Category Archives: film

Get Out vs Green Book

Representations of the Black Experience from the Inside-out and the Outside-in

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Two films that, on the surface, may share some ostensible similarities – a bi-racial road-trip to the Deep South leading to encounters with the post-bellum Jim Crow mentality entrenched there (even to this day) – reveal, on deeper analysis, discourses emerging from dialectically-opposed paradigms. Green Book (Farrelly, 2018), is a meat-and-two-veg road movie about an ‘odd couple’ starring a beefed up Viggo Mortensen as Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip, and an awards-friendly performance from Mahershala Ali as Dr Shirley, a genius pianist of aristocratic bent. Lip, an artless ‘rough diamond’ from the Bronx, is hired to drive the talented, fussy Doc to a series of elite music venues in the Deep South, acting as driver, fixer and bodyguard. On one level it is class comedy, as each scenario offers amusing contrasts between the two very different sensibilities. Yet, the further south they go, the greater the racism (it is undoubtedly there in the north but often depicted, in the film at least, as unconscious bias rather than out-and-out hostility and American Apartheid ). The titular ‘Green Book’ is used to orientate to ‘colored’ accommodation. The contrast with the elegant concert halls is sobering, a shocking demi-monde haunted by the ‘Negro’ underclass, but more so the increasingly antagonistic treatment by the locals. This should all feel awful, but sadly seems wearily predictable – both the racism and the plot. Without risk of ‘spoilers’ you just know that Lip and Shirley will bond in the end and overcome adversity together. So far, so safe. Although ostensibly ‘tackling’ racism, Green Book shows itself repeatedly to be cloth-eared to it. It has the authentic sincerity of an 80s protest song – shallow and virtue-signalling. Farrelly’s film is a feel-good movie for white liberals: white man saves the day and we can all go home feeling we’ve done something worthy. But this movie does not destabilise the status quo but reinforces it. However great the performances of both Mortensen and Ali, this cannot redeem the normalisation of racism that occurs frequently in the first act: we are still expected to identify with Lip even though he wishes to throw away glasses used by black workmen, and shows unapologetic schadenfreude in forcing the elderly Asian butler to pack the suitcases. Worse, Lip is shown ‘educating’ Shirley about ‘black culture’, stereotyped as fried chicken and pop music, claiming outrageously to be ‘more black than he was’.  The lonely, but dignified Doctor is reduced to being ‘grateful’ for the pale saviour: crumbs from the table of white privilege. It is meant to be the emotional pay-off, a schmaltzy ‘heart-warming message’ that misfires in a disturbing way. Green Book offers a smooth ride – the period detail, the depiction of Italian-American life, the impressive musical set-pieces – but ultimately we are taken to a dead-end.

In Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) we are in a very different universe: here, the full horror of racism is unmasked. It is a movie that is hyper-alert to everyday racism; to unconscious and conscious bias; to the power discourses of white America. It tracks a couple – a black photographer, Chris Washington, played with visceral conviction by British-actor Daniel Kaluuya, and his pretty white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (a deceptive performance by Allison Williams) – who return to the Armitage home in the Deep South for the much-dreaded ‘meet the parents’ encounter. This is problematised by the discovery that they do not know their beloved daughter has a black boyfriend. Rose reassures Chris that they are Obama-voting liberals, yet, without giving it away, nothing is what it seems. Things go rapidly ‘south’ in many ways. The use of the Horror genre effectively shocks the audience into the true horror of racism, and its ugly bedfellows – white supremacy and eugenics. It could be a companion piece to Spike Lee’s award-winning BlacKkKlansman (2018). Both depict the reality of race in America from a black perspective (Peele; Lee) – vastly different in tone to the tone-deaf quality of Green Book. Farrelly’s movie offers a threadbare comfort blanket in a world where the Alt-Right is not only on the rise, but already in government, or hugely influential on those which are.  Whileas, in the deeply unsettling world of Get Out the audience is strapped into the chair and forced to watch the nightmare unfold. Green Book hypnotizes us with its lush visuals and cool soundtrack – and before we know it, where are in the Dismal Sink of acceptance. We become, like Washington’s character, voyeurs in the void, watching the horror of the white world diminish away to a mere rectangle in the dark.

Farrelly’s film attempts to, ludicrously, ‘solve’ racism with a road-trip, whileas Peele’s film instaurates racism’s full horror – a horror we are all complicit in. The ending of both is telling of this diametrically-opposed vision of reality: while the former ends with a friendly cop helping to fix a tyre in the snow, the latter ends with the TSA friend extracting Washington from the blood-bath (a Grand Guignol scene which, if an actual cop had arrived, would have ended very differently). In Green Book, the status quo is restored (the institutional racism of the police force is white-washed out), whileas in Get Out the ‘old/new normal’ is: survival in a hostile world.

In theory, in a highly toxic cultural and political landscape where the Far Right regain the prominence and influence of the 1930s, and xenophobic and divisive voices are regularly given platforms in the media, one should applaud any film that tries to send out a message of multi-cultural ‘tolerance’, yet such insipid good intentions pave the way to Nazi Hell. We need the provocative (and successful) films of Jordan Peele, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, and others, to shock the audience awake.

A footnote to this: Jordan Peele is directing a serialisation of Matt Ruff’s provocative novel, Lovecraft Country’ (2016) for Netflix (with JJ Abrams producing) and in that a road-trip to the Maine Coast associated with Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos is navigated by use of ‘The Safe Negro Travel Guide’, a fictionalised version of the ‘Green Book’. On the surface, a mash-up of the two main films discussed above, but with Peele at the wheel, Lovecraft Country promises to be a very different beast to Farrelly’s glib excursion. Watch this space.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2019

Walking the Southern Upland Way Days 7-9

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Lead mining in the Wanlockhead area, K. Manwaring, 7 July 2017

 

Day 7 – Sanquhar to Wanlockhead (7.4)

Today was a short ‘recovery’ walk after the 3 long days from Bargrennan and Chantelle joined for the first time for what turned out to be brief, but enjoyable hike.

 

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Chantelle joins me on the SUW, K. Manwaring 7 July 2017

The route was easy to follow, and apart from one big hill (one of the Lower Lowthers), it was easy-going too. It felt strange to stop after only 4 miles for lunch – but we had started later, which was a pleasant change to my early starts. So easy to forget we’re meant to be on holiday! Typically, I’ve turned my vacation into something to do with ‘work’ (with my Creative Writing PhD) – some experiential field research – although I wasn’t feeling remotely academic, away from computers and the internet. I made light notes, but it was mainly about experience the landscape of my characters and that was to come in the latter half of the walk. Today culminated in our arrival in Wanlockhead, with its well-preserved lead mining industrial heritage: slag heaps, mine shafts, miners’ cottages, and an old beam engine. It’s big claim to fame is for being the highest town in Britain (and also for being used as a location for the deeply weird SF film, Under the Skin. Chantelle re-enacted the ‘bus-stop scene’, sitting where Scarlett Johansson’s alien femme fatale sat).

 

 

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Film tourism: re-enacting the scene from Under the Skin, Wanlockhead, 7 July 2017

 

 

We treated ourselves to some sticky toffee pudding in the Lead Mine tea-rooms (living it up!), and got chatting to a lovely old lady, who kindly gave us a lift back to Sanquhar down the dramatic Mennock Pass, the ‘Glen Coe’ of the Lowlands.

Day 8 – Wanlockhead to Beattock (20.5)

 

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Comms station, Lowther Hill, K. Manwaring, 8 July 2017

 

This was a great day’s walking in the sun (although it left my arms red, as I hadn’t been expecting it to be quite so sunny). It was a long day, which meant an early start – but with Chantelle’s help I was on my way by 9.15am. Today had two significant ‘benchmarks’ – crossing Lowther Hill, at 2378ft the highest point on the SUW, and also crossing the halfway mark (around Daer Reservoir), an important psychological threshold. Achieving both, I knew the way would be easier from now on – but I savoured them while they lasted – two of the most satisfying moments on the walk. Leaving the glamour and grit of Wanlockhead behind, I hiked up to the landmark on the Lowther of the ‘golfball’ comms tower. It was a surreal contrast to the industrial mining heritage, now far below. The SUW skirted its perimeter and I took some photos, thinking if this was anywhere else I’d be arrested at this point. But there wasn’t a soul in sight, as I strode over the Lowthers that day – following the ridge as it traversed Cold Moss (2060ft), before plunging down into a col before Laught Hill (1663ft), a steep, tiring descent and ascent on very slippery ground. The way was hard going in places today to the point I thought of rechristening the walk the ‘Boggy Upland Way’. Reaching Daer Reservoir by 2ish, I stopped to have some lunch beneath the terns sporting over the water – letting my feet dry out and cool down.

 

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Daer Reservoir, K. Manwaring, 8 July 2017

 

From lead mining to satellite dishes, to hydro-electric dams and wind-farms – the human impact upon the landscape was very tangible today. Strange that I didn’t see a soul though as I crossed lonely moorland. I did see plenty of wildlife though – voles, kestrel, kite, falcon, curlew and peewit (the latter, traditionally loathed by the locals, because according to folklore their cries gave away the location of the hiding Covenanters. Indeed, the one that harangued me was particularly vocal, so I was glad I wasn’t hiding from ‘Bloody Clavers’, their hated scourge). I arrived at the ‘Old Brig Inn’ an hour early and in high spirits – pleased with my progress.

