Friday, 27 June 2014

Winter Solace

Happy Matariki!  The mid-winter theme continues with some
history and masochism...

Rituals give comfort when the world around us starts to feel like a less benign place, and we are reminded of just how small and vulnerable our lives are on a more elemental scale.  Where we basked in sun just a month ago, now the air is turning cold and, particularly recently, raging gales drive stinging sheets of rain across the land with primal indifference to anything in its way.  Nature has turned from generously bestowing light and warmth to taking those same things away, sending us scurrying for cover like the small, shivering mammals we are.

In ancient times this meant more than putting on a layer of polypropylene and turning up the heat pump; the change to the darkest season could threaten survival. Cold, starvation, flood and a score of other dangers awaited as the sun fell ever lower in the grey, uncaring sky.
But ancient peoples, like other animals on Earth who already knew, became aware that there was a pattern to the seasons: a planetary life cycle.  Just as it began to seem that the world couldn’t become any darker and colder, the sun would begin to climb higher in the sky once again, and light and warmth gradually returned.
In preparation, some livestock were slaughtered so that precious feed didn’t need to be found for them over the frozen season to come, which provided a bounty of fresh meat. Alcoholic beverages had also been fermented over the preceding months and were now ready to be enjoyed.  The longest, coldest nights became a time of celebration, feasting, companionship and merriment, observed in practically every culture across the world with festivals and resurrection myths.

Many traditions we are most familiar with come to us from the Northern Hemisphere, where their midwinter takes place at the end of the year - and so whether we realise it or not, we gleefully celebrate their biggest mid-winter bash when the sun is highest and brightest in our own skies: Christmas.
The appropriation and absorption of the ancient European Pagan festivals into the tinsel-strewn Christian/commercial touchstone we look forward to, (as well as our New Year observances), is a long and complex story. In order to dodge a history lesson, I like to think it can all be distilled down to a common human desire to celebrate hope, peace and joy.

Instead, let’s look at our own hemisphere.
Matariki is the Maori New Year observance, marked by the rising of the beautiful star cluster sporting the same name (also called the Pleiades, or ‘seven sisters’) and the sighting of the next New moon. This takes place on June 28 this year.

Traditionally, depending on the visibility of Matariki, the coming season’s crop was thought to be determined: the brighter the stars, the warmer the season.  Originally, this was a time to remember ‘absent friends and family’, but was also a celebration –with harvesting and hunting completed, the food storehouses were replenished and Matariki became a time for music and feasting.
Enjoying something of a resurgence in recent years, Matariki is hopefully on its way to becoming our New Zealand thanksgiving.                

Personally, my own annual midwinter ritual has always been an exercise in unabashed masochism.  I live near a river which makes its way down from the snowy heights of the Tararua ranges, and at the end of each June I harass a small but brave band until they join me in a mid-winter swim.  This extremely quick dip usually takes place mid-morning, forced bravado shedding at the same rate as our many layers of clothing, before the charge is led over the frosty river stones and into the stingingly cold water.  Unfortunately extremely loud and ripe language always immediately follows our re-surfacing and rapid retreat for the shore, towels and sometimes a waiting nip of whisky. Beyond ‘the dare’ it’s difficult to answer the inevitable question: “Why would you do that?”  Rituals can be as self-apparent as they are inexplicable, but I also suspect I’m drawn to that moment when the water closes over my head, just before the pain and cardiac arrest set in, when my every nerve and fibre feels completely and utterly alive.

Perhaps this isn’t as mad as it sounds, for the Northern Hemisphere winter solstice has always been a time of re-affirming and celebrating life, and doing things which you hope will never appear on anyone’s Facebook page
So let’s follow their example this year, and look forward to our own approaching mid-winter not with gloom, but with friends, family, feasting - and comfort and joy.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Frost and space

Midwinter is upon us, and those clear, frosty nights present opportunities for certain, peculiar creatures of the night...

Astrovan and, naturally, Astrohut.  (Photograph: Mark Mullen)
Prolific sociobiologist Desmond Morris describes teenagers as suffering from an almost irresistible urge to venture out at night and bond with their own kind, all for the ultimate purpose (as most of Morris’s work seems to circle back to) of enthusiastic procreation.
At that age, my friends and I were no different, or at least we didn’t think so. Strapping a comfortable mattress on to the roof rack of our van, we would set forth on a Saturday night to cruise for heavenly bodies.
I urge anyone feeling impressed or appalled to hesitate before sending your ‘‘man points’’ or outraged complaints: the objects of our intense interest really were in the heavens, and the mattress was simply a comfortable viewing platform – we were stargazers.

