The year on screen so far – 2016

The Wolfpack, dir. Crystal Moselle

This documentary film is incredibly haunting and stayed with me long after I saw it. I wasn’t prepared for how close to home it would hit, so unwittingly, I watched it on a flight from Europe to the U.S. I cried through a good portion of it, prompting some wary looks from fellow passengers and flight attendants. And I rarely cry, not just for movies, but for anything.

It’s a story about a band of brothers raised in total social isolation by their tyrant alcoholic father in the midst of New York City. Not allowed to set foot outside their home during their entire childhood because the streets of New York are “dangerous and full of evil people” waiting to corrupt their souls, the brothers turn to their father’s movie collection as their sole source of both entertainment as well as education, re-enacting their favorite scenes and learning entire dialogue scripts (which they transcribed) by heart. Things take a turn when the second oldest brother, at age 15, defies his father’s orders and starts going outside into the ‘real world’ to explore it, prompting the rest of his brothers to follow suit.

Getting such a candid glimpse into the pathologically sick mind of the father and into the lives of the dysfunctional family he’s created provokes nothing but raw emotion. This family’s story is so strange, that it stretches your consciousness just trying to comprehend something so beyond the pale. “I guess you could say he was overprotective,” quips one of the brothers. The boys do not paint their father as a monster, but rather expose him as a megalomaniac.

My parents were not tyrants and I had a relatively happy childhood as an only child, but I was brought up to believe that evil people lurked around every corner and that my innocent soul was constantly in imminent danger of being corrupted. I think my mother was happiest when I stayed at home. It took me a long time to shake a feeling of dread and anxiety, not just every time I stepped out of the 500-meter radius from my house, but also over my future out in the world. “I remember being scared of going out into the world,” says one brother.

My father never worked a day in his life and justified it in exactly the same way that the brothers’ father does in the documentary. He used to voice lofty beliefs about freedom from working for the Man, proclaiming himself an all-knowing guru. When the brothers explained that their Dad didn’t believe in working for a living because it meant “being a slave to society,” it painfully rang a few bells. (My father has since modified his views and regrets some of his decisions.)

What is maybe the most astonishing aspect of this story is how articulate, intelligent, kind and thoughtful these boys have grown up to be. It would almost suggest that education by movies is not the worst thing that can happen to a child, especially to these children, who grew up in an alternate reality that they themselves created in response to their confinement. This story actually has a happy ending.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
– Kahlil Gibran

Spotlight, dir. Tom McCarthy

The reason this movie works, and is well worth watching, is that it avoids being bombastic and loud about its highly explosive material, which is sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church. McCarthy approaches his subject matter the way The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team of investigative journalists approached the scandal they uncovered: with calm precision, and yet not without emotion.

Emotions do run high in this film, but they remain contained because they’re filtered through the perspective(s) of the journalistic team. There is no triumphant glee in exposing systemically endorsed depravity, only a bitter-sweet mix of sadness, anger, and righteousness that comes from doing right by somebody, because the ultimate focus of the story is not on the Catholic Church, but on its victims.

The Witch, dir. Robert Eggers

I’ve reviewed this movie extensively in an earlier post, so I won’t go into it again here. Having recently re-watched it, I can only confirm what I’ve already said: it’s one of the best psychological horrors ever made, and one of the top five films of 2016. My expectations for director Eggers’ future endeavors are now impossibly high.

The Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente), dir. Ciro Guerra

It’s easy to connect the dots between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and this Colombian masterpiece. If Conrad’s book is a condemnation of the British colonial experiment in Africa, and Coppola’s film is a condemnation of the American war experiment in Vietnam, then The Embrace of the Serpent is the extension of Kurtz’s “The horror! The horror!” to the big business’s wholesale occupation and destruction of the Amazon forest and its native tribes.

Quiet and meditative like the gliding of boats along the Amazon river, Guerra’s film is bursting with poetic imagery, and yet the lushness of the rainforest is subdued by the use of black-and-white cinematography. It provides a dreamlike, almost psychedelic backdrop for a story of greedy imperialism and cultural appropriation.

Guerra subverts the trope of the wise shaman, the Last Mohican of his people, by giving us an old man who has lost his spiritual mission and whose quest to retrieve it mirrors that of the white scientists searching for a sacred healing plant. The shaman’s emotional disorientation, as he reluctantly agrees to act as a guide for the two scientists, also quietly refutes the white-man perspective of Joffè’s 1986 The Mission, which Guerra deliberately takes under advisement.

As journeys into the heart of darkness go, this one is emotionally very rewarding, largely thanks to the warm and fascinating character of the shaman in the midst of it.

Midnight Special, dir. Jeff Nichols

I would watch anything with Michael Shannon in it. The intensity of his screen presence, of those haunted but not unkind eyes, is always on the verge of hijacking the plot of every movie he’s in. In the rare moments when he smiles, it’s like the evening breeze at the end of the summer, when the days start to get shorter – you shudder lightly and reach for something to cover yourself with.

Midnight Special is a bit of an outlandish movie, even by sci-fi standards, but very clever in slowly revealing the motivations and personal histories of its mysterious main protagonists. It could’ve easily given way to cheap sentimentalism and oh-so-obvious Jesus Christ parallels, but both young Jaeden Lieberher’s (as the gifted/cursed main character) and Kirsten Dunst’s (as his mother) subdued, controlled performances nicely counteract Shannon’s emotional intensity, which harks to his turn in Nichols’ earlier film Take Shelter.

It reminded me a little bit of 1997’s Contact, mostly because of its quiet but sustained meditation on science vs. religion, which viewers from both sides of the fence are likely to find palatable.

Jenny Erpenbeck – Die Another Day

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Aller Tage Abend (published in English as The End of Days), the story of a re-imagined Jewish life, begins viscerally: at the grave of a newborn baby, which suffocated in its cot. A new life, inexplicably aborted: maybe, the mother asks in a series of what-ifs, the child “needed only a short while to complete something begun in an earlier life,” as some believe? The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away.

She tries to barter with God for the child’s life by offering her own, but in marrying a Gentile she forfeited the right to ask God for anything. The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away. The motions of prescribed Jewish mourning rites are “something that a drowning man might cling to, if at all.” She rails at religion as a source of consolation: “It would be nice… if the world were ruled by chance, and not a god.” Her husband the Gentile, meanwhile, is off drowning his grief in liquor.

Schön wäre es, denkt sie, wenn der Zufall regieren würde, und nicht ein Gott.

Grief spreads out in ripples across three generations of the family, triggering memories of earlier losses. The child’s grandmother remembers the death of her husband in a pogrom; the great-grandmother attends her dying husband on his sick-bed and remembers him performing a funeral wake for his granddaughter, the mother of the dead baby, who was lost to him when she married a Gentile. The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away, is Job’s mantra of resignation to the will of God.

As the three women grieve, each of them also remembers knitting clothes for the yet-unborn baby, slowly threading a new life story into existence as they prepared for a transmutation of their roles as women: the daughter would become a mother, with a daughter of her own, the mother would become a grandmother, and so on. But their new roles are usurped by death, which interrupts the mother-daughter continuum. The metaphorical thread of life is cut; the transformations reversed.

