Saturday, July 31, 2010

some fun things

At first I was like, "it's time for a fun post not about dead bodies for once in my life, maybe I should write about Jane Austen" until I saw this-

- and got over it. Plus it would go really well with my other favourite two actions figures!

Faith from Buffy
Self-explanatory - and with 'glide action'.
No pun intended with Faith's name, PS. Anyway then I realised that the last two books I read were Rupert Thomson's Book of Revelation (story of a man who gets kidnapped, raped and tortured by a group of women and then attempts to piece his life back together) and Corman McCarthy's Blood Meridian (yep, you guessed it, a story of brutal cowboys who gauge each others' eyes and brains out with broken whiskey bottles or their bare hands). Moral is, I don't have much to talk about except dead bodies these days.

The other reasonably exciting thing I remembered this morning watching Dexter was that I took this photo at my friend's beach house kitchen:

real knives.

Totes looks exactly like Dexter's knife case! Now that I feel kinda disturbed that I got excited about finding knives that resembled a serial killers, I'm over and out. I just found a musty and leatherbound copy of Agatha Christie's Nemesis and hope to Miss Marple it up later this afternoon. Hopefully this will soon give more of a female flavour to the masculine/blood/corpse-infused haze that seems to have settled over this blog. Bye!

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Child of God" - Part 2

In my last post, I said that Lester Ballard, murderous antagonist of Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel Child of God, “represented the true nature of the cowboy. McCarthy is critiquing the heroic tradition of the South/Western male: this man is alone, is a destroyer, cannot reproduce sexually for he is attracted only to the dead, with no desire to relate to the living except through violence.”

While I think this still holds, I neglected to explain that McCarthy seems to actually be making a broader comment on the utter degradation of humanity as a whole. Which probably seemed obvious to anyone who read my summary of the novel’s plotline. However! For the sake of self-indulgence I’m going to tell you about the interesting connection formed in my brain last Sunday at church listening to sermon on the sixth commandment, “you shall not murder” (Exod 20:13). Basically, the sermon linked the commandment to Matthew 5:21-22, where Jesus explains that anyone who has hated or been angry with another person is essentially guilty of murder, in the sense that God looks at our hearts and motivations, not just our actions. Obviously, we’re not all actually murderers but the point is that “normal” people have in them the emotional seeds that drive some people to murder, and we should be working on how we treat people in our thoughts and seeking to care for people, not inwardly resent or hate them etc.

Anyway: I think Child of God (as suggested by its not-so-subtle title) actually reflects the inner workings of the “normal” person’s heart and mind through the character of a murderer. Lester Ballard is the literal representation of what Matt 5 is talking about. Ballard is even described as a “child of God much like yourself perhaps" (McCarthy, 4) – he is the everyman (or woman), and while not everyone shoots people and sleeps with the corpses, the novel suggests they are capable of using and abusing other people to similar extent (like the medical students I mentioned in my previous post).

In summary I find Child of God a very powerful and accurate illustration of the biblical idea of sin – while sin manifests in different ways through different people, it can often looks very similar internally. The parallel between Bible and novel is not complete in this case, though, as what Child of God doesn’t do is explore ideas of hope, redemption or forgiveness as much as it does degradation. McCarthy does address these issues in other novels like The Road, I think, but I will discuss this at a later date. (Thankfully the conclusion to the sermon was way more uplifting than that of McCarthy’s novel and focussed on God’s mercy, forgiveness and hope and was actually a huge encouragement to treat people better, rather than revealing humanity’s hopelessness as absolute. Not that I think McCarthy actually does see the hopelessness he depicts as absolute, but that comes through in novels other than Child of God). I think this post pretty much repeated the last, but isn’t biblical and fictional intertextuality totally fascinating, particular when it’s unclear what the fictional author actually thinks of God? Okay bye!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God"

Cormac McCarthy's Child of God (1973) turned out to less far less terrifying and far sadder than I expected. Having heard it was about murderous necrophiliac, I put off reading it for some time as I know how effective McCarthy's grasp of the literary horrific is (after reading The Road I was so traumatised I couldn't read or watch anything for about three weeks, a process repeated after I saw the film adaptation. And The Road isn't even bad in terms of horror. Ok the cannibalism is pretty revoltorama. Needless to say it's still the best book I've ever read). So I read Child of God and came out unscathed, as it seems more a comment on the state of the American Southern man than an excuse for a horror novel.