 

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A welcome sign – not far to go now! K. Manwaring, 8 July 2017

 

Day 9 – Beattock to Tibbie Shiels Inn (20.5)

 

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Hogg inscription, Ettrick Valley, K. Manwaring, 9 July 2017

 

It was thrilling to reach the Ettrick Hills today, and enter the picturesque vale of Ettrick Water – where the ancestors of my main protagonist in my novel The Knowing: A Fantasy hail from. And with the ghosts of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer in the psychogeography, suddenly, the landscape became numinous (or more so for me, as my ‘folk radar’ vibrated). The shift in the ‘feel’ of the land was distinctive, and not just because I passed a sign saying ‘Welcome to the Scottish Borders’ – a debatable point, as indeed the ‘Debatable Lands’ were constantly being fought over, and the Borders stretch from coast-to-coast and from Hadrian’s Wall to Forth and the Clyde if you include all the tides of history that have swept back and forth over this region.  Practically, ‘The Scottish Borders’ seems to denote a county authority now – one that doesn’t like to put free leaflets in holders along the SUW (although most of the boxes were empty, back in Dumfries and Galloway).  Still, the signage seemed to be a tad better – perhaps because this stretch of the LDP was more frequented, being nearer the tourists honeypots of Moffat and Melrose. Today’s highlight was crossing over from the Ettrick to the Yarrow valleys – a tiring slog after the 15 miles I’d already done, but one made enjoyable by the presence of Hogg. One of his verses adorned the start of the stretch, and his spirit perhaps inspired me to come up with my own song of the hills as I crossed them. This was classic hill-walking – though yet again I didn’t see anybody after bumping into a father and son from Germany, walking the SUW in sections east to west at the lovingly maintained Over Phawhope Bothy a few miles back. It seemed almost sheer indulgence to have all this glory to myself. The last push from Earl’s Hill in the rain was hard – and it resulted in it being a ‘2-Tunnock walk’ today, as I needed the extra energy to get me to St Mary’s Loch. All day long I’d been looking forward to a pint at the historic Tibbie Shiels Inn, a famous hostelry run by the widow of a mole-catcher, Tibbie Shiels, who lived into her 90s and was carried, like Hogg over the corpse path from the Ettrick. The inn had once been frequented by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, and so it was sad to discover it was now closed – I chatted briefly to the owner, who explained it was no longer viable to run a pub. Surprising, since it should be on the tourist trail (and with a bit more effort could be a coach-friendly attraction along the lines of the popular Drovers Inn, above Loch Lomond). But the former landlord said he wasn’t getting enough footfall (so few walkers do the SUW) and, despite having a campsite, said he couldn’t compete with Airbnb, the cafe’ opposite, or the Gordons Arms down the road. I had to wait until Chantelle picked me up and got us back to Melrose – but then we enjoyed a dram over a meal celebrating the mid-way point. Slainte!

 

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Tibbie Shiels Inn, St Mary’s Loch, now sadly closed. 9 July 2017

 

 

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It all started here, Tibbie Shiels Inn, K. Manwaring 9 July 2017

 

 

No Place Like Home

 

The Gnomist is a short award-winning documentary by filmmaker Sharon Liese, supported by CNN Films. Released within hours of the 13th November attacks in Paris last year, it relates the real-life story of ‘Firefly Forest’, a fairy village established covertly in Overland Park, Kansas. Overnight fairy doors started to appear in the boles and roots of trees; then more elaborate structures including fully-decorated fairy houses, theatres, and signs, designating the neighbourhood ’12 Hollow Tree Lane’ and conveying messages of hopeful magic. What resulted is a fascinating account of modern folklore in the making, deeply moving in the way it responds to our need for consolation in the face of loss.

Watch the video – and keep the Kleenex handy…

Deep in the forest of Overland Park, Kan., little gnomes made a home. But how did they get there? This is the story of paying it forward, one little house at a time. A Great Big collaboration with filmmaker Sharon Liese and our friends at CNN Films.

On one level it shows how traditions are started. Under the cover of night the ‘gnomist’ of the title would install new fairy structures. In the day it would seem they had magically appeared, emphasizing the sense of wonder and surprise. Their presence was enthralling to local children, who would relish the beautifully-crafted details of the Little People’s domiciles with squeals of delight. For them it was a confirmation of a still-magical paradigm not yet dispelled by reality. Against a backdrop of terrorist attacks, the innocent enchantment of Firefly Forest is made even more poignant, and I would say, necessary. As TS Eliot wrote in ‘The Four Quartets’:

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

Within the same poem, Eliot says: ‘Down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden.’ (Burnt Norton). It has been said (by John Clute, Encyclopedia of Fantasy, 1999), that Fantasy ultimately leads to the Pastoral, a prelapsarian state in which evil is banished and we can once more live in benign relationship with nature, both inner and outer. However, once the Pastoral is reached, tension evaporates in a narrative and the story is over. Tolkien famously resisted the convention to finish at this point, but lingered on the homecoming (or its impossibility for some) in The Shire. In the novels, harmony is only achieved after the ‘Scouring of the Shire’ when evil is rooted out from the realm of the hobbits (i.e. us). Peter Jackson’s film trilogy dispensed with this chapter, but ends symbolically with the closing of the round door: the full circle creating the reassurance of a ‘closed ending’. What began having a negative value (the One Ring – the catalyst for the whole strife-filled Third Age) ends with a positive value (the round door, with its metonymic signification of wholeness, closure, domestic bliss, the circle of life, the separation of the private and public realm, and so on.). That final shot in ‘The Return of the King’ became, in a sense, the jumping-off point for the ‘Gnomist’. Although the secret architect was inspired by a walk in woods in Raleigh, North Carolina (coming across a hollow tree, she thought: ‘That tree could use a door’), on a mythopoetic level, her endeavour resumes Tolkien’s/Jackson’s dialogic. Thus began some guerrilla folklore.

It reminds me of the time I created a midsummer fairy picnic in the pocket park opposite my house in Stroud. My study eavesdropped upon the popular play area – and the sounds of children playing and laughing would waft up to me as I worked. Wanting to do something magical for the community, I posted up ‘An invitation to a Midsummer Fairy Picnic’, courtesy of Lord Oberon and Lady Titania. I deliberately left off any real name or contact number. I encouraged folk to dress up, and bring fairy cakes, stories, music and games to share. On the day I turned up in costume and was delighted to see families in fancy dress gathered there. No one knew who had placed the invite. We shared our fairy-dust sprinkled fare and had a jolly good time. I have since moved away from that area but I understand the midsummer picnic still continues.

Most poignantly, a wishing tree became the focus of many heartfelt messages, including from one mother who had suffered the terrible loss of her three-year old daughter, Allie, nicknamed ‘Little Owl’. She wrote a note in remembrance. A few days later a fairy door appeared named after her daughter. This act of selfless compassion deeply touched the family, who found some symbolic solace in this public ‘shrine’. Knowing somebody out there knew of their loss and was willing to articulate their empathy in such a tangible way was incredibly validating. For them, the magic was real.

The mysterious development of ‘Firefly Forest’ prompted much local speculation and its presence was featured in news bulletins. The municipal park authorities grew anxious at this unplanned incursion into their domain, and a fairy house was removed. This prompted the ‘gnomist’ to dismantle the fairy village, all except the house dedicated to ‘Little Owl’.

The film finally reveals the identity of the secret architect and another poignant layer is revealed: for the fairy village was created by a family forced to move every year. They had recently moved to the area and wanted to feel part of the community. But on another level each fairy house the mother-and-sons team built seemed to symbolise their own frustrated desires, or hiraeth, for a home. The magic they created for people by their act of gift was reciprocated as they took pleasure in the pleasure they gave, visiting their handiwork in the daytime, incognito. One blogger self-identified herself as the ‘watcher*’ of this phenomenon, photographing and writing about it. The film was made (with the participation of the ‘gnomist’ and her family), connecting the lives of three women (the mother, the watcher, the film-maker).

And then, in a heart-breaking coda, the fairy architects are forced to move on, leaving the state for Utah. Their act of enchantment failed to ultimately work its magic in their own life, beyond the feel-good of their selfless act. Alas, they weren’t in Kansas anymore, and for them, there was no place like home.

Yet the transience of ‘Firefly Forest’ seemed nominatively-determined from the outset. Its mysterious arrival and unexpected disappearance was all part of its myth – echoing countless ‘Brigadoon’ type narratives. A more academic taxonomy would be that Firefly Forest was a Temporary Autonomous Zone, to use Hakim Bey’s term.   It was a powerful contemporary example of how people are more than willing to ‘buy into’ a folkloric paradigm – complicitly suspending their disbelief, wanting it to be true. And, in the participation – the writing of wishes and notes of remembrance, the leaving of offerings, and the co-creation of the accompanying matrix of folk-belief – the community collectively facilitate the re-enchantment of their own neighbourhood.

This inspiring community art project/act of kindness shows what can be done with a sprinkling of imagination, initiative and daring. It is a call to all of us to create some magic on our doorstep: you never know, you might touch someone’s life, make their day, or simply make them wonder… It leaves the door of what is possible open. Imagination is a spiritual vitamin and we are all enriched for coming into contact with it. The ‘gnomist’, the watcher, the filmmaker and her crew, and even CNN, should all be praised for sharing this magic.

 

*https://fireflyforestwatcher.wordpress.com/tag/overland-park/

 

The film-makers: http://www.thegnomistfilm.com/

Media coverage: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/13/living/gnomist-film-kansas-utah/

Is there Peace?

The Arch-Druids calls out “A oes Heddwch” - Is there Peace?

The Arch-Druids calls out “A oes Heddwch” – Is there Peace?

As we commemorate the centenary of the First World War there is a hyper-abundance of media-attention and a plethora of TV dramas, documentaries, plays, albums, shows, and so forth, flogging a dead war horse… One could be forgiven for a certain fatigue – and we’ve got four more years of it to go! Yet there are some stories that break open the heart.

