Three new stories this month for your mental consumption:
Halloween Movie Review
Scary movies have been a staple of Halloween happenings for decades now and have covered just about ever subject imaginable, monsters from outer space, vampires and warewolves, ghastly ghosts and all kinds of knife-waving nutjobs. But one genre has stuck out in my mind like a rotting coprse and is the only type of horror movie that really scares me: Zombie movies. Ever since I saw "Night of the Living Dead" as a kid, I've absolutely loved zombie movies. I even own The Zombie Survival Guide (A vital text for anyone wishing to survive the upcoming Undead Apocalypse). There's nothing scarier than the end of the world, especially when it's beating down your front door with it's bloody fists. Civilization crumbles and all of Man's accomplishments are nought but dust scattered to the wind. Zombie movies have used this Apocalypse scenario as the basis of many excellent films.
The end-all, be-all of zombie movies is George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead". "Dawn" is the sequel to "Night", which shocked audiences and revolutionized the horror movie genre with it's brazen approach toward tough social issues and it's nihilistic twist ending. It took ten years for the sequel, but Romero did not disappoint. "Dawn of the Dead" begins in the midst of an epidemic that is causing the dead to return, as a young couple and a pair of SWAT team officers escape from Pittsburgh by helicopter. After some wandering, they find the perfect safe haven, a shopping mall. The mall provides them plenty of food and shelter, but the place is filled to the brim with zombies. They must clear the mall and adjust to life there while facing a series of painful challenges, including some rowdy new arrivals.
"Dawn of the Dead" is perfect. There isn't much debate about that. Excellent writing, great performances, a surreal score, and one of the best taglines in movie history ("When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.") combine to make the best zombie movie ever. And just like "Night", "Dawn of the Dead" is a magnificent social commentary. In the film, the zombies return to the mall because "it was an important part of their lives". As the film progresses, the characters surround themselves in oppulence and begin to forget the mad world outside. "Dawn of the Dead" is clearly an indictment of consumerism and materialistic culture. George Romero has proved time and time again that horror movies can be intelligent and can have something to say, and "Dawn of the Dead" is a prime example of that.
Now something a little more recent, "Trainspotting" director Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later". A team of animal rights activists break into an animal testing facility to free the chimpanzees inside, but the chimps have been infected with a biological weapon, a blood disease that causes them to go insane with rage. Before they know it, the activists are themselves infected. 28 days later, the film's main character Jim wakes to find London deserted and desolate, except for an endless mob of nocturnal, "Rage"-infected people. He's saved by a tough-as-nails survivor named Selena. Jim and Selena later meet up with a father and his daughter and the whole group heads to a distant military base, in search of an alleged cure for infection. But at the military base they only encounter more terror, this time from an enemy even more dangerous than the infected.
So "28 Days Later" isn't technically a zombie movie, but despite it's lack of shambling corpses, the movie fits all the right criteria. The characterizations and acting are spot on and Boyle's direction is nothing but phenomenal. "28 Days Later" is one of those movies that you can watch over and over again and keep on finding new tricks and inventive shots. "28 Days Later" also carries on the tradition of social commentary. The disease that ravages the U.K. is a biological weapon, disturbingly similar to the kind that are being developed in the real world. "28 Days Later" is a frightening example of what could go wrong and how we would suffer.
My last zombie flick is a little British oddity called "Shaun of the Dead". Written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, "Shaun of the Dead" is a zombie comedy. To clarify: Not a parody of zombie movies, but a comedy with a zombie element. Surprisingly enough, the movie is hilarious. Electronics salesman Shaun (played by Pegg himself) is an average guy from London with a whole mess of problems. Everyone is urging him to dump his lazy, irresponsible friend Ed and his relationship with his girlfriend Liz is on the rocks. When Liz finally dumps him, Ed takes Shaun for a night out to forget about his troubles, which of course involves getting completely drunk. The next morning it takes the two of them an hilariously long amount of time to realize that London is in the middle of a zombie-crisis. Their first plan of action is to rescue Shaun's mom and Liz, and head to the pub to wait things out, but as expected, nothing goes according to plan.
