Category Archives: Psychology

The Meaning of Life or Get Down With The Randomness, Baby

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Tbe meaning of life is that great philosophical, existentialist and ethical question that mankind has preoccupied itself with since the birth of rational thought.

Once the human animal acquired conscious thought, it was going to start overthinking things. There had to be a reason for everything. Nothing was going to be left to chance from then on. This new logic thing in our brains couldn’t handle luck or randomness. Everything had to be explained step-by-step from our perspective.

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It is a combination of man’s mental acuity and self-importance to try and attach any meaning to life. Why can’t we just be an extremely fortunate life form randomly hurtling through space on an ideally-positioned rock? If life has any meaning, it is the basic biological one of passing on our genes to the next generation before we die. However sophisticated we are or imagine we are, it really doesn’t get more complicated than that.

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The first cave paintings were early man taking a step back from himself and seeing his world one step removed (we do this today with all forms of art). He was observing himself, seeing how his society operated, explaining what he could and posing new questions to himself that needed answers (some believe these paintings were the first attempts at speech by the human animal. They were also probably the first attempts at interior decorating too).

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We set out to explore the world: a thirst for knowledge backed by a lust for domination, power, land and gold. It only threw up more questions – who were these alien peoples we encountered and how could God have created them? God, of course, was the perfect explanation that man sought. This deity ticked all the boxes. With a wave of his mighty hand, the world and humanity, the beings he made in his own image, were there.

Science then came along and upended the theology apple cart. It gave us evolution and natural selection, both structured adaptations to random scenarios. The dinosaurs lost the evolutionary lottery by getting wiped out by an Act of God. It could happen to humans too but that is too difficult for us to contemplate. We need information fed to us piecemeal to formulate opinions, Doomsday is too hasty for us. It isn’t logical.

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Of course, we look for endless reasons for our existence – psychological, philosophical, theological. We even invented religions to explain our existence back to us (most of the world’s religions were founded as offshoots of another because of disagreements to the theological direction being taken. “All roads lead to God” as one quotations goes. “There are many roads in Monotheism” might be a better way of putting it).

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Albert Einstein in a random moment

Albert Einstein, the very figurehead of the concept of genius, had his say in 1935 on The Meaning of Life:

“What is the meaning of human life, or, for that matter, of the life of any creature? To know an answer to this question means to be religious. You ask: Does it make any sense, then, to pose this question? I answer: The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life.”

I’m not saying that life is meaningless but random – chaos theory, if you like (the problem is that some of us can’t see meaning without structure, the curse of that logical mind of ours). The Fractal Foundation defines Chaos Theory thus: “While most traditional science deals with supposedly predictable phenomena like gravity, electricity, or chemical reactions, Chaos Theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, and so on.”

Talking Heads had a witty take on where we’re headed with their 1985 hit “Road to Nowhere.” It dares to suggest that we’re all just making it up as we go along and nobody really knows where we’re headed, even if they can’t or won’t admit it to themselves or others. Twist your melons around that, you overthinking homo sapiens!

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes writers should be paid for their work, you may donate here.

To read more of my writing, check out my short story Nightfall and my novel The Vorbing.

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Only The “Strong” Survive

There’s a huge emphasis on being “strong” in today’s world, whatever that means. Strength can be many different things to many different people. Sometimes it’s a euphemism for egomania and control-freakery and bending others to our will. That’s not strength to me, that’s bullying. Asking for help when we’re vulnerable can be a sign of strength. Closing our mouths and listening can be another. Learning from mistakes and succeeding from it can be another.

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We can confer strength on others and yet they may be silently suffering inside. Joe Kennedy, father of JFK and RFK, once told his boys: “It doesn’t matter what you are, it only matters what people THINK you are.” There’s a certain amount of truth in that.

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Joe Kennedy Sr (center) arriving in London as US Ambassador with sons John F. Kennedy (right) and Joe Jr (left)
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Yours Truly

People told me that I looked very confident giving the eulogy at my mother’s funeral. The truth is, I was mentally and emotionally drained and physically exhausted from the stress of her sudden loss. Looking back, I have no idea how I did that. We are stronger than we think we are. Some primitive force kicks in to get you through it.

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We can tag people as unfriendly when they may be shy or depressed or have other worries. It’s important to remember when it comes to people that the visual and the actual are not the same thing. No one has an easy life. Everyone has problems, despite what we may feel about them or project upon them.

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The Facebook public relations image that people put out is phoney. They only post pictures of themselves looking happy or successful, you won’t see photos of them at their lowest point. If you put stock in what you see on social media, you could believe that people are happier and more successful than you and beat yourself up about it when it’s not true.

