Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Punk History

Iain McCalman described Pistols! Treason! Murder! as 'punk history'. I suspect he was simply free-associating (Pistols! = Sex Pistols = punk), but in the spirit of 1977 (or 1976 for purists), I decided to pre-empt the inevitable question - what exactly is punk history? - by inventing a post-facto manifesto for this non-existent movement. The manifesto has four points.

1. We mean it man. Total cynicism towards the conventional pieties of historical writing combined with passionate commitment to a particular subject.

2. Boredom. Get it over with as fast as you can: maximum speed, maximum aggression. Why use eight thousand words when eight hundred will do, or eighty? If anything gets in the way of the forward momentum of the story, including contextual information, feel free to ignore it. Cut until it bleeds.

(Alternatively, lavish attention on details that other writers would dismiss as irrelevant. This inversion of the rule is equally important. Why use eighty words when you can use eight hundred, or eight thousand?)

3. Do it yourself. Why should you be limited by someone else’s lack of imagination? You don’t have an unlimited budget. So what? Script the illustrations yourself. Supervise their production. Provide a design brief. Tell the typesetter what you want. Don’t try and do other people’s job for them – they’re better at it than you are – but be involved. Have an opinion. Be prepared to justify it.

4. No future. Write as if your career is already over. You have nothing left to lose, so it doesn’t matter who you offend.

Gerolamo Vano is the ideal subject for such a history. Vano stands not only for aggressive indifference to pious convention, but also for unlimited cynicism, maximum exploitation of a limited talent by ruthless opportunism, an almost ascetic indifference to the suffering of others, and a willingness to exploit the fear and credulity of his employers for his own gain. Unique among his contemporaries, Vano understood the uselessness of all sectarian rhetoric in the brave new world of espionage. He confined all references to such trivial distractions to the one place where they might serve some purpose: requests for money. Only when pleading for more ducats did Vano adopt the guise of a patriot. For Vano, the only thing that mattered was keeping the audience’s attention, by any means necessary.

I admire him tremendously. I hope to emulate his success.


N.B. Some of these points were discussed in an interview with Phillip Adams on Radio National's Late Night Live. The audio file of this interview is available in the Press section of my site (under 15 February 2007).

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Existentialist Gangsters

The protagonists of The Revenger's Tragedy and The Massacre at Paris are obvious fictional models for their close contemporary, Gerolamo Vano. A more anachronistic prototype is the twentieth-century existentialist gangster, hero of films like Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1954), Jean-Paul Melville's The Red Circle (1970), and more recently Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).[1] These films depict a world in which women are deeply threatening to male moral autonomy, and relationships between men are the only real source of value and meaning. Moreover, that meaning resides in restraint and control, in what you refuse to say or reveal, but instead communicate indirectly through the subtext of a gesture or phrase. It is no accident that each of the three films I just mentioned has at its core a long, virtually silent sequence depicting highly concentrated, co-ordinated (and criminal) actions carried out by groups of men. Conspiracy is their version of intimacy.

According to Jerry Palmer, the thriller lionises

a personality that is isolated and competitive and who wins because he is better adapted to the world than anyone else. This superiority is incarnated in acts that are deliberately and explicitly deviant, and yet justified. The individuality, the personal worth of the hero is presented as inseparable from the performance of actions that in any other circumstances would be reprehensible.[2]

Palmer is writing from a Marxist perspective, perhaps with films like Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) in mind. The heist movies referred to above work differently. Although they too assume a conflict between individual and society, they, like Vano and game theorists, are deeply fatalistic. The individual always loses. The protagonist’s idiosyncratic morality is pointless and ultimately self-destructive, or even self-sacrificial.

There are very obvious ways in which Vano is not an ‘existential gangster’. He is certainly deadpan, but hardly reticent, and his reports entirely lack the focus and momentum of a modern thriller. It is not an accident that we know little of his inner life, and Vano's silence on such matters does not constitute a refusal - or rather a renunciation, and therefore a choice - in the way that the studied blankness of Alain Delon in The Red Circle does.

To use such an anachronistic frame of reference is therefore a calculated risk. It balances possibilities for greater insight against possibilities for misunderstanding. It both stimulates the imagination and offers false solutions. But, if used deliberately and self-consciously, it does not suppress difference. Rather, it invites comparison.


[1] Robert Warshow, ‘The Gangster as Tragic Hero’, 1948, sets out some of the genre rules and assumptions.
[2] Quoted in Tony Barley, Taking Sides: the fiction of John le Carré, 1986, p. 7.

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Rationality

The modern, secular notion of rationality assumes that decisions are taken by autonomous individuals on the basis of calculation of interest, and ‘interest’ is usually interpreted in reductive, materialist terms. A person’s goal will always be to maximise profit, while success is only possible at the expense of competitors. If you win, this means somebody else has to lose. This zero-sum version of rationality lies behind game theory. It describes a world based on the idea of free choices, but it is also deeply fatalistic. As a player, you make a choice to see the world in a certain way – that is, to accept a given set of rules – and this creates the conditions that lead to your downfall. It is the Prisoner’s Dilemma writ large.[1] Once you have divided the world into winners and losers, you know that eventually, no matter how many times you win, one day you are going to lose.

Is this how Gerolamo Vano thought? It is true that many people in seventeenth-century Venice did not make choices on this basis. Even when they tried to ‘maximise profit’, they did so in ways that did not fit the modern notion of rationality at all. For example, many Venetians prayed to the saints and used magic to achieve their goals. (It is worth pointing out here that any notion of rationality is based on specific assumptions about causation. For example, prayer is rational if you believe that God controls the universe and may intervene in it. Whether or not this prior belief is also rational is, of course, a separate question.)

My defence to the charge of anachronism on this point is that I am following Vano’s lead. It is Vano who eliminates religion. It is Vano who reduces people to isolated individuals, rendered vulnerable by their failure to understand the real, hidden motivations of others. It is Vano who suppresses any hint of a moral critique or a broader political theory.

[1] The ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ describes a situation typical in game theory, of which there are numerous variants. In its classic form, two prisoners involved in the same crime are awaiting trial. They are isolated and unable to communicate with each other. There is not enough evidence to convict either of them without a confession. If neither man co-operates, both will be released. If one man co-operates, then he will be pardoned in exchange for the conviction of the other. If both men co-operate, then both will be convicted, but they will receive reduced sentences. Hence the Prisoner’s Dilemma is: Should he co-operate? His calculation of the risks involved in not doing so depends on how much he trusts his associate.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Honky's Ladder

From the Pistols! Treason! Murder! soundtrack: