Off the Dead


Yeah, I’ve gone off The Walking Dead. For years I was a devoted viewer. I was drawn to the challenges of surviving in a devastated society. I was fascinated by the ingenuity required to survive another day. It was a tale of fortitude and resourcefulness, interspersed with moments of tragedy and loss. Then it changed a couple of seasons ago. It became more about confrontation than survival. There had always been episodes and story-lines that featured confrontation, and legitimately so, but now it was all about the battle between one faction and another, the threat of zombies largely sidelined, and the logistic struggle to survive altogether missing.

I found it drawn out and tedious, and often overwrought. It felt like a violent soap opera being fought out in some barren, dystopian future, the writing varying between sentimental cloy and laughable ‘tough’ talk.

I’ve lost a lot of interest in recent years, watching out of habit and in the vain hope that this story line might be wrapped up and a new story begun. Throughout I’ve felt often discomfited by what I’ve felt to be a tendency towards the more fascist.

I know there’s a lot of people who feel similarly to me. With the last season just wrapping up I held hopes that it might take a new direction next season, but that seems unlikely. More confrontation was foreshadowed. The writing, which has deteriorated greatly, veered between clichéd contradictions, words undercut by actions. And some of those actions continue to be pretty ugly.

I’ll watch the first episode next season to see where it’s going. In general I’m much more interested in Fear The Walking Dead, but who’s to say it won’t go down a similar path?

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Breaking Away


Home late on Saturday night I settled in on the couch, browsed through my movie directory, then found the perfect late, home from being out movie: Breaking Away.

I guess this is now an older movie, though I remember sort of roughly when it came out – around 1980? I reckon I’ve watched it 3-4 times over the years, and responded to it every time. It’s a very well made coming of age story about a cycling obsessed teenager and his mates. It has all the usual elements, a bit of romance, a town in transition and conflict between the two sides of the track, and finally the triumphant ending. It’s probably because it’s so familiar, and ‘known’, that I find myself responding to it so well. It’s a well-worn trope, but it’s a trope that most of us in western democracies have lived some variation of. You watch such a movie with a combination of nostalgia and sentimentality, if not a mild sense of regret that such days of carefree innocence, when the beckoning promised to unfold before you and nothing was impossible, are gone, a part of the past. If only we’d known better at the time.

In this case it’s a particularly well done piece of film making. Peter Yates was the director. He was the director of one of my favourite ever movies, Bullitt, but other accomplished works like The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Eyewitness. He has a sure hand, but the movie belongs to the writer, Steve Tesich.

Years ago I read one of the few novels he wrote, Summer Crossing, about a boy living on the wrong side of the tracks meeting up with a mysterious and alluring newcomer to town. It’s sweet and romantic in places, but ultimately tragic. I read it soon enough after living through that stage of my life that it felt particularly real. I knew what it was like to fall hard for a girl. I knew the sense of budding adulthood and straining at the leash. I knew the feeling of being safe in the family home but rebelling against the strictures of it. I knew what it was like to be a part of a close knit group of friends sharing every moment. And I knew the feeling on unbounding curiosity, as if I couldn’t get enough of life and experience.

It seems likely to me that Steve Tesich wrote from rich experience. Though they have different stories, the themes of Breaking Away and Summer Crossing are not dissimilar.

I half expected on Saturday to grow bored halfway through, as if I might have outgrown the movie. Sadly, it happens. Old favourites, books as well as movies, seem often pale imitations of what I knew and experienced of them when they made their formative impression. I think that’s a great example of how your impression of things is informed by your circumstances. Things that resonated me back then because I could relate, could feel, lose their lustre over time when I have moved on to a different plane of existence.

Fortunately I watched to the end on Saturday, lured on by memory and genuine entertainment. This is a quality movie that everyone should watch. A classic, dare I say.

Altered thinking


A random choice last night led me to watch an old movie from about 1980, Altered States.

It’s a bit of a freaky movie, about drug taking in the search for the ‘first man’ – the primordial self – and there’s a bit of it which looks and feels like an acid trip.

There’s a Harvard university professor, William Hurt, who is certain that we can regress with the help of drugs to earlier states of being. He locks himself up in an isolation tank, and with the help of some choice Mexican brews undergoes a series of transformations. In one he comes out of the tank as a Neanderthal man, causes all sorts of confusion and mayhem, chews on a zoo animal, where he wakes up naked back as his normal self. He’s proved there is something in it, but ever the passionate scientist he wants to take it further. Against the protestations of his wife he goes back into the tank and this time regresses to a state way beyond that of Neanderthal. It destroys the lab, and he is something now less than human – a writhing, tortured energy with a flickering existence. He is only saved by the devotion of his wife reaching through the vortex to pull him out.

