I was born in the back end of paradise at the foot of a wall. Now I’m old enough and ugly enough to fend for myself. But I don’t. This morning I’m attending a conference on survival. Not survival in the wild, but survival in the arts. It’s much the same. It’s the end of the world as we know it right in this moment here and also the one you’re in now. So in the post-apocalyptic landscape, all forms of survivalism are valid. Dystopia is handed to you in the pages of the morning Metro as you hurry for your first coffee of the day. A man in a woolly hat stands still amid the human traffic of morning commuters. He studies the ground in a hazed oblivion searching for stray cigarette butts. He looks pleased and surprised when he spots one. As though just realising the answer to a puzzle. Automated voices announce train times and reality fades to a veil of early morning hysteria. Crisp packets rustle and work acquaintances make polite conversation. Struggling with weak smiles that seem heavy and irrelevant given the state of things. We have become like coral or a yeast. A living thing en masse teeming with anxiety unable to separate our consciousness from one another. The survivalists try to predict which apocalyptic scenario will get us first. Stocking their bunkers with tinned food but also learning to hunt and forage. But the apocalypse is here. It is this slow death. A slow death of knowing that it is all so subtly wrong but being powerless to change a thing. In the distance, a boat with a broken sail floats idly on flood lake in the midst of chaos. The scene fades out.
Tag Archives: dystopia
The summer you gave me has frozen over inside an empty flat. Black on blue like the bruises insomnia leaves below my eyes. The flat is the barren plain where scraps of scrub grow resilient to the weather which beckons their death. The shabby forms of five writers sit on the shelf above the television set which is fuzzy and speaking only in tongues. Icicles form stalactites below the broad shelf, the scuffed shoes of the writers dangling as they look to each other for an answer to the question my eyebrows pose.
Jack scrapes grit from his boot with a dirty finger.
“I know the most about this winter. This icesheet. But why should I help someone who has condemned me as tired cliches your young self believed in?”
He looks at Gabriel.
“No pedestal for me when sat next to him. But I make you write don’t I? Because you think you can do better. With him you tremble with love and forget the plot.”
Gabriel said nothing. He grinned at me warmly. His face was weatherbeaten and tanned. But a tan in the light of winter looks a strange and suspicious thing. His teeth were crumbling, the more he smiled the more they slipped from his mouth like sand. His dark eyes held a love and sadness that made my heart break. That simultaneously brought value to what I felt and devalued it as trivial nonsense.
Margaret is reading. A shabby old leather-bound book, the title so faded that I can’t make it out.
“Margaret,” Jack says. “Surely you have an opinion? Like me you always do.”
Margaret lowers her reading spectacles with a long finger and peers at me and then over at Jack. They look like the construction workers hanging over New York City in that famous photo. Smiles and lunch boxes, legs dangling into the metropolitan abyss. But Margaret is the tallest and the only one who doesn’t wear a hat.
“Are you making this political, Jack? You’re not always subtle.”
Jack pointed to a spider shivering in is cobwebbed lair. “I don’t make it. It’s just the shape it comes. The pieces just fit together what the picture says is up to you.”
Margaret chuckled wisely and turned to me. “Make of that what you will!”
Her voice is clipped. American English. Two Americans and one Latin American. And what of the others? Who are the mystery pair in shadow on the end of the shelf? The whites of their eyes faintly visible in the gloom as they study the cold room with puzzlement.
“Why is it winter in here and summer outside?” I ask aloud this time. My voice shakes as though my vocal chords are wired up to a distortion pedal. as though the frog in my throat is a snake’s rattle.
The distortion moves around the room, latching onto other sounds which gather like a storm until the writers’ voices are lost. The creaks of the house become shrieks. The slight hiss of electricity becomes a mass. The spider scuttles to safety. Time folds up on itself like origami crushed under foot. And inside the folded pages I hold my ears and cower, waiting for the end.
Kaleidoscope thinking is what we turn to between wake & the subconscious. Whether ill or drugged or between dreams. Thoughts return to the first pattern. Colours bleed & lead the eye in one direction only to disappear. To become something else. Voices from the real world call from off-stage – planning debauchery. Discontent with the peaceless world, we chase release – deep sleep, R.E.M. We know it’s there somewhere among the changing colours, but we re-adjust focus & it’s gone. Ethereal in the darkness. A lost highway. We follow another colour, a game begins but ends in meaninglessness. We prepare an exit stategy, yet are somehow already in the next pen, the next room, the next Knightmare floor falling away beneath our feet. We sweat with frustration, side-stepping one patch of nonsense only to tread in another. The walls waver & flap in a breeze that fails to cool. Body hot, but skin ice cold, riddled with goosegrass & goosebumps. Heated by an internal furnace stoked by mindless slaves. A song is stuck on repeat. Like the kaleidoscope it seems to tune into the next line but fails. The key is lost so it repeats the last line again, hoping for more success. The colours are psychedelic but not endless. Eventually, sporadically, they become what they were. You have a vague notion thoughts are repeating, but you’re unsure. Whether ill or drugged or between dreams. Thoughts return to the first pattern. Colours bleed & lead the eye in one direction only to disappear. To become something else.
