Category: science fiction/fantasy

Dr Who in the New Millenium: part 1

I have been trying very hard to like the new millennium Doctor Who, but I think the time has come to admit defeat. I have now reached the tipping point where I have given up hope that the series will  turn into something that I actually enjoy watching. Something that I can watch without constant cringing embarrassment at its maudlin emotional excesses or irritation at its poor narrative construction, moral ambiguities and repeated excursions into dubious religious territory. Then there’s the bombastic and intrusive orchestral score which grates like sandpaper on my musical sensibilities. That’s quite a list unfortunately! As  The Outland Institute has it – a once favourite program has turned into Neighbours in Space: a soap with science fiction fantasy trimmings.

If my parents were avid watchers of Doctor Who, right from the early William Hartnell days (Dr. Who first went to air in the UK in 1963), the Doctors I grew up with were Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. I dropped out mid Tom Baker due to other non-television watching activities, fortunately before that point where his performances and the story lines degenerated into eccentric and twee pantomime and tedious fannish stories about the Doctor’s fellow Time Lords and home planet of Gallifrey.

My first memories of Dr. Who were of Patrick Troughton in a shaggy overcoat accompanied by his companions, Victoria and Jamie, battling with mysterious and rather frightening yeti in Tibet who turn out to be robots animated by impressive glass silver spheres. The air of menace in my memories of this story was further enhanced by the constant howl of a  freezing wind in the background, the interaction of the Tibetan monks and the alien intelligence, and the grainy black and white in which the series was filmed. Unfortunately this adventure titled ‘The Abominable Snowmen’ first broadcast in 1967 has been lost – wiped as was a common practice of the day in relation to television series. This was reflective of the low status of television as an art form at the time and, of course, nobody had any idea that the technology for home recording and viewing would exist in the future and that much money could be made from a combination of nostalgia and fan completism.

I am part of a generation – indeed generations – who grew up with Doctor Who and it has no doubt structured the imagination of those generations in ways they cannot even track – and this is perhaps part of the reason for the huge success of the new millennium version of Doctor Who. People want to like it, as it hooks into a cultural imaginary formed by Doctor Who in the past. Parents also want their children to have that experience. Of course, in the 1960s the mere mention of ‘cultural formation’ in relation to something like Doctor Who, more readily defined as genre trash culture for children, would have been anathema. The series creators tried to attenuate this with some educational pretensions – notably the adventures set in various periods of European history. But Patrick Troughton eventually left Doctor Who on the insistence of his wife who thought that acting in this children’s rubbish (furtively watched by many adults as well) was a poor career move. But of course, apart from a small but notable part in The Omen (1976), his three-year stint as Doctor Who from 1966 to 1969 is what he is remembered for today. This disqualification of certain types of imaginative output – namely the speculative imaginary – as suitable for consumption by adults is by no means dead in current culture.

To be continued

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 (2011)

Strong Spoilers. Please note that this discussion will probably only make sense if you are familiar with all the Harry Potter books and films. WARNING: DO NOT READ, if you don’t want to know what happens in the film before seeing it.

My rating: ****
Imdb link

With this action packed and very watchable film, the last of the 1990s blockbuster fantasy franchises draws to a close. Fantasy science fiction viewers are now faced with a bleak landscape of dreary comic book super hero adaptations stretching ahead in seemingly endless vistas. 3D trailers for The Green Lantern and Captain America ran at the sold out 3D Imax session I attended, and although clearly big on spectacular special effects, the clichéd characters, plots and politics induced an overwhelming sense, in this viewer at least, of yawning apathy. Other attempts to create big fantasy franchises in the wake of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have all failed. C.S. Lewis’s series The Chronicles of Narnia is simply too dated, too loaded with sectarian overtones and elitist assumptions about social class and race to really bring into a modern sensibility and the attempt to make Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials trilogy into something, fizzled out after a very ordinary first film, The Golden Compass, and the impossibility of rendering the equally sectarian (but in a deliberately opposed sense to Lewis) subsequent novels palatable to a mainstream audience.

