Monday, January 14, 2008

Clink

TV Louis TherouxI like Louis Theroux. I like the way he masks determined confrontationalism and gritty balls of steel beneath a calm, genteel, ultra polite, very British veneer. I suspect it’s this mask of nervous warmth and humanity (though I have no doubt that it’s more than skin deep) that allows Louis to attain a proximity to the kind of people and situation that normally most of us would run a mile from.

Last night’s documentary saw Louis spending time within the formidable walls of San Quentin jail and getting to know some of the many in-mates. Although Louis’ approach with people seems to conjure up its own all inclusive comfort zone his interviews with the prisoners were nevertheless frequently on-the-edge-of-the-seat viewing. Both the living conditions of the in-mates and their candidness about their reasons for being incarcerated were sharply discomforting to say the least. But more than that: their very humanity – their very normalcy – was unsettling. Their honesty and good humoured acceptance of their fate (at least to the cameras) was even more so. It felt incongruous. I guess deep down we want them to be monsters. We want them to be visibly marked and set apart from the rest of us. To show evidence of a corrupted gene pool, some sign that they are, against the odds, a slightly different species.

We certainly don’t want to recognize certain of our own traits in a person who is serving 551 years for house robbery and torture... This particular lifer termed his crimes as “home invasion”. A far gentler epithet yet with far more disturbing and unsettling connotations... Louis questioned him closely about his criminal activities. It was interesting to watch Louis’ urbanity and almost effeminate politeness peeling away the steely body armour of machismo and de-sensitivity. I guess it worked because there was an uneasy respect maintained by and between both parties. And more importantly Louis didn’t let any of his reactions betray any kind of judgment about what he was hearing. No mean feat when the lifer casually described torturing his victims to reveal the whereabouts of their valuables, half drowning people in their own hot-tubs and using a pistol to abuse his victims sexually... this from a man who then calmly accepted he would spend the rest of his natural life in prison without a trace of anger or frustration twitching at the edge of his benign smile.

Eerie.

But I guess at the heart of the documentary was the simple fact that no matter what circumstance you throw people into they will “make do”. They will seek out and pursue some sort of life. They will make the best of it. They will take their comforts where they find them. Hence, married ex-Nazis forming intimate relationships with Jewish homosexuals, long haired rock star wannabes becoming the lovers of pre-op transsexuals... Although Louis could see the ironies his gentle illuminations were blanked by all the prisoners involved. It was weird to see such an optimistic openness and also such a fearful, self-denying closedness operating in tandem in their minds.

It would be too easy to dismiss life in prison as merely an alternate reality to life outside it. Certainly life in prison is extreme and people in extremis react in extreme ways... but I don’t think life in prison is that far removed from ours own. In a lot of respects it’s almost the same – just with less baggage; with more stripped down, more rarefied choices. In terms of the need for intimacy and relationships, the need of hierarchies, rules and rites of passage life remains the same. Yes it’s harsh. But isn’t life in the outside world too? A lot of the comforts are obviously filtered out. But a lot of the heavy responsibilities and burdens are gone too.

As Mr Home Invasion pointed out: he doesn’t have to worry about getting a job. He doesn’t have to worry about keeping a roof over his head. He’s going to be “taken care of” until the day he dies.

Hell, what are we all waiting for? Let’s sign up to the Hotel California!

Until you see the cells where these men spend every day, every week barring 2 hours in the recreation yard. They can’t have been no more than 4 feet across. You could almost smell the constant pall of sweat and testosterone. The noise was constant – shouts, catcalls, whoops, nasty laughter. It sounded like a madhouse. The food was basic and could hardly be described as a comfort. There is the constant threat of being beaten, stabbed, or raped. To avoid these scenarios there is the constant “invitation” to join any number of gangs who’ll offer to protect you against such ends provided you do a little work for them in return... beating, stabbing or raping people who have happened to find themselves on their hit-lists... Dog eat dog and dog returning to its vomit ad infinitum.

If prison isn’t an alternate reality but merely mirrors the society that has a need for the prison what does that say about our world? Do we measure the progress of our civilization by the best it produces or the worst?

Louis didn’t have the answers. At the end of the day that isn’t his shtick. He asked his personal questions, remained affable in the face of constant, potential danger and then walked out of San Quentin jail when his stint was done with a considerably lighter tread than when he went in. And I for one was glad to be leaving with him.

Suddenly I was glad that I have a job to be worried about. That I have to constantly fight to keep a roof over my head. That there isn’t an institution taking care of me until the day I die – just me, myself and mine.

True freedom comes by accepting the weightiest responsibilities that life throws at you... not by shirking them and taking the easy or the fast way out...

17 comments:

swine said...

i miss him.
Bravo network in the u.s. years ago used to run his documentary series...sadly, they were bought by nbc and started programming utter shite.
i like his father's writings, also.

EmmaK said...

Like I wrote on my blog today, prison is the greatest disincentive for me to never commit a crime, but I suppose I have some level of self control and am not totally fucked up. Still, surely anyone would not want to be in a tiny cell that stinks of piss?

Daisy said...

i understand the last comment on this posting...but isn't there a time...just once perhaps when it can be easy?

The Sagittarian said...

Haven't seen that doco yet but will keep an eye out for it. I agree, he is quite an interesting person in the way he tackles issues. Given that I have a stepson in prison (quite rightly too by the way - very nasty business and as a family it has had quite an explosive impact), I will a bit nervous watching it!

Steve said...

Thanks for dropping by Swine- Louis is an unsung, understated and sadly underused hero of modern television.