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That’s why it’s important not to stake our self-worth on this fluctuating human stock exchange. There will always be someone richer than you who has a bigger house and car than you, if you value such things. Someone may have found the love of their life or got a promotion when you didn’t. The thing is to be happy for them and not envious. They haven’t had good news to upset you. Your time will come. Wish them well and continue on your way to the things you need. You’d want them to do the same for you, right?

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes writers should be paid for their work, you may donate here.

To read more of my writing, check out my short story Nightfall and my novel The Vorbing.

Hitchcock, Psychological Horror & The Theatre of the Mind

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Sir Alfred Hitchcock Meets Mary Shelley’s Creation

In 1964, the great movie director Alfred Hitchcock, The Master of Suspense, was interviewed by Huw Weldon of the BBC. Hitch was asked if he had “ever been tempted to make what is nowadays called a horror film.”

“Are you talking about visual horror like “Frankenstein” and that kind of thing?” Hitch asked, seeking clarification.

Weldon confirmed that was what he meant.

“No, they’re… they’re props. I believe in putting the horror in the mind of the audience and not necessarily on the screen.”

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Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in “Psycho”

Hitch took the example of his own movie”Psycho.” “Now, this film had a horrible scene at the beginning with a girl being murdered in a shower. Well, I deliberately made that pretty rough, but as the film developed, I put less and less physical horror into it because I was leaving that in the mind of the audience and, as the film went on, there was less and less violence but the tension, in the mind of the viewer, was increased considerably. I was transferring it from the film into their minds. So, towards the end, I had no violence at all. But the audience by this time was screaming in agony.”

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Breakdown of the infamous shower scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho”

“One’s challenged by the audience. They’re saying to me “show us” and “I know what’s coming next”… and I say, “do you?” And therefore, that’s the avoidance of the cliché — automatically. They’re expecting a cliché and I have to say “we cannot have a cliché here”

So there was a clear differntial in Hitchcock’s mind between “visual horror” like “Frankenstein” and psychological horror like “Psycho” (yes, the dessicated corpse of Mrs Bates is clearly a prop too but only revealed in the last scene and not the basis for most of the horror that preceeded it.) Hitchcock meant that real horror is what you DON’T see, the theatre of the mind, if you will.

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Mrs Bates: “Mother’s not feeling herself today.”

Horror works particularly well on radio, the original “theatre of the mind.” The listeners are given prompts by the narrator but have to construct the visuals in their mind. Audiobooks and podcasts would be the modern equivalent. My vampire short story “Nightfall” will be available in audiobook form in August and I’m very much looking forward to hearing the results.

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Let’s take a look at a classic horror movie and its remake – “The Haunting” from 1963 and the Spielberg-backed remake in 1999. The original, directed by Robert Wise, got tremendous scares from the use of sound and suggestion. The remake was an orgy of CGI effects. Most people look on the original as a classic horror movie, few hold the remake in high regard. Why? The remake shows us too much too often. The original keeps its cards close to its chest and the result is the same story told in a much scarier way.

The Haunting

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“The Exorcist” is regarded by many as the most frightening movie of all-time. It is a film where the Demon Pazuzu, the ultimate evil, possesses the body of a young girl, the ultimate symbol of innocence, and speaks and acts through her. You never see the demon itself, there is no easy resolution for the audience of bringing the creature out into the light before it is destroyed as in 1950s monster movies. There isn’t that closure. (My mother was so freaked out seeing “The Exorcist” in the cinema that she claimed she saw a red devil with the horns and the tail and everything. It appears to have been some stress-induced temporary psychosis or something.) There is only the theme of the transference of evil, a constant in the work of its director William Friedkin.

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“Exorcist” director William Friedkin

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Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” benefitted greatly from the malfunctioning prop shark they had. It meant the director couldn’t show the shark early as he had planned to and had to be creative to hint at its presence (the excellent score by John Williams helped.) The result? A freaked-out audience made hyper-aware of the subconscious level of the ocean’s surface and the potential unseen horror lurking beneath it.

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26-year-old Steven Spielberg in Bruce the Shark’s mouth

Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror. We don’t need to know that Dracula is seeking his long-lost love across the centuries. He’s an ancient predator at your window seeking your blood. That’s all that’s necessary to impart to an audience. We don’t need to know that Michael Myers in Halloween had a terrible home life that made him the unstoppable killer we know and fear. He’s an immortal bogeyman and he’s coming after you. Don’t give away your character’s mystique cheaply.

Horror is best when drip-fed in a subtle way and not in a deluge of computer effects dumped on the viewing public.

No matter how convincing CGI is, an audience inherently knows it’s not real and that they’re watching a gimmick. Maybe Hollywood will learn this lesson and we can have a new golden age of psychological horror.

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© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

An Immigrant State of Mind

World Refugee Day

Today is #WorldRefugeeDay. While I’ve never been a refugee, I have been an immigrant in two countries. I was born in the United States, the son of Irish immigrants. We moved back to Ireland when I was three years old and everyone called me “Yank.” So I’ve been an immigrant in both the countries that compose my nationality.

