Film Review: Paranorman (2012)

I was late to the party, but [expletive deleted] did I enjoy this film.

It’s a witty romp with a fresh genre bend — ramming together a Witch/Revenge number and a Zombie/Comedy with an iron fist in a velvet glove: it’s forceful and smoooooth.

The cast of characters has something of a ’90s feel to it — related in spirit and tone to The Goonies and Hocus Pocus

My favorite part about the film — aside from a juvenile joke involving the sign of the “Witchy Weiners” hot dog restaurant — is how consciously it plays with genre and setting. The aesthetic seems in many ways like a cold war period piece — the decor, the appliances, the cars — but the prominence of the cell phone seems strangely fitting. Whether intentional or not, it made me think of parallels between the contemporary political (and cultural) climate and those of the early to mid Cold War. The thoughts were not comforting, though they were welcome.

Aside from making me think, the film just kept me lauging, it’s well-written, well-animated, and well-voiced, with superb attention to detail. I plan on watching it again soon just for the detail.

SPOILER ALERT: What follows will ruin the movie for you a bit, so… don’t read it unless you’ve seen it.

seriously.

 

So, the zombies in Paranorman are pretty interesting in that they are the result of a Witch’s curse. They are also benevolent and misunderstood, the rioting townspeople — who all attempt to enact the kind of mayhem we’re accustomed to seeing in our cultural texts (and the idea that the entire town is familiar with zombie narratives is refreshing, too). The zombies just take it and try to explain their plight. This simple move in a children’s film (though, certainly Paranorman delivers for the whole family) does some heavy intellectual lifting: it highlights a certain ideology of violence promoted by zombie films (the logic of survival, based on the idea that the undead are a sort of bare life), while demonstrating that  extreme violence (a strong immune reaction, if you will) is not always the most effective way to achieve security.

I’ll have more thoughts on this after a second (and maybe third) watch, but it’s definitely a keeper.

On Recent and Forthcoming Events

Hi Dear Reader,

Sorry about the blog hiatus. Don’t worry, I’ve been busy. I’m working on three brief reviews to put up — Paranorman (2012), World War Z (2013, film), and A Questionable Shape (2013). I’ve probably seen a few more zombie films since the last post, but Paranorman and WWZ stand out enough in my memory to merit review. I also just finished reading Bennett Sims’ zombie novel, A Questionable Shape, which I have mixed feelings about, but think does some very interesting and original things.

So, expect brief posts on all of those in the near future.

I’ve also been getting my critical read on — read a couple textbooks on Immunology, read most of Georges Canguilhem’s Knowledge of Life (Forms of Living), and about the first quarter of his The Normal and the Pathological.

I’ll probably do a fourth post that briefly addresses what I think is valuable in his work for the contemporary moment (teaser: a lot).

If you enjoy reading this blog, you’ll be happy to know I have an article forthcoming in Literature and Medicine — it should be out this fall. I also have an article forthcoming in “We’re All Infected”: The Walking Dead and The Fate of the Human, due out in 2014 from McFarland.

I also finished a draft of the second chapter of my dissertation — tentative chapter title: “Exceptional Defense”. 

It’s also worth mentioning that I’ve cleaned up the CV on this site to reflect my recent involvement with the Journal of Supernatural Studies — I had a brief stint as Editorial Assistant for an issue and have just joined the Editorial Board.

So, forgive the delay in writing. Now that I’ve got you up to speed, I can get working on those reviews for you.

 

Another Quick Post: Letter from Guantanamo Bay Prisoner

Another Quick Post: Letter from Guantanamo Bay Prisoner

I came across this and decided to glance at it during my morning internet routine — you know, the daily routine of websites you visit before you actually start doing work on your computer?

Needless to say, I felt ashamed to be enjoying such a luxurious idea of work after reading this man’s story. Its easy for Americans to forget about how scarce jobs are in other countries and how poor working conditions can be, and this man’s story struck me right away.

Then I got to the hunger striking and force-feeding and I felt like I had to pass this on in the blog. 

This neatly — if horrifyingly — addresses the way that bodies and politics overlap, how bodies become political objects (quote: “I am a human being, not a passport”).

At the same time, it viscerally puts pressure on how easily prisoners and victims turn into spectacles and stories in our consciousness, and how quickly we forget about their plight when they do.

No person should be treated thusly.

A sobering morning, thanks and apologies to Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, and thanks to the New York Times for the relaying the message to us.

Random Zombie Movie Note

So, I always hear Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985) and its sequels cited as the movies that started the zombies-brains connection… 

That said, in watching Lucio Fulci’s City of the Dead (1980), I noticed a cranial obsession — sure, the zombies aren’t craving brains, but they sure are squeezing them out of people’s heads.

Just something to ponder, thought I’d pass it on.

 

 

Patenting Genes — A Topic To Follow

I am still planning on doing a second post on my trip to Vietnam, but I’ve been a bit busy working on the dissertation and some other time-sensitive things lately.’

In the meantime, I thought I’d pass on some news that we should be watching: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/14/human-gene-supreme-court_n_3081399.html

Yes, the supreme court will soon be hearing a case about whether or not gene patentability is constitutional.

This is quite frankly, to put it bluntly, messed up.

Apparently patenting genes is and has been quite a booming industry, but as this article makes clear very early, the business side of this really murks up the ethical side. 

From a biopolitical standpoint, this is extremely interesting and we’ll see whether the supreme court finds that patenting human genetic material (aka owning the rights to DNA sequences inside living, human beings as intellectual property) is constitutional in the U.S.

Definitely a topic to follow.

I don’t know much about this practice or its scope, but I’ll try to learn a bit more about it in the coming weeks and write another post some time this spring on the Supreme Court’s ruling and critiquing gene patenting a bit more (again… when I’m more informed).

Reflections on Vietnam

I recently went to Vietnam, it was my first real trip outside of the US — I don’t count my college trip up to London, Ontario as that seems like cheating. No offense, Canada, but back then I didn’t even need a passport.

Anywho, a lot of people were encouraging/harassing/demanding that I write something up about this and I thought I’d post it here and focus a bit on some of the aspects of the trip related to my research. That said, this will be a bit uncharacteristic in terms of my blog content.

Without further ado: Thoughts from Abroad OR Avoiding Traveller’s Diarrhea and Eating Street Food OR The Awkwardness of Being American Abroad

Lush with greenery, the view on my flight into Hanoi — after basically a full day of travel — piqued my interest from the start. The water buffalo, fields of farmland, and tall, slender homes struck my fancy and I couldn’t help but wonder what drive in the American psyche forces us to sprawl our homes (and maybe unintentionally, our bodies) outward rather than upward? Vietnam’s towns and cities appeared built up rather than out — which, as I understand it, is a common trend outside the US, and is often tied to political and fiscal histories involving taxes and land laws.

Hanoi was our first stop and it was truly a city unlike any I had been to before — and by this I don’t mean to exoticize or provincialize it. The majority of the city’s streets were narrow and lined with home-owned and run shops. Nearly all business seemed local, with some major exceptions in the tourist staples of restaurants and hotels. The strong presence of small, local business enamored me with the city — and would have probably blinded me to the city’s lack had I not headed South to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

HCMC, the former capital of South Vietnam was a bustling Capitalist metropolis — a seeming paradox given the country’s communist background. I was at first frustrated with the plethora of international and transnational high end businesses abounding in the touristy downtown area. Maybe because I was raised in a pretty working class household, or maybe because I’ve seen how unevenly and unfairly wealth and resources are distributed, but I’ve never been comfortable in areas full of expensive luxury goods. After Hanoi, HCMC seemed too familiar to me, at first, but once I got outside the tourist-trap part of town, the city’s facade unraveled, revealing a really cool city with several local vibes. I didn’t get a chance to see enough of the city, but once you make it outside of the touristy area, the city’s vast history appears before you in snatches and starts — statues encircled by hundreds of riders on scooters and mopeds, French colonial architecture rising abruptly out of the streets, pagodas and temples surrounded by homes and businesses in the middle of streets, the city a cipher that’s complexity only continues to grow.

