Here's something that didn't at first seem to be a problem: I wrote a blogpost yesterday. Have a look if you like. It's just one of those throwaway ones that I do from time to time.
There's nothing particularly wrong with it, in fact I quite like it. But it has created a kind of problem in my mind. Because I wrote it feeling a bit hyper, agitated, and so on, and then I realised that I accidentally hadn't taken my medication for a couple of days.
(Now people will tell you that this won't, in fact, make any difference, as these things take weeks to change your brain chemistry and so on, and they may well be right. I can respect that point of view if they can respect me respectfully saying that, in my experience, it seems different to me. All I can tell you is that, for me, it does appear to make a difference, and I can tell by a change in behaviour and feelings usually whether I have or haven't taken it. I might be completely deluded about this, but I'm prepared to argue the case about what I feel in my own mind. I don't discount the possibility that things might take upswings and downswings regardless of what medication is or isn't there. People who are quite used to experiencing depression become quite attuned to these things. I'm just saying that medication is possibly a factor.)
And then I thought: Ah, shit. This reminds me of how I used to write blogs all the time. Those of you who are regular readers will recall the times when I'd write about two or three posts a day. I'd hardly have time to do anything for all the time I'd be spending at the computer. I'm pleased to not be doing that anymore, for many reasons, largely reasons about needing a life, and the space to think and do other things. On the other hand, though, there was some great rushing joy that came flying back about just sitting down and watching the sparks come flying off the keyboard. It felt like old times.
So I wondered: Maybe this is some part of me I've suppressed through medication for a while now. And maybe it's a good, creative part of me. Regardless of what you think of yesterday's post (and it took only about five minutes to cobble together, so don't regard it as a work of high art, not that you did anyway) it did arrive almost instinctively quickly and was a hell of a lot of fun to write.
I've always liked to think of me as not being a 'talented' individual but someone who works hard to achieve results, such that there are results. But then I wonder. I wonder if the 'talent' I thought I didn't have was actually there in the first place, due to a lucky accident or some kind of mixed-up brain chemistry mumbo-jumbo. I don't know how to express it really, other than to say I'd probably have a better chance of expressing it, I think, if I were feeling a little more depressed or hadn't taken my medication properly - if that makes any sense whatsoever.
So I'm kind of torn: on the one hand there appears to be that agitated, confused, aggressive, slightly unpleasant state of being, which is nonetheless apparently boon for my creative output; on the other there is the more anchored-down, slow, turning-circle-of-a-battleship person who is a lot happier but also a lot less able to get things started and finished. And I'm wondering whether there isn't some way of getting the best of both worlds.
I don't know what the answer is, by the way. There is no way of knowing, I suppose. I guess I am just expressing the thought that I'd like to have the creative bursts without the feeling a bit weird at the same time. But I don't know if you can uncouple one from the other. And that annoys and disappoints and delights and frustrates me all in one go.
I've had a bit of a eureka moment. I don't know why it took me so long, but I've finally realised it. I've realised exactly why I hate the thing I hate more than anything else in the world ever.
It's Country House by Blur, obviously - of course it is, what else would it be? - but we'll get to that. Have you ever just sat around wondering why you hate something so much, feeling that perhaps it's an irrational loathing that can't be explained? Well, that's how I'd always felt about it. But then I decided to look at all the reasons. Firstly, were there reasons? Yes. Yes, there were.
It's not that I hate this tedious, cynical piece of shit because it annoys me musically. It's not because it, and the miserably dreadful 'Roll With It' by the Monobrow Brothers vied for the number one slot in the apotheosis of Britfuckingpop. It's worse than everything else. And here are the reasons why.
1. Worst guitar solo ever
It's a strange one to start with, I'll grant you. But it is. What the fuck are they? Notes plucked at random? Widdly widdly weeeeee weeee TINKLY TINKLY WAHHHH FUCK OFF, YOU'RE A PROFESSIONAL MUSICIAN.
2. Cod Kinks cockwipery
"Hey, Well Respected Man was a good song, wasn't it? I wonder if we could do something similar, but really fucking awful, but try and make it the Well Respected Man de nos jours. You know, not because we're any good, or it would be any good, but because it would be a bit like the Kinks. Because we're always being compared to the Kinks. By people who don't understand music, or life, or things, or comparisons."
Oh fuck. Off. He's reading Balzac, knocking back Prozac. What the fuck for? Just because it rhymes. Oh, fuck off. Balzac, Prozac, though, isn't it whimsical? NO, NO IT'S NOT. IT'S NOT EVEN THE SLIGHTEST BIT WHIMSICAL. KICKING ME IN THE FACE WITH A FUCKING BUILDER'S BOOT WOULD BE WHIMSICAL, IN COMPARISON.
