Friday, 13 October 2017

Colossal


I wouldn't be writing this, if I hadn't, in reading up on this film after viewing it, stumbled across an odd division in how people have received and interpreted this film. 

Or, let's start differently. This is a very good film but the thing about it that will follow me isn't the memorable concept, the way it twists the superhero movie into something new, unexpected and budget-conscious, but how Jason Sudeikis manages to portray the transformation of a romcom staple - the nice guy - into an absolutely terrifying, textbook abuser. And in turn, how alienating it was to read reviews of this film that focused entirely on Anne Hathaway's character, on her issues, on Gloria's alcoholism, and never even mentioned the way that this whole film is about Oscar being revealed as a misogynist super-villain, and Gloria finding the strength to stand up against him and rid the world of his terror. 

Colossal is a film about toxic masculinity and a very specific, American approach to catastrophes happening in distant countries, to people who are far away. And the film isn't even particularly subtle about either of these (nor is it about Gloria's alcoholism, or the fact that it lacks sympathetic characters), so that it becomes even more astonishing when this core driving force is buried beneath cliched review writing about "genre-hopping" or "romantic comedies with a twist". 
Gloria (Anne Hathaway) lives in New York with her boyfriend, played by Dan Stevens. Once, in the past, she was a writer of some sort, but she is no longer writing anything at all, and instead suffers from alcohol-induced blackouts that severely impact her memory and her temporal orientation. To get her life together, she moves into her parents' empty house (where the parents are, or what happened to them, isn't really revealed) in her hometown - soon stumbling into gainful employment with the help of an old acquaintance, Oscar, who is now running his dad's old bar. Oscar first appears as a helpful, down-to-earth guy, who according to every trope in the book has always had a crush on Gloria and is now just trying to help her out any way he can, except the disconcerting thing that soon emerges is that he also starts using her alcoholic blackouts as an excuse to weasel his way into his life (like showing up at her doorstep, again and again referencing things that supposedly happened while she was drunk). There is also a scene early on that hints at what is to come, when Oscar reacts aggressively to one of his mates flirting with Gloria. It's the small things that matter here - the way he becomes cynical and verbally abusive when he's drunk, the way he doesn't accept boundaries, the way he doesn't really take no for an answer, ever. The scary thing about this film is that it is so clearly conscious of the fact that all of these gestures, in a lesser film, would have been interpreted as romantic - that Oscar would be the romantic lead - thereby normalising his creepy behaviour. 

The twist here is that this isn't a drama film, that there is a whole other plot that starts to happen in the background - after one of her alcohol-induced blackouts, Gloria catches up with the news that she missed while she was sleeping, and realises that world history has changed while she was checked out. A giant monster appeared in Seoul, causing destruction and confusion. Gloria (and the rest of the world) becomes obsessed with that monster and follows it through youtube videos and newsfeeds. Except the twist is that she soon realises that the monster appears every time she steps on a particular playground in her neighbourhood, and that the monster mirrors her movements. Gloria - drawing a direct line from Seoul to her hometown - realises that she IS the monster, that there is a weird, spacial connection between the playground and Seoul. 

It reveals a lot about Gloria that her reaction to this realisation is to share it with her newly found, down-and-out friends, that she thinks it's particularly cool, that she doesn't even feel particularly guilty straight away when she drunkenly stumbles and the monster, across the world, wipes out hundreds of human lives, stumbling with her. It's a perfect metaphor of sorts, that a witless American on the other end of the world stumbles around a playground, causing human suffering in a place she's never been to, and it takes Gloria a while to realise the implications of it. She does, eventually, but this is also the point at which the film again turns into something else: when Oscar turns from the gentle man who protects Gloria, who helps her (who discovers his own powers, materialising as a giant robot aside her in Seoul when he is on the playground, at a particular time), into a raging monster, because Gloria sleeps with one of his friends. 

Oscar is nice and helpful for as long as he thinks that he is successfully working towards winning Gloria over - he isn't nice for the sake of being nice, but because he think she will eventually be rewarded with her love and affection. From his perspective, this is a classic manic pixie dream girl story, where he is the nice guy who, through continued acts of niceness, will eventually get the girl - except the story doesn't go this way, because Gloria isn't really romantically interested in him at all (or in anyone, really, including her actual boyfriend, who eventually pops up to try and save her from herself, which thankfully the story doesn't allow him to do). He reacts with a blind rage, the kind of terrifying, very very real violence that first turns against objects (because he is a good guy, he isn't going to hit a woman, until he does). He becomes manipulative, using Gloria's empathy against her, threatening to kill people across the world if she doesn't stay with him. Sudeikis performance is outstanding here, especially considering that he is mainly known as a comedy guy - he hits all the notes perfectly, the veiled threats, the scary body language of a man barely containing his rage, the anger of someone who feels wronged because he didn't get his prize, in spite of playing the game the way he was taught to. His friends do nothing, in spite of seeing every bit of his evilness, of the danger he poses not just to Gloria, but to the people far away on the television screen. They are hapless, ineffective, powerless. In the end it's Gloria who - with a black eye, because at some point, all of Oscar's pretence drops, and he reveals himself as the monster that he is - finds a way to beat this perfect example of toxic masculinity. She saves herself, and the world with her, except the world would have never needed saving if she had been responsible for her own actions in the first place. It is quite astonishing that Colossal manages both here: portraying Gloria as the heroine in the face of an abusive, manipulative villain who hates women, who has always hated women, but also as the emblem of American irresponsibility, which costs so many lives in this film. 

