Wednesday, 17 June 2009


Tolkien's "The Hobbit"... and political, moral and heroic landscapes.

Tolkien’s classic children’s novel "The Hobbit" (1937) was initially written for his son, who proofread it for pocket money, and eventually paved way for the literary monolith that is "The Lord of the Rings." Although Tolkien himself disliked metaphor and analogy ~ although Jungian interpretation would argue that it matters not whether the author is conscious of symbolism and meaning, that it is there anyhow ~ the political undercurrents and horror of warfare is never far from the story, although never interfering with the elements of adventure and great quest. Simply, in the face of conflict, of apocalypse and devastation of war, Tolkien’s argument is for negotiation, sharing, compromise and democracy. All these features are combined in the famous Hobbit, Bilbo.

Bilbo is a diminutive, hermetic persona, both physically and psychologically, and somewhat subservient to the duties of politeness ~ as when the dwarves arrive for dinner unannounced and he is unable to turn them away ~ and exhibiting a small-town sensibility. As a child reader surrogate Bilbo, as in most fairy tales, develops awareness and adult skills by embarking upon a great odyssey. It is the tale of naïve, home-loving and home-safe character being thrown by force into the trials and terrors of the outside world. Bilbo becomes an anti-hero, in that he himself is less than traditionally heroic ~ like Beorn and Bard. His heroism take two forms: firstly, that he rises to the occasion when needed, whether it be stealing from Smaug the dragon or fighting the giant spiders to save the dwarves; secondly, that he is also the advocate of political diplomacy, which he demonstrates in attempting to undermine Thorin’s stubborn greed by negotiating with the elves over Smaug’s treasure hoard. If Gandalf represents an almost absent but ever-present governance, then Biblo is the active politician and diplomat.

In this way, Tolkien has Biblo act as a moderated symbol of heroism, but heroism built from necessity rather than Classic conventions, and one that point towards a democratic sensibility. Bilbo possesses elements of parody of Classic Heroism whilst simultaneously earning them through deed and compromise. Compare with Smaug or Thorin, who express selfishness, greed and foolhardy excesses of stubborn pride, and who both meet bad ends. With his best intentions being for the greater good rather than just the fortune of one race, Bilbo wins on all fronts.

There is also Smaug, a vain creature of mass destruction, sat atop the hoards of gold and treasure gained from his decimation of towns and peoples: Smaug is a full-blooded metaphor and symbol for the greed of genocide; for wealth, power and mass-slaughter just for the profit. As to the further symbolism that has been foisted upon The Ring ~ widely compared to Atomic and Nuclear power, symbolism which Tolkien actively disapproved of ~ but surely the meaning is wider than that direct comparison. Rather, the One Ring embodies all the terrible burden of life, of trying to do right, of conscience, of the temptation of power and corruption, of selfish gain and thought. It seduces preys on the weaknesses of all, on selfish sensibilities, debasing their good motivations. And it also represents any means or weapon of mass destruction ~ surely no matter what size. The will to do harm, the uncontrolled anger and violence that the Ring represents is what is so terrifying - and only the meekness and innate goodness of (child-like) Hobbit creatures Bilbo and Frodo can wrestle with its allure. Even the mighty Gandalf will not trust himself, it seems…

