Fear of the Other

I found this on t’interweb a while ago:

Whilst on the one hand it made me smile – there’s nothing quite like humour to take the edge of terrorist incidents – it did make me think as well, but that’s partly because of what I know about language and also some of my favourite TV shows when I was growing up. And I’m not sure I liked what I concluded.

Daleks, as most people know. are the quintessential Dr Who villains; a totalitarian hive mind of slightly demented pepperpots intent on taking over the world. But has anyone (apart from me, who spends way too much time doing this) actually thought about what Dalek means? It’s a Serbo-Croat word that means “foreigner”.

Star Trek is just as bad, although we need to look at some of the latter day series to really see where they were going. They introduced us to these ugly bugs:

Now I had long gone under the impression that these were Romulans, but I am reliably informed (admittedly by Wikipedia) that these are Ferengi. Ferengi is Sanskrit for (wait for it) – “foreigner”. And if you hang around Thailand long enough, you’ll soon hear the word “farang” which also means foreigner and comes from the Sanskrit.

So now I’m wondering if my childhood viewing has tried to make me believe that all foreigners are bad guys and should be treated with suspicion. I doubt that this was ever the intent – and certainly Terry Nation was much cleverer than that – but it is bothering me. It’s that right wing idea that anyone who isn’t like us is to be feared and separated, which is almost a sure fire way of ensuring that they harbour prejudices in the future. And in light of recent terrorist events, that kind of separation, ghettoisation, “us and them” mentality really isn’t helpful.

That said, if anyone does have any photos of Daleks falling down the stairs at Baker Street Station, they’d certainly cheer me up.

Zombies and Philosophy

zombies-run-app

I am the first to admit that I often think of the strangest things when I’m in the bath. Like how zombism works. We all know that if a zombie bites you, you then become a zombie; it’s a bit like vampirism in that respect, and I suppose the analysis I indulged in this morning will apply equally to that. I hadn’t thought of that at the time; for whatever reason I was more interested in zombies. Perhaps it was the sight of His Lordship half asleep that did it.

Anyway, what I was pondering was this. If you kill a zombie, and then eat the zombie (a) do you turn into a zombie and (b) is it cannibalism to eat a zombie?

Yes, my mind definitely goes off on tangents most other people steer well clear of. And having done a very brief straw poll, it seems that the answer to the first is “no” and the other is “probably not”. Although the reasoning for both was exceedingly convoluted and depended a bit on whether or not one watches The Walking Dead.

That said, this does raise an interesting and important philosophical question – just what makes us human? Why would it be obvious that a zombie (or a vampire, since we’re extending the analysis) isn’t really human? It seems that having died (as both zombies and vampires have to die for the changes to take effect) they lose the essential something that renders them human – and since cannibalism is like eating like, a human eating a zombie cannot be cannibalism.

As to whether or not eating a zombie will turn you into a zombie, it seems that the key element is in the saliva (unless you watch The Walking Dead, where a whole different virus applies) – so as long as you steer clear of the zombie’s saliva, you should be all right.

I’m wondering now if random questions like this might interest a younger generation in some of the key elements of philosophy. I know many philosophy professors have used The Matrix to illustrate concepts of reality and I suppose this is just another part of that. I’d be interested to hear what other people have to say on the subject. Meanwhile, I’ve been told to have showers for a while – until my brain settles down a bit…

Surviving Armageddon

metro-2034

I’ve been reading a fair bit of post-apocalyptic fiction lately. I’ve said before that I like a good disaster movie and a decent disaster novel is no exception. I think they stand as a testament to the power of the human spirit that no matter what kind of disaster is faced, there are always survivors – well, that and the fact that without at least a couple of survivors, the plots would be pretty thin.

The book I’m reading at the moment, Metro 2034 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, is set in the Moscow Metro twenty years after a disagreement between superpowers turned nuclear and annihilated – or mutated beyond recognition – anything above ground. It’s worth noting that the Russian Metro system doubled as a nuclear bunker, so it could be sealed off in the event of a nuclear attack. For a novel written in 2009, it’s got an alarmingly Cold War feel to it – let alone being utterly plausible in its reasoning.

Anyway, this got me thinking. How would humanity survive if the world really did end? Naturally, the answer would depend entirely on the kind of disaster that befalls the planet- I expect an asteroid strike would pretty much obliterate the very ground we walk on – but there are a few ideas that seem to recur more often than others.

During the 1950s and 1960s, unsurprisingly one of the most common backgrounds to apocalypse was a nuclear war. This surfaced again briefly during the 1980s before the collapse of the Berlin Wall caused the Cold War to start thawing. Some people – presumably the very rich or intellectually important – would emerge from their bunkers into a scorched wasteland and start to rebuild the society they had lost along idealistic lines. Inevitably, however, some people had would have survived the massive doses of radiation, nuclear winter and acid rain to cause trouble for the boffins and drama ensues.