Picturesque descriptions aside, it was a really eye-opening experience, on a number of fronts.

Those of you who know me have been waiting for this — and those of you who don’t know me  but know my love of Beckett might be waiting for this, too — travel poops.

Having rather, ahem, sensitive bowels as it is, I was living in terror of the dreaded Traveler’s Diarrhea. “Don’t eat the produce, don’t drink the water” they say. As I sat at a streetside, impromptu soup restaurant in Hanoi, watching the proprietor wash glasses in a bucket full of water and limes, drinking from one of those glasses, those words went through my head repeatedly. In the end, I had an absolutely delicious meal, and I didn’t get sick.

In fact I never got sick, despite eating street food four or five times, and eating fresh vegetables in and on several dishes.

This experience, though, made me think a little bit more about how we both regulate and approach our food. My reflections were further spurred when I heard that there were no McDonalds in Vietnam because they refused to source their chicken locally.

Sometimes we are afraid of the wrong things. As I sat there, thinking about bacteria that might or might not be in water that might or might not be on my glass, or in my soup, my perspective was — forgive the phrasing and the pun but I can’t help myself — shit.

Seeing how wealthy and privileged I was in that country made me ashamed of myself.

Shame was a feeling I knew well while abroad.

I saw a lot of other tourists. Stepping behind velvet ropes to touch ancient statues, correcting the English of local guides, bickering of prices, asking to shop where the locals did, and I knew shame.

There was a presumptuous sense of privilege, of right, that this country they were a visitor in owed them something. Wealth and resources are not distributed evenly,  and I learned that you have to remember this when you travel, because wherever you are travelling, it is not the same as where you are travelling from.

So let me take this opportunity to offer my gratitude to Vietnam (and my tour guides and new friends!) for hosting me, and my parents and my home country for giving me the resources to spend my life thinking and writing about culture.

I’ve left out a lot in this post — my visit to Ha Long Bay, a trip to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, a trip to the Temple of Literature and the One Pillar Pagoda, a trip to a Chinese Temple, to several markets — I’ll circle back and reflect on some of those things in the future, but I thought I’d start with some broader thoughts.

Thanks, dear reader.

Quick Post: Zombie Cells (But they’re really not)

Hi Dear Reader, 

I just wanted to bring to your attention an interesting little piece of news — one that I find frustratingly titled. I first saw this on a huffington post article, and I refer you there for the details.

The huffpost article commits one of my pet peeves — it uses the word ‘zombie’ as an advertising gimmick (this happens sometimes when trying to broaden the appeal of scientific research and it just angers me, for all the reasons you could imagine as a reader of this blog). 

The article is about a study that effectively created functioning silicon replicas of living cells — to me this is a form of cloning, they should definitely be called doppelganger cells well before they are called zombie cells.

The actual research is interesting, cool, and mildly terrifying if you have a tendency to lean towards imagine the darker (rather than the brighter) future.

Enjoy.

 

Movie Recommendation: Juan of the Dead

Hi dear reader,

Just a quick little post for you today — since I’ve been a little negligent in the blogging department lately. 

I just had the great fortune to purchase and watch Juan of the Dead, the Cuban zombie film that was making some big indie waves last year. 

I bought in as soon as I saw the tagline: “He’s Havana Killer Day.” Come on! How awesome is it that a pun that bad is the tagline?!?!? The awesomeness held throughout the film — though the ending was not my favorite. 

The film is pushed by an excellent performance by Alexis Díaz de Villegas, who plays the brilliant but underachieving wastrel, Juan. The character is great — he is witty, irreverent, sarcastic, and a man used to living in the moment. He is also infinitely more sympathizable than the hero of the majority of zombie films — he comes through as a dynamic and complex character, despite how little interest the film has in developing characters (this is no slap, the film is invested more in cheesy jokes, action, and moving the plot in all the best ways).

The fact that the zombies are called “dissidents” is brilliant, and the complex play between Capitalism and Communism in the plot and the dialog is stunning. 

