Who Watches the Watchmen?

I’m reading a book about conspiracy theories at the moment. It’s not very entertaining (no outrageous assertions that all world leaders are Lizard People from Planet X, sadly) but it is enlightening, especially when it deals with how conspiracy theories take root and become disseminated into popular culture to a point where it becomes very troublesome to tell the fake news from the truth.

Now if that sounds a little familiar, I can only apologise – but I for one do not believe a word that comes out of the White House nor what appears in a Murdoch newspaper. The former, unfortunately, is more of a recent occurrence than the latter, but I long ago recognised that there is an agenda here which involves lying through the skin of their teeth at every available opportunity. If the facts suggest that something is black, they will maintain that it is white and that any suggestion to the contrary is “fake news”. In the case of the press, we are back to questions of journalistic ethics that I briefly looked at after watching Nightcrawler – what lengths will the media go to if they may get a story out of it?

The other side to this story, though, is what checks are there to keep the media from breaking the law – or just offending pretty much every normal person’s moral framework? The Leveson Enquiry spent months (and thousands of pounds) trying to establish a forum where the press could be regulated; but this ended up as entirely voluntary and so watered down as to be completely ineffective. Ultimately, unscrupulous media moguls can behave as they please without sanction, especially if those in power are doing exactly the same. No wonder the conspiracy theorists don’t trust anyone!

It’s incredibly depressing but what can one do? The simple answer, suggested by the book I’m reading, is this: the more variables involved in the conspiracy theory, the more likely it is to be faked. Unless, of course, the White House is involved, in which case believe nothing and trust no one.

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The Rise of the Zombie Apocalypse?

I once wrote a short story about sinkholes. Admittedly, it was mainly a gripe about the number of sinkholes my car had to avoid on the journey from my house to the train station – my local council aren’t always the speediest at repairs – but I’d decided that they were the source of plague infected zombies. Seems that in Siberia, at least, I wasn’t far wrong; melting tundra ice (and the resulting sinkholes) is releasing long-dormant anthrax spores along with the buried methane – a major greenhouse gas. Diseases that many scientists had thought had died out may yet come back to haunt us. Let’s just hope the CDC still have vaccines.

It’s not easy to tell from some of the pictures just how big these sinkholes are, but they are enormous. The glaciers lock into the earth by freezing into gaps in the earth’s crust, trapping methane and other greenhouse gases in the ice – as well as spores, bacteria and goodness knows what else. Captain America, probably. So when the climate heats up, the ice melts and everything securely tucked away is returned to the Great Unknown, including diseases we no longer have – or perhaps never had – any immunity to. It’s interesting because a similar mechanism is used for the start of the Zombie Apocalypse in World War Z; a child goes swimming in a millpond in China and ends up with this nasty virus… just move everything to Siberia and you have an entire new film franchise.

Equally – and for my part, more disturbingly – the release of the methane creates a positive feedback loop, by increasing the global temperature, thereby melting more ice and causing more sinkholes… you get the picture, I’m sure. Perhaps the zombies might be the lesser of the two evils.

Burke and Hare and the Importance of the Resurrection Men

I was watching an old film over the weekend – Burke and Hare starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Whilst mostly true, it wasn’t 100% factually accurate, but it had a great cast, a wonderful script and was a highly entertaining couple of hours. In telling the story of these two quite notorious criminals, it also explored a crucial early part of medical and surgical education.

Until the Anatomy Act 1832, medical students could only practice dissection – or observe anatomy lectures – using the corpses of convicted murderers, usually whisked straight from the gallows to the mortuary or lecture theatre. This meant that demand far exceeded supply, as lectures were often twice weekly and there was still the practice that the students needed to obtain their degrees. This led to the rise of the Resurrection Man, who would often hover around graveyards and dig up freshly buried corpses to provide to medical schools that didn’t ask too many questions – and a startling number didn’t.

