What do you do when the news agency facilitating your fledgling journalism career is a Kremlin propaganda machine? Well, like a lot of people whose work has led them into compromising situations from time to time, Sara Firth got on with it. Averting her eyes when the channel decided to run stories about dolphins and toxic herbicide instead of reporting the deaths of 110 Ukrainians at the hands of Russian militants; trying to overlook the editorial line of Putin cover-ups and get on with reporting domestic news here in the UK without disturbing the peace.
But then a Boeing airliner was blown out of the sky last Thursday. The following day Sara resigned from her position as a correspondent for Russia Today, declaring via Twitter that she is “for the truth” – a statement that was retweeted ad infinitum as requests flooded in for her to elaborate on the exact circumstances that had led to her very public act of revolt.
Just what was the atmosphere like in the world’s most rampantly pro-Russian news agency on the day separatist militants backed by the Kremlin committed one of the most heinous crimes against humanity in recent history? I caught up with her to find out.
VICE: What happened in the Russia Today office on Thursday that prompted you to leave?
Sara Firth: Our coverage of the MH17 plane disaster was the final nudge for me; the clarifying moment. I’ve been really unhappy for a long time at RT. I just couldn’t do it any more.
It was walking in and seeing the news run-down in the hours immediately following MH17 coming down that made the decision for me. We were running an eye-witness account that made an accusation against Ukraine and we had a correspondent in the studio who was asked to produce something about a plane that had been shot down at some point in the past and had been the fault of Ukraine. I’ve been in that position myself before, where you’re asked to bring up some piece of obscure information that implies something that fits with the RT agenda. And you think well, it’s not outright lying but it has no relation to what’s happening and shouldn’t be run at a time when a story of that size is breaking. A news story that is so sensitive. It’s abhorrent and indefensible.
But surely you were aware that you were working for a pro-Kremlin news network when you took the job? Russia Today pitches itself as a channel that is going to challenge Western mainstream bias. It’s state funded. But this idea that it’s some evil genius – that we all have Putin on speed dial and we’re having meetings to discuss how to bring other governments down – isn’t true. It’s far from evil genius – it’s just massively incompetent.
Crucial information is regularly omitted from stories, and often because those in charge are not capable of identifying what makes a strong news story. They’re not interested in fact checking and creating valuable, balanced journalism. Their main agenda is that it fits the narrative. You are actively discouraged from questioning – that isn’t appreciated at all. And of course that goes on and is a million times worse in the domestic Russian media.
Is it fair to say that your feelings are shared by a large number of people working for RT? We weren’t all working towards some great conspiracy; I want to be clear about that. Many of the reporters approach the stories they are assigned with honesty in mind. The problem is, eventually you realise that no matter how hard you work, and no matter how valid these stories that you’re working on are, you’re still contributing to an overall system that is designed to push a very clear and biased narrative. There are many people within the organisation trying to change that, but I just could no longer work for a company that repeatedly disregarded the facts.
That selective reporting and distortion of facts reached dizzyingly stupid heights with the dawn of the Euromaidan protests. Their defence is always that they’re not “jumping to conclusions”, suggesting that other networks are jumping to conclusions by holding Russia responsible. That everyone is pointing fingers at Russia before the facts have been established.
Now don’t get me wrong. Being dedicated to balanced and substantiated journalism is a fantastic thing but that is not what they are doing. It’s especially bad with the breaking news stories. I mean, anyone can see that. But I have to say that when a story like MH17 broke – and to a lesser extent many other stories during my time there – my heart would sink and I’d know that my job depended on participating in what I knew to be wrong.
How does that manifest itself though? Do editors state explicitly that RT will not be mentioning certain facts? For instance, in the past year they would not assign any story relating to Ukraine to a journalist that they knew would ask tough questions. That’s the first technique. There is a clear planning strategy that outlines which stories they will not be covering and there’s a culture of not asking why.
People like me get assigned UK-based stories that have no real Russian, political agenda. So it was great that I got to cover the Yarls Wood detention centre, which gets approved by the way because it fits in with RT’s anti-British government line. When you’re covering stories like that it’s easier to push other issues to the back of your mind.
Did you see MH17 as the point of no return for Russia Today? Are you not just jumping ship to protect your own future employability? There are a few people who left quietly. I did it publicly but that’s the tip of the iceberg. RT have been haemorrhaging talented staff for a while and the turnaround is a couple of years long.
I chose to work there, I knew what I was doing and I take full responsibility for that. But look, it’s a huge organisation and it offered me some fantastic opportunities at a very young age. The one thing I will say is they take on young, determined people and give them a lot of free reign to cover under-reported stories, in a way that they wouldn’t be able to at other networks.
There are a lot of great journalists there who are fighting for the truth. The truth isn’t exclusive to certain channels – sometimes the truth can happen at RT – but the wider agenda will always find a way of fitting back into a biased narrative – an embarrassing and at times, disrespectful and dangerous narrative.
A digital rendering of the Kingdom Tower jutting out of Jeddah (Screen grab via)
At the end of last month, construction began on the world’s newest tallest building. This one-kilometre-high spike rising out of the relatively modest plains of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia will be over three times taller than the Shard and reach 180 metres higher than the world’s current tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
The Kingdom Tower – an absurdly vague title, but one that at least seems justified for a building this enormous – is a statement of national pride, an opportunity for Saudi Arabia and its Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal (one of the richest men in the Middle East, and the project’s creator) to assert its presence on the world stage. It’s also the zenith in the long line of sci-fi-inspired buildings and rapid transit systems that have come to define Gulf architecture over the past 20 years.
It’s not exactly surprising that cities throughout the Middle East look like they’ve been inspired by a less-dystopian version of the Blade Runner universe; in 2005, the film’s “futurist designer” Syd Mead visited the region and met with Bahraini royal Sheik Abdullah Hamad Khalifa to discuss building projects. And despite all its patriotic function, the Kingdom Tower is itself a work of American creation. Designed by Chicago firm Smith Gill, it’s loosely based on plans for an architectural pipe-dream of the seminal Frank Lloyd Wright: a one-mile-high tower called the Illinois. Unfortunately, planners at the site in Saudi Arabia deemed the original height too tall for the relatively unstable terrain of the Red Sea Coast.
For some, that’s not the only sense in which the Kingdom Tower is being built on shaky ground. Sophia Al-Maria – a social commentator, artist and writer, whose family originate from Saudi Arabia – sees the project as yet further proof of the way in which basic human necessities are being overlooked in the race between Gulf states to out-modernise one another.
Al-Maria coined the term “gulf futurism”, which has since been used as a by-word for the way that a generation, forced indoors thanks to the intense heat, developed a view of the future informed almost exclusively by video games and Hollywood films. However, for Al-Maria, the phrase was originally meant to refer to the way in which human life is being forced to accommodate the rampant growth of consumer and luxury culture in the region.
