Film Stuff, PhD

The Walking Dead

For reasons unknown, I’ve recently started watching the first series of the zombie drama The Walking Dead. I don’t know why; I’ve never been into zombies, or gore, or horror of any kind (save for psychological thrillers like Silence of the Lambs). Plus, I’m about eight years, nine seasons and over a hundred and thirty episodes behind, so that’s quite some commitment to catch up on.

Nevertheless, a PhD can make you do strange things, so I’ve decided to run with it. And surprisingly, I’m hooked. There’s enough humour about the bat-shit craziness of the situation to undercut the (increasing) moments of sheer horror, and some of the twists (the Latino gang in Episode Four being a case in point) that offer snippets of genuine relief. But mainly, I’ve realised that I’m not so unfamiliar with the genre after all.

The plot centres around a small but disparate group of survivors following an apocalyptic event. They band together to try and find a way out. At the time of watching, their camp has just been invaded by walkers, leaving a few casualties, so I’m guessing that they’ll up sticks shortly in search of a new and safer place of refuge. Already, they’ve encountered other groups of survivors with varying levels of friendliness, all the while hunted by deadly predators who are not averse to ripping them apart.

It’s basically Watership Down.

Which also goes some way to explaining why the latter is so bloody terrifying. It’s a zombie film. With rabbits. No wonder kids are traumatised.

I could go further and start drawing parallels between individual characters (Rick/ Hazel, Shane/Bigwig; looking further ahead – Negan/Woundwort?), but I fear the analogy would start falling apart very quickly. Nonetheless, I’ll be looking out for a larger than life German seagull in the later seasons, just in case.

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PhD

Treading water

Somehow, I find myself starting the second year of my PhD.

I say starting. More like paddling in freezing water and not quite having the courage to jump in. Because once I do, I’ll have to actually take a decision on a direction in which to swim, while at the same time having to expend an awful lot of energy just to stay afloat.

Is the destination worth it? Like the attached picture, it still looks attractive, even though the waters look decidedly muddied. Pushing the metaphor to the extreme, it feels at the moment a bit like the Burt Lancaster character in the 1968 film The Swimmer, impelled by unknown forces to undertake the challenge of ‘swimming home’ by means of the affluent neighbourhood garden pools, only to find himself further from home the closer he gets. When he finally arrives (spoiler!), the house is derelict and overgrown; evidently uninhabited for years. He is a man out of place and out of time. Does he learn anything on the journey? Does he gain any semblance of self-knowledge? Or does he arrive at the crushing realisation that the world has moved on unnoticed while he has been pursuing his single-minded quest. He is left behind, soaking wet, standing in a deserted garden looking rather silly in a pair of swimming trunks. (Although, being Burt Lancaster, admittedly remaining admiringly buff).

Anyway, enough existential navel-gazing. I’m meant to be speaking at a workshop on Monday to advise incoming first years on ‘How to Survive a PhD’. Keep going. Enjoy the experience. Have in inkling of your destination. Be mindful of your priorities. Hug your partner/ friends. Cuddle your cat/ dog. And stay away from open water.

Film Stuff

Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Every so often, I’m jolted out of my sense of complacency about films. I’d seen Last of the Mohicans before; of course I had. I can even tell you approximately when: it was a New Year’s Eve when I was about 20. It was a quiet, civilised night in with friends Sandra & Jo and we were working our way through a double or triple bill of films. I drove back home and arrived, stone cold sober at around 3am, to a chorus of drunken cheers from a parental party still in full swing. I have never felt more like Saffy before or since.