Being an immigrant is not a status but a state of mind. It doesn’t stop when you “assimiliate” or “integrate” or when you go from being an “outsider” to an “insider.” It is what you think of yourself. You only really stop being an immigrant when you reject other immigrants and try to slam the door in their faces when they try to emulate you.

People will always surprise you if you give them a chance. We’re too quick to impose limitations on ourselves and others based on age, gender, race, colour, creed or whatever. The list is endless. The potential of others is never immediately apparent to us and yet we leap to illogical conclusions repeatedly. Change is scary and immigrants and refugees are the personification of that change. It is easy for these newcomers to internalise the aggression shown towards them when it is not personal. They are not hated for who they are personally but for what they represent to the beholder, however incorrect or irrational that may be.

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Irish Famine refugees, reduced to disease-ridden, illiterate peasants under brutal British occupation were despised on their arrival in the United States. Not only were they feared for the Third World diseases they carried but also for the Catholicism that the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants viewed with suspicion and disdain. Now, the Irish are fully integrated into American society. Approximately 44 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. The St Patrick’s Day parades there are the biggest in the world. Irish-America has been an amazing success story and a PR bonanza. Those refugees changed America for the better and brought their traditions, music and humour and placed them at the heart of the American dream. Halloween was one of the many things that went from being an Irish tradition to an American one.

On World Refugee Day, let us remember the amazing capabilities of our fellow human beings and not the negative things that scare and divide us. Compassion must be at the heart of every decision made in their treatment. All human life originated in Africa, so we are all immigrants and refugees to everywhere else on earth really. The human animal is at its best when it helps its own kind to prosper and respects all others forms of life. For just as the immigrant and refugee has unrealised potential within them, so we, the guardians at the gate, have untapped potential for kindness and tolerance and acceptance within us too. If we’re not striving as they strive, we fail ourselves and them too. We need to come out from behind the flags and banners and start treating each other as human beings. Then, and only then, are we fulfilling the potential of those first humans who left the cradle of civilisation so very long ago.

Great leaders lead by example, not by making an example of others Stewart Stafford quotes

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

The War on the Opinions of Others

The opinions of others are important. They are the yardstick by which we measure our perspective on the world. Even if those opinions are profoundly different or even reprehensible to us, we need to hear them so we know where we stand. Opinions clarify our position and give us the full picture of what is happening out there. Hearing others can make us form new opinions and beliefs and even question and/or change our existing ones.

The problem is that differing opinions are being silenced online and in reality. Today’s kids have been dubbed the Snowflake Generation. According to Wikipedia:Generation Snowflake, or Snowflake Generation, is a neologistic term used to characterize the young adults of the 2010s as being more prone to taking offence and less resilient than previous generations, or as being too emotionally vulnerable to cope with views that challenge their own. It must be a problem in their parenting, where they are told that they are the centre of the universe and everything revolves around them. So they develop monstrous egos. They not only have to silence dissenters, they have to go after them, gang up on them, threaten them and, in some cases, financially ruin them by contacting their employers and demanding that they are fired. It even goes as far as digging up dirt on people, spreading malicious gossip and passing it on to their bosses. (Allegations not proof are all it takes to destroy someone’s reputation now. All from the safety of anonymous social media profiles. It is nasty, cowardly stuff).

This is called the “echo chamber effect.” Wikipedia defines it as “In news media, echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system. … Another emerging term for this echoing and homogenizing effect on the Internet within social communities is cultural tribalism.It demonstrates the deeply conformist nature of today’s young people. Say or do anything outrageous and you will be attacked. This conformity struck me recently when I noticed how many young girls looked like clones of one another. They had the exact same hairdos, clothing and their peers looked identical to them. As I always say, “you don’t get great art by playing it safe.” In fact, you don’t get great anything by playing it safe. You must take chances that go against common beliefs and peer pressure.

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Rebellion is the first step on the path to originality. That’s why geniuses are not normal, if they were, we’d all be one. Genius is controversy personified as it challenges old orders and ideas, breaks new ground and forges its own path. Even if they play the game later on, that moment where they questioned given knowledge brought new thoughts into our world. Where are today’s rebels and their daring new ideas? I see none.

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John Cleese

John Cleese has a theory that there is very little creativity out there now because of constant interruptions from smart phones. It certainly fragments the creative process and the mind itself. “The very essence of playfulness is an openness to anything that may happen,” Cleese said, “The feeling that whatever happens, it’s OK. So you cannot be playful if you’re frightened that moving in some direction will be “wrong”—something you “shouldn’t have done”… You’ve got to risk saying things that are silly and illogical and wrong.” It’s the very antithesis to the echo chamber effect and political correctness.

