Guess who's cumming to dinner?

Despite the many controversies that beset it, 300 is a very impressive queer cultural critique. I was sitting in a bar last night watching the ending, and mulling over how brave the director was to attempt a mainstream blockbuster movie focussed so strongly on the cultural politics of homosexual relationships. To the best of my knowledge it’s the only mainstream blockbuster movie ever made that lookd directly at the confused politics of sexual relations in the queer world. While on the surface, on a trivial reading, it’s a piece of visually stunning warporn, the director very cleverly used this warporn both to lure in mainstream heterosexual audiences, and to model the socio-sexual relations of the gay bathhouse. Basically here we have a movie that uses battle scenes to recreate the visceral chaos of a gay sauna, and to investigate the complex relations of dominance, submission and manipulation that exist between “tops” and “bottoms” in this world, or at least in this world as its cultural stereotype is understood by most queer critics.

The battle scene-as-sauna is a powerful and unique contribution to cinema. The gangs of faceless men in the background, struggling and sweating, the chaos and the intense physicality of battle, when eroticized in the unique style of the movie, are a brilliant analogy for the sexual milieu of the bathhouse. Others have struggled with ways of representing homosexual activity that don’t offend the mainstream, but the battle scene conveys all the essential elements of sex in a culturally acceptable way, without any transgressions. We have sex as death, an age old image that everyone understands; we have a “battle” conducted entirely with piercing weapons; and we have the slaying of another, so often characterized as the pinnacle of masculine responsibility, as a metaphor for sexual conquest, also so clearly construed as a masculine role. The moment of death as orgasm, the petit mort of everyone’s experience, the exhaustion of the fighters after a hard “battle,” and the image of war as expression of self… what is this but warporn as porn?

Nowhere is this war imagery more usefully exploited than in the climactic scene, where we see also the heart of the movie’s queer cultural critique. The key to the movie is to understand it as a metaphor for the deployment – and ultimately the frustration – of power by a “bottom,” represented in the form of the Persian emperor, to undermine the will and strength of a “top” (Leonidas) and of “tops” as independent men (the Spartans). For those unfamiliar with this politics, let us put it simply. In many popular imaginings of gay sex, both straight and queer, the world of gay men is divided into two types: “bottoms,” who are fucked; and “tops,” who fuck them. Fundamentally this is based on a misogynist construction of women as fucked and man as fucker; in the classic misogynist imagery, women have “power” that they can deploy in the form of seduction, to undermine the will of the man and to set him on a path – they are the power behind the throne, Lady Macbeth, using their feminine wiles in a way that the misogynist construes as infinitely more powerful than we mere men possess (control of the state, the family and the means of production) – all these things fall to the wayside at the sight of a perfect arse, in the misogynist construction of woman-as-betrayer. As old as Genesis[1], this misogynist trope also infects the imagery of the gay “top” and “bottom,” with the “bottom” seen as “having the real power” through their ability to seduce, deceive and manipulate.

In 300 the director deconstructs this vision of the “bottom” as deceiver, and a clear judgment is made on the true state of power relations between the fucked and the fucker. The Persian Emperor – the ultimate (or nadirical?) “bottom”, manipulates hordes of men in the bathhouse (battlefield). They fuck (kill) each other in vain attempts at conquest, all to try and protect their claim to him, or to stake a claim thereon. The Spartans here are construed as tops, while the faceless Persians are merely other bottoms, deployed by the ultimate bottom as objects to be fucked (killed) in his attempts to bring the “tops” to accept his power. Ultimately the Spartan’s efforts are futile – no matter how many they fuck (kill), they must ultimately exhaust their strength. But at this moment, instead of seeing them bow to the superior manipulative power of the “bottom,” we see his power rejected ultimately – it is shown to be false and shallow, based as it is on the weakness of others rather than the strength of self. The two “tops,” finally exhausted by their orgy (battle), look to each other in exhaustion, and declare their undying love for each other. Then one of them – Leonidas – draws himself to his feet for one last effort. Bringing forth his cock (spear), he hurls himself at the hated “bottom”, and shows his true feelings for the manipulator. The tip of his weapon rips off the Emperor’s decorative chain and slashes his cheek, splattering blood across his face. In 300 we understand, immediately, that blood symbolizes cum, and so we see at the end of the movie the cumshot in which all modern porn must end. The “tops” have shown their undying love for each other and at the last one of them expresses his contempt for the “bottom” in the traditional way – with a cumshot. And so the Emperor’s victory is shown to be hollow, to have been achieved only through the public display of his own sexual humiliation. At the last, the “top” chose independence and another independent man, and showed the bottom to be nothing but an object of scorn and sexual degradation.

Is this not a powerful critique of a style of sexual relations? And all conveyed within a visually powerful, strongly homoerotic movie that is at times stirring, exciting and poetic. Though many will disagree with the interpretation of sexual relations shown in the movie, I think we can all accept that as cultural critique, it is unparalleled in its intensity, ingenuity and power. A  masterpiece of subtle social critique deployed through completely unsubtle images, and presented in such a way as to achieve mainstream success. I can only hope that it will inspire other queer cinema to emerge from its “indie” lacuna and into the limelight!

fn1: though probably not as old as Phil Collins

What they are about to do to you should be illegal...

This is one for the OSR: it’s heart is in the right place but it’s production values are terrible. I was lured into watching this movie originally by hearing a sample on the Vanishing Point song A Day of Difference, and thought it must be a great movie on the basis of Peter O’Toole’s effort therein. Unfortunately, the movie is based on a musical, which is in turn based on a play. This is a tragicomedy in action. Everything that needs to be said about plays has been said by the Daily Mash; musicals are of course the worst art form ever invented; and 70s TV can be very hit and miss at the best of times, let alone if it’s projecting a projection of a projection. The result of this farcical combination can be seen in this clip, which jerks from Peter O’Toole’s superb prose, which is delivered with that strained grace one gets used to in theatre, to a truly terrible moment of song in such a jarring way as to spoil the effect of the original speech completely. In fact, I had to watch this movie over a series of 30 minute viewings, and was regularly distracted during the worst of the songs.

