Heart of Darkness

I have just read Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad. Not quite what I expected. My main understanding of this book was the film, Apocalypse Now. I can see how this inspired that film, yet they are a long way apart. Kurtz in this book is more of a wraith than the imposing, bald figure of Marlon Brando. I had more understanding for what the film’s Kurtz was about too. Why he did what he did, what he had done, the depths he had sunk to and the effects it had had on others.

In this book, Kurtz reminded me of Captain Flint in Treasure Island or Sauron in the Lord of the Rings – a figure who dominates conversations yet doesn’t appear. Well, okay, Kurtz does show up physically, finally, yet he feels like he is fading fast and beyond his powers. But the build up to him was impressive. I wanted to meet this enigmatic figure of such deeds, just as Marlowe did. I wanted to know so much more about him! That was perhaps my main disappointment. I wanted to really get into Kurtz, listen to him talk, find out all that he done, how he had become like a god to the natives and what he had led them to do. We get the most fleeting of tastes. Perhaps that is what makes the book compelling. There is so much left for us to think about.

I understand why people have issues on the racist tone of this book, but honestly, it felt right. This was a racist time, where white Europeans mastered Africa with contempt for those living there. That is clearly shown. This isn’t some bullshit World War Two movie where white and black soldiers fight alongside each other against the mean old Nazis, pretending only the enemy were racists. This shows how the invaders sought plunder and the means to get it. They would use anything and anyone. Kurtz epitomises that. He is like a monstrous apparition of Europe’s greed. To try to sanitise the racist views would be to try and hide the truth.

Still, it can make for uncomfortable reading, not least as you suspect there are elements of truth here. There are several people that many suspect Conrad based Kurtz on. Imperialism was never kind to the colonies. It could have benefits to some, sure, but also serious problems. Here, we see a messy mass of greedy interlopers out for themselves. Kurtz may be worse than them all, yet he has something outstanding about him too. He never comes across as petty. He is avarice in human form. He is greatness in all its terrible splendour. He has intelligence, sophistication, strong will, a commanding presence – all the materials to be a leader in a new territory. In many ways he could be someone held up as a great example of a European hero, conquering and commanding. But he is one in the true sense – ruthless, savage, cruel. He could be an Ahab, leading others by sheer force of personality. The Russian Harlequin Marlowe meets proves this. It would have been great to know more of him this way, driving into the jungle, into the people, and finding just how far he could go. He is a man of great resourcefulness and self-determination. But that also makes him someone to be feared. By the other white agents too. His success has become anathema to them. Marlowe has to bring him back because Kurtz won’t be restrained. Yet Kurtz is already dying. Almost as if his own rapacious nature has worn him out.

Kurtz feels less of a human being, less of a fully rounded character, than an apparition, an example, a metaphor of sorts. He possesses lots of qualities others boast about, and he brags of them too, and yet lots of atrocities to carry as a sin. He represents so many things, but we can never define him. Again, this could be the lure. I read to the end expecting some revelation that could help me grasp him. I never got one. I never quite got why Marlowe found him so entrancing and why he felt so loyal to him. Of course, there was his voice, which doesn’t work on a reader. Still, I struggled to understand the power of this figure. So often I hear the lesson ‘show, don’t tell’. Well in Heart of Darkness most of what we get is characters telling Marlowe, and so us, of Kurtz and then he tells his listeners, and they all are in awe. I needed awe to be shown.

Even so, there was something compelling about Kurtz. Makes you want to create a character like him. Someone so complex, so marvellous and yet so horrifying, and to explore that nature. For all that I wanted more from him and this story, he does fit with the likes of Ahab, Dracula, Nemo, Coriolanus and others. Individuals who could impress their will on others, who could captivate through sheer personality and even lead others to their doom, willingly, if it suited their own drives. They could also lead themselves to the same fate.

I’m sure once this book would have been fascinating to read to learn about Africa, but by today it adds little and portrays so much through the eyes of those who care nothing for it that it comes across as crass. Natives are deemed stupid, savage, worthless. There is some good description of the jungle and river travel, but nothing that gives you a feel for Africa. Again, that fits to the intent of the narrative, but for me, having read books and watched documentaries, it is dull if not barbaric. It is a tale for the white man of the past. The invader, the conqueror, the glutton.

