Category Archives: Arts & Entertainment

The Sad Failure of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ to Prevent the Future

Teeming Brain readers are familiar with my longtime focus on Fahrenheit 451 and my abiding sense that we’re currently caught up in a real-world version of its dystopian vision. This is not, of course, an opinion peculiar to me. Many others have held it, too, including, to an extent, Bradbury himself. I know that some of you, my readers, share it as well.

As of a couple of weeks ago, a writer for the pop culture analysis website Acculturated has publicly joined the fold:

Ray Bradbury often said that he wrote science fiction not to predict the future but to prevent it. On this score, Fahrenheit 451 seems to have failed. The free speech wars on college campuses, the siloing effect of technology, the intolerance of diverse political opinions, and the virtual cocoon provided by perpetual entertainment all suggest that Bradbury anticipated the future with an accuracy unparalleled elsewhere in science fiction literature.

It’s a strange irony that, in the age of the Internet, which was supposed to encourage more transparency and debate, the open exchange of ideas is under threat. This was pointed out by another famous science fiction writer, Michael Crichton. “In the information society,” says Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, “No one thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought.” Bradbury saw this coming many decades earlier, and he understood why. Exposure to new ideas is uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. Staying safe, comfortable, and equal requires that everyone think identically. Liberal learning, the crucible that forms the individual, is anathema to group identity and cannot be tolerated. If you disagree, you’re morally suspect.

Which is why we need Bradbury’s message today more than ever. In a coda to the 1979 printing of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury wrote: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

Full Text: “Ray Bradbury Wrote ‘Fahrenheit 451’ to Prevent a Dystopia. Instead, He Predicted One

(If you click through to read the full text, be aware that the first paragraph of the piece presents a slightly inaccurate potted history of Bradbury’s career trajectory that implies he only rose to literary prominence with the publication of F451 in 1953. In fact, some of his previous books and stories, including, especially, 1950’s The Martian Chronicles, had already brought him considerable attention and acclaim.)

For more on the same theme, see my previous posts “On living well in Ray Bradbury’s dystopia: Notes toward a monastic response” and “Facebook, Fahrenheit 451, and the crossing of a cultural threshold,” as well as the Strange Horizons essay “The Failure of Fahrenheit 451.”

For thoughts from the author himself, see the 2007 LA Weekly piece Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted,” featuring Bradbury’s comments on the reality of F451-like trends in contemporary society. (However, Bradbury’s comments in that article/interview should be read in tandem with this context-creating response from his biographer, Sam Weller.) Also see Bradbury’s interviews for A.V. Club and the Peoria Journal Star for more observations from him about the encroaching threat of his novel’s realization in the world around us. And see especially his 1998 interview for Wired, titled “Bradbury’s Tomorrowland,” in which he said the following:

Almost everything in Fahrenheit 451 has come about, one way or the other — the influence of television, the rise of local TV news, the neglect of education. As a result, one area of our society is brainless. But I utilized those things in the novel because I was trying to prevent a future, not predict one.

Farewell, George Romero. You helped us understand the “real” world better.

George Romero, 1940-2017

Rest in peace, Mr. Romero. I’ll never get to tell you this in person, but you played a major part in my mental-emotional life, with your Living Dead world helping to explain the non-cinematic “real” world to me in more ways than one. The paper in my Dark Awakenings collection about the possible use of your first three Living Dead films as tools for spiritual contemplation was the culmination of many years of dwelling on and in your imaginary (or perhaps imaginal) zombie otherworld.

Plus, you created Bub, the greatest movie zombie in history. (I’m among the minority of oddballs who favor DAY OF THE DEAD above all others in the series.) But I did always wish that Bub would have successfully shot Rhodes during their showdown…

And I always felt so deeply sorry for Bub when he experienced an agony of grief upon finding his master and quasi-friend Dr. Logan dead, murdered by Rhodes and his goons.