It’s difficult to remember exactly where the fascination began.  I suspect it came from preoccupation with two equally geeky branches of science; fiction and physics, back in our fourth form. But ultimately the nocturnal camaraderie shared over the remaining secondary school years led to friendships which last to this day.
We named ourselves the ‘Star League’: we had coffee in thermos flasks, telescopes in our vehicle (soon christened the ‘astrovan’), Queen tapes in the cassette player and absolutely no concept of cool.  None of us would ever be compared to a Greek God, but we knew just where to find Orion, Mars, Jupiter and even Venus. (And yes, I even know that those are actually the Roman names).

Most of my memories of these sessions, when the whole universe seemed to open up to us through the cold eye-piece of a telescope, took place in the icy, inky darkness of midwinter. Darkness fell early enough for us to star gaze on a school night and there would be no residual heat-haze in the upper atmosphere.
Eventually, an opportunity came our way that only a Star Leaguer could rapturise about.  We had been invited to spend a night at (the now defunct) Blackbirch observatory, perched high atop a snowy mountain near Blenheim.  We would be looking at the sky from inside a huge motorised dome – just like real astronomers.
It was the end of July, and there was so much snow on the summit that we doubted we would get up at all.  In fact, our vehicle was eventually abandoned at the snowline and we found ourselves crunching through heavy snow carrying, among other things, a very large telescope and a crate of milk.
We might have been science nerds, but snow was a rarity where we came from and a savage snow-fight was absolutely mandatory before anything serious could take place.

After an unidentified stew and a fuzzy high-altitude viewing of Ready to Roll (I seem to recall Elton John’s Lennon tribute ‘Empty Garden’ at number one that week), we donned, gloves, scarves, jackets, another jacket, balaclavas, and hit the sky hard.
On reflection, I believe this was the first time I ever stayed up all night, and possibly never for better reason.  The dome was our frosted Cathedral for worshipping the heavens, and we travelled spellbound through space like never before –and probably never again.  We skirted distant spiral galaxies and basked in the far-off glow of colossal gas nebulae. We explored shimmering star clusters and even briefly joined a recently-discovered comet on its unimaginably vast journey.  The entire cosmos was our playground, and our mothers weren’t there to call us in.

Sketch showing the interior of the Blackbirch dome. (27/6/82)
Many hours later, exhausted by cold and wonder, we sprawled on the nearby kitchen floor – under-floor heating being a recent and hugely welcome novelty.  But before long the eastern sky soon began to glow, and sunrise was yet another spectacle to be added to our visual embarrassment of riches.  In unspoken consent, we piled outside into the rapidly-dwindling darkness to watch.
The only cloud all night now provided a burning scarlet ribbon rippling across the sky, while the hushed, snowy landscape around us blushed pink in the dawn light, ringed by golden peaks etched with cold blue shadows.  It was indescribably beautiful, a Renaissance master’s vision of Heaven.  But alas, we were young, and our silent awe soon turned to another noisy snow-fight in an irreverently short period of time.

The Star League was to last for many years afterwards (some might argue that it still does).  We’d camp during the school holidays (‘astrocamps’, naturally) in the isolated wilds of Marlborough, still braving the cold while we communed with each other and the Universe at large. Studiously written and preserved ‘viewing’ reports and photographs pasted into albums have now become precious, tattered glimpses into our own pasts. What began as an astronomy club became an inseparable group of friends who weathered their often confusing, but sometimes utterly wonderful adolescence together in a beaten-up van with a mattress tied to the roof.  And while the constellations circled above us we gradually, irrevocably grew into adults. We sold the astrovan, left home, graduated, married, travelled - one of us even became a real astronomer and actually served at a new observatory right next to the one we stayed up all night in.

When some of us meet up, every few years or so, it’s inevitable that we’ll again feel that irresistible nocturnal compulsion which Desmond Morris didn’t mean. And eventually we end up outside in the cold, bundled up warmly and gazing up at the stars.

Friday, 13 June 2014

X Marks the spot

Superheroes have soared from comics and Children’s television to consistently top world-wide Box Office returns for the last decade and a half.  Smash… biff… how?

 We’re surrounded by superheroes at the cinema these days, which conjures an amusing image of capes getting caught in fold down seats and pointy bat-ears obscuring the screen for unfortunate citizens seated behind.  But it does beg the question – when did all this begin?
The Donner Superman and Burton Batman are the twin peaks of ‘comic book cinema’, but they more-or-less book-ended the distant 1980s, and were certainly not surrounded by the platoons of powered-up poseurs which we find today.  In fact, it’s an enduring mystery that a Batman film and big-screen outings for other characters didn’t follow far sooner after the massive success of the first two Superman films.