“My family are Bedouins,” she told me when we met last month. “I see the trickle down of wealth […] there’s a lot of discrepancy between what people think when seeing these images of the hyper-modern cities in Gulf states and the reality, which is living in an unhygienic lean-to. Yes, Qatar and Saudi are two of the wealthiest countries in the world, but it’s not evenly distributed even among the local population, let alone [those building the architectural displays of wealth].”
A digital rendering of the Kingdom Tower (Image via)
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is notoriously lousy. Since November of last year, it’s been reported that 250,000 migrant workers in the country have been arrested and deported under the violation of labour and residency laws, despite the fact that “these restrictive laws are part of a labour system that leads to rampant human rights abuses”. In February, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to address the issue with King Abdullah during his March visit. Nobody seems to have heard anything since, so I’m assuming he ignored that envelope.
In a series of interviews that the NGO carried out with those who’d been detained and forced to leave the country, they discovered that migrant workers – consisting, in the most part, of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepalese people – had also been deprived of food and water. However, due to limits imposed by the government, it is almost impossible to access those living and working inside the country.
Of course, despite all that commotion, it’s inevitable that migrant workers will be employed in the construction of the Kingdom Tower.
“Every major construction project in Saudi Arabia uses migrant workers,” explained Adam Coogle, Saudi Arabian expert at Human Rights Watch. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the case of the Kingdom Tower, it is exclusively foreign labour.”
After ringing Kingdom Holdings – Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s umbrella company – leaving three voicemail messages and sending two emails, I’m still unclear as to how the people working on the Kingdom Tower are being protected. My messages were returned once, with the caller telling me that my question would be put to the prince himself for him to contemplate. That was two weeks ago; I’m yet to hear the result of his contemplation.
If Dubai’s standards – specifically the treatment of workers during the construction of the Burj Khalifa – are anything to go on, the future seems bleak. In 2004, thousands of workers protested before the Ministry of Labour against the unhygienic conditions in which they were forced to live and work, only to be dispersed by police and threatened with mass deportations.
This was followed by a succession of sporadic protests, culminating in the biggest labour protest in the history of the UAE in 2005, and another in 2006 when 2,500 workers rioted at the Burj Khalifa site. At least four people died during its construction, and another committed suicide ten months later, jumping from the 147th floor of the building after his boss refused him holiday. It’s been reported that workers were being paid as little as £2.40 a day, for 12-hour days, six days a week.
Then there’s the already staggering amount of lives reportedly lost since work began on the Qatar 2022 World Cup; according to the Guardian, more than 400 Nepalese migrant workers have died (though the organisation they credit the research to say they never collected this data), and some are warning that the number could rise to 4,000 by the time the first match kicks off eight years from now (the media and marketing director of the Qatar organising committee denied the deaths, and a senior Fifa official promised that his organisation would be carrying out “on-the-spot visits” to ensure that workers’ rights were being protected).
The Grand Mosque in Mecca, surrounded by building works (Photo via)
Perhaps the most shocking story, however, is that – among all this development – Mecca is being systematically destroyed; the homes of the prophet Muhammad’s wife and grandson have already gone.
In the words of Irfan al-Alawi, director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, the heritage sites are being obliterated to make way for “yet more seven star hotels”. Fitting, then, that the Kingdom Tower – a bastion of the Saudi luxury goods and services industry – is being viewed by board members as “a new iconic marker of Jeddah’s historic importance as the traditional gateway” to Mecca.
While architecture focuses on adapting to the inevitable consequences of global warming, the race to build taller and taller seems outdated – a pointless dick-swinging contest, with Saudi Arabia and Dubai battling it out while everybody else channels their energy into legitimate innovation.
“Probably 90 percent of corporate videos encouraging investors to the Gulf take you on a journey from the past to the future,” Al-Maria told me. “There’s also one children’s television show where these kids get on a monorail in the modern day, they travel through a lab and are teleported to 2030. They come out the other side and there are even bigger buildings and the train is flying through the air. One little girl goes to the hospital and works in the hospital for a day.
“There’s no room for reality and the basic needs of people. For example, young love in the Gulf is so mediated by technology; everything is covert and conducted via phone. And then there’s the artificiality of the landscape – every tree is planted, nothing happens by chance. But when you go out to the desert, it rains – and overnight it’s completely green with little yellow and purple flowers. This sense of dystopia rising comes from being disconnected to the land.”
The promotional video for the Kingdom Tower, highlighting the very, very high viewing platform
Nothing could be further from the land than the Kingdom Tower’s viewing platform, its luxury condos and its Four Seasons Hotel, which will take up a large proportion of the building. From its marketing video we admire the view from a clapped-out fishing boat, flimsy and worn under the Tower’s gleaming magnificence – the producers’ best way to scream, “Look how far we’ve come!” without plastering it across the screen in size 42 glitter text.
But what cost does all this growth have?
While these sci-fi constructions are being built at the expense of construction workers; while migrants with no rights are being exploited to service the wealthy; and while its own people are being forced into poverty, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf’s dream of progress remains an illusion. A dream well and truly built on sand.
The Tory-led coalition government’s dismantling of Britain’s public services isn’t anything new. During the last stint of socially destructive Conservative rule, architecture lecturer, artist and cinematographer Patrick Keiller made two seminal films – London (1994) and Robinson in Space(1997) – that pointed out the negative impact that government can have on the British landscape.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the films, they’re beautiful documents of an important time in UK history, characterised by lingering shots of seemingly mundane scenes that we might otherwise take for granted. Like Concorde flying low over rows of semi-detached suburban houses and McDonald’s forecourts with cars swinging around the drive-thru. Keiller takes these and makes them beautiful.
Keiller had made several short films prior to this and went on to make two other films – The Dilapidated Dwelling (2000) and Robinson in Ruins (2010) – about the country’s housing problem and the future of its countryside, respectively.
With Britain’s current housing crisis in mind, all four films have taken on an even greater poignancy, which is convenient, because Keiller has just released a new book – A View from the Train – that perfectly summarises his thoughts on the topic. And considering he seems to understand better than anyone how our country’s architectural landscape is falling slowly and irreversibly to shit, I thought I should get in touch for a chat.
The Robinson in Ruins trailer
VICE: What did you want to achieve by making your last four films? Patrick Keiller: The three Robinson films [London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins] are all attempts to address a “problem” by exploring a landscape with a cine-camera. In Robinson in Space, for example, an initial assumption that the UK’s social and economic ills are the result of it being a backward, flawed capitalism gradually gave way to the realisation that, on the contrary, these problems are the result of the economy’s successful operation in the interests of the people who own it.
In Robinson in Ruins, on the other hand, the “problem” is capitalism itself, prompted by Fredric Jameson writing, famously, “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.” The film arrived at its final destination in autumn, 2008 during the immediate fall-out from the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Montevetro, Battersea, London, 1999 – from The Dilapidated Dwelling (2000)
London includes several shots of Elephant and Castle, which is in the news again because the Heygate Estate is in the process of being torn down. How do you feel about that? The Elephant is unusual in that it’s the end of an underground line, but very near the centre of the city, so there are always a lot of people at the bus stops, as you see in the film. It was the hub of the South London tram network. I was intrigued that the shopping centre had never been very successful, commercially.
