Sunday, 22 May 2011

Secret Societies

Transcript from my talk 'Witchcraft and Commodification in Night of the Eagle and Season of the Witch' at the Electric Sheep event about Secret Societies, held as part of the East End Film Festival on 2nd May 2011 at The Masonic Lodge, Liverpool Street, London:

First of all I want to focus in a bit and let you know what kind of witches and covens I’m going to talk about. You’d agree that witches in cinema cover a broad spectrum. We have the films that are based loosely on actual witch hunts in early modern Europe, we also have the broomstick, black hat and cat type, thinking of the Wicked Witch of the East in Wizard of Oz or Harry Potter. But I’m going to concentrate on the ones that are portrayed as living secretly among us, who could be your professor, your family friend or your neighbour.

The films I’ll be looking at are George Romero’s season of the Witch (1973) and Sydney Hayer's Night of the Eagle (1962) - these films expose societies of witches living among ‘normal’ people, for this read everyday, western suburbia...these are law abiding folk...keen to ‘get on’ in the world. In this way I think of them as Society Witches, as well as secret societies! They occupy commonplace spaces - I’m thinking cul de sac as opposed to say Jean Rollin’s exotic castle locales or even as we saw earlier today the closed fairytale reality of Argento’s Suspiria. No, these are the witches who’ll lend you a cup of sugar.

What makes them so enigmatic as subject matter? Well I think films about them tap into the fear and unease that comes with the idea that any secret society could exist in close proximity to your own society. We like to believe that we know people, that they are who they say they are. Films about witches suggest that you can never be sure... ‘these are people so close to you that you wont see them coming’.

I think that the way directors like Hayers and Romero put this across is by really emphasising how normal the worlds the witches move in are. The horror is built in, rooted in the quotidian. It’s the way witchcraft is accommodated by the ordinary in the films that I want to talk to you about and show you some clips that I think have a certain camp black comedy that is priceless but also illuminating.

So, let's start with Night of the Eagle, southern provincial England, husband and wife, Tansy and Norman Taylor have recently been to Jamaica where Tansy was introduced to witchcraft, back in Britain she is convinced that it has provided good luck for her and her rising academic husband. She soon realises that her arch rival, who also hopes her husband at the same college gets promoted is a practising witch as well. On the surface these are society wives, battling it out over the best crumpets, bridge and committee teas, but underneath they are calling on the black arts for wealth and prosperity. The main thrust of the film is to ask ‘does witchcraft exist or is it all just a coincidence’. Norman lectures in superstition and neurosis and fears for his wives mental health as she gets more involved. He throws away her charms, pats her on the head and tells her not to be so silly. But his fortune takes a dive when he does this and he is also accused of harassment. Tansy fears the worst and their bad luck increases, resulting in near death for Tansy.

Night of the Eagle film clip here

Its the way the whole representation of witchcraft practise is entwined with the prosaic that I find so effective. Tansy hides her good luck fetishes all around her well kept house, it all seems like business as usual but look a bit closer and you’ll see that your enemy has tied a voodoo doll into your lampshade tassels. I love the way her acceptable ritual arrangements of domestic objects Norman has financed around the home are interwoven with this unacceptable independent activity that he disapproves of. This gendering of witchcraft is something I’ll come on to in a bit.

So onto the next clip and Season of the Witch (1972). Views on this film vary from Romero’s - who felt it wasn’t successful - 'an attempt at a Women's Lib film', he says in one interview. Again, we have the bored, housewife Joan whose successful husband is away from home alot of the time, she has a mild anxiety disorder and wild dreams where hubby is torturing and controlling her. Joan joins a local group of women who have formed a coven and witchcraft gives Joan the excuse to have an affair with a man years her junior, she believes her spell brings him to her - when really she just gets drunk one night and calls him. And it explains the loosening of her grip on reality that makes her mistake her husband for Satan and shoot him dead.

Season of the Witch film clip here

Metaphors for control are heavy handed in the film, and the plot is out there, but even the dream sequences and delusions have a deadpan reality to them: more so because of the shaky acting and jumpy editing. Here we find a merging of fantasy and the banal that Romero went on to push to it limits.