If we accept that fictional characters operate from a Good and Bad internal dichotomy ~ rather than shades of grey ~ and that this lays not within a religious realm but a "moral" one [1], then morality can be achieved by adhering to Good intentions whilst acknowledging the temptation of the Bad (e.g. The Ring). "The good self is the self which is identified with, and takes pleasure in, the morally good; which is interested in and is bound up with pursuits, activities, in a word, with ends that realise the good will," writes F.H. Bradley [2]. It is an active, conscious process. Comparatively, Bradley states that: "The bad self can not as such be self-conscious; if it were so, it would realise the ideal of a self-conscious collection." [3]. If to be Bad is to lack a self-awareness, it is perhaps then relevant that invisibility, a kind of self-denial, is the initial power of the Ring. Of course all this moral talk must acknowledge the grey realm between the Good and the Bad, and that even the Bad are often self-aware, but bear no adherence to the actions that create the Good. Smaug and Orcs cannot be said to be self-conscious, but Saramon is surely more than aware of his ambitions for power, perhaps derived from some unknown quantity of self-hatred and desire for status.
It is possible to see The Ring as a symbol of the onset of the industrial and technological advances that will challenge of the oral cultures and fairy-tale form that Tolkien develops. But in some senses, he was wrong to be so pessimistic ~ the bedtime fairy tale has not lost entirely to the TV set. "Harry Potter" alone stands as testimony that full-blooded and increasingly complex fantasy can still capture cultural imagination, albeit - that a film adaptation will inevitably follow also. "The Lord of the Rings" prose fans are still happily fanatical, and it is not hard so to find someone that reads it annually. In a sense, "The Hobbit" is still seen as a younger-minded precursor to the major epic. And what does the young reader take from Biblo’s adventure - apart from the spirit of adventure itself? A tale that says the scary outside world can be advanced upon and fought with; one that suggests a complex multi-cultural and therefore politicised (fantasy) landscape; the idea that open-mindedness and positive action, goodwill and negotiation will provide the best way forward and prevent all bloodshed. And that to actively prevent bloodshed, in and of itself, is the goal of the Good. There is no real arguments for pre-emptive action here. Like the best fiction for the young, "The Hobbit" provides adult themes and contexts without the audience barely noticing; he never lets it interfere with the adventure ~ and yet never allows the need for adventure to undermine his more ponderous concerns with responsibility, loneliness, bonding and almost casual heroism.


[1] My definition: "moral" being the creation and agreement of behaviour that is positive and enlightened. I am reading Tolkien as trying for something greater than Good and Evil, sidestepping religious allegory and motivation (the kind he disliked in C.S. Lewis' "Narnia" series), hence my preferred use of Good and Bad.
[2] F.H. Bradley, "Ethical Studies," Oxford University Press, 1876, 2nd edition [1962] pg. 305
[3] F.H. Bradley, ibid.


Peter Berg & Josh Plate - 2004 - USA

"Friday Night Lights" is a good lesson in how to take and use all those narrative clichés and package them so that the audience isn't insulted. It's a sports film, and even before I venture more you know how that goes, and there isn't anything in Peter Berg's film that will convince you otherwise. The bragging, wiseass, cocky star player that everyone counts on... well, he's going to have the wind taken out of him. The team that keeps losing, just about scrapes through to battle a truly formidable opposition - on a toss of coin, no less. The father whose reaction to his son's imperfect performance verges on all-out abuse. And so on. Incidentally, we are talking Texan College Football here. The biggest surprise is that most of this is based on truth, which only makes you wonder if life likes to imitate big screen convention. Berg mitigates the given predictability and stereotypes by giving the film a washed-out, shaky-cam quasi-documentary flush and an Altman-esque wandering eye and camera over the ensemble characters. Certainly Berg's previous "Very Bad Things" revealed little of this canny respect and tackling of narrative and visual chestnuts, for these techniques near enough turn the given corniness into something moving.

The film scores big thematically by focusing not upon the imminent success of the underdog - indeed, this team is an underdog only in that it has to beat the top team in the league - but by concentrating on the experience of having and losing the best time of your life, on your greatest achievement flashing by before you even realise. You don't have to be a sports fan to get that. The young men that make up the team know that their moment as glorified football players is probably going to be over by the time they're eighteen, and then there will be no more. The film burdens the youths with the knowledge not only that they carry the weight of a whole team and town's reputation, but also that this moment of glory will be over come one Friday soon, and that nothing afterwards in life will match that. The abusive drunk father is, we surmise, a wreck because he peaked in football at that early age and couldn't find any joy or glory afterwards. Inevitably, he tries to relive it through his imperfect son's football career.

