Culcha


bangerzI was worried that I was becoming too much of a puritan, you know. “Jeez, Ben,” I thought, as I posted in defence of marriage, “If you keep this up you’ll make Roger Scruton look relaxed.” Then I saw that Miley Cyrus feels that her music is “educational for kids”.

Educational for kids”. The worst thing is that she is correct. On her new tour, it seems, she dresses up in the outfits of a colour blind Las Vegas stripper before groping, dry humping and miming fellatio on her dancers, who are dressed as ex-Presidents, the Liberty Bell and the Stars and Stripes. She has much to teach children about mindless irreverence and promiscuity.

Once you start to read about popular culture it is hard to stop. It is like gawping at a pile-up that stretches back as far as one can see. Kanye West, who began his career with a somewhat intriguing song that asked God to show him the way, now features on a rap in which he informs his heiress wife, “I impregnated your mouth, girl. That’s when I knew that you could be my spouse, girl.” Such poetry befits a man who named his daughter “North”.

Libidinal smugness is, of course, no new phenomenon. Miley Cyrus is Madonna for another generation. That ageing star is now involving herself in politics. She invited members of the Russian feminist collective Pussy Riot to join her onstage at a recent human rights event by thanking them “for making the word pussy a say-able word in [her] household”. John Lennon’s son, who performed at the same concert, voiced his opposition to Putin’s regime by saying that he thought the President of Russia was homosexual and wished that he would “have a gay orgy” with him. Putin must be awestruck by the power of liberal civilisation. Could these people grasp that they are making an argument for him?

Turning to high culture may not help one to avoid these trends. Should you have sought solace in Butler Library of the University of Columbia you might have bumped into a crowd of naked students who were filming a surreal quasi-erotic video, complete with broken eggs and rubber chickens, in an attempt to “transgress the relative conservatism…of the space”. Campus authorities showed their conservative credentials by taking no action. The students’ rationale, though, offers an insight into the minds of cultural revolutionaries. The offspring of the children of the 60s still imagine that they are struggling against the forces of repression. No. They died. Your parents killed them. You are merely trampling on their graves. Libertinism has been unleashed, and how d’ya like it? Your little sister’s favourite pop star is onstage miming a blowjob on a Bill Clinton impersonator.

GoldsteinAny novelist would have been proud to invent Al Goldstein. A fat, bearded amalgamation of a New York comic and a Las Vegas pimp, he spent his career thrusting erect genitals into the face of American culture. Such was his brash contempt for the traditional faith and morals of the United States that he is as widely referenced in anti-semitic circles as Francis Parker Yockey, and such was his desire for free expression that he fought over a dozen obscenity charges and offered one million dollars to anyone who would assassinate the Ayatollah Khomeini. If one believes that free expression is of little value if that which is expressed is merely obnoxious this does nothing to excuse the publisher of Screw, but he remains a fascinating character regardless.

Or, rather, remained, as he died a couple of weeks ago – penniless, in a nursing home, after going bankrupt. He “clearly coarsened American sensibilities”, said Alan Dershowitz, who represented him in court, but like Hefner or Flynt he did not manage to enjoy the fruits of the new vulgarity. He was too irritable, aggressive and honest to give himself that sheen of class that helps other pornographers to enjoy respectability. The octogenarian philanderer who blessed the world with bunny ears and 69 Sexy Things 2 Do Before You Die seems classier for his genteel dress, Liberal politics and John Updike stories but he trades in nothing different. The flannel shirts and famous friends of Terry Richardson might have allowed to become a hipster favourite but he’s still an ageing weirdo who loves taking nudie pics.

Well, Al Goldstein could not pretend to be doing much more than giving people like himself something masturbate to. For all that one could say about him, he did not pretend that his soulless carnality, anger and attention-seeking were anything more than that. Smug poseurs who have exploited our age with more success have no more cause for pride.

MTVThe government may impose age limits on music videos. I’d be tempted to go further and ban the things. Three decades ago, MTV was inflicted on the world, and excepting Thriller, Hurt and Never Gonna Give You Up the form it pioneered has brought forth nothing of value. It remains a medium for advertising, not artistry: one that great songwriters and musicians do not require. Yowling schoolgirls, grunting meatheads and whimsical pseuds depend on its array of referential, hypersexual and pretentious images to intoxicate the minds of the impressionable, as well as to provoke earnest broadsheet columnists. Pop music is best as a soundtrack to something else, and when it is ambiguous enough to evoke rather than instruct, but music videos monopolise one’s time and impose the director’s trite and often squalid concepts. Given that their most notable offerings of recent times have included a bunch of dimwits cavorting with naked models and a woman writhing in debris and licking a sledgehammer they are becoming a hindrance in the struggle to affirm the value of open societies. Occupy Vevo, that’s what I say.