I love the emphasis in this clip on ‘browsing’, and that buying the witchcraft tool kit is just part of a normal shopping trip. I think this use of the motifs of the witch and the zombie, all constructs based on West African-Yoruba derived religions, (Candomble, Vodou to name a few) combined with modern activity, like shopping and harbouring material goods, is at the heart of Romero’s work. Witches and zombies here are metaphors for the consumers who fetishise material objects to gain power and social acceptance. Ok, so here’s my offering, my analysis of these films. I want to attempt to tie together the idea of the neighbour who isn’t who they say they are, with the portrayal of the domestic and the influence of modern life on all of this, and say a bit more about the role of women here.

So my basic argument has been that the filmmakers raise this question about ‘can you ever really know someone?, and is ‘real really real?’ - the most familiar faces can be false ones. That mousse the neighbour brought round really does have a chalky under taste, it's not your imagination! The films have a strong theme of paranoia, and they really draw on images of women and men loosing their hold of reality as they get more and more involved in witchcraft, or try to work out if witchcraft is real or not.

But why would this be so interesting around this period of their making and still hold some interest now above and beyond the drama? I think these films are saying something about a particular unease people felt about the changes Western modernity brought about in the mid sixties to early seventies. Suddenly your neighbours are getting rich quick, moving around, what was familiar no longer is. Friendship and routine, that once gave us a foothold on reality is now shifting and in flux. The filmmakers propose the question: In this environment where we no longer know our neighbours that well, how can we be sure they are who they say they are? And to add to that, previously, when people wanted to get to know you for who you were not what you owned wasn’t it all alot easier? Indeed, common to both of these films is aspiration, these are aspirational families who are putting professional success and material gain over and above their familial relationships. Tansy and Norman have recently moved to a new area for Norman’s job, Joan’s husband isn’t around to help raise their child etc. Old values of kinship, familiarity and routine are being replaced by mobility and professionalism.

Overarching all of this is the idea that women are the gatekeepers of safe domestic places, the ones who keep order, the ones we can trust when all others fail us. These films pick out the horror of women turning their back on their previous roles as home makers and carers. This horror is the horror of the maternal figure not being who she says she is, she is the ultimate figure of the familiar made strange. The motif of the witch or witches covens echoes the fear that one, more and more we cannot be sure if people are who they say they are, and two, that if these untrustworthy people are women then this is much worse.

So, the 'society witch' is an intricate motif where the witch wives are seen to abandon their house keeping (read the tending to the charmed material objects or rather commodity fetishes that hubby funds) for their own worryingly independent magical activity and use of fetishes and spells. On top of that the witch also stands in for the new fearful, distrusting relationship with the neighbour and those close to us, that comes with modernity and an investment in the commodity. So on one hand you’ve got this real value for material wealth and power portrayed in the films but on the other a portrayal of the cost of these - upheaval and paranoia.
So to round up - the filmmakers I’ve talked about emphasise ‘the normal’ and suggest that the familiar can be made strange at the drop of a hat, and this make us ill at ease. They say a secret society can also be part of your society, and be barely recognisable. Your neighbour might be a witch, so who can you trust? Next time you’re up for promotion, watch your back!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Dido as Axiom

For some time I've been thinking about the lingering effects of popular culture of the 90's and their part in shaping the neoliberal subject that we know. Thankfully the neoliberal dream is on its last legs and as we 'look back in anger' I'm still haunted by the lingering shadow of she who I see as it's face and postergirl. If neoliberalism has upheld the value of homogeneity, people reduced to their labour power as measured by key performance indicators, positivity at all costs then the 'singer' who heralds these values has to be Dido. This obsession all began when I included her song 'Here With Me' in a video as part of the Empty Orchestra series. This is a series of videos that looks at the pathos of the working world. The script for one of the films is below. I wanted to use the Dido song Here With Me in the film as short hand for a kind of poverty of spirit particular to that experience of sitting in the Wetherspoons in West London after work, scavenging for romance. You can watch the series of films here.

