Monday, December 31, 2007

Judith Flanders - Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (2006)

I'm an absolute sucker for well-written books of Victorian cultural and social history, and Flanders' CP fits that bill exactly. Flanders has written two other books on the Victorian period which I haven't had the pleasure to read. However, this one, on a subject which I haven't seen explored at any more than chapter-length in most popular books I've read on Victorian history, was really fascinating, giving both an excellent social history of the explosion of leisure among the working classes, and of mass consumption and the technologies which drove it; and, though treating little with personal narrative, an excellent sense of the concrete, day-to-day realities of Victorian life across the classes.

In terms of subject matter, CP deals with the Great Exhibition, the development of the shop (from retail to department) and advertising, the modern newspaper along with serialised and commercial fiction, travel (especially by road and train), holidays and tourism, theatre and spectacle, music, art (especially the development of the artist from a figure of patronisation to a commercial individual, as well as public museums and galleries), sport, and Christmas. Personally, I would've liked to see a chapter on the commercialism of sex and sexuality (surely the ultimate activity involving 'leisure and pleasure'), as well as on drinking and recreational drugs (and all of these, a two-faced attitude to sexuality, a change in the nature of the 'corner pub' and the substances consumed, or the rise and cultural role of 'opium dens', or example, would be fascinating); but and of these would perhaps be another work, and these topics are already covered, to greater or lesser degree, in other works on the era - besides which, at 500-odd pages, CP is already a fairly significant brick.

As well as tracing the grand outlines (the changes brought to peoples' lives in terms of psychologicality, temporality and geography by the new availability of consumer goods, travel and entertainment, and the struggle, mostly class-based, of what forms these new pleasures were to take and who would be included and excluded), Flanders' work is a wealth of fascinating incidental asides on the less-considered aspects of Victorian life (it was impossible, for example, for a woman to visit a bathroom outside her home until the development of the tea shop and the department store, thereby leading to a considerable increase in her outside-the-home purchasing hours; traditional Christmas plum pudding developed from an earlier standard Christmas-porridge, beef broth thickened with bread, dried fruit, wine and spices, beloved in England but 'a dish few foreigners find to their taste'; or the legal necessity for 'low' or popular theatres, forbidden to perform serious works, to produce Shakespeare in tableaux featuring signs in order to get around the rule against spoken performances of 'high'[er] art). But the book is also excellent at tracing the unexpected synchronicities of technology and discourse, and the non-directed developments, of the period which lead to its classic manifestations; for example, the combination of new technologies developed entirely separately in metalwork and in rubber, a good road system covering a relatively small area, a view of lower-middle class men in office jobs as effeminate indoors weaklings, led to a huge boom in the production and use of the bicycle (first mooted in the late 1860s) among the general population.

The Victorian period is usually understood, with justification, as the beginning of the contemporary period as we understand it. In reading Flanders' book, the embryonic outlines of many of today's practices are quite clear (sometimes even near-fully-formed) and the way in which our primary identities, as self-constructed consumers and possessors of individual and shaped personalities, as well as our mentality of constant growth and 'improvement', can be seen, without explicit links being drawn by Flanders herself. The way in which it traces the connection between leisure, consumption and identity, without specifically addressing itself to this subject as an academic topic in itself, is one of the work's great strengths. However, without specifically laying it out (and particularly in the areas where we venture into the eighteenth century in search of the roots of the nineteenth and the historical context in which these changes were occurring), it also gives some truth to the argument, laid out in other writers' work on the period, that the classic schematic separation between pre- or proto-modernity, and contemporary modernity as we know it, took place halfway through what we consider 'the Victorian period' - and we can understand the period better in this light.

Overall, I'd second A. N. Wilson's description of CP: 'as packed with goodies as a rich Victorian Dundee cake'. To be put on the shelf along with works like Wilson's own The Victorians or Liza Picard's Victorian London to return and be dipped into to at leisure (and, of course, at pleasure).

Sunday, December 23, 2007

James Wan - Saw (2004)

While I'm not at all a fan of the 'new' style horror movie (with the exception of the resurge in b-grade), I like to keep up with major developments in the field, so I'd been meaning to see Saw. for some time now. I'd been somewhat put off by comparisons to the highly overrated Se7en, but I found Saw a lot more pleasing, perhaps because it had no pretensions to be anything other than what it was - a nasty little psycho movie, but with smarts.