2016, directed by Nacho Vigalondo, starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Stevens.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

That Girl is Forever.

“That’s what parenthood was about, wasn’t it? Slowly understanding your child less and less until she wasn’t yours anymore but herself.”
In an interview with Megan Abbott in Entertainment Weekly, the writer explains that the driving force behind her novels, which centre on the experiences of teenage girls, was allowing them more complexity - aggression, desire, and ambition. She says "I think women are always trying to figure out their own adolescence. We never stop.", which I think is a perfect way to preface both Raw, directed by Julia Ducournau (her first full-length film) and Abbott's own You Will Know Me
Part of why we do constantly try to figure out our own adolescence is, I think because we are always working with limited information and skewed perspectives - the former maybe a deliberate exercise of power that tries to control what teenage girls can be and do in their lives, and the later wilful ignorance that finds comfort in cliches. The parents in both stories are guilty of both, even though the motives are different. 

In Raw, we meet Justine's parents as they stop on the way to dropping off their daughter at a prestigious veterinary University (where their other daughter is already studying), grabbing some food for the road. In a scene that gains a different meaning later, Justine's mother is horrified to find that her daughter has been served a piece of meat with her potatoes, even though the whole family is vegetarian. She goes and complains loudly to the staff, and the viewers assume that she is just a particularly outspoken vegetarian, making a scene - an overbearing parent, still controlling what her daughter can and can't eat now that she is old enough to go to University. Later, we find out that the control that she exercises in the family is overbearing, but for an entirely different reason. 

In You Will Know Me, the protagonists are the parents - it's the story of Devon, a gymnastics prodigy on a highly competitive track that is meant to eventually lead to the Olympic team, but we follow Devon's parents, Katie and Eric Knox, and the way that their lives are revolving around Devon's schedule of endless training sessions, booster meetings and injuries. As much as Raw is defined by something that happened before Justine's birth, the seed from which everyone grows in You Will Know me - a terrible accident in which a very young Devon lost two toes due to Eric's carelessness, is something that inevitably charts Devon's life now. The book circles back to the question of how Devon became the prodigy, which takes as much talent as it does focused, complete ambition, which the parents and her teachers feel comes from her (while the other kids around her, the mediocre ones, are constantly driven by their parents, require encouragement and discipline, Devon does all of this to herself, single-minded). Is it because or in spite of her deformed foot? Does the foot hold her back, a constant reminder of Eric's guilt and shortcomings as a parent, or is it somehow imbued with the ability to give her a certain edge, an opinion that Eric voices throughout the narrative? 

In both cases, the control at the beginning of the story - the mother taking care that Justine sticks to her vegetarian diet, Eric and Katie presiding over Devon's schedule (while often forgetting their other child, Drew, how starts to become a prescient, constant observer in part because their parents don't let him be anything else) - falls apart, which leads to a catastrophe. At veterinary school, Justine is immediately thrown into the chaos of a complex hazing ritual that new students have to survive to be accepted, during which she is forced, both by the older students and her own sister, to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Her first contact with meat first leads to a terrible rash all over her body but then seems to trigger something much worse, a craving for raw meat that, in the course of the film, turns into cannibalism. 

Raw is unflinching body horror, but the way that it uses the images to chart Justine's transformation from a shy student trying to disappear in the masses, to not stand out, to a predator who deliberately transforms herself so that she may attract prey (in a central scene, taking the lyrics of plus putes que toutes les putes literally, as an education), is magnificent. Like Ginger Snaps, the bloodlust is profoundly connected to Justine's sexuality, her awakening cannibalism tied to her sexual desire, with the threat of mauling hanging over every encounter she has. Eventually, her sister reveals the family secret: Alex has transformed as well (and found a brilliant way to capture prey - running into traffic to cause accidents, then devouring the victims), and we start to realise that the mother's attempts to keep her children away from meat was a very insufficient way to try and control a genetic predisposition to cannibalism. 

This twist: that the helicopter parent has a very good reason for what she is doing, but that the decision to keep vital information from her daughter backfires dramatically, leading to a lot of bloodshed and victims wheeled away on stretchers with pieces missing. The transformation of the meek girl that we meet in the beginning into the predator desperately attempting to keep her best friend safe from her own cravings seems inevitable, especially once Justine leaves her parents' control into the very different environment of the veterinary school, one that demands exactly the kind of transformation that Justine just takes to the next level. After the siren sounds three times to indicate the end of rush week, not everyone has survived. 