Fake news and misinformation are also distorting the viewpoints of young people online. Nearly two-thirds of our youth get their news from social media which can just be the tip of the distorted online iceberg. So the opinions they are savagely reinforcing may be entirely inaccurate and false to begin with. The Matrix is alive and well, folks. Our kids are living in it and not questioning what they are being fed. It is all they have ever known, so they are unable to fight for a reality they have never had. What is reality now? Does anyone know?

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Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Then there is pressure exerted through social media. It’s been said that the Watergate investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post newspaper would have collapsed from social media pressure had it existed in the early 1970s. There was a point in the story when Woodward and Bernstein published some facts that were incorrect. The howls of derision would have been deafening from social media and the pressure on The Washington Post to halt the investigation enormous. In all probability, today, they would give in and the story would grind to a halt. US President Richard Nixon would receive a free pass to continue spying on his political opponents instead of being forced to resign. Imagine the devastating consequences that social media pressure could have on world history and, even scarier, the future of our world. That’s the world we are living in right now. Is it really that important to prove yourself right all the time?

Privacy is thought of now as a historical concept. It doesn’t exist anymore. Freedom of expression, debate and discussion seem to be going the same way. The amazing communications tool that is the internet is being used as a weapon to bludgeon us all into stunned silence and isolation. It’s time to fight back while we still have time. Or is that opinion upsetting you? Hmm, think about it.

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

Beautiful Self-Interest: A flaw at the heart of Economics, Mathematics and Conflict Resolution

The Business Dictionary defines self-interest as a “focus on actions or activities that are advantageous to an individual or organization. For a business or individual to survive and grow, a degree of self-interest is necessary. When there is too much focus on self-interest the benefits of the group at large diminishes.”

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Adam Smith

The Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) wrote two books “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759) and “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) (considered “the bible of capitalism”). He proposed a theory that capitalism was essentially fuelled by the self-interest of people: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

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John Forbes Nash Jr.

John Forbes Nash Jr. was an American mathematician whose life story was told in Ron Howard’s 2001 film “A Beautiful Mind” starring Russell Crowe. Nash updated Smith’s theory with some of his own ideas. He reasoned that the individual could get what they wanted yet still benefit the group they belonged to. This film clip of Nash and his classmates in a bar neatly explains Nash’s theory.

Nash won the Nobel Prize in 1994 in Mathematics for his equilibrium theory. John Moriarty of Manchester University describes the theory as “the ability to analyse situations of conflict and co-operation and produce predictions about how people will behave.” He goes on to say that Nash’s equilibrium is “perhaps the most important idea in economic analysis.” So why hasn’t Nash’s equilibrium been adopted more by the mainstream?

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Firstly, you can’t quantify human nature. It is not fixed but fluid and unpredictable. It’s not like Cambridge Mathematician Alan Turing’s “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis” where he could explain the markings and patterns on animals with an equation. That was rooted in genetics and evolution is a mighty slow thing. Human nature is extremely fast, just look how it changes day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute on the internet. It can be contradictory and even illogical at times. Applying logic to potentially illogical behaviour is to construct a house on shifting foundations. The structure will inevitably collapse. That’s the first problematic element of Nash’s theory but I propose an even bigger flaw that’s prevented it from being embraced in a wider context.

The human condition is one variable but a bigger one is the group itself. In the film clip with the blonde, Nash’s theory might work when he’s with a group of friends. They presumably know and trust each other and should therefore support one another for the common good. Again, it should work for a family, they too should presumably know and trust each other and have common goals (but human beings are complex creatures and there is no guarantee that the family isn’t dysfunctional and operating in a counter-productive way.) Assuming that these smaller groups want to progress along the same path together, we can expand the theory outwards to a community of people. Here the theory begins to fall apart. A community of people might not know or trust one another or have common goals. That possibility lessens even further when you expand the theory to a city or a country or a conflict between two countries. So the more you expand Nash’s theory outwards, the less chance it has of succeeding.

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Nash with his wife Alicia at the Oscars

Nash was also schizophrenic: “I was disturbed in this way for a very long period of time, like 25 years.” It affected his marriage and he and his wife Alicia divorced in 1962. His condition improved in the 80s and they remarried in 2001. Sadly the couple were killed in May 2015 when the taxi they were passengers in crashed in New Jersey. A sad loss of a great man. Life is not predictable.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

