“I’m remote from most technology to the point that I’m kind of Amish,” admits the legendarily bearded author without an Internet connection, mobile phone or even a functioning television.
Congratulations, you’re a man of the people, including the people who are now crowd-funding “Jimmy’s End.”
Well, I’m largely unfamiliar with the Internet, and everything connected with it. But Kickstarter was a suggestion that came from Mitch and Lex Records, so I decided to put a toe in the water and see what it was like. We went out to a local medieval abbey to use some of their strange, cavernous chambers for filming the pitch reel. We pretty much made it up and filmed it on the spot, and I hear it’s out there on the Internet now.
It makes sense for you as a way to remain independent.
Certainly, my many years working in the comics industry, creating products that I do not own, has made me rather fierce on the subject of giving up rights. I would much rather that this film did not happen, than happen in a compromised way. Yeah, that approach has obviously ruled out many of the customary ways in which films get funded. In that respect, Kickstarter is a very timely representation of the manner in which projects of this sort can be realized without the necessity of some all-devouring company behind them.
You recently wrote about that history of comics for Occupy Comics, which also began as a Kickstarter project.
While the revolution will be certainly televised, it strikes me that there is a strong possibility that the revolution will also be crowd-funded. If Kickstarter and other enterprises are giving projects like Occupy Comics a chance, then it does suggest there are imaginative ideas out there with incredible use and application across the board. Not just in the arts, but in the sciences as well. It’s an exciting concept, and I look forward to seeing what emerges from it.
Speaking of the revolution, how do you feel it is taking shape, especially given recent exposure of the NSA’s extreme secrecy, whose surveillance state is the opposite of open sourcing and crowd-funding?
There seems to be something going on, even from the briefest appraisal of the news, with the amount of events transpiring. This is such a connected world, it’s useless to isolate any part of it as a discrete phenomenon. You can’t really talk about the problems in Syria, because its problems are global. The waves of discontent and outrage — whether in the Arab countries, or in Brazil, or in America and Europe over the degrees to which its citizens are being monitored — are not separate phenomena. They are phenomena of an emergent world, and the existence of the Internet is one of its major drivers. We have got no idea how it’s going to turn out, because the nature of our society is such that if anything can be invented, then we will invent it. Sooner or later, if it is possible.
So the Internet is changing everything, but I wouldn’t yet want to say for good or ill. I suspect, as ever, that it will be an admixture of both. But we are all along for the ride, even those people like me who do not have Internet connections, mobile phones or even functioning televisions. I’m slowly disconnecting myself. Basically, it’s a feeling that if we are going to subject our entire culture to what is an unpredictable experiment, then I’d like to try to remain outside the petri dish. [Laughs] It’s only sensible to have somebody as a control.
The surveillance state is nothing new: From Bentham’s panopticon to McGoohan’s Village to “V for Vendetta’s” streetcams to the NSA’s Prism.
To me, one of the biggest surprises of these recent surveillance revelations is how surprised people are. The level of surveillance we’ve had over here for the past 20 years now is ridiculous — and useless, I would add. Eerily enough, the security cameras on every street corner of Britain was instigated by the incoming Blair government in 1997, which was when I decided, back in 1982 or so, to set the first episode of “V for Vendetta,” which had cameras on every street corner. So yeah, we’ve had those for awhile; they’ve proliferated and multiplied for decades. More recently, there have been troops of police who have said that all these things are useful for is alienating the public. [Laughs] They are not actually useful in the prevention of crimes, or even actually apprehending their suspects.
Here’s the thing: If you’re monitoring every single thing that goes on in a given culture, if you have all the information that is there to be had, then that is the equivalent of having none of it. [Laughs] How are you going to process that amount of information? That’s when you get all these wonderful emerging paradoxes. Recently over here, there was a case where it was suspected that the people who monitor security screens were taking unnecessary toilet breaks and gossiping when they should be watching us. So it was decided that the only sensible thing to do was to put a security camera in the monitor room. [Laughs] This is answering the question that Juvenal asked so succinctly all those years ago: Who watches the watchmen? The answer is more watchmen! And yet more watchmen watch them, and of course it will eventually occur to them to ask: Can those people who are watching the people doing the watching really be trusted? Much better if they were under surveillance.
