The Real Baahubali: Legend Through The Lens of History

#SpoilerAlert for Baahubali 1 & 2. Don’t read if you haven’t watched. 

When we talk about Baahubali and we talk about history, it’s easy to get caught up in the fact that this duology of historical-fantasy/action/drama/romance movies has become the first in the history of Indian cinema to gross a 1000 crores rupees worldwide. It also just happens to be the most expensive Indian film ever made which goes to show that huge investments lead to equally huge payoffs if everyone’s heart’s in it (Peter Jackson wink wink nudge nudge). It also happens to not be a Bollywood film and not star any of the Khans.

The film also fundamentally presents itself as a history. Or does it? That’s what this post is going to explore.

Broadly, Baahubali is the story of a particular phase in the history of the fictional empire of Mahishmati (not to be confused with the real 13th century city of Mahishmati which was the principal city of the Avanti Mahajanapadha). It follows the lives of two members of the royal family, Bhallaldeva and Amarendra Baahubali who are raised together by the Queen Mother, Shivagami under the promise that the one who is wiser, stronger, more just and more fit to rule will eventually become king. Bhallaldeva is very evil because he has a scary scar and a nasty mean look and his father looks like the Grinch.

The Grinch Who Stole Navratri

Baahubali is awesome because he’s got a very friendly looking mustache, fighting skills second to none, abs, unparalleled strategic skills, more abs, the love and respect of the entire kingdom, yet more abs, the ability to charm anything sentient and did I mention the mustache?

Basically, things go south for the good guy. He wins the test, mommy says he’s going to be King, stays awesome for a bit, goes on a tour, falls in love, gets schemed against (by the grinch, no less), loses the throne, gets married, creates a fetus, loses admission to the palace, lives with the proles, stays awesome, gets schemed against by the grinch again, gets killed by his uncle/slave/best-friend/mentor.

The aforementioned fetus grows up in the bottom of a waterfall, gets raised by an old Malayalam movie actress, moves a Shiva lingam with this bare hands to the bottom of a waterfall, sees a butterfly woman in a bikini, chases after her up the mountain, finds out she’s real but not in a bikini, proceeds to get her into a bikini, goes sledding with her, takes up bikini-girl’s mission of saving the old woman tied up in the middle of Mahishmati, gets chased by Bhallaldeva’s son (in other words, the grandson of the Grinch who is still very much alive by the way) and the uncle/slave/best-friend/mentor, kills the prince, gets told the whole story by the slave, goes into battle with evil meany king, burns him and becomes king.

3743184-safeimage

The real reason people climb mountains

That’s about it.

I wasn’t a big fan the first time I watched Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. The whole thing was very unrealistic. The Baahubalis, father and son, were both morally perfect beings of mustachioed physical and mental puissance par excellence. Nothing could ever kill either of them (other than betrayal by daddy’s closest ally, of course). Because one sword can kill a man when fifty arrows can’t. The villains were irredeemably bad, grinchy looking, brutal, uncivilised, lacking in strategic capability and cartoonishly sadistic.

On a rewatch, I got it. I understood what all of it meant.

Baahubali isn’t a history. It’s a legend. What’s the difference, you may be asking? Well, for the purposes of this discussion, think about it like this: it’s the story of this phase in Mahishmati’s history written by a dude hired Baahubali. Who happens to be the emperor of a very powerful empire with a lot of soldiers and pointy things that kill so you really don’t want to get on this guy’s bad side. So obviously, he’s handsome and upright and perfect and loved by everyone and can be killed by no one. Also obviously, his rivals are evil and mean and grinchy looking.

The movies don’t really try to hide this fact. Literally half the overall story is narrated by a very guilty man who killed the main character of his story to the son of the man he killed. And the other half is so over-the-top it’s obviously trying to be mythic or legendary.

One of the  ways the director Rajamouli pushes this theme through is with the use of divine symbols. This was very common with the myriad of rulers who established themselves through ancient and medieval India. Many of them would try to associate themselves with a particular god. Many would, without trying to outright suggest it, say that they were gods themselves. The way they would spread these messages would be through paintings, carvings and, of course, legends passed on from generation to generations.

