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Friday, April 25, 2008

 

A retraction


Mika: You has slanderded Mika!

Kit: What's that, sweetie?

Mika: You put up post saying Mika no catch mowze.

Kit: I did, honey. It was true at the time.

Mika: Mika catched mowze! Mizes! Two mizes! Mika the mighty!

Kit: That's true. You did, you clever girl.

Mika: Mika the magnificent!

Kit: I know. You're a good girl to catch the polluting mice.

Mika: Even gave you mowze as present!

Kit: That's true, sweetie, when you were done playing with it you did leave it on the sofa for us.

Mika: You is ungrateful Febreezer.

Kit: No, baby, we really did appreciate the thought. You know how much we love you.

Mika: And does you say on blog at once that Mika the marvellous caught mowze? No! You leaves everyone thinking Mika can't catches mize. You is lying hack.

Kit: Mika! Where did you learn that word?

Mika: Cats in garden teach Mika. I is goin to use your phone and report you.

Kit: Mika, darling, don't be mad. I was just too busy writing blogs about sex and violence.

Mika: Yes. And you spays Mika too, sex writing meanie Kit.

Kit: Mika honey, tom cats have barbs on their genitals. You really don't want any of those.

Mika: Hmf.

Kit: Mika, you're a clever girl, and you've very brave. If I post a retraction, will you forgive me?

Mika: Want fish treat too.

Kit: Of course you can have one.

Mika: Yay! Mika the miraculous!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

 

Some sex scenes that I like

To return to sex from talking about violence, here's a way of writing sex scenes that I'm fond of: using metaphors and/or similes. By this, I don't mean the Cleland-ish kind, maypole way, though the man certainly deserves credit for his achievements on that score. But there are certain kinds of sex scene that are tremendously evocative without being at all graphic. Here are some examples:

From Maxine Clair's Rattlebone:

I had never talked the talk for hours on the telephone with him, never drank a single Nehi with him at Nettie's Dinette. He had never been past the front door of my house, or seen me dressed up for church, never even heard of Al Hibbler and 'Unchained Melody.' We had never slow-danced.

'It's all right,' he said. Inside his truck, on a bed of soft rags, we took off our clothes. Without light to see by, he touched me as if, slowly and gently, he were shaping my body into a woman. He opened door after door. This was the slow-dance I had wanted to learn. I found the steps awkward, but he was a born dancer. Instinctively, he set a rhythm and unchained us both.


From Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride (relevant details are that Tony is extremely small and has been self-conscious about it all her life, and West is so broken-hearted about the flight of his previous girlfriend that Tony has been worrying he'll kill himself):

One afternoon she goes over to West's place to do his accumulated mildewed dishes and take him out for his walk, and finds him asleep on his bed. His eyelids are curved and pure, like those on carved tombstone saints; one arm is thrown up over his head. Breath goes into him, breath goes out: she is so grateful that he is still, as yet, alive. His hair - uncut for weeks - is ragged on his head. He looks so sad lying there, so deserted, so lacking in threat, that she sits carefully down beside him, bends gingerly over, and gives him a kiss on the forehead.

West doesn't open his eyes, but his armscome around her. 'You're so warm,' he murmurs into her hair. 'You're so kind to me.'

Nobody has ever called Tony warm and kind before. No man has ever put his arms around her. While she is still getting used to it, West begins to kiss her. He gives her small kisses, all over her face. His eyes are still closed. 'Don't go away,' he whispers. 'Don't move.'

Tony can't move anyway, because she is paralyzed with apprehension. She is dismayed by her own lack of bravery, and also by the sheer magnitude of West's body, now that she's so close to it. She can actually see the stubs of whiskers coming out of his chin! Usually they're too high up for that. It's like seeing the ants on a falling boulder, just before it crushes you. She feels acutely menaced.

But West is very gradual. He slides off her glasses; then he undoes one button at a time, fumbling as if his fingers are asleep, and pulls his raspy blanket over her, and smooths her as if she's a velvet cushion, and though it does indeed hurt, as the books have said, it's less like being torn apart by wild beasts than she'd supposed, given all that growling that used to go on with Zenia, and more like falling into a river, because West is what other people call him, a long drink of water, and Tony is so thirsty, she's parched, she's been wandering in the desert all of these years, and now at last somebody truly needs her for something, and in the end she discovers what she's always wanted to know: she is bigger inside than out.


From Craig Thompson's Blankets. Now, this is a graphic novel, and words alone can't convey the beautiful effect when combined with the images - Blankets is possibly the best graphic novel I've ever read - but to give some background: Craig is in bed with his girlfriend Raina, both of them are teenagers raised to be fundamentalist Christians, and are sleeping in the same bed without having sex. Craig shared a bed with his little brother as a child, and has told Raina a story about how he and his brother used to pretend their bed was a ship caught in a storm; Raina suggests they play 'shipwreck'. I'm going to put in slashes to indicate panel breaks, and double slashes for page breaks, as rhythm is important:

Her lips tarried at mine. / Baiting each other with the warmth of our breath / Barely grazing / Detouring / Then connecting // I tried to hide my erection, arching my mid-section away from hers, / But then she pulled her torso in my direction - - - flattening her tummy tight against my abdomen. / Swarms of electrons swam back and forth between our bodies as if contained within the same cage, // (and then they broke free.) / The blankets churned and splashed - - - and the wind tore down our sails.