Sie selbst hatte durch die Geburt des Kindes ihre Großmutter in eine Urgroßmutter verwandelt, und ihre Mutter in eine Großmutter, aber jetzt waren alle die Verwandlungen schon wieder aufgehoben.

The widowed grandmother observes her daughter’s grief with something approaching Job’s equanimity. Having barely escaped with her life as her husband was killed in front of her eyes, and forced by circumstances to pick up the pieces and create a new life for herself and her baby daughter, she’s a survivor and understands that the death of someone close doesn’t signal the end of all life. Despite interruptions, life goes on, and the thread continues to unspool: the end of a day on which someone dies is not the end of days.

Sie weiß schon sehr lange, was ihre Tochter von heute auf morgen lernen wird: Am Ende eines Tages, an dem gestorben wurde, ist längst nicht aller Tage Abend.

The final chapter has not yet been written; the story has just begun. What if the baby had survived? What if the parents had had a “moment of inspiration,” eine Eingebung as Erpenbeck calls it, and somehow prevented the baby from suffocating?

In a musically titled “Intermezzo” (interlude), the book suddenly swerves into magical realism. The subjunctive mood, the verb form of wishes and possibilities, takes over the language. The story is re-imagined with a different turn, and the baby that died now gets to live and have a sister and move with her parents to Vienna and be raised as a Christian by her Gentile father.

And yet, death also follows this mutated strand of the story: the trenches of the First World War, famine, and the Spanish Influenza cut short many a life. The girl who escaped death in the cot is now a starving, half-frozen 17-year-old, desperately in love with her best friend’s fiancée, a shell-shocked zombie freshly returned from the trenches. As her best friend is claimed by the influenza, the girl finds the bereaved fiancèe is not interested in a relationship with her, and she goes on to commit suicide. She was able to escape death only for 17 years before it found her again, on a cold winter evening in Vienna. It again feels as if life ended too soon for her, before it was complete(d).

So in another magical interlude, the girl is now a middle-aged writer living in Moscow at the time of Stalin’s purges. She didn’t commit suicide simply because she took a different road home on that fateful night in Vienna. At the beginning of the book, her mother had wished for a world ruled by chance, and Erpenbeck grants her that wish. Death is perhaps easier to come to terms with when it’s accidental, rather than fateful, administered by the hand of God. Schön wäre es, denkt sie, wenn der Zufall regieren würde, und nicht ein Gott.

And yet, because of her writing, which doesn’t suit Stalin’s regime, the woman doesn’t survive in this story, either. Also at the beginning of the book, her mother had wondered if the newborn’s life had originally been so short because she only needed to complete a small mission from an earlier life. If she has magically been given a prolonged life, and several chances, as it were, to give her existence more meaning, why does she keep failing at it? And if she’s granted another reprieve from death, will she be able to do more with her life?

Erpenbeck gives us a main character who is unable to survive her own story, even when placed in a magical narrative structure where anything goes. There is, weirdly, no consolation in the possibility of several incarnations, as none of them seem to “complete something begun in an earlier life,” and a shorter or longer life span doesn’t really make a difference.

If this is a musical novel, with interludes for chapters, then it’s a fugue. Erpenbeck is obsessed with how chance and history collide, repeat themselves, and translate into a personal narrative. In her worldview, death is the inevitable end of each narrative, but each narrative is also a transmutation, a piece of the thread picked up at random, in different times and in different places, and blended into history. And, in the spirit of Whitman, each narrative contains multitudes.

If death is always waiting around the corner, it means we are all constantly fighting to live. In Aller Tage Abend, life is at the same time a battlefront and a story of survival. Put bluntly, each new day on which we don’t die means that we get to die another day. “How many such battlefronts, which could have cost you your life, are there in a single life? It was so tiring, having to endure all the battles in which you didn’t want to fall.” ⌈translation mine

Wie viele solcher Fronten gab es in einem Leben, die einen das Leben kosten konnten? Es war so mühsam, all die Schlachten, in denen man nicht fallen würde, zu bestehen.

Aller Tage Abend thus reads like a series of permutations of one and the same life story that are designed to stall the inevitable progress towards death. In spirit, it approaches One Thousand and One Nights, where stories are also told to postpone death. Reading it in German affords a particular pleasure, as Michel Faber noted in his piece  for The Guardian, because Erpenbeck’s writing is not simply poetical but “incantatory.”

I also agree with his assessment of Erpenbeck as one of the “finest authors alive”: her voice stands out and conveys its message, even in German, across the vast murk of current novel production. Her prose is resonant and casts a spell; you find yourself drawn into it from the first page. There is no room for overwrought drama and pregnant conversations; the delivery is matter-of-fact and surgically precise, even when the narrative form is a fugue. Ich bin begeistert.

I look forward to going back and reading some of her earlier books.

“The Americans”: Game of Spies

A typical American family unit in the early 80’s is actually a front for a couple of Soviet spies embedded in suburban idyll, living the American Dream. The premise of The Americans is straightforward enough – it is, after all, a spy show set at the height of the Cold War – and maybe doesn’t sound like much more than a cool idea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it keeps running just slightly below most people’s radars even after four seasons – just like its central characters try to do. Personally, I find it to be the best drama show currently on television.

As Emily Nussbaum correctly pointed out in The New Yorker, The Americans is a show driven by sexual tension. That said, there isn’t a single scene of gratuitous nudity in all its four seasons (yes, I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones). Instead, the show writers make sure that every sex scene counts, because it needs to demonstrate that sex is power. The power to gain purchase in negotiations, to subdue a strong character and make them vulnerable, to weaken a psychological advantage, or simply to balance trust/domination issues between spouses.

Mostly, however, it’s a show about the slow unraveling of lives built around a lie, but sustained by bonds of love and a struggle for genuine intimacy. This paradox at the core of the show is what creates the suspense and propels the action. It also keeps circling back to the same questions: where do the lies stop, and where does the real person begin? Are they getting close to someone because they crave genuine human contact and warmth, or are they working to convert them into “assets”? How can you trust anything that comes out of their mouths?

This is Game of Spies. The basic issue explored in the show is the unreliability of the characters’ narratives, both in what they tell others and what they tell themselves. The viewer is drawn into this guessing game almost unconsciously, trying to read poker faces and guess at motivation. Both the Soviet and the American spies find themselves in the same position, which is impossible to defend, or sustain, for long: they lie and fight to keep their secrets, but they also lie and fight to protect those they love. And slowly but inexorably, their loved ones become collateral damage. Strung out between love and duty, there is no win-win situation for anyone on this show.

As I already mentioned in a brief note a few months ago, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, as the married spy couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, are a revelation. I used to watch Felicity religiously in my college days, and always found Russell’s acting good, but nothing that I saw there hinted that she could deliver this taut performance of fierce single-mindedness. Rhys, whose face seems to be set in a permanent mask of pain by season three, is a study in emotions.

Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship anchors the show and is an emotional masterpiece unmatched by any other show in current running. Russell and Rhys have a strong chemistry that somehow deepens from season to season. As Elizabeth and Philip slowly crack under the pressure of guilt and fear, they still fight through to find a way to communicate and to support each other. By season four, they are both so exhausted and weighed down by the increasingly futile nature of their work that their communication is often wordless, yet clues in the viewers seamlessly.