But then again, you and Bub did give Rhodes exactly what was coming to him in the end, didn’t you? For many years, until I stumbled across Peter Jackson’s Braindead / Dead Alive, this was single goriest scene in the single goriest movie that I had ever watched. (Yes, I also watched some European zombie horror and such, but you always seemed to top them somehow.)

Best of all, and apart from all the gore and grimness, you allowed us to witness the weirdly beautiful spectacle of a zombie experiencing a paroxysm of spiritual ecstasy at the sound of the “Ode to Joy” from the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

It’s an amazing scene, in an amazing movie, with an amazing actor, from an amazing director. For this, and for the rest of your gift to the world, I do hope you’ll rest more peacefully than the zombies you created for us.

 

Image credit: By George_Romero,_66ème_Festival_de_Venise_(Mostra).jpg: nicolas genin derivative work: Andibrunt [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Our smartphone apocalypse, animated by Steve Cutts

This remarkable animation comes from the hand (or computer) of illustrator and animator Steve Cutts, famed for such things as 2012’s Man, which packs an unbelievable punch. So does the one I’ve chosen to post here. Cutts created it for last year’s hit song “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” by Moby and The Void Pacific Choir. But I personally like this slight repurposing much better, where the musical accompaniment is changed to French composer Yann Tiersen’s “Comptine d’un autre été, l’après-midi” (best known for being featured in the soundtrack for the 2001 French film Amélie).

The story told by the visuals, and also by the piercingly beautiful and sad musical accompaniment, can stand without comment here, as Teeming Brain readers are well aware of my deep disturbance and unhappiness at the digital dystopia that has emerged in the age of the smartphone. I consider Cutts something of a genius, both for his choice of animation style and for his devastating accuracy in calling out the dark and despairing heart of this cultural dead end in fairly visionary fashion. And no, the fact that his creation of this animation, and my sharing of it here, and your reading of it, is all facilitated by the existence of networked computers doesn’t invalidate the message with a fatal irony. We could probably do better, culturally and humanly speaking, in our uses of these technologies. But instead we’re apparently inclined to give way, en masse, to our lowest impulses, resulting in a kind of digital Dante’s Inferno whose factual reality isn’t really all that far from the only slightly exaggerated version presented by Cutts.

A grateful acknowledgment goes out to Jesús Olmo, who introduced me to Cutts by sending me a link to Man last month.

The Folio Society’s new edition of Lovecraft’s stories looks gorgeous (and eldritch)

The gorgeous-looking new edition of Lovecraft’s stories from The Folio Society, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, has this really effective (and kind of gorgeous in its own right) promotional video to go with it. Sadly, I don’t have $120 to spare. But with illustrations by Dan Hillier — who comes off quite well in the video, and whose work for this project looks amazing — and an introduction by Alan Moore, the book sure is tempting. Here’s the publisher’s description:

This edition, based on its sister limited edition [at $575!] marries Lovecraft’s best-known fiction with two modern masters of the macabre, the acclaimed artist Dan Hillier and author Alan Moore. In his beautifully crafted new preface, Moore finds Lovecraft at once at odds with and integral to the time in which he lived: ‘the improbable embodiment of an estranged world in transition’. Yet, despite his prejudices and parochialisms, he ‘possessed a voice and a perspective both unique in modern literature’.

Hillier’s six mesmerising, portal-like illustrations embrace the alien realities that lurk among the gambrel roofs of Lovecraft’s landscapes. By splicing Victorian portraits and lithographs with cosmic and Lovecraftian symbolism, each piece – like the stories themselves – pulls apart the familiar to reveal what lies beneath.

The edition itself shimmers with Lovecraft’s ‘unknown colours’, bound in purple and greens akin to both the ocean depths and mysteries from outer space. The cover is embossed with a mystical design by Hillier, while a monstrous eye stares blankly from the slipcase.