Justine's parents assuming she will still follow their guidance, that she can be kept from this simply through the rules that have been established in her childhood, speak to neither of them realising what it means when children become their own people. The same happens to Eric and Katie in You Will Know Me - they start out with seeing Devon as this single-minded, driven girl, who needs nobody else to feed her own ambition, even though she is the hope of the entire community. They see her as an extension of the community's ambitions, and while they focus entirely on that goal and lose themselves in the sheer finance- and time-consuming schedule of raising a star athlete, Devon becomes a person of her own. The book shows this perfectly in what Katie encounters when she secretly reads Devon's diary, at first only finding a detailed chart of her athletic progress, then later completely misinterpreting more personal entries because she cannot even think of her daughter as a person with desires beyond the Olympic team. The single-mindedness of that goal works like a parasite, constantly drawing resources out of the family, attention, care, time. Everybody is constantly too tired to pay attention to changes (while in the background, Drew develops Scarlet fever, and that fever becomes a weird sort of heat source for the entire novel, "we are a sick house" Katie says at one point, wondering about her own phrasing almost immediately after). Then, a boy is killed in a car accident and the entire community is shaken up, the routine is disturbed, a rock is thrown into the so tightly wound mechanism, and everything starts falling apart. As much as Devon is the focus point of the story, she suddenly turns into a stranger, someone who has developed into a complex person while everyone else was just focused on that one aspect of her. She is grappling with that as much as her parents are, but since the book focuses on Katie's experience over everyone else's, the main feeling that remains is one of an unsettling, disturbing strangeness, the unknowability of a teenage girl who has started to have secrets. 

Grave/Raw (directed by Julia Ducournau, starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss).

You Will Know Me, written by Megan Abbott.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Reading Notes: Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy

Spoiler warning for all of it, probably.




5/10/17

(at this point, about a fourth into Acceptance, the third part of the trilogy). 

I started reading this trilogy after seeing the trailer for Alex Garland's adaptation of Annihilation, which will presumably only cover the first book of the same title. Was immediately drawn in by the sparse prose in that first book, which follows a protagonist simply called the biologist into a mission to Area X, a mysterious zone that has appeared in the world at some point in the past and can only be reached through a gate in an otherwise impenetrable border. We learn over time that many such missions have existed (hers is numbered Twelfth, although it is later revealed that there were many more missions than the numbering would lead you to believe). Her companions also have been asked to give up their names for the mission, and go by designations like the psychologist, the anthropologist, and the surveyor. 

In addition to the sparse prose, the very concept of the book is immediately captivating. Area X isn't explained because the scientists investigating it cannot explain it (there are several theories about how it came into existence, including aliens, none of which have any substantial proof behind it). As the twelfth expedition starts making their way through the area (what is later conceptualised as a terroir - a term provided by one of the scientists working to uncover the secrets on the other side of the border -  loaned from winemaking, it describes the combination of environmental factors that go into the making of a particular wine), odd things start to creep into the narrative. I would probably describe the first book in particular as a environmental horror rather than science fiction, as the driving emotion and the most moving thing that drives the narrative forward is the transformation that takes place. The group encounters animals that have human facets (later, we are led to think about them as remnants of previous expeditions, turned into something else that is now haunting this place), and a "tunnel" (that, inexplicably, the biologist insists on calling a "tower", because it is like a buried tower, and language starts playing an essential role in all of it from the very beginning, even though the expedition left their linguist behind the border). The biologist finds writings on the wall of that tunnel that turn out to be a fungus in the shape of writing, the spores of which infect her because she doesn't take any precautions when she attempts to comprehend what she has found. She keeps the possible infection secret from the others and tries to monitor how it affects her, and very soon realises that the most obvious change in her is that she can now escape the psychologist's hypnotic commands, which keep the other team members under control. 

Annihilation is a short book, and it tracks the progression of the biologist, providing a bit of backstory (like how her husband was on the previous eleventh expedition, returned without most of his memories, and died soon after of cancer, like everyone else on that mission), managing to portray a woman who is so essentially solitary that it seems almost inevitable how much she is drawn to Area X. It's not really made clear if her fascination, and her eventual decision not to leave, is rooted in who she was as a person before she even entered Area X (someone who loved to be in the field but always clashed with any kind of authority, or human intervention, someone who feels at home in nature and at odds in any kind of city or social environment), or in the person that she becomes when she is there. Everything collides into a beautiful and horrible climax once she makes her way deeper into the "tower", down the steps of the rabbit hole, when she encounters the creature that is creating the writings on the wall. It touches her, and seems to absorb her, or change her fundamentally on a genetic level. She survives the pain, somehow (at that point already being the sole survivor, after the anthropologist is killed by that same creature early in the book, after the psychologist has leaped to her death out of an odd conviction that the biologist is intending to kill her, after the biologist herself kills the surveyor out of self-defence). Instead of trying to be retrieved, she chooses to go where she believes her husband to be - because earlier, making her way to the lighthouse (a literal and metaphorical lighthouse, the core thing in her mission, where she ends up finding so many journals and documents that point to the long history of earlier missions, and tries to collect as much data as possible to understand, which ends up leading her nowhere, really), she has found her husband's journal and started to believe that the person who returned from that mission was a copy, that he never really returned. 

I'd argue that Annihilation works as a completed novel in itself, that it doesn't even need the two books following it, if you escape the need for an explanation for Area X. I'm not yet at a point in the third book where an explanation exists (there is history, which I will get to later, but nothing like a coherent, logical, historical explanation yet), but her searching, her fascination with the biology, the way she is drawn into it, the way she starts to glow as she becomes more and more part of it, while still considering how her past influences her in all of this (memories seem to be really important here as well, how they shape identity and conceptions, how they root and unroot), make this into an incredibly captivating, self-contained story. I'm really curious to see this play out on the screen, where Alex Garland will rely on Natalie Portman communicating all of this (will there be narration? Will it all just be her ability to translate all of this into facial expressions?). Annihilation reminded me of so many other things, but the first one that came to mind, for the sheer solitary nature of the protagonist, was Die Wand / The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, which has also been turned into a marvellous film recently. The "border" in that book is as sudden an inexplicable as it is in this first book, and we are trapped within the limited world that the protagonist moves in, with no way of ever coming close to understanding why it is happening. She makes do, because she is resourceful and seems very capable of living in such an environment, and the biologist is similar in that regard. Existential danger comes in part from the environment itself, but for the most part, its other people and their intentions which threaten her the most. 

