Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘science fiction/fantasy’ Category

Warning spoilers
My rating: *

imdb link

Watchmen has been on my ‘to view’ list since it first came out and I read the rave reviews and numerous comments to the effect that it was an intelligent superhero film for those who didn’t like superhero films. I am one of that number. I generally find superhero films and other films derived from comic books or even graphic novels to be tedious and unengaging. I am simply unable to connect to the characters they propose and the alternate realities they inhabit.

Unfortunately last night’s viewing of Watchmen has done nothing to change this view. I found it tedious, overlong and pretentious. If the cultural references looked interesting to begin with during the opening credits, they are never extended beyond the range of the average first year undergraduate. Let’s make a list of this cultural hot potch.

American history and politics: the assassination of Kennedy, nuclear proliferation and deterrence, anti-communism, Richard Nixon and Vietnam, the much-touted loss of innocence and belief in the American dream.

Science and religion: the mysteries of quantum physics and a blue god-like figure (Dr Manhattan) looking vaguely like a Hindu god (he actually sits in a levitated lotus position at one point). Dr Manhattan exhibits super powers acquired through the standard experiment-gone-wrong leading to hideous-transformation-of- scientist. This god-like alien figure who through his immense powers has become detached from the trivial mundane matters of ordinary beings must, of course, be shown and be humbled by the true universal and superior value of what it means to be human etc. etc.

Poetry: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ – hoary standard of many an English language high school curriculum. Although the writing, to its credit, makes the associations with Ramses II and Ancient Greek civilisation at the origins of Shelley’s sonnet published in 1818.

Arthouse film: Some of the character Rorschach’s right wing vigilante voiceover fulminations about vice and corruption in urban America as he moves through seedy streetscapes come across as a very close echo of (‘hommage’ to?) the rantings of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976).

Philosophy: Benthamite utilitarianism versus Kantian deontology, is it morally justifiable to sacrifice 15 million people to save billions?

Music: Perhaps the use of music is the most interesting cultural aspect of the film. Classics of the protest and counter-culture era occupy prominent positions: Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They are A-Changin’ (1964), Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ (1964), and then Leonard Cohen’s later 1984 classic ‘Halleluja’. If Dylan’s music over the recreated historical montage of the spectacular opening credits is obvious, a little research is required to judge the appositeness of the other two songs. One wonders why ‘Sound of Silence’ is played during a rainy (of course) burial scene in a cemetery for the character of  ‘the Comedian’ who is shown in a flashback to be Kennedy’s assassin until one realises that the song was originally written by Paul Simon in the wake of the assassination. The controversial juxtaposition of Cohen’s song about romantic loss and longing with an extended soft-core porn sex scene is perhaps somewhat more jarring. Perhaps the film makers were thinking of Jeff Buckley who performed the most famous cover of the song. Buckley remarks that in his interpretation, the song is about ‘the halleluja of the orgasm’. But even then, it is Cohen’s version, not Buckley’s, that is used and many viewers have baulked at the sheer obviousness of it all and the elision of the more subtle aspects of the song.

To conclude this list and to paraphrase the Scarlet Pimpernel in his guise as the inane fop Sir Percy Blakeney quipping to his French republican archenemy, Chauvelin: ‘So much for culture and fashion’ (The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)).

‘Cultural’ references aside, Watchmen is wonderfully inventive and quite spectacular on the visual front. But like many contemporary Hollywood films, this immense and impressive visual creativity is disappointingly and fatally undercut by poor characterisation and story telling. As many have commented, not only is the writing the most essential factor in the film equation, it is also the cheapest, so why so frequently does it go wrong? Other films that come to mind on this front include the recent Prometheus (a review in The Guardian entertainingly points out the many character and plotting problems showcased by this film), and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. I haven’t included Avatar here, as for all the hype, I found much of the visual landscape it offered cliched rather than inventive. I commented earlier in this blog on the other problematic aspects of this film. But so as not to seem entirely negative, there is at least one film trilogy that does get it right and that is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (for all the failure of its ending(s)).

I hadn’t intended to write so long a review of Watchmen, but in many ways it is emblematic of so many things that are irritating in the contemporary Hollywood multinational (but monocultural) film productions that swamp the global market.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

In Praise Of LoveIn Praise Of Love by Alain Badiou

My rating: ***

Badiou, Alain with Truong, Nicolas (2012) In Praise Of Love. Trans. Peter Bush, London: Serpent’s Tail

I approached this short essay interview about the notion of love (as it is enacted between lovers) with caution. I was not expecting a 75 year old male philosopher to have much to say that would resonate from a female point of view. There was however slightly more on the table than I expected and some of the discussion provided potential food for thought which crossed gender lines.

