Sunday, October 15, 2017

Cure for the Unknown: Why I Watch Scary Films

            We’re well into that time of year again which Bradbury christened “the October Country”, which means of course things get a little spooky.

Everyone’s got their go-to literary and cinematic go-to chills; my own preference is overwhelmingly for the quant, archaic, and nostalgic. Think Edgar Allen Poe, and the films of Hammer studios. Generally, I prefer to tickle the fear centres rather than jab them with a spear. 

But every once in a while, I gaze just a little deeper into the well, reach just a little farther into the pit, until. . .woe! That’s enough! I stumble as far as I wish to go, then retreat back to Disney cartoons. And I always wonder what it was that drew me to that place,   and what it was I actually got out of the not-always-pleasant experience. Or, to get to the point:

  Why Do We Watch Horror Films?

             I hadn’t intended to be so overreaching, but I can’t help asking such things while watching a film like Sinister, a Scott Derrickson extravaganza from 2012. Every year I test my limits; this year, I met them with Sinister. By which I mean, it is about as horrific as a film can be before certain lines or decency are crossed, which I maintain are still vital. The question is, why bother pushing the limits at all? That’s what we’re discussing here.


            Sinister  was not received universally well. It got only about 63% fresh on the Tomatometer. Peter Howell of The Toronto Star called it “more stupid than scary”. He has a point: Sinister has no shortage of idiocies which multiply and compound each other when you have time to reflect on them (especially in the daylight). It faithfully carries the curse of a plot largely dependent on the stupidity of its characters: why won’t the Ethan Hawk character (Oswald Ellison) turn all this evidence over to police? Why won’t he tell his wife, or the sheriff, or the Professor, or someone what’s going on? Why won’t he turn on the friggin’ lights?
Director Scott Derrikson

           
           It also carries one of my least favourite tropes, a certain star-struck overestimation of the competence of serial killers: a near omniscient ability to track victims and elude police, and a preference for ridiculously elaborate and utterly impractical methods of murder. (Just how heavy is that branch?)

            Howell, however, is only half right; for all this, Sinister is a deeply frightening film. I’m with Roger Ebert on this one, who called it “undeniably scary”.

Rober Cargill: screenwriter
            Truly scary films are incredibly rare. If fear is a survival mechanism, how can a mere movie inspire it? Sinister manages it, not via the silly jump scares of the Paranormal Activities, or Insideous, (though there are no shortage of these), but by establishing dread of what may come next. We are aware early on that we are going to confront something very dark and very evil, and have a sinking feeling that our protagonist will be utterly unequipped to fight this evil. True, the supernatural element (I give nothing away by revealing this) means it might not have made a difference, but a character with a stronger moral core could hardly have done worse. . .

            The device of the “found footage” is essential here: what contains more potential horrors than a mysterious can of film discovered in the attic of a murder site? A film, a tape, a cd or USB drive are almost Schrödinger boxes of endless possibility. This being a murder site, and this being a horror film, none of the possibilities are good. Already the anticipation is ominous. Found footage also forces us to adapt two points of view. One is with Oswalt, sitting with him in the dark, knowing he is going to see something dreadful. The other, is with the killer: we are forced into the head of an unspeakably malignant entity and made unwitting accomplice to its sins – voyeur, invader, murderer, betrayer. It’s not a nice place to be.
 
What is on the film? Infinite unknowns. . .
            The footage itself sets up innocent, idyllic scenes for the express purpose of violating them, then shows us just enough to confirm our worst suspicions, yet still lets our imaginations do the dirty work. It also implies there is more to come. The sense of ominous anticipation that creates is a feeling I would equate with fear.     

            I didn’t really like the ending; I found it over indulgent and over obvious, where a more Hitchockian minimalist approach would have made the same implications. But it also leaves no doubt as to what we must have suspected from the beginning. I’m not sure I enjoyed Sinister, but have to admire its craftsmanship. Credit where it’s due, Sinister created fear.
             
            But why bother?
 
Feeding the dark side
            Stephen King once suggested that scary stories and horror films are our way of satiating our repressed dark sides. The analogy he used was tossing the occasional raw meet to the caged alligators of our subconscious. Keep them fed, and they won’t try to escape. I suppose there is a kind of tempting logic to it, but the explanation doesn’t satisfy me. Possibly we really are just serial killers at heart, who can keep the violence at bay by tossing it the occasional bone, but that strikes me as an easy answer. It’s not good enough.

            Let’s get back to the found footage. Find an unlabelled film/tape/cd/USB. The possibilities? Endless.  Now, narrow it down a little bit: the footage will be something disturbing, something awful, something bad. How many dreadful scenarios will run through your head before reality settles on one?

            Let’s narrow it down even further still: the footage is just a movie. It has been found on a store shelf. The cover and jacket design give an idea of what is contained therein. Let’s switch pronouns as well (because from this point on I can only speak for myself – I am now holding this DVD in my hand, knowing I will probably not enjoy what it contains. Why do I still put it on?

            I don’t think it is about feeding the dark side. I think it’s something even more primal than that. The one drive we have that’s even stronger than fear, that brought us out of the cave and out to the stars:

            Curiosity.    

"Curiosity is the lifeblood of imagination
             Guellemo Del Toro once called curiosity “the lifeblood of imagination”. Curiosity, I think, is not just a desire to know. It is our way of defeating the unknown. What did Lovecraft say was the oldest and deepest kind of fear? Think about it: a creak in the dark or a bump in the night can be terrifying if you don’t know what’s behind it. A dripping tap or a jittery squirrel can cause terror if they are hidden. We fear the night because of all the unknown threats it contains. Fear is a survival mechanism: we are hardwired to recognize threats, and even potential threats. A rumbling in the bush may or may not be a predator, but we lose nothing from erring on the side of caution and running. We are designed by nature to be on our guard at all times.