All beautifully written, using imagery with tremendous rhythm and grace to convey experience far better than plain description could. It's interesting that all these scenes involve loss of virginity (or early sexual experience, as the couple in Blankets are kissing and caressing rather than having intercourse): there's something about such moments that's well conveyed by metaphors, the new combinations of sensation evoked by new combinations of images.

Those are some of my favourites. What are yours?

Friday, April 18, 2008

 

Rambow

The marketing for the movie Son of Rambow - the tagline 'Finally, an action hero we can all relate to', and quotes the the effect that it's the funniest British film since Hot Fuzz - should not put you off going to see it just because it sounds like a slapstick action film. It's nothing of the kind. The comparison to Hot Fuzz can be ignored, to begin with; most of us in the UK are aware, by now, of the marketing habit of saying any British comedy is the funniest film since, well, the last successful British comedy, however unlike the compared movies are. But it's the presentation of it as an action film that's really off-base: Son of Rambow is a sweet, perceptive, whimsical and humane portrait of childhood that's extremely touching as well as enjoyable, and while I wouldn't have gone to see it based on the posters if a friend of mine hadn't suggested a social outing, I would have missed out on something special. Go see it.

The story is a fairly simple one. Will is a boy raised by a widowed mother in a community of Plymouth Brethren, inhabiting the same town as more ordinary boys but insulated against all of their experiences, until one day he is rather forcibly befriended by the school naughty boy, Lee. Lee has been loaned a video camera by his older brother for the purposes of pirating movies on at the local cinema, but his real ambition is to make a movie of his own, and, finding Will naively cooperative, casts him as stuntman. The crucial discovery happens early on in their friendship: left alone in Lee's workroom, Will sees the entirety of Rambo: First Blood as it copies from one tape to another. Never having been exposed to so much an an educational documentary before, Will is struck to the core, and, filled with new fantasies, persuades Lee to take on his idea for a movie called 'Son of Rambow' (Will's misspelling, as presumably he missed the credits), and between these two lonely boys, an exuberant writer-director team begins to form in defiance of family and convention.

Now, I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I had some stuff to say about Sylvester Stallone; Rambo and his descendants are a fascinating species.

Rambo is an odd beast indeed. The basic image, a grimy-faced man with a rag tied round his head against a background of fireballs, is familiar to everyone, but the original story bears repeating. John Rambo is a veteran of the Vietnam war, who comes to a small town with the aim of finding his old comrade Delmar. Everyone else in their unit is already dead, and Rambo, who would appear to be without family, makes it to Delmar's home in the hopes of finding his last friend - only to be told by Delmar's mother that Delmar, too, is dead, eaten up by Agent-Orange-induced cancer. Walking disconsolately through the town with some idea of finding a place to eat, Rambo is picked up by Will Teasle, the petty tyrant sheriff, who takes exception to Rambo's scruffiness and drives him to the edge of town, warning him not to come back. Offended, Rambo steps back towards the town, at which point Teasle arrests him for vagrancy, ships him back to the town jail, and puts him through an intimidating process of fire-hosing and dry-shaving. Flashing back to captivity and torture by the Viet Cong, Rambo panicks, fights his way out, steals a motorbike and drives off into the woods, where he holes up, shooting everybody who tries to come and arrest him. There he remains for most of the movie, until his old commanding officer, Colonel Trautman, comes and talks him down.

One intriguing thing about the movie is that you can pinpoint the exact moment when the cinematic seventies turned into the eighties: grungy Rambo drags his Bickle-lite tail through the town, lost in a seventies malaise, until he escapes on a motorbike into an action rampage. As the motorbike flies over the train tracks in the first of numerous stunts, you can almost see cinema taking that same leap. Big-budget action galore is beyond those tracks.

This, though, does not account for the film's odd inconsistency. Who is Rambo a victim of? At the start of the film, the answer seems obvious: the authorities of his nation, who poisoned his friend with carcinogens, left him to wander penniless down the highways and finally victimised him for showing, with his raggedy poverty, just how badly he'd been let down by his nation. But famously, when Rambo weeps at the end to an ambivalent Trautman, the blame moves elsewhere: 'Somebody wouldn't let us win! Then I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me and spitting! ... In the field we had a code of honour! ... Back here's there's nothing! ... Back here I can't even hold a job parking cars!' His rant is a bit incoherent, perhaps fittingly for a man who clearly should be in a psychiatric ward being treated for PTSD rather than at the Fort Bragg Trautman offers him. But the war protesters, who nobody's mentioned before, suddenly leap into the frame. Rambo desperate at his unemployment is perfectly consistent - he's indigent right from the start - but suddenly there's a swipe at the anti-war lobby that comes out of nowhere. The movie shifts from blaming the right wing to blaming the left.* And in subsequent sequels, the possibility of war being, you know, a bad idea, has completely vanished: it's all triumphal march music, big guns and bigger explosions. It's all lovely, lovely violence from here onward.

Rambo is one of a number of cinematic attempts to grapple with the loss of the Vietnam war, and part of his charm is that he performs a not-uncommon sleight-of-hand: tactically, he changes sides. Going into the woods, he lives in rags and manufactures traps to outwit an enemy stronger both in numbers and technology, which is to say, he fights like Charlie. Faced with unbeatable tactics, some fiction writers simply appropriated them, and Rambo is not the only character to do so; most famously, George Lucas's heroes in Star Wars occupy a similarly guerilla position. The trope of Vietnam veterans bringing Vietnam home with them, or being unable to leave that dark psychological jungle, is a tremendous social tale, but rather than the re-enlisted hero of Apocalypse Now or the harrowed suicide of The Deerhunter, Rambo tackles up like an aggressor taking the enemy's tactics for his own, rather than like a victim reenacting his trauma: he's a way for audiences to sort of win the war, by playing at being the side that actually did win.