The film suffers from the usual modern horror problems - serial killer with no meaningful motive, over-reliance on gore (I prefer my films either b-grade gory, or without, thank you), and my very least favourite - what I call 'Friday the 13th' syndrome - the characters (especially but not only women) never take the opportunity to put the villain out of the action once and for all when they have the opportunity, but instead fail to for the sake of the plot, and in the process entirely jettison the shreds of realism on which the genre trades.

Having said this, however, the 'twist' in this particular example is very nicely done: we follow the characters from a deathtrap situation through a history of how they came to be there, and with what consequences. This format means that we don't get tempted by another sin of the modern-day slasher flick, setting up a line of ducks and shooting 'em down one by one as a substitute for a plot.

It's a clever work - the twists are nicely done so that, when you think you're one step ahead of the film, it's in fact got the drop on your expectations. The twisted, intricate little scenarios the film presents are themselves are very ingenious, and will please those with a mind for complicated death traps in classic crime style, with a modern twist in the upping of the macabre factor. The atmosphere is very nicely done (though nothing out of the ordinary) - I found myself at times conceiving of the movie as a game made in reverse, given the fact that much of it is a series of very elaborate problem-solving exercises - but unlike many films these days which seem empty inasmuch as they're made for or from action-based gameplay, the ingenuity this involves maintains interest in the film medium as well. Overall it's a well-put together little package which is not for the queasy, but which holds pleasures beyond the standard mindless short'n'nasty slasher film that passes for horror these days.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Werner Herzog - Grizzly Man (2005)

I'll come right out and admit it - this is the first Herzog film I've seen, though Aguirre and Nosferatu have been on my list for some time. But, if this film is anything to go by, everyone who recommended his work to me was right about the depth of the impression it leaves on the viewer. Despite its flaws, GM is one of the most thought-provoking films I've seen for quite some time.

The documentary, narrated by Herzog himself and featuring a haunting acoustic guitar soundtrack by Richard Thompson, follows the story of Timothy Treadwell, the 'grizzly man' of the title. Treadwell was devoted to grizzly bears, and spent every summer for thirteen years with the bears, until, in 2003, he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and eaten by a grizzly. For the six years previously, Treadwell had been documenting his sojourns on camera. This footage makes up a great deal of the doco; the rest is interviews with those who knew Timothy or were involved in the events around his death, as well as some gorgeous landscape shots of the Alaskan wilderness where Treadwell lived with the bears.

Treadwell himself is a bizarre, irritating and fascinating character. An actor and a former alcoholic and heavy drug user, he seems to have had a 'conversion' experience which turned him into the 'grizzly man' (who nonetheless took his childhood stuffed bear with him into the wilderness). But his life involved a great deal of myth-making, from his name (which he had changed from 'Timothy Dexter'), to his origins (he claimed to have been born in Australia), to the fact that in the film he took of himself (intended for his own documentary) he consistently concealed the fact that he was not always alone in the wilderness, but was accompanied by Huguenard.

The film's greatest flaw, to my mind, is Herzog's intrusive, heavily accented narration, which is often portentous and pretentious, and adds little to the tragic and beautiful story which unfolds around Treadwell. The material Herzog presents could easily stand alone, and his observations, whether on the random beauty of the shots of the wilderness captured between Treadwell's gung-ho on-film heroics, or his criticisms of Treadwell's very obvious flaws and absurdities, are redundant. There is also a particularly objectionable, crypto-voyeuristic scene in which Herzog is played the six-minute sound recording of the deaths of Treadwell and Huguenard (the camera had been running, but with the lens cap on), after which he tells Jewel Palovak (Treadwell's close friend, and the possessor of the tape and his other effects) that she must never listen to it, that she must destroy it, and that she must never look at the autopsy photographs of Treadwell (his remains and those of Huguenard were for the most part recovered from the stomach of the bear who killed them, which was shot when Treadwell's death was discovered).

Nonetheless, the questions the film raises are even more fascinating than the sheer beauty of the footage of grizzlies and foxes at play. The essential issue here revolves around the relationship between humans and 'nature'. Treadwell came more and more to loathe 'the human world', as he called it, and this was eventually to lead to his death: when returning from Alaska he got into an altercation regarding his plane ticket, and he therefore decided to return to the wilderness, staying later in the season than he ever had before and thus encountering hostile and starving bears with whom he had not previously come in contact. But his view of both 'nature' and of the human role was hopelessly utopian, and this, combined with a massive ego which led to a heavy overestimation of his own capacity to avoid conflict with the grizzlies, was a fatal flaw.