The initiative is that the idea of needing to win is forced upon us, with very little leeway for error. An unattainable perfection is demanded. The community heap praise, criticism, celebration and scorn upon the team and the coach with the terrifying irrationality and lack of perspective of devout fans. One of the best small moments is when two men stop the coach in a car park to wish him good luck but also to demand he enforce a win or else with all the veiled menace and threats of Mafioso. The coach is under the cruel thumb of public scrutiny, but in turn stills employs the training tactics of simply shouting and insulting his players into improvement and success. Is this, I wondered as neither a sports fan or an aficionado of American Football, truly the way all seriously competitive sports are taught, and how its great players fostered? Even creepier is the other quiet scene where the coach sits in Lucas Black's bedroom and convinces him that he has to choose between the responsibility to his ailing mother and his responsibility to the team, and by proxy the community. Lucas fondles a toy car and we are given to believe this is the moment where he must put aside childish things, but in truth it is the adults' demands placed upon the boy that are immature and unrealistic. Lucas has already proven his maturity by forsaking his youth to tend to his mother. Thankfully, the scene retains the ambiguity and the coach doesn't come out as some all-knowing tough-love mentor, but as also mercenary and as much of product of peer and public pressure as the youths. There is a casual realism to the characters, enforced by equally casual and assured performances.

As a quiet criticism of the pressure and expectations placed upon American youth when it comes to succeeding, as a criticism of adults living vicariously through their offspring, "Friday Night Lights" succeeds well. It does so both broadly and in the smaller details: for example, Booby Smith's lack of academic education is relayed through a telling moment when he is reading a wealth of potential Universities but has to be told what "prestigious" means. Again, real life makes this apparent cliché real: Booby Smith himself (in the DVD extras) laments his lack of academic learning and reliance upon football to provide him with a secure future.

This quite sly criticism counters the excitement and glory of the football scenes, which rush and crunch and reek of desperation. But it's not a happy portrait of the sporting life: the team all go around bewildered at the roles of responsibility placed upon them. In the film's other brief but best quiet moment, three of the team talk about how they don't even feel seventeen. And in the DVD extras again, another sad but true convention becomes manifest when it turns out that the three players we see sadly saying goodbye to it all at the end of the film never hung out the same way afterwards.

Although it misses out on the joy of sport and plays it as the camaraderie of desperate footsoldiers under fire of constant pressure and scrutiny, "Friday Night Lights" does come as a celebration of sport with heavy reservations. It plays out like one of those typically smart but conventional biopics.

Perhaps sport is the one art form where axioms and conventions are endorsed and excused. Wrestling, for example, is the broadest form of pantomime drama and no one is complaining at its artifice: the wrestlers are athletes, but the platform is theatre. Soccer, baseball, snooker, et cetera, are less flagrant, but also driven by conventional dramatics: icons; losers; underdogs; accidents and tragedies; scandals, and so on. You put these onto film, and they quickly fall into cliché, even if coloured by social or political context. But perhaps with "Friday Night Lights", the clichés become the point. That is, the players are drafted into sporting stereotypes and formula and - in the film at least - this predicament leaves them a little bewildered. Again, there is a pleasing ambiguity, a glint of wrongness around those standard scenes of the coach’s pep talk to his most promising player, or the players sobbing after losing on the field. The sobbing isn’t sentimental here: it is the devastated crack of a personality unable to live up to the demand for sporting perfection and of typecasting. In this way, "Friday Night Lights" gives its team a genuine humanityand vulnerability missing from many such tales.


Om jag vänder mig om

Björn Runge - 2003 - Sweden

Swedish melodrama by Bjorn Runge based around three couples and a night of secrets, shouting, sharing, absolution, etc. You know the score. Comparisons with Bergman’s family dramas are obvious, but the roaming camera pursuing and swinging between characters looking for cracks and blame seem more akin to Haneke. If anything, despite a quality cast, Runge’s allowing everything to be resolved by histrionics only shows how carefully calibrated Bergman pitched his melodrama. Despite its chilly, despondent disposition, "Daybreak" has more in common with soap operas.

Also like Hanake, Runge ultimately comes out as hectoring and exhibiting moral superiority. There is evidence of casual humanity, but in the end the blame is - as in Hanake - with a middle-class bourgeois who Won’t Face Things and earnestly live their lives in denial. The oddness here is that Runge throws culpability mostly all on the men. A builder who works so hard to earn money for his family, he never spends time with them. A man so embedded in his own loss of his daughter and disgust at the outside world, especially people of colour, that he wants the house bricked up so no one can trouble him and his wife. A philandering doctor about to lose his job and family who, when confronted with painful truths over a dinner of revelations, simply keeps saying he is going to make dinner or coffee to comical proportions. And, oddest of all, a man who left his clearly disturbed and demanding wife for a younger woman years ago. He is obviously happy with his new life, and his ex-wife clearly needs psychiatric treatment and a restraining order; and yet perversely we are apparently to empathise with her agony, with her inflicting what can only be termed torture upon her ex and his wife, for this is the only way he can be made to face the grief he has caused so that she can achieve closure. The ex-wife is left to wander into the dawn, presumably cleansed and less sociopathic, but I wouldn’t bet on it. It’s a fine line between addressing the flaws of average people for a humane outlook and criticising those mistakes into something more judgmental.

