Blade Runner 2049

Massive Spoiler Alert!

I really did not enjoy Blade Runner 2049. Yes, it is visually stunning, but it’s all style and no substance, it felt like a series of set-pieces, just showing off the special effects rather than telling a meaningful story.

In spite of the stunning visuals, it’s very dull; I saw it last Saturday and wrote a first draft of this post the next day, and I can honestly say that in the intervening week, none of the imagery has ‘haunted’ me in anyway. At three hours including all the trailers, it is physically arduous to sit through.

It is sleazy and gratuitously violent. Yes, the original Blade Runner is also sleazy and violent, and it is set in a dystopian world, but there is a difference between creating a film about a violent and misogynist future and using images of violence and misogyny to titillate the audience; why did I have to watch a scene of a naked women being stabbed in the abdomen by Jared Leto’s character, just to prove how crazy and evil he was?

There is another scene where an AI’s female avatar syncs with a replicant ‘pleasure model’ (a euphemism for a sex slave) to sexually service K, 2049’s blade runner (his identity as a replicant is made clear from the start of the film). If this is moving at all it is only because it is pathetic, the AI is programmed to please its owner, and both replicants are conditioned to not feel emotions; if it is not pathetic it is just more titillation.

The story itself is also disappointing; while the original Blade Runner asks interesting questions about memory and identity and self, Blade Runner 2049 instead goes with cod mysticism, and the questions it raises about the nature of the replicants just show how nonsensical it all is to begin with, enough to spoil the original film as well.

At this point I am going to put this rest of the review under the fold, because I am going to be spoiling a lot of the plot.

Continue reading “Blade Runner 2049”

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San Junipero’s Emmy wins

Spoiler Alert!

Really pleased to see Black Mirror: San Junipero win the ‘Best TV Movie’ Emmy, and Charlie Brooker win the ‘Writing for a limited series or film or drama’ Emmy for writing it.

I subscribed to Netflix specifically because of the third series of Black Mirror, and watched all the episodes sometime before Christmas last year. I was particularly impressed by San Junipero at the time, but never got around to writing about it (I’ve let my subscription lapse, so can’t re-watch right now).

San Junipero contains a genuine humanism and compassion (not two words one would often associate with either Charlie Brooker or Black Mirror!). What I particularly liked about it was that is uses virtual reality, not as a way to escape real life, but as a way to get a second chance at it; the VR world is a medium for a real intersubjective relationship between two people, not a person and a set of algorithms pre-programmed to do whatever the consumer wants. I also liked the way it treats seriously religious/spiritual questions around uploaded personalities and souls, which is not something I think science fictions deals with often. It’s also very cleverly written, there are lots of incidental details that make sense once you realise what’s actually going on.

(Image from here)

Research Matters!

Front Row this evening on BBC Radio 4, interviewed Peter Kosminsky about his new TV drama The State, a TV drama about the very serious and controversial subject of IS. Kosminsky said that he spent 18 months researching before he started writing, and that he had an “experienced research team” – amazing isn’t it, research matters!

(That’s it, I have nothing more to add, I just want this noted down where I can find it again easily.)

The Handmaid’s Tale

Spoiler alert!

I watched The Handmaid’s Tale on Channel 4, and saw the final episode last weekend.

While it is good TV, I find it interesting that The Handmaid’s Tale, a drama about an invented dystopia full of sexual violence, is seen as ‘important’ TV, while something like Three Girls, a dramatisation of real-world sexual violence that tells us how and why the sexual violence was able to happen and was allowed to happen, while critically acclaimed, has not received the ‘important’ label?

You can write about, or make a TV show about, any subject you like, as long as you do it well and treat it with respect. The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly well made in terms of production values, acting etc., and it does not treat it’s subject as trivial. But I cannot convince myself that it is ‘important’.

Watching TV is not, and never will be, ‘activism’, and when what you are watching is fiction, you are not ‘waking yourself up’ to anything.

Is The Handmaid’s Tale’s popularity due to the fact that we, the audience, can get a vicarious thrill when we know that it isn’t real? But that explanation suggests that it is only entertainment after all.

Or, to be cynical, The Handmaid’s Tale is a little too slick and glossy, the locations, the interiors, the colour palates, the aging down of the Commander and Serena Joy – real life Rochdale will never be as glamourous as this particular rendering of Gilead. Also, the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale, a middle-class professional woman ‘just like us’ is easier to empathise with than troubled working-class girls whose lives are so removed from our own.