That’s the level of absurdity these Orwellian solutions bring to our increasingly complex world. George Orwell’s vision was 1947. Yes, the world was more complex than it had been, but nowhere near as complex as it was going to get. We currently have in Northampton — and I think we might be the first to have it — security cameras in some places that actually talk to you. “Pick that cigarette end up! Yes, you!” [Laughs] Which is so much like Patrick McGoohan’s vision for the Village in “The Prisoner,” all those years ago.
I still think McGoohan’s most underappreciated point from “The Prisoner” is that we are the tyrants.
I remember watching “Fall Out,” that final episode of “The Prisoner,” on I think a Wednesday night when I was around 13. And I can remember that scene where the whole series seems to break down into an absurdist collage. Where McGoohan’s Number Six finally confronts the mysterious Number One, who has been unseen throughout the series but is now a hooded figure. McGoohan pulls off his hood and there is a crude, rubber ape mask underneath. McGoohan pulls off the ape mask, and there is Patrick McGoohan underneath, laughing maniacally. Even at the age of 13, I dimly remember what that meant, that moment when he reveals that they are the same. It was answering the question, “Who is the one who restricts us and makes us all prisoners?” And I think McGoohan’s answer to that was incredibly liberating. It’s us, isn’t it?
Speaking of visionaries, you’re also talking about “Jimmy’s End” in July with Adam Curtis, whose visually arresting documentaries like “The Century of the Self” and “The Power of Nightmares” flawlessly unlocked the psychosocial power and pitfalls of our consumerism and technocracy.
He’s a marvelous man, and one of my favorite filmmakers. I think that “The Power of Nightmares” is the single best piece of documentary television I have ever seen. He was here in Northampton and me and Mitch went for a meal with him, and we got along like a house on fire. He’s a splendid chap. We were talking about the prevalence of zombies in popular culture and how they’re interpreted as the underclass or enslaved consumers.
But I’m tending to think zombies are the perfect metaphor for culture itself. That it is dead, still shambling around looking for brains, and endlessly repeating the things it did in life. I mean, I’m sure it will only be another few years until the moviegoing public gets to learn the exciting story of how high school student Peter Parker had the transformative accident that changed him into the amazing Spider-Man … again. You know? It’s the same stories and same ideas reiterated over and over again. And if we do it in 3-D, if we do it in enough spectacular digital photography, then perhaps people won’t notice that we haven’t had a new idea in decades. Culture is just a shambling zombie that repeats what it did in life; bits of it drop off, and it doesn’t appear to notice. [Sighs hilariously] I tend to think that a good, clean head shot is the only way to work this problem out. [Laughs]
Ha! Wait, so what are we aiming at, if we’re looking to take out our own zombified pop culture with a good, clean head shot?
Ooh, well that’s the question, isn’t it? Probably our own limitations in thinking, our own timorousness in facing the future and taking responsibility for it. OK yeah, I would like to say, “Aim it at Simon Cowell,” or something like that. And while that would likely be a huge improvement, it wouldn’t solve our underlying problem. We are inside us, as always. It’s our way of thinking. Yeah, the head shot should be aimed at ourselves.
And then there’s zombie culture’s disturbing legitimization of the desensitized extermination of others — with confusion as to just who those others happen to be.
That is certainly a worrying phenomenon. If you conscript a bunch of ordinary men or women, put them in uniform, take them to a distant country and tell them, “I want you to go over there and try your best to kill a bunch of people in different uniforms,” the majority who aren’t psychopaths won’t want to do it. We find that an alien thing to do. But if you ask them to kill a virtual enemy … well, that’s no problem. Nobody cares what happens to all those zombies in the shoot-’em-up games, because they’re not real. If you get humans to kill a thousand or 10,000 virtual enemies, and then put them in a real combat situation, it is quite likely that they will become desensitized to the idea of killing, especially with countless virtual walk-throughs.
Technology is always a two-edged sword. It will bring in many benefits, but also many disasters. Because of the complexity of our situation, we cannot predict what things will be until they happen. It’s just part of our responsibility as people in the modern world to do our very, very best to deal with them, and think them through, as they occur. While I’m remote from most technology to the point that I’m kind of Amish, I have played a couple of computer games — until I realized I was being bloodied with adrenalin over something that wasn’t real. At the end of a couple of hours of very addictive play, I may have procured the necessary amount of mushrooms to save a princess, but I also wasted hours of my life that I’ll never be able to get back. This is the reason I am not on the Internet. I am aware of its power as a distraction, and I don’t have the time for that.
