Friday, 28 December 2012

Death in the Pond

No Christmas is complete without the seasonal Dr Who Christmas special. Actually I tell a lie since many of them have been eminently forgettable. Ever since the brilliant sword-fighting excitement of 'A Christmas Invasion' and the surreal flying shark of 'A Christmas Carol'. our eyeballs have been assaulted by a never ending stream of plastic santas and C.S. Lewis-esque winter wonderlands.

On first viewing this one was similarly unimpressive. In true Christmas style I had had a few glasses of wine already and was surrounded by my extended family. This naturally meant I missed certain bits (where the hell did the memory worm appear from?) as I fielded questions about whether the lizard woman was a goody or a baddy.

From this distracted perspective the story was a bit of a mess. The plot zoomed along without much rhythm or rhyme and it seemed as though the producers were trying too hard to introduce the new assistant while making the usual family friendly jokes.

However, a second solitary viewing with a lower blood-alcohol level persuaded me that the episode was not without its merits. Jenna-Louise Coleman is shaping up to be a brilliant new companion and they have set up an interesting mystery with her seeming ability to reincarnate. The Doctor's impression of Sherlock Holmes was absolutely hilarious and I loved the idea of him being dragged out of his self-imposed retirement by a new whip-smart acquaintance.

Of course the show still had weaknesses. The ice lady, after a huge build up, got a grand total of thirty seconds screen time before being blown up by the Doctor. Admittedly she came back but then spent the next ten minutes trapped by a grenade force field. As for my final bit of nit-picking, I know the Doctor is meant to be adorably absent minded but I think that he might have remembered to close the doors of his floating police box rather than wading through some soppy dialogue before watching Clara be dragged to her (possibly second) death.

So all in all a mixed effort. I still can't wait for this series to restart. Here's hoping that they can get it together to show entire series consecutively again rather than messing around with all this mid-season hiatus business ad nauseam.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Death in 'The Fountain'

So among the various and brilliant Christmas presents I received this Yuletide was the DVD of The Fountain, an intensely surreal and brilliantly flawed film that I have only seen once before. This was great timing as a few days before, taking a break from the hectic rounds of Christmas shopping, I had stopped off in the library and read the associated graphic novel in a single sitting.

The film and novel revolve around themes of death, resurrection and immortality. The plot is fairly similar in the two mediums but subtle differences in scenes, order and dialogue between them add complexity to any interpretation of the story's meaning.

Ultimately I saw the film as an examination of three major methods of dealing with death and its implications. The first, stressing inevitability and religion, is quickly dismissed. The other two themes, acceptance and denial, are then contrasted and compared throughout the remainder of the film.

1) Desirable Inevitability – The first narrative we are presented with is set in the Spain of the Reconquesta and features the intimidating Grand Inquisitor Silecio. We are presented with slightly different versions of this character in the novel and the film. However, a constant is his belief that physical bodies are weak and decaying vessels that precede the ascension to the afterlife. His liking for self flagellation illustrates his conviction that the physical body is prone to weakness and must be disciplined by the mind in order to achieve temporal power and heavenly immortality. He is evangelical and implacable in his application of these beliefs to others; using torture and clandestine execution in his efforts to usurp or control Queen Isabella. 

In neither the book nor the film does Silecio succeed in his schemes. While he survives the film he fails to divert the conquistadors exhibition to retrieve the Mayan Tree of Life. His failure is more total in the novel where his ambush of the Queen and attempts to execute Avila are thwarted by the heroic Tomas and his loyal soldiers. His religious interpretation of life and death has little further impact on the film.

The novel adds slightly more detail to the defeat of this inquisitorial attitude to suffering and death. In this version, Avila is eventually sacrificially executed by a Mayan priest. As Tomas passes his corpse he reveals a previously undisclosed animosity when he informs the recently deceased Avila that the future belongs to himself and the Queen rather than to the Church. Despite the Fransiscan's loyalty to the Crown he is associated with the philosophical focus on the afterlife that contrasts with Tomas' own striving for immortality.