For me, Dido is shorthand for a poverty of spirit, the epitome of bland, dull, innocuous and non-
committal. She is the air brushed face of aspiration, a premonition of the hoardings on the side of sites that were council estates, now soon to be the dream homes for the 'even more tightly squeezed middle'. Her songs played out everywhere, lulling the working people along as they fell in line, crank up 'Life is for rent' as you sleepily leave the slip road. She's the face of the normalisation of normal, the default. That insipid look, heavy lidded, encouraging the consumer to go to Gap and Next for those work clothes, to look nice for work, to get highlights at the weekend, the highlight of the week. Dido is the giving up and giving in, the cul de sac, the putting up and shutting up and smile sweetly while your doing it. She's the moneyed lone female, in her one bed, eating her Waitrose ready meal, sipping the Chardonnay, except that the ready meal is vile and the Chardonnay turns into a bottle, two, a gin and tonic - oh hell, the rest of the bottle and a co-codomol for good measure. In the morning when her alarm clock goes off she wont be thinking about the bloke in her office who does less work than her but earns more, or the overtime she's obliged to do to keep her job, just whether she can fit in a trip to Debenhams before work to get those place mats. She's the chattering voice in your head as you go to buy a low cut top for work: 'not very managerial' she says, 'remember, you've got to fit in to live the dream.' Poor Dido, emancipated and free to be a wage slave like anyone else. Her face, tattooed into our minds, ubiquitous.

Dido is also the 'ordinary' girl. I read that she was popular because many girls identified with the way she dressed, t shirt and jeans, and
that haircut, the Dido flick. So if she was a 'positive role model' for the female populace, should I be leaving her alone? But wasn't this saying that Dido made it ok to be ordinary for this read poor i.e. too poor to afford to look like J-Lo? Or she was also the face of social mobility - you can do it too, I know you can only afford a pair of cheap Primark jeans and a t-shirt in the H and M sale, but girl, stick with me and you can make it to the top. Carl Neville in Classless: Recent Essays on British film (Zero Books 2010) writes about the way class was erased, and continues to be erased in some British film, like the Richard Curtis project. Part of this, is the way the films reflect a trend urged on by Blairism to accept poverty in Britain and see this simply as symptomatic of not seizing opportunity, rather than a right to a fair share of resources, fulfilling jobs and homes, British people should choose success over other distractions like getting bogged down about not having money and doing silly stuff like turning to cheaper thrills like booze and skag. he extends this to music. He mentions Eminem in this argument: "In the state of late capitalist precariousness, readiness is everything. "Opportunity comes once in a lifetime Eminem's ''Release Yourself'' tells us; you will have your chance, if you blow it you know who's to blame: not the system that democratically allocates an opportunity to all, but the individual. Given Dido's links with Eminem, safe to say they were part of the same project to promote social mobility that operates in a dodgy territory of perceived fairness.

In the article Blahspeak by Stefan Colini (LRB Vol. 32 No. 7 · 8 April 2010) exposes the current meaning of aspirational with reference to the Milburn Report 'Unleashing Aspiration: the final report of the panel on fair access to the professions. He points out the inherent flaw in any Blairite argument that 'everyone' in Britain should have a 'fair' chance at fulfilling their aspirational goals (financial security, social mobility, successfully educated children, properties at a good market value):

'The mixture of bounciness and vacuity indicates that the report is written for the most part in Blairspeak – or, since this idiom is now general not individual, ‘blahspeak’. In blahspeak, social mobility is equated with realising ‘pent-up aspiration’. One of the absurdities here is that the second phrase refers to subjective experience, the first to an objective pattern. People may realise pent-up aspiration in all kinds of ways without altering their position in the social structure in the slightest. This slide into the subjective once again reveals the individualist assumptions behind the Thatch-Lab pact, signalling the transition from do-good to feel-good. Social life is a benign competition in which most shall have prizes.'