The basic story concerns the imprisonment of a travelling playwright called Don Miguel de Cervantes, who is captured by the Inquisition and thrown in a shared oubliette with a bunch of petty criminals along with his servant, a fat stupid American. They plan to steal his belongings and destroy his life’s work, which is some kind of book, but he demands the right to a trial before they do so. His defense at this trial is the dramatic presentation of one of his stories, which concerns itself chiefly with the importance of seeing the world as it should be, rather than as it is. The central character of the play is a mad old man who thinks he is a Knight and sees all around him glory and beauty where there is only rot and decay. In the presentation of this moral tale, he is foiled principally by the prisoner who plays the role of prosecutor, a cynical and sarcastic wit; and a debased young woman who plays the part of the prostitute he exalts as a noblewoman. The former tries constantly to find fault with his moral lesson, while the latter denies that there is any goodness to be seen in the world.

The central idea of this story is a powerful moral story about always aiming to see things as they ought to be, rather than being dragged down by the bonds of ordinary mortality, told by someone who is doomed to be tortured by the Inquisition for speaking out against the church; the story is delivered in a manner that parallels one of the tales of Don Quixote, I think, and is perhaps meant to represent one stage in the life of the author of that book. The acting is brilliant and the script combines wit, classical references and some brilliantly crafted English to produce some very powerful dialogue. Unfortunately, the whole thing is spoiled irrevocably by the absolutely awful music, and the terrible soundtrack. Consider, for example a comparison of O’Toole’s speech:

I’ve been a soldier and a slave. I’ve seen my comrades fall in battle or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I’ve held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no brave last words, only their eyes, filled with confusion, questioning “Why?” I don’t think they were wondering why they were dying, but why they had ever lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? To surrender dreams – -this may be madness; to seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness! But maddest of all – -to see life as it is and not as it should be.

with some lyrics from the song The Knight of the Woeful Countenance, which is probably (shudder) one of the better ones in the tale:

Fare to the foe,
They will quail at the sight
Of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance!
Oh valorous Knight,
Go and fight for the right,
And battle all villains that be,
But oh, when you do,
What will happen to you
Thank God I won’t be there to see!

What was the person who wrote the former thinking when they penned the latter? Or, perhaps, what was the person who adapted the former from the stage thinking when they were so foolish as to think they could do any justice to it by penning the latter? This movie is an exercise in lining up beautifully crafted, carefully developed prose and then destroying it with awful, pantomime-standard music. Like all musicals ever made, it is good in spite of the terrible job that was done with the music. The director really should have been told not to proceed with this diabolical plan.

I can’t help but recommend it though because if you can bear the music, the acting and the speech in between are at times close to perfection. Have a book, and possibly a bucket, on hand and you may have a chance to enjoy an elegant presentation of an interesting moral tale, sadly interrupted every 5-10 minutes by a pack of squawking fools. There should be laws against this sort of travesty but, sadly, there aren’t, so one just has to show some fortitude and bear it. Good luck!

This is not a milk delivery

The Road is a nasty post-apocalypse movie by John Hillcoat, based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. The basic story is very simple – a man and his son are walking south towards the coast through a post-apocalyptic landscape, trying to survive while they head for the sea. The cause of the apocalypse is not described, but the land has been locked in a perpetual winter, all the animals and plants are dead and gone, and there are no surviving communities. What few humans there are mostly live by cannibalism, scavenging the ruined towns and cities for any edible remnants of the time before but mostly living by killing and eating other travellers – or keeping them alive and eating them bit by bit, depending on how clever they are. The sky, the land and the buildings are all grey, there is regular rain and snow, and the father in the story is slowly dying of what appears to be some kind of apocalypse-related disease. They are heading south in hopes of finding land capable of sustaining life and communities, and also some warmth, because they realize they can’t survive another winter in the freezing inland.

The majority of this movie is a story completely without goodness or hope. The scenes of cannibalism are quite horrific, and the two lead characters do not have any positive encounters with people during their travels. They hide from any people they see, and don’t trust anyone. On several occasions they stumble on functioning small communities of about the size of a small gang, only to discover that they are cannibals living in horrifyingly primitive and evil circumstances, and have to flee. Even the non-cannibals they meet have hints of terrible pasts – an old man who may have eaten his own son, for example – and the two main characters are themselves constantly starving, so that the question of “would you or wouldn’t you?” weighs heavily upon them.

This movie was probably a little too grim for my tastes, and strikes me as one of those moments where a book shouldn’t have been made into a film. It’s just too nasty to put actors to, even if the actors in question manage to do the job brilliantly. The world of the apocalypse is powerfully done, so that you really do feel like you’re there, and there’s not really anything you question about the veracity of the setting – it’s internally very consistent. Viggo Mortensen puts in a powerful performance as the father, and all the other actors live up to their parts most admirably. But you find yourself thinking, by the end of it, that surely even the most powerful artistic powers are thoroughly wasted if they are bending their prodigious talents to the production of something so horrific and grim as this.

My only two complaints with this movie are minor, but they may bug other viewers too. The boy – Viggo Mortensen’s son – played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, is annoyingly weak and innocent, and does things that after 7 or 10 years of post-apocalyptic life you’d think would be well beaten out of any sensible survivor. He seems to have no cynicism or mistrust, he is physically weak (reasonable, I suppose) and he is incapable of being silent when he needs to be. He also doesn’t seem to analyze situations very well, either. His innocence and purity are so inconsistent with the world around him that it makes one think he was written into the story as a kind of allegory of human conscience, in which case it was all done rather clumsily. At times his mistakes and weak points are quite frustrating, and it’s hard to believe that after 10 years of dodging cannibals – and in some cases watching them kill and eat the people who don’t dodge them – he hasn’t quite managed to work out that he is living in a world where no-one can be trusted. But I can also see that this is the intent of the story – the father has managed to shelter his boy from the worst of the apocalypse for years, and has difficulty preparing the boy to look after himself once papa dies.

My other complaint is that the ending seems a bit deus ex machina, in that after setting up a world of such unrelenting cruelty, that presents its survivors with such hard and nasty choices, the final resolution to the plot seems so unbelievable as to be almost an act of god. However, the presence of a moment of hopefulness in an otherwise completely forlorn and ruined world made it acceptable. Had the movie ended more realistically, with the final scene being the kid being butchered and eaten by scumbags, I probably would have set fire to my tv. Or myself.