Peep ShowWhat, then, has been taking place in the organs of our press? In The New Statesman, Russell Brand of Get Him to the Greek and Despicable Me has called for revolution against a corrupt ruling class. Robert Webb, meanwhile, of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look fame defends the idea of electoral democracy. In The Guardian, Steve “Alan Partridge” Coogan advocates on behalf of press regulation while David “Would I Lie to You?” Mitchell writes in opposition to it. I am not sure if Michael McIntyre is promoting green taxes in The Times because it is behind its paywall but I would not be surprised. Comedians have been growing even more ubiquitous and even more tiresome.

It is natural that people who are known in one field will be privileged if they decide to enter another. Comedians, indeed, have often achieved success in this, from Alan Bennett’s plays to Michael Palin’s travel series’ to Jonathan Miller’s writing, directing, presenting, sculpting and neuropsychology research. It takes brains to write a joke and charisma to tell it and these talents can be useful if one has broader interests.

Still, though, I am tired of people waffling from such lofty platforms on their basis of their ability to crack wise. Commentating is a strange career in that is considered to be of some eminence but it demands few standards. In a field where Polly Toynbee and Fraser Nelson are held to be exemplars, then, one might think that giving some jokesmith a column is no biggie. How much worse can they be? Well, I am idealistic enough to long for incisive minds and elegant prose, diligent empiricism and original theorising, and while anyone could prove themselves worthy of such demands some of these people fall so short that their prominence is galling.

I know why they are indulged. It is because papers are struggling to stay afloat and if you can offer the wit and wisdom of a guy from Hollywood – or even from BBC2 – it is more likely to attract eyeballs than some old bloke who wrote a book on criminology, or some young woman who has been researching antibiotics. Even columnists for whom writing is their first career can be promoted on the basis of their personalities rather than their ideas and prose – and I do not simply refer to Samantha Brick. People read for the drama, the hyperbole and the jokes. Opinion pages can be little more than panel shows.

If there is one interesting consequence of Brand’s excursion into publishing it is that it has exposed one of the great, often ignored divides in our politics: that between people who are attracted to revolution and people who are averse it. I am not as as satisfied with the establishment as many people who would class themselves among the latter but, still, while accepting that it may at times be necessary I tend to associate it not with progress or excitement but with violence, chaos, opportunism and tyranny. Still, I am not too worked up. Most of the people who admire the man are too lazy or risk-averse to actually cause trouble and most Britons would shrink from a bearded advocate of high taxation, open borders and environmentalism.

When I first wrote on comedians I reflected on the apparent passivity of our political comics and failed to predict this populism of clowns. It is an intriguing phenomenon: represented most notably by the Italian eccentric Beppe Grillo. Comedians with a knack for demagogic speech are well placed to channel the frustrations of their audience into ridicule and rejection. I think there is a limit to how powerful they could be, though, because as soon as it came to devising proposals for change they would bore their admirers. Ideologies can be many things but they aren’t funny. Not deliberately at least.

ThickeTwo men whose names you may be unfamiliar with are Victor Svyatski and Terry Richardson, but they shoulder blame for two of the more obnoxious and yet inescapable phenomena of recent times. Svyatski was exposed as the founder of the campaign group FEMEN, while Richardson directed the infamous video for Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball and has since orchestrated her first naked photoshoot. These men are officers behind the front-lines of the fight to extend social permissiveness.

What interests me, though, is that in character they are by no means the stuff of progressive ideals. Svyatski worked behind the scenes of the activist group: hand-picking the prettiest girls to earn the movement front pages. For all of the feminist values the group lays claim to, he thought his comrades were “weak”; screamed at them and called them “bitches”. He admitted, somewhat coyly, that he may have founded the group, at least in part, “to get girls”. Richardson, meanwhile, is a sleazebag of vast proportions – Andy Warhol with a sex drive – and obsessed with photographing naked women, often sucking their thumbs or licking lollipops to give his work an eerie Lolitaesque air. He has faced repeated accusations of manipulating young women into undressing, and even into fondling his oft-photographed phallus.