Rambo also embodies an idea well known in pre-World War Two Germany: we could have won if we hadn't been stabbed in the back. Rambo's side lost the war. How could that be, when he's clearly such a fighting machine? An unspecified betrayal is the only possible explanation. In the book, Trautman is a cold, distant technocrat, the kind of person who would betray a foot soldier, but that's not acceptable in the film; it has to be unspecified, because reality won't provide an explanation for why such men as Rambo lost - such men as Rambo don't actually exist. Venerable though the myth is, soldiers are not generally supermen, and governments do not generally abandon winnable wars. It looks bad if you do that. Governments abandon wars because they look like they can't be won, and it's not because they don't appreciate just how tough the boys in the field are. But that's the only explanation, the only way, ultimately, to renconcile Rambo's impossible manhood with the fact that the Vietnam War was, in fact, lost. Somebody betrayed somebody; it's just not quite clear who.

Politically, in short, the film is something of a mixed message. I'd recommend Susan Faludi's excellent discussion of it in Stiffed; Faludi points out that the book upon which the film was based portrayed Rambo as a far less innocent man, unable to restrain his own violence, locked in a battle with Teasle - but a Teasle who is himself a war veteran, who finds in Rambo a mirroring of his own darker self, while Trautman remains a cold and rear-echelon figure. The script went through innumerable changes, every man who came to it - and they were all men - seeing something different in Rambo, most of them turning in scripts insufficiently feelgood for the studios, until Sylvester Stallone, preoccupied with father-son issues since a dreadful childhood under the thumb of his violently abusive father, stepped in and turned it into a story of the innocently wronged young man, caught between the bad father (Teasle) and the good (Trautman). It's also worth noting that, in the original ending planned for the movie Rambo dies. I'm serious: he dies. He puts a gun in Trautman's hand, lines it up on himself and pulls the trigger. Rambo declares that Trautman created him, and thus can destroy him, which is to say, he forces Trautman to acknowledge some kind of responsibility for what Rambo has become - but, as I've said earlier, the idea of being trained into a superman is one that some films are extremely attached to. For Trautman to take responsibility for his creation going haywire once the task for which has has been trained is ended, we would have to acknowledge that the training is flawed, that it doesn't anticipate every possible future contingency, and that would spoil the whole fantasy. Rambo's suicide is much more plausible for someone having a psychological breakdown, but test screen audiences absolutely hated it, and the alternative ending was tacked on instead - which may go some way towards explaining why the ending feels so odd. Instead of suicidal madness, we get garbled redemption. It was a long way from the book, but it worked like catnip.

The reason, I would suspect, can partly be seen in Son of Rambow, an altogether more coherent story. Will, our little hero, is in fact a lovely kid: affectionate, amiable and trusting, he is not at all a violent or aggressive boy. But, hanging from a boat up in the rafters, he watches Rambo enthralled, and as Trautman delivers his strictures about how, if Teasle sends two hundred men against Rambo, he'll need a good supply of body bags, Will's response is an awe-struck whisper: 'Two hundred men...!' And home he runs in wild excitement, brandishing a makeshift gun, fighting with scarecrows and flexing his thin little arms in a dream of musclebound glory.

Immediately he launches into an elaborate Rambo-fantasy, but one that places himself squarely at the centre of the action: he is the son of Rambo, preparing to rescue his dad from the clutches of a conveniently vague enemy - the scarecrow he crashed into during his flight home. Will's own dad is, of course, dead, but the film is smart enough not to labour that point; Will's fantasy is a triumph of innocent ego, preferring the splendid if absent father of Rambo over the potential stepfatherhood of the well-meaning but dull and repressive Brother Joshua, a member of the Brethren extending a tentative courtship to Will's pretty mother. Will's preference for Rambo is an act of lively self-preservation: the Rambo-father allows him to celebrate himself, to be spectacular and proud, instead of the constrained and dutiful Christian Joshua wants to guide him into being. Will, in fact, has taken advantage of his own youth, happily missed any political ramifications of the film and seen squarely into its main selling point: if you're a bored or discomfited boy, it would be really, really cool to be like Rambo.

But Rambo isn't just a child's fantasy: there's something about him that's also classically adolescent. Raising Cain: protecting the emotional life of boys, an outstanding study by psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, has some notable comments on boyish violence:

In boys the motivation for aggression is more 'defensive' rather than offensive or predatory. The aggression that boys display is usually in response to a perceived threat or a reaction to frustration or disappointment. Violent boys are not testosterone-laden beasts, as some would suggest; they are vulnerable, psychologically cornered individuals who would use aggression to protect themselves...

Boys often don't know or won't admit what it is that makes them angry. This is the flip side of their difficulty in reading emotional cues from others. Because of their emotional miseducation, boys are often unaware of teh source or intensity of their bottled-up anger. As a result, they are prone to engage in explosive outburts or direct their violence towards a 'neutral' target - usually a person who is not the real source of the anger...