A variation of this is an Armageddon caused or manipulated by aliens – John Wyndham was especially good at this, to the point where his novels were termed “cosy catastrophes” by Brian Aldiss. I can honestly say that they certainly weren’t stressful reads.

In later years, the trend for wiping out the human population turned towards disease, either through genetically modified viruses released by accident or design, or by a previously unknown or forgotten plague striking humanity. No disease being 100% fatal – although some come pretty close – there will always be survivors or people who are naturally immune (or just don’t catch it) – but will they be the same? Offshoots of this idea lead to vampires or zombies; indeed, this is exactly how World War Z starts, with Patient Zero being found in China and the zombie plague spreading exponentially. Society rapidly divides into the “infected” and the “clean” and the battle for survival commences.

Less common is the climate change disaster, although more writers are looking at the implications of this as a basis for a thumping good dystopia. One of the earliest that I can recall is JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, but in recent years the idea has been revisited by films like The Day After Tomorrow or the novels of Paolo Bacigalupi.

With climate change, there is always the argument that humanity may be able to adapt to a rising temperature and sea levels so some form of civilisation may continue. What it would look like is anyone’s guess, but it would exist. The drama comes from change that is sudden and far-reaching, not allowing humanity time to adjust.

You can add to this list everything from global power failure due to solar flares, the moon leaving its orbit (changing the tides and possibly the seasons) to fundamentalist Christianity turning out to be right and the godly all disappearing in the Rapture. While people can think of a global disaster to wipe out the populace, they can usually think of a way it might be survived if we put our minds to it.

Let’s just hope that these global disasters remain works of fiction, shall we?

DEEP WATER

There is some cracking drama coming out of Australia at the moment, which is just as well, because there’s a rule in our house that all Australian television is to be watched, considered and judged accordingly. Some of it is drivel (we’re not soap lovers, by and large, which dealt with Neighbours and Home and Away fairly swiftly) but of late, quite a lot of what we’ve sat through has been pretty darned good.

Deep Water is a police procedural set in and around Bondi Beach in Sydney. What starts as a routine murder enquiry rapidly becomes a hunt for a serial killer and a reinvestigation into a series of brutal murders, disappearances and apparent suicides of gay men in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It’s stirring stuff, especially as it is based on the truth – many young gay men in and around the area did disappear under highly suspicious circumstances or investigations into their deaths didn’t get completed.

Quite aside from telling a thumping good story, Deep Water questions how things have changed in Australia if you’re a gay man – there is still a culture of machismo amongst many Australian men and I personally think it’s a deeply flawed ideal. By focusing on sports, the outdoor life and physical achievements it is very easy to see how those who don’t fit in – for whatever reason – could find their lives very quickly made hell.

The drama is only four parts but they are gripping viewing. It’s so nice to see Craig McLachlan – alternatively known as Dr Blake or Henry from Neighbours, depending on your viewing habits – playing a character who is irredeemably vile. That shattered a few illusions, I can tell you!

If there is a fault with this series, it is that it perpetuates the illusion that there are, in fact, only two dozen actors in Australia. A good two thirds of the cast were last seen in Canberra-based political thriller The Code (which also comes highly recommended) and one of the leads, I’m fairly sure, is in the Night Watch on Westeros. Don’t let that put you off, though, because the acting, script and story are excellent and this is a series that deserves to be watched.

I hope also that it goes some way into solving the real life cases; there must be many grieving families seeking some form of closure and anything that can help must be a benefit.

The Best Sequel Ever?

I wasn’t going to do this today. I’ve had the flu and basically my brain is elsewhere at the moment, thanks to a variety of cold and flu remedies and basically just feeling foul. But I was having a conversation with some friends about film sequels and it occurred to me that quite a few second films were actually really very good.

The obvious one, of course, is The Empire Strikes Back, which I still think is the best of ALL the Star Wars movies (and I don’t care who hates me for saying that). Aliens isn’t bad either (although I still have a soft spot for Alien Resurrection – mainly because I can’t remember it very well). That said, the best film sequel ever made predates both by some decades – and I still think is wonderful.

Hopefully this will give the game away.

bride

The Universal monster movies of the 1930s were genre-creating but also mould breaking and because they are now so well known, it’s very easy to forget just how revolutionary they were. Moreover, it’s also very easy to forget that both Frankenstein films had very good plots – I’ve never forgotten the look of sheer horror on the Bride’s face when she sees Karloff for the first time. They are classics, not because of their age or the role in creating icons, but because they are really good films.

