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WELCOME to SlamDunk! Studios. This is a portfolio of creative and analytical writing I've produced over the years. The articles focus on literature, cinema, gaming, history, and sociology.

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Night of the Living Dead (film essay)

Posted on August 13, 2012 at 8:50 AM Comments comments (0)

When Night of the Living Dead (Romero 1968) was first released, American society was in a state of cultural and racial conflict. It was fighting two wars – the war from within and the war from without. One was being fought amongst its own people, expressed through the racial clashes between black and white Americans. The other war was being fought in the far away jungles of Vietnam, against the faceless, nameless enemy dwelling in the shadows.

 

These two wars fed on one another, with American’s aligning themselves in camps for and against Vietnam, and black activists and soldiers questioning why they should serve a country that denies them their basic civil liberties. Likewise, the zombie attacks depicted in Night of the Living Dead act as a sort of pressure cooker for the real conflict of the film, the one being fought amongst the desperate inhabitants of the farmhouse.

 

While neither the Vietnam War, nor the Civil Rights movement are specifically addressed in the film, their historical influence can be felt in every frame. The society Romero depicts is a frightened, angry and nihilistic America, echoing the cultural tensions in which the film was made.

 

Romero uses his “ghouls” to express the fear and disgust many American’s felt in their exposure to the Vietnam War. Vietnam was the first time ordinary citizens were able to witness the gruesome reality of armed conflict. War was no longer an abstract struggle in a far-off land; it was being transmitted into people’s living rooms daily. Like the media’s coverage of the war, Night of the Living Dead is shot in grainy black and white, giving the film a seedy, voyeuristic feel. The frame often seems frantic and unfocused, and the audio is riddled with un-synced dialogue and fluctuating volume. Romero’s loose, shaky camera-work also contributes to this sense of gritty realism, as does his decision to employ non-actors for several parts. Night of the Living Dead is much less staged and polished than the high-budget films of its era, but rather than detract from the experience, it serves to emulate the wartime journalism audiences would have been exposed to on television during its release. This stylistic choice helps create a subconscious dialogue between the gruesome imagery of the zombie attacks, and shocking video journalism of Vietnam. In both cases, the prevailing response from viewers was to question why so many people were dying, and if their deaths even meant anything, or served any greater good.

 

Strangely, the only time the camera seems centred and focused, is when the characters are all silently watching the television set. The news updates have a calming influence over the bickering parties, and alludes to their prevailing trust in the media’s authority and desire to be told what to do. In this sense, the film presents a pessimistic view of people. Without an authority figure, the characters are unable to work together. They argue and fight, and end up harming each other more than the zombies themselves. Likewise, the living dead are an aimless, mindless and savage mob, a representation of the most basic instincts of people, free from direction or authority. Unlike the previous wars of that century, which unified America against a common enemy, Vietnam was having a destabilising effect, pitting citizen against citizen, and undermining the authority of the government and military.

 

The ghouls in Night of the Living Dead embody the faceless, nameless people slaughtered in service of America’s war. They are the dead soldiers, the defiled civilians, and the Viet Cong. The ghouls are America’s guilt given form, returned to extract revenge on the people who watched their horror in the quiet comfort of the living room. For the first time American’s did not see themselves as the good guys in this conflict. They were not fighting Nazi Germany or the Empire of Japan. Their enemy was the mysterious man in the black pyjamas, the one they called “Charlie”. He was everywhere and nowhere, a faceless mob waiting behind the next line of trees. He took the form of farmers and peasants, and sometimes even women and children. The ghouls fear fire, not for its heat, but for its light. Like the Viet Cong, they are stronger in the shadows, where friend is indistinguishable from foe. This formless, illusive presence created as much frustration and paranoia in the American soldiers as it does in the inhabitants of the farmhouse. Both Barbra and Mrs Cooper see the face of a loved one, when confronted by a ghoul, and empathise with it. It costs them their life.

 

The racial tensions of 1960s America manifest themselves through the character of Ben, and his efforts to cope with hostility inside and outside the farmhouse. An African-American in a starring role was rare for that time period; rarer still, was the fact that neither the characters, nor the film, reference Ben’s race. His skin-colour is neither the subject of approval or disapproval. He is judged purely on his ability to survive. In this sense, the zombie attacks have created a sort of levelling effect, erasing the old racial divides, at least for the moment, in favour of a blanket human survival. On the other hand, the members of the farmhouse are hardly a united front. Ben seizes leadership over the group, even resorting to violence to assert his dominance. If the farmhouse is a microcosm of “living” America, then Ben is its clear defender, skewing the social perceptions of black subjugation.

 

Ben does not simply assert his equality over the white survivors, but his dominance. One line in particular—“you’re boss down there, and I’m boss up here”—even suggests a sort of black supremacy over the house. Alluding to black militant figures like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, Ben is using the deterioration of society to reorganise the racial hierarchy, elevating himself from a level of subjugation to authority.

 

In the closing moments of the film, Ben emerges from the cellar, traumatised from the night before, but ultimately unharmed. Then, in a scene of utter nihilism, he is mistaken for a ghoul by the gun-toting posse, and shot dead through the farmhouse window. It is unclear whether this action was aggravated by racism, or simply poor judgement on the part of the gunmen. In either case, the posse failed to acknowledge Ben’s humanity, and slew him with the same callous attitude afforded the rest of the bodies cast onto the pyre. The film has brought us to a point where American’s can no longer distinguish between the living and the dead, and have begun to devour one another indiscriminately through fear and paranoia. Even if Ben’s murder was not racially motivated, Romero’s depiction of a southern militia stalking through the country side armed with rifles, hunting dogs and meat-hooks is clearly meant to provoke images of the 1960s lynch mobs.

 

Night of the Living Dead echoes the disillusionment felt by many American’s during its release. So many soldiers and activists had died, and worse still, their deaths seemed random and without purpose. America was devouring itself, and this feeling of cultural decay and social hysteria manifests itself with shocking intensity in Romero’s film.


Indigenous Education (soc essay)

Posted on July 13, 2012 at 9:30 AM Comments comments (0)

Education is one of the most important elements of Indigenous self-determination and cultural integrity, and yet it is also the institution most in need of reform. Nationwide, Indigenous students achieve consistently poorer results than their non-Indigenous counterparts. The problems that Aboriginal students face at secondary and tertiary levels of study are systematic, as well as psychological. Indigenous education is plagued by systemic bias and structural violence, as well as a pervading feeling of dependency and low self-esteem among students.

 

Is there an Indigenous Education Crisis?

There are three key reasons why an indigenous student is far more likely to fail school – unfair economic arrangements; unfocused curriculum; and a poor social policy. Quality education plays a very important and positive role in the upbringing of any child. It contributes to a greater interest in academic achievement and raises the self-esteem of the student. The fact that this learning process is being denied or hindered within Indigenous communities has a substantially negative effect on their development into adolescence and adulthood.

 

In 2008, the Productivity Commission found that “63.4% of year 5 Indigenous students achieved the national minimum standard” for reading and writing (McCann 47). This figure constitutes an educational crisis in the eyes of the commission. Further research indicated that Indigenous students are also well behind in numeracy; have less access to secondary schools; and are half as likely to proceed to year 12 as their non-Indigenous counterparts. The study, conducted by Fordham & Schwab, also found that Indigenous children suffer from higher rates of poverty, abuse and poor health; all of which serve to hinder the child’s ability to learn, and yet are perpetuated by the student as they enter adulthood, due to a lack of quality schooling (McCann 48).


Indigenous Education Policy

Australia’s Aboriginal education policy has undergone several changes since the 1930s. The program was originally written under the guidance of assimilation, and aimed to provide the same style of schooling for Aborigines as for the rest of the population. The integration policy, introduced in 1965, began to recognise the differences between Aboriginal culture and lifestyle, and the majority of Australians. Therefore, some differences in educational provision were granted, such as efforts to teach in the student’s native language. In 1973, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs outlines special programmes to be provided at all levels, in order to meet special needs and overcome social deprivation. While efforts have been made to cater for the differences in culture, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, academic achievements among Aboriginal students in the past decade has remained shockingly low (Lippmann 14).


What are the problems facing Aboriginal Students?

Even if a policy was established that would objectively increase the quality and reception of education, the rate of change within the Aboriginal academic profile is so slow, the success of such a policy might take years to materialise, by which time it will have been discarded. There are several intrinsic factors contributing to this lack of “success”, that are difficult to address simultaneously, in a single policy. The first is the self-esteem of the child. A child’s self-concept is very important to their ability to “perform” in a classroom. Research indicates that Aboriginal children, in a mixed classroom, suffer from feelings of helplessness, inferiority and an expectation of failure. This is exacerbated by the attitudes of white Australians, who, while good-intentioned, expect less of Aboriginal students (at both a personal and national level). While racism is far less prevalent in contemporary Australian society, the negative stereotype of Aboriginal people has been consistently preserved over the decades. Discrimination, or at least the expectation of discrimination (even when not present), adds to the students feeling of hopelessness. Similarly, many Aboriginal parents resist sending their children to school at a young age, for risk of bullying and name-calling (16-17).

 

Another intrinsic factor in the failure of Aboriginal students is a feeling of separate identity. Schools are viewed by the community as yet another “institution, controlled and dominated by whites” (Lippmann 17), to mould children into white society. This feeling of distance is compounded by the European focused curriculum, in which 1788 is accepted as date of Australia’s foundation, and the country’s history is examined from a white perspective. Very little of the Australian curriculum is dedicated to traditional Aboriginal culture, and when it is, it treats Indigenous people as a collective, rather than hundreds of independent nations, each with their own values, customs and stories. Unlike white, middle-class Australia, individual achievement and self-esteem does not hold nearly as much importance as contribution to the community. There is a low correlation between academic performance and parental approval. This lack of “cultural emphasis” leads to an absence of pressure and reward for academic success on the part of the child (19).

 

How can these problems be addressed?

One area which needs to be pinpointed is the lack of congruity between school and home life; the former being largely irrelevant in the minds of Indigenous youth. The best strategy in countering this disparity is to encourage the community (in areas of Indigenous majority) to take control of the school, both at a curriculum and administrative level. This process of educational autonomy has been supported by Aboriginal leaders, but largely ignored by the Australian government. One example where the strategy was put into practice was in Townsville, where a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders opened a Black Community School. The first year of the operation saw dramatically increased enrolment and enthusiasm for the curriculum. Unfortunately, the school was not recognised by the Australian government, and received little funding (Sharifian 76).

 

On the other side of the spectrum, schools which operate with a minority of Aboriginal students need to cater more readily to the self-competence of Indigenous students.  If the children can experience academic success, it will motivate them to continue their learning. The trap, however, is to treat the student as disadvantaged, which leads to feelings of inferiority, but rather as culturally different. The school also needs to better integrate the home and community life of the student. The use of Aboriginal teachers and Aboriginal liaison officers has been found to diminish the cultural divergence between home and school. The school curriculum also needs to more adequately present the Indigenous perspective on Australian history, to prevent alienation (Sharifian 78).

 

Teacher training is another important aspect in addressing the failures of Indigenous education. A curriculum, no matter how tailored and improved, is only as good as the teacher presenting it. If they are not flexible and understanding, they will be far less capable in accommodating Aboriginal students or indeed any minority or migrant. It is important that teachers are trained, not to teach at their students, but to open a dialogue and friendly rapport with them. The implementation of Aboriginal teachers greatly increases the students’ ability to connect to the curriculum. However, it is also important that student feel comfortable being taught by whites, since they represent the vast majority of Australian teachers, particularly in secondary and tertiary study (of which the vast majority of rural Indigenous students do not participate in).

 

The Application of Monoculturalism and Parrhesia

One of the potential solutions offered by the Australian Journal of Education is the integration of communal input and curriculums which speak directly to the aspirations of Aboriginal students and their families. Studies indicate that Western education is failing the Indigenous youth, and that perhaps the construction of a monocultural based institutions would be more effective in their ability to learn. The Centre for Public Health also argues that the application and teaching of Parrhesiastes could greatly help Indigenous students at a tertiary level (Eckerman 7).

 

Parrhesia is a Latin word which, roughly translated, mean “fearless speech”. It is characterised by a dialogue of frankness, truthfulness, critical thought (even at the risk of oneself), and duty. When applied to Indigenous education, especially at a university level, it is used to “change the status quo, so that more people may participate in and enjoy the rights of democracy” (Ewen 610). The application of Parrhesia, as championed by Shaun C. Ewen and the Centre for Public Health is about providing a “strong and rigorous voice” to Indigenous students in addressing unequal treatment, and a lack of academic structure and support. It also gives Indigenous students a feeling of self-determination and self-care, as well as a feeling of community with fellow Aboriginal students, which is just as important.

 

District 9 (film essay)

Posted on June 25, 2012 at 8:40 AM Comments comments (0)

The aliens encountered in District 9 (Blomkamp 2009) are treated with the same level of distain and indifference usually reserved for refugees and ethnic minorities. While the majority of “alien invasion” films depict humanity’s initial contact with extra-terrestrial life, District 9 concerns itself with the aftermath of “first encounter”; the process and struggle of co-existence. The film is set in South Africa and bears significant similarities to “Apartheid” system, particularly the “District 6” initiative. Here, black and white characters are reconciled by their hatred of the “prawn”, whose continual segregation from society seems to correlate with the moral decay of the state. However, while proposing to examine the causes and consequences of racism, the film has been criticised for being as racially simplistic and insensitive as those it condemns. This may have been an intentional technique on Blomkamp’s part, in order to permeate the audience with a racist mindset. District 9 offers some hope in the overcoming of racism and xenophobia, specifically through integration, but for the most part, hatred, fear and greed prevail.

 

Right from the beginning, District 9 establishes that morality is a virtue coerced, rather than offered. The faux-documentary opening informs the audience that “all the eyes of the world [were] on Johannesburg… we had to do the right thing”. This suggests that the initially humane and accommodating treatment of the aliens was not necessarily voluntary, but required, in order to conform to the charity that the rest of the world expected of South Africa. This parallels quite readily to the Apartheid era, which received enormous public scrutiny and criticism. What the nation expected was “music from the heavens and bright shining lights”. What they got was a population of unhealthy, aimless creatures, physically revolting and openly hostile to humanity’s self-appointed ambassadors.

 

What follows this “first contact” is a series of conscious and unconscious processes to oppress and debase the alien populace. First and foremost is the term used to describe the aliens – “Prawn”. This name not only refers to their disfigurement, but designates their entire species as bottom-feeding parasites. It creates in the minds of South African’s the image of a base entity, and unites black and white communities in their disgust for the aliens. The Prawns have been segregated and quarantined from the rest of the people, which further aggravates the feeling of opposition between the two groups. Since the humans have no communication with the Prawns, and view them only through the lens fashioned by the media, and the weapons company, they view them as an “Other”; a divergent and unwelcome presence in their society. While the appearance and demeanour of the Prawns certainly contributes to this feeling of mistrust, it is also in the interest of the government to dehumanise and distort their image, as it provides a useful scapegoat for all of society’s ills, and hides the inhumane treatment and experiments being carried out by the defence contractors.

 

The aerial shots of the District 9 depict the squalor and degradation of the Prawns’ living conditions, and are obviously very reminiscent of the black townships associated with Apartheid South Africa. They also conjure up images of the Nazi concentration camps; an idea which is confirmed by the protagonist Wikus, when describing the new site, District 10. These comparisons speak to something in human nature, be it the tendency for people to fear and reject the unknown, or the ruling classes’ ability to demonise the weak and defenceless for its own end. The source of this fear and hatred, however, is more difficult to comprehend.

 

One theory offered by District 9 is that the level of contempt a society treats its minorities, is proportional to the hostility offered back by the minority. In other words, the Prawns are treated as a dependant and sub-human people, and so they gradually fall into that role, which only confirms the initial prejudices of the humans, widening the gap between the two groups even further. The more the humans think of the “Other” as a primitive or animalistic entity, the more it gives them permission to treat them as animals. There are countless real life examples of this process throughout history, but the most obvious example is Nazi Germany, in which the Jewish people were demonised by the majority of citizens. Their prejudice was partly justified (in their minds) by a feeling of victimisation and disenfranchisement over their defeat in World War I, and was ironically used as a rallying cry through which the rest of the country was unified. Likewise, the people of South Africa, having been divided and oppressed by the yoke of Apartheid, are united in their fear and hatred of the “Prawn”. This phenomenon speaks to a contradictory desire in humans, to divide and categorise a society into opposing groups, and yet to be joined together in opposition to a common enemy.

 

The theme of dependency is also introduced by the film, most readily in the form of the “cat food” which is used as a mark of chemical reliance. It is quite clear that the aliens in the film do not like the humans. Some of them draw pictures on their houses to show how many humans they have killed, while others build traps for the military. However, the Prawns fear and depend on the humans, just enough to bend the knee. Whatever else the aliens have suffered at their hands, the humans did rescue them from the ship, and provided them with food and shelter. Without the humans, the aliens would surely die (having no way to return home), and this feeling of dependency, and perhaps even begrudging gratefulness, has enslaved the aliens to a life of subjugation. The idea of drug dependency is also present in the form of cat food, which the aliens have become addicted to. This plays into the suspicion that drug addiction is another brand of oppression initiated by the ruling class. The aliens are weakened by this reliance on cat food, and it distorts their ability to plan and reason, as evidenced by the one-sided negotiations with the Nigerians. The aliens even go so far as to sell their weaponry and ship parts for more cat food, surrendering their heritage for immediate gratification and an escape from the misery of persecution.

 

There are numerous links between the world presented in the film, and the District 6 initiative, most notably the relocation and ghettoization of an ethnic minority. However, the circumstances of District 9 are somewhat antithetical, in the sense that, during the Apartheid era, it was the minority oppressing the majority. Also, here, it is the aliens who are the unwelcome invaders, being oppressed by the natives. Nevertheless, a very similar system of subjugation is employed by the ruling class.