Boys who do not have well-developed psychological resources for managing their feelings tend to be vulnerable to emotional pain. They are not adept at recognising or coping with anxiety and sadness - feelings that often accompany close human relationships - so they must be vigilant in protecting themselves. When they do feel emotional pain, it is often intensely acute - like a hammer slamming a thumb - and accompanied by a howl of anger and a lashing out at the most convenient target.


Rambo's flaming passage through the first film is not unlike this. Consider it from his perspective: he was minding his own business when some bastard started getting in his face, and drove him into lashing out. The desperation with which he does so out has horrendous consequences: now he's in even more trouble. 'I didn't do anything!' he wails from the rock-face, or, as he comments slightly more accurately later, 'They drew first blood.' Of course, he has done quite a bit by this time, but what he means is clear: he didn't do anything to begin the conflict that ended with him lashing out so violently; anything he does once it's begun is justified by the initial aggression of his enemies. As any schoolkid can say, 'They started it.' Provoked and unable to control his fear, he has driven himself into impossible position - but oh, how defiantly he occupies it, until even his enemies are moved to grudging recognition of his strength, his skill, his cornered heroism. Rambo's story cuts to the quick, not because it has anything clear to say about the Vietnam war, but because in Rambo, there is a frantic Everyboy who doesn't understand why everyone is so mad at him when all he ever wanted was to be left alone, who can't accept that, however justified his anger, people aren't necessarily supportive of how he acted on it. Provoked and retaliatory, virile and frightened, Rambo is not just the simple superman of a childhood like Will's, but also the angry adolescence of every boy who ever feels he's been punished unfairly.

It's this, ultimately, that fudges over the political rockiness, so to speak, of Rambo. Its politics can afford to be incoherent, because they're not actually the point. Who remembers that Rocky or Rambo began as blue-collar down-and-outs? The spectacle overwhelms the background: Will's wide-eyed whisper says it all. Two hundred men! Rocky is a considerably better film than Rambo, in terms of artistic unity, but in both cases, if you look at the sequels, it's clearly the bombast rather than the alienation that carried the day, with studios at least, and, given that the movies made money, with audiences as well.

Politically, this is a shame, because in the triumphal march, any lessons that can be learned from their stories, beyond the lesson that it's good to be physically tough, get lost. Rambo and Rocky are both disenfranchised Americans. Rocky is broke, hopeless, a blue-collar man with no working community or strong union to give him a place. Potentially a valuable citizen - not especially intelligent, but decent, compassionate and hard-working - he has no place to put himself to use, and is instead adrift, a virtual beggar until random chance lands an opportunity in his lap. Rambo, who does his best to be mannerly and friendly at the beginning, was sent out to fight in an ill-conceived war that killed all of his friends, dropped back in America with mental illness burgeoning in the wake of such trauma, and, jobless and without a community, is reduced to wandering the roads, unable even to pass peacefully through a town without some redneck despot deploying the powers of the law to harass him. Both of them have good reason to be pissed off. And both of them fight.

Neither of them, though, fight the real source of their problems. Their problems are too nebulous. They live in a country that's screwing them over; how do you fight a country, all on your own? So instead, they take out their anger. Rocky does it legimtately in the boxing ring, Rambo does it criminally, slaughtering small-town cops who vary from total jerks to well-meaning jobsworths, but both of them take their baffled rage and turn it to violent ends. And at this point, something interesting happens.

Both Rocky and Rambo are, at the start, lost Americans, men whom America has failed. But once they've been violent enough, an alchemy takes place. They create a fire and forge themselves in it: they're good at violence. So good, in fact, that they transform, somehow, from losers to winners. And once they're winners, the film industry awards them with narrative medals: sequels in which they become, not the betrayed sons of America, but its masculine idols. So virile are they in their striking out that society changes sides on them: We didn't represent you, but now you've demonstrated your usefulness, you can represent us. As symbols, of course; nothing more. It doesn't happen this way in real life: nobody said, 'Wow, Mr McVeigh, you've got some great bomb-planting skills! How about working for the CIA?' People who lash out wind up in prison. But lash out in a movie, and you become something else: a symbol of manhood so forceful that the society awash in men of your kind takes you to its movie-going heart. Both Rocky and Rambo, in their first movies, fight battles that are essentially arbitrary: a boxing match that Rocky gets by virtual lottery rather than by struggling up the ranks, and a desperate rampage against men who have triggered a deeper-seated trauma they didn't personally create. But that doesn't matter. It's the battling that's important, not the reason for the battle. Having shown they can battle, they're sent out as ambassadors. Rather than addressing what's actually bothering them, the fictional America they inhabit does the capitalist thing: it hires them.

In terms of roles, this is something of a Horatio Alger myth: be good enough, and one day, even though you start at the bottom of the heap, you'll be placed on top by a benevolent authority. Neither Rocky nor Rambo, Rambo in particular, get self-determination or independence by their achievements: instead, they are co-opted by the country that initially betrayed them, on the logic of if-you-can't-beat-em-employ-em. Rocky and Rambo have legitimate gripes, even if they can't quite articulate them, but they also have unique selling points that are altogether more palatable. The violence of their struggle is more fun than the social disasters that have forced them to struggle in the first place, so the result is that they're heroised rather than helped, appropriated, like the Viet Cong tactics, in movies that determinedly celebrate virility as an alternative to thought, as if manhood was entirely physical and the right kind of authority will always recognise you in the end.