I was particularly interested by Badiou’s comments criticising the portrayal of love as something that exists in a moment outside of time. This is a view that pervades romantic literature. It is a love that cannot be enacted in the real world or survive through time. It is also reductive, fusing the difference of two into one. A philosopher like Levinas (whose religious focus Badiou rejects but adapts for more secular purposes) would argue, of course, that love presumes difference and can only exist where difference exists, it is never reduction to the Same. Badiou remarks:

‘I think many people still cling to a romantic conception of love that in a way absorbs love in the encounter. Love is simultaneously ignited, consummated and consumed in the meeting in a magical moment outside the world as it really is. something happens that is in the nature of a miracle, an existential intensity, an encounter leading to meltdown.’ (p. 23)

He cites Tristan and Isolde as an example, continuing that we need to challenge this romantic conception which although it might be beautiful in art fails to make the transition to real life. He notes:  ‘Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world’. (p. 24) The duration of love is seldom dealt with in fiction (p. 50) which usually focuses on the ‘ecstasy of [..] beginnings’ (love at first sight, the ‘encounter’) and ends with ‘they got married and lived happily ever after’. He mentions Samuel Beckett as a somewhat unexpected exception. (I might add paranthetically that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is of course a demonstration of the pitfalls of trying to apply the myths of romantic fiction to everyday existence.)

One can look at this problem in relation to a variety of TV series and films. The stock standard romantic comedy of course usually falls within the expected boundaries of the magical encounter and then the happy end. Another ploy is to kill off one or both partners in order to preserve the purity of their love and happiness from the ravages of time. Many American TV series try the strategy of indefinitely postponing what the writers seem to regard as the inevitable suburban and domestic doom of all relationships, by failing to get the couples together in an infinitely prolonged process which fans commonly label as UST or unresolved sexual tension. Henry Jenkins, the noted scholar of fandom, complains about this common fan frustration in a post on his blog titled ‘A Rant About Television’s Difficulty in Representing Committed Relationships’. He observes:

I often suspect that Hollywood’s inability to depict relationships that grow over time has everything to do with the divorce rate in the entertainment capital, very little to do with the constraints of the medium (given how well television depicts the unfolding of interpersonal relationships over time) and even less to do with the desire of fans. (One of the things to pay attention to is how many of the “commitment” episodes for television series are written by a small handful of writers who have consistently ruined every couple they touched.)

He also adds interestingly that ‘contemporary writers seem incapable of writing such relationships — could it be because they are twenty-somethings still recovering from their first major breakup?’ The convenient (American) production myth has it that if you get two characters together in a series, viewers will lose interest. Perhaps this is because the writers can’t seem to imagine a relationship other than a white picket fence with both partners doomed to the drudgery of ball and chain domesticity. (Perhaps these writers could read up a bit on alternative models for relationships such as the ‘commuter marriage’, popular in academic circles). A couple of series which readily spring to mind in terms of being unable to come to a sensible resolution on this front are Remington Steele and La Femme Nikita (the 1990s series).  There are many others. Jenkins cites Castle as perhaps an exception, but I beg to differ. Like Bones, I find that if the writing in this series is able to sustain fairly basic (and not terribly adventurous) characterisation, it is less successful in demonstrating how those characters are modified by their relationships with each other.

Attempts to show long(ish) committed relationships in romantic comedies like Brett Ratner’s The Family Man (2000) can also be dreary, unconvincing and unbearably saccharine. One can only wonder what demographic this particular film was addressing.  The story takes place from the point of view of a rich executive male (Nicholas Cage) with a Ferrari and a string of one night stands, who slips into a parallel world of ghastly suburban domesticity of seemingly volontary semi-poverty with a one time girlfriend. The film – or writers – seem irretrievably torn between (what they regard as) the moral example which is life in the suburbs versus the guilty but exhilarating freedom of a high-flying Christmas-neglecting single life.

Returning to Badiou’s terminology, there is good material out there which shows love between couples (of any orientation) as duration rather than the momentary eruption of the eternal into the real, but one has to search for those rare examples amidst the mountains of dross which foreground the love/romance event with all its artificial boundaries and dubious links to the transcendent eternal.

Read Full Post »

This is another piece from my defunct film website. Written way back in 1998, before science fiction fandom became ‘mainstream’

I first came across Sapphire and Steel, an obscure British science fiction series made in the early 1980s, while I was browsing through a mail order catalogue in the late 90s. I read the description: ‘a strange and fascinating show – definitely something different’. Always on the lookout for the unusual, I ordered volume one expecting no more than the usual B grade offering that is unfortunately usually the rule when it comes to television science fiction. I was more than pleasantly surprised when I discovered something that actually did match the catalogue description. By the end of Adventure 1, I was hooked and submitting my credit card to a severe workout, I ordered the remaining 5 Adventures on tape. At the same time as I was watching the series I was also reading the works of Antonin Artaud. The combination was quite extraordinary – the television series echoing a number of Artaud’s insights into the radical disjunction between words and things.

The piece below probably won’t make a lot of sense if you have seen the series. An overview and information can be found on the Wikipedia page for the series. You might also like to have a look at an earlier post on Sapphire and Steel on this blog.