But it's a trilogy, regardless, and the second book, Authority, moves outside Area X, into the Southern Reach which borders it, where government scientists have been working for a very long time (I'm not sure if the book gives us a precise timeline here, but the assumption is that all of this has happened maybe 40 or 50 years ago, as people from when it happened first are still alive, but old). Our new protagonist is Control (we do learn his actual name, but it suits to stick to what the book does, using job designations primarily to describe people), an intelligence officer of sorts who has taken over the agency from a predecessor who turns out to have been the psychologist, in disguise. He uncovers the inner workings of the agency, of the scientists who have obsessively attempted to comprehend this incomprehensible mystery, and the way that this work has changed them utterly. He also starts to understand the draw of Area X, which doomed the psychologist / former director when she decided to first go on an unsanctioned clandestine mission into what she had researched, and then join the twelfth mission in an official capacity. Even though we know that both the anthropologist and the surveyor perished in the previous book, they make a return here, having reappeared across the border (they are discarded in the first few pages though, and never return). He begins an odd relationship with the biologist, who has also reappeared, and is being held for questioning. He tries to uncover what she has learned across the border, but only starts to realise that this woman isn't quite the biologist that went into the mission (and the biologist here herself starts to realise she is just a copy with implanted memories). The inevitable happens eventually and like hs predecessor, Control can't help but go into Area X, taking the copy!biologist ("I am not the biologist") with him. 

As much as Annihilation is biohorror, Authority starts out as a workplace thriller of sorts, the story of a man from outside an organisation coming in as an interloper and bumping against all the reservations of an established hierarchy, as well as the ambitions of the people he is now meant to lead, who seem unwilling to support him in breaking this whole mystery wide open. Like the first book, it's a balancing act between Control's backstory (informing who he is as a person: the son of a highly successful agent probably interfering with his work and an artist), until eventually the OTHER of Area X starts creeping into the story, transforming characters we've met into something else entirely. Plants that won't die, documents that reveal nothing but still carry the promise of mystery, and in the end, the inevitable draw of Area X, the way it pulls people in (early on he is warned not to stare at the gate too long, a warning he doesn't heed). It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy, an inevitable circle. Control is drawn to the biologist from the beginning, just from studying the way she chose to reveal nothing about herself in her pre-mission interviews, and even more so wants he meets her in person (or meets the copy of her, in person). Instead of interrogating her, they start playing a game of mutual interrogation, where each of them is eager to find answers to essential questions.

Which brings us to the third book: where Control and whatever this version of the biologist that isn't quite the biologist have returned to Area X, while we learn more about the past, how it all began.

This is the story of the lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper, the beacon that was the centrepiece of all these missions (and sometimes I wonder if the tunnel/tower isn't a distraction, deliberately left off the maps, a counterpiece to the lighthouse, a dark tower buried in the ground that might hold a secret portal at the bottom). The lighthouse keeper, who was then turned into the crawler, doomed to write his sermon on the walls, transforming all those people entering Area X into something else, sending back copies doomed without their memories. For now, where I'm at now, it's the story of an old man awaiting retirement while beating back the forces of natural decay, and a young girl (the psychologist, as a child), conversing about the terroir, maintaining it while mysterious science/seance people take their measurements. It is not yet revealed what created it, and if the science/seance people contributed to the creation or merely were sent to try and comprehend it, a predecessor of the doomed agency that Control tried to beat back into shape. Or if it doesn't really matter what caused all of this, if in the end we have to accept that there is an incomprehensive aspect here, a true horror, the idea of something inexplicable slowly advancing, writing its own rules, dooming humanity's effort to scientifically explain everything while equally taking no care of its environment (perhaps the most lasting image in al of this is the thousands of white bunnies, sent into the border, fighting with all they have not to cross). We'll see where all of this goes.

Random notes, at this point:

  • Many, many other things, maybe a trilogy that also thrives on all the other pieces of literature and film that have mapped similar territory. The inexplicable mysteries of Lost (never satisfyingly explained unless you're into religion as a deus ex machina), and even, somehow, because pop culture sometimes works that way, Star Trek Discovery, which introduces a space fungus with all the properties of a deus ex machina technology (a bioweapon but also, so much more) just as I was finishing Authority. The eloquent way in which Arrival conceptualises language as something that creates reality, which isn't that unlike how the Crawler's words inside the tower warp genetic reality like a self-replicating virus. Nature, and the way its beauty can sometimes become horrible in the blink of an eye, is so essential here, but at the same time, the self-contained (and very technological and decisively non-biological) horror of Cube and House of Stairs is very present, especially in Annihilation

6/10/17

Everthing until the end

"Never has a setting been so able to live without the souls traversing it"