            Curiosity is our weapon against fear. An explanation for a phenomena removes its threat. Even a real threat can be less menacing if we know what it is. An identified threat is one we can actually deal with. An unknown threat allows for no solutions and represents a million possible deaths.

The oldest and deepest kind of fear
            My stupid DVD is not a real, or even potential threat. But the same instincts are at work. Its lurid promises of a ghastly experience trigger in the imagination a thousand possibilities far in excess of what it can actually provide. To throw on the movie and find it’s tacky or amateurish or silly, or maybe surprisingly good but still Just a Movie, dispels all those nightmares. And if it inspires new ones? It won’t: the nightmare’s over once the credits roll. It’s over. It’s been purged from my system. I’m awake again, and feeling better having gotten rid of all that mucky stuff.


            Fear is very much caused by the unknown, and curiosity is the cure for the unknown. That, I think, is the key.    



Wednesday, October 11, 2017

On Steviverous insect life. . .

If ever a cure were worse than the disease, the prescribed solution to a  bed bug infestation would surely be it. I'm tempted to just let the buggers have the place if they want it that badly. I'm not joking: I swear, waking up to find swarms of tiny parasites feasting on my flesh and blood traumatized me less than clearing out my apartment in time for the exterminator.

An altogether misleading introduction to the phenomenon


I can deal with a bug bite. I'll live, I've got rubbing alcohol. Hauling out ten crates full of crap at two in the morning on a week night? That'll kill me. Doing again in two weeks  - or living out of a suitcase for two weeks - stresses me way more than possibly finding a pinhead sized critter on my pillow. Not to mention, the thought of sleeping on a bed full of creepy crawlies freaks me less than sleeping on one filled with noxious chemicals.

Seriously, nothing the bugs did were as bad as what I had to do  to get rid of them.

And it's not even over yet! The guy's got to come back in two weeks to get the eggs. Hurrah!


Hamilton Health Services say reports of bed bug infestations in Hamilton have gone up 600% in recent years, for no particular reason. They're everywhere, they're relentless, they're indestructible - or may as well be. They strike at night and disappear with the morning light.  They lurk just out of sight. They bite your flesh and drink your blood, and leave a distinctive mark. Sound familiar?

Actually, the zombie hordes would be a better analogy. The endless wave of sharp toothed drones coming, coming, coming for you. . .

 Poetry aside, what it's like to live through a bed bug infestation? I'm glad you asked! (and aren't you glad you did?)

It is not called an "infestation" for nothing. They infest the most private, intimate part of your living space, where you tend to be at your most vulnerable.  It's an invasion, a violation. A pollution, a desecration.

Bed bugs are carnivorous. They survive on blood. Your blood. I am not at all squeamish around bugs, really I'm not. But waking up to find yourself being eaten is really not nice.


It's gross. You feel nasty. Like someone just spat in your face or peed in your shoe. You want to scrape a layer of skin off, or maybe bathe in bleach. And the thing is, you don't just feel dirty - you feel defeated. You try to keep a clean house, you seemingly spend every waking hour washing dishes, doing laundry or scrubbing surfaces. Maybe it wasn't a palace of polished marble from a Listerine commercial, but for God's sake it was a hygienic little hole. And the little buggers still got in. The Husky Pest Control service take pains to assure victims:  “A bedbug infestation does not mean you keep n untidy home or that you live in unfit conditions” which is nice of them to say, but it doesn't feel any better.

 The stigma doesn't help. Real or imagined, there's disdain on every face, leery you may carry a contaminating egg in your pant cuff or collar, and who's to say you aren't? To the leper colony with you!

Then there's the unsolicited advice. You ought to do this, you really ought to do that. You have to do B, you mustn't do D. Such tidbits are almost never helpful, and larger just offer more complications to stress over. The fact is, you're doing the best you can in an unwinnable situation, and really wish they'd just shut the fuck up.

So what of the process itself? First off, your sleep is ruined. You are quite awake at that point.  You'll probably want to destroy your sheets. Not that it's required or even recommended, but will you really still want them after that? Stick your clothes into the freezer. Apparently the buggers don't like the cold. Clear out your ice cream and stick in everything your want to wear the next day. At times like these winter can be an unexpected blessing, as you can stick everything into a garbage bag and leave it on your balcony over night - but it was an uncommonly warm September for me, so that little bonus was unavailable.

But even with these precautions, you will need to call the pros. And you will need to clear everything out for them. This is not something you can do yourself - ever wonder how many nooks and crannies are in a one-bedroom apartment? Try counting them. Including the electrical outlets. You can't get them all yourself. But even if you could, if you and the equipment and the time and the patience and the knowledge, you'd still have to clear everything out. You need a practically empty apartment. Not your furniture - that's what needs to get sprayed - but your clothes, your books, your embroidery, your papers, your toys, your laptop - your stuff. Anything that makes the place feel lived in.   

Preparing for a bug spray is like getting evicted. You've got three days to throw everything into a box and git! 

Where’s it all go? You can’t just pile it up in the middle of the room, so where do all those boxes go? The balcony? The bathtub? The trunk of the car? Yes, yes and yes. Of course, your only real solution is to have family or friends with a largely empty garage. Otherwise you are quite SOL.
Packing up your entire worldly existence in a hurry, certain things are bound to happen. You are guaranteed to knock a large box of screws, thumbtacks, paperclips, or something equally small and inconvenient onto the floor. You are guaranteed to need something at the bottom of your very first box. You will definitely forget where you put something incredibly important, and will be unable to relocate something you need immediately.