In short, this is a great movie that it’s best not to watch.

Last night I watched Salt, the Angelina Jolie spy movie. This is basically an action flick, with maybe 12 seconds of character development at the beginning that is only required as background explanation for a cold look near the middle of the movie, and a brief explanation at the end. After that Angelina Jolie kills a bunch of people, does a bunch of stunts, kills a bunch more people, rinse and repeat.

So, overall, a lot of fun. There’s a plot in there, sufficient to keep you interested in why Salt is jumping from that truck to that truck, or sticking her pen in that man’s neck, or whatever. As plots go it’s got the standard elements of trickery, twist, and ludicrousness that one comes to expect of modern action movies. Gone are the days when a chap turns up in town and kills a bunch of people ’cause they hurt his dog. Now they have to have a hidden secret and a bunch of social connections.

See what happens when you let chicks into action movies?

Anyway, my main problem with the plot was that the fundamental bad guy plot was ridiculous. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here when I reveal that it involved a Russian plot to start world war 3 by deception, only the entire plan revolves around the most ludicrously high-stakes spy action that you can possibly imagine. The Russian plot has so many points where it could go off the rails that it’s just silly.

Nonetheless, we don’t really care, do we? Because the more ludicrous the plot, the more elevator shafts Angelina Jolie has to scale, the more times she has to throw her lingerie on the camera, and the more people have to die horribly.

So if your shtick is a kind of feminized version of Die Hard crossed with James Bond, and you enjoy watching unbelievable stunts and unbelievable killing scenes, and you don’t like Russians, then this is the movie for you. Also, of course, if you like Angelina Jolie. Interestingly, I have managed to make it to 2011 without ever previously seeing an Angelina Jolie movie. I think she’s okay, kind of like a female Sylvester Stallone, though I doubt she’s ever been in a movie as thoughtful and intense as First Blood[1].

Overall: worth watching on a quiet evening.

As a tiny postscript to this, I think working in public health has destroyed some small part of my brain. Watching this movie I could suspend my disbelief when she jumped out of helicopters, leapt from truck to truck across layers of highway, etc. But when she reversed off an overpass at high speed, while not wearing a seat-belt, and then walked away from the resulting smash unhurt, I found myself thinking “there’s no way that would happen.” Maybe it’s because I was in a low-speed car crash with a seat-belt on, maybe it’s the public health training… but whenever I watch car-chases now I find myself thinking “If you want to walk away from this you need to put your seat-belt on,” and they never do. I wonder what proportion of real-life car-chases end because the perp was unbelted, and managed to whack himself into insensibility halfway through the chase?

fn1: I recall First Blood was derided as highly violent when it came out but I wonder if it looks really weak in comparison to an average modern movie? Maybe I should check… I don’t recall a single moment of violence from First Blood, just the setting and the desperation of Rambo. I predict that 20 years from now I won’t remember a single second of Salt.[2]

fn2: I have a friend who I swear is not a masochist, who has watched Episode 2 of Star Wars (that is, Attack of George Lucas’s Brainfarts, or whatever it’s called) maybe 5 or 6 times – for what nefarious reason he will not say – and he still, to this day, does not understand the plot. Nor can he, apparently, remember a single part of it clearly after he leaves the cinema. This isn’t film, folks, it’s an elaborate form of mind-destruction through visual media.

The 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans is a fun movie, with some interesting hat-tips to modern RPG theological theories and excellent monsters; it is, moreover, a vast improvement on the original. Of course it butchers the original greek myth, but who cares about that? Greek myths are there to be fiddled with.

This movie follows a pretty straightforward story: mortals are rebelling against the gods, refusing to pray to them, and so Zeus allows Hades to extract vengeance on them, ostensibly to force them to again pray to the gods for salvation. Hades has his own plans and the reprisals turn into a cunning scheme by Hades to overthrow Zeus; but Zeus’s demi-god half-son, Perseus, is loose in the world and has a strong desire to kill the gods, so everyone’s schemes get thrown into disarray. During his adventures Zeus gets to fight some giant scorpions, medusa, some harpy-like demons, and the kraken.

There’s an interesting role-playing style twist, in which the Gods depend on human’s prayers for their existence and power, so the humans attack them by simply … going on strike. This is very much like some old ideas from the nerd-o-sphere, in which Gods’ power is directly related to the number and fervour of their followers. This movie takes that concept to its logical conclusion, and it’s nice to see.

Perseus is played well by Sam Worthington, essentially reprising his wtf ?! role from Terminator 4 (but with a better director). To me he comes across as strongly Australian in this movie, and he also plays Perseus’s rebellious streak very well. I have a suspicion that Sam Worthington can’t act anything outside of a kind of dumb-innocent-soldier-guy, but he does that role well, so it fits in here nicely.

The special effects in this movie are excellent and fit in well with the story. They’re not overblown and they really feel natural a lot of the time. The pegasus, particularly, is good. The Kraken is well done by being just glimpsed – there’s no point where you can see the whole of the thing, which adds to the sense of its monumental size and power. The Stygian witches are really cool, simultaneously coquettish, grotesque and savagely dangerous, and Perseus deals with them well. The inclusion of a chaos/Hades cult in Argos is a nice touch, as is the role Aio plays in directing Perseus along his path.

Also, they ditched the stupid clockwork owl.

Overall this movie is a fun bastardization of various greek myths in the interests of killing shit. If you want to see how to kill a god, Princess Mononoke remains the standard; but if you want to see how to kill a bunch of really nasty god-like stuff, rebelliously rather than implacably, this movie is your thing. Also, if you like men in skirts.

This movie was, frankly, pretty stupid, though quite fun. It’s by Cristopher Nolan who made The Prestige so it should be good, but it was too self-consciously complex, if I bothered to trace the story through all its complex layers I’m pretty sure it would have huge internal holes in it, and most annoyingly the ending was obviously deliberately set up to spark a circle jerk of wanky speculation as to whether or not the whole thing was a dream. Which is shit, because we all know that “he woke up and it was all a dream” is a huge narrative cop-out (or, in this case, a feeble excuse for an equally long-drawn-out and painful sequel) and we all know that a movie can only sustain this kind of wankery at interesting levels of debate if the movie itself was good enough, which this one wasn’t.