The movie uses divine symbols not directly but not subtly either. Baahubali the Younger is named Shivu by the Malayalam actress who adopts him. The Elder uses the same sobriquet when he’s trying to charm the princess he falls in love with (so that she can see his true character instead his riches or whatevs). The musical theme that plays when Baahubali does something awesome translates to “Hail Shiva!”. There’s an extended song sequence in the second part where the princess sings a lullaby for the god Krishna as part of a festival. The song cuts between Baahubali and the idol of Krishna, some of the offerings being made to the latter reflecting to the former.

This changes the way you look at the entire story of Baahubali because you can sort of assume most of it is skewed in the favour of Baahubali & Son. But, the broad strokes of the story probably did happen, just not in the way the legend describes it.

So how do we uncover the real story? The usual approach is to find other sources. No historian in her good senses would consider a mythic or legendary story as being anywhere near authoritative. The historian would dig around for material remains (like Indiana Jones with less swag), find sculptures, reconstruct ordinary patterns of life and collate all that information together to find something that approximates to the closest extent what actually happened.

But with Baahubali, we don’t have any of that because the story didn’t actually happen. Instead we have a multi-crore budget cinematic exaggerated legend of a story that was in reality probably very different, if it would have actually happened.

So the next idea is to de-exaggerate the legend and try to come up with a more plausible version of the events that could have happened. To do this, we use the metrics of other examples from history and a fair bit of common sense.

The Baahubalis were not perfect. We know that because we know from common sense that literally no one is perfect, especially not rulers of vast empires. On a less abstract basis, we know Amarendra wasn’t perfect for the apparent reason that he died. In fact, if you trace his political history, devoid of its mythic backstory, you’ll find the story of a classic failure rather than the wounded martyr figure the legend presents to us.

Things started out pretty good for Amarendra Baahubali. We can assume that he was probably better loved by the general public than his more politically minded half brother. He was probably not loved unanimously by every living human soul in Mahishmati as the legend would have you believe but he was probably the more popular among the two. That was probably what would have swayed the Queen Mother to initially crown him King, not a moral lesson after a very cinematic battle sequence.

From there, the legend says that he falls in love with Devasena, the princess of the Kuntala Kingdom south of Mahishmati. Romance makes for delightful storytelling (and equally delightful dance sequences on lotus boats in the sky) but from what we know from the political history of India, love had little to do with marriages among royal families. We can assume a more plausible turn of events. Amarendra attempts to enter into some sort of alliance with the southern kingdom. The Queen Mother is not pleased (probably because she warned against it by the Grinch) and demands that he either break the alliance or give up his throne. He goes for the latter option for what could be a variety of reasons. Perhaps he favoured the more absolute control over the smaller kingdom rather than puppet authority over the empire. Perhaps he really was a little in love with the beautiful princess. Perhaps it was a fit of youthful rage that was not very strategically thought out.

So then, he accedes his throne to Meany McMeanypants Bhallaldeva and becomes the Commander of the Army. Then, he loses that position as well. Why? Was it because of a passionate outburst by his fiery bride like the legend says it is? Not likely, given the social position of women (especially the wives of powerful men) in early Indian history. Influential? Certainly but rarely directly. Which is why the character of Shivagami is a bit implausible as well but it makes sense as an exceptional circumstance. Things like that have happened.

573394-baahuba

No, he’s not a Power Ranger.

So why was Baahubali exiled? A conflict of interests is the most likely answer. His dethronement was because of what was most likely an alliance with a subsidiary state. If a political figure became closely linked with both the ruling hierarchy of one kingdom and the military of another empire, the rulers of that empire would obviously get a little testy.

So, Amarendra’s response was to live among the people. Again, possible but not entirely likely. What is more likely would be that he established base in his wife’s kingdom. A downgrade, for sure given the prestige he previously enjoyed.

This also explains why the new king would want to kill him. Given the guy’s general awesomeness and popularity with common folk, an uprising of the Kuntala kingdom under Baahubali’s command would be very very possible. Was he killed of by his uncle-slave-buddy? Again, great storytelling but unlikely. It could very well have been just a random assassin.

So the end result is that this person was first the most powerful person alive in a very powerful empire and eventually ended up dethroned, weakened, exiled and finally killed. Doesn’t sound very perfect to me.

Machiavelli would have called him a bad prince.

So Baahubali the legend is flawless. Baahubali the man is quite obviously flawed. What are those flaws?