 

The suggestions of everyday people, regarding what to do with the Prawns, range from keeping them segregated, to sending them far away, to wiping them out with a “selective virus”. The racism levelled against the Prawns is actually quite genuine, as many of the interview subjects were responding to their opinions of Zimbabwean and Nigerian refugees. Conversely, the film has been criticised for being itself racist, especially in its depiction of Nigerian’s as psychotic, voodoo-worshipping cannibals. That said, if the Nigerian gangsters are presented as savages, the white characters at the top of the MNU power structure are positively sociopathic, seeking only the expansion of their corporate interests through the death and torture of hundreds.

 

One reason Blomkamp may have employed these clearly insensitive depictions in a film which purports to deal with the complexity of race relations, is that it serves to emulate a feeling of racism in the minds of the audience. It is almost impossible to sympathise with the Apartheid government, since they are oppressing a group so clearly like themselves. And yet the ethnic minority depicted in District 9 are mostly presented as hostile, and their physical appearance is quite frightening. Before being introduced to Christopher and his son, and learning the common humanity between people and Prawns, the audience could see themselves as being afraid and disgusted by these creatures. Perhaps Blomkamp is trying to present an image of the “Other” that actually correlates with how a racist individual may view a black person or a Jewish person.

 

If the film does offer any hope about the future of race relations, it is buried beneath an avalanche of violence, hatred, fear, and greed. For the most part, the angels of our better nature do not prevail, and circumstances by the end of the film have steadily declined. MNU has maintained power and authority over South Africa, silenced all of its political opponents, and relocated the Prawn populace to an area resembling Auschwitz. The hope present in the film is symbolised by the friendship between Christopher and Wikus. They have learned to respect each other’s differences, and realised a shared humanity. Christopher has been introduced to a side of people that isn’t violent and aggressive and afraid, and Wikus has learned what it is to be a Prawn, to be hunted and hated. District 9 offers a grim view of humanity, and its ability to oppress and demonise the weakest among us. Wikus develops empathy by quite literally stepping into the shoes of the “Other”. Integration and understanding are posited as the salvation of a multicultural (and multi-species) society; the salvation of knowing that the “Other” is just as afraid as you.


The Proposition (film essay)

Posted on June 18, 2012 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)

The Proposition (Hillcoat 2005) is bleak, brutal depiction of Australia’s colonial history, which challenges the romanticism of the bushranger legend. The film presents ideas of heroism, villainy and innocence with a degree of ambiguity (Stadler 68). This moral vagueness is manifested through the characters of the film.


The protagonists struggle to do right, but are tortured and oppressed by the forces of man and nature; meanwhile, the truly despicable characters are presented with such an air of charisma and eloquence that they have the ability to seduce and engage the audience in ways the hero’s cannot. Innocence is presented as the rarest and most fragile trait, and through the course of the film, the characters who do possess it are brutally robbed of it by the law and chaos of their environment.

 

In presenting itself as a Western, The Proposition introduces several character archetypes, common within the genre. These include the zealous lawman, his naive wife, the corrupt mayor, the resentful natives, and the outlaw brothers. However, titles such as “hero” and “villain” are more difficult to place. Many of the characters display an appetite for both order and violence. Even the seemingly passive settler community are brought together by their desire to see criminals humiliated or tortured. The closest the film gets to a hero, is Captain Stanley and Charlie Burns, who, while both capable of great brutality, struggle to maintain a code of honour. Arthur Burns, on the other hand, symbolises excessive cruelty, and yet his monstrous soul is masked by an easy laugh and a poetic tongue, that make him easy to like. Arthur is charismatic, and this makes his acts of violence so much more disturbing, having seen the tender way he deals with his brothers.

 

Whether they be cop, criminal, settler, or Aborigine, the one thing that these characters share is the harsh environment which they inhabit. The sun-baked, unforgiving Australian desert can be seen as trigger for much of the hostility fleshed out by the film. The environment acts as a sort-of pressure cooker, pitting already antagonistic individuals against one another, in an escalating clash of cultural violence. In the scene with Captain Stanley and the captured Aborigines, the black native populace seem to imply that the empty, isolated ranges have had a transformative effect on the Burns clan, turning them into howling beasts. Similarly, the hot, arid climate serves to burden the soldiers and townsfolk, transforming them into heartless, angry people. The land is vast and majestic, and yet, far from being a wondrous horizon, ripe for adventure, it feels claustrophobic and almost existential in its emptiness.

 

The bushranger archetype is tied to a mythologising of Australian history, but in The Proposition, the Burn’s Gang—a band of Irish outlaws who undoubtedly invite comparison with the famous Kelly gang—are depicted as desperate, violent and cruel. Like the revisionist Westerns of Sam Peckinpah, the film is challenging the romanticisation of colonial history. Previous incarnations of the “Australian frontier” were attempting to establish white man as the dominant and authoritative presence of the environment, whereas in this film, the Australian landscape is depicted as being utterly empty and devoid of human influence.

 

Captain Stanley, the man given the task of “taming” the land, assumes that it is empty, and that the Aborigines are hiding or squatting in the ranges. In truth, however, they have always lived there, and calling them “rebels” is simply an attempt for white Australia to wash away its guilt. The conflict here is not so much between cowboy and Indian, or in this case colonist and native, but rather between man and nature. Not just the natural environment, but rather man’s intrinsic desire to dominate, oppress and hurt others.

 

The concept of Aboriginal resistance and subjugation provides an interesting insight into the genre archetypes. Unlike the Indian’s of American Westerns, Australian Aborigines have rarely been presented as fighting back against the British colonisers. Here we are informed that the blacks in the area are maintaining rebellion against the crown. What caused it specifically is never really elaborated on, but the depiction of Aboriginal people in the film provides a unique look into the complex tribal and family loyalties.

 

One Aborigine, named Jacko, is working with Captain Stanley and the police, while another, named Two Bob, is a member of the Burns gang. There is also Stanley’s black hired-hand, Toby, who is cordial enough in the Captain’s presence, but as soon as he reaches the gate of the homestead, he takes off his shoes. Perhaps it could be seen as a silent, non-confrontational protest; symbolically removing the constraints of white oppression, before returning to his native soil. While Two Bob himself never exhibits any interest in fighting alongside his kin in rebellion, he does express disgust towards Jacko, calling him a “traitorous dog” for aiding the Captain, and slitting his throat.

 

The ultimate statement of injustice demonstrated by the film is the Aboriginal massacre that occurs part way through the film. We hear gunshots in the distance, the camera looms overs a field of dead women and children, before cutting back to the police, laughing and drinking. The callousness with which these Indigenous people are slaughtering, many of them women, contrasts with the intense reverence afforded to the Hopkins estate, with its neat white tomb stones out the back. When Charlie enters the site of the outrage, he removes his hat as a sign of respect. The dead Indigenous “rebels”, however, are afforded no such dignity.

 

The characters depicted in the reality of the film are not expected to decide what is right or wrong. They are expected to conform to the institution or orders they serve. Captain Stanley is told to do his job and “civilise this land”, while the members of the Burn’s gang are expected to place personal morality aside in favour of what benefits the gang, and to obey Arthur as the head of their family. There are certainly class and ethnic divisions that fuel the conflict. The Irish gang are warring with the British cops. The black natives are rebelling against the white settlers (or invaders). But there are also blacks fighting blacks, such as Two Bob slaying the tracker for “betraying his people”. And even within these institutions there are voices of dissent. Athur and Charlie represent the to and fro being fought over the moral soul of their gang. And Captain Stanley goes against his superiors (by releasing Charlie) in the pursuit of what he sees as the greater good.

 

More so than race or nation, the theme of family runs throughout the course of the film; a sense of tribal unity and disunity being played out in vast expressions of cultural violence. Indeed, the whole catalyst for Stanley’s titular proposition is the brutal murder of a white settler family. The implied rape of Emily Hopkins is made all the more tragic by the fact that she was pregnant during the attack. And the knowledge of this act haunts Stanley’s wife, one of the two innocent characters in the film. Martha, herself infertile, describes seeing the unborn child in a dream. She sees the baby as a ghost clutching at her hand, a symbol of untouched innocence that Martha herself will never possess again. Not so much because she cannot conceive, but rather, because of her decision to goad and observe the flogging of Mikey Burns, the films other innocent character. Like the other settlers in the town, they feel that the whipping of Mikey will avenge the innocent Hopkins, as well as absolve Mikey of his sins. Instead, it only damages their own souls, as the myth of redemptive violence is once again perpetuated by those wishing to live morally in what is an amoral world.

 

Family is also observed within the Burn’s gang, composed of three brothers, and several other social outcasts. We witness in their interactions a gentle, fatherly concern expressed by Arthur Burns, as he seeks to mentor and protect the members of his group. Arthur and Charlie are united by their love of Mikey, but that unity is also strained by their own moral code. Charlie believes Arthur has become too violent and cruel, seemingly carrying out acts of evil for its own sake. And yet he is bound by blood to love and serve him as his younger brother. We see both hatred and tenderness in their interactions, and it is this moral struggle that frames the climax of the film. It is interesting to note that while some of the Burn’s gang are bound by blood, others are merely friends (two of them being Aboriginal). It is a family formed as much in opposition to the authority, as in common heritage. We see a kind of convict unity that speaks to the earliest white settlers of the country. Likewise, the police figures can be seen as the spiritual descendants of the gaolers and guards who housed the first convicts. Once again, the violent struggle in the film stems from an ancestral conflict, as well a cultural one (in the form of Irish and British hostility).

 

Ideas of family and landscape governing morality are also manifested through the European-style homestead kept by Stanley and Martha. The couple are part of a British ancestry that endeavour to cultivate a little patch of England on their far side of the world; in a sense, a microcosm of British colonialism. Beneath the scorching sun, and within the harsh desert, Martha has made a perfect English cottage, surrounded by roses. Inside the house is a picture of the Queen, a snow covered Christmas tree, and a lavish dining table, where the couple sit and drink cups of tea. The home is a symbol of their yearning for home, and provides a stark contrast to the empty, lifeless and wild Australian outback beyond their fence-line. However, as the film draws to its grisly conclusion, the house becomes a garrison, complete with boarded windows and murder hole for Stanley to spy any approaching enemies. It is as if the Australian landscape, like the Aborigines, is hostile towards this little patch of England, and seeks to consume and destroy it.

 

Finally, as the Burn’s gang arrive for the brutal reprisal of Captain Stanley, the homestead becomes a place of violence and suffering, reminiscent of the ruined and ravaged Hopkins estate, at the beginning of the film. The outlaws beat Stanley, and begin to rape his wife. At last Charlie arrives, and in a single act of defiance, he shoots Arthur in the gut. He has had enough, and Arthur has crossed a moral line that no family loyalty can withstand. In this sense, the film does offer some hope that humans possess a moral instinct that can rise above institutional control or cultural loyalty. But on the other hand, it continues to perpetrate the myth of redemptive violence that we observe in the townsfolk who watch Mikey flogged. In their minds violence will solve violence; that revenge is somehow a substitute for justice, when unfortunately all it is that they are feeding is their own savage instincts. In the final scene of the film the audience is exposed to an achingly beautiful sunset, and the silhouettes of these two brothers, finally at peace in their parting. The blood that runs across Martha’s rose garden represents the withering of her English garden in the face of Australia’s broader cultural violence.

 

The Proposition is a complex and layered film, which refuses to easily categorise its central characters. It depicts people as a mix of good and bad, capable of great empathy and great cruelty. The harsh Australian environment, and the cultural heritage and tribal feuds also add to the conflict between the characters in the film. The saddest notion of the film is that even when Charlie does fulfil the proposition, killing Arthur and ending the Burns gang once and for all, it comes through violence. The Proposition is a bleak film, which speaks to the darker side of people, and whatever hope for peace it offers, comes at the cost of our soul.

 

The History of Australian Cinema (film essay)

Posted on June 7, 2012 at 9:20 AM Comments comments (0)

The Early Australian Film Industry

Australia was quite prolific during the silent era of movies, along with America and France. It even produced the first full-length feature film, in the form of 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang (Tait). During the 1920s, however, there was a critical decline in audience attendance rates. Following World War I, there was simply a lack of interest in Australian stories, which was further aggravated by the banning of bushranger films. Also, distributers discovered that it was cheaper to import films from overseas (since their production costs had already been recuperated in the home market), than to produce them in Australia. This lead to increased importation from the United States, and by the mid-20s, American films dominated the Australian box office. Also to blame, was the Australasian Films and Union Theatres chain, which established a monopoly over the production and distribution of films in Australia, and signed exclusive exhibition deals with American producers. The era that followed is sometimes referred to as “The Great Cinematic Silence”. These decades were occasionally punctuated by foreign directors, who arrived in the country hoping to capture some element of Australian society for the global market. This created a strange aloofness in many Australian film-goers, as they were viewing their own country through the lens of strangers (Roberts).

 

Films during this period invited the audience to “stand in an external and observing relationship” to Australian things. This statement refers to an “othering” of Australian people, cultivated by filmmakers like Michael Powel, who positions the viewer as curious outsiders to all of the peculiarities and odd distinctions of Australian culture. They’re a Weird Mob (1966) is a great example of this filmmaking technique, as it follows an Italian immigrant trying to “learn” how to be Australian. In one scene, the protagonist, Nino, befriends a man at a bar. The man explains to him the meanings of several Australia slang words (“crust”, “shout”, “scooner”;), and in the process Nino begins to acquire the necessary lexicon to function as an Australian. The man also imparts on Nino some of his customs, such as always returning a shout, and never letting a man drink alone. The slang and customs seem rather trivial, but it is Nino’s effort to try and assimilate, that truly shows his “Australianess”. Another film, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (Beresford, 1972), also positions the Australian as an “other”, but in the reverse. Unlike, They’re a Weird Mob, the Australian is the foreigner in a strange land. A good example of this is in the scene where Barry is receiving a psychological evaluation. The psychiatrist is using all of his training to decipher Barry’s mind, believing his problems to be psychologically complex, to which Barry responds by vomiting on the man’s head. Here, the Australian is depicted as something simplistic in the eyes of British intellectualism, but to us, the Australian audience, he is irreverent, and content to view the world through unvarnished eyes. Barry’s tendency to mock authority and pomposity are the characteristics of a “larrikin”, an archetype deeply ingrained in Australian culture.

 

The Revival of Australian Cinema

During the late 1960s, the Australian government began offering financial incentives and subsidies for filmmakers. These measures lead to a “New Wave” of Australian films. Directors like Peter Weir and Ken Hannam lead the resurgence, and brought Australian cinema to an international arena, with films like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Sunday Too Far Away (1975). The period was also marked by the emergence of exploitation films, or “Ozploitation”, which was equally popular. In fact, this renaissance had two competing lines of filmic expression – the arthouse films of Weir and Hannam, and the genre movement, with films like Barry McKenzie, Mad Max (Miller, 1979) and Turkey Shoot (Trenchard-Smith, 1982), which were loathed by critics, but were extremely popular with audiences. The earliest film examples of this period are Walkabout (Roeg, 1977), Stork (Burstall, 1971) and Peterson (Burstall, 1974), though the 1966 hit They’re a Weird Mob foreshadowed the movement. Unfortunately, the exploitation films began to oversaturate the market and push the arthouse out of the picture. Low quality, poorly produced schlock films were being pumped out, and with a very noticeable lack of Australian identity, since filmmakers were hoping to appeal directly to American markets. This excess of poor-quality films, combined with the drop in government support, quickly fizzled out what was left of the Australian New Wave (Stuart).

 

A common theme throughout this short-lived renaissance was the clash between the traditional Australian identity, and the emerging youth subcultures. A national identity is a collective character endowed on people due to their shared citizenship. It is something you belong to, based on your location, more than anything. On the other hand, a subculture is a collective character based on your interests and passions. It is something you seek out, and share with others of a similar mindset. Subculture is best illustrated in the film Dogs in Space (Lowenstein, 1986), in which a random group of people, from different races and socio-economic backgrounds are clustered together because of their shared love of music, drugs and the “little band scene”. They reject their Australian identity, insofar as they reject society and conformity as a whole. Like many Australian films, it may be commenting, though subconsciously, on the obvious vacuum of Australian culture. One of the overriding themes of Australian cinema is that we are a nation, constantly trying to define ourselves and our values; a collective of immigrants, convict descendants and displaced Indigenous peoples who have been shoved together on this island and forced to create a unified character.

 

The Depiction of Indigenous Australians

Many Australian films that included Aboriginal characters emphasised White Australian perceptions and values. The character of Jedda (Chauvel, 1955) can be seen as Indigenous person who reflected the values of 1950s attitudes. Jedda has been adopted by a White family, and taught the “culture” of European colonialism, in the way she dresses and plays piano. She has severed ties to her Indigenous roots, and been moulded into a proper White lady, in all but skin-colour. The same evaluation could be given to her friend, and love-interest, Joe, who has also been assimilated, and separated from his culture and customs. The film appears to condone assimilation and the policy of White adoption for mixed race Aborigines, as Jedda is ultimately punished for her decision to choose Marbuck over Joe; her Indigenous identity over her White identity. Chauvel argues that you are either an Aboriginal or a White person (in a cultural sense, as much as a racial sense), that you can’t be both, and that to choose an Aboriginal identity is wrong, because they are a doomed race. This message must seem horribly racist to our modern perspective, but it appears to have been the prevailing opinion of the time; that Indigenous children needed to be saved from their own nature (Roberts).