There’s a point I think where every movie director needs to recognize that the complexity of the movie is too much, not only for most of their audience, but also for their own skills, and the movie is suffering from the complexity. There’s also a point where movie directors need to recognize that sticking to existing relationship models in a new setting is better than trying to create complex new ones. In my opinion, the relationship between Cobb (one of the lead dream-snatchers) and his dead wife Moll was weak and silly, and all aspects of their backstory were unbelievable and silly. Also the resolution between them was stupidly weak and I think it broke a fundamental rule of the dreamworld and wasn’t a resolution at all.

So overall this movie was pretty ordinary – even the action scenes in the dream world were pretty uninspiring – so here’s my attempt at describing how this movie would have been better.

SPOILERS BELOW

First, the attempt to plant a dream in Fischer’s head should only occur at a second level of dream, not in the third, and there should be no limbo. The extractors simply try to go one level deeper than usual, something they have shown they can do but which has also been shown to be unstable in the first scene. This creates the tension, with the second level of dream-adventure being shaken up by the actions in the first level. To add tension, the sedation used should imply that anyone who dies in the dreamworld dies for real, so Saito san’s injury is the cause of the race against the clock. Though I think they hardly need the death thing or Saito going along for the ride.

Also, all the scenes in the dreams should be more surreal.

Second, Moll should be treated as a straight-out environmental enemy, not some kind of weird psychological dooby-thwacker, and resolution can be obtained by Cobb finally having the balls to just shoot her in the face. Perhaps the architect, who discovered what was going on between them, can help him do this, giving her a somewhat more interesting role than “I know what’s really going on but all I can do is constantly appeal for Cobb to do something he doesn’t do.”

Also, the reason that Moll is vengeful and angry would be more relevant to the story if it indicated something fundamentally evil about inception, and Cobb. If Cobb had implanted in Moll’s mind the idea that she should marry him, and then she had committed suicide to frame him because incepted ideas always create suicidal confusion, then we see that the mission they are on is going to kill Fisher eventually, and Cobb is genuinely and truly a bastard. This also maybe gives the architect a basis for helping Cobb kill Moll (“she’s got to be put out of her misery . You didn’t know inception would do this,” etc) and he could even pull out of the mission to save Fisher, thus ensuring his own arrest in LA and a kind of redemption for killing Moll.

Three possible forms of resolution involving Moll:

  • Cobb shoots Moll in the face
  • Moll interferes with the dream so that all the extractors are going to die, unless Cobb confronts Moll. Then Cobb agrees to pull out of the dream, fail the mission, and arrive in LA to be arrested by the cops, in exchange for the safety of the other extractors
  • Moll interferes with the dream so that all the extractors are going to die, and the architect (who twigged to what’s going on) confronts Moll. She talks to Moll and gets Moll to agree to disappear if they fail the mission, so that Cobb goes to jail when he arrives in LA. Since Moll is a projection of Cobb’s subconscious, this makes it a kind of reverse inception, or an admission of guilt by Cobb. Then Moll deconstructs the dream and they all wake up.

Then the last scene could be a redeemed Cobb lying down to dream normally.

Either way, the whole thing would be less complex, more coherent, and less wanky. Which was the problem with this movie.

Recently I have been watching The Walking Dead, a new Zombie apocalypse survival TV show from the US. So far – 5 episodes in – it’s awesome, with all the hallmarks of a good zombie show (zombies, good make up, gore, tension, nowhere to run) and all the hallmarks of a good US TV show (fine plot development, excellent acting, good scripting), and at the moment I’ve already enjoyed more zombie tv (5 hours’ worth, roughly) than I can usually bear. I won’t say more about the TV show yet except that it really is very good and you, gentle reader, should be scaring yourself grey on it as soon as possible.

This post is more about the sociological implications of zombification, something I don’t usually think about but was brought to contemplate by this essay on zombies as symbol of working class uprising. (I think this article is well worth a read even if you don’t agree with this part of its conclusions – it has some interesting ideas about keeping-up-with-the-jones’s and zombies as an allegory for individualism in modern pop culture that I quite like ). Zombies are rich with symbolism and, like Winnie the Pooh, just begging for analysis from every political and ideological perspective, so it’s no surprise that a socialist would fixate on them as a symbol of bourgeois fears of a working class revolution. I think there are a few flaws in that image, which I will describe in a moment, but the article got me to thinking about the rich symbolism of the modern zombie, and some of the many metaphors they can represent. Let’s go through a few.

Zombie as Working Class Revolutionary

This is the idea presented in the linked post, that Zombies represent middle class fears of the working class/ lumpen proles rising up to get them and take their stuff or destroy their lifestyle. Under this metaphor, zombies represent all those huddled faceless masses who are excluded from the tranquil pleasantries of middle class life, and whose exclusion is an essential element of the continuation of middle class life. In the zombie movie they come to take your pleasant life away from you, and you have to fight them off. This is a superficially interesting metaphor but I don’t think it works, because it’s a-cultural and a little bit a-historical. Particularly, the Zombie movie sprang up in 50s/60s America, when the industrial working class were well respected and integrated into American life, and the lumpen proletariat (i.e. the long-term unemployed) didn’t really exist. Had the Zombie sprung up elsewhere, e.g. in 30s Europe, I can see the power of this metaphor, but it didn’t. Furthermore, the linked essay doesn’t seem to take account of the importance of race in America, and given that the Zombie movie originated there, I think it’s important to consider. The main social tension in the US in the 50s was the final destruction of the barriers keeping black Americans out of ordinary life, and there was a strong fear of the loss of the established peaceful order of things. I imagine to many Americans at that time black Americans were faceless masses who threatened them, and the zombie may make the perfect image of the black American they fear – even the name is a caribbean import!

Which isn’t to say that the original creators of the Zombie (Romero?) were scared of a black uprising. They just read the mood and saw an excellent theme for a story. The zombie has remained an enduring vehicle for expressing certain social fears, and doing so doesn’t mean that we the viewer (or the creator) themselves feel those fears directly.

