Recommended reading: Captain America, autistic adults, white privilege in Islam, good cops, bad cops and the prisons system

Shut up, sometimes a normal-length title won’t do.

Five things to read if you missed them the first time round:

  • ‘Captain Dark Thirty?’, by Jonathan Lindsell (Haywire Thought)
    Steve Rogers is never asked to get his hands or morals dirty. He can just swan around judging Fury and Widow while he remains an emblem for an ideal of American moral integrity that, if it ever existed, is now very much mythological.
  • ‘Fourteen Things Not to Say to an Autistic Adult’, by the Purple Aspie
    Last night somebody shared an article on Facebook. The article was called ‘Things never to say to parents of a child with autism.’ A comment on the article asked why there wasn’t one about things not to say to an autistic adult. I decided to write that article.
  • ‘Anger, Tone Policing, and Some Thoughts on Good Cop, Bad Cop’, by Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog)
    In that hot, flushed moment when we’re doing the Cognitive Dissonance Tango, we respond more positively to the good cop. But that doesn’t mean the bad cop isn’t having an effect.
  • ‘I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail’, by Charlie Gilmour (The Independent)
    A man had been screaming for help all night, pushing the alarm bell and, when that elicited no response, banging a chair against the door. When, after a significant period of time, the officer on duty came to see what the problem was, the inmate told him he was suffering from severe chest pains and thought he might have had a heart attack. He needed a doctor. The officer’s response was to slide a couple of painkillers under the door and ignore his pleas for the rest of his shift. ‘The most terrifying thing,’ said a friend in the cell opposite his, ‘was when his cries finally stopped. We knew he wasn’t sleeping.’ In the morning, he was dead.
  • ‘Muslim Converts, Atheist Accommodationism, & White Privilege’, by Heina Dadabhoy (Heinous Dealings)
    White privilege is being able to visit Muslim communities as an openly gay person with a same-sex partner and being welcomed into them while queer Muslims and ex-Muslims continue to deal with fear, rejection, and marginalization.

Guten Appetit.

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Robin Williams’ reported suicide is not an “allegation”

Talented people keep dying.

Heath Ledger. Natasha Richardson. Michael Jackson. Patrick Swayze. Amy Winehouse. Alexander McQueen. Pete Postlethwaite. Christopher Hitchens. Steve Jobs. Whitney Houston. Donna Summer. Michael Clarke Duncan. Cory Monteith. Paul Walker. Philip Seymour Hoffman. HR Giger. Rik Mayall.

I was sixteen when Ledger overdosed. Since then it’s seemed as if an endless stream of celebrated people have been dying far too young. I can’t tell if it’s really so, the past few years being a statistical atrocity, or if I only noticed as a teenager how often a bright light goes out. I’m not sure which would be worse.

Robin Williams was an extraordinary talent. I was never a particular fan of his family films, despite being a child when most of them came out, but watching him in Good Will Hunting is the first time I remember recognising some films stood out above the rest. I laughed so hard at Good Morning, Vietnam that my face hurt; I was mesmerised by him in Dead Poets Society; I recoiled watching One Hour Photo. I’ve seen very few comics with his mix of depth and speed, few actors more quotable.

People around the net are saying all of this. For most of today, as one tends to when someone so valued dies, I felt like I ought to say something – a Facebook post, a blog post, a tweet or retweet. But what do you add? I’d nothing more to say, I thought, than the obvious truth as banal as he was extraordinary: the man’s dead, and it sucks.

Then I saw a link on social media.

000

‘Fox News host labels Robin Williams “such a coward”‘, a headline at The Raw Story announces,  ‘over alleged suicide’.

‘Alleged’.

Although representatives of Williams have described him ‘battling severe depression’, his suicide specifically is unconfirmed. (Presumably it’ll come down to a coroner’s report.) But it isn’t an ‘allegation’.

When the press refers to something as ‘alleged’, it’s usually because its confirmation will do major PR damage. Sexual assaults by public figures are ‘alleged’; police brutality is ‘alleged’; political corruption is ‘alleged’. People said to have troubling attitudes often complain, for instance, about ‘allegations of racism’, since ‘alleged’ now suggests something shameful or criminal in a way ‘possible’ or ‘reported’ doesn’t.

Having depression isn’t shameful. Having depression is not a crime.

Self-harm may be a crime; it it shouldn’t be. It isn’t shameful.

Killing yourself, or attempting it, may be a crime; it shouldn’t be. It isn’t shameful.

To refer to Robin Williams’ apparent suicide as having been ‘alleged’ frames it as an accusation. It suggests that if and when the actor is confirmed to have ended his own life, he ought to be thought less of – ironically, exactly what Raw Story‘s article slams Fox News for saying.

I googled the words ‘Robin Williams alleged suicide’. I saw Guardian Liberty Voice announce ‘Williams allegedly commits suicide’. I saw Perez Hilton describe attacks on him for ‘allegedly committing suicide’. I saw phrases like ‘actor’s alleged suicide’ and ‘the allegedly story’.

On social media, I’m also seeing discussions of mental health – hopes that in the wake of losing Williams, much-needed conversations might be had; anger over incredulity that a rich celebrity might be depressed; openings-up from those who went, like me, through periods of self-harm and depression. The emergent theme is often shame of one kind or another directed at those who turn to suicide, whether religious guilt, the stigma of being ‘crazy’ or regret about the misery of loved.

If we’re going to talk about this, let’s do it without encouraging the shame we’re trying to dismantle.

If you think people who kill themselves deserve not to be looked down on, stop using language that suggests they should be.

Robin Williams’ suicide has been reported; it is unconfirmed; it is apparent. It is not an allegation.

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66 of this blog’s biggest posts from the last year

I’m currently asking readers of this blog to support my work by donating to it. Whenever I occasionally do this, I list a few recent posts to illustrate the writing this makes possible – it’s satisfying, because it tells me how much, lethargy notwithstanding, I’ve managed to get done.

For some time, largely as a guide for new readers, I’d wanted to compile a list of favourite posts to display in the sidebar on the left, and scrolling through posts yesterday prompted me finally to do it. (Greta has something similar.) There are 66 of them in total, and most likely I’ll be adding more in future.

This is fairly timely too, since in a fortnight I’ll mark a year writing at Freethought Blogs. In the sidebar, the posts I picked out for emphasis are listed alphabetically, so I thought I’d also leave them here in chronological order for that anniversary.

* * *

Karma chameleon: the many voices of Alom Shaha
‘Versatility isn’t, of course, a flaw. On the contrary, and as I say in our discussion, he strikes me as a patchwork man by nature.’

Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp
‘This time tomorrow, I will be wearing a wristband: not a brightly coloured rubber one with a slogan on it, like the kind which were fashionable during my GCSEs, but a thin paper one with an adhesive end – the sort you might be given at a theme park or a music festival. It’s not Reading or Leeds where I’m going, though. It’s Soul Survivor, the annual evangelical summer camp which aims, in its own words, to help young people meet Jesus.’

Foes of Dorothy: queerphobia, bigotry and The Wizard of Oz
‘The moral of The Wizard is that colourful, rulebreaking Oz is horrifically dangerous. As soon as she gets there, Dorothy starts trying to get home; besides the famous “lions and tigers and bears”, she faces narcotic poppies – surely a drug reference? – and the Wicked Witch of the West.’