 

Like Jedda, Walkabout is also told from a European perspective. Here, however, it is about white people learning to exist in an Indigenous environment, rather than the other way around. The images of Aboriginal culture in the film are represented through the harsh landscape, full of danger and energy. It is an alien world which audiences associate with the Aboriginal way of life, believing it to be simple, natural and primitive. To Australian audiences, the skill of the Aboriginal boy and his knowledge of the land and desert environment only reinforced the distance of his “way of life” from that of “civilisation”. These “primitive” images of Indigenous people are placed in opposition to non-Indigenous culture. The menacing nature of the outback is contrasted with the innocence and naiveté of the English schoolchildren. Towards the end of the film, the Aboriginal boy commits suicide. Once again, it emphasises a “dying culture” and the need to represent it as such. The Aboriginal boy is allowed to befriend the two white characters in the film, but is portrayed as being too “fragile” to survive the destructive alienation of the “outside” white world. Once again, the message seems to be one of segregation. While the film depicts a friendship between black and white, neither the white children, nor the Aboriginal boy is able to fully cross over. The children cannot survive in the outback, and the Aborigine cannot accept the ways of the white people.

 

Finally, the 2002 film Rabbit Proof Fence (Noyce) is told entirely from an Indigenous perspective, and is fused with a sense of loss and isolation, associated with being torn away from your family and culture. Unlike Walkabout, this film inverts the image of a hostile, indifferent and unknown landscape, and allows for the idea that Aboriginal people belong to the land, have customary obligations to the land, and are physically and emotionally affected when taken away from it. What was alien and hostile in Walkabout, is actually familiar and protective in Rabbit Proof Fence. The harsh Australian outback is their home, and they feel safer there than they do inside the church. The film also makes an effort to point out that for Indigenous people, home and land mean the same thing, and it is almost impossible for them to feel comfortable when separated from where they were born. Noyce depicts the trauma of separation that came out of the “stolen generation” policies (Stuart).

 

Evaluating the Australian Psyche through Cinema

It has been argued that Australian cinema is “founded on mystery and exemplified by apocalypse”. This statement points to a thematic style and narrative of Australian cinema, following the 1970s renaissance, which is marked by a feeling of physical and cultural entropy. We are a nation born out of bloodshed, both through Aboriginal ethnocide and convict heritage. Many Australian films deal with the outback as a hostile and unwelcoming force against White settlers, and a place that we do not particularly comprehend. Another theme, explored by the director Peter Weir, is the transient nature of Western civilisation; the idea that the Australia we know is but a thin layer on real estate that rests on a millennia old Indigenous culture and country, and that our place on this land is impermanent and fading; our connection to it, shallow and unwelcome. The film, The Last Wave (Weir, 1977) is a good example of this theme, in which the protagonist, David, is plagued by nightmares of a great flood consuming Sydney, and drowning its inhabitants. The visions are certainly apocalyptic, but the subtext seems to be this idea that nature is attempting to wash away white Australia; to cleanse itself of this unwelcome presence (again supported by the films exploration of Indigenous spiritualism). The fact that the film is told from a White perspective works in with the theme of apocalypse; that at any minute this civilisation of ours will be swept away, and replaced by its proper Indigenous custodians.

 

John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005) also explores notions of cultural decay and national guilt. In one scene the outlaw simpleton Mikey is brutally whipped in the centre of town. The juxtaposition of sound and colour are very pronounced and add to the disturbing, violent nature of the scene. The movement opens with Mikey screaming for mercy, as the members of the town stand around condemning his perceived crime and cowardice. As the whipping begins, Mikey’s screams become louder and more horrifying. Intercut with this scene, are shots of the Burn’s gang, with Samuel singing a soft Irish folksong. The pleasing melody and Mikey’s screams clash horribly, and create a deeply unnerving feeling in the viewer’s mind. As the scene continues, Mikey’s screams fade, along with the condemnations of the townsfolk, and all that we are left with is the song, hard crack of the whip against flesh. Then, we get one of the most striking images of the film, the torturer wringing out his whip, and dark, red veins of blood dripping onto the pale, white sand. This image could encapsulate any number of the film’s themes, from the Aboriginal genocide, to the act of purifying (or wringing) the land of outlaws and savages, but here it represents the loss of Mikey’s innocence (and indeed sanity), who is both innocent of the crime, and a simpleton by nature. It is a moment of no return for the characters in the film. The silence of the crowd may be a recognition of the savagery within themselves, now manifested before them in the image of Mikey’s mutilated back. Next, a gust of wind blows through the town, and the people are coated with a blanket of flies so thick, they seem to be wearing them as clothing. The fact that the flies feed on the living, rather than the blood-soaked Mikey, could represent the rotting of their souls.

 

Many Australian directors have emphasised a spiritual and cultural connection to the Australian landscape. Sometimes called locationism, it is the inclination to assign certain traits or ideas to a person, based on where they live, or where they come from. Locationism can be observed in Australian films like Jedda and The Proposition, as both films depict Australia as being different and distinct from other countries, and presents Australian’s as being intrinsically connected to the land, and being moulded by its mystery and brutality. In the film Jedda, Charles Chauvel oscillates between an intensely realistic (almost documentarian style) style, and a sensationalistic, melodramatic narrative. The fact that he shot the film on location, speaks to his commitment to depict the Australian outback, in all of its harsh beauty. Chauvel treats the land as he treats the Aborigines in the film, as something wild and dangerous and seductive, and yet something which must ultimately be tamed by White civilisation. The Proposition presents a similarly harsh Australian outback. So harsh, in fact, that it is presented as place where men can be transformed into beasts, not through any Aboriginal spiritualism, but by the land itself. This transformation is described by the Indigenous locals as men turning into dogs, but in truth, it is the decay of morality, in which men become cruel, and seek to accomplish evil for its own sake. Unlike Jedda, what causes this change in the members of the Burn’s gang is never really established. It could be the intense heat and death of the desert. Or it could be the immense emptiness of it all, in which broken men are given a place to contemplate life, and the utter pointlessness of it all, without the confines of civilisation to give them hope.

 

Violence in Video Games (soc essay)

Posted on May 20, 2012 at 9:25 AM Comments comments (0)

Moral panic regarding the depiction of violence has dogged video game culture for almost thirty years. Scott’s (1995) study was unable to establish a correlation between playing violent video games, and increased aggressiveness. He found that the participants who were exposed to a number of violent games had their aggressiveness marginally increased, while those who played the moderately violent games actually decreased their aggressiveness. However, given that this study was conducted over 17 years ago, it is unclear whether such assertions can be directed towards modern video games, which feature far more detailed depictions of violence against realistically human character models.

 

According to a more recent study, conducted by Barthlow, Sestir and Davis (2005), exposure to violent video games does increase the short-term aggression and hostility of participants. After having their initial moods tested, participants were asked to play two separate video games – a violent game (Unreal Tournament), and a non-violent game (Myst). The study demonstrated that participants behaved more aggressively after playing the violent game, than after playing the non-violent game. However, the study was unable to identify the differences between short-term and long-term aggression. The study found that participants who had already been exposed to violent video games were more likely to exhibit aggression, regardless of whether the game was violent or not. This may imply that exposure does have long-term effects on temperament. However, the authors conclude that personality traits such as empathy can have just as much effect on increased aggression, and that rather than being a cause of aggression, violent media is more likely a single factor among dozens of potential causes of increased aggression.

 

A long-term study, conducted by Gentile, Lynch, Linder, and Walsh (2004), also found that exposure to violent video games correlated with increased hostility. This study focused on adolescent males, and concluded that the boys who exposed themselves to higher levels of video game violence were more likely to suffer from increased hostility (including physical fights and arguments with teachers), as well as decreased academic performance. This study was conducted over several months, which supports the previous study’s suggestion that aggression was increased long-term. It also derived data from a much wider pool (over six-hundred participants), but focused on a more specific gender and age bracket (boys, 14-15 yo). However, since adolescent boys are already more predisposed to act aggressively, violent video games may act as more of a trigger, than a actual cause.

 

One of problems prevalent in all three studies is that the concept of a “violent video game” is too generalised. As with film and television, the depiction of violence in media varies from case to case. Researchers should be asking themselves – is the violence realistically or gratuitously depicted? Is it supposed to be serious or comical? Are their consequences, and is the perpetrator rewarded or punished for their act? For example, you would not lump The Three Stooges, Goldfinger and Saving Private Ryan into the same category of violent media.

 

More importantly, however, is the nature of gameplay that the participants are exposed to. In all three studies, the participants were exposed to games of a competitive nature. My contention would be that it is video game competition, rather than violence, that sparks aggression. Rather than comparing violent games to non-violent games, we should be comparing competitive to co-operative games. Even if they depicted violence, video games that fostered co-operation might yield lower levels of aggression in participants.


The Hobbit (lit essay)

Posted on April 28, 2012 at 8:55 AM Comments comments (2)

Strength, bravery, boldness, and resilience – these are some of the characteristics that embody the hero of Homeric legend. This classical hero, almost always a man, is as much a symbol of masculinity as he is moral virtue. At first glance, Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist of The Hobbit (Tolkien 1937), could not be further from this portrait of gallantry. He is polite, nervous, and concerned chiefly with personal comfort and social perception. Yet, beneath this timid persona simmers a longing for adventure. Bilbo Baggins does not conform to the heroic tradition of Homer and Beowulf. He is a different creature entirely, and through Tolkien, acts as a statement on the nature of heroism, as well as an attempt to rewrite the hero for modern fantasy literature.

 

The traditional opening for a heroic story, usually involves a quest for revenge, wealth or fame. The Hobbit begins in a similar fashion, with the company of dwarves setting out to reclaim their gold from the dragon, Smaug. However, in a classical context, the perspective of the narrative would follow their leader, Thorin Oakenshield. He initiates the quest, and exemplifies all of the might of a traditional hero. Yet, Tolkien seems far more interested in the little hobbit, Bilbo, the unwilling, and generally unwelcome participant in this adventure. Bilbo is somewhat curious about what the adventure may entail, blaming his wild Tookish side, but his objections emerge when he realises that they may face many dangers, or indeed perish, in the process. It is the early chapters of the book that depict Bilbo as being so utterly uncourageous, and divergent from the traditional heroic archetype. However, despite the meek stature of its protagonist, the contract Bilbo agrees to sets up the story as a typical heroic fantasy, with its promises of sword-fighting, treasure-hunting and dragon-slaying.

 

Both Bilbo and the dwarves, question the hobbit’s role in this adventure, but it is the wizard Gandalf, who argues for his place in the company. Gandalf points out that the all of the great heroes of the land are off fighting wars against one another, and so he was forced to search elsewhere. Gandalf, like Tolkien, is searching for a new kind of hero, one who appears to embody none of the traits of a great warrior, but whose qualities may assist the company in other, less obvious, ways. Bilbo’s unassuming nature serves almost as his greatest advantage. If his enemies looked upon him and saw a warrior, they might attack him, but instead they see a timid, little hobbit, hardly worth the effort of bloodshed. He is invisible to the warriors of this world, including the members of his own company, who see him more as a burden. In fact, it is not until Bilbo acquires the magic ring, and is able to disappear from the world completely, that he starts to become a more proactive participant in the adventure, and even develop the heroic qualities that were never there in the beginning.

 

Gender also plays an important aspect of traditional heroism. The hero is often bound to male qualities, such as muscular bodies and the strength to defeat any enemy. This description would suit characters like Thorin, and the archer Bard, quite aptly. Bilbo, on the other hand, is no larger than a child, and possesses none of the physical prowess to fight battles. The shape-shifter Beorn is depicted as a mighty warrior in the climax of the story, slaying the Goblin King in battle. He is described as a huge man with great, muscled arms and legs. This is often what a reader thinks of when they picture the hero – a mighty warrior. However, despite Beorn’s fiery temper, he also exhibits a feminine side. He is a vegetarian who loves animals, and nurtures the company back to health with food and shelter, after their fight with the goblins. The loving, nurturing manner with which he treats his animals, contrasts sharply with the ferocious bear-man who we see in combat later. Beorn exemplifies a more modern heroic archetype, portraying a union of both male and female qualities.

 

Several of the male characters display feminine qualities. Bilbo is a sensitive, emotional character, who displays great caring for living things. Bilbo’s heroism lies in wisdom and morality. These traits may seem commonplace within modern heroes, but they contrast sharply with the masculine brutality of characters like Achilles, Ulysses and Beowulf. Unlike, classical heroes, Bilbo has no taste for war or fighting, and refuses to take up arms until it is the last option for their survival. A hero like Beowulf would have killed the creature Gollum (as he did Grendel), but Bilbo does not. He raises his sword, ready to strike, but his conscience tells him that it is wrong to kill a defenceless creature. This action becomes its own kind of heroism; the heroism of mercy and compassion.

 

As Bilbo develops into the heroic mould Gandalf has promised of him, the idea of rebirth plays an important part of his initiation into a new life. The little hobbit undergoes many dangers on his path, with each trial changing him in some way; calling upon some hidden aspect of his nature. At the beginning of the novel, Bilbo is almost childlike in his experiences with the outside world. He is quite content to live in comfort in his hole in the ground, and resents this violent disruption to his lifestyle. Bilbo’s hobbit-hole might even represent the womb, with its warmth and isolation; it protects Bilbo, but also stunts his development into maturity. The scene where he and the dwarves set off is his birth, and the beginning of his transformation into “hero”. Gandalf serves very much as a father-figure throughout this process, offering Bilbo equal parts encouragement and chastisement, until eventually leaving him all together at the border of Mirkwood, forcing the little hobbit to fend for himself. Like a father, Gandalf seems to Bilbo to possess an almost omnipotent knowledge and grasp of the world, and his guidance is paramount to Bilbo’s maturity.

 

Bilbo’s actual parentage is continually referred to throughout the narrative, representing his conflicting desire for safety (Baggins) and adventure (Took). This may be emblematic of the wider struggle within everyone; the potential for heroism that exists within seemingly unheroic people. What is especially interesting about Bilbo’s internal journey is his prolonged homesickness. His desire to return to the Shire never really dissipates, and yet he continues on, all the same. This resilience is another form of heroism, which again contrasts with the classical hero, whose gaze is always on the horizon.

 

Even at the height of his “heroic qualities”, Bilbo never acquires the sense of confidence and audacity that a classical hero might. He is always unsure of himself, and even in victory, maintains a humble nature. When he outwits the creature Gollum in the caves, or routs the giant spiders in Mirkwood, he does not gloat or taunt his fallen foes, as a Homeric hero might; Achilles mocking his rival Hector in The Illiad, for example.

 

Bilbo does not slay the evil dragon, nor lead his dwarven allies in battle against the goblins. Those feats are left to the more classically heroic characters of Bard and Thorin. Contrary to the heroic desire for wealth and glory, Bilbo gives up his share of the treasure, awarding it to those less fortunate. He does not regard violence and fame as heroic, and by this point, neither does the audience. What makes Bilbo a hero is his kindness and generosity, and his belief in doing what is right, rather than doing what is self-aggrandizing. This exemplifies the sharpest divide between Bilbo and a traditional hero. Where the latter would slay the dragon, and march his men into war, Bilbo attempts to divert the war, by offering to share his treasure in the hopes of peace. Whatever physical might Bilbo may lack, his moral strength by the end of the story towers above everyone.

 

The Duel in the Black Tide (short story)

Posted on April 20, 2012 at 11:50 PM Comments comments (0)

  Sole closed his eyes, and listened to the crackle of flames… and felt their heat upon his skin… and smelt the burning of rotten oak… and the salt of the sea breeze.

  When he opened them again, the Merion fleet had disappeared over the horizon, and a wave of relief washed over him. Whatever else had been lost this day, they were safe; safe from the madness that had infected these lands. It was night-time now, and the full moon had risen, cold and white and full of sorrow. Leafport lay smouldering in the sea nearby, blackening the tide with ash and slabs of charred wood. An eerie red mist hung over the Bay of Herrings. Much blood had been spilt these past days. Everywhere there had been noise and fury, and the clash of iron; now… only silence.

  Sole exhaled a cloud of white frost, and realised how tired he was. His shoulders ached terribly, and his stomach groaned with hunger. He and the Merion’s had ridden for days on end, with little food and less sleep. But watching those white sails unfurl in a gust of wind had made it all worthwhile. They are safe.

  “Sail west as far as Hurrik’s breathe allows,” he had told Harmon, the village chieftain. “Go as far as the Black Reefs if you have the strength. Find a patch of soil hidden from the sun, and then vanish from this world… for as long as she lives, they will never stop hunting you.” Harmon had thanked Sole, and promised to raise a bronze statue in his honour. “Food and shelter are the only things that need concern you,” Sole had replied angrily. “They are all relying on you. You mustn’t fail them.” Harmon had nodded sternly, and commanded the anchors be drawn up. It felt like a lifetime had passed between then and now, but in truth, it had only been a few hours. And now they were gone; a speck of white on a canvas of stars.

  Sole felt the cool, black tide lapping at his feet, and imagined himself the last man left on earth. It was a foolish thought. The fighting had stopped, yes, now that everyone was dead, but the King’s legions would be upon him soon enough. They had torn the valley apart in search of the Merion’s, and the smoke would draw them to the beach within hours. But the Merion’s were a day’s voyage away, and even if the King knew which direction to chase them, he had no dock to set sail from. Sole had seen to that, when he set Leafport and all of its vessels to the torch. His wrath would be terrible, but Sole had no intention of being taken alive. He would make his stand here and now. He would rid them of their taste for blood.

  Sole fed the last of his grain to his horse, Aisha. He unbuckled the destrier’s reins and sent it off along the shoreline. He then fished a skin of water from out of his satchel, and drained it of its last two gulps. Next he drew a whetstone, and set to sharpening his sword. By the time he’d finished, a column of trees could be seen parting along the mouth of the valley. They were less than a mile away, and moving west towards Leafport. Sole sheathed his blade, and began to armour up. He left his shield and helmet in the sand, but made sure to strap on the thick, golden gauntlets that his half-brother had given to him on his last birthday. Finally, he slid a thin, bronze dagger into the sleeve of his gloves… just in case.