"Shaun of the Dead" is British humor, which means it's very smart and very dry. It's refreshing to see a movie with such reverence for the subjects that it's based on. Unlike the "Scary Movie" series and horror films it bases it's comedy off of, "Shaun" never mocks zombie movies. However, it does derrive a lot of great comedy from the stumbling, moaning attributes of the typical movie zombie. I can definitely say that I'll be looking forward to Wright and Pegg's next movie, the upcoming "Odd Couple" cop comedy "Hot Fuzz".
Zombie movies have become a fruitful genre for anyone looking to do something a little more original with horror movies. That's why they've been host to such smart stories and even hysterical comedy. I'm sure I'll be in love with zombie movies for years to come, and I hope Hollywood feels the same way. Long live the undead.
Dignity: A Right That We All Deserve (Editorial)
Recently I discovered a short-lived column on my favorite writer Grant Morrison's website. The first few installments of the column were standard Morrison insanity until one entry, about a week after September 11th. Morrison explained his thoughts on the tragedy and gave a list of things that we need to watch out for. One of his foremost warnings was to not allow the government to use the events on 9/11 as an excuse to violate people's basic human rights. Unfortunately, Morrison's predictions have come true.
Last September, President Bush attempted to change Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, forbidding the inhumane treatment of enemy combatants in wartime. Essentially, Bush wants to reduce the amount of rights given to prisoners of war, in terms of interrogation and trial. This is yet another extreme measure undertaken in the "War on Terror" (A ridiculous and idiotic phrase for reasons too numerous to talk about here). For years, the government has simply ignored the Geneva Conventions. Now, it seems that they want to alter it to their own needs.
What would be the ramifications of redefining the Geneve Conventions? Prominent figures on both sides of the political spectrum, such as John McCain (Who endured six years of extreme torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese) have argued that changing the rules would send a message to other nations that they may do the same, endangering American soldiers abroad. “The Bush proposal would send a signal that the United States has abandoned its commitment to human rights, and invite other nations to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions as they see fit, eliminating protections for American troops seized in future conflicts.” While this would certainly be a dreadful situation, what concerns me more is the more general violation of basic human rights.
These kinds of violations are nothing new to the current administration. Two years ago, CIA agents anonymously told sources that the CIA uses painful interrogation techniques, such as beating suspects and placing them into exceedingly uncomfortable and restrained positions for extended periods of time. The use of "waterboarding", a technique that causes extreme stress by simulating the sensation of drowning, was also confirmed. On an interesting sidenote, the television show "The 4400" aired an episode a few months ago that featured a scene of someone being waterboarded. The episode was later pulled from the air because the scene was dubbed too graphic. Despite the cruelty of such techniques, they are not technically defined as torture. This precedent was set by the European Court of Human Rights in the 70s when these kinds of methods were used by the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland.
Psychological interrogation techniques, like sensory and sleep deprivation have also been implemented. Documents have shown that the government's definition of torture only seems to include the prolonged and sustained administration of pain, or mehods that result in serious bodily harm or death. Never mind how painful said methods are, or how long lasting the severe psychological effects may be.
Guantanamo Bay has been perhaps the most public example of post-9/11 human rights violations. The military base is located in Cuba, granting it's prisoners exemption from the Bill of Rights and the basic rights granted to prisoners of war and regular domestic criminals. Suspects can be placed in Guantanamo without reason for an indeterminable amount of time. Prisoners face so-called "Combatant Status Review Tribunals", but only after years of unjustified inprisonment and under unfair conditions. These reviews allow hearsay evidence, evidence obtained through torture and evidence withheld from the prisoner. Unlike the justice system that we're used to, prisoners being reviewed by a tribunal are assumed guilty and must prove themselves innocent. Interrogation techniques such as "shortshackling" (chaining a prisoner uncomfortably to the floor) and extreme uses of sound, light, and temperature have also been reported.
A startling number of Gitmo detainees have taken their lives while in captivity. Officials have had the audacity to refer to prisoner suicides as protests or rebellions. Could it not be that the psychological pains endured at Guantanamo are enough to drive some people to suicide? Apparently, the government doesn't think so.
One example of the conditions at Guantanamo came from the Tipton Three, a trio of British men who were arrested in Afghanistan in 2001 and held at Gitmo for three years. The men attested to having been beaten and tortured, all in an effort to get them to sign phoney confessions. The men were never charged or given legal representation and were released without explaination in 2004. The account of their ordeal has since been made into a recent, award-winning documentary called "The Road to Guantanamo".