An especially resonant one for me is that of Hedd Wyn.

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‘Hedd Wyn’ was the bardic name of Ellis Humphreys Evans, a Welsh farmer-poet, who won the 1917 Bardic Chair of Birkenhead posthumously (a prize given in an Eisteddfod, the original ‘Game of Thrones’ if you will). Having had some success in previous eisteddfodau (but not the National Welsh one – the most prestigious) Ellis enlisted, having resisted the Call Up for three years. He was not opposed to War, he said, but didn’t relish the thought of killing a man. Because his parents had four sons of age, it was decided by the War Office that one of them must be sent to the Front. Although Ellis, the eldest, did not want to go, he couldn’t bear his younger brother going in his stead. Ellis felt it his duty, as big brother, to step up. Tragically, he was slain in action, but not before he had submitted a long poem to the National Eisteddfod. Fortunately the censors let it pass (though it was initially suspected of being written in code and revealing sensitive information – in fact it was a cri-de-coeur against the inhumanity of all war). The adjudicators decided that it was the best poem, and awarded the Chair – a beautiful carved ‘throne’, to the poet known only under his pseudonym, ‘Hedd Wyn’. He was killed in action before he was able to claim his Chair, but it was awarded post-humously in his honour and became known as the Black Chair.

In 1992 a moving film was released of his story – Hedd Wyn — and it went on to be Oscar-nominated for the Best Foreign-language Drama (it is in Welsh, with English subtitles), as well as winning a BAFTA for Best Picture, and a string of other awards.

Hedd Wyn film poster

Last night, a special Remembrance Sunday screening was held at Hawkwood College, Gloucestershire. The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood was present – an original Eisteddfod Chair from the 1882 contest in Denbighshire. This has been in the family of Richard Maisey for decades, and he has kindly lent it to Hawkwood for the contest, which is to be held at the Open Day, May Day Bank Holiday Monday 2015. The theme is ‘Flood’ and any original poem, song or story by a GL5 or GL6 resident is eligible. Richard said a few words about the Chair, and I introduced the film. Afterwards we had a discussion about some of the issues raised by the heart-rending drama. Considering the countless voices that were silenced by the vast tragedy of the Great War – all those who didn’t make it back from the Trenches, or were injured beyond repair mentally or physically – it was felt that our opportunity to express ourselves creatively is a ‘sacred gift’ that shouldn’t be squandered. Many good men and women have died so we can have that freedom. Peace always comes at a price – and this time of Remembrance is a poignant moment to reflect upon that. To pray for peace. Watching Hedd Wyn I once again felt how could we possibly have let this happen again? Such an exercise in futility as the ‘War to End All Wars’ was, the obscenity of war should not be allowed by civilized people to ever happen again – and yet it has, again and again. By telling these true stories I hope we can make people say No! to all acts of aggression, to the Arms Trade, and the whole industry of aggrandizing War and those who fight in it. Violence is never the solution. There is always another way.

And if we forsake our creativity in the face of conflict then we have forsaken our humanity.

y-gadair-ddu

Observe the 2 minutes’ silence at the anniversary of the Armistice, 11th November, 11am GMT, and remember all victims of war. Make a donation to the Peace Pledge Union to support the ongoing campaign for peace.

Another Earth part three

I’m floating in the blood-warm waters of the bay – the pellucid brine holds me as I literally drift off. I repeat to myself a mantra I came up when I discovered the knack of ‘sleeping on water’ in the Red Sea of Egypt:

I am nothing,
nothing,
nothing.
I am everything…
I am nothing.
I am everything…
I am nothing.
Everything
is nothing.
Nothing
is everything…

(‘In the Lagoon’, The Immanent Moment, Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2011)

This helps to remind me of my insignificant place in the grand scheme of things – I’m just a drop in the ocean. Yet we are connected to the great Web of Life, however humble – from the tiniest microbe and ant to the mighty elephant, the redwood, the blue whale… I like this feeling of shedding the skin, the layers of ego and veils of personality. Although perhaps it is impossible to truly escape. However far you go you always end up meeting yourself. Travelling to the far side of the planet (relatively speaking) I felt closer to my loved ones, and more attached to my neck of the woods – I was missing my true friends back home and the kind of landscape I can have a conversation with. However paradisal this place is I simply don’t speak its lingo. I will only ever be a tourist in anywhere but the west. Northern Europe, a temperate climate, the beautiful melancholy of autumn and winter – something about it agrees with my soul. As our English Orpheus Nick Drake once sang:

I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky

Yet still, as I floated there, the sun glinting on the waves, flashes came of things I have seen …. ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion (well not quite – the arclights of squid boats illuminating the night sea like UFOs outshining constellations maybe…). Nevertheless, there have been moments of wonder and madness …

Starting my writing workshop on the beach in a grove of palm trees only to be drowned out by a deafening dusk chorus of mysterious birds…
Visiting the spirit houses that every dwelling here has – with their offerings of rice, liquor, tobacco to effigies of Buddhist saints, the King and Queen – with toy cars and other objects of desire iconically placed around them.
Giant turtles swimming stately in their tanks like geriatrics doing lengths – on Turtle Sanctuary island (bequeathed by the Queen for their protection) – the pattern on their backs, a rorschach patina, the ultimate depth psychology.

The acrobatic fire jugglers on the beach – young boys playing Prometheus-like with plumes of flames, pois spinning hypnotically in the hot night.

The intense trill of the cicadas as I ran through the forest barefoot on ‘Robinson Crusoe island’, wearing only my swimming trunks – a Tarzan moment!

Swimming under a full moon by myself – dancing with my moonshadow in the sea.

Being shaken to bits on a speed-boat as it bounced along the waves.

Reading on the beach before cooling off with a dip or a cold beer.

Savouring the taste of papaya as I breakfasted at sunrise, sitting under a palm tree.

The list goes on … but I won’t! Somewhere I can hear a hundred monkeys clapping and its time to get out of the water. (‘Come in number 78 – your time is up!’).

There were moments of connection – though they were sporadic. Friends or allies on my Hero’s Journey cropped up in unexpected places; whileas those I expected to connect with I didn’t at all. I am certainly partly to blame (let mea culpa be tattooed on my brow). Spending a couple of weeks with 14 people is challenging for the likes of me. I’m happy to socialise if I can have my space. I need my solitude to preserve my sanity and I grabbed what I could from the busy daily schedule. I was missing my good friends back home, my partner. A decent conversation with a kindred spirit.

On the final night a couple of participants (bi-focalisers, I called them) organised a ‘Love Cabaret’ (as it fell on St Valentine’s Day). I performed a small set of poems, and other chipped in an ode, a song, or a skit. We had a torchlit ‘last supper’ on the beach, waves lapping at our feet like the last days of Atlantis. There was a ritual dimension to it – we were asked to write what we wanted to let go of on a piece a paper which was burnt in a stoneware vase, which cracked (to pressure of too much catharsis in one go!). Then we wrote our prayers and blessings on a floating lantern, which we sent up into the sky. Its lift-off was touch and go, but eventually it floated free of the trees – into the night.

Relieved it was all over, I walked along the beach in the dark, letting the waves caress my feet.

Whatever marks we mark in the sand, the sea comes and smooths it all a way again. The sighing waves soothed away the internal (eternal?) dialogue, as I drifted off – succumbing to the Sandman.

Something about going away makes you really appreciate what you have. I looked forward to the quieter pleasures of home. Thailand is a riotously camp assault on the senses – part of it is very kitsch, a plastic fantasy (reality shrink-wrapped, a fake one at that). It often feels like you’re getting a pirate copy of the real thing (from designer fakes and ladyboy dance shows to bland cheese slices in film; insipid Yellow Label tea; & several dodgy brands of lager all vying to be Thailand’s answer to Duff Beer). Yet life is there – in all its messy, smelly, squalid actuality. Somehow amidst it all, life thrives.

The whole experience was quite unreal to be honest. Did it really happen? I don’t have much evidence. A rapidly fading tan and jetlag. As well running out of money two days early (I couldn’t use my card on the island – but broke, I still gave my last Baht to a Buddhist monk, trusting in the universe to carry me home: it did) I also lost my camera on the last day – an old battered one, but still – just when I decided to go for a walk around the island, taking souvenir snapshots.

Some things are to be preserved with the camera of memory.

At the end of a rickety pier a ramshackle boat was moored. I was ready to jump aboard and see where it took me.

After a fortnight on ‘Fantasy Island’ I was ready to leave – where was that dwarf and Ricardo Montalban when you needed them? ‘De plane! De plane!’

It was only in the lift back to Bangkok that my ears finally popped. Did someone turn the volume up to eleven?

Elected Friends

Dymock Poets Dinner Party

6th October

Dymock Poets Dinner Party at Daisybank, 6 October 2011

Last night seven of us gathered at Daisybank to celebrate a special friendship. On the 6th October 1913, the poets Robert Frost and (then prose-writer) Edward Thomas met for the first time. I decided this was an auspicious anniversary to have the first read-thru of the screenplay I have co-written with ex-ITV news editor Terry James about the lives of the Dymock Poets (a mutual passion of ours – Terry wrote a play about Thomas and his wife thirty years ago). Having the initial flash of inspiration in Spring 2010 after a discussion with Terry about another project, we began work in earnest late last summer – I drafted the initial treatment while on Skyros, running my first Writers’ Lab course. This was an evocative place to work on it – being the ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’ (Rupert Brooke, one of the Dymocks, is buried there). Having the village in Gloucestershire where it all started on my doorstep helped to bring it alive also, and I’ve spent several weekends on writers’ retreat there – staying at a lovely place in Redmarley D’abitot, walking in the footsteps of Frost, Thomas et al along the Poets’ Walks in the area. Talks and walks organised by the Friends of the Dymock Poets also helped to stir the cauldron (most recently, last Saturday – with excellent talks about Marsh and the War Poets). The recent wave of media interest in Thomas was an uncanny coda to my own ‘Dymock Fever’ I’ve been experiencing this last year and a half (to the point I even moved to Gloucestershire last December).

