Homing

Samwise Gamgee returns to the Shire, in the final scene of Return of the King (2003)

Samwise Gamgee returns to the Shire, in the final scene of Return of the King (2003)

“There is no safe place from the injuries of history; home as a place or a time of innocence can only be an illusion. But the poet doesn’t recover the bitter past to serve present grudges – his acts of remembering, his quest for identity are grounded in generosity.

“And from this sense of loss and recovery, this mix and merging, this reckoning with the complexities of the past, present national identity and patterns of belonging can be fruitfully formed. The way Walcott has worked the material of his complicated memories and inheritance in the Caribbean represents an exemplary openness to making a new model of the homeland, which doesn’t exclude, but rather includes, which doesn’t justify, but seeks to understand. No home is an island; no homegrown culture can thrive in permanent quarantine. We’re all wayfarers and we make our destinations as we go.” – Marina Warner

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Read previous: EXPLODING

Read related: Virtual Borders, Virtual Wars

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Virtual Borders, Virtual Wars | Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Toby Kebbell (left) as Koba and Andy Serkis as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Toby Kebbell (left) as Koba and Andy Serkis as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – an entertaining and effectively realized action-blockbuster, by all accounts – reminded me of just how much the idea of home is related to complete, all-out aggression. It is one of the key justifications for war, and if it isn’t Hollywood blockbusters that remind us of it, real-life world events will, unfortunately, persist in doing their darndest to ensure that we do not forget.

From my sheltered and privileged standpoint, obsessing over national borders instinctively feels doubly surreal, as I – like many people of my generation, and many of those living in some kind of diaspora – have made the internet their second home. Cultivating and negotiating a virtual identity has become a direct part of who we are, and the more that shapes itself into the fabric of our day-to-day life, the more it will assume the likeness of an undeniable, self-evident and near-physical ‘space’ which we may feel justified in fighting over.

Even my workspace has apes in it

Even my workspace has apes in it

Beyond the fever dreams of cyberpunk – from William Gibson to The Matrix – the web has become so ‘normal’ that it’s not far-fetched to assume that it will soon adopt other, less pleasant features of human ‘normality’ – our insistence on waging border wars being just another one of them. The ongoing debate over net neutrality is one explicit portent of the above, but I’m sure there will be many related polemics to come.

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Another thing that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – or DOTPOTA, an acronym I love – brought to mind is the panicked and often messy way in which pop culture responds to contemporary anxieties, and processes ‘universal’ themes.

To my mind, the film is great because its ‘message’ doesn’t feel like a tacked-on imposition, but part and parcel of its conceit. Of course, Matt Reeves’ continuation of the Planet of the Apes mythology reboot doesn’t really say anything new about the enduring phenomenon of border conflicts, or our stewardship of the earth. But I’d still like to think that it contributes to the discussion in its own way.

Though even the word ‘discussion’ feels wrong here – it assumes a lilting, rational conversation about carefully ironed-out topics. Because what we in fact get is far more chaotic: the necessities of crafting a crowd-pleasing blockbuster in which talking apes do battle with economically compromised humans only allows lucid allegory to slip through up to a point.

The presence of Zero Dark Thirty actor Jason Clarke is significant here.

Like DOTPOTA, Zero Dark Thirty is an action-intensive mainstream film shot with a gloomy palette that has become par for the course among blockbusters which aspire to court the critical consensus as well as the box office success that it is often assumed they would secure anyway.

(Largely blaming Christopher Nolan’s stratospherically successful Batman film The Dark Knight, critics of this pervasive aesthetic trend have taken to name-calling it ‘grimdark’.)

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

But unlike DOTPOTA, Zero Dark Thirty is about a very specific and very real event – a persistently controversial one, to boot. Katheryn Bigelow’s treatment of the steps taken to ensure the assassination of Osama Bin Laden is a fascinating watch even if you – like me – were unconvinced by its narrative thrust and troubled by its murky ethics.

Whichever way you slice it, ZDT was a brave attempt at tackling a very recent and morally, politically fraught scenario. In the end its internal contradictions forced it to devour itself, but only because Bigelow aspired to tackle her subject head-on, with as little aesthetic filters as possible.

This is where genre allegories like DOTPOTA have the upper hand. The way the message is processed is of course open to cynical interpretation: “It’s not really saying anything, they’re just re-treading secure narrative and thematic ground to ensure they make money at the box office”.

But the mere fact that it’s out there, doing its thing for a large audience who will enjoy it – or not – on the surface level to begin with feels like some kind of potential triumph.