The pictures of the Elephant in London are mostly of the shopping centre and some nearby 1960s single-storey GLC prefabs that were about to be cleared away when we were photographing the film. An elderly couple had lived in one of them since 1965. As the film relates: “After 27 years in the house, where they had brought up all their children, they were reluctant to leave and had been offered nothing with comparable amenities; but as their neighbours disappeared one-by-one, the house was increasingly vulnerable and they no longer felt able to leave it for more than a couple of days.”
A part of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle (Photo via)
I was an architecture student when Heygate was being built. My contemporaries and I thought it fairly bleak, dominated by the priorities of a big building firm rather than those of its architects. But, by most accounts, it turned out much better than we’d anticipated. More recently, however, I can imagine that the various pressures it faced – increased inequality, and hence poverty in London; a rapid turnover of residents; over-stretched housing management and so on – had taken their toll. In a context in which public-sector housing and its architecture are continually demonised, Heygate offered an ideal opportunity to displace poor people from a potentially very valuable redevelopment site.
The clearance is carried out in the name of “regeneration”, but the motive seems fairly transparent. The buildings are far from irredeemable, and they’re not even paid for – public-sector housing was built with 60-year loans. But instead the site has been handed over to [property developers] Lend Lease, who are no doubt very capable of undertaking a transformation in keeping with neoliberal assumptions. It’s a tragedy in three acts.
McDonald’s drive-thru, Old Kent Road – from London (1992) (Courtesy of the BFI)
Are there any estates or housing initiatives outside of the UK whose basic model you think we should follow? I’m interested in models of housing that aren’t exclusively residential and aren’t based on the individual nuclear family. In the UK now and recently, that seems to mean living on your own – a lot of present-day housing demand is the result of couples splitting up. Communications technology probably makes living on your own less isolating than it might otherwise be, but it doesn’t strike me as very attractive. Living as an independent member of a larger unit might be more engaging.
There are various models one might imagine adapting, including the university college or campus; the monastery; the squatted street – Frestonia, for example; the block of serviced flats, as at Lawn Road in Hampstead; and some kinds of sheltered accommodation for elderly people. There are already quite a few examples of co-housing, some purpose-built and some in large houses, the latter often in the country. There was once something called Le Familistère de Guise in France – a large building that, in 1880, housed 1,170 people and was equipped with co-educational schools, a theatre and a park. According to Ruth Eaton’s book Ideal Cities, it was established in 1858, was “economically viable and socially progressive” and survived for over a century.
Blackpool promenade, 1995 – from Robinson in Space (1997) (Courtesy of the BFI)
Among housing architecture, I very much admire the buildings of Hans Scharoun, of which there are many examples in Berlin. In the UK, you might have a look at Walter Segal’s self-build developments in Lewisham and Ralph Erskine’s Byker estate in Newcastle.
What do you make of the fact that a lot of central London has been sold off to investors, leaving many buildings empty at a time when lots of people don’t have anywhere to live? We’re living with an economic reality in which profits aren’t so much derived from creating wealth as by transferring it, often from the poor to the rich. In former times, wealth creation meant investing in production and infrastructure, but now we encounter these extraordinary examples of asset-price inflation. In London, that means placing capital in property, much of it residential. As you say, many of these owners find it easier to leave their buildings empty, especially if they’re based elsewhere, which they often are. I wouldn’t have thought it was very difficult to legislate against this kind of thing, but any such discussion seems to be off the political agenda, just as hardly anyone ever mentions rent control.
Daewoo cars at Portbury Dock, near Bristol, 1995 – from Robinson in Space (1997) (Courtesy of the BFI)
Your book is called The View from the Train, presumably because we spend so much of our lives in transit. How do you think this has affected our understanding of the home – or “the dwelling”? There’s a lot of cultural and critical attention devoted to the experience of mobility and displacement. But often the emphasis is on their negative aspects, and we still tend to fall back on assumptions about dwelling derived from a more settled, agricultural past. This kind of place-centred dwelling is very problematic, as we see all the time in the Middle East, the UK and elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean that we can dispense with claims on territory, or with territory’s claims on us. That’s what tax-avoiders do – the super-rich think they’re above the level of the nation state. But equally, the idea of ancestral rights to settlement is just not practical. In the UK, hardly anyone isn’t “displaced” to some extent.
In England, this accompanied private ownership of land and property. Before land-enclosure, a process that dates from the 16th century or earlier, ordinary people had rights to land. Land was enclosed by a rising class of gentry, often unlawfully, in a process that very much resembles what is happening today with, for example, the privatisation of Royal Mail. I think it’s time to begin a discussion of how to socialise the value of land, and to return formerly public assets to public ownership.
How do you see the Crossrail service affecting London? It’s interesting to see how successfully these big infrastructure projects – Crossrail, the Jubilee Line extension and the Olympics – can be accomplished when there’s a political will behind them. Just think what could be achieved with energy efficiency, or “rebalancing” the economy away from financial services towards manufacturing, if there was a similar commitment. Crossrail is driven partly by the requirement to improve access to Canary Wharf from the west, especially from Heathrow, for those in the financial sector, hence the political will. I’m looking forward to its completion rather as I used to look forward to a new toy. I don’t really know what its wider impact will be, apart from increasing house prices even more and making it possible for more people to commute from far away, which seems a terrible waste of time.
House with scaffolding and plywood, Oxford, 2008 – from Robinson in Ruins (2010) (Courtesy of Patrick Keiller)
What do you think of Boris Johnson – as a politician or otherwise? Judging by his recent pronouncements, Johnson seems to understand success only in terms of money. He seemed to be suggesting that there’s a finite amount of wealth and a struggle in which the poor are those who lose out because they’re less “intelligent”. He represents the interests of those who profit from dealing in assets, rather than investing in production. Larry Elliott pointed out recently that the UK hasn’t produced a single world-class manufacturing firm from scratch since World War Two. Johnson is a typical member of the elite responsible for this failure.
I could only think of one exception to Elliott’s statement: James Dyson is, I think, much wealthier than Johnson, and certainly much more creative. His manufacturing has enriched a great many people other than himself, both in the UK and abroad. It’s interesting that Dyson is an art-school graduate, whereas Johnson went to Oxford and was a member of a famously destructive club. I think he’s quite a sinister figure.
Government Pipeline and Storage System [GPSS] depot, Islip, Oxfordshire, 2008 – from Robinson in Ruins (2010) (Courtesy of Patrick Keiller)
Do you think that the landscape of the UK is worse now, under the present government, than it was under the last Tory government? The economy is in even worse shape now than it was under the last Tory government, and that’s reflected in aspects of the landscape, especially the urban landscape. After 1997, Labour continued Thatcher’s strategy of “undisclosed” redistribution, in which the private sector was allowed to prosper in the south-east while the government supported public-sector jobs in other parts of the country, notably the north-east and Wales. The current government are abandoning that without replacing it with anything else, with disastrous consequences.