We know for sure that he wasn’t the real son of the Queen Mother. Perfectly plausible there. People get adopted all the time, even into royal families. That fact was most likely a psychological complex, clouding Amarendra’s political judgement with this strong sense of loyalty and adoration to the woman who elevated someone who wasn’t even the fruit of her womb to the highest position in the empire. The Queen Mother had Baahubali wrapped around her finger. Any order that came from her would be followed without question. That is quite a strong weakness in a man with the hopes of ruling over the empire.

Added to that is this naivete about the people around him whom he expected would all follow the dharma or righteous law his mother had so earnestly taught him.

He probably never saw it coming. The literally-on-fire sequence where he gets stabbed in the back probably never happened. It is much more likely that he was lying on a hammock in the Kuntala backyard, combing his mustache and thinking he wasn’t a threat to anyone in the world out here when he was shot by a poisoned dart or something. Idk.

So Baahubali isn’t perfect. By extension, Mahishmati probably isn’t perfect either. This is openly alluded to by Baahuballi’s waifu in a fiery, impassioned speech which is just the kind of thing that would get you exiled. The empire was operating on the basis of an extrapolated edition of the dharma that left plenty of loopholes for characters like the grinch to manipulate to achieve their own ends. Bureaucracy outweighed righteousness. Protocol trumped justice. The popular choice was chilling out with waifu while Evil McEvilpants was allowed to rule.

Speaking of Mister Evil, the reality is that nobody could really ever be that evil. In brief chinks in  the fabric of the legend, Rajamouli gives us a glimpse of the real Bhallaldeva behind the grey highlights and abs. A political man, perhaps. A lot more ambitious than his adopted sibling and a lot more aware of the people’s love for said sibling than the sibling himself. A little insecure. A little too much of a daddy’s boy just as Baahubali’s a little too much of a mommy’s boy.

And what of daddy himself, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas? He was probably just very resentful. Resentful that the throne went to a woman instead of him. Resentful of his disability. Maybe he suffered from the same ailment most Indian parents suffer from: the need to vicariously live out their fantasies through their children. My beta will be an engineer/King because I couldn’t be.

And that leaves us with Baahubali the Son. He suffers from essentially the same character flaws as his dad (probably because he is the same character as his dad). His obsession with what his mother(s) want him to do and truckloads of naivete. We can envision a similar future for the real Mahishmati, backseat ruled by Devasena instead of Shivagami.

Which is why the ending of the movie is rather curious. The movie is expected to end when the S.S. Rajamouli seal is stamped right next to Baahubali II’s face at the end of his speech. But it doesn’t. It’s followed by this sequence where the golden head of the statue of Bhallaldeva rolls down the same path that Shivu followed up the mountain to chase his destiny. The statue eventually comes to a stop in front of the Shiva lingam that Shivu moved with his bare hands so long ago in Movie 1. Plaintive, sad music plays throughout this sequence and you’re left a little confused. What does that mean? That good triumphs over evil? That the will of God prevailed over human greed and ambition? Or is it trying to draw attention to the fact that this is the legend of a god among men? But who decides who god is? The person who tells the story, of course. But like I said, the story is obviously skewed in Baahubali’s favour.

Baahubali is a treasure trove for the amateur historian. It is the work of a confident film-maker who operates on multiple levels. The legend of Baahubali is a stirring story of good triumphing over evil. The history of Baahubali is a more complicated affair concerned with the politics of managing a large empire, the ambitions of two aristocrats and the women behind them and human flaws in human beings on both sides. And both stories and in there. It’s just that one of them takes a little digging.

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. : Wickedness & Weakness, Hopelessness & Damnation

Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? 

As Kendrick Lamar albums go, this one is his most subtle one ever, at least as far as large-scale album spanning concepts go. All of his work so far just has to be enjoyed as a total album experience rather than as individual songs that just happened to be released at the same time. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City tells a very obvious story of the titular good kid in a city which acts as a machine operating against him, whatever he does to rail against that. That sort of desperate totality of gang-life and the nothing-elseness of it is laid out in front of you plainly but with a lot of grace and subtlety. To Pimp A Butterfly could be one of the most important musical projects of our generation, using song after song, each one adding a couple of verses to a desolate but ultimately hopeful poem he had been reciting to Tupac all along.

