Sunday, 24 June 2012

Reimagined Moments #2

"Why don't you just call me Doctor?"

"Zat ist not a name.  I vant your full name."

"Oh very well.  Dr. John Smith."

"Goot.  Now ve are gettink somevhere."

"I realise our presence behind you lines must seem rather strange.  And suspicious?"


"No?  Oh, I was rather expecting you to accuse us of being spies.  Everyone else does."

"I know you're not spies.  Ze vun sink you definitely can't be is spies.  After all, if ze British had sent spies to infiltrate our lines, zey vouldn't send two officers in British Army uniforms in a British Red Cross ambulance vith sree people in civilian clothes, all speaking English.  Zey'd send people in German uniforms in a German vehicle, all speaking German vizout an accent and all claiming to be German.  Zat's how spyink vurks, you see."

"It could be a double bluff?"

"No, zat is just stupid."

"Well, if you'll just put down your gun, I'll prove that I'm from the future by dismantling it."


Tuesday, 19 June 2012

When Titans Clash

Spoiler Warning

Prometheus tries to evoke the aesthetics of Alien in a way that is borderline obsessive. Even down to making sure there are cream-coloured leathery/cushiony pads on the spaceship corridor walls. Still greater attention is paid to replicating H.R. Giger's design concepts for the derelict alien ship, cockpit and pilot from the original film. The really weird thing is that, even as Prometheus deliberately and slavishly tries to evoke and/or copy the aesthetics of Alien, it completely overlays them with an entirely different, clashing aesthetic sense.

Look, why is this image so powerful?

There are, I think, a number of reasons.

Most importantly, it's because it is just explicable enough to make sense while also being inexplicable enough to unnerve.  We are plainly looking at a navigator or pilot in a cockpit.  We understand this.  We are also looking at something inhuman and estranged, something that evades any attempt on our part to relate to it directly.  The 'Space Jockey' (as it is sometimes called) is a pilot, evidently, but it is also a giant, a fossil, a mammoth, a skeleton, a statue, a cyborg, a petrified outgrowth of flesh embedded within a colossal machine.  We cannot separate the entity from the artifact.  The ribs of the creature flow outward into the cables of the chair.  The trunk of the face flows down into the workings of the mechanism.  We cannot disentangle organism from system, animal from engine.  They are fundamentally akin, interchangeable, interpenetrating, symbiotic.  This was always the intention: to suggest something that was inextricably both biological and technological.  The cockpit and the pilot are not discrete things but are conjoined to the point of identity.  They were one flesh, until the flesh peeled away.  It's entropic in both an organic and mechanical way simultaneously.  It's the ossified cadaver of a wrecked bio-machine.

It's also beautiful, but not in a straightforward way.  It's not pretty.  It's hideously, ominously, unnaturally, grotesquely beautiful.  It's beautiful in the same way as a scorpion, or the bleached skull of an ox lying in a parched gulch, or a pile of rusted flywheels that was once a graceful machine.  It has the troubling, terrible beauty of wreckage, of the predator, of the insectile, the dead, the decayed, the destroyed, the deadly.

And it's fucking scary.  It's a great big skull-faced monster in a huge black room made out of what looks like loads of bones.

Now, look at this:

This is pretty.  It's the cockpit from Alien... decorated with shimmering CGI lights and swirls and spirals and graphics and glowing planets. It's like someone stuck gold stars all over one of Goya's 'black paintings' or inserted some watercolour daffodils into a Max Ernst canvas. Well, why am I dancing around this? It's like putting pretty, computer-generated patterns all over a picture by H.R. Giger. The design and CGI rendering is perfectly nice in and of itself, but in this context it looks like a tawdry, clashing embellishment. It neutralises the uncanny effect of the setting. For all the familiarity that popular culture now has with Giger (thanks largely to Alien) his imagery remains fundamentally inscrutable. The image above plasters extremely familiar, almost routine imagery - CGI computery prettiness - over this fundamentally inscrutable image. It wouldn't be so bad if this were meant, in narrative terms, to be human technology inserted into the context of the alien ship, as with the floaty red probe things... but the display above is actually supposed to represent the technology and culture and design sense of the pilot-type aliens themselves.