There was a poignant footnote to Robin Thicke’s notorious Blurred Lines video. Its female director had had romantic ambitions for this masturbation fantasy: imagining it as a scene in which “the girls…overpower the men”. When confronted with a quote in which the man himself held forth on “what a pleasure it is to degrade a woman”, she said, with a note of horror, “maybe he wasn’t thinking when he said that”. Cultural permissiveness might have been associated with ideals of creativity and empowerment but amid its smug and mindless popular apogee it is serving as a playground for a more familiar assortment of perverts and bullies. Larry Flynt and Al Goldstein must  be proud.

Thicke“Slut-shaming” is an unfashionable pursuit. It is, I have discovered, the practice of mocking and degrading women for behaving in a sexual manner. It would seem unfair to inflict such treatment on the unfortunate Miley Cyrus as she is a 20-year-old woman who has grown up in the public eye and might be as mentally stable as a war veteran living next to a fireworks factory. Instead, then, I will slut-shame her partner in the infamous MTV Awards performance: Robin Thicke.

Robin Thicke is a 36-year-old man; a married man, with a 3-year-old son. Regardless, he sees fit to compose, record and release songs like “Give It 2 U”, which contains the following lyrics…

I got this for yah,
A little Thicke for yah
A big kiss for yah,
I got a hit for yah
Big dick for yah,
Let me give it to yah

I am, it must be admitted, not part of the demographic that is being appealed to but, still, this has the wit and charm of a drunken pervert breathing cigarettes and charred hamburger into a woman’s face in one of the more disreputable clubs of Soho. Add in the pointless illiteracy of the title and the crazed tunelessness of the music and you have a cocktail to revolt the hardest of stomachs.

In “Blurred Lines”, Mr Thicke created what has been described as the song of the summer. It features a rapper named T.I. offering these thoughts to a prospective lover…

I had a bitch, but she ain’t bad as you
So hit me up when you passing through
I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two

The song of the summer, then, featured a man informing a woman that he is not merely well-endowed but so formidably proportioned that he will cause her physical harm. Add in the video, in which Thicke, T.I. and the ubiquitous Pharrell Williams leer at three naked women, and a tune full of annoying shrieks, burbles and beeps and you want to lock these men in a soundproofed studio, occasionally pushing bread beneath its door in an act of undeserved humanitarianism.

It is customary in pieces such as this for their author to insist that he or she is no prude. I will respect this tradition and offer credentials: I have wallowed in low culture to an unhealthy degree, from cage fighting to B movies to French literature. This, indeed, helps one to observe how incredibly sordid mainstream culture has become: awash not merely in sexual behaviour but sexual behaviour that strips human partnerships of romance, caution, mystery and sensuousness in its proud philistinism, its brutish carnality and its tiresome delight in trangressing boundaries that have not been respected in decades. It is a warm bath of salacious idiocy into which the next generation has been thrust and held.

How is that for shaming?

Old WomanLike you, I read the Mail Online. It is a sewer, of course, but so much of it appeals to my morbid curiosity that I delve in regardless. It was there that I learned of a 71-year-old woman who strode out onto the stage of Britain’s Got Talent and bellowed a tuneless number titled Kiss My Ass. The clip is available on YouTube, and features thousands of young to middle-aged people shrieking with laughter as the grey-haired songstress yells out Bart Simpson’s favourite noun.

The rude old person has become a feature of the cultural landscape. Agnes Brown, the matriarch of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, curses her way through episodes of Britain’s most-watched sitcom. The Catherine Tate Show featured an old woman who did nothing except swear. Little Britain offered a sketch devoted to a young man having a sexual relationship with a grandmother. It was a recurring sketch. Did Father Jack start this? I hope not. I liked Father Jack. But perhaps he was a bad influence.

I have no wish to tell old people to conform to special standards of propriety. If they are going to warble on about pecking posteriors I am not going to bully them. Yet it would be great if younger people stopped cackling like idiots at such behaviour.

The septuagenarian singer was described as an “inspiration” by the botox businessman. Some might claim that this was for having the guts to perform, except that he had looked disgusted as she walked onstage; perhaps fearing that she was going to have the shameless audacity to try and show musical talent. Some might hold that it was because of her energy and spirit, but if singing R&B was enough to defy his preconceptions of the powers of the aged he cannot be acquainted with many old people. The reason he and the audience loved her was because she was being coarse, and, thus, defying those staid old values we associate with age. Reserve, politesse and prudence are disdained by our exhibitionistic culture, and old people are only welcome in the public eye if they are members of the royal family or behaving like young people. It is our world now and they are only welcome if they are trying to match our standards.

