell grows ever thinner so it becomes crazed, in the ceramicist’s sense of being covered in fine cracks.

Traffic flows both ways: from the outside to the inside and vice versa. Rheya, located in Kelvin, not beside him, is experienced by him as a person in the world. She, however, becomes the receptacle for Kelvin’s recollections of her past. They aren’t her memories, they couldn’t be. They’re what Kelvin unconsciously injects into his phantasmal mannequin.

Although she’s not real, Rheya presents as the porous and benighted emissary of a burgeoning crazedness. Ideally, from Kelvin’s point of view, she wouldn’t be so fussy – she would embrace his memories of her as if they were her own and the couple could resume their relationship, presumably at a point before she committed suicide.

It occurs to me that all Kelvin has to do is remember her remembering that all her memories are her own. Problem solved. But perhaps Kelvin isn’t psychopathic enough to go the whole hog.

In Kelvin’s case, there is an urgency born of protracted and perhaps uncompleted mourning. There is nothing he would like better than for his wife to rise from the dead. He knows it’s mad. But he will overlook this. His wife, however, in her capacity as a figment, acquires qualities that no figment should or could. She starts to think for herself.

Rheya’s acquisition of what we are initially asked to regard as independent thought prompts a consideration of the Tibetan tulpa – the ultimate expression of expression or, if you prefer, the ultimate extension of the logic of expression.

The early scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism advise that a holy person could envisage another living thing, perhaps human or humanoid or homunculus, and then, over a long period, intensify that act of imagining to the point where they might become familiar with every detailed physical aspect of that being and then push and push and finally endow that vivid vision with actual materiality, so that you could touch it, talk with it, have it as a companion, recognise that it is a true tulpa, or in current parlance a ‘thoughtform’. In the parlance of sceptics, an ‘imaginary friend’.

If such activities strain credulity then their cultural power, and the power of their western ilk, endures and will be found to inform many everyday adventures in books, films and fictions; all sorts of actors and characters in those works; many varieties of vision, delusion and hallucination; any number of hauntings, enchantments and abductions; myriad yearnings, longings and cravings and pinings and mournings. Countless conjurations and invocations can be regarded as having as their engine an embedded, ancient, insistent and unstanchable conviction – a wish, really –  that proper cogitation can be actualised – it is a process of manufacture, one that might feature birth or resurrection or replication.

In your dreams.

So Rheya sits on the end of the bed and tells Kelvin about her troubling mental life. Only a while ago she had no mental life: her thoughts were channelled into her spectral yet material being by an unthoughtful Kelvin who didn’t know he was doing it. She was a bewitching prosthetic serving to actuate a bereaved husband’s attempt to forestall closure. She also has, of course, a prophylactic function, that of deferring Kelvin’s knowledge of the fact that the dead don’t come back. If Kelvin gets too close to her she may slip back inside him and undo the whole charade. If he doesn’t get close enough to her he runs the risk of becoming overly objective and effectively killing her off.

That a pallid, enervated person could be in any way attractive is puzzling. Is death warmed up your idea of fun? Most would say no. On the other hand the withholding of emotion and emotional expression has long been found irresistible in many quarters. In ‘Ex Machina’ (Garland, 2014) Caleb, (Domhnall Gleeson), finds himself drawn to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a female robot equipped with sophisticated AI. Ava’s designer is using Caleb in an elaborate Turing test that dispenses with the non-visibility of the artificial intelligence and instead confronts Caleb with complete evidence of its artificiality.

Ava: Would you like to know how old I am?

Caleb: Sure.

Ava: I’m one.

Caleb: One what? One year or one day?

Ava: One.

As is the way in guy-fucks-robot movies, fascination is steadily supplanted by ruminations on acquisition and enslavement. These latter are not made explicit. Deckard (Harrison Ford), for example, in ‘Blade Runner’ (Scott, 1982), never says of the replicant Rachael (Sean Young) “I’ve always wanted to fuck a robot.” Caleb never says to Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the millionaire scientist who made Ava the woman she isn’t, “She’s so like the real thing, I really want to fuck her.” (Nathan is already fucking Kyoko, an early model with less advanced sentience than Ava.) At the level of plot the male leads are increasingly drawn to the humanoids but somehow we are led to empathise with the men on the basis that, well, these gadgets are lovely to look at and will always listen uncritically to what I have to say. And you can keep them in a clean, dry cupboard. 