You will finish late at night. You will make many trips up and down the elevator.

You will wonder if it’s all worth it.  I mean, clearing out your entire existence for a couple of ruined sheets? I’m willing to bet most will have their doubts.

Taking down the curtains was the worst part. Not just because they’re a pain in the arse to take down, but because I live across the street from another large apartment complex, and without my curtains, everybody can see everything, from the balcony to the kitchen. “Hello world, step inside, here’s my life, on full public display!” Even the most spotlight hogging actor needs to occasionally hide behind the curtain. When they come down, your privacy completely dissolves; your sense of this little hole in the wall as your private sanctuary, retreat, refuge, nest, lair, your place – is blown wide open. It is no longer possible to shut out the world, or shield yourself from it. All you’ve got is an empty room with a great big window. 

And the really fun part? You can’t put anything back once the spraying’s done: you gotta wait for them to come back and do it all again! At some unspecified future date.

I believe the company’s name is GODOT. . .

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Nice Nazis and Kindly Klansmen: Thoughts on Charlotesville



So. . .

I really wanted to write a follow up on the thirteenth Doctor, Jodi Whitaker (got lots left to say about that!), but of late, I’ve been distracted by the three ring circus unfolding down south. And I don’t just mean Charlotesville. . .

The news has been unfolding so quickly, everything one can say is redundant or out of date by the time it’s written down.
I knew the election of the clown prince would be a disaster. What I didn’t anticipate, was just how hilarious it would be. If Curly, Larry and Mo were made joint Presidents, they couldn’t have been more bumblingly farcical than the Trump White House. I mean, what a display of lumbering nincompoopery! What a gong-show, train wreck, dumpster fire. I feel like a rubber necker, transfixed by the chaos and holding up traffic. Sorry folks, I just can’t look away!

Nevermind he can’t seem to get laws passed or walls built (which suits me fine), or that he can’t retain press-secretaries (Scaramucci, aptly named after an operatic clown, gone in ten days!), the corporate bigwigs on his advisory committees fleeing like rats from a sinking ship (hey Mr. President, if Frazier’s ripoff drugs were so overpriced, WTF was he doing on your committee???). And now, we get a President of the USofA takes his sweet jolly time to condemn neo-nazis.  I mean. . .neo-nazis! The folks who think gas-chambers are a great thing. The President of the United States of America, Land of the Free, needed to be reminded that these were very people.  

Oh sure, he got ‘round to it eventually. But it took a shit ton of prodding. But even then, he equivocated. “there is another side, you can call them the left, that came violently attacking the other group.”  By whom he means the guys who showed up at the rally to tell the nazis what assholes they are.

You had one job Mr. President. Just tell the world “neo-nazis are bad.” Scratch that, just say “nazis are bad”. Save yourself a syllable. “nazis are bad”. That’s all folks wanted to hear. In times of crisis, people just want to hear their leader say something nice. One nice thing we can all agree on. Nazis are bad. Even your craziest critics would have left you alone on that one. I would have given you kudos for that one.

But no: apparently nazis are no worse than the folks who stand up to them (somebody send the memo to any surviving WWII vets). There’s violence on both sides, the left are attacking the right.

Indeed. Those poor, poor peace-loving, kumbaya-singing Klansmen, just wanting to denounce Jews and blacks in peace! Why can’t we just leave them alone?

(I suppose James Alex Fields Jr. was just acting in self defence when he ran his car over Heather Heyer).

A couple things: we have to admit, the far left can get rambunctious. They can break things. They sometimes tip over garbage cans. They’ll write naughty words on the side-walk in chalk. It happens. Acts of sheerest evil to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.  But here’s the thing: the far-left tend to target property. The far-right tend to target people. There is a difference. There is no equivalence. I have written of and criticized the tendencies of the “regressive left”, having seen it and felt it up close. But there is no equivalence. Nazis are worse. When swastikas start flying, there are no “two sides”; there is the side that wants to put Jews into ovens, and the side that wants to stop them.

Nazism is a lot like child-rape: there’s no neutrality. Fearless Leader chose a fine to show nuance for the first time in his life.
And as for that codswallop about “not having all the facts”, what more facts did he need exactly? What else did he need to know about marching Klanners? And since when did Mr. “Biggest Crowds ever” give a damn about facts?

Ye Gods Mr. President.

Throughout it all, there is hope.  The whole grotesquery has sunk so low, it just might awaken a shred of decency within the Republican party.

John McCain has spoken out.  He tweeted: “There’s no moral equivalency between racists and Americans standing up to defy hate & bigotry.” 

Mitt Romney has spoken out. He tweeted: “Not the same. One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes”

Jeb Bush has spoken out. He tweeted: “For the sake of our country, he (Trump) must leave no room for doubt that racism and hatred will not be tolerated or ignored by his White House.

Mark Rubio has spoken out. He tweeted: “The organizers of events which inspired & led to #charlottesvilleterroristattack are 100% to blame”
and “Mr. President, you can’t allow #White Supremacists to share only part of the blame.”

Ted Cruz spoke out. “The Nazis, KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies bigotry, anti-semitism and hatred that they propagate”

Mitch McConnell spoke out: “There are no good neo-nazis, and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms. We have a responsibility to stand against hate and violence.”

Ronna McDaniel spoke out: “the KKK and the white supremacists were wrong. . .there is no good KKK member, there’s no nice neo-nazi.
“The president was saying that people brought violence from both sides. And violence isn’t OK, but the blame lies squarely at the KKK, the white supremacists, the neo-nazis who organized this rally, caused violence and are pushing hate”.