Burke and Hare were quite successful in the resurrectionist business, and had a decent line in providing Sir Robert Knox with bodies for dissection before his students. However, after nearly getting caught by the Edinburgh Militia, they decided that a safer way was to actually murder some of the derelicts and drunks they found wandering the back alleys of the city, on the grounds that they were unlikely to be missed, and hand these bodies over instead. Unfortunately for the pair, someone was missed and they were arrested and tried.

The Resurrection Men were put out of business by the Anatomy Act 1832, which allowed any unclaimed body to be taken for dissection – this included any hanged criminal, occupants of workhouses and basically any corpse left in the street. The medical schools were all licensed and there was no need to rely on murky dealings at the back door.

The 1832 Act has subsequently been repealed and replaced with the Human Tissues Act 2012, which now sets out the full procedures for any kind of post-mortem medical dissection. That said, the twilight world of the resurrection men will remain one of the more interesting aspects of medical history for many years to come.

Ruined by Religion

On a bit of a whim, I watched I, Frankenstein last night. I think I’d been putting it off because of a memory of distinctly mixed reviews, but overall it wasn’t too bad. The special effects had clearly had some money spent on them, which in this kind of film is a definite advantage. However, the film was ruined by the religious elements, which was essentially the entire premise.

My recollection of Mary Shelley’s novel – which is a bit hazy, I haven’t read it for a couple of months – was that it was based on the triumph of scientific reason over religious superstition. Frankenstein wishes to usurp God by creating life. There are, obviously, feminist subtexts here, but essentially this is the motivation for the creation of The Creature. So by putting a religious spin on the film by having The Creature (here called “Adam”) caught in the middle of an eternal battle between demons and angels (here called “gargoyles”) just flies in the face of Shelley’s work. There is no place for religion in a Frankenstein story unless it is being dispensed with.

That said, there are parts of the story which are quite good. The attempt to recreate Frankenstein’s experiment on a mouse and the reduction of Frankenstein to a “bedtime story” was well done. Bill Nighy commandeers every scene he’s in with no effort whatsoever – it’s the laconic delivery that does it – as he did in Underworld, another film which told a supernatural story without having to resort to Christian symbolism. He must also love spending time in make up as his final appearance was full of prosthetics! Aaron Eckhart wasn’t bad as The Creature either; suitably grimy and scarred, but world weary with it. He looked tired and I suppose after two hundred years, The Creature would be pretty fed up of his existence, unless he’d found a way to die. And it’s never explained how he develops the soul that saves him in the end. If he didn’t have one for two hundred years, exactly how did he get one in the space of a few days?

I think the thing that irritated me was The Order of Gargoyles. Now I like gargoyles – and grotesques, which is what the Order, strictly speaking, were as I didn’t see any of them spouting water, just a lot of hot air – but to suggest that they were created by the Archangel Michael to protect humanity from demons is just silly. They are, to all intents and purposes, angels – they look like them, they behave like them and annoy the pants off me in similar fashion. It doesn’t fit with the scientific aspects of either the original story or the remainder of the film. The idea that reanimated corpses could house resurrected demons summoned from Hell unless the angels can pull the plugs out is taking too many myths and ruining the legend.

All in all, despite it being good in parts, I was really disappointed with the film. Perhaps I was expecting too much – previous attempts to film the Frankenstein story after James Whale’s masterpiece in the early 1930s have been unsuccessful so I suspect the studios thought that adding a different subtext might improve their fortunes. And maybe it did; but it totally ruined the story. They may have had more luck combining it with Lovecraft’s Reanimator story – at least it would have kept the religious bits where they belonged.

Not Quite The Rage Monster

Crikey, I really should calm down a bit. Reading some of these recent posts back has just made me realise just how angry I am. Perhaps I should change the subject.

Watched Avengers Assemble again last night – not that I need any excuse for that. It’s amazing how much I realised I hadn’t picked up on before – like Tony Stark referring to himself as a “Life Decoy Model” when trying to fob off Agent Coulson. As far as I know, nobody had picked up on that before, yet much was made of the LDMs in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Much like all the little side references that you really have to pay attention to – Nick Fury’s statement that “gamma radiation can be dangerous”, for example. Which leads me nicely onto how much I like Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner.