Deckard: Remember when you were six? You and your brother snuck into an empty building through a basement window. You were going to play doctor. He showed you his, but when it got to be your turn you chickened and ran; you remember that? You ever tell anybody that? Your mother, Tyrell, anybody? Remember the spider that lived outside your window? Orange body, green legs. Watched her build a web all summer, then one day there’s a big egg in it. The egg hatched…

RachaelThe egg hatched…


Rachael…and a hundred baby spiders came out… and they ate her.

DeckardImplants. Those aren’t your memories, they’re somebody else’s. They’re Tyrell’s niece’s.

Deckard[he sees that she’s deeply hurt by the implication]  O.K., bad joke… I made a bad joke. You’re not a replicant. Go home, O.K.? No, really – I’m sorry, go home.

Valerie Solanas, in the SCUM Manifesto (1968), observed that a man will ‘swim a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.’ This may partially explain the malleability of romantic lead Caleb. Several areas of Ava’s body are attractive, it must be said, but you can see through her lower trunk to the room on the other side. In that trunk-space are cables, actuators and artificial muscles. You couldn’t say that you didn’t know what you were getting. The ‘friendly pussy’ is not in evidence but Ava has a pretty face and, in terms of contours if not contents, a beach body. She cannot, however, be compared to the replicant Rachael in Blade Runner who is entirely organic with no artificial parts other than her suite of other people’s memories. But Ava does not share Rachael’s melancholy and, although Caleb doesn’t quite get this, Ava understands that he needs to be understood. Harrison Ford’s Deckard is content to overlook the fact that everything Rachael remembers derives from the niece of her designer and drives off with her in a flying car at the end of the movie. Caleb falls in love, notwithstanding the anatomical cut-away aspects of Ava’s limbs and midriff.

The inscrutable woman possessed of an elusive, even absent, interiority is, when constituted in a particular way in either arthouse or horror films, always a figment. In ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (Resnais, 1961) most of the cast lack the conventional signs of interiority and it’s nothing to do with bad acting. They gaze into the middle distance, move very few facial muscles and are immaculately groomed. Their passions and objectives are unreadable. If we were to declare that they are impenetrable then we would be saying, at the risk of stating the obvious, that they cannot be penetrated. And this, in turn, makes them both challenging and attractive. If it could also be said that they seem half-dead then we might wish to revitalise them. There are limits to this: if it is clear that the person is, for example, very ill, in the medical sense, then there will be no charm attached to the situation. That sort of illness is simply not good enough. It’s too specific. Tuberculosis maybe, but nothing that involves rot. Zombies are undeniably riveting but the brides of Dracula are also enticing.

The film elegantly considers a three-line premise: a man, ‘X’, (Giorgio Albertazzi) approaches a woman, ‘A’, (Delphine Seyrig) at a magnificent hotel and tells her that they met a year ago in Marienbad, where they had an affair and agreed to meet a year later. A denies ever meeting or knowing X. He tries to convince her but is consistently rejected.

A – What room? I’ve never been in any room with you.

X – But you don’t want to remember. You’re afraid.

One view of this protracted enigma sees X as a gaslighting pest. It is even possible, but unlikely, that it is his persistence that drives A to the distraction that makes her remote and undemonstrative. It is hard not to see her putting up with him by politely minimising her transactional presence.

The guests at the hotel are all similarly dazed, however, which weakens the gaslighter proposition. A’s protestations may genuinely indicate either an impaired memory or a condition in which the hotel is a place of pervasive entrancement akin to that in the Hotel California where “You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!”

If these circumstances are the case then the film becomes a study of a kind of psychic refuge in which memory can be allowed to deteriorate in order to facilitate the management of multitudes that are malign as distinct from enriching. A side effect of this strategy might be the intermittent emergence of invasive thoughts.

Rheya, A, Ava and Rachael have differing degrees of embodiment and autonomy but you can imagine their being imagined rather than actually enfleshed. They are tulpas and if you get it right they will let you do any sex thing you want. You can even use them as arm-candy that will not assert, at the end of the day, that they are tired. What’s not to crave? Certainly in the films cited the men, especially Caleb, are variously thwarted or have to work hard but those are just trappings. At the conclusion of a feature-length tease you can boil off the plot and character stuff and go full Tibetan. Implicit in this formula is that the duration of a feature film, say 100 minutes, is all you need to make your dreams come true. Granted, this is to mix up levels but it’s quicker than meditating in a cave.