In an interesting subversion of typical masculine and feminine roles, Elizabeth has the stronger will of the two. Already in season one, Philip starts to question their mission and his unraveling begins. She seems more guarded in her emotions. There is a coldness about her, visible in the grim set of her jaw. It’s her determined focus and ideological conviction that keep Philip on track. Elizabeth doesn’t waver until season three, when their family is threatened and her past is dragged into the present.

Philip’s strength is gradually revealed in the gentle way he cares for Elizabeth; a role typically reserved for female characters on similar shows. Viewers come to realize that he’s only staying in the job so that he can look after her and their family. When she is weakened, he steps in to shield her and give her some breathing space. In any other show, the emotional and psychological strain these two labor under would exact a heavy toll on the relationship, but hardship seems to solidify Philip and Elizabeth’s bond. In their line of work, they are quite literally the only two people they can trust.

⌈spoiler alert!⌋

In season three, the couple’s elder daughter, Page, turns 15 and finds out that her parents are Soviet spies. Her life becomes confusion and turmoil beyond typical teenage wasteland. And yet, in a show that doesn’t lack strong female characters, it’s Page who takes you by surprise. Sweet and docile in the first two seasons, she reveals enormous willpower and unexpected strength in seasons three and four when she shoulders the burden of sharing her parents’ secret. Drawn into the arena of lies and subterfuge, her struggle to maintain a sense of integrity and self-respect becomes a major plot point in season four.

Season four is about parenting as much as it is about spy-work. As she processes and adjusts, Page starts to serve both as a mirror to her parents and a mouthpiece for the viewers. Her questions echo those posed by the show itself: who are you people? How can I trust anything you say? Are you telling me something because you’re trying to recruit me to your cause, or is this something you genuinely believe? Do you realize how crazy and overwrought this all looks to an outside observer? In a show centered around the exchange of information, words suddenly lose meaning, and an ‘I love you,’ or ‘Everything will be all right,’ are simply not enough.

There is a permanent feeling of doom about The Americans. Season four ended with Philip and Elizabeth’s whole mission on the verge of collapse as they face a difficult choice – stay or run? But history also looms large on the show’s horizon: it’s late 1983 and everyone is glued to their television sets watching the movie The Day After, which fictionalized an escalation of nuclear war on U.S. soil to show its possible aftermath. In the larger picture, the end of the Soviet Union is nigh, and the spies on both sides are weary and frightened. How, and when, will it end for Elizabeth and Philip?

Maybe Sting captured the sentiment best of all:

 

“The Witch”- Resurrecting Hawthorne on screen

For one of the top 5 films I’ve seen in the last few years, Robert Eggers’ The Witch admittedly made a serious mistake in promoting itself as a traditional horror movie. When you read movie-goers’ reactions on IMDb, for instance, you see predominantly negative reviews stemming from frustrated expectations. People bashed it because they went in anticipating gore, jumpy scares, and screams. There are none in The Witch.

If it’s a horror movie, it’s a purely psychological one. The characters generate the psychodrama themselves. The tradition it follows is what Camille Paglia called “psychological gothic,” found in films like The Innocents, Don’t Look Now, and, more recently, The Babadook. These eschewed typical horror tropes to achieve anxiety and terror via setting, music, and direction. The Witch, for its part, is a syncretistic blend of history, fairy-tale, and Dark Romantic fiction in the vein of Hawthorne.

Eggers’ first and basic building block is the family, the nucleus of man’s social being. Husband and wife, with four children and one on its way, in a patriarchal paradigm where the family’s fate and fortune are in thrall to the will of the father. Eggers’ next step is to place the family in the context of 17th-century Puritan New England, among the first waves of settlers escaping religious persecution in Britain. The theological views expressed by the family show them as Calvinist. Due to an unspecified “sin of pride” for which the pater familias refuses to repent, the family is dislocated from a colonial settlement onto a wild, untamed piece of land bordering a forest.

Ever since Dante wandered into one, a forest has been a metaphor for sin and the darker side of human nature in the canon of Western culture. And long before that, in the tradition of fairy-tales and folklore, a wood has been a dangerous and frightening place, an abode of spirits and dark things. (If you’ve ever visited the Black Forest in Germany, you’ll understand.)

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Urwald Sababurg, Germany (picture is mine)

The forest in this movie encroaches, physically as well as metaphorically.The family members expressly warn each other against straying into the woods, and even if there is good reason to go into it, such as gathering wood for kindling, the activity is viewed as a transgression. And in this wood there apparently lives a witch, who steals the family’s newborn baby while the eldest daughter, Thomasin, is playing with it. The witch is then shown using the baby’s blood and fat to make a flying ointment.

Eggers was thorough with his homework on documents related to witchcraft practices. He taps straight into the spiritual turmoil of the 17th century, when the nascent scientific revolution and the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment battled with widespread belief in witchcraft. In times and places where religious excitement is whipped up into a frenzy, ideas about agents of evil easily take root in the mind, melding the supernatural with the psychological. Eggers first meticulously collected and then mixed his arsenal of folk-lore and historical documentation on witch trials , and wove it piece by piece into the film.

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During an unsanctioned trip through the woods, brother and sister Caleb and Thomasin get separated, and Caleb subsequently gets lost. As twilight gradually descends on the wood, he stumbles onto a small cottage, where a beautiful young woman welcomes him with a warm smile. While Caleb is paralyzed in a psycho-sexual trance, a close-up reveals that her smile is lascivious, and as she lays a hand on Caleb’s shoulder to draw him in, the hand is shown to be a shriveled claw.

There in a gloomy hollow Glen she found
A little Cottage built of Sticks and Reeds
In homely wise and walled with Sods around
In which a Witch did dwell, in loathly Weedes,
And willful Want, all careless of her Needes
So choosing Solitarie to abide,
Far from all Neighbours, that der devilish Deedes
And hellish Artes from People she might hide
And hurt far off unknown, whom ever she enviede.
– Spenser, Faerie Queen

In a hat-trick unparalleled in horror movies since The Exorcist, Eggers in this scene touches, syncretistically, on Hansel and Gretel, on a Gothic narrative thread of vampirism, and on a historically well-documented obsession with witchcraft. The hairs on my arms were prickling in the movie theater from how perfectly the scene is set and executed.

Eggers is here directly tapping into the narrative of the witch as the psychic vampire, pioneered by Coleridge in his poem Christabel and later adopted by J. Sheridan Le Fanu for Carmilla. A vampire, as we know, exudes glamour that is at once sexual and psychological in nature, thereby seducing its victims. A witch, however, is usually an old, physically decaying woman who needs to assume the form of a beautiful young woman in order to trick her victims. In Eggers’ movie, the witch doubles as a psychic vampire preying on the weaknesses of anxious, frightened minds.

As Eggers explained in an interview with Vanity Fair, the paranoia surrounding witchcraft is a manifestation of fear feeding off of anxiety and despair in order to grow stronger. In the movie, once the idea of the witch is planted into the family’s minds as an explanation for their misfortunes, it slowly cannibalizes the psyche already gorged on fear. The psychodrama culminates in a physical manifestation of the witch to the children.