4. The video
Hey look, it's Brit actor Keith Allen, he's a card! And some ladies from Loaded magazine! Haw haw haw!
5. Shove in some fucking brass
Hmm, this doesn't sound wanky enough yet. I know, let's add some shit brass to churn it right up! Like the Benny Hill Show theme tune but without all those troublesome nuances.
When Chas & Dave did the Crackerjack theme tune in the 1980s, they stuck in an "Ooohhhh". As in "Oohhhh, such a luvlee word, it's Crackerjack." But Chas and Dave had (and have) class. The "Ooohhhhh" made sense. It wasn't just a "ho ho, cockernay knees up" load of cockchafing art school pissery. Chas and Dave are cockneys, but they are cockneys with skill, and graft. Look at the Great Soprendo dancing! Look at him! Tell me that's not better than Country House. With a straight face. Go on. (NB I'm not saying Albarn & chums aren't cockneys. I seem to remember they are. All I'm saying is they're shit. Which they also are. Whereas Chas and Dave aren't.)
7. "OOOoooohhhh, lives in a house, a very big house..."
What sort of house does he live in, Damon? A very big one? Oh, I see!
I can't recall if it's oops or whoops. I am not going to find out. That would mean listening to the entire four cunting minutes of Satan's farts that is Country House and I don't have the will to do it. "Thought to himself, whoops, I've got a lot of money." Who thinks that? "Whoops, I've got a lot of money." Whoops? Oops? Why? Why would you think of saying oops? Oops is what people say when they drop a gravy-soaked knife off the dinnerplate. That's all. Not 'having a lot of money all of a sudden'.
9. I am so sad, I don't know why
I do. I do NOW. NOW WE KNOW WHY HE WAS SO SAD.
10. Breathlessly whining 'mortaliteeeeeeeeee'
Oh, if you can't even be bothered to sing it properly, give up. Go home. Think to yourself, whoops, you've got a lot of money, and fuck off into the country, where you can take HERBAL BATHS and not DRINK SMOKE LAUGH.
11. That one of you will take this seriously
and try and say "Aha, but actually, it was a parody of something or other written about someone or other who's slightly famous if you give a shit about these things, and you see, it's actually quite clever, and something." I don't care! It's not good. It's never been good. It never will be good. It's the worst thing ever, worse than death, worse than Hitler and murder and everything. It's lazy, wishy-washy, can't-be-arsed shove-it-up-your-arse-anyway showing off, and it smells of cancer.
I'll level with you, I think I'm experiencing bunting rage.
It's not a new feeling. I had it a bit last year during the glossy royal glossy wedding and the glossy avalanche of glossy full-colour 48-page glossy royal Kate and Wills glossy souvenir supplements. But now it's been ramped up to a whole new level of awfulness with the impending Jubilympic celebrations.
I'm sick of the sight of union jacks (yes, I said union jacks. They don't have to be on a boat to be jacks. Take your pendantry away to someone who cares. Which is no-one, by the way. Do you think anyone cares? Has anyone, ever, not understood what someone else meant by the phrase 'union jack'? No. Do you think it makes you slightly superior? It doesn't. It makes people think you're irritating and smug. If you care about boats so much, go and live on one. Better still, fall off the side of one. "Throw me the lifebelt!" you'll scream, and I'll say, "ah no, it's not technically called 'a lifebelt' I'm afraid" and walk silently away as your terrified yells turn into a mass of bubbles) and there doesn't seem anything I can do about it.
Thing is, I like bunting. I like flags. I even like the royal family, up to a point (the point in question being the heir to the throne). I like England flags when football tournaments are on. I don't even harbour any particularly anti-union sentiment that would make me dislike the union jack (yes, jack. Live with it, mate) as a symbol.
I think it's just something about the overarching YOU MUST HAVE FUN about it that makes me want to burn all the omnibunting and put up pictures of willies instead. We mustn't have fun. It's a sodding recession. No-one's got any money, we're all broke and we've not got anything to cheer. Yes, let's all throw a bloody big party for a rich old granny. Well, good for her, and I'm sure she's nice enough, but will it all be over? Will it all be over, soon?
Ah, no. Next comes the shared delusion of England doing relatively well in a football tournament, and then Great London (or Britain, as it's occasionally still known) will be hosting the London Games for being in London, in which the only city in the entire country will be doing brilliant things for several weeks and EVERYONE MUST HAVE FUN AGAIN.
Spare me. Spare me the madness.
