whiteness


OR those of you who have been readers of this blog for a while, you’ll know that vampires tend to crop up around me… well, in the pop culture I like to consume. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a big, long-standing favourite with me, for example. And I reviewed Elizabeth Knox’s Daylight a while back. And as I mentioned there (I think?), Sue Ellen Case grounds a lot of this fascination for me. In ‘Tracking the Vampire’ she argued (this was a while ago now) that vampires inhabit a liminal space, figured primarily as life and death. Given the tendency to homologise our binaries (oh yeah, baby, give me more, always more ;-P) this turned into a bigger ontological challenge, blurring the lines between a whole series of differences: between straight and gay, between male and female, between reproductive and non-reproductive and so on… and this, she argued, was precisely queer.

This is part of what fascinated me about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and part of why I think the stories about sexuality recounted in around and through BtVS are more complex than at least some people seem to think. I still remember a film student friend of mine gasping at all the symbolic significance of Spike (under the influence of the First Evil (caps necessary)) oh-so-sensually mouthing at a gash in Buffy’s arm. Mmm hmm. Kids’ TV? Nothin’ to see here, folks, move along. 😉

So a while back now, I saw the pilot for True Blood. Ooh! Alan Ball! All cool with the Six-Feet-Under-ness of him! Ooh! Anna Paquin! All dark eyes and kissable (or is it?) mouth! Ooh! Vampires! I decided that I would give into my trashy urges and try vampire fiction again. Who knew, maybe someone could do something with a slightly less puritannical heroine than Anita Blake (maybe she got better, but ugh, save me from a girl with too clear a sense of right and wrong!). So in quick succession (I can’t really imagine reading them any other way) I read the Sookie Stackhouse series. Or, as it’s also known, the Southern Vampire series, by Charlaine Harris. These are the books Alan Ball is basing this new TV series on.

The books are, in themselves, that kind of easy-to-read, fun, never-going-to-be-high-lit-thank-fuck stories which made me dream of lazy holidays. They play on the down-home-ness of the American South, as well as the violence and racism of it. But they draw out some interesting things about the figure of the vampire in contemporary pop culture, and that’s one of the things I want to talk about.

It’s not unusual to see BtVS critiqued (and totally fairly) for its whiteness. There’s a particular line of argument which suggests that vampires and demons are taken as representatives of racialised others, the otherness which is consistently situated as threatening and (at least by Buffy) threatened by our heroes. I’m never entirely sure about this slippage between other-worldly and race, not least because I think that vampires manage to encapsulate, to different degrees in different spaces, a variety of forms of difference. They shape shift according to the work they’re being made to do.

But in Charlaine Harris’ books, the parallel is explicit. The setting of the American South is, I think, no accident. But it’s not just race. Vampires have recently ‘come out of the coffin’ (aheh aheh) and are now lobbying to have the same rights as humans (through the passing of the Vampire Rights Act). What precipitated this coming out? The development of artificial blood by a Japanese pharmaceutical company. Our brand spanking new blond heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, has numerous arguments with lots of different people about not being prejudiced against vampires. In the extra-long opening credits, which involve images of sex and death and Southernness (rivers and road kill and crocodiles and white trash sexy-dancing, and kids in KKK hoods and gospel-singing black people and mostly-naked girls, bar brawls and baptisms) set all in amongst each other to the tune of Jace Everett’s ‘Bad Things’, there’s a shot of a backlit sign that says ‘God Hates Fangs.’ Hilariously, and this really did make me laugh out loud, we catch a glimpse in episode two of a newspaper bearing the headline ‘Angelina adopts vampire baby.’ In fact, I can’t remember if it’s in the book, but in the series, she responds to her (Black) friend Tara warning her that all a vampire wants is to suck your blood by saying ‘Yes, and all Blacks are lazy and Jews all have horns.’ Except that as she’s reminded, drinking artificial blood is probably comparable to living on SlimFast… Sookie’s defence of vampire rights seems to be at least partly premised on a denial of this particular threat, especially when she’s defending her decisions to others: she argues that they can, will and should assimilate… while drinking lots of fake blood and having small kitchens (coz they don’t need to cook). But this isn’t the whole story: she also wants, and I mean wants, the vampire of her small town of Bon Temps. His name, my friends, is Bill. [giggle]

She’s drawn to him. Part of this plays out through another supernatural phenomenon: our friend Sookie is not only a waitress, she’s a telepath. Makes dating, amongst numerous other things, a bit of a bitch. (‘Is she a natural blond, nothing worse than a big black bush,’ ‘Maybe she’ll stop me dreaming about Matt Damon,’ ‘Wow, never thought those thighs would be quite that size,’ or ‘Wow, I wish she’d stop talking, she’s really annoying,’ or ‘I just want sex right now’ etc; though they stick with the earlier two, coz they’re funnier… (and maybe less critical of conventional masculinity?)). Vampires, though, don’t send out brain waves, so it’s kinda peaceful for our Sook, being around them. In some sense, it’s an unusual take on thinking about relationships in contemporary culture, which is usually ‘communicate every fucking little thing’…

