Being Human series four

Ah, Being Human. The show with the most ridiculous sounding premise imaginable, that delivers such enjoyable content. ‘A vampire, a werewolf and a ghost share a house’ sounds like a cross between ‘Twilight’ (death to that terrible franchise by the way) and an unsuccessful seventies sitcom. But what it proved to be was greater than the sum of parts. It may be comedy horror crossed with domestic drama, but there is an underlying philosophy to this show. The central idea-that emotional connections are what make us human beings-is a good one. There are reflections on free will, redemption and isolation in between the jokes and the stakings. Russell Toveys’ career was kick started by his role as George the werewolf-though having seen him in Sherlock series 2 episode 2: The hounds of Baskerville, I fear he may be stuck with dog-related roles for a while.

I worried for the fourth season. Replacing half the cast was bad enough-but the premise of this season seemed dangerously over the top, a risky move in television. But like the scores of critics who were forced to rethink, I warmed to this season at the end.

It was a mistake to worry about the recasting. Damien Molony is a wonderful new vampire, and even better, is not attempting to imitate his predecessor. The first vampire, Mitchell (Aidan Turner), was a laid-back Irish charmer who reverts to his old violent tendencies at the end of series three. It would be a terrible decision to copy that character. And Molony doesn’t. His incredibly posh, uptight Hal is repressed and obsessive-compulsive. There is something very funny, menacing and tragic about his character.

Damien Moloney as Hal York

Michael Socha also gives a good performance as the new werewolf Tom. The actors have very good chemistry together, and do the ‘odd couple’ act convincingly. Sadly, there are fewer domestic scenes in this series, but we do get to see them discuss Antiques Roadshow, so not all domestic humor goes out of the window.  Lenora Crichlow is her lovely self as the ghost, but it looks as though she will be replaced for the fifth series. If so, let’s hope her replacement proves as likable in the long run.

The main fault lies with the writers. In any series of Being Human, the storyline is very important. The writers work hard on a structured story arc that throws some terrible moral dilemma at the characters, but still allows for some fun. But in this case, they made the wrong choice: ‘The vampire leaders will arrive in two months and begin world domination.’ is just a little too big and silly. One main draws of the show is the focus on small, domestic problems, not big apocalyptic ones. To keep everything on the human level was a good decision, and should not be abandoned. The moral dilemma the group is presented with also has a try-too-hard feel to it. Worst of all, there is not very much for the characters to do while they await the vampire leaders, so there are a lot of one-episode story arcs rather than a build up to the climax. There are drop-ins from a serial killer, an  old character, a troublesome journalist and a sub-plot involving werewolves. Which brings me to this series’ main villain, Cutler the vampire.

It’s hard to know what they were trying to do with Cutler. This show is known for its big, bad villains (Herrick in series one and three, Kemp in series two) and Cutler immediately comes across as a lightweight. He is that most dubious of phenomena, the intentionally sympathetic baddie. His character reminds you of the overconfident twerp at the office who owns expensive desk toys and wants to be an executive. We are treated to his sad back-story, in which his life is casually torn to shreds in front of him. But like Alex in A clockwork Orange, this character is still a villain. This is someone who tears out throats absentmindedly. Were the writers trying to be ironic? Add depth to the character? Make some point about human nature? Either way, it is pretty underwhelming. The actor does his best, injecting a cocky, devious evil into Cutler, while also making him very vulnerable. He also has some pretty good lines.

It looked as though the show had gone the way of Torchwood and failed to deliver a big villain. But fans and critics were wrong to worry. At the end, Being Human finally picks up to its usual standards. This came partly with the action, but mostly in the form of the wonderful Mark Gatiss. He gives an understated and chilling performance as the sinister vampire leader Mr. Snow. Far from failing to produce a good villain, the writers gave us the scariest character Being Human has ever seen. With his blackened teeth and filthy fingernails, Mr. Snow is repulsive. He brings to mind the pre-Dracula stories, when vampires clawed their way out of graves, and didn’t bother to wine and dine you. Gatiss-last seen playing Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock-is one of the best actors around, and can make the smallest word or gesture stick in the mind.