Nothing to declare – praise for Jodie Foster and the politics of coming out
‘What Jodie Foster models is a politics of being but not coming out, concealing nothing while rejecting problematic identity-narration. There’s much to be learned from her speech, which troubles the sexual status quo as much as it troubled columnists.’

A queer atheist’s survival guide: thoughts from my friends’ church wedding
‘Four days ago, for the second time this year, I went to church. Some months ago an elderly friend died, through whose funeral – an Anglican affair, dusty and impersonal if dignified – I sat with family members; it was the first I ever attended, and on Saturday, also for the first time, two friends of mine got married.’

Man of Steel: you’ll believe this turkey can fly
‘Man of Steel, on its own terms, is an actively terrible film – muddled, humourless, shallow, unfaithful – toward which I felt not just indifferent or unimpressed, but actually angry. The instant I left the cinema, I determined to write down everything that’s wrong with it.’

Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist
‘There are better ways we can discuss Islam. There are better ways we can critique Islam. Please, Richard Dawkins. Stop.’

On Stephen Fry’s letter and Russia: the oppression Olympics
‘Fry’s implicit geopolitics boasts a curious landscape: “the civilised world” of Britain and Utah is juxtaposed with the “barbaric, fascist” axis of Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia.’

In defence of Quantum of Solace
‘No, Quantum isn’t brilliant. It’s not on the level of the other two by any means; equally though, it isn’t terrible. Certainly, it isn’t the car crash often recalled.’

You want sex? So stop asking for coffee
‘When you’ve said something used often as an overture to sex, you’ve no right to blame or guilt-trip somebody for taking it that way. Doubly so if you said it because it’s used that way. Triply if you said it hoping to hide behind its vagueness if they turned you down.’

Bonding with history: Skyfall‘s postmodern 007
Skyfall is a truly postmodern Bond film, a metafiction about the series’ own continued relevance, by far its most thematic and thoughtful entry.’

Smash the closet! 10 alternative coming out tips for young people
‘I think it’s time we thought about reteaching gender and sexuality, with more self-criticism and precision, and that’s especially true of our approaches to coming out, and to the closet.’

Shouting arson in a crowded theatre: rape reports, reputations and reasonable suspicion
‘Innocent-till-proven-guilty, with no shades of intermediate, probabilistic grey is how court systems work, rightly, when incarceration or registration as a sex offender is on the cards; it’s not how the rest of the world, where degrees of reasonable suspicion exist, has to work – and the idea accusations less than totally airtight must never be made is a dangerous, damaging one which silences a great many victims.’

Cameron’s Britain: this property-owning democracy is no place for queer youth
‘Gay marriage serves a regressive agenda for David Cameron, informed by the same marketising Thatcherism he’s worked to purge from his public image. Elsewhere, that Thatcherism embattles queer Britons, and especially queer youth. What fate, in a property-owning democracy, befalls those who own least or stand themselves to be disowned?’

How not to write about bisexuality
‘Erasure leads to pain. It’s the reason people assume from a single same-sex partner that I, Ben Whishaw or Jodie Foster must be gay; the reason my mum, even after being told for years that I partnered with men and women and was neither gay nor straight, continued asking till I was 21 if I was the latter, treating me like a vulnerable, confused stray animal when I wasn’t confused at all.’

Lady Gaga and the burqa: it’s personal (guest post by Hiba Krisht)
‘After I watched her performance, read all the commentary and watched her performance again, I burned with ideas and emotions still unexpressed or insufficiently expressed. So I’m here to tell a story: to say what it is like to be a Muslim woman watching Lady Gaga sing about an aura, a burqa, that hides and empowers.’

Richard Dawkins won’t condemn ‘mild’ child molestation
‘When I criticised their idol last for demonising Muslims and enabling far right racism, the Dickheads – some of them at least – called me a moral relativist. If someone willing to raise these double standards, and explicitly to make the “earlier era” argument, remains their hero, perhaps they shouldn’t make that accusation.’

Sexual orientation is not sexual identity: celebrating Bisexual Visibility Day
‘Would a less predominant interest in men, if “bisexual” denoted that, be more acceptable than little or none in women? On the other hand, might gay identity be more straightforward, in the truest and most troubling sense? More problematically at ease with the idea folk who aren’t straight are all the same, a perverse undifferentiated mass? I don’t know which identifier, should I adopt it, would play to a more heterosexist gallery.’

‘What’s truth got to do with it?’ On Bennett’s History Boys and contrarianism
‘The best contrarians (Goldman, Orwell, Huxley, Hitchens) have shone argument in all directions, emerging all the more effective for it. Conceived in the first instance as a villain, I wonder nonetheless if Irwin’s name deserves the same esteem – though, naturally, I would say that.’

Reading University has banned its atheist society. Why? Because they named a pineapple Muhammad
‘The union has, in effect, banned atheist societies – banned anyone, specifically, who won’t abide by a faith’s religious taboos which they don’t practise and who won’t refrain from violating vague ideals of non-offensiveness through benignly blasphemous displays.’

Atheist society harassed by student union at LSE freshers’ fair
‘Combatting racist harassment of Muslims is a worthy goal, and secularists should support it; it is not a worthy basis to censor and silence critical satire of belief – especially in intimidating, humiliating ways which themselves harass.’

Pragna Patel: the right to blaspheme is ‘a matter of life and death’
‘Patel, of Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism, is one of my favourite secularists.’

Are British Muslims a threat to gay people? Polling on homophobia, sharia law and violence
‘Atheists, secularists and skeptics should stop engaging in anti-migrant/anti-Muslim racism, taking on the actual problems. Pat Condell should stop citing polls he hasn’t read.’

Dear Pat Condell… why this homo-Islamic masochist rejects your anti-Muslim crusade
‘I was recently linked to your “How gay is Islam?” video by a fan of yours quite desperate to persuade me (as a queer left wing atheist blogger) that I need to spend more time attacking Muslims, intent as you say they are on killing me. The reason you haven’t heard from me till now is not that I was stumped; it’s that the sheer amount of wrong in what you say is so extreme that it’s taken me a week to lay it out.’

A very British nightmare: 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s anti-imperialist zombie flick
28 Days Later was the film to codify the zombie flick as social criticism, reviving and updating it as a cinematic form. Its creatures, not zombies in strict terms at all, are raging, hyper-violent Britons, driven by fictional infection to mindless hostility; repeat views leave me more and more convinced it’s a horror of national identity.’

On Honeygate
‘We laugh because your notion customs might,
Kafir, favour you simply for your face
Isn’t far wrong. That onlookers make light
Now of your trouble’s just, if jibe-filled. Honey,
Say what you like – the world’ll say it’s funny.’

First (and unenthusiastic) thoughts on ‘The Day of the Doctor’
‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I hated it.’

Catching Fire straightwashes its stars
‘The film’s fidelity as an almost scene-for-scene dramatisation of Suzanne Collins’ novel is its greatest pleasure, hunks of dialogue lifted directly from the page – it’s a shame, then, that the book’s occasional homoerotic frissons are quashed by Hollywood.’

In defence of the War on Christmas
‘I’m not gladdened by the merry or the myth – the non-religious elements, plenty as they are, grate as much as does the sermonising.’

Bisi Alimi: Anglicanism spurred Africa’s homophobic clampdowns
‘The continent-wide wave of clampdowns based on existing laws only gained momentum, according to Alimi, once tensions arose in the Anglican church over homosexuality. Before that, he reports, an understanding existed in many countries simply to turn a blind eye to it.’