DAMN. doesn’t wear it’s concept on its sleeve. Certain resonances through the fourteen tracks that make up this LP are obvious from first listen. Or even  first look. Similarly themed songs are put next to each other in pairs. BLOOD. and DNA. LUST. and LOVE. GOD. and DUCKWORTH.  And even though the story elements are less pervasive, they are there. The album opens with a parable of sorts that loops back in on itself in very interesting ways.

The real elements that tie this album together, though, are these little leitmotifs: these lyrics or lines that are occasionally shouted, whispered, growled, moaned and screamed in several odd places through this album:

Whatever happens on earth stays on earth.

and

ain’t nobody prayin’ for me

And that cements DAMN.’s place as the successor to To Pimp A Butterfly. TPaB was an album that reflected back to the burden of history on this race of people in America and also looked forward with cautious hope for a brighter future. This hope was very solidly placed in the context of his own faith.

When you know, we been hurt, been down before, nigga
When our pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, “where do we go, nigga?”
And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga
I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright

  • Alright, To Pimp A Butterfly

A few of those lines are heard in DAMN. as well but in an entirely different context. Kendrick samples a voice clip of Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera.

This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years

Rivera says after quoting the aforementioned Alright lines. He excludes the part about being alright though.

Kendrick Lamar does the same thing on DAMN. This isn’t an album about being alright. This is an album about week knees and blowing guns, about lust as a vice and love as a crutch, about hardwired ambition and hardwired wickedness struggling for supremacy in very young, very malleable souls, about damnation, about curses, about punishment and about no buts. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no hope for salvation.

There is only this all pervading sense of damnation. This is the forty years in the wilderness album.

Kendrick alludes to that himself in XXX., the most politically charged song of an already politically charged LP.

Donald Trump’s in office
We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again
But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?

  • XXX., DAMN.

It’s easy to see how much has changed in the two years since To Pimp A Butterfly. XXX also reveals how conflicting faith has become for Kendrick Lamar since that other record.

Yesterday I got a call like from my dog like 101
Said they killed his only son because of insufficient funds
He was sobbin’, he was mobbin’, way belligerent and drunk
Talkin’ out his head, philosophin’ on what the Lord had done
He said: “K-Dot, can you pray for me?
It’s been a fucked up day for me
I know that you anointed, show me how to overcome.”
He was lookin’ for some closure
Hopin’ I could bring him closer
To the spiritual, my spirit do no better, but I told him
“I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:
If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”
Tell me what you do for love, loyalty, and passion of
All the memories collected, moments you could never touch
I’ll wait in front a niggas spot and watch him hit his block
I’ll catch a nigga leavin’ service if that’s all I got
I’ll chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap
Walk myself to the court like, “Bitch, I did that!”
Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward
I can’t even keep the peace, don’t you fuck with one of ours
It be murder in the street, it be bodies in the hour
Ghetto bird be on the street, paramedics on the dial
Let somebody touch my mama
Touch my sister, touch my woman
Touch my daddy, touch my niece
Touch my nephew, touch my brother
You should chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap

What I always loved about Kendrick was how, unlike other Christian rappers, he addressed the complexity of the world he lived in. But his religion was always  a stable anchor, holding him down while the storms raged around him. Now, even that is up in the air.

And what’s frightening, but also rather beautiful is that there is a totality to this concept. God in this album is the fire and brimstone God of the Old Testament and Kendrick and his kin are the Israelites, sinning, paying for that sin and going eye for an eye for that shit. 

All of this is a tad unnerving, especially for the faithful among us for whom Lacrae just doesn’t cut it and have been listening to Lamar with pride for years now. But, it isn’t very unbiblical. If you think it is, you haven’t been paying attention to your Psalms. In fact, that’s the most obvious vibe you can catch from this album: a man of God grappling with some frame of reference to put suffering into perspective. Job is mentioned once and the comparison is apt, though quite obvious.

Even the ‘blasphemous’ GOD. feels more weary and sarcastic than any real attempt a chest-puff.

But the overall message is what we’re all here for, yes? That’s what Kendrick Lamar does best. Tie fourteen tracks together to tell a story. A prose-poem. A novel in verse.

The leitmotifs reveal what I think he’s trying to say and the message is possibly one of the most complex ideas he’s ever grappled with.

Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me. He has been pushed up as the spiritual figurehead of a fallen, immoral generation. But who prays for the pastor? And what if the pastor doesn’t have any easy answer? What if the pastor himself feels like he can’t quite bring himself to turn the other cheek when his momma, his sister, his nephew, his niece, his cousin, his woman, his daddy or his brother is on the line.

Whatever happens on earth stays on earth. That is the only comfort this wounded, conflicted pastor has to offer. But he doesn’t quite come out and talk about the better place outside this earth. Because this album isn’t about that. This album is about earth and about wickedness and weakness and all of us struggling under the weight of random circumstances and souls and free will.

And he doesn’t give you this message through fuzzy old drums and synths intercut with friendly voice recordings or with comforting jazz and brass. He speaks in the language of 2017. Trap beats, Rihanna features, wickedness and weakness.

You can buy DAMN. here

China Mieville’s The City & The City : Crime Cliches and Urban Prose

So this has very rapidly turned into a China Mieville jerk-off fest. I promise you, I honestly did not mean for this blog to turn into that but, during an incredibly busy time of my life (an exam season that’s stretching on for two months), I’m beginning to turn more than ever to literature for comfort. I’m reading two big works of nonfiction right now, both vaguely history related and I’m hoping to touch on both of them when I finish them.

But the main comfort reads for me during this time, the stories I turn to for rest and succour, just happen to be the entire bibliography of China Mieville which I’m working through in no discernible order in the middle of Marginal Utility, JavaScript and the Cold War. So why not blog about it as I go along?

Today’s blog is going to be about The City & The City, one of the later books of China’s career. This could broadly fit into his ‘middle period’ (at least as far as the works he’s published already. according to him, he’s just moving into his middle period now). It’s place just after the Bas Lag trilogy and Looking For Jake is important, I think because it jumps off from a lot of the obsessions the Bas Lag stories revel in.

The idea of obsessions is something that’s always attracted me to Mieville. Some of his obsessions include octopuses, trains, garbage, forbidding landscapes, urbanity and language. The City & The City is Mieville’s penultimate city book (duh) but a lot of the other things he’s interested in, particularly language and squalor play a pretty major role in the novel.

It is set in two cities, Besz  and Ul-Qoma, both of which occupy the same geographic space. Yeah, that sentence means exactly what it says. Both cities are literally in the same location with the inhabitants of one city not interacting with those of the other. But the division is not watertight. There are some areas where both cities crosshatch and the inhabitants of one can see, hear or smell those of the other. Only they’re not allowed to see. So they unsee. And if they don’t unsee, Breach, the mysterious force that polices the division between the city and the city, will prosecute lethally and suddenly.

That is merely the set-up, though. The story is, for the most part, a police-procedural following Tyador Borlu of the Besel Extreme Crime Squad as he tries to investigate the death of a mysterious young woman who was found in Beszel but doesn’t quite belong there.

During my second reading of this story, a few things struck me. The first is the prose. It is almost entirely devoid of the delightful baroqueness that so characterises most of Mieville’s oeuvre.

A lot of it has to do with the first person narration, I imagine. There’s something similar in Embassytown. The prose does occasionally indulge in Mieville’s word games but for the most part, it is sparse, stripped down and very direct. But that just means that his usual ruminations on language are divorced from their direct prose congruities rather than be an additional representation of them. The language is tackled entirely on its own terms.

One of the concepts I’ve mentioned before is unseeing and unhearing. When the residents of Besel see those of Ul-Qoma and vice versa, they are legally, socially and to an extent, prudentially obliged not only to disregard them but to unregard them. To undo the act of ever regarding them in the first place. That is the concept of unseeing. This translates to language as well. Bes and Illitan are distinct languages used by those from Beszel and those from Ul-Qoma respectively and despite the fact that they share the same linguistic roots, both sides are obliged to unhear them. However, people from both sides are commonly versed in both languages. That concept of forbidden or accidentally learned language is something that fascinates me about this book.

And then there’s the crime/police-procedural base to the speculative elements. Within that base, Mieville maintains a lot of fidelity to the genre, playing around with the tropes that genre provides in his weird environment. The story opens as a sort of buddy-cop rookie and pro style narrative. From the second act, it shifts to a different buddy-cop narrative with initial dislike growing to grudging mutual respect. And then finally, it becomes a straight up political conspiracy thriller.