So, it's coming. There's going to be a Book 2. It's going to be GREAT. You're going to love it. (You might love it.) It's going to be all new stuff, and it's going to be around sometime over the summer.
That's about as specific as I can get for the time being, but if you'd like to find out more, I am thinking of doing a mailing list and all that. If that sounds fun, then email me your email address to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll bung you some stuff as and when it's coming out, or about to come out, and all of that.
See how good I am at selling myself?
I started writing a post the other day with this title, but it got lost in the ether. I don't mind, on reflection, as it gave me more time to think about it. You sit around with ideas in your head and you can just let them rattle around, or you can express them. For me, as a writer, it's often a good idea to express them, even if expressing them makes you look a little, well, odd perhaps.
Anyway, this isn't a flounce. It's not one of those 'oh, I've had enough, I'm taking my ball away' things. Not really. Although you may see it that way, which you're entitled to do, and that's fine. But it isn't. And that's the problem, sometimes, isn't it? I can sit here until the end of time saying "Look, I promise you, the place where this thing that I've written comes from isn't where you think it's come from, and I should know, given that I wrote it," but sometimes that isn't enough. Sometimes people will say "No, I know where this thing you wrote came from, even if you deny it came from there," implying that I'm being either knavishly misleading or naively obscuring the truth from myself. Either way, I end up coming across as a dick, don't I? But the thing is, if I write something, I reckon I have a fairly good idea why I wrote it and how I wrote it and what it means.
You may disagree, and that's fine. But it doesn't make you right. At the very least, it gives me a slightly better chance of being right than you are. It's not to say some people don't write things that are wilfully misleading (me included) or occasionally fool themselves about what they're trying to get out of a piece, because I'm sure that happens too (and I'm sure I've done it); but, in the main, I reckon I know what I'm doing.
God, how miserably arrogant this all sounds already. But I am resisting the temptation to drag the cursor back to the beginning and start again. Having lost this article once, I don't want to lose it again. (If it's any consolation, the first draft was probably more fun than this, and had more jokes. But we'll both have to muddle on through.) And I don't want you to think this is about you, unless it is. You're not so vain, unless you are. Maybe you're really lovely, as most people are; it's just that some people aren't. Why am I writing a long letter to them, then, the lovely people ask, and not us, who are lovely? It's not that; it's just that I need to explain about the non-loveliness, for the benefit mainly of the people who are lovely, since the people who aren't lovely don't give a shit anyway, and it's almost entirely unlikely to change their behaviour. Not that I want to change anyone's behaviour, or foolishly think I am capable of doing so through anything I write anyway. But still.
I should get to the point really. I dread reading comments. Dread, dread, dread. Like a sickness that sits in the pit of my stomach. I hate it. I hate knowing that there are comments underneath the things I write. I dread even moderating the own comments on my own blog, most of which are largely lovely and supportive and wonderful. I don't read the ones under my New Statesman blog, because that's a largely depressing experience. I wrote something for Comment is Free the other week which was fun to write, but I made the mistake of looking in the comments. Bloody hell! It was like being slapped in the face with a rubber fish, time after time after time.
There's a sequence in Stewart Lee's Carpet Remnant World show (which I saw the other day, and enjoyed immensely) where he changes the lighting and reads out online comments about him. I won't spoil the show for the benefit of those who are yet to see it (and you really ought to, if you're anything like me; but if you're not, don't) but it was pretty strong meat. You find yourself laughing, but you realise that it's a strange kind of laughter. I found myself laughing because of the casual hatred of the abuse, I think, because it was something familiar. Lee hates Twitter ("a celebrity Stasi policed by willing idiots" or something like that, he called it, and "a bunch of rats in a ditch, fighting over some piss") and while I don't on the whole, I do feel that way sometimes. I have an increasing amount of sympathy for that worldview. You write something, and you end up having 100 conversations about it, with people who hate you, hate what you wrote, despise you, despise everything you stand for and wish unpleasantness upon you. Luckily I'm not as popular as Lee so I only see a tiny fraction of what 'someone off the telly' gets, but I know a sliver of how it feels, to have people wish pain, injury, violence and death on you. (It does happen to men too.)
Boo hoo, you might say, you know what you signed up for when you decided to get a photo byline and payment rather than sitting around in gleeful anonymity. You're part of the metropolitan liberal elite and you hate the masses! You're sneering down from your smug plinth over the unwashed scum, whom you regard with contempt, because you've decided you're set apart from them, and better than them somehow! You're just like all the other so-called lefties who secretly hate ordinary people! And so on. Say that if you like. But it doesn't make it right. That's not where I'm coming from at all, and, as I said earlier, given that I'm writing this and you aren't, there's a chance I might know what I'm on about when it comes to my own writing.
