September: A Crow Looked at Me

Awkward teen swans, New River, 23/09/2021

Aye up

Now that we’re well over halfway through this year-long experiment, it seems as good a time as any to think about what the point of it all was. I’ve been writing consistently, for an assumed audience, since I was in my early adolescence. This was bolstered by (in no particular order) failing to live up to my own impossible standards in my initial dream of being a comic book artist, abandoning art for writing because I was getting good marks in English class and had a great teacher, and my having come of age in the golden era of music blogs. My writing has almost always been online; notebooks and paper, after my school days, have always been for fragments, scraps and shopping lists. I moved from message boards to instant messengers to Blogspot to Wordpress to Tumblr, in that hinterland between web 2.0 and 3.0, after which — as with most of us — typing mainly takes place on social networking platforms.

Long-form fiction is something I’ve been circling for the better part of fifteen years at this point. I’ve taken part in (but never completed) numerous NaNoWriMos, produced full outlines for crime novels left unwritten, started and re-started innumerable projects from a sci-fi murder-mystery set in a radio quiet zone where sufferers of electro-sensitivty live, to a Tom McCarthy-ish thing about a wannabe actress hired to be the body double” of a famed novelist who begins to lose a grip on her identity. The serial I was planning and often mentioned on this newsletter fell by the wayside since, ahem, I came to hate the warehouse community it was going to be set in and distributed throughout. Long and short stories are something I struggle to complete, yet I find myself coming back to the same handful of ideas I like. Some of those mentioned have been sitting in various iterations on my Google Drive for a good few years. Every so often they pop back into my head, I have another crack at writing the opening, and then I wander off, distracted. My recurrent thought is: at some point, I’ll have the time and the space and the focus to work on these. But will that time actually ever come?

Right now I’m counting on being one of these late-blooming successes, about whom much ink is spilled, because can you believe old people can do things, too? That your life isn’t decided by what you started doing age 22 and carried on until death? I’ll finish and then publish one of these ideas and then, when I’m infirm or in the ground, someone can pick over the juvenilia that still lingers on hard drives and cloud storage, ala John Kennedy Toole or Harper Lee. Then I think of Hiroshi Abe’s character in After the Storm, a failed novelist-turned-failing private detective, who insists he’s the great talents bloom late” type; You’re taking too long to bloom,” replies his long-suffering mother. Perhaps the most gratifying part of this newsletter is knowing that people read it. I have ten subscribers, but I actually talk to you all about the stuff I’ve written in here, which is lovely. Writing is mostly about communication, right? I feel much more positively about having these conversations than knowing, say, an article I was paid to write about The Joker was read by millions I have zero contact with; that hasn’t been the case since I was writing music blogs and getting on record companies’ mailing lists as a teenager.

But then, writing elsewhere for the past five-or-so years, I’ve been doing so regularly about the topics that interest me (media criticism, criticism of media criticism, web cultures, politics, etc) and absolutely nobody was reading it, which didn’t feel great — to have the compulsion to articulate these things, but no audience to share it with, or community to be a part of. I realise this has only a slight relation to the quality of what I was writing, and is more about how building a platform in this era works. By-and-large, I can’t be arsed with the effort of tailoring and maintaining a social media presence/networking needed to achieve that. So I’ll likely just keep tinkering with my little projects for myself, and a few others, and that’s largely fine. My aspirations are no larger than carrying on as I am.

I realise this may all sound a bit bleak or defeatist: it’s not meant to be! I’ll be reet. I’ll carry on as long as this relatively restricted hobby continues to be a compulsion I can’t shake, the reward (and frustrations) usually being the work itself. I was moved by film critic Nick Pinkerton’s aside in a recent newsletter, having long since hitched his wagon to a career of which financial precarity is an increasing certainty:

This would be a fatal flub if life was a game, but it isn’t, or at least not the kind of game that lets you respawn. You can keep making the wrong’ choices one after another and you’ll still be around the next day, and you’ll just keep hanging around, until one day you stop.”

Green plaque for Derek Jarman, Islington, 11/09/2021

So the internet broke the other day! Well, not actually the entire internet, but three of the main platforms through which people access its contents: Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. The worldwide outages were the result of a misconfigured access protocol, but had devastating effects: not just for bored millennials and Mark Zuckerberg’s stock price, but for a significant amount of global infrastructure. These platforms are vital platforms for commerce, communication and even public services in many countries which, in itself, is pretty fucked; that a private company’s screw-up can have devastating effect on such a wide, varied scale is as good an argument as any for why it shouldn’t exist.