When I first saw Ruffalo’s characterisation, I didn’t take to it at all. I thought he was too old – well, he’s the same age as me, which is a bit too old for a superhero – and his Banner was too shambling and confused. Repeated viewings have shown me the error of my ways; he’s perfect. He’s a brilliant scientist who’s spent more time in labs than he has in social situations. He’s a fugitive, so that makes him edgy and careful about what he says and does. And as for the age thing – both Robert Downey Junior and Jeremy Renner are my age and I didn’t think they were too old. It’s just a beautifully nuanced performance which has really grown on me, especially as the character has progressed through Avengers: Age of Ultron, a cameo at the end of Iron Man 3 and most recently in Thor: Ragnarok (and the fantastic teaser trailers).

The Hulk has had a troubled cinematic history of late; the (much too long) Ang Lee movie featured Eric Bana filled with angst alongside his gamma radiation and was not the most auspicious start to proceedings. The Incredible Hulk (starring Ed Norton as Banner) did at least have a comic element as well as some FANTASTIC action sequences, and allowed the story arc to enter the MCU. The reason why Hulk punches out Thor is directly due to him being struck by lightning outside the cave after being attacked at the University, and Ruffalo’s Banner directly references the movie when he tells Stark that he “broke Harlem”.

I don’t always like some of the things that Marvel, and the MCU in particular, do but I have to say that they got the casting spot on with this movie, and having the actors tied into multiple movies has allowed them to grow into and develop their respective characters, which is a very good thing, although now I couldn’t imagine anybody else as Tony Stark or Steve Rogers. I do wish, though, that they’d renege on their decision not to make a third Hulk movie with Ruffalo in the role. I think it’s the least his character deserves.

This Comedy Movie Makes A Serious Point

I watched The Nice Guys over the weekend, mainly because we’d bought a new DVR and wanted to make sure it worked. I’d not seen it before, because I’m not much of a Ryan Gosling fan, but it was actually hilarious. Set in the late 70s, when there were protests in Los Angeles about the suffocating smog pollution and US car manufacturers were actively resisting the move to unleaded petrol, it comes across as a slightly humorous private eye/missing person movie with a good cast and decent script. There is so much more to it than that, though.

Yes, it’s a murder mystery linked with a missing persons/private eye investigation, in which a hapless Ryan Gosling finds himself slightly unwillingly working alongside thuggish Russell Crowe to find out why someone is trying to kill Amelia, the girl they’re looking for – having already killed most of the people she knows. Given that Amelia’s mother is the Justice Secretary, suddenly the wheels of the conspiracy engine start to turn. Amelia has made a protest film about the role of Detroit motor manufacturers actively opposing the adoption of catalytic converter technology, which she plans to show at the LA Motor Show. Unfortunately, her mother relies on those same automobile manufacturers to stay in office and the suggestion is that a secret state sanctioned organisation are killing people involved in the movie to protect the motor industry.

If it reminded me of anything, it was Silkwood, the true story of anti-nuclear whistleblower Karen Silkwood who died in unexplained circumstances in 1974. There has been suggestion that she was murdered by the nuclear power plant she worked for (although they lost a civil case for the working practices that she highlighted, there has never been any evidence that they acted criminally in any way) or even that the state energy sector had her silenced. Of course, it also could have been a dreadful accident. We will probably never know.

Once the state or big business get involved, it is very easy to construct a conspiracy theory to fit any awkward facts that don’t appear to be conveniently explained – or even awkward facts that are explained a little too conveniently. It was great to watch a film where such an important point was made in a light-hearted and humorous way. I really enjoyed the film (which had an excellent soundtrack, by the way) and I thought its mix of environmental politics, noir sensibility and retro styling really worked well.