I mean, by all means, do the 'liberal elites hate the masses' thing if you want. It's a nice, familiar narrative and there are people who make a career out of repeating the same thing, in slightly different words, all the time. Bring class into it if you want to try and engage with a different audience, because everything has to apparently be about class at some point. Oh, it's all about class! The political classes! The chattering classes! The ruling classes! All about class. Not liking comments is about class war! Well, maybe, or maybe it's about something else. But by all means, as I say, if you'd rather you tell me what I'm thinking rather than hear it from me, you be my guest.
I'm sure there are people who hate comments because they are snobs or elitists, by the way. I'm not ruling that out. I'm not even ruling out the notion that it might have something to do with how I feel. But suppose I actually know my own mind, what would I put it down to? I think you get ground down after a while. Some people love comments, and I envy them; it must be a delight for them to open up an article and scroll down through it all. Lucky them. But I am not like that at all, and I'll explain why, if I can. It doesn't matter how many positive reactions I get to something, I end up focussing on the negative most of all. This is a good character trait in many ways, and ends up making you try and ensure that you improve what you're doing; but it has a rather deleterious effect on your soul.
I think it's probably good to write something in the expectation that you're going to face scrutiny for it. That's fine too. Quite right, too. It makes you a better writer to know that people are going to pull you up on your mistakes, if you make them. It makes you more determined to get rid of them from your output. Good. That's the positive aspect of criticism, and it's one that's really important. You become a better writer by anticipating people's arguments against you and ensuring you've addressed their points; you make sure you don't give your opponents an easy 'out' by heading them off. So that's all positive.
What isn't as positive is when people just read the headline, and decide they'll fly down to the comments box and tell you you're a cock. Or when people read a sentence or two, then tell you they only read a sentence or two, and didn't read the rest, but they've decided they know what you've written. Or when people just tell you you're scum. Or a cunt. Or whatever. That's not so much fun, in my experience, but your mileage may vary. Or when people so wilfully get the wrong end of the stick of what you're saying that you face the choice of ponderously explaining the same tonal shift to 100 different people in a row on Twitter, or you just go out for a long walk and leave your phone off. Christ knows I try and do the first thing, but I want to do the second one so much. It's not anyone's fault but mine if someone misreads something, by the way, and I don't mean to imply that it's anything other than poor communication; but on the other hand, not all communication of a message relies on a literal reading of certain sentences from a text in isolation, through the prism of intense rage and aggression. That's not the best way to read something, sometimes, in my opinion.
There's the other thing where I think I've become a worse writer since I've started writing with comments or commenters or other people in mind. I end up saying 'in my opinion' or 'perhaps' or littering my articles with a hundred thousand caveats. It's messy and needlessly complicated, and I know other writers have told me off for it frequently - and they're right. It's cleaner and better to just say what you think, and know that you can only get to so much of the truth in a 500-600 word blogpost, and just fire it off. I need to do more of that. It might mean that a few of the perhapses and the maybes and the possiblys go missing, but that will probably make it better. They stem from awkwardness, from a lack of conviction, from a lack of certainty.
I can write (and frequently do) endlessly meandering pieces full of contradictions or complications and maybes and possiblys and caveats and whatever, but there's something unsatisfactory about them. Not intellectually, because I find them to be a better representation of what I actually think; but they're never as popular as when I come out all guns blazing, arrogantly and bombastically telling people this is what I think, and this is the way it is. God I wish the mimsying, dithering, dawdling stuff was as popular, but it simply isn't. Many other writers, I suspect, have come across the same thing, and been faced with an unavoidable conclusion: cut the crap, say the controversial stuff, and shake off the abuse that's going to come with it.
Where does this leave me now, then? Well, as I've said, this isn't a flounce. I think it means for this blog, where I moderate the comments myself, I'm going to have to leave it to less controversial subjects. They'll all be covered at the other place. This place is going to be for things I can enjoy discussing. Genuinely enjoy discussing. You'll forgive me if I only put myself in the stocks when I'm getting paid for it. It's the only way to keep me relatively sane, I think. As for interacting on Twitter, it's something that I know troubles a lot of bloggers. Look, I love it. I love speaking to people and having random people telling me they've read the stuff I've written. I'd rather it was read than not read. But I don't know if I can really go through endless debates on Twitter. I don't have the time, and I don't have the ability, and I don't have the personality to do it. I know for some of you, fighting on Twitter is a right old laugh, but for me it isn't. It just leaves me empty and sad, and I hate it, and myself.