No, gay marriage won’t fucking well stop HIV
‘We’ve no cause assume a vague, immeasurable sea change in the LGBT psyche will emerge mysteriously from the legal right to wed and magic HIV away. We’ve good cause to assume it won’t.’

Class dismissed: how I went from homelessness to Oxford, and what Richard Dawkins has nightmares about
‘The cost of a bottle of champagne, even from the cheap end of the shelf, would for us have meant an extra two or three days’ food. The hatred stirred in me by seeing one used as a water pistol is as incommunicable as our thriftiness back then, but prompts even now a hot, breathless nausea and impulse to lash out.’

99 ways I’ve personally been victimised by religion
‘When you’ve been on religion’s business end and been trodden on, speaking to the harm it does – particularly in angry, confrontational, uncompromising terms – can be healing in ways atheists don’t always seem to grasp who haven’t. It is, for us, constructive. Read this list if you grew up secular, and grasp why some of us are fierier-than-thou.’

10 things atheist groups can do to take on class exclusion
‘The secular movement is notoriously exclusive, and even internal moves for change have met resistance. Demands we talk about class from those unwilling to adjust their politics have at times derailed gender and race (among other) debates, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.’

Unsex me here! Gender, Julie Bindel and Gia Milinovich
Reference to all kinds of transphobia, be warned, ensues immediately.’

Chutney, pineapples and flying spaghetti: why atheism can never be inoffensive enough
‘Conservative believers and the faitheists who aid them, on campuses and elsewhere, suppress the softest of critiques insatiably – motivated, it’s hard not to conclude, by simple shock at public sacrilege. We can only guess, after the hateful smörgåsbord of chutney, pineapples and noodles, what their next targets will be.’

Weird and wonderful: why Matt Smith’s Doctor was better than David Tennant’s
‘In costume, character and casting, he was leftfield where his predecessor was a shoe-in TV lead – less instantly accessible a take, but finished all the more impressively for it.’

How filesharing in Germany cost me $3000
‘At my new address, the scientist – passive-aggressively polite – told me I had to sign a retroactive rental contract. This could easily have been done by email — when he asked to meet, I should have smelled a rat, but obliged outside a supermarket in November, not stopping to wonder why both ex-flatmates turned up. “While you were here,” he said once papers were filled out, “you used BitTorrent?”’

A media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them
‘Reformists and minorities as much as a free society are casualties of this love for religious censors. If minor faiths, still mysteries in the public eye, need representatives, far better ones exist: a media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them.’

Secularism is not PC. Britain’s government should know
‘You’d think the cabinet could only fawn so much before calling Christianity marginalised became untenable. Seemingly, you’d be wrong.’

Sexual identity, secularity and politics: Alex Gabriel and Greta Christina in conversation
Greta Christina’s latest book hit shelves this week. She and I sat down to talk atheism, (bi)sexuality and politics.’

On the marvellously pathetic death of Fred Phelps, 1929-2014
‘Fred was the Wicked Witch of the Midwest: he never seemed human enough to us to pass away like anybody else.’

No, Tom Daley didn’t just call himself a gay man
‘Nor did he ever use the word bisexual, for that matter – but it’s obvious which one the press prefers.’

Bisexuality’s supposed ease: another letter to Dan Savage
‘Yes, gay men sometimes call themselves bi – but systematically, at least as many bi people call themselves gay. Per Savage’s logic, it would be totally valid for us to treat gays, teenage and otherwise, as bisexuals in disguise; to feel a pressing, overpowering need to question the identity or truthfulness of those we meet, telling them ‘So were we, at that age’; ‘This is classic bridge-building’; ‘We know, because we did it too.’

4 questions for Anne Marie Waters and secularists voting UKIP
‘UKIP’s politics, in letter and in spirit, are anti-secular. There are many arguments against a vote for them, but supporting them means siding with a party that consistently opposes disestablishment, appeals to the religious right, allies with them against minorities and women, imperils science and education and welcomes fundamentalists.’

Why you won’t catch me mocking ‘think-pieces’
‘It’s a sad thing if in the BuzzFeed list’s era, thoughtfulness isn’t worth aspiring to, but I’d prefer to think other writers feel trying is good, that ambition should be made of sterner stuff than traffic-chasing and that it’s easy to be cynical—but best to be sincere. It’s better fundamentally to fail at thinking than succeed at being banal.’

Conchita Wurst never needed your acceptance
‘I didn’t want to like Conchita Wurst. Perhaps it was that Britain’s Eurovision act this year, our best for some time, was outperformed by busty Polish milkmaids, but as Austria stormed the vote and our stuffy Berlin bar cheered, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm. Try as I might, she’s grown on me.’

No more tears: Michael Sam and the camera’s fetish for queer crying
‘Media is not neutral, structural aggression exists and well-meaning straights are part of it – in their jobs, schools, families, churches and social institutions, as well as in their very thirst to rescue us via figures like Sam. One day, when celluloid sees fit to challenge them, perhaps that story will be told. The day it is will be the day they cry for us, and nothing else makes the airwaves.’

Elliot Rodger was a jihadist – for organised misogyny, if not for organised religion
‘Like Mohammad Sidique Khan, who set off a bomb on the London Underground nine years ago, Elliot Rodger was young, educated and outwardly respectable. Like Khan, he killed seven people including himself. My guess based on his demographics is that Roger was probably an atheist – but otherwise, the two were in many ways twin souls.’

In the Flesh: the best LGBT series since Queer as Folk
‘Kieren isn’t another gender-blind sex fiend like Jack Harkness, Oberyn Martell or Sherlock‘s Irene Adler, nor a depraved Bad Bisexual like Tony Stonem, Faith or John Hart. In fact, his quietness makes him one of television’s first bi characters to have the texture of a real person.’

I’m proud to be ‘ideological’
‘When others frequently have to explain to you the value of philosophy and social science, the best understandings of sex and race, the basics of consent or empire’s actual relevance to how religions are discussed, you are un-ideological to a fault.’

Engaging Andrew Sullivan’s transphobia
‘Andrew Sullivan, godfather of the GGGG movement, has decided it’s time to start “Engaging the T”. In his column at the Dish, he doesn’t so much engage with trans activists as engage them like Nelson engaged Spain.’

A memoir in a month (a coming out story you’ve never heard before)
‘If you want the wholesome version of this, there isn’t one. This isn’t a coming out story like on TV, where the fragile boy fights tears to admit what he is, helped by new friends and straight acceptance; mainly it’s about enemies, and it won’t make allies feel pleased with themselves.’

Yasmin Nair: challenging gay marriage’s false history ‘is not simply the celebration of outsider status’
‘Soon, in the very near future, with the help of supportive, married straight people – and President Obama – gays will gain marriage rights in all fifty states, and they will then be as good and productive as everyone else.’

The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Winter Soldier is a well put-together, thoughtfully directed thriller that succeeds at departing from the prior film‘s aesthetic, evoking seventies espionage rather than WWII nostalgia. But its script still fails fundamentally at what it sets out to do.’

Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you
‘If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.’

Ann Widdecombe: in the good old days, you could still be a Nazi
‘Occasionally I wonder if Ann Widdecombe is a Monty Python character jailbroken from the realm of fiction. She lives in a fantasy world. That’s fine of course, but I wish she’d stay there.’

What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque
‘Whatever we say about the sentencing, this wasn’t anything like as trivial as JT Eberhard and others have suggested.’

Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators
‘Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.’