This is more than just an aesthetic problem.  The technology of the beings that Shaw calls 'the Engineers' is recognisably similar to the technology of the humans as we see it in the film.  Suddenly, the mysterious and unknowable culture of the gigantic skeletal bio-mechanical thing from Alien is explained, demonstrated and shown to be easily understood in conventional futuristicky/SF terms.  The aliens have computers just like the humans.  They have holographic displays just like the humans.  They have navigation charts just like the humans.  They have cryo-beds just like the humans.  They have chairs around button-covered consoles... on which they leave their flutes!  They suddenly have doors that open and close (think about it - there's nothing like that in the derelict from the original film).  They have cargo bays.  The cockpit chair turns out to be just that - a chair in which a humanoid sits.  He didn't grow out of it.  He sat in it.  Wearing a spacesuit and a helmet.

This helmet thing is a big deal.  The skeletal face of the alien pilot, with its ossified veins, its cavernous eyes and its trunk-like snout... turns out to be a helmet, just like the head-like helmet of the aliens in Independence Day.  Like many crappy sci-fi films post-Alien, Independence Day tried to ape Giger's influential design concepts.  So ID4 had bio-mechanical stuff in it, but in a processed and banal form.  Now the Alien series reclaims its appropriated design concepts... and recycles the lazy, banal variants already used by inferior films.

And what is inside the helmet?  We get to see.  Not only is the pilot's eerie, inscrutable, alien face revealed to be a piece of perfectly explicable human-like technology, with its trunk a kind of hinged flap, but we see it removed, and beneath there is...  a guy.  An odd-looking guy, for sure, but a guy, nonetheless.

Moreover, these guys have comprehensible motives.  We may not be told why they created life on Earth and then decided to destroy it, but these aims are comprehensible in and of themselves.  The 'Engineers' can be communicated with, spoken to.  Their thought processes are apparently akin to those of humans.  It is no longer that The Company wishes to utilise the Xenomorphs (if we must call them that) as weapons... apparently they always were weapons, or outgrowths of weapons.  The Engineers created them as such, wittingly or unwittingly.  The Engineers are capable of military strategy then, along with fear, rage, the desire for revenge, and other such all-too familiar states of mind.

Again, there's nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but it is appended onto the imagery of the derelict craft and its silent, inscrutable, lonely occupant in Alien... and it represents a fundamental misprision of why those things are so interesting.  Put crudely, to explain the Space Jockey is to make it less mysterious (of course) and therefore less powerful.  It was always a Titan.  It's just that Alien allowed us to believe in the Titan by making it unknowable.  Prometheus makes the Titans less titanic by making them simply larger versions of us.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

I Just Want You to Like Me

Shabgraff now has a Facebook 'fan page', here.  At the moment, the number of 'Likes' it has garnered is 11.  And two of them are me.

Now, I don't have very many regular readers, but I definitely have more than 9.

If you are a regular reader of this blog and have not yet 'Liked' its Facebook 'fan page' then please take a moment to do so.  Apparently when it gets 30 'Likes', I get access to some kind of special information.  The credit card numbers of people who've 'Liked' it or something, I dunno.

Help me out here comrades.  You will be doing wonders for my barely-concealed narcissism fragile self-esteem.


Friday, 15 June 2012

Reimagined Moments #1

"Hurr hurr... You think this is the real Quaid?"

Well it might be, thought the guard.  Then again it might not.  It might be Quaid using his hologram thingy... or it might actually be Quaid pretending to be a hologram in order to trick us.  I have no way of knowing, really... unless I wait to see if it flickers in that way that really makes the hologram projector next-to useless as a weapon.  But that would take time.  Time in which I might get shot if it turns out not to be a hologram.    So I think I'll shoot it anyway.  Just in case. After all, better safe than sorry.