Anyway, that's all I wanted to say. If you like, you can just say that I'm a stupid privileged liberal elite arsehole who thinks he's above criticism. I don't have a problem with that. But I do have a problem with discussing it for hours afterwards. I don't have the energy, and I don't have the time, and it's not for me. I'm sorry, but there it is. I hope my writing gets better, and less stuffed with caveats, and more confident. If it does, that might mean it upsets more people, but I can handle that if I don't have to moderate the comments as well.
And that's that.
I like The Voice, the new talent thing on BBC1. I find Will.I.Am quite surprisingly likeable, for one thing. They're all quite pleasant.
Anyway, the only thing that began to annoy me about it was when it came to the 'song battle' section. A couple of times you saw candidates rejected because of their age - you know, they were 25 or 30 or whatever, and that meant that's as good as they were going to get, whereas the other, younger candidates were praised for being young. "She's only 17!" or whatever, they'd say. "Imagine what she'll be like with a bit of training!"
The audience applauds them for being young. They've made it to 18 without a baby or a crack addiction, well done! All right, it's not quite that, but it's close: the idea being that they have the raw talent, the one defining quality, the sine qua non of being a star... (ah, if only there were a phrase to describe that thing, that unknown factor to lift them above the ordinary. Bah. It'll come to me.)
The idea underpinning this is that you are who you are when you're 25 or 30 or whatever; that's who you are, and who you'll always be, and that's 'as good as you're going to get'. It also makes better telly to see a candidate in an elimination show have the 'J-word' as they progress from the raw to the cooked; it flatters the audience and judges and producers of the show alike into thinking they made the star, rather than that person just having that star quality thingummybob (I'll think of it in a minute).
Look at Lindsey Lohan in the Parent Trap. If you didn't know about her subsequent career you might assume that such a talented child actress might have gone on to win Oscars and be showered with awards. It didn't happen. It doesn't always work that the very talented or the prodigious necessarily end up flowering into even better things. Sometimes the raw state is as good as it's going to get, sometimes because that's all there is, sometimes because talents have to be worked out and worked at. I do think hard work is quite important to get stuff done. It's not just about being gifted or talented (as children are called sometimes, which is sometimes unfair on them, and sometimes puts unfair expectations on them, perhaps).
I recently had my 37th birthday and I looked back, as you tend to do when you're approaching 40 and haven't really been a spectacular success in life (whatever success means). I'm really quite a different person with different skills that I've developed and learned during my 20s and 30s. Still underneath it the same messy suet-faced oaf, albeit slightly fatter and balder and less capable of doing stuff without getting out of breath, yes, but I've learned loads of stuff since school, college and university.
I said before, in relation to Bob Hoskins in the shower, that the idea of being a 'late developer' isn't really regarded with much credence. People assume you were as bright as you were ever going to be when you were 18, which is why importance is often placed on which university you went to and the things you studied there. But I've learned loads since then. I can write better than I used to, for one thing, though that's largely adapting and refining a thing that I could do before. I can speak Italian, although that's through doing a language course more than having a 'talent' for learning languages. But there are all sorts of other things, too: I've learned more about people than I could ever have had in my brain when I was a callow, thinner, hairier, less-of-an-irascible-arsehole person back then. I'm better at things.
You learn through failure, through the collapsing of expectations, through the near-misses and close calls, to work harder, to accept success as being sometimes as random as failure, to take the undeserved triumphs as much as you brush off the undeserved defeats. It's not about what you can and can't do. It's not about whether you can do the job that decides whether you get the job, as I've discovered repeatedly since I was made redundant: it's about what the other person is looking for. Just as you can't make someone fall in love with you who can't love you, you can't make someone want to employ you who doesn't like the sound of you. You just can't do it.
I don't mean to sound downbeat, because I'm not. There's another TV programme on at the moment called Hidden Talents, which is about people finding out, later in life than they'd imagined they ever would, that they've got particular skills and talents. It's more about innate ability rather than practice, which isn't quite what I'm on about, as I think people can try and learn to do anything, even if it's not something they're suited to; but it does emphasise that you're not just nailed into place by the decisions you make and the things you do when you're a teenager.
The point is, I'm not past it. I do look forward to the day when I can give up writing altogether, and do something else. That's not quite it, though; rather, I look forward to when it matters to me less than it seems to do now. What I have found out, through trying to look at another career (teaching) which I'll be training for soon, is that you can do things you've never done before. When I'm in a classroom with kids I feel like I'm not going to be found out at any second (as I do when writing, and as I did do when I was a journalist); I really feel I can do it. I'm good enough, and I can do better, and if I keep learning, I'll be excellent, or at the very least as good as I can be.