Marlowe is a decent enough character, but he is designed to be passive. He is regaling others with his past so he is not the focus. He isn’t meant to stand out. We do meet a series of individuals, though. Most without names. They have, however, notable characters. I was quite impressed with how Conrad could describe the details of a man Marlowe would meet, then imprint the personality, and all for someone we won’t even spend much time with. The sly manager who boasts of never falling ill so he can outlast anyone, who resents and fears Kurtz. The Russian Harlequin who reveres Kurtz and sees only the best in him, to pass on that concept to Marlowe and us. Even the pilot who Marlowe despises for his incompetence and yet deeply regrets his death. Stark characters. Stark while brief.

It was an interesting read. Quick too. I got into it easily enough, became intrigued by the journey, although I was surprised at how long it took to get going. Being stuck along the river with the boat needing repairs was almost as frustrating for me as it was for Marlowe. It could be a bit slow to some readers but I felt there was plenty going on to keep me reading.

I’m not sure I would have read this if it hadn’t been the inspiration for Apocalypse Now, which is one of my favourite films. But I do think that even without it, I would have been drawn in enough to keep reading. Kurtz is a striking and influential personality, although not as much as Brando’s performance was. It was worth reading. Yet now I have it in my head, I’m not sure when or if I’ll ever read it again. The wraith that was Kurtz was all I took in truth, and all I wanted to take.

Fear Works

I was watching Fright Night the other night. The original. One of my favourite vampire films. I watched this late one night as a kid – as I did so many movies – and it terrified me. I think the entire concept of a vampire living right next door to you was what really got to me. The sense of this kid fearing each time it grew dark. Having to fill his room with garlic and crosses. I can’t stand garlic!

It was even worse when the vampire realises he knows. To know a vampire lives next door is one thing. To know he (or she) knows too is horrifying. That puts you right in the cross-hairs.

But as I watched this film, I wondered why I didn’t like the remake as much. It isn’t that bad of a movie, to be honest. But when I saw the remake, it didn’t grab me. Arguably higher quality actors. Better special effects – although I’m a fan of the old school physical effects myself, but I know most people seem to like CGI. So why didn’t it hit me? Okay, I’m older now, I know the story, but something didn’t quite work.

Then I got it. Roddy McDowall.

So first off, he’s a great actor. Second, I have seen him in lots of things and always love his performances. He could be so emotive yet quietly so. Hell, he acted the shit out of being an ape while wearing a mask. In Fright Night, he adds some real presence and depth to what could be a daft film – much like Alec Guiness did to Star Wars or Gregory Peck to the Omen.

But here’s what really works. His character is a coward. He shows it. Roddy acts the hell out of being scared. When someone is that scared in a film, it gets to you.

What I loved about his character – Peter Vincent (which is such a great horror name, I suspect it is a combination of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price) – is that he is all bluff and bluster, so when he realises the vampire is real, he gets out of there. He is petrified. He then hides at home, is attacked, barely trusts Brewster (the main character) when he comes asking for his help, then refuses as much as he can. This is someone who only helped when he got paid before, but no amount of money will make him take on a vampire now.

Yet, he gets talked into going. He shows bravery, which makes you like such a wretched character. He is still scared though. This isn’t someone who has that film moment, gets over the fear and never looks back. He slowly follows Brewster into the house of the vampire. He tries to act big, then realises he is out of his depth. He flees. The fucker actually runs out and leaves Brewster there!

He is attacked again. This time he kills. Now this whole scene is really well done. He defends himself and kills the young, rash vampire more by accident than design. But this vampire takes ages to die. He really does! He is slowly dying and changing from his wolf form. He tries to pull the piece of wood out of his chest but can’t. He becomes the boy again and is weeping as he dies.

What is great here is that Roddy as Vincent empathises with this young man despite the fact he almost killed him. He feels for the fear of dying. He is horrified by the change. At one point the wolf-thing reaches out to him and he almost holds his hand before recoiling in horror.

This is the moment Peter Vincent changes fully. He has seen the horror and the humanity. He has killed and felt pity, but did what had to be done. He returns to the house and is much braver, with faith in the cross, and puts himself at great risk. He is still scared. There is a great moment where he traps the vampire by closing his coffin, only to realise he is now cornered. I’ll leave it there. ;)

As I said, Roddy is great in this because he gives us someone who is utterly terrified, and well he should be! As a young boy watching this, he made me fear for him. I didn’t blame him for not wanting to get involved or for fleeing. I had my heart in my mouth when he was cornered. Roddy McDowall was a great actor who displayed fear, cowardice and desperation perfectly.