I am nocturnal by habit and happily so. It must be the fox genes. So it made beautiful sense to me when someone in my writing crit group distinguished the idea of night logic and day logic in writing styles. It’s like when I first ‘discovered’ magic realism. I was already writing it, I just didn’t know it had a name. Nor a complex cultural history, emerging between old folklore and contemporary writing styles like a shadow with its own mind and its own experiential narrative running through inky hand-drawn veins.
Night logic loves ambiguity, the fantastical, the subconscious seeping like goblin juice through the fine line between reality and the imaginary hinterland. I could easily slip here into a dense debate of whether there even exists such a thing as objective reality, but frankly I’ve not had enough whisky for that sort of talk.
I don’t dislike day logic. It was a mixed diet of both Ken Loach and David Lynch that turned my teenage self into a cinephile, after all. But in terms of both acute inspiration and self-expression, magic realism and night logic are my default setting. From Maurice Sendak, to Jorge Luis Borges, to Gunter Grass, to Richard Farina – my eclectic voyages into the human soul, into why we are what we are, start and end with the subconscious, with night logic.
All characters written, read or experienced are first and foremost a mystery. A mystery unravelling to themselves and the figurative reader. We show the most about ourselves in what we subdue, in quiet moments, in the black box recorder buried somewhere amongst our vital organs. Some stories just can’t be told with straightforward chronology, with clinical terms. We must wage battle with abstract nouns, mythical struggles and the restless song of the night-time breeze which refuses to explain what that strange sound was, or why our eyes forever play tricks in the dark.
This blog is written as a part of the Magic Realism blog hop organised by Zoe Brooks. For more on the magic realism hop here plus an ebook giveaway.
Promoting literature in the landscape of the post-MTV generation isn’t easy. No surprise the ‘book trailer’ has become a thing. When I first set up the website for Bees Make Honey a friend of mine (from the putrid bowels of The Social, step up Sirus Garfur) said “Looks interesting, but that’s a lot of words. Can you just tell me what it’s about?”
The short we made for Dogtooth Chronicals was born in chaos & utterly flawed. The starring role was taken by someone who looks nothing like the character, Wolfgang (as much as we tried to tramp him up & ply him with strong coffee to make him look wired). But I’m still dead proud of it & happy I got to experiment with using scratchy doodles.
So, a few points on book trailers & our piece in question…
- Don’t try to be a film trailer. You’ll fail.
- Don’t stick a camera in the author’s face & let them ramble about their masterpiece unless they’re more enigmatic & batshit mental than Hunter S. Thompson.
- Be prepared to make many compromises. I had to sacrifice a funny bit of dialogue about Rotherham bus station due to practical constraints. Bygones.
- Think outside the box, but remember point one (you’re not David Lynch). The extract we used for this didn’t make the cut for the novel – as it progressed neither plot nor character – but it was perfect to represent a bunch of things about the novel quickly.
- (Plug) If you live in the Midlands or Yorkshire Phil is totally available for hire to help make your book trailer. Email me firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
I posted a few of my favourite bits I had to cut from the novel on this blog many moons ago, so here is the full extract for Doggerel complete with dictionary definition, should you want it.
A book is a commitment, a film is a brief fling. I can cram several films into one week, even between hefty work & play commitments, whereas even short novels take me at least a fortnight to digest. I take a very deep breath when opening a chunky & complex volume (such as my current three-months-and-counting marriage to Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon).
*I know this seems rich from someone who debuts their writing career with a 700 page beast, but…*
Despite beginning as a novelist, it is well-documented that I’m a huge film geek. For some reason I feel more confident blogging about films. While there are still hundreds of key titles I’ve not yet seen, I feel pretty film-literate. I’m happy to argue til the cows come home over which directors I think are a bit overrated & which I’d gnaw through my own paw to work with (Park Chan Wook? How about it? Gwan, gwan, gwan…)
*Yes I did just couple a Father Ted catchphrase with patois. You’re welcome.*
On the subject of dystopia, there is much meat on the cinema chicken. I would argue, however, that a truly authentic dystopia requires the depth, development & complexity usually only birthed through the art form that is The Novel (or its graphic relations). So, here’s a few favourites…
1. The Road
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy (who also wrote the brilliantly brutal Coen-Bros-return-to-form No Country for Old Men) & directed by John Hillcock, The Road gives little indication of what brutal apocalypse created the living hell described. Yet the atmosphere of dread crawls into your veins & stays beyond the end credits. Despite only having one really frightening scene (in terms of an audience numbed by modern cinema), it has a visceral horror than runs throughout. Could such a subtly cruel skeleton of a story be written straight as a screenplay? Possibly. Could such a premise have been funded for filming without an incredible novel behind it? Doubtful.