I feel that a lot of people get despondent and think that the choices they made when they were younger have trapped them in a life they're not too delighted about. But there are chances to learn new things. People don't stop learning, or being able to learn, if they want to learn. It might take longer, but it's possible, I think. What I'm starting to think is that the possibilities don't go away. In some ways, they get bigger. The more experience you have, the more able you are to make decisions - including the decision to change direction. It might not always work out, but you have to try.
In the latest Sky advert, Kate Winslet recalls wandering around a video shop. "Did I want to be thrilled or heartbroken?" she says (or something like it). Well, that wasn't my experience of video shops: mine was one of terror. Do you know what caused the terror?
Yes, the Driller Killer box. THE BLOOD RUNS IN RIVERS... AND THE DRILL KEEPS TEARING THROUGH FLESH AND BONE. Every time we went into that shop I was struck by two things. One was the wafts of cigarette smoke coming from the bearded dude at the counter in slightly tinted 80s glasses, who chained about 400 fags a day while hawking out low-budget B-movies in faded yellow generic boxes to his customers; the other was DRILLER KILLER.
Jesus fucking Christ! He's drilling into that man's FACE. He's drilling into his BRAIN. THE BLOOD RUNS IN RIVERS.
Looking at it now, it's pretty amazing that packaging like that was allowed to exist in a shop where an easily-scared young child (me) could see it. But this was the age of the Video Nasty.
In 1984, films like The Driller Killer and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were banned in one of those examples of a moral panic overtaking all sense of reason and intelligence with panicky lawmakers. These were the mephedrone of the 1980s - films so gory and violent that they could literally damage you if you watched them. They had to be BANNED to save children from themselves.
I remember pretty well going down to a video shop when I must have been about eight or nine and renting out a pretty grim horror film with my mate on behalf of his dad - no questions asked, we were allowed to take it out of the shop and take it home. I suppose that was the nightmare scenario - without the cinema to protect children, people could do what they wanted in their own homes. And think of the poor children!
Well, I never did get around to watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (banned but not classified as a Video Nasty, says Wikipedia) or The Driller Killer, and since I spent a small part of my degree writing about censorship and films with these two and many others still unavailable to me through legal sources, I thought it might be fun to have a look at them now, all these years later.
The Driller Killer (1979)
In some ways it's odd to look at this before looking at TTCSM, since it came after and was pretty heavily influenced by it, but this was a standalone 'video nasty' whereas the other film was deemed to have some artistic merit (yet be virtually uncensorable, for reasons that we'll come to).
The first thing that gets you with this (and TTCSM) is the pace of it. Looking at it in a pretty unshockable post-Hostel/Saw/Final Destination way, it takes ages to get going. So much about the film is about setting up the character for what's about to happen, and winding up the tension. You know that people are going to get drilled, because that's what you've been promised by the gory packaging and the rather masturbatory 'rivers of blood' copy; so you're just hanging around and waiting for it, more or less.
That's a nice touch that sets you on edge straight away. THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD, shouts the first card. But if you were expecting shocks and gore from the off, you'd be sorely disappointed. What you get instead is the story of a rather self-absorbed, narcissistic artist who hates the world around him - the proto-yuppies, the bums on the street, everyone. Long, meandering, tedious dialogue sections try to get you to engage with the denim-clad protagonist, but he's such an unlikeable character that even in context with the people he hates around him, he's just rather loathsome.
And when he happens to see a TV advert for battery packs that mean you can use power tools without cables, you know where it's going (not that the marketing left you in any doubt). This is significant, I suppose, in that at the time, cable-free technology was very much a dream: the video recorders that people watched TDK on mainly didn't have remote controls, or if they did, they were the kind that came with a cable. The world of the drill that you could just carry around seemed a long way away; mobile phones were science fiction.
Anyway, to the killing. You get the sense that the terror of a portable weapon - the chainsaw - had already been done. It nags away at you. Sure, the drill has more potential as a penetrating weapon, but the protagonist's kills are agonisingly slow and laboured - possibly one reason why drunks and bums were chosen as his first victims. As the drilled-out vagrants slowly die - including the one in the cover shot, drilled through his face while making no attempt to fight back - you wonder whether this is really happening at all, or just represents the blood-soaked fantasy sequences that depict Reno's descent into psychosis. That question is resolved later on in the film, so I won't spoil it.