Even more publicly than Guantanamo Bay, the 2004 images from Abu Gharib prison in Iraq stunned the world. Prisoners were put in humiliating and degrading positions. Suspects were beaten and sexually abused, even raped. Dogs were used to frighten hooded prisoners. These abuses would not have come to light if it weren't for photos taken by guards being leaked. Unlike other violations, these incidents were mainly carried out by isolated soldiers, apparently without the sanction of higher officials. But the fact that the guards at Abu Gharib were allowed to get away with their crimes for so long underlies an inability to spot injustices.
Another controversial method used by the government is known as "extraordinary rendition". Extraordinary rendition is when a suspect is deported and taken somewhere else for torture and unlawful interrogation. Basically, since we aren't allowed to torture suspects, we can detain them and ship them off to a country that does. There was the innocent Canadian who was kidnapped and sent to a Syrian prison to be abused, the German who alleges that he was captured in Macedonia, drugged, and sent to Afghanistan for brutal interrogation, the London Ethiopian who was sent to Morocco by American agents to be tortured until he was forced to say that he was a part of Jose Padilla's "dirty bomb" plot.
In the past, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has complained about media coverage of alleged torture. I'm sorry Mr. Rumsfeld, but I don't think that the problem is those reporting your human rights violations, but the violations themselves.
With the President recently admitting that there are secret CIA prisons where no established rules of treatment apply, the evidence of the injustices committed by the government are beginning to pile up. John McCain's arguement that the President's blatant disregard for basic human rights laws may endanger American soldiers is certainly a valid way of convincing other politicians to take acion, but as I've said, the violation of human rights itself is what disturbs me.
No one deserves to be tortured, and if torture is the most effective method that the government can implement in order to prevent terrorism, than they seriously need to rethink how they are handling the "War on Terror". Stooping to torture is the lowest low that this administration has fallen to and may be viewed as one of it's worst crimes when future generations look back at this period. I can only commend the brave efforts of those who have tried to expose these crimes.
The use of torture may protect national security to some extent, but not using torture will without a doubt protect something even more important: Basic human dignity.
Transcendent, brilliant, beautiful. I could think of an hundred adjectives to describe Promethea, but one in particular seems to be most appropriate: "Magical".
Really, that's exactly what Promethea is about. A 32-issue comic book series written by the legendary Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen) and illustrated by the soon-to-be-legendary J.H. Williams III (Seven Soldiers of Victory, Detective Comics), Promethea was published under Moore's Wildstorm imprint, America's Best Comics, between 1999 and 2005. While Moore's other ABC ventures were certainly fun (Tom Strong, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Promethea stands on an intellectual and artistic level of it's own.
Promethea focuses primarily on Sophie Bangs, a New York college student living in the neon, super-scientific world of the ABC Universe. While writing a research paper of the phenomenal reoccurance of the name "Promethea" in various literary works, Sophie stumbles upon an incredible 1500 year old story. In the 5th Century, a young girl named Promethea's father was killed by a Christian group for being an hermetic scholar, a kind of magician. Her father's dying wishes allowed Promethea to become a living story, a tangible symbol of the human imagination. Promethea can be invoked into the material world through art, hence her name popping up so much. Promethea manifests into people when they write about her or inspire someone to write about her. When the last Promethea becomes old and tired, Sophie inherits the role and is transformed into a flying goddess with caduceus (A staff with two snakes wrapped around it) in hand.
Promethea is greeted by a cynical and grimy world with apprehension. Moore's ultra-futuristic New York is an exaggeration of the real world, a world that's become obsessed with technology and material things and has forgotten about spirituality and imagination. Cue Sophie. See, Promethea's father sent his daughter into the higher planes of existance for a specific purpose. It's Promethea's job to end the world, the physical world. There are quite a few people who are opposed to this, for obvious reasons, but Sophie has more important issues to deal with, mainly learning about what magic(k) really is.
The past Prometheas take Sophie through the world outside of petty physical life, the Immateria. A place where stories grow and ideas blossom. She learns about the holy properties of love from a magician named Jack Faust. The spiraling snakes of her caduceus show her how the 22 major Tarot cards tell the story of the Universe.