Kevan Manwaring - co-screenwriter of the Dymock Poets story

I invited 6 people to my soiree – the dress code was ‘Edwardian/Georgian’ and everyone made a real effort. I provided a roast dinner and there were contributions of pears from Herefordshire (from David’s garden), home-made cake, Wisset’s Pink from Suffolk, and other tasties. After the meal we read out some of the Dymocks poems – beginning with ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ by Thomas, about the ‘walk-talking’ rambles he used to enjoy with Frost in and around Dymock.

Then we repaired to the ‘lounge’, where a fire was roaring – not for port and cigars – but for a read-thru of the screenplay. Roles were allocated and the casting seemed to be spot on as the respective thesps rose to the occasion – Jay carried off a good American accent for Frost; Anthony was perfect for Thomas; as his partner Kirsty was for Farjeon; Gabriel played Helen (& the barmaid!); Ola, Brooke; David, Marsh (& Bott). The other parts were played by ‘members of the cast’, as they say. I read out the scene descriptions and filled in where necessary. The dialogue flowed well and the group held the focus for over two hours – with no one breaking the spell for a loo break, etc. At times, with the fire crackling in the grate, the atmosphere was powerful. And once again I found the Dymock story deeply moving.

Afterwards, there was cake and crit – although some had to depart due to the lateness of the hour. Finally, the guests left (except Ola, the Bonn-Bath migrant, who had to crash over), and I went to bed feeling replete – a perfect night, made so by exceptional friends, all talented writers, storytellers and poets. The Dymock Poets story has such a pull for me, because I find the way those poets (their wives; close friends; & muses) inspired and supported each other very inspiring.

Here’s to creative fellowship!

Ola, Jay, Anthony & Gabriel - creative fellowship

Making Bread

21-28 Feb

Another busy week… Busy is good, I suppose, but …

A storytelling friend of mine from Chagford (a creative little community on the edge of Dartmoor) Austin, a fabulous puppet-maker and keen baker, once said to me: ‘If you’re too busy to bake bread, you’re too busy.’ It’s true. Boy, how I wish I had time to bake bread – alas, I’ve too busy making dough – but at least this week I managed to do a couple of things to just nurture myself (my Shiatsu masseuse said I should treat myself – so I did, with a shiatsu massage). I also went for a much-needed haircut – my annual crop – my barber was a friendly young guy with an Elvis tattoo called Joe. We talked enthusiastically about films and books. He’s very fond of the Gangster genre (The Godfather series; Scarface, etc). Eastern Promises, (Kronenberg’s London Russian gangster movie starring Viggo Mortensen) we both agreed, was unjustifiably neglected (Viggo has recently done another star turn in The Road – which has incredibly lost out on the gongs so far). At one point he was singing the praises of American Psycho while wielding a cut-throat razor behind me… Anyone with a nervous disposition might have felt justified in worrying at that point, but all I left with was a great barnet, my head considerably lighter!

Apart from the ubiquitous OU marking quota, there was the following to keep me out of mischief…

Monday was my last session with the Saltford Older Learners (a six week stage two course entitled ‘Keep Going in Creative Writing’).

Tuesday it was my novel writers. It’s going well, but there’s the inevitable tailing off of numbers – a fact of life in the Adult Education sector. It always baffles me why people who sign up for these courses – parting with good money – often drop out. It shows a real lack of staying power. Their writing dreams are hardly likely to manifest with such poor self-motivation. How many hours of practise did our local Gold-winner Amy Williams put in? An inspiration to young and old alike. If you want your dreams to come true you have to work at them – hard.

On Wednesday Susan Mears, literary agent (and, as it happens, mine), was the guest speaker at Bath Writers’ Workshop, which I co-run with David Lassman. Susan gave fantastic, informative, practical and inspirational talk about the Business of Writing.

I gave a one-to-one consultation with a woman working on a screenplay. Her comments were positive afterwards:

I felt your feedback was constructive and has helped me sort out the starting issues. I came away thinking the project’s achievable, worthwhile and could work very well as a 90 min feature.

I was sent a link to the short film Rob Farmer made of the Bardic Picnic at Delapre Abbey – my old haunt – last Summer in Northampton. I was one of the judges and performed the opening set. It was a creative, successful day – made especially poignant being in the place I spent much of my childhood, where my fledgling bardic self was born. It shows what can be achieved when folk work together – a testimony of the vision and effort of the 3 J’s – Justin, Jimtom and John – well done guys!

Thursday, it was my evening class in Trowbridge – riding home in the lovely lashing rain!

Saturday I ran a creative writing dayschool for Wiltshire College in Devizes. It was a lovely run and back again in the Spring sunshine and it was nice to browse in the local bookshop during my lunchbreak.

The week ended with another great night at Chapel Arts Centre – the new programme is out and looks very impressive. Looking forward to the next Garden of Awen there, in a week’s time. Here’s to the green fuse!

The Future Killers

The Future Killers

The-End-of-the-World-as-we-know-it Show - coming to a planet near you

According to the many news stories and articles about Climate Chaos, the future, it seems, has already happened. The carbon in the air will increase by so much, sea levels will rise by this amount, so many species will become extinct, so many hectares of rainforest will be razed to the ground, the Arctic ice-shelf will melt and major cities will be inundated. You can almost hear the doom-mongerers rubbing their hands in glee. Just like in one of those 1950s Sci-Fi movies, which echoed humanities nuclear night terrors, the boffins declare: ‘…climate change is a threat to civilisation as we know it*.’

Something can be learned from those wonderfully garish retro warnings ‘from the future’ – they confirmed a generation’s worst nightmares, but also sold popcorn and made your date hold onto you tighter. Scary movies got you laid. And somehow the human race continued. The world didn’t end, only the Cold War.

Yet in the cold light of our 21st Century dawn, it is undeniable that ‘something is rotten in the State of Denmark’. As McKibben said in Ecologist (Feb ’07): ‘The Something Bad is here’. Reality has become a Spielberg movie. Are we going to procrastinate like the fatally-flawed Prince Hamlet, until the polar bears become extinct – white-furred Ophelias, floating away, drowned in the ice-melt, no place like home?

Are we going to give up? Or are we going to do something about it?

Denial is not a river in Egypt

ignoring the problem won't make it go away...

The publication of the 700 page Stern Report on October 30 2006 stated the cold facts: ‘Business as usual is the economics of genocide.’ It hit the fat cats where it hurt, in their pockets. Basically, it makes quite clear denial is not an option. Stick your head in the sand and it’ll cost more in the long-run. Industry has to act. Going green is now di rigeur – greenwash is this economic cycle’s en vogue colour. Anyone in the market-place with products or services to hawk is now bending over backwards to be seen as green, even if it’s cosmetic green spin. Slap a worthy Fairtrade or Soil Association seal of approval on it and it’ll sell – consumerism with a conscience. Carry on shopping without the world stopping. But a more worrying trend has been noted by George Monbiot, in his Guardian column (30 Oct. ‘06) says: ‘There is one position even more morally culpable than denial. That is to accept that it’s happening and that its results will be catastrophic, but to fail to take the measures needed to prevent it.’  The denialists have become nihilists. Before it was ‘Climate Change is natural – it’s not me, guv,’; to ‘Climate Change is happening, it is my fault – but we’re doomed anyway, so I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing until it all goes tits up’. This is a kind of suicide that dooms us all – eco-cultural suicide bombing in the form of a 4wheel drive and a short-haul habit.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

The apocalyptic warnings of the 1950s, a culture having atomic kittens, seem to have come true, but in a way unforeseen by Beatnik Cassandras. The classic British doom-movie, Val Guest’s intensely atmospheric 1961 film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, appears, in hindsight, to be the most on the money, and was eerily echoed in real newspaper headlines when both the Stern Report came out (‘The Day That Changed the Climate’, The Independent, 31 October 2006) and then the IPCC report (‘Final Warning’, front page of The Independent, 3 February 2007):  life mirroring art mirroring life – because the film is set and filmed in actual Fleet Street offices… In it, the Earth is jolted eleven degrees off-kilter by Russian and American nuclear testing – ‘Cold War’ brinkmanship ironically causing the planet to heat up… Well, we’ve discovered it’ll only take six degrees in the rise of the Global Average Temperature to fry the planet (as recorded in the IPCC report). So perhaps the actual day ‘the Earth caught fire’ could be recorded as being 2 February 2007 – when Climate Chaos became ‘official’, and the denialists had to finally concede that ‘human activity is the probable cause’ of Global Warming. The 2001 IPCC Report was humanity’s yellow card, the latest one is the red.

Six Degrees to Devastation

Most accept that a two degree rise in the Global Average Temperature is now inevitable –  and at only 2.4° ‘coral reefs [become] almost extinct’ and a ‘third of all species on the planet face extinction’. But that’s the ‘best case scenario’. According to the IPCC 2007 report, the ‘worst case scenario’ is a global average temperature rise of +6.4°: Most of Life is Exterminated – it would be hard to imagine a worse case scenario:

‘…methane fireballs tear across the sky… Deserts extend almost to the Arctic… “Hypercanes” … circumnavigate the globe, causing flash floods which strip the land of soil. Humanity reduced to a few survivors eking out a living in polar refugees. Most of life has been snuffed out, as temperatures rise higher than for millions of years. (The Independent, 3 Feb. ‘07)

Basically, it seems, humanity is toast. Some would say we had it coming. Tell that to the billions of frightened people out there, to the mothers and babies, to the children staring accusingly at us, the future-killers, from behind their mothers’ skirts. It’s hard being smug when confronted with innocent blood on your hands – a Herod-like Climate Massacre. Don’t drive off in your Chelsea Tractor, looking the other way. No amount of soap will wash your Pilate hands clean.