Introduction

One of the most striking features of Sapphire and Steel is the fact that it offers so few explanations and so few obvious answers. Not only do the backgrounds of the characters and events remain mysterious, but the most ordinary objects take on completely unexpected meanings. A feather pillow becomes a dangerous vengeful creature, a nursery rhyme the physical manifestation of an evil force, a travel chess set a terrifying weapon and gateway to time and other dimensions. Nothing can be taken for granted in this series.

This indeterminacy of meaning and explanation encourages viewers to actively imagine and speculate, to create their own very personal interpretations, to face particular types of limit experiences and the possibility of other worlds using the structure of their own psyches and imaginations. The whole series is an invitation to think beyond it, to engage in difficult confrontations and experiments in thought and imagination: it is an open challenge to question accepted visions of social and physical reality without this ever being a stated or obvious intention of the series. Thus, even if the series is a relatively short one, it offers far more fodder for creative discussion and invention than do a number of other longer running productions with more elaborately developed and codified world views and with far more visible signposts as to their intentions.

This article will take up the challenge and provide speculative answers to questions raised by Sapphire and Steel. These answers are by no means intended to dispel the original mystery and indeterminacy: their purpose is rather to open further opportunities for debate, speculation and imagination… And what better place to start than with the most obvious question?

Who are Sapphire and Steel?

Ostensibly, Sapphire and Steel are two operatives who are sent to earth to prevent or repair ruptures in the strictly ordered fabric of time, to maintain the integrity of past, present and future. These disruptions to time are initially assessed by ‘investigators’ who are never seen, who then brief and send in ‘operatives’ such as Sapphire and Steel. ‘Specialists’ are sent to the scene at a later stage to undertake any specialised tasks that operatives are unable to perform. This rather summary information emerges in a somewhat fragmentary and incidental manner at various points throughout the series in conversations between the two main characters, with humans and with the two specialists Lead and Silver. This is what Sapphire and Steel do but what sort of beings are they and where do they come from?

Are Sapphire and Steel alien or human?

This question is worth asking for a number of reasons, especially in view of a regrettable tendency in many American science fiction series in particular, to make most of the principal ‘alien’ characters semi-human at least in some way. In the original Star Trek, the alien Spock is only ‘half’ Vulcan, the ‘other half’ is human. The crew of the Enterprise in the next generation of Star Trek features a half human betazoid, a Klingon brought up by human parents and an android engaged in a life long quest to become human. And in conversations between the alien Q and Captain Picard we see the standard rhetoric that for all their faults and weaknesses, humans have ‘special qualities’ unique in the universe. In the other two offshoot series of Star Trek, Deep Space 9 and Voyager, the resident aliens are even more tedious and predictable than the humans. It might be argued that Babylon 5 is slightly better on this score – but the writer Joe Michael Straczynski still cannot resist the temptation of mixing human with one of the more ‘noble’ alien races, the Minbari. The Vorlons have also demonstrated suspicious fraternising tendencies – of a kind at least – in their use of figures such as Jack the Ripper to do their dirty work for them. Neither can Straczynski resist the ‘unique quality of humans’ school of rhetoric. Even in that post gulf war expression of military paranoia Space Above and Beyond, it transpires that the evil and hideous aliens had somewhere back in depths of time originated from the planet earth. British science fiction tends to perform a lot better on this front, but not even the Paul McGann version of Doctor Who, it seems, can survive a trans Atlantic regeneration intact. In a truly horrifying gesture, undermining a fine tradition of long standing – the completely alien doctor suddenly acquires a human parent, thereby ‘explaining’ his long term interest in earth. Is it really necessary to be part of a species or culture to show some interest in it? Why is there such a determined and rigid obsession with rendering the entire universe human in American science fiction? This is indeed a fascinating problem and certainly one worth exploring at more length. As some writers have suggested all of this is perhaps a thinly disguised reflection of the USA’s current imperialist stance with regards to cultures which are not American.

In such a human centred universe, Sapphire and Steel are a welcome arrival. They are clearly alien ‘in the sense of being extraterrestrial’ as Steel confirms in as many words in Adventure 5. Attempts to appropriate anything like a ‘human past’ for Sapphire and Steel have been firmly but politely rejected by the writer of the series P.J. Hammond in an interview with Rob Stanley.

How do Sapphire and Steel differ from humans?

As P.J. Hammond remarks, if Sapphire and Steel are more than ‘mere mortals’ they are still to some extent ‘mortal shaped’. They both speak English (that well known universal tongue!) and appear to have a human form, but for all this, the nature of their relationship to their bodies is uncertain. The opening animation, which shows glittering spheres representing a number of different ‘elements’, might suggest that their human shapes are something they adopt for the sake of convenience. Yet in Adventure 4, Sapphire, addressing a creature which changes its face at will, states that she and Steel have only ‘one face’. Their bodies can also be damaged as various incidents with absolute zero temperatures, barbed wire, knives, imaginary swans and attempts at strangulation indicate, but at the same time they appear to have remarkable powers of regeneration. In Adventure 3, the technician Silver refers in passing to a faculty of ‘instant reduplication’ which might explain these recuperative powers, but even this, it appears, is fallible. It is the failure of this faculty which results in his disappearance into his own past at the hands of the changeling, and he also mentions when threatened by the transient beings, that he would not survive in the Triassic period. One thing is clear, however, the relation Sapphire and Steel and similar beings have to their bodies is quite different to our own.