This entire trilogy is about mirroring and doubling, its a motive that returns throughout, obviously with the copies of the expedition members, ironically, with Lowry (the sole survivor of the first expedition) recreating the entirety of Area X as a training ground, creating a copy of it in the Southern Reach. Now that we are reaching the end of the story, two threads are working towards each other: After Ghost Bird (the copy of the biologist who knows she is not truly the biologist herself and yet cherishes her own life, her own identity, being a "viable mistake") and Control make their way into Area X through a porthole that Ghost Bird herself has created, to find out the truth or simply to follow their instinct to go there, while the Southern Reach is crumbling, they find Grace, the former Director's Assistant Director. She hints at the catastrophe that has befallen the Southern Reach (the advancing border that everyone was so afraid of), and then eventually they come to realise that time passes differently, that Grace has spent three lonely years here while they have only travelled for a few days. The three of them are now on their own to find answers, not even knowing if there is anything to return back to or if they even want to return (Ghost Bird mostly wants to find a peaceful place of her own that resembles the memories she has of the biologist's obsession with finding human-less biotopes, Control wants to go all the way down the tunnel/tower, through the bright door, Grace remains a mystery for the most part still seemingly bound to her loyalty to the Director/psychologist). 

"Because I'm alive," she'd replied. "Because I'm wakling through the wilderness on a beautiful day."

The other way the story travels is from the past towards the event that created Area X, which has alread begun with the mysterious infection the lighthousekeeper suffers after touching something - that was likely a shard of glass from the beacon lens on the ground. He starts to change, similar to how the biologist started to change after the Crawler (who is the Lighthousekeeper, in the current time) touched her. The narrative itself becomes dominated by the sensations, the way that the transformation makes Saul into something other: heightened senses, dreams or memories from places he has never been to. A possible answer slowly emerges, that of a catastrophe far, far away on a distant planet, destroyed by a falling comet, with some remainder, some seed, travelling across, implanting itself in the lens, only to be activated by the activities of the Science and Seance Brigade, and trying to translate itself into the organisms it encounters, first of all Saul. It's a transcription that is bound to fail and carry errors within it, hence the horror that is the Crawler, although the novel also hints at the beauty of it (like the biologist, whose notes Grace has found, retelling how she made her way to the island while being cared for by an owl that reminded her severely of her husband). The implication being that every single expedition member was transformed into the animals living in Area X, while their mostly non-viable copies (I am not sure if we ever get a definite answer to what happened to Lowry, the first survivor) returned mysteriously across the border. This reminded me of... maybe The Expanse's protomolecule, with its prime directive and the destruction that wreaked on everyone it came into contact with. 

The point being, maybe, that something about the complexity of what happened is incomprehensible to human science at this stage, a realisation that a few characters in the novel come to, while it drives the others who do not insane (like Whitby, who returns with the seed of insanity, until he becomes the wreck of a man that the Director leaves behind when he leaves - the guilt of having left Whitby in that way palpable in the story of the Director, who is our third thread her, the girl Gloria grown into Cynthia, the woman with the secret past and identity, who promised that she would never forget Saul).

I think that's maybe the eloquent beauty in Jeff VanderMeer's trilogy, one that expressed to perfectly through the violent images running through Saul's head during his transformation. It isn't truly an interpretation, only the approximation of it, one that cannot be put into words. He finds the perfect language for the unsayable, the perfect form for his story. The other mesmerising thing is how the characters are so fully shaped, and the person that will stay with me the longest is both the biologist herself, so self-contained and self-sufficient (what is she, after her complete transformation? The leviathan?), and Ghost Bird. 

Like, maybe at its core this is a story about aliens in the sense of alienation, as characters goes insane once their comprehension of the world and each other stops - communication breaks down, their inner voice maybe breaks down as well - and the reason why the biologist does so well through the first book is because her connection to the human outer world is so thin to start out with, which is also the reason why the Director thinks she is so perfect for the mission (and again, I'm very excited to find out how Natalie Portman will play this). It fits perfectly that she insists in her primary interviews that humans ARE animals, that there is no border between the two that would neccessitate a linguistic or moral difference in considering them. In a way, this is what Area X does: turning humans, which have created the environmental destruction across the border, into animals which fit into the "pristine nature" of Area X. This seems to be the most violent immediate effect that Area X has, both when it first appears around Saul in his little happy community and when it spreads to the Research Centre in the Southern Reach later in the book (we get hints of that through Grace and what she and Ghost Bird encounter once they go back there, seeking the new border). 

There are still a lot of unanswered questions here: Grace and the Director get very bogged down in uncovering the conspiracy but focus a lot on Control's grandfather and mother, and never really find an answer to how the Science and Seance brigade started, and therefore, how exactly they ended up putting everything into motion once they poked around in the Lighthouse and the island. Who are Henry and Suzanne? How much of the temporal differences and the sometimes alien skies are actual time & space travel or only fragments of foreign memories that make themselves felt (I guess the point here is it doesn't make much of a difference either way). If this is all about memories and how they shape identities, with so many characters looking back at events in the past, the lives of their parents even, then it is hard to disregard the fact that the alien organism, if that what it is, attempts to find meaning in those traces it finds. It takes Saul's past - as a Catholic pastor - and transcribes it into the writings inside the tower/tunnel. But then there is the fact that almost every character in the books has more than one identity, more than one name (the biologist is also characterised as the member of the expedition most eager to let go of her true name...) - and in many cases, the two identities come with conflict. The Director is both Gloria from Saul's memories and Cynthia. She is the psychologist, leading the expedition. The biologist is the woman who was married to the medic from the eleventh expedition, but also the same woman who has a long past of conflict with other humans. Saul is the Lighthousekeeper and the Crawler, and the Pastor who came into this town to begin a new life (how he made that choice - through a conflict, a question - is not very explicitly discussed, but we can assume things from the fact that he loves Charlie in the book, which would have been a transgression as a priest). Control is John, a child shaped by his very different parents.