I find this all quite winning, personally, for the way it underscores Lovecraft’s growing prevalence and relevance in contemporary culture. For more about the new edition, see the write-ups at Tor (where several of the Hillier illustrations are shown), Wired (where the writer amusingly frames his encounter with the book as a harrowing Lovecraftian brush with forbidden knowledge and eldritch monstrosities), and The Verge. The latter presents an interview with Hillier. It also bears the best title of any of these articles, notwithstanding the slight misspelling of Great Cthulhu’s name: “A new collection of Lovecraft stories looks like an artifact from the Cthulu universe.”

What a shame the world isn’t just driving over hills and never coming to a town

The sun was gone. The sky lingered its colors for a time while they sat in the clearing. At last, he heard a whispering. She was getting up. She put out her hand to take his. He stood beside her, and they looked at the woods around them and the distant hills. They began to walk away from the path and the car, away from the highway and the town. A spring moon rose over the land while they were walking.

The breath of nightfall was rising up out of the separate blades of grass, a warm sighing of air, quiet and endless. They reached the top of the hill, and without a word, sat there watching the sky.

He thought to himself that this was impossible; that such things did not happen. He wondered who she was, and what she was doing here.

Ten miles away, a train whistled in the spring night and went on its way over the dark evening earth, flashing a brief fire. And then, again, he remembered the old story, the old dream. The thing he and his friend had discussed, so many years ago.

There must be one night in your life that you will remember forever. There must be one night for everyone. And if you know that the night is coming on and that this night will be that particular night, then take it and don’€™t question it and don’€™t talk about it to anyone ever after that. For if you let it pass it might not come again. Many have let it pass, many have seen it go by and have never seen another like it, when all the circumstances of weather, light, moon and time, of night hill and warm grass and train and town and distance were balanced upon the trembling of a finger. . . .

He woke during the night. She was awake, near him.

“Who are you?” he whispered. She said nothing.

“I could stay another night,” he said.

But he knew that one can never stay another night. One night is the night, and only one. After that, the gods turn their backs.

“I could come back in a year or so.”

Her eyes were closed, but she was awake.

“But I don’t know who you are,” he said.

“You could come with me,” he said, “to New York.”

But he knew that she could never be there, or anywhere but here, on this night.

“And I can’t stay here,” he said, knowing that this was the truest and most empty part of all.

He waited for a time and then said again, “Are you real? Are you really real?”

They slept. The moon went down the sky toward morning.

He walked out of the hills and the forest at dawn, to find the car covered with dew. He unlocked it and climbed in behind the wheel, and sat for a moment looking back at the path he had made in the wet grass.

He moved over, preparatory to getting out of the car again. He put his hand on the inside of the door and gazed steadily out. The forest was empty and still. The path was deserted. The highway was motionless and serene. There was no movement anywhere in a thousand miles.

He started the car motor and let it idle. The car was pointed east, where the orange sun was now rising slowly.

“All right,” he said quietly. “Everyone, here I come. What a shame you’re all still alive. What a shame the world isn’t just hills and hills, and nothing else to drive over but hills, and never coming to a town.”

He drove away east, without looking back.

— From Ray Bradbury, “One Night in Your Life,” in The Toynbee Convector

Our Craving for Apocalypse: ‘Dispatches from the Ruins’ (short video)

This brief video essay on the source of our collective craving for “the awful futures of apocalyptic fiction” is really well done. Skillfully executed and thought-provoking. A worthwhile investment of five reflective minutes. Here’s the description:

In the first two decades of the new millennium, stories of the post-apocalypse have permeated pop culture, from books such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) to films and TV programmes such as The Walking Dead (2010-), the Hunger Games series (2012-15) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). While post-apocalyptic fictions of previous eras largely served as cautionary tales — against nuclear brinksmanship in On the Beach (1959) or weaponised biology in The Stand (1978) — today’s versions of these tales depict less alterable, more oblique and diffuse visions of our doom. So why can’t we seem to get enough of humanity’s unavoidable collapse and its bleak aftermath?