2) Denial - The denial theme is far more visible and is closely associated with Hugh Jackman's various characters. This attitude sees death as an obstacle that can be overcome by personal effort, scientific endeavour and the utilisation of powerful mystical paths to everlasting life. Conquistador Tomas, scientist Tommy and Ascendant Tom see others as tools to be used in the service of the focussed will. They echo the ruthlessness of Silecio by sacrificing followers and driving subordinates to inhuman efforts. 

However, this view too is ultimately shown to be defective. It leads to great achievements but never seems to be capable of bringing any lasting victory over death. Donovan's recovery is too late to help Izzi and both the Tree of Life and the Xibalba nebula are revealed to be reliant on death and renewal for their powers of creation. By the end of the movie Tom is forced to accept that there is no way to defeat death without embracing it. 

3) Acceptance - This insight is the pinnacle of the movie and is reflected in the oft-repeated claim that 'Death is the Road to Awe'. While denial has driven the plot and provided an emotional intensity to the film it has been tempered throughout the movie (and novel) by the urgings of certain characters that Tom must accept the world as it is and make the best use of his remaining time with Izzi. 

This theme is best represented by Izzi's serene acceptance of her eventual death and her efforts to comfort Tommy and to explore difficult concepts through her authorship of 'The Fountain'. Even Tommy's colleagues, perhaps best placed to understand his obsession, urge him to spend more time with his wife and not to attempt the impossible to the detriment of his health. 

These strong themes and questions allow the film to work despite its one dimensional characters and occasionally clumsy pacing. By focussing on these dominant characteristics of Tomas/Tommy/Tom and Isabella/Izzi the narrative is freed to engage with fundamental questions of existence in a sustained and engaging manner. Brilliant special effects and a fantastic soundtrack round off a thought-engaging offering by Darren Aronofsky.  

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Moon probes to crash into mountain

This is amazing. The probes, which have been orbiting the moon to monitor gravity variations, will hit the unnamed mountain at 6051 kilometres per hour. It really is science fiction stuff but this Time article is the first I've heard of it.

Tangentially it also further undermines the arguments of those wacky moon landing conspiracy theorists. One of the reasons for crashing the probes is apparently to avoid any risk that they will come down on the Apollo landing sites and damage the relics left by early moon explorers.

If whatever shady government agency is supposed to have faked the moon landings were really interested in removing any damning evidence why would they not grasp this brilliant opportunity? Accidentally hitting the supposed sites of landings with crash landing space craft and obliterating them would be an eminently practical way of launching a cover up!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Boris weighs in on Corporation tax

The BBC quotes Boris as saying "I cannot exactly blame the finance directors of these companies for doing their job. Their salaries and livings depend on minimising the tax exposure obligations on their companies." while being interviewed on the Andrew Marr show.

This has a nice ring to it. Apparently Boris isn't backing large heartless corporations that screw law and morality into Escher-like contortions to avoid supporting the government-funded welfare, security and transport initiatives that they rely on for their everyday business. Instead he is supporting the hard-working finance officer who is just doing his job.

However, I think London's erstwhile Mayor might find that the population of Britain expect him to conscientiously fulfil his own duties as well. As an M.P. we expect him to stand up for the good of the nation rather than just those individuals and companies who can afford the best lawyers. The job of Parliament is to close those loopholes that allow Corporations to shirk their tax burden, not to throw up its hands and claim that it is the way of the world and shouldn't be criticised.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Selling the Census to the Right

So the latest census data is out. I can see that presenting a collection of demographic statistics in an attention grabbing way must be a struggle for the media.

However, I'd have thought that such venerable institutions as the Guardian and the BBC could have done better than 'Census data released - Christians: a New Minority?' and 'Census shows rise in foreign-born' respectively.

These headlines are at least factually accurate. The data did show these trends - although the Guardian seems to be using an extremely weird definition of minority. However, by selecting these findings to focus on the news organs pander to those 'Geert Wilders' of Europe who believe that an increase in people of non-Christian religions and non-British birth is an existential threat to national identities.