He is left shocked. There is nothing, he concludes, there is nothing at the beginning. Then, spontaneously, he begins to transform again – and I’ll leave it there.

It’s a flawed but entertaining movie. Ken Russell directed it, and though it has its extreme moments it’s not as out there as some of his other stuff. I’m not sure if I’m left with a lot to ponder, though I’m tempted – as I have been for years – to try LSD one day (I’m not inclined to drugs in general. I’ve had ecstasy, and of course grass, but that’s it).

The funny thing as I’m watching last night there comes to mind a couple of things I’ve been reading lately about human consciousness and psychology.

Many years ago I read Wilhelm Reich’s The Passion of Youth, and enjoyed it. He was a fascinating, if controversial figure, but this was basically an autobiography of his formative years, and touched upon the other great figures of the day, particularly Freud. I went through a phase when I read a lot of popular psychology and biography, and still have an interest.

Alfred Adler was one I knew of, but hadn’t really investigated until recently. Having delved into some of his teachings recently I find to my surprise that I have been living by basic Adlerian principles for many years. If I were to summarise very simply it is to take responsibility for your actions, and to disregard the approval of others. In a large sense what I read seems also to validate my recent decision to open up and let go of the things I had let hold me back.

Separately I read somewhere else about serotonin, about confidence and self-belief. Those who have those qualities are flushed with serotonin, which reinforces the sense. Those who fail successively, or who are generally without confidence, don’t experience that, and instead are subject to negative influences.

What was interesting to me was that I was once one of the first group, and know well the sensation of being infused with certainty. Then I became someone who lost it all, and was subject to repeated defeats. In that situation we go into our shell apparently, unwilling to dare and reluctant to hope. It becomes a circular process.

I experienced that. As I read I knew exactly what was described. But then I recognised that I was fortunate to retain something – I know not what it is – that allowed me to ultimately disregard that perception and try again and again. Perhaps it was a store of serotonin left in me which made for a hard core of self-belief. Whatever it was I’m grateful for it.

Human nature is a fascinating thing and you can’t go wrong learning all you can about the intricacies of it.

Annihilation


I watched the movie version of Annihilation last night. I read the book a few years back and thought it was great. The book – by Jeff Vandermeer – was eerie, strange and haunting, and the movie had pretty much exactly the same qualities.

It’s an intriguing world he created in the book, and persuasively rendered on screen. Watching I was reminded somewhat of Stalker, the movie by Andrei Tarkovsky (based on the book Roadside Picnic, which oddly enough I finished reading the other day).

Stalker is a strange tale of a wasteland left after an alien incursion. It’s a forbidden zone full of peril, but people – Stalkers – still enter it illegally to collect the detritus left by the aliens to sell on the black market.

Likewise in Annihilation, something has infected a zone of land by the cost and enveloped it in a shimmering haze. None of the expeditions into the zone have made it back, but for one damaged survivor. No-one knows what happened to cause this, or what has happened on the far side of the barrier, but as in Stalker, it’s a zone of weird happenings and lurking death. And in both movies, it leads to a moment of profound discovery, though other-worldly.

This is a departure from the book for the movie of Annihilation. In the book mystery was piled upon mystery, clues left without resolution. The book was the first of three, and though I wouldn’t rule it out, the movie of it doesn’t demand a follow-up – there is enough revealed to explain the riddle that in the book leads on to the next chapter.

I enjoyed the movie. I thought the world they created was great, and unusual in my experience married up pretty well to my own imagining of it. There’s a baroque exuberance in the flourishing, impossible vegetation and the strange creatures mutated into something other. It’s very otherworldly and different as if it might be a million miles from what we know as civilisation. And yet remaining are the remnants of crumbling settlement, lop-sided, overrun and corrupted by galloping mutation.

It’s a sci-fi adventure cum horror movie, but it has an intelligence to it. It’s not just about the thrills. It’s provocative, philosophical even, as was the book, as was Stalker too for what it matters. It asks questions, the answers to which are nuanced. We tend too easily, these days especially, to see things in either a positive or negative light, in terms of good and evil, when of course there are all sorts of things in between and different perspectives as well. And sometimes it’s just different, neither one thing or another and just itself – foreign to our way of thinking and our expectations.