George A. Romero’s Living Dead Legacy

“Everyone who ever made a low-budget film was influenced by Night of the Living Dead,” – John Carpenter
George A. Romero, the godfather of the modern zombie genre, has passed away at the age of 77. A good time to take a look back on his significant contribution to movies and the horror genre.
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Indie movies didn’t really exist when Romero and some pals clubbed together cash and equipment to make Night of the Living Dead in 1968.
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Taking inspiration from Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” novel, Romero turned what could have been an exploitation splatter film and turned it into a snapshot of where America was going with the Vietnam war and civil rights. It’s difficult now to separate Romero’s nightmarish imagery from the horrific news footage spilling out of Vietnam around then.
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The casting of black actor Duane Jones as Ben the male lead was groundbreaking but Romero brushed it off by saying he was the best actor available and nothing more. Black men and boys were lynched for whistling at white women in the recent past yet here was a black hero defending a white female onscreen (the implication being that they will begin a relationship if they survive as the humanity is almost extinct). Ben even punches out a white male character for trying to tell him what to do (a far cry from any submissive expectations where he would stand there and be called “boy.”). This was an empowered, dominant black male, virtually unheard of at the time and not really seen again until the Blaxploitation genre of the early 70s (it could be argued Romero influenced that too).
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Ben’s fate at the hands of a redneck posse at the denouement prefigured the disaster movies and downbeat endings of films in the 1970s. The zombie horror is replaced with a more realistic, some would say more horrific, human kind. Hollywood even made a movie of NOTLD’s inspiration “I Am Legend” when Charlton Heston took on a Mansonesque group of mutants as the last vestige of gun-toting masculinity in “The Omega Man” in 1971.
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“At first I didn’t think of them as zombies,” Romero said, “I thought of them as flesh-eaters or ghouls and never called them zombies in the first film. Then people started to write about them, calling them zombies, and all of a sudden that’s what they were: the new zombies. I guess I invented a few rules, like kill the brain and you kill the ghoul, and eventually I surrendered to the idea and called them zombies in Dawn of the Dead (1978), but it was never that important to me what they were. Just that they existed.”
The critical reviews of “Night of the Living Dead” were among the first to take the horror genre seriously. Hitchcock’s Psycho was probably the first one that wasn’t written off as a shlocky B-movie. If the respected Master of Suspense was tackling the genre, there must be something more there.
Somehow a copyright symbol was left off finished prints of “Night of the Living Dead” and it instantly fell into the public domain, a disastrous setback for everyone involved when it came to reaping any profits from it. It perhaps explained the genesis of the sequels, this time they’d make sure that didn’t happen and get paid properly.
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So into the 1970s Romero went and, 1972 saw him write and direct “Season of the Witch” a.k.a. Hungry Wives about a housewife caught up in witchcraft and murder. (John Carpenter would pinch the title for Halloween III: Season of the Witch ten years later.)
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Romero even made a 1974 documentary about O.J. Simpson called “Juice On The Loose” (!). Again, he was way ahead of the pack with that title.
“The Crazies” came along in 1973, a frightening bio-horror movie, even more realistic than “Night of the Living Dead.” A forgettable remake appeared in 2010.
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1978 brought a double-whammy of classics from Romero. Having invented the zombie movie genre, Romero sought to revitalize another one. His vampire movie Martin dealt with a boy who or may not be a centuries-old vampire. It’s in this grey area that the movie poses some real questions and becomes complex and interesting. Is Martin really a vampire or a disturbed kid acting out his fantasies and delusions on innocent people? Again, Romero was way ahead of everyone here touching on vampire culture and people “identifying” as vampires, things that wouldn’t become mainstream until recently. John Amplas is excellent as Martin, bringing great pathos to a difficult role. If you haven’t seen Martin, you should check it out soon. It’ll probably be screened in tribute to Romero and I hope this obscure movie finds some new fans now.
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The sequel to “Night of the Living Dead”, “Dawn of the Dead” came next. Romero hooked up with make-up virtuoso Tom Savini to do the zombie make-up. This time our heroes weren’t holed up in a house but in a shopping mall, giving Romero the chance to send up modern consumers as mindless zombies shuffling along to insipid muzak (he could almost have been predicting the internet age). At two-and-a-half-hours long, the film was ambitious and is beloved by fans to this day.
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(They despised Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake for not having the satire. This may be sacrilege, but I believe Snyder’s movie is better. The satire wasn’t all that clever or funny in the first place and the 1977 zombie make up looks like they got a bulk discount on grey paint. Snyder’s film is faster, funnier, “Shoot Burt Reynolds!, and tighter.)
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Just as Richard Matheson had influenced Romero, his “Night of the Living Dead” was in turn exerting an influence on popular culture with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Director John Landis rightfully paid homage to Romero’s classic.
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Romero with writer Stephen King

 

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Romero made several Stephen King adaptations including the memorable anthology “Creepshow” in 1982, “Creepshow 2” in 1987 and “The Dark Half” in 1993.