This is a myth of redemptive violence with no Tiamat to defeat. The cruel deity that entraps Rambo and Rocky is not the people they strike out against; that deity is too hard even to identify, never mind defeat. For one thing, a big part of their problem is their isolation, but heroes are supposed to be isolated; reintegrating back into society would be less lonely for them, but less spectacular. In the absence of a proper Tiamat, our heroes respond like unhappy boys, striking out at targets because they're reachable rather than because they're appropriate. And in so doing, the violence becomes self-justifying: rather than being necessary to defeat evil, it becomes an end in itself. Be violent enough, and you will be a hero, because violence is what heroes do. This is the mythos of an angry and confused kid, rather than a shining moral exemplar, but it seems to do its job.

Go see Son of Rambow. It's an altogether more decent film than its father.

*Incidentally, that story about anti-war protesters spitting on veterans? Not true. In fact, a lying lying lie, put out by the right wing to bolster their stabbed-in-the-back narrative. What actually happened, according to a study by sociologist and Vietnam veteran Jerry Lembcke, (as quoted in Susan Faludi's Stiffed) was that any aggressing on returning soldiers that took place was done by veterans of World War II, who were angry that the Vietnam vets weren't returning in triumph like they were. They weren't calling them baby-killers, they were calling them losers. Then it became convenient to use that image to blame the left wing for something that was actually done by the right. Evidently fantasies of glory are far more important to some people than the actual soldiers who get hacked up to fulfil them. I'd like to say something sufficiently outraged about this, but words fail me.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

 

Writing sex scenes versus writing porn

I've written about this before, but it's a subject that bears re-examination, because sex scenes are notoriously difficult to write. And, while browsing the Internet the other day, I encountered a most interesting article on the blog of one Greta Christina, a writer who blogs about atheism and sex with equal perceptiveness, and one of her features was an entry called How I Write Porn, which has to be an intriguing question.

The link, be advised, is very possibly not work-safe, as it contains a piece of sample text and some blunt language (also, the author, like most erotica writers, writes the kind of porn she likes to read, which in her case is BDSM, which you may not want your boss to catch you reading), so, though I'd highly recommend the whole thing, and indeed her blog in general, I'll precis it here.

She describes the process of writing porn as a three-stage development, which she defines as the 'skeleton', the 'flesh' and the 'nerves'. The 'skeleton' is what she begins with: a description of a physical action. After that, she develops the 'flesh': descriptions of the sensations and emotions that the action elicits. The 'nerves' are about the meaning, the context and significance of the sex: why they're doing what they're doing, and what it reveals about them.

Greta explains that, while you need a balance between the three, the 'nerves' are the most important part of the story, the part that drives it. Looking at her examples, she's touching on something important (no pun intended with the 'touching on', but as it's a BDSM story, I'd do no better saying 'hit on' or 'struck'): the issue of story versus plot. E.M. Forster famously described the difference between them thus: 'The king died and then the queen died' is a story; 'The king died and then the queen died of grief' is a plot. With this kind of writing, there's a lot of sense in beginning with the physical actions: porn stories are basically descriptions of who did what, so the physical acts are going to create your story. It's the context, though, the 'nerves', that create a sense of plot. But how does that relate to writing sex scenes where the plot lies elsewhere, sex scenes that are only incidents in a wider, non-sexual plot?

I've never written porn. It sounds like a fun challenge, and I might have a go at it some day if somebody offered to pay me, but mostly I like writing stories about other things. However, I do write stories in which the characters, as people often do, have sex. And it's always important. Sex scenes are the graveyard of many a stylist, particularly when the story you're writing is not erotica.

The thing is, if your story is intended to be a piece of straightforward porn, you can pick a style and go with it. The usual objections to blunt writing are removed; graphic words for body-parts tend to leap off the page in a rather glaring way if your characters spend most of their time dressed. The reader gets to know the characters in, basically, a social context, like you'd get to know a friend, and if your friend suddenly whips out his genitals, it's a bit startling. Overly graphic sex scenes in otherwise fully-clothed books can feel like too much information, like the characters suddenly changing style and going from Regency elegance or lyrical melancholia to porn-speak, which is as disconcerting as if the vicar poured a cup of tea and then started talking dirty. All of which gives a sense of 'whoa!', which is not exactly the mood for sexual bliss. If, on the other hand, the story you're writing actually is porn, there's no reason at all not to use pornographic language. Direct language can be used all over the place without the style taking a lurch.

But if you're not writing porn, you need to match the sex scenes with the rest of the book. At the same time, sex involves unusual sensations and heightened emotions; you can say 'he shook her hand' without missing much, but if you say 'he had sex with her', the reader has missed out on some vital things. What was the sex like? Shaking hands is fairly similar person to person (except for those bastards who try to break your hand while shaking it, who must be stopped), but sex varies a lot. How did it affect their relationship? You can shake hands without it having any real repercussions, but after sex, generally you have to reevaluate your plans. What made them decide to do it? You shake hands because you've met someone or made an agreement with them, but there a wide variety of reasons that people hop into bed. Some kind of sense has to be conveyed.

Reading Greta Christina's article, I started thinking about how I plan and write sex scenes. And the interesting thing is, I do tend to plan them further in advance than most scenes. Rather than beginning with a skeleton, though, I tend to start with a nerve. Or rather, a seed.