But she is drawn to him. Scott Winant’s direction of this relies on long close-up shots of Anna Paquin looking wide-eyed, mostly, and lots of pregnant silences. Oh, and Stephen Moyer, playing Bill, looking mysterious, a bit pale, and mostly up from under his eyebrows. Hey, if an evil sexy look works, I say work it. In a moment that recalls the scene from BtVS described above, though, Bill offers Sookie his blood when she is mortally injured. She at first rejects it, not wanting to become a vampire, but once he reassures her this won’t happen, she suckles on down on his wrist. And wow… if my old friend Katy thought Spike’s lipping of Buffy’s wound evoked cunnilingus, I wonder what she thought of this: the moment is Loooong, and despite Sookie’s battered state, both her hands wrap around Bill’s wrist, capturing, drawing him closer, stroking, while her mouth does some serious work. They’re both half-frowning. There’s no missing the significance (well, okay, maybe I’m just dirty-minded or have read too much psychoanalysis, but c’mon!).

Of course, what’s particularly interesting about this is that it inverts the usual ‘first taste’ story—and there’s a Fiona Apple nod later in the episode, albeit evoking Sookie’s desire for sex/vampire suckage. But at least in this case, this isn’t about sweet virginal Sookie getting penetrated and made into a bad, evil, undead thing. Instead, she drinks deep. Bill’s maleness becomes complicated by a site that penetrates the supposedly inviolate male body (and there’s something intriguing, I think, about the fact that he bites himself so that she can drink). The sexualising of this shifts away from simple reproductive het sex, and into something queerer (as Sue Ellen Case would suggest).

But what’s also interesting is the effects of this queer exchange (and yes, he ‘cleans her up’, licking away the blood that covers her face (apart from, in a shot I suspect was not intended this way, but which I found cool and amusing anyway, a moustachioed crusting of dried blood)). As Bill explains to her later on, not only does this let her heal, but it heightens her senses and her – cue his cute Southern embarrassment – libido. In the book, it enhances her attractiveness, making her skin glow, her hair lighter, her eyes brighter… but I guess Anna Paquin doesn’t get much better? 😉 But intriguingly here, we have something other than assimilation happening: we have the blond white mortal girl altered by her interaction with the vampire. She’s made other than what she was. And in turn, he is altered by her blood: he knows where she is, and how she’s feeling. There’s a blurring, then, of the lines between Sookie and Bill, between their different ‘races’, between their self-contained identities. She shares in some of his sense of the world as her senses sharpen. He shares in her emotional state. As she says to him, “You were just licking blood out of my head. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.” (And Bill’s thinking “You ain’t see nothin’ yet, honey,” I’m sure. Lucky about that non-telepathic with vampires thing, huh?)

This will get more complicated as the series progresses: there are more vampires, there’s more blood-sucking, and some other fun stuff (shape shifters! werewolves! fairies (both magical and queer!)! maenads! dwarves! and so on). Sookie meets more vampires, shares her blood with them, and has some of their blood too. (Bill’s not going to be all that forever). Each of these is significant. She gets a decent amount of sexin’ from various males of various speices round about the place, and each of these ties bind, in different ways and to different extents.There’s more evocation of the ties between folks through the sharing of blood or magic. For example, Sookie’s brother, Jason, winds up bitten by a werepanther (thereby producing not a genuine shape-shifter, but a half-man, half-panther combo) because this werepanther wants the girl (also a werepanther) that Jason is sleeping with; Jason is preferable because he comes from outside their shared  community of shapeshifters, which has become so inbred many are permanently caught as half-panther beings. So the werepanther seeks to bind Jason into the community and thereby make him less attractive to the girl werepanther so that Jason won’t be the better choice anymore. (Confusing, huh?).

And I suppose in the end, this is what is intriguing to me: the supernatural, and particularly horror-focused evocations of it, seems to focus so clearly on undermining the self-containment of the liberal humanist individual. It makes the intercorporeal literal in the sharing of blood, and in the consequences of that sharing. This is, of course, Kristeva’s point, when she talks about how the abject functions: it dwells in the space between subject and object: both me and not-me, testifying to the incompleteness, the necessary permeability of my boundaries. For her, the edges of the body represent the containment and delineation of the subject. Thus the abject is both the condition for the possibility of my being an individual, and testimony to its impossibility too. And the powers of horror, as the essay is titled, lie in this dual function: the loss of self and the origination of it, the powerful seductiveness of losing the sense of the edges of the self, and the terror of precisely that. The queering of identity is often enacted through the vampire, through the werewolf, through the individual-becoming-other-through-the-other’s-gift. These are the stories that draw me to them. And it’s only partly about the sex. I think. 😉