It's not a bad film. It's just not particularly entertaining, even in the most brutal of ways. While we're meant to have a degree of sympathy for some serial killers and sometimes even to root for the villains, you can't do it with Reno: he's so utterly mean, so lacking in any kind of humanity, that you're left wondering how this can all play out. This isn't the hammy quips of Tony Hopkins's Hannibal; this is a mean motherfucker who's going to drill people to death, because he wants to, and because his victims are so weak that they won't fight back. Will he be caught, or discovered? Not until he's killed almost everyone he knows, leaving a trail of clues in his wake, it would seem. And then there's the final, chilling scene, where not just murder but also rape is hinted at.
The Driller Killer isn't a true 'video nasty', and has probably suffered from having been labelled as an out-and-out gore fest (though the video-era marketing may have had something to do with that). But there isn't quite enough to make it a cut above any other run-of-the-mill grimy, grisly horror movie either. It's got something which is intriguing - the punk aesthetic, the Taxi Driver idea of the Rotten Big Apple, the weirdo with daddy issues who drills a proto-yuppie to his door long before Patrick Bateman turned up. There's almost a true-crime feel to it which is doubly chilling: the cold, miserable, unpleasant anti-hero is just as you might imagine a real serial killer to be.
Faces of Death (1978, 1981, 1985)
The influence of The Driller Killer and other slasher films can be seen in the shock mock documentary series Faces of Death. In FOD 3, by which time most people had generally got the joke about the presenter/narrator Dr Francis B Gross (or noticed his stick-on beard changing in almost every shot), there's a sequence about a serial killer who, like Driller Killer's Reno, goes around attacking vagrants and dismembering them. The 'camera crew' who've supposedly been invited to ride around with a couple of cops - serendipitously on exactly the same day where the killer's latest victim is discovered - manage to film a bloody foot and a dismembered hand in a dumpster before being shooed away. Then a few vagrants (are they actors pretending to be vagrants? Real vagrants trying to act for a couple of dollars?) talk about their fears of the serial killer who's chopping them up for no good reason.
By part 3, the flush had been well and truly busted, though Faces of Death's mythical status was something it thrived upon in the pre-internet age. You couldn't do a quick Google to see if the people named in the film were real or not; you just had to make a judgement based on what you were seeing. FOD was lumped in with other 'nasties' as a 'snuff film' that was corrupting young minds, and it's not hard to see why - there really are some stand-out moments of squick, and truly unpleasant things.
You know what you're getting from the off. Real footage of a thumping human heart in an operation, followed by (possibly real) corpses and an autopsy set the scene, before Dr Gross turns up and explains his Macguffin. He's fascinated by death, he tells us, and all its various 'faces', so he wants to take us on a tour of the things around the world that pique his macabre interest. We see pitbulls fighting to the death; we watch diners smashing a monkey's head open through a hole in the table and eating its brains (later referenced in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom); we see scenes of kosher slaughter in an abattoir which are pretty (ahem) strong meat; then we move on to the dead people.
There's an assassination at a press conference, a lame 'stunt gone bad' and then more realistic tableaux, of body preservations and executions. The cover of the video features a blood-soaked electric chair victim foaming at the mouth with eyes pouring with blood, and the scene in the film is truly unsettling - even if you know it's tomato sauce and toothpaste.
After that, it gets plain weird. There's a religious cult who smother their bodies in sexy, sexy human blood; there are random shots of roadkill; there's an unintentionally (?) hilarious sequence in which an anti-nuclear protester sets himself on fire.
The irony is that what restricted FOD is what was also its strength: technology. Because cameras simply weren't portable enough or affordable enough for the general public, the set-ups have to be done in such a way as to have a convincing explanation as to why a film crew happened to be there in the first place. On the other hand, though, there was no internet to debunk myths like the 'monkey's head through the table at dinner' scene, so they quickly became urban legends.
Looking back at it now, knowing what we know about how the films were put together (part stock footage, part staged deaths) and how all sorts of grim, grisly and guttural images of torture, death and dying are available on the worldwide web, Faces of Death comes across as a bit of a bad joke. Some of the staged deaths are funny, perhaps deliberately so; but what do you make of mixing that with scenes in which a real dead bodies are scooped up into plastic bags? The intention was always to shock and disgust, with a thinnest of thin veneers of justification in that the films were challenging society's taboos about death, so they did what they set out to do. I'm still left a little uncomfortable at the thought that there are people out there whose mothers or fathers or sisters or brothers are dead on screen for other people's entertainment, but maybe that's just me.