The story thus latches onto the Romantic tradition in literature, specifically its darker strain, cultivated by Coleridge and continued down the line in America by Poe and Hawthorne. As Camille Paglia explains, in this more Gothic strain, nature is not experienced as benevolent in a Wordsworthian way, but rather as daemonic.

In The Witch, daemonic nature is primarily associated with the wilderness and the wood in whose shadow the family lives, but it is also symbolically represented by the black goat the family owns, and the raven and the hare that keep popping up here and there throughout the movie. These are all animals that, in traditional folklore, are endowed with supernatural attributes. As the tagline for the film warns us, evil takes many forms.

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(image found on indiewire.com)

Eggers fused this daemonic aspect of nature with a Puritan worldview, dubbing his movie a “New England Folktale.” In doing so, he firmly anchored it in the legacy of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a native of New England who was obsessed with its colonial history as much as he was with the Puritans’ neurotic preoccupation with questions of moral law and evil. Although Eggers blames Hawthorne for misrepresenting Puritans, my claim is that his work is directly and consciously indebted to Hawthorne; specifically, to his eerie short story “Young Goodman Brown,” set in the same period as Eggers’ film .

In it, the titular Goodman Brown finds himself on a mysterious, no-good errand in the woods, at dusk, despite his wife Faith’s protestations that he should stay at home that night. His fearful journey through the forest eventually leads him to a Witches’ Sabbath – a midnight orgy in the woods, presided over by Satan himself. There he sees all the villagers he’d known his entire life, both those who pretended to be saintly and those who were known for their loose morals. And last, but not least, he sees his wife Faith, about to be inducted into Satan’s circle.

Satan welcomes them with the following words: “Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.”

The same idea, in not so many words, is also communicated near the end of The Witch. Hawthorne’s Satan is both presenting the gist of Eggers’ story as well as unraveling the basic tenets of Calvinist creed: mankind is naturally depraved and salvation can only be achieved through grace. But if your own nature sabotages you, how could you ever hope for grace?

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(an illustration for the printed story)

In Calvinism, salvation is hitched on the person’s ability to believe that grace is possible, and on the striving to be included among those on whom it is eventually conferred. (Calvinism teaches that only some people are chosen by God for salvation.) Ironically, both Hawthorne’s and Eggers’ story is about a man’s loss of this capacity for belief.

As bearer of moral rectitude, the patriarch’s fall from grace precipitates the misfortune of the rest of his family, since they depend on him for moral guidance. In The Witch, the patriarch William is the mouthpiece for these beliefs, carefully instilling them in his young son Caleb as his heir, who faithfully reproduces the creed although he doesn’t understand it. But more importantly, he believes his father. As Paglia explains, the Puritan notion of rectitude is a “masculine straightmeasure.”

Sexuality is the stumbling stone of Puritan culture. Women, by virtue of their problematic sexual power over men, are excluded and dubbed the weaker sex, forever more open to Satan’s whispers than men. In this worldview, witchcraft is perceived as woman’s subversion of masculine authority, an attempt to escape the rigid laws of morality that point the way to salvation in exchange for an “easy” life here on earth.

In The Witch, it is the youth, beauty and budding sexuality of the eldest daughter, Thomasin, on whom these concepts are projected. When the witch initially steals the newborn baby and later causes Caleb to get lost in the woods, the blame for it is placed squarely on Thomasin’s shoulders by her mother, and it is the mother who first suspects her to be a witch. The father is then easily infected by doubt. (I don’t have space here to get into this Freudian family drama.) Grief, anger and sexual jealousy leave very little room for compassion.

The Witch can thus be viewed as a portrayal of a family’s gradual loss of capacity for faith and consequent fall from grace. Although the depicted events are tragic, it’s clear from Eggers’ insistence on a detailed rendering of the alleged practices of witchcraft, as well as on the fact that the tragic chain of events is triggered by a psychodrama entirely of the family’s own making, that he is also gently mocking his Puritan subjects.

The same tone can be detected in Hawthorne’s tale, not only in Satan’s gentle prodding of the poor Goodman Brown, but even in Brown’s own exhortation to his wife at the outset of his journey, when he seeks to calm her mind by telling her,”Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee.” The explicit condemnation of such a simplistic outlook on life, where – for a woman – adherence to a regimented course of daily prayer and early bed times is supposed to guarantee safety from any moral pitfalls, is of course to be found in her eventual presence at the gathering in the woods, and implicitly, in Brown’s failure to follow his own advice and uphold the moral standards he was supposed to represent.

Both The Witch and “Young Goodman Brown” subvert the traditional morality tale in order to expose the sexual and moral hypocrisy of their times. While I think Hawthorne’s tale functions more as a retrospective critique of what he perceived to be the failure of the Puritan colonial experiment, Eggers’ message seems to be that not much has changed since the 17th century, and America’s conceit of a society in progress is an illusion.

 

 

 

Further reading:

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Yale University Press, 1990.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” In: The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. Bradley et al. Grosset & Dunlap, Inc., 1974

Songs that have defined me, Pt. 2

This post continues from an old one, which dealt with songs that defined me when I was young. Here I will focus on the last 20 years. God, that makes me feel old!

Mid-late 90’s

U2, “One” / “Stay”

Achtung Baby is U2’s last good album, and almost every song on it is great. “One” stands out from the rest of the album because it’s emotionally raw and acoustically pared down, with Bono’s voice stripped bare. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find my favorite of the three video versions – the second one, directed by Mark Pellington, with slo-mo buffaloes – so I thought of the next best thing from the same era, the Wim Wenders-inspired video for the achingly beautiful “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” from the otherwise disappointing Zooropa.

Pink Floyd, “Comfortably Numb”

The Division Bell came out in 1994 and held some amazing songs, such as “High Hopes” and “Keep Talking,” but the real tour de force for me personally was The Wall, which I discovered in 1996. Everything about this album is Roger Waters-masterminded, except for 3 songs which were David Gilmour’s contribution. One of them is “Comfortably Numb,” and if somebody forced my hand I’d probably say it was my favorite song of all time, but I usually refrain from such statements. Whatever else it may be, it’s certainly Gilmour’s best guitar solo.

Shakespeare’s Sister, “Stay”

I need to be taken out on a stretcher after some songs, that’s how much emotion and energy is wrung out of me when I hear them. The fabulous vocal counterpoint of “Stay” does that to me. What a powerful, unique song.

Sting, “Why Should I Cry For You?”

Sting’s definitive 90’s album is Ten Summoner’s Tales, with hauntingly beautiful songs such as “Fields Of Gold” and “Shape Of My Heart.” My personal favorite, however, is 1991’s Soul Cages, a somewhat dark, introspective album about grief and the passage of time. “Mad About You” and “Island Of Souls” are incontrovertible masterpieces here, but the song that defined me was “Why Should I Cry For you?,” which from production down to the lyrics is just utter perfection for me.

Crowded House, “Fall At Your Feet”

This New Zealand/Australian band passed easily under the radar for most people, although the single “Weather With You” received heavy airplay in Europe. My introduction to them was the 1996 compilation album Recurring Dream which showcased the best songs from their decade-long career. I love almost every song on it, none more so than “Fall At Your Feet,” one of the most perfectly composed ballads ever.