Anyway, the digression just serves to illustrate that I only got around to seeing the film approximately seven years after its first release, on a small screen, and it wasn’t the most memorable part of the night (that honour was taken by the image of my dad being hoisted up the stairs by his trousers by his elderly aunt at 5am, who clearly thought he’d had quite enough to drink, thank you very much). I remembered a few salient points – the waterfall, the shock fate of a couple of characters, and ‘I will find you!’, all combining into a sense of melodramatic excess. Frankly, I wasn’t too fussed.*

Fast forward to last weekend, and I’d spotted the film was being shown at The Electric as part of their Cinematic Time Machine series. Knowing Bob was not averse to the odd Western, I suggested we give it a go. Will McKeown from the University of Birmingham’s B-Film research centre gave a very interesting and informative introduction to the film, which provided some background context and set the stage effectively.

I tell you, I was almost crying by the time the first few bars kicked in. And no, before you ask, I’m not speaking as a newly discovered Daniel Day-Lewis fangirl (bit late now, seeing as he’s just retired). But the epic music, the vast landscapes, and the dramatic themes set against the backdrop of war seemed to strike a chord. And a melody. Did I mention the music?

Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his adopted father Chingachgook (Russell Means) and brother Uncas (Eric Schweig) exist on the fringes of the French and Indian Wars in 1757. They live, hunt, and survive alongside the colonial settlers, subject to no-one but themselves. Happening upon a Huron ambush led by the uncompromising Magua (Wes Studi), they rescue two daughters of a British colonel stationed at Fort William Henry. Offering to escort them to the safety of the Fort, they arrive to find the place under heavy siege by the French. Smuggling their charges through the lines under the cover of darkness, their mission seems to be complete. Until, that is, Hawkeye takes a shine to the elder daughter and decides to stay on for a bit to get to know her while the fort is pummelled into submission. Finally surrendering to the French, the Colonel and his men are allowed to depart with full honours, only to march straight into the path of the waiting Magua and his war party. Saving the day again with some nifty moves (albeit not quite preventing a massacre), Hawkeye and co. escape to the afore-mentioned waterfall with the two daughters, an English officer, and a couple of anonymous redshirts who you just know are not long for this world. After a few more twists and turns, and an awful lot of running, the denouement falls on a clifftop skirmish; a fight to the death to enact justice, revenge, and a poignant lament for a dying way of life.

Yes, it’s corny. But my god, does it work. The tone, while reverential, never succumbs to parodic pretension. The visuals – as noted in the introductory talk – are stunning, and not just the landscapes. Many scenes are seemingly composed to resemble historical paintings of the period (thanks to Bob for that observation). Such attention to detail exemplifies the director’s focus on historical authenticity, from training the extras in contemporaneous military manoeuvres, to building the entire set of Fort William Henry from scratch using local materials.

What is especially interesting is that this dedication to historical veracity is favoured above a faithful rendering of the original plot. Viewed as an adaptation, the film clearly takes liberties with the source material; several characters who survive to the end of the novel do not share the same fortune here. Identities are switched around, ages are altered, and a racial undercurrent is not addressed apart from a brief mention in passing. But audiences are not engaging with the story as an exercise in comparison. As John le Carre says in an interview as part of the DVD extras on the 2011 release of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: “this is the film of the film, not the film of the book.” It has to be seen on its own terms. Narrative fidelity – to what has been described as a rather simplistic depiction of cultural stereotypes – has been eschewed in favour of historical authenticity, in what Kamilla Elliott would identify as the ‘trumping’ model of adaptation. In this case, the changes align with the director’s interpretation of historical events to form a narrative cohesion that emphasises the central theme of survival and offers a prescient nod to the autonomy of rule.

The overall result successfully combines the genres of literary adaptation, war, frontier western, and historical romance, which is no easy task. The central relationships are well-characterised and (most importantly) credible, which go a long way to humanising the conflict and its surrounding politics. A film well-deserving of another outing on the big screen.