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fOR conferences, that is. (Well, Christmas too, I guess, but I’ve still got a few weeks to do the whole purchasing of presents, which is good given I’m behind on absolutely everything…) I’m attending CSAA (the Cultural Studies Association of Australiasia, which I am often disappointed at) and ACRAWSA (the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association, which I’ve only attended once before and found pretty interesting) in Adelaide, not least because I get free accommodation… aka mum and dad’s place. In a sneaky move, I’m sticking around in Adelaide until just after Christmas before flying back (on research funding, which I figure is okay, given the whole presenting-two-papers-in-a-week thing). This does, however, mean that blogging will be light… erm… lighter… potentially faded to a kind of spectral figure that never quite resolves… for the next few weeks. When I get back I’m going to be in hyperdrive thesis-freak-out mode (since I seem to be heading into that territory already, I hate to think what it’s going to be like when I’m in serious editing stage). I’m not going to jinx myself here by declaring a submission date, since every time I tell someone I feel slightly guilty because I’m almost sure I’m not going to make it. Seriously, I should be Catholic I’m so good at the guilt thing.

My two papers for the conferences, which I may or may not put bits of up here, are incredibly different (which always seems a good plan at the abstract stage, less and less as the conference gets closer and closer…). The first is on transhumanism and bioconservatism. I’m basically sketching out how and why transhumanism’s apparently radical challenge to the idea of the human is in no way profound enough, and in many ways sneaks bioconservatism’s essentialising tendencies in the back door. I like the idea of this paper, even if it’s broad brush strokes. I’m hoping it’ll be fun to listen to. I’m still kicking around the idea of including bits of Scott Westerfeld‘s awesome young adult ‘increasingly inaccurately named trilogy’ (in the vein of great sci-fi, so we forgive), Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras, mostly because I like them a lot, even where I think he’s overly optimistic. (I guess we can’t entirely depress all the kiddies out there ;-)) I’ll post a critical review here sometime soon, but I want to re-read the early books again, since its been a little while.

The second paper develops out of the train of thought I posted here, and its interaction with this post of s0metim3s. Basically, I’m arguing that the medical conception of the human body informs the imago of the body politic of Australia, already, as Gatens has argued, a white male body. As a result, refugees are regularly conceived of as disease/d, penetrating (I’m trying to decide how much to draw through the heteronormativity of this body…) Indeed, over and over the anti-refugee parts of the community articulate a concern about the diseases these refugees bring with them: tuberculosis, HIV, and leprosy (apparently). In some cases, the very number of refugees living in Australia is articulated as a threat to the body politic.

The equation between the Australian body politic and the white male body means that these appeals already have the truth-effects of medical power/knowledge attached to them. Thus we have appeals to take ‘preventative’ measures such as the excision of Australia’s islands for the purposes of immigration—a kind of circumcision‚ as recommended in South Africa this year, which as s0metim3s pointed out, can also be construed as a kind of leprous breaking-down of the body. Obviously hovering in the background here is Derrida’s work on autoimmunity, but that’s probably where that theory will stay—in the background. Both these papers feel a little on the obvious side to me, but I’m hoping that that will just mean that they prove comparatively contained and a little less crazy-theoretical. I have a thesis to finish, after all! I hope everyone’s end-of-year guff is going alright out there…

FOR the course I’m tutoring this semester, we’re reading Bluff Rock: Autobiography of a Massacre by Katrina Schlunke. It’s an engagement with the stories woven around Bluff Rock, a big granite outcrop in the New England, an area of New South Wales where Schlunke grew up. At the heart is a concern with the engagement between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people around and as part of ‘settlement,’ most particularly the massacre(s) of Aboriginal people that occurred as part of this process. It is, in the end, a thoroughly fictocritical account, a non-fiction novel. Christos Tsiolkas (who wrote Dead Europe and Loaded, later made into a movie called Head On) offers glowing praise:

Bluff Rock is analytical and wise, by which I mean the scholarship and research is rigorous but also committed to the historian’s task of making argument lucid and understandable. The book is also impassioned and honest, by which I mean it is driven by the ethical obligation to explore racist interpretations of the pas tin order to illuminate how racism functions in the words, actions and psyches of our present.

Katrina Schlunke’s book achieves what many of us hope from cultural theory, that through an investigation of language, words and culture, we come to a questioning of history, politics and the treacherous relationship between memory and myth. Her objective terrain is the contested arena of racist war in Australia, but her terrain is also how our ways of seeing race, colonialism, being white and being Aborigine have been formed by cultural forms and expressions that have made us repress signs of both violence and resistance in the landscape.

It’s an interesting book, a beautiful challenge to the deathly whiteness of Keith Windschuttle’s attempts at ‘Australian history,’ valuable also because it demonstrates that an awareness of one’s own whiteness permits a new and different way of doing history, one which need not conclude in guilty paralysis, nor reiterate innocence in the face of destruction.

An excerpt:

The saved child

Coming on them on the side of a deep precipice, the avenging party attacked them and wiped them out, with the exception of one small piccaninny. The little chap ran to Bill Bates and clung to his legs and was spared. William Bates kept and reared him (the boy). He was always grateful and useful to him in after years.