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Final question: as more of the world goes online, as more of the world does ideological battle online and as more of our personal identity is shaped and justified by our online presence, will the web be treated by poets much in the same way as the natural world has been treated in earlier times?

Exploding

The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Briullov (1830-33)

The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Briullov (1830-33)

“When there’s a big explosion, it doesn’t really have a visceral impact on the audience if it’s just flinging people through the air. They know that’s just stunts. But if you fly people through the air and they then they hit something, it’s a lot better. And then if they hit something really hard — like, you know, a brick wall — it’s even better. And if they hit a kind of rough edge on that brick wall, then you’re getting to the good stuff. And then if what they hit breaks, then that’s the best.” – Paul W.S. Anderson

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Read previous: KHANING

Why I love NBC’s Hannibal – Part II

Not a spoiler: In a typically bold move, the first episode of the second season of NBC's Hannibal opens with a far-reaching and action-packed flash-forward

Not a spoiler: In a typically bold move, the first episode of the second season of NBC’s Hannibal opens with a far-reaching and action-packed flash-forward

Read Part I

It’s been a while since the second season of NBC’s Hannibal has wrapped up, I know – well, ‘a while’ in today’s always-constantly-updated online world anyway – but I had neither the time nor the inclination to pen this follow-up to my initial post straight away.

First off, it’s fun to just luxuriate in an intense, contentious season finale before commenting on it; to let the swathe of online commentary wash over you and even, perhaps, share in some of it.

Of course, those who have seen it will know what I’m talking about, and I doubt there’s a lukewarm opinion on how the blood-soaked and – though the final outcome remains teasingly to be seen – tragic final reel of what was a superb season of television plays out.

You either love the tortuous downward spiral (oh, but doesn’t it look so exquisite!) Bryan Fuller has put you through or you don’t, and this season in particular, I think, urges you to take a final decision on how you feel about the overall raison d’etre of this unapologetically baroque show.

Because while the first season had as its commercially-friendly ballast a ‘monster of the week’ structure – with the Will-and-Hannibal storyline unspooling in increments in the background – Fuller and co. have clearly been given carte blanche this time around.

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Style over substance? Hannibal is unapologetically baroque

Style over substance? Hannibal is unapologetically baroque

This is not a smoothly calculated show. It’s a show that grows and develops, contorting to fit its shape – sometimes its development is fractious and misjudged but it’s certainly moving towards something. The fact that it’s a prequel to an established book-and-film property already gives it a final end-point, but Fuller is also mining deeper into Thomas Harris’ Hannibal mythos in a way that feels both daring and appropriate.

I’ve mentioned the danger of overstretching a storyline beyond its limits in the previous post. But in taking the risk to ‘gild the lily’ of what was previously established by Harris and his cinematic forebears, Fuller actually ends up giving us something more; and yes, in this sense more is more because it builds convincingly on the beguiling psychological bind that the Hannibal stories are bound by.

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With the right tools and the right brains at the wheel, the idea of a cannibalistic serial killer not only aiding a ‘consulting detective’ – let’s acknowledge the intertexual link between Will Graham and Sherlock Holmes, please – with the crimes he’s charged with, but also seeking a bona-fide relationship with him, is rich dramatic pickings whichever way you slice it (hur, hur).

A friend of mine pointed out how Fuller’s Hannibal is more of a Freudian creation, as opposed to the ‘Jungian’ archetype we see in the Harris novels and their accompanying film adaptations.

I tend to agree, not only because NBC-Hannibal is still a slippery figure in every sense of the word, as he’s not had a chance to solidify into the kind of antagonist-consultant role he occupies in the canon narratives. (Going by a sort-of Proppian definition of his archetypal role in the source material, could we perhaps say that he’s both central antagonist AND wise old man figure? Both Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi?)

NBC-Hannibal is harder to define in those terms, but he is of course also the show’s organising principle and thematic core at the same time (note that he is not, however, the protagonist – that journey belongs to Will – even though the show is named after him).

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In captivity, in therapy: Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

In captivity, in therapy: Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

Here’s the crux of it all: this is a show about therapy; or, at least, it’s a show that takes the raison d’etre of therapy and applies it to a dimension none of us would have dared to venture, given the choice.

This isn’t just because Hannibal Lecter himself happens to be a therapist (and a good one at that). Having therapy as a conceit – and it’s a consistent one for the show – means that the show is about the unravelling of the self, about a constant attempt to cut through the confusion and dross of everyday consciousness to arrive at some deeply embedded truth about yourself.