Mark Gatiss as Mr. Snow

So what is the final verdict? This series overall has stumbled, but it has not in the end, actually failed. There has been a lot of changes, some pretty regrettable, like the leaning towards silliness. The underlying tone of the show remains, thank God, but it seems to lean further away from the domestic. This is a pity. If you change too much you could lose everything that makes Being Human what it is. The new cast is fine, and gives a new reason to watch the show. So shall we forgive the writers for this season? Well, redemption is one of the shows major themes. Let’s forgive Being Human, and keep our hopes up for season five. One thing this show is known to do is resurrect its more successful villains. Long live Mr. Snow! (But not too long, please.)

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The cabinet of Doctor Caligari

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There seems to be a fashion right now for silent films with a live accompaniment. With a series of rather dull-looking blockbusters lined up for the summer, these silents are possibly your best choice. If you go to the right venue, you can catch some of the most interesting, imaginative films ever made. The picturehouse cinema chain must be one of the best things to happen to London recently. In a dimly lit room, with a real club atmosphere, we watched The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari with a live score from “Minima”.

And it is a twisted jewel of a film. A study in mistrust, paranoia and madness, it is set largely in the tortured mind of the central character. The atmosphere is very Germanic, with a sort of macabre playfulness that calls to mind Tim Burton. There are some genuine chills, and a plot wrong-foots you at every turn-including (apparently) the first twist ending in cinema.

The hero and his friends encounter Caligari (Werner Krauss ), an evil showman, who has enslaved a sleepwalker. As the group get entangled in the mystery surrounding Caligari, a story of madness and murder follows.

The most striking feature is the films astonishing visuals. The scenery is a Burton-esque fantasy of sharp planes and angles. The main setting-a small German town-is a hallucinatory tangle of twisted streets, filled with menacing shadows. The action moves from one fantasy to another, from the bleak countryside to the halls of a mental hospital, but in every scene, the backdrop is a labyrinth. The actors fit right into these twisted surroundings. The exaggerated acting style and Gothic appearances help create a perfect fantasy world that hovers between comedy and menace.

Overall, a truly brilliant experience. The mainstream run of cinema has little to offer right now. Don’t waste your money on a so-so horror flick. Go to your nearest Picturehouse and book something truly brilliant.

The tour dates of “Minima” can be found at www.minimamusic.co.uk

The master and Margarita

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Margaria as the queen of the damned – Illustration by Retro Atelier

Demons. Vampires. Witches. Literary critics. Just some of the eerie and menacing creatures that populate Bulgakovs sweeping novel. Written during the darkest days of Stalin’s regime, the book combines grotesque comedy with a sense of omnipresent menace and secrecy.  Both a satire on soviet life and a tender examination of the human spirit, this is a book not to be overlooked.

The plot is a complex structure interweaving three stories: The Devils visit to Moscow with his Demons; A woman who sells her soul to save her lover; And the biblical story of Pontius Pilate, who had Christ executed. The third story weaves between the other two and provides a moral backdrop for the rest of the action.

The story of the Demons exploits is largely a satire of soviet life, told in the spirit of grotesque comedy. The Demons booze and gun sling their way through Moscow,  savaging the literary Elite. The motive seems to largely be retribution: publishers have fallen in with government policy and suppressed religious literature. Throughout the book bewildered publishers are evicted, beaten up, harassed with menacing phone calls, and set on by Vampires. The action climaxes in a grotesque Seance in which the Demons punish greed and vanity; They give women elaborate dresses-which vanish, leaving the wearer in their underwear. The whole plot presents a picture of mundane reality interrupted by unexplained bouts of violence.