Carlos Curbelo spoke out. He tweeted: “@potus just doesn’t get it. No moral equivalence between manifestations for and against white supremacy.”

Who’d have thunk I’d one day be applauding so many Republican tweets? It’s a miracle!

Ken Fraizier and the corporate bigwigs on Trump’s manufacturing councils have resigned en-mass, and Ill Presidente, in typically juvenile fashion, is wailing that he never liked them anyway.

Here in the Great White North, Ezra Levant and his Rebels have denounced the whole thing, to my boundless relief. There is a line they won’t cross, a place they won’t go. There is a value Canadians still share. Thank God. Hallelujah!    

Maybe it’s all a trick. Maybe the Troglodyte in Chief was trying to shake some sense back into the parties, slap a complacent public awake, and lure the fascist slugs out of their slimy holes so they can be salted once and for all. Maybe. If I were of a conspiracist mind-set. . .

A fella can dream.  



Sunday, July 23, 2017

Lucky Thirteen: thoughts on Jodie Whittiker

Right – o. . .

So they’ve done gone and done it. They’ve made Doctor Who a woman. They’ve been talking about it for a very long time, and now they’ve finally done it. Jodie Whittaker (whom I've had a devil of a time trying to spell) will be taking over from Peter Capaldi. Faithful readers - of whom you are legion - are just dying to know:

13


What do I think? 

Well, the first thing you’ve got to remember, dear readers, is that I really liked Capaldi, and am genuinely sorry to see him go. He’d really found his feet, had a wonderful new companion in Pearl Mackie’s Bill, and now it’s all being thrown out. I’d be grumpy and gloomy even if Tom Baker himself were to reprise the role. So I was bound to be a little frumpy no matter Who took over.

The next thing you’ve got to remember, is that one of things I liked so much about Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was his maturity. I was sick to bloody death of the cute young Tennant/Smith axis, and so was dismayed to see yet another youngster cast in the role. I suppose youthful facades don’t naturally exude infinite wisdom. So it was Whittaker’s relative youth that struck me more than her sex. . .

                                                                                      
Capaldi was awesome
You don’t believe me do you?


I know what you’re thinking. Come off it Steve, Doctor Who is a woman! Tell us what you REALLY think! Right. Well here it goes. . .

The fact is, this was a long time coming. Tom Baker himself floated the idea when he left  the role in 1981 – before Jodi Whittaker was even born. People have been calling for it. The stage has been set for it. Hints have been dropped right left and centre. There has been a lot of time to psychologically prep for it, and so really nothing terribly shocking about it. And, confronted with this reality, is there really anything so terrible about it?

 To clear the way, the best thing they did – they best thing they could possibly have done – was cast the marvelous Michelle Gomez as the Master. Her Marry Poppins-gone bad portrayal was far closer to the traditional Master than that idiotic characterization by John Simm (who apparently was a good Hamlet – again, I blame R.T Davies rather than Simm). In fact, if I were of a conspiratorial mind-set, I’d say they gave us Simm just so we’d welcome Gomez (and in turn welcome Whittaker)
Michelle Gomez: the best Missy since Anthony Ainley

(The very worst thing was to have the Doctor shoot a man just so we could watch a guy into-girl regeneration. The scene had no other purpose; it was off-screen politics intruding on story-telling, out of line with story logic and characterization, and remains unforgivable)

(Hinting that Clara Oswald was actually the Doctor all the time could be either the worst OR the best thing, depending on how you look at it – waking Scrooge-like from that nightmare, I was prepared to accept just about anyone else at all, male or female).
      
So the groundwork’s been laid out and it really isn’t such a shock. That, and the last couple years have restored my faith in the series. I’ve started enjoying it again, and thinking it’s not quite done with me yet. Under those circumstances, it’s easier to say “let’s give her a chance, and see what she does”.

Glad to see him gone. . .
Now, I’ll tell you what I don’t like: the smug, mocking tones of the commentariate, most of whom don’t give a rat’s ass one way or the other about Doctor Who.  They seem to take such glee in ridiculing the lonely fanboy who’s only trying to hold onto something near and dear to him (and who really isn’t as hostile to the idea as he’s been portrayed). I’ve actually got a lot of sympathy for that fanboy, and can assure you he will be won over if he sees that his show isn’t going away.

On the other hand, laughing and jeering at him will send him to the alt-right forums faster than a Weeping Angel. . .

As for myself, I am not going to be lectured by anybody on how I ought to feel. Not having it. Don’t even try.


The argument that this is just a fictional character in a fairly ridiculous scenario doesn’t impress me.

“It’s fiction! Why do you care?” they say.

I shrug. “If it’s fiction, what’s it to you?”

No no, for someone who’s been watching and internalizing this mythology since he was five, this sort of exchange just won’t do. 

There is of course a deeply rooted sexism infecting the culture in general and certain realms of fandom in particular, but there's a different (hopefully more fragile) sort of sexism going on here. It's more to do with anxieties over the direction of the program than the casting of the lead - which themselves stem from sexist notions of what a female lead necessarily implies.

Does that make any sense?

Let me tell you a story: 

As long as its not her!
Not long ago, I read column taking Sylvester McCoy to task for speaking out against a female Doctor. The author – I’m afraid I’ve forgotten who she was or what outlet she was writing for, so you’ll just have to take my word for it – outlined her vision for Doctor Who, which was poisonously incompatible with mine. Basically she wanted greater emphasis on relationships, and more romantic subplots. Exactly what I didn’t want.