A lot of your work deals in ruins, but is there anywhere in the UK that you feel still has a great future? I find Sheffield a very encouraging city, although I wish they weren’t going to knock down Castle Market – it’s one of my favourite buildings. Halifax, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh, too. I’m attracted to cities in which there are a lot of hills.
I’m 26. Why does this matter? It doesn’t, in itself. But we need to talk about age, because as a generation we seem to be suffering a collective delusion, convinced that we’re old and past it long before we actually are.
If you’ve ever heard a 30-year-old man in a baseball hat declare that he’s “over” while creating Vines of a Seth Troxler Boiler Room show, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, then it’s pretty well summed up in the most over-used and meaningless of all internet stock phrases: “officially old.”
Turning 22 and sleeping: sure-fire signs that you’re old
Every hour, countless people on Twitter declare themselves “officially old.” They use it to prefix anything they’re doing that is remotely mundane, from buying running gear to boiling an egg, when really, all this is stuff people generally do way before they start worrying about cataracts and their own funeral arrangements. In some cases, the admission even seems to carry with it a sense of pride—history’s most infantile generation of twentysomethings taking pleasure in the occasional sign that their lives aren’t such irresponsible marathons of recklessness after all.
Being a Justin Bieber fan: a sure-fire sign that you’re old
That people with Justin Bieber profile pics are blind to the irony of declaring themselves “officially old” really isn’t their fault. Admen wield the threat of lost youth as a weapon; summer’s arrival, for example, is always accompanied these days by ads pushing inner-city “festivals,” sponsored by phone networks and beer companies while hot-pink signals flare over the heads of 10,000 exuberant 16-year-olds, all living their youth to the fullest. Of course, this is also the way youshould be living your youth, but in reality jobs, hangovers, familial commitments, and the need to not completely piss your rent away often make this non-stop-party lifestyle a little tricky to achieve.
If you’re measuring your life in rituals sold to you by vodka companies, it’s easy to see why so many people live in fear of reaching “milestone” birthdays. We’re constantly on the lookout for warning signs that our blessed fun—the thing that we live for above anything else—is being stolen away from us. Of course, advertisers have always employed this and similar tactics to it. What surprises me, though, is just how readily we now accept it. Rather than scoffing at the glitter face paint, the full-body animal suits, and the corporate-sponsored DayGlo that we’re told will prolong our youth, so many of us submit to a perpetual fear of slipping into the next age bracket.
Getting up early and reading books: This his makes you officially old
If we continue down this route our lives will come to resemble weird double bills, where the first part of the show is a roaring, drug-fueled adolescence that lasts 30 years, and the second is a prolonged and timid surrender to Brita-filtered domesticity. The message is always the same: There is only a finite amount of time to have fun before the bar runs dry and you’re too saggy to wear that cactus-print high-waist bikini and oh, wait—no, you’ve totally fucked it now; your youth is gone, and all you’ve got to show for it are 25 ear piercings, some Instagram photos, and a colostomy bag.
Which brings me on to another thing, namely our hyper-awareness of our own stories, the kind fed back to us in Facebook movies—those weird “My top moments of 2013” things—and the inane #TBT. We feel the need to write our own autobiographies as we move through life, unaware that they’re doubling as premature obituaries, into Saturday-night talking-head TV shows dedicated to us that, thanks to sun-bleached filters, are stillborn with the hues of nostalgia. We’re preoccupied with our own mythology: social veterans of 25 reminiscing about that time at Coachella two years ago when that thing happened, remember?
Overloading your tweets with emojis makes you old.
“A man is always a teller of tales,” wrote Sartre in 1938, a few years after you were born, probably. “He sees everything that happens to him through them, and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story. But you have to choose: live or tell.”
This is the crux: As long as we are consumed with telling our story, the less we are living. The more concerned we are with the narrative than the experience, the more aware we become of who we are at a given age and how we should be acting.
Yet there are no “shoulds.” Jarvis Cocker was 32 when His ‘n’ Hers, the first Pulp record to receive any kind of notable attention, was released. Kurt Vonnegut was 41 when his first novel, Cat’s Cradle, was published. Alan Rickman was 46 before he got his first film role. Gandhi led the Quit India Movement at 73. Obviously we don’t all possess the charisma or talent of these people, and the arcs of our lives won’t exactly mirror theirs. But if all of that doesn’t make you feel stupid for declaring yourself old, past it, and on the shelf for submitting your first tax return, I don’t know what will.
While I was half watching his debate with Nick Clegg, half scrolling through his Wikipedia last month, I learned that Nigel Farage—2014’s very own Toad of Toad Hall—had only just turned 50. Which makes him ten months younger than Johnny Depp, five months younger than Brad Pitt, the same age as Dr. Dre, and one year older than Björk. If it wasn’t already clear to me, I realized in that moment that age is completely meaningless.
Being really alt = officially old.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re young. Even if you’re not, who cares? Growing older and becoming more confident in who you are is something to be enjoyed and to feel proud of. Despite what people want to tell you, there is a novelty to growing up.
That said, you’re probably still the same person at 30 as you were at 29. Yes, life changes and new responsibilities arise that we have to adapt to, but the idea of seeing one experience, one birthday, as a precipice between young and old age is ridiculous and puts a huge amount of pressure on us, which is only going to lead to disappointment. Spending as many of your post-breast-milk years in a haze of hedonism and irresponsibility as you can is impossible, unrealistic, and likely to lead to an overdose.
Also, if you’re more Keith Floyd than Chief Keef, it doesn’t invalidate your 20s; and the reverse goes for your 30s, 40s, 50s, whatever. There is no “right” way. Life is a series of mistakes, some of which give way to beauty. It’s probably best to just ride it out and keep doing it however you want until it’s over.
The fact that anyone is still discussing the issue of Scarlett Johansson getting her kit off in Under the Skin is surely proof of what I think the film is trying to critique. Men are punished for their human weakness in wanting to reach out, grab and penetrate Scarlett’s admittedly, fairly penetrable body; and are totally horrified when confronted by what lurks beneath. The Loachian choice of setting - View from the Transit Van Scotland - is sufficiently grey and mundane as to qualify for wider symbolic representation of Western society as a whole.
As my very smart friend Laura pointed out when we went to see the film last week, there seems to be a clear feminist subtext. That in the sleep, work, shop, shit and eat sequence of every day life there lurks a pervasive cynicism towards sex and intimacy, and an alarming reverence for the female body that nullifies any real reverence for the female herself. So the fact that people are still discussing the whys and hows of Scarlett acting naked in a really great film, scoring five stars in The Guardian and achieving widespread critical acclaim, sort of proves it right.
I could be wrong, but it’s difficult to imagine that a film as pared-down and repetitive as this isn’t functioning on some symbolic level. Plus there seems to be a clue in the title, and the confrontational promotion campaign in the shape of a Craigslist ad. You were tempted to click without even knowing her name. Are you sick or are you just human?