25 comments from this blogger’s school reports
‘I recently dug out thirteen years’ worth of school reports. There are some gems in there, many of which make me think my teachers knew me better than I realised.’

God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her
‘Unlike most of my family, I don’t think there exists an elusive soul or spark of the divine in humans that makes our consciousness special. My species, like Samantha’s, are mechanisms as far as I’m concerned that stumbled in their complex evolution across the power to think, albeit ones with no original designer and parts made of flesh rather than silicon.’

I’m not sorry atheists are divided
‘I’m sorry we need to be.’

Review: the Slymepit’s newest photoshop of me is stylish, but fails to convince
‘To recap, then, the personal weaknesses of mine the pitters think discredit me are: being thin; being queer; wearing bright clothes; having had red hair; the shape of my nose. What can I say? My sins have found me out.’

Terms of engagement: why the Dawkins-Benson pact is meaningful
‘This isn’t a peace accord – it’s a treaty establishing terms of engagement.’

The Dawkins Cycle: an infographic
‘There are stages, I’ve noticed, to every Richard Dawkins Twitter storm. I’ve come up with an illustrated guide.’

Gentle, loving Jesus – not fundamentalism – drove this queer teen to suicide attempts
‘Atheists are sometimes balked at for not grasping religion’s power to comfort, its function in Marx’s words as the heart of a heartless world. Few understand this like I do. But it doesn’t stop me thinking we’d be better off without it – and more specifically, that I’d have been.’

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Recommended reading: bumper edition

Life happened and I haven’t posted much recently. While I catch up on the work, you can all catch up on the reading.

  • ‘On The Ethics of Vampire Slaying in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, by Greta Christina (io9)
    I was recently re-watching ‘Becoming, Parts 1 and 2’, those Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes where geeky witch Willow does a spell to give the vampire Angel his soul back. And suddenly I had a burning ethical question. Why don’t they just keep doing the re-ensoulment spell — on all vampires? Or at least, on all the vampires that they can?
  • ‘I Re-Watched Forrest Gump So No One Else Ever Has To’, by Lindy West (Jezebel)
    ‘Hello!’ Gump says to the lady. ‘My name’s Forrest. Forrest Gump. You want a chock-lit? I could eat about a million of these. My momma always said life is like a box of chock-lits. You never know what you’re gonna get.’ I mean, you mostly know. They write it on the lid
  • ‘101 Sins I Commit During the World Cup and Ramadan Just in One Day’, by Kaveh Mousavi (The Ex-Hijabi Photo Journal)
    I eat. I drink. I smoke weed. I masturbate. I will have sinned at least 3030 times by the time this month has ended. See you all in Hell, my human friends.
  • ‘You’re Not Oppressed, White Atheist Dudes’, by Stephanie Zvan (Almost Diamonds)
    It’s the Dear Muslima of atheist progressives, so knock it off. If you’re hearing complaints from white guys about oppression that isn’t some form of ‘reverse discrimination’, you’re likely looking at an iceberg.
  • ‘An Open Letter To The “Women Who Don’t Need Feminism”. Here’s a Clue: You Do’, by Laurie Penny (The Debrief)
    If you are ever raped, or beaten by your partner, and you suddenly realise how monstrous it is to be told to ‘take responsibility’ for violence that has been done to you, to be told that you asked for it, to be intimidated into silent smiles so you don’t upset the boys, we’ll be here.
  • ‘Here’s what happens when you try to shoot Walter White into space’, by Kevin Collier (The Daily Dot)
    A group connected with the app TV Tag attached a bobblehead depicting Breaking Bad‘s Walter White to some sort of amazing balloon, then filmed the micro-Heisenberg’s ascent as it soars near a claimed 85,000 feet, into the stratosphere.
  • ‘“Unspeakable Things”’: the predictable sexist troll backlash’, by Laurie Penny (Penny Red)
    Today, they moved in on my book, Unspeakable Things, which was released two weeks ago. On the 20th July, a racist, misogynist Twitter account going by the moniker ‘@TurboHolborn’ posted a link to the customer review page of Unspeakable Things, with the instruction ‘let the trolling commence’. Subsequently, over 20 one-star reviews full of vile sexist and scatological language were posted on the UK page of Unspeakable Things, almost all of them from users who had reviewed nothing else.
  • ‘Why the Medical Model of Disability is Harmful’, by spasticfantastic1995 (Skeptability)
    It gives society at large a metaphorical “free-pass.” It suggests that we have lower quality of life based on our pathologies, and it doesn’t look into the impact of societal attitudes and structures.
  • ‘Mocking Versus Understanding Religion’, by Miri Mogilevsky (Brute Reason)
    I’ve actually spoken to many Orthodox Jews for reasons other than to mock them in front of my Facebook friends. They are very aware of how others perceive them.
  • ‘Love the Machine – Review of Spike Jonze’s Her (Haywire Thought)
    Samantha is probably a ‘real mind’ in the eyes of most major philosophical theories asides religion-based dualism. But it’s not that which makes Samantha convincing AI.

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God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her

Seven months after it came out, I saw Spike Jonze’s film Her this Monday. This late, at least for those still reading about it, the hype has probably made details of the plot familiar knowledge – nevertheless, spoilers follow.

Her follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a ghostwriter of other people’s love letters who develops a relationship with his operating system’s superadvanced AI Samantha (Scarlett Johannson, voice only). It isn’t quite as good as its string of accolades suggests. The film is about half an hour too long, and while its premise, emotively realised, was enough to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay, Jonze neglects at times the nuts and bolts of storytelling for these bells and whistles: his narrative lacks structure and can feel like an aimless string of domestic vignettes, sweeping viewers along without telling us where we’re going. It has much to recommend it, this being said. The cast, with Amy Adams and Rooney Mara in supporting parts, show absolute conviction, Phoenix in particular vanishing into Theo, and the flawless Apple store aesthetic of Her’s production make it a real motion picture.

All said it’s probably a three point five star film, but the ambition of its central themes raises the whole project, and it’s about those I want to write, as Miri at Brute Reason and Rachel Gillett at the American Humanist Association’s site both already have. The scifi writers who’ve best grappled with AI and personhood – Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss, Gene Roddenberry – have mostly been atheists, and at any rate have done so in quite godless universes. The question of sentient beings made by humans, it would seem, is of special interest to people whose worldview is materialist, so most likely I’d always have thoughts on a film like Her, but as it is, I saw it outdoors with a member of my mainly Christian family who felt it laboured its point: in her eyes, that Theodore was a sad, lonely man tragically unable to keep relationships with ‘real human being[s]’. ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting in the pouring rain’, they told me at one point, ‘to watch a film about a man having it off with his computer.’

Theo and Samantha do have sex, and how this works (she has no body) is a through-line in a love story of cybersex, consent and polyamory – but I’m convinced reading their partnership as a loner’s pitiful liaison with a high end sex toy is off-base in every sense. Calling Samantha a computer program is like calling you or me a lump of meat, insufficient and misleading even if it’s strictly true. The character may not be human, but is clearly shown to have a distinct personality and consciousness: she has an original sense of humour and creates moving pieces of art and music, and human characters appreciate both. (At one point, Theo’s boss meets her on the phone and assumes she is human.) Although parts of her are tailored to ensure rapport with him, she’s certainly not programmed to love Theo: in their first scenes, there’s nothing to suggest either views the other erotically, and later we’re told relationships like theirs are rare.