So when did the modern superhero film come in to being? As with the ‘big two’ mentioned above these productions are often typified by exemplary state-of-the-art effects, a big-name portrayal of the mentor and/or chief villain and an obligatory ‘origin story’.  The difference now however, is the sheer profusion.  Characters with nowhere near the public recognition of ‘Bats’ and ‘Big Blue’ are being propelled into multiplexes by a torrent of money which could pay off a small country’s national debt and publicity campaigns muscular enough to get a President elected.
And as relatively obscure as these costumed creations might be, the trend is now to reference and interconnect even lesser-known figures and plot-points, building, (as any documentary on a Marvel movie DVD will tell you), ‘an entire universe ™’.

For my money, the starting point for the modern superhero film was, perhaps fittingly, the year 2000.  A young director who had enjoyed recent success with a film prophetically starring Kevin Spacey as the villain, caught the attention of 20th Century Fox.  Bryan Singer’s film The Usual Suspects convinced the studio that his skill with a large ensemble cast made him ideal for a property they had purchased from Marvel comics, on the strength of a strongly-performing animated adaptation on children’s TV.  Singer originally baulked at the idea, until the bisexual director read some of the original comics perhaps found he could relate to the alienation and prejudice which the characters faced through being born different to the accepted norm.

Marvel’s X-Men had been around since 1963, drawing inspiration from the civil rights movement of the time to depict the tribulations of mutated humans in a mistrusting society.  Although they didn’t enjoy the brand recognition of DC comic’s previously- filmed icons, or even the cache of some of their own Marvel stablemates, the X-Men consistently out-sold them all on the comic book stands. These angsty characters seemed to speak to anyone who’d ever felt different or discriminated against - everyone, in other words.

But would a big budget film version have the same appeal?  The most recent superhero film up to this point had been Batman and Robin: the camp, over-turned toybox which marked the ignoble end of the original Batman franchise.  The genre was hardly left in a healthy state.
Undaunted, Singer assembled a promising cast: Sir Ian McKellen (allegedly lured by the appeal of wearing a purple cloak) and Patrick Stewart (originally under the misapprehension that this was to be an X-Files film).  Scottish actor Dougray Scott found himself delayed by Tom Cruise’s ego on Mission Impossible 2 and lost the chance to play the most recognisable X-Man: Wolverine.  The part ended up going to an unknown Australian appearing in a stage production of Oklahoma at the time.  Halle Berry and ‘Bond Girl’ Famke Janssen rounded out the familiar faces, while martial artist of the moment, Ray ‘Darth Maul’ Park, again played a villain – evil mutant ‘toad’.

It’s easy to overlook the impact that X-Men had upon its release - this ground-breaking, media-transcending success of a property largely known only to comic book readers was a miracle which has been replicated many, many times since. Such a high concept production could have been incomprehensible to the general public, but the enormous success of The Matrix was still in the air, showing that audiences were prepared to enjoy action between their mental synapses as well as on screen.
Many expected a similar visual ethos to The Matrix, but ‘bullet time’ was already being done to death; X-Men was its own ‘Beast’ (although it took him until the third film to put in an appearance).  
The last two Batman films had flirted with computer generated imagery, whereas X-Men exploited it to the full, boldly rendering characters and visions only feverishly imagined in comic book panels.  Less boldly realised were the characters uniforms, establishing yet another trope for this contemporary genre – black, or at least very muted colour was a requirement for characters making the leap from the bright, four-colour world. X-Men was savvy enough to even reference this in one of the film’s most self-aware lines.

A superb piece of cautionary artwork by ‘Jinkauai’, showing what a film cleaving
closer to the costume aesthetic of the comics could have looked like.  Evangeline Lilly
might be happy to wear pointy elf ears, but this would surely be a step too far…
Fox’s instincts about Singer were correct, he delivered a character-driven ensemble film which served everyone well, but most of all the audience.  Where the dying gasps of the previous era of superhero films had relied on ‘batty’ stunt casting, X-Men simply gave us perfect casting.
McKellen and Stewart were the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of this scenario, and loaded the preposterous plot with so much gravitas that we instantly believed everything we heard and saw, and even sided with their cause.  We felt sorry for the X-Men while at the same time envying their spectacular abilities. And that aforementioned Australian actor became an overnight star.  Compared then to a young Clint Eastwood, Hugh Jackman continues to shine brightly enough to have even survived Van Helsing and two indifferently-received Wolverine spin-offs.
Most of all, Bryan Singer’s X-Men left the public, and studio, wanting more.

X-Men sequels followed, the second part establishing another contemporary superhero trend of arguably surpassing its parent, while the third was perceived to stumble somewhat. Two outstanding ‘prequels’ have since restored this series to robust health and it’s heartening to see that the forefather of the modern superhero film still has the X-factor for audiences.  