To modern audiences, they’re not remotely scary any more and that’s fine. They don’t have to be. As far as I’m concerned, The Bride of Frankenstein sets the standard for sequels that, although other movies come close, hasn’t yet been broken. And I don’t care who hates me for saying that either.

Christ the Redeemer

christo-redendor

One of the things that has come out of reading The Seven Sisters is how much I have enjoyed reading about the construction of Christo Redentor, and I’ve come to the conclusion that (yet again) seeing it on the internet isn’t doing it any justice at all. For example, one of the crucial things about the statue is that the body of the statue is actually a mosaic of tiny triangular soapstone tiles; this was so that the structure is less affected by weather erosion and temperature changes. You can’t actually see this from most of the photos on the web, which is a little disappointing as I’d like to see it. The core of the structure, the head and hands, however, are all reinforced concrete without the mosaic covering, and it does give the impression that the entire statue is the same.

Using reinforced concrete was the revolutionary idea of the architect Heitor da Silva Costa, who realised that it would be an ideal material for such a large monument placed at the top of a mountain itself over 700 metres high (that’s just over 2,300 feet in old money). The statue itself is 30 metres (99 feet) high and 28 metres (92.4 feet) at its widest point – fingertip to fingertip, in other words. The entire structure weighs in at almost 1,150 tons. The original idea of using bronze would have made the entire structure much too heavy for the summit. Reinforced concrete was already being used in the construction of buildings, especially for pillars and ornamental columns, but da Silva Costa was convinced that it was suitable for a public monument. Fortunately for him, the artists and engineers he hired for the construction of the statue agreed with him.

The story behind the mosaic outer covering of the body is equally fascinating. Da Silva Costa had thousands of tiny triangular tiles fired in a ceramics factory and huge numbers of society ladies – with little better to do than raise money for public works between dinner parties and social gatherings – would gather in churches to stick them onto the mesh that would cover the concrete skeleton. It is said that many women wrote the names of secret lovers on the back of tiles before sticking them down, but unless the tiles are removed and the names found, this can’t be verified. It’s a shame really, because that’s a cracking story and is one of the main clues of the novel.

Christo Redentor is now 85 years old and has had to be restored once following damage from a lightning strike. I hope he looks over Rio de Janiero for many more years to come.

GEORGIA O’KEEFFE AT TATE MODERN

jimson

Having recently read a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, I was keen to see this exhibition, even though it meant spending time at my least favourite gallery. I don’t know what it is about Tate Modern, but I just don’t like it – although it would be disingenuous of me not to admit that it has a fine collection of modern and contemporary art. The collection does suit the building very well.

Georgia O’Keeffe is best known for her flower pictures, large canvases filled to the brim with one or two oversized, highly detailed blooms. However, there is so much more to O’Keeffe’s output that this, that it seems almost unfair to concede that these works are what she is best remembered for. The exhibition shows artworks, including charcoals, drawings and oils, spanning the entirety of her career and some of these lesser known pieces are as breath-taking as her best known work.

One of her most popular flower pictures (and the one advertising the exhibition) is Jimsonweed. Delicately painted in shades of green and white, the sheer size of the canvas – and consequently, the scale of the flower – is overwhelming. The eye is pulled into the centre of the bloom and it is quite hard to resist a forward lurch as you follow suit. It is a gorgeous picture, but no reproduction can ever do justice to the sheer scale of what you see. It is genuinely stunning.

The idea of filling a canvas with a single image was one that O’Keeffe got from her friend Paul Strand, a photographer who experimented with scale and framing. She did not limit the technique to flowers, however, and her well known clamshell paintings (of which only a few are displayed) are delicate symphonies in shades of white, demonstrating her technical skills and eye for subtle colour work. To see an object which, in reality, is only about an inch and a half at its widest magnified for a canvas that is about three feet by four is stunning.

georgia new york

Yet it is her landscapes that I found I preferred. Her early cityscapes of the New York skyline, painted before her marriage to gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, show stylized skies alongside relatively featureless buildings. The viewer gets a sense of the facelessness of the city that someone from a rural background – as O’Keeffe was – would have felt very keenly. The colours are dark and cool, emphasising a sense of coolness and lack of feeling.

georgia santa fe

Her Santa Fe pictures, in contrast, are wide in scope and brighter in colour; hot reds and oranges and a sense of a never ending space marked only by geology. It is clear that O’Keeffe loved Santa Fe – even her early works featuring the Penitente crosses hint at her changing palette as Georgia’s horizons gradually expanded to take into account her new landscape.

I would have seen this exhibition even without having read her biography but I cannot deny that I got so much more out of the exhibition knowing the background to some of the works. I will admit, however, that nothing prepared me for the scale of the works, and I did feel quite shocked at first. I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to have seen so many of her works together and would thoroughly recommend this exhibition to anyone who loves modern art.