Ballet Shoes, Butchers’ Knives, and Black Leather Gloves: Narrative of the Body in Harsh Noise Wall (One: The Rita)

(Given at the Punk Scholar’s Network’s “Anyone Can Do It: Noise, Punk and the Ethics/Politics of Transgression” conference, Newcastle University, UK, 17th December 2019.

As reflected in the abstract for this paper as it was included in the programme, it was my initial desire to do something of an artist study of both Richard Ramirez and Sam McKinlay here today. However, I did ultimately decide it would be best to focus on the latter for the purposes of the 20 or so minutes we have together, as McKinlay’s work can, for the most part, be easily and legitimately be synecdochised through discussion of his moniker The Rita, whilst an understanding of Richard Ramirez’ goals, aesthetics, methods and developments of those three require discussion of – at the very least – his group Black Leather Jesus and solo project Werewolf Jerusalem, if not also many other of his myriad projects, such as Crash at Every Speed, Last Rape, or his increasing output and performances simply under his own name. Accordingly, it is my belief that these artists deserve at least one chapter each, and I would encourage anyone interested to follow my blog, which will have this paper going up almost immediately, and can expect a follow-up relating to Richard Ramirez as soon as is possible.)

 

In the Instagram and Bandcamp-based copy for The Rita’s most recent release, Martine Grimaud, UK-based noise label Foul Prey introduced the EP thus:

“Few noise artists manage to imbue their material with such sensitive, intimate emotion as Sam McKinlay. Resolutely dedicated to his art form and the subjects therein, his work is nothing but sincere devotion.

On the face of it, Martine Grimaud is an actress known for her roles in various Euro-erotica films, but to The Rita she is much more indeed.  An example of ‘aesthetic perfection’ and a most worthy subject for detailed contemplation, The Rita sets about manipulating his source material like only he can.  Spoken exchanges and passages of film score are subjected to the trademark gated fuzz turbulence the artist has become synonymous with.  Puckered folds of sticky, crunching noise gather and enfold, as voices become strangled and melody choked, occasionally straining out through the thick curtain of distortion.  The result is a devastating and heady affair that breathes and throbs as if alive.”

Such a description can certainly evoke various responses, including criticality toward a male gaze objectification of a woman into a fetishized female object, rendered a dehumanising, pedestaled ideal. It is not my intention in this paper necessarily to rescue The Rita from such an accusation, rather instead to muse to a certain extent upon what it means to have a dynamic of relation, identification and power between two agents in which humanity may be reduced or discarded, when placed within the context of musical production whose sonic brutality is often celebrated and castigated, simultaneously by different parties, for its inhuman qualities.

In this paper, I shall engage with aspects of The Rita’s oeuvre, particularly charting what might roughly be bifurcated into two relatively distinct eras: the initially giallo slasher and horror-focused work of the late 90s and 00s, and the current era of albums and Eps, predominantly centred around classical ballet, and individual actresses from softcore and mondo pornographic cinema. My aim here is to open conversation regarding The Rita’s particular sonic interaction with ideas and bodies, the extent to which these may create specific sounds, and in what ways such a supposedly chaotic aural oikos can alter (or at least alter our perception of) the subject/object caesura of events that, pre-recording and manipulation are so routinely considered the very icons of such distinctions, not least of all within the context of power relations.

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Album of the Day: Werewolf Jerusalem + The Rita + Vomir – Threesome Slitting

Although, with such a record, there is an urge to be such an expert in the nuances of harsh noise wall, that one could pick out a specific frequency and specify the individual source, I cannot help but feel that would rather defeat the intention of Threesome Slitting as a collaborative piece. Rather, approaches and aesthetics form an assemblage as constant as it is fractured: a battle in which all sides achieve ultimately the same ends.

Richard Ramirez and Romain Perrot, under their respective monikers of Werewolf Jerusalem and Vomir, emphasize notions of immobility in their work: the former labeling his output specifically as “static noise,” whilst Vomir’s various drives to categorize proudly the (or at least his) HNW aesthetic have included the pithy statement “no change, no development, no remorse.” Sam McKinlay as The Rita, especially in his more recent work, tied as often as it is to the topic of ballet, naturally conjures images of motion, even if these images appear in their own way frozen, as photographs of a whirling dervish, limbs appearing at once viscous and effervescent. An ectoplasmic multiplicity. Certainly, the influence cinema has had, at least on Ramirez and McKinlay, by virtue of their recurrent acknowledgement, if not use as a source, of giallo invokes certain questions of tensions between meanings located in horizontal vs vertical modes of temporality.

Accordingly, the violence of this record – and it is, most assuredly, a violent record – is the polar clash of a frenzied paralysis. Slamming against a door, locked from the other side, or struggling and failing to free oneself from bondage. A heart pounding against a chest. A body convulsing on the floor, bleeding out from the jugular vein. Threesome Slitting‘s invariable privileging of the lower end of the sonic register only furthers the affect of suppression, a sense of muffling, gagging, even when played at the appropriate, wall-shaking volume. And yet, there is not the air of introspection I have come to expect from each individual artist, in their own idiosyncratic modes. Rather, the sound forever retains a closeness, but one still of the most thinly bridged distance. The proximal, coercive alignment of a victim, and the killer, slitting their throat.