Mira, the cyborg female in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017) has a shell that is realistically fleshlike, encasing robotic limbs and inner organs but driven by her own human brain. She has, in fact, full human lineage but as a result of extensive physical damage sustained in a cyberterrorist attack she is used as a platform for an innovative cyborg attack model that employs a human brain rather than artificial intelligence. In common with her more passive aforementioned sisters her condition is an outcome of the dreams of men.


Conveniently for all who would wish to take advantage of her, Mira, like Rheya and A and Rachael, has an imperfect memory. She tells her cyborg colleague that

It feels like there’s always this thick fog over my memory…I don’t remember much. Just fragments. Bits and pieces.

In order that troubling thoughts about predatory necrophilic masculinism do not contaminate an engagement with the generally science fictional nature of cyborg narratives, a slow tease strategy is often deployed wherein the foregrounding of a fascination with robotics and replicants enables the connoisseurial savouring of futurescapes while suppressing darker ruminations.

This have your cake but critique it strategy is seen to good effect in the 1975 and 2004 versions of ‘The Stepford Wives’. Both versions indict the capture, commodification and sexual enslavement of compliant wives by their spouses yet both feature protracted episodes during which the accessibility of an ever ready fuckpiece is seen to be even more gratifying than a fast car.

The older version, directed by Bryan Forbes, at 115 minutes, plays the tease at length and holds off the stabbing of newly robotised and erstwhile dissident Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) by her disillusioned non-robotised friend Joanna (Katharine Ross) until the 98th minute, while the lighter, less sedate 93 minute Frank Oz (2004) version places the first significant robot Wife malfunction at just under 25 minutes.

These incidents precipitate random, repetitive, deranged and unwifely behaviour as the ladies’ circuits buzz, spark and burn out. The covert celebration of the advantages of wifely docility is muffled by plotting which clearly signals that all will not be well and, it should be said, is brought to an abrupt conclusion with a satisying and comedic critique of the imperial males.

The erotics, the enslavement and mastery, the themes of futurephobic anxiety and incomplete recall characterise many cyborg/replicant movies but it is the amnesia that has a special currency. In the course of the current (April 2021) covid-19 national lockdown, memory malfunction, attention deficit, ‘brain fog’ and confusion have been widely reported in the UK and beyond by those who have had to endure their own or unusually limited company for the last several months. The lack of incident (for those without covid), the flattened psychic topography, the smoothing of time have all exposed a simultaneously restless and listless populace to the usual atomised attention-seeking cultural radiation that is pretty much the weather in the mediated world but is currently adulterated by the natural inclination of our own attention to register as much activity as possible. This otherwise vital aptitude, when deprived of any hierarchies of importance to attend to, will hop and hop and hop from one thing to the next then the next then the next.

The term ‘attention deficit’ is slightly confusing insofar as it is the ability to pay sustained attention that is compromised, not the amount of attention that is available. In our waking hours attention is ever present. It needs somewhere to go, however, and will go there willy-nilly.

It seems likely that in such conditions the identification of events that merit recollection is undermined by the proliferation of countless incidents of apparently equal importance. Amnesia prevails as well as an attendant anxiety precipitated by our falling prey to thoughts and responses that are usually held in check by matters that genuinely do require our full attention.



Flight & Fight

Some of the aeronautical terms used below can be examined in greater and probably more reliable detail by clicking on the links provided.
Back in the early 80s I was writing a TV screenplay about the USAF in East Anglia. I drove, for the purposes of research, to the Duxford Air Show to look at the Lockheed SR-71 ‘Blackbird‘ stealth plane, a long-range strategic reconnaissance aircraft which had recently come out of hiding. Having marvelled at the sleek, black, radar-invisible craft parked beside a hangar and guarded by machine-gun toting US airmen in blue grey uniforms with white silk cravats, I was drawn back to the main runway when it was announced that the Harrier jump jet would shortly pay a visit. This is the one that can land by descending vertically and can even hover, using the downward vectored thrust of its movable jet nozzles, while delivering death from above.    
The V/STOL (vertical/short takeoff and landing) configuration makes runways, even aircraft carriers, redundant. Air show crowds are pleased by its versatility and its availability for anthropomorphic projection. The latter is apparent in the cries of pleasure that accompanied the fawning behaviour of the jet as it hurtled into view, skidded to a halt in the sky, hovered 30 feet above our heads then dipped its nose up and down several times, as if waving or bowing to us, who were its supreme and fearsome masters. One could imagine, on another day, above another country, the same manoeuvre being seen as a form of taunting.
The Harrier’s dark enchantment is due in part to its special relationship with what is known in aeronautics as relaxed stability. The term describes an aircraft’s tendency to change its attitude and angle of bank of its own accord. If it drifts from its path it will begin to move from side to side in relation to the path, gradually moving further off course with each excursion.  