So what did I think of it as an adaptation? I wrote my GCSE English Literature project on The Handmaid’s Tale, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and John Wyndham’s short story ‘Consider Her Ways’, but that was over 20 years ago, and I’m not sure I have read it since then; at one point I knew the book inside out, but I can’t claim that now.

The show became more interesting from episode 6 onwards, with the arrival of the (female) Mexican Ambassador, when the story deviates from the original, and the world-building is expanded.

There are lots of good small details, like the second Ofglen saying how she is better off now than before the coup, when she was a homeless drug-addicted prostitute, and wasn’t going to mess it up.

We are also told about an Aunt defecting to Canada, and Martha’s plotting sabotage. In the book Offred is completely passive, and we only see the world from her point of view, so these changes are welcome. We see the human toll, not just on the Handmaids, but on the Wives forced into this situation as well. There are lots of these humanising moments, like Serena Joy saying “what did you think would happen” after the previous Offred hanged herself.

The environmental details are an interesting addition; the Gilead officials boast of their carbon-reduction and solar power. Do Gilead’s ‘green credentials’ make it a more ambiguous dystopia, or is this a commentary on ‘green washing’? There are, and have been, many conflicts between human rights and environmental justice in the real word, but there is no direct causal link between the human right’s abuses in Gilead and its environmental improvements – this isn’t the same as the toxic clean-up in the colonies (mentioned once or twice in the show but not shown).

I like that they showed some of the background of the coup, how vulnerable, purposeless young men could be drawn in, and also the self-serving hypocrisy of the Commanders, horse-trading over the status of the Handmaids in order to get their wives on board.

One of the most interesting details is, in my opinion, the characterisation of Aunt Lydia; she is shown genuinely caring about her ‘girls’, even when, on other occasions, she is cutting their eyes out. A ‘bad guy’ who genuinely believes in the righteousness of what they are doing is far more interesting (and informative) than one who is acting out of sadism or cynical self-interest.

Making Gilead multiracial is odd, as if there is no link between religious fundamentalism and white supremacism (which was there in the book) in the US in real life – is an ‘inclusive dystopia’ really something we need as viewers? As this article points out, making it multiracial is a way of bypassing racism without tackling it head-on.

There are changes that don’t really work; using industrial farm equipment to ‘tag’ the Handmaid’s ears is over the top; we microchip pets these days, it feels inserted for shock value only, as if the cattle-prods, amputations, and savage beatings aren’t socking enough.

There are small things like June saying she is allowed to shave her legs once a month. Why, except to give an explanation for the actress’ hairless less? Hairy legs would not fit in with the show’s aesthetics; neither would a scene of her moisturising herself with butter, so those were taken out, as were the ‘Econowives’ in their cheap stripy dresses, that wouldn’t have looked good either.

I found some of the soundtrack choices jarring and inappropriate; it’s a lazy short-cut, to get the soundtrack to do the work of the narrative, to force an emotional reaction, or an association with another work of fiction.

It makes no sense to have fertile women in Jezebel’s, when they are a rare enough commodity to be tradeable on the world market – they could cut off both hands and feet to make them biddable first (I think this threat is in the book), and there would be plenty of young, infertile women to fill the ranks at Jezebel’s – which brings us to another problem (with the book as well) why not just lobotomise them all to begin with? It has historical precedence, but then there would be no story in the first place (there is no story without some contrivance)!

It’s good that they didn’t sanitise Jezebel’s (I was going to write ‘didn’t glamourize’ but I think it was as ‘aestheticised’ as the rest of the series), didn’t play into a ‘happy hooker’ narrative (which would have been easy to do – the Commander says the women prefer it there, but the women don’t actually look happy). The fetishisation of the stump of a woman’s severed hand, and June catching a glimpse of two women dressed up as a Handmaid and a Wife, showed the contempt the men really felt for all women, even the ‘good’ ones. Jezebel’s also has the one and only appearance of an obese character, a woman doubly objectified, first by being dressed in fetish gear, second by only being shown from behind.

Some things have been updated since the 1985 publication of the book. Luke is picked up by ex-army women on the run to Canada; this is another good addition, and another example of showing women not being passive victims. (But I found Luke’s ability to hike through winter forests after being shot in the stomach and surviving his ambulance plunging off a bridge to be ridiculously macho.)

Shutting down all the women’s bank accounts, in our globalised age, would, I imagine, be very difficult, but it is a vital plot component.

While it’s good that the TV show includes more acts of women’s rebellion, I think they overdo it with the Handmaids, with the ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ voice-over, and calling them an army in uniform, and showing them marching in formation. It doesn’t fit with the totalitarianism shown elsewhere.