On the whole, the film is amazing, though it isn’t perfect. The film’s female characters are highly sexualized — in fact the primary role of most female characters is that of a sexual object. It does do some interesting and redeeming things — the character La China offers an interesting example of something not really done in zombie films and she refreshingly muddies the gender waters… but only a little bit. 

There seems to be a bit of recurring homophobia — especially in the bromantic vein — too.

The solid plot, great cinematography, excellent acting, and just super refreshing take on the genre make this movie a great watch. 

And the fact that — like older zombie movies — there is no concern over what causes the outbreak or how it is stopped was refreshing, as well. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love writing about zombie and viruses and how inextricably tied they are, but I also love the in medias res zombie film (think post-Night Romero, or Fulci with even less confusing narrative).

I definitely recommend zombie lovers go out and get this Juan.

MLA 2013 Talk: Insecure Lives

Hi Dear Reader!

Off to a hectic start to the Fall quarter, but I didn’t forget about you!

Here is a look at my recent talk for MLA 2013, below I’ve inserted the talk itself. When I have a little more free time, I’ll also go back and add in screencaps of the slides, for now you’ll have to use your imagination. 

For those interested, but unsure whether they should proceed, in this talk, I use the Resident Evil transmedia franchise to demonstrate how contemporary popular culture participates in a problematic effacing of history in its portrayal of contagion and control. Specificity and historicity are erased by a flexibly defined monstrosity, which seems to automatically sanction violence. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, this should be an interesting condensation of the issues I often post about.

I hope you enjoy!

 

“Insecure Lives: Securing and Regulating Life in Contemporary Popular Culture”

Intro

 Slide 1

 So this paper was conceived of in the wake of the H1N1 flu scare, and it was especially influenced after hearing a talk by Andrew Lakoff  titled “Biopolitics in Real Time: The Actuary and the Sentinel in Global Health.” I was wondering, how do pop-cultural texts engage with global health issues. Recognizing that managing and securing health is indeed a global issue, and that infection “makes the interactions and connections of community visible” to paraphrase Priscilla Wald, I wanted to ask: how do pop-cultural texts like movies, video games, and comics think through the management and security of health in the global community.

As is often the case, what I started thinking about was different than what I ended up thinking through. Turning to the transmedia Resident Evil franchise and the figure of the zombie, I am going to try, in 15 minutes, to give you an idea how cultural productions and global health interact as part of a broader biopolitical matrix. Focusing on the virus and the zombie, I will demonstrate how popular narratives interested in the relation between health, security, and governance tend to demonstrate and validate a problematic, logic of defense which effaces historical and cultural context in the name of security. And I call this, not so creatively, the biopolitics of security.

In terms of my method, for the sake of time, in this paper I won’t get into too much theory, but I’m invested in thinking through the intersection of biopolitics, posthumanism, and critical race studies and social justice. I’m really influenced by Roberto Esposito and Michel Foucault.

So, to give you a sense of the movement of the paper, I begin by talking about the Resident Evil media franchise to get us thinking about the relation of cultural productions to the politics of global health. Through this, I will turn to the figures of the virus and the zombie which share a prominent place in Resident Evil (and I am arguing, in the way that popular culture imagines global health issues). Resident Evil – and other, similar outbreak, zombie, or post-apocalyptic narratives – reproduces, complicates, and exploits contemporary fears of global infection, and this validates the aforementioned logic of the biopolitics of security. As we will see, these narratives – and the broader political hegemony they reflect – validate extreme violence against perceived threats, and champion violently enforced, local security as an antidote to global terror and infection.

 

Opening on RE

Slide 2: RE Collage.

 So, for those of you unfamiliar with Resident Evil, it’s a transmedia franchise that has produced a slew of video games, seven novels, five live action films, two CGI films, annnnd some comics. It is a set of texts crafted and set throughout the world – especially the global north – in fact, the video games are developed, manufactured, sold, and set internationally. When I say it is a pop-culture text, I mean it: the latest installment of the video game series sold over 670,000 copies worldwide in its first week. (And for comparison I believe Fifty Shades of Grey set a new record when it sold just over 205,000 copies in its first week).