This is of course evident in Will’s zig-zagging psychological journey across the show’s two seasons, but in a coup of form vs content that elevates the show to what feels like a bona fide – though almost accidental – work of art, it’s also matched in both the narrative structure and cinematographic landscape of its second season.

Whereas Hannibal’s diabolical mentoring of Will came in fragmented drops in Season One – due to the rat-a-tat rhythm of the one killer per episode structure – come the second season it gets a broad sweep, largely owing to Will’s uncomfortable – and highly vulnerable – predicament.

To be concluded

Khaning

Niccolò and Maffeo in Bukhara, where they stayed for three years. They were invited by an envoy of Hulagu (right) to travel east to visit Kublai Khan. (Source: Wikipedia)

Niccolò and Maffeo in Bukhara, where they stayed for three years. They were invited by an envoy of Hulagu (right) to travel east to visit Kublai Khan. (Source: Wikipedia)

“Opium was the avenging daemon or alastor of Coleridge’s life, his dark or fallen angel, his experiential acquaintance with Milton’s Satan. Opium was for him what wandering and moral tale-telling became for the Mariner – the personal shape of repetition compulsion. The lust for paradise in ‘Kubla Khan,’ Geraldine’s lust for Christabel – these are manifestations of Coleridge’s revisionary daemonization of Milton, these are Coleridge’s countersublime. Poetic genius, the genial spirit itself, Coleridge must see as daemonic when it is his own rather than when it is Milton’s.” – Harold Bloom

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Read previous: SCHWABING

Monstrous Indulgences | Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities

 

Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities

This volume may be the epitome of indulgence, and the tone of Marc Scott Zicree, Guillermo del Toro’s interviewer – and effective co-writer in this endeavour – can come across as a bit sycophantic at times.

But really, a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ can’t help but be a gloriously indulgent exercise, and you don’t come here to read a sober dissection of del Toro’s life and filmography.

No, you come here to luxuriate in what is probably the ultimate ‘behind the scenes’ look into Del Toro’s oeuvre, as presented in a gorgeous coffee table edition crammed with photographs and studded with mini-essays by Del Toro’s friends and collaborators (the book is framed by tributes from James Cameron and Tom Cruise, respectively).

The book introduces us to Del Toro’s eclectic imaginative landscape with a bit of a tour of Bleak House – his second home and studio, which gives the book its organising principle, as the house itself is something of a cabinet of curiosities writ large – more than just a working space, it is arguably also the geeky man cave to end all geeky man caves.

Bleak House

 

Stuffed with original art and sculptures (some of them taking an extravagant bent, like the statue of Boris Karloff getting the final touches of his Frankenstein make-up done), each room in the house is themed around a particular genre or artistic milieu – like the ‘Steampunk Room’, the ‘Manga Room’…

But above all, the ‘cabinet’ is really about del Toro’s colourful and frenzied notebooks, which the director has been keeping from the beginning of his career and which reveal the inner workings of his genre-melding chiaroscuro parables, from Cronos through the Hellboys and Pacific Rim.

Guillermo del Toro's notebooks

The pages of the notebooks reproduced in the book often have a drawing at the centre – usually a portrait shot of a character in one of del Toro’s films, or a close-up of some grotesque prop or monster – which would be surrounded by (multi-lingua) marginalia. These notes will probably be the most pleasant discovery for a del Toro fan as they leaf through the book, revealing, as they do, the inner workings of the writer-director’s mind, often as he’s tackling and trying to figure out several projects at the same time: practical concerns (about props, costumes and loose story threads) jostle alongside philosophical musings and personal anecdotes.

Reaper statue from Blade II

As an extra, readers also get a glimpse into projects of del Toro’s that never came to fruition – an easy pitfall for a filmmaker with a tendency to multitask various media and juggle a number of projects at any given time.

The most prominent – or at least, the most recent and infamous – of these is of course del Toro’s – ultimately thwarted – adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

That project might just see the light of day, however, as del Toro recently announced that he’s cool with going for a PG-13 rated version of his film, under the wing of his recent collaborators Legendary Pictures (insisting on an R-rating proved to be the deal-breaker with the film’s previous studio-home-to-be, Universal).

But even before this announcement – which arrived some months after The Cabinet of Curiosities hit the shelves – hope already burned for a renewal of the project. “While this project we were so passionate about didn’t work out the first time round, I know that it’s going to happen one day,” Tom Cruise, who was set to star in At the Mountains of Madness (alongside Del Toro regular Ron Pearlman) writes in the Afterword to the ‘Cabinet’.