The big act of rebellion in the final episode is moving; in the book, June is completely passive, and at the end of the series, she is still rescued by men, the same as in the book.

The Red Turtle

Spoiler alert!

This film was such a disappointment! I had high hopes for it, the trailer was gorgeous, and it had Studio Ghibli attached – so what could go wrong?

I should say, first, that the art work is lovely throughout; the detail and realism of the island backgrounds and wildlife are worthy of Studio Ghibli, or other Japanese animation like the films of Mamoru Hosoda. The human characters bear no resemblance to saucer-eyed anime characters, and did seem more ‘French’ to me, reminding me of artists like Moebius (I may simply have been pre-biased by knowing it was a French co-production, or this may just be due to the fact that it does not look like anime or Disney). The sound effects of the natural world, as well as the soundtrack, are also superb.

The story is of a shipwrecked man stranded on a deserted island. After exploring the island, he builds a raft from bamboo and attempts an escape. Some invisible force destroys the raft a short distance from the island, and the same thing happens when he builds a second, bigger raft. A third, still bigger raft is also destroyed, but this time the giant red turtle of the title is there, and the man assumes it is her attacking him and his raft, although she leaves him alone when he is in the water.

After the third attempt, the man sees the red turtle coming up onto the beach. In a fit of rage, he smashes her over the head with a bamboo pole, turns her onto her back, jumps on her, then leaves her to die in the sun.

Later, feeling guilty, he tries to revive her by pouring seawater over her head, and also tries and fails to right her. It doesn’t work and she appears to die, her shell splitting open.

Then, she turns into a woman, unconscious, and still lying inside the split shell. The man feeds her fresh water, and builds a shelter over her. After a brief rain storm she becomes conscious, and runs into the shallow water near the beach.

The man leaves her his shirt and walks away into the bamboo forest, when he returns to the beach, he sees the woman in the water, walking away from the beach, pushing the floating turtle shell in front of her. When she reaches deeper water, she pushes the shell off out to sea and returns to the beach.

The man responds by doing the same with the forth raft he had started to build. Then they sit on a sand bank, and the woman starts breaking open mussel shells, feeding them both. The man has a flashback to smashing her over the head and shudders, the women now appears unafraid of the man.

Then they walk from the beach into a meadow on the island, and both float up into the air together – a PG metaphor for sex, as we then skip to years later, when they have a toddler son.

The rest of the story covers the boy’s growth into manhood; he swims out to sea with other giant turtles (they are all green, but he has red hair like his mother), and eventually swims off with them for good. There is also a tsunami that devastates the island before he leaves.

After the son leaves, the man and women stay on the island together until they are old and grey, then the man dies in his sleep, and the woman turns back into a turtle and heads back out to sea.

The problem I had with the film while watching it, is that it looks like the man is rewarded for his act of cruel violence by being given a compliant, silent, wife. I kept giving it the benefit of the doubt while watching, hoping there would be something later in the story to mitigate it, but I don’t think there was.

There is no talking in the film, and we never see the story from the woman’s perspective (we see the man’s dreams and hallucinations while he is alone on the island, as well as his flashback). There are lots of fairy tales where people are released from an enchantment trapping them in animal form, or stories like The Little Mermaid, where a magical/mythical creature chooses to be transformed into human form (and these transformations are often violent, or come at a cost), but it is never clear which is the case for The Red Turtle, and there is no way the man knew in advance that this is what would happen, it is obviously a complete surprise to him.

It is not clear what force is keeping the man on the island – is the red turtle supposed to represent the spirit of the island itself? But the island, when it is devastated by the tsunami, is shown to be a normal island, at the mercy of the elements. Was she in love with him from the start? But we only see them ‘meet’ right before he attacks her, they build no relationship with her as the turtle – the brief moment when they first see each other is actually quite moving, it feels like two sentient creatures making first contact, but that is then spoilt by the later violence.

I can see what the story is trying to do, it is aiming for mythic resonance, but I don’t think it achieves it. As a whole, the story itself is best at the beginning, when the man is first washed up on the island, as he explores his new environment (and as an aside, ‘mild peril’ my arse! The moment when he is trapped in a deep-sided pool and forced to swim underwater through a very narrow tunnel to escape terrified me!). The details of this first half build the character of the man, he dreams of a bamboo bridge out to sea that he flies along, and hallucinates a chamber orchestra. There is humour to his Sisyphean raft building, and there are cute crabs for comic relief.