The Cure, “Pictures Of You”

This is not one my very favorite Cure songs, but it carries the most emotional significance. I first heard Disintegration in 1998, as a gift and an auditory induction of sorts, from the person who later turned out to be the love of my life.

 

Sisters Of Mercy, “Ribbons”

This is another song that ripped through me right from the opening chords, and although it wasn’t the first Sisters song I’d heard, it was the one that got me into the band.

Depeche Mode, “Home”

This is a song of pure pain, powerfully rendered by the use of violins. The lyrics, too, always struck really close to home – no pun intended. For a band boasting so many excellent songs, this is certainly one of their best.

Edwyn Collins, “A Girl Like You”

This is another song calling for a stretcher afterwards. It’s Edwyn’s voice, it’s the guitars, it’s the percussions, it’s everything.

The Verve, “Bitter Sweet Symphony”

Urban Hymns is hands-down one of the best albums of the 90’s. It contains several songs that will be emotionally relevant in perpetuity, such as “Lucky Man” and “Sonnet,” but the one that I’ve always related to on so many levels is “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” a song of pain, defiance and endurance.

Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris”

I remember waking up one morning around 7 o’clock in late spring of 1998, in the sun-drenched room of my host family’s house in Ohio, to this song on my radio-alarm clock. Admittedly, I was more open to soppy love ballads at that point, but it was nevertheless love at first hearing.

2000 – present

Pearl Jam, “Nothingman”

Vitalogy was on heavy rotation for me around 2001, but for some reason, this song struck the deepest chord and stayed with me beyond some others that I loved on this album.

A Perfect Circle, “Rose”

Mer De Noms was the gateway to Tool for me, and it left me in stunned silence the first time I heard it. I always thought “Rose” captured perfectly who I was at the time – this Hamlet-like, torn figure full of fear and doubt and indecision.

 

Tool, “Schism”

I explained the significance to me of “Schism” and Lateralus in an older post, so I won’t go into it again here, but it’s still a great excuse to let you (and me) watch the mind-blowing video for it.

Massive Attack, “Unfinished Sympathy”

There are many songs that remind me of my first great love, but this one explains perfectly how I felt in its aftermath. The title captures the essence of how I still think about it today.

Placebo, “Pure Morning”

I don’t know what I like better, the outlandish lyrics or the aesthetic perfection of the video for this stupendous song. I never really got into Placebo beyond their album Without You I’m Nothing, which contained some really good songs, so to me “Pure Morning” remains the highlight of their opus.

EKV, “Par Godina Za Nas” (A Couple Of Years For Us)

Ekaterina Velika (EKV) is the best band to have come out of ex-Yugoslavia. If they had written their songs in English, they would’ve made it big in the UK and Europe, I’ve no doubt. Penned in the late 80’s, this song turned out to be eerily prescient, both politically and in terms of the fate of the band itself. Beyond that, it’s the bass line that slays me each time.

Santigold, “L.E.S. Artistes”

If there was ever a personal anthem for me, it’s gotta be this song. The lyrics and overall mood of the song have defined almost an entire decade of my life since the song came out in 2008. Fierce and defiant as the woman who wrote it, this is the ultimate song about (female) self-empowerment.

 

What are some of the songs that have defined your life?

The year in reading – 2015

This is a short post, but might turn out to be a long read if you follow the links below. I wanted to compile a list of newspaper, magazine and online articles published in 2015 that I found to be thought-provoking, fascinating, educational, and/or simply very well written. They come from a variety of differing platforms, and cover diverse topics – from abortion and domestic violence, to the current plight of Jews in Europe, to the fate of Buddhist monks in Tibet. Many of them involve politics, while a few are about arts and culture. I hope they give you some fresh perspectives.

Jessica Machado: The Shame We Carried

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/03/dune-50-years-on-science-fiction-novel-world?CMP=share_btn_tw

Matt Burriesci: The Arts and Humanities Aren’t Worth a Dime

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/04/is-it-time-for-the-jews-to-leave-europe/386279/

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/03/The-Gangsters-Of-Ferguson/386893/?utm_source=btn-twitter-tmblr

The Chair

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/27/holocaust-non-jewish-victims_n_6555604.html?utm_hp_ref=tw

http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/people/the-town-without-wi-fi/#.VLMMTBuXt8k.twitter

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jul/22/rain-is-sizzling-bacon-cars-lions-roaring-art-of-sound-in-movies?CMP=share_btn_tw

It Will Look Like a Sunset

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2015/may/29/its-time-to-wean-ourselves-off-the-fairytale-version-of-farming?CMP=share_btn_tw

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-other-france

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amy-westervelt/having-it-all-kinda-sucks_b_9237772.html

And for those of you who can read Croatian and/or Serbian:

Pismo nepoznatom počinitelju

http://gkr.hr/Magazin/Prikazi/Devet-i-vise-strana-naseg-svijeta

http://www.portalnovosti.com/kinder-ustase

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

 

The best that Netflix has to offer

I think one of the reasons I’ve seen few good movies in 2015 is that I’ve been watching far more TV series, and with the advent of Netflix in our home, the scale has decidedly been tipped in favor of TV. There is also the fact that the TV viewing experience has changed drastically in the last few years, with many film directors crossing over to the “dark side” to produce, write and/or direct TV series. Frank Darabont, Jane Campion, Guillermo del Toro, and Cary Fukunaga are among these, and they have proved to be very good at it. But there have also been plenty of maverick “start-ups” picked up by smaller and/or independent networks in the U.S. and Canada that achieved more with less.

If I had to pick my top five shows in terms of subject and character development, it’d have to be Mr. Robot, RectifyThe Walking Dead, the first season of True Detective, and Netflix’s documentary series Making a Murderer.  If I picked them in terms of how exciting and irresistible I found them, I’d have to include Daredevil, Orphan Black, and Better Call Saul.

What follows is a list of series and documentaries that I think are worth watching, and which can be currently found on Netflix. While it’s true that the majority of these shows were made in North America, there are still a few cultural beacons left in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand that more or less regularly churn out something intelligent and praiseworthy. I’ll be mentioning those at the end.

On Netflix:

Making a Murderer

Probably the top TV event of 2015, this documentary series snares you with its righteous passion for exposing injustice, and it takes some time and distance from it to realize that it’s not as objective as it purports to be. It nevertheless offers a sobering, at times heart-breaking insight into the failings of the American justice system.

Daredevil

Finally a show where fight scenes look realistic and feel physically real! Expertly shot, supported by luscious imagery, and a well-devised plot, Daredevil invites binge-watching. I also applaud the choice of Deborah Ann Woll as one of the main female protagonists for her blend of tough and fragile femininity. I now have high expectations of season 2.

Jessica Jones

It took me about five episodes to get past Krysten Ritter’s permanent scowl and tough bitch routine, copy/pasted from her turn in Breaking Bad, and really get into the series. Jessica doesn’t really come into her own until she’s played off her arch nemesis, Kilgrave, and bits and pieces from early episodes finally start falling into place. Kudos to the show for exploring, for the first time ever in TV format, topics such as the guilt of the brainwashed, PTSD via rape survival and brain cannibalization, and lesbian divorce.