The news put in mind of another widely-shared tech-related story from the past month: many current college-age students apparently don’t now what files are. It’s been shared with, of course, incredulousness and animosity towards generation Z and such. The actual article is much more considered, however, assessing the way in which our mental models of how computers (and the internet) have changed across the past few decades:

Guarín-Zapata is an organizer. He has an intricate hierarchy of file folders on his computer, and he sorts the photos on his smartphone by category. He was in college in the very early 2000s — he grew up needing to keep papers organized. Now, he thinks of his hard drives like filing cabinets. I open a drawer, and inside that drawer, I have another cabinet with more drawers,’ he told The Verge. Like a nested structure. At the very end, I have a folder or a piece of paper I can access.’

Guarín-Zapata’s mental model is commonly known as directory structure, the hierarchical system of folders that modern computer operating systems use to arrange files. It’s the idea that a modern computer doesn’t just save a file in an infinite expanse; it saves it in the Downloads’ folder, the Desktop’ folder, or the Documents’ folder, all of which live within This PC,’ and each of which might have folders nested within them, too. It’s an idea that’s likely intuitive to any computer user who remembers the floppy disk.”

This is largely how I think of and organise my own files, inboxes, Google Drive, even the photos saved on my smartphone. I can see also how this is largely outdated, since I grew up with a big boxy desktop PC where you had to know where you saved stuff, bookmarks on AOL browser were a necessity (the painfully slow crawl of the 56k modem meant searching for a page would add another interminable step), and early MP3 players would be impossible to parse were you not obsessive with your organising of albums and playlists. This is a world away from our current tech landscape, with everything mediated through social media, apps and the like.

Peter Plavchan, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at George Mason University, has seen similar behavior from his students and can’t quite wrap his head around it. Students have had these computers in my lab; they’ll have a thousand files on their desktop completely unorganized,’ he told The Verge, somewhat incredulously. I’m kind of an obsessive organizer … but they have no problem having 1,000 files in the same directory. And I think that is fundamentally because of a shift in how we access files.’

It’s possible that the analogy multiple professors pointed to — filing cabinets — is no longer useful since many students…spent their high school years storing documents in the likes of OneDrive and Dropbox rather than in physical spaces. It could also have to do with the other software they’re accustomed to — dominant smartphone apps like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube all involve pulling content from a vast online sea rather than locating it within a nested hierarchy. When I want to scroll over to Snapchat, Twitter, they’re not in any particular order, but I know exactly where they are,’ says Vogel, who is a devoted iPhone user. Some of it boils down to muscle memory.”

I think this also speaks more broadly to how restricted our thinking around/access to tech and the web are, compared to twenty or even ten years ago. People don’t make their own websites, they have social media accounts; if they do build a website, it’ll likely be a drag-and-drop Squarespace job, rather than built with code from the ground up. When our laptops or phones give up the ghost, we trade up for a newer model, rather than trying to fix or upgrade what we currently have. In fact, it’s often impossible — or at least, will invalidate your warranty — to tinker with these products. It’s the idea of products-as-service, rather than something you own and can do whatever you want with, which is prevalent also within film and music (you don’t own anything, you stream it for a subscription fee), games, and the platform capitalism model in which in the likes of Uber insisting they’re not a company who hires employees; they simply offer a service for drivers to use.

This, too, is how the big wide open internet, nominally full of possibilities and infinitely malleable, has been reduced to just Facebook for many in South East Asia. WhatsApp is so popular as a business tool in South America that it chose Brazil as the first country to get WhatsApp payments—a method of using the app to pay for goods and services.” People in Afghanistan and Syria couldn’t get in contact with family. As Facebook have been behind a lot of web infrastructure in countries like the Sudan, it’s going down literally did mean a complete loss of access to the internet. Thinking of these platforms — which are privately-owned, profit-making and largely despicable — as the be all and end all of the web is one thing; and it’s something that can be changed. But it’s also, uh, sort of true for a great many people. So what do you do about that?

Wot I’ve done this month

  • Mainly despairing jokes about the movie news website Deadline over on Cinebloc
  • Also: found out someone is using that name for a premiere film and media studio run entirely on the blockchain,” so it might need to be changed
  • I’m in the edit stage of a handful of blog posts that I’ll hopefully be ready to share next month: one about the flat affect of Sally Rooney’s prose being reflective of the crummy hand dealt to millennials, one about true crime and the film Murder Death Koreatown, some others about music. Thrilling eh??