  The still, silence of the Thornewood was quickly consumed by the beating of hooves and the cries of men. The banners of King Herrin twisted out of the forest like the fingers of a dying man. A great war-horn sung out across the bay, as two dozen riders erupted from the trees. They were heavily armoured, and rode huge, black stallions, smeared with blue and purple paint. They converged on Sole, spears raised. Nine or ten more men emerged from the woods, swords in hand, and finally a single rider, garbed all in silver, straddling a snow white destrier. He trotted across the sand to where Sole stood, surrounded by soldiers. The emblem of King Herrin fluttered high above – an eagle, ringed by flame. The image once filled him with immense pride and courage. He had marched those banners into the very heart of the Drift Mountains, and planted them in the ice as a symbol of the glory of Carhaw. It once gave him comfort to gaze up at that blue eagle during cold nights, a thousand leagues from home… yet now it filled him with disgust.

  “Solomon,” the silver-clad man called. “So good of you to build us a fire. You haven’t seen the Merion tribe wandering around, have you? They seem to have slithered through our fingers again.”

  “‘Brother’,” Sole spat. “You are no kin to me, bastard.”

  “Now, now,” the silver rider replied, a twinge of anger on his breath. “You know how I feel about that word.” He slid off his horse, and drew back his helmet, revealing a mop of pale brown curls, held up by a wreath of lemon-leaves. He handed the helm to one of the other riders, and strode forward. “Fall back!” he commanded, and the other men retreated several feet, so that it was only himself and Sole. “If you cannot abide ‘brother’, then ‘Ramus’ will suite fine.”

  “You dishonour the name,” Sole replied bitterly.

  “Your father thought it fitting, though Kings often lack the sense of lesser men.” Ramus took a step forward, and Sole’s hand reached for the hilt of his sword. “Tell me brother, where are the Merion’s?”

  “Far from here… bastard.” Ramus’ expression hardened at that.

  “Have you done something incredibly foolish brother? I promised our father that I would only return to the capital with the Merion’s in chains… or your head on a spike. I would hate to disappoint him, given how little time he has left.”

  “You have twisted his mind into something wretched,” Sole breathed. “You and that whore that whelped you.”

  “Whatever claim you had to the throne of Carhaw is now utterly destroyed. You have betrayed your king, and you will die a traitor’s death. But not before you tell me where those mud devils have fled. Tell me here, or whisper it through broken teeth and bleeding lips, five years from now – the choice is yours.”

  Sole knew the depths of Ramus’ cruelty; years of torment and misery in a castle dungeon were no fit way to end a lifetime of service. But to die in combat, on the shores of the Thornewood, having done this one noble deed… well, he could live with that, so to speak.

  Sole let a smile creep across his bruised face. “Your master will not be pleased, Ramus. The Merion’s were the real prize, and you’ve let them slip through your fingers like so many dry leaves. I don’t imagine you will see daylight for some time to come.” Ramus grimaced. His finger crept down his chest, to the white hilt poking out of his mail. “No matter what you tell yourself at night, no matter how much blood you spill, you’ll always be a bastard Ramus, born of lust and treachery and too much wine. ‘The Bastard King’ they’ll whisper in the corners of the court; the usuper, the necromancer’s slave.”

  “I am no slave,” he whispered darkly.

  “Tell me bastard,” Sole taunted. “How many other men had your mother taken to bed, on the night she seduced my father? How many drunken wretches sired you, I wonder?” His smile widened, as Ramus’ hand closed around his sword. Sole spat at his half-brothers feet, and cast his eyes to the ruins of Ironport, showing Ramus his back. “Run home to your witch of a mother, slave, for I will not defile my blade with the blood of baseborn slime.”

  Whatever mirth Ramus had arrived with had vanished, and only a stoic malice remained. The sound of iron rising from its sheath cut through the night-air; a slow SHUNG that made a thousand promises of pain to come. But Sole did not turn, nor reach for his sword. Instead, he watched the shadow of the bastard raise its blade to Sole’s neck.

  “How… dare you…” Ramus whispered darkly, and then again, much louder, “HOW DARE YOU!” Now! Sole thought. He ripped his sword out of its scabbard, swung around, and smashed it hard against Ramus’ blade. The bastard stumbled back, his face white with rage. He charged at Sole, hacking wildly. Sole caught Ramus’ sword in mid-swing, pivoted, and then slashed down across his fore-arms, giving the bastard a nasty slice across his elbow. Ramus choked with pain, and stumbled towards the tide. His surrounding spearmen quickly advanced on Sole. Sole closed his eyes, and waited for the end.

  “No!” Ramus barked. “Fall back, I said.” The riders glanced at one another, unsure, but obeyed all the same. Ramus staggered forward, blood dripping down his gauntlet. I will not have them say you bested me, traitor.”

  He approached Sole again, but slower this time, with his shield puffed out. This time, Sole truck first, slashing at his torso, and then planting a hard downward thrust into his shield. The bastard felt the blow, but he stood his ground, side-stepping right, and delivered a sharp stab at Sole’s shoulder. Sole caught the blow, and threw it back, as if a child had made it. In truth though, Ramus had become strong with age. Sole moved left now, towards the lapping tide. He knew Ramus was a skilled fighter, but he had been trained by royal guards. Soft terrain would upset him.

  Sole taunted Ramus again with a smile. “Perhaps your master did leave you a little something between your legs. I’ll need to remedy that.”

  Ramus’ face was carved with loathing. “I am going to drag you to the capital limbless and faceless,” he spat. “But I will leave you your tongue traitor, for it will be your only key to the next life.”

  “Come then, bastard. Show us what a witch’s slave can muster.” Ramus charged again, raising his sword for another downward thrust. Sole raised his own sword to catch it, only to watch his opponent switch to a diagonal slice in mid-swing. He caught the blow an inch from his face, but as he stepped back, he felt icy water clasp his foot. You fool, Sole, he thought. Ramus seized his change, and smashed the hilt of his sword into his opponent’s nose. Sole tasted blood and copper, and stumbled back even further into the tide. Ramus advanced with a flurry of attacks. Sole tried desperately to meet his steel each time, but a terrible dizziness had come over him, and he could feel the black water creeping past his knees. You stupid, old fool, he cursed himself again.

  He felt something hard pierce his foot, and then he was falling. The salt water engulfed him. It was in his eyes and in his mouth, and then the bastard was on top of him, hammering his face with iron gloves. The ice water washed over him again. Everything was black. He thrashed violently, but somehow he couldn’t reach the surface. He could feel an iron claw around his throat, and realised the bastard was holding him under; drowning him. What does it matter? he thought. It’s what you wanted isn’t it? To die in a flash of glory? But there nothing poetic about what he felt now, and letting the bastard end it like this left a sour taste in his mouth. He struggled harder, but everything seemed to be slowing down. He could feel death closing in around him. “No…” he moaned, as the water poured down his throat. No… And then his fingers, as if guided by Hurrik himself, slid the dagger from his gauntlet, and drove the blade swift and sudden into the bastard’s soft thigh.

  Ramus jerked back in pain, wrenching Sole to the surface. The night air hit him like a slab of ice. His face burned, and he could taste blood pouring from his nose. He coughed and spluttered, and heaved up a lungful of salt water. The tide was at his waste now, and he sloshed this way and that, not knowing which direction he was facing. He looked down at his right hand, and saw that he was still clutching his sword.

  “SOLOMON!” He heard Ramus roar. He turned his head to see the bastard limping towards him, dagger still planted in his leg. Sole rushed right, desperate to get to shore before they clashed again. As he finally stumbled onto dry land again, he noticed the spearmen edging closer. They fanned out around him like wraiths, but as Ramus came closer, they fell back again.

  “Face me… coward…” Ramus was yelling. His eyes shone like wild fire. Sole lurched towards him, and thrust his blade out clumsily. Ramus smacked it away, and returned with a rough slash across the chest. Sole felt the tip of the blade scrape across his breast plate.

  The two warriors moved much slower, battered and bruised and soaking wet. They held their weapons with both hands now, and exchanges were lumbering and brutish. And yet their hatred was growing hotter with each clash of steel. Ramus’ silver armour glowed in the light of the moon, and Sole could feel his strength failing. It wouldn’t be long before he could not a block an attack.

  “Prince Ramus,” one of the spearmen called out. “My prince, this is folly. We must have the traitor alive, else the Merion’s are lost to us. And your lady mother will have us flayed alive if we do not return you to her unharmed.”

  “I… will flay you… if you interrupt… this fight…” Ramus panted, ducking a swift up-swipe. He’s right, Sole scolded himself. This is folly. What are you trying to prove here, old man? Finish it. Finish it once and for all. Ramus swung wildly at his face again, and rather than blocking it, Sole stepped back, making the bastard lurch forward. He pivoted right, so that he was side-face, and then drove the tip of his blade hard into his breastplate. Ramus jolted back, and swung down at Sole’s chest. Sole dodged it again, pivoted, and delivered another dent in his breastplate. Ramus, learning nothing, swung down again, hard across Sole’s neck, but this time, Sole did not dodge it, nor block it. He threw his armoured glove up, and caught the blade in mid-flight. The cold steel bit deep and red into Sole’s palm, and a spasm of pain shuddered down his wrist. He smashed the sole of his boot into Ramus’ bloody thigh, forcing him to his knees. And there it was… Sole reached back with his sword, and slashed hard across his enemies face. Blood exploded from the bastard’s mouth. His eyes seemed to slosh out of his head in an ooze of grey and pink. He fell into the sand screaming, and clutching his face.

   Sole reached back again for the killing blow, but then the wraiths were all around him. Their black spears were in him; in his throat… in his ribs… in his guts… Everything seemed to slow down, as if he were underwater again. He choked up blood, and fell into the sand by his brother. There was no more pain, and the darkness closed in and folded over him like a blanket. And then there was nothing… save the whispered name, “Saria.”

Arya and the Night's King (Fan Fiction short story)

Posted on April 15, 2012 at 9:30 AM Comments comments (0)

This story is actually taken from amuch longer A Song of Ice and Fire fan-fiction piece (called “Blood of the Direwolf” ), that I wrote last year. Thisis basically the climax of that novella, in which Arya takes up arms againstBowen Marsh and the other members of the Night’s Watch mutiny. However, I feltlike it worked as its own short story, so I’ve re-edited it, and added somestuff, to make it feel more self-contained. Don’t worry, all you really need toknow is that Arya has returned to Westeros, and has formed an alliance withMance Rayder and the Wildlings. With the help of the Shadow Tower, they areattempting to retake Castle Black, and avenge Lord Snow’s murder. Arya hasridden ahead of the main Wildling host, in order to infiltrate the castle insecret, and open the gates for Mance and Tormund to attack. What she discovers,however, is more terrifying than any nightmare.


  Arya Stark struck out across the winter wastes like a falcon in pursuit. She had been in the company of others so long, that she’d forgotten how fast and lean Snowball was. Now she was alone again, with the wind whipping through her hair, and the frost spraying up around her. Arya rose in her saddle and kicked again. Snowball nayed, hammering the white earth, as she raced across the Kingsroad. The Wall rose up before them, sheer and unflinching; a curtain of hard ice and rock that made Arya gasp. This is truly the end of the world, she thought. She knew it wasn’t of course. She knew there were trees and mountains and cold rivers beyond it, but that didn’t make it any less breathtaking.

  As the Wall grew before her, she slowed Snowball to a trot. She was riding parallel to it now, keeping a fair distance, less sentries from Castle Black spy her approach. Surprise is the key. Surprise is our greatest weapon. That had always been Arya Stark’s advantage. No one expected a little girl to fight back, but fight she did. From King’s Landing to Harrenhal; from the Trident to Braavos; from White Harbor to the Wall, she had fought. And while all the great warriors and knights and kings lay rotting the earth, she had survived.

  Day became night, as the towers of Oakenshield finally emerged over the horizon. Arya ached all over. She couldn’t imagine how tired Snowball must feel. She stroked the destrier’s mane, and kissed him lightly. “Good boy,” she whispered. “We’re almost there. And then you can rest, and eat grain and barley till you heart’s content.” Arya had not considered what to do with her horse once she ascended the Wall. Snowball was a White Harbour mount, and was trained for snowy terrain, but there was little in the way of grass this far north. Perhaps he would wander back to Queenscrown, though she doubted it. Hopefully she could return before the horse became too hungry.

  It was pitch black by the time they arrived at the fort. From afar it looked somewhat impressive, with tall grey spires sprouting out of thick oaken archways. Up close, however, it was a sad, old keep; its walls cracked and crumbled across the snow. The smell of damp wood and rotting cinder clung to the air. Exhausted, Arya practically slid off Snowball. She opened a sack of oats for her loyal horse, and watched him wolf them down eagerly, before collapsing on the ground himself.

  “Now you go easy on those,” she told him. “That’s your only food until I get back, unless you’ve taught yourself to hawk.” She scratched him along his mane, just like he liked, before hugging him farewell. “I’ll be back in a few days,” Arya promised. She hoped it wasn’t a lie.

  Oakenshield was not difficult to get into. A few harsh kicks split the small gate open. With Castle Black so close, this fort had never seen much use. Even at the height of the Night Watch’s power, Oakenshield was only ever utilised as a watch-tower. It hadn’t been manned in over a five-hundred years, and she could see why. Rats and ravens staffed the tower now, and they did not take kindly to this stranger from the moors. Arya climbed the spiral staircase at the rear of the keep, and found a descent sized room to spend the night. It was dark and damp, but wrapped in her furs after a long ride, sleep came easily to Arya.


*   *   *


  That night, frightening visions invaded Arya’s mind. She dreamt that icy claws were scratching at her arms and chest. She saw a white landscape, bathed in an eerie shadow. Fierce storm clouds were rolling across a grey sky. There were figures all around her, tearing at her skin. They were dead men, with yellow, rotting skin, and black holes where their eyes should be. In the distance, Arya could see a host of white wraiths, galloping across a sea of red snow. They were demons, carved of ice, and their armour shone like glass. They rode dead horses, and their swords were cold and sharp. She heard a war-horn screech above the winds, and its song made Arya’s skin burn. She tried to scream, but she had no voice. The demons were at her throat, and she could see the ground around her growing red.

  Arya woke with a gasp. Impossible, she thought. She reached up and felt her brow, slick with sweat. She looked down and saw red gashes across her wrists. At first Arya feared she had been attacked during the night, but she quickly realised that the wounds had been self-inflicted. She rubbed her head, and tried to slow her breathing. “What were those things?” she whispered to the darkness, but she knew exactly what they were. White wraiths on dead horses. The Others had awoken in the north.

  The room had not changed since she fell asleep several hours ago. The walls creaked and peeled, while rats scurried to and fro across the wet floor boards. She heard a dripping sound from somewhere downstairs. Outside she could feel the winter winds howling with menace. A storm is coming, she realised. A bad one. They must take Castle Black soon, or they would all perish on the Wall.

  Arya made her way up several more sets of ladders, before finally emerging at the top of the Wall. The dawn air hit her like a wave of ice. She could feel her joints clench and stiffen; her blood freezing beneath her skin. Shivering, she approached the icy parapets, and looked out over the edge of the world. Far below lay a dark forest. It stretched out towards a row of pale mountains. The trees shook and swayed in the violent winds, and Arya took several steps backwards. She didn’t know what she expected of the world beyond the Wall, but this was not it. The lands were so bleak and lifeless. It filled Arya was a sense of impending dread. She was still half a sleep, and the nightmare had rattled her nerves. Shaking, she climbed back inside the tower to regroup. I just need some food in my belly, she told herself, but it didn’t help. The smell in Oakenshield was terrible, but at least it held some semblance of warmth.

  She waited until the sun had risen, before she resurfaced again. The chill was no less brutal, but at least she could see properly now. Pulling her furs up over her chin, Arya began the slow trek westward, towards Castle Black. The top of the Wall was wide enough to fit four men abreast, with stone ledges on either side. But from this height, Arya felt as though she stood upon the edge of a knife. A knife that carved through the realms of men; with a dark, swaying forest to her right, and a sea of snow to her left.

  The wind howled and slashed at her face, and a great panic seized her mind. I am on the edge of oblivion, she told herself. Terrifying thoughts coursed through her, as her feet scrambled across the icy surface of the Wall. She could see Castle Black in the distance, cutting through the white haze like a dagger. No, not a dagger; a noose, hanging from the grey clouds. A noose, let down by the Gods to end her misery. A gallows, like the one they made for her father.

  Stop it, she told herself. You are not some scared little mouse. You are Arya, of House Stark. You have trained under the Faceless assassins and the First Sword’s of Braavos. They are the ones who should be afraid; not you. Syrio Forel’s words echoed in her mind: Fear cuts deeper than swords. Fear cuts deeper than swords.

  At her darkest moments, Arya would often whisper that revenge would warm her soul, and fill the place where her heart had been. But she knew that was a lie. Killing Bowen Marsh would not bring her brother back. She had to keep her nerve, and remember her training. She had to remember her father’s words—winter is coming—for their way was the old way. Planning and discipline won battles, not anger; not hatred.

  As she drew closer to the winch above Castle Black, she spotted someone leaning over the edge of the Wall. He was cloaked in black from head to toe, and his breath painted the air white. A horn was strapped to his belt. I must not let him use it. She crouched low, her footsteps as light as snowflakes. The man was staring out beyond the Wall, and Arya could see that beneath his hood, his head was shaved down to the scalp. A dagger appeared in her hand as she approached the Night’s Watchman. As silent as a shadow. She paused. There were tears in the man’s eyes. He was crying. Quick as lightening, she slashed the horn from his cloak and snatched it off him.

  “Wha—!” he cried, turning. He reached for his sword, but Arya brought the dagger to his throat, pressing hard.

  “Quiet,” she whispered. He released the hilt and took a step back.

  “Please…” he managed, wiping the frozen tears from his eyes. “Please, have mercy.”