Let's save the best to last, though, with a 'nasty' film that I found a really nice surprise.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
This is the film that sets the standard by which all subsequent 'slasher' films should be judged, though by no means is it a gorefest. And as I've said it wasn't included on the official list of 'video nasties', though it was banned, for various reasons. I remember reading about its censorship a while ago, so forgive me for recalling these details from memory; but one of the British censors who attempted to classify TTCSM found that it was virtually impossible, such were the sustained scenes of psychological terror and mental torture. Watching it for the first time, as I did the other day, I have to say I can see that completely: if you don't know where the film's going, you really have no idea what's going to happen next. It's excruciating to watch at times, almost horrifically tense - but superbly done.
As with The Driller Killer, viewers expecting a Hostel/Saw style bloodbath might be surprised by the slow pace at which the film gets going. It's a long, long time before Leatherface appears, and even longer before he picks up his chainsaw. What you get instead is a Scooby-Doo set-up, a gang of harmless kids going in search of adventure after hearing reports of grave robberies. Where's it all going? You know where it's going, but you're not quite sure how it's going to get there.
I don't want to reveal too much of the plot as half the power of this film comes from not having seen it before - it really is quite something on first viewing. The shocks are unexpected, the agony is intense and there are a couple of prolonged, tortuous sequences - one of being chased, one of being captured - where it's really hard to keep watching. The screams are marvellously edited to go on like the drawn-out note at the end of A Day in the Life, and you can believe in the banality of horror that you're watching, even though it's been subsequently copied and pasted a hundred times in bigger budget films (and even a remake, which I won't be seeing) since.
What you get, though, is a deeply unsettling experience which must have been even more terrifying in the cinema on first viewing, particularly as with Faces of Death as there would have been no way of verifying the pre-Star Wars yellow-on-black title cards informing you that it's all based on true events. (As we know now, that was only a bit of misdirection: the events that inspired the film weren't a case of the slaughtered teens but the case of Ed Gein, the flesh-loving serial killer who also played a part in creating Hitchcock's Psycho).
Even though the subject matter is (as you'd expect) distasteful and grim, it's a sparkling horror movie made more realistic by the ordinariness of the cast, the simplicity of the effects, the imagination of the design and the dark, dark humour running through it. There's one incredible scene that is simultaneously appalling and hilarious, played dead straight and to perfection, which makes you question yourself when you want the would-be killer to just get on with it.
And, unlike the other 'nasties', there seems to be something at the core other than a desire to shock - even though the movie shocks you much more than the others. You're taken along with the unfortunate victims into a world that is entirely grotesque but completely believable, a world that you're more than happy to leave by the end of the film. It's quite a ride.
Having had all these films denied me when I was younger, it was quite interesting to be able to have a look at them again and stand them up against the slicker, more overproduced and realistic shockers of today. I really enjoyed TTCSM, though I found Faces of Death rather contrived and cynical, and The Driller Killer a little vacuous for my tastes. They're gruesome, but they shouldn't ever have been the subjects of banning in the moral panic 'video nasty' days. A whole world of gore and grimness is out there, but it's the Faces of Death spirit that haunts the internet, the exploitation of our ghoulish desire to break taboos. I'm not as comfortable with that as with a good old horror romp like Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I just wish they still made them this good.
I've been painting the fence. Friday, Saturday and now Sunday fence painting.
(That's not the fence in the background. That's a wall. I'll show you the fence when it's finished.)
One of the lovely things you see when you're in schools (or you may know this from having tiny people yourself) is the joy with which children make things and do things. It gets less and less fun as the things we do are more and more about work rather than play or learning, but there really is something satisfying about getting out a paintbrush and slurping green goo onto a dry wooden fence. You feel the interplay of the bristles of the brush and the splinters of the wood; you watch the wood absorb the paint, and see the colour trickle down into cracks and holes.
You get close enough up to something you look at every day, without ever really seeing: you see the spiders scampering over the stones, and you see the buds on the trees, ready to break open. You get to really look. And you wouldn't be able to look if the only thing you wanted to do was look; you can only really look if you're in the process of doing something else, that puts you in a place you might not ordinarily be, like right up against a fence that you've taken granted for years.
What I'm saying is: Sometimes we forget to make things and do things. (And how lucky we are to have separate verbs for 'make' and 'do'. How other languages cope with just the one for both is beyond me.) I'm not a nimble-fingered person by nature, having largely inept manual skills and digits that are really only good for typing on a keyboard, but that doesn't matter. It's all about being left on your own, getting something done. There is no orgasmic moment of triumph, or completion; rather, things just rather pleasantly arrive at a point at which you can stop, or make a few finishing touches, and then stop.
Writing is a lovely thing, and a thing I do more than almost everything else. But it is such a selfish, cumbersome way of making and doing, and you don't always end up with something you're glad to have made, or a job that you're pleased to have done. There's a lot to be said for just getting out there and getting your hands dirty.