Smoke and Mirrors

Things are not what they seem

Although George W finally conceded there may be something in the ‘Smoking Exhaust’ theory, his doomed administration came up with a typically dumb-ass solution: let’s build solar mirrors to reflect all of those nasty sunbeams. Then we won’t have to curb our carbon habit. The Dubya solution to the Greenhouse Effect – paint the panes of glass silver. Never mind the tomatoes. Another solution is to scatter microscopic sulphate droplets into the stratosphere to mimic the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption – coming soon to a sky near year: Nuclear Winter: the Final Solution from the Carbon Nazis. The IPCC said such ideas were ‘speculative, uncosted and with potential unknown side-effects’ (The Guardian, 27 Jan. ‘07). It seems they just don’t get it in their reductionist Lego version of reality, playing with life’s building blocks: tamper with one thing and you entertain the possibility of affecting everything else. Haven’t they heard of the Butterfly Effect? Ol’ ‘happy goat’ Dubya sneezes and the world catches cold. Beyond that, it seems just another ludicrous ‘Star Wars’ propaganda ploy. The Sovs fell for that one – will we fall for ‘Space Mirrors’ – beaming atcha from ‘Moonlanding Studios’?

The Biodiversity of Culture

Saving the planet means also saving the texture of life (as celebrated in books like Common Ground’s England-in-Particular, Clifford and King, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006). We can’t all be eco-warriors. We should do what we’re best at to prevent cultural mass extinction. Otherwise, what are we fighting to preserve? A planet without human biodiversity?

It may seem redundant or indulgent now to do anything other than join Greenpeace and throw ourselves in the sea in front of whaling vessels and oil tankers, but however inspiring and awareness-raising such direct action is, we can’t all be so intrepid. Some-one has to keep society going – otherwise there won’t be any ‘civilisation’ to save.

So carry on writing poetry, painting, making music, making love, singing in a choir, supporting the school-play or local theatre, creating ‘meaningless acts of art’, morris-dancing, even stamp collecting – for it is the minutiae of life that things are at their most intense. Like the countless bug specialists, fungi specialists, lichen specialists, etc, if we don’t have those with expert knowledge and, yes, even amateur enthusiasm, for such things, then such precious detail will slip through the net.

And if we don’t care, then who will?

Like the Australian Aborigines, each with their Dreamtime animal they and there tribe are responsible for, we are all stewards of the planet, of its exquisite detail. It is a big place, and the level of complexity and abundance is overwhelming, but if we all focus in on one or two things, then we can pretty much just about cover everything. Everyone has their anorak. Perhaps the geek shall inherit the Earth. Super-Anorak may save the day, but of course we have to be holistic – look over our parapet, the ghetto of our particular specialism. Join the dots. See the bigger picture. It’s all about Paying Attention – perhaps that’s what we are here for. Humans are proud to think of themselves as the only (apparently) self-conscious beings on this planet, but perhaps we are here to be conscious of the Earth – and its conscience.

The Last One to Leave, Turn Out the Light


The 1951 SF film When Worlds Collide (a new Spielberg-produced version was released in 2008, merrily cashing in on ‘apocalypse fever’) foreshadowed the Ark mentality worryingly prevalent in contemporary Space scientist circles – who seem to be looking ‘anywhere but here’ to save humanity. This Noah attitude – ‘God’s given us the nod and the wink, so let’s get out of here’ – is perhaps the result of Western Christian hard-wiring: we’re brainwashed from our first day at our State-funded ‘Faith School’ that the End is Nigh, and only the Chosen Few will be saved, whether in an Infidel-free Paradise or WASP Heaven. It’s giving up the ghost. It’s pie-in-the-sky. Salvation is elsewhere, God is elsewhere – the grass is greener on Uranus. And the huge waste of resources, and vast amounts of pollution caused by phallic-symbol rockets going up into Space, penetrating, in a puny way, its ineffable Mystery, doesn’t exactly help things. It’s not re-arranging the deck-chairs on a White Star Liner, it’s dynamiting the hull, puncturing all the life-jackets and hogging all the life-boats. It would be Douglas-Adams-funny, if it wasn’t so deadly serious. The Vogon fleet is on its way, and they are practising their poetry.

Between Venus and Mars

As Adams said, space is big. Very big. It’s a lonely universe out there, as far as we know. We live on the ‘third rock from the sun’, luckily. Our number came up in the ‘Thunderball’ of Creation. An incredible chain of ‘happy accidents’ led to life on Earth being here. We haven’t found any anywhere else, yet – however high the possibility. In an infinite universe all things are possible. But until we find other life-sustaining planets, planets with the essential criteria for life (water being the main one) we live on a knife’s edge: ‘On dead planet’s such as Venus and Mars, CO2 makes up most of the atmosphere, and it would do so here if living things and Earth’s processes did not keep it within bounds’, (Flannery, The Weather Makers, p5) but this delicate balance is in danger of becoming undone by Man’s carbon habit. It seems we need to find a balance between these two extremes: we need compassion and focussed energy, the feminine and the masculine to solve this fix we’re in: a chymical wedding on a grand scale. It is telling that men are obsessed about going to Mars, on a symbolic level. Venus is too hot and toxic of course, but no one talks of missions to the planet of love – it’s what the world needs now, as the song goes, let’s face it, not more aggressive energy.

War of the Worlds

No One Would Believe...

In the face of over-whelming evidence that we have doomed our planet, that positively negative feedback loops are already kicking in, which will spiral out of control even if we do curtail our Carbon-habit, it is all too easy, and perhaps understandable to give up, to think: ‘Ah, sod it – the planet is screwed anyway. Party on, dude!’ But this is not only a risible Clarksonesque attitude (what will the boys with toys do when the oil runs out?) but pathetically defeatist: Texan sandsuckers and their ilk are the true ‘surrender monkeys’!

The other extreme can be found in the New Age movement, where people under pyramidal frames chanting from their yoni chakras await the Mayan apocalypse in 2012: the next millennial enema. ‘It’s all part of the big plan, man. Karmic – like African famine; those AIDs babies. Just ride it out. And buy some decent shades for the end-of-the-world show, as you chase eclipses around the planet, farting greenhouse gases.’

An analogy: imagine if planet Earth was invaded by a belligerent form of extra-terrestrial (bug-eyed aliens with laser beams!). Okay, not an original concept: HG Wells did a pretty good job. But let’s pretend it actually happens. They land; they fry the welcoming committee, consisting of the Dalai Lama, Hilary Clinton, Prince Charles, Robbie Williams and Jordan. Then they start razing cities with their death-ray. The lucky ones make it to the hills, or go underground. Survivalist fantasy time – your chance to grow a beard, wear army fatigues, eat cold beans out of tin, drive a land-rover at high-speed through empty shopping malls, and wield a shotgun like an iron dick. Would you go to them waving a white flag made from your Save the Whale T-shirt, as they strut across the burning fields, like giant angle-poise lamps with bunsen burner eyes, and say: ‘I surrender?’ Only to be turned into fertiliser. Or are you going to fight until the bitter end, until your dying breath? Fight for humanity, for the dream of civilisation, for the achievements of our ancestors, the hope of our children? Are you going to ‘fight them on the beaches’ with everything you’ve got, or are you going to let them win, and watch the whole history of the world go up in flames, and the human race become extinct? I know what I would do, however long I would or wouldn’t survive in such a scenario. In his foreword to Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers (Allen Lane 2005), *Robert Purves, WWF President Australia, says: ‘If we are to win the war on climate change we must all be part of the fight.’

If we fight to preserve from extinction endangered species – because they matter, in terms of the ecosystem they are part of, and because it would be an insult to millions of years to do otherwise (imagine spending a lifetime painting your masterpiece only to have some philistine thug put his DMs through it: now multiply that by many lifetimes, by millennia – are we going to be the thugs of Creation?) – if we agree that all life is sacred, then that includes us. We are part of the biodiversity of this planet and deserve protecting and fighting for as well. Don’t let those ‘alien’ genociders win! Start stock-piling those beans now – maybe not, methane is enough of a problem as it is… Not good in a bunker. Better still, get out of that frigging bunker, and that tyrant-downfall mindset. Do you want to be caught lice-ridden in a rat-hole, when Armageddon comes, by God in his Stars and Stripes boxers, playing Hendrix’s ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ on his Hummer sound system? Do you want to stand trial with Clarkson and his cohorts for crimes against the planet? And have you last moments videoed on someone’s mobile, as you do the gallows’ twitch?

This Island Earth


The future is unwritten. No one can say exactly what is going to happen. Even  Flannery admits ‘…science is about hypotheses, not truths, and no one can absolutely know the future,’ (The Weather Makers, p7). Climate Scientists scry into the swirling orb of their climate models like fortune tellers. I do not doubt for one second the rigour of their prognostications: climate science is what is says on the tin: science, not tea-leaf reading.