Usually, it works like this. At some point, I anticipate, character A is going to do some mattress mamboing with character B. How will it work? What will it be like? Now, I generally don't write sex scenes for the same reason a porn scene is written, which is to say, to arouse the reader. If readers are aroused by my sex scenes, then more power to them, but, while I hope they're not revolted, I'd be a little surprised, because they're generally mood pieces more than movement pieces. That tends to rule out beginning with a physical action, because actions don't in themselves convey mood. But where does that mood come from? Almost always, a single phrase, conceived in isolation from the rest of the scene, some time before I come to write it.

The first and most important sex scene of Bareback, for instance, grew out of two sentences that occurred to me while riding at the back of a bus one rainy night: 'We turn and plunge like swimmers, drowning in air', and 'I did not mistake any of this for love, but I've been alone a long time.' (Originally I used the word 'intimacy' rather than 'love', but it felt too avoidant, and also there was clearly physical intimacy going on which would confuse the point that the narrator was trying to convey, which is that sex doesn't automatically produce emotional closeness.) The rest of the scene was written around those sentences; they were the starting note, the key in which the scene was to be played.

Similarly, the book I've recently finished contains a sex scene, based around the phrase, 'Henry was not gentle'; I changed my mind a few times about how the rest of the scene should go, but that was the important concept to convey the scene for both participants, the crucial character point. And it was important that it should read 'was not' rather than 'wasn't', as well. (Picture what a pain to copy-edit I must be.) To begin with, the sex is between two characters who don't know each other that well and have a degree of formal distance between their emotions: 'was not' is how they present themselves to each other. More importantly, 'wasn't gentle' describes a behaviour, but 'was not gentle' is broader and can describe a personality. Perhaps more importantly still, 'was not gentle' has a softer rhythm than 'wasn't gentle,' and thus makes the lack of gentleness sound less brutal: 'Henry wasn't gentle' is three drum-beats, but in 'Henry was not gentle', the emphasis can move around from word to word, and sounds much less judgemental. Henry is intended for an at least semi-sympathetic character, to whom gentleness has never been taught, and a condemnatory rhythm would mar his presentation. Most of these are rationalisations after the basic fact, which is that 'wasn't' sounded all wrong. Little details matter.

A few weeks ago I wrote a sex scene in the novel I'm working on at the moment, in which I gave myself the added challenge of having it take place between two women (girl-on-girl sex being an experience I forego, though I ran it by a lesbian friend of mine in case of any crashing mistakes). The key phrase that shaped the scene was 'a panic of tenderness'. Because I was writing about an activity I hadn't engaged in, to some extent I had to depend upon the writer's stock-in-trade, which is the ability to imagine experiences you haven't had - but to make it plausible, it was equally important to focus on the elements of the scene that I could speak of with the authority of experience, which is to say, how it feels to be getting in bed with somebody you're just starting to care about.

The thing is, having a sentence to kick things off is actually not that different from how I begin a novel. Not every scene has to have a critical sentence before I can get down to business with it, but very often, there needs to be some crystal or seed from which I can start to grow the story. You strike the note, and the tune can follow. But it's generally either sex scenes or whole novels that work this way; other scenes need less, as it were, foreplay.

Why should this be? One of the ways I describe inspiration is that it's like trying to have an orgasm: you can't will yourself into either, and the more you worry about whether or not you can do it, the less likely either of them are to happen. You need to create the right circumstances, and the right circumstances have to involve enjoying yourself. To this extent, sexual metaphors probably work for beginning a book as well as for sexual scenes; I don't mean that I find it erotic to write sex scenes - generally I don't, which is why I'd be surprised if they turned anybody else on - or even that it floats my boat to sit down and type 'It was a dark and stormy night' (see, I tried it just now, and my main physical sensation was that my ankles are cold. And my fingers. Brr. I am tired of leaving the cat door propped open, but that cat will just not work out how to push on it.) I was considering an explanation along the lines of 'sex and writing are both generative acts', but actually I think I won't, because if I did then I'd have to conclude that a) my coil must be a lot less reliable than the doctor promised me and I have several invisible children hiding around the house somewhere, and b) I am, so to speak, a pretentious wanker.

What they do have in common, though, is that sex and writing both involve change. Change of mood, change of state, change of perspective: you go from the ordinary to the intense, and afterwards your experience is broadened. Both of them at least raise the issue of commitment; I've been living with my boyfriend longer than I've spent writing any individual novel, but if the beginning of anything is sufficiently good, then you face the possibility that you might be in for the long haul. Both affect your life and occupy your mind even when you're not doing them. Both heavily involve your ego. Both involve excitement, the ability to get something going that needs continual stimulation but gathers its own momentum, until it takes you somewhere you couldn't have reached without the process to carry you along.

And writing a sex scene, you have to picture the emotions of the characters. You do that whenever you write, but with sex scenes, the similarities between the two give it something of that beginning-a-novel feeling.

Of course, that might mean that I have an inner porn writer just waiting to get out, but I don't think so. I'm attached to sex scenes that involve metaphors; if I can get round to typing them, I may quote a few of my favourites, but in general, I happen to enjoy writing stories that involve, not just the hot monkey love but the washing-up and bed-making as well. An erotic short story is not unlike a one night stand, or a brief fling: you go in, do the business, and then walk away clean. You have to marry your novels; you're with them for the long haul. Even once they're finished, they're effectively ex-novels, still a big part of your life. (And with the hope remaining that they might one day stump up some alimony. Buy buy buy, hint hint hint.) Erotic novels, of course, are another question entirely, and my sincere admiration goes out to anyone who can write one, because the difficulty of sustaining an even remotely believable story while the characters go at it every few pages is tremendous. They don't altogether fit into this simile, but never mind; reality seldom obeys me as readily as a fictional world, which is probably a good thing, considering.