If the film’s directive is anything to go by, the answer for most of us is both.
When the world awakes tomorrow, it will be awash with more think-pieces about Jennifer Lawrence’s hair. Someone, probably Jack Nicholson, will have provided feminists with months of ammo by leering maniacally from behind his wrap-around sunglasses: “Isn’t it awful and terrible and offensive to all our liberal sensibilities?” etc, etc. The Oscars have an unparalleled knack of teasing out shit from bored people on the internet, and tonight will be no exception. My only hope is that a few people might look beyond the glitz and BS to consider the works at stake, because this year more than ever, they carry with them an important message about the present state of the film industry and America as a whole.
The undisputed forerunners for awards this year are 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street. With the exception of Gravity, it’s an award season dominated by one subject: American mistakes. Sure, one or two films on this subject crop up most years, but the sheer volume makes 2014 an exception.
Leading the race for Best Actor are Chiwetel Ejiofor, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey, and critics are placing bets on the latter to win for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club. If he wins, McConaughey will deliver his speech out the side of his mouth in his Southern accent, probably referring to himself more than once in the third person and revealing his dimples – the quintessential Texan mannerisms that won him roles playing hunks in rom-coms but prevented him from ever being taken seriously as an actor, until recently. Since delivering a parody of his own sexual voracity in Magic Mike there’s a feeling that he no longer gives a shit if you think he’s a joke. And it works. Cue the arrival of Mad McConaughey, the chest-beating, straw-chewing maniac who the world eventually fell for, critics included. It’s testament to the power of honesty, and it’s a personal story that reflects a wider shift that seems to be taking place in Hollywood as a whole.
While British cinema never shied from showing the world Julie Walters taking her night courses or heroin addicts coming down in their own sweat and shit, Hollywood always seemed much more preoccupied with making itself look good. Even when dealing with the grittier parts of its own culture, there was always an attempt to glamourise, or at least avoid the fact that in real life, redemption – moral, or otherwise – doesn’t actually exist. Hollywood never had an equivalent to Ken Loach. When it has surrendered itself to introspection, it has usually done so through a telescope and with the fairly patronising feel of a superpower warning of the terrible things that happen to Americans when they get lost in strange, far off and often war-torn lands – see Best Pictures ’85, ’86 and ’87, Out of Africa, Platoon and The Last Emperor.
I’m not saying that any of the films in the running this year are particularly gritty, but there’s a notable honesty to them. American Hustle makes powerful Americans look stupid, corrupt and greedy. It’s not the searing commentary that 12 Years a Slave is, but its central characters are sleazy and their glamour is farcical and ridiculous. Even The Wolf of Wall Street is honest in depicting the high-octane excitement felt by those egotistical financiers who stupidly thought themselves invincible. If it does glamourise, it’s only for the sake of recreating the distorted view of reality that its subjects experienced, and to emphasise the enormous fall from grace that they felt at the end (if you haven’t seen it by now, you never will).
For whatever reason – blame the economic crash, blame 9/11, blame Putin, blame China – the bland pride with which Hollywood made films has slowly broken down. You don’t get the feeling that any of the films that will dominate this year’s Oscars could ever act as propaganda tools for the US. The American film industry has been retreating slowly to the point where it has arrived on home turf and is now taking a long hard look at itself. Where did it all go wrong? It asks. Were we too greedy? (Wolf of Wall Street) Was the dream a big scam? (American Hustle) Was our approach to healthcare and sexuality detrimental to our people? (Dallas Buyers Club) Perhaps most pressingly: Was our sense of superiority unwarranted and based on a pack of lies? (12 Years a Slave). The answer delivered in the case of each film is a firm and resounding “yes”.
Even Inside Llewyn Davis tells the story of a hapless American Dream disciple whose musical career is stifled by creative shortcomings. The film is no more dramatic than that. No love loss, no action, no real sympathy for the egotistical man at its centre. Just a simple message that some of us have delusions of grandeur.
Perhaps tonight sees in a new wave of modest, self-deprecating Hollywood filmmaking; and when you place that within the context of the country’s glossiest award ceremony, something interesting starts to happen. Yes, the same ludicrous ritual will take place of actors parading up and down a red carpet while correspondents from Daybreak ask what they’re wearing. Angelina Jolie will probably pose for photos at an afterparty with Ellie Goulding and like I said, Jack Nicholson, if he attends, will be leering behind squealing starlets like only he knows how. But watch closer, because the stars at its centre won’t be staring off into the brightly lit middle distance, a glazed expression on their made-up faces. McConaughey will stride purposefully, DiCaprio will be as unenthused as ever, Sandra Bullock will carry herself with the air of a woman who is just relieved to have finally made a great film and Jennifer Lawrence will probably be photobombing people once again. The perfect veneer of Hollywood is breaking down and the film industry is slowly learning to take itself less seriously.
As the awards pay homage to The Wizard of Oz on its 75th birthday, many are attempting to draw parallels with a Hollywood that they feel has finally gathered the strength to pull back the curtain on the USA. Whatever the convenient symbolism, it’s hard to deny that America makes much better films when it’s depressed.
Yesterday, after it was reported that an estimated 77 people had been killed in the Euromaidan protests, Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians alike gathered to demonstrate in London’s Parliament Square. Their request was less than simple. They wanted sanctions imposed against president Yanukovych, his discredited government and his band of oligarch cronies who protesters hold responsible for the human rights abuses that have taken place during the most recent wave of protests.
After a few hours this wish was granted, as news came in that the European Parliament would impose tax freezes and visa bans on the president’s key allies as a matter of urgency. However, the 300 or so demonstrators were also demanding “true independence from Russia”, to have a government that respects international law and a parliament that is above corruption. Things which, in their own words, would take several generations to achieve.
Candles were lit in remembrance of those who had passed away during the demonstrations, as those gathered sung the country’s melancholy national anthem. “UK Support Ukraine!” they chanted between rounds of the song, as well as: “Actions Not Words!” “Yanukovych is a murderer!” and, perhaps most tellingly, “Putin, hands off Ukraine!” As reports have stated, Yanukovych’s own corruption is itself indebted to the country’s attachment to Russia – indeed, its dependence on Russia for natural gas, which protesters feel prevents Ukraine from becoming a fully functioning, globally significant economy.
Most of all, however, demonstrators were out to show solidarity against the brutality inflicted by Kiev police in recent days. As one girl, Maria, told me: “The people are scared. The man who delivered petrol for the heaters that were keeping the protesters warm has been killed. He was a close family friend.” Stories like this were shared between Ukrainian ex-pats who had gathered in the square despite the heavy clouds overhead and intermittent lashings of rain. Several held posters brandishing images of the bloodshed at its very worse: bodies stacked up along the streets, elderly couples splattered with blood, bullets deeply imbedded in young flesh. Children as young as five, wrapped in the country’s yellow and blue flag, punched the air and echoed the chants of their parents.