Zombies as New Left Demonstrators

If there was any political movement in the US in the 50s and 60s that could have genuinely stirred mainstream middle-class fear, it was the New Left with its huge anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, marches for equality, desegregation riots, etc. These people actually presented in public for the first time in a generation as a mass of faceless people on TV, confronting out-numbered and beleaguered security forces and all emitting the same senseless, mindless noise (“slogans”). These people didn’t usually carry weapons, but overwhelmed security forces by means of their bare hands and weight of numbers. Worse still, anyone could be infected with this disease – your daughter, your brother, white or black people, they’re all down there at the flower-power sit in. If the earlier Zombie movies represented a fear of any radical movement or revolution, it was surely the New Left, and the New Left was many things but it was not socialist.

In this sense we can see the survivors as the image of the security state, having to police each other for signs of nascent zombification. In earlier movies the police state was quite benevolent – you had to be bitten by a zombie, and they could wait for you to die before they administered any radical measures. But in the newer versions – particularly 28 Days Later – we see a newer, very post-9/11 (and I would add, very British) form of pre-emptive security. In the early minutes of that movie we see a brief, perhaps 2 second long debate between two survivors, in which one has been bitten and the other one gives him barely a moment to protest before terminating him with extreme prejudice. This is the logic of the modern security state, of control orders and imprisonment without charge. It’s the post-apocalypse-cinema version of executing a Brazilian chap on a train because he might be a terrorist, and getting away with it.

Reclaiming and Neutralizing Undeath through Zombies

The earlier Zombie was explicitly Undead – “when hell is full the dead will walk the earth” – but later Zombies have become a biological phenomenon. In later movies – especially 28 Days Later but also The Walking Dead and maybe Biohazard – they are a biological phenomenon, explained through viral studies and, for all that biological phenomena are explicable and potentially curable, infinitely more terrifying than the earlier zombie. The virus is transmitted even through a drop of blood, and in some cases can turn you to a zombie before you even die. Rapid intervention is needed, any form of exposure is not to be trusted, and there is no redemption or salvation. In earlier movies, the infected could be given a period of grace, could even be allowed to die with dignity. Not so anymore, the only solution to the viral zombie is immediate and extreme eradication. This change in the modern Zombie obvious corresponds to the development of modern public health consciousness, particularly the discovery and spread of HIV/AIDS, that most terrifying of infectious diseases. But in transforming the Zombie from undead to biological, we have removed the terror of ghosts, hell and the grave – we have rendered the undead into merely the viral, another form of explicable natural law, a pest that can be controlled. We know we can end the disease, and we know that no viral phenomenon is beyond modern science and public health. The modern zombie transforms our understanding of undeath, from a mysterious curse or magic to a mere biological mistake, easily cured.

Note also that the 28 Days Later storyline explicitly reflects modern fears about the transmission of disease from animals to humans, and indeed incorporates one of the main suspected causes of HIV into the story.

Zombies as critique of Urban Planning

Note that through all the eras of the zombie movie, the prime action tends to take place in a modern urban development of the time. From the suburban house of the 60s, to the shopping mall of the 70s, the pub in Shaun of the Dead, the metropolis and then the military camp in 28 Days Later. These places figure in the consciousness of the time and are incorporated into the movie as a central place of conflict between the main characters, who are aware of their difference from the masses, and the masses themselves. We may be defending some ideal of urban planning (the detached home of the early movies), retreating to the bastion of the modern order because it supplies all our needs (the mall in the 70s movies) or finding ourselves betrayed by the complex urban structures of our modern lives (28 Days Later), but in all cases the latest debates in urban planning are central to the development of the story, at least until it takes on its inevitable survivalist theme. Even survivalism takes on some form relevant to the modern debate about how we are living or should live – the pub in Shaun of the Dead, and the military camp in post-9/11 28 Days Later. Zombies are the ultimate, mindless incursion into our urban planning dreams and nightmares.

Drawing a long (cross)bow

These ideas are all silly, of course, or limited in their validity – there is no single rhetorical or metaphorical meaning to a zombie story, and they’re all very easily debated or dismissed. But I think when we watch the movies they invoke a lot of these kinds of themes and the sociological and political commentary makes a welcome undercurrent to what is usually a gripping and powerful story. This is why I think zombie movies have enduring appeal, even when their format is often very similar. It’s the setting and the underlying ideological conflict that makes the otherwise formulaic stories new and interesting. They’re a very versatile blank canvas on which to paint ideological and sociological debates. While blowing brains out.

Meat's back on the menu, girls!!

I was a big fan of the movie The Descent, which pits a group of young women cavers against a colony of blind flesh-eating proto-humans in a dark and claustrophobic cave nightmare. This is the kind of movie that you really need to pause regularly, and it combines all of our worst fears – claustrophobia, darkness, betrayal, and being eaten alive by grey slimy beastmen – in one compelling package. So I was interested to watch the sequel, which is a slightly Aliens-style re-entry into the darkness. In the sequel the hero of the first movie, Sarah, has somehow survived the original horrors and turns up on a road 2 days after they all entered the original caves. Searchers are out looking for the missing girls but are, of course, looking in the wrong cave system, so aren’t going to find them, let alone carry their shattered remains out. So when the captain of the search crew discovers that Sarah is in a hospital, amnesic and terrified, he decides to get her to help find the other girls. The fact that she rocked up covered in other peoples’ blood and doesn’t remember anything doesn’t deter him, and in fact causes him to make the big mistake of treating the situation like a crime. He basically thinks he needs to rescue the girls from Sarah’s perfidy, or find their bodies and charge her with murder, and this is how he acts through the entire first half of the film.

A team of cavers is established, and head through an abandoned mineshaft into the caves. From this entry point we realize the provenance of the old caving equipment found in the first story, and discover another emergency exit, but it ain’t going to be no use to our team. By a series of (in some cases slightly disappointing) classic horror movie fuck ups they get lost, separated, and then the beasts in the earth (who I call “the Grey Men”) come to get them. Sarah is with them but nobody trusts her and from the moment they find the first body they think she may be a murderer, or mad. Her memories only come back slowly, as does her sense of survival, and for a short part of the movie she acts distressed and confused, which loses everyone valuable time in dealing with the threat they face. By the time she gets her act together the gore has begun to fly, and the remainder of the movie flows very much like the second half of The Descent – desperately scrabbling to escape a situation that it seems must inexorably drag all the characters to their horrific doom.