Set in 1920s-ish Tennessee, Child of God follows Lester Ballard, a young man with no family or land who wanders the town and mountains muttering to himself and carrying his most precious possession, his rifle, which he can fire more accurately than anyone else around. Ballard is also a road-side peeping-tom who hunts down couples in cars in the woods just to watch them, and soon becomes a road-side killer who hunts down couples in cars, shoots them, hides the bodies in a cave and keeps the female corpses for his own devices.

 It sounds repulsive, and it is. Yet McCarthy is not writing for shock-value and implies, rather than overtly describes, Lester's more hideous actions. What comes through initially is a complex picture of masculine loneliness and inability to connect. Lester's first corpse-bride is one he finds already dead and after dragging her home and buying her a red negligee, he is nervous and at a loss as to what to do, like a boy on a first date. He actually spends quite some time just watching her through the window. Though not sympathetic to the gruesome scenario, I did feel a pang for the wretchedness of this man, so unable to connect with the living that he can only do so sexually with a dead person. Any sympathy elicited was thoroughly quashed a page later when he hoisted the woman unceremoniously via a rope and pulley into his attic, her violated body flopping about and void of dignity, and I was reminded of exactly what happening. McCarthy is clever like this, unveiling the hopelessness of humanity and damning it at the same time.

Lester becomes madder and madder, talking to himself frequently and wearing the clothes of his female victims, including a "fright wig"(pg 163) which the audience is later told is a human scalp. At first, I read this as a parody of the original, pioneering American Southern man, lone ranger of the mountains with nothing but a gun and his skills therewith. By the end of the novel, however, I realised that Lester was no parody, but represented the true nature of the Southern man. McCarthy is critiquing the heroic tradition of the South/Western male: this man is alone, is a destroyer, cannot reproduce sexually for he is attracted only to the dead, with no desire to relate to the living except through violence. This man is also no “man” at all, but becomes a hodge-podge of gender stereotypes, a haphazardly destructive combination of cultural ideas of man and woman. This is summed up when Lester is described as "some demented hero or bedraggled parody of patriotic poster come aswamp and his mouth wide open for the howling of oaths until the log swept into a deeper pool and rolled and the waters closed over him" (pg 147). Lester is here sucked underwater by imagery of male and female anatomy, that is, the log and waters closing over him.

When Lester finally dies, it is in hospital. His body is donated to a med school and then "scraped from the table into a plastic bag" and interred (pg 184). While this abrupt and unpleasant end is perhaps deserved, it curiously sheds a similar dark light on the male medical students that has already been shed on Lester. Are they really that different from him, ripping open a dead body and discarding it once its used up? Though I hate reading rape as a metaphor, it's possible to interpret the text as suggesting that just because people aren’t killers or rapists doesn’t mean they aren’t representative of the same ideology. Scary. And the cost, I think, is the loss of individual lives – male or female, whatever the terms may mean – as seen through the deaths of Lester’s victims and his own human loneliness.