It's hard to put into words, but this duality, conflict and sometimes harmony, is beautifully expressed in the tunnel/tower itself. When Saul transforms, he decides that he does not want to become whatever he is about to become in his beloved lighthouse, so he leaves. From the fact that the tower/tunnel is later referred to as the abnomaly, it can be assumed that he CREATED it - over the many, many years that he spent as the Crawler. He might have found it, but it is just as likely that the tunnel-tower is like a reverse lighthouse, something that still resembles his beloved former home, but is also a falsely transcribed version, a literal upside-down version of it. It's a lighthouse dug into the ground, and the beacon on top is now a bright light at the bottom, that might or might not be the portal that led all those previous copies mysteriously back across the border. It would explain why the biologist feels so certain that the correct term to apply here is tower, as much as everyone else keeps calling it a tunnel. Traces of the past remain.

More notes:

  • Something in the back of my mind, with the subtext of an alien organism that takes care of intruding, violent humans by transforming them into the landscape of Area X: the people who seem to deal best with whatever is happening here, that make it the furthest, are the ones that the story mentions have an affinity for animals. The biologist obviously, with her story of the glorious starfish, the hint from a past where she once became violent on a mission because a group of people were torturing an owl (and how beautiful that this is how she re-finds her husband). Control has his cat. I'm torn what tragic Whitby's mouse means - if he has somehow managed to transport it across the border, if he saw something human in that mouse - but it's made clear that after coming back from Area X, becoming more and more disturbed, the creature he makes contact with, the creature he is gentle with, is that mouse, that he cares for. The Lighthousekeeper keeps a detailled journal of all the animals he encounters throughout the day (the same journal that the verses start creeping into, slowly), and he decides not to get of the armadillos, even though girl Gloria points out that he should. 
  • Something else, about how this alien organism seems to seek for authenticity or a core in the people it encounters, and how this is maybe connected to the biologist overcoming the hypnotic programming that gave the psychologist power over the exhibition. Like it removes something artificial, in the process of creating something new? I don't think that it makes much sense to read the Brightness or whatever you'd like to call it as invasive or ill-intented, something invasive. If anything, it's intention is restoration, which fails because the translation isn't perfect, because communication (a biological, genetical communication) fails - but maybe it's getting better at it, since Ghost Bird seems to be doing fairly well. And its attempts to communicate with Lowry (even though that in itself is an interpretation by the Director, one that profoundly scares Lowry), who is clearly doing the most damage in the books, might be a hint that IT, if it has intentions, has good ones. 

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Star Trek: Discovery

Spoilers up to Episode 3: Context is for Kings.



One of the main complaints or commentaries on this new Star Trek show, the first since Enterprise which ended in 2005, is that it feels cynical. Cynical, in that case, is used to describe the attitude that the show takes towards the Federation and its military arm, Starfleet - one that is far removed from the very optimistic outlook that Gene Roddenberry had in his initial conception of the universe. I would argue that conceiving of the Federation, a multi-cultural (or multi-species) organisation that travels the universe with a prime directive of discovery rather than one of expansion, as something a bit more complex than a benigm do-gooder only benefits Star Trek. 

The thing that truly sets Discovery apart from any of its predeccessors is the perspective. It is hard to think of any of the previous iterations, including the occassionally very dark Deep Space Nine (which probably had the most sprawling cast of prot- and antagonists), as divorced from its intense focus on a crew of diverse people working together, occasionally working against each other, but always circling around the idea of differences contributing to a greater good. Discovery is absolutely nothing like that, at least not so far (the third episode, Context is for Kings). As much as the show is titled after the ship that picks up Michael Burnham en train to being transferred from one military prison to another after she commits mutiny, "Discovery" might as well refer to the act of discovering itself rather than that ship. We meet the crew of the ship in passing, and they may prove important in the future, particularly the very peculiar Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs, with an American accent), but they are not at the centre of the story. The sole focus point of Discovery is Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), orphaned by a Klingon attack, raised on Vulcan with all the struggles a human can face in the logic-only ideology of Vulcans. Burnham made her way through the ranks of Starfleet, eventually becoming First Officer under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), managing a constant balancing act between logic and emotion (arguing, at a vital point in the pilot two-parter, that her feelings inform her logic). She is destined for great things, until the Shenzhou discovers an odd artefact near the Federation border and finds out in an unpleasant way that it is part of a complex plain by T'Kuvma, a Klingon cult leader, to change the fate of the Klingon empire. 

