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I had a revelation on the way to the office today about violence in popular culture, and why John Wick might have been made.

I think John Wick -which, let me add is one of the best action movies ever made with very strong and intriguing characters- was made to put a mirror to our enjoyment of blood and gore.

Back in the days, ancient Romans unashamedly enjoyed blood sports in the arena. Yes, death was not a very common occurrence during gladiatorial combat, but the chance was always there- and they had animal hunts, executions and mock battles to watch, too; plenty of blood and death.

Our 20th and 21th century sensitives, however do not really allow for enjoy violence for its own sake even if it’s simulated – in a movie, book, or computer game. We need our hero to have a valid reason to go on a murderous rampage, which we can then enjoy to its fullest extent, since, you know, it’s all justified. After all his family has been murdered, he is forced by the baddies, he is trying to save his girlfriend, he is fighting the evil Russians, the enemies are computer programs anyway, or they are slimy ugly Nazis or aliens. It’s all good, you see; he has a good reason to spill all that gore, and he does not enjoy it at all while doing it (but he is very good at it regardless). This thin moral veil allow us, connoisseurs, to take delight of the masterful ways the blood is being spilled by our reluctant hero. Sure, there are people who would love watching a 120 minute action sequence without any context, but they are in the minority. (The closest to a 120 minute torture-fest is the Passion of the Christ, but even there you have the whole religious “they are killing your Saviour” angle; it would have not been so successful -or accepted- if they just filmed the execution of any random Roman civilian.)

It’s very difficult to make a successful action movie/thriller/whatever with a psychopathic protagonist who just kills for killing’s sake. Even if the protagonist is literally a serial killer who obviously has mental issues, you need some sort of a moral anchor that justifies his urges you otherwise would find reprehensible (…like only killing bad guys who escaped justice).

I think the makers of John Wick simply decided to do away all that; they have given people a really, really, really flimsy pretext (such as the killing of our retired hitman hero’s dog) for him to go on a rampage where he ends up killing over seventy human beings. All in the name of revenge for the dog (who was admittedly really cute). Don’t forget; most of these people are simply hired muscle who have nothing to do with John’s angst- the only person who does deserve death is the guy who actually killed the dog. The rest are collateral damage occurred while he was trying to get to our dog-murderer. I do not know if the screen writers really wanted us to face our need to justify violence, or if the script was just making fun of the whole “revenge killings” genre of movies, but they succeeded in making one -if not- the best action movies of all time. Perhaps it’s coming to a full cycle: we are slowly returning to the Romans’ unashamed enjoyment of bloodshed.

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I started to listen to the audiobook version of the book Day of the Triffids.

I’ve read this book when I was a child, and I really loved the story, but especially the cover.

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This is how I imagine myself when I weed my garden since reading the book

The message did not really sink in; at the age of 14 I was more interested in action and heroic struggle (even with a plant) than deeper meanings and whatnot. (It took a while to understand the end part of Alfred Bester’s Stars are my Destination, too -another childhood favorite.)

Listening to it again  I realized it is a great example of storytelling. In fact Wyndham wrote the first zombie novel ever -with walking plants, no less. (The best way to deal with a triffid is by decapitation as it happens.)

There is an underlying message: the catastrophe bringing down the human race was a double whammy of our own hubris: orbital weapons of mass destruction and meddling with nature for greed. He does not spell out the reason everyone goes blind, but he does not have to; the reader assumes one of those orbital weapons experience some sort of fault. He avoids spoon-feeding the reader. He’s a bit more direct about the origin of the triffids: results of Soviet experimentation, becoming pests due to human greed (an oil producing company pays someone to smuggle out seeds, but they are shot down and the seeds are dispersed over the Pacific). Again: the conclusions are left for the reader; nothing is spelled out completely.

From here on we have the same story as the movie 28 days later -except this is the original one. The hero wakes up in a hospital missing the celestial fireworks due to his eye injury, witnesses scenes of tragedy and horror as the society breaks down because most people have lost their sight due to the above mentioned celestial event. It takes a while to realise that the fight against triffids will be his greatest struggle as he and some other survivors start rebuilding a new world. While he recounts the events of how the old, consumerist world gave way to the new one the narrator is living, he also provides the reader of a critical description of the “old” world.