I hasten to add that I have never had more than a lukewarm interest in the Harry Potter films either, regarding them simply as no more than the poor and rather tedious cousins of the books. But this last, all stops pulled out, instalment is a cut above the rest and indeed is actually better in some ways than the book. But this last entry aside, I think in general the books would be better suited to the medium of television, rather than film. A lengthy, and no doubt unfeasibly expensive BBC series might do them better justice.

Of course, the books have their problems too, as has been pointed out at great length by critics, particularly in terms of their very conventional views on social hierarchy and gender and the problematic division between an elite of magical people and a plebeian race of non-magical people (muggles). But for all that, they are compelling and highly readable stories and Rowling creates extraordinarily vivid detail in describing the minutiae of her created world. She also plays with language creation in interesting ways – combining Latin, French and English in some of her neologisms (for example, the pensieve). They are also probably one of the most widely shared cultural texts amongst the under 30s. This is certainly the case with regards to my own (Australian) teacher trainee university students and thus the novels can be used as a literary point of reference in teaching contexts. Very few of these students have not read the books, or at the very least seen the films, and they are widely and enthusiastically loved. That other fantasy franchise with which Harry Potter has often been compared in terms of its popularity, Twilight, is on the other hand almost universally reviled and ridiculed by the student body.

But to return to the last Harry Potter film, the rather clumsily titled Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2. The battle scenes owe much to that benchmark film, The Lord of the Rings of course, and the extraordinary and intricate visuals and special effects are given meaning by the journey of the characters and the plot. But what really made the film for me was a relatively short section which forms a story within the story – namely the story of Severus Snape. Professor Snape, master of potions and eternally aspiring Black Arts teacher, has always been my favourite Harry Potter character. I have long had a bit of a weakness for characters who hide their softer side under a harsh exterior. Snape, for all his authoritarian and sartorial social maladjustments, is finally revealed as a romantic idealist in the final book and film. This secret had been hinted at from the start and the final revelation of his true loyalties and motivation (his undying and unrequited love for Harry Potter’s mother) came as no surprise to me, at least, when I read the final book.

But sadly, I found Rowlings’ treatment of Snape’s backstory to be perfunctory and highly unsatisfactory. The final exposure of his story read more as a series of notes than a properly developed final draft of a novel, but no doubt the narrative problems posed by Snape’s backstory within the Harry Potter format were simply too difficult to solve. Indeed, the character probably deserves a separate novel in his own right and from his own point of view. This is where film comes in. Such narrative conundrums are far easier to deal with when you have people – actors – who can invest proceedings with layers of emotion and complexity. It had been my hope that the film would come up with the goods where the book had singularly failed and I am very happy to say I was not disappointed.

In an all too brief capsule, with a fine performance from Alan Rickman and some beautiful nostalgia inducing visuals evoking the lost hopes of childhood, we find the tale of a classic flawed hero: social exclusion, unrequited love, dalliances with the dark side, noble self-sacrifice and final tragic redemption. The story of the tragic hero is one that remains endlessly resonant in literature and from my own point of view, Severus Snape is perhaps Rowling’s most interesting character. Sadly this story within a story draws to a close all too quickly and we are returned to what another reviewer has described as the rather wooden performance of Daniel Radcliffe.

Interestingly, Dumbledore the ostensible hero and mentor figure of the series, emerges as somewhat tarnished in Rowling’s final book and in the final film, Dumbledore’s brother alludes to the former’s less than creditable past and secretiveness and as Snape’s memories reveal, Dumbledore is quite happy to raise Harry as a lamb for the slaughter, knowing that he would eventually have to be killed. It is a pity that the film, probably for reasons of time, was not able to include the story of Dumbledore and his sister. Due to the omission of some of these plot intricacies, one thing (amongst others) I found lacking in credibility in the film was Harry’s continuing ready trust and admiration for Dumbledore, even after viewing Snape’s memories in the pensieve. Rowling’s narrative intentions here are quite obvious. Those we consider heroes are perhaps less heroic than we think and those we despise as villains might perhaps not be what they seem.