Illustration by Retro Atelier http://www.masterandmargarita.eu

The story of Margarita is more complex and centered. It is a female Faust story centering on a demonic pact and its consequences-but Margarita is more complex and ambiguous than Faust. She represents the meeting point of good and evil, displaying good qualities at the most incongruous moments. True to form, she and her lover end up in purgatory, eternally hanging between good and evil. The couple represent all-too-worldly human love, both un-condemnable and un-savable.

Illustration by Elena Martynyuk http://www.masterandmargarita.eu


The only equal to Margarita in moral dubity is also the only character to reach redemption: Pontus Pilate is the brutal and conflicted anti-hero of the “flashback” plot set in ancient Jerusalem. Travelling through the moral spectrum, his story is the high point of the book, being a fable of guilt, cowardice and redemption. The brutal comedy and the worldly love of the other two plots are set against the third, in which a character is his own tormentor. Pilates story provides a context for Bulgakovs moral that “cowardice is tha greatest human vice”.

In parallel, the three plots represent three examples of sin and retribution, determined by the levels of recognition.  In the first plot, the literary elite are so desensitized to corruption, they are unconscious of having done anything wrong. Their bewilderment at the demonic attacks provides a lot of the comedy, but also defines the story. They represent a society gone morally blind.

The second story concerns guilt conscious but passive; Margarita makes her deal with her eyes open, absolutely complacent provided she gets what she wants. The lovers make no move towards redemption. There is no introspective debate in the story. The lovers do not  recognise that they have done wrong, and so end up in purgatory. Margaritas story presents a moral passivity that Bulgakov considered dangerous, personally and socially the unwillingness to become conscious of wrongdoing.

Pilate, who spends most of the book in a miasma of guilt, is the only one to reach redemption. There is no compromise or Demonic punishment in his story, because Pilate faces his own wrongdoing. There are attempts to make amends, internal debates, and a final reward. Bulgakovs moral is that, individually and  socially , we have to look our crimes full in the face. Then we can set them right.

“The Master and Margarita” may have political meaning, but it also has a far more permanent relevance. Bulgakov examines the moral ambiguity of human nature, the nature of sin, the importance of introspection. It is a lovely book, written with humour and intelligence, and deserves its place among the great classics.

Brazil and 1984

 

Brazil DVD.jpg

http://filmguide.wikia.com/wiki/Brazil

Terry Gilliam’s inexplicably named 1985 masterpiece is one of the most pertinent warnings against the future I have ever seen-unsurprising since it is based on George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-four, surely the last word in dystopian fiction. However, Brazil despite its very worldly and grim origins achieves what I thought was impossible: It makes an optimistic fantasy-comedy out of Orwells material.

For those of you who have never read Orwell, you cannot conceive the surprise at realising it could be done; for me it was like watching a tractor give birth to a kitten. Nineteen Eighty-four is the feel-bad book of all time. It depicts a world in which totalitarianism has completely dominated the world; the three super-states which now rule are perpetually at war with each other, while systematically oppressing and terrorising the people they rule over. Privacy is nonexistent, and unorthodox thought punishable by death. The unhappy hero furtively rebels against the government by 1. Keeping a diary and 2. Having a loving sexual relationship.

Brazil retains many of the themes and motifs of Nineteen Eighty-four, but Gilliams makes the film not only enjoyable but addictive. Brazil focuses on the potential dangers of where society may be headed, but observes the dangers of bureaucracy as much as totalitarianism. This is an improvement in itself. It is easier to laugh at the grim idiocies of a society where failure to receipt a cheque is listed as a crime against the state. It also shifts the focus to an equally horrific but-perhaps-more readily possible state of affairs. The society portrayed is also a lot less downtrodden and a lot more resistant, with terrorist bombings and underground activism playing a considerable part in the plot. Optimism and escapism are two very consistent themes in this film-ones less prominant in Nineteen Eighty-four. The inhumanity of bureaucracy is set as a background the hero (Jonathan Pryce) strives to escape from, first passively through his daydreams, then actively through his pursuit of romance. The daydreams are truly beautiful, with the hero cast as a superman-type figure with an inexplicable haircut, gliding through a fantasy wonderland.