The fact that they are not human is apparent right from the outset. Almost as soon as they walk in the door in Adventure 1, we see Sapphire’s eyes turn a brilliant shade of blue as she briefly investigates the situation. The two operatives are able to communicate telepathically with each other and have obviously arrived at the house through some means of transport other than the more conventional ones of car and boat, which as the boy explains can be heard coming for miles in that isolated spot. Adventure 2 shows them teleporting and they make more use of this power in subsequent adventures. A marvellous but very brief scene in Adventure 5, a fine example of Shaun O’Riordan’s direction, offers perhaps the closest thing on film to a subjective view of teleportation. The background behind Steel fades to black and we see him in a closeup shot turning to face a new environment. Other series, notably Blake’s 7, Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Tomorrow People have all attempted subjective views of teleportation, but where Sapphire and Steel is radically different is in the fact that the two main characters do not require technology to assist them. Neither does Steel signal in any way his intention to teleport. Like many other scenes in the series it remains mysterious and there are no obvious indications as to how the viewer is meant to interpret it. As a result, this sequence arguably works far better than other more detailed and elaborate efforts to convey what teleportation might actually feel like.

It would also appear that the two agents have a very long lifespan in our dimension. In Adventure 1, they reveal that they dealt with a problem on the Marie-Celeste and indicate in Adventure 4 that the passage of hundreds of years is of little consequence to them. They have other powers as well: the enviable ability to change clothes and hairstyles in the blink of an eye, for instance. Sapphire parades a number of outfits in front of Rob in Adventure 1 and both she and Steel waste no time changing into their thirties costumes in Adventure 5. In addition, they both possess telekinetic abilities – very handy when it comes to locking and unlocking a variety of doors and turning off record players! Sapphire is able to ‘take time back’ for limited periods, to ascertain the age and nature of objects and to access historical data of both a general and individual kind. Steel can reduce his body temperature to just above absolute zero and he is very strong both psychically and physically and often acts as a kind of anchor for the more volatile Sapphire. Both of them appear to have hypnotic powers of persuasion over humans which they can exercise by a touch or a gaze but they only seldom choose to do so.

But these things aside, what most marks them as alien is the way they respond to situations and the kind of remarks they make about humans. They clearly regard humans as very different from themselves and Steel, in particular, frequently expresses a mixture of exasperation and puzzlement over human behaviour and customs. First impressions of both Sapphire and Steel are of a rather chilly and impersonal detachment. Steel is frequently abrupt to the point of downright rudeness and while Sapphire might initially appear more gracious, she is certainly a match for Steel when it comes to coolness. While shaking hands and making polite conversation with Tully, she is in reality communicating a cold scientific analysis of her subject to Steel.

Neither of them react in quite the ways we would expect people to react in similar situations, yet it is not a question of that other well-worn science fiction cliché: the aliens-who-know-no-emotions in the face of a unique, and as such, admirable, human prerogative. It is more a question of a different emotional response – one that does not always match our well trained social expectations. There is, for example, a definite, if very understated, romantic attachment between Sapphire and Steel, but the way this is played out is by no means conventional, leading some viewers to wonder whether their feelings for each other are real or indeed, whether they exist at all. Again, nothing is at it appears to be: the coldly distant demeanour of both characters is continually belied by their actions in taking the most extreme risks to save humans at every possible opportunity. If Tully is sacrificed, it is to save hundreds of human ghosts. Both Sapphire and Steel endanger themselves to help the woman in Adventure 6, Steel explaining to Silver that it is their duty to do so. Indeed, it is perhaps as a direct result of this concern that they are caught in the trap at the end. Both agents, in fact, display strong, if strictly controlled, emotional responses in relation to humans on a number of occasions. For example, when Steel realises that he has almost stabbed a baby and when the creature in Adventure 4 burns two people alive in a photograph, he is clearly upset. There are numerous other examples. But all these observations do no more than raise further interesting questions, further fodder for speculation. They merely begin to scratch the surface of the hundreds of possible questions that one might ask…

Links to other Sapphire and Steel pages

Revisiting Sapphire and Steel
Sapphire and Steel. Sci Fi Freak site
Page on TV Tropes
Stephen O’Brien SFX magazine
Page on British Horror Television

Read Full Post »

Warning spoilers

My rating: ****
imdb link

While on things vaguely religious, I thought I would post up another item from my now defunct film website. I originally wrote this review in 2002. I have made some very minor updates.