This can be corrected with controls that influence the three ways a craft can move in the air: pitch, yaw and roll. Pitch refers to an up or down movement of the nose or tail; yaw is a side to side to side movement of the nose and roll (or bank) is said to occur when the plane rotates around its longitudinal axis – the line that passes through the plane from nose to tail. There are two other types of stability: positive stability when the aircraft will maintain its attitude without constant control input and will eventually return to its intended position if its path is disturbed, and neutral stability when the craft will not return to its trimmed setting without control input, but will swing from side to side without moving further and further off course. All of which suggests, reasonably enough, that you don’t want relaxed stability in any aircraft – it should be designed out at the offset. There are, however, situations in which a form of instability is considered highly desirable. Certain military craft are deliberately designed with inherent instability and equipped with flight control computers to compensate. Such craft will instantly lose stability if computer control is suspended. What would appear to be a form of designer recklessness actually brings the great advantages of being able to change direction with minimal intervention of the flight surfaces (the flaps, elevators, rudder etc). Responsiveness is increased and the craft can manoeuvre in dramatic and unpredictable ways. It will confound and frustrate its enemies by tossing itself around in the air.


It is hard to resist the thought that these ideas, and the terms in which they are expressed, could be fruitfully applied to certain contemporary social situations. The nature of stability, for example, is not just a matter of personal psychology but an effect of the ideologies that compete to secure a dominant definition of the concept. One man’s stability is another’s death-in-life. In the 60s, for example, stability was what your parents craved and you despised. Their ‘small “c” conservatism’ – a symptom of what was, in part, a widely dispersed postwar posttraumatic stress disorder – made them, in your view at least, unable to change direction without considerable forewarning and persuasion. Your view, consonant with the aeronautical theories with which you were not familiar, was that their stability would lead to their undoing. It had no flexibility insofar as it would guide its adherents further and further into inaction then rigidity. The aeronautical version is much the same: stability is synonymous with the maintaining of a set position but implicit in this condition is its own decay.

Those enchanted by the revolutionary tone of the 60s (including the Editor in Chief of this journal) believed that all this must be put behind them by means of the active pursuit of instability. Where Rimbaud, in 1871, recommended the ‘long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses’ and was probably appreciated at the time by a relatively small number of Bohemians and Decadents, the youth of the 60s energetically took up the project in significant numbers. This was not a self-correcting fly-by-wire enterprise – for many it involved a comprehensive cutting loose from constraints, a vigorous immersion in experiences previously insulated by taboo, and an indifference to the straight and narrow.  
This erraticised adventurousness piqued unattended and dormant appetites and prompted the emergence of desires people didn’t know they had. Thus it was, with the passage of time, that those who espoused a new anti-materialism and, to a greater or lesser extent, turned on and/or tuned in and/or dropped out, came to be regarded as excitingly needy by the manufacturers of such goods as clothes, records and posters. The Mad Men themselves, we are beguilingly informed, were able to navigate the haze of their own substance abuse in order to strategise the manufacture of desire for less folksy items such as cigarettes and saloon cars.
Instability, with its basis in relaxed impulse control, acquired a perverse reliability as advertisers refused to see in it a frustrating elusiveness but instead found ways to exploit it as a resource. Timothy Leary, after all, had suggested that ‘To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability (in order) to inform yourself.’ And it sounded good at the time, I have to say. But on the heels of voluntarily induced chaos and vulnerability came a complex of operations that succeeded in commandeering these states and repurposing them in such a way that they served the interests of authority rather than facilitating critical insight into it. ‘Cash from Chaos’, as Malcolm McLaren would observe some years later.
The link between adventurous instability and the adventurer had been weakened, enabling the emergence of a fertile ground for a form of instant messaging. Manoeuvrability was found to be as exploitable as immobility and came to be seen as manipulability. The scene was set in such a way that Guattari would write ‘A certain type of subjectivity, which I would call capitalistic, is poised to overtake the whole planet; an equalised subjectivity, with standardised fantasies and massive consumption of infantilising reassurances. It causes every kind of passivity, degeneration of democratic values, collective racist impulses. Today it is massively secreted by the media, community centres, and alleged cultural institutions.’ Writing in 1985, Guattari uses the phrase ‘is poised to overtake the whole planet’ predictively. In 2014 his acute assertions seem simply descriptive.
A conception of the uses of instability forged within military aeronautics emerged at the same time as the commercial appropriation of 60s open-mindedness (the Hawker Siddeley Harrier V/STOL made its first flight in 1967 and the Russian equivalent, the Yakovlev Yak-38 strike fighter, in 1971) and became an aspect of an array of counter-intuitive ideas that normalised the production of dissident energies by aligning them with consumerism.