The Americans, Season 1

This show was a nice surprise, both in its choice of subject matter (KGB sleeper agents embedded in suburban America) and in terms of how suspenseful and engaging each episode is. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are excellent leads with genuine on-screen chemistry. Even the sub-plots are well-executed and interesting in their own right.

Walking Dead

This show deserves a post of its own, as it continues to give me food for thought even after five seasons. It has long since stopped being a show about zombies, and is now a full-on heart-of-darkness exploration of the misery and perseverance of the so-called human condition. Season 4 was a particular favorite of mine because it was the darkest; it took me days to recover from some episodes. I don’t know how long and how far the showrunners can keep it going before it descends into solipsistic madness, but until such a time, they’ve got me utterly hooked.

Orphan Black, Seasons 1 and 2

The series explores the ethical conundrum posed by human cloning. It starts off slow and small, and then suddenly explodes into a fast-paced, tightly wound action/drama. The plot doesn’t unravel but only keeps getting more complicated, with Tatiana Maslany slaying the many-faceted lead role(s). Looking forward to seeing where the show goes in the third season.

Rectify, Season 1

This show is pure poetry and philosophy, as is its central character. As such, it’s not the easiest pill to swallow. Its plot line is straightforward enough and its premise interesting in a Shawshank Redemption kind of way, but its deeper concerns are somewhat incongruous with what is currently on air in terms of prison-related shows. But that’s where the beauty of the show is hidden.

Fargo, season 2

Don’t get me wrong, season 1 of Fargo makes for very entertaining viewing, but is also constricted and bound by the tone and plot of the movie it’s based on. The familiar ground the show’s treading on is somewhat freshened up by the likes of Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, but while the latter plays the villain tremendously well, Freeman is reprising Bilbo Baggins with an American accent. I didn’t feel like he brought anything new to the role. For that matter, Allison Tolman as Deputy Molly Solverson is the heart and soul of the season.

Season 2, on the other hand, is marked from the very first shot by fantastic directing, editing, and score. No longer in thrall to the Coen brothers’ movie, the plot of season 2 ranges wide and free to include the vicissitudes and predicaments of every single member of a mobster family, as well as the heartbreak and creeping grief of watching a loved one waste away from cancer. The casting for this season was so good that even the normally insipid Patrick Wilson shines as a state trooper (and father of Deputy Solverson from season 1). But the stand-out performances of the season belong to Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, who play a married couple trying to cover up a hit-and-run and murder. I haven’t seen Dunst on such high form since 2011’s Melancholia, or even further back, since The Virgin Suicides and Drop Dead Gorgeous from 1999.

I’m telling you, Fargo is going places.

Better Call Saul

As someone who was in turns underwhelmed, nonplussed, and knackered by Breaking Bad, I found that its prequel, Better Call Saul, hit just the right spot for me. In very simple terms, the show is funny, sad, and surprisingly deep. You just don’t expect to see so many facets to the joker and clown you came to know and love in Breaking Bad. The back story I particularly enjoyed was the one about Mike Ehrmantraut, played so very well by Jonathan Banks. Here’s hoping that they can keep it up in season 2.

Breaking Bad, seasons 4 and 5

This show and I didn’t get off to a good start. By the time I sat down to watch it, it was already in its fourth season, and everyone had told me it was the best show they’d ever seen in their entire lives. Naturally, this generated very high expectations on my part, and at first I couldn’t understand how people came to binge-watch it: the second season especially I found to be sluggish and often quite boring.

It wasn’t until season 4 that the show grabbed me, and my ambivalence toward Walter White turned into hating his guts. I  finally understood that I was meant to feel this way about his character, and I could also finally see the overarching plot line that had eluded me before.

What galvanized me was the appearance of Gustavo Fring. Up until that point, the show seemed to be about Walter one-upping different small-time egomaniacs while micro-managing his family and his reluctant assistant, Jessie. This was exactly what had failed to entice me: I couldn’t really see anything particularly original or ground-breaking in how the show handled its characters or its plot.

Gustavo Fring was, finally, Walter’s only true antagonist and a match for his intellect. He called out the worst in Walter, and Walter had to be at his absolute worst in order to outmanoeuvre him. He also seemed to have quite the opposite effect on Jessie: I greatly enjoyed the gradual evolution of Jessie’s character as the show’s one true humanist. I was very sorry to see Gustavo go, but season 5 nevertheless turned out to be the best wrap-up I’ve seen on a TV show so far.

Shows outside the Netflix platform that I’ve greatly enjoyed in the last two years:

Australia/New Zealand:

Top of the Lake

Danger 5

UK:

Happy Valley

Black Mirror 

Utopia

U.S./Canada:

Mr. Robot

True Detective, Seasons 1 and 2

 

Honorable mentions across the board:

Game of Thrones

Sons of Anarchy, seasons 1,2 and 3

Justified, seasons 1 and 2

Modern Family

Master of None

The Last Kingdom

Reading… “The Haunting of Hill House”

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is The Turn of the Screw of the 20th century. Written in 1959, it reads partly like a Modernist novel, with whiffs of Virginia Woolf in the inner monologues, and partly like a Gothic script in the hands of Henry James. It’s the story of haunting as homecoming.

The strongest resemblance to James’ ghost story lies in the unreliability of the central character’s narrative: her perspective is skewed, and she is constantly second-guessing herself and her motives. In both stories, other characters also experience some strange recurring phenomena, but, as with James’ governess, Jackson’s Eleanor Vance is the only character in the story able to directly communicate with the supernatural elements in the haunted house: these, in their turn, target her specifically and by name.

Both women’s psyches are also, due to some experiences in their childhood, particularly vulnerable and sensitive to currents of feeling and thought that most people wouldn’t register. This seems to turn them into conduits for events that manifest largely on the psychic plain and leave few or no physical traces, thereby eluding scientific, rational analysis.

Both stories also unfold in a remote, secluded house in the countryside. But where the old Gothic manor in The Turn of the Screw is simply an aptly dark, ominous setting for the story, Hill House is endowed with consciousness and intent, which makes it the second central character of the book. It’s also the first we’re introduced to.

“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within…”

Jackson makes it clear right away that whatever is wrong with the house, it is structural, built into it. Later, as we find out more about the nature of the man who built it, it’s suggested that whatever darkness was in his psyche imprinted itself onto the house, like some diseased architectural DNA.

“No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.”

Eleanor’s arrival to Hill House at the beginning of the book is depicted as an escape, a bid for freedom from family ties which carry nothing but bad memories and a sense of suffocation. Although she’s initially scared by the house, it weirdly also feels for her like a sort of homecoming. Jackson writes,

“The house had caught her with an atavistic turn in the pit of the stomach, and she looked along the lines of its roofs, fruitlessly endeavoring to locate the badness, whatever dwelt there…”

An atavism is a recurrence of, or reversion to, something from the past. Eleanor’s gut is telling her that whatever is in the house, she has known it before, and it’s not good for her. And yet, despite herself, Eleanor slowly surrenders to this familiar feeling. As one of the other characters staying at Hill House remarks to Eleanor, “This curious life agrees with you.”