If you weren't desperate to read this book when you read the words "murderous necrophiliac" you should be after hearing about its depressing ending. Seriously, though, I do recommend it. It's such an interesting piece to read beside other texts from the region. But do it on a day you're up for thinking about things indoors with all your housemates home - not before you go on a mountain hike with you bf/gf.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A quick note on Jason Stackhouse

I’m only two thirds of the way through True Blood Season One and already it’s shaping up to be great blog-fodder. Talk about a masculinity explosion! And I don’t even mean Bill (or rather, “Bay-all”, if you speak Louisiana), the dark-haired sullen protector-like vampire guy, but Jason Stackhouse. So Jason is a buffed out sex maniac who’s always figured topless with chiselled muscles exposed. Initially I was disgusted by his behaviour and representation…particularly when he thought he killed Maudette and left her hanging from her ceiling while he saved his own bootie. Actually this is still pretty gross even though it turned out he didn’t kill her. And I am still repulsed by him for other reasons, such as hitting his sister after their grandma died. But I think he is also my favourite character, not only because he can be a sweetie at (occasional) times, but because his character is such an effective catalyst for ridiculing the ‘stud’ stereotype and breaking it down again and again. An example of this is when he gulps a whole vial of vampire blood (which, according to True Blood lore, has mega-drug effects for humans) that makes his man-bits so big they nearly explode, and he has to have it medically drained of blood by a surgeon. Effectively, Jason becomes his own vampire - ironic, considering how much he hates them. Even more humiliating is that the person who drags him to the hospital is Tara, his sister’s best friend who’s had a crush on him since childhood. J-Stax is here reducing to screaming and clutching Tara’s hand as the agonising procedure progresses. Strangely, I was sympathetic to him through all this…c’mon, he didn’t mean to overdose! He was just trying to avoid getting convicted for a murder he didn’t commit! In any case, I’m not saying True Blood is making any huge statements on the destructive nature of promiscuity. Rather, the cost of Jason’s own stupidity and sexual presumptuousness is highlighted as he is humiliated. This makes the point that Jason’s attempts to locate his identity in his sexual actions are fruitless, because these can be violently destroyed so easily (by his own actions besides). The “stud” label becomes nothing but a joke as its very definition has literally been drained of desired meaning and purpose.
Stay tuned for an online rant about Lafayette, my other favourite male character in the show. And of course the women in the show. And of course the relationship between True Blood and other Louisiana-based vampire narratives such Anne Rice’s novels.

PS. Does anyone else find it as cool as I do that my Benetint cosmetic blush looks exactly like a vial of V? Tubular.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

justifying the vampire diaries

It’s time I went public about how much I enjoy watching The Vampire Diaries, possibly the most unoriginal and predictable television show ever created. It’s like someone put every vaguely successful vampire series ever produced into a blender, spread it over some HD film with a plastic knife, boxed it up with every American top ten single from past 18 months and sent it to some dude in Hollywood with too much cash to spare but brain enough to know that riding the vampire wave is the quickest way to billionairdom at the moment. And then everyone entered gazillionairdom when it not only became the CW Network’s most watched show last year, but the most watched show among adults (18-34 years). How this happened when the script is worse than Twilight and the main character’s (Elena) personality is so boring it took me all of the first season to remember her name, I’ll never know. Truth be told, the producer was originally uninterested in the show till he "began to realize that it was a story about a small town, about that town's underbelly and about what lurks under the surface.”1 Because of course this has never been addressed in TV show about vampires before. Does this guy even own a television?

And yet. I watched episodes 1-22 in less than three days. I couldn’t even stop to leave the couch, and hence ate the only food in arms’ reach which happened to be a friend’s pile of Easter chocolate (thankfully this was large enough to sustain me for a couple of days). I attribute The Vampire Diaries’ addictive nature to two things, in my case – its predictability, and its male actors.