The new instability was characterised by individuals easily knocked off course and prone to erratic behaviour. They were also highly responsive, able to react efficiently to rapid state changes and capable of high-volume decision making in short time periods. Affinities between stock market traders, military personnel and ‘accomplished shoppers’ became apparent, as did a willingness to obey orders.

The latter quality has proved useful when the latent pathology of this malleability is presented as a psychiatric issue. Fortunately the reshaping of psychotherapy under capitalism has produced a treatment based on the issuing of orders rather than a consideration of such tiresome matters as the unconscious. What you do, right, is simply tell the patient to think differently. It’s the patient’s ideas that are the problem. Change them and the patient is relieved of their problem. You have to go at least six times, mind you. These things can’t be done overnight. Cognitive behavioural therapy – why worry when you could be at work not worrying? It’s probably more sophisticated than that, but not a lot more.

So we are all soldiers now. A militarised technology contributes to a militarised psychology in which the unforeseeable is preferred to the reliable. The unforeseeable, apparently patternless, can be patterned. You want fighting men and women who will instantly obey orders, highly defined individuals who are careless, unattached, impetuous and obligated. With their yaws muzzled and their pitches perfected their disorder is a small price to pay for order.


Mortem Post

An actor friend called Matthew Scurfield was a member of the repertory theatre company in Barrow-in-Furness. At one point in the play, which was a period piece, he was required to march on stage, stand before an expectant throng of actors and deliver a mighty and important speech. Matthew strode to his final position, stood with his back to the audience and gathered his cape around him. He then drew himself up majestically and extended his arms wide, holding on to the wings of the cape. He was bollock naked. Thus disarrayed he delivered the entire speech. The actors could not possibly be seen to react. He could have killed somebody.

In 1982, towards the end of a performance of ‘Circus Lumiere’, Lumiere & Son’s most popular show, the five male performers, at the behest of Pamela the Ringmistress, enter the ring in their underpants in order to reenact their days as wild men in the jungles of Brazil. The uncouthness that they displayed before their discovery by Pamela, who had civilised them then launched them as circus performers, was made evident in the way they fought incessantly among themselves. This flashback sequence was punctuated by snap blackouts, during which the performers would assume fresh tableaux comprising complicated interlocking stacks of grappling bodies. For the effect to work properly, the audience must not see the performers changing position and the performers must move at top speed in the dark in order to be discovered ‘magically’ reassembled when the lights snap back on. On one occasion I hastened to my next position – a manoeuvre that had been rehearsed many times – and sensed that I was a tiny bit late. I dived into the pile of bodies just as the lights came up. I found that I was sitting on George Yiasoumi’s face. There then ensued a bout of uncontrollable behaviour that will be the subject of this post.

Similar behaviour can be easily located in such arcana as any Jim Carrey Blooper compilation on YouTube. His ‘Liar Liar’ bloopers will be found instructive in this respect. In the footage Carrey is seen pursuing two slightly different paths. Characteristically working at a maniacally elevated pitch he displays an impatience to achieve the results that the overall film project is designed to deliver. Some of the bloopers are simple errors based on bumping into the scenery or getting the lines wrong and they precipitate fits of giggling in all the actors present in the scene.