The overt symbolism is occasionally cloying too. The bricking-up-the-house is a decent conceit, for it generates a little quirk and mystery besides representing willful alienation. But we start with the graphic removal of the heart; a car chase that ends with them going in circles; a moment where the different narratives briefly pass one another at a crossroads; and then, when revelations have been made and absorbed… daybreak. Like firearms, hysterical characters are often cheap dramatics in search of meaningful drama. More reliance upon the fine cast and greater restraint might have given the show more elegance.

Thursday, 11 June 2009


Sam Raimi, USA, 2009


Anecdotal evidence suggests that Raimi’s latest is a real crowd pleaser. Friends tell me that they saw it in a packed cinema where everyone jumped and screamed at the right places; I have a friend who got whiplash watching it and had to take time off work. They should quote her on that for the poster. I didn’t see it in a crowded theatre… just a few of us. I wonder how much of a difference that might make? There is no doubting there is plenty meant to make you leap out of your skin. Every five minutes there is a slightly quiet moment and them BAM!! A blast of noise. It is not so much fear you are reacting too as much as an excess of volume. In other films, this just seems like a cheap BOO!! tactic. Luckily, Raimi has more to offer. Accolades have escalated for "Drag Me To Hell" to the level that it's being called the best horror film of the decade, etc. Which is ridiculous and seems based upon Rami delivering exactly what popcorn horror fans are expected to enjoy, and no more. Which he does. Some say that horror should always have, or is improved with the humour Raimi delivers. No. It is something like excessive horror for those who don't mind the violence of cartoons, but probably don't go much for the grimier, darker stuff.

It's mostly fun, but when watching and becoming annoyed at glaring continuity and logic issues, I started to see something else. These notes are based upon one viewing, so conclusions may change later on, and be warned that there are a whole bunch of spoilers.

"Drag Me To Hell" is slapstick horror, written by brothers Sam and Ivan Raimi, and it is often brilliantly presented, pushing the boundaries of its rating. As critic Mark Kermode has noted, that something like this is a PG13 shows how much things have changed, because with all its exploding eyeballs, etc., it surely would have been thrown in with the Video Nasties pile back at the height of that moral panic. It has Raimi’s aversion at old ladies and then some, more articulate in its revulsion than “Evil Dead” in its use of false teeth, dodgy eyes and witchy crones. It is also freewheeling with its continuity and details. No one expects completely consistent details in a horror romp, but: after it’s scene-stealing performance, where does the goat go in the séance? When Chrsitine Brown spurts a geyser of blood from her nose at everyone at work, no one particularly seems freaked out and it certainly doesn’t cause any consequences in people’s reactions to her. Upon disturbing the corpse at the wake, one minute it is spewing gunk over her, the next she is totally fresh-faced. Like a good old Tom and Jerry fight, she receives barely a blemish from all the battering she takes. Is this just the genre’s typical shrug at physical realism and constancy? I suspect more is at play.

Alison Lohman is Christine Brown is a farm girl apparently desperate to rise above her humble origins, the death of her father and her mother’s alcoholism. This one-time “fat girl” has slimmed down and is in line for promotion at work, up against the sliminess of a colleague rival. She has slimmed, worked her way up the chain of promotion at work, got herself a great boyfriend in Clay Dalton (Justin Long), she’s worked at a puppy shelter and she doesn’t eat meat. There is a lot tied into food. The curse comes from the Gypsy (a totally game Lorna Raver) who eats desk candy disgustingly, not to mention steals it. Many of the demonic attacks are foreshadowed or responded to by eating. The dinner with Clay's parents in particular is loaded with eyeballs in farm cake and devilish banging on doors. There is plenty of vomit going around; a fly penetrates her lips into her stomach; early on, the pre-curse gypsy gets a stapler down her throat and simply spits it back up. And the Lamia demon shoves its fist right down Lohan’s throat. The allusions to bulimic behaviour and repugnance, guilt and shame regarding food, eating and the mouth are everywhere. Once she thinks she is out of the curse, Christine immediately, impulsively buys a new minty green coat and tosses the old (despite having sold all her stuff earlier). All the clues of self-image problems are there, although we thankfully do not get a barrage of symbolic mirrors. If it wasn’t for the prologue showing Hell claiming a victim, and if it wasn’t for the séance which seems to possess a lot of action and consequence to validate the existence of a supernatural grudge, one might think the psychics onto a scam and the rest all in Christine's mind. Is her boyfriend’s mother right? Is Christine crazy?