Treadwell, complete with Prince Valiant haircut (concealing his receding hairline), saw himself as a 'kind warrior' and a 'samurai' who, unlike anyone else in the world, was capable of interacting with grizzlies on their own terms. In this attitude, however, we see how monumental was his arrogance, and the way in which his project was all about himself, rather than about the bears. A telling moment is one in which he tells a fox he has named 'Timmy' that he (the fox) is 'master of all the bears and all the foxes'; telling also is the way in which his monologue (which is a bizarre, over-enthusiastic stream of childish enthusiasm and comic-book phraseology, punctuated by exaggerated emotional tantrums) constantly draws on concepts of 'mastery' and martial analogies. One can't help agreeing with the indigenous curator of an Alaskan museum that Treadwell's interactions with the bears (which included a great deal of close contact), contrary to his protestations of love (and he was also a tireless educator, giving free speeches to schoolchildren about bear protection) were the ultimate in disrespect, inasmuch as he did not respect the boundary between their domain and his own.

But why should we consider what Treadwell was doing, living among the bears, more reprehensible than the actions of figures such as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey? While I'm not usually one to champion 'scientific objectivity', this discourse seems to have placed a distance between the abovementioned scientists and the objects of their research which Treadwell, as a self-conceived eco-warrior figure, did not possess (we might also add that, while ego must not be overlooked as a motivation in scientific work, Treadwell's self-aggrandisement seems to have grown from the 'conversion experience' which led to his self-mythologising as 'the grizzly man'). Gender issues also seem relevant, in terms of Treadwell's militaristic conception of his role in mediating between the 'grizzly world' and the 'human world', and in his macho conception of his ability to handle the grizzlies. Having said this, such an interaction is always problematic; Fossey herself seems to have begun to lose the plot in the final period of her interaction with gorillas in Rwanda, dressing up, for example, as a traditional evil spirit in order to scare off poachers and others from the gorilla habitat; and in this case, too, such behaviour may well have contributed to her death.

The publicisation of the work of individuals like Fossey and Goodall led to a much greater public appreciation of the inherent value of the lives of the animals they studied, and therefore can be seen as positive in this regard. However, if GM can be said to have a moral, the one I drew was that the best thing humans can do for wild animals is to leave them alone. Treadwell's utopian view of nature is certainly more benign than an attitude which explicitly values humans above other animals and sees nature as nothing more than a justifiably exploitable resource (indeed, a resource which it is morally incumbent upon humans to subjugate and exploit); but it certainly did him no good, and arguably harmed his cause (drawing a great deal of ire, and the intrusion of 'Treadwell-hunters' into the wilderness on at least one occasion). Here we might also think of the fate of Steve Irwin.

In opposition to Treadwell's naive boys' own fantasies with an eco-twist, Herzog's view, as expressed in the narratorial voice, is the diametric opposite: that 'nature' is a harsh chaos, and that animals are nothing more than mindless eating machines (and, as mentioned above, I failed to see the necessity for this judgmental and heavy-handed intrusion). These two points of view draw on what we might call 'equal and opposite' binary traditions in the Western conception of 'nature': that it is either a hideous, dangerous realm, ultimately hostile to humanity; or that it is a morally and literally unspoiled wilderness which is a paradise for humans. Either concept sees Westerners (as opposed to, for example, 'noble savages') as somehow 'outside' of the realm of 'nature' which they 'encounter' in certain circumstances. Both of these views seem to me equally reductionist, and both revolve around a conception of humans as 'central' to an external 'nature' which can lead to nothing but harm, whether through benign or malign intentions toward that 'nature'.

Ultimately, whatever its flaws, this documentary is beautiful, haunting, maddening and thought-provoking; the intensity of any one of these aspects alone would make it worthwhile watching, but all together, they add up to an experience which, appropriately, enriches the viewer's mental landscape.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Jeffrey Masson - Against Therapy (1990)

Though I read them some time ago, I was a big fan of Masson's books on emotions in animals, Dogs Never Lie About Love (despite the fact that I'd be lying if I said I was a dog lover), and When Elephants Weep. However, when I got to The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats, I felt that he was relying far too heavily on the, in my opinion dubious, claims of evolutionary biology to explain the emotions in animals. What I didn't realise was that Masson has a whole other history in the field of psychoanalysis (not to mention Sanskrit studies).