In these situations Carrey is rarely content simply to fail. He picks up on his initial mistake and runs it through a few more gears before giving up in order that a fresh take may be taken. He will land on a rather small error, which could easily be ignored, and instantly extend it, as if the end result of the extension represented the real nature of the original mistake. His fellow actors usually crack up and, as a result, perhaps Carrey gets a preview of the effectiveness of his comic persona. If this is the case then what the other actors and crew give the star is not an endorsement of the work in progress but an acknowledgment of the tension generated by that work. The cracking up demonstrates that the actors are tense and are pleased to experience relief from that tension. That they are tense simply indicates that they are professionals – they wish to optimise the presentation of their skills come what may and their attention is monopolised by acts of concentration, memorisation, collaboration and, importantly, surrender to the qualities of the character they are portraying. Carrey is also often seen – at least in the blooper reels – to subvert/ undermine/increase tension (possibly constructively) and show off as he deliberately strays off script to deliver gags and pull faces that make him and most of his colleagues snort explosively or bray with delight. It’s debatable who is the more tense and therefore has a greater need for the release, Carrey or those working with him.

Carrey, in other words, enjoys corpsing and making others corpse. The term derives, it is thought, from the mischievous practice of trying to make a corpse, to be precise an actor playing a corpse, laugh when they should not even be seen to breathe. The risk here would be that corpsing is very contagious and may well reduce the least hardy of the company to helpless giggles as well. From the corpse’s point of view, then, the ideal position in which to play dead would be one in which you are facing upstage, away from the audience.

Corpsing is odd. It is a forbidden delight, with which audiences eagerly connive. Up to a point. Beyond that point it suddenly looks too easy. The corpsing actors start to feel uncomfortable, despite their being enwrapped and entrapped in the greatest of comforts. The audience suddenly senses that, as far as they are concerned, a few seconds of abandon is quite sufficient. They’d like to get back to the script now please. But why did they succumb in the first place? You pay a lot of money to go to the theatre, why would you be so delighted by the abrupt and thoroughly disenchanting collapse of the whole point of the evening out? Or, why would you appreciate the inclusion of blooper outtakes on your box sets? Why do TV shows based solely on collections of bloopers draw dependably respectable figures? It has been observed elsewhere in this publication that actors demonstrate to non-actors that it is possible to act. This disclosure can be taken as an endorsement of the practice of pretending – when the occasion seems to demand it – to be other than you are. It can also support the more offensive notion that all behaviour is performance.

Whether this makes actual actors seem more or less skilled is open to question. It is, nevertheless, salutary to witness actors at work, especially since most of the time we are sufficiently seduced by the performance willingly to sideline the obtrusive sense that it is a performance. In other words, performances can be credible. And this is good to know. The other side of the coin would feature uneasiness about the whole performance enterprise. If theatre or film performance and everyday performance are comparable in some way then non-actors could be prey to breaks in continuity on a par with those suffered by thespians. Professional corpsing is clearly a breakdown of some sort and may be seen as having its equivalent in everyday social life. Some non-actors can act, in everyday life, better than other non-actors but both parties will experience occasions when they turn in a bad performance. For many this will not be an issue. It happens – move on. However, both professionals and non-actors carry within them the possibility of the flawed and therefore detectable and therefore non-credible performance. While non-actors do not corpse – their performance errors tend not to occur in front of large, attentive and formally arranged audiences or highly focused groups of fellow actors and technical crews – they will regard corpsing as significant rather than trivial. Having suggested above that it is reassuring to know that the act of everyday acting may produce credible (if not authentic) behaviour, the more sweeping suggestion – that all behaviour is performance – may precipitate considerable anxiety.

Death stalks these proceedings. Comedians ‘die’ on stage, Monty Python built a sketch around the ‘the Killer Joke’ which was killingly funny and some of us ‘almost die laughing’. If the experience isn’t actually terminal we may nevertheless find it ‘sidesplitting’ or ‘cry with laughter’ or ‘piss ourselves’. The latter actually happens, of course, but people rarely die laughing, despite their assertions that they did.

The laughter business is fraught with danger. Almost by definition laughter is out of control and intense laughter threatens to lead us to a point from which we might have difficulty returning. I’m not suggesting that this is what anyone thinks when they burst out laughing but our colloquialisms do suggest that laughter is not simply restricted to things that we find humorous. I wrote recently about delirious, frightened or horrified laughter in the post ‘Murder in the Dark’. Given that we’re not going to die laughing there still remains within the corpse and the snort more than wholesome, disruptive fun.