This month I went to see the new Candyman and, uh, it’s not very good. The reviews I read beforehand (from Black critics, specifically) bemoaned the didacticism of its themes and messaging. On Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién wrote:

Horror has always been political, best when it lets images and characters and sonic dimensions speak to a certain work’s integral concerns. But Candyman moves in a way that speaks to this moment in both Black filmmaking in Hollywood and the so-called prestige” horror boom, in which its creators can’t find a political message they won’t hit you over the head with until you’re as bloody and begging for release as the characters onscreen. If the original heaves and breathes with ripe contradictions and precise aesthetic compositions, DaCosta’s sputters and fizzles…A film such as this should grab hold of your heart, make your skin prickle, cause you to sit at the edge of your seat in panicked fascination. Instead, it glides over you like water rushing over a passing pebble, leaving little mark at all, save for when the didacticism sets in again.”

Candyman is very much of a part of a trend in modern horror which, as Bastién notes, places message above story, character or scares. Since these themes are not successfully embedded within the narrative, or within the horror, these films come off as lacking in confidence in said messaging, and therefore you have scenes as in this film where gentrification is explained at great length by actors who deserve — and usually receive — much better scripts. Elsewhere, it gestures at signifiers, catchphrases and it’s self-reflexive knowledge of the horror genre, like you’re watching a pitch document rather than a finished film. In places the Candyman script is borderline offensive in the recent history it invokes and summarily fails to say anything interesting about, which Robert Daniels writes about in his review.

Whilst Candyman must be considered semi-separately due to its particular focus on race and (to a much lesser extent) class, its half-arsed approach to horror and contradictory disinterest in its milieu is very much of a piece of recent releases like Censor, which told a generic and thoroughly un-frightening story of a traumatised young woman losing her mind while working as a BBFC censor during the Video Nasty era, and yet draws very little from the aesthetic of transgressive eighties cinema or the political upheaval of the time; or Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake which, while pleasingly gross in places, was more interested in gesturing towards heady themes — the Baader-Meinhoff group, the Holocaust, patriarchy — without saying anything, or connecting these historical spectres to the actual supernatural horrors at play; or Saint Maud, where a protagonist who was clearly nuts from the off gets more so throughout the film, unsurprisingly, and ends just when things are getting good.

Whether or not these are elevated horror” films which, in the contemporary parlance, are understood to be horror film which are somewhat ashamed of or openly hostile to the genre they’re borrowing the tropes, if not the pleasures, of, is moot. The fact is they’re films which misunderstand the concept of horror, and particularly the ghost story. The supernatural are neither wholly cultural symbols, which can be separated from the real” eerie beings. These things are more intertwined and ambiguous. The inability to confidently assess them as one of the other is what’s so bloody scary about them. The spectres which glide, often unseen but often upsettingly wet and fleshy, through the stories of MR James can be seen as representing the shameful or pagan history of Britain which various patch-elbow types would do better to leave alone. At the same time, they are ghosts, which can often physically interact with, injure or kill those who happen after them. Candyman can both be a symbol of Black victims of violence throughout colonial history; he’s also a big guy with a hook who’s gonna come out your mirror and fuck you up. Hot take: both are pretty scary, and one does not preclude the other!

Cannot remember when or where I saw this, but: I agree

I’ve basically just listened to Destroyer all month, so this playlist is just made up of Destroyer songs. I do not apologise for this! I also tried to write a blog about why I love Dan Bejar so much, but that’ll have to wait until a later date. In the meantime, this recent Pitchfork profile of the man does a pretty good job of laying out why he rules.

  1. Crimson Tide”
  2. Tinseltown Swimming In Blood”
  3. Times Square”
  4. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux (Sea of Tears)”
  5. Kaputt”
  6. Painter In Your Pocket”
  7. Dream Lover”
  8. The Raven”
  9. La Regle du Jeu”
  10. Song For America”
  11. Your Blood”
  12. The Bad Arts”

Miscellaneous internet link round up

The nights are drawing in, the temperature’s dropping, and I’m simultaneously thankful for the excuse to stay indoors and stop spending so much money, and preparing myself for the inevitable drop in mood these atmospheric changes herald for myself and many I know. Be kind to yourselves, eat well, maybe stay off your phone and watch Only Murders in the Building or something. Buy an SAD lamp? Idk. See you at the end of October, when I’ll have likely watched 40 horror films and bought a stupid hat. Goodbye forever!