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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

My good friend and occasional presence on the blog, Olinka, is keen to hang onto her Russian identity as far as possible, trying to speak the language and enjoy her culture whenever she can. Although Russian is one of my languages (just about), I haven’t seen that many films made in it, which she seemed vaguely disappointed by when I mentioned that Mirror was one of the few Soviet-era movies I’d watched.

Perhaps as a result, a few weeks later she dropped me a line telling me about a new website she’d found hosting a large number of Russian-language films for streaming. ‘You should watch сталкер,’ she said.

‘You what?’

‘They have сталкер on the site. We were talking about it the other week.’

‘I don’t even know how you’re pronouncing that. Stop talking in Cyrillic, please.’

‘Oh, all right. They have Stalker. You know, the Tarkovsky film.’

This was of some interest to me, because I have been aware for some time of the fact that the USSR produced a number of noteworthy science fiction films. SF is, as you will be aware if you come here regularly, one of my few genuine passions, and this did feel like a real gap in my experience. I’ve seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, of course, but then that’s not a particular achievement as it’s one of the very few Soviet SF films to have any kind of profile in the west. One of the others, as you may have gathered, is Stalker, likewise made by Tarkovsky a few years later (1979, to be exact). I remember the first time it was shown on British TV, nearly ten years later – in the middle of the night, pretty much, with a somewhat ambivalent write-up in the TV listings – ‘Either a cryptic SF parable or three men mucking about on some waste ground for two and a half hours, you decide,’ was about the gist of it.

Certainly, Stalker does not resemble the kind of SF film routinely being made in the west at the tail end of the 1970s. Freely adapted by the Strugatsky brothers from their own novel Roadside Picnic, the film is set at some point in the future, in an unspecified nation – probably not Russia, given one of the characters refers to it as a ‘small nation’. This kind of detail is not really important anyway. Soon we meet the protagonist, the stalker of the title (Alexander Kaidanovsky), who lives in fairly primitive circumstances, and not especially happily, with his wife (Alisa Friendlich) and child. He is about to embark on a dangerous and illegal undertaking, not for the first time, and she is not exactly happy. But he is insistent, for reasons which are not immediately apparent.

His clients are likewise left nameless: they are a writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and a scientist (Nikolai Grinko). The stalker is to lead them into the Zone, a quarantined area kept under military guard. Years earlier, a meteorite (or something else from deep space…) fell in this region, ever since which it has been sealed off and uninhabited. The story goes that somewhere in the Zone is a room containing some agency which grants the deepest desires of anyone entering it, and the stalker has been paid to take the writer and the scientist to this place…

The early sequences of Stalker are (perhaps intentionally) misleading – long, slow scenes of the stalker getting out of bed and quarrelling with his wife, before talking to the others. Tarkovsky reportedly said he wanted the opening of the film to be even slower and duller so that ‘people who walked into the wrong theatre’ had plenty of time to leave before the film properly got going (inasmuch as Stalker ever gets going, as it is traditionally understood). That said, these scenes are followed by the trio penetrating the security around the Zone, dodging armed guards and other security measures, and for a moment it almost seems like the film is going to be conventional.

But of course it isn’t. Entry into the Zone provides one moment of profound cinematic shock, as the toxic sepia of the opening scenes is replaced by beautiful, natural colour, and also marks the film adopting the mode it will maintain for most of the rest of its duration: the three men travelling through the Zone towards the room, looking at the landscape around them while discussing where they are and their reasons for being there.

As you can probably tell, this is another of those SF films which doesn’t really resemble SF for the vast majority of its length: particularly to a viewer who has come to primarily associate SF with films in the action-adventure idiom. There is not much action-adventure here, no laser guns, no spaceships, no robots or aliens – the alien influences of the Zone are left unseen, perceived only by the stalker. Until the closing moments of the film, I was half-expecting this to function wholly as a kind of psychological study of the stalker’s fractured mind, with the curious properties of the Zone a figment of his imagination. But it seems not: there is something strange at the heart of the Zone, the question being what this anomaly is.