Masson is a fascinating character. A youthful savant, he was originally a sanskrit scholar before moving into the field of psychoanalysis. He quickly rose to the heights of editing an archive of Freud's letters, which had until then been kept from the public, held by Kurt Eissler, a man devoted to maintaining Freud's posthumous reputation; but Masson soon became disillusioned with Freud as an admirable person, and with psychoanalysis in general, and a massive falling-out ensued. Janet Malcolm describes this in her wonderful book In The Freud Archives, originally a New Yorker article; but, when she quoted Masson as having aimed to change the archives into a place of "women, sex and fun" he sued her for libel, and the ensuing case took a decade before finally being found in Malcolm's favour. Masson, disappointed by the lack of purchase gained by his work on therapy and psychoanalysis, then turned to writing about emotions in animals.

All this is by way of introducing Masson's self-explanatorily titled work, Against Therapy. Masson's position is that all one-on-one therapy is inherently deeply flawed, and that one-on-one therapy should be abandoned as a practice. This is because the therapist is inevitably in a position of great power, as an expert and as someone with the social power to determine sanity and insanity, normality and abnormality, while the patient (or client) is inherently vulnerable; because the therapist imposes his or her own belief systems on the patient in order to shape the patient into a more 'healthy' person, and in doing so, the individual is always considered the problem in need of change, rather than the nature of the society around that individual. Anyone who says that they have been helped by therapy (or by other psychologically-aimed interventions such as electroshock treatment) is either deluded, having been brainwashed into accepting the therapist's understanding of the world (a view which in itself could be seen as denying these individuals agency and telling them that 'the expert knows better' about you than you do yourself); or else has been helped in the same way that conversations with a close friend would help someone in distress, but at a much greater financial cost in a much less equal relationship. In order to expose this, Masson traces individual abuses by therapists, from Freud to modern feminist and radical psychoanalysis.

In some ways, Masson's points are well taken. Classical psychoanalysis is indeed a repressive institution, as its history demonstrates; to my mind, it is a fascinating and productive system of understanding, but of little use as a therapeutic tool. The abuses he details are indeed hideous, and difficult to believe, particularly those which take place in more recent times; and they do indeed support his thesis, that the role of the therapist is to force the individual to submit to the norms of society (particularly with regard to gender and sexuality), as dictated by the therapist, whose own prejudices are shaped by that milieu. Masson rejects the argument that the examples he gives represent a few 'bad apples'; rather, he says, power, of the kind possessed by a therapist, is almost always abused. As well as this, he notes that the psychotherapeutic establishment has done little or nothing to publicise or decry such abuses, and that it has a tendency to protect and make excuses for its own; and that therapists have an interest in maintaining good social networks (given that they rely on other therapists for referrals), and a financial interest in the general practice of psychotherapy, and, on the individual level, of not turning away clients who they might feel they are unsuitable to work with. All of these arguments are well received, and hold some truth.

Nonetheless, Masson's work is problematic. His argument, as outlined above, is never really clearly established; rather, it is pieced together over the episodes he describes. He fails to distinguish between people who are functional but who have issues around their own identity and behaviour that they would like to address, people who are functional but have mental illnesses, and people who are non-functional (to be fair, the lines between these states can be very difficult to draw). Rather, he takes the extreme position that 'mental illness' is nothing more than a label used for those who do not fit into social norms (another well-known exponent of this concept is Thomas Szasz, whom Masson mentions often, though not always, with approbation). Furthermore, although he mentions modern, non-psychoanalytic forms of therapy (which, of course, have their roots in psychoanalysis inasmuch as they involve a one-on-one 'talking cure'), he fails to clearly distinguish between psychonalytic and non-psychoanalytic forms; rather, the sins of psychoanalysis, which are many and varied, stand for the whole.

To my mind, however, the biggest problem with his argument is his solution to the problems of individuals who do not like or accept oppressive social norms and structures: that they should work to change them. This is very much in the vein of seventies radical politics: 'don't change yourself, change society' (and the introduction to the work, by Alice Miller, also champions this idea). In theory, this concept has a lot going for it. However, it ignores the fact that there are many aspects of society which change very slowly. While we work against patriarchy, for example, in our lifetimes we cannot escape a patriarchal society; even separatists must work with the norms and issues instilled in them from childhood. Given this, we need both strategies to change society, and strategies to deal with our encounter with a hostile and oppressive external social reality. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Despite these flaws, however, this work is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in psychoanalysis, therapy, concepts of sanity and insanity and their relationship to power and social control, or gender politics. Not being au fe with developments in therapies since 1990 (when this book was published; there was also a revised edition, published in 1993) I can't say whether they address any of the criticisms made by Masson; however, given his stance against any kind of one-on-one therapy, I'd think the answer would be, for the most part, negative. It's also inspired me to hunt down another work of Masson's, Dark Science: Women, Sexuality and Psychiatry in the Nineteenth Century. Overall, for all its problems, this is a compelling and often-horrifying work which is a welcome, if over-extreme, riposte to the grandiosities, hypocrisies and cruelties of psychoanalysis in particular, and therapy in general.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Philip Carlo - The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer (2006)