Wonder Woman Wasn’t The First

Lucy Lawless and Sigourney Weaver must be rolling their eyes at the short memories some people have. Ellen Ripley and Xena weren’t that long ago, were they? Mind you, back in the day, we also had Emma Peel and Purdey in the Avengers (talking of which – Black Widow isn’t a slouch either), Cagney and Lacey for the detective show watchers and even The Bionic Woman. Lynda Carter’s original Wonder Woman aired at a similar time – I remember watching it when I was young – and nobody ever declared her the first female action hero.

What’s changed? Why has Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman got everyone in a flutter?

People have double standards, is why. There is a long legacy of women playing action roles – I’ve listed a few already – but because they didn’t wear a bikini when they did it, they don’t count. Xena had a huge lesbian subtext surrounding her partnership with Gabrielle; Ripley was a part originally written for a man; both Emma Peel and Purdey were always fully clothed, as were Black Widow, Cagney and Lacey and the Bionic Woman. Whether Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman counts as an action hero is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the studios simply forgot about her. They don’t fit the heterosexual male ideal of a fit woman who is sexually available and so they’ve been airbrushed aside.

Cruel, but that’s how sexism works. Carrie Fisher always complained that despite making three Star Wars movies where she played a military leader, she will always be remembered for the scene with the gold bikini – and she’s absolutely right. Nobody remembers the fact that she was a General, in charge of an entire Rebel Army, but everyone remembers the gold bikini, because that was the image that was promoted in the publicity. As many studio executives still maintain, tits and ass sell.

When you also account for the fact that the male lead of Sharknado 5 earned more than Gal Gadot for Wonder Woman, you really have to wonder just what has to be done to make studio executives realise that women are more than just the sparkly costume.

Miss Peregrine Follows a Grand Tradition

I’ve just finished reading Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children. It’s a strangely wonderful book but perhaps a little scary for children. It’s one of those books where “young adult” means “only if you’ve sat your GCSEs and not before” as some of the episodes are (a) quite scary and (b) a bit on the gruesome side. Definitely not something to read over breakfast. And yet I was struck by both the similarities and differences to other books of that ilk.

For example, Harry Potter features a young man who has no idea of his special powers and finds himself in a school with other young people – most of whom are fully aware of their background and capabilities – in which he has to survive. It’s just that Jacob Portman is not a wizard and his peculiarity (as it is termed) is rather specific, unlike Emma, who can produce and control fire, or Millard, who is invisible. The fact that Miss Peregrine can turn into a falcon is only eclipsed by Professor McGonagall turning into a cat on a regular basis.

In that respect, it reminds me a little more of Professor Xavier’s School for the Gifted, as the institute where the X-Men are based is known. There, peculiar children who are often in fear of their lives are given a sanctuary where they are fed, housed and protected, much like Miss Peregrine does in the book. And she can control time, as can Professor X (up to a point) and read minds.

And yet, the film that I found myself thinking of most often as I was reading was Paranorman. Jacob, like his grandfather before him, can see hollowgasts, who feed on peculiars, which suggests that they are predominantly invisible to the majority of peculiars. It’s a bit like Norman’s ability to see ghosts – and his calling to protect the community from the vengeful spirits in particular.

It’s not a bad book but I wasn’t especially left wanting more and the jury’s out on whether I’ll read the sequel.

Nightcrawlers – A Lack of Journalistic Ethics

After the phone hacking scandal, the Leveson Enquiry and the demise of the News of the World, one could be forgiven for thinking that news journalists had absolutely no ethical structure whatsoever. I would like to say that this movie put pay to that suggestion, but I would be fibbing; if it is to be believed, nothing must stand in the way of a good story.

The cast is unbelievable; Rene Russo plays the News Producer for whom ratings are everything and Riz Ahmed plays the hapless assistant to the Nightcrawler who actually does have some kind of scruples at the things he’s asked to do. The revelation for me was Jake Gyllenhall, haggard and shrunken faced and wonderfully creepy as the sociopathic Lewis Bloom who will stop at nothing to get the shots and stories he wants, even if it means moving the evidence and staging the accidents. What’s a little tinkering with someone’s brakes if you know it’s going to give you the lead story on the morning news the following day?