“Why? Because Guillermo will never stop creating, no matter what. He will keep at it against all odds. And when it finally happens, it will be infused with all the things that make a Guillermo del Toro movie so distinct and unforgettable: images, emotions, vistas, and characters that no one else creates.”

Schwabing

The Death of the Gravedigger by Carlos Schwabe

The Death of the Gravedigger by Carlos Schwabe

“In this day and age, we confuse hip smartness that does not fully endorse any idea with intelligence, and consider callousness the product of an experienced point of view of the world. Naturally, this attitude leads us to value artists who seem to know it all. But Schwabe and the rest of the symbolists were the exact opposite: They celebrated not knowing, the twilight of our knowledge. To them, the supernatural was absolutely real, and mystery was the supreme goal of art.” – Guillermo del Toro

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Read previous: CHIPPING

Chipping

Peter Stromare in Fargo (1996). The foot belongs to Steve Buscemi's character

Peter Stromare in Fargo (1996). The foot belongs to Steve Buscemi’s character

“The only jarring note [in Fargo] is the unnecessary pandering to the horror crowd – a remnant of the Evil Dead days – when Buscemi is being fed into the mechanical wood chipper, although we only see some of his leg sticking out of it. To illustrate how props in films can take on talismanic properties, the wood-chipper, owned by Milo Durben, a Delano farmer who acted as dolly grip on the film, had its own float in the 1996 Delano Fourth of July parade and was in the window of Dayton’s store in downtown Minneapolis as part of a movie display. Milo and his wife have continued to use the machine to chip wood on their farm, presumably now cleansed of bits of Buscemi.” – Ronald Bergan

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Read previous: RAPPING

‘Do you really want to be normal?’ | Penny Dreadful

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is asked a tough question in the final moments of the first season of Showtime's Penny Dreadful

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is asked a tough question in the final moments of the first season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful

Spoilers for the first season of Penny Dreadful ahead

“Do you really want to be normal?”

That question, delivered by a seemingly benign Welsh priest (though given the particular show’s propensity for sneaky evil presences, one shouldn’t be too sure) concludes the final episode of the first season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, fading to black before the show’s erstwhile protagonist, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) can respond.

It’s an apt question to ask – even an apt question to end a season on – considering we’re dealing with a show about characters who are either grotesque, extraordinary or a mix of both. But it’s also pertinent to the show’s structure itself. Like the critically lauded but structurally uneven True Detective before it (also a moody slow-burner entrenched in the history of horror fiction, albeit the two shows picking two separate – Transatlantic, even – branches of the tradition), Penny Dreadful had eight episodes in its first season.

Apart from being somewhat atypical in the current trend of ongoing ‘prestige’ television dramas, whose seasons generally take in at least 10 and up to 13 or 14 episodes, Penny Dreadful – perhaps contrary to its title and the associated cultural pedigree that that implies – opted to unspool its story in slow drops, instead of at a frenetic pace, with a twist and/or “shocking” character revelation at every corner.

In addition to this, the show also kept its cards to its chest – and still has quite a few, it must be said, even after the season one finale – so that while it was hoped that the viewers would remain intrigued by the mystery, it was never quite certain which parts of the story had the most urgent implications for our characters. And to make things even harder for itself, the show dedicated two whole episodes – precious time, for such a considerably brief season – to flashbacks.

This begs the question: is Penny Dreadful just slow, or have we been ‘spoiled’ by a certain degree of acceleration in the way TV series tend to be delivered?

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Indeed, Penny Dreadful has nothing like the immediate (and sustained) hook of Breaking Bad, which works because it’s striking, simple and also workable over the long term: Walter White’s cancer is a looming portent of doom, while his gradual transformation into a drug baron can be enjoyed episode-to-episode (or perhaps more accurately, it can be charted from season to season) because it’s precisely that: a transformation, a journey, an element of the story that yields new developments by its very nature; and in this case, it’s a particularly seductive element as it promises to transform our protagonist from hero to villain. Penny Dreadful Neither can Penny Dreadful boast of the huge cast of characters and intersecting story-lines one finds in Game of Thrones which, unlike Penny Dreadful, can satisfy a large and varied swathe of viewers with each episode, as George RR Martin’s vast, medieval-fantasy world can flicker from one sub-plot to another in the blink of an eye, with each sub-plot practically catering to its own mini-genre (political thriller, domestic drama, picaresque journey, fantasy actioner… even horror of the ‘torture porn’ variety).