Nihilistic Kid and Angry Black Woman take “Drag Me To Hell” to task for racism. The representation of the Gypsy community is not enlightened, but attacking horror films for casual and offensive caricatures is like reprimanding metal music for being too loud or Mariah Carey for singing too many notes: it comes with the territory and it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. That is not a justification of stereotypes and broad caricature, but in the better horrors something else is usually happening.

First context: this is a B-horror and the Gypsy Curse inclusion is surely meant to hark to the era when Gypsies were always cursing one Lon Chaney or the other - it is homage. It also comes from that unenlightened, prejudiced rendering of Gypsies (e.g., people originating from Roma) as seemingly a lifestyle choice, like occultism, rather than an ethnicity, and a persecuted one at that. But, again, I suspect there is more going on here.

Second context: the perspective of the narrative. Once the Gypsy woman has turned up, grossed us out and cursed Lohman with a vengeful Lamia devil to drag her to Hades, Lohman goes into the basement car park and sees a beat up, puke yellow car. The moment slows and she stares at it increasingly suspicious and nervous. The aesthetic becomes dreamy and tense. From the car floats the handkerchief of the Gypsy, and suddenly the Gypsy is right there in the car and an almighty cartoon fight ensues. But wait… back up. How does Lohman know that that decidedly inferior vehicle is the Gypsy’s car? It looks similar. And the Gypsy knows how to break into cars too? Isn’t this absurd fight before she dispenses with a curse and manifests herself as a Lamia? Perhaps we cannot exactly trust what we are seeing, as proposed before; and then perhaps what we are actually dealing with is not only Lohman’s self-disgust and eating disorder manifest, but also evidence of her racism. That is: the exaggerated disgust and stereotyping is Lohman’s perspective, through which the film is filtered. And so it follows that this is the Gypsy’s car and it is later seen when Lohman tries to visit the old crone at her house to get the curse lifted, but instead stumbles into her wake. Lohman is invited into the house, not knowing the wake is in progress, and the corridor she tentatively moves along is moreorless silent and then - bam! she is in the middle of a noisy wake … and gets embalming fluid or whatever vomited over her, except there is no evidence of that at the end of the scene. But we have no reason to believe that the Gypsy lady ever owned a car, outside of Lohman’s decidedly dubious perspective. Or just because the film says, "Sure that's her car". Therefore, the authenticity of the wake scene is also in doubt.

So come the ending, when all seems to be well and sunny and she has the promotion, the dastardly co-worker is exposed as conniving, her boyfriend is waiting for her, Lohman buys a new coat… she practically skips. It is not quite Peter Parker going “Saturday Night Fever” in “Spiderman 3”, but it is near the same dancefloor. And then…. All those consistent uses of food, eating and mouth images and anxieties. All those apparently dodgy moments of continuity. Is this one of those “Fight Club”, “The Others” tricks, with a relatively consistent parallel story going on, or simply the result of flippant horror making? It’s never spelt out, but: she trashed her own room; that nosebleed was not an actual geyser, etc. And even at the end, she imagines her accidental fall as the result of the hex of barely repressed fear of failure, fate and herself. Is it that half the craziness never actually happens in the séance - again, note there is a lot of blood that suddenly vanishes; that the medium dies during the course of the con and so the earnest Indian medium simply invents another convenient story of a “cure” (very much in the “Ringu” vein) to let Lohman off the hook? Is it simply that the prologue is a representation of what Lohman comes to imagine the back-story, as told by the con-artist medium, and just that we get to see it before the action truly starts? And is it that her barely repressed, troubled mind drives her into all kinds of hokum, even to imagining herself being dragged away?