He argues that for every success there must a failure, for every winner a looser. In the end its just the middle-class aspirer with the sharpest-elbows who'll achieve/acquire enough to truly 'get-on'. what Blair provides in his Blahspeak is a linguistic trap where meaning is occluded, nonsensical concepts that confidently put on the guise of sense:

'The Milburn report talks the language of optimism, but its assumptions actually reveal a deep pessimism. It is a pessimism, first, about there being any way in which society collectively, acting primarily through the state, can reshape its underlying socio-economic structure. Staggering inequalities of wealth are simply taken to be part of the natural order. Where it used to be said that ‘the poor are always with us,’ eternal existence is now granted to the rich as well. The market distributes wealth; government then tries to see ‘fair play’ in the resulting (destructively unequal) situation. And it is a pessimism, too, about there being any way for people to agree on what is valuable in life other than in terms of market-modelled consumer satisfaction. The only goals people may be assumed to share are a desire to ‘get on’, to move up some imaginary ‘social ladder’.'

In his article he goes on to provide current figures for the distribution of wealth in Britain and to counterbalance Milburn with the National Equality Panel’s Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK . This presents the larger picture:

'The concentration of inequality at the top end of the scale is what emerges most clearly. The disparities of income among the bulk of society (those in work, at least) are certainly substantial, but they are not huge: 90 per cent of those in employment earn less than about £42,000; the median income is around £21,000, so even the 90th percentile is only earning twice the median. But where the seriously better-off are concerned, the report draws conclusions that should stop all current talk about ‘equality of opportunity’ in its tracks. To take one example: ‘Households in the top tenth have total wealth (including private pension rights) almost 100 times those at the cut-off for the bottom tenth.’ It is worth spelling out that the ‘cut-off for the bottom tenth’ is quite a long way from the very poorest in society; below that point the graph falls away very sharply. Nonetheless, the households in the top tenth are not just two or three times as wealthy (the sort of differential we are used to observing in everyday patterns of consumption), and not just ten times as wealthy (the sort of multiplier that makes for wholly different kinds of life-experience), but one hundred times as wealthy as those who are themselves some way from the bottom of the heap.

This is dramatic enough in itself, but the aggregate figures disguise an even more extraordinary disparity. Within that top tenth, the gap between the 91st and 100th percentiles is huge: the former have approximately four times the median total net wealth of the population, but the top 1 per cent have almost 13 times that median figure. It is repeatedly (and laconically) recorded that the income or wealth or other advantages of the top 1 per cent cannot be properly represented visually in this report because they would be ‘off the scale of the figure’. All the distribution charts and bar graphs have this absurd appearance, with a huge chimney at the right-hand side disappearing off the page.

The Hills report establishes incontrovertibly that, first, this has not always been the case, and second, it is not the case in other European countries. It shows a massive increase in income in the top tier of society since the 1980s, and quite staggering increases for a small (but still numerous) elite since the 1990s. The top 0.05 per cent of the population had seen its share of national income decline pretty steadily from 1937 till the 1970s, as might be expected as societies moved in a broadly social-democratic direction, but by 2000 its share was higher than it had been in 1937. And the very rich got richer faster than the merely wealthy. In the 1980s, every group in the top tenth of taxpayers increased their share of national income, but in the 1990s ‘the increase in the share of the top tenth was all accounted for by the top 0.1 per cent.’ Certain occupational groups stand out, and not just bankers, celebrities and footballers. Between 1999 and 2007, the real earnings of all full-time employees in Britain were almost static, but ‘the real earnings of the CEOs of the top 100 companies more than doubled (reaching £2.4 million per year), and those of the next 250 companies almost doubled (reaching £1.1 million).’ (According to a calculation by Compass, not quoted in the Hills report, the average ratio of CEO-to-employee pay was 47 in 1999; ten years later it was 128.) No less striking is that in other leading European countries the top 1 per cent’s share of the national income, having declined from the 1930s to the 1970s as in the UK, thereafter remained broadly flat. ‘The rise in the incomes of the very top,’ Hills concludes, ‘has not, therefore, been a global phenomenon.’ It has happened, of course, in the US, whose Croesus-versus-helot economic arrangements the UK seems more and more determined to ape.'