There are various iterations and plotlines to Resident Evil across its various media, however, all of them are intimately tied to the biopolitical interaction between the production and distribution of medicine and the exploitation of medical research for political gain – especially in the form of bioterrorism. The earlier narratives of the series position the transnational pharmaceutical corporation Umbrella as the main antagonist: developing biological weapons and illegally testing them on unsuspecting civilians (and these weapons take the shape of a virus that turns people into zombies, and can be modified to cause extreme mutations). – and pharmaceuticals and self-medication are a major component in all of the video games which feature mixing herbs to make medicine, and a somewhat miraculous first aid spray that heals all wounds.

Originally focused on local solutions to inter and transnational civil and human rights violations, the franchise has shifted its focus more towards an interconnected, global web of espionage, terrorism, and global health management. This has become the focus of the entire franchise recently – Slide 3: RE Retribution Poster – as the newest film Resident Evil Retribution features the tagline “Evil Goes Global.” And the most recent video game takes place in the US, Eastern Europe, and China, and features a fictional anti-bioterror military unit created by the UN, travelling the globe to police it – and to kill B.O.W. s or Bio Organic Weapons – infected people. Actually, as the shift of the game has gone global, its logic has also shifted, from finding and gathering evidence to uncover a global conspiracy, to slaughtering infected creatures. And the staple or default creature that you kill? A variation on the zombie, caused by exposure to one of a number of weaponized, laboratory created viruses.

So in a nutshell, in this franchise, through the intersection of global health and global terror, the zombie and the virus are united to make people into bio-weapons, which can then be denied humanity and slaughtered with impunity. Or, in other words, people are Othered to the extreme, made inhuman, and killed because they threaten to Other more people. All of a sudden this general arc – which is honestly the arc of most zombie narratives post-Night of the Living Dead (1968, so also post-civil rights) – seems a lot less innocent. The scope of this issue, and its relation to the resurgent popularity of the zombie will become clearer when we think through the history of the zombie and its relation to the global flow of bodies, politics, power, and medicine.

The Effacement of History

Historically, the zombie most likely comes from West African spiritual traditions, altered through diaspora and creolization caused by the slave trade. Connections identified by Zora Neale Hurston in her 1938 ethnology of Jamaica and Haiti, Tell My Horse. The zombie entered the imagination of the English speaking world largely through W.B. Seabrook’s 1929 ethnology of Haiti, The Magic IslandSlide 4: Magic Island copy. This directly inspired the Halperin brothers’ cult film, White Zombie (1932). A wave of popular zombie films soon followed. At nearly the same time, the invention of the electron microscope in 1931 allowed for the visualization of the formerly invisible virus – which had been theorized as an agent of infection smaller than bacteria. 1938 brought this zombie-virus nexus even closer together. In that year, Hurston published her ethnography, with a chapter devoted zombies, John Campbell Jr published his novella, Who Goes There, which compares those controlled by a microscopic, infectious alien life form to zombies, and the electron micrographs of the tobacco mosaic virus brought into view a previously invisible threat.

Early American adaptations of the zombie recognized its specificity to the Caribbean, and oftentimes its relation to Vodou; however, from the start, these texts began to efface its history while citing it. Even in the first zombie film, White Zombie (1932) – Slide 5: White Zombie – the ever so subtly named villain, Murder Legendre, played by Bela Lugosi, uses a mixture of mesmerism, pharmaceuticals, and adapted stereotypes of voodoo practice to zombify unsuspecting targets. The role of the medical – seen here in the introduction of a mysterious pharmaceutical mixture – serves to efface the cultural history of the zombie. This role, of the clinical overwriting the cultural history of the zombie, is identified by Wade Davis in his study of the Zombi in Haiti, The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985). More importantly, though, experience allows him to reverse this effacement. In his words Slide 6:

“I had arrived in Haiti to investigate zombis. A poison had been found and identified, and a substance had been indicated that was chemically capable of maintaining a person so poisoned in a zombi state. Yet as a Western scientist seeking a folk preparation I had found myself swept into a complex worldview utterly different from my own and one that left me demonstrating less the chemical basis of a popular believe than the psychological and cultural foundations of a chemical event.”