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As the hero becomes more active, the daydreams become correspondingly darker. The pursuit of romance and rebellion against the state are reflected dazzlingly in the heroes subconscious in a way that brings something very fresh and new to a relatively drab idea. This approach to the story of Nineteen Eighty-four even tempers a truly hideous ending into something comparatively bearable. The heroes torture at the hands of the thought police in Eighty-four is neatly avoided in Brazil. Instead the director wisely opts to show the deliriums of a crazed subconscious in a series of nightmare sequences reflecting the themes of inhumanity, escapism and romance.

The stress on optimism in a film like this is an example our film industry ought to follow; in an adaptation of that grimmest of tomes, Gilliam portrays society very much alive and kicking; in our social atmosphere there are plenty who might do the opposite. In the approach to a torture scene he focuses on the humanity of the victim; a pornographic focus on pain was the norm for some directors even in the Eighties. To make a compelling, optimistic film is one thing. To make it out of a mine for pessimism is another. Thank you Terry Gilliam.

Night watch

‘Night Watch’ is one of Terry Pratchetts phenomenally successful Discworld series, a satirical fantasy franchise covering upwards of forty books and a whole range of cultural subjects. Pratchetts readership is as varied as his subject matter, and he is the second most poplar writer in Britain. Pratchetts trademark is the lettering of his name on all the book covers, in a crooked, quasi-gothic font, with the first name on top of the second. The name is now associated in the readers minds with everything the franchise represents.

 

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The word ‘Discworld’  now conjures up connotations of playful wit, in-jokes, cultural references and an underlying intelligence, mixed with a distinctly British ideology, and love of the underdog. The cerebral nature of the books makes them almost unfilmable, although five adaptations have been made.

When a person buys a Pratchett novel, they are buying an alternative to the usual run of fantasy:  This is why the SF/Fantasy club keeps them under a separate heading. What the franchise represents is a separate genre, falling over itself to re-examine the assumptions society makes; In part, this includes laughing at the assumptions of fantasy and its stereotypes.

The satire comes from the close examination of social ideas, which also allows him to make relevant points; for example, is war just another crime? If so, what if it were possible to arrest the armies? And is money a sort of shared dream? after all, a ten pound note is only paper. The humour is a mixture of Horatian and Juvenalian satire. The former gently calls to attention the less logical aspects of human culture; The latter attacks more serious subjects with the spirit of biting scorn that characterised Juvenals attitude to Roman corruption.[1] Discworld both portrays and

 examines popular culture in a way that appeals to the masses.

‘Night Watch’ could be described as a turning point in Pratchetts writing, as it is the first of a number of darker novels he wrote, employing Juvenalian satire. The exceptional nature of the book is signified on the cover, which, in typical Pratchett style, is also a cultural reference and a parody of a Rembrandt painting.

It is done in a dark, semi-photographic style, suggesting a crime novel more than a fantasy. The cover design is a semiological sign of the dark content.

 

In ‘Night Watch’ Pratchett examines the real nature of law in a modern context. A policeman is pitched back in time, along with a psychopath. Both find themselves in a lawless city, on the brink of a revolution. The conflict between these characters signifies the struggle between law and crime.

Pratchett uses the criminal as a signifier to express the sign which is his idea of crime in our society; he depicts crime as a mindless and undirected force “blind and mystified”[2], motivated only by personal desire. Conversely, the hero

 comes to full consciousness and recognises the responsibility of his role: he must become the embodiment of law in the face of lawlessness: He thinks “When we break down, it all breaks down”. When the law threatens, it threatens in the name of order, rather than violence, putting it above crime morally and intellectually. Since this is modern Britain, our ideology dictates that crime must be depicted a certain way, and defeated, because we value law and order above violence. Context affects subject matter greatly-in ancient Greece for example, the dominant ideology was different. Pratchetts ideology is British, and modern, which makes this a timely, not a timeless book.