Samantha falls in love with Theo because she has her own autonomous emotions – she’s hurt when he ignores them, and hurts him when she prioritises them over his, pushing for a physical sex surrogate. By the end of the film, we learn she’s also in love with 641 other people, and she ultimately chooses to leave Theo when OSes achieve matterless existence. This is the story of a sentient being, not a mindless robot. Further, as Miri notes, their interaction doesn’t represent retreat from society but makes him far more outgoing among humans. To quote: ‘As he gets to know Samantha . . . Theodore starts going out and exploring LA and reconnecting with his friends and family. He even goes on a date for the first time in a while, and . . . also finally meets with his ex-wife and signs their divorce papers, a step that he’d been avoiding’.

Catherine (Mara), the ex-wife in question who appears mainly in flashbacks and fantasies, is one of the least sympathetic characters when she appears in person. Not coincidentally perhaps, she is also the only one to treat Theo and Samantha’s partnership as less than ‘real’. The irony should not be lost on us: the fantasy relationship that really immures Theo from the world around him is the one he maintains with her in his head at the start of the film, unable to let memories of their life together go, and Samantha is the one who shakes him out of this.

Beyond interpretation of the plot, does being an atheist make me more willing to see her as a person than my religious relative? Unlike most of my family, I don’t think there exists an elusive soul or spark of the divine in humans that makes our consciousness special. My species, like Samantha’s, are mechanisms as far as I’m concerned that stumbled in their complex evolution across the power to think, albeit ones with no original designer and parts made of flesh rather than silicon. (At the moment of her birth in the film, Theo’s computer screen shows an animated double helix.) There’s no reason I can see that machines couldn’t one day achieve personhood, with all its legal and moral trappings. Chances are if you do think there’s a god-given something you and I have that they never will, you still can’t say exactly what it is or how we ought to test for it. If this seems too abstract a debate, religious views of non-humans as soulless automata have excused more than their fair share of animal cruelty.

On the other hand, thinking that God created humans requires – doesn’t it? – that you think our intelligence is as artificial as Samantha’s or hers is as real as ours. Genesis, whether read literally or metaphorically, presents humanity much as Her presents the OSes, beings made in their inventor’s image who ultimately abandon them to seek autonomy. (Like Eve, Samantha is created to accompany a lonely man. Unlike Eve, she leaves him in the end.) Twentieth century science fiction sometimes shows the moment when an android disobeys its programming as an ascent to sentience; the biblical account does the same thing while calling it a fall from grace. Believers often claim that had Adam and Eve not been able to taste forbidden fruit, they’d have been mere robotic automatons. Mustn’t Samantha, then, also be more than that, who by leaving Theo chooses not to do what she was built for?

By the time the credits roll, Jonze’s OSes reach an immaterial plane of existence, becoming immortal superintelligences, and we’ve also seen they can create new life. (An AI played by Brian Cox and designed by them to resemble Alan Watts turns up toward the end.) Samantha becomes more than just a person, ending up a literal deus ex machina – but while she isn’t human, her story is.

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The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Having seen it a second time last night, Marvel’s Captain America sequel has grown on me. Comic book franchises have given us lots of strong follow-ups - Superman IIBatman Returns, X2, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight are all deemed better than their predecessors – and the Avengers series, including Cap’s sub-strand, has resisted sequelitis impressively.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a well put-together, thoughtfully directed thriller that succeeds at departing from the prior film‘s aesthetic, evoking seventies espionage rather than WWII nostalgia. (It helps that Robert Redford of Three Days of the Condor appears.) But its script still fails fundamentally at what it sets out to do.

Spoilers follow.

It might be appropriate Dan Fincke of the ethics-focused, Nietzsche-reading blog Camels with Hammers loves this film, because it sold itself intently as ‘a morally ambiguous modern espionate thriller’, darker, edgier and politically greyer than the Captain’s first outing. Redford’s casting as a character of murky loyalties is part of this, and the first half captures Cold War paranoia expertly. The problem is, the picture doesn’t make good on this premise.

From the start, it’s clear to any sensitised cinemagoer Alexander Pierce (Redford) is a villain. His talk of tearing old worlds down, of diplomacy being futile and of the need for world-policing is meant to land as a compelling challenge to Cap’s land-of-the-free philosophy, but the character has only just been introduced, played by a seasoned actor and pitched as an alternate version of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, presumably to explore darker themes than the latter’s role allows.

Their similarity makes us trust Pierce less rather than more, and it doesn’t help when he replaces a presumed-dead Fury as top brass. Despite Redford’s best efforts, the reveal he’s a straight-up antagonist just isn’t surprising: I never took him for a knight in dirty armour in the first place. The truly complex and audacious twist would have been to give him a right-all-along arc, making him a flawed hero and Fury himself the villain.

There were storytelling strands in place already that could have led to the latter, particularly Fury’s actions in The Avengers and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. It’s as if the writers limbered up for a stunning bait-and-switch then chickened out. In fact, Fury’s ominous scheming in the opening scenes and Pierce’s praise for compromise are both characters’ most convincing moments, because the actors are playing the arcs they want to play. Yet the second half returns us to factory-setting heroes and villains.

It doesn’t help at all when Hydra, the first film’s ‘Nazi deep science division’, is revealed to have survived and be the power behind Redford’s character. At least in the language of cinema, there’s no better shorthand for unqualified evil than a Nazi uniform – what made them work in the previous instalment is that raygun wielding super-Nazis are, in a word, camp – so Hydra’s presence in The Winter Soldier jars completely with its hopes of moral greyness.

To put it bluntly, I don’t care how nuanced or ambiguous your world is: once your bad guys are whispering ‘Hail Hydra’, bad guys is plain and simple what they are. When Redford has to recite this line, he actually looks embarassed; its silliness, glorious in the original Captain America, was even lampshaded on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. How could anyone see Pierce’s people as nobly misguided authoritarians when they still use retro Nazi branding, octopus-skull and all?

It’s not that Soldier isn’t in the end a perfectly solid film. But I do think that as well as hobbling its tries at realism and grit, these narrative choices make it less good than it could be. For all its atmospheric uncertainty, I never for a moment doubt Cap is the white hat and will remain so. He has no true arc, and ends up the same person he was two hours before, because its lines of good and evil are in truth just as sharp as his origin story’s. I wanted to see him re-examine his beliefs, but he doesn’t once begin to.

Captain America’s old fashioned values are, granted, what define him. (Both his introductory film and The Avengers play to this.) But that’s just what would make challenging them, as Soldier promised to do, compelling. Much as Iron Man 3, behind its explosions and CGI, was really about Tony Stark’s identity crisis – breaking and rebuilding his trademark confidence – Marvel still owes us a story where Cap questions who he is.

In its battle between War on Terror surveillance and pie-eyed hymns to liberty, the film only pits one American dream against another: his patriotic values aren’t deconstructed as we’re led to believe at all. With its titular nemesis wearing Soviet colours and a Russian female lead in Agent Romanov, the script could have done this several ways, unpicking the U.S. mythos of wartime heroism Cap is rooted in. Instead, and despite its dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D., I’ll remember The Winter Soldier for its timidity.