  “Mercy!” Arya shot back. “Why should I show you mercy? You killed Jon.”

  “No,” he stammered. “I never… Jon was my friend. He was my brother.”

  “He was my brother!” she spat, pressing the blade deeper into his flesh. A trickle of blood rolled down his neck. “You betrayed him; all of you. I should slit your throat right here.” The watchman stared at her, unblinking. Finally, he sunk to his knees.

  “You’re her… You’re Arya Stark… aren't you? Jon; he tried to save you. He did. But Marsh… Marsh and the others…”

  “I know what they did. Why didn’t anyone stop them?”

  “Some tried, but… but Marsh had too many men. The wildlings fled; the King's men fled… Anyone who fought back was killed or locked up... It was a bloodbath.” The man was shaking now, and not from the cold. “Marsh… he said it was for the good of the Watch. He said Jon was a wildling now, and was handing the realm over to our enemies; that he was threatening to lead an attack on Winterfell.” He fell into the ice and curled up in a ball. “Marsh says that the Wall is his now, and that we are… his slaves. He says he is the Night’s King reborn.” Fresh tears rolled down his face, and froze to his cheeks. “I didn’t want this!” he screamed. “I didn’t want any of this!”

  “Quiet!” Arya hissed, but the man shoved her away, and stumbled to the edge of the walk-way.

  “I should have fought back, like Pyp and Grenn.  But I… I was… so afraid.” The man climbed up onto the ledge overlooking the Haunted Forest. “Jon was my friend.”

  “What are you doing?” Arya cried.

  “I can’t go back down there. Marsh sees everything. He knows you’re coming. He knows about you and the wildlings…” The man stared into Arya eyes, and an age of sorrow passed between them. “You are all going to die…” And then he was gone. Arya ran to the edge of the Wall, just as his body vanished into the dark forest below. Terror coursed through Arya’s body. Marsh knows.

  She turned her head south, and saw the faint glow of Tormund’s host through the winter fog. They are marching into an ambush. She leaned over the edge of the winch and opened her mouth to scream, but nothing came out. It was no use. She was trapped a league above the world, with no way to warn them. Below she could see the spires of Castle Black pointing up at her like charred blades. Barbed iron barricades had been raised all along the castle walls, braced with large wooden beams and ice-sacks. Arya could make out a wide moat dug along the gates’ perimeter. Marsh had turned Castle Black into a fortress, protected from every angle. The wildlings would crash against it like waves on a cliff. They would freeze before they broke into the keep. It was protected from every angle… except from above.

  Arya opened the cage, and climbed into the winch. She grasped its gears, and began to heave with all her might. The machine groaned and cracked, breaking loose from the morning frost. Fear cuts deeper than swords. Slowly, the machine began to move, clicking as it descended along the face of the Wall. The wind howled with eerie menace, as Arya lowered herself into the bowels of Castle Black. How did it come to this? She asked herself, as the turrets of the Night’s Watch closed around her like the icy claws of her nightmare.

 

*   *   *

 

  The winch shuddered to a halt, just above the training yard of Castle Black. The grounds were empty and vile, with streaks of muddy footprints woven across the fresh snow, and black ice creeping up the stone walls like cobwebs. The smells of rust and rot and spoilt leather crawled up Arya’s nostrils, making her gag. The gears had clenched shut with about twenty feet to go, so Arya was forced to climb the rest of the way. She grabbed onto the cold, crumbling bricks beside the winch, and started to edge her way down. Just as the she was about to set foot in the yard, Arya slipped on a gob of frost and fell face-first into the filthy snow. Cursing, she sloshed to her feet, and stumbled onto an armoury trestle for balance. The frost made her skin scream with the pain, and she could feel her heart racing. Her eyes darted along the castle walkways, but no sentries had been roused by the clatter. Arya shook the muck from her face, and rubbed her hands together for some warmth.

  She had made it into the castle grounds at last, and without being seen. She knew she ought to be relieved, but the watchman’s words still echoed in her mind. Marsh sees everything… He knows you’re coming… the Night’s King reborn… Something wicked was festering within these walls; she could feel it. For all her guile, Arya still felt like a mouse in a nest of vipers. A mouse with fangs, she thought, grinding her teeth. So far, the only living thing she’d come across, since leaving the wildlings, had been the watchman on the Wall. But his words had put the fear of the Stranger into Arya’s heart. What evil plots has Marsh hatched since Jon’s murder? She asked herself, as she recalled the man’s body vanishing into the Haunted Forest (for the hundredth time).

  This would be difficult, and could get ugly very quickly. The men of the Night’s Watch were hardened fighters, and Castle Black was their most heavily manned stronghold. She knew she could not triumph through strength of arms, but if she could just slay Marsh… then the rest may follow. Cut off the head, and the body will fall, she had heard her father say once. She had to be quick; quick and deadly. With their presence known, the wildlings could only hold out for so long.

  Arya made her way into the shade of the north tower. She pulled her furs tight around her neck, and tried to think of some place warm. The winds above the Wall had been deathly cold, but somehow it was even worse down here. As she’d lowered the winch along the face of the Wall, Arya’s bones had practically ached from chill. The warmth in her blood had slowly faded, and now only ice-water coursed through her veins. As she approached the tower, the air in the castle yard sent a razor of menace along her spine. Winter had truly come, and Arya was staring it square in the face.

  Arya could make out a faint flicker of light, in the tower window. She crept towards it slowly, making sure to keep to the shadows. The light moved and shimmered, casting strange shadows across the snow. Arya’s throat tightened as the voices of men wafted through the night air. They were quiet at first, but became louder as she neared the base of the tower steps. Arya gave the walkways another quick glance, before ascending the wooden steps to the tower entrance. A deep voice quavered within. The words were muffled, but Arya could make out bits and pieces.

  “…Let them come!” the voice cried. “…Wildlings dogs… let them see…” A chorus of shouting and stamping drowned out the speaker. Arya crouched low, sucked in some air, and pressed her ear to the iron door. “Brothers… behold,” said the same voice. “Our enemies rise up from all sides of the Wall. Wildling savages and Northern rebels… They slither towards us like maggots to a wounded beast. Even the Shadow Tower has betrayed us… and yet the castle is still ours!” Cheers erupted from within the tower. Bowen Marsh, Arya thought. It must be him.

  “The White God,” the voice continued. “He protects us. He sends a great storm of ice and shadow, to drown out our foes.” What madness is this? Arya pondered, not daring to breath. “For we are the Night’s Watch… and the night protects us!”

  A hundred voices chanted back, “The night is our shield; the winter our sword!” The chanting continued, louder and more savage. “The night is our shield; the winter our sword!” Arya stood back up, and took a step away from the door. They have all gone mad. She looked down and saw that her hands were shaking violently. She watched in horror as a vein of frost crept over the door frame, and suddenly Arya felt very dizzy. “The night is our shield; the winter our sword!” Arya staggered back further. What is happening? She gasped. Her eyes darted towards the window on the second story of the tower. Without thinking, she grasped at a crack in the bricks, and scrambled up the wall.

  Her hands were numb by the time they closed around the edge of the window, and with her last ounce of strength, Arya hoisted herself over the sill and felt hard wood slam into her chest. The chanting was much louder now. “The night is our shield; the winter our sword!” They are right below me, she realized. Arya tried to move, but her arms and legs would not obey. She squirmed forward slightly, and saw that she was lying on a wooden platform, just above a mob of cloaked figures.

  Inside the tower was—what looked like—a great dining hall, with long wooden tables and row after row of chairs. However, the figures were not sitting. They were kneeling on the stone floor, with their heads and arms thrust up to the ceiling. Arya could make out at least a hundred men, all garbed from head to toe in black furs; with shaved heads beneath their hoods. And instead of food and wine, the counters were covered in swords and shields and axes and spear-heads. The weapons were all crusted with black stains, and Arya could make out the smell of dry blood from where she lay. At the far end of the hall, a man stood atop an oaken plinth. His hands were raised as well; an expression of mad delight adorned his face. Marsh! Arya almost roared, but she was too weak to move. Above Marsh hung a row of severed heads, skewered along a spiked frame. Their eyes were sunken and their mouths twisted open in one final moment of terror. Some of the faces were old men; others looked no older than Robb. To her relief, Arya could not see Jon among the mounts.

  Finally, Marsh lowered his hands, and the chanting petered out. “I have sent half of our forces to Queensguard, to launch a surprise assault on the traitor Mallister and his wildling pets. Tormund’s host will attack us from the south… I have seen it.” Many of the men threw up their swords and shouted angrily, or stamped their spears against the floor. “Fear not brothers, for the White God will quell the fires of our enemies, and banish the light from their hearts. I shall slay the Red Whore, and offer up her womb as a sign of our devotion. May the Lord of Ice and Shadow cloak us with his might.”

  “Lord of the Others defend us,” the men recited in unison. “For the night is our shield; and the winter our sword!”

  “Get to your posts!” Marsh shouted above the hymn. “They will be here within the hour… And the snows will run red this night!” The mob cheered once more, but now their chants had transformed into a thunderous war-cry. With a whirl of his cloak, Marsh turned and marched through a door at the rear of the hall. Several guards scurried after him, as the rest of the men picked up their weapons and filed out through the iron door below Arya.

  It wasn’t until the hall was completely empty, that warm blood started to course through Arya’s veins again. Her limbs twitched awake, and she struggled to her feet. White God… Red Whore… Lord of the Others… Arya’s mind was almost as dazed as her body. Her thoughts flicked back to Old Nan’s tales of the Night’s King. Had the Others really returned to Westeros? Had Marsh and his men pledged themselves to the White Walkers? Or had they simply gone insane. Arya was inclined towards the latter, but something had happened here that she could not explain. Some queer spell had paralysed her body. It’s not possible, she thought, climbing down from the platform. Then again, the wildlings had often spoken of the Others as if they had come back. Either way, Marsh has to die.

  As soon as her feet hit the floor, Arya was running across the dining hall to the door at the far end; the one Marsh and his guards had exited through. She opened it cautiously, drawing Titan, her Braavosi longsword, as she did. A shiny staircase rose up before her, like a coiled snake, ready to strike. Quickly and deadly, Arya reminded herself. Cut off the head, and the body will follow. Arya began to sprint up the steps. Titan pointed out before her as she ascended the tower. With head crouched low, her legs were a flurry of movement.

  “Shhh…” murmured a voice above. “What’s that?” Arya turned a corner and found two men staring at her. Before they could even react, she flicked her sword across one of their throats, and drove it through the chest of the other. She pulled the blade free, and kept on up the stairs, with nary a second glance. She heard one of the men gurgling in pain behind her. There was no point hiding the bodies. The rest of the Marsh’s men had gone to defend the southern barricade against Tormund.

  Arya turned and found another Black Brother staring at her. “What the—?!” he cried. This one was faster. He tore out his sword and lunged at her. Arya swerved left and slashed Titan across the man’s ankle. He cried out in pain, but swung at her again. Arya backed away from the man. She had the higher ground now, but this one was strong. He stabbed at her in anger. Arya deflected the blow and kicked him hard in the belly. The man stumbled back, tripped, and went tumbling down the stone steps. “Fucking bitch,” he moaned. Arya draw her sword across the man’s neck. Gouts of blood poured from his open throat, and his eyes faded. Quickly and deadly, Arya remembered. I cannot stop. Tormund will be here soon. She turned, and ran further up the stairs.

  Arya could feel the element of surprise slipping from her grasp. She had to get to Marsh before the alarms were raised. She knew the Lord Commander’s quarters were just above her. If she could just get there in time…

  Arya came at last to a set of wide wooden doors at the top of the staircase. She could hear angry voices filtering up the steps behind her. She kicked the doors open, slammed them shut again, and wedged her shield beneath the handles. The cold night air her hit her face like a slab of ice. She was outside once more; this time on a wide stone terrace, overlooking the interior of Castle Black.

  Arya ran to the edge of the platform and looked down. Far below she could see the training yard again. It had been empty when she’d arrived; now it was filled with dozens of tiny figures. The men of the Night’s Watch ran to and fro like ants, sifting out of the yard, up ladders and along the walk-ways, into watchtowers and murder holes, and along the walls that guarded the castle. Alarms rang out, long and terrible. Something was happening.

  Beyond the southern barricades, a sea of white stretched out into the horizon. And there, just beyond the castle gates, a crowd of men were fanning out. It’s Tormund, Arya’s heart leapt into her throat. He has begun the attack. Among them, Arya could make out the giant, Wun Wun. He was clad in crudely fashioned steel, with a huge tree trunk slung over his shoulder. He heaved the butt of it against the castle gates with a shuddering thump. The Nightwatchmen began pouring arrows into the giant, but he heaved the trunk again. THUMP! More alarms rose up from the carnage below. The rest of Tormund’s host had split in two and were making their way around to the sides of the castle. Suddenly, Arya heard a great crash from behind her.

  She spun around to find the wooden doors shaking. Shouts and curses shook the frame, and with each heave, Arya could see her direwolf shield splintering apart. Arya looked around for a place to hide. To her right were a pile of crates and trestles. Arya crouched down behind them, and pulled her hood tight over her face.

  The sounds of battle filled the air, and mixed with the thump of the wooden doors, Arya covered her ears and wished she was anywhere but here. Arya heard her shield shatter, and the wooden door swung open with a bang.

  “What the fuck is this!” she heard a man cry.

  “It’s some shield… or something,” another replied. “Who would—?”

  “It must be one of the prisoners,” said another. “Some of ‘em must’ve escaped. George and Olf are dead. Arge’s had half his head cut off.”

  “I’m gonna gut that Red cunt!”

  “You idiot. The Red Witch is with Marsh.”

  “Come on! Let’s go check the dungeons… You two – guard the Lord Commander’s quarters, but whatever you do… don’t go in there. He and the Red God’s slut need some alone time.” The men laughed. Arya waited until their footsteps had faded away, and then she waited some more. She climbed out from behind the crates and shook the filth from her cloak. Her direwolf shield lay in splinters on the ground. On the far side of the terrace was a narrow walkway, which curved around to a dark spire. The spire jutted high above any of the other towers in Castle Black, and Arya knew it had to be Marsh’s quarters.

  Arya ran to the walkway, and crouched behind the parapets. She edged her way towards Marsh’s spire. Below her, men were shouting over the wail of war horns. The two armies were exchanging arrow heads, as Wun Wun continued to batter the gates with all his might. THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! Arya knew they could not hold out for much longer. They needed Mance’s host. They needed the Shadow Tower men. But they were probably fighting Marsh’s men at Queensguard. Arya found herself wishing she’d stayed with the wildlings. As she got closer, she could see two spearmen guarding the entrance to the spire. They were talking to each other. Arya stopped, and held her breath.

  “What if the wildlings break through?” one was saying.

  “Well,” replied the other. “I imagine they’ll fuck us… and then eat us. Hopefully, not in that order.”

  “But the White God… he will protect us.”

  “Oh, spare me… White Gods, Red Gods… Old Gods, Drowned Gods; they can all kiss my ass.” The man held up his spear and gave an awful grin. “This is the only god I need.”

  The other man looked at him wearily. “You had best not let Marsh hear you talking like that.”

  “Marsh? Marsh would’ve been hanged by now, if the whole damned realm weren’t torn to pieces. He kills the Lord Commander, and then has the gall to call Ser Mallister a traitor. No, the Others can have Marsh… if he loves ‘em so much.”

  Arya stood up from the shadows and pointed Titan at the two men.

  “Who the fuck?” One of the men exclaimed. His surprise turned to laughter as he looked at Arya and her enormous sword.

  “Must be one of the prisoners,” said the other. “Garth said some might have escaped. Where’d you get that sword, sweetie. Give it here.” The man reached out to grab her, and Arya snapped the sword across his hand. “Ahh!” the man cried out, dropping his spear.

  “You little bitch,” the other man roared. He thrust his spear at Arya chest. She side-stepped, deflecting the blow into the bleeding man. Arya lunged forward. She slashed at the spearmen, but he blocked her with his gauntlet.

  “Where is Marsh?!” Arya yelled, wrenching her blade free. The man ignored her, and swung at her temple. She ducked it just in time and drove Titan hard into the man’s shin. His legs buckled from the blow, and he dropped his spear. She scooped it up, twirled once, and punched the point of the spear right through the man’s throat. He let out a long, terrible groan, and collapsed.

  The other man was cowering on the floor beside him; his glove soaked with blood. “Please,” he begged. “Mercy. I don’t care about the White God; honest I don’t. I just didn’t want Marsh to kill me, like… like the others.” Arya felt a pang of sympathy, and so she knocked him out with the hilt of her sword. She looked over her shoulder, but there was no one there. Every able bodied man was down on the castle walls, fighting the wildlings.

  Arya gazed up at the thick set of iron doors. They were engraved with the image of a wolf, baying at the moon, with the vow of the Night’s Watch printed below in curling type. The handles were taller than Arya. She grabbed them both, and pulled. The doors creaked open slowly, and a rush of warm air hit Arya in the face. She stepped into the dark corridor, and heaved the doors closed behind her. The sounds of battle faded to nothing, as they sealed shut.

  Arya was surrounded by silence again; silence and darkness. Her left hand found the wall, with Titan stretched out in her right. She moved forward slowly, as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The air inside the Lord Commander’s tower was strangely warm, yet the walls and floor were slick with ice. As she moved, Arya saw shapes in the darkness; strange figures, dancing. She thought she smelt rotting flesh. Visions of her mother appeared; her body floating in the stream. She heard people cheering, as her father’s head hit the gallows. She saw Joffrey’s face, curling into a smile. Then Arya was a wolf again, bounding through a field of snow. Her fur was crusted with ice, and she was chasing a familiar scent.