My point, which may have got lost somewhere in the imagery, is that I like writing sex scenes that have as much possible backstory, that involve characters who exist in a non-sexual context. It's a way of spending Narrative Capital while hopefully generating more. With this aim, you don't need to be too detailed, and can actually disrupt the flow of the novel if you get too graphic; descriptions of emotion may serve you better.

Anyone who does like writing porn, though: my hat off to you, because it's building an entire story out of material that the majority of writers consider almost impossible to handle. There are brave folks out there.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

 

Playing in the snow









One thing I love about living near a park is that it can encourage people to get creative. When we went out this morning to enjoy the big, unexpected snowfall, the park was full of people making snowmen. And really, I think you'll agree from these pictures, a pretty superior class of snowmen. The snow pig is created by me and my boyfriend; the others, who knows? Some anonymous South London talents...

(Formatting note: if anyone can tell me how to rotate the images that are lying on their sides, I will do so at once!)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

 

That action montage scene

You know the one, right? The kind parodied in Team America comes to mind, but it's an extremely common part of many stories: the transformative training scene. It can be very effective. It can be useful. Sometimes, it can be downright worrying.

The thing about these sequences is that they're transformative. And what are you going to transform into?

Let's start with a famous one. The first Rocky movie involves our tough underdog hero working out to match up to a boxer he can't possibly beat, finishing with a triumphant flourish on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art following his training montage . This sequence is so effective that those steps are referred to as the 'Rocky Steps', complete with statue.

Now, Rocky is a curious beast. Despite the bravado and triumphalism of the sequels, the first film is actually pretty melancholic. Rocky isn't a heroic statue, he's a loser, a Bickle-ish mess who'd picked out of a failed life by random chance to square up to a man who's stronger, more able, wealthier, more successful, and all-round happier than him. Rather than a huge victory, Rocky's aim is simply to last out the fight without getting knocked down. He knows he's going to lose, but he wants to lose with dignity. The whole thing has a rather seventies grittiness to it; our blue-collar protagonist has no real expectation of his life becoming spectacularly better, and even his aim, to lose on his feet rather than get smashed down, is an expression of his life: the best he can hope for is to endure long enough to lose well.

In this context, his training sequence is best viewed as an expression of courage. He's training himself to endure, because that's what he's going to have to do. But in the process, he changes himself from a man who had given up to a man who's ready to keep fighting.

Here's the odd thing: by the the sequels things are getting more and more bombastic. Rocky goes from brave underdog to America's secret weapon; his melancholic endurance feat becomes a blast of nationalist triumphalism. Consider the Living In America sequence that greets the Russian opponent in Rocky 4, played off against the Russian national anthem when Rocky goes over there: Rocky, by this time, is speaking for his nation. He began as a citizen of it, a citizen that represented it at least in part because he was suffering from its social problems as well as having some of its virtues, but by this point, Rocky's presentation of America is entirely uncomplicated. He's stopped being an American and become AMERICA, the propagandists' America, which loses an awful lot of the subtlety that made the first film good. (Sylvester Stallone has a habit of being in films that mutate from one political state to another, a habit I'll discuss in another post.)

Now, it's probably not entirely the fault of that famous montage scene, but I have a strong suspicion that it helped. The image had so archetypal a quality that people looking for a flag to wave could point to Rocky's arms outstretched over the city, ignore what it cost him to get there, and go with the simple version.

Let's mosey through another example: the Pai Mei sequence in Tarantino's Kill Bill 2, which you can see most of here. Kill Bill is a parodic film, but even parodies contain plots, and this sequence is, jokey camera angles aside, a quite classical demonstration of the training story. (It's also available on YouTube and famous, hence convenient...)

The traditional elements of a training sequence are all present and correct. The protagonist begins weak, suffers, shows endurance and gains eventual strength. The results of the training are finally brought into play when our heroine Beatrix escapes the nasty fate of premature burial by punching her way out of a coffin.

At this point, we need to bring in another archetype: the phoenix. Leaving aside the whole fire thing and taking in metaphorically, what's the nature of the phoenix? It dies and is reborn anew, rising from the shattered remnants of the old self. Beatrix manages this in a very striking way: Pai Mei breaks down any pride in her initial self right at the start, puts her through hell, and finally she takes what she's learned and uses it for a primordial phoenix image: rising from the grave to triumph.

At this point, it's worth noticing something. Pai Mei has taught her a short-range punch, which is intended to break wood from a distance of about three inches. It shreds her hand, but she keeps doing it; when she's in the coffin, she manages to break the wood, but not without tearing the skin off her knuckles. If we ignore the mythical elements and concentrate on plain logic for a moment, this seems oddly impractical. She's been buried by an enemy and will need all her strength once she's topsides again; emerging with a damaged right hand is hardly wise. And she actually doesn't need to. Pai Mei isn't in the coffin with her to criticise, and she doesn't lack for things to protect her hand. She has ropes, a knife she could use to slice pieces off her clothing, even boots she could slip her fist into. An impromptu boxing glove is not out of the question.