Fear works. When I watch a movie or tv show and people in it are scared, it makes me scared. Sometimes scared for them, which is the best. I grew up watching horror films where the thing/monster/killer etc was terrifying to those involved.

Then we had the change. Characters started making smart remarks. Jokes would be thrown in. Bad-ass characters who aren’t afraid of anything became the norm.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these too. I’m for diversity, variety, unpredictability. But I do love me some scaredy-cats. I feel for them much more. If someone isn’t scared of a monster, and they’re meant to be a real person facing a real threat, then why should I fear?

I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer a lot, but I don’t find it surprising that the only time I found anything even slightly intimidating was the one with the Gentlemen in. Yes, they were creepy looking, but the fact no one could talk, joke, banter, etc. That was the difference.

When I watched Fright Night that first time, and every time since to an extent, I felt that deep thrill as I watch a terrified man dare to enter the den of the beast. In the new one, I never had that. Tennant’s character was like Roddy’s but nowhere near as good, or as well acted.

So what’s the stand out scare scene for me? That end bit of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The girl is trapped and the family of lunatics are slowing trying to kill her, helping their near dead grandfather to do it. She is freaking out. She is screaming and thrashing and everything. Her fear made me fear for her. It was so drawn out it became almost unbearable. I could have cheered when she escaped. The very end, where her screams become laughter, worked so well because you knew her terror had pushed her over the edge to where her survival was nothing short of ecstatic relief.

I’m a fan of terror. Shock kills, no matter how gory, rarely work and even then they just make me jump a bit. Terror, the slower the better, is what gets to me. There are certain films I would dub terror films more than horror. I love them, but damn, they are hard to watch. Which is why I love them!

Farewell to an Inspiration

So Terry Pratchett has just died and, while we all knew this was coming, I’m upset and also a bit angry that someone so smart and skilled as a writer and thinker has gone. This is one of my authors, the ones I read devotedly and still revere. His books were sat on a shelf with David Gemmell’s and theirs only. So here’s my emotional splurge I just threw onto Facebook:

Pratchett wasn’t just funny, he was damn smart as a writer (and person). His mysteries were really good. The plot about poisoning the Patrician, where he puts it right in front of the reader but you (well, me) don’t see it until all is revealed is sublimely done. The fact Gaspode would say woof, not go woof, was a bit of humour that also showed you how nuanced a description can be.
Granny Weatherwax is one of the strongest female characters I’ve ever come across. Gender identity among dwarves was played out and resolved with amusing maturity. Rincewind is more of an inspiration due to being a coward, not a hero. Assassins wouldn’t dress all in black because that would actually show up too well in the darkness. Camels were brilliant mathematicians, dubbed You Bastard. Words had power, ideas could become more real than reality itself, and gods depended on believers, not the other way around.
David Gemmell, and also Janrae Frank later on, taught me how to write heroic fantasy, although I’m a poor imitator of both. Pratchett taught me how to write comedy, how to write smart with comedy, and how that even an orang-utan or the Death of Rats can become an interesting character.

Support The Sweets Way Occupation, Let’s Take Our Cities Back

uppitymonkey:

Well this is just horrific:

Originally posted on the void:

How the fuck is a child supposed to understand why they don’t have a home? These are kids who see their parents going out to work long hours for shit wages, or battling illness, or struggling to find work. They see a parent who loves them, cares for them, feeds them – who does all the things that a parent is supposed to do – and yet that is not enough. The most basic form of human security, even survival, is now fast becoming something only the affluent can afford in many parts of the UK.

Almost every day seems to bring another story of low income families being forced from their homes to make way for luxury flats, as property developers turn the ground we walk on into a chance for them to increase their millions. And if anyone complains than the rich simply call on the machinery of…

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Another Rotten Sequel

So a while ago I posted about movies that piss me off, which pretty much consisted of sequels and remakes.

Well now I have another to add to that list:

The Last Exorcism: Part Two.

Now the first one wasn’t perfect. I didn’t like where it ended up, for various reasons. But overall it was a really good film. The main character was a highly likable individual who you grew to care about. There was plenty of ambiguity, if you really suspect something is up so you lean toward genuine possession. The reveal for what is truly going on is a wonderfully subtle and simple one liner. The ambiguity is my favourite part of the movie, I was really guessing all the way, and then that is thrown out at the end. That’s mainly why I dislike the ending. Still, overall I really appreciated that film a lot.