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Bub the Zombie
“Day of the Dead” appeared in 1985 and, for me, it’s the grimmest and most intense of the dead movies. Bub the domesticated zombie is a great character, brilliantly portrayed by actor Howard Sherman. It’s up there with Karloff’s Frankenstein for me and a real horror icon.
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Some of the gore is literally stomach-churning. A soldier is disemboweled on camera while a zombie rises from a slab to spill its guts all over the mortuary floor. Savini’s effects were making quantum leaps but it made me feel numb. We don’t really need to see that.
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A colour remake of “Night of the Living Dead” appeared in 1990, directed by make-up whiz Tom Savini. Romero rewrote his own screenplay, dropping in the hole in the ozone layer as a possible reason for the dead rising. It wasn’t as influential or groundbreaking as the original, what could be, but as remakes go, it’s pretty good and stands up to repeated viewings.
Post 9/11, zombie movies came back in vogue with Danny Boyle’s savage “28 Days Later” and the aforementioned remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” These zombies weren’t stiff from rigor mortis, they sprinted like Usain Bolt but Romero kept his walking dead moving slowly in subsequent zombie flicks.
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By the time of Romero’s “Land of The Dead” in 2005, the social commentary was becoming forced and self-conscious. “I don’t negotiate with terrorists!” Dennis Hopper’s villainous mogul pompously says at one point, an obvious dig at George W. Bush. Even so, the film was a good sequel and is still very watchable today.
“I don’t try to answer any questions or preach,” Romero said, “My personality and my opinions come through in the satire of the films, but I think of them as a snapshot of the time. I have this device, or conceit, where something happens in the world and I can say, ‘Ooo, I’ll talk about that, and I can throw zombies in it! And get it made!’ You know, it’s kind of my ticket to ride.”
“Diary of the Dead (2007)” and “Survival of the Dead (2009)” (Romero’s last film as director) followed and, even though Romero was still being innovative, there was the feeling that he’d already said what he wanted to say in that genre as others were overtaking him.
George A. Romero’s legacy and reputation are assured as the outpouring of grief on Twitter has proven today. Max Landis, son of Thriller director John Landis, tweeted: “George Romero was an icon who created a cinematic universe of loosely-affiliated sequels forty years before that was a thing. RIP to a genius.” May he rest in peace. Finally.
© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Aliens – The Best Sequel Ever Made?

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Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in 1979 and was a big hit. By 1986, it had faded away into the eerie mists of time somewhat when the sequel Aliens was unleashed by Twentieth Century Fox and writer/director James Cameron.

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Hot off The Terminator, Cameron was just the right guy to take on this sequel. He loved the original and had the sci-fi and technical know-how to push the franchise forward into thrilling new territory. Aliens was a huge hit that summer and earned Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (unheard of for a science fiction movie at the time but indicative of the performance Cameron pulled out of her on set.)

Aliens, like all the best sequels, takes the original concept and expands upon it, deepening the meaning of it. We learn that Ripley’s first name is Ellen and that she had a daughter back on earth who died while she was drifting in space for 57 years (with nothing left for her back on earth, the traumatised Ripley is forced to return to the depths of space and confront her old alien enemy like the Minotaur in the labyrinth of legend.) We learn the name of the Alien species – the Xenomorph (interestingly, both Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are using that term to describe the Alien in interviews promoting the new film. James Cameron pulled off a similar trick in Terminator 2, another contender for best sequel of all-time, naming the liquid metal T-!000 a “mimetic poly-alloy.” T2 is making a welcome return in summer 2017 in a new 4k 3D version supervised by Mr Cameron.) The original Alien life cycle was based on an African wasp which lays its eggs under the skin of humans before the hatch out. Cameron expands this concept by making the Alien species a hive organism with a giant queen laying eggs at the apex of the hierarchy. Cameron even names the Alien planet LV-426. (They’re on LV-223 in Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott again paying homage to the superior sequel Aliens.) The weapons and futuristic forklifts the space marines use delighted audiences with their ingenuity.

The film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England and the British crew gave Cameron a hard time as they thought they were making an inferior sequel to a British director’s classic original. They even dubbed Cameron “Grizzly Adams” at one stage. Cameron said: “The Pinewood crew were lazy, insolent and arrogant. We despised them and they despised us. The one thing that kept me going was the certain knowledge that I would drive out of the gate of Pinewood and never come back.” If you’re wondering why Cameron painted the Brits in such a bad light in Titanic, now you know.

 

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It was also a difficult shoot for Sigourney Weaver using flame-throwings, shooting weapons and having to carry two heavy guns strapped together and the child Newt on her hip. Weaver injured her back from it and you can tell from the way she struggles to run from the Alien Queen near the end.