And yet why should we have such faith in their ability to predict the future – aren’t Sir David King types the modern equivalent of the augurers, reading entrails in front of the Roman Temple, telling us what we want to know, or what the powers-that-be want us to think? Science is modern magic. We have (mostly) complete faith in it. Until its orthodoxy is over-turned by the next paradigm-shift. Received wisdoms are there to be challenged and, when proven false, destroyed. The Flat Earths of the present become the Spheres of tomorrow. The Reds-under-the-bed prove to be in our head. Martians won’t attack after all – although radio-listeners thought they were going to when Orson Wells broadcast his version of War of the Worlds in the Thirties, causing panic. Not that Climate Chaos isn’t genuine. But a Culture of Fear is intentionally disempowering: frightened people are easier to prey on – to go ‘boo!’ too. They jump when you want them to. Y2K, WMDs, Anthrax in the post, Bird Flu, Swine Flu … the bogeyman keeps coming to get you, but does he ever really arrive? Climate Chaos is a fact that won’t go away – but as with terrorism, caused by individuals, cells or states, if we let them scare us, they have won. Let Climate Chaos paralyse you into inaction – like the sleep-paralysis when you awake in the night because of some ‘bump’, too terrified to move – and it has defeated you.

Always remember: the human creature, with its amazing imagination, its ingenuity, its resourcefulness and adaptability, could quite possibly rise to the occasion. Surprise destiny. Not necessarily with a techno-fix, Branson’s £24m miracle carbon-burner or equivalent (carbon credits are modern day ‘indulgences’ – like medieval pilgrims, we can choose to pay a ‘guilt-tax’ to off-set our carbon-sin – the fact remaining, each flight pumps more CO2 into the air and takes the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight. Plant more trees, for sure, but better still – don’t make carbon skid-marks in the sky in the first place. Do you really need that last minute cheap flight to Malaga?) but with a shift of attitude. With an act of collective will, anything is possible. If politicians don’t take the initiative (and I don’t mean jetting to some glacier to ‘find out about Climate Change’ in some spurious ‘hug a husky’ publicity stunt) then we will anyway, with or without them. Eventually the general public will be forced to changed, through lack of oil, dry land, clean water – but, of course, sooner is better. Wait until the flood-waters or climate refugees are at your door and it’ll be too late. Don’t wait for fate to come and find you – go out there and face it. Be bold.

The future is a challenge. Let’s rise to it – a human ‘rising tide’, to counter the tide of indifference. This is what we are here for. It’s up to us. No one else.

The future is in our hands. Make it happen, don’t wait for it to happen.

As Gore and others have suggested, this is a moral choice. And Monbiot emphasises this: ‘Climate change is not just a moral question: it is the moral question of the 21st century.’ Whatever decision we make – even no decision is still a decision – will be on our conscience, and will be remembered by future generations. Flannery concludes his influential book with the home truth: ‘We know enough to act wisely’.

Ignorance is not an excuse anymore

To leave you with Klaatu’s warning from The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise 1951):  “Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration…the decision is yours.”

***

Recommended Viewing:

The Age of Stupid – Franny Armstrong’s film

Home – Yann Arthus Bertrand

The Eleventh Hour – Leonardo di Caprio

An Inconvenient Truth – Al Gore

Recommended Reading:

The Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins

Brilliant Failures #4: Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Brilliant Failures#4: The Adventures of Baron Münchausen

Theatrical release poster

Theatrical release poster

Terry Gilliam’s new film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opened on Friday to a flurry of stories about its ‘troubled production’ (Heath Ledger’s tragic death during its making; the death of one of its producers, William Vince, two days after completion. Cue hoary anecdotes about the ‘the curse of Gilliam’. The ex-Python’s doomed attempt to bring his Don Quixote to the big screen, as immortalised in the heart-breaking documentary, Fulton and Pepe’s 2002 Lost in La Mancha, has encoded Gilliam’s legend as the Quixotic director who is forever tilting at windmills. In that catalogue of woe the lead actor, Jean Rochefort, died during filming, the Spanish air force took target practice nearby and the whole set was washed away in a flash flood. And still referred to in disparaging terms in the movie world is the ‘debacle over The Adventures of Baron Münchausen, Gilliam’s 1988 film that has become a byword for over-budget production disasters – and yet behind this myth, like many of the illusions in the director’s films (who, let us not forget, has turned in modern classics like Time Bandits, Brazil and The Fisher King), is something far more down-to-earth and to scale – and a film that does what it intends to, tell a rattling good yarn.

Once Upon a Time

Baron Münchausen is a semi-folkloric character from The Surprising Adventures of Baron Münchausen by the fabulously-named Rudolf Erich Raspe — a collection of German wonder tales published in 1785, based on the real-life German adventurer Karl Friedrich von Münchhause, who was prone to exaggeration it seems – and has subsequently given his name to the psychiatric disorder Münchausen Syndrome. Münchausen’s story has been made into films four times previously, in 1911 (Les Aventures du baron de Münchhausen), 1943 (the notorious Nazi Münchhausen, script by Erich Kästner), 1961 (Baron Prášil) and the Russian Tot samyi Münchhausen in 1979. The Baron seemed a perfect choice for Gilliam, a match made in heaven that had to go through hell.

Production Purgatory

The original producer, David Puttnam, was fired and with the subsequent regime change as one studio (20th Century Fox) was taken over by another (Columbia Pictures), the film was ‘buried’, a victim of Hollywood politics. The studios were still embittered about how Gilliam took them on over his previous film, the dystopian Brazil, famously taking out a full page ad in Variety, asking ‘why won’t you release my film?’ In the US only 117 prints were released of Münchausen (even arthouse movies get a standard 400). Despite this  apparent sabotaging from the studio, the film opened well in the few cities it was being screened in – but not surprisingly, the box office was dismal ($8 million – a figure pounced on by critics to prove its failure) yet in Europe, with better distribution, it faired better and gained a healthy afterlife in VHS and DVD sales as its cult status grew.

A Stellar Cast

Gilliam has a knack of attracting a great ensemble cast to his films. Previously he has worked with Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis (Twelve Monkeys); Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges (The Fisher King); Connery and Cleese (Time Bandits); and subsequently, Ledger and Matt Damon (Brothers Grimm). Münchausen is no exception: it has an ‘unknown’ Uma Thurman as Venus: Oliver Reed, doing an hilarious stint as Vulcan; fellow Python Eric Idle; an uncredited Robin Williams as the King of the Moon; cameos by Sting, Alison Steadman, Don Paterson, and Jonathan Pryce, previously the lead man, Sam, in Brazil, hamming it up as the ultimate killjoy city official ‘The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson’ – defender of ‘reason’. Jonathan Pryce’s character becomes a symbol of the studio financiers, always trying to shut Gilliam/Münchausen down – blue meanies of the imagination.

A Solid Structure

On one level Münchausen, scripted by McKeown and Gilliam (Parnassus sees them reunited) is a riff on Scheherazade (the female fabulist of One Thousand and One Nights) – the storyteller indefinitely postponing death with her tale-spinning. In the framing narrative, set in a ‘beseiged city’, Münchausen interrupts a poor rendition of his life with a ‘real tale’ of how he narrowly escaped losing his head in a wager with the King of the Turks over a bottle of Tokay. With the help of his four super-powered allies (Berthold, the world’s fastest man; Albrecht, the world’s strongest; Gustavus, with the keenest hearing; and Adolphus, with the keenest eyesight) he wins the day and the admiration of the ‘lovely ladies’ of the harem. When the ‘seige’ interrupts his fabulation, the crestfallen Münchausen decides to die, but is forced to act to save the city (for the sake of a little girl, Sally Salt, who is won over by his tales).  The Baron, escaping the city on a cannon-ball, seeks out his former companions and in doing so goes on a quest for wholeness. Each of his companions seem to represent a different element (air, fire, earth, water) – only when all four are brought together can wholeness be achieved –a kind of Jungian individuation. In Parnassus – five is the magic number (the number of souls Parnassus must win, to save his daughter, Valentina, played by Lily Cole, from the devil, Mr Nick, played by Tom Waits) although it is four different versions of the initially suicidal Tony who save the day, played – after Ledger’s death, by 3 fellow A-list actors and friends, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrel and Jude Law (who donated their fees to Ledger’s daughter).

Smoke and Mirrors

As in many of Gilliam’s films, there is a metanarrative that revels in the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of cinema. In Münchausen, and now in Parnassus, we see ‘real fakirs’, illusions that prove true and received wisdoms that are revealed to be false, unmasked like so many wizards of Oz. Münchausen’s framing narrative is quite chilling. The ‘enemy’ is not at the gates – the ‘fear of the other’ is just a myth created by those in power to control us… This proved prophetic when the Berlin Wall toppled the year following its release, ending the Cold War – and seems just as relevant to today – when we have bogus WMD, a never-ending ‘War on Terror’ and an erstwhile enemy.

Award-winning

Despite its lambasting in the popular press, Münchausen received 4 Oscar nominations and a gaggle of others for its design, special FX, and other technical skill. The film gained some positive reviews (85% positive on Rotten Tomatoes). US film critic Roger Ebert concluded that, despite its faults, “the wit and the spectacle of Baron Münchausen are considerable achievements”.

Cult Classic

Perhaps due to all of this, as much as from its neglected delights, Münchausen has attained cult status – enshrined at last in Movie Valhalla in the hearts of film fans. When you look at the GNP of small nations spent on films like Titanic, Spiderman 3 and Avatar, the budget for Münchausen seems miniscule now, even compared to most modern Hollywood movies – Münchausen is cited as having a budget of $23.5 million, and came in at $46.6m, although this has been disputed. The film’s original producer, Schuly, says the film’s original budget was closer to $35m, but Columbia, when they took it over, reduced this to $25m. It seems Gilliam’s bad press was a stitch up, a rumour mill fuelled by the Completion Bond Company and those with bad feeling towards Gilliam from Brazil. The maverick director had challenged the powers of the studios and was paying the price.