It turns out that the house, claustrophobic and labyrinthine by design, is a vehicle for unleashing the real haunting taking place in Eleanor’s psyche. The house, mirroring Eleanor’s subconscious, takes it upon itself to reveal that Eleanor is in thrall to the ghost of her recently departed mother, who had kept her in psychological and emotional bondage by having Eleanor take care of her invalid self for 10 years, in what would’ve been seen as Eleanor’s “best years.”

This strange correlation of haunting with homecoming echoes Henry James’ less-known short story The Way It Came, where an unconsummated relationship between two people who have never physically met continues to haunt them even after the death of one of them. Their post mortem communication is shown as a homecoming in spirit, where the person being haunted not only accepts the haunting, but even welcomes it.

“Abandoning a lifelong belief that to name happiness is to dissipate it, she smiled at herself in the mirror and told herself silently, Eleanor, you have finally been given a part of your measure of happiness.”

Hill House lures Eleanor by suggesting in its communication with her that this is where she belongs. The house is successful in snaring her, rather than the other people living there, because she can’t let go of her feeling of simultaneous guilt and resentment towards her dead mother. The haunted house is apparently galvanized by a haunted psyche.

Horror stories are what I happily specialize in, and I came to read The Haunting of Hill House via Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, which was directly influenced by it. Jackson’s book is a gem in the genre of ghost stories. Shirley Jackson is a tremendous writer with a talent for very peculiar turns of phrase, and I look forward to reading some of her other works.

Reading… “A Tale of Love and Darkness”

“In Hebrew, ‘fear’ and ‘faith’ are synonyms.”

Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness has a lot in common with two great books: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City.

To the Lighthouse is a book about burying ghosts – specifically, burying the ghost of a dead parent. Woolf lost her mother when she was young, and she grew up in the shadow of her very literary, very intellectual father. She didn’t feel like she could really write and express herself fully until after he was also dead. To the Lighthouse tells us what her mother and father were like, and is her reconciliation with them.

Oz is haunted by the ghost of his mother’s suicide when he was 12 years old, and writing this book is the first time in his life that he’s spoken about it to anyone. In meticulously combing through his childhood memories, he’s looking for clues to help him understand why she did it, and to forgive her. And as if his own memories were not enough, he digs and sifts through the memories of various family members to reconstruct the history of his family in Eastern Europe before the First World War.

“In all these recollections, my task is a bit like that of someone trying to build something out of old stones that he is digging out of the ruins of something that was also, in its day, built out of stones from a ruin.”

Woolf’s book is also a book about war – specifically, WW1. However, war is only mentioned obliquely, kind of suggested through intimations of darkness and destruction, unfinished thoughts and pauses. War is overshadowing all of Woolf’s work, and just how much it affected her wasn’t clear until her suicide note in 1941.

War is also part of the darkness in Oz’s book. Eastern European pogroms, Zionism, WW1, WW2, the Holocaust, the bloody birth of the State of Israel in 1948. This being an autobiographical work, he talks about it very straightforwardly, reliving it through the eyes of the child he then was. However, these wars are just an expression of a bigger, deeper darkness: the centuries-long persecution and hatred of Jews. Oz doesn’t attempt to explain it, only remains somewhat baffled by it.

“When my father was a young man in Vilna, every wall in Europe said, ‘Jews go home to Palestine.’ Fifty years later, when he went back to Europe on a visit, the walls all screamed: ‘Jews get out of Palestine’.”

Istanbul: Memories and the City is also an autobiographical memoir where Pamuk invokes memories of his childhood interwoven with memories of Istanbul in the post-WW2 era. For good measure, he includes literary vignettes about writers and artists somehow connected to the city. The work is a love-letter to an Istanbul long gone, deeply nostalgic and melancholic.

Part of the nostalgia stems from the simultaneous burden and awe of history that a city like Istanbul carries in its DNA. Pamuk does a great job of depicting this sense of history permeating the city. In Europe, only one other city can make this claim: Rome. Jerusalem is pregnant with a similar burden.

Oz, however, barely touches on the historical grandeur of his city. His focus is primarily on the Jerusalem he came to know and love as a child in the 40’s. He approaches it with the same melancholy that Pamuk transfers onto Istanbul, because that city no longer exists. Also, both writers at some point abandoned their cities: Pamuk for work, and because of a hate campaign against him (he dared speak openly about the Armenian genocide), and Oz due to a self-imposed exile at age 14, trying to put behind him his family, his upbringing, his name, and his mother’s death.

And yet, A Tale of Love and Darkness is far more sweeping in its scope than Pamuk’s book. The non-linear story arc encompasses over 100 years of Jewish and European history as well as two Eastern European Jewish family lines going even further back. It paints a picture of what it meant to be Jewish in Eastern Europe, and what Jewishness entailed in Jerusalem during the British Mandate for Palestine, and how this dual heritage clashed in the young Amos.

“A double negation in fact, two sets of brakes, as bourgeois European manners reinforced the constraints of the religious Jewish community. Virtually everything was ‘forbidden’ or ‘not done’ or ‘not very nice.'”

Politics is not eschewed, and Oz makes no secret of his right-wing Zionist roots. He also describes how it came about that he changed his views, becoming a staunch supporter of the two-state solution in Israel.

At its heart, however, this is a book about family and love. It’s a book about how we can never escape from our past and where we came from, no matter how hard we try. And Amos Oz really tried: he escaped Jerusalem for a kibbutz, negating his upbringing, and he changed his last name from Klausner to Oz (Hebrew for “strength”), negating his family’s European, Diaspora roots. A Tale of Love and Darkness is a demonstration of how he failed in these attempts, and how embracing his roots actually shaped his writing.

“I understood where I had come from: from a dreary tangle of sadness and pretence, of longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity, sentimental education and anachronistic ideals, repressed traumas, resignation and helplessness.”

This is certainly one of the best books, and best memoirs, I have ever read. At 500+ pages, it’s engrossing in its eye for detail, waxes lyrical in childhood minutiae, and so poignant in its recollection of emotional states that it made me shed tears in a few spots. It’s also a great read for someone obsessed with Jewish culture and history, as I am. I promise you, it’s a brilliant book.

Eco Utopia vs. Dystopia: Doomsday Scenarios

⌈WARNING: Post contains spoilers for recent movies, TV series, and books!⌋

2014-2015 has been for me a period of increasing worry and unease over the fate of the planet, intermixed with and further exacerbated by concerns over government/Internet surveillance, growing political extremism and polarization, big pharma and big agribusiness.

It’s not like I ignored all these issues before, but I seem to have for some reason become hyperaware of them, probably in large part due to expanding my daily reading and viewing diet, so to speak, via different, mutually unrelated platforms: whereas before I mostly subsisted on a combo of fiction and locally printed newspapers and magazines, in the last two years I went almost entirely online – from literature and forums on thyroid illness, to documentaries, to mainstream newspaper articles, to independent online art&politics magazines combined with cultural and literary criticism. The only things I read in print now are books, and even that might change soon, as I’ve just received a Kindle for Christmas.

I recognized a similar thread of growing alarm and anxiety over the fate of humanity weaving its way through recent fiction as well as non-fiction, both in TV series/films and in books. Broadly stated, the shared topics of concern seem to be: preoccupation with the looming destruction of the planet through climate change, exhaustion of resources, as well as overpopulation, and the role of science and technology in engineering our future; specifically, the concept of scientists as demigods with power for good and for evil.