Rowling recently hinted at the possibility that she might consider writing more entries in the Harry Potter saga, but as many hope, she will not be tempted to tamper with the integrity of the existing series. (Although I have to admit I find the idea of Harry and the team at wizarding university an entertaining prospect.) Indeed, her final epilogue which sees the trio all implausibly married to their adolescent crushes would actually seem to close down the possibility for future adventures. Unfortunately (except for Harry’s brief tribute to Snape ‘as the bravest man I have known’), this epilogue was also tagged on to the film. One critic accurately describes its inclusion as ‘unintentionally hilarious’, with the actors we have been used to seeing as children and adolescents suddenly appearing as fond parents. It is certainly true that the incongruity of this scene caused quite a bit of laughter in the cinema session I attended.

Rowling has recently launched an interesting (and clearly no expense spared) online transmedia experiment, titled Pottermore centering on the seven novels and promises to include a lot of material (extra scenes and back story) that was not included in the original novels. A kind of updated, and one would hope more entertaining (!), version of Tolkien’s Silmarillion for Harry Potter fans. My own hope here for the transmedia project would be that we might finally see a more satisfactory written treatment of Snape’s story.

The Prisoner (2009)

My rating: **
imdb link

Back in 1988 when I was working on the manuscript of my first book on Foucault, living in a bedsit in inner city Melbourne, I had the original cult 1967 series of The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan playing on an endless loop whenever I was having a break from writing. (The local video shop had various volumes of the series on VHS for $1 a week rental.) Some of the same elements that fascinated me about Foucault’s work also fascinated me in The Prisoner.

Just a quick plot summary for those who came late. The central character resigns from an unspecified job, returns to his London flat to pack, is gassed and wakes up in a replica of his flat in a kitsch resort only known as ‘the village’. He is only ever referred to as ‘number 6’ and in each episode a bureaucrat known only as number 2 tries ‘by hook and by crook’ to find out why number 6 resigned. Each episode sees the failure of number 2 and the appointment of a new person to fill that position in the next episode.

But this is not a review of the original 1967 series, it is the beginnings of a review of the 2009 ‘re-imagining’ of the original. I have watched 3 episodes so far and am determined to watch the rest. I was thoroughly expecting to be outraged by the new series but not to be simply bored. Beyond the fact that the characters in the series are given numbers rather than names and the central character, number 6, is ‘imprisoned’ in a place called ‘the village’ and that a bigger and better rover (a big white ball) makes its presence felt, this is where any resemblance between the two series ends. Whereas for all its weird surrealism, the first series made sense and one always had the sense of a strong agenda of social critique, the 2009 series is a confused mess. Any social critique it offers is so contrived as to ring utterly hollow. It is also fairly violent in a way that the original series never was. In the original series the relative lack of overt violence created the effect of a society so sophisticated in its techniques of social control that it rarely had to resort to the end game of blood letting.

More later…

Inception (2010)

My rating: ****
imdb link

I have no doubt that Inception will prove a bonanza for all those analytic philosophers churning out edited collections on analytic philosophy and popular culture over at Open Court. Let me propose a workable alternative title for the film to start them off: Descartes and Freud. The Final Showdown. Or, for those of a Foucauldian persuasion working with other publishers, I might suggest Dream and Existence: The Movie, or even My Body, This Paper, This Fire, Redux. But before anybody gets too enthusiastic, we are talking strictly Freud and Descartes 101 here, for beginners. Thus we have Descartes’ famous meditation on dreaming, madness and doubt and some rather unsophisticated references to repression, guilt and the unconscious id – with a nod to Jung thrown in.

But for all that, Inception is a highly watchable action film with an intellectual edge in the same vein as The Matrix. The premise is that a vaguely defined technology allows people to visit the dreams of others in order to discover their secrets. A much more difficult process allows dream visitors to plant a new idea in the head of the dreamer. The technology and those who use it are deliberately left rather vague which allows the focus to be placed firmly on the more interesting end result of the process rather than in the techniques of getting there.