Before that other book/movie franchise with a similar premise brought the word ‘dystopian’ to the cinema-going masses (I don’t need to name it, it gets enough attention), there was the great cult hit Battle Royale. It was only recently I discovered this had its origins in a Japanese novel of the same name by Koushun Takimi. Battle Royale depicts a future in which as bizarre ‘punishment’, a group of school children are taken to an island & forced to play a game in which the only way to finally survive is to kill everyone else. It is the layers of understanding in young human relationships & behaviour that set this apart & add validity to its exploration of controversial subject matter.
That’s not even the full list of films adapted from novels or short stories by Philip K. Dick, the godfather of metaphysical Sci Fi. And these are just the stories attributed to him. Arguably, (like George Orwell & H.G Wells) most dystopian cinema owes him something in terms of the complex exploration of speculative ideas.
I include Terry Gilliam’s Brazil as a counter argument. It was written as a screenplay & is up there in the ‘best of dystopian cinema’ list. It owes a great deal to the novelists listed above though (& a few not mentioned).
By Kazuo Ishiguro. While I know the dark premise, I’ve neither read the book or seen the film. This is because I have the book & I want to read it first, but going back to my opening paragraph, I’m a slow reader. Checking details on the IMDb though has led me to notice the screenplay was adapted by Alex Garland, who I can geek about until my hair falls out. Garland is an auteur of both novel & film. His first two novels, The Beach & The Tesseract, were adapted into films (despite great subject matter, both are watchable rammel) before turning his hand to writing screenplays (mostly for The Beach’s director Danny Boyle). Both 28 Days Later & Sunshine are Alex Garland creations.
I passed this by on its release, it just seemed like one of those heavy-initial-context films (a future in which humanity have proved infertile for 18 odd years resulting in many bad things), which was likely just an excuse to shove a chiselled face in front of the camera (step up Clive Owen), and play out a bunch of action set-pieces which result in said-chiselled-face saving the world. It’s actually based on a novel by P.D. James (good gosh, a woman) & while beautifully shot, also holds a gritty Britishness (Gritishness, thanks Layts). It feels very unsettlingly authentic – from the mundanity of turning-a-blind eye to the illegal immigrants caged outside tube stations, to the creepily self-righteous agenda of the anarchist ‘Fishes’, to Peter Mullan’s bent copper. (Michael Caine’s hippy character refers to him as a fascist, but really this assumes he believes in something.)
Out of curiosity I looked up one of cinemas greatest & earliest explorations of dystopia, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Turns out it was written originally as a novel & translated to screenplay by his wife & long-time collaborator Thea von Harbou. In fact it looks like she wrote most of his best work & some of F.W. Murnau’s too.
A little known & much underrated film in my humbles. This is a live action film based on an Anime from the 1970s. It’s of the post-nuclear war, dead-hero-reincarnated-to-battle-a-race-of-mutant-androids variety. I’m not sure if the complex plot holds water, but mainly this is a sumptuous feast for your eyeballs. It calls up aspects of graphic novels, but at the same time also the visions of Romanticist painters. It’s beautiful. Really. And this brings to light the other great birthpool of cinematic dystopias – comics, anime & graphic novels.
The funny thing about A Clockwork Orange is that the film was very much Stanley Kubrick’s version of the novel by Anthony Burgess. I read an article recently which suggested the humour that comes about from the so very bizarre, disturbing character (& characters) of the film was not Burgess’ intention. He was deadly serious. He was actually quite conservative. He wrote it possibly more as a fantasy of revenge after his pregnant wife was violently beaten by American servicemen & later miscarried. It was an exploration of juvenile delinquency & free will, rather than a comment on how ridiculous & horrible it is to try to ‘cure’ the deviant mind in this way. Apparently he wasn’t too impressed with Kubrick’s creation.
10. Twelve Monkeys
Another Terry Gilliam chink in my poorly armoured argument. But it brings me to raise another of my great heroes to the light, Chris Marker. Chris Marker was a French filmmaker who made the original short film Le Jetee, which the clever premise of Twelve Monkeys is loosely based on. It is largely agreed (by me & whoever else in the pub whose seen it) to be one of the greatest film shorts ever made. He also made the brilliant San Soleil, you can buy the two together on compilation, something I urge you to do if you have even the slightest interest in filmmaking, philosophy or art. Twelve Monkeys is also pretty damn good.