The Aborigines withdrew to higher ground until they found themselves between a precipice and their pursuers. The entire group, women and children were driven over the edge—with the exception of one small boy, the only survivor. This boy, incidentally, was brought up very successfully by one of the white men involved. They developed a strong feeling of devotion to each other.

This was also a story I was told in Tenterfield. The story was that the child grew up, and when dead, was buried at the foot of the Bluff. One might see the grave; I found nothing. William Bates’ son says nothing about having an adopted Aboriginal brother. Campbell (the author of the second quote above, which is from his thesis) acknowledges no source for his statement; it could well have been the collected oral histories from the Tenterfield Historical Society records (as in the first quote above). There is no supporting objective evidence in the shape of graves or in the shape of adults who have come forward to tell of their unusual upbringing, but the story keeps on being told and written. Campbell’s confident assertion—in a thesis, no less—even makes it official history. But if it is not true, why would people invent or believe such a tale? What does this story do?

First, it individualises morality. While a group was chasing and killing, when one child appealed to one of these killers, he ‘saved’ the child. This same man, we assume, could not and did not wish to stop killing all the others, but he did save one child. It wants to tell us that these men were not entirely monsters; that they also had a fundamental humanity. That close up, when appealed to directly, one man’s choice was to save a child. But could we call this ‘humanity’? Is this how the sensibility that led to the more systematic Stolen Generations began? When an Aboriginal child was told it was lucky to have been ‘saved’, stolen up from death, ‘rescued’ from ‘wild blacks’ to become ‘grateful’ and ‘useful’, ‘devoted’ and successfully ‘brought up‘? But if one child could be saved, why not all of the group? One can begin to see why the Romantic imagination strained within colonialism. The innocent child saved but the rest killed—why? The sentiment attached to children frayed and played itself out alongside the raw and unromantic slaughter.

Children were also involved in other massacres. About two hours from Bluff Rock is Myall Creek, where in 1838 (six years before Irby et al. carried out their ‘punishment’ [in the massacre described above]) Kilmeister et al. were slaughtering a group of children, women and men. Some of the perpetrators, all current or ex-convicts, were eventually hanged amongst general outrage that any white man should died for killing Indigenous Australians. They were not found guilty at their first trail, which was for killing an Aboriginal known as ‘Daddy’, but in their second trial they were found guilty on five counts of th e’murder of an Aboriginal Black Child who name was to the Attorney-General unknown.’ This child had been identified by its rib bones, a jaw bone and some teeth. In Tales of Old Times: Early Australian Incident and Adventure (1903), Chomley records Anderson (the hutkeeper) saying about the group on Myall Creek that:

There was a little child at the back of the hut when they were tying this party; and when the blacks and party were going away, this little child as I thought, was going to follow the party with its mother, but I took hold of it and put it into the hut and stopped it from going.

However, in his first sworn statement about the event, Anderson says the following:

All the black at the station were taken away except Davy and his brother Billy, two Black gins a pickininny [a little boy] and two little boys who saved themselves when the horsemen were coming up by jumping into the creek. The Men left a black Gin with me saying she was a good looking Gin. They gave another to Davy. The little child came from behind the hut when they were taking the blacks away as I thought to follow them. I put him into the hut and shut the door—they did not come back after him.

One of the reasons, then, that Anderson (and Davy) didn’t act to stop the larger slaughter was that they were given women to do with what they wished. It could also be said therefore that Kilmeister ‘saved’ two Aboriginal women—but they were saved only to be raped? used? by others. There was another woman ‘saved’ from this massacre by another man. She was the mother of Charly, a small boy (noted for his ‘familiar and friendly way’) whom Davy had tried to save—but ‘he would go along with mammy’. Charly was killed, but his mother, according to other evidence, was picked out by John Blake, who kept her, saved her, for ‘future use’. Like putting pennies in the bank—this woman was ‘saved’ as only the most brutal white economic metaphor can imply. The colonial rationality of economy. Did this lone woman, the mother of at least one of the suggested ten to twelve children killed, imagine that she was saved in any other sense? Was death by slaughter something worse in her psychology and cosmology than knowing all her group had been beheaded, stabbed, burnt? Would it have been better than being taken away from ehr country, used by Blake and perhaps others? Did she think she was saved? Might there also have been Aboriginal women taken from others of the massacres carried out around Tenterfield? And were children also used sexually and economically? What did Bates, of ‘The Bluff Rock Massacre’, intend for his ‘saved’ child? Was the child of Bluff Rock saved because a dead child had hanged the others who had massacred at Myall Creek? Had the word come back from the Sydney—not only don’t tell anyone about killing Aboriginal people, but particularly don’t tell of killing children?