  All of a sudden, the visions were gone. Arya felt tears running down her face. It’s not real, she told herself. It’s just another trick. She wiped her face and scowled. Nymeria, where are you? Then… she heard laughter; a cold, sick, venal cackle that made her shiver. A blue light flickered at the far end of the corridor; the silhouette of a doorway, slightly ajar. Arya approached it, ever so slowly. The laughter continued, becoming louder and more twisted. As she got closer to the door, she could make out a woman weeping.

  “Do as you will,” the woman croaked. “You may defile my body, but the Lord of Light shall protect my soul.” Her voice was throaty, and flavoured with the accents of the east.

  “You have no power here, priestess,” a man replied. The man’s voice was Marsh’s, but his tone was much deeper, and raspier than before. “The White God now has dominion over this place. He has chosen me as his weapon against the Andals. His agents in the Shadowlands have found the dragons. Once they are destroyed, the last of your master’s power will be drained from this world.” Arya approached the door, as quietly as she could. She crouched down. Titan was shaking in her hand. The blue light spiralled against the wall, and she was afraid to look into the room. She knew she had to move quickly, but something made her hesitate.

  “R’hllor defeated you once…” the woman said, clearly in pain.

  “Azor Ahai is dead. I slew him myself.” Marsh spat back.

  “Fool,” the woman hissed. “His body is slain… but his spirit endures. The direwolf has escaped; has he not?” There was a moment of silence then, and Arya could hear only a dripping sound.

  “He will be found,” Marsh said, after a while. “And once he is, I will sew your head to his body, and bury you a thousand leagues beneath the ice, where no warmth may reach you.” Arya heard a wet slice, and the woman screamed. Marsh began to laugh again; a terrible and blood-curdling. “You have failed, my lady. Once these savages are dealt with… it will begin.” Arya began to shiver violently. She could feel her blood freezing beneath her skin. No, she told herself. Not this time. Arya stood up, and entered the room.

  Inside stood Marsh, wrapped in his huge black furs. There was a knife in his hand, but instead of steel, the blade looked as though it was made of ice. It looked razor sharp, and seemed to glitter as it moved, throwing blues and pinks across the stone walls. A woman was there also. She had red hair with streaks of grey. Her hands were raised above her, with a hundred wounds dug into her arms and wrists; many of them fresh. Her palms where fastened to the wall with nails. She was naked, with blood running all the way down her body and into a bucket of ice where her feet were planted. The expression on her face was full of pain and sadness. Marsh bore no expression. His eyes were empty. On the left side of the room lay two dead bodies – a thin, older woman, with a whiff of hair on her lip, and a young, homely girl with rotting skin on the side of her face. Marsh lowered his knife at the sight of Arya. The red woman raised her head slowly, and stared in quiet sorrow.

  No one said anything for a while, and the drip of the ice bucket was the only sound. Arya was the one to break the silence. “It’s over Marsh,” she said. “Lay down your sword.” Marsh tilted his head, as though trying to figure out a puzzle.

  “It is over,” he replied at last. “It’s all over.” Marsh leapt at Arya, slashing at her face. Arya ducked the swing, and rolled left. She held Titan out in front of her, circling her foe. Marsh’s ice blade glimmered blue, then purple, then pink, then red. He lunged again. Arya side-stepped, and delivered a deep cut to his leg. Marsh staggered past her, but didn’t make a sound. His leather was torn wide open at the knee, but no blood came out. This time Arya went on the offensive. She swung Titan across Marsh’s neck, but he backed off just in time. Arya stabbed right, then left, hitting nothing but air. She wheeled around quickly and saw her opening. She delivered a hard slice towards Marsh underarm, but he caught the blow with his blade, and Titan suddenly exploded into fragments. Arya was blown into the wall, as her sword disappeared into a million tiny pieces on the floor. Her forearm screamed in pain, and she could taste blood. All that was left of Titan was a hilt, and it was so cold that it burnt Arya’s palm. She threw it to the side, and struggled across the floor, away from Marsh. No, she thought. No, how can this be?

  She crawled towards the red woman, looking around for a weapon; anything to defend herself. There was nothing. Arya grabbed the woman’s legs, and whispered “please,” to no one in particular. Her mind searched for Nymeria, somewhere in the wild. She watched Marsh’s shadow approach her from behind, and rolled over to face her death.

  “You must fight it Marsh,” the red woman cried. “There is goodness in you; I can feel it. You must not let him control you.” Marsh drew back his knife. His eyes were pale and unflinching. Arya felt the cold blade slide deep into her chest. She gasped aloud, and grabbed Marsh’s wrist with both hands. Maybe now I’ll get to see Jon again, she consoled herself. Marsh tried to pull the knife back out, but she held him firmly. He pulled again, and her grip tightened. She looked him dead in the eyes, and shook her head, mouthing the word “no”. Marsh’s eyes changed then; a twinkle of warmth appeared. Colour rushed back into his face. He relinquished the knife and fell onto the floor.

  “Just leave me alone,” he whispered, shaking his head. His voice was different now “Just let me die.” He looked up at the red woman. “Forgive me,” he said, tears streaming down his face. “I didn’t want to do it. He made me. I can feel him always; like claws of ice, digging into my brain; twisting me to and fro like a puppet on a string.” His gaze turned to Arya. “Please kill me. Please… just kill me.” Arya felt the world grow silent around her, as if she were underwater. She slid the blade out of her chest, and swung hard across Marsh throat. Blood exploded out of his neck, and his head went spinning across the wet stones. Arya fell back against the wall, dizzy with pain. Blood was pouring out of her chest, and it mixed with Marsh’s on the floor. The ice knife was melting away in her hand, and she let it slip through her fingers.

  “Little one!” she heard the red woman say. “Little wolf child… you did it…” The woman had pulled herself free of the wall.

  “The western gate…” Arya groaned. “You have to open it… You have to let Mance into the castle.”

  “I will, Arya Stark. I promise.” The world faded into darkness, and Arya felt warm hands press against her chest. Everything went black.

The Riddle of Muurn (poem)

Posted on April 9, 2012 at 11:30 PM Comments comments (0)

The breeze that warms the meadow is the wind that frosts the peaks;

The light that yields the garden is the heat that chars the trees;

The stream that feeds the prairie is the wave that rears the seas;

The pup that guards the shepherd is the wolf that wears the fleece.

 

The maid that loves the roses is the Queen that wields the thorn;

The babe that morns the sunset is the King that fights the dawn.

 

They're a Weird Mob (film essay)

Posted on April 1, 2012 at 8:45 AM Comments comments (1)

They’re a Weird Mob (Michael Powell 1966) presents a unique portrait of Australian society, through the eyes of an Italian immigrant. It takes place during the period of the White Australia policy, before the nation adopted multiculturalism. Thus, racial, religious, and geographic divisions are still quite pronounced, and a feeling of “us against them” pervades many of the characters. The film depicts Australia as insulated and resistant to the influences of other countries. It is a nation desperate to create its own identity, but also riddled with cultural and ethnic rifts.

 

The political message that underlines They’re a Weird Mob, is assimilation. The film argues that migrants are welcome in Australia, but they are expected to adopt our way of life; and sever all ties with their native tongue and culture. While the film is generally light-hearted in tone, it provides an interesting snapshot into the social conscience, prior to multiculturalism. Australian’s could not accept anyone, who rejected our culture and customs. The film depicts a country still trying to find its way, and realise its own identity.

 

However, the film does address the concept of multiculturalism, and even demonstrates some of its benefits. For starters, the story is told from a migrant’s perspective, and Australian culture is examined primarily through his eyes. To Nino, Australia is the strange and foreign culture, that local audiences might attach to the European migrants they expect to assimilate. The film is therefore sympathetic towards immigrants, as well as affectionate in its attitude towards the “ocker” culture they are introduced to. The film is “essentially about Nino’s acculturation” into mainstream Australia, and his “confrontation with the Australian idioms”; that is, the ocker lexicon that somewhat resembles the King’s English. However, this “acculturation” should not be seen directly assimilation. The film condones assimilation, but it condemns xenophobia. Migrants who fail to adopt the ways of the dominant culture are not excluded. This is best exemplified in the scenes on the Sydney ferry, in which drunk local is seen abusing a non-English speaking Italian family, and is thrown overboard by his fellow Australian’s. Another example is the scene at Bondi Beach, in which Nino, himself wishing to understand and adapt, is told to “swim between the flags”. There is a social desire on Australia’s part, to force conformity and unity on itself, but it is also willing to lend a hand to its newest citizens.

 

The film is neither fundamentally in favour of assimilation or multiculturalism. Rather like Australia at the time, it stands at a crossroads; questioning whether to pursue a unified, self-styled nation, or to celebrate and embrace all of the cultures of its diverse populace. However, the overriding theme of They’re a Weird Mob, is a struggle towards harmony, and the mending of old ethnic divides. This is best exemplified in the conversation between Nino and Kay’s father. The father is desperate to point out all of the things that make them different, and therefore unworthy of his daughter’s affections—their background, ethnicity, occupation, etc.—while Nino is only concerned with the things that make them the same.

 

In They’re a Weird Mob, the idea of Australian nationality can be easily acquired, since it is confined to a set of attitudes, emotions and expressions. One’s identity within society is presented as both stereotypical, and a “shifting dynamic formation”. Nino is taught that mastering these elements of language and behaviour, such as learning how to speak “ocker” and the importance of returning a “shout”, is enough to be accepted as a “true-blue Aussie”. Thus, the film undermines the whole concept of a “national character” by “stressing its arbitrary and performative nature”. Nino is able to shift freely between Italian and Australian culture, as well as middle and working class status, without ever losing his essential humanity. Likewise, Nino is taught how to perform like an Australian reciting idioms and adopting arbitrary new customs, but it is all a performance, and what’s more the Australian’s seem to know this, but carry on all the more merry. One could argue that the customs which immigrants were expected to adopt in pre-multiculturalism Australia were not that important in themselves, but rather the effort of the newcomer to embrace his new country was valued.

 

Despite the period in which it was shot, the film is surprisingly progressive, not just in its depiction of immigrants, but also it attitudes (brief as they are) towards Asian and Indigenous Australians. In the scene where Nino and his workmates are mucking around and throwing water on each other, a Chinese man living next door, is splashed by some water. The neighbour takes the joke well, laughing together with the mob. It speaks to a sense of community between Asian’s and Australian’s, and may represent a sort of baptism, similar to the one Nino experienced at Bondi.

 

Aborigines are also referenced, towards the end of the film, when Nino is imagining teaching his children to fish. He sees some Aboriginal inscriptions on a rock, and comments that Australian’s of the past would practice the same custom, further binding him to the Australian tradition he has been cultivating throughout the film. The topic of the Indigenous Australian is dropped as soon as it was brought up, but it may suggest that Nino sees himself as the new generation of Australian, following in the footsteps of the Aborigines.

 

They’re a Weird Mob occupies a place somewhere between these two competing social philosophies of assimilation and multiculturalism, and exemplifies a new concept of Australia that emerges from the various cultural influences that make up the fabric of its people.

 

Two Wolves after the Doom (short story)

Posted on December 12, 2011 at 10:30 PM Comments comments (0)

  Saria was wading through the snow, her grey fur crusted with ice. Her breaths were deep and raspy, painting the air white in front of her snout. The great she-wolf limped towards the roots of a spider tree, and collapsed beneath its twisted shadow. The days were growing cold and brief. There was no warmth left in this place; no creatures to feed on; no caves or hollows to escape the bitter winds. There were only the harsh white snows, that stretched eternal; and the cruel, brooding sky above.

  Saria’s stomach groaned in agony. It had been ages since she'd last eaten, and she was becoming weaker with each passing day. Her fur with thinning, and had started to fall out in matted clumps. Her skin hung loose, and the cold had crept into her bones and stayed there. She could feel her life-force draining away. Only death dwelt in these colourless fields, and she would soon join its pack. The Nightlands awaited her.

  Saria had been following the scent for weeks, but it was gone now; dissolved in the winds and rains. The scent had been old, but familiar; a smell that she had known at her mother's teat. It had been her brother, the white wolf. She had felt his movements in the snow, and bound off after him… but now she was lost and alone.

  She looked down at her hind leg. There was still some meat on it, and warm blood coursing beneath the skin. The wolf thought for a moment, questioning whether she had the strength to do it; the will to dine on her own flesh. She had tried it two moons ago, but the pain had been too much to bear. In the end, she just licked at the snow for a few drops of water. The liquid burned as it trickled down her throat. Saria curled up tight beneath the tree, and closed her eyes. Sleep, sleep and never wake up, she told herself. Darkness closed in around the beast, and the sound of the wind began to fade.

  That night, frightening visions infested Saria’s mind. She dreamt that icy claws were scratching at her chest and belly. She saw a white landscape, bathed in an eerie shadow. Fierce storm clouds were rolling in from every direction. There were figures all around her, tearing at her flesh. They were dead men, with yellow, rotting skin, and black holes where their eyes should be. In the distance, Saria could see a host of white wraiths, galloping across a sea of red snow. They were demons, carved of ice, and their armour shone like glass. They rode dead horses, and their swords were cold and sharp. She heard a war-horn screech above the winds, and its song made Saria’s skin burn. It sounded like a dying boar. She tried to scream too, but she had no voice. The demons were at her throat, and she a red tide spreading out around her.


  “—Little sister,” a voice whispered through the darkness. Saria’s head perked up, and her eyes darted around. Her neck was wet with fear. There was nothing there, save for the fog. She let out a meek howl, choking towards the end of it. “Little sister…” There it was again; soft and familiar. Saria rose to her feet, threw back her head, and let out a great, soaring wail. When she had no more voice left to give, she collapsed onto her belly, panting heavily.

  Then, from out of the silvery mists, two blood-red eyes appeared. A great wolf, larger than herself, came padding towards Saria. His fur was thick, and as white as snow. “Brother,” she barked, and bounded towards him. The two beasts collided, and went tumbling across the frost, arm in arm. She yelped with delight as her brother wrestled her to the ground, and greeted her with a flurry of licks to the snout. She pushed him onto his back, and gnawed at his belly softy. Saria and Sole threw back their heads and howled as one. Long and trembling, their voices sung out across the fields of wrinkled snow. The raging winds were finally drowned out by the sounds of two wolves, reunited at last.

  “Where have you been?” she whimpered. “I have been searching forever.”

  “It's okay,” he replied gently. “We are a pack again.” He licked the tears from her cheek. They returned to the spider tree, and nestled into its thick roots. They clung together, feeding off each other's warmth.

  “I thought you were dead,” she sobbed. “I thought I was the last one left.”

  “Rest now, little sister,” he murmered. “And dream of warmer times.”

The Tragedy of King Lear (lit essay)

Posted on November 2, 2011 at 4:40 AM Comments comments (0)

King Lear (William Shakespeare 1623) traces a father’s decent into madness, after dividing his kingdom up between two of his three daughters, based on flattery. The King’s foolishness brings about tragic consequences for his family and people. Lear’s own insanity grows in parallel with the chaos and bloodshed that has befallen his realm, and many of the characters begin to ask themselves why the gods torment them so; for their sins of for “sport”. The play is at once the most domestic and the most philosophical of tragedies. It quickly moves from family dispute through power politics to a consideration of quite profound ethical and metaphysical issues.

 

This essay will examine the relationships between King Lear and Gloucester, and their respective children; as well as how their domestic disintegration comes to impact the greater kingdom. It will also analyse the philosophy of the play, contrasting themes of hopelessness, randomness, and existentialism present throughout the narrative.

 

Throughout the play the family lives of King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester are in a state of disintegration. Both families are missing a mother, and are therefore incomplete to begin with. As the fathers dismiss their loyal children and trust the treacherous, uncaring ones, family life begins to fragment. Although the loyal children eventually forgive their fathers, the fathers, repentant as they are, have become either mad or blind. Shakespeare presents Lear as a tyrannical, over-demanding, and self-centred father who insists on being treated as a king even after he has renounced his crown (Rosenberg). He treats his children and servants with very little respect (“Let me not stay a jot for dinner/Go get it ready”). The collapse of his family starts when Lear’s demand for love increases. He rashly sets up a love test for his three daughters, to see “which of you shall we say does love us most?” He seems to feel that he has earned his daughters’ love and “need not continue trying to maintain it” (Morr). He tries to buy that final commitment by dividing up the. To him love can be measured (“What can you say to draw/A third more opulent?”). Cordelia, who believes that this is false, gives the only possible answer—“nothing, my lord”—as she cannot “heave her heart into her mouth”. The love test staged by Lear only serves to isolate the one faithful member from his family unit. Lear mistakes Cordelia’s honesty for a lack of affection and disinherits her, though the King of France recognises her innate worth and marries her anyway.

 

Lear, of course, is not the only character to destroy his family. In the play’s subplot, Gloucester humiliates his bastard son Edmund in public. He taunts Edmund’s illegitimacy, and his description of Edmund’s mother is coarse and bawdy; not designed to spare the young man’s feelings. Disintegration starts when Gloucester intensifies Edmund’s jealousy, causing him to complain about his status as a bastard, questioning why he should “stand in the plague of custom” since he is as much his father’s son as his half-brother Edgar. Edmund plots to improve his prospects by discrediting his brother in his father’s eye, and succeeds in making his father believe that Edgar wants to kill him to get his land (“I have/Heard him oft maintain it to be fit/That, sons at perfect age, and fathers/Declin’d, the father should be as ward/To the son, and the son manage his/Revenue”). Gloucester is easily taken in by the fake letter that Edmund shows him regarding Edgar’s intent to kill him. He disinherits and banishes his legitimate son Edger. Gloucester’s own comment—“Love cools, friendship/Falls off/Brothers divide... Son against father.. Father against child”—best summarises the disintegration of his family life (Rosenberg).