As has been said so often that it has practically become a truism, SF films do not exist to predict the future, but more to comment on the present. Nevertheless, films do occasionally come along which feel almost eerie in their prescience: for instance, there’s Starship Troopers, which is one of the best commentaries of the aftermath of September 11th 2001 ever made, even though it was produced in 1996. And there’s a sense in which Stalker feels inextricably connected to the Chernobyl disaster, even though it preceded those events by six or seven years. The Zone of the film has the feeling of a post-industrial, post-apocalyptic waste, for all that its colours are more natural than those of the wider world. Detritus of modern society is everywhere – syringes are particularly prominent – although there are signs of nature reclaiming the area. It is perhaps worth mentioning that many people have suggested that Stalker was in fact filmed on a dumping ground for chemical waste, and that this was a contributing factor in Tarkovsky’s own premature death; worth mentioning, too, that guides who lead visitors into the real-life exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor refer to themselves as stalkers.

There is something profoundly bleak and dismal about the Zone in the film, although quite what it represents is left as ambiguous as much of the rest of Stalker. That the film is intended to be symbolic is established early on, with the switch from sepia to full colour and the fact that none of the characters are named. The writer is hoping the room will give him inspiration, while the scientist is hoping that understanding the room and the Zone will bring him acclaim and respect from his peers (or so he initially claims, anyway). Or, as some have suggested, the two characters represent the artistic and the scientific perspectives on life, neither of which proves fully compatible with the reality of the Zone. What, then of the stalker himself?

It seems to me that this is ultimately a film about spirituality and faith, which is a very audacious choice of theme for a Soviet film and may explain why Stalker is quite as oblique as it is. The others have to place their faith in the stalker, who himself seems to have an almost religious devotion to the room and what it represents: hope, perhaps, an escape from the material squalor of the world. Only those who have suffered can truly appreciate the room, he suggests, while those approaching it with impure motives will be punished. It’s not even as if this interpretation of the film is buried particularly deeply: one poster for the film features a moment where one of the characters affects to wear a crown of thorns.

In the end, though, for all that not very much happens compared to more conventional films, Stalker is so dense in terms of its dialogue, themes and philosophy that it’s entirely possible there are other interpretations with greater validity. It is not the kind of film you can watch once and then move on from – ‘remember, when you watch Stalker, Stalker also watches you,’ was Olinka’s final word on the film, indicating a Tarkovsky-ish talent for suggestive obliqueness. Possibly the clues are all there in the closing scenes of the film, which are strikingly different in style – one character makes a lengthy, casual speech to the camera, there is a sudden display of superhuman faculties from a relatively minor character described as a  ‘Zone mutant’. This is a film to be absorbed and reflected upon rather than watched in the conventional sense. Like the Zone, it resolutely keeps its secrets and demands a leap of faith from those who would approach it. Whether Stalker sufficiently rewards the experience of attempting to decipher it is probably up to the individual viewer, but it is a striking, unforgettable experience nevertheless.

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Strange Fruit

A restaurant, early November 2014:

apple
‘Ah, m’sieur, I see you have finished. Was everything to your satisfaction?’

‘Um, well, no, not really…’

‘I am most sorry to hear that. What was the problem?’

‘Well, you know me, you know how much I love the Special Famous Pie. I’ve been eating it for decades, after all…’

‘Mmm-hmmm?’

‘Well – I couldn’t help noticing – you’ve changed some of the apple in the Special Famous Pie to blackberries.’

‘Well, as I am sure m’sieur knows, the recipe for Special Famous Pie is constantly evolving…’

‘Oh, sure, I know. Watching it evolve and become more sophisticated down the years is part of the pleasure, and I know that the way you change the kind of apple you use for the main filling is an essential part of what makes it Special Famous Pie.’

‘And so what is the problem…?’

‘Well, Special Famous Pie is apple pie. If you start putting different fillings in it’s not really the same pie, is it?’

‘Well, sir, I have to say that the new pie is very popular with many people. You may have seen a number of recent blog posts with names like Why Special Famous Pie Could and Should Be Made With Blackberries. I should say that we are probably going to change all the apple to blackberries in the not too distant future. ‘

‘You are? Why in God’s name would you do that?’

‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir, I’d no idea you were that type of person.’

‘What type of person?’

‘The type who is prejudiced against blackberries.’

‘I’m not prejudiced against blackberries, I just don’t want them in an apple pie. I want apple in my apple pie.’

‘Yes, m’sieur, but it’s not called apple pie. It’s called Special Famous Pie. It doesn’t have to have apples in it, don’t you see?’

‘You’ve been making Special Famous Pie for over fifty years, and it’s always, always had apples in it. You can’t suddenly change the heart of the recipe and claim it’s the same thing.’