Some final thoughts:

  • It struck me that Peter Jackson must have taken some inspiration from this film for Lord of the Rings, not least in the visual characterisation of Aragorn and the chasing of the Uruk-Hai at the beginning of The Two Towers. You could push it even further and substitute the three characters easily enough: Hawkeye – Aragorn, Chingachgook – Gimli, Uncas – Legolas. Someone more technically-minded than me could produce a great mash-up of the two, swapping over the respective soundtracks
  • Like this kind of thing (full respect at 2.05 – that’s got to be tough on the thighs)

Footnote

*A few years ago, we had also seen the 1970s BBC TV adaptation, which was memorable mainly for Allo Allo’s Hilary Minster popping up at regular intervals in roles ranging from a British sergeant, Huron warrior, French infantryman and Delaware scout. The budget evidently didn’t stretch to covering the extras.

Film Stuff

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The film choice on Friday night was the David Fincher adaptation of the first book in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series. Heavily influential in creating a global audience for the Nordic Noir trend, the original trilogy was first adapted into film in a Swedish production not two years earlier. Questions, then, were raised at the time about the efficacy of a new adaptation so soon after the first. Mumblings around bandwagon-hopping, money-grabbing, and American audiences who can’t be bothered to read subtitles clouded the film’s popular reception (although it was critically well-received). The timing of the film’s release during the Christmas holidays probably didn’t help. Although there’s plenty of snow and (spoiler!) a family reunion, it’s not exactly The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Unusually for an adaptation, the 2011 film was compared to the 2009 Swedish production, rather than the original novel. The only other recent example I can think of that takes a similar approach is the 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the reviews of which invariably drew comparison with the 1979 BBC TV series starring Alec Guinness. To me, it raises interesting questions around the delineation between what is ‘definitive’ and what is ‘original’, and how adaptations navigate that spectrum.

The film itself follows the parallel storylines of disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) as he accepts a commission from a wealthy industrialist (Christopher Plummer), and the eponymous girl, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who is having a few issues with her guardian. Their paths converge as it becomes clear that a serial killer is in operation in the snow-blasted landscape and the family business is not welcoming the intrusion. To quote another film mentioned in a blog I’ve just discovered, ‘the hospitality in this country is as warm as the weather’.

Put simply, this is an outstanding film. Right from the opening credits, which combine Bond-like visuals with a nightmarish, punk-Alien vibe, Fincher creates an atmosphere that is unsettling, disturbing, and provocatively in-yer-face. The horrific scenes with Lisbeth and her guardian are not glossed over, but the unlikelihood of further sequels make them purely character development and motivation rather than narratively essential. Does that matter? I’d like to say not, but the absence of narrative completion and context (though not cohesion) gives this plotline a brutality that verges on gratuitousness.

This is not a film for a date-night, or one to recommend to your parents (well, not mine, anyway). But it’s a gripping investigative thriller with a uniformly excellent cast. I’m only sorry it’s taken me six years to get around to watching it.

In Theatres...

Review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family

On Friday evening, I kicked off the weekend by heading down to Bromsgrove to catch Ben Norris’s show The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family on the last leg of its current tour. (It’s in London at the end of the month, but deservedly sold out.)

Funny, poignant, and deeply personal, Hitchhiker’s Guide celebrates the relationship between father and son. Simultaneously separated by generations, yet connected by shared experience. Actually, scratch that; it’s more like being separated by shared experience (but in a good way).

In preparation for the show, and in an attempt to understand (quite literally) where his dad is coming from, Ben hitchhiked down the M1 to visit the various places where his dad spent his early years. Accompanied by some nifty animation, the occasional film clip and photos of those he encountered, Ben charted his journey interspersed with reminiscences about growing up with a dad whose approach to life was a million miles away from his own.