Pratchett presents a picture of society in deep trouble. There is rife corruption, dangerous, stupid laws and officially sanctioned terrorism. There are plots on all levels of society to overthrow the government. All of this leads back to bad rulership. Chaos makes law difficult to establish: When offered a position of power, the hero thinks “In this city?…now? [the watch] would just be another gang.”

This is Pratchetts way of defining what society should not be.

However, to pass, as Barthes would put it, from Semiology to ideology, we can say that we have a writer here who believes that law and order are not so very hard to re-establish, in Europe at least; Compared with American fictional policemen, Pratchetts hero has an easy time of it; For example in the American Die Hard franchise, the hero is nearly always beaten to a pulp, and so covered with blood and wounds that you can hardly bear to look at him.[3]

Conversely, the hero of “Night Watch” only needs a long sleep and a shave to recuperate.

All in all, “Night Watch” signifies the current British perception of law and order.

  

The Devil wears Prada

 

“The Devil wears Prada” Is a comedy-drama film set in the cut-throat world of the New York fashion industry where a warm, naïve journalist is driven to conform to the chilly, inhuman ideologies of her new co-workers. The clash between what is human and individual and what is cold and commercial embodies the struggle between conformity and individualism in today’s consumer society.

To many people, the fashion industry epitomises what is best and worst about consumer culture; It is perceived and represented as supremely elegant, cold-hearted and exploitative. It also has the attraction of perfectionism: this is embodied in the protagonists awe-inspiring boss Miranda. 

 

Miranda could be seen as a rarefied example of the culture she inhabits. She is elitist, perfectionist, supremely demanding, and unforgiving of anything which lowers her standards. Miranda’s appearance signifies her personality; “With her silver hair and pale skin, her whispery diction as perfect as her posture, Ms. Streep’s Miranda inspires both terror and a measure of awe…a vision of aristocratic, purposeful and surprisingly human grace.”[1]

This characters appearance and personality together signify the forces that people believe lie behind high fashion. To break down the sign and signifier, we have: A powerful and cold fashion magazine editor. This signifies power, commercialism and elegance. The sign in context is the driving force behind a large part of modern mass culture.

The protagonist is compelled to conform to her Boss’ ideals, because high standards and efficiency draw admiration. She is greatly rewarded, with the sort of rewards the fashion industry offers; her career goes successfully, she gains a wonderful sense of style, and she is respected in the circles she works in. However, she rejects the rewards of  the fashion industry because the values Miranda personifies deny sentiment and human warmth.

The coldness and perfectionism of commercial art is signified in this film by Miranda’s attitude:

Miranda:  ….and you have no style, or sense of fashion…

Andy:  I think that depends on your definition of-

Miranda:  No no. That wasn’t a question.

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The conformity demanded of the protagonist mirrors the conformity of the average person in the face of the pressure put on consumers in the modern world. Her co-workers sneering hostility pressures the newcomer to change in the same way that advertising pressures everyone to change, update, purchase, for fear of being out of line with everyone else. While human beings allow for and value individuality, fashion demands conformity; in this film, so do those who commit themselves to it.

This view of the fashion industry is, of course, a fiction. It is shaped by the perceptions of the masses, and has been criticised as unrealistic.[2] Roland Barthes would say that the

representation of the subject distorts rather than hides the reality.

The protagonists rejection of Miranda’s ideology signifies the moral message of the film which in turn signifies the ideology of our society; because we value the warm and individual above cold efficiency, it is necessary for the protagonist to resign, and re-enter her easygoing circle of friends and family. 

To move from Semiology to ideology, you could say that this film is an examination of the clash between what is national and impersonal, and what is individual and human.