If this were the story of a crew rather than one crew member and her peculiar upbringing, the many steps that have contributed to the person that she is now, we would have seen the story of a ship, becoming part of history through a series of unfortunate events, and how that series affected each crew member. Instead, this is the story of how Michael comes to ultimately mutineer against her friend and mentor Georgiou, starting a new war with the Klingon Empire on the way. Instead of trusting her Starfleet training and the prime directive, she turns to the man who raised her for help once she realises that the Shonzhou has encountered Klingons. Sarek (father of Spock) provides councel, but it leads her to believe that the only way to start a diplomatic dialogue is by firing first, and establishing that the Federation can do more than its all-present greeting of "we come in peace", which is ineffectual against the Klingons, who so essentially believe that warfare shapes the fate of its empire and the warriors defending it. In short, Burnham is torn between her upbringing as a Vulcan, which guides her to trust that what worked before - firing first - is the way to go, and the Directive of her position as a Starfleet officer, which is to seek dialogue before engaging a potential enemy in warfare. She chooses the former, because - and this is the true difference between Discovery and anything that came before it - individual values and decisions guide this series, rather than the overbearing behemoth of the Federation, or the unity of a Starfleet crew. She chooses to act against her Captain, to commit mutiny, to disregard orders, because she genuinely believes that her way is the right way, in spite of the fact that it goes against her training as an officer. 

If this were any other Star Trek show, this would be about how Burnham's decision affects the fate of all the other officers in her crew - and we see what happens, after her decision, the war beginning, thousands of lives lost in the battle that ensues between a war-hungry Klingon fleet and an unprepared Starfleet one, a Captain dying in an attempt to capture the Klingon leader without turning him into a martyr - but this isn't really about that, it's about how it will turn Burnham's trajectory towards being a captain into one towards being a mutineer. We see the ships exploding, the lives lost, but in the end, it comes down to Burnham being sentenced to lose her rank and to serve life in prison. Instead of seeing the fallout of what she started - a new Klingon war, six months of attempting to find a way to win this against an Empire of blood - we follow Burnham to a prison transport, to a new ship. Discovery is not about crews, about the ways that the Federation brings together a diverse range of people (sometimes as diverse as Bajoran Freedom fighters and Starfleet officers, or Maquis militants and the Voyager crew). It's about Michael Burnham. 

And I am not sure if this is a deliberate decision, that the nationalistic, racist vigour of T'Kuvma meets the individualist decisions that Michael Burnham makes. It's a decision of its own, how this version of the Klingons is so decisively more Other than any previous one - to the point where this is the first time that we encounter the Klingons mostly in subtitles, and with a very concrete ideology of "Remain Klingon", which beyond racial purity (as T'Kuvma includes the oddballs, the outcasts, those with a lesser heritage than the leading houses) speaks to a purity in ideology, in which Klingons do not entertain the Federation's notion of "coming in peace" which is so detrement to the warrior ideology of Klingon. T'Kuvma is a populist, and we can very easily speculate on what movements this 2017 version of Star Trek is referencing here, but maybe there is a deeper reading here where the seemingly peaceful approach of the Federation and its far reach, its seemingly limitless resources, are already in inherent conflict with the idea of the prime directive, of non-interference. 

Which brings us back to the Discovery - the ship that picks up Burnham's prisoner transport after it is attacked by an organism that feeds on electricity. At this point, this is merely a (but well-informed) fan theory, but many of the things that she encounters onboard the ship, including black badges and the existence of a bio-weapon programme that might change the entire course of history (to the extent that the deus ex machina power of being able to transport anywhere almost requires an intervention not to become reality - because it isn't reality in any later iterations of Star Trek, and would have dire consequences), hints that Discovery isn't a regular Starfleet ship. In fact, the way that Captain Lorca conducts business and argues that Federation idealism has no place in warfare, the way that he is heading a bioweapons programme with relucant scientists who would rather not see their technology used this way, but have no other choice - hint that this is an early version of Section 31, the clandestine secret organisation that we first (in actual temporal terms, not in Star Trek timelines) encountered in DS9. It's the same organisation that created the virus which infected the Changelings, ultimately ending the war against the Dominion through bio warfare. It's the same organisation that seeks to recruit special individuals - and what is Burnham, if not special in every way - to conduct its secret missions. What better time than times of war to entrench powers - and the sheer biological horror of what Captain Lorca demonstrates to Burnham, attempting to fully recruit her into his ship, only feeds into the idea that we have gone far, far from normal Federation territory, and Star Trek idealism. As much as Deep Space Nine was complex in its portrayal of a space station built by slave labour, the fall-out of a Bajoran genocide committed by the fanatical Cardassians, and the way that Bashir and Sisko struggled to find a balance between the loss of life in the war and the kind of immoral decisions that Section 31 (and sections of Starfleet) proposed, this is on a whole different level, mainly because any kind of opposing voices are so far away. 

I wouldn't call it cynical, I think this is maybe the most eloquent way of dealing with the inherent conflict of conceiving of an idealised multi-cultural empire. Especially in war, nobody's hands are clean, but Discovery is taking that idea to a whole new climax. Lorca and his reluctant scientists are doing the dirty work while the Federation can still wave its prime directive (and the Geneva convention, from all the way back  in 1949 (although I am fairly sure that this date is misquoted in the episode, which could trail off into a whole different theory on temporal anomalies in  Discovery). It consciously poses a woman raised between the Vulcan idea of logic trumping everything else, who still believes fundamentally in the values of the Federation, against the pragmatic decisions made by a Captain who sees a future radically different from the present. I think it's valid to speculate that this show will spin its thread in many unexpected ways - temporally, historically, and in terms of how the Star Trek legacy is treated - but for now, I'm content to watch Sonequa Martin-Green shine brightly in this completely new Star Trek

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Reading List: September

Fiction:

Mohsin Hamid: Exit West. 
N.K. Jemisin: The Inheritance Trilogy.
C.B. Lee: Not Your Sidekick.