At 6.30PM, the crowd was informed by police that they would have to disband. So they moved their demonstration onto the steps of the home belonging to one of Ukraine’s richest men, Rinat Akhmetov. In January 2014, Forbes reported that Akhmetov had been behind 31 percent of business tenders in Ukraine – a fact not made any more palatable to the country’s short-changed masses by his purchase in 2007 of the most expensive flat at One Hyde Park. On the basement level there stands a Rolex and Ferrari outlet, outside of which, the anti-Yanukovych demonstrators amassed. Security guards paced the building’s forecourt, flimsily distinguished from the main pedestrian street by a thin, metal line running along the ground, which demonstrators were asked to stand behind.
From time to time, excitement would mount as rumours spread that Akhmetov had arrived in the country and was a matter of minutes away from his London address. Earlier in the day, it had been reported on Twitter that he had left Ukraine via private jet. The crowd moved en masse to the side of the building, where tens of valets stood. At one point, someone started shouting, “Your neighbour, he is a criminal!” Which caught on fast, before morphing into: “Your neighbour, he is a murderer!”
An hour or so later, I made my way back to One Hyde Park where I tried to take a photo of the crowd. A security guard whose hat had been pulled down and his scarf pulled up as if to resemble a balaclava, told me that I was on private property, I pointed out that lots of pedestrians were on the same piece of land as me and he launched himself at my camera. As I tried to protect it, he flung his fist at my hand, knocking the camera into my face. The photos were saved, but the camera lay in several pieces on the floor.
At this point, something rather bizarre happened. Nick Candy, one of the owners and a resident of One Hyde Park, as well as the husband of Holly Valance, came down to check up on what the fuss was all about. He made a grab for the camera but wasn’t quick enough and quickly disappeared again behind the rows of security. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian protesters continued with their chants of solidarity, glaring at the building. Peace talks seem to be progressing in Ukraine today, but whatever happens you get the feeling that the ex-pats’ rage isn’t going anywhere – just like their compatriots on the streets of Kiev.
Bret Easton Ellis has only got to open his mouth for the cry-babies of the world to crawl out and start berating him for being a morally depraved chancer. Back in the 80s and 90s, you could sympathise with people getting offended by his books if they hadn’t spent much time around hedge-fund managers or fashion world dickheads. If they had, they’d realise that American Psychoand Glamorama are in essence works of journalism – dressed up in Valentino and splattered with blood, yes, but documentaries of a certain moment in history all the same. “The six or seven books add up as a sort of autobiography,” he says. “When I look at them I think, ‘Oh, that’s where I was in ’91. That’s where I was in ’88. Okay, I got it.’”
Now he has moved into film, as well as writing screenplays for TV and delivering his own weekly podcast. Which, among other highlights, has featured Kanye West and Marilyn Manson. Yet still he has repeatedly faced accusations of “douchery” from bloggers and a general outcry every time he criticises anything on Twitter.
When I called his house in LA last week, Bret talked passionately about his frustration with what he’s dubbed “Generation Wuss” – you, me, everyone else who’s young, hyper-sensitive and grown up with the internet, basically. (Though admittedly we may be witnessing the emergence of a new internet generation that takes pride in being anything but hyper-sensitive.) Over the course of a few hours, I was genuinely impressed by the amount of interest he takes in the lives of people who’ve grown up reading his books, the technology they use and the way they consume culture. His annoyance seems to come from a place of concern rather than misanthropy.
So, why all the pant-wetting?
VICE: Why have you termed me and my contemporaries “Generation Wuss”? Bret Easton Ellis: You have to understand that I’m coming to these things as a member of the most pessimistic and ironic generation that has ever roamed the earth. When I hear millennials getting hurt by “cyber bullying”, or it being a gateway to suicide, it’s difficult for me to process. A little less so for my boyfriend, who happens to be a millennial of that age, but even he somewhat agrees with the sensitivity of Generation Wuss. It’s very difficult for them to take criticism, and because of that a lot of the content produced is kind of shitty. And when someone is criticised for their content, they seem to collapse, or the person criticising them is called a hater, a contrarian, a troll.
In a way it’s down to the generation that raised them, who cocooned them in praise – four stars for showing up, you know? But eventually everyone has to hit the dark side of life; someone doesn’t like you, someone doesn’t like your work, someone doesn’t love you back… people die. What we have is a generation who are super-confident and super-positive about things, but when the least bit of darkness enters their lives, they’re paralysed.
I realised the other day that I’m around the same age as Patrick Bateman. His existence was fairly typical of a 27-year-old living in New York at the time you wrote American Psycho, but it couldn’t be further away from my reality.
Not to reference the 27-year-old [Bret’s boyfriend] too often, but he would completely agree with you. American Psycho is about a world that is as alien to him as Saturn.
I think it was a world we were promised, though. There was a certain point where we realised the promises were lies and that we were going to be economically adrift. It’s the fault of the baby boomer generation for raising their kids at the highest peak of the empire, in a complete fantasy world. My generation, Gen X, realised that, like most fantasies, it was somewhat dissatisfying, and we rebelled with irony, negativity and attitude because we had the luxury to do that. Our reality wasn’t an economic hardship.
Right – which is what The Wolf of Wall Street is all about. Is that why you like it so much? I never like a movie because of its subject matter. I liked it because it wasn’t an op-ed piece and it wasn’t concerned with another thing that so many movies are concerned with today, which is decency: decent people under stress or hardship.
To me, it’s a classic young man story, like Barry Lyndon. Nine times out of ten they blow it, they fuck up, they spend all the money, they let their id run wild, don’t check themselves, don’t look towards the future and… it crashes. Also, I just thought it was hilarious, and Leonardo delivered a transfixing performance. And the fact that he’s not going to win an Academy Award this year is a real bummer.
Seeing him in that film, do you wish he’d played Patrick Bateman? I was really not involved in the making of that movie. All I know was that it was an offer made to Leo after Christian Bale. It would have been the start of erasing something that was probably quite embarrassing for him, being known for the rest of his life as Jack from Titanic. I don’t know exactly what happened. I also didn’t know how far along Christian was in preparing American Psycho, so my endorsing Leo might have looked insensitive. But yes – in answer to your question, I would have liked to see him in the role. But it was probably a lot better at that time and less distracting to have a relatively unknown actor.
You said Terrence Malick was a big inspiration. One of the key moments in my young movie-going life was watching Days of Heaven and realising that film was an art form. I’d been leading up to that epiphany, growing up in LA and being very aware of the film industry. But in 1978, that’s when I got it. That’s why I have such a tie to that film and why I watch it every two years. It takes me back.
Is it a style you’d like to recreate in your own films? I don’t know about that. Part of the problem I had with The Canyons was that I would have directed it faster. I don’t have the Asian mindset that Paul Schrader does, which is steeped in [Yasujiro] Ozu and the great Japanese directors from the 50s and 60s. That’s his way of pacing a movie.