So, very surreptitiously, it does something Mieville absolutely adores but in a very subtle way. It explores as many subgenres within the genre as it can. The thing with Mieville is that the line between cliche and genre is often very hazy. Genre is in itself just a collection of cliches under which people reiterate. Mieville never consciously smashes that axiom but plays around with it, mixing and matching as he sees fit. So with Iron Council you have a strong political thriller about the nature of society juxtaposed with a western with some romance elements in it. You can say the same about most of his books (and if I really stick with this, I’ll probably talk about all those other books in later posts so lucky you).

But the thing with The City & The City is that all those elements are handled so subtly that you’d never really realise they were there till you’ve read it a little more watchfully the second time through. It is Mieville at his most discreet and understated.

You can buy The City & The City here.

 

Kraken by China Mieville – Faith Under a Microscope

China Mieville’s fiction has always had this strong but rather conflicted undercurrent of morbid interest in and yet derision of organised faith. This is something I think he’s very aware of and uses to his own advantage to create some interesting ideas.

From the very beginning with King Rat, this idea of music and worship is shown in a relatively negative light with the Pied Piper metaphor. But, at the same time, you have this numinous sense of joy with creating samples and discovering music. This sort of stuff carries forward throughout the Bas-Lag series and the rest of his work: the idea of the numinous divorced from any worshipful context other than sheer, primal wonder. Another thing he usually brews is a sense of the anti-numinous. Or, as he’d probably like to put it, the abnuminous. The idea of beauty and wonder in filth, muck, rust, urban degradation, decay, so on.

In Kraken, the religious themes are pretty much worn on it’s sleeve. A preserved specimen of the Architeuthis Dux gets stolen from the Darwin Centre of the Natural History Museum in London. Billy Harrow, the curator, gets sucked into a world of crazy cults, magic, metropolitan police jurisdiction, heartless mercenaries and plenty more of Mievillesque madness. But what this whole thing is about is really worship and a justification for worship outside any sort of ritual or spiritual context. A lot of it may very well be autobiographical. The cephalopod has had a strange appeal to Mieville for most of his career and stands historically as a sort of symbol for the weird.

Mieville’s writing usually makes any writer jealous of not coming close to ever having an idea as cool as a peripheral one he just uses on the fly. That is more than usually true for this book. You have something new and strange and wonderful with every page.

The thing is, anti-religion in popular fiction is something I’ve come to accept. I see past it almost always, because my beliefs are my beliefs and I’d hate to only read stories that are congruent with my worldview. But this is probably my favourite book I totally ethically and morally disagree with and still love (of which there are a lot, including ones by the same author). The reason is simple. It may fundamentally disagree with in a higher power but it understands it and identifies with it. That sort of thing is not common with left-wing writers writing normal fiction and even genre fiction (the distinctions are real blurry nowadays and I’ll get a post up about the loss of wonder in modern spec-fic and genre-fic sometime this aeon) these days.

A lot of the beauty in Mieville’s fiction stems from a very formal, very academic form of the introspection most of us do on a regular basis. He’s perfectly aware of these games he plays with religion because he’s perfectly aware that science-fiction often swoops in to take the place of religion. Look at the sort of fan communities that develop around sci-fi/fantasy shows. How different is Comic-Con from a Pentecostal Revival minus some weird costumes. How much of fandom is underpinned by worship?

Whatever you believe, you should probably give Kraken a look.

You can buy Kraken by China Mieville here

Arrival – Alien Linguistics

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have picked up on this recent trend in Science Fiction cinema for personal stories. The big, original, high concept sci-fi movies that we tend to remember at the end of every year seem to be complicated character studies of complicated people rather than the space opera/alien invasion stories of yester-century. Not that the Space Opera has in any way diminished in popularity, though. Guardians of the Galaxy and The Force Awakens have shown that there’s still a fertile market for that sort of stuff. But, the success of both those movies rides on the hyperactively franchise-based nature of American blockbusters today. I can’t really seem to remember any original regular science fiction that did well over the past few years. Shyamalan’s  After Earth was a complete travesty. Jupiter Ascending was kinda meh, to be honest. And even from the more successful franchise side of things, the big critical hits seem to be Rogue One and Prometheus which are both a lot more personal in scope than either of their predecessors.