The processes that comprise an actor’s preparation do not explain satisfactorily what it is that actors actually do. Somehow they create space within themselves for characters other than their own – that’s pretty clear. One wonders what happens to the actor’s own character when they submit to one that has been constructed in the rehearsal process. In the case of demonic possession the subject is held to be eclipsed or erased by the immigrant evil spirit. The rehearsal process demedievalises this setup, transforming a spectacular event into a series of measured operations.

Romantic misconceptions about method acting not only serve to assure audiences of the authenticity of performances but encourage the idea that the actor dies nightly and is resurrected within the terms of the script. It’s easy to form the impression that accomplished actors move beyond impersonation to almost complete submission to character.

If submission were complete then the actor wouldn’t exist, she would walk offstage, get a National Insurance number and look for something to do with her life. If submission were complete then the actor – like the stereotypical schizophrenic who thinks he’s Napoleon and is disappointed at the lack of respect he receives – would not be able to follow the script, so diverted would he be by the myriad possibilities of interaction with those around him whom he would assume are real people. Notwithstanding the purportedly awe inspiring capacity of some film actors to maintain character between takes, the idea that they forget who they are and only remember the character is silly. They need who they are because so much of what they do on stage or before the camera is technical. They need to stand in prescribed places most of the time and they need to know when the other person’s speech ends so that they don’t interrupt them when they respond. Etc. So this whole submission thing is just not a useful idea. They just submit a bit. Some more than others.

Even so, we are used to thinking that the better they are, the more they have submitted. Perhaps the notion of absorption is more versatile – it could describe a state in which both technical and character requirements are simultaneously maintained in focus. This makes the job sound more difficult yet it does suggest a multi-tasking the components of which are at odds with each other and could not confidently be described as complementary. And this in turn is consistent with a precariousness in which the actor’s condition is vulnerable to breaking down, splitting apart and being defined by neither of its disengaged parts. Suddenly, just because the on-stage drawing room doorknob comes off in your hand, you are between worlds and discombobulated, a zombie with a body but no character.

But they recover. In rehearsal they recover every few minutes. When the director says “Can we stop there for a moment?” the actors jump off the bus, hang around in the bus station with the director then just jump straight back on the bus when everyone is ready. The building of character is an act of composition and the actor is required to hold the character in a state of composure but this can be relinquished when it is appropriate to do so. However, when it is knocked off balance without warning then decomposition can follow, rather than the straightforward on and off the bus that is typical of rehearsal. The world of the actor in a scripted play is both thoroughly stable and teetering at the point of imbalance.

In his remarkable book ‘Boo! Culture, Experience and the Startle Reflex’, Ronald C. Simons presents a detailed study of the latah phenomenon. In Malaysia and Indonesia there are individuals who react to a sudden noise far more violently than others. Simons explains that ‘Latahs do everything that hyperstartling people do elsewhere. They may strike out at objects or others, assume overlearned defensive postures, or say improper or idiosyncratically stereotyped things…The disruption of ongoing attentional processes is for them more extreme. After a series of startles, a latah‘s speech and behaviour may become quite disorganised. In addition, after being startled some latahs experience strong attention-capture, focusing on salient aspects of their perceptual fields and narrowing and locking attention on them. Latahs may call out the names of what they see or repeat or approximate sounds they have just heard. They may match movements of objects or other persons with movements of their own bodies. As with persons whose attention has been captured generally, latahs will sometimes obey imperiously given commands.’

Latahs or their non-Malaysian and Indonesian equivalents are found in many societies. They may not have the special status afforded them in these regions but the precariousness of their composure is much the same. They will ‘jump out of their skin’ and not be able to get back where they belong for minutes at a time. During this time their capacity to direct their own behaviour is spectacularly diminished to the point where they will be compulsively obedient or repetitive. They are, in a sense, ‘anybody’s’. While corpsing actors cannot be described in these florid terms, there is a similarity in the abruptness of the shift from composure to disarray in both latah and corpsing actor. Actors may be, in the particular sense I have suggested, fragile, but only when they are acting. In the case of the latah it is as if their entire being, or their sense of being, will only cohere if they are never startled.

The video clip demonstrates that the non-latah peers of the latah individual tend to tease the latah, sometimes mercilessly, in order to precipitate what is clearly regarded as an hilarious performance, available on demand and unticketed.

Now let’s look at Andrea…