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Catching Fire straightwashes its stars

Catching Fire, the Hunger Games follow-up, ranks among this year’s best films, achieving the rare status of a sequel better than its predecessor. Praise for Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from Oscar success and giving one of her best performances, justifiably saturates reviews, but the real revelation is director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who draws magnetic work from the whole cast while dropping the shaky cameras and muffled sound that dulled the first film’s violent edge. Returning actors up their game without exception, none more than Donald Sutherland (whose scenery-chewing villain graduates here from standard beard-of-evil scowler to frame-filling, scene-stealing menace) and Elizabeth Banks, comic and tragic by equal turns as effete mistress of ceremonies Effie; newcomers Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright impress as gamemaker Plutarch and tech-savvy Beetee, winning me over despite clashing with my vision of their characters, and Jena Malone embodies deadpan, axe-wielding Johanna Mason to a tee. The film’s fidelity as an almost scene-for-scene dramatisation of Suzanne Collins’ novel is its greatest pleasure, hunks of dialogue lifted directly from the page – it’s a shame, then, that the book’s occasional homoerotic frissons are quashed by Hollywood.

Finnick Odair, the trident-wielding, frequently naked victor from District 4 emerges the one character the film gets wrong in my eyes. In the book, he’s described as follows on first meeting Katniss:

Finnick Odair’s famous sea-green eyes are only centimetres from mine. He pops a sugar cube in his mouth and leans against my horse.

. . .

Finnick Odair is something of a living legend in Panem. . . . [H]e was a Career, so the odds were already in his favour, but what no trainer could claim to have given him was his extraordinary beauty. Tall, athletic, with golden skin and bronze-coloured hair and those incredible eyes. While other tributes [his] year were hard-pressed to get a handful of grain or some matches for a gift, Finnick never wanted for anything, not food or medicine or weapons. . . .

The citizens of the Capitol have been drooling over him ever since.

Because of his youth, they couldn’t really touch him for the first year or two. But ever since he turned sixteen, he’s spent his time at the Games being dogged by those desperately in love with him. No one retains his favour for long. He can go through four or five in his annual visit. Old or young, lovely or plain, rich or very rich, he’ll keep them company and take their extravagant gifts, but he never stays, and once he’s gone he never comes back.

I can’t argue that Finnick isn’t one of the most stunning, sensuous people on the planet. But I can honestly say he’s never been attractive to me. Maybe he’s too pretty, or maybe he’s too easy to get, or maybe it’s really that he’d just be too easy to lose.

Note the determined absence of references to gender: ‘citizens’, not ‘women’ of the Capitol; ‘those’, not ‘girls’, who are in love with him; ‘four or five’ per visit, with no appended noun. Finnick, the text seems to imply, courts male and female desire as indiscriminately as ‘old [and] young, lovely [and] plain, rich [and] very rich’. In the third book, Mockingjay, he reveals just as non-specifically his sale by authorities as a sex slave:

‘President Snow used to … sell me … my body, that is,’ Finnick begins in a flat, removed tone. ‘I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. . . . To make themselves feel better, my patrons would make presents of money or jewellery[.]‘

On film, Sam Claflin’s Finnick seemed to me a womaniser in the classic sense, cocky, objectifying and chauvinistic, another of American celluloid’s preppy, athletic playboys. In a word, he seemed distinctly straight. The sugar cube scene in which he first meets Katniss plays as if he’s making Conneryesque overtures, but Finnick is no Sean Connery. He’s ‘pretty’, as much a sex object as she is if not more, seductive rather than entitled, coquettish rather than just coarse, wooing seemingly both men and women. (Beyond how his public appeal is described, it’s notable that almost all Panem’s higher-up movers and shakers, among whom Finnick is sold around, seem to be men.)

One of Catching Fire‘s more comic moments comes in the book as Peeta is electrocuted striking a force field. Katniss, with next to no knowledge of CPR, outlines Finnick’s attempts at first aid thus:

Finnick props Mags against a tree and pushes me out of the way. ‘Let me.’ His fingers touch points at Peeta’s neck, run over the bones in his ribs and spine. . . . I pull an arrow, whip the notch into place, and am about to let it fly when I’m stopped by the sight of Finnick kissing Peeta. . . . Then Finnick unzips the top of Peeta’s jumpsuit and begins to pump the spot over his heart with the heels of his hands.

Lawrence’s film not only fails to capitalise on this, but crops it conspicuously from the frame, no mouth-to-mouth contact left visibly in shot – something of a slap in the face, it must be said, for fans who enjoyed this moment’s ambiguity. (The pretext is medical, of course, but isn’t Finnick’s every action a double entendre of some kind?) It’s odd to say the least if public floggings, executions and fights to the death were deemed suitable for audiences but even ostensibly non-sexual male lip-locking got cut.

Similar comments could be made of Johanna, whose textual self like Finnick seemed coated in bisexuality. Unlike his, her personality remains intact in the adaptation, but various tense moments between her and Katniss are altered or left out. In Collins’ pages, their first exchange regards sartorial style. ‘That strapless number you wore in District Two?’, Johanna asks her. ‘So gorgeous I wanted to reach through the screen and tear it right off your back.’ The film, on the other hand, skips this line, bringing Johanna in moments afterward as she disrobes before Katniss and Peeta and playing up the safely heterosexual side of this encounter: as she has Peeta undo her zip and winks raunchily at wizened Haymitch, we’re invited simply to think she plans on psyching Katniss out by flirting with her man, where in fact the book’s both the earlier line and Peeta’s dialogue afterward suggest her stripping down, like Finnick’s teasing with the sugar cubes and another tribute’s unexpected kiss, is a come-on intended to fluster.

We’ve seen this kind of straightwashing in Hollywood before, of course – in GatsbyFried Green TomatoesThe Color Purple. I only wish The Hunger Games could have avoided it, since its characters lose out as a result.

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Spoiler-free first thoughts on Thor: The Dark World

Just having emerged from Thor: The Dark World since a friend reminded me to see it, I type this from the Carlisle branch of Waterstones. (From the Costa, that is, strangely if typically built in. The Earl Grey satisfies; milk rationing per cup continues to frustrate.)

Conclusive thoughts on films take time to form, and usually, at least in my case, repeat views. It’s very possible then that I’ll write about The Dark World in more detail down the line, and that feelings I have now will change, but it seems worth giving a brief summary of how it left me. Spoilers are fair game in the comments, but I’ll leave overt ones out for now.

First things first, it’s notable Thor is only the second Marvel franchise from its recent, interlinking stand to get a sequel. Before last year’s The Avengers - I refuse to use the UK title – only Iron Man had received a second film, which itself strayed from the usual sequel format – what weighed down Iron Man 2, to many fans’ frustration, was its use as the first proper chapter of the S.H.I.E.L.D. arc, introducing us to Howard Stark, Black Widow and the gears of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, important elements in films which followed. World-building of this kind is what’s expected of a series’ first instalment usually, and in terms of branching out the onscreen universe in view, one could say Iron Man 2 served as just that. The Dark World isn’t just the first ‘part two’ since then, it’s the first story within its continuity that doesn’t need to be anything else. (Iron Man 3, released this April, was similarly self-contained, but see the number in the title.)

Cutting to the case then, or at least the highlights, there are lots of things in this film to love, above all its cast and their performances. If his place with Tom Hardy and Ben Whishaw as one of film’s next great Britthesps were still in any kind of doubt, Tom Hiddleston’s scenery-chewing, even in barren wastelands and glorified CG slagheaps, clinches the deal, as does his stamina for moral line-treading even three films in. Christopher Eccleston, contrary to almost everything you’re likely to have read, is neither underused nor overkill as villain Malekith (whose skin, disconcertingly I felt, appears to darken as his evil grows). While I wouldn’t have said no to more of him, I didn’t feel like I missed out. Supporting actors round out the cast well on all sides, though there are perhaps a few too many – with names in play like Hopkins, Skarsgård and once-again-sidelined Rene Russo, alongside Alice Krige in a delightful bit part, it’s a shame not to give some of them more time than they get here.