Luckily for the guard, this train of thought only took him a split second.  What with him having been highly trained and everything.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Victory of the Icon 3

I have a massive, endlessly-lengthening list of books, old and new, that I want to get around to reading.  Donny Gluckstein's new book A People's History of the Second World War just went straight in near the top of the list.

Gluckstein's argument seems to be that WWII was actually two wars, fought in parallel.  One was an imperialist squabble between established empires and up-and-coming imperialist nations that were set to clash with them.  Britain, France, Russia and America (which was already a continental empire and was ready to expand globally) found themselves violently competing for hegemony with Germany, Italy and Japan.  Running beneath this conflict there was a people's war against fascism (the form taken by the new empires) underpinned by dreams of freedom and democracy.  The imperialists running the first war knew that had to appeal to the priorities of the people fighting the second war in order to enlist their support, hence the democratic rhetoric.

I mention this here because Gluckstein has done an interview for New Left Project, in which he has some things to say about Winston Churchill, the subject of my irregular 'Victory of the Icon' posts.

Churchill was always very clear that his mission in the war was to defend the British empire, not promote the interests of ordinary citizens. He was not ideologically committed to destroy fascism. He made statements such as the following when he met Mussolini in 1927: ‘If I had been an Italian I would have been with you from the start in your struggle against the bestial passions of Leninism’. During the Spanish civil war he backed Franco (whose survival depended on Hitler and Mussolini’s massive material support), and afterwards he defended Franco when some argued that his regime was the unfinished business of WWII. Churchill also backed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria before the war.

During the war itself Churchill was very resistant to the notion of opening a second front (a landing in France) to relieve pressure on Russia. The focus of British strategy until 1944 was to avoid confronting the Nazis in Europe, and instead defend the imperial routes. That is why the main fighting was in North Africa (Tobruk, El Alamein). When the tide turned on the Eastern Front and it looked like Russia would sweep across Europe Churchill suddenly threw his efforts into the D-Day landings.

For ordinary British people the war had a very different meaning. It was a war against Nazism and fascism, for liberation and democracy. Churchill was fighting to defend the status quo of 1939 which, at home, had meant mass unemployment, appalling poverty and deprivation. The majority were not going to put their lives at risk to continue with that. Nor would they be duped with the sort of propaganda issued in the First World War (such as Lord Kitchener’s famous poster – ‘Your country needs you!’) They had seen what imperialist war meant.


Churchill was an important figure in the sense that the British ruling class was divided about what to do with Germany. One wing thought that there could be a division of spoils – let Hitler have the Continent in return for leaving Britain to its overseas empire. They were therefore in favour of appeasement during the 1930s and for compromise once the war had begun.

Churchill rejected this scenario. He considered, probably rightly, that Hitler would not be content with such a division and that Germany would inevitably be a threat to British imperial interests. He was therefore absolutely determined to see the war through to its conclusion and win. This is the source of his inspirational rhetoric which captivated so many. However, as explained above – he was a great imperialist war leader, not a great leader of the war against fascism.

Churchill’s war record is shocking in many ways. He was responsible for the Bengal famine which cost some 3 million lives because he insisted on forcing India to raise a huge army and blocked efforts to supply food when the demands of that army caused starvation. Rather than open up a second front in Europe he gave himself an alibi by backing area bombing of Germany. This involved the indiscriminate bombing of German civilians which continued in spite of US advice that targeted bombing would be more militarily effective. Even after the D-Day landings, when it was clear the land war would be the means by which Nazism would be destroyed, he backed Bomber Command which was working through its list of city targets, the most notorious being Dredsen.

Winston, you old devil.  Is that a wicked twinkle in your eye, you cheeky chap? 

Still, it's okay.  Gatiss didn't portray him as whiter than white.  He tries to steal the TARDIS keys, after all.  The naughty man.  That'll neutralise any tendency there might otherwise be in the episode to indoctrinate children into the unquestioning admiration of a blood-splattered old reactionary imperialist.