‘Well, m’sieur, you must recall that Special Famous Pie was invented many years ago, when we lived in an apple-dominated culture, and blackberries have for a long time been under-represented in restaurants…’

‘So make more blackberry desserts. It doesn’t mean you have to put blackberries in the apple pie. It is possible to have both, you know.’

‘Ah yes, but making our Special Famous apple pie using blackberries will be an important statement of principle.’

‘Which principle would that be?’

‘That apples and blackberries are equally good.’

‘No, the statement you’re making is that apples and blackberries are identical, which they are plainly not to anyone with taste buds and a brain. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they are fundamentally different things.’

‘M’sieur, it’s very important to have more blackberries in restaurants.’

‘And I’m not arguing with you, but as well as Special Famous Pie you make a lot of other bland and rather dreary apple dishes – you invent a new one every couple of years. Why not stop making those and try making a new blackberry dish instead?’

‘Well, those dishes are not as popular or important as the Special Famous Pie. Also, making an apple dish with blackberries sends an important message that the two of them are of equal importance.’

‘I think it’s sending the message that you’re wilfully trying to ignore the fact that apples and blackberries are two different things. Also that there’s something wrong with apple pie that can only be fixed by making it with blackberries. Which isn’t really much of a fix at all as you’re no longer making apple pie in any meaningful sense.’

‘M’sieur, we are not changing anything. It will have the same name, it will be cooked in the same oven, most of the same ingredients will be same, it will still be a delicious fruit-based dessert -‘

‘Yes, but it was conceived as an apple pie, it became popular as an apple pie, it has five decades of accreted history and traditions as an apple pie, and making it without apple basically means you are making a different pie!!!’

‘The new style Special Famous Pie is going to be a delicious pie, sir.’

‘Yes, I’m sure it will be very popular with people who have it as an article of faith that there is no actual difference between different kinds of fruit. And I suppose there’s even a chance that it will be a good pie. But it won’t actually be Special Famous Pie, because that’s made with apple. That’s an essential part of the character.’

‘The character, sir?’

‘The character of the pie, I mean. What you’re talking about is a new pie with a completely different character. I can’t believe you’re doing this. You wouldn’t do this to any other dish.’

‘Well, that’s what makes Special Famous Pie so special, sir, that we can do this to it. No other pie has both a tradition of regularly changing its recipe and is so non-specific about its ingredients.’

‘You mean that because it isn’t specifically called Special Famous Apple Pie, the apple which is the main ingredient is somehow dispensable? That’s nonsense. You have no idea about what makes Special Famous Pie work.’

‘Well, perhaps, but we are in charge of it and we can do what we like. In the end it is only a pie, after all.’

‘Maybe so, but it’s still a pie I love and it makes me very angry to see it mucked about with this way. If there is no place for traditional Special Famous Pie with apples in it I’d rather you just stopped making it entirely than carried on with this slightly absurd travesty of a pie.’

‘Well, m’sieur, look at it this way: if the new style pie fails we can always go back to making the old pie. I expect we will alternate between apple and blackberry fillings anyway, in future.’

‘But – but – you’re still making two different kinds of pie and pretending they’re the same one. You’re still ignoring how the world actually works. Apples and blackberries are two different things.’

‘I’m sorry, sir, I will have to ask you to keep that kind of opinion to yourself in a public restaurant from now on.’

‘From now on? You actually think I’m going to carry on eating here?’

‘Well, m’sieur, you said yourself you have been eating and enjoying Special Famous Pie for decades, so of course you will carry on eating it, no matter what we do to it…’

‘No! No! Have you been listening to me? It’s not the same pie any more, no matter what anyone says. I’m damned if I’m going to eat blackberry pie and pretend it’s sort-of-like-apple just because you tell me there’s no difference. If I can’t get proper Special Famous Pie, I’ll take my custom elsewhere, thank you very much.’

‘Ah well. We will see you again, when we change back to apple for a bit.’

‘I think you presume too much of my loyalty. This whole situation makes me very, very angry. Can I speak to the head chef, please?’

‘Alas, m’sieur, Mr Moffat is out to lunch.’

‘No kidding.’

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As even the most cursory look around this blog will reveal, I have a lot of time for Doctor Who. I also have a lot of time for philosophy, having spent four years studying it (at least in theory). The suggestion to the effect that science fiction is the storytelling of philosophy seems to make a lot of sense to me, but as a fan of both I would say that, wouldn’t I? (I suppose, by the way, this might mean I have to review my default ‘Doctor Who is more fantasy than SF’ position.)