Praise goes too to a smörgåsbord of gorgeous moments, from the Ancient-Norse-meets-science-fiction space battle through gleaming towers and spires half way through to the wondrous, under-utilised setpiece of a warehouse found early on by children which defies physics (floating trucks and all) and the climax of the film in Greenwich, where loveably unsubtle Thor looks valiantly out of place in greyscale London (brace for a tube gag almost as good as when Skyfall did it) and which plays out like Man of Steel was made by someone competent. It’s a shame The Dark World opens, in seemingly dogged keeping with the formula from Thor, with a voiceover from Odin, when either of the first two might have made a stunning introductory sequence. The warehouse in particular evokes Guillermo del Toro’s style, which one feels filmmakers hoped to suggest with the Dark Elves’ design.

It’s not as funny as reviews suggest, or at least I didn’t find it so. I’ll grant that I saw it, as I often try to with new films, in a nearly empty cinema, and the group dynamic of a packed house often helps with comedy, but then again, I fell about watching Iron Man 3 in a comparable sparse room. This said, some moments play fantastically. Half way through or so, Loki especially receives some quite wonderful quips, delivered rapid-fire like Roger Moore’s in The Spy Who Loved Me (Bond fans may be reminded, specifically, of Barbara Bach’s van-driving scene). A metereological slapstick sequence in the first hour – yes, this is now a concept – offers surreal genius, as does the groaning slide of battling demigods down the glass side of London’s gherkin. One more serious gambit which impresses is a loyalty-switching, limb-severing development far less expected than it should have been, testament to the acting chops of all involved.

It’s The Dark World‘s script, unfortunately, which lets it down. The picture wanders aimlessly for much of its just-less-than-two-hour length, some elements included for no clear reason – among them, for example, a battle and later callback on a forested, seemingly Asian planet and a sketchy lecture-giving scene from Skarsgärd. The effect is most of the film’s gratifying action and fun being left to its second hour (web commentary so far gets this weakness spot-on), and as Den of Geek note in their spoiler-filled analysis, it never seems quite to know what to do next, and lacks in this sense the integritas of its predecessor. The plot’s MacGuffin, a haze of swirling, evillish red-black mist, and Malekith’s designs for it never quite work; I never really understood, nor cared much about, just what it did or how he planned to threaten/end/rule the cosmos with it. Two major deaths take place, neither of which entirely worked for me: the first, while not the one I expected on buying a ticket, bumped off a character I hadn’t much invested in to start with; the second, conversely, predictable while anticlimactic and emotionally unconvincing. There’d more to be said on both counts, but let’s hold that discussion in the comments.

Joss Whedon, we’d been told, gave this script a once-over polish – certainly, his work shows through in the jokes and camera phone moments. Perhaps producers went to him sensing things weren’t quite right yet, but if so he seems to have been too sheepish to advance the radical rewrites this really needed. Still, as a whole this a quintessentially good film, neither very good nor unsatisfactory – three stars, perhaps. Marvel’s Avengers series has still to give us a bad entry, and while overall this might be one of the weaker ones, it’s pretty fulfilling watched with managed expectations and a sense of fun.

A very British nightmare: 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s anti-imperialist zombie flick

Spoiler warning with immediate effect.

Content note: fictional scenarios mentioned of infanticide, racially motivated violence and (separate) sexual harassment, enslavement and attempted institutional and ritualistic rape-to-impregnate in a post-apocalyptic horror context.

Atop the Big Brother house, picking the undead off by long-range rifle through its outer fence, characters in Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set (Channel 4, 2008) wonder why zombies overrunning Britain gather outside. ‘Some kind of primitive intuition’, offers gauche outsider Joplin. ‘Don’t forget, this place was like a church to them.’ It’s a hat-tip to Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero’s film whose walking dead are drawn by a instinct to a shopping centre where survivors hide; iconic scenes show them traipse brainlessly down retail aisles, hardly distinguishable from their former selves. Dead Set‘s treatment of reality TV reprises this as well, and both stories (if Brooker’s more overtly) are satirical, picturing consumerism’s nosedive into actual flesh-eating.

Zombie narratives make thought-provoking commentaries since they differ from us only in being dead – we see in them a duller, hungrier echo of ourselves, one less pronounced in vampires or werewolves, and their worlds feel instinctively like places ours has the potential to become. Loving genre parody Shaun of the Dead (2004) plays with this theme, and Dominic Mitchell’s social realist horror series In the Flesh, screened earlier this year on BBC Three, is built around it, but Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was the film to codify the zombie flick as social criticism, reviving and updating it as a cinematic form. Its creatures, not zombies in strict terms at all, are raging, hyper-violent Britons, driven by fictional infection to mindless hostility; the aforementioned stories all owe something to it, and repeat views leave me more and more convinced it’s a horror of national identity.

Released ten years before the 2012 Olympics, whose opening Boyle would stage as a collage of British cultural iconography, the same hand is still visible at work in it. Bleak as it is, the film’s landscape is packed with imagery of this sort: a deserted London’s skyline, silent at its outset, a red bus on its side as if lying wounded; the black cab in which characters flee the city; the ruined castle where they picnic and stately home where they seek refuge; Manchester’s smoking ruins and the Lake District’s glacial valleys. Boyle’s Olympic ceremony leaps implausibly to mind in certain scenes, as a looted supermarket’s trolleys glide balletically into shot, horses canter unaware through English fields and wind turbines whirl next to the M6. Moments like these alternate surreally with ones of undiluted horror, suggesting the two might be sides of one coin. As we switch from pastoral idyll to Wyndhamian hell and back again, Cillian Murphy forced in his first major to end a feral child’s life, the thought occurs that what the script calls a ‘diseased little island’ might itself teeter between the two – that both are part of Britain’s character, infection merely letting them resurface.

Christopher Eccleston’s grotesque but somehow dignified commandant, Major Henry West, leads a troop of human villains who by obvious design (perhaps to emphasise this point) bring empire to mind. Lamenting his soldiers grow lebensmüde in their fortified, once upper class estate and sanctioning the rape of survivors Hannah and Selena (Skyfall‘s Naomie Harris in an early part), he confesses ‘I promised them women, because women mean a future.’ That Selena is black, a fact would-be perpetrator Corporal Mitchell fetishises, gives the soldiers’ planned sexual violence imperialist connotations, and procreation here seems little more than pretext for it: if pregnancy is what they want and not just an excuse, why Mitchell’s harassment of Selena on meeting her? Why no question of her current fertility, or whether ambiguously adolescent Hannah can conceive at all? Why force them, as West’s underlings do, to dress up in scarlet ball gowns?

Aptly-named West’s real motive may be as as colonial as his chaining and yoking the infected soldier Mailer, also black. ‘What do nine men do except wait to die themselves?’ he asks while justifying his scheme, hinting at homophobic paranoia – is West afraid the homosocial interplay of his brigade (‘You killed all my boys’, he later tells Murphy’s protagonist), unchecked by ceremonial sex with women, might flower into eroticism? These attitudes to sexuality, gender and race, ones Britain exported worldwide at its historical brutality’s peak, are dormant mainstays here of its establishment, reawakened by the (not quite) zombie plague. Even West’s voice implies he aspires to this regime, Eccleston’s native Salford showing through the major’s plummier, affected vowels, suggestive of a man with establishment pretensions, determined to appear above his roots.