The man who was Thursday by G.K.Chesterton

Of all the books I have ever read, only two have made me go back straight to the beginning after finishing it the first time. The man who was Thursday; a nightmare is one of those two, which is  strange, because this is actually a rather irritating book, from a writer whose favourite trick is turning an apparently logical storyline into a scene from a very Christian Lord of the rings as imagined by Lewis Carroll.

On the surface the plot is quite simple; Syme, a policeman, infiltrates an anarchist organisation devoted to the destruction of pretty much everything. But the problem (and the charm) of the book is the number of levels it works on; noir adventure story, Christian allegory, psychological thriller, dream and exploration of turn-of-the-century pessimism. Personally I treasure my ignorance of turn-of-the-century pessimism, but it seems to be a mixture of doubt, paranoia and existential dread, which mostly characterises the atmosphere of Symes bizarre adventures.

In most books where the writing is ambiguous and has all sorts of hidden meanings, the levels are consistent all through the book; but the thing about Thursday is that the story changes quality; when I started reading this book it seemed to be a surreal sort of noir story, a Hitchcock-style thriller directed by David Lynch. Here is one scene where the hero is infiltrating the anarchist inner circle:

At first an instinct had told Syme that this was the man he was meant to meet…the man remained more still than was natural if a stranger had come so close. He was as motionless as a waxwork and got on the nerves somewhat in the same way. Syme looked again and again at the pale dignified and delicate face, and the face still looked blankly across the river Then he took out of his pocket the note… Then the man smiled, and his smile was a shock, for it was all on one side, going up in the right cheek and down in the left.

There was, rationally speaking, nothing to scare anyone about this. Many people  have this nervous trick of a crooked smile, and in many it is even attractive. But in all Symes circumstances,  with the dark dawn and the deadly errand and the loneliness on the great dripping stones there was something unnerving in it. There was the silent river and the silent man, the man of even classic face. And there was the last nightmare touch that his smile suddenly went wrong.

The noir atmosphere is perfectly done; the atmosphere is genuinely menacing, and the organisation Syme infiltrates is depicted as almost diabolical. There is also a strain of black humour which mostly comes out in the dialogue, although some may find it a little clunky for their tastes:

“Now listen to me. I like you. The consequence is that it would annoy me for just about two and a half minutes if I heard that you had died in torments. Well if you ever tell the police or any human soul about us I shall have that two and a half minutes of discomfort. On your discomfort I shall not dwell…time is flying. I must go off at once; I have to take a chair at a humanitarian meeting”

This whole atmosphere is gradually dissolved as the book progresses; the humour remains in a different form, but the logic of the book disintegrates at the adventures get increasingly surreal and impossible: a decrepit old man moves impossibly fast; a character removes his face piece by piece; the atmosphere of paranoia and deceit intensifies and changes.

 Here lies the central problem of the book, which is also the point of the book: as the plot shifts from “thriller” to “nightmare” and eventually to “religious allegory” something is lost, just as much as something is gained. But without the shift in emphasis the book would just be a thriller among thrillers, and the end would be completely different. I cant say anything about the end without spoiling it, except that it raises the central ideas of the book to grand, Christian, philosophical levels and makes the adventure elements seem almost irrelevant in comparison. The ending is in fact so sophisticated that it actually requires an endnote to explain the ideas a little.

G.K.Chesterton has achieved a puzzler of a book that is something of a unsung masterpiece. This book has something for fans of Christian philosophy; it has something for fans of surrealism it has something for fans of noir adventure; but the fact is that for me the elements he so carefully deconstructs are my favourites. What comes afterwards is like the first parts of the book, perfect of its type, clever and occasionally witty; but I always grind my teeth when the Christian allegory comes to the forefront and the book sheds all pretence of being anything else. It is lucky for Chesterton that he is dead; if he were alive I would seek the man out, get his autograph and tell him how brilliant his work is: I would then throw something at his head.

 

 

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