Football was a common thread, as he made his way to Wembley (the old one) and revisited the home ground of Luton Town, the site of many a father-son bonding experience. It’s part of the universality of this show that different elements trigger individual memories on the part of the audience. For me, the home ground of Luton Town football club was the last football match I ever attended. When I moved to Birmingham in 2003, my brother (a life-long Brighton & Hove Albion fan now living in Coventry) invited me to join him for any Saturday afternoon away games that happened to be within a 2-hour radius of the West Midlands. It was a good chance to spend time with him, and it started off well enough (winning the League  One play-offs in 2004 was a definite highlight), but after a few years of rainy visits to places like Grimsby (nice fish, shit town, went the terrace chant) the visits culminated in a very cold and wet defeat to Luton Town at Kenilworth Road. As Ben mentions in the show, you can only get to the ground over the rooftops of a line of terraced houses, like a cut-price Mary Poppins. To my eternal shame, I think I even might have told my brother to fuck off when he brought me a cup of bovril. He’s still speaking to me, though the football is no longer a shared passion.

Digressions aside, Ben’s journey was ultimately about connection, and nowhere was that felt more keenly than between Ben and the audience in the room. For just over an hour, he became everyone’s son, and the warmth and – yes – love that flowed from both sides during that time made this one of the most magical theatre performances I’ve seen for a long time. 

TV

Star Trek (TOS) 1.2: Charlie X

I also missed this episode at the time of its 1992 broadcast, but like ‘The Man Trap’, I had caught up with it a few years ago.

It’s a good story: a 17 year old boy has been found by a cargo ship as the sole survivor of a colony whose other members died (presumably in an accident) when he was a baby. His survival defies all logic, so Spock soon comes to the conclusion that he must have had outside help, possibly from the ‘Thasians’, the virtually mythical historical inhabitants of the planet, about whom nothing is known.

The cargo ship offloads the eponymous Charlie on to the Enterprise and make a hasty departure, only to blow up in mysterious circumstances. Meanwhile, Charlie is exhibiting increasingly volatile behaviour that cannot entirely be put down to teenage hormones, although they certainly don’t help. It’s down to Kirk to introduce the young man to the nuances of 23rd century sexual politics. What could possibly go wrong? After one tantrum appears to eliminate a member of the crew, the Captain has a super-sized problem on his hands. His fatherly authority holds Charlie at bay for a time, but the teenager rebels and uses his powers to take over the ship. When all seems lost, the Thasians appear and apologise for letting him out of their sight. A howling Charlie is taken back to spend the rest of his life in well-meaning isolation.

This is a poignant episode which is the first to address the recurring issue of the corruptive and corrosive issue of power. Charlie was given his abilities at an early age to help him survive; it’s not really his fault that he can’t control them. His refrain of ‘stop laughing at me’ continues to evoke sympathy from the hyper-sensitive teenager that still resides in me. Having said that, he’s an obnoxious twat whose crush on Yeoman Janice Rand quickly turns from puppy-dog sweet to fuck off, you whiney creep. I suppose, narratively-speaking, this is a good way of ensuring Kirk’s decision to maroon him indefinitely on a far-off planet is entirely justified and acceptable to the viewing audience.

Observations

  • Ok, Spock and Uhura definitely have a thing going. There’s far too much ‘look at us’ coy lyre-playing and public crooning in the recreation room.
  • I had to laugh at Kirk’s offer to provide the crew of the visiting cargo ship with a stockpile of ‘entertainment tapes’. Yes, the Captain of the Enterprise is peddling porn.
  • His attempt to distract Charlie from his teenage passion is equally hilarious: ‘I know you’re horny as hell’ (I’m paraphrasing), ‘but let’s go and have a TOPLESS MANLY WRESTLE to take your mind off it’. Didn’t work.
  • Speaking of which, this is the first glimpse of Shatner’s bare chest in the series, soon to receive a co-starring credit.
  • I’m fascinated by the intricate threading patterns in Janice Rand’s beehive hairstyle. It’s a wonder she has any time to carry all those trays.
  • Smooth-talker of the week: ‘There are many ways to hit a woman.’ Gee, thanks, Captain. Glad you’re on hand to give fatherly advice to impressionable 17 year-olds with anger issues.
  • Technology of the week: Got to be Spock using a pile of coloured post-it notes as a voice recorder.