I have just watched the second. Okay, so I didn’t expect it to be anything that good, but it is a feeble cashgrab with jump scares (well, attempted ones) and an ending that made the first film’s conclusion shine with ingenuity by comparison. It was good to see the actress back and she’s pretty good in both, but this film reminds me of those other sequels I despise because it feels so different from the original. Where the first film was an interesting and different horror film, driven mainly by the main character’s charm and likability, your concern for the girl and your questions about the situation overall, this is just spooky shit happens, then more, then some stuff, and then end. Noting new, nothing impressive. No interesting characters. It feels like exactly what it is, a bland addition to a strong movie for bucks. Which irks me. It was boring, it was obvious and it gave me no humanity to fear for or real threat to fear. So I felt it was worth mentioning along with the list I had presented before, although I don’t think it would make it.

It would sit well with the Descent Two. Pointless, bland, generic, lacking any of the first’s personality, and a sequel you really didn’t think the first would ever lead to.

Sneaky Zombies

So I’m a zombie fan. Well, the movies, not the creatures themselves. I have never gotten the fandom about them. They lack the personality of a vampire or the ferocity of a werewolf. A single zombie is pretty unimpressive. What works is the unstoppable sense of doom. That’s also why I prefer slow zombies to the newer, faster upgrades. When I see a character stuck somewhere and the zombies are slowly, slowly closing in, that is awful to watch. Death is inevitably coming, and taking its damn sweet time about it.

But what I really like about zombie movies is the breakdown of society. In that sense, zombies or mutants or cannibal humans – whatever it is that brings us down and sets us against each other – that’s what fascinates me.

Going back to zombies, however, I must declare a serious pet peeve of mine.

No one, no half decently aware human being, should be surprised by a zombie.

You see it all the time in films and shows, but it shouldn’t happen unless set in very specific circumstances. Zombies are not sneaky. They don’t see a human and start tiptoeing over. They grunt and groan on a regular basis. They stumble. They would also smell. I mean smell bad. They’re dead so that means an evacuation of the bowels has taken place, plus they are often rotting away. You should smell that bastard coming a mile off.

Okay, so there can be certain circumstances in which this would be overcome. For instance, if you were in a building which had a lot of dead lying about, the smell from them would blot out that of a single zombie. You could have a situation where there is a lot of noise to cancel out the stumbling stomping of the undead – such as the helicopter blades whirring in the Dawn of the Dead original. Trying to make your way through a world overrun by zombies, you would find yourself in moments of vulnerability to the usual warning signs.

Yet, if you were a survivor and fighter, tackling the every day dangers of a zombie-plagued world, you would soon learn to become more aware the more ways there could be for you to be attacked. If sound is blanked out by noise, keep an eye out. If the smell is overpowering, well, not sure how you could stand being near it but again, be alert. Essentially, if the senses that are your natural early warning system have any trouble, keep those peepers peeled. Even then, having sound and smell blotted out would be rare, and zombies are still stumbling buffoons. A human should not be sneaked up on unless they’re stuck in really bad circumstances or an idiot.

But the single zombie sneak up continues to be a thing. It bugs the hell out of me. I mean, I accept it. It is a cliched thing that is going to happen and keep on happening. It is a tiresome way of getting a quick scare. Just like the walking murderer somehow getting ahead of the running victim or the car that won’t start for no good reason. Even so, for some reason every time I see it my brain has to gripe. It just shouldn’t happen. It is a highly forced contrivance.

Oh, and so is the peripheral vision failure. That happens a lot in zombie movies too but also in other horror. A character looks one way, then another, then back and SURPRISE!! I mean, again, no way you don’t notice a zombie that close, but definitely you see it out the corner of one eye. Vampires can get away with it a bit, you might suspect there is something supernatural going on to make them stealthy, but it happens way too often.

Anyway, jump scares are annoying and it bugs me when they are forced on the audience in a dumb way. It isn’t anything to get worked up about beyond a random blog post, but if you do have a movie or tv show where a unlikely zombie sneak-up occurs, don’t expect me to feel for that character as they expire in your fictional post-apoc world. That character is either an idiot or you are lazy at your job. Perhaps both.