The rest of the story, covering decades, feels sparse by comparison, and the woman never really has a character at all. We only see her swimming once as a human, she doesn’t even go into the sea when her toddler son falls into the same pool that his father fell into before. There is one moment, when the man draws pictures in the sand to show the son that there is a whole world beyond the island, and she adds a drawing of a turtle, but it is not clear if this means she misses her people, or if she is just telling her son that there is that option for him as well.

So, I was disappointed, because the need for the violence of the transformation is never explained, and there is not enough character development to see why the woman wants to stay with him anyway. I worry about the message it portrays, that (male) violence (against a woman) is an acceptable prelude to romantic love and devotion.

Steve Rasnic Tem Interview in Interzone 269

Writer Steve Rasnic Tem is interviewed in issue 269 of the SF magazine Interzone, the below is an extract:

UBO is an exploration of the roots of violence. Why does this theme intrigue you? What are the benefits, to both you as a writer and to your readers, of exploring violence?

I hate violence, the way it warps and diminishes us. Violence against ourselves, against each other, and against the environment. It’s what disturbs me most about humanity. And we are all affected by it in one way or another. And yet it’s not something I’ve written that much about. In my short story work I generally focus on subtle, more ghostly effects (the major exception being my collection Ugly Behavior), and my novel Deadfall Hotel certainly reflects that. Violence occurs in my southern gothic/horror novel Blood Kin, as you might expect, but except for a rather horrible scene witnessed through a crack in the door it’s mostly off stage violence. With UBO I wanted to write a meditation on violence – my biggest fear – in all its forms. I wasn’t proposing to “solve” anything exactly – I’m a writer of fiction, not a social scientific genius – I just wanted to take the reader through an interesting journey where we could contemplate some of the dynamics involved.

As for the benefits of such an exploration, well, that’s always hard to say isn’t it, when we’re talking about a work of fiction? On one level you’re trying to entertain with an intriguing story. And certainly that’s enough. But especially as I get older with fewer books I’m going to be able to read, and fewer books I’m going to be able to write, I want a little more out of my fiction. Most of us would rather avoid violence. Most of us – myself included – live our lives in ways to keep violence away from ourselves and our loved ones. For myself I keep violent people out of my life – I want nothing to do with them.

The reason to confront violence – as with all unpleasant subjects – is that you can’t really successfully avoid it. Violence will touch you – in small ways for most of us, in profound ways for those of us who are unlucky. At some point you have to find a way to deal with it. Violence touched me when I was a child, and it touched the lives of my adopted children before I knew them – and we still have to deal with the shockwaves of those experiences. And it touches all of us when our governments are involved in violent activities.

Our society isn’t great at empowering people. We’re generally not that great at raising our children to feel empowered. People who feel they are helpless against change, who feel they are denied the positive drama of love and accomplishment, tend to turn toward the ready drama of violence – whether they commit it themselves or they commit it via a surrogate (games and entertainment are one such surrogate, but politics and government are also surrogates, as are our tendencies to destroy and exploit the environment). The first step toward preventing horrifying things in ourselves is learning to acknowledge them in ourselves and others.

Actors often speak of the stress they experience when taking on “difficult” roles. Is there a similar toll on you as a writer when you try to get inside the head of people like Himmler, Jack the Ripper, Stalin etc? How do you cope with that sort of pressure?

The writing of fiction is often very close to the art of acting. So there is a similar toll when you climb inside the heads of some of these characters. And when I really started working on this novel every day we had two small children at home. So I’d spend hours inside the heads of these awful people, and then I’d go play and read stories with my four and five year old. It was too much. After a while I couldn’t do it anymore and put the book aside. After I picked it up again within a few months our son Anthony died, and I put it aside again, this time for decades (although I was always thinking about it, working it out in my head). I think it’s no accident that I didn’t finish UBO until both kids and grandkids were out of the house.

As far as coping, I’m generally a positive, optimistic guy. That may sound like a contradiction for a horror writer, but that kind of balancing act is what keeps me sane. I tend to see the world through a filter of humour, and I devour comedy – movies, stand-up routines, humorous writing etc – it’s a rare day that I don’t laugh out loud at least once.

I really didn’t want to write/think about A Little Life any more, but reading this interview, it was so striking; Rasnic Tem is a genre writer, a horror writer, and his take on violence is so much more intelligent and insightful than Yanagihara, a supposedly ‘literary’ author, who tells us how fun it is to write evil characters, that she ‘inhabits darkness joyfully,’ and makes grandiose claims about her ‘duty’ to write about child rape and self-harm in explicit, titillating detail.