See, human relationships are central to any good piece of fiction. But the Soaperatic treatment favoured by Russell T. Davies and others has always been toxic to me. Who’s sleeping with whom, who’s got a crush on whom, who’s angry with whom, who’s got together with whom – who gives a fuck? It strikes me as insufferably shallow and petty. (For the record, Moffat handles it a hundred times better). I mean, if the Daleks and Cybermen are killing millions of people outside, why should we care if Jackie and Pete Tyler get back together? Why does every companion need to develop the hots for the Doctor? As if the writers can’t imagine relationships and interactions taking any other form? It’s an approach that only values the gratification of the immediate base instinct – the gut reaction. Everyone’s emotional bordering on hysterical, and no one (except Donna’s Grandfather) has any imagination. 

I was always more interested in concepts, scenarios, and, yes, I admit it, action. I preferred stories that glorified critical thinking, with high-falutin’ philosophical pontificating and detailed story worlds. I liked suspense, mystery, internal logic and “whatthehellisthat?” curiosity. I couldn’t care less about the companion’s homelife.  If this approach occasionally neglected characterization, the injection of maudlin melodrama was surely no improvement.

So we’re confronted with two fundamentally incompatible visions, and the question becomes not who the Doctor is but what kind of fiction this is going to be. If, like me, you prefer the way it was, (and how it’s recently become again), you might get defensive and wonder why this writer can’t pick on other fictions more to her liking.

Ah, but here’s the thing, here’s the rub: why should a female Doctor symbolize that vision, but not this one?  That author outlined her own preferences – but she’s just one person. There's no reason a female Doctor should signify that sort of change and no recent evidence to suggest the producers intend to go there.

Is this to say I expect - nay, demand, the show retain male priorities? I'll turn that one around and ask what makes my preferences necessarily, inherently masculine?

Possibly it’s the studio’s sexism that’s more dangerous than the fans’. What’s the BBC going to do with a female Doctor? Will she be permitted everything granted to the men? Will the BBC break down barriers, or just give in to sexist notions? Such as. . ? I’m not the one to ask. That’s a way deeper discussion than what we’ve got going here.

Possible it's the nature of the archetype: in pop culture and genre fiction, all the loners, outcasts, outlaws, and aimless wanderers tend to be men. Historically, women just aren't allowed to be that sort of thing. Is this the adjustment some folks just can't seem to make?

Let’s stop beating around the bush, let’s look this in the face: if the Doctor is indeed the personification of higher principal, the final word, the ultimate authority, the very pinnacle of wisdom. . . can we. . .can I. . .accept a woman in this role?

. . .

This isn’t about Doctor Who anymore, is it?
. . .

In which case, this an idea whose time has come, and there’s really no logical reason to get in its way.

I’m going to go at it from another angle. From the other end as it were. I think of the online Q&A with Matt Smith published in the Guardian not long ago. A parent asked if he had any advice for their young daughter, who wanted to be Doctor Who when she grew up. (“Talk fast” was his advice).  So here’s the question: am I going to be the one to look that little girl in they eye and tell her she can’t be the Doctor? Because she’s a girl?

How about that Year 5 kid I once had, who kept bringing me Doctor Who Lego figurines? Might she want to be the Doctor? Might she deserve the same role model I had when I was her age?

Would the Doctor hold her back?

(What would Sharina say?)[1]

If the Doctor’s taught me anything, it’s that we all matter. Each and every one of us. We are entitled to the same opportunities, the same paths to happiness and the same keys to wisdom. You will recall the “Rings of Akenaten”: The stars died so we could live. There’s not one of us who doesn’t contain the stuff of the universe. It’s time to let our petty differences go.

Here’s to Jodie Whittaker, and Doctor 13. I've got a feeling she’ll be alright.  

video











[1] There’s probably not more, and most likely less than, five people on earth who will get this reference. One day, there may be more.  

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Do the Necronomicon! In which a bunch of geeks threaten the democratic process. . .


Hmmm. . .

It is fascinating the lengths some folks will to go in order to:

a) legitimize their prejudices

and

b) dignify their fantasies.

Writing for The Point magazine ("Final Fantasy:Neoractionary Politics and the Liberal Imagination") James Duesterberg  introduces us to the “neoreactionaries”, the pseudo intellectual branch of the alt-right who played a significant role in getting Donald Trump elected and poisoning the political discourse.. It’s an intriguing read – Duesterberg deserves a medal if he actually read all those tracts – but it what it all boils down to is this: the neoreactionaries are a bunch of nerds who’ve watched the Matrix too many times.




That’s it. These guys think they’re Neo. The world is the Matrix – or “Cathedral” as they call it - and they can rip it apart. There’s all kinds of bloated reasoning behind it – millions of words of it apparently – but that’s what it boils down to.  The world around us – specifically Liberal Democracy -is an illusion foisted on use by. . .Cthulhu apparently (I’m not joking), and we are brainwashed to accept it. Naturally they see “political correctness” as a kind of Newspeak designed to lull us into believing the illusion. Nothing new there. But it’s not just pc: they’ve no patience for democracy or freedom either. Basically any notion of civility gets their gander up. We’ve been brought up to believe these are good things, spoon-fed it from birth to keep us from envisioning anything else. Nothing to do with liberty or self determination, or even common decency – it’s all brainwashing. The Matrix has you.