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Jim Cameron was responsible for so many shoot-‘em-up moments in the 80s; The Terminator’s single-handed destruction of a police station, John Rambo’s single-handed destruction of the Viet Cong, the Soviets and the team of Nixonian American mercenaries who double-crossed him and left him for dead. He does it again in the finale of Aliens when Ellen Ripley lets rip with flame thrower, machine gun and grenade launcher to decimate the hated Alien Queen and her precious eggs. (Ripley has lost her daughter and denies the Alien Queen the right to be a mother also, a perfect and clever fusing of character arcs by Cameron.) Strange that by Avatar in 2009, Cameron’s heroes are a blue Smurf-like race worshipping a glowing tree like hippies on another planet. (There are FOUR sequels to Avatar coming in the next decade, folks. So prepare to make more love and not war, man!)

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As with the team of mercenaries in Rambo: First Blood Part II (co-written by Cameron), the team of colonial marines in Aliens are a bunch of arrogant jerks that get taught a lesson later in the film. The late, great Bill Paxton, back with Cameron again after a brief Terminator appearance, adds so much humour and energy to the film, even ad-libbing the line “Game over, man, Game OVER!” (his voice cracking with emotion on that last line brings the house down.) Most actors would try to steal scenes by being macho; Paxton does it by being a hysterical (and hysterically funny) coward. It’s a brilliant performance from a fine actor. RIP, Bill.

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Another Cameron regular, Michael Biehn, is a commanding presence and potential love interest for Ripley. He replaced James Remar not long into shooting and is a welcome addition to the film.

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In 1992, a director’s cut of Aliens appeared adding 17 additional minutes to the running time.

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That was the same year we got the shoddy Alien 3 and those extra 17 minutes were a soothing balm to seething fans of the franchise. All the characters we loved from Aliens were callously and stupidly killed off in the opening minutes of the third film. It immediately threw away any chance of being a worthy follow-up right then.

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Concept art for a possible fifth Alien movie

(Neill Blomkamp has proposed a fifth Alien film which ignored the disappointing third and fourth entries and continues where Aliens left off. James Cameron has approved the concept while Ridley Scott has shot it down saying it will probably never happen. Meanwhile, Ridley continues with his perplexing and unnecessary prequels. Not many people want them, they want the sequel that should have been but it seems as if it will never happen now. Fox need to give the audience what they want instead of forcing them to accept the opposite. Scott is doing what George Lucas did with Star Wars essentially; he directed the original but the sequel is better as with The Empire Strikes Back. Now, decades later, he is unwisely returning to direct a series of unwelcome prequels that only serve to remind us how great the first trilogy was and make us long for it again.)

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I’ll go see Alien: Covenant, but I’m not holding out much hope for it or the franchise. The prequels seem to be explaining too much about the Alien, robbing it of its mystique. We don’t need to know the xenomorph’s backstory, it’s a slimy monster that’s going to get you. That’s all we need to know. Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror films, but movie studios are determined to squeeze every drop of cash out of a franchise. Let’s hope they see sense and give us the one we really want – Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Further Reading

Nightfall by Stewart Stafford

The Vorbing by Stewart Stafford

Stewart Stafford’s Quotes

Fifty Shades Better

The sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey was the big Valentine’s weekend movie for 2017. In it, billionaire Christian Grey renews his S&M relationship with Anastasia Steele. I wasn’t a fan of the first movie. It was a huge missed opportunity. James Foley, director of Glengarry Glen Ross, has replaced the original director and his steadier hand makes for a better movie. There’s a new screenwriter also and it feels dramatically tighter, funnier and just a better movie overall.

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The first Fifty Shades film should have been the Basic Instinct of its generation but it completely wimped out to get a cash-friendly lower age rating. In one scene, Anastasia says to Christian: “Show me how bad it can be” (or words to that effect). He smacks her six times really hard on the ass (anyone who has been near an internet connection in the past two decades will know that that is very, very far from the worst it can get). Ms Steele’s face contorts into floods of tears. “Never do that to me again!” she howls. (She just told him to do it to her! Idiot.) Although this is based on a trilogy of books and they might have needed to pace the franchise. If they had gone full-on in the first one, there’d be little wiggle room left for the sequels.

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Despite being dubbed “mummy porn” by the British press, Fifty Shades of Grey began life as Twilight fan fiction. Christian Grey began life on the page as Edward Cullen the vampire. There are flashes of Grey’s dark vampire origins in Fifty Shades Darker. A damaged former submissive of his starts jealously stalking Anastasia Steele, a paradigm of what the future could hold for her if she continues exploring Grey’s “kinky fuckery” with him, as Ms Steele calls it. Grey appears to be an energy vampire, sucking the life out of females that cross his path, destroying them and discarding them. That was good writing there.

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There is inconsistency in the writing of Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades Darker. On the one hand, she’s this ordinary girl who is out of her depth in a naughty relationship with this rich chap. On the other, she’s this ravishing beauty that a billionaire and her boss fight over (Grey even buys the publishing house she works for. Helen of Troy she ain’t), while everyone else tells her she’s the most gorgeous girl in the world. So which is it? Is she a struggling ingénue or this beautiful girl used to such attention all her life? That doesn’t make sense. Then again, the whole thing is a female fantasy and not a documentary. If you’re looking for logic, put on the Discovery Channel.