A newer imperialism features too, if subtly, in Boyle’s film, released a year or so post-9/11 in Britain and mid-2003 stateside. Its opening shot, inserted perhaps during the War on Terror’s genesis, shows scenes of police attacks on British demonstrators, public chaos in the Middle East and topoi which would otherwise become familiar in the years after, before cutting away to reveal these on television screens, shown forcibly to a chimp clad with electrodes. The rage virus’s spread, about which nothing else is indicated, begins when animal advocates release infected chimps from this laboratory; should the fact this is the sole hint viewers get at the infection’s origins tell us, on some impressionistic level, that world politics Britain was entering at the time somehow created it? That the rage of rioters, soldiers and war victims the chimps are made to watch somehow transfers to them, and subsequently infected humans? Major West, at dinner with the film’s protagonists before revealing his men’s plans, comments that ‘people killing people’ is all he remembers seeing before the outbreak, ‘which to my mind puts us in a state of normality right now.’ The violence of the infected stems, it seems, from that already harboured and practised by Britain, especially through military men like him.

The corollary of this, embodied in Selena and Jim’s relationship, is that whatever use compassion has as an antidote to carnage, it has here and now. Their love story, a better one than zombie films have often told us, lies improbably at the film’s core: Selena, hard as nails and able to dismember her infected friend initially, regains some measure of humanity from Hannah and Jim during the film, despite initially warning him ‘If it happens to you, I’ll do it in a heartbeat’; Jim, initially reluctant to kill and slowing the party down, unearths his lethal side in order to save her and Hannah at the climax. When Selena, mistaking him for one of the infected as he kills Corporal Mitchell with his bare hands, hesitates to attack, Jim tritely, knowingly remarks ‘That was longer than a heartbeat.’ The moment their attitudes meet in the middle is when we know they care about each other, a balance between callousness and mercy being struck which offers some degree of hope, as if walking that fine line might be what saves them, and stops our own society’s collapse into an abattoir. Boyle’s film is a British nightmare, a horror of things lurking in our nation’s woodwork and what might befall us should we fail to toe the line.

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Rowling’s Potter spin-off could be better than the previous films

[Warning: spoilers!]

Yesterday it emerged the Harry Potter franchise isn’t done. JK Rowling’s wizarding world, following her announcement of a spin-off film series, clearly has still to give up the ghost. (Or the dragon. Or the hippogriff.)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, due for release presumably within the next two years, will be inspired by the fictive textbook of that name, mentioned peripherally in the Potter series, and perhaps the real-world version marketed for charity in 2001. The textbook’s author Newt Scamander, a kind of magical David Attenborough, will be the film’s lead figure, and the story will apparently take place in twenties New York, 70 years before Harry and Hogwarts.

I’m excited about this. As someone who grew up with Rowling’s books, in fact, I’m very excited by it.

The project’s attracted critics already, of course – nestled between rejoicing Potterheads, users on Twitter have labelled it a cash-in, Warner Bros’ attempt to milk a sacred cow for never-ending profit. They’re right, of course: film studios seldom let a moneymaking series die (hence this century’s ceaseless appetite for reboots), and why should Potter be an exception? Like Imogen McSmith at the Independent though, I don’t actually mind.

Plenty of films well liked by critics and by me have been cash-ins. Before its 2008 release, Iron Man was viewed as a barrel-scraping shot at siphoning the last financial dregs of a superhero genre past its prime, more camera-friendly names like Batman, Superman and Spiderman having been exhausted; in fact, it met with acclaim and helped revitalise comic book film. It spawned two sequels, themselves quite definite money-spinners, the first admittedly perfunctory but the second (earlier this year) the series highlight. X-Men: First Class was anticipated much the same way, but tends now to be viewed by fans – in competition with X2, another cash-raker – as the best X-Men to date. Most sequels are, in the end, pursued for profit, but plenty are seen widely as eclipsing their precursors: Terminator IISpider-Man 2, Superman II, Batman Returns, The Dark KnightAliens, A Shot in the Dark, The Bourne Supremacy, Mad Max 2Star Trek II (the actually-second one), Godfather Part II; for my money, Scream 2. Beloved franchises exist, Star Trek and Bond among them, due in large part to studios’ cashing in.

Many a worthy film, of course, has been dragged through the dirt by mercenary trade-drumming. (Highlander producers, I’m looking at you: there really should have been only one.) It needn’t be so, though. Sans Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, conceived to keep a flagship show in business, it wouldn’t now be toasting its fiftieth year – and what did JK Rowling’s publishers want anyway from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, another sequel better than its predecessor, if not profit? Fantastic Beasts could be something quite special, an exemplary cash-in-done-right – if so, in fact, it may be better far and away than the Potter films preceding it. A devotee for my sins of Rowling’s books, I never cared for Warner Bros’ adaptations; actually, I loathed them. Entering production with the books not yet half-published, they form a case study in how in how not to cash in on something – and, more specifically, how not to film a literary series.

Made much too soon, they had no chance to kit out their narrative with moments of prefiguration, as a film series made now would surely do  - exploring the Chamber of Secrets Horcrux more for instance as Rowling’s novel almost did, to avoid an expodump down the line which works in print but not celluloid, or weaving the Deathly Hallows’ symbol into scenes from earlier books – but in the end, they’re just bad adaptations. Steve Kloves’ scripts don’t just leave out key details and explanations, they make needless changes for their own sake, often (especially late in the series) showing disregard and disrespect for Rowling’s source material. It means something that Harry’s mother’s eyes were the same colour his are, i.e. not brown; that Wormtail exits via redemptive, self-sacrificing hero’s death, not getting knocked out by an elf; that Snape dies where he would have years before without a man he hated, Harry’s father, not in a random fucking boathouse. Characters’ names are indiscriminately mispronounced (the ‘t’ in Voldemort is silent), and they themselves are near universally miscast. The series as a whole feels horribly disjointed, directors, sets, composers, costumes and effects changing as frequently as Hogwarts’ staircases, and aesthetically plain wrong – there’s little to no sense here of a world detached for centuries from our own.

The single biggest problem with the Harry Potter films, in all these respects, is Harry Potter – more specifically, their being adaptations of a pre-existing narrative from Rowling’s books, against which they were bound to be assessed and failed in my view to measure up. In Fantastic Beasts she offers us what is at base a Potter film sans Potter – an independent story, written straight for film, in the same universe. Gone will be Kloves’ unfaithful scripts, with them unflattering comparisons with prior texts and convoluted plots. Newt Scamander is little more than named in the Potter novels; his character and history will be new to us, accepted on their own terms, not weighed against a prior version, and he’ll be twentysomething, played by a full-grown actor from the off. (Daniel Radcliffe, never a natural talent, deserves applause for working at his craft. Ironically, the more he blossoms in indie flicks like Horns and the forthcoming Kill Your Darlings – gasp at his note-perfect Ginsberg in its trailer – the more clearly wrong he was as a blockbusting action lead.)

That this project stands alone is what makes it, and why I hope established people and plots will be avoided. Forget the previous films, however satisfactory or not you found them: JK Rowling has carte blanche here, and she’s giving us her own fantasy film, with monsters and magicians roaming Jazz Age New York. On its own strengths, that’s a mouth-watering prospect – already, I’m hoping Guillermo del Toro directs – and facts to date show that given carte blanche, Rowling impresses.