I will say this much: it’s never wrong to ask questions. It’s never wrong to question your surroundings, or notions you were brought up with, or consider other possibilities. When I first read Nineteen Eighty Four as a teenager, the thing that disturbed me most was not that the people were enslaved, but that didn’t seem to realize it. They even enjoyed it. So the question burned within me: if I were enslaved, how would I know it? So it became very important to scrutinize everything any politician said or did, to question every social construct, no matter how deeply ingrained or self evident, and to basically take nothing for granted.

Despite all that, I never ended up as much of a radical. I basically came to the conclusion that the world wasn’t so bad; not perfect to be sure, but a damn sight better than what came before and most of what else has been proposed. You will notice in Duesterberg’s article that the neoreactionaries apparently cite the economic success of China to claim democracy is unnecessary (as if economic success were the only point of society). This isn’t Panglosiism; it’s just keeping things in perspective. The corollary of always asking questions is to learn to accept the answers supported by the best possible evidence. That’s why 9/11 truthers aren’t actually questioning anything – they’ve just switched one set of assumptions for another.
Nothing is as it seems

Which brings me back to the neoractionaries. They’re not questioning anything in any useful or constructive way – they’re removing barriers to their prejudices and rationalizing their assholery.  (They apparently argue slavery is natural as well.)

In his house at Ryleh, dead Cthulhu
invents liberal democracy
Is ironic or appropriate that these folks claiming reality isn’t reality exist entirely online? I mean, turn off your computers and go outside ffs! Also notice that aside from the occasional mention of Hume, their main influences are The Matrix and “Call of Cthulhu”, two fiercely middlebrow[1] works of fiction. While they’re lecturing us on the nature of reality, their lives have been defined by works of fantasy. They’re a lot more like LARPers than Revolutionaries – nerds trying to bring their fantasies to life.

(At least LARPers admit they’re only pretending).

It would be tempting to laugh off these losers. Trouble is, they believe their fantasy, and are acting on it. They’ve formed voting blocks based on it, and treat their fellow humans accordingly – like shit. They will not engage you in a civilized debate – for them, civility is just Cathedral propaganda, and you are an agent of Cthulhu. An enemy. Remember in the Matrix when Morpheus told Neo that the other citizens of the Matrix were “all enemies”? Basically giving him license to slaughter anyone he met? That’s how the neoreactionaries see you. Your criticisms of Trump? They know them: they love them. They think it’s all wonderful.

Those are the folks we’re dealing with. Your worst fears are exactly the kind of world they want.




[1] That’s not meant to be a snobbish dismissal. I love Lovecraft! But he sure as hell ain’t no basis for a political philosophy. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Cautionary tail or racist necroporn? In which the author gets judgmental



So. . .

A comic book under the name Divided States of America decides to adorn one of their covers with a dead Pakistani man hanging from a noose with his balls cut off. Classy.

The publisher of the comic, Image, perhaps not surprisingly decided to withdraw the cover after the public outcry.  Also unsurprisingly, the creator of the comic, Howard Chaykin, was quite unrepentant, and tried to justify said cover:


"For the record, the cover depicts the horrific wish dream of some 45% of their fellow Americans. . .Perhaps if they spent a bit more time paying attention to the fact that the world they were born into is on the brink of serious disaster, they might have less time to get worked up about an image of genuine horror that depicts an aspect of that impeding disaster.” http://www.freaksugar.com/chaykin-responds/


Such self righteousness. You'd almost think he was depicting a real event, rather than making one up. . .

Consider me unconvinced. In fact colour me “Uughh!”, which I can’t help thinking is the reaction he wanted more than any cerebral reconsideration of American politics. There are any number of ways a comic could explore racism, Islamophobia or the horrors of mob rule without mutilating a brown man for benefit of the comic buying public, and good artists can inspire emotions in many different ways – reliance on pure shock value often signifies lack of gifts in other areas.

 The crudity of the drawing leads me to suspect it was more about selling comics than raising awareness; lacking either realism or artistry, and with all the subtlety of a Friday the 13th film, it screams to me nothing so much as “blood and guts sold here!” I do not detect respect for the dead, or concern with human dignity; I’m not convinced this would be foremost in the minds of anyone drawn to picking it up. I do detect an appeal to base adolescent blood-lust rather than higher civic-mindedness.

Read this one instead
I could be wrong – judges of books and covers and all that – but I can’t help thinking how few truly effective social critics need exploitative imagery to make their points. I remember in particular how Joe Sacho managed to vividly portray all the horrors of the war in Bosnia (including gang rape) in Safe Area Gorazde without a drop of blood.  

Concern for society? Maybe. Concern for severed genitals? No question.

As said by comic blogger Beth Elderkin, such an image divorced from any context contributes nothing to the understanding of the issue. All it does is add more nastiness to the world. So there’s now a picture of a dead Muslim man on the shelf of your local comic shop: do you feel more enlightened? More aware? The picture itself says nothing – for all we know it could be the cover of a neo-nazi tract.
More than a few people would probably flip through it just to establish if it were such a tract – drawn by the irresistible wtf?!? factor. That’s the whole idea of covers: catch people’s attention. Get them to look at it. Maybe lay down a few clams for it. In other words, to sell it.

That is what we call “exploitation”. There are many in the comic book world who confuse it for gravitas. 

The publishers tried to justify it like this:
 Watering down in any way how bad things have become, seems like a cop out, like turning a blind eye at a time when we all need to be paying attention.           http://io9.gizmodo.com/image-comics-pulls-comic-book-cover-that-showed-violent-1796585827
 Possibly. And glorying in the gory details seems ghoulish, like turning a deaf ear to people genuinely affected by this sort of thing. I wonder how many Muslims Chaykin interviewed in preparation for this comic. How many mosques he visited in embattled Muslim communities. How many Pakistanis would be grateful for his efforts, and how many he bothered asking.  . .
 From what I can gather, the comic itself wasn't taken off shelves; no one tried to silence Chaykin's great cautionary tale. Read it if you must. But do yourself a favour and read Safe Area Gorazde as well. See how they compare. . .