Plot
A New York doctoral student in philosophy, Kathleen (Lili Taylor), gets bitten by a female vampire in evening clothes and becomes one herself. Drifting aimlessly and neglecting her thesis, Kathleen stumbles across an ancient vampire called Peina (Christopher Walken) who promptly sucks all her blood and gives her a lecture on philosophy and literature which inspires her to finish her thesis. A post-doctoral party becomes a vampire feeding frenzy and Kathleen, having already infected the rest of her philosophy department, ends up in hospital. There she repents of her addiction to evil, dies and is saved. The film’s dialogue consists mainly of heavy duty quotations from, and discussions of, pre-1960s philosophy, mostly of the existentialist and Jansenist variety.

Review
This is not a movie for the faint hearted. But then Abel Ferrara‘s films never are. This bizarre and intense film operates at a number of levels: first of all, as a suitably blood-festooned vampire flick (although the word vampire is never mentioned). Secondly, it operates as a philosophical and religious reflection on human evil and redemption and finally as an amusing take on certain aspects of university life, probably best appreciated by those directly involved in that venerable institution.

To comment first of all on its vampire credentials. It helps if one has more than a passing familiarity with the vampire genre in order to stomach the gore. The action is filmed in black and white which helps distance the viewer from the more graphic elements. Indeed in colour, the effect would probably have been unintentionally comic, evoking the lurid excesses of Hammer horror in its hey day. Even so, a vampire feeding frenzy at Kathleen’s post Ph.D party looks amusingly like some avant-garde actors’ workshop. Having said this, if there were such a thing as vampires, this would probably have to be the most realistic depiction of the sheer mechanics of their practices in all their repulsiveness. No romantic sparkling vampires of the Twilight variety here! But in the end it is probably the documentary images of the piles of bodies in concentration camps at the end of World War II which form the most disturbing visual material of the film. As for sound, the most disgusting scene must surely be the evil vampire Peina sucking Kathleen’s blood.

But the core of this film is its philosophical and religious reflection on evil. Clearly writer Nicholas St. John has been reading some heavy duty philosophy of the most gloomy existentialist kind: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Beckett, Baudelaire and theologians such as Calvin and J.C. Sproul are referred to and quoted at some length by the characters. It seems he wrote this film and Abel Ferrara’s The Funeral (1996) after his son’s death. No-one has a mundane or even a remotely cheerful conversation in this film and certainly no-one refers to any philosophy produced more recently than 1960. No Foucauldian, structuralist, or postmodern vampires here! The tone is reminiscent of such Catholic pre- and immediately post-war novelists as Graham Greene, Shusaka Endo, Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac – all heavily influenced by a bleak angst ridden Jansenist outlook. One is also reminded of the French film maker Robert Bresson’s approach –  another atheist/Catholic film maker who was concerned with showing how evil people could be and the grace of God that could save them in extremity.

The only people in the film able to resist the lure of the vampire are a priest and a young man handing out religious pamphlets in front of the building where the post-doctoral gore fest is about to occur. Kathleen, after having her vampire advances rebuffed by the young man, goes inside and starts screaming hysterically ‘I will not submit!’, an obvious reference to Lucifer’s ‘non serviam’. The whole premise of the film seems to be that if one does not recognise and face the evil within oneself and the rest of mankind and accept the saving grace of the Christian God, then one is controlled by evil, becomes addicted to it and is compelled to pass it on to others.

The nausea of existence à la Sartre is also much in evidence – quite literally as the newly made vampire Kathleen sits in a café and toys digustedly with her food. Nonetheless, for all its references to the philosophy of another era, this is very much a film of the 1990s with its passing references to AIDS and its view of postmodern social detachment and disconnection.

The philosophical dialogues and pronouncements of the various characters are anything but naturalistic and it helps to have some philosophical background to follow what is being said and the links between the action and the talk are not always clear. This produces a similar, but perhaps less extreme effect, to the one produced in Luis Bunuel’s film The Milky Way where characters from different periods in history conduct sword fights, drink in taverns, sing at school fêtes, all the while discussing the finer points of medieval Catholic doctrine or arcane heretical deviations. But the radical disjunction between words and things or actions is an attractive one and serves to emphasise the non-naturalness of all human words and actions.

Along the way Kathleen meets an evil and corrupt vampire who tells her his name is Peina and who is able to control his hunger and pass as human through a kind of asceticism of evil – a Nietzschean will to power. He has managed to make his evil mundane and almost invisible and he is able to control it for his own purposes which makes it far worse than Kathleen’s. Peina achieves a kind of perverse evil enlightenment and asceticism through the management of his addiction. Kathleen is more classical in her salvation but is far less interesting because we don’t see her involved in anything like the 12 steps to get to that point. All we see is the addiction and then the miraculous salvation. Peina on the other hand has a whole ascetic practice which is much more intriguing – but it is an asceticism in the service of darkness rather than light.

I would suggest that any postgraduate student who is having trouble finishing their thesis would probably benefit from Peina as a supervisor. He roars at Kathleen frighteningly: ‘You are nothing! You know nothing!’ gives her a reading list of French and German philosophers and Beckett then sucks all her blood. Prior to running into this vampire she had been neglecting her thesis. Afterwards she gets on and finishes it. Amusingly, by the end of the film Kathleen has turned most of the philosophy department into vampires. Some academics would no doubt feel quite at home with the whole notion of postgraduate students sucking their blood.