We have themes of morality, scientific hubris, greed, the breakdown of social order, of personal choice, of a critique of our own civilization, and the mindless adversary that stalks the survivors, just like in any of the zombie stories you’ll ever read.

In short: it’s a brilliant story.

When I watch a movie usually the problems, plotholes, discrepancies only come to me a day or even a week after watching it; my brain apparently needs some time to process the information.

So.

About a week ago I’ve watched The Cinder House Rules on TV. The story apparently is a great one, very moving with some heavy-handed message that illegal abortions hurt people (aside from the foetus, that is).

If you’re not familiar with the story here’s a short recap: Peter Parker is delivered by his mother in an orphanage, and is promptly left there. The place is run by Alfred, a gynaecologist, who grooms the boy to be his replacement. (Later on he even forges a Harvard degree for him.) He grows up learning the ropes, so to speak, emptying suspicious bowls after abortions performed (illegally) by Alfred (what would Bruce say to this I’d ask) into furnaces, helping out with deliveries, and so on, and so on. We even witness the death of a pregnant woman, who came to Alfred after a botched abortion by some other doctor.

All is well until Imperator Furiosa comes around with Ant Man, the bomber pilot, because Ms Furiosa got pregnant by her dashing pilot boyfriend. Spiderman -against the wishes of Alfred- leaves with them to see the world, and gets as far as Ant Man’s apple orchards (not very far, in other words), where he is employed to pick apples by the family (a profession with little career advancement opportunities). Ant Man goes to fight the war (we’re in 1940 here), so Peter and Furiosa get a bit too close, and surprise, surprise the FBI Instructor from Point Break, who is also an apple picker, knocks up his own daughter. It falls to our hero, the Amazing Spiderman to perform an abortion. This convinces Peter to go back to the orphanage and take up the mantle of the heroic gynaecologist/orphanage director.

We dry up our tears, and credits roll.

Now, you see this in a lot (and I mean a LOT) of movies/books. The hero has some very specific skills, he renounces his set path in life until an accident forces him to use those very skills that he does not wish to employ, hence making him realize that he has to go back to his true chosen path.

This is just lazy. Just think about it for a minute. I mean what are the odds that you have someone who needs an abortion ASAP right where our hero happens to be? Not a broken leg, not a yeast infection, not a kidney stone, but an abortion, exactly where and when our unwilling hero happens to be. As if like the fate of the world depended on my abilities to run a qPCR on Sindbis virus samples, even though I’ve left the lab, and now working as a civil servant. This makes me take the whole story less seriously, which is a shame, because there were some truly good acting (and message, don’t forget the message) in this movie. I get it: you wanted to send a strong message about why abortions should be legal. But at least the writers could have had our hero drive the pregnant daughter up to good old Alfred, so that he (you know, the actual doctor) could do it. At this point he did not know he graduated from Harvard yet, and there was no clicking timebomb scenario which would have had this abortion essential right there and then. (I can imagine the scene with the time is ticking down: “which chord do I cut?” “the umbilical one!”)

Anyhow. Good movie. You really should watch it.

 

He sighed, and stirred up the ash in his pipe with the pick. He felt great –for the moment. The fireplace was radiating a soft yellowish glow, dressing everything in his study into  warm colors. The book in his lap was great; he had always found Dostoevsky refreshing. He used to love Kafka, too, but recent events made him increasingly uncomfortable. Reading Kafka lately filled him with feelings not unlike you get when you lift a stone up, and find a mass of wriggling worms and spiders underneath. Way too real; way too close to home to enjoy.

But the peace is not going to last for long, he knew. It was almost time. Time to leave his own little word, and assume the role of the person he has become. First he thought it would be funny to put up a mirror in front of the whole world; a statement of some sort about today’s shallow culture, and about the media built on manufactured outrage. But it snowballed out of his control… it became, well, alive. Hell, it became larger than life, and now he was unable to do anything to stop it. He had to swim with the flooding water, or he would surely sink.

Just by thinking about what was awaiting him, he felt the peace and quiet ebb away. He cannot enjoy the book with this knot in his belly… might as well get ready, and get on with this charade. What color should he choose for today? Red of white? What should be today’s headline? Mexico? That’s a dead horse; he should pick something fresher. Muslims? That is old news, too. Women’s rights sounds good… Women it is, then. Now, where’s that ridiculous wig? The cameras are waiting, and he has an interview to give.