That sounds like a pretty massive disparity in your vision for the film. It seems more massive than it really was. The Canyons was guerrilla film making. We were going to make it for no money and put it on iTunes. We didn’t think it was going to turn into this notorious, cultural event in the US.
Surely you knew that casting Lindsay Lohan would have that kind of effect? No, but it was a $150,000 (£89,000) movie. We were sitting in friends’ bedrooms; we weren’t trying to create The Godfather. I wrote the script – I think it was one of only two scripts in Schrader’s career that he didn’t touch, the other being a script written by Harold Pinter for a film called The Comfort of Strangers, which is a movie that influenced The Canyons – and Schrader wanted it shot the way he shoots. And I thought, ‘You know, this will be faster after we’ve edited it.’ And it did [get faster], to a degree.
Look, 20 percent of people I know like the movie; 80 percent don’t like the movie. But the sketchiness of it – the sleazy, cold aspect of it – what can I say? It speaks to me.
The sinister portrait of LA that you paint in Less Than Zero – with howling coyotes and dead bodies littering alleyways – is that a realistic depiction of the place? Or has your view of it changed as you’ve grown older? I think it’s a bit of both. I do think my southern California childhood was very idyllic. Yes, there was a bad marriage going down in the house and I suffered from a little bit of depression, but there was the beach, there were the malls, a lot of my friends drove around in convertibles. I mean, how bad is it?
I wasn’t an unpopular kid. I had a lot of friends, I threw parties, I had a… girlfriend. But writing all the time alienated me from the crowd slightly, and because of that I did tend to look at the world with a more jaundiced eye.
Okay. Is it true that you’re writing a TV series about the Manson murders? Yes, although I wouldn’t say it’s about the Manson murders. It’s about the two years surrounding the Manson murders in LA. The show starts about a year before the Manson murders. I’m just beginning to plan it. It’s in the beginning stages.
And are you writing a new book? Yes, but I wish it wasn’t important to people that I am. I had a bit of a breakdown in January of 2013. I did more writing in 2012 than I’d ever done in my life – a series of movies, two of which got made, and countless television pilots. By January of 2013 I was exhausted. I found myself hungry to write prose, so I started working on this book. Every now and then it comes alive and I work on it until I get distracted by something else. It’s on my desk, along with a play that I’m writing.
What made you want to do the podcast? I published a very long, 4,000 word piece for Out Magazine. It got a lot of attention here in the US, and reading articles written in response to it, I realised people had stopped reading halfway through.
That’s the internet. Well, there’s a positive myth that the internet is great for writing long-form pieces and you can publish 11,000 words, but it doesn’t mean people will necessarily read the whole thing. So I thought, if I had a podcast, I could have my say over it. I wasn’t into the idea of a talk radio show at first, but it’s been really interesting. I don’t understand this idea of the novelist being locked in the top of a tower. I’ve seen people respond negatively to the fact I’m on Twitter and have opinions about pop culture. I like it. It fucks with people’s idea of what I’m really like.
Is this one of the problems you had with David Foster Wallace – that he played up to the almighty author thing? I think David Foster Wallace is a complete fraud. I’m really shocked that people take him seriously. People say the same thing about me of course, and I’ve been criticised for saying these things about Wallace due to the very sentimental narrative attached to him since he killed himself.
But it all ties into Generation Wuss and its wussy influence on social media to a degree; if you have a snarky opinion about anything, you’re a douche. To me, that’s problematic. It limits discourse. If you just like everything, what are we going to talk about? How great everything is? How often I’ve pushed the Like button on my Facebook page?
Is it BuzzFeed who said they’re not going to run any negative reviews any more? Really, guys? What’s going to happen to culture then? What’s going to happen to conversation? It’s going to die.
Yeah. But I suppose now, in place of money, we have a currency of popularity, and the main pay-off is thousands of people liking your shit on Facebook. In that climate, how do you create vital work? I agree with you, and it’s kind of touching to me that there isn’t an economic way of elevating yourself, and the only way to do that is through your brand, your profile and your social media presence. I think I might be too old to consciously use Instagram or Tumblr to my advantage. I don’t even use Twitter correctly. But living with someone who’s 27, I think the way you described it is perfectly accurate: online presence is the currency.
While my boyfriend and his friends can be really quite biting and mean at times, overall they really do want to put out a more gentle, amiable persona.
But I wouldn’t say your work in the 80s and 90s was particularly amoral. American Psychodid carry a kind of moral message. It might not have been stated explicitly, but it was there. You need to feel that, though. I got shit for American Psycho, with people saying it was calculated to offend people. If that was true, I wouldn’t have spent three to four years on it, and I would have just filled every page with horrible descriptions. I was writing about my life. I was writing about being Patrick Bateman – a young man in New York during that era – and being lost in that yuppie culture, which is really just consumerist culture. Feeling that I had to have all of the things that a young man had at that time and hating myself for not having them and hating society and not wanting to grow up. That’s really what American Psycho was. It was a very personal novel.
Also, like a lot of men, I had a pretty tawdry fantasy world, and if any man really wants to admit that, they’re going to be attacked for it.
When people accuse you of misogyny, I’m always like, ‘Oh right, because the men come off so well in those books.’ Well, look. [Laughs] This is exactly the kind of thing a misogynist would say, but I’ve never felt like a misogynist. Yet, it has been interesting to look back at myself when I’ve been accused of that and to understand why someone would say it. For example, I don’t think American Psycho is a misogynist text at all; I think misogyny is part of the picture. But, like I said in the Wolf of Wall Streetpodcast, a depiction is not endorsement.
I was criticised for speaking about Kathryn Bigelow on Twitter [Ellis said that her being “a hot woman” had led to her being “overrated” as a director]. First of all, I thought that was an aesthetic thing and a comment about Hollywood and reverse sexism, but it came out in a way that annoyed people who are very sensitive about those things. I got it when I said Alice Munro was overrated, too, without people acknowledging that I’ve criticised a lot of male authors I don’t like, and I’ve celebrated a lot about female writers I love. My friend Donna Tartt, for instance – her new novel,The Goldfinch, is really good and I’m in awe of someone who can do that.
And you’ve made no secret of how much you love Joan Didion. Well, every now and then someone comes along who changes your perception. Before Didion, it was Hemingway – that was when I was 12 or 13. Didion was later, in high school, and it was more personal because she was writing about southern California and referencing streets I had driven on. She was describing a sensibility about women that jibed with what I was noticing in my mum’s friends. I tried writing Less Than Zero maybe two times before what was ultimately published, and Joan Didion played a big part in shaping it.
Do you ever feel as though feminism is slipping into a blame culture? Years ago, I found Jezebel.com very ominous and worrying. I mean, not that I care that much, but now it really has come full circle. I think the Lena Dunham bullying thing – and I don’t want to toe the party line and say, “Oh, it was so shitty of Jezebel to do that” – but it was indicative of where a kind of feminism is right now.