This is not a big budget production and the filming is rough and ready but it is the ideas that carry this work. Watching this flawed film, if not always a pleasant experience, is certainly a challenging and thought provoking one and as such well worth the effort.

Read Full Post »

In 2002 I created a review website around the actor Christopher Walken, which was also home to some of my writings on science fiction television. I have decided to let this site lapse as it has been languishing for years without updates. I will be reposting some of its content on this blog.

I originally wrote the piece below in 1997 as a favour to a friend, delivering it as a somewhat tongue in cheek talk at a Babylon 5 convention, in the days before the virtual mainstreaming of media fandom. Babylon 5 is an American science fiction TV series set on a space station and featuring political and territorial conflicts between humans and other species. The series ran from 1994 to 1998.

******************

I will begin by assuming that as avid viewers of the science fiction series Babylon 5 you are all familiar with Commander Sheridan’s dream which is deployed in all its surreal and hitchcockian glory in the third season of the series. In this short article I propose to offer an in depth and definitive interpretation of this symbolic fest.

There are three types of dream interpretation: the traditional psychic and spiritual method, variants of which have been practised by most cultures. In this tradition, dreams are divided into a number of categories, including the prophetic, the predictive, past lives and allegorical. Sheridan’s dream is clearly of the prophetic kind – a foretelling of future destiny and a warning.

The second type of dream interpretation is more modern: this is the Freudian or psychoanalytic method which reduces dream to a pathology, to a revelation of that which has been suppressed and is struggling to emerge as a symptom. In this tradition, a dream does no more than point to a medical and psychological condition. The third type of dream interpretation – also modern – is an uneasy amalgam of the first two methods. This is Jung’s analysis of a collective unconscious, the manifestation of a universal symbolic imaginary. I will ignore these two latecomers in the field of dream interpretation and concentrate solely on the first, which if it lacks the spurious precision of modern science, accumulates the insights of generations lost in the mists of time.

Finally, to get down to the nitty gritty. As I have mentioned Sheridan’s dream is clearly a warning and a prophecy. I will begin by concentrating on the appearance of the birds. There is a crow or raven on Ivanova’s shoulder and an eagle or falcon on Garibaldi’s. The identity of the bird in the latter case has been the subject of some controversy – some viewers perceiving Garibaldi’s bird as a dove. Rather than choosing the wimpy sentimental dove, however, I prefer to see the strong predatory form of an eagle.

Both the crow and the eagle can have multiple meanings in a dream. A crow in Celtic mythology is the messenger who flies between the twilight world of death and this life. To dream of seeing a crow betokens misfortune and grief and in combination with Ivanova’s hushing sound there is a clear warning of betrayal, that enemies will be plotting behind the commander’s back. It is also a warning that he stands in dire need of aid and council. The Irish hero Culchulain died betrayed and strapped to a post in battle with a crow perched on his shoulder. There is a warning that a similar fate awaits Sheridan. The fact that the crow sits on the shoulder of his second in command is significant – someone in his own camp will betray him after he has ignored all the indications that such betrayal was imminent.

The eagle implies that Sheridan will soar far above the ordinary world, struggling fiercely to attain lofty ambitions. It also means that he will make a long voyage to distant and unknown planets in his search for knowledge and wisdom. The eagle is also a sign that he will overcome his enemies and achieve all his dreams. But one must not forget the predatory nature of both the eagle and the crow. The crow feeds off death and the eagle cruelly snatches life at its strongest. The conjunction of the eagle and the crow means that Sheridan will indeed conquer and throw off the trammels of worldly existence but only through death, grief and betrayal and the loss of all that he holds most dear.

The conjunction of the eagle and crow is interesting at another level. The crow represents Celtic Britain and the eagle, America. This is a clear reference to the earlier appearance in the series of King Arthur (in the form of Michael York) or even Jack the Ripper, that English harbinger of death, on what is largely an American space station. And to stray briefly into the arena of Jungian interpretation, it could also be a reference to the American war of independence during which the English and Americans fought – this would clearly be an event deeply rooted in Sheridan’s ancestral memory.

To turn to Kosh’s remarks: their significance is rather obvious. When he intones the phrase ‘you have always been here’ he is talking on a number of levels. First of all, he is referring to a hidden spiritual level of Sheridan’s psyche which has hitherto remained dormant but has nonetheless always been there. And of course it is standard doctrine in writings about the psychic realm that one is more susceptible to prophecy and spiritual insight when the conscious mind is stilled in sleep or unconsciousness. As is written in one of the standard texts: ‘A dream is an event transpiring in that world belonging to the mind when the objective senses have withdrawn into rest or oblivion. Then the spiritual man is living alone in the future or ahead of objective life and consequently lives man’s future first, developing conditions in a way that enable waking man to shape his actions by warnings, so as to make life a perfect existence’. Sheridan’s case is a perfect illustration of this. But Kosh’s statement is perhaps more prophetic than this. When he says ‘you have always been here’ the backdrop is clearly the space station Babylon 5. Sheridan has been destined since the beginning of time to make a messianic stand on Babylon 5 and he has also done some time travelling in the process.