A Vaulting Ambition

Münchausen – like Quixote, like Parnassus – seems to be an alter-ego for Gilliam himself, a chronic fabulist, one who refuses to let reality win. The latest news is Gilliam’s Don Quixote project is back on, albeit without Depp, who is booked up for the next ten years. Gilliam has said he cannot wait that long, joking that he may die before he gets a chance to make his dream project. The director narrowly avoided the Reaper as Parnassus was in post-production, after being knocked over by a people carrier. As the Baron himself would put it: ‘only one of the many occasions on which I met my death’.

‘Everyone Who Had a Talent for it Lived Happily Ever After’

Imaginarium is the first film Gilliam has story-boarded himself since Münchausen and early reviews hail its visionary verve – the Gilliam trademark. There is no greater living screen fantasist. May the Reaper not catch up with Gilliam for many years yet.

©Kevan Manwaring 2009

View previous Brilliant Failures articles by Kevan Manwaring on The Big Picture website:

http://www.thebigpicturemagazine.com/

This is the End (again)

This is the End (again): the New Apocalyptic Sublime

Kevan Manwaring

The destruction of Vulcan? No, The Great Day of his Wrath, by John Martin, c. 1853The destruction of Vulcan? No, The Great Day of his Wrath, by John Martin, c. 1853

The destruction of Vulcan? No, The Great Day of his Wrath, by John Martin, c. 1853

From the scenes of planetary cataclysm in the latest Star Trek revamp to the Coppola’s napalm-reeking Apocalypse Now, Hollywood has revelled in the aesthetic of beautiful destruction. And with the long-delayed released of Cormac Mccarthy’s wrist-slitter The Road finally hitting the screens later this year, the latest in a string of post 9/11 gloomfests, Doomsday never seems more popular. The media whips up fear about the New Bad: another pandemic to push ink. Yet concerns about plagues and famines, about geopolitical and religious tensions are nothing new. A spin-off of the Romantic art movement became known as the Apocalyptic Sublime, and in the dramatic paintings of Biblical catastrophe by John Martin we see precursors of today’s big screen Armageddons. Put on your Kilgore shades and don your darkest clothes as we wander through cinema’s gallery of the end of the world.

JJ Abrams 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise dwells lovingly on intergalactic carnage – notably the ‘controversial’ destruction of Spock’s home planet Vulcan, although a planet named after a Roman god of fire was perhaps doomed, like the unlucky member of the away team in the red shirt: you just know they’re going to get it. But the apocalyptic aesthetic the special FX maestros were conjuring up on the big screen with state of the art technology – the planet’s surface breaking up in cataclysmic upheaval – is in fact nothing new.

The Apocalyptic Sublime, a sub-genre of the Romantic art movement academic Morton D Palely defined in his eponymous book (Yale 1986) emerged out of the Romantic Movement, directly as a result of political and religious tensions and scare-mongering that took place throughout the period stretching from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Communist Manifesto of 1848. Between these paradigm-shift poles, when old certainties were being challenged, art began to mirror both the zeitgeist of Terror and the ever-deepening wonder of the universe.

The sense of the sublime (the “exalted”, the “awe-inspiring”) was increasingly used to bridge the gap between the limited human faculties of understanding and the unimaginable infinity of the physical universe’ [Introducing Romanticism, p19]

Man was being overwhelmed by the infinite complexity of nature. Poets like John Keats decided to accept the limit of human consciousness, in what he called negative capability, but to scientists of the day, such fathomless enquiry gave them night terrors. The light of reason only served to illuminate the extent of the endless darkness. Sir Humphrey Davy, scientist, expressed this frustration:

Though we can perceive, develop, and even produce by means of our instruments of experiment, an almost infinite variety of minute phaenomena,yet we are incapable of determining general laws by which they are governed; and in attempting to define them, we are lost in obscure though sublime imaginings concerning unknown agencies.

‘Obscure though sublime imaginings concerning unknown agencies…’ This seems to sum up much of the art of the Apocalyptic Sublime – from the painting of the 18th Century to the cinema of the Twenty First. A sense that not only are ‘there more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in most people’s philosophies’, but forces, vast and inconceivable, could sweep us away at any moment. Since the invention of the A-Bomb this has been a reality. The events of September 11th 2001 presented the world with a living image of the Lightning-struck Tower from the tarot. Nothing was certain, nothing was sacred, nowhere was safe.

Romantic artists, notably John Martin (1789-1854), captured dramatic scenes of the end of the world in his large paintings. Romantic writers also dwelled on this e.g. Mary Shelley’s lesser known sci-fi novel, The Last Man (1826). This trope, the last man on earth, offers cinematic opportunities for eerily abandoned urban centres. There is something both chilling and sublimely beautiful about such empty vistas – after fears of baby boom-fuelled fears of over-population, the image of a post-Malthusian world is strangely comforting. Richard Matheson’s 1954 sci-fi novel I Am Legend was first made into The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price; then The Omega Man with gun-toting, Charlton Heston in 1971, before being remade in the big budget Will Smith vehicle in 2007, which created, at huge expense, the memorable image of the ‘concrete jungle’ of New York reclaimed by nature – escaped gazelles and lions gambolling gamely along the overgrown avenues, pursued by man the predator, who himself has become ‘food’ to CGI-zombies.

Scenes of urban devastation in films, (eg Saving Private Ryan; The Pianist) echo the Romantic penchant for ruins. Painters loved them. Poets loitered around in them. They symbolised something about the impermanence of life, the folly of man’s vaulting ambition. This was captured most memorably by Shelley in his poem ‘Ozymandias’, inspired by the temples dedicated to Ramses II he had beheld: ‘I met a traveller from an antique land/Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,/Half sunk, a shattered visage lies…’ This foregrounding of scale, to emphasise insignificance – life on an ungovernable scale – is captured also in the nightmarish city-scapes of Piranesi, whose hellish visions of dungeon-like metropolises were brought to life on the silver screen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927); Things to Come (1936), and on to Blade Runner, Brazil, Minority Report, etc. Gormenghastian edifices which baffle the human inside an endless maze. Films with giant starships (2001: a space odyssey; Alien; Event Horizon; Sunshine) offer the same aesthetic in space. The human animal trapped within an artificial world. In an increasingly urbanised and over-populated world, this became increasingly the reality for many.

The 1970s saw a whole swathe of gloomy Sci-Fi movies mirroring contemporary concerns about over-population, pollution, congestion, etc: Soylent Green, Silent Running, The Cars that Ate Paris, Mad Max, THX1138. The world had ‘gone wrong’ somehow. Environmental issues were starting to drip-feed into popular culture, although it would be a decade or more before such concerns were seen as more than the fears of a few green Lefties and the chronic fantasies of sci-fi writers.

Ridley Scott’s first film The Duelists (1977) captured memorably the stark aesthetic of Europe rendered by the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Scott’s later films, especially Blade Runner (1982) brought the Apocalyptic Sublime into the cyberpunk era. The opening shot of the tech-noir classic, of a smog-darkened Los Angeles, illuminated by spouts of infernal flame seemed chilling when first it was seen on the big screen, yet a decade later similar images of burning oil wells were being beamed back from the first Gulf War.

Flame seems to be a common image of apocalypse, perhaps not surprising after two millennia of hellfire and brimstone. What preachers brought to life by the power of the spoken word, churches and abbeys did through imagery. Aesthetically, cinema – with its moving stained glass, rows of seats and hushed reverence – provides the modern experience of the medieval cathedral and the nearest many of us get to a collective religious experience. The effect can be terrifying and awe-inspiring. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1978) itself a reimagining of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, cited as being the first modern novel of the Twentieth Century, began the main narrative of the film in a plume of napalm to the lugubrious incantations of Jim Morrison.

The apocalyptic warnings of the 1950s, a culture having atomic kittens, seem to have come true, but in a way unforeseen by Beatnik Cassandras. The classic British doom-movie, Val Guest’s intensely atmospheric 1961 film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, appears, in hindsight, to be the most on the money, and was eerily echoed in real newspaper headlines when both the Stern Report came out (‘The Day That Changed the Climate’, The Independent, 31 October 2006) and then the IPCC report (‘Final Warning’, front page of The Independent, 3 February 2007):  life mirroring art mirroring life – because the film is set and filmed in actual Fleet Street offices… In it, the Earth is jolted eleven degrees off-kilter by Russian and American nuclear testing – ‘Cold War’ brinkmanship ironically causing the planet to heat up. Now we are told the world is only six degrees away from devastation – and the thermometer is rising.

Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain, 1940-1942

Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain, 1940-1942

‘Europe After The Rain’ by Max Ernst  (1942)

Flood is equally likely to bring about apocalypse. Richard Jeffries, prescient Victorian post-apocalyptic parable, After London, or Wild England (1885) depicts a future primitive scenario of a flooded England reduced to a feudal Mediaeval state, where animals have turned feral and roam the overgrown landscape. Later artists continued this tradition into the Twentieth Century; such as Max Ernst’s Europe After the Rains, which Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) emulated, albeit in a far from subtle way…The poster of that old fashioned ‘disaster’ movie, masquerading as an eco-fable, was of an inundated Statue of Liberty. Ever since the classic ending of the original adaptation of Monkey Planet, The Planet of the Apes (Schaffner 1968) with spaceman/caveman Charlton Heston striking the sand in despair at the Ozymandian Statue of Liberty, half-buried in the sand, has this icon of American been used as a visual metaphor for ‘democracy’ (read Western Civilisation/humanity) under siege, as in the post-humous Kubrick project AI (Spielberg 2001). Here, it was preserved in the ice. In Cloverfield, the whole head was blasted across the screens, landing in front of a shell-shocked twenty-somethings. In the adaptation of The Road, it is a beached oil tanker, like a great white whale, which provides a stark short-hand for apocalypse, the Moby Dick of Peak Oil which man, Ahab-like has hunted down to the bitter end, at the cost of everything he holds dear. His doom, it seems, is to be tied to it as it goes under. In this vision of a burnt America, (the cause of the catastrophe is not elucidated in the book – as though Mccarthy is saying ‘take your pick’), ‘The fragility of everything is revealed at last.’