Of course, in many ways I think it would be great for us to encourage old people to regain their youthfulness. Few could match Elizabeth Jane Howard, writing novels at 90, or Robert Marchand, breaking cycling records after he has broken triple figures, but when the aged make use of the knowledge and resources available to us they can often retain and regain mental and physical abilities that allow them to live more pleasant and productive lives. What they need inspiration to do, though, apparently, is to say “ass” and mention oral sex. We don’t have enough references to the backside nowadays.

I thought Kookyville was a joke. Not that it was a comedy but that it was an actual joke: a satire on the miserable state of British popular culture. I was sadly mistaken.

Take the name. People who describe themselves as “kooky” or “quirky” are almost guaranteed to be tedious sods: Mighty Boosh fans; Monster Raving Loony voters and people who wear comedic slogans on their t-shirts. People who are unconventional in interesting ways are not so insecure that they have to make a big deal of how unconventional they are.

This does not begin to describe the awfulness of Kookyville, though. It is marketed in the same fashion as The Only Way is Essex and Geordie Shore: “normal people” delivering unscripted lines after, one imagines, a lot of prompting from the creators. This kind of show is beloved of producers who imagine they can do without writers and thespians.

Kookyville takes the form of a sketch show. It features a bleached blonde Mum and daughter talking about adopting a man with dwarfism; a coarse old woman who describes her ex-husband as a “cunt” and a pair of hoteliers describing an occasion where a victim of Thalidomide fell out of a window and struggled to return to his feet as he had short arms. Once can look at this two ways: the creators either wanted us to laugh at the disabled, which is obnoxious, or to laugh at working class naifs who had been encouraged to mock the disabled. This, it seems to me, is no less obnoxious.

The hapless performers had yet to be introduced to the idea of comic timing and spoke in voices that, it seems, would only rise or fall if they were confronted with a vampire. It was, then, a cross between The Only Way is Essex and Life’s Too Short. To create a worse formula for entertainment one would have to unite Michael Bay and Houston Stewart Chamberlain.

These similarities are not coincidental. The company that made Kookyville, Objective Productions, have blessed us with the great Peep Show but have also produced tripe like Balls of Steel, Star Stories and, yes, Ricky Gervais Meets…. The creator of the programme, meanwhile, was Nichola Hegarty, who was, of all things, an executive producer of The Only Way is Essex. These people have worked hard to ensure that spitefulness and boorishness are ubiquitous features of our culture, and their union, like one of two great imperialistic powers, is dispiriting.

Yet am I a snob, sneering at working class people and their entertainment? Me, I think it’s the predominantly rich and well-educated men and women who promote an image of “normal people” as being almost universally coarse, bigoted morons who deserve such criticism. They are both inviting people to draw smug enjoyment from their relative sophistication and to think that such standards of thought and behaviour are common, acceptable and even worthy of aspiring to.

This is sad. Think of some of the greatest, best-loved entertainers of British television in previous decades: Tommy Cooper, Eric Sykes and Les Dawson. They were working class people who produced working class comedy that was perceptive, nuanced and relatable. These standards were not universal but they were there. People were challenged, inspired and consoled. Now they’re merely degraded – on the screens and in their living rooms. I’m not saying that there is a conspiracy to make us all stupid; I’m just saying that there if was such a conspiracy it is hard to think of how it could be more effective.

From our murder mysteries to our James Bonds we like our audiovisual entertainment dark and enigmatic. It’s about time, then, for a revival of film noir.

In a sense it’s still with us. The jaded humour of the modern detective owes as much to the fedora-toting, cigarette-smoking anti-heroes of noir and hardboiled fiction as to Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. The bleak urban environments of The Dark Knight recalls the cold streets of Lang and Dassin, and its brooding superhero would, if he pulled off his cape and donned a trench coat, seem a bit like one of Robert Mitchum’s wearily heroic creations.

Films noir must have appealed to those Americans who had been scarred by the trauma of the Great Depression and the Second World War; Americans for whom the dreams that underpinned their nation had become tinged by nightmarishness. (The returning GI struggling to adapt to civilian life, is a recurring theme, found in the bleakest offerings such as The Blue Dahlia, Act of Violence and Crossfire.) The fears of subversiveness that accompanied the Cold War ensured that there was paranoia as well as pessimism. Their heroes negotiate systems of power that grow ever more sinister and mystifying the further they’re drawn in. People they’d assumed embody certain characteristics turn out to have hidden and often darker aspects to themselves. This artful malice can, of course, be embodied by the most beautiful people.