I keep thinking that feminism is getting to a place that’s cool, mostly because women that I know just want to be real and they want to be sexual and they want to be pretty. Meeting James Deen, being immersed in his world, meeting a lot of women who worked in porn and seeing how cool they were with it gave me a different view.
You don’t think it’s fucked them up? No, they’re not fucked up by it. James Deen’s girlfriend [VICE columnist Stoya] is a huge performer and, like James, doesn’t look like a traditional pornstar. She also has a blog where she writes about feminist porn and how she’s in control.
Can you tell me about the Kanye film collaboration? You know what, I can’t. It’s in Kanye-land and that’s subject to a whole other timeframe. He came and asked me to write the film. I didn’t want to at first. Then I listened to Yeezus. It was early summer last year and I was driving in my car. He’d given me an advance copy and I thought, regardless of whether I’m right for this project, I want to work with whoever made this. So fuck it, I said yes. And that’s how it happened. That was seven or eight months ago. We’ll see what happens.
I really like him as a person. I know he comes off in this performance art way in the press, but if you’re just alone with him in a room talking for three hours, it’s kind of mind-blowing.
I think he just broke the golden rule of admitting to being a narcissist, and that’s what people can’t handle. Why is that rule there, though?
Right, because if you’re working in the media or entertainment industry, chances are, you’re a narcissist. Yeah, you’re right. We all are. We’re all here. And he’s one of the few people who will admit it, and I like him for that and I wish more people would follow suit. I think that’s what makes Jennifer Lawrence so appealing. She’s the future of Hollywood personas. I don’t know where the “old rules” of the empire – about showing your best self on the red carpet – gets anyone. It suggests an unfree society.
Can you explain this empire and post-empire distinction? Because you refer to it a lot. Empire is the US from roughly WWII to a little after 9/11. It was at the height of its power, its prestige and its economic worth. Then it lost a lot of those things. In the face of technology and social media, the mask of pride has been slowly eradicated. That empirical attitude of believing you’re better than everyone – that you’re above everything – and trying to give the impression that you have no problems. Post-empire is just about being yourself. It’s showing the reality rather than obscuring things in reams and reams of meaning.
But can you ever present a “real” version of yourself online? Well, turning yourself into an avatar, at least, is post-empire. That’s a new kind of mask. It’s more playful than hiding your feelings, presenting your best self and lying if you have to. Unless, of course, you argue that that’s just a whole new form of empire in itself.
Download the Bret Easton Ellis podcast featuring Marilyn Manson, Kanye West and Judd Apatowhere.
Bret is launching his own YouTube channel in the coming months.
TRUE BLUE - You were planning on spending this Valentine with Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt or Leo DiCaprio? Forget it: they are overbooked. Tonight, they have roughly ten million dates.
Knowing that everybody is going to turn to these actors for comfort doesn’t make me feel special. And I need to feel special. So here’s my list of underrated movie boyfriends we don’t always think of but definitely should for companionship on Valentine’s Day. What’s yours?
I was late to Joan Didion. Not late late, but still: three heartbreaks deep and filing tax returns. I’m slow at getting through books and unashamed to admit that there are still very big holes in my reading. During a walk over Hungerford Bridge a few years ago, a friend of mine told me the tragic story of Didion’s later life; how she lost her husband John Gregory Dunne, and daughter Quintana in quick succession and wrote about the ordeal in two books – The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. Some books benefit from being read with a bit more experience, and I could have waited a while longer before reading these.
I didn’t give Didion a second thought until a few months later when I went to pick up a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion’s first collection of non-fiction writing published in 1968. According to reviews, this was the definitive portrait of 1960s California, a world-renowned work of literature that anyone less consumed by heartbreak and filing tax returns might have read. Except that when I opened the first page it struck me as something I had read before, there being something familiar in the way it was written.
The second of the collection’s short stories, ‘John Wayne, a Love Song’ is perhaps my favourite, and begins with an account of how Didion spent one Summer returning to the cinema with her brother to watch John Wayne in War of the Wildcats. As she recalls, Wayne’s character decides to build his girl a house: “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.”
Later on she describes how in California, life is always spent on a sort of precipice. With only the Pacific ahead – and of course, given the book’s chronological proximity to the conflicts of the early Twentieth century – the threat of Japan. California is the edge of the mainland, where the American dream can go no further and must teeter or otherwise fall into the nothingness of the sea below. It’s a void that exists within the Californian psyche and a void that certainly found its way into Didion’s writing. Finishing Slouching Towards Bethlehem and moving on to the novels – Play it as it Lays and A Book of Common Prayer – then back again to the non-fiction – The White Album, Salvadorand the latter two autobiographical works about her family – it became clear to me that this nothingness, this simplicity of expression, often suggestive by what it chooses to omit, is what underpins Didion’s writing.
Joan Didion at home with her daughter Quintana Dunne, 1974Photography by Julian Wasser
In this way it is perhaps easier to compare Didion to artist Ed Ruscha than to other writers (although she has often cited Hemingway as a major inspiration). Nowhere does Didion resemble Ruscha more than in The Year of Magical Thinking, where motifs and phrases start, falter and repeat against the backdrop of a white page. Nowhere does Didion demonstrate more clarity than when she’s recounting the way in which her husband’s death destroyed her own sense of mental clarity. We are not reading an account of mourning. We are watching the mourning process unfold as it happens on the page in front of us: words beginning to resemble sentences beginning to resemble ideas, as the Year of Magical Thinking passes and reaches its conclusion. Except of course there is no conclusion, and she will forever mourn her late husband.
She is funny. Not LMFAO funny, but then she’s a writer, not a comedian. Part of my fascination with Didion came from the fact that I was reading her at a time when ‘being a writer’ seemed to be all about shouting the loudest, telling gags, tweeting incessantly and being professionally opinionated. Yet for all the stomping and shouting everyone was doing, none of the writers I’d encountered in today’s mainstream media looked like they would ever make such a profound or lasting impact as Didion, with her quietly measured prose. Her writing is not defined by gender, she is not consciously a ‘woman writer’; that said, she has certainly never compromised her femininity. She lives and she explores and she recounts her findings in a way that is good. Simple. Being the master of that skill is a feminist statement far more powerful to me than the reiterations of a ‘for us by us’ school of feminist writing.
It has also won her admirers across the board. Most famously Bret Easton Ellis, and by proxy, every person with half an interest in reading in the English speaking world. I eventually came to realise that the reason Didion’s work sounded so familiar on that first reading – and why I could happily sit and read her books every day for the rest of my life – is that it has trickled down to such an extent that today, we are all Joan Didion disciples, whether we know it or not. The wry glance that a generation of Ellis readers casts on the media, the entertainment industry and the political infrastructures of the West, begins with Didion. The media’s acceptance of the cultural importance of subcultures, begins with Didion. But to elucidate mourning, which in the West we are forced to endure without the proper rituals that other cultures have developed for the sake of recovery, is perhaps Didion’s greatest gift to date.