The Descent Part 2 was directed by a different, novice Director, so it doesn’t have quite the brilliance of the first movie, but it maintains much of the same tension and pace. The Crawlers are almost as terrifying, though a tad more monster-like. This time they’re  not terrifying solely by dint of their environment, but incorporate greater strength and power, though not to the extent that they’re a caricature. They’re still easily defeated in one-to-one combat in the light by strong humans, and still depend on terror, surprise and darkness for their victories. The fear is still at a quite intense level, and most of the decisions people make and the split-second acts they take are believable and reasonable. Unlike the first movie it relies on a few classic horror-movie tropes that can frustrate the viewer – the “advance even though there’s a big fat warning staring you in the face” option, especially, I find really frustrating and though this was once okay, in modern horror writing I think it’s a bit weak.

Although early on the movie goes over the top on the gore scale, in general the gore is at a lower level than in the first movie. Tension is maintained through environment, confusion, and darkness. The characters have a few more gizmos – radio communication, IR scope, etc – that make for some interesting fear-enhancers, and the discovery of the girls’ video camera makes for a really disturbing scene. There’s also a funny moment of Gygaxian Naturalism, as we find out a bit more about how the monsters live in their colony, and are reminded again that we are dealing with a natural, evolved species who are in that place for a reason, not monsters. I thought there was also a hint near the end of a leader-figure amongst the Crawlers, a kind of alpha male, which could make for interesting future movies.

The ending was a tiny bit confusing – something comes out of left field that really can’t be explained, and is obviously only there to set up a sequel – but the unresolved questions it leaves behind don’t bother me at all, in fact I quite like the possibilities it raised for future movies. In some ways the ending of The Descent Part 2 is even grimmer than the first movie, which is kind of cool. I think though, the way this movie ends won’t be to everyone’s taste – some viewers will think it’s an overdone or preposterous ending, or will just not be able to envisage any kind of explanation for it, so will reject it as farcical. It doesn’t spoil the movie overall though, and right up until literally the last 5-10 seconds the ending makes perfect sense and is perfectly acceptable.

The acting was generally good, though there were one or two moments that were either ham-fisted or melodramatic, but the cast were generally solid and gave us a believable rendition of the mounting fear. Particularly, early on when the first (environmental) troubles hit the group, and we aren’t yet sure if the Crawlers are even on the scene, the cast do a good job of muted unease and fear, which slowly mounts. It certainly didn’t seem to hamstring the general atmosphere.

Overall, I think this movie is a good addition to the original, an excellent introduction to a series of movies expanding on the lives, ecology, and horrible habits of the Crawlers, and for most of its length both well-paced and scary. Of course it’s not up to the standard of the original, but I don’t think it lets it down in any way. Well worth seeing if you aren’t a caver.

This semester I’m teaching a course on Global Crime and Public Health as a special lecture series (in fact I should be preparing material now instead of posting here). This course represents a culmination of 15 years’ research experience in the service of a general model of what constitutes a “good” response to the public health threat of movements in global crime. The key public health threat in the West is, of course, HIV spread by injecting drug use and/or sex work[1]. Both HIV and sex work have an international criminal connection, since the former is fed by international crime syndicates and international criminal connections drive the movement of women from high-HIV areas in Asia to low HIV areas in Oceania, to work in unregulated sweat shop-style brothels. The movement of these drug- and sex-work markets in Australia is also tied into its multicultural history and movement towards open markets and trade, so there’s a lot to take in, but basically it’s about HIV.

A lot of people – including quite a few in positions to know better – seem to think that HIV is no big deal, perhaps through their having looked at it through the prism of the developed world’s good luck, but in my wandering through this topic at the University I have had to review both the history, recent epidemiology and effects of HIV. It’s certainly the case that, had the developed world had the singular bad luck that Africa had, or reacted more slowly, our lives here in the pampered Western world would be very different. I wonder if our luck in dodging this bullet might be partly responsible for the growth of zombie/disease movies in the last 10 years, and while I was wondering at that it occurred to me that a slightly different set of historical circumstances could create an alternate history earth with a lot of cyberpunk elements, that could be an interesting setting for a gritty near-future cyberpunk campaign. To understand it, we should take a look at a brief potted history of HIV, and its effects.

The history of HIV

The first known death due to AIDS was a Norwegian sailor and his family, who died of AIDS in about 1972[2]. He almost certainly got his HIV while travelling through Africa, where it is believed to have appeared during the 50s at least, and from where it spread to Haiti in the 60s. It is then believed to have circulated through America, but it appears to have been confined to gay men at first in America. Unfortunately for the Africans, AIDS appeared simultaneously in 3 separate, geographically distinct locations in heterosexual populations in the early 80s, and it’s possible it was already endemic in those areas by that time.

In the USA, UK and Asia, however, it was not endemic – having come to those countries from other countries – and it did not appear first in the heterosexual community. The huge benefit of this is that it could be contained, because of the good luck of its originating in a separate community with different behaviours and a strong community identity. This combination meant that it wouldn’t spread fast outside of the group, and health behaviour messages were easily communicated within the group.

On the other hand, in Africa it appeared in the most diverse community possible – heterosexuals – and because of its incubation period (10 years) and the fact that it was native to the region, it was already endemic by the time it was identified. It’s very hard to control a disease that is already widespread in a group with a very vague shared identity, if the only form of prevention is behavioural change.

The Effects of HIV in Africa

HIV in the west is a scary disease that affects a small portion of the community. Strong public health systems can handle scary diseases in minority communities very easily. However, in Africa the disease has spread amongst heterosexual populations very quickly, and is now at epidemic level within nations. Prevalence of HIV in Swaziland is 26%, and in Lesotho 24%; even in countries with a model response, like Uganda, the prevalence is around 5-6%.

HIV exacts a cruel toll on its victims, both in terms of their horrible suffering as they die, and the effects on their family and friends. In Africa the disease’s high prevalence has also had economic effects, especially:

  • Reduced food production, as labourers either die or leave the land to care for relatives
  • Poverty, as people drop out of work to care for relatives
  • Reduced school enrolments, as children are withdrawn from school to support families whose main earners are sick or dead

In a lot of countries in Africa, HIV is expected to lead to long-term entrenched poverty, loss of food production, and loss of economic growth because businesses cannot find suitable labour. Recently Lesotho petitioned South Africa to be absorbed into the South African nation, because Lesotho itself is facing economic and social collapse specifically because of the HIV epidemic.