 

On the other hand, after Lear banishes his favourite daughter Cordelia, the family seems to remain intact, because he foolishly believes in his two scheming elder daughters. What he fails to see is that the favouritism towards Cordelia which shows in the beginning of the play “increases Goneril and Regan’s jealousy [and] unleashes their innermost evil” (Goldberg); just as Gloucester’s treatment of Edgar, inspires a wicked ambition in Edmund. Indeed, both Goneril and Regan display a mounting resentment towards their father, “tyrannical as ever”, who “insists on being treated like a reigning monarch” (Goldberg). His “reservation of [a] hundred knights”, as well as the unruly company he keeps, is no longer welcome (“This house is little: the old man and’s people/Cannot be well bestow’d”). The two sisters plot with to deprive the old king of his last meagre sign of royal dignity. Having placed a curse on Goneril, and being reduced to kneel before Regan, begging for “raiment, bed, and food”, Lear realises that he has lost everything—his kingdom, his power—and is being “further humiliated by his own kin” (Goldberg). Enraged as he is, he shatters his family further by swearing “I will have such revenges you both” as he calls upon the gods, who have stirred “these daughters’ hearts/Against their father,” to “touch me with noble anger”. Ironically, the same “noble anger” that has torn the family apart, now drives him mad as he dashes out into the imminent storm, crying “O Fool! I shall go mad”.

 

Gloucester is undergoing a similar tragedy. After he has disowned his legitimate son Edgar, he reveals the letter to the Duke of Cornwall. This signals a betrayal that costs the Gloucester’s eyes and eventually his life. Upon hearing from Regan that he has been betrayed by Edmund for treason, Gloucester shows his deep remorse: “O my follies! Then Edgar was abused/Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!” In the wake of total dissolution of family life (and their own sanity) both fathers become repentant of their sins.

 

The disintegration of family, as presented in the separated, yet entwined, cases of King Lear and Gloucester, “becomes dovetailed” towards the end of the play (Rosenberg). At this stage, Gloucester has died shortly after his reunion with Edgar as the “extremes of passion” overpower his heart, making it “burst smilingly”. In the meantime, his illegitimate son Edmund has risen to power, with the crown squarely in his sights, as he manipulates the two evil sisters’ love for him. The triangle of love quickly claims the lives of both sisters and also “puts an end to the old king’s foolish expectation of enjoying a permanent re-union with Cordelia”, even if in prison (Rosenberg). Edmund has Cordelia hanged in prison, delivering the last devastating blow to the old king, who has committed the sin of dividing not only his kingdom, but also his family. Family life in King Lear is made to disintegrate by both of the fathers, who show favouritism in their relationship with their children, and fail to see that they must earn love and respect if wishing to reign even in their own respective households. Their tragedy testifies to the fact that, although children can be different from each other, the integrity of family life undeniably gravitates around unfiltered, and equal shares of, love (Rosenberg).

 

The fact that Lear tries to measure his daughters’ love, symbolizes how corrupt his personal relationships are, and by extension his relationship with his people. The play’s use of political chaos and domestic conflict provides “a rich background conducive to exploring Lear’s psychological issues” (Rosenberg). Lear undergoes a radical change in his mental and moral state; a change that has far-reaching implications. Even as the play begins, the king is oblivious to the realities of his own world and even his own family. His plan to divide his estate, based on his daughters’ public declarations of love, is a symptom of a self-deluded mind; as is Lear’s response to Cordelia’s refusal to take part in the ritual (Rosenberg). Shakespeare portrays this self-delusion as an extension of his governance. Lear is a privileged ruler, who is very much insulated from harsh lives of his subjects. The play provides us glimpses into the lives of the ruling class, and then juxtaposes in with the brutal social reality that upholds it. Part Lear’s madness is inspired by the confrontation of this reality. Lear becomes vulnerable when he puts himself at the mercy of his daughters and finds himself suddenly homeless and stripped of his attendants and privileges. He discovers a far greater tragedy than his own in the condition of those with whom he shares the open heath in Act III. “Lear’s mental collapse is entirely understandable”, almost inevitable, “given the impossible contradiction” between the world he thought he knew and the reality to which he is exposed Chami).

 

The onset of his madness is closely linked with his increased social perception and concern. The first occasion on which the outcast king begins to doubt his sanity (“My wits begin to turn”) coincides with his initial expression of compassion (“How dost, my boy? Art cold?”). The second occasion (“O, that way madness lies; let me shun that/No more of that.”) is immediately followed by a surprising outburst of pity: “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are/That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm/How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides/Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you”). The passage indicates a transforming psyche, which, if it were not called madness, might be empathy (Freeman).

 

Lear’s full-blown insanity in Act IV produces explicit self-criticism and social condemnation. He begins almost immediately to denounce his former deluded state, as well as those who encouraged it in court (“They flattered/Me like [dogs]... They are/Not men o’ their words: they told me I was every/Thing... ’Tis a lie”). Lear has concluded, or realised, that everything in official life has been a falsehood; while it took banishment for him to witness true nature. He directs his most vicious attacks against the ruling class of society (his former “dogs”), and the social injustice they fermented. Lear tells the blind Gloucester that he “may see how this world goes with no eyes”; that is, society shields itself from inspection and it may take a genuinely blind men to witness its true design (Freeman). The mutilated Gloucester echoes Lear’s criticisms of the wealthy and even adds an appeal for social equality. Earlier in Act IV, Scene VI he calls on heaven to let the “superfluous and lust-dieted man” to “feel your power quickly”; that is, someone who has more than he needs and will not share.

 

Nature is not cruel in King Lear; it is “indifferent, implacable, and cold” (Chami). The characters try to personify nature, calling it “the gods”, but nature feels nothing. In Act III, Lear howls within the storm; the wind echoing the chaos in his own mind. He encourages the storm at first, as if it were his own anger, raging at the family that has stolen his dignity, after he freely gave them his power (“Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!”), yet he is ultimately broken by the massing forces symbolised by the storm. The forces of nature “overwhelm the [merely] human actors swept up in them... as age and senility overtake the great king”, and disorder overwhelms the great kingdom that he built, then foolishly broke in two (Chami).

 

A personified nature might be angry with Lear for avoiding his duty. If the work of his youth was the unification of Britain, then surely the work of his maturity should have been the welfare of its citizens (Chami). He sees this, recognizing in himself the plight of the scorned (“Take physic, pomp/Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel/That thou mayst shake the superflux to them/And show the heavens more just”), but in the end, nature remains indifferent. Justice is a man-made virtue. Lear has not created a just society, as a king ought to do. Instead, he has resigned, “thrusting his country into the hands of grasping, [inadequate], venal queens” (Chami). Still, unreasonably, he demands the dignity of high office without its duties. Nature is impersonal though, and does not judge him. It is a force without aim or character. It “[surrounds] the actors, and buffets them... like the broad circumstances that trap them” (Chami). People, conversely, create societies and hierarchies in which to know their place or change it; to rise or fall by merit or birthright. Society structures and gives moral meaning to each act of a person. Without society, mindless nature is mere chaos, like the storm. When Lear meets with Gloucester, who, like himself, has been betrayed by a child, the pair takes comfort in their quiet society. Then, when Lear is reunited with Cordelia, though a prisoner, he is delighted: “We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage...”.

 

Once freed and restored to his position, King Lear is without moral force, having “renounced his part in the history of Britain” (Chami). He is a humble, knowing human life has bypassed him in his solitary madness: “I have seen the day with my good biting falchion/I would have made them skip. I am old now/And these same crosses spoil me”. Perhaps, he is no longer mad, having returned to society. Yet, he has tasted the madness and chaos beyond those marbled walls of his palace, and he cannot displace that from his mind; nor the fragility of this thin crust of reality, called England.

 

At its core, King Lear is more than the tragedy of an individual or group of individuals. There is something encompassing and transcendent about the drama. There was never the possibility of a happy ending. There is nothing gratuitous about the tragedy and violence in King Lear. Rather, the problems speak to something “unsolvable under the social conditions of the early seventeenth century” (Chami). The suffering is a symbol of this insolvability, because the world Shakepeare presents is neither just nor wicked; it is indifferent; it is amoral. Like its protagonist, the world is chaos and madness, entrenched.



Terminator 2 & Beauty and the Beast (film essay)

Posted on October 14, 2011 at 4:15 AM Comments comments (0)

Masculinity is a difficult concept to define, especially with the way traditional gender roles have shifted and transformed through the latter half of the 20th century. Typically, it refers to the possession of male characteristics and qualities, such as physical strength or aggression. It might also be associated with ideas of leadership, virility and assertiveness. Since femininity is sometimes seen as submissive or dependant, masculine modes will often strive to be dominant of others, through force or violence; or to be independent and even isolated from society.

 

This essay will examine the focus of women in the films Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron 1991) and Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale/Wise 1991), and how they are represented in the struggle between two modes of masculinity. Terminator 2 centres on the highly masculinised Sarah Connor, and how she contends with the technologized masculinity of the two cyborg assassins that hunt and protect her. Beauty and the Beast centres on the highly feminised Belle, and the two versions of masculinity—the dashing Gaston and the brooding Beast—who wish to possess and control her. Each character will be explored in detail, concentrating on how their gender is represented and evolved throughout each film.

 

Terminator 2 is a film brimming with masculine aggression. The two cyborg assassins are not only built in the forms of men, but confront each other through corporal violence and the exchange of [absurdly phallic] weapon fire. The two machines—the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and the T-1000 (Robert Patrick)—are cold, determined, and at the peak of physical prowess. They are idealised visions male strength, and represent a retreat from perceived feminine traits of fragility, dependence and nurturing. They are men transformed into weapons—soldiers wrought of steel—unwavering in the completion of their objective, and unbridled by human morality or vice. It could be argued, however, that such a retreat from feminine traits is also a retreat from human ones, and that an idealised masculine mode must also contain elements of femininity. Indeed, the character arc of the T-800 focuses on his ability to care about and comfort John Connor, and to become something of a father figure to the boy. Meanwhile, his opponent, the T-1000, becomes more and more obsessed with the evisceration of John, and thus comes to resemble less and less a figure of humanity.

 

Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) represents the sole female protagonist of the film, and yet she is as far from a feminine archetype as one could possibly get. From the brief visions we see of her in flashbacks, we know that Sarah was once a soft-featured and nurturing mother, but the knowledge of humanities imminent destruction has hardened her psyche. In the years since John’s childhood, she has become increasingly less stable. Imprisoned in a mental institution for the past few years, Sarah has transformed her body into a weapon. Like the machine that hunted her, Sarah is now muscled, calculating, and proficient with firearms and hand-to-hand combat. She has come to embody the same physical and psychological tension of the terminator’s form. She rejects her femininity as a weakness, wearing sun-glasses as a filter through which she and the world might interact, and embracing the destructive power of technology that was once used against her. She eventually undertakes her own termination mission, targeting Miles Dyson, the creator of Skynet; just as Skynet targeted her (the mother of its enemy) in the previous film. Through her fear of these technological monsters, Sarah has come to emulate them, as a rejection of her own femininity. However, this transformation is also a rejection of maternity, as she can no longer display any affection towards her son, John. Like the T-800, she sees him merely as a subject to be guarded, and scolds him for trying to save her. Ironically, though, the figure she has modelled her new masculine form after (the T-800), becomes more maternal throughout the film.

 

The fact that Sarah fails to terminate Dyson, followed by “her tearful reconciliation with John”, can be “seen as a re-establish[ing] of conservative social” norms (Gaine). She feels sorry for her target, something a terminator could never do, and thus reverts back to a “maternal role”. This change is symbolised by the removal of her sunglasses, taking away the artificial filter through which a predator might scrutinise its prey. Sarah has met the threshold at which she can no longer retreat from female, or indeed human, empathy. However, this reading is simplistic, since “Sarah remains the leader of her guerrilla force, giving orders to John, the [T-800] and Dyson” (Gaine). She has not reverted back to a gender stereotype; so much as she has evolved into a kind of warrior-mother, integrating the “two personae without contradiction or tension” (Gaine). Sarah’s acceptance of her maternal traits is not a consignment to female submission, but rather a rejection of her technologisation, which, “with the masculinity associated with muscles and guns, is also a masculinisation”. She has realised that “technologised masculinity leads to alienation and dehumanisation”, and that perhaps the way to prevent this future is not through killing, but through “empathetic engagement with others and a transcendence of technology” (Gaine). While Sarah develops into this technologised form and back again, the T-800 has undergone a parallel humanisation. He reaches a similar realisation, telling John that “it is in your nature to destroy yourselves”. His empathy develops to a point where he is willing to sacrifice himself, so that his violence will not contaminate the human fate.

 

The antagonist of the film, the T-1000, while male in form, and equally as aggressive as the T-800, represents a far more fluid interpretation of gender. His ability to liquefy, change shape and even imitate other people, makes him a “post-biological state” of being (Huyssen). The amorphous, and even androgynous, nature of his body makes him more menacing, since he has no clear shape or definitive form. Even refering to the T-1000 as a “he” seems disingenuous, since it can morph into women and even inanimate objects. He takes the form of a male police officer for most of the film, probably since that role in society will afford him a high level of authority and access, but his true biology resembles more of a metallic liquid. The T-1000 is a combination of human fluidity and mechanical relentlessness, expressing a true threat to humanities role. He constitutes a technological fantasy of “creation without a mother” (Huyssen); that genderless technology has superseded humanity. While Sarah and the T-800 represent a drive towards technologised masculinity, before developing a humanised empathy, the T-1000 represents a post-biological, post-gender being.

 

Beauty and the Beast presents two competing modes of masculinity – the charismatic, dashing, and arrogant Gaston; and the brooding, alienated and ferocious Beast. Both men vie for the affections of Belle, the titular Beauty, though neither loves her (at least in the beginning); rather they want to possess her. Gaston, the self-styled village hero, encompasses all of the qualities of masculinity. He is handsome, muscular, charismatic, and selects Belle “to be his bride-to-be using virtually no other criteria but her appearance” (Wynn). Furthermore, when Belle rejects his chauvinistic advances, he resorts to violence to obtain and suppress her. The Beast is presented in quite a different facet of masculinity. He is indeed strong and aggressive, but much more alienated and menacing. He desires Belle not for her beauty, but to break the spell cast upon him. While the Beast is visibly more unsightly than Gaston’s suave demeanour, he proves himself to be a gentler, kinder soul. As stated, neither man loves Belle for who she really is, but rather they demand obedience from her, for their own selfish intent.

 

Belle herself is indeed beautiful, but she is also kind and intelligent and an independent thinker. The Beast slowly comes to realise this, and he develops a genuine adoration for her. Gaston, on the other, hand is enraged by her lack of obedience, and evolves from a narcissistic, yet harmless buffoon, into a murderous brute. Gaston is a caricature of the ideal male; all brawn and no brain. The film is making fun of the traditional fairy-tale hero, instead occupying Belle’s affections with the dangerous, yet emotionally wounded Beast, which ironically has become the new masculine archetype in series like Twilight and True Blood. Belle is certainly not masculine in the way a heroine like Sarah Connor is. She still retains a gentle nature and compassion for other people, but nor does she have the supposed vulnerability of most fairy-tale damsels. Belle is smart and tough, and accepts neither of her suitor’s oppressive demands. Belle’s rejection of Gaston, after he tells her that he’s looking to make her his “little wife” is “a huge slap in the face to the standard stereotype” (Wynn), and it sends the message that “women are ultimately in charge of their fate” and that “they do not have to submit to an overbearing male bent on ‘owning’ them” (Wynn). The fact that the film has presented this charming character as a “bad guy”, and casts an ugly monster as the “good guy”, goes utterly against the stereotype, replacing it instead with the message that “it’s not what a person has on the outside that matters, but what’s on the inside” (Wynn). The film’s title could just as easily refer to Gaston as the “Beast”, and the Beast as the “Beauty”, if we are looking at the souls of these characters.

 

A darker reading of the film is that Belle and the Beast’s bond is actually an allegory for an abusive relationship. When the characters first meet it is in the form of a prisoner exchange. Belle sacrifices her freedom for her father’s, and thus submitting herself to his rule. The Beast spends much of his time ranting and raving, and treating Belle with about as much ire and distain as his servants. Then, all of a sudden, the love of the beautiful Belle transforms the Beast into a gentle, caring man. This might play into the illusion that the love of a good woman can turn an abuser into a good person. Even after escaping, Belle ends up returning to the castle, because she still believes that she can tame the savage Beast. Perhaps this reading is overly cynical, but it does send the message to young girls that they should persist through an abusive relationship, because if they are “good” or loving enough, he will change, quite literally, into a handsome prince (Caroll). On the other hand, the character of Gaston, could be read as something of a stalker, who has fabricated a real relationship with Belle, and becomes violent and threatening towards her when she shatters that fantasy. It is doubtful Disney ever intended these to be messages within the film, but twenty years later they do reveal something about gender politics of the era, and that despite the film’s evolved sense of gender equality, kernels of a more conservative masculine-feminine dynamic do remain.

 

The films Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Beauty and the Beast represent two distinct representations of women, caught within a masculine power struggle. Sarah Connor strives towards a hyper masculinised self, embracing the technological horrors she once feared, before returning to a more empathetic, feminised personae. Belle is, by comparison, a symbol of feminine beauty and grace, but also embraces an independent and self-assured personae that is unique to fairy-tale settings. The men around them all represent a wide range of masculine visions, from the ruthless cyborgs assassins of Terminator 2, to the dashing, narcissistic Gaston, and brooding Beast from Beauty and the Beast. The archetypal male is satirised by Disney, while the snarling monster is shown to be the most worthy suitor; while the T-1000 portrays an entirely new vision of gender; a post-biological menace to humanity. The two films contain many different representations of men and women; no two the same.



Thoughts After Ruskin (lit essay)

Posted on September 27, 2011 at 5:05 AM Comments comments (0)

Elma Mitchell’s poem, Thoughts After Ruskin, is a unique portrait of women. It is not about a particular woman, but rather the nature and manner of women within a domestic setting. It depicts domestic life with a gritty, violent urgency that goes against the idealised view of femininity and grace. The poem’s title is addressing John Ruskin, and other male poets, who romanticise the nature of women; and contrasts their flowery language with a harsh reality. This essay will examine the voice, imagery, sound, and language Mitchell employs throughout the piece; and how they can be used to further our understanding and interpretation of the poem.