The late, great, master doomster JG Ballard used his own childhood experiences in the decaying splendour of the Post-colonial Far East to shape his dystopian vision of the future in his quartet of environmental disaster novels, The Wind from Nowhere (1961); The Drowned World (1962); The Drought (1965); The Crystal World (1966). His later novels explored a similar aesthetic of entropy and ennui. So far, only his memoirs, Empire of the Sun and his ‘auto-erotica’ cult novel Crash have been translated significantly onto the big screen – by Spielberg and Cronenberg respectively. It would be good to see a version of The Drowned World, but perhaps life has overtaken art.

In another instance of art mirroring life, it has just been announced that Will Smith will star in a dramatisation of the notorious 2007 Flood of New Orleans, which scandalised America, playing real-life Katrina hero John Keller. Spike Lee has already chartered this in sober indignation in his documentary on the event, When the Levees Broke (2006), which used news-reel footage and interviews with witnesses.

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin 1852

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin 1852

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin 1852

Donnie Darko’s (Kelly 2001) quirky Eighties-esque rites-of-passage worked far better than the OTT over-hyped Blair Witch on cocaine, Cloverfield (Reeves 2008). And let’s mercifully forget the uber-expensive flop of Southland Tales (Kelly 2006) – a ‘difficult second album’ scenario for the Darko director, written in $200 million. The studio have decided to go back to their original cash cow, with a sequel, S. Darko (Fisher 2009).

One could argue that these mega-budget movies, and the industry that supports them, is actually contributing to the eco-apocalypse. One of the reasons Daniel Day Lewis was reputedly said tohave given for declining the role of Aragorn in Peter Jackon’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is because of the environmental impact of such cinematic behemoth. He instead chose to deconstruct the environmental agenda in the low-budget Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005) directed by his partner, Rebeca Miller Arthur Miller’s daughter. And in There Will be Blood (2007) based on Sinclair Lewis’ 1920s novel Oil!, he played the oil magnate turned monster, Daniel Plainview. Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic film provided visuals of a burning oil well, echoing the burning of the oil fields in the first Gulf War, which in itself seemed to be referencing Blade Runner…The second in Godfrey Reggio’s art-house Qatsi trilogy Powaqqatsi (1988), from the Hopi, ‘parasitic way of life’, dwelled hypnotically in such scenes.

Of course with the charnel pyres of Foot and Mouth, floods, and the traumatic events of 9/11 played at the time continuously across the world, we had a very real example of the Apocalyptic Sublime – so much so, that for a while Hollywood went (even) softer than usual, (Chicago winning Best Picture in early 2003). Since then it has learnt to cash in on the doom and gloom zeitgeist with films like Right At Your Door (Gorak 2006).

Plagues, pandemics, zombie-inducing viruses, are always good cinematic standbys. In The Andromeda Strain (Wise 1971) a group of scientists investigate a deadly new alien virus before it can spread. This now seems a cosily sedate affair compared to the hyper-kinetic offerings by Boyle and Garland who, in 28 Days Later (2002) cranked up the gore to 11, imagining a Great Britain decimated by a ‘rage virus’, and left to fester and fend for itself. The sequel, 28 Weeks Later (Fresnadillo 2007) shows the Isle of Dogs being carpet-bombed by US occupying forces, alerted to Code Red, in a nod and wink to Coppola’s vision of hell and the very real footage of the Gulf Wars.

Ever since Fat Boy dropped on Hiroshima, the mushroom-cloud of the A-Bomb has become to symbolise a very real apocalypse. A-Bomb beasts became stock-in-trade of low-grade drive-in schlock of the 50s and 60s. Japanese movies especially revelled in noisy battles between garish mutants, men in suits and dodgy models duking it out above mini-cities, Godzilla looming largest of all.  Yet from the 80s onwards, the reality of the Cold War started to appear on the screen in a more ‘realistic’ way. James Cameron, in Terminator 2: Judgement Day featured a famous ‘nuke’ scene emulated in endless substandard films, all starring Nicolas Cage it seems: Next, etc and in Zac Snyder’s Watchmen movie this year.

The Road (2009) starring Viggo Mortensen (dir: John Hillcoat) The Proposition director’s take on Cormac McCarthy’s uber-bleak novel of the same name is still awaiting release – now scheduled for Jan 2010 – was postponed so as not to dampen the feel-good factor in Obama’s America – but also eerily mirrored by the devastating Queensland fires in Australia earlier this year.

Roland Emmerich continues his super-sized assault on planet Earth with his next uber-doom fest 2012, inspired by the Mayan Prophecy – the new source of apocalyptic fever (think Y2K with astronomy…). Yet Emmerich’s big screen armageddons, however spectacular, are ultimately unsatisfying – full of sturm-und-drang, signifying nothing.

The end of the world has always been big business. Expect a whole swathe of Mayan apocalypse movies. Mel Gibson has already got in on the act with his kinetic Apocalypto (2006). Even dear old Auntie has shown her black stockings – with the so-so ‘re-imagining’ of Terry Nation’s Survivors and with another remake of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids ‘heavy plant crossing’ its way onto the small screen in 2010.

Earlier this year, unlucky cinema audiences endured the ill-judged remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (Derrickson 2008). It seems Hollywood is caught in its own event horizon, remaking its own remakes, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

It seems the Apocalyptic Sublime is in danger of becoming Apocalyptic Ridiculous. Maybe The League of Gentleman’s big screen disaster, Apocalypse, was closer to the truth. The world won’t end with a bang, it seems, but with a snigger.

But sometimes, the effect can be deadly serious.

The harrowing near-future Britain of Children of Men (Cuarón 2006), based upon PD James novel, depicting a bleak world of mass infertility, ends with a Viagric dose of Christian imagery. Escaping dystopia, refugee camp UK, the black Madonna and child await salvation, Biblically adrift in a small boat, thanks to the sacrifice of the cynical protagonist played by Clive Owen, Theo, an unlikely, but believable reluctant Messiah figure, who dies to save the gurgling bundle that is the future of humanity. Their leap of faith pays off, as the Human Project boat, the Tomorrow, appears out of the Cloud of Unknowing. This device, the sudden unexpected ‘happy ending’, Catholic writer JRR Tolkien termed the Eucatastrophe.

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings – notably The Return of the King (Jackson 2004), with its la grande morte climactic plot orgasm at Mount Doom – brought the Apocalyptic Sublime back to the big screen and took it to another level. Here the true poetry and pathos of the apocalypse was finally realised. ‘I am glad to be with you here, Sam, here at the end of all things,’ Frodo says as lava oozes around them. But the eagles come to save the day, plucking the diminutive heroes to safety. The darkest of circumstances are redeemed by an act of grace – which in Tolkien’s Catholic imagination, is Divine.

This is illustrated in Vincent Ward’s visionary posthumous fantasy, What Dreams May Come (1998) (Academy Award winner for Best Special FX). The Robin Williams character has to descend, Orpheus-like, into the lowest part of hell to win back his late wife, who has been consigned there after committing suicide. When it seems all hope is lost, the eucatastrophe occurs, and as the Annabella Sciorra character declares: ‘Sometimes … when you lose, you win.’

Visions of the afterlife – of heaven and hell, paradise and purgatory – have provided movie-makers with inspiration and challenges for decades. There has been early visions of the works of Dante, Milton, the Bible… Although seldom has the technology and vision of those involved been able to do justice to the worlds conjured up by pen and paint, with a handful of exceptions. The sublime staircase sequence in What Dreams May Come was alluding to the famous ‘stairway to heaven’ scene in A Matter of Life and Death (Powell, Pressburger, 1946). In an earlier film, The Navigator: a medieval odyssey (1988), Ward had medieval pilgrims from Northumbria stumble upon an Antipodean Celestial City in the 20th Century, Auckland, NZ. The black comedy In Bruges (McDonagh 2008) despite its down-to-earth tone and bloody violence, ends with a sublime recreation of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It is hard to depict heaven without it seeming anaemic or unintentional comic. No doubt Peter Jackson’s version of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (released December 2009) will take up the challenge with his usual directorial aplomb.

It seems the Apocalyptic Sublime is not going away. In modern cinema it is there to remind us of the frailty of civilisation, the wonder of the world, the folly of humanity … or to sell popcorn.

In Wise’s original, and infinitely superior sci-fi parable The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the ‘good alien’, Klaatu’s warns humanity:  “Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration…the decision is yours.”

Whether these cinematic visions of doom inspire us to act, change our ways or just change channels, the choice is ours.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) observed that:

When danger and pain press too nearly, they are incapable of any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be and they are delightful, as we every day experience.

Heath and Boreham conclude: ‘Obscurity, vastness and irregularity, whether in mountainous landscapes, Gothic architecture, “romantic” literature or the new structures of industrialisation, gave the individual a “sublime” sense of his own limited capacity, hence his own mortality, and at the same time a vicarious frisson of delight in observing the source of danger from a safe distance.’

From the safe distance of the cinema auditorium modern audiences will (for the foreseeable future at least) continue to watch the end of the world for years to come.

Selected References

Palely, Morton D, The Apocalyptic Sublime, (Yale 1986)

Heath & Boreham, Introducing Romanticism, Icon 2002