The movie, in the end, is not about creatures or aliens looking to subvert our world, but about transformation and imitation, it’s about change.

I think I’ll be sitting on this movie for a few days more letting it settle in me. I like those sort of movies. This one is very well done.

Dark times


Saw a really great movie last night. Won tickets to a preview screening of Darkest Hour in Hawthorn. Met up with Donna, predictably late, and sat down in the plush cinema to watch a movie much lauded for Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill.

Like the rest, I can’t fault Oldman’s performance, which is as enthralling and convincing as the movie is as a whole. Ben Mendelsohn is also excellent playing King George. Every time I see Mendelsohn he looks like he’s coming off a big night, but in this he’s regal playing a upright and slightly diffident king, complete with proper posh accent and slight stutter.

This movie plays like a thriller. There’s no secret how things turn out, but as we discover it was a close run thing. It’s a dire moment of history. The Allied forces have been utterly devastated by the blitzkrieg and it looks almost certain that 300,000 English troops – their whole army – will be lost. Without them England is virtually defenceless if not for the channel separating them from the mainland. In the face of this the clamour to negotiate for peace becomes more insistent, to the point almost of overwhelming the stalwart Churchill, who is otherwise determine to defy Hitler, and everything he stands for. The pressure is immense, and on Churchill’s response hinges history.

It appears from this distance that if not for a fortuitous sequence of circumstances then Hitler may well have conquered Europe whole, with no-one left to stand against him. Had Halifax been installed as PM instead of Hitler then certainly England would have surrendered in all but name. Had Churchill not defied the will of his war cabinet then the result would have been the same. Even so, if the so-called miracle of Dunkirk not eventuated then England would have been left a toothless, and largely defenceless entity.

There are few better candidates for history’s man of the moment than Winston Churchill. It’s certain that had he not come to power then world history would be very different today.

All of this plays out in your mind as you watch the events unfold in virtual real time, the clock ticking, machinations back and forwards, soul searching and hard choices. It is absolutely riveting, particularly for a history buff like me. The tone is not triumphant, but it still manages to be rousing. I watched at times feeling incredibly moved, a lump in my throat and my eyes moist.

The question I had in my mind, and which Donna echoed afterwards, was what would I have chosen in the same circumstances – sue for peace hoping to save the lives of all those men; or defy the Nazi’s and risk not just the lives of those me, but the very existence of England? This is the dilemma they wrestled with in those dark days, even Churchill at his lowest ebb. We know how it worked out, but they did not have the benefit of history to inform them.

I think I’d have stood by Churchill, if for no other reason that I’m by nature stubborn and defiant and hate giving way. The broader point, made by Churchill, is that it had been the appeasement of Hitler that had led to this state of affairs. Hitler was not a man to be trusted, he would always want more, and now was the time to stand up to him. A so-called peace would cripple England, and would not be the end of it. Now was the time to stand-up to the bully.

The rest is history – literally – as they say. I recommend this movie unreservedly. Donna reckons it’s one of the best movies she’s ever seen. For me, I can of few that stirred me so much – though it highlights the utter deficit in leadership we suffer from today. Oh, but for someone as courageous and tue as Churchill today!

Dunkirk


I was thinking recently that there are few really intellectual movie directors these days – or maybe it’s the stories that are missing. I mean stories that really challenge and make you think, that posit alternative views or defy established frameworks. Most movies these days are entertainment, though sometimes the entertainment is high art, brilliantly conceived, brilliantly executed. I have no argument with that, and take as much pleasure in it as the average man in the street – I love movies. There are view though that start with an intellectual viewpoint – most are fantasies in some way, or renderings of reality either historical or fictional. They are human dramas that explore feelings and confrontation, or escapist pictures that take us on an extended ride. Often times you’ll come out of the cinema and for hours later the images will reverberate in your mind, and possibilities echo – but equally the story will be forgotten come the next day.

Probably my favourite modern day film-maker is Christopher Nolan. Recently I sat on my couch and re-watched a couple of his big movies, Inception and Interstellar. Both are fabulously imaginative films that bend and warp your mind with the possibilities and conjecture they present. I love both movies, as much the second or third time around as the first. For someone who loves to believe in extraordinary possibilities I lap these up.