In addressing predictability, the show is so plot-driven it may as well not even have characters, and the cliff-hangers are so shameless that Jayde (fellow vamp-fan and owner of aforementioned chocolate) and I paused after each episode to list what we thought would happen next, i.e. who would hook up, who would die, and who would kill them. We were right in every case! This not only gave us a warm bubbly sense of satisfaction, but confirmed our status as vampire-experts. ‘Ohh,’ we could sniff to one another, ‘please. As if that conversation wasn’t taken directly from Buffy Season 2 Episode 19 where Buffy and Angel have that conversation while they’re under the spell of the dead flute player.’ (Okay, so maybe it confirmed our nerd-status too). Not mention the dark-haired-brooding-journaling thing that the boy vamps have going on, a common theme from Buffy to True Blood to Twilight. The True Blood rip-off goes deeper, as the hot white girl has a hot black best friend, and just like Sookie Stackhouse, Elena’s BFF Bonnie can read minds. Twilight’s not far off either as Stefan, in true Edward Cullen style, repeatedly keeps his distance from, and returns to, Elena (who, of course, is begging to be made a vamp herself so they can spend eternity together ‘cause she like, loves him sooo much). Of course it’s here we state that Buffy Summers is the most intelligent girlfriend of a vampire ever as she never valued her relationship with Angel so much she wanted to be a vampire. But I digress. The first reason I loved The Vampire Diaries was because it’s great that such mindless and easy viewing can make me feel so high-brow and informed and literature-savvy. (YES, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is high-brow and counts as literature, that is not a discussion for right now.)

The other reason the show works so well is due to the good-looking-ness of its male characters, in particular, Damon Salvatore (guy on right in photo). Wowee, just like Supernatural, you could put this show on mute and not enjoy it any less (in fact, you may enjoy it more! No distractions!) While I rail against gendered objectification of any sort, and particularly the way it’s seen in teenage television shows, I found I just couldn’t help myself. I even had fantasies of moving to LA to do my PhD and running into Ian Somerhalder (the guy who plays Damon, incidentally also an underwear model) and marrying him. It was at this stage I realised that I had probably got a bit carried away and got over it, and now I fantasise about going to Scotland and eating deep-fried mars bars, which is more realistic. However, if a feminist and Christian like me who is all about inner value and respecting the opposite sex and respecting my own sex was taken in so easily, it totally explains why this show would be so popular with 18-34 year olds. I wonder if seeing the gender breakdown of that demographic would shed light on this – I’m pretty certain the viewers would be mostly female.

While VD adds nothing new to the vampire genre and in fact just does a bad job of reworking the old, there are a couple of notable elements. There’s some minor character development in Damon who goes from annoying-evil-guy to conflicted-evil-guy-that-everyone-has-a-soft-spot-for (again, following the trend of Spike from Buffy). Also, it was cool in the final episode of Season 1, when who we thought was Elena was actually the villainess Katherine, and she turned around and chopped Uncle John’s fingers off. Season Two comes out this fall, northern-hemisphere-wise. I’ll be freezing my butt off in Edinburgh by then and watching the next instalment of good-looking predictability on the advance DVDs Jayde sends me from Jakarta and ignoring the Indonesian subtitles. Can’t wait to see if all my predictions come true.
1 Hughes, Sarah (February 5, 2010). "The Vampire Diaries - Fresh blood for teenage vampire lovers". The Independent. Retrieved February 5, 2010.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

FYI - Benzalicious

Here's JB as Darla like 15 years ago - nice face shame about the bleachy wig thing.

Friday, July 2, 2010

My love/hate relationship with Dexter Morgan

So I’m getting really confused about my feelings towards Dexter – the TV series, that is. The show is pretty much made for me – blood, guns, dead bodies, cool chicks and conflicted masculinity with a hearty dose of violent stabbings and death-by-strangulation. What could be more appropriate? (For a gender/violence Masters project, that is). Behind the show’s colourful array of forensic labs, bloated corpses, Miami palm trees and ridiculously good-looking actors lies a set of deep contradictions which establishes Dexter as a show committed to exploring the grey areas of justice and responsibility…whilst also encouraging us to be, if not empathetic, at least sympathetic to the actions of a serial murderer. It’s this second message which makes me uncomfortable, because it’s unavoidable due to the plot’s very construction and the nature of prime time TV.