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of Doctor Who and Philosophy, edited by Courtland Lewis and Paula Smithka, in my local bookshop. So many learned tomes about the series have come out in the last few years that it’s easy to lose track of them, which is the only excuse I can offer. This, by the way, is – I kid you not – is #55 in the Popular Culture and Philosophy series, ranging from the distinctly intriguing (Philip K Dick and Philosophy) to the wild-horses-couldn’t-drag-me-near-it (SpongeBob SquarePants and Philosophy).

dwap

In terms of space-time co-ordinates, Doctor Who and Philosophy emanates from the North American zone at some point in 2010: Matt Smith is referenced, but not in detail. This is more of a general look at the Who/philosophy intersection, rather than particular analysis of individual stories. The question, I suppose, that one might want to ask is this: do the essays in this book try to use philosophy to establish a deeper understanding of Doctor Who, or do they use examples from Doctor Who to illustrate some key philosophical problems?

The latter is probably more useful for a general audience, and perhaps easier for the writers, too, but how many members of the general audience are likely to pick up a book entitled Doctor Who and Philosophy in the first place? Anyway, it’s what the majority of the contributors here have chosen to do. Just flicking through this book one comes across arresting line after arresting line – ‘If John Stuart Mill had designed the Cybermen…’, ‘the Master, as a personification of the Will, becomes fully part of our phenomenal world’, and ‘Is the Doctor rigid or non-rigid?’ (as an old school fan, I naturally think he is permanently non-rigid). Some of the Doctor Who references are, well, just plain wrong – one contributor claims Colin Baker appeared in The Invasion of Time, another gets Serial B from 1963 mixed up with Serial NNN from 1972, though given the historic confusion over what B is called this is understandable – which suggests that the writers here are better versed in philosophy than in the series.

The essays themselves are a really mixed bunch, and run the gamut from metaphysics and ontology, through ethics and aesthetics, to a little bit of cultural theory. I have to say that the actual quality of the essays is a little variable too. One problem is that several people choose to cover the same ground. The thematic organisation of the book thus results in the reader being confronted with four essentially very similar essays straight off the bat – all of them deal with the knotty problem of what constitutes personal identity, most of them drawing on the same arguments from Locke and so on, with particular reference to the issue of what exactly it is that makes the first and the twelfth Doctors the same person. Any one of these, alone, would cover the topic very satisfactorily – encountering the same ideas over and over again is really just a bit of a slog.

Past this, though, there is some good stuff on the philosophical definition of specieshood, also causality and the philosophy of mathematics, even if some of the Doctor Who references feel a little laboured. A lengthy run of articles on the Doctor’s ethics (often compared with those of the Master) proves surprisingly heavy-going, but then again as these make frequent reference to Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised. A piece on the morality underpinning the ‘choice’ of the Doctor and Rose to part company just comes across as an attempt to provide a fig-leaf for some serious ‘shipping – it didn’t make me reappraise their relationship, but it did bring home just how shonkily written much of Army of Ghosts/Doomsday is. Another attempts to explain why the Angels are the most horrific Doctor Who monster, which is rather begging the question, but rather than the obvious answer (Blink is simply a very well-directed and brilliantly written episode) opts for a laborious trek through notions of personhood and coercion. Robin Bunce’s analysis of the Daleks as antagonists is good, but limited to their first, uncharacteristic appearance, while Deborah Pless’ look at the series as a post-imperial cultural artefact starts promisingly, until startling quotes like ‘the companions prior to [Romana] had largely been attractive but stupid women’, ‘the Doctor became the hero of every man, and Romana that of every woman [in Britain]’ leads one to suspect that this essay has been submitted not just from the USA, but some parallel dimension where Williams-era Doctor Who has a considerably greater cachet.

So it’s a mixed bag all told. Some of the essays are genuinely interesting and thought-provoking, others are just hard work. A tiny minority caused a bit of teeth-gritting and grumbling, but then the same could be said for many recent episodes of the TV show. Open-minded Doctor Who fans should find something to enjoy here, though whether that’s enough to justify the purchase I couldn’t honestly say.

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Different films are pitched towards different audiences, obviously; and some audiences are narrower than others. Presently bothering the cinema-going audience at present are early runners from the ‘we’d quite like to win an award’ crowd pitching for a sophisticated mainstream audience, various genre movies gunning for their usual crowds, and a few holdovers from the summer season which nobody has much faith in, and which will be very grateful for the custom of anyone who bothers to turn up.

