March 30, 2009

David Peace and capitalist realism

The great Padraig Henry. now blogging again at the indispensable Communist Realism (which amongst many other good things is a repository of all of the most interesting responses to the recent Communism conference at Birkbeck) emailed a while back with some observations about Red Riding, which I'm only able to respond to now that I've finally settled in after my latest house move. Padraig:

    I've just watched again the first two episodes (via Channel 4's 'catch up' site, with a screen resolution better than that of my current cable TV provider) of the Red Riding trilogy, and you're absolutely right: I agree that it is one of the best dramas, TV or film, of recent years. It actually combines - or rather scrambles - as its point of departure, two 'genres': the 1970s US conspiracy thriller (particularly - especially - Polansky's Chinatown, with its interrogation of the twin sides of patriarchal capitalism [indeed, one of the albeit few weaknesses of Red Riding is its script, its unsubtle, naive, and desublimated dialogue, unlike Chinatown) and early British 'social realism' (eg Clayton's Room at the Top, etc), but then 'updating' that mix with many of the 'ridiculous sublime' tropes of such as David Lynch (the recurring ominous motifs [eg Dawson's house, fore-shadowing dark confrontation]] and lost-but-prophetic characters [Dawson's disturbed wife], the sublime of [you invoke the Gnostic position] angelic wings amidst and superimposed on appalling destruction: all reminiscent of both Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr.) or Nicolas Roeg [the reporter re-imagining the little girl in red, the occultism, from Don't Look Now], all to achieve, as you stated in your review, an 'expressionist naturalism' that is simultaneously "hypnotic and oneiric" and ostensibly narratively opague.
    I say 'ostensibly' opague because, like Chinatown, although the characters are "caught in a world in which things just don’t add up – they don’t fit together", this is not entirely true of the films themselves. Unlike, for instance, Eyes Wide Shut (or The Shining), in such films as Red Trilogy, Chinatown, Mulholland Dr etc, while they all authentically play with narrative convention (with ellipses, mobius strips, displacement, metaphor) I don't get any real sense that they reject it. Rather, they remain just more sophisticated (and pomo) narrative re-imaginings.
    It would be interesting to analyse, for example, the difference between the reporter's passage a l'act in Red Riding 1974's denouement with, say, Clint Eastwood's at the end of Unforgiven (or even Travis Bickle's in Taxi Driver), among countless others, just as - if I recall correctly - you contrasted the Good of Sethe's killing her child to unplug from a psychotic social system in Beloved with the Evil of a Nazi's wife lethally poisoning her children as martyrs to Aryan dementia in the film, Downfall.
    You state that in "Peace’s world, there is no sense of acceptance: his novels read like howls of agony and calls for retribution – divine or otherwise." Certainly, but doesn't their own fatalism ultimately defeat what they were - presumably - setting out to achieve? [Alternatively, while the films are a vast improvement on the patronizing, plodding and ultimately conformist 'social realism' of left humanists like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, and that this 'pulp modernist' approach is to be everywhere defended and lauded ... it still doesn't get us anywhere .... (I'm reminded of your criticisms of Frank Miller et al in your review of Batman Begins a few years ago. Capitalist Realism anyone?].

Padraig then went on to nuance his response after seeing 1983:

    Just a note to revise what I said earlier (below) about capitalist realism re Red Riding. I've since seen the third and final episode of the trilogy, with its redemptive denouement, so no, obv not cap realism. I was judging solely on the basis of the first two episodes (and just the films, not Peace's novels, which I hadn't read). It's a denouement, though, that stretches all narrative credibility: three characters - one corrupt (the cop), one washed up (the solicitor), one traumatically victimized (BJ) - all simultaneously - after so many years of subject-less inaction - suddenly setting out to confront Peter Mullen's sociopath/pedo priest. The third episode is all a bit too neat, really, too eager to tie up all the loose ends and ellipses (that whole first wedding sequence, while beguilingly nostalgic drama, was narratively redundant: we can infer from the first two episodes who all or most of the cop-conspirators are, and what the business deal with Dawson entailed). Nevertheless, it's still great TV drama in an otherwise undead TV landscape.
    To take the final point first: I think that in some respects there was certainly an overeagerness to tie up the loose ends in 1983. Over the whole trilogy, the plot was consistently the weakest element - yet, that itself reflects a strength of the Red Riding films, which was the heavy bias towards oneiric images (as opposed to the default Britfilm setting of emphasis on overconscious narrative/ verbals/ infantilising exposition [cf the travesty ofThe Damned Utd 'adaptation']). It's long been evident that both British film and fiction have been compromised and contaminated by the pull of a deeply bourgeois model of 'literariness' (lambasted by Peace himself in this interview: "[T]o me, these days 'literary' just means British writers with their Creative Writing MAs wanting to write the 'Great American Novel' and filling bookshops with unreadable shite, with no plots, no characters, no balls, no heart and, above all, no British Voice"). One of the many things that the Red Riding films are to be congratulated for is the rejection of these literary verities; far better to risk narrative incoherence than to slave images and atmosphere to 'well rounded characters' and 'well constructed plot', all the machinery of Britlit mediocrity. The plot was always going to suffer from the compression necessary to bring it to screen, and the condensations and conflations in the 1974 adaptation were bound to have consequences in 1983, (1983 the novel was in many ways Peace's attempt to rewrite 1974 in the light of the pulp modernist methodology and techniques he developed in 1977 and 1980.)

    The plot was never one of the strengths of the novels in any case. In fact, one of the strange things about Peace's novels is the way that they are extraordinarily compulsive, yet not driven by plot; or rather the plot-drive is subordinated to a death drive, which, rather than reaching any sort of resolution, endlessly circulates around a number of lost objects (the Ripper's victims in 1977 and 1980; the dead girls in 1974 and 1983, the brutally lyrical litany of their names: Susan Ridyard, Clare Kemplay, Jeanette Garland, Hazel Atkins - Miss the Girl). The lack of any ultimate answers is part of what gives the RR novels and films a special poignancy in this, the decade of Madeleine McCann, a missing girl saturated with cinematic associations (Don't Look Now again, but also Vertigo and Chris Marker's conjuction of Hitchcock and Proust), and the absence at the heart of an unresolved media-hyperreal hyperfiction I tried to analyse at the end of this.

    One exasperated message board contributor recently wrote of the Red Riding novels that "they're too good as detective stories to not get drawn into reading them as if all the loose ends could be drawn together." Yet what makes the novels fascinating is precisely the way they deconstruct the form of the Crime novel, continually frustrating expectations without ever dismissing them. In place of answers, unintelligible signs (as one contributor to the same message board put it: "Most crime writers give you revelations in the last few pages, Peace gives you Revelations"); in place of closure, a fissured fatality, an Underground Kingdom made of (plot) holes.

    The 1983 film in particular might have appeared to lose faith with this aspect of Peace's fiction. In his interview with Sight & Sound, the screenwriter Tony Grisoni justified his changing of 1983's ending (from black holes of self-abolition and revenge-homicide in the novel into something redemptive in the film) because of the Natasha Kampusch case: Kampusch emerged from her captor's Underground Kingdom whilst Grisoni was working on the script and he wanted to "save one of the girls". (The Kampusch and the Josef Fritzl cases are more reasons that the Red Riding novels have an uncanny poignancy this decade; and they also show that which the ridiculous-sublime cannot be straightforwardly opposed to the plausible; the ridiculous-sublime is what is in excess of consensual reality, not necessarily what is empirically impossible but what is unthinkable). Yet I think that the film's oneiric qualities give it a perhaps unintended epistemological slipperiness - Piggot and Jobson's unlikely divine light-haloed rescue of the girl reminded me of the very end of Taxi Driver, which I can never decide whether to treat as belonging to the film's reality or a redemptive fantasy conjured by Travis's dying mind.