This indicates that the resources the aspirational are fighting over (time, energy, money) are all that's left over after the rich have taken a good fat slice of the pie for themselves. The crumbs are what this so called 'level playing field' is made up from. To talk of fair chances suggests that everyone has a fair vantage point, but Colini indicates how the rich are thoroughly excluded from this. Colini uses this Hills report to emphasise just how axiomatic the Milburn report is. In every sense Blahspeak is a coded language, occult, that works as a cover up act for a most despicable ideology that aims to fool the British reader. Still, as always, its up to the British reader to reject it. (Credit to Robin Bale here for directing me to this article and his insights, see his blog purge/glut for more on this.)

So Dido, to me, is a symbol of acceptance of the unfairness of the median, the quotidian, the 'normal'. This fetishisation of the normal in the 90's comes hand in hand with a Blairite blinkering of the truth about distribution of wealth. Just look at some of the song lyrics: See you when your 40, Life is for Rent, Stoned, Let's Do Things We Normally Do. She hovers in the zone where the desire for aspiration meets its impossibility. When I was in Wetherspoons (the best thing about this scenario) in Finchley Road some years ago I heard her on the juke box, I was drinking my continental lager alone in my semi industrial setting, the light from the Holiday Inn opposite dancing on my glass, knackered from work, drinking to break up the commute, when I looked down literally there were mice nibbling away around my toes, when I got home I wrote this and it became the script for Empty Orchestra II.

Weatherspoons Finchley Road north west london. open plan top floor of a shopping mall, glass A large window overlooks the dual carriageway sodium light and florescents cast a sickly yellow haze on the faces of the occupants of the pub. A man and a woman, greying hair, walk in. He orders a pint of guiness. She looks at the continental lagers on offer ‘erdinger, san miguel, leffe’ she chooses ‘lucky.’. They vere to some intimate – ish looking seating booths. As they sit down they are aware of a woman within earshot, wirey hair and a wild look. She mutters in some self built language like tongues. (beat) so they move to a sofa.
the cars rumble and Dido is playing on the jukebox. the woman drinks slowly and the man quickly. (beat) they talk awkwardly, too quietly to hear. The chattering woman keeps catching her eye as she continues to talk to the man ( beat) finally she looks down. the man finishes his drinks and gets up to go, he leaves (beat) mice scurry around on the soiled carpet (beat) (beat) lit by blue and red neon from an outside hotel she drinks down the lager - tears drip down her face.
A psychic fayre off the A40 in middlesex The doorway sheds only light on the pathway to the old raf hangar, inside is a long room and a large wooden dancefloor. the roof takes on the curves of the arched hangar, the walls are a thick mock tudor, draped with rose pink velour curtains. (beat) David Joylina Jenny are sitting at tables in a semi circle. and at each table a person is hunched listening close and in the air the gentle sound of secrets, an investment a promise. A group of traveller girls hang around the stage at the end of the room waiting for the action. dressed in flourescent thongs and thigh lengthboots.
She is waiting in turn with the other visitors. A man, puffa-coated puts his head round a door and beckons to her. she gets up and follows him through to the back room of the hangar. It has a seedy cottagey feel, small dining tables and floral armchairs. a deformed man is sitting in one of the arm chairs. ‘he cant hear you’ says the usher but he’ll ‘sign to you’. the woman looks at him, taking in the shape of his head, the way his skull merges into his shoulders and how his face slips down on one side. He smiles and gestures for her to come and sit next to him and takes hold of her hand. he looks far into an imagined distance the his mouth opens and a horrible sound exudes ….the hard metal deep rattling, the sound of metal bones snapping and a hurtling gravely heaving sigh (of the motorway traffic) she holds her ears and slips to the ground her face looks white and cold. the travellers gather around her, looking at her lying deathly still, they prod her with their boots. (written London, 2007)

See also k punk's
post where he compared existential Dido to consumerist SATC.