When I was younger I used to be an avid true-crime fan (interested particularly in serial killers, rather than organised crime), but over time I started to feel too much empathy for the victims, and also to get frustrated with the near-universal (despite some honourable exceptions) poor quality of writing and shallow pop-psychological explanations. So what brought me to this work, and was the return to the genre worthwhile?

TIM is essentially a biography of Richard Kuklinski, both a serial killer on his own time, as it were, and also a Mafia contract killer, who was imprisoned, after hundreds of murders (by his account), in 1986. Though I hadn't heard of him before (and here I thought I was familiar with all the major names in serial killing), the case is apparently notorious, and a number of high-rating HBO documentaries have been made on Kuklinski. The book is based on the author's extensive (over 240 hours, by his account) prison interviews with his subject. Carlo also claims that, where possible, all the crimes Kuklinski discussed were factually verified. I picked it up, firstly because it looked like a cut above the usual true-crime B-grade standard (in which I was partially, but not wholly, mistaken); and also because, from a browse, Kuklinski seemed like a very unusual figure in the pantheon of serial killers.

Carlo's writing is by no means impressive - I often found his 'downhomey' language and style, and the lack of originality in expression, irritating. This does, however, make the book a quick and easy read, 'light' except inasmuch as the hideous acts it describes - which is what I was in the market for. For the most part he avoids the lengthy pop-psychological opining which (as mentioned above) spoils so many works of true crime, leaving Kuklinski to give his own opinions as to how came to be able to commit the cruellest acts (and I'm not kidding about this) with absolute equanimity. The usual voyeuristic material is provided about Kuklinski's crimes, which ranged from impersonal, instant mob-style 'hits' to very 'personalised' episodes of lengthy torture, and I won't pretend that this voyeurism doesn't have a pull - which, however, I'd argue is an often-suppressed part of the human psyche that one shouldn't apologise for, as long as it doesn't mean an idolisation of the perpetrator or a lack of empathy for the victims. A note of warning should be sounded, however, in the fact that all of this material is provided by Kuklinski himself, and none of it is referenced, so its 'facticity' may be doubted - although the picture that emerges is not one of a pathological liar or a man who has an interest in excusing or blaming others for his actions.

The reason to read this work, really, is the contradictory personality of Kuklinski himself, who, unlike some serial killers, is a genuinely articulate and fascinating personality. In general, there is a very clear divide between mob hitmen (no matter how much they take sadistic pleasure in their work) and serial killers - but Kuklinski straddled this divide in a very unusual way. His background seems like that of a serial killer - early, unplanned killings, and murder as a 'leisure activity' rather than a career into which one is inducted - but some of his attitudes are very unlike serial killers - notably, his refusal (by his own account) to kill women or children (despite his terrible ongoing physical and mental abuse of his family), his empathy with children, and a sense, however, terribly skewed, of justice (which is not to say that he was not prepared to kill utterly randomly, as long as the victim was male). As well as killing for his own entertainment and for the Mafia and private individuals, Kuklinski would also kill those who he encountered who he considered 'deserved it' according to this sense of 'justice' - particularly those who abused young children. Kuklinski also seems, unlike most serial kilers, not to have taken a sexualised pleasure in the act of killing, although he emphasises his enjoyment of the planning and execution of a 'hit' over the actual act of killing itself.

Overall, then, while I've certainly read better works on killers (Brian Masters' Killing For Company, on Dennis Nilsen, or Tony Parker's Life After Life come to mind - though I'm not such a fan of 'classic literary' works of true crime such as Capote's In Cold Blood or Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), this book, while by no means free of the typical flaws of most true crime, was above all a fascinating character study and a work which I wouldn't dismiss with the run-of-the-mill, pulp-by-numbers, Anne Rule-style true crime.