Hi Emma, I wouldn't want to be anywhere or near anyone who stank of piss. Or stank of something worse. Piss, sweat and machismo... hardly going to be the next aftershave from Hugo Boss...

Daisy, sure life can be easy sometimes. Hey I even get weekends off from work for good behaviour!

Hi Amanda, I found the documentary quite disturbing - and that's without knowing anyone inside. I'd imagine the effect would be greater if you do. At the end of the day prison isn't meant to be a great place... but it's much improved from the days of Victorian prison ships. You actually get gravy with your mashed potatoes now!

The Sagittarian said...

Imam worried about myself.I hate the idea that he gets mashed spud WITH gravy!!! Anyway. I know what you mean. Cause and effect. Action and reaction. What goes around comes around. he is where he should be.

Reluctant Blogger said...

Oh Louis is just fantastic. I always watch his documentaries. The programme itself was fascinating and your review of it was, well, it was much better than any of the ones i read in the press!

I always find the prison "micro society" fascinating too. How much the same roles exist in prison that are out there in "real life" but of course they are all taken up by this small sub-section of society. And it is the one time I always find Americans surprisingly British both in their quirky sense of humour and in their stoical acceptance of hardship, focusing on a few moans about the trivial things in life.

As for them being a different species - I rather think we can never take comfort in that. Whilst I cannot see myself ever torturing someone, who's to say that put in the same desperate situations that some of these have faced, I might not have done things that could have landed me in prison. I have a nasty temper and whilst it is relatively easy for me to control it in my current secure environment, if I were placed at the edge of society where I had to fight for survival, I am less sure that I could.

I could stay and chat about this all day but I had better get on and do some work!

Steve said...

I must admit RB, while some of the in-mates were where they are out of stupidity, lack of self control or drug abuse I'm sure some must have ended up where they were merely because they adopted "harsh survival tactics"... and I often wonder what I would do if I was starving or my family was starving. What wouldn't I do? It's tricky and although it's easy to say that we always have a choice I do think it's true. If my family was starving and I had no other option I would steal food for them. But torture someone for the food? Kill somone for the food? I think that's a line I wouldn't cross. a choice I wouldn't make. Ultimately I think that's what it comes down to. And these guys all knew that they'd done the wrong thing. Behind their good natured admissions was a little embarrassment and sheepishness at being called to account for their actions... However it was a great show and I wish Mr Theroux was on our TV's more...

The Sagittarian said...

I am convinced that they all know why they are there! Easy to say hey are sad or "effected' to the 'nth" dgree. Sorry. I don't believe it. I believe they are sorry they got caught. I guess I must be the stepmother from hell.

Steve said...

I agree Amanda. When you're stuck in a 4x8ft prison cell all day I guess there's nowhere to hide from the truth. They know.

Better to be the stepmother from hell than the prison warder from hell... ;-)

The Poet Laura-eate said...

A sublime dissection of a national institution! Thanks Steve. Didn't catch this particular LT expose, but I look forward to catching it next time round. Sounds up to his usual standard. Tried to meet him in Borders once but the queue went out the door and into the next street, so I gave it a miss!

Steve said...

I'd like to meet him too, Laura, though, despite his gentle and personable demeanour, there is something quite formidable about him... I suspect it's his breath-taking intellect. A very clever guy indeed.

Reluctant Blogger said...

You know what, in that photo, he looks a bit like you!

Maybe you are right, perhaps there is a line we would not cross. I have to say though that I am not sure. I know I could not torture - but I am not absolutely sure that put in an extreme situation, I might not kill. The lives these people are born into are just so far removed from what we can even imagine.

It is certainly true though that some people are naturally "badder" than others. I see it at a much less extreme level obviously, with the range of friends my sons bring home. Some of these are just vile and yet their home lives do not seem to offer up any explanations.

Steve said...

Gina, stick an "imperial" onto Mr Theroux's mush and we could be twins. Though he's got more brains, money and aptitude for television than I have. Other than that we're like two peas in a pod...

Regarding the inexplicable badness of some people... hmm, is it nature or nurture I wonder? Or both? Or nothing at all but the lottery of chemicals and chromosomes that go to make us all up that allows us to perceive or not to perceive a particular vileness in others?

I agree with you though - some people do seem to be just plain vile but maybe there are some people somewhere with a different chemical make-up who find these vile people perfectly acceptable!

TimeWarden said...

I didn't see the programme, unfortunately, but to quote the 1989 Darwinian-influenced "Doctor Who" story "Ghost Light", concerning the evolution of our species from ape into the abundant variety of the present day, in this case 1883, "Depraved or deprived, which is the Jekyll and which the Hyde?"... Sums up the collective character of humanity really! The story even includes a highly appropriate and genuine period song called "That's the Way to the Zoo"!!

Steve said...

Thanks TimeWarden! It's a testament to the longevity and variety of the Doctor Who storylines that so many links can be made to so many seemingly unlikely subjects! I must admit (though I feel slightly embarrassed by admitting it) Karen and I are really looking forward to the new series of Torchwood...

-eve- said...

> True freedom comes by accepting the weightiest responsibilities that life throws at you... not by shirking them and taking the easy or the fast way out...
Very good post, Steve, especially the punchline :-)

> But I guess at the heart of the documentary was the simple fact that no matter what circumstance you throw people into they will “make do”. They will seek out and pursue some sort of life
I like this. Very true. In fact, I think this kind of writing is your forte... :-) Excellent piece :-)