...and now for some lols...

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Sunday, 7 June 2009


a.k.a: The Pararsite Murders; They Came From Within

David Cronenberg, USA, 1974

The culmination of the themes begun by Cronenberg’s earlier "Stereo" (1969) and the rarely seen "Crimes of the Future" (1970). A sexually transmitted disease mutates people of all ages into rapists in the hi-tech Starliner complex, set on its own island. The visuals possess the prosaic gloss of brochures and style magazines, but the most striking colour motif is blood on un-glamorised flesh. Assured and controlled to a greater degree than the earlier films, and more so than the subsequent "Rabid" [1976], Cronenberg mixes the banal with sudden but equally matter-of-fact shocks from the outset: we begin with an advert for the complex which gives way to a girl in her late teens apparently about to be raped by an older man in one of the luxury apartments. The truth of the matter, when revealed, is just as horrible. Soon, it is apparent that a faeces-like creature has been created and let loose in the building, sliming its way around the rooms, turning everyone into carriers. The old man is a professor, who has experimenting with organ replacement and created these parasites which are "a mixture of aphrodisiac and venereal disease"[1].

The apocalyptic vision that defined much of Seventies horror and science fiction is here merged with the possession theme and turned inward: Cronenberg’s vision is a sexual apocalypse where man cannot help himself, where he has little control or defense against his body, its desires or its mutations. As a visionary, Cronenberg has proved daring, pioneering and singular but increasingly accessible; he is a true auteur. Decades later and his early films would all be seen in the context of fear of A.I.D.S. and promiscuity. His sense of both horror and the domestic, and where the two overlap, is always both clinical and essentially humane, not to mention black-humoured. Comparisons with "Crash" (1996) - Cronenberg’s later assault on the shine of a car-fetishising culture - shows how fearless and sharp his analytical, objective style has consistently been. Any budgetary restrictions and patchy scripting is often overcome by an obvious intellect and allegory (which is perhaps why the British censors passed "Shivers" uncut). In this way, Cronenberg is also able to create scenes dealing with husband-wife rape, incest, predatory homosexuals, child carriers and afflicted elders without prejudice: the sexual holocaust shows no preference.

A more experienced Cronenberg would have matched the Bright New World of the complex with sleeker cinematography and camerawork. "Shivers" has no showy camerawork, but the sudden shocks are upstaged only by Cronenberg’s ability to turn everyday orifices into deadly threats, from letterboxes and plugholes to ajar elevator doors. Likewise, he underplays how Hampton’s doctor turns into a pragmatic killer without the slightest hesitation: he is simply a man of medicine trying to destroy a virus. Society’s gloss and alienation barely suppresses the violence and sexuality of ordinary people; the clinical succumbs to the visceral and primal, creating a sexualised zombie plague.

This is Cronenberg’s "Night of the Living Dead" [1968], but the threat is manifested from within, trying to get out, right down to the cars leaving the underground car park of the phallic complex. A venereal "Invasion of the Bodysnatchers". Peter Nichols calls the film part of Cronenberg’s "bizarre cinema of disgust" and a deeply black comedy, and it is probably so that Cronenberg’s earlier work ventured clearly into such uncharted territory that only some of the audience would respond to. "Shivers" was badly received upon release. This merging of evident intellect and out-right horror convention is probably what dumbfounded many critics: or, as Kim Newman puts it, "Shivers" seems like the director’s reaction to his seriously cerebral earlier experimental films, so that "‘Shivers’ is so unswervingly gripping that rational thought is impossible." [2] Certainly, there is an accumulation of action typical of horror - a sort of "The Andromeda Strain" (1971) meets "Dawn of the Dead" (1979) - but the allegory justifies such cinema of transgression and achieves uncomfortable insight that other genres can only dream about. "Rabid", ultimately, can only end up seeming a lesser sequel to this initial, fierce vision.

[1] The Science Fiction Film Source Book, (ed. David Wingrove, Longman Group Ltd, Essex, 1985) pg. 202
[2] Nightmare Movies: a critical guide to horror films, ( Kim Newman, Harmony Books, New York, 1988), pg. 118