It is quite a novel experience watching a mainstream Hollywood action thriller that requires concentration to focus on all the simultaneous levels of action taking place – dreams within dreams within dreams. But it is the sort of intellectual concentration that one brings to solving puzzles – puzzles such as labyrinths which feature quite heavily in the film. And of course the character in the film who designs the labyrinths is named Ariadne. But we are not talking Borgesian complexities here. If it is a welcome change to have something to think about in an action thriller it is not the sort of intellectual focus that is associated with altering one’s experience of the world.

If in The Matrix, the question is how we distinguish between ‘reality’ and the illusion of ‘virtual reality’ (Plato’s cave), Inception gets back to classic Cartesian roots. How do I know that I am not dreaming? Just for the record here is Descartes’ classic passage on dreaming from his Meditations 1

How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and I perceive it; the occurrences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost persuade myself that I am now dreaming.

As he notes, there is actually no way of distinguishing between the waking and sleeping states when one is experiencing them, yet the premise in Inception is that it is possible to carry around a small physical object of one’s choice which allows one somehow to distinguish between dream and wakefulness. It is hard to see how this can work as one can dream anything at all – there are no external guarantees (apart from God, according to Descartes at least). The other problem in the film is that the dreams in the film, even if they are designed to some extent for the dreamer by the visitors, unfurl in a fairly logical fashion, which as most people know is not how dreams work. There are also various other plot difficulties – but perhaps these have been planted deliberately to provoke the viewer – I certainly hope so.

Attempts are made to give the film an emotional core along lines that evoke The Forbidden Planet and even Solaris. There are also some resonances with Vincent Ward’s 1998 film What Dreams May Come which I won’t reveal in the interests of not including spoilers. But unfortunately the film is badly let down by the casting and performance of Leonardo diCaprio as the central character. Where the writing indicates a complex, intelligent, grief stricken individual struggling with his own demons, what we get instead is bland and self assured. The right casting and direction (intense closeups) would have made the difference between a spectacular action film which poses interesting intellectual puzzles, and a film which went to the next level with a real emotional punch. An opportunity sadly missed.

But quibbles aside, the set action pieces in this film are impeccable with some fabulous special effects and good acting from the supporting cast. The soundscapes and music – particularly in a dream which takes place around a snowy fortress – are very effective as well.

In any case I will look forward to seeing an Open Court publication appearing some time in the near future…

Not much later… (15th August).

It has come to my notice (thanks Stuart!) that Blackwell has already put out a call for abstracts on Inception and Philosophy to be edited by David Kyle Johnson in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. If you are interested, Dr. Johnson’s contact details are on his webpage.

There is already some interesting reflection around the film. For a Deleuzian interpretation of Inception see the Cineosis blog. There is also a most interesting article by Ian Alan Paul in Senses of Cinema on the indetermincy of both subject and object in Inception. This article also makes passing reference to Deleuze.

Labyrinth (1986)

My rating: ****

imdb link

I first saw this Jim Henson directed film a couple of years ago and for all its faults I loved it. The acting from the two non puppet principles – David Bowie and Jennifer Connolly is a little stiff and wooden (ironically far more so than the puppets who are excellent!) – but the dialogue they have to work with is pretty stilted. The plot, which is a standard quest plot, is also paper thin.

But David Bowie in the full glory of his 80s glam rock outfits looks superb and is suitably ambiguous as an almost evil goblin king. He also composed all the songs (but not the incidental music) for the film and there are a couple of really good ones. ‘Magic Dance’, in which he dances in the middle of dozens of puppets and costumed little people, is wonderful. The puppets and little people bring an anarchic and highly enjoyable energy to proceedings and towards the end of the song a human baby (obviously a dummy in long shot) is tossed high into the air by the goblin king (Bowie) and is caught by an adjacent goblin little person.

The puppets and costumed little people are definitely the best actors in this film with the best lines and are wonderfully inventive in their appearance and performance. The excellent ‘making of’ documentary included in the extras on the DVD release details the technical problems in achieving the desired effects with the puppetry and the sheer inventiveness of the designers and puppeteers. It is good to see special effects that rely on models and mechanics rather than the ubiquitous contemporary CGI. It adds a solidity and refinement to the outcome, born of dealing with the limitations of actual physical objects rather than pixels.