And then there are films which are so super-specialised in their demographic that any cinema release they get is basically an advertising stunt to generate publicity for the fact they are simultaneously available on-line. This kind of tactic apparently worked quite well for A Field in England earlier this year (a film I was sorry to miss) and no doubt it will also pay some sort of dividend for its latest adopter, Sophie Fiennes’ A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.

zizek

Hello to everyone who’s been googling ‘perversion’ and has ended up here in a terrible search-engine-related mishap. This page is probably not for you, but thanks for stopping by anyway. Fiennes’ movie is short on perverts but long on ideology; in fact, it’s really about nothing else.

This is not your traditional narrative movie. Nor is it really a documentary in the way the term is generally understood. It is essentially an illustrated lecture by the Slovenian philosopher, psychoanalyst and Marxist Slavoj Zizek, concerning the nature of ideology and its place in our lives. The illustrations take the form of excerpts from various movies, some obscure, others exceedingly well-known.

For instance, proceedings kick off with Zizek concerning himself with John Carpenter’s They Live, an inarguably subversive Hollywood movie about the conceptual underpinnings and power structures of modern life – we don’t get to see all of the famous nine-minute fist fight which occurs midway through the film, but enough to get a flavour of it. Given They Live’s central conceit – that it’s impossible to recognise an illusion if it comprises the whole of your frame of reference – it’s easy to see its relevance to the topic.

However, from here Zizek heads off into the heart of The Sound of Music and particularly the Mother Superior’s song ‘Climb Every Mountain’, which for him is essentially about the institutional facilitation of sexual hedonism by the Catholic Church. (And I thought it was just about the uselessness of holding sing-songs as a method of fending off a fascist takeover.)

And so on, and so on – this is quite a long piece covering a lot of territory, and the films co-opted into it range from Jaws to The Fall of Moscow (a piece of Stalinist propaganda from 1949 I’d honestly never heard of). Most of the movie is made up of clips, although there are occasional excursions into news footage, and numerous appearances by Zizek himself. These are artfully done so he appears to be speaking from the set of whichever film he’s currently discussing (they never quite go the whole hog and Forrest Gump him into an actual clip), and this extends to matching the cinematography, and so on, too: for The Sound of Music section he’s in the Mother Superior’s study, dressed, rather implausibly, as a priest, For Triumph of the Will he’s in black and white on Hitler’s plane. Taste prevails, thankfully, when it comes to the section discussing The Last Temptation of Christ.

Zizek’s English isn’t quite perfect but it is extremely functional and his ideas are complex and challenging. If he has a central hypothesis he wants to communicate, then I’m not entirely sure what it is – though I must stress that this is more due to the sheer complexity of his arguments than the slightly stilted, heavily-accented nature of his speech, not to mention the fact that I saw this film while feeling a bit sleepy.

In general his thesis is more about the nature of ideology as a concept than the specifics of individual ideological systems – he seems to be arguing that they are all pretty much of a muchness anyway. His thoughts are clearly informed by his own Marxist beliefs and his psychoanalytical expertise – ideology is a set of values and strictures we feel compelled to adhere to, due to either fear of or respect for an entity he refers to as the Big Other, although whether this represents God, or public opinion, or tradition obviously varies between different systems of belief.

Different films are obviously the products of different ideologies and it’s interesting that Zizek can look at two films as superficially different as The Fall of Moscow and Titanic and see such fundamental similarities between them. (Zizek’s take on Titanic, by the way, is that it’s a classic fable concerning the socio-cultural exploitation of the proletariat by a moribund bourgeoisie, and that rather than destroying the central romantic relationship, the collision with the iceberg actually brings about its apotheosis. Well, duh.) In the end, it’s the individual moments of incisive, unorthodox analysis like this that I remember from the film, rather than its overall theme.

This is intellectual meat served pretty rare and the words ‘this film isn’t for everyone’ never had a more appropriate subject. Quite what Sophie Fiennes’ role in the project was, beyond making sure the backgrounds of Zizek’s contributions match whatever film he’s supposed to be appearing in, I’m not quite sure, because this comes across very much as a one-man show and vehicle for Slavoj Zizek and his ideas. It’s really stretching a point to call this a film – even calling it a meta-film, a film about films, is questionable. Whatever it is, it’s a piece of work about the philosophical and political foundations of how we view society and the world, and what we can learn about these things from watching movies. If you’re interested in philosophy and the cinema, then this is a film for you. If neither of the foregoing apply, run a mile. But I rather enjoyed it.

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