I’m a man who wants to believe in the extraordinary, in ghosts and vampires, in alien worlds and time travel. I love physics, and the thought that we are the tiniest of tiny specks at the corner of a tiny galaxy is both astounding and thrilling. I want the world to be more than it appears because I like mystery and wonder, want to be intrigued and led on by it. I want more than what I see, and yet I’m also a rational being – I can believe in the physics, but no matter how much I wish it I can’t conceive of heaven or hell.

Christopher Nolan is of similar ilk if his movies are anything to go by. He is fascinated by the same possibilities – fake realities, black holes, mind bending possibilities. He is such a master that the worlds he creates have both depth and intelligence. Is he an intellectual movie director? I don’t doubt he has a significant intellect, but though our minds become engaged with his films, they operate on a level that is more visceral. The wonder we feel comes from our gut. Later I might find myself exploring his worlds with my mind, reminded of the wonder, but I am not made to think differently, just more.

On the weekend I caught up with his latest movie, Dunkirk. I’m late to this party, with it being much lauded when it came out a few months ago. It’s different from Nolan’s more recent films in that it deals with a historical moment. Like Saving Private Ryan, it is a rendering of a key moment in World War Two.

It shares a kind of fidelity with Saving Private Ryan: it feels true, it seems authentic. This is what it was like, you think. You realise how rare it is to feel that. This was more than entertainment, it was supra-entertainment. It was different to Saving Private Ryan in that it does not contain the hectic onrush of action, but rather is a series of set-pieces that move forward with their own momentum before joining together a single narrative thread. It’s a much quieter movie, without the bombast, and certainly not the brutality and gore of the other movie. Nolan is less interested in representing that.

I was surprised in fact in how little the enemy intruded into the story. They were represented obliquely, a presence over yonder, pressing hard but unseen; and in the disembodied presence of Me-109’s doing battle over the English Channel, and HE-111’s swooping in to bomb minesweepers. Nolan is telling England’s story.

I used to be a big student of military history. I knew well that Germany had squandered its chance to drive the British and French allies into the sea at Dunkirk. Instead Hitler had called a halt and gave permission to Goering’s Luftwaffe to make the kill – at which they failed abjectly. History might be different now had Hitler let Rommel have his head – the English were ripe for the execution. Even knowing all that I was surprised at how ineffective and remote the Luftwaffe were as rendered in this movie.

This is a great human story that very effectively gets at the complex set of emotions the various participants experience and deal with – the shell-shocked survivor, the admiral trying to get survivors off the beach, the desperate soldiers looking to flee thwarted at almost every turn, and the decent, gentle English sailor doing his bit to save the day.

As entertainment this was enthralling, like watching a story with a ticking clock. I know how history tells how it turned out, but it was the individual stories that kept me at the edge of my seat. As I said, it felt so real – this is just a movie but, you think, it happened just like that. If not this salty skipper, then there was another just like him on that day.

A lot of people are saying this is the best movie of the year. I can understand that. It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year, and I can’t wait for Nolan’s next.

This is not an intellectual movie in the sense that it poses questions of us, but it is a movie conceived of and made with great intelligence and intellect.

Faraway worlds


Having made comment on the respective merits of the two Blade Runner movies the other day I went home thinking back on the original. I prefer the sequel, but there is a scene in the original Blade Runner which is one of my favourite movie sequences of all time. It’s a favourite with a lot of people, for good reason. It’s Roy Batty’s soliloquy when he knows he can’t fight it any more, when he knows his time is done – and yet feels wonder, and some pride, at the life he has been afforded:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Some time after I had reached rock bottom this scene popped into my head, and in the weeks and months after was never far away. I felt a little like Roy Batty. I had lived a life. I had seen things few do, had experienced moments of wonder and profundity. I had immersed myself in experience and been richly rewarded for it.

All that was true, but there I was, with nothing, and with nothing concrete to hope for. I clung to a life I once had, grateful for it – grateful at least that I had that – but isolated by my present circumstances. I wanted to proclaim it, I’m not this homeless man, I am rather the man who has seen these things, been to these wondrous places, live moments of sublime insight.

Once something is gone, it’s gone. I remember when my grandmother died, then my mother years after, how those worlds died with them. They live only as long as they are in someone’s mind but, even so, they fade, they are of a past that cannot be returned to. It’s one reason I write, I think, to pin down and make permanent that sense of transient life.

I have moved on, but sometimes those words still return to me, like a reminder. They are still true to some meaning, though it less defined now that I have at least something, though very little.

Regardless, it’s one of the great movie scenes.