Also of note is that if the story of the film was devised by Jim Henson, it was scripted by ex Python Terry Jones.

The Dresden Files (2007)

My rating: *****
Spoiler alert

imdb link

One of the users on reviewing the 2007 TV series The Dresden Files bemoans the fact that her shelves are littered with DVD sets of prematurely cancelled series and suggests that cancelling some of the endlessly tedious reality shows might free up some funds for the continuation of more interesting television. It doesn’t pay to be a non-mainstream viewer of science-fiction fantasy. One is constantly being lured in by a few tantalising episodes and then left high and dry without a resolution. Odyssey 5 was a particularly fine example of this kind of lack respect for audiences by television producers. It couldn’t even be argued that the ratings were bad on this particular series – they were in fact extremely high, but the American cable channel Showtime, which commissioned the series, underwent a change of management and the usual problem –namely an administrator who doesn’t like science fiction – nipped it in the bud.

Fan campaigns to petition against cancellation have now become an obligatory part of the televisual landscape and I was entirely unsurprised to see that The Dresden Files was not exempt from this routine ritual. Even if fans know the exercise to be largely futile, they can find no other outlet for their frustration. These campaigns only work in rare cases and often sadly to the detriment of the series. The extra half seasons that were granted series such as Remington Steele and La Femme Nikita actually betrayed their viewerships, and fans of the characters and storylines were left with a sour taste in their mouth which forevermore impacted on their enjoyment of the earlier seasons. One exception to this is the 2006 series Jericho, which after garnering a second season as the result of fan campaigning, managed to produce a season which, amazingly, was far superior to the first and actually provided some resolution.

At least the writers of The Dresden Files play fair with the audience and provide a decent ending in the last episode of the season which alleviates some of the frustration of having yet another cancelled series on one’s hands.

The enormous number of user reviews on of the DVD release of The Dresden Files would seem to indicate that the Sci-Fi network was perhaps hasty – even on its own economic rationalist terms (if in fact that’s what was at issue) – in cancelling the series. Numbers of these reviews, of course, quibble with the way the television series had adapted the original books by Jim Butcher, but again such controversy is ritual. For myself, enjoying a TV series is no guarantee that I will like the source material. As a case in point, I found the television version of Wire in the Blood far more interesting than the novels by Val McDermid on which it is loosely based. Similarly I found the first Jim Butcher book mildly enjoyable but much preferred the approach and charaterisations in the television series.

But onto the actual subject matter of the series.

The Dresden Files is, I think, the first TV series made post 2001 – apart from Wire in the Blood – which I have actually wanted to view more than once with frequent pauses and repeats of scenes. It is a fairly unique and successful blend of the private eye genre and fantasy – the protagonist, Harry Dresden, for all his genre conventional trappings as a Chicago private eye is actually a wizard and sports the appellation, ‘Harry Dresden Wizard’ on his office door and business cards. As I was watching the series I was struck by its curiously old-fashioned feel. I felt as though I was almost back on comfortable cultural territory – a territory which has been replaced since the beginning of the millennium, in American television at least, by something which I experience as alienating.

There are a number of things I like about the central character, in particular his knowledge of his own weakness and his constant and considered efforts to resist the directions in which this weakness takes him. He continually and deliberately resists the temptation to use his magical powers either as an opportunity to manipulate others or to occupy the high moral ground. Any inclinations he might have in these directions are kept in check by his first hand knowledge of the disastrous and tragic extremes (the almost, but not quite, inadvertent murder of his uncle by black magic) to which such hubris can lead. He is constantly reminded of his crime by members from both sides of the fence in the magical community either to cast continual suspicion over his intentions or to incite him further down the path of dark magic. In choosing to save others by using his unique abilities he is doing no more than saving himself.

The English actor Paul Blackthorpe who plays Dresden (with a somewhat eccentric American accent) says that what attracted him to the role was the fact that Dresden was a reluctant hero, engaged in a difficult struggle with his own past and family background. Dresden is a marginal figure who exists in an uneasy truce with both his own magical community and with the mainstream forces of law and order. (He often acts as a consultant to the police – mainly in for the form of a female detective, Murphy, – whenever anything ‘weird’ surfaces.) Both camps remain deeply suspicious of him for different reasons, but this does not deter Dresden from an often thankless and painful quest with frequent errors of judgement on his own part, to lend assistance to others. All of this is, of course, in the best hard-boiled post War private eye tradition.