Alternate HIV History

Suppose, then, that the disease had developed in the USA rather than Africa, and appeared spontaneously in three areas in the heterosexual community, rather than the gay community. Suppose further that it was already endemic in these areas. Even if all three areas were rural, it’s hard to believe that the US could have done better than Uganda, and given the amount of travel in the US compared to Africa in the 70s and 80s, the sexual looseness of the time and the presence of the pill, it’s pretty easy to imagine the disease getting out of control. It would spread rapidly to the UK and Australia through travel, but not so rapidly to virgin Africa, since there wasn’t so much contact between the two at the time. By the time it was identified and isolated (and maybe first it was called “Heterosexual Related Immune Deficiency”?) the Africans would have been in a position to ban travel from the US, and gain a few years’ grace to teach Africans about safe sex. i.e. the situation that the West experienced, in reverse. It’s possible to imagine, too, that the economic costs could have been larger in the US than in Africa. Much of the economic cost of HIV in the early years in Africa was handled on the cheap, by letting people die or giving very basic palliative care, while in the US it would be all-hands-to-the-pump in what was then still a quite well-run system.

The difference, of course, is that the US and Europe were the key drivers of economic growth in the 80s and 90s, and if they suddenly collapsed in on themselves due to HIV, the world would have gone along a very different trajectory. Asia – or at least those countries untouched by HIV – would have been the key drivers of economic growth in the 90s, and those countries of course would be the nations isolated from US involvement, or relatively untouched – China, Vietnam, Korea and maybe Japan. Japan, if untouched, would have continued the development aid to the region which enabled most of Asia to grow during that time, and we would be looking at a world where the West was collapsing in on itself while Asia grew, and Africa went on its own, possibly quite isolated trajectory to growth. How would African growth be affected by a collapse in the West? Would trade with Asia be a less protected and more open affair, so Africa could grow out of its problems? Without Australian and Canadian wheat, would Africa become a major food supplier and thus grow in a way it didn’t in the real world?

The world that would come from this strikes me a lot like the world of Appleseed, where a few isolated Asian countries have achieved great wealth and security while Europe and the US struggle and collapse in on themselves. However, the cause wouldn’t be some kind of global war, but a global disease catastrophe that changed the economic development model of the last 30 years.

Some HIV-driven cyberpunk scenarios

A world where nuclear-armed, militarily sophisticated states collapse in on themselves under the burden of epidemic disease is a scary one indeed, and suggests a variety of interesting scenarios for adventuring:

  • The Isolated Survivor: Perhaps a couple of countries acted early to isolate themselves, and while the rest of the world (or the rest of the world that we’re interested in) struggles and dies, they soldier on. Such a society might be a lot like the world of Children of Men, grotty and nasty but trying to cling on to its past social structures while it slowly and inevitably decays into a post-apocalyptic mess. Adventuring in such a state would be something between cyberpunk and post-apocalypse, as the scenes in the refugee camp in Children of Men show. There would be many factional sides to take, and very little to be gained from being self-interested except power.
  • Dictatorship and War: With economies failing and populations in unrest, an obvious way for Western governments to reassert their authority, regain popularity, and regain resources, is to launch foreign wars, either for material gain or for the simple distracting power of a good, cleansing war. War overseas is a good excuse for dictatorship at home – as is a state of permanent disease – and the PCs could find themselves suddenly on the wrong (or the right) end of a fascist, communist, or even religious dictatorship. Dictatorships in a society slowly falling apart from the inside are an excellent dystopian cyberpunk setting, with the PCs able to position themselves as freedom fighters, spies, death squads, innocent victims of a plot, etc.
  • Homesteading and survivalism: With no cure in sight, and large parts of the populace infected, maybe the wealthy, the brave, or the stupid would try to set up their own kingdoms or survivalist enterprises. The best ones are always at sea, but there could be other places too – the arctic, the deep mountains, enclaves inside fast-collapsing cities. The PCs could be hired on as guards, or could be members of the original community who find themselves caught in a plot – or sent on a mission.
  • The Cure: Maybe someone finds a cure for the disease, and the PCs stumble on it or are enlisted to protect it. What do they do if they find that a local power-broker/government/corporation wants to keep it secret to use as a political tool, to assure world domination, etc? Do they go along with the plan for a slice of the goodies, steal the cure, or reveal the truth to the world? What if the cure is a bio-weapon that instantly kills the infected? Would the PCs disseminate it for the greater good, destroy the last sample, fight to prevent its use?
  • The Truth: Suppose that in fact HIV were not a natural disease at all, but one of the conspiracy theories about its origin proved to be more than true, and it was in fact a bioweapon gone wrong. A campaign leading up to this revelation could change the world – especially if a government of an uninfected country had secretly released it, and was sitting on the cure.
  • Drug dealing: In an America with a properly cyberpunk economic system, crumbling infrastructure and declining wealth, very few people would be able to afford anti-retroviral drugs, which would become a new kind of treasure. The PCs could be dealers in ART, or even Robin Hood style liberators of stashes of the drugs, constantly running from criminal rivals and the law. Or they could be dispatched by the government or a corporation to break up such a group.

My favourite is the first or second, or a combination of the two, though elements of any of the rest could be thrown in for effect. HIV-related collapse has the advantage of not being as catastrophic as modern disease/zombie movies, so it creates a crumbling cyberpunk society as opposed to a post-apocalyptic one, but it gives an opportunity to create a future with an economic order that has been changed in a semi-plausible way, and a reason for the moribund state of western nations. It also gives a plausible background against which genuinely fascist or radical, but powerful religious movements could be resurgent, and the slow development of the virus gives a  long time frame for corporations and governments to work their schemes, rather than the kind of disaster-management scenarios we often see in zombie/outbreak-type movies.