Lewis Bloom is thoroughly amoral. He thinks nothing of stealing metal fencing (and a security guard’s watch) to sell to an illicit scrap metal dealer – and then ask the dealer for a job. He uses a thoroughly disconcerting form of management speak to justify everything he does – while he’s clearly intelligent, he has no social skills whatsoever. He preys on those who need him a lot more than he needs them – Russo, who will have no job if she can’t keep the ratings going, and Ahmed, who has no home nor job and depends on his $30 a night navigating Bloom from job to job.

It’s an incredibly dark film – both in lighting and in subject matter – but there is little violence and what there is has usually been filmed by Bloom. It did make me wonder, however, just how much of the news we read or see has been rigged to boost sales or ratings, or is actually an objective report – and it confirmed that whatever lessons may have been learned from the phone hacking scandal, nobody’s really interested if they can’t get a story.

Here Come The New Gods

Have you ever read something that made you so utterly furious that you realised you couldn’t just sit back and ignore it – it demanded that you get up and do something about it, make some changes, however small, just to make it feel like you were controlling your temper? That’s kind of how I’ve felt reading Green Earth; it’s a thoroughly enjoyable book, and I’m loving the characters, but my word, the arrogance of humanity in the face of climate change is simply breath-taking. You can rest well assured that it is making me very angry indeed.

If I may be permitted to lower the tone somewhat, I’m reminded of that scene in Avengers Assemble where Captain America tells Bruce Banner to get angry and turn into the Hulk. “That’s easy,” he replies. “I’m always angry.” Well, that’s me at the moment. I’m functioning with an undercurrent of fury that could render me eight feet tall and bright green if I’m not careful, which is not a pleasant thought for anyone involved.

Before anyone levels an allegation of hypocrisy at me, let me set out my stall. I’m not wealthy. I don’t own my own home and I haven’t had a holiday in twelve years. I work long hours in a job that pays better than average, I admit – but the other half is on Minimum Wage and neither of us think we’ll ever be able to afford to retire. Compared to people in other parts of the world I may be considered quite wealthy, I concede, but in terms of the First World yardstick, I’m dancing on the poverty line. One false move and I’m paddleless up the proverbial creek. If anyone should be looking at how to make a profit out of life, it should be me; but it holds no attraction for me at all.

I’m feeling a need to read Naomi Klein again – which is fortunate, as I have just bought her new book. Her last book, This Changes Everything, dealt with climate change and how governments and big business – even the ones which claim to have an environmental conscience – essentially pay lip service to their environmental obligations, putting the profit margin first. Profit – that word really should be outlawed. It just disgusts me at the moment how money is the new God, worshipped and mollified at every available opportunity to the detriment of pretty much everything else.

In one sense, it’s reminiscent of the plot of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The old gods, Odin, Anansi, Bilquis and the like are being superseded in the affections of the people who used to worship them; there are new gods now, Money, Technology, Celebrity. The sad thing about this is that it doesn’t feel like fiction any more; it could pass as a slightly dramatized documentary on modern religion. I’m not suggesting for a moment that religion is right – or even essential – but I think society’s perspective is a little bit skewed. I’ve mentioned previously that some things ought to be beyond the scope of money, and the environment should be one of them. It’s a truly global issue that will affect everyone, and the only true profit to be made is the survival of the species on a planet that isn’t ruined. It still feels like it’s asking too much, and it really shouldn’t be.

There is no Planet B. I say this a lot, but it’s the simplest way of saying it. If we get this wrong, or do too little too late, then it really is Game Over. We can’t start again, we can’t all relocate to Mars and we don’t have the technology to upload our consciences into a Matrix. And for those who insist on finding financial profit in everything – just remember that when the end comes, your money won’t help you to breathe.