Also worth mentioning is his relationship with his unusual offsider and mentor, Bob, played wonderfully by Broadway actor, Terrence Mann. Bob (aka Nrothbert of Bainbridge) is in fact the ghost of a medieval English sorcerer who has been condemned for all eternity to occupy his own skull as a ghost as a punishment for dark practices, notably using black magic to resurrect his lover – a female sorcerer. Bob, who has acted as Dresden’s tutor from a young age, provides both technical and moral guidance while also struggling with the complexities of his own past and his powerless condition as a ghost. As the series progresses, the bonds of real affection and friendship that tie these two men become apparent. The TV version of this character is far more interesting than his equivalent in the original books. In Butcher’s novels, Bob is no more than a skull, but for television the writers decided that more was needed.

These various elements are perhaps amongst the reasons why the series seems so oddly old fashioned in a contemporary American televisual landscape populated by an endless procession of series with flashy visual effects tightly focused on solving puzzles. Such series feature drearily one-note characters who are more interested in personal survival than in what they can do for others. One can cite as examples, Lost, Heroes, Flash Forward, House, The Fringe and any number of medical, police, forensic and acronymic series- CSI, NCIS and so on ad nauseum. If the characters in these series do engage nominally in ‘helping’ others it is because of their rigidly and institutionally defined status as doctors, FBI agents, police, assorted forensic and other scientists, members of family units and so on. Further to this, the assistance they offer others is all too often simply the almost inadvertent side product of their interest in solving puzzles, (crimes, mysterious occurrences, tricky illnesses and so on). Character ‘complexity’ is achieved by either granting the characters unpleasant ‘flaws’ which these characters do little to try and keep in check – but just experience as givens -, or by granting them irritatingly quirky and eccentric traits. These static character traits become no more than devices for keeping the puzzle based plots moving along. All the creative effort goes into solving puzzles, none into actually achieving anything as a human being making a willed and active contribution (as opposed to one determined in advance by institutional rules and personal past history) to collective social existence.

In other words, there is no sense that these characters are involved in projects to deliberately create themselves and to make choices about their self-construction in a positive sense. There is nothing there for the viewer to learn, no handy techniques one can appropriate in one’s own quest to actively form oneself. On the other hand, there is plenty about technical problem solving in relation to the physical world and the management of populations. There is nothing in relation to the social world – apart from ensuring individual survival at the most basic level.

Much of this is both a reflection of general social and cultural trends as well as a reflection of the writing and production processes involved in making these series. Writers, technicians and film makers churned out by various educational institutions have been taught sets of rules about technical processes but not provided with any social or cultural context or training beyond simplified demographic analysis and targetting. Sophisticated forms of historical, philosophical, political and related forms of cultural reflection are not on the study agenda. This leads to a very impoverished view of the human condition. It is interesting to note that some leading television writers (for example Anthony Horowitz of Foyle’s War) have in recent years started to advise young writers to get out and travel and to engage in cultural and artistic experiences to try and broaden their horizons so that they actually have something to write about.

Although I love all the trappings of science fiction, action adventure and crime fiction, the real interest in watching these genres and what will make me re-watch any given series is just one thing, and that is how people actively and deliberately construct their relationship with themselves and others. Science fiction and crime present extreme scenarios in which to observe human beings perform in limit situations. Watching solutions to abstract empirical puzzles palls after a while, but the kind of deliberate work people perform on themselves and their relations to other people is endlessly interesting. The outcome doesn’t need to be good but it does need to be the result of people making real decisions in relation to their actions and the consequences thereof. One can then perhaps borrow from some of these scenarios the ‘cultural tools’ Foucault talks about which one can use oneself to undertake the kind of work one wishes to undertake in relation to one’s own existence. Mind bogglingly tedious instructions on how to make institutions more efficient is – for me at least – less than riveting viewing, I want to see how other people solve the problem of personal and social existence through a willed process of difficult personal decision making.