The mystical and faintly Eastern sound of wind chimes or bells that appears in the dream further indicates spiritual attainment and the need to ward off the evils of death and betrayal. The chimes are also a call to spiritual purity. This sound combined with the appearance of the figure standing in judgement means that Sheridan must undertake a journey of spiritual purification where he will be judged according to his merits. He may be found wanting. The figure standing in judgment is also a clear evocation of ‘Q’ the powerful alien being who acts as judge and jury in the first and last episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Babylon 5 would not be complete without a Q figure, no matter how brief his appearance. In fact, this scene could well presage Q’s future appearance in the series. After all, for Q there are no physical boundaries or impossibilities. A transmigration from Star Trek to Babylon 5 is quite within his capability and no doubt he could consort closely with Bester as a kindred spirit in the latter series.

But to move to the next point: the statement ‘you are the hand’ is also clear in its meaning. Ivanova neglects to complete the phrase which in its entirety should read ‘you are the hand of God’ thus completing the link to Islamic and Arabic prophetic traditions. Sheridan is the instrument of Allah, the instrument of a cosmic destiny. As for the man in between , this is both a reference to Lorian and Sheridan himself. Sheridan must encounter both himself and Lorian in between the tick and the tock of eternity, in between life and death, in between the material and spiritual worlds. ‘Between’ has always indicated that twilight zone of possibilities, of openness to mysterious and other worlds. ‘The man in between’ is also the man in between what was and what will be. More tenuously perhaps, ‘the man in between’ is also Q, an entity who, as I have clearly shown, exists in the twilight zone between two series – Star Trek and Babylon 5.

The veiled woman is again a sign that Sheridan will be betrayed and maligned by apparent friends. The mourning veil denotes further grief, distress and trouble, the dark purple lips indicate the vampiric kiss of death. In sum, the whole dream is loaded with dark portents of gloom, betrayal and death but there is also hope that out of this darkness will come victory and spiritual enlightenment.

For another interpretation of this dream sequence see The Lurker’s guide to Babylon 5.

Read Full Post »

Warning spoilers

My rating: ***
imdb link

Plot

A 12 year old orphan (played by Asa Butterfield, who also appears as the young Mordred in the TV series Merlin) lives in the forgotten back corridors of the Gare Montparnasse in Paris in the early 1930s, maintaining the clocks of the railway station using skills he has been taught by his father and uncle. At the same time he is working on the restoration of a clockwork automaton his father found in a museum. He meets the legendary pioneer of early cinema Georges Méliès and his goddaughter.

Review

This film has received rave reviews but I remain somewhat ambivalent. There is a graphic novel feel to the film with its charmingly dreamlike and retro – and definitely made for Anglo-Saxons – designer Paris. The Gare Montparnasse, with its steam punk behind-the-scenes industrial labyrinth and views of Paris from an implausibly high clock tower, also echoes Notre Dame Cathedral in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831). Paris for Anglo-Saxon consumption emerges in particular in the café at the station which is a strange blend of English teahouse run by genteel spinsters and a 1930s French café with ‘petits noirs’, a small dance orchestra and café patrons dancing. French cafés in real life are usually a very male affair. There is also a semi cartoon-like station-master (no doubt referencing the silent cinema keystone cops) complete with blue uniform and kepi played by an unrecognisable Sacha Baron Cohen.

The graphic novel tone of the film comes the experimental children’s novel by Brian Selznick on which it is based: The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic Press, 2007). The author describes it in these terms:

[It] is a 550 page novel in words and pictures. But unlike most novels, the images in my new book don’t just illustrate the story; they help tell it. I’ve used the lessons I learned from Remy Charlip and other masters of the picture book to create something that is not a exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things.

An air of melancholy, death and grief pervades the film. Given the period during which the film is set, I was reminded of a 2011 ABC radio national interview  with crime novelist PD James, born in 1920, where she describes her experience of being brought up in a grief stricken society dealing with the immense loss of life that took place during the Great War.

It is implied that the main character’s Hugo’s (English) mother died when he was very young. We see his father in flashback, but he is killed in a fire while working on a church clock. The uncle who takes Hugo into his care is an alcoholic who falls into the Seine and is only discovered months later. Georges Méliès, the owner of a sweets and toys shop at the station, is grieving over the loss of his past glories. The awkward, socially inept Stationmaster was brought up in an orphanage and crippled during the War. Hugo’s young female friend is also an orphan but exudes a tomboy girl’s own brand of cheerfulness and resourcefulness which forms a nice counterbalance to Hugo’s gloom.