Beyond HIV

Of course, invented diseases could be more tailored to the scenario than HIV. A disease that causes madness, so that the victim never recovers and never dies, and is a constant burden on society, could create an even more disturbing future. Maybe the mad are easily contained, but in some places there are just too many… Diseases with catatonic or similar semi-stuporific states would create a challenge of an interesting sort, as do diseases that lower fertility or prematurely age the population. All that’s really needed is a disease that appears suddenly after a long latency, so it is insidious; that is highly contagious; and that creates a huge, irresolvable social burden out of its victims, sufficient to create the conditions of economic decay and apocalypse that would characterise the campaign world, because the purpose of the disease is not to create physical enemies of its victims, like zombies; but to create the context for a debilitated society, suspicious of its own members and falling from its previous greatness due to disease and rapid economic decay. Under these conditions one can create the backdrop for a game of gritty urban cyberpunk semi-apocalypse, which I think could be an interesting setting for some unpleasant and challenging adventures.

 

 

 

 

fn1: Though it’s of course not the only such problem. I’ve been thinking of setting my students an assignment based on the problems that the Italians are having with rubbish disposal and the mafia, but I suspect that there isn’t much published on this. Contraband olive oil created significant public health disasters in Spain under Franco, and there is now of course the potential health consequences of smuggling animals and plants. But I think these don’t compare to the real, identifiable effects of heroin importation to countries like Australia and Kyrgizstan.

fn2: Doesn’t even bother checking the lecture he gave last week for the exact date…

I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, having read all the stories, including his famous meeting with Harry Flashman, VC, and seen at least part of the classic Brett[1] television series, which is generally acclaimed as the best of the lot. I think Holmes is an important character in the pre-history of both steampunk and the modern genre of Cthulhu-derivative works, and undoubtedly influenced in some subtle way movies (and comics) like From Hell and Sleepy Hollow. I’m also a fan of Guy Ritchie’s crime movies Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, even though their glorification of the English criminal classes sticks in my craw now that I have lived in London and experienced the reality of the kind of scum he depicts in those movies.

So, I was interested to see how he would handle Sherlock Holmes in this movie, there being a risk that Holmes would become a kind of rock-n-roll gangsta crime fightaaaah! But in fact it’s really really good, even though it’s not based on any one extant Holmes story. It preserves the essential characteristics of Holmes and Watson, and is set around the time that their relationship is failing, when Watson is preparing to marry. It also preserves another essential element of the Holmes milieu – a criminal case whose only possible explanation is magic, but which in the end is all soluble through the application of modern scientific methods. It also wraps in some of those other Holmes classics: secret orders, Moriarty, and nefarious plots. Some of Holmes’s best properties are depicted in a very clever way consistent with Ritchie’s style, for example:

  • In the midst of a fight, time pauses and we see Holmes deducing the steps to victory, all played out in slow motion; then action resumes at full speed and we see his plan in motion to its vicious conclusion, including a prognosis for the loser’s physical and psychological repair – very much like the flash-forwarding through the nasty fight scenes in Ritchie’s other movies
  • Some of Holmes other techniques, that receive no attention in the books, are elucidated in very cunning style. For example, we see a brief interaction between a disguised Holmes and one of his adversaries, and a little later we backtrack from the moment Holmes decides on the confrontation to the confrontation itself, seeing all the fragmented moments in which he oh-so-casually assembles a perfect disguise as if by accident – in fact this is, I think, one of the best depictions I have ever seen of either Holmes’s method or the sheer brilliance of his investigative style, easily as good as anything Conan Doyle assembled
  • We also see a few of the moments in which Holmes is out-witted or foiled from the point of view of his adversary in that same shifting, tricky style so characteristic of Ritchie movies, and we see a few moments in the past of some of the characters in the same fragmented style, but presented so as to confuse us while leaving clues for later

I think also this movie gives some roundedness to Holmes’s character that doesn’t exist in previous efforts. I was surprised that even though this is a Ritchie movie, Holmes’s characteristic cocaine addiction (so readily left out of onscreen depictions in the past) was also left out of this version; but it was admirably replaced by a preference for strong drink and illegal fighting (with Holmes the participant, and Watson betting on him). Something that I don’t like about the books and the Pertwee version is that Holmes is actually a really unlikeable character, but the narrative style of the books and his heroic status mean that he is often depicted as a near-perfect person. In fact he’s an arrogant, misogynist prick (beautifully lampooned in the Flashman novels), and this movie manages to capture some of that part of his character – the way he uses Watson without informing him, his dubious experiments, his insufferable manner and bad attitude towards women. It also reduces Watson from his stuffy near-perfect personality to a man with a gambling addiction and a weakness for his friend, and by rendering both of them a little younger and fitter than standard interpretations it also makes their physical prowess more believable, as well as giving it some context – Holmes is a prize fighter, and Watson a dab hand with a sword stick due to his military career.

Another interesting aspect of this movie is its liberation of Watson from the narrative role, done explicitly – by giving Holmes rather than Watson the voiceover parts and by setting the movie at the point in their relationship where Watson is moving out and trying to break from Holmes. It gives an implicit nod to his traditional role by noting that he has a bunch of diaries he plans to write up one day. This explicit removal of Watson from the narrative centre also gives us a better opportunity to experience both Holmes’s genius and his unpleasantness, and I think this makes him a much more interesting character.

The movie is, of course, also very amusing, with some intense combat scenes done in typical chunky, nasty Ritchie style, and some very funny interactions. Traditionally Holmes is a little stuffy, but in this he is also capable of some very entertaining repartee, as is Watson. In fact, Watson in this movie is a far superior character to the Watson of the books, and Jude Law an excellent choice to play him.

As a study of Holmes I think this movie makes an interesting contribution to the canon of works on this excellent character, and as a Victorian detective movie it is also an excellent addition to the genre. It’s also a fun movie with an interesting plot, and lots of tricks and deceptions that it takes some time to work out. The choreography is smooth and stylish, the acting excellent and the pace just right. I recommend this to any fan of Holmes who is not so stuck-in-the-mud that they can only tolerate a traditional depiction of a character whose traditional representations have been done to death and, in any case, perfected and exhausted by Brett. For those who don’t care about Holmes as a literary figure, but want to see a rollicking detective story with a hint of steampunk and Guy Ritchie’s traditional blend of humour and violence, I also recommend this movie. For those who insist on their Sherlock being stiff-necked, stuck up and straight from the books, I can only recommend a review of the Brett series, and perhaps a shot of cocaine…

fn1: I originally wrote Pertwee in some kind of strange brain-spasm