Dispatches from the Ruins reflects on what these stories — set among crumbling buildings, overgrown lots and barren wastelands — might be telling us about modern fears and fantasies. This Aeon original video is adapted from an Aeon essay by the US writer Frank Bures. Bures is also the author of The Geography of Madness (2016), a book about cultural syndromes across the world. His work has been included in the Best American Travel Writing and appeared in Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly and the Washington Post Magazine, among others.

 

Doc Severinsen Performs “In the Court of the Crimson King”

For eight minutes of pure, unadulterated awesome, here’s Doc Severinsen, from his 1970 LP Doc Severinsen’s Closet, performing King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King.” No, this is not a hallucination, although it may represent some kind of ripple in the Matrix. Many thanks to Richard Metzger at Dangerous Minds for unearthing this, and to Joe Pulver for calling attention to it at Facebook. Metzger accurately conveys the feel of Severinsen’s cover when he describes it as “moving from an almost Morricone-like spaghetti western-sounding beginning” to an “(inspired) James Bond-ish bit (and back again).”

Personally, I have a soft spot for Severinsen not just because he’s a musical genius, and not just because I grew up during the era when he and his band were the house musical act on The Tonight Show during Johnny Carson’s tenure, but because in my former career as a video and media professional I was on the camera crew at The Grand Palace in Branson, Missouri, when Doc and the band came through town for a performance. (What? Doc Severinsen playing in Branson? No, really, there’s even newspaper evidence.) It was fully as cool as one would have hoped, and I even had a chance to chat with the band backstage. There was no “Crimson King” in their set, though. Which is probably for the best, since I strongly suspect this song would have melted the minds of that mostly Southern and Midwestern audience who had come to Branson mainly for country music and a big dose of manufactured nostalgia.

 

 

‘Videodrome’ and Marshall McLuhan: The New Flesh meets the New Media

Here’s the ever-reliable Nick Ripatrazone discussing the inspirational influence of Marshall McLuhan on David Cronenberg as the latter was conceiving and making 1983’s Videodrome, which Ripatrazone characterizes — correctly, I think — as “perfect viewing for 2017 — the year a man baptized by television becomes president.” The article also provides an able introduction to McLuhan’s legacy, reputation, and influence.

In his audio commentary for the film, Cronenberg admits that the professor [Brian O’Blivion, who runs the sinister Videodrome broadcast and its attendant “mission” for homeless people, the Cathode Ray Mission] was inspired by the “communications guru” Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan taught at the University of Toronto while Cronenberg attended, but to his “everlasting regret,” he never took a course with the media icon. Cronenberg said that McLuhan’s “influence was felt everywhere at the university” — a mystical-tinged description that McLuhan would have appreciated. . . .

McLuhan was a scholar of James Joyce, a purveyor of print. He documented the advent of the electric eye, but he didn’t desire it. Although he had “nothing but distaste for the process of change,” he said you had to “keep cool during our descent into the maelstrom.” Max can’t keep cool. He is infected by Videodrome; the show’s reality subverts its unreal medium. Max discovers that Professor O’Blivion helped create Videodrome because “he saw it as the next phase in the evolution of man as a technological animal.” Sustained viewing of Videodrome creates tumors and hallucinations. Max is being played by the remaining originators of Videodrome, whose philosophy sounds downright familiar: “North America’s getting soft, and the rest of the world is getting tough. We’re entering savage new times, and we’re going to have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them.” Videodrome is a way to identify the derelicts by giving them what they most crave — real violence — and then incapacitate them into submission.

McLuhan’s idea that “mental breakdown is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information,” and his simultaneous interest in, and skepticism of, the “electric eye” finds a gory literalism in Cronenberg’s film. Videodrome is what happens when a self-described existentialist atheist channels McLuhan — but makes McLuhan’s Catholic-infused media analysis more secular and raw. Cronenberg was able to foretell our electronic evolution, the quasi-Eucharistic way we “taste and see” the Internet. The film’s gore and gush might now strike us as campy, but Videodrome shows what happens when mind and device become one. “Death is not the end,” one character says, but “the beginning of the new flesh.” We’re already there.