    To turn now to the important question of Peace's relationship to capitalist realism. Padraig raises a number of issues that did cross my mind as I was writing the piece on the Red Riding films for namely, what differentiates Peace from something like Frank Miller's world without Good? And does a represented redemption stop a fiction from being capitalist realism? And, conversely, does the absence of redemption entail at least an affinity with capitalist realism's brute pragmatism? Initially, I'd answer this by expanding the comparison between Peace and Ellroy that I sketched in the Red Riding piece. Mike Davis's observations on Ellroy's LA Quartet perfectly capture the way in which Ellroy exemplified capitalist realism:

      At times an almost unendurable wordstorm of perversity and gore, Quartet attempts to map the history of modern Los Angeles as a secret continuum of sex crimes, satanic conspiracies, and political scandals. For Ellroy ... the unsolved 'Black Dahlia' case of 1946 is the crucial symbolic commencement of the postwar era - a local 'name of the rose' concealing a larger, metaphysical mystery. Yet in building such an all-encompassing noir mythology (including Stephen King-like descents into the occult), Ellroy risks extinguishing the genre's tensions, and, inevitably, its power. In his pitch blackness there is no light left to cast shadows and evil becomes a forensic banality. The result feels very much like the actual moral texture of the Reagan-Bush era: a supersaturation of corruption that fails any longer to outrage or even interest.
      Indeed the postmodern role of L.A. noir may be precisely to endorse the emergence of homo reaganus.

    Of course, this becomes even more explicit (one might say heavy handed) with American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, which appear to be written to illustrate the thesis Ellroy outlines in the preface to American Tabloid: there never was any Good, corruption is originary. But, even though Peace's Yorkshire is scarcely any less "supersaturated with corruption" than Ellroy's LA, I think that it's practically impossible for any reader to think of Peace as (retrospectively) "endorsing the emergence of homo thatcherus". Quite to the contrary. Owen thinks that the Red Riding novels need GB84 for their (political) message to fully come out, and I would certainly agree that, by this point, it is no longer even remotely possible to read Peace as justifying, normalising or in any way desensitizing the 'harsh realities' of neoliberalism. One of the differences between the Red Riding novels and GB84 is a switch from religion and theodicy (there must be a God to make good all that suffering, all those atrocities) to politics (there must be a better way to live than this). (As it happens, though, I think that Peace's tendency at that time to "add a layer of diabolical evil on top of the historical evils [he] fictionalise[s]" is a mistake, part of the [bad] lurid legacy from Ellroy. Judging from this interview in Socialist Worker, Peace agrees, saying that he "slightly regrets" some of the Crime elements in GB84. He also explains there why he didn't "tack" GB84 onto the end of the Red Riding Quartet. With The Damned Utd, Peace demonstated that he could work his sorcery by only minimally augmenting the facts.)

    If there is no redemption in GB84, it is because history had none to offer; yet GB84 is clearly not a work of capitalist realism - rather, it is about the process of engendering capitalist realism here, the brutal battle for the hearts and minds that prepared the way for the establishment of neoliberalism in Britain. It isn't a redemption within the fiction's represented world that prevents a work from being capitalist realist; rather, it is the attitude that the book expresses and provokes towards the world it discloses that is decisive. To use Joyce's classic distinction between kinetic and static art, both Peace and Ellroy are "kinetic" writers; what differentiates them is the way that the "loathing" they excite effects the reader. (Stephen Dedalus's (modernist-aestheticist) claim, remember, was that "the feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts.") Ellroy's message: this is the world, live with it, adjust your expectations to fit it, accept your corrupt protectors, mythologise them, because they are all that separates you from something even worse. Peace's message: if this is the world, then it must be rejected, abominated, destroyed, even if it is the best world we can realistically expect.

    Posted by mark at March 30, 2009 12:01 PM | TrackBack