To begin with, the protagonist is a psycho-killer. He hides his addiction to killing by only slashing the baddest of the bad – serial rapists, child murderers, abusive pornographers, etc. After Dexter has sliced and diced his victims he dumps their bodies in the bay and preserves a drop of their blood on a glass slide for his collection that he keeps in the air-con vent in his apartment (weird). Cool thing is, all this weirdness is explained away when you find out Dexter, at a very young age, saw his mother hacked to bits with a chainsaw inside a shipping container and was then trapped in there amidst bloody family limbs for several days. He grew up, consequently, an emotionless sociopath with a desire to kill. Interestingly, Dexter does not stick to killing those who “deserve” death in some attempt to exact justice (which would make him like Batman) rather, he does so avoid getting caught and to “fit in”, because he can’t actually stop killing (more like Dracula).

But we still like Dexter despite his inability to care about morals. We don’t want him to get caught, because he’s learned to fit in so well that we, the audience, get duped by his sweet smile, his great wit, his fantastic forensic skills, the way he protects his sister, and most of all (for me) his beeeautiful relationship with his girlfriend Rita and her children. It’s this relationship where we see Dexter’s own fear and confusion as he starts experiencing true emotions for the first time in his life. Dexter himself becomes conflicted – he wants to be honest with Rita about his true self, but of course he can’t be, because then she’d be terrified of him and leave him. This results in an elaborate set of lies which ends up with Rita believing Dexter is a heroine addict and Dexter having to go to rehab to keep the fa├žade going. I started getting uncomfortable here because I wanted Dexter to successfully deceive Rita so they could stay together…whilst also being disgusted that their whole relationship is based on a lie.

By the end of Season 2 though I was feeling even more uncomfortable. Two divers find garbage bags containing the fruit of Dexter’s dismembering adventures at the bottom of the bay and the public begin mythologising about the “Bay Harbour Butcher” and who this may be. The audience spends the whole season watching all the near-misses Dexter has with getting caught, till he finally frames his fellow colleague and policeman Sergeant Doakes – one of the shows main characters. Incidentally, Doakes dies at the hands of Lilah, an addict Dexter meets in rehab. But the evidence has been set up so well that Doakes is posthumously convicted, much to the dismay of the Miami PD. I felt sick that Doakes died so suddenly and that he became known as this killer: I felt sick about Dexter’s smugness and how happy he was not only for his freedom but also for Doakes’ death (the two never got along). And yet I was so so SO happy he wasn’t caught, because it meant he could get back together with Rita (my favourite female character in crime television, even more than Olivia in SVU) and it meant he could kill that psycho-hose-beast Lilah (my least favourite female character in crime television, no thanks to her annoying nasal voice).

This is the crux of it all. I don’t like killing and it makes me feel gross. But I still love Dexter. I don’t think the series endorses killing, because someone always has to take the punishment for the crime. It’s just who receives punishment and who should receive punishment which is played around with. The show even acknowledges the horror of its protagonist’s actions - Dexter’s foster dad Harry actually commits suicide once he realises who his son has become. But while the show engages with the subtleties of justice, guilt, responsibility and flaws of the legal system and encourages audiences to do the same, I wonder how much any prime time American TV show can engage with this truly. For the sake of ratings and the audience’s contentment, Dexter always has to win and hence always has to lie. I can’t fathom he’ll ever get caught and go to prison for life for what he’s done; nor can I imagine him coming clean and the citizens of Miami accepting him as their very own vigilante protector (like I said, he’s not Batman). However I’ve only just finished Season 2 so who knows how mental things get. I’m still going to keep watching – I’m addicted, and Dexter and Rita together make me feel a warmth inside I haven’t felt since Buffy and Angel first made out in ’96 (wow). While conflicted and conflicting, Dexter is nevertheless engaging audiences well if it makes me react so strongly. And despite its promotion of a killer, it’s forced me to think about and articulate my views on morality more than any other Miami-based murder series – take that, Horatio. Dexter’s sandy hair is way more natural than yours anyway.

NB – let’s not forget that Julie Benz (the actress who plays Rita) became famous through her stellar performance as the vampire Darla in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. She's still hooking up with dudes who dig blood and all about putting her life on the line to protect her kids. Amazing!