FULL TEXT: The Video Word Made Flesh: ‘Videodrome’ and Marshall McLuhan

WE SLEEP – John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ as Prophecy (video essay)

Love this video essay from filmmaker (and former Buddhist Studies scholar) Daniel Clarkson Fisher. Perhaps you will, too. It’s great stuff, excellently conceived and executed. Perhaps I don’t agree with absolutely all of the political statements made in it. But I agree with enough of them. And anyway, it’s about Carpenter’s They Live. So what else matters?

From the included interviews:

Slavov Zizek: They Live from 1988 is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left. It tells the story of John Nada — nada, of course, in Spanish, means “nothing,” a pure subject deprived of all substantial content — a homeless worker in L.A. who, drifting around, one day enters an abandoned church and finds there a strange box full of sunglasses. And when he puts one of them on, walking along the L.A. streets, he discovers something weird: that these glasses function like “critique of ideology” glasses. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, publicity glitz, posters, and so on.

John Carpenter: I was reflecting on a lot of the values that I saw around me at the time, mainly inspired by Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution. There was a great deal of obsession with greed and making a lot of money, and some of the values that I grew up with had been pushed aside. So I decided to scream out in the middle of the night and make a statement about that. And They Live is partially a political statement. It’s partially a tract on the world that we live in today. And as a matter of fact, right now it’s even more true than it was then.

My introduction to Jon Padgett’s ‘The Secret of Ventriloquism’

As I have mentioned in the past, my good friend Jon Padgett’s debut horror fiction collection The Secret of Ventriloquism, featuring an introduction by me, is a very special piece of work. It has been gratifying to see how events in the several months since I last talked about it have borne this out. Rue Morgue Magazine selected it as the Best Fiction Book of 2016. Michael Calia praised it in The Wall Street Journal. It has gained additional reviews and enthusiastic endorsements from the likes of Paul Tremblay, who describes it as “a horror revelation,” and Weird Fiction Review, where reviewer Adams Mills asserts that it is “a collection that begs to be read as a whole, and then also to be revisited past the first reading.”

If this whets your appetite, be advised that right now, for a limited time, the Kindle edition can be downloaded for free. (After reading it, I think you might also find that you want to buy a physical copy.) [UPDATE 3/26/17: Alas, this offer has now expired.]

To whet your appetite even further, here’s the complete text of my introduction.

* * *

Introduction to

The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett

S. T. Joshi has famously argued that the truly great authors of weird fiction have been great precisely because they use their stories as a vehicle for expressing a coherent worldview. I would here like to advance an alternative thesis. I would like to assert that one of the characteristics of great weird fiction, and most especially weird horror—not the sole characteristic, of course, since weird horror is a multifaceted jewel, but a characteristic that is crucial and irreducible in those works of the weird that lodge in the reader’s mind with unforgettable force and intensity—is a vivid and distinct authorial voice.

Can you imagine Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” without the sonorous narrative voice that speaks from the very first page in tones of absolute gloom and abject dread? Can you imagine Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” minus its voice of detached, dreamlike trepidation tinged with cosmic horror, as generated by the author’s distinctive deployment of diction and artistry of prose style? Or Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House without the striking establishment of voice in the classic opening paragraph (“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream…”), which then develops over the course of the novel into a sustained tone of mingled dread, loneliness, and melancholy? Or what about Ligotti’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin” without its measured tone of fearful discovery foregrounded against an emotional backdrop of desolate inner wintriness, as delivered in the narrative voice of an unnamed social anthropologist investigating a strange clown festival in an American Midwestern town? Each of these stories would be not just diminished but fundamentally altered—neutered, hamstrung, eviscerated—by the removal of its distinctive voice, which, vitally, is not just the narrative voice of the individual story but the voice of the author expressing itself through the environment of that particular work. Read the rest of this entry