I had never heard of Rasnic Tem before reading this issue of Interzone, the review of UBO does sound interesting (it calls it ‘required reading’), but I am not sure if I want to read it – if I do, it may turn out that I don’t like it, or don’t feel its violence to be justified. Rasnic Tem’s short story in the same issue of Interzone ‘The Common Sea,’ which I did like, is a gentle tail of environmental collapse, which doesn’t give any real clues about what UBO will be like to read.

It is also interesting to note that, in his guest editorial, Rasnic Tem uses the opportunity to talk about the environment and climate change. Yanagihara, on the other hand, uses her much wider platform to disseminate her dubious ideology about mental health and suicide.

I have serious doubts about the value of art, about its ability to affect the world. This is not something I have just started thinking about, but global political events over the last few years have made these doubts stronger. Reading A Little Life, ‘award winning literature’, that was garbage on every level, makes me doubt art has any real value at all, if it can ever be anything other than entertainment, escapism.

The famous Kurt Vonnegut quote about the Vietnam War illustrates my thinking perfectly:

During the Vietnam War, which lasted longer than any war we’ve ever been in – and which we lost – every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.

Manchester by the Sea and Was

manchester-by-the-seawas

Last month I went to see Manchester by the Sea, and re-read Geoff Ryman’s Was.

Manchester by the Sea was funnier, and not as unrelentingly grim, as I had been expecting (and fearing) from the reviews I read beforehand. It tells the story of Lee, a man to whom something terrible happens (I won’t spoil what exactly), something that changes his life, and his family’s lives completely, that affects his entire community. Years later, he has to go back home after his brother dies, and his now teenaged nephew needs a guardian.

The thing that makes this such a good film is that there is no clear-cut redemption, there is no feel-good happy ending; Lee’s life changes, but he isn’t ‘fixed’, he’s never going to be ok, ever, but his life still goes on, still damaged. It’s a good film because it handle’s this with respect, it never feels voyeuristic (even though we have to wait to see exactly what happened that caused Lee to leave town), it never feels like the character is being tortured to death by the story for the sake of it (or for the sake of ‘proving’ some bizarre ideological point); it shows that life doesn’t have any larger purpose, or higher meaning, terrible things happen, but people still carry on, scraping something together for themselves.

Was, published in 1992, combines the stories of Judy Garland, the filming of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, an actor dying of AIDS in the 1980’s, Frank Baum, and the ‘real’ Dorothy Gael who inspired him.

Geoff Ryman is one of the most compassionate and humanist writers I have read (ages ago, I found a description of literary humanism I really like, in this review of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker: “authentic humanism, meaning a consideration (both celebratory and cautionary) of human doings and undoings”); he is an author whose works I return to again and again – I have lost count of how many times I have read Was, and I would also particularly recommend his books Lust and Air, and his short-story collection Paradise Tales (if the story in that collection about the Angel of the North doesn’t move you, nothing will).

Was also covers difficult subjects, death and loneliness and the abuse (emotional and physical and sexual) of children, and describes people continually striving to live meaningful lives; but, as with Manchester by the Sea, it is never there to shock or titillate. Ryman shows compassion for all his characters, even the bad ones, without ever making excuses for them.

Ryman also does his research! He travelled and read and researched what Kansas was like in the late 19th Century, and the real-life accounts he discovered expanded and enriched his own story telling.

In his afterword, Ryman says: “I am a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism. Because I am a fantasy writer, I am particularly aware that every work of fiction, however realistic, is a fantasy. It happens in a world that is an alternative to this one.” He later adds:

I fell in love with realism because it deflated the myths, the unexamined ideas of fantasy. It confronts them with forgotten facts. It uses past truth – history.

I love fantasy because it reminds us how far short our lives fall from their full potential. Fantasy reminds us how wonderful the world is. In fantasy, we can imagine a better life, a better future. In fantasy, we can free ourselves from history and outworn realism.

Oz is, after all, only a place with flowers and birds and rivers and hills. Everything is alive there, as it is here if we care to see it. Tomorrow, we could all decide to live in a place not much different from Oz. We don’t. We continue to make the world an ugly, even murderous place, for reasons we do not understand.

Those reasons lie in both fantasy and history. Where we are gripped by history – our own personal history, our country’s history. Where we are deluded by fantasy – our own fantasy, our country’s fantasy. It is necessary to distinguish between history and fantasy wherever possible.

And use them against each other.