The child of ‘The Bluff Rock Massacre’ had seen (we assume) his closest relations and friends ‘wiped out’, but he ran toward the legs of one of these shooters and was ‘spared’. This little boy ran across and made his physical presence felt to a man holding a gun. The little boy clung to the man’s legs and hte man couldn’t shoot. At that moment the man could have thrown the boy aside and shot him, but at that moemnt he didn’t. And so the story goes that this unnamed boy was always ‘grateful and useful’—he had been saved up for later, careful, use. He didn’t send those who massacred to be hanged.

In the early years of carrying to and from the coast the blacks would occasionally raid the teams. When Bates’ teams were threatened, this boy would help to defend them and would persuade the wild blacks not to attack, so that his [Bates’] loads were never raided.

And so the saved becomes the saviour on a regular basis. (pp. 104-108)

HOW much would he hate that, huh?? Well, no, not really, but I think the idea of applying a vaguely Derridean concept to the Grond Moister of Genealogy might be somewhat insulting. Still… if Hacking’s happy to do it, then me too! me too! (not that I claim any originality in this move.)

I’m in the midst of writing a paper, and this is bad procrastination before I get back into it. Nonetheless, I feel badly for a) no posting and b) no posting of anything actually… actual. You kids deserve more that frou-frouha. And thus: some of my minor conclusions for this paper. Nothing new, really, if you know my work, but nonetheless, I figure most of you don’t (what with my… what’s the opposite of stellar?… extraordinarily earthy publications record!).

Between biopolitics and anatamopolitics (the management of the population and the disciplining of individual bodies), Foucault’s biopower provides a rich analytical framework for denaturalising the function of medicine and locating its role in the political sphere of a normalising society. Yet for all of his understanding of how bodies are disciplined, he fails to interrogate in any detail the political and fundamentally normalising structure of contemporary phenomenological experience. Alcoff’s work has permitted us an understanding of the way that racism—so key to contemporary power/knowledge (I’ve discussed this earlier; Foucault positions racism as a technique for fragmenting the population into superrace and subrace, and thus as not simply attaching to what we might otherwise, in more everyday use, call ‘race’ but I think to a range of other ‘attributes’ including homosexuality and disability)—functions not only at the level of institutions, managing a fragmented population, or the attempt to discipline bodies to the sustaining of the ‘supperace’ and through the whittling away of (sometimes the attributes of) the ‘subrace’. It occurs and is reiterated through racialised ways of being in the world, which shape not only the interraction between people, but embodied perceptions which gain their veracity by appearing to be neutral observations of what really is.

These perceptions, then, are actually whole body experiences of the world, making it clear that the bodily reactions that may accompany racist (in Foucault’s broad sense) ‘observations’, on the part of those (un)marked as ‘super-racial’ (read white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, male)—reactions which may include anxiety, nausea, fear and anger—are not reactions that ‘come after’ the perception, but are bound up with and constitutive of it. This demonstrates that phenomenological experience, however slippery and uncertain it is, provides a rich source for analysis of the function of power. Given the centrality of suffering to medicine’s legitimacy and function in our normalising society, the place of this phenomenological experience within the techniques of biopower needs to be considered.

Actually this isn’t the conclusion so much as the argument that gets us to considering suffering as (deep breath, potential further loss of anonymity) a somatechnic—a technique of biopower that invests embodied experience (which, no, I don’t take as separate from ‘cognitive’ experience*) alongside the well-established techniques of population-management and individual bodily discipline. If you’re all very good (or careful, or good at it) I might post some of my stuff trying to explicate the role of suffering in the circulation of power and the normalising of the ‘subracial’.

PS Do any of my (critical race, especially) readers have a response to Foucault’s configuration of racism as something that attaches more generally to the fragmenting of the population (into, I think, the normal ‘superrace’ and the abnormal ‘subrace’)? I don’t think he’s claiming that these all function in the same way, and thus that he’s trying to ‘flatten-out’ different forms of discrimination, and besides, I think there’s something significant to the fact that Nazism (which he takes as an example) wasn’t just about positioning Jews as ‘subrace’ but a whole range of other forms of ‘difference,’ including other minority races, those with disabilities and homosexuals, a configuration I think we continue to live with. I also think that characterising the fragmentation of the population that biopower enacts as racism helps us to see that race (in the narrower, more contemporary-usage sense) isn’t a neutral and naturally occurring ‘observation of the fact’. Nonetheless, I occasionally have anxieties that I’m reproducing a problematic conflation… thoughts?

*actually I suspect that I should write something soon on why I think the distinction between ‘cognitive’ or ‘rational’ or ‘conscious’ and ‘bodily’ is, well, a problematic, Cartesian-left-over piece o’ crap (which, I should add with a nod to NP, doesn’t make it any less efficacious in contemporary self-perception (and beyond.))

READ it. Where lies the guilt again, and how does it adhere? How to compass this kind of taking advantage of the APEC laws…?

Forgive brevity/superficiality. Mind-grapples wearied by teaching and slow-burned horror (these domestic ones, and the wondrously rendered brutal ones of Dead Europe.) I hope for sharpness again soon.