Films: 

Okja (2017, Joon-ho Bong).
Christine (2016, Antonio Campos).
Kingsman. The Secret Service (2014, Matthew Vaughn).

Shows: 

The Defenders, Season One.
The Good Fight, Season One.
One Mississippi, Season One and Two.


Thursday, 28 September 2017

The point of white supremacy

To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible. 
The Atlantic: The First White President, October 2017 Issue

Links 28/09/17

Politics:

An often overlooked aspect in midst of stories about refugees coming to Europe is the fact that LGBTQI* refugees sometimes require protection from other refugees and staff at reception centres: "But in reality asylum authorities are often unable to effectively protect those fleeing such persecution from further harm."

The Cincinatti Enquirer traces the horrifying effects of the opiate crisis in the community through one week. 

In light of a US President lashing out at the national sport and athletes speaking up against institutional racism, here's a historic summary of how dissent became treason during WW1 (or, as S-K put it on Combat Rock, "Dissent’s not treason, but they talk like it’s the same"). 


An investigation into how obesity has replaced hunger in Brazil, and the massive stake that multi-national junk-food companies have in people having no alternative to eating poorly. 

I'm very fascinated by the idea of working out the trolley problem when it comes to self-driving cars (like, would you purchase a car that was programmed to kill you in case it caused the least harm?) - how do you program ethics, and do you trust a machine to make the choice of who to kill? How do you assign specific value to people's lives and teach that to a machine? Endlessly fascinating.

This is a by-the-way thought, but the fact that Sean Spicer was "ironically" invited to the Emmys is such a good demonstration of the evil that pop culture can do - reclaiming people who were instrumental in spreading toxic ideologies after they were fired because in someone's head it looks like an act of rebellion to pose them that way after. There really is a very dangerous way in which irony always just plays into the hands of the powerful and how repressive tolerance just helps to entrench power even more. 

Pop Culture: 

So many things have happened: Halt and Catch Fire is ending it glorious run with a beautiful season that circles around the broken friendship between Donna and Cameron (and somewhere in there is the conclusion that innovation only happens when these two work together, because their individual projects remain stunted without each other's input). Also, it's set in the 90s, and so far has played early PJ Harvey and name-dropped both Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile. 

Star Trek Discovery (recapped by Mallory Ortberg at Vulture) has begun, and I have many feelings about it - it's a complete switch to previous series, which were centered around a crew, as it looks like this season will focus on the individual experiences of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a human who was raised by Vulcans (arguing beautifully that her emotions inform her logic), navigating the politics of the Federation and Starfleet. There are many reasons (among them, so many good faces) why I am excited about Star Trek for the first time since DS9 ended. 

While Transparent has a new season out, I want to highly, highly recommend Tig Notaro's One Mississippi

Also, a new season of Broad City (with a stellar first episode that pays hommage to Sliding Doors), and both Swerve and Twenty are two excellent webseries to follow. 

(and more, because I haven't been around much: Wynonna Earp had an outstanding second season that was perhaps the greatest antithesis to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all the shit that went down with Joss Whedon being revealed as a misogynist hiding behind a feminist facade, The Bold Type took every single cliche you could think of when it comes to three women working for a driven, ambituous boss running a fashion magazine and completely turned them upside-down, becoming a show about mutual support and unrelenting, unconditional friendship

Two great essays on David Lynch in the wake of the third season of Twin Peaks being different from what everyone wanted and therefore peak Lynch: on his humanity and worldview based on empathy, which is often overlooked, and avoiding falling into following a simple interpretation of his masterpiece Mulholland Drive. 

Books: Mallory Ortberg has published a collection of short stories titled The Merry Spinster, Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death will be turned into a television series by HBO, N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, the first part of the now-finished multiple Hugo-award winning Broken Earth series, will be adapted for television as well (and I'm excited to find out who will be cast as Damaya/Syenite/Essun). Runaways is finally back and written by Rainbow Rowell. Excited about Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, and this interview by Annabelle Sicari with Jenny Zheng (Sour Hearts)
It’s not what people want out of immigrant stories, because they’re not really about a repressed woman, the woman who can’t emote or be angry. I wasn’t fitting in. So I doubled down. “I’ll be more disgusting, more gross, never write a novel, I’m going to make all my protagonists Chinese American girls because you said they limited me, so I will write every single kind of story and always use the exact same protagonist.” 
A list of various films that I am looking forward to: 

With some casting reservations (slightly buffered by the fact that Mackenzie Davis was obviously always meant to be in Blade Runner), Blade Runner 2049, Annihilation by Alex Garland, based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer (Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez co-star with Oscar Isaac and Natalie Portman), Thelma by Joachim Trier (Oslo, 31 August).

And music: new The National, War on Drugs and Gang of Youths in same few weeks, and a new track by Burial.

In Australia (or at least in Adelaide), I've gotten by very well by just saying No Worries all the time, to everyone, in any situation, but I feel very sorry for anyone who has to explain to Boomers what No Problem means.