Film Stuff

Star Trek (TOS) 1.1: The Man Trap

I started watching the original series (TOS) of Star Trek when the entire run was broadcast on BBC2 on Wednesday evenings at 6pm. I’ve checked on the BBC genome project, which archives all Radio Times listings from 1923-2009, and ‘The Man Trap’ was first broadcast on 26 August 1992. I was 11. An impressionable age, from any perspective, and a time when I was just about to embark on the transition from primary to secondary school. Not only that, over the summer, my dad’s work commitments had taken us from a relatively settled life in West Sussex to the uncertainty of a new start in Bath. As an adult, I can now look back on it as not a bad swap, but at 11 it meant never seeing my friends ever again. And actually, in most cases, that turned out to be pretty accurate. I was never a particularly reliable penpal, it was pre-Internet, my phone calls were generally functional rather than affectionate, and the most exciting piece of technology was a brand new fax machine that even then was never going to pass for speedy communication.

So it was within this context – new town, new school, and probably feeling more than a bit sorry for myself – that I first fell upon Star Trek. Looking back, the appeal was fairly obvious. The series embodied friendship, constancy, and familiarity (even the planets all looked the same). Every week, I could join a ready-made community who shared a common purpose. Despite the best efforts of some of the monster-of-the-week storylines, it was wholly unthreatening, and despite the literally out-of-this-world setting, the main focus was on the central relationships. It was fun, it was cheesy, but above all, it was home.

It to be said that I didn’t watch the series from the outset; I picked it up a few episodes into the first season. And, it being the early-90s, there was no TV catch-up, so ‘The Man Trap’ was therefore one I missed at the time (but I had seen it since). Watching it again a couple of days ago, I can see why it was chosen as the episode to open the series. It’s classic-Trek and the characters/ themes are already fully-formed, with virtually no clunky exposition (well, no more than normal).

Kirk, McCoy and nameless crewman (Galaxy Quest gets this spot on) beam down to a planet to undertake an annual health check to two scientists stationed there. McCoy has a personal interest in the trip as one of the scientists, Nancy, happens to be an old flame (another harbinger of doom) whom he hasn’t seen for ten years. They beam down and the reunion goes off splendidly, apart from the minor (but so far unnoticed) fact that Nancy appears as a different woman to each of the members of the landing party. Cue the appearance of her particularly grumpy scientist husband, a distant blood-curdling scream, and the nameless crewman has sadly succumbed to the inevitable.

SPOILER ALERT (but hey, it’s 50 years old, so if you haven’t watched it yet, I doubt you’re going to care).

Nancy turns out to be a shape-shifting salt monster who drains the salt from her/its victims, thereby rendering them dead.  After several more bodies, a brief escapade on board ship, the creature (back in Nancy’s image) is reluctantly dispatched by her former lover, McCoy, who is forced to make an impossible choice.

Observations

  • It has to be pointed out that the creature seems to be motivated by the acquisition of salt, rather than any specific ill-intent, which makes you wonder why it couldn’t just have asked Starfleet to deliver a shit tonne of the stuff every year.
  • Interesting to note that the nameless crewman (and other victims, who did manage to secure identities) were wearing blue shirts rather than the stereotypical red. No doubt this will be rectified in future episodes.
  • Likewise, the Enterprise doesn’t seem to have invented replicators yet, judging by the amount of food being carried on trays in the episode.
  • On a similar point, does the Enterprise only have one canteen? People seem to be going up and down turbo-lifts and walking for ages with their bloody trays. You’d have thought they could afford one per floor, or at least a tuckshop to keep them going.
  • Sulu has a very impressive range of colourful plants in his collection, although one looks suspiciously like it’s being animated by a human hand.
  • Smooth-talker of the week: ‘Is this Nancy?’ bellows Spock as he belts her across the face with both hands, several times. Well, no, I certainly hope not.
  • Speaking of Spock, is he flirting with Uhura here? She looks as though she wouldn’t mind if he was…