Despite the constant clamor for attention from the modern world, I do believe we need to procure a psychological space for ourselves. I apparently know some people who try to achieve this by logging off, or going without their Twitter or Facebook for a limited period. Which I suppose is encouraging, although it doesn’t seem that remarkable from my perspective. I think that people need to establish their own psychological territory in face of the encroaching world.
Zombies, explained. Speaking of which, have you and Adam talked about working together in the future?
Well, who knows what will happen in the future? Well, except for the Latitude Festival in Suffolk in July, where me and Mitch are going to be showing the four completed films in the “Jimmy’s End” cycle, and talking about it onstage with Adam. We were hoping to show the fifth film as well, for which we are raising the money on Kickstarter. But that is almost certainly not going to happen, even if the Kickstarter helps as much as we hoped it would. But we’ll be talking to Adam about all of the films, and the subjects that spin off from them. But all things are possible, including any future projects with Adam as well. I don’t know, we’ll have to wait and see. We’re both busy men, but we both have a certain admiration for each other’s work and I had a very nice time hanging out with him.
I asked Mitch if Northampton noir worked well as a description of “Jimmy’s End,” and he was cool with it.
Yeah, our little town is black in every sense. I’ve even described it as a black hole on occasion, just in the way it’s very difficult to escape from. You can’t get sufficient velocity to get out of the town before you’re drawn back. I know people here that, if you asked how they came to live in Northampton, they’d just shrug. [Laughs] It’s a place that people end up. We do have a certain amount of darkness in our history, and I find out something new and enormous every day, some of which I’m saving for my novel “Jerusalem,” which is in the final stages. When Adam was down, we talked about some of the rather surprising aspects of Northampton. I pointed out the rusting Victorian gas holder on the edges of my old neighborhood, which is the site where the Industrial Revolution started, which is where capitalism started. They sound like bold claims, but I think that “Jerusalem” should resoundingly justify them. But yeah, it is a town that invites a noir reading.
Is “Jimmy’s End” a visual psycho-geography of Northampton in the way that your “Unearthing” was a psycho-geography of Steve Moore’s hometown, Shooter’s Hill?
No, it’s different in that, as unlikely as it sounds, “Unearthing” was all true. While faithful to the existing city and sharing pretty much its same history and unusual quirks, the Northampton that we will be hopefully revealing in “The Show” — the feature film we’re trying to make, based off of the “Jimmy’s End” short films — features different characters, events, products, youth cults and other things. There are some real characters from Northampton — some now dead, but we can resurrect them — who will be in interjected into “Jimmy’s End” in small doses.
The biggest difference between the two is that “Jimmy’s End” is fiction but “Unearthing” was a fabulous version of the truth. It was looking at the life of my oldest and dearest friend Steve Moore, interpreting his life as a modern fable. That’s a different process than “Jimmy’s End,” which is a strange but hopefully striking mirror of culture. One of our agendas written on one of my notepads from way back when we started “Jimmy’s End” says, “Let’s steal culture.” There are all these cultural elements that we can parody, if you like, or come up with our own versions of. Somewhere lost in my notes for “Jimmy’s End” are social networking sites, computer games, models of cars, energy drinks, low-fat margarines, a large array of alcohols …
I saw a bottle of Tunguska in “Act of Faith.”
We have a brand of cigarettes called Social Leper. We’ve basically tried to duplicate the entire culture tailored to our story demands. It perhaps is psycho-geography, but the emphasis is probably much more on the psycho than on the geography.
Have you got “The Show” all sketched out, as well?
Better than that, we’ve got a very complete treatment. We know what’s happening scene by scene in “The Show” — and its television series, if there is to be one. Because I’m withering in my scorn for long-running television series that aren’t written or thought out on an episode-by-episode basis. To me, narrative is the most important thing in the world. I deplore the dwindling narrative values of a lot of contemporary culture, where it doesn’t seem to matter if the plot actually makes sense, or if it resolves itself, or if all of the elements introduced resolve themselves. In some long-running television shows today, it’s obvious the writers can’t be bothered to keep track of all of the wild plot twists to keep the audience’s interest. They are non-stories.