This grim disorientation is befitting of our anxious and distrustful times. Millions of us have been impoverished by the workings of lofty and labyrinthine systems. Our communities have transmogrified. The deceit of the men charged with our protection has never been more widely acknowledged.  Even some of our bleedin’ children’s entertainers have turned out to be scoundrels. There are countless things to like about film noir regardless of the age – the mysteries, the jokes, the girls, the chance to imagine a world where smoking has no consequences – but, still, it has especial pertinence today.

The heroes themselves – often grim, irreverent and greedy – are not men you would be pleased to find your daughter coming home with. By and large, however, undoubtably heroic and in an intriguing sense. Superhero fiction has always been most popular when people are troubled by conflicts between good and evil. If you’re bothered by corruption in the world it’s nice to think of a virtuous beefcake that would kick its ass. Hard-boiled heroes could be tough bastards but they weren’t physical specimens or martial artists. Dick Powell, as a runtish Philip Marlowe, spent a lot of time being manhandled by Moose Malloy. The slim, effeminate Alan Ladd spent half of The Glass Key in a punch-drunk stupor. Such men are admirable, like the detectives of today, not for the strength and ferocity with which they confront evil but the wit and audaciousness with which they seek the truth. They might be callous, even cruel, but they’re always compelled by some form of stubborn impulse to get the bottom of things. I like that and like that other people like it. It’s heartening that scepticism can make heroes of men.

The dialogue of films noir – a riot of sardonic puns, allusions and similes – might irritate some viewers with its staginess but I love it. I love its humour; its bite; its celebration of wit. Not just wit in the sense of being humorous but of being mentally agile and inventive. After years of grunting gangsters, silent superheroes and languid leading men it’s good to see people enjoying and employing their cleverness. In a strange, dishonest world they know it’s a powerful weapon.

For all the motifs I’ve referenced here, noir wasn’t a “genre” in the sense of being formulaic; the films had a distinctive style but the plots and themes could be unpredictable. The everpresent fags, fedoras and femmes might give us the impression that we’re in familiar territory but plot twists and moral questions have a habit of creeping up and sideswiping us. In The Big Heat, for example, Dave Bannion seems to be a good, straight-laced cop before you realise that women keep dying around him and he doesn’t look too bothered. It’s a point I could be charged with repeating too often but when special effects did not allow for grand spectacles and social inhibitions prohibited gore and rutting the thematic content was often more effective: as filmmakers had to use their imaginations to suggest rather than showcase happenings and as the eyes aren’t consumed with sensational and often implausible things that one’s brain is forced to disengage itself.

Anyway, I’m off to sit with my back against a shuttered window and drink scotch. If you aren’t acquainted with the style, there’s a fantastic boxset here. It costs less than a dame and it will keep you company for longer.

The papers are outraged that the continental media are publishing photographs of a topless Kate Middleton. There’s too much slaughter and starvation in the world for this to enrage me but I agree that their behaviour is sordid. One solution, though, is happily available to our news editors. They could stop being perverts themselves. Their daily publication of nipple slips and upskirt photography encourages a culture of intrusive prurience that’s bound to impact on people who find it threatening and feel humiliated. It’s not too late, however, for them to cease this practice; apologise for their years of lechery and ask other editors to consider the introspection that they should have all succumbed to long ago.

Elsewhere, Kelvin MacKenzie seemed annoyed when a Channel 4 interviewer, trying to get the man to speak about his coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, shouted through his letterbox and then obstructed his car as he tried to drive away. Kelvin MacKenzie was the editor of The Sun when its journalists broke into the hospital Jeremy Brett was dying in and tried to engineer a confrontation in which they’d ask him if he was suffering from AIDS. If he’d like people to respect the privacy of others, then – to stop exploiting sorrow and humiliation for pleasure and profit – he could renounce the heartless, meddlesome style of hackery he helped to pioneer and ask the journalists of today to ignore his shameful legacy.

Such penitence, of course, is not to be expected. The abusive are always aggrieved when treatment they were happy to inflict on others is forced upon them or people they care for. Public figures who lament behaviour that was theirs are often in a worse position to complain, because its perceived acceptability can be due to their own flaunting of it. So, the media barons who believe that their privacy, or that of people they care for, is being unjustly denied are bemoaning products of a cruder, crueller, more frivolous culture they helped to spawn. Thus, it’s easy to conclude that they’re at least in part responsible for the events that disturb them; and, until they’re repentant, it’s hard to feel sympathetic.

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