I have limited interest in observing the strategic placement of static ‘character’ elements like pawns in games ultimately aimed at solving the puzzle of how the institutions can function most efficiently and to maximum profitability (in terms of both financial viability and placement in a well oiled social hierarchy).

For all their rejection of some of these contemporary themes the writers of The Dresden Files, still feel that it is constantly necessary to explain why Dresden would bother to help complete strangers given his marginal situation. At one point, Morgan a powerful wizard who is an enforcer for the magical oversight body The High Council asks Dresden why he persists in helping those ‘who don’t know him, don’t like him, and will never understand him’. Dresden’s reply is that somebody has to do it. Morgan counters contemptuously that he is doing nothing more than try to save himself and atone for his past crime.

I am reminded here of a comment Foucault made in his History of Madness about the medieval Christian view of charity. Both the recipient and the donor benefited – the former materially and the latter in terms of his or her eternal salvation.

This imperative to explain help offered to strangers has always been a theme in American television but to a far lesser degree perhaps before the current decade. A sense of a broad social contract has always been far weaker in American than in European culture. For example, the 1973 series The Magician with Bill Bixby elicits lengthy (and not entirely convincing) explanations from various characters as to why a stage magician would even consider wanting to help a variety of complete strangers. European and British television doesn’t generally feel under an obligation to justify attempts to be of assistance to one’s fellow human beings outside the rigid boundaries of institutional obligation.

If we bring this discussion back to the forms of neo-liberalism I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, in an entrepreneurial world you would be ill advised to help somebody who could be a potential competitor and profit at your expense. In addition to this, anybody needing help beyond what is codified by various well-defined institutions only has their own gross mismanagement to blame and is not deserving of help. Assistance to others can only sensibly be attempted within the confines of the multiple judicial institutions and regulations which have been set up to ensure that human sociability doesn’t degenerate into a complete blood bath.

The Dresden Files ends with a nice touch with Harry Dresden destroying a powerful but evil object that he could use to his possible advantage down the track. One has come to expect characters to always hang onto such advantages – why throw away a potential plot device or opportunity for ambiguity?

Twilight (2005)

NB: Spoiler alert

Stephenie Meyer, Twilight, New York: Little, Brown and Co. Books for Young Readers, 2005.
My rating: *

Twilight (Twilight, #1) Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I read this book to see what all the fuss was about, which has been further amplified by the appearance of the films. Twilight and its sequels have spawned a whole imitative sub industry in the form of other novels and television series. But for all the author’s claims of an original take on the vampire myth – it has all been done before and recently. One example is the True Blood novel series which appeared slightly before Twilight and which has been made into a currently airing television series. And of course there are the seminal late 90s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel. All of these series feature adolescent females and their troubled relationships with male vampires some decades, if not hundreds of years, older than themselves. What is new perhaps is the complete and utter complicity of the female in her eventual destruction.

Unfortunately, try as I might, I can’t think of anything positive to say about Twilight. There is little to recommend it either in terms of style or content. As numbers of others have remarked, it reads like bad fan fiction which has by some stroke of luck been published by a mainstream publisher. A couple of decades ago, it is the sort of material that an adolescent writer would have kept firmly under lock and key in their bedroom drawer so as not to risk the extreme embarrassment of it finding any other readers apart from themselves. One can also remark on the similarities with porn fiction in the way it is structured and written, but it is porn without the sex. Indeed one notable critique describes it as ‘abstinence porn’.

The story focuses entirely on the obsessive relationship between a 16 year old girl, Bella, and a self described ‘monster’, Edward, a centenarian vampire who remains physically fixed at the point of his death at the age of 17. Numbers of critics – from a feminist standpoint in particular – have pointed to the abusive nature of Bella’s relationship with Edward, the latter not only engaging in classic emotionally manipulative behaviour but also fulfilling all the criteria of a bona fide stalker. Bella occupies the masochistic female victim role – Edward’s appalling behaviour proves nothing more than ‘how much he loves her’.