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Lord of timeLords: on Peter Capaldi

So finally I get to write about Doctor Who. Hurrah!

And because this is a very important thing to talk about, let's not beat about the bush, and get straight to the point (to borrow the cliche)

To whit: Peter Capaldi is leaving. Long live Capaldi!  Long live 12! (or is he 13?).  Capaldi Rocks. Capaldi rules. I love Capaldi and want to have his babies. Capaldi is the best thing to happen to the new series since the new series. Which alone guaranteed he would never last long. Just as Steve's Law dictates that any song he enjoys will always be switched off, any aspect of New Who he approves of will be rejected by the masses and tossed into the rubbish bin. And, God Forbid, if he actually Enjoys something, embraces it whole heartedly with child-like abandon not seen since childhood, then it will most definitely be widely despised. So, Peter Capaldi, and the first unobnoxious companion we've had in forever, Pearl Mackie's wonderful Bill, are both leaving.

Grumble grumble grumble, harrumph.

I knew I'd love 12 since his very first appearance. He didn't even have any lines - just a close up on his eyes at the end of the Fiftieth Anniversary special as a bit of a harbinger of things to come (or, "teaser" if you'd rather stick with industry terms). A rather brilliant little piece of temporal play if you ask me.  The eyes said it all; power, dignity, mystery. I could tell right away, this new Doctor would mean business.

To be sure, he got of to a rough start. His debut was just awful. He came across as rude, unintelligible, and despite the very worst Moffat excesses, the episode itself was a frightful bore. The rest of the season was a mess, they tried to find the right tone and strike the right balance, (anchored down the whole time by the wretched Mr. Pink story arch), but when he finally found his feet. . .

For the first time since the reboot began, I finally felt this was my show again. I was never sold on the cool Doctor, the suave and cute Doctor. The ladies man, party animal, inventor of the banana daiquiri - the hip and "with it" Doctor was never someone I could relate to. Even his choice of companions were cool kids. The Doctor I knew was the misfit's misfit, the eternal oddball and outsider.  Finally, we had a Doctor who fit the Bill (ha!). An aged professor of physics, a teacher, an actual scientist. Deeply caring but largely unsentimental, world-weary but never self-pitying, old and wise. These were adjectives I could never apply to Tenant or Smith. Maybe Eccleston if he'd stuck around - but he didn't. It wasn't until Capaldi really took off that I realized I much I missed these aspects of the Doctor's character. I didn't want a Doctor the cool kids would like, but a Doctor who was too busy to care what the cool-kids thought. I missed the unabashed intellectual who didn't give a damn about fashion.

Capaldi was all these things. The fact that they made him a physics professor was no accident: Capaldi didn't just take his companions out into the universe to show them a great time - he was trying to teach them something. To get them to think. If I've been alienated from the new series so much of the time it's because too often it just doesn't think. Sure, it could feel up a storm, but it so rarely thought about things, and didn't demand it of either its characters or its audience. Capaldi was a thinker. It was a joy to see him in action. A joy cut off, all too soon.

Who knows who they'll replace him with. Probably a woman - there's been every indication of it. Give the person a chance, has always been my motto. But haven't finally gotten used to this one, and fallen in love with him, it's saddening to have to give it up so early and start the disorienting process of a new Doctor all over again.

Loosing a Doctor is always a bittersweet experience - a forced goodbye, but a promising new hello as well. I suppose, like many things in life, I shouldn't mourn that he's leaving but rejoice that he was here, even for a short time. Fact is, I haven't been this broken up about a Doctor's departure since Logopolis. Maybe I should be grateful that I can still feel that way, that Doctor Who can still do that to me, and that they finally found someone who could make that happen.

Capaldi's leaving. Long live Capaldi.  







         


Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Nationalist Screed. . .

Today is Canada Day - and not just any Canada Day, but the "sesquicentennial" (150 years). This means a lot of people will flock to the nearest downtown core decked out in red and white to scarf down copious quantities of cheap fast-food coffee and vaguely cheese flavoured buckets of bacon grease. The government will commission performances from the lamest possible local musical acts, (such as the disappointingly misnamed Barenaked Ladies) to promote its continuing vision of toe-bitingly boring national mediocrity.

It's lame, but largely harmless, even innocent, and in a world where nationalism usually means either going to war or ceaselessly persecuting ethnic or religious minorities, lame is not such a bad thing. If fascism is just nationalism by another name, then any nation that prides itself more on hitting rubber pucks with a stick than killing enemies on a battlefield, or selects a tree nibbling rodent as its national symbol, is perhaps worth celebrating. And, if on paper at least, it takes ethnic harmony and universal health care as not just points of pride but intrinsic to its identify, than it is definitely worth a party or two.

Not everyone will be celebrating of course. The Indigenous peoples can't pretend than any country founded on their destruction and subjugation is worth celebrating, and even a cursory awareness of the history makes it hard to disagree. By any standard, the residential school system was an atrocity. Who could approve of a project to take children from their parents, forbid them to speak their language, and hand them over to sex perverts?

That's what it amounted to. And it wasn't that long ago either, not some distant era of incomprehensibly different values. It was recent, within living memory. Victims and perpetrators are still alive to tell the tale. Nor was it an an anomaly, but official government policy - publicly elected officials called for it, taxpayer dollars paid for it and publicly paid bureaucrats carried it out. Nor just to one or two unfortunates, but thousands and thousands of people, an entire society.