(As a fun aside, this deeply thoughtful book considering the intersection of science, bodies, and culture… was made into a Wes Craven thriller starring Bill Pullman)

This inscription of the medical over the socio-cultural on the bodies of zombies is even present in Seabrook’s ethnography, where his first encounter with a zombie leaves him nearly paralyzed with terror until he remembers seeing a lobotomized dog. Slide 7.

“I had seen so much previously in Haiti that was outside ordinary normal experience that for the flash of a second I had a sickening, almost panicky lapse in which I thought, or rather felt, “Great God, maybe this stuff is really true, and if it is true, it is rather awful, for it upsets everything.” By “everything” I meant the natural fixed laws and processes on which all modern human thought and actions are based. Then suddenly I remembered—and my mind seized the memory as a man sinking in water clutches to a solid plank—the face of a dog as I had once seen in the histological laboratory at Columbia. Its entire front brain had been removed in an experimental operation weeks before; it moved about, it was alive, but its eyes were like the eyes I now saw staring.” Seabrook 101

The laboratory setting and the memory of a scientific analog overwrites the whole scene for him, altering the figure of the zombie: it instantly becomes the infirm victim, rather than the threatening other. Furthermore, Seabrook’s clinical gaze obliterates the beseeching ethical gaze of the enslaved man brought before him as a zombie, rewriting him as the weak, the medically deficient.

Resident Evil, Popular Zombie Fictions, Global Biopolitics of Security

I’m sure you’ve noticed, but these days, zombies are all around us – our media is full of them. In everything from ad campaigns to encourage oral care – Slide 8: Zombie Mouth – to video games, movies, novels, and comics – Slide 9: Zombie Media Collage. The zombie is a global figure, featuring prominently in media from such varied countries as Cuba (Juan De Los Muertos 2012), Japan (Resident Evil Series began 1996), the US, the UK, and Spain, just to name a few countries with major zombie releases in the last 5 years.

Looking at how zombies are portrayed in recent cultural texts, we see that the clinical effacement outlined above enables a self-serving logic of defense. I’m going to spend a moment highlighting that in a variety of pop-culture texts – so my title isn’t entirely misleading.

So, using Resident Evil and some other zombie, post-apocalyptic, and/or outbreak texts, I’ll try to outline some of the major tropes of the pop-cultural interaction of this biopolitics of security.

Slide 10: Cities in Turmoil (States of Exception) (Resident Evil, WWZ, 28 Days & Weeks, Contagion, Sweet Tooth, Jericho)

Slide 11: Officers of the Law (White Patriarchy Saves the Social Order… that favors it) (The Walking Dead, Jericho, Night of the Living Dead, if you include military it expands exponentially… don’t forget shift in RE local police to national or international law)

Slide 12: Medical Officials Have Answers (Science Can Fix the Social Order if it only has Time!) (Obvious in RE, also first season of Walking Dead, Contagion to the max, Outbreak, etc all the way back to AT LEAST Microbe Hunters [1926])

Slide 13: Sympathize and Die (Think the Other, be the Other) (World War Z quote, Glissant on Alterity in poetics of relation: Thought of the Other versus the other of Thought: thinking through the other to the point of critical mass, the moment where one changes, exchanges, and is forced to act)

Slide 14 Thanks

MLA 2013: BOSTON

Hi Dear Reader,

Sorry for the hiatus, the end of quarter and holiday push took their toll on my blogging.

I’m just writing a quick note here, to say you should come meet me at MLA!

I’m presenting a paper in an awesome panel on Global Health and World Literature, you can find the panel info here: (http://www.mla.org/program_details?prog_id=64&year=2013).

My paper looks at Resident Evil, the virus, the zombie, and the biopolitics of security… so it will be somewhat familiar to readers of this blog. Still, I’m developing my own theoretical framework a bit more, and hashing out some things that I had only previously had an inkling of, so it promises to be exciting.

I’ll do a write up on the conference and get back to normal blogging on my return.

Hope to see you there!

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