Of course, this concern is nothing new, especially not in fiction. Already in the nineteenth century, Mary Shelley gave us Victor Frankenstein as the scientist doubly usurping the roles of mother and god. And H.G.Wells didn’t exactly plot a rosy future of technological advancement, either: over-reliance on technology has rendered us useless and helpless to the point of extinction in The Time Machine, and a technologically advanced alien culture finds it very easy to overpower us in War of the Worlds. Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke later added a further twist to this technological angst – the idea that machines, or artificial intelligence, would be the ultimate end of us (echoed later in Matrix).

Science fiction turned out to be a very natural extension and medium for our growing concerns and speculations regarding our future. It has given us free reign to play out our darkest doomsday scenarios born of unease with the explosion of scientific and technological achievements in the course of a mere 100 years, while at the same time letting us believe in the comfort and safety of our daily lives.

Not all reactions to new science and technology have been doom and gloom, however. A very interesting strain of what Adam Kirsch dubs “childish optimism” runs parallel to the deep anxiety. During the early twentieth century, the Italian Futurists gushed with unbounded enthusiasm over the advent of modern technology in all aspects of life, from art and literature to fashion, design, architecture, and even gastronomy. The same utopian projections were echoed by the relatively obscure German science fiction writer Paul Scheerbart in the same time period.

WW2 and the subsequent era of nuclear energy and Cold War fears seemed to have quashed much of that optimism, as reflected in the dystopian worlds created by Orwell and Huxley, until the re-emergence of hopeful scenarios in the hippie epicenters of the late 60’s and 70’s. Herbert Spencer’s Dune, an emblematic product of that decade, stands poised between the two opposed strains as it travels from initial eco dystopia to a vision of an eco utopia. As Hari Kunzru puts it, Dune offers an “era-defining vision of personal and cosmic transformation” through its exploration of concerns ranging from ecology to religion to economy and politics. It remains relevant to this day, and a significant portion of current fiction echoes as well as advances its themes, both on the optimistic and the pessimistic end of the spectrum.

Several recent TV series, books and films in the science fiction/dystopia genre have chosen to pick up and continue the strain of profound anxiety over humanity’s future, but keeping it close rather than projecting it as a very distant future. The anxiety generated is either biological in nature (The Walking Dead; World War Z; Under the Skin), technological/societal (Mr. Robot; Black Mirror), or ecological/political (Utopia; InterstellarThe Book of Strange New Things; Mad Max: Fury Road). What I find particularly interesting about some of these works is that they do not limit themselves to merely portraying a not-so-distant, problematic future society that serves as a warning to viewers/readers in the present, but they also offer more or less radical potential solutions for the various problems humanity is actually facing in the here and now.

In the wildly odd but brilliant British TV series Utopia, the very real problem is overpopulation of the planet and the resulting over-exploitation of resources that will culminate in food shortages, starvation, and species extinction. The solution, proposed by a shadowy organization led by top scientists, is to downsize the planet’s population and curb human reproduction through a series of flu virus and vaccine releases under cover of a world-wide conspiracy. The project reeks of eugenics, channeling the Bene Gesserit machinations in Dune.

The drama consists in some characters being able to justify mass murder with a view of ultimately saving the planet, while others cannot condone it even if it dooms humanity. The solution reflects our current fear of a catastrophic outbreak, counterpointed by the anti-vaccine movement. Scientists are depicted as brilliant individuals with little or no moral compass playing god, which inevitably doesn’t end well for anyone.

In Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, humanity is already on the brink of extinction through food shortage, and the only remaining, desperate option is to abandon the planet for a new one. This is to be achieved either by catapulting scientists carrying frozen embryos through a wormhole to look for habitable planets, or by effectively turning the NASA space center into a Noah’s Ark that will use gravity for propulsion into outer space. Whatever the solution, humanity’s survival depends entirely on scientists, who are here shown as deeply flawed but ultimately just human. Perhaps it is this humility that ensures a happy ending in an apparent ecotopia.

Riding on this notion that we will be forced to leave the planet is Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (which I’ve reviewed extensively here). Here, our future home planet has already been discovered and colonized, ostensibly for the purposes of scientific exploration and advancement. The trouble seems to rest just with the non-human natives, the only source of anxiety initially. The book thus first reads as an eco utopia predicated on successful scientific evolution, but the real reason for the colonization of a new planet is slowly revealed to be the imminent self-destruction of Earth through a political and economic collapse of society triggered by a series of natural catastrophes, which had apparently been foreseen by scientists, causing them to look for another planet to inhabit in the first place.

Scientists are here profiled against the backdrop of an alien planet and alien culture, and their behavior is observed and recorded by a pastor with a checkered past, sent to the planet in a missionary capacity. He doesn’t see them just as scientists, but primarily as human beings, whose previous failings on Earth make them uniquely qualified for a journey with no return ticket (as we find out later), but also haunt them, rendering them unqualified to start a new life and a new society on a new planet. Both religion and science are thus disqualified as solutions for the survival of humanity, and love is proffered, not as the ultimate solution, but rather as an open-ended question shot across the universe.

On different sides of the Atlantic, Mr. Robot and Black Mirror are both cyber dystopias about life in the digital age, played out almost entirely online, and completely controlled and dominated by technology. They tap into the 200-year-old, continuous narrative of fear of technology and its potential for bringing about the end of the world. Mr. Robot delves deeper into current concerns, introducing an unreliable narrator who poses as a cyber vigilante, and asking questions about online vs. offline identity, cyber security, identity theft, cyberstalking and bullying, and hacking. It then goes on to tear right into the fabric of neo-liberal capitalism, critiquing corporate culture, the financial industry, and our heavily indebted way of life.

The suggested way out of corporate/capitalist hell is a radical hack into the information system that brings down the existing structure of society by erasing debt records. The ensuing chaos and anarchy are celebrated on the streets as CEOs commit suicide publicly. Technology, which is still to be feared, now also acts as a moral scourge. The idea obviously recalls the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was also meant to free society from the shackles of debt but did little to shake the financial industry.

Black Mirror, referring to the dark, shiny screens of the various devices we now use to communicate with the world, is an altogether much darker, much bleaker affair. It simply projects one horrible future scenario after another while offering no solutions. What makes it even more unsettling, is that some of the scenarios are already dangerously close to becoming reality. (The first episode has, in fact, already been famously mirrored in reality.) The lack of solutions harks back to the earliest prototypes of science fiction, which served both as criticism of the then actual conditions in society, and as a warning about unintended consequences. It’s also a nod to the original Twilight Zone, which didn’t deal with possible futures, but simply reimagined the present using what was already there.

Back in the non-fictional world, doomsday scenarios are actually given serious thought by scientists in institutes created specifically for this purpose. I just came across an article about it in The New Yorker. It profiles Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher concerned with the probability of artificial intelligence eliminating humans. While I appreciate any text that gives me food for thought, and I like reading about brilliant people, I’m also reminded of how much depends on the decisions of those selfsame scientists that I’ve discussed earlier. I wish we made such quantum leaps in emotional intelligence as we’ve made in science and technology.

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