 

The voice of Thoughts After Ruskin is defiant. It begins by challenging the traditional vision of women. It argues that—far from the perfume of flowers—women remind them of “blood and soap”. The tone then turns more frantic, as it delves into “the terrible chemistry of the kitchen”. It lists a series of forceful verbs (“gutting”/“stuffing”/ “scalding”) that paint an image of aggression, which directly confronts Ruskin’s sweet-natured archetype. The voice of the poem changes again for the start of the second stanza, imbuing a sense of mockery as it depicts the delicacy of their absent husbands. It further derides the notion that their “tender” wives are safe at home, when really they are working their hands bloody to create the illusion of peace and comfort. The voice again returns to a frenzied tone as it pours through all the hidden brutality of domestic minutia; the “killing” and “scouring”. The voice increases in volume with the third stanza. It describes the image of a woman with exclamation (!), which complements the language itself; using the words “huge” and “massive” to again distil this romantic image of female delicacy. As the poem closes, the voice calms down. Like the women in the poem, the narrator “sigh[s] a little” and returns to the illusion of “lilies and roses”. Though the subject and author of the poem are female, the narrator’s gender is never elaborated on. It could be a child, watching their mother slave over a kitchen. It may also be a collection of memories. It might be Mitchell herself, speaking directly to the reader, or indeed to the ghost of Ruskin.

 

The imagery of the poem is messy and quite brutal. It paints women with an almost militant brush; “armed” and “assaulting”. The poem describes the violence and urgency of domestic tasks, as well as the physical toll they take on housewives. The opening stanza lists a series of verbs—“cutting”, “gutting”, “stuffing”, “roiling”—which transform the serene kitchen into a place of fierce activity and “terrible chemistry”. The imagery is used to refute this tranquil picture of femininity and domesticity. The second contrasts this new image of women with the feigned prestige (“lean[ing] across mahogany”) and delicate nature of men. Here the poem is addressing the theme of illusion. In art and culture men are depicted as strong and aggressive, while women are depicted as gentle and graceful. The poem is showing that both these stereotypes are illusions; that women can be just as strong and violent, while men can display a placid temperament. The imagery continues its violent descriptions of “killing” creatures and “twisting” rags. The poem describes the women’s hands as red and white with bruises. The harshness of the verbs almost leaves the reader with a sense of exhaustion, since we can picture the “scrubbing” and “wringing” in our minds, and feel the endlessness and thanklessness of domestic chores. The images can become quite sickening at times too, as we are exposed to spiders and mice; vomit and excretion, and bloody hands. We can smell the filth and mess, and the desperation to clean it all away.

 

The poem begins with a rhyming quatrain (ABAC) to fit Ruskin’s traditional image, before descending away from dainty metaphor into gritty free verse. The rest of the poem offers very little rhyming structure, beyond the occasional half-rhyme (“odours”/”roses”). Lines tend to be 9 to 11 syllables each (5 feet), maintaining an even rhythm. As mentioned above the poem is full of doing words, and the first two stanza’s are obsessed with the constant and frantic activity of housewives. The harsh sounding words—“gutting”, “stabbing”, “killing”, “zipping”—operate with a mechanical drive. They would seem to fit better in a warzone than a kitchen. The physical description of women is also quite subversive, as we are used to their beauty and delicacy being praised. Here we get the harsh reality – the “bloody passages” and “hairy crannies”. The description of “huge hands” and “everywhere eyes” draws the reader back to childhood, when an omnipotent mother loomed over the household. The poem ends with a “sit and sigh” with the women putting on their masks; “their essence of lilies and roses”. Again, the poem returns to illusions. Despite their nature, women themselves perpetuate this image of grace and purity.

 

Mitchell’s Thoughts After Ruskin reflects a women’s traditional day, which is bookended with illusion (“lilies and roses”), but is a ferocious whirl of activity in between. It is a messy, violent description of domestic tasks and motherhood, and succeeds in depicting a type of feminism rarely explored. Mitchell’s poem ends with the women applying their makeup and perfume, just in time for their men to show up. They are forced to invert their true essence in order to be in harmony with their masculine counterpart.

 

The Beast (poem)

Posted on September 11, 2011 at 11:30 PM Comments comments (0)

It moves as one across the red sands,

Its heart—a drum—o’er broken lands,

Hammering life from rock and heather,

A metal beast of lance and leather.

 

It shimmers and groans in the dawn light,

Skulls of wolves baying for a fight,

Woven plumage snatched by morning breeze.

One final foe left, to bend the knees.

 

The white keep stands firm, poised for the fray.

But like a pincer, ensnaring its prey,

The beast looms up, coiling its wings.

A white sword, in a garden of sins.

 

The host unfolds like an iron rose,

Thorns gleaming to the chanting of crows.

It locks its horns against chiselled plate,

Twisting and lashing the armoured gate.

 

The white keep growls back, spraying the night,

Piercing the beast; its wrath alight.

A thousand shards of defiance,

That could not split that dark alliance.

 

For the beast did break that lone white sword.

Stars waned as a moat of blood was poured,

And many who once drew breath were dead,

As the sands grew a darker shade of red.

 

Fight Club (film essay)

Posted on September 2, 2011 at 4:45 AM Comments comments (0)

The term “masochism” refers to the condition of deriving pleasure from pain. A masochist is a person who feels pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from receiving physical or emotional abuse. In the film Fight Club (Fincher 1999), the ability to endure violence or torment is marked as a symbol of masculinity. Indeed, the group’s doctrine seems to revolve around the breaking down of one’s body and mind, so that it may be rebuilt into something stronger and harder (or at least more obedient). Self-destruction, through violence, is seen as the road to masculine evolution, while self-improvement is derided as a mark of consumerist culture, and corporate enslavement. A masochist is also someone who submits themselves to the will of another, as the men in fight club submit themselves to its leader, Tyler Durden.

 

This essay will look at the concept of masochism, and examine how it is applied in the film Fight Club. It will analyse masochism as a symbol of masculine development, as a response to the feminisation of modern society. It will also explore the psychology of the protagonist, and how his own masochism develops, and what it symbolises, throughout the film.

 

The protagonist of Fight Club, or at least his charismatic alter ego (Tyler Durden), argues that the men of generation x have been softened by the “feminized” and “consumerist” influences of modern society. He claims that modern culture has “striven to immunise men from trauma” and hardship, which has in turn stunted their psychological growth and alienated them from “their essential maleness” (Anask). Instead of encouraging men to face pain and adversity, modern society has taught them to value “emotional growth”, and this overwhelming emphasis on self-improvement has created disillusionment. Men no longer know what it is to be a man, Tyler argues, since they have been largely raised by “single mothers” and taught that self-fulfilment comes from “buying stuff”. Part of the men’s need to feel pain comes from this yearning to pass into manhood. The violence that members of fight club inflict on one another, serves to re-condition the male psyche from consumer to hunter-warrior. The violence is preparation as much as it is masculine empowerment; preparation for the vision Tyler describes towards the end of the film, of a world where men “hunt elk” through the ruins of cities, and masculinity is once again the dominant personae of humanity. But the fights are as much about receiving pain, as dishing it out.

 

The outcome of a fight is unimportant; rather, it is the act of enduring violence that is celebrated and ritualised by the group. At one point, Tyler orders his disciples to go out and “start a fight with a complete stranger”, and lose. This task is as much about empowering ordinary people into exerting masculine aggression, as it is about testing the obedience of his own men, and their ability to suffer a beating. In many cases throughout the film, a character asserts his dominance by receiving pain. In particular, the scene in which the owner of Lou’s Tavern is goaded into beating Tyler half to death, only to retreat in disgust at Tyler’s bloodied face. Upon seeing this, the men of fight club become even more in awe of Tyler, and begin carrying out missions at his behest. Masochism is the driving force behind their doctrine – the male bond asserted through violence, and the submission offered to Tyler, who can endure the most pain of all.

 

Another facet of the protagonist’s masochism is the sense of sovereignty it provides. Jack/Tyler uses violence and self-harm as a tool of self-regulation. He perceives himself to be “solely responsible for succusses and failures”, and feels he “must discipline and torture himself”, as a means of asserting himself; his own independence. Jack is what Freud would call a “moral masochist”, in which authority figures, such as the law and parents, are internalised, resulting in the superego’s punishing and disciplining of the ego. This sub-conscious authority manifests itself, quite literally, through the figure of Tyler. The protagonist of Fight Club represents two halves of the same impulse – the desire to be dominated and abused, and the desire to exert masculine dominance through violence. Both identities desire, yet resent, the other. He is the embodiment of the sadomasochist, and the conflict between his split personalities is projected in the militant, yet subservient demeanour of his followers.

 

What Jack desires most, is his own destruction. Tyler is what Jack wants to be, and throughout the entire film, he is abolishing all the aspects of his former self. First he destroys his condo, and moves into an abandoned house; he quits his job, rejects Marla and his boss; renounces his father and then God. Every layer he peels off from his own skin is about getting closer to his ideal self – Tyler. As he says, he is becoming Jack less and less, until one day he will just wake up and be Tyler for good. This final resurrection occurs at the climax of the film, when Jack simultaneously defeats Tyler and commits the ultimate act of masochism – he shoots himself with his own gun. This violent act merges his competing personalities back into one shell, and consolidates his role as alpha male of the new masculine order.

 

The masochism of the self, preached within fight club, extends to an almost universal level with Project Mayhem. As Tyler whispers to a half-conscious Jack, in the world he sees, humanity has returned to a hunter-gatherer existence, in which men are actually relevant. The endgame of fight club is the destruction of modern civilisation, as seen in the films closing moments, with the financial buildings being decimated. If you take away the debt “everyone goes back to zero”; the rock bottom Tyler refers to throughout the film. The masochism embodied in the members of fight club is extended to everyone, as Tyler seeks to fulfil the freedom promised by “losing everything”.



Paradise Saved (lit essay)

Posted on August 2, 2011 at 4:55 AM Comments comments (0)

A.D. Hope’s Paradise Saved is a retelling of humanity’s original sin in the Garden of Eden. It describes Adam’s refusal to partake in the fruit of knowledge, thus damning Eve into the wilderness alone, while he remains safe in God’s paradise. However, Adam continues to pine after Eve, and feels empty within God’s grace and devotion, because his love has been denied. This essay will analyse the structure and form of the poem, and how it has been used to craft meaning and tone. It will also examine the rhyme and metrical patterns, stanza breaks, and line lengths of the piece.

 

Paradise Saved is a 14 line poem, which indicates it is in the form of a sonnet. The poem is broken into two stanzas – an octave and sestet. The first stanza is 8 lines long, and follows the rhyming scheme of A-B-B-A (“Eve”/ “side”/ “pride”/ “grieve”) and then C-D-D-C (“-ness”/“dust”/“just”/“-ness”). The seconds stanza is 6 lines long, and follows the rhyming scheme of E-F-G-E-F-G (“waste”/ “ground”/“died”/“-placed”/“crowned”/“-fied”). This specific rhyming pattern conforms to the Petrarchan sonnet, developed by Italian poets. It typically deals with the concept of unattainable love, which in the context of Eve’s exile from Eden, is quite apt. The first quatrain forms the proposition of the piece, which in this case is Adam’s decision to remain faithful to God, while Eve is cast out for her disobedience. The second quatrain is the problem; Adam’s loyalty to God conflicting with his love for Eve. The second stanza alters the rhyming structure, and also presents the “resolution”, which depicts Adam’s continued devotion to God while Eve suffers her mortality. The ninth line in a Petrarchan sonnet is referred to as the “turn”, and signals the shift from proposition to resolution (“day after day he watched them in the wastes”). The form distinguishes itself from English sonnets by not concluding with a couplet. All 6 lines of the second stanza are required complete the rhyming structure.

 

The line lengths in Paradise Saved are quite consistent. With the exception of line 12, each of the lines is 10 syllables long, or 5 feet. Line 12 has 11 syllables though, so it is not quite perfect. Nevertheless, this produces an even tempo that compliments the strict rhyming pattern, making the poem pleasant to read. Hope has written the lines with a mix of iambic and trochaic feet. Iambs are feet that contain an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed one, such as “with Eve” or “the gates”. Trochee’s are feet that contain the reverse, such as “Adam” or Watching”. Though a majority of the lines begin with a stressed syllable, each line is made of mostly iambic feet. Since each line is made up of 5 feet and is structured iambically, the poem’s rhythm is in iambic pentameter. This metrical pattern also fits within the Petrarchan sonnet form.

 

Hope employs some minor internal rhyme (“were two! God who”), as well as some vague alliteration (“eat with Eve”; “watched them in the waste”). There is an exclamation mark in line 7 which may speak to Adam’s anguish as he watches his place in Eve’s heart replaced by another. The poem otherwise relies on its rhyming pattern for momentum. As mentioned above, the Petrarchan sonnet traditionally deals with a lost or unattainable love. Hope poses the ultimate barrier between a man and his sweet-heart – God himself. Unlike the biblical Adam, the protagonist in Paradise Saved remains loyal to God. The final line of the poem offers a somewhat bitter outlook on this devotion, as Adam is “justified” in Eden, but remains sterile and impotent without Eve. He may have paradise, but not the one thing his heart desires. He may have an immortal life, but no-one to share it with. Perhaps Hope is arguing that if we had the chance to redo the Garden of Eden, we might still choose to take that sinful bite, because it is worth the pain and suffering of mortality, if we can be free to love.

 

In Paradise Saved, Hope has depicted powerful hymn to the conflict between heart and soul. The poem is crafted in perfect Petrarchan sonnet form. It has 14 lines, with a stanza break after the 8th. Each line (with one exception) is 5 feet in length, and conforms to strict iambic pentameter. And the poem follow Petrarca’s A-B-B-A-C-D-D-C-E-F-G-E-F-G rhyming pattern. The poem’s opening quatrain introduces the problem or conflict; this reality is developed in the second quatrain; and issue is resolved or commented on in the final sestet.


Xenoblade and The Last Story to be localised in the West (VG article)

Posted on June 26, 2011 at 10:25 AM Comments comments (0)

Fantastic news for Wii owners came today. After I whined a couple of weeks back about there being very little on the horizon for Wii owners, Nintendo have today confirmed that long-awaited titles Xenoblade and The Last Story (previously only available in Japan) will be given a European release. Xenoblade will also be made available to American gamers under its original title, Monado: Beginnings of the World. The confirmation was made by a Nintendo of America representative, delivered to Destructoid, and comes right of the back of Operation Rainfall, a social networking campaign launched by fans and covered by gaming sites, to have the titles localised. Other titles mentioned in the campaign were Pandora's Tower and Earth seeker. Most gamers agree that it's about damn time these games saw a Western release, and that Nintendo have been infuriatingly stubborn about localisation (see: Disaster: Day of Crisis). However, after a lackluster E3, this news is certainly encouraging, and seems to indicate a level of discourse between fans and company that is rarely seen.

 

UPDATE: Nintendo responded to Operation Rainfall a few days later, stating on Twitter: "Thank you for your enthusiasm. We promised an update, so here it is. We never say 'never,' but we can confirm that there are no plans to bring these three games to the Americas at this time. Thanks so much for your passion, and for being such great fans." At this point, Destuctoid still stand by the story. So, either Nintendo has yet to confirm, or the games will only see a European release in the foreseeable future. I'll keep you posted.

Duke Nukem Forever finally arrives (VG article)

Posted on June 20, 2011 at 10:20 AM Comments comments (0)

After almost a decade and a half in development hell, the elusive Duke Nukem Forever has finally been released onto an unwitting public. The sequel to 1996's Duke Nukem 3D was dogged by delays, poor management, layoffs, and unrealistic expectations, and has been regarded as vapourware for the past few years, until it was suddenly released last week. And after 14 years being made, critics are wondering what was done during the other 13 and half.No-one expected the game would be a masterpiece, but the lack of ideas; the lack of polish and the endless load-screens is really quite shocking. The 360 had better looking launch games than this.And of course it's all compounded by the obnoxious adverts for the game, proclaiming the "King is back, baby!"

 

I guess my own disappointment comes after reliving these old trailers of the game: One from 1998, and another from the 2001 E3 conference. Why couldn't we get these versions of Duke Nukem Forever? They actually look more exciting and innovative than most current FPSs, let alone the stale, generic, souless turd that is Duke Nukem Forever. I mean, even the voice acting is better. Imagine if this had been released before Halo. It could have changed the entire trajectory of the shooter genre. Supposedly, it was 95% complete, but then a new game, like Half-Life or Doom 3, was released and some executive at the top of 3D Realms (George Brossaurd) got jealous, and made them scrap the whole game to build something better. Maybe one day they'll release a ROM of it or something. So sad...

 

I'm seen a few different sites and bloggers actually trying to defend this game as some sort of 80s action satire, and that it's supposed to offensive and dated, and that's part of the charm. And to that I say: What satire? This game isn't making sly parody so much as it is simply referring to things in the most crass and unsubtle way imaginable. I don't think this incarnation is even in on the joke anymore. Something can satirise a genre and still be a great entry into that genre (see: Kick-Ass). This game does neither. There's nothing charming about the protagonist of Duke Nukem Forever. In fact he's thoroughly witless, and at times, downright detestable. He just cribs lines from Duke Nukem 3D, and all that does is make you wish you were playing that game, instead of this steaming mess. And my God, the misogyny. I mean who wrote this garbage, a repeat sex offender? There's nothing charming or witty about shooting a girl because she's been impregnated by aliens, and then whispering "it's better this way". That's just psychotic. They took a fun, action hero schtick, and turned him into this leering, revolting prick.


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