The film also clearly has an educational mission, providing an overview of some aspects of early cinema, with entertaining re-enactments of some of Méliès’ films, extracts from his A Trip to the Moon (1902), and additional footage of classic early Lumière brothers films such as Train Pulling into a Station (1895) and Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), some early Thomas Edison footage and other classics of American early silent cinema. There are background references to other early European cinema with a poster for Judex, for example, displayed in the foyer of a cinema. There are also allusions to famous photographs, such as a dream sequence of a famous train crash in 1895 at the Gare Montparnasse with the final shot referencing the photograph.

The happy ending does little to attenuate the overwhelming sense of melancholy produced by the film, which comes across in general as a kind of fannish film buffs’ wish fulfilment fantasy. An improbable world where orphans find a new family, where artists are given the recognition and adulation they deserve, where lonely marginalised people (the station master and two people not in the first flower of attractive youth) find romance. But the rediscovery of Méliès during his lifetime is not fantasy and he was indeed recognised for his achievements with a gala being held in his honour in 1929 and further recognition from then on until his death in 1938, which unfortunately for him, did not translate into financial recognition.

For all its accuracy regarding some of the history of early cinema and of Méliès’ career and rediscovery, Hugo offers what appears to have become the contemporary form of the ‘fairytale’. This contemporary reading of the notion of what constitutes a ‘fairytale’ is far removed from older renditions and can also be found in the current series of Doctor Who and in Tim Burton’s films. It is a model which is thoroughly self conscious about its fairy tale status, often dripping with saccharine sentimentality (there is plenty of this in Hugo), the kitsch and the twee with trappings of gothic-lite horror.

As with many graphic novels and films based on graphic novels or with a large CGI component, I find it difficult to make the connection to the world of the everyday. This kind of modern ‘fairytale’ seems designed to offer an ‘escape’ which ultimately results in a kind of melancholy and despair. Nothing can be done about the real world, so the only solution is escape into a delusional world of imagined happiness and bliss – even if that world often has a sinister surreal touch to it. This, incidentally, is why I find the ending of Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil (1985) to be one of the most hauntingly horrifying endings of any film I have seen.

The kind of speculative fiction which do I find it easier to connect with, takes one back into the ‘real’ world, offering a way of reflecting on political and social situations through mechanisms of metaphorical and imaginative form which create intellectual distance, thus allowing particular social and philosophical issues to be viewed from different and productive perspectives. To refer to other contemporary science fiction fantasy: the TV series Supernatural in a number of episodes, directly addresses the question of the relation between speculative fiction and the everyday (but more of that in a separate post). I might also mention Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) as another example of an engaged and dark modern ‘fairytale’ which does not indulge in sentimentality and deals with some difficult social and political issues. Perhaps it is whether or not the text provides effective mechanisms for reflecting on social, political and existential matters which is the determining factor for me in my appreciation of the speculative fiction genre. Hugo, to my mind, is pretty thin on the ground in this context.

An additional note here on the CGI. I find that CGI photorealism, paradoxically perhaps, creates a distancing effect never quite allowing me to suspend disbelief. Having said this, however, Martin Scorsese offers some visual wonders in Hugo with some fabulous tracking shots – making marvellous use of the 3D medium. The recreated station in Hugo is an amalgam of meticulously built sets, CGI and post-production wizardry. The clockwork mechanisms on display and the Gothic statues in the courtyard of Georges Méliès’ apartment block are very striking. This unreality is something that also struck me in another film I recently viewed – Joe Maddison’s War (2010) – where the CGI rendered warplanes (and incidentally also another implausible fairytale for adults plot) simply put proceedings into an alternate reality far removed from the real historical events which were World War II.

If I have been critical of Hugo, it is, for all that, something out of the ordinary, visually splendid, and an interesting introduction to the history of film. As a children’s film it might provide more engaging material for both children and their long suffering parents than other ghastly screen fodder on offer – such as last year’s Mr Popper and his Penguins or the latest round of the Alvin and the Chipmunks series to mention only two of the more extreme examples.

Read Full Post »

Cult TV: The Essential Critical GuideCult TV: The Essential Critical Guide by Jon E. Lewis
My rating: ****

Jon E. Lewis, Cult TV: The Essential Critical Guide, Pavilion Books, 1994.

I noticed a few months ago that Google appears to have acquired Goodreads, a social networking and book cataloguing site to which I subscribe. At least that is my explanation for why Goodreads reviews are now listed on the relevant book pages on Google books. Given this higher degree of internet exposure, I decided that my reviews needed tidying up and updating. Most of my Goodreads reviews are already included on this blog, but a few of the more lightweight reviews (not books!) are not. Time to remedy that absence…

Jon E. Lewis’ book on Cult TV is a really useful and nicely put together reference book for TV fans. It is composed of encyclopedia style entries accompanied by black and white photos on a whole host of cult TV series from the birth of television in the 1950s to the time of publication in 1994. It covers a range of genres: science fiction, crime, westerns, children’s programmes, melodrama, adventure and comedy.

I have spent many a happy evening browsing the entries, discovering new series and gathering information on ones already seen. This book was written in the days when fandom really was a specialised subculture before it was quasi mainstreamed by the internet and as such displays the friendly approach that goes along with addressing a relatively small group.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »