Sunday, 30 July 2017

"Orange is the New Black"? Rubbish. It's Scrubs with shower rape jokes


Growing up one of my favourite films was Trainspotting. Wit, snappy cutting, MTV aesthetic: it was heroin as pop video. ‘Just choose life...’ The blu-tacked face peered down from my bedroom wall. If there was anything I aspired to, back then, it was to become a drug addict.



It was a trend that persisted throughout the iconic films of the 1990s. Oldman in Leon, Keitel in Bad Leuitenant, Thurman in Pulp Fiction: charismatic stars taking drugs in designer colours to cool soundtracks. Awesome! It was only later I began to wonder if it really appropriate to film narcotic addiction like you’d shoot the titles for a Blur video. Legalise them or not, drugs do change lives, especially young ones. Had Trainspotting done for drugs what Tarantino did for guns? In other words, should coke and heroin abuse really be made to look cool?



Which brings me onto Orange is the New Black, which has been airing for a while here. It’s the witty gritty tale of a woman imprisoned for a brief contact with a drug dealing girlfriend a decade ago, and it has some good points: it has a bisexual lead, which is good to see; it’s wittily and snappily written, fluidly filmed; it’s entertaining pizza television.  



So what’s wrong? And how’s it any different from the rest of the focus-grouped and test-screened U.S. sitcoms, which are generally pretty watchable in a time-wasting kind of way?



Here’s what’s wrong. A series about prison life – about damaged lives, violence, trafficking – doesn’t need to be fun. It doesn’t need to be sassy, or smug, or snarky. Sitcom values aren’t appropriate here. How funny is a colonic strip-search for prisoners who are actually forced to undergo them, rather than the attractive actresses pretending to for a few takes before they waft back to their trailer? Do we really need to raise a smile about starvation, racism, sexual abuse? Do we need this stuff enacted by a shiny cast of mostly beautiful people who help to make prison look kind of fun – Scrubs with shower jokes?



And boy, is Orange twee. It’s aggressively twee. It's like being waterboarded with caramel smoothies. Cool, gentle, new-age, indie boyfriend? Check. Cool, gentle, new-age, indie soundtrack? Check. Cool, cute scenes of lying around in bed checking photos and Netflix on Apple tablets? Check, check, check. It's awful. Orange is fodder for the iPad bourgeoisie. 



The thing is, I can take twee. I can: I just need it to be quarantined. I need twee to be kept in its own little Twee-hole, cute and pink and curly – and I need it to stay there. When twee embraces social commentary (black people! human rights! prisoner abuse! #WeReallyDoCare) it feels tonally jarring – like a segment on child suicide in Nuts! magazine. I get that this is the kind of class slumming the show is gently mocking – we’re as complicit as the lead character in finding out what prison’s “really” like – but... Well, no. Sorry. Orange is TV wanting to have its cupcake and eat it, to be both thoughtful social commentary and iPod froth at the same time. I don’t buy it.



I’ve been briefly imprisoned myself (only a few hours, for a mistaken arrest, but boy – those few hours really mark you) and had DNA swabs in my mouth and all the other routine invasions of the body modern policing rests on, and let me tell you there’s nothing funny about it. And I was only in there for about three hours. Orange is the New Black is a smart, smug, sassy, snarky, sarky piece of moving wallpaper, but it won’t be going up on my wall. Which makes me also wonder how many prisoners’ll actually get the chance to watch it. Or if they'd want to.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Book review: All the Places I’ve Ever Lived by David Gaffney

The doctor stares down at my skin.

“You don’t know how it happened?”

I shake my head. “I don’t remember anything.”

“You say you were reading something.”

I try and remember.

“There was this book...”

She sighs. 

“Do you remember the name on the spine?" 

Silence. 

"Was it... David Gaffney?”

I look up.

“There’s been an outbreak,” she explains. “Early-stage Gaffney-exposure. We’re trying to keep an eye on it. Feral themes cloaked in prosaic absurdity, witty period pop-references, slippery plotting: it’s burying beneath peoples’ mental defences and planting itself in their subconscious.” The doctor stands up and walks over to the calendar, then picks up a rectractable biro. “We think it might be spreading.”

I swallow. My skin is burning.

“Doctor,” I say, “am I going to be okay?”

She turns back and looks me up and down. She clicks the biro, twice.