Album of the Day: Lingua Ignota / The Rita – Commissioned

Obsession Abstraction Destruction: Black Gloves and Razors (Sam McKinlay, 1999)

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(Written following Black Gloves and Razors’ screening at the Spectacle Theater, Brooklyn, NYC on 5th October 2019. There is another screening on the 31st October, 2019 – I urge all readers to see it if they can!)

 

A particularly striking phenomenon of the widespread and various techniques of found-footage avant-garde filmmaking is the extent to which the editor can establish themself as auteur. Privileging the act of compilation to the highest degree, they are now born a new creator: re-presentation of re-presentation transubstantiates the filmic into the pro-filmic. Of course, this generative mode of indexicality leaves us with a troubling remainder: whither, thus, is reality delegated? What is so particularly exemplary in Sam McKinlay’s Black Gloves and Razors is that this appears to be his only film of this nature, and yet his authorship is entirely transparent, largely due to its consistency with his harsh noise wall output as The Rita.

Throughout his oeuvre, McKinlay’s topic and approach has run down the paradoxical razor’s edge of obsession and abstraction: singularity of purpose, through its repetitious engagement with its object/s of compulsive interest, the subject reaches a libidinal permeability, distorted foldings of liminality, that constitute a qualitative multiplicity of what we had considered up ‘til now singular events: sex, murder, movement, speech. In Black Gloves and Razors, there is space both for Mulvey and McGowan’s largely contradictory notions of the cinematic gaze. There can be no doubt the re-presented gialli are wholly dependent on scenes of a violently misogynistic voyeurism, whilst McKinlay’s reductive (I use the word here uncritically) possessive spectatorship could not be more emblematic of fetishistic scopophilia. Nevertheless, there is no denying the sense of Black Gloves and Razors as a screen-site where the gaze is aligned with the filmic image, displaying its potential to alter radically the spectator: not least of all because we cannot quite say with whom we are aligned, whether by design, or through circumstance.

Though there is certainly space to comment on aesthetic distinctions and comparisons with Richard Kern’s Evil Cameraman, and Submit to Me series, or Peggy Ahwesh’s Color of Love, the temporal effect is more compelling in relation to the Austrian found-footage avant-garde movement of the same era as Black Gloves, as defined by such films as Martin Arnold’s Passage à l’Acte and Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space, both of whom reflect McKinlay’s obsession/abstraction approach, though in radically different ways. Arnold and Tscherkassky for the most part concentrate obsessively on abstracting one filmic scene. For Arnold this is a process of Steve Reich-esque percussive repetition, revealing parallelisms of onanistic spatial domination between two generations of male characters traversing an unmistakably 2-dimensional plane. For Tscherkassky, this is a kaleidoscopic, meta-cubist re-construction of a scene originally portraying a woman’s sexual violation at the spectral hands of the source material’s titular “Entity,” as now to implicate the very medium of cinema itself as the perpetrator, whose controlling gaze is fought for and, it seems, ultimately won by the protagonist.

By contrast, McKinlay creates a super-cut, 99% comprised of gratuitous murder scenes – those which in many fields of analysis would be considered little more than spectacular set-pieces, supposedly anathema to traditional modes of narrative – and, in this temporal mosaic, establishes a new mode of narratological immediacy. Movement-image is now time-image. The repetitious nature of many of the murders themselves operate similarly to Arnold’s playful manipulation of domestic gesticulation, inasmuch as we begin to trace consistent performative mechanics of a choreographical unconscious. Nevertheless, the abstractive multiplicity of Black Gloves’ mode of repetition refocuses our attention away from any individual performance, as with Passage, and instead into a more universal analysis of the dynamic brutality of power’s traversal across delineated points of relation in the mode of ultraviolence. Thus, contrary to the dissective stuttering of Arnold’s possessive spectatorship, or the deliriously layered patchworks of light and time produced in Tscherkassky’s studio, McKinlay’s consciously simple mode of performatively amateur contraction and compilation impresses upon the spectator the sensation-al violence of power’s destructive movement through a temporal condition of recurrence. This point may be further illustrated in my previous analysis of the accompanying (or, at least, following) album, The Rita’s Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence:

Bear Traces of Carnal Violence makes conservative, but still evident, use of recognisable voice samples, distinguishable from the noise wall. Which is to say, although the soundtrack to Black Gloves and Razors is present throughout the album, there are variations in distortion as such to reveal the nature of the sound’s originary source at sporadic moments, before crumbling back into a “purer” noise. The screams and crashes coming from the album title’s inspiration, I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale, and many other gialli besides, are of the very same instances of psycho-sexual murder to which the film title refers. Nevertheless, McKinlay’s decision in translation – however conscious it may or may not have been – to leave out the article “The,” as indicated by use of the Italian masculine plural i (i.e. The Bodies Bear Traces) abstracts the declarative statement to a degree of startling astuteness within the context of Foucault’s account of corporeal genealogy. All bodies bear traces of carnal violence:

Domination…establishes marks of its power and engraves memories on things and even within bodies. It makes itself accountable for debts and gives rise to the universe of rules, which is by no means designed to temper violence, but rather to satisfy it…The law is a calculated and relentless pleasure, delight in the promised blood, which permits the perpetual instigation of new dominations and the staging of meticulously repeated scenes of violence…Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination. (“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” p.85)

Unlike so many horror film samples in noise and extreme metal, which are typically used at the very beginning of a song, as indication of a breakdown, or sometimes at the very end, the muffled screams first appear noticeable halfway through the first track of two, “Vice Wears Black Hose,” before dissipating into the harsh noise wall once more. Indeed, thus, so too is the violence abstracted from any singular origin, as Elisabeth Freeman described sadomasochism’s “temporal noncoincidence between action and result.” And, just as the sounds of the act dissolve back into noise, the violence of the act dissolves back into power. (“Bodies Bear Traces: Noise, Power and Perpetual Disintegration,” p.45-6)

Without wishing to invoke a concept of such quotidian legibility as “story,” I must insist on the presence of a narrative movement – even if the condition of recurrence prohibits progression – in the form of the affective variation from one murder to the next: though largely decoupled from all prior-established contexts, one murder immediately elicits revulsion; another, laughter; another, tragedy. We may consider Deleuze’s description of repetition operating within an economy of “reflections, doubles, echoes and souls” (Difference and Repetition, p.3). Perhaps, Black Gloves and Razors provides us with the echoes, with the souls of the ultraviolent encounter, extant in its power despite the potential alienation of its extraction, though its “meaning” (by which I mean how it may be understood in the context of human reception) certainly does wither in relation to its “nth generation” status. Indeed, we the spectator are given no opportunity in watching Black Gloves and Razors to divorce the events on-screen from the mechanics of its production: a DVD-R rip of a VHS-to-VHS transfer of videotapes which, in almost all cases, were transferred, copied, bootlegged indeterminable times before. Here is that rendering of the filmic (that is to say, the original, finished and released copies of Death Carries a Cane, Seven Murders for Scotland Yard, Red Cats in a Glass Maze etc) into the pro-filmic (the exogenous “reality” to be captured onto film itself). Where does “real” reality go? It is difficult to say, but also largely irrelevant: Deleuze indicates that, in a world of repetition, what ultimately is repeated is repetition, itself. The rips and transfers become a method of genealogical praxis, although McKinlay, through Black Gloves and Razors, enacts this praxis in the guise of another masked killer: obsessional in his focus, he nonetheless abstracts bodies of text – and figures within – through his own editorial method of slicing and dicing. Corpses/corpuses are dismembered, scattered across the timeline, while their skin is marked, branded, bruised, bleeding, disintegrating.

Here, I am of course referencing Laura U. Mark’s concept of haptic visuality, which

…relates to the materiality of the medium at several levels, including the medium of recording, of editing, and of the projection or transmission medium…[Marks] used the term ‘ the skin of the film’ to emphasize that movies, especially those of which few copies exist, get changed in their material circulation – films gain scratches, analog videos demagnetize, digital media lose data. (The Skin and the Screen – A Dialogue, p.259)

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The skin is no longer a barrier of impermeability; quite the opposite. It is the site of subject/objectivity convergence. The degradation of fidelity through repetition reduces the black-clad killers to, at times, barely anthropomorphic lacunae – more Morrison than Martino. At points (as it were), the knives and razors cease to “enter” the victims’ skin as much as appear to become one with it – no matter the Freudian reliance upon phallic weaponry, in this world of entropic deterritorialization, interpassivity is abound. We, too, are subject to imbrication at all points of brutal relation – as the camera rests on extreme facial close-up, I could not help but consider the gothic poetry of Jean Epstein’s ruminations on photogénie in magnification:

This magnification acts on one’s feelings more to transform than to confirm them, and personally, it makes me uneasy…Pain is within reach. If I stretch out my arm I touch you, and that is intimacy. I can count the eyelashes of this suffering. I would be able to taste the tears. Never before has a face turned to mine in that way. Ever closer it presses against me, and I follow it face to face. It’s not even true that there is air between us; I consume it. It is in me like a sacrament. Maximum visual acuity. (October 3, Spring 1977: p.13)

The aim and effect of the exercise of watching Black Gloves and Razors is not desensitization in the sense of the events becoming unnoticeable: certainly, in the screening I attended, there was as many gasps near the end as there were at the beginning. Rather, the acts of greatest brutalism strike me as the fleeting and horrific coenaesthetic revelations of sensuous power, as experienced on, in, and through bodies, every day. To watch Black Gloves and Razors, as it is to listen to Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence can and should never not be a transformative experience. But it is a transformation always-already here. And that is the horror.

Album of the Day: The Rita – Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence

Album of the Day: The Rita – Female Statuesque (Female Titans)