When the former Promethea dies, Sophie is surprised to find that she does not live amongst the other Prometheas, but continues on into the afterlife in search of her dead husband. Sophie follows after, into the Kaballistic Tree of Life. Despite the shallow devotion that most celebrities seem to have in it, Kaballah is actually a rather brilliant form of ancient Jewish mysticism used to map out existance itself. It's all quite heady, but Moore and Williams III explain it in the most eloquant and effective way possible.
The Tree of Life in Kaballah is a shape made up of ten spheres, called Sephiras, that represent the original system of planets and are linked by 22 paths that correspond to the major Tarot cards. Sophie visits each one, snaking her way up the tree. Setting off from the material world (Sephira 10), she first visits the ghostly inhabitants of the ninth sphere, home to dreams and the eternal night. The Greek god Hermes tells Sophie about how all things (even human beings) are composed of language in Sephira 8. She swims in the green sea of emotion and love that is Sephira 7. The Sixth Sephira represents the human soul, the golden country of the purest form of self. Higher up are the spheres of divine Judgement (the order and structure of existance) and divine Mercy (the comforting security that we are all part of the same Universe).
The last three spheres form a triangle that essentially represents God. The first is Understanding, as in the understanding of God, as represented by the woman. The second is Wisdom, the expression of that Understanding, as represented by the man. When man and woman get together, we get the expression of God. The greatest of all revelations, The Big Bang. The last Sephira, at the very top of the tree, is the Godhead. God is everything, all of us, all at once. The existance of everything in one place and one moment. From the blinding light of God, Sophie soars back down the Tree of Life and back to the tenth sphere.
I'm going to take a moment here to expound upon how magnificent J.H. Williams III's art is. No other artist can create such mood and atmosphere. His completely out of the box storytelling techniques make reading Promethea an incredible experience. Throughout the entire series he displays a massive amount of diversity and talent. From standard penciling to complex painting, Williams III can do it all. For instance, every sephira has an artistic theme. There's the burnished golden hues of the soul, the ocean blue Van Gogh painting of Mercy, the endless whites and complex geometric structures of God. No other artist could have captured the sheer scope of Moore's story.
Speaking of Moore's story, Sophie comes back from her existential adventure as a different person. She grows up and is enlightened just in time for everything to go horribly wrong. The government gets wind of Promethea's plan to "destroy the world" and systematically arrests everyone linked to her. Sophie escapes and lays low, assuming a mundane life with a boyfriend under a new name. But her past catches up with her, and when the government backs her into a corner, Promethea returns and the end of the world is set in motion. Time and space begin to go all wonky. New York becomes a mishmash of symbols and psychedelic imagery. Despite the positive nature of Promethea's task, the world reacts with fear. Sophie frees her friends and soon, it begins. A dreamlike haze spreads across the globe, entrancing everyone in it's glow.
And then Promethea speaks. She speaks to everyone, to everyone in existance. She admits who she is, a fiction. A character in a comic book. But she explains that she is just as real as anything else you can see. Breaking the Fourth Wall is nothing new to comic books, but not to such a blatant and effective degree. Promethea proceeds with her conversation, explaining the basic concepts that we've already learned, focusing on the idea of unity, that we are all apart of the same point and the same moment. She explains that the material world is but a dream, a game of make believe that she has been telling us, but we've grown up now. We're ready to stop pretending.
And then, everyone wakes up. And nothing has changed. Well, at least that's what it seems. It turns out that the end of the world is simply an awakening, a revelation. As Sophie's boyfriend explains it, "It doesn't end with a bang, right? Or a whimper. It ends with 'Hey, yeah, I get it.'" Things are brighter and happier, and people are more in touch with the spiritual. The gritty, futuristic New York City has morphed into a technicolor circus, like some city from Oz. And Sophie is no longer Promethea. She's just a normal person again, but a much happier one.
The world continues on, but with a new song in it's heart. We could all afford to have a little bit of that song in our hearts, words that you may never forget. The final words that Promethea speaks before fading away into the darkness.
"Rejoice. Return now to your separate moments, selves, and rooms, and know that separation for illusion. Know that you were one, were here, and in eternity are here forever. Here, where sudden firelight in your soul startled you from your worldly slumber.