The author, Stephenie Meyer, claims that the books are all about ‘choice’ and in a perverse and limited way this is indeed true. But most of the choosing is done by the male protagonist, Edward, and it all involves stringent self-denial – both in relation to his predatory vampiric desire to kill Bella (and all those around her) by sucking their blood, and also in his much vaunted sexual abstinence, given the contact of his strong vampire body with a weak human one could prove potentially fatal to Bella. As for Bella herself, her choice merely involves the complete and utter self-indulgence of her fixation on Edward and the annihilation of any separate identity in the process. She has no hobbies, no friends (in spite of overtures from others), no career ambitions and no moral or physical sense of self-preservation.

As critics have pointed out – all the agency rests with Edward. If Bella is the first person narrator, it is Edward who acts as subject in these novels. He makes the decisions which keep Bella alive and provides her with the emotional focus which gives structure and meaning to her existence. The decisions he makes not only involve making sure that he doesn’t kill her himself but also involve continually ‘saving’ her from car accidents, potential sexual assault by muggers and being killed by other vampires. When Edward disappears in the second novel, Bella goes into a catatonic suicidal state which lasts for months. This is matched later by Edward’s own suicidal condition when he mistakenly believes Bella is dead.

In the final novel, Breaking Dawn, Edward’s ‘noble’ self-denial – denial of himself as a vampiric predator is finally overcome by Bella’s own will to self annihilation when in the fourth novel, they marry, engage in one night of rough sex, which following the Gone with the Wind model results in instant pregnancy and no further sex. The pregnancy destroys Bella’s body and she has to be transformed into a vampire in order to ‘save’ her. The loss of virginity and pregnancy becomes a violent loss of purity which can only lead to death and to transformation into a monster – a problematic model to say the least. But perhaps one might argue facetiously that this might merely be designed to provide a bracing warning about the dangers of teenage sex and teenage pregnancy to adolescent readers of the series.

Numbers of fans have strongly protested at this (inevitable) outcome – even sending petitions to the publisher. Thus it would appear that what attracted them to the series was the odd stand off between two forms of self-destructive subjectivity – one of a most stringent and painful self-denial, the other of a complete indulgence in the dubious pleasures of emotional, moral and physical self annihilation. Teenage pregnancy and being turned into a vampire were probably not what they had hoped for their heroine.

The series, due to its immense popularity has also been frequently described as the ‘new Harry Potter’, but for all its faults the Harry Potter series did at least engage with a wider external social and cultural world with some historical depth. It raised quite sophisticated (if somewhat conservative) questions about social structures and ethical responsibility to others, both in relation to friends and to the broader community. At a literary level it also entertained readers with basic Latin magic words and intriguing neologisms such as ‘pensieve’, a combination of the French word ‘penser’ (to think) and the English word ‘sieve’, to describe a magical device which allowed a person to store their memories for future use either by themselves or others. There is none of this engagement with the social and political world or with language invention in the Twilight series.

If Twilight and its three sequels were not so overwhelmingly popular one could safely ignore them, but the question that has fascinated me is why have they become such a mass phenomenon? One reason perhaps is that they provide validation for the self-indulgences to which adolescence is prone, but I would like to suggest a further reason. Perhaps what attracts fans to the Twilight series is akin to the impulse that currently attracts people in such large numbers to forms of religious and ideological fundamentalism. In a cultural conjuncture which has seen the crumbling of rigidly defined social structures and belief in universal and socially well-defined paths to salvation of various kinds, it is endlessly difficult taking emotional and ethical responsibility for one’s own life and subjectivity.

For all the rhetoric of romance, the relationship between Edward and Bella is one that Jean Baudrillard would no doubt approve of thoroughly – it is all about the pleasures of seduction, power and self-annihilation, not about love. Making somebody (or something) else responsible for how we exist in the world is a welcome relief from the relentless day-to-day uncertainties and responsibilities foisted on us by the human condition. One can then wallow in the emotional opium of self-abandonment – temporarily at least – until it eventually, as it always does, goes horribly wrong. There are no shortage of warnings on the dangers of such a path, warnings which have been insistently repeated over millennia by countless social commentators and philosophers.