“Of course. Just sit tight. A couple of men from the Ministry will want to talk to you.”

“What men?”

She turns and scribbles something on a pad. “Nothing to worry about.”

My eyes narrow. The calendar on the wall...

“Doctor,” I say. “What year is it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I...”

She looks me hard between the eyes.

“It’s 1976,” she says. “Now don’t you worry. Lie back and close your eyes and everything will be okay.”

- Dale Lately


All the Places I’ve Ever Lived by David Gaffney is out now on Urbane Books 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Trump a fascist? Well he certainly has a neo-Nazi fanbase...



It’s reckoning time. A few weeks in and even those of us who thought it couldn’t be bad – well, it can. It is. How could it be any worse? Flagrant racism, bumbling autocracy, Twitter diplomacy – and God Knows What to come.

Is Trump a fascist? Perhaps that depends on your definition of fascism. If you count it to mean “bigoted autocrat with a fondness for executive rule” then he is. If you count it to mean mass exterminations and martial law well then, no, not really. Although it’s still early days.

But a fascist fan base – well, that’s much clearer. We all know that Trump was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, something that’s pretty disturbing in itself. But it goes deeper than that. The Alt-Right communities that spurred his success online have certainly got roots in neo-Nazi thought – less “alt” right than “far” right.

They may have ways of hiding it, though. And here’s how.

Take the idea of “human biodiversity” floated by some prominent bloggers. At first it sounds like a term from the left: an inclusive approach to human difference, perhaps? But human biodiversity is really just a new way of dressing up eugenic racism – an unpleasant bit of pseudo-science aimed at dividing and “classifying” humanity into clear, well-defined groups based on skin colour, population difference and racial hierarchy. (Or “racism in a lab coat”, as the Baffler magazine put it).

Because Twitter and the like have hate speech policies in action, many online hatemongerers found a novel way to spread their ideas: using three parentheses on either side of a name to indicate someone of Jewish origin. This social media answer to the “Juden” Nazis used to paint on the doors of Jewish families ultimately proved, like Trump’s words, largely unpoliceable (there is nothing obviously offensive about parentheses, to either human or algorithm – so they’re nearly impossible to remove systematically from the platform).

This “closed captioning for the Jew-blind” as one white supremacist gleefully put it, successfully “outed” a number of online journalists in targeted hate campaigns which sought to mock Jews or expose supposed Jewish collusion in controlling media or politics. It served as a flagging device for other anti-Semites, and led some writers to experience death threats, anti-Semitic cartoons, home phone calls and delightful memes (like the photo of the gates of Auschwitz with the “Arbeit Macht Frei” slogan replaced by “Machen Amerika Great.”)

The offenders have since developed their dark “netiquette” further with a kind of Turing replacement-code where innocuous words – “googles,” “skypes,” or “yahoos” for example – stand in for racial slurs. The result are tweets like “Chain the googles / Gas the yahoos” or “If welfare state is a given it must go towards our own who needs. No Skypes, googles, or yahoos.”

Such obvious race-hate is an ugly thing to encounter anywhere, but it’s far more frightening when the techniques it employs are adopted by those seeking political power. Trump is well-known for his attacks on opponents, but what’s less well observed is the underhand meanings implicit in some of those attacks. He tweeted a meme about “Crooked Hillary” which featured her face and the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!”. This slogan appeared in a little coloured star which at first sight looks like standard desktop publishing style. The star, though, was the Star of David, and a giant pile of atop a giant pile of money: the insinuation is not so very subtle.

Elsewhere he talked repeatedly of “global special interests”, another dog-whistle term that sounds conveniently vague to the outsider but is all too specific for those in the know (as Will Drabold put it in Mic, “Donald Trump says "global special interests." Anti-Semites in the alt-right hear "Jews."”).  Always keen to attribute his sources, he once even openly retweeted something from WhiteGenocideTM, a user fond of white nationalism and neo-Nazi imagery, in an unintentionally surreal message that manages to mix petty jibing with a nod to the swastika brigade:

@WhiteGenocideTM: @realDonaldTrump Poor Jeb. I could've sworn I saw him outside Trump Tower the other day!  

It got over nine thousand Likes.

The extent, the potential, the possibilities are still unknown to us. But someone who can retweet someone calling themselves White Genocide is either exceedingly stupid or at least sympathetic to fascists. Right now it looks like both could be possible.