Our country did this. Our country committed this act of evil.

There are lots of other examples too. While our boys were "over there" fighting Naziism, our government was conducting experiments on native people right here. Our government, our country, our beloved multicultural haven. The reserves are like third world countries, people are dying right left and centre, poverty and alcoholism and suicide is everywhere, there seems no end in sight. . .

So yeah, celebrations may be a little bittersweet this year. How does a society accept responsibility for evils done in its name? I don't know. I don't think anyone does. At the very least, we don't pretend it never happened.

But there are other stories to tell as well.

Perhaps all those Syrians dying to get in might one day have such a story. But I was thinking more specifically of my Polish grandparents who came fleeing Stalinism in the 40's, having lost everything to Hitlerism already. They opened up a small shop, never got rich, but did live peacefully ever after, and died knowing their children and grandchildren would never have to experience Hitlerism or Stalinism. That is not nothing, and that is worth celebrating. 

Perhaps it is a mark of maturity that a country could be confident and secure enough to celebrate itself without pretending it shits gold (are you listening Russia?)

(Let's look at the fireworks!) 











 








A letter to a professor from Delaware.

So an American student thought he'd see North Korea with own eyes, thought to take home a

souvenir, and ended up paying for it with his life. In his wildest dreams, poor Otto Warmbier never imagined taking home a stupid poster would be the death of him; he probably thought, like most of us, that getting yelled at and send away would be the worst that could happen to him. He underestimated the psychotic viciousness of the regime.  

The fact is, the Kim Il Sung death cult will waste no opportunity to violate human dignity. Warmbier was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labour, and released only after N.Korean hospitality put him on death's doorstep - he died less than a week after coming home. 

It was a particularly horrifying example of extreme culture shock, a naive, just about unconscious faith in the sanctity of human life confronted with an almost cartoonish indifference to it. Rarely have two sets of values been more incompatible, and rarely has right and wrong been less ambiguous. 

One would think so anyways. Some folks here in the decadent West side with the regime.

Kathryn Dettwyler, a professor anthropology from the University of Delaware, thought Otto "got what he deserved". 

I provide her words in their entirety (courtesy of the rancid Daily Mail

"
“Is it wrong of me to think that Otto Warmbier got exactly what he deserved? 
He went to North Korea for f*** sake, and then acted like a spoiled, naive, arrogant, US college student who never had to face the consequences of his actions. 

I see him crying at his sentencing hearing and think 'What did you expect?'
How about the moments of thought give to all the other people in North Korea who are suffering under the repressive government there? Just because they are north Koreans, and not US citizens, we shouldn't care about them?  

I've spent my life teaching folks just like Otto (I'm a 62 year old college professor of anthropology) and Otto is typical of the mindset of a lot of the young, white, rich, clueles (sic) males who come into my classes. 

These are the same kids who cry about their grades because they didn't think they'd really have to read and study the material to get a good grade. They simply deserve a good grade for being who they are. 

Or instead of crying, they bluster and threaten their female professors. His parents, ultimately, are to blame for his growing up thinking he could get away with whatever he wanted. 

Maybe in the US, where young, white, rich, clueless white males routinely get away with raping women. Not so much in North Korea. And of course, it's Otto's parents who will pay the price for the rest of their lives.”

Kathryn Dettwyler





Now, I provide my own response to Prof. Dettwyler:

(*ahem*)


Yes Professor, it is very wrong and you ought to feel ashamed of yourself.

It is very wrong to think that anybody rotting and dying in a dictator’s dungeon is “getting what they deserve”. I am astonished that anyone needs reminding of this. Apparently you do however, so I will repeat it: nobody deserves it. Nobody, whether American or Korean or whatever arbitrary distinction we happen to give them. No Human Being deserves it.

It should go without saying, but it clearly doesn’t. There’s a callousness throughout your post which makes it necessary to repeat. It does make me question your concern for the “other people in North Korea who are suffering” whom you so disingenuously invoke; if one person tortured to death for a petty crime is so unworthy of your sympathy, what makes anyone else? They failed to obey the laws of their land as well (namely, offending their thin-skinned god-king); by your logic surely they “got what they deserved” as well, no?
            No? Then what is the difference?

            Furthermore, how does concern for the one preclude concern for the other? Compassion is not finite; it does not need to be rationed (though yours apparently is).

            I suspect you don’t actually give a damn about the long suffering people of North Korea (your sympathy in this case clearly being for the regime), but use them to dignify your own prejudices. You heap adjectives on this young man – “spoiled, naive, arrogant, white, rich, clueles (sic)” – whom you’ve never met, and is no longer here to defend himself. From what I gather, he was never enrolled in any of your classes (being a student of the University of Virginia I understand, many miles from your office) and never cried to you for marks. He certainly never raped anyone. These are projections that have more to do with archetypes of your own invention that with Otto Warmbier.

            Perhaps you’ve replaced him with a composite of annoying students from your own experience. Perhaps you have had bad experiences, and perhaps you have a right to feel bitter. But I would caution against letting your bitterness overwhelm your basic decency. Remember, this was a person you had never met, and who had not actually done you any wrong. Are you really going to claim that justice was served? (In which case, what of the “all the other” people of North Korea serving similar sentences for similar “crimes”?). Does that kind of student (which Warmbier may or may not have been) really anger you more than the regime that killed him? Would you look his mother and father in the eye and say to their face what you wrote: not only did their son “get what he deserved”, but it was their fault?  

            Think carefully of your answer: it will reflect far more on you than on them.