Penny Dreadful – perhaps by dint of its title alone – can’t even claim to be ‘above’ genre television, necessarily. It can’t afford to luxuriate in the longueurs of a Mad Men without consequence, because its premise, and the cultural milieu it pastiches, demands a certain amount of genre-familiar action: an expectation corroborated by the memory of the literary characters it has adopted (who are, at the very least, a century old, which increases the expectation we have of them substantially).

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Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney)

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney)

Am I suggesting that Penny Dreadful is faultless, or that any faults it may have should be forgiven because we appear to have been ‘spoilt’ by accelerated storytelling (even in long-haul drama) in this day and age? No.

Come the conclusion of season one, a couple of things about the show still rankle me slightly, namely:

1) The season’s primary plot engine: Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa’s quest to retrieve Mina Murray (Olivia Llewellyn). It just feels a little thin. Though there’s enough simmering interpersonal drama between Malcolm and Vanessa to spare (as we learn about half-way through the season), and though of course the supporting characters also do their part in filling up the episodes leading to the climax, the sweep of it just doesn’t feel epic enough to justify an entire season. (I wonder if a plot reshuffle would have worked better… if, say, Mina is actually retrieved earlier on – even as early as the third or fourth episode – but it turned out that she is still gripped by whatever evil she appears to be possessed by. The rest of the season would then progress much in the same way, but it would also be free of what is essentially a threadbare ‘final destination’. As it stands, it feels as though the story will only get going come season; and

2) The fact that Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney) appears to have been thrown into the fray to elicit sexual tension and titillation and little else. His character arc will doubtlessly pick up come season two (we weren’t offered a glimpse of his infamous portrait after all), but it was sloppy of the writers not to leave any breadcrumbs for us at all. Come the final episode, he’s a cipher – and not a tantalizing one, at that.

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But you’ll be hard-pressed to deny that Penny Dreadful is a sumptuous, atmospheric and impeccably photographed show, despite all its faults. This isn’t just cosmetic praise: its production value works towards creating its atmosphere of gloomy dread and, ultimately, menace. And I think this is far more worthwhile a dramatic pursuit than endeavoring to create a ‘monster-of-the-week’ type show, which this easily could have become, and which even I suspected it may have been (and I probably wouldn’t have minded one bit if that were the case, I must admit).

Like Hannibal – a show I love and admire even more than Penny Dreadful – it shoots everything in a gloomy chiaroscuro, reinforcing the sense that, if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for these characters, they’re going to have to work through plenty of gloom to get to it. But more than just being a trick of cinematography and production design, this prolonged sense of foreboding helps the story.

Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton)

Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton)

Because it’s a story about how evil is incredibly hard to beat. Though we were promised Dracula, and though some kind of vampire mythos is most certainly at play here, the suggestion is that the old Count (or some version of him), is being helped, or is subservient to, an ancient Egyptian deity who appears to be channeling powers we’d normally associate with Satan (at least in pop culture lore).

Eva Green’s Vanessa is of course the fulcrum of all this: because this demonic presence appears to have taken a liking to her, she’s also made to serve as bait for Mina – or, at least, as a tracking device. In a show as restrained as this – restrained, at least, within its genre – Vanessa’s moments of demonic possession were the key set pieces… and it’s commendable that the ‘wow’ factor of the show depended not on shocking key character deaths (Red Viper, anyone?) but rather, on an actress’ talents, necessarily OTT as those particular moments were. Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) The adage ‘force of nature’ is one of those hateful phrases that are tossed around too easily, but Green certainly gives the show her all: she can switch from beautiful to horrific, from formidable to crushed, in the blink of an eye.

Her effective martyrdom, powerfully rendered by Green, points to one thing above all: there is no talisman or magic charm, no arcane incantation that will drive this malevolent presence out for good (though our boy Ethan (Josh Hartnett) surprised everyone with his spot of impromptu exorcism, which saved Vanessa’s life in the season’s penultimate episode).

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The chosen tone of John Logan’s show – which has thankfully been confirmed for a second season – makes perfect sense for the kind of property (the word is crucial here) that it is.

Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)

Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)

Save for Vanessa, we know a lot of these characters from their source material (that includes Malcolm Murray, who is H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain in all but name), and the show can’t play too closely to that. Instead of exploiting its Gothic and supernatural pedigree for effects-laden gimmicks and sensationalist shocks, it’s playing the long game, and keeping us guessing.

Or would you rather it were a “normal” show, after all?

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Questions:

1) Do you think that the eight-episode arc is proving to be a real challenge for TV writers?

2) Genre historians! Would you say that Penny Dreadful follows an old-school model of storytelling? Did the original penny dreadfuls have a similar structure? Haven’t had a chance to research this myself, so I’m really curious about this.