Predictions from no-lesser sages than Steven Spielberg warn us that this hugely expensive superhero boom cannot last, and the shockwave of their eventual plummet from the skies will probably redefine the entire motion picture industry.
But let’s enjoy it while we can, as we did 14 years ago when a smart young director last changed the landscape of popular cinema by lining up a team of very Unusual Suspects.

(insight on the performance of current Superhero cinema can be found at Mr Simian's blog, here:
and Jamas has reviewed Days of Future Past here:

Friday, 6 June 2014

Dansing King

Yet another Stephen King book about a writer/teacher from Maine? But this time it’s non-fiction.

A one-line review on the release of Danse Macabre, King’s analysis of horror,  back in 1981 sniffed: “Stephen King with his critic’s hat on”.
But, like the homogenous writing and/or teaching heroes of most of his early novels, King is actually well-placed to examine and critique other works, particularly in the horror genre. Obviously there’s a strong leaning towards American films , TV and fiction, but that goes hand in hand with the often interesting autobiographical tone of this book.

I first read this book almost 25 years ago, and at that time still enjoyed King’s novels.  I had just finished The Talisman, his brilliant and inexplicably still-unfilmed novel co-written with Peter Straub, and was willing to accept everything he said as gospel. Stephen King’s Danse Macabre was my unerring compass pointing to recommended destinations, and away from dead-ends, pitfalls and washouts.  His swooning adoration of Straub’s Ghost Story, a book which I read while staying in a Highland Castle and rattled me like no other novel ever has, further convinced me of King’s worth as a guide through the genre.
Since then of course, I’ve been let down to the point of no-return by both King and Straub, and done enough reading and viewing to form my own opinions about much of the material covered in Danse Macabre.
Although returning to this book in a slightly belligerent frame of mind and far less inclined to be lectured to, I still found it difficult to disagree outright with most of King’s views. When this hopefully-ashamed author of the interminable and unfocused Tommyknockers accuses Ray Bradbury of over-writing I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or choke, but King also nails what is so magical about Bradbury’s work:
“…he lives and works alone in his own country, and his remarkable, iconoclastic style has never been successfully imitated.  Vulgarly put, when God made Ray Bradbury, he broke the mold”.
“Amen to that!”: to borrow King’s sometimes annoying habit of falling into overly-chummy “gonna, gotta, aintcha” slang when he feels confident he’s made a point which we’re all going to hoot and murmur “right on!” to.

That quote was from the final and densest part of the book, where King is obviously most comfortable – analyzing American horror literature.  As well as Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes and other writers, he looks at The Bodynatchers, Rosemary’s Baby, The Haunting of Hill House, The Shrinking Man and, to his credit, a couple of British authors.  What unites this list is that they have all been filmed, mostly well, and so if I hadn’t read the novels discussed I have at least ‘seen’ them  King appears to have corresponded with the authors, and so the views presented aren’t just his but are also straight from the horse’s mouths, which is insightful and fascinating.  Jack Finney, for example, had no thoughts at all of a ‘reds under the bed’ subtext when he wrote the Bodysnatchers – so there!

The Film and TV sections are where the book shows it’s age the most, with discussions of long-forgotten features as ‘current cinema’ (mutant grizzly bear epic Prophecy, anyone?) and an unsurprisingly American-centric and ultimately dismissive view of horror on television.  There was much more happening on the box than Kolchak and Twilight Zone re-runs across the pond, Mr King…

Elsewhere, his insistence on distilling characters and themes into Apollonian and Diosynian (good and bad to you and me) are useful categories when King is in full lecturing mode, but feel a little like being constantly tugged on a lead back to his own totemic dog park rather than really being allowed to explore.  (Not sure why I fell into a dog metaphor there, maybe it’s the ghost of Cujo…)

On the plus (apollonian?) side, King’s love for the material shines through and his own skills come to life when recounting one of his own viewing or reading touchstones. He quite rightly prophesises the then-recent Alien to be a modern horror classic and recalls 50s and 60s B movies with real affection. Here he recounts an image from such a film which was obviously hugely influential:
“But the feeling that stuck longest was that swooning sensation when good old Richard Carlson and good old Julia Adams were surely going down for the third time, and the image that remains forever after is the creature slowly and patiently walling it’s victims into the Black Lagoon; even now I can see it peering over the growing wall of mud and sticks. 
Its eyes.  Its ancient eyes.”

 Perhaps more fond recollections and less lecture note would have gone down better with me, even if I can’t dispute his conclusions.  But given all that has happened in the horror genre since 1981, I wouldn’t say no to a follow-up, either.