ONCE more, with feeling:

Warned…

Something spoilery this way comes…

Warned!

Back off, buddy, lest you learn that which you seek not.

Warned.

This is England: so you probably know from the outset that a movie about how a kid gets caught up in a skinhead gang in England is probably not going to be the cheeriest of fil-ums! Surprisingly, then, there’s a real sense of humour about this movie, and because it pulls no punches, really, about the hideousness of what goes on, the humour feels sincere and adequate to the situation, rather than undermining it (yes, I’m referencing this). The movie is semi-autobiographical, based on director Shane Meadows’ teenage dalliance with skinheads. And it is this, I think, which enables the evocation of the extraordinary situatedness of his story, which is what makes the movie successful.

We start with 12 year old Shaun, who is being teased at school (it’s casual clothes day, that source of pain for all those poorer than their context, I think!) for wearing flares. It’s pretty solidly the eighties, and there’s many enjoyable moments just checking out the gear some of them get around in (I’m just a little too young to have participated!) He retorts, and the jibe’s good enough that his antagonist goes for the throat: his dad was killed in the Faulklands, and not so long ago. This is important, as it seems to be a source of loneliness and the ‘in’ for the racism. The day doesn’t get any better, and he’s heading home through an underpass looking mope-y when Woody and his mates say hello. They’re friendly to him, in a fairly believable way: vaguely condescending because they’re older, but sincere enough in their interest in him. Woody’s the head of this group of I think five, and there’s ‘Tubs,’ who is worried that little Shaun’s going to take his place in the gang, there’s Milky (Jamaican heritage which becomes important, obviously, later), ‘Pukey’ and another kid whose name I can’t quite remember… Gadget, maybe? Woody talks Shaun into sticking around, defends him against Tubs and they share a beer with him.

The scenes in which Meadows sets up the binding ties of these friendships are extraordinarily evocative, both wild-edged and tender. From rampaging through an empty set of flats destroying things to the group hug (complete with Woody’s “alright, whose hand was that on my arse?”), to setting him up with ‘Smell’, and of course the gradual, not straightforwardly friendly inclusion of him in the gang, signified in his looks: Shaun tries to get Docs (they’re too big for him), the girls shave his head, roll up his jeans and Woody gives him a Ben Sherman shirt and enviable red braces. And he’s part of the gang. It feels like it rings true, capturing the euphoria of belonging, and the sharp willfulness of Yoof.

It’s the arrival of Combo that throws this warm squabbly little space into chaos. It looks like Combo, sizeably older than the rest, took the fall for something Woody did once, and was sent to jail for three years. He’s just out, and he arrives spouting angry racism. He’s an aggressive man, and angry, though Meadows doesn’t go for the easy two dimensions here either, as he has moments of uncertainty and warmth in amongst the nutso aggression. He’s going to recruit from amongst Woody’s skinhead-more-in-looks-than-acts gang for his ‘troops.’ (There’s some interesting stuff about the history of skinheads that Meadows is trying to get across in demonstrating these two modes of skinheadedness, but I’ll leave you to read about that on the ‘this is england’ site.) When Woody refuses to go along with what Combo’s saying, Combo tries to make him out a hypocrite for not standing up for Milky when Combo was being racist. Woody apologises to Milky and they leave, along with Lolo (Woody’s girl, though this is a wee bit more complicated, as we’ll see). They try to take Shaun with them, but he’ll have none of it—Combo’s connected his father’s death with his racist politics, and Shaun believes that the way to avenge his dad is to join up. What follows involves graffiti, new clothes, new tatts, bullying and intimidating immigrants (kids and adults) with machetes, no less, and attending a National Front meeting (this is, I gather, about the point historically when they started recruiting from amongst skinhead gangs). Pukey gets chucked out for questioning Combo: ‘did you really believe all that shit?’ There’s a scene where Shaun goes into the local milk bar (is that too Victorian a phrase? I don’t know what the Brits call ’em: you know, the local store, the deli in Adelaidean, I think the corner store in Sydnish!) and demands from the Indian (?) owner cigarettes, booze and sweets, which of course he’s refused. Shaun refuses to leave, and the owner winds up trying to haul him out. Combo arrives and (my gut clenched horribly at this) pulls out a machete. He menaces the owner, they steal a whole load of stuff. It’s scary stuff. But in the midst of all this, while Combo’s underlying aggression comes through, so does his warmth to Shaun, who he sees as a younger version of himself. He promises to always be there for Shaun, and even (interestingly, given the hard-edged masculinity at stake here) promises to ‘cry’ with him, if he needs to… clearly heady stuff for a lonely kid without a dad!