E.L. James gives her heroine a job in a publishing house. There’s a handy movie job for ya. No research needed there, James already knows the publishing world well. Even so, that whole section isn’t very convincing. It’s lazy writing.

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Julia Roberts as a hooker in Pretty Woman

Fifty Shades peddles a similarly dangerous Pretty Woman notion in that it suggests that getting involved in degrading sex will lead girls to their rich Prince Charming.

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(Kim Basinger appears in Fifty Shades Darker as the baddie. She was also in 9½ Weeks with Mickey Rourke in the 80s; arguably the spiritual movie grandparent of Fifty Shades. That was about a similar kinky relationship and showed the reality of the situation – bondage only leads to more numbing bondage. The woman doesn’t get to change the guy into a vanilla version of his pervy self as happens in Fifty Shades Darker. Strangely, after Christian Grey tones down his act, Anastasia suddenly announces “take me to the Red Room!”, Grey’s whips-and-chains dungeon. This chick doesn’t know what she wants other than wanting to have her cake and eat it too like E.L. James)

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On the other hand, it’s an anti-feminist message to acknowledge that some women enjoy bondage and letting men take control sometimes (some men enjoy it too). To deny it or repress it is censorship and a denial of freedom.

The sex scenes while they are well shot, lit and blocked out, feel perfunctory like the actors are just going through the motions. There’s little eroticism in them, that frisson that elevates the whole thing. Writing sex in books and for the screen can be difficult to do, you’re always going close to the line of humour; too much and it’s a laugh riot, not enough and it’s no good.

So, yes, I’d just about watch a third Fifty Shades movie, but let’s hope there’s not a fourth. We need to stop playing around in the grey areas…

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

 

Loving The Alien

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Star Wars is the fairy story and I was going to do The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction,” said director Ridley Scott about Alien (1979).

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Director Ridley Scott on the set of Alien with Sigourney Weaver.

There were vague suggestions in the script as to what the creature looked like. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon gave Scott a 1978 book by Swiss conceptual artist H.R. Giger titled Necronomicon. Giger had an incredible and unique surreal style with pages and pages of grey, suffocating, biomechanical erotica. When Scott saw one of the many creatures in Giger’s book, he knew he had found his monster.

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Hans Ruedi Giger at work

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The creature collapses many of our darkest sexual fears into one beast; its phallic head and tail, its erectile teeth and slavering mouth with two sets of jaws that recalled the vagina dentata (the folk myth of toothed female genitalia that goes back as far as Ancient Greece). So the creature was at once alien yet oddly familiar in subtle, subconscious ways.

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The alien has a life cycle straight out of a biology book. The creature begins life as one of the many eggs Kane (John Hurt) finds on the alien planet, the face-hugger leaps out of the egg, wraps itself around his head and implants its seed inside his throat (the first of several oral rapes in the film; Ash the android later malfunctions and tries to shove a rolled-up porn magazine into the mouth of Sigourney Weaver’s heroine Ripley). The writers apparently based this on a species of African wasp which lays its eggs underneath the skin of humans. The alien “foetus” grows inside Kane until it explodes out of him as the chest-burster and hides out in the ventilation shafts of the vast Nostromo spacecraft. The alien rapidly sheds its skin like a snake and grows in size to become the eight-foot tall adult.

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Perhaps because Ridley Scott is British, there’s a class element to the hierarchy on board the Nostromo spacecraft. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee says Scott uses “stepdown imagery” in the living quarters to make it seem blue-collar; mementoes like the shot glass with the toy bird pecking in it and family photographs show us a crew of interstellar truck drivers light years from home, missing loved ones and complaining about pay and conditions.

It has been said that Alien, like the slasher movies that were popular around the same time, stole the plot of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians where a group of characters are confined in one place and get bumped off one by one. Where the slasher movies and Alien inverted that structure was a plot device called The Final Girl – the female survivor who outlives her peer group and kills the monster or appears to. Ripley is the final girl in Alien. The key difference is that slasher films are set on earth with friends, family, neighbours or the police to call on for help. Ripley is totally alone in the depths of space and working for a company who think she’s expendable. There are no humans around for millions of miles and no one to hear her scream, which made it infinitely scarier.

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Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is credited with creating the genre of science fiction with her 1818 novel Frankenstein. The feminist theme of that book is that when men create life, they create monsters and Alien essentially has the same theme as the creature is born of man. So Alien is a very clever reworking and reinvention of basic horror and sci-fi themes for a modern audience.

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© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Further Reading

Nightfall by Stewart Stafford

The Vorbing by Stewart Stafford

Stewart Stafford’s Quotes