So the bloodied knuckes don't make sense, except in a mythical way. The point of Pai Mei is not just that he taught her how to punch hard from a short distance, but that he broke down her old self and created a new one. Going against his training, or even modifying it, would be failing to acknowledge the thoroughness of his work. If Beatrix made herself a glove, she would be using her own judgement instead of the new, Pai-Made self, so to speak, which would interfere with the whole phoenix thing.

It's the phoenix thing that's worrying me.

We live in dark times, my friends, as I'm sure you've noticed, and the word 'fascism' is being thrown around with some worryingly convincing arguments. This essay I just linked to to quotes the academic Roger Griffin's definition of fascism: 'palingenetic ultranationalist populism' - palingenesis being a mythic rebirth from the ashes, as of the phoenix.

Obviously not every phoenix image supports the same ideology; archetypes are archetypes precisely because they're so general as to be universally applicable. But the rebirth-training concept gets particularly worrying when it's combined with something else: anti-intellectualism. There's a trait I've noticed in a lot of work, particularly thrillers and action, best summed up thus: suspicion of learning combined with a reverence for training.

Now, technically both things fall under the heading of 'education', but there are certain kinds of story that divide the two sharply, with a black-and-white morality. I've already had a go at 300, but I feel like having another, because there's more to say, and also because if you want a fascist film from recent years, 300's your baby. But 300 is only an extreme example; this attitude is uncomfortably in the air. Other examples of it are welcomed.

It's easily recognisable once you've identified it. People possessed of education, esoteric knowledge or other worryingly intellectual things are the bad guys, either sneaky and evil or ineffectual and out of touch. On the other hand, there's an almost worshipful acknowledgement of the right kind of education. The right kind is usually dedicated towards some practical end: becoming a soldier, or a spy, or something physical that preferably involves violence. Such a training can, in fact, involve quite intellectually demanding stuff, such as handling complicated software or defusing bombs, as long as they're not allowed to dominate the procedings. The main aim is that the subject be remolded and taught techniques; thought is not supposed to come in too heavily.

Anti-intellectualism is obviously at play here, but there's also something else. The essence of training is that you're not expected to come to your own conclusions. Education, etymologically, is a drawing-out: you present somebody with information, teach them critical methods and encourage them to find their own conclusions. Training, on the other hand, is about breaking somebody down and building them up again in a new image. As the army says, if the glass is half full of dirty water to begin with (dirty water being individualism), you have to tip it out before filling it up with clean. Individualism might lead to rejecting parts of the training; difference might lead to variation in abilities: to a training-loving mind, this is not flexibility or freedom but a breach in the dam, the fault through which disaster can flow. For the idea of training to be reassuring, it's essential to believe that it's infallible, that if somebody is put through the mill, they will come out the other side exactly as the mill intended.

Training, in other words, is predictable. It's a common trope of such stories to show a man solving a crisis by remembering something from his training, in a 'Say that again, Hastings!' sort of way - for instance, the young Leonidas in this clip from 300 spotting the advantages of battling in a narrow passage against a wolf, which will obviously lead later to his military hour of glory. Like Beatrix in the coffin, he repeats something he's already learned - but 300 goes farther: he doesn't just repeat a technique, he repeats a whole strategy. It's perfectly possible to work out post-training that narrow passageways give you an advantage in positioning, but for Leonidas to exercise his tactical intelligence post-agoge would be to acknowledge that he could be creative, and that's not what we want. That would imply inventiveness and intelligence that were just part of his personality, and his personality is supposed to have been created entirely by his training. Lateral thinking is a natural talent; for him to be able to take imagination out of the training, it would have had to survive the fire, which undercuts the whole rebirth image. Inventive strategising would be fine if he'd been educated, but education is altogether less a rebirth than a nurtured growth: the usual images are horticultural rather than pyromaniacal. There will be no ashes, because nothing is burned away. It's merely guided in the right direction. Training, on the other hand, puts the old self through the cleansing fire of suffering and struggle, burning the old self in the emergent flame of the new.

Now, symmetry and coincidence are traditional means of giving stories a pleasing structure, but there's something more at play in here. The strong conclusion is that the training is so perfect in its process that it already encompasses every situation the trainee can ever encounter. Education encourages looking at every new situation afresh, continually considering oneself a learner, but training is about being finished, perfected. For a trainee to encounter a situation that the training has not fitted him to cope with would be to undermine the whole concept. Hence, solving what is apparently a new problem with an old solution validates the enclosed predictability that training glories in. Sufficient unto the day, and the day after, and the day after that, is this reassuringly finite model of understanding.

Obviously, to an authoritarian mindset, this is tremendously appealing: the status quo cannot be overturned because it already contains within its processes the means of protecting itself against any possible onslaught. It doesn't need to learn, and it cannot be forced to change.

And it's at this point that the training sequence gets dangerous. Rocky doesn't despise education; Apollo Creed, the antagonist of the first film and best pal of the sequels, is articulate and clever - whether educated or just bright, it's not stated, but he's clearly got intellect - and, even as an antagonist, he's not a bad guy. Adrian, Rocky's girl, actually reads, to her brother's disgust. In addition, Rocky is extremely wary offers of help, on the grounds that nobody was nice to him until Creed offered him a big break and he doesn't want cupboard love; his training is an act of individualism rather than breaking-down-and-building-up. Kill Bill is more a style mash-up than anything else, but there's at least a reverence for antiques in there, if only in the form of antique swordcraft. It's when palingenetic training starts to be, not just a mainline to the audience's emotions when you want to get them bouncing in their seats, but the only form of teaching allowable, that I start getting scared.

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