The big moment in the film follows Combo’s unsuccessful attempt to get with Lolo, who he slept with in ‘the best night of my life’ whilst she, 16, was completely pissed. He tells her that he’s spent the three years in jail remembering that night; she says she’s spent that time trying to forget it. He’s angry, and goes off seeking Milky. When he finds him, though, he’s friendly, looking for weed. Milky gets some for him, and they all go back to Combo’s place, where there’s a rather endearing moment of them all getting cheerful and Shaun’s laughing his head off. At this point Combo asks Milky various questions about his background; his family and ‘their’ music. It seems friendly for a good long time, and then abruptly, with Milky (and us) reaching the sickening conclusion that he was lured here for precisely this reason, Combo uncoils and beats him up in a fairly brutal fashion. The rest run off, but Shaun hides in the bathroom, hearing Combo ‘come to himself’/realise what exactly he’s done, and sob and get angry again, and sob some more. Shaun’s loyalty forces him back into the room with Combo, who is both beside himself and trying to pull himself together for Shaun’s sake (after all, he’s just a lil kid!) and to get Milky to the hospital. The sweetness of the space is gone for Shaun, and in a (slightly kitschy but forgivable) symbolic moment, he throws the St George’s cross into the sea (which personally I want to know how he did because it’s damn hard to throw cloth anywhere!).

I’m sorry to recount the story like this, without much real consideration of the political issues at stake, but I actually think it’s a deeply political movie precisely because it is so engaged in evoking a particular time, place and social setting. I don’t think it falls for cliches of racism (though it might have been good to have spent a bit more time with Milky, for example, given that he’s really the only fully-developed character who is marked as raced), so that although Combo’s a bit of a monster, he’s not purely awful, and he’s clearly felt disenfranchised for much of his life. That said, the politics of the time (Thatcher’s) do clearly and often explicitly shape how they feel about the world. It does feel a little bit of a shame that there’s no explicit counter to Combo’s racism, especially given that between Woody standing up to a guy who he owes for taking the fall for him, and Pukey standing up to Combo once it’s clear the man is more than capable of violence a the drop of a hat, both would seem to have reasonably solid views about how and why Combo’s wrong (though perhaps Meadows felt it might have been too moralistic to do this, which it could have been…) Nonetheless, I think it’s interesting to see how deeply local, deeply specific this story is, even as, doubtless, stories like it occurred across the UK at about this time. The anger and distrust which seem to characterise many of these Yoof is beautifully set alongside their warmth and generosity to each other without it being ‘underlying heart-of-gold’-y. In the end, it testifies to a time, a place and a people, permitting the depiction of the politics to arise out of that rather than the other way around. So few movies manage to bind together specificity and national politics like this that I would recommend it for that alone…

LUCKY Miles, Sicko and This is England. Three movies: my thoughts. Spoilers galore, sweet thangs, so if you’re planning to see any of them and are phobic like me, consider yourself warned.

Warned.

They are coming!

Warned.

Warned.

Lucky Miles: When I saw the trailer for this movie, I was intrigued. An Australian movie that didn’t fall into the terrible and terribly depressing ‘comedy’ category, but without diving straight into the ‘so sober no one even laughs’ category; what an astonishingly unique concept! Given that I am in love with the Whedonesque style of humour-in-the-dark, it seemed promising. Not just that, but an Australian movie that wasn’t primarily about white people with brownish ones thrown in just for contrast. One which tangled with the dreaded ‘boat people’ without simply demonising them; a rare occurrence in the current climate. So yes, intrigued.

It’s the tale of a bunch of people, some Iraqi, some Cambodian, dumped on the West Australian coastline. Soon the Indonesian crew of the boat that delivered them to the middle of nowhere find themselves swimming for shore after their boat burns and sinks. Most of the Cambodian group are picked up in next to no time; ditto for the Iraqis. One of the Cambodians, Arun, one of the Iraqis, Youssif, and one of the Indonesian boat crew, Ramelan, find each other in the midst of the scrubby desert and together—with many squabbles and risky lack of water—aim for any kind of civilisation whatsoever.

Is it funny? Yes. There’s little doubt about that: it intends it, and sometimes it achieves it. There’s three Army reservists in the area, for example, who drive around randomly looking for the three asylum seekers, and their combination of semi-trained professional officiousness and matter-of-fact casualness made me smile. But there are a number of things which are depicted as humourous (at least if the audience I was watching with were any judges, and I suspect they were pretty close to the ‘ideal’ viewers the filmmakers envisaged) which I was really troubled by. I think the problem I had with the things that were made funny was that they seemed to depend upon covering-over the precarity of the position all of the asylum seekers were in: it’s not humour-in-the-dark so much as look-away-from-the-dark-and-this-situation-looks-hilarious! It might be vaguely amusing that when the Iraqis and Cambodians reach the top of the dune from the beach they were dumped on, the road the Indonesian captain promised would have a Perth-bound bus coming soon in fact doesn’t exist; or it could be a frightening depiction of the extraordinarily vulnerable position asylum seekers are placed in because they have to rely upon those who might not (be able to) really care about them so very much. The risk of not having enough water, for example, might have been continually raised as an issue, but the effects of dehydration were minimised so that it could be amusing that one character is reduced to using a plastic shopping bag as a water container. Or when Youssif’s desperation is articulated as eloquent and proud anger at Arun and Ramelan, it becomes amusing because it’s characterised as an over-reaction, relying, then, on obscuring the fact that they are actually incredibly vulnerable: out in the middle of nowhere, with little water and food and little possibility of a) getting out, b) being found and c) actually being granted asylum if/when they are.

It’s not that the precariousness of their position is altogether disappeared: peeling lips, exhaustion, the dangers of being shoeless and so on are kinda depicted. But none of these is permitted the weight of mortality which actually characterise it: Arun and Youssif come across Ramelan, who has collapsed from dehydration, but after a quick drink, he’s up and ready to ‘lead’ them to Perth. At one point Ramelan is attacked by a goanna, which leaps up onto his back; the shot is in silhouette against the top of a hill, and we see him jump around trying to shake it off, but that’s about it: there’s no consequence, except for his later (hi!lar!i!ous!) description of ‘the devil’ who attacked him to his companions—he’s not bitten or scratched, at least not that we see or that he complains of. I’m not even sure that goannas do such things, though this film is supposed to be based on true stories, so perhaps I’m just not knowledgeable enough. Perhaps even more oddly is that in all the trekking around that they do, they never encounter snakes, and none of them falls and badly hurts themselves. I mean, they’re pretty noisy so theoretically that might have scared snakes away, I guess, but Ramelan’s wearing thongs the whole time and there are moments when they’re scrambling down scree-y hillsides etc, so to me it felt like a fairly selective depiction of the risk of the Australian environment to those unaccustomed to negotiating it. Moments when Perth, as it turns out, is not just over the next hill slip by without much of a consideration of the fact that without a real sense of the distances they’re working with, they can’t even plan their water rationing properly. And all of this seemed to conceal their vulnerability—that these people are risking death to come to Australia—mostly to make it funny. For Australians. Hm. Ugh. Am I being too harsh?

More troubling than all this is that the movie ends when the three Army reservists find the three friends and the captain of the Indonesian boat who has caught up with the three. Arun, who has been trying desperately to get to Perth to find his father, has been avoiding the Army who rounded up the rest of the Cambodian group, yet he seems to have forgotten his concerns about that by this point; Youssif cites the relevant passages of the UN Convention on Refugees. The reservists are kind of bemusedly amiable about this (educated) claim to refugee status, but there’s certainly nothing which hints towards the fact that whilst the three may have escaped their vulnerability at the hands of an unfamiliar environment, they remain, in the end, probably equally albeit more predictably vulnerable at the hands of a fairly hostile government. Given the concern to actually depict the situation of asylum seekers, this absence feels significant: the vulnerability which leads to the humour is OK, it seems to suggest, because it arises from the ignorance and naivety of the three ‘foreigners’; this obscures both the fact that that vulnerability is also a product of a particularly stingy and problematic immigration policy, and that ‘the authorities’ and the policies surrounding the treatment of asylum seekers are such that ‘being found’ may also be a threat to them.

Interestingly on this point, the movie is set a while ago—1990. Is this an attempt to avoid having to depict the effects of the policy of mandatory detention, introduced in 1992? If so, then this functions in two ways: it both attempts to ‘humanise’ (ugh!) the usually (in our media) faceless ‘mass’ of refugees without appearing ‘political,’ (the accusation of which is of course a key technique for dismissing particular (read: non-right-wing) stories in the current Australian discursive space) perhaps thereby getting around this particular difficulty and encouraging sympathy in those who might not otherwise feel it—a position I disagree with, though also am sympathetic to. Yet this move also depoliticises the issue, enabling a distance between our three heroes and the current system, between refugees and the precarity they live with; and thus it fails to draw attention to the fact that the three heroes are both more vulnerable than they are depicted to be, and probably less vulnerable than current asylum seekers, not to mention the fact that under current circumstances the amiability of their interactions with the representatives of governmental authority—the Army reservists—is unlikely to still occur. To leave this out feels like the filmmakers not only pulled their own teeth to some extent, but may have produced the grounds by which the ‘stories’ may simply be dismissed as tales that matter not.

In the end, I was unhappy with it: however much I liked parts of the story, the covering-over of the vulnerability made me feel awkward about finding some stuff humourous (though I’m perfectly willing to accept that that may be partly white guilt; I do have a tendency to be uncertain about how happy I am to be amused about, say, stuff to do with race which I haven’t thought through the politics of… though that said, this isn’t always the case—I don’t have to agree with the politics of some stuff to find it funny, but if I find the politics offensively dodgy it gets in the way of me finding things amusing, and so I wonder if my instincts are actually reasonably political in this regard. Euh. Complex. In other words, perhaps it was just that this crossed a line into offensive for me, and my discomfit with it arose from that.) By the same token, my thoughts on it remain uncertain and unformed, so if you have a different response, tell me about it in comments: I think part of me wants to ‘rescue’ this film because it’s such a rare creature, being an Australian movie about refugees.

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