But the movies that have been at the vanguard of this new personal trend in Science Fiction cinema have mostly been original, independent works. There’s Ex Machina and the very passionate Interstellar (yeah, I’m a fan) and The Martian. And then there’s Arrival.

The moment I got what Arrival was about, the Embassytown comparison was the first thing to spring to my mind. But, that wasn’t particularly fair. Both are stories about cognition that is entirely alien from ours. Both are stories about language and linguistics. But the similarities end there.

Arrival follows Louise Banks (with a strangely melancholic performance by the usually peppy Amy Adams), a linguist who is tasked with learning to communicate with aliens who have parked their spaceships on several almost random locations on the earth. These creatures are utterly alien from us. They are vast and lumbering things with eight, spidery appendages. We call them heptapods. Their language is entirely entirely written and makes use of a complicated set of symbols.

The cinematography and music are very reminiscent of two recent movies I’ve already mentioned: Ex Machina and Interstellar. Villeneuve goes for a mostly naturalistic approach to the environment and we’re choked with imagery of rolling hills, fields, lakes and the threat of rain from the word go. The score is orchestral, sparse and burgeoning, building up along with the film into a towering crescendo.

And both of these serve as a contrasting backdrop in front of which Villeneuve places his main character. Louise is cold and cut-off for most of the movie. She is based on a trope we don’t really see often in fiction, let alone science fiction. She is a character waiting for instructions on how to live. And towards the end of the movie, she gets them.

Jeremy Renner is surprisingly charming and Forest Whitaker is very Forest Whitaker.

If you’re into cerebral science fiction and you like complex character studies, I’d definitely give this one a go.

The Philosophy of Fanfiction – The Genre of Cognitive Familiarity

Tell me the last literary conference you attended (or watched) where someone didn’t bring up the whole ‘What are we going to do about Fifty Shades selling so many copies?’ question? Published writers (and perhaps more scarily, readers) are reacting with a kind of abject, existential horror at the idea that something so degenerative, misogynistic and poor in quality became published and is selling more copies than them. Or they were for a bit but I think everyone has reached a point where they can forgive E.L. James and move on.

The allegations thrown against her have ranged from “She wrote it on her BlackBerry!” (le gasp) to “She’s never even been to Seattle!” (le even gasper).

But the most interesting issue people seem to have found with the series is this terror at the idea that it is basically a find-and-replace edit of a fanfiction story starring Edward and Bella from Twilight. Which is intriguing in itself because one of the things Twilight got very very right was sexual tension. That steam that was getting pent up over the course of the first three novels was only let out a little with the fourth novel in the official series. Fifty Shades is like breaking the pipe open.

But it also explains the flatness and lack of motivation of the characters. To put it simply, they aren’t James’s flat and uninspired characters. They’re Meyer’s. And as such, they tick all the right boxes for blank slates the readers can project themselves onto. Only, in the case of Edward, with the abstinence element gone, he is just pure power and menace and nothing else as Christian Grey. So, Edward Cullen was made even flatter.

But we sit and pick this apart and complain but the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon has been going on for a long time. No, not in fanfiction but in porn. This is essentially an SNM porn parody of Twilight. And in porn, the sex is paramount.

So then we can establish that Fifty Shades of Grey is fanfiction for erotica. So why read fanfiction?

We’ve been toying with the idea of Suvin’s Cognitive Estrangement for a while now. I think fanfiction may be about anti-estrangement. It is the genre of cognitive familiarity.

There is, surprisingly, no glut of academic papers relating to fanfiction but the one I did find corroborates this to an extent.

 Because the text appears to describe a fictional space, systematically tracing its salient features, it projects “a map” in the mind of the reader (see Ryan, Narrative 124-25). Fan readers can imagine this space’s layout with great accuracy. They know that relative to the door, the table is located on the left with the whiteboard in front of it and that the desk is in the far right corner. They also know that Cameron is standing with her back to a corridor and next to House’s office. What is more, they can fill out generic references (for example to a “small desk in the corner”) with specific images from the show (in this case, of a desk with a computer, positioned near a large window). While the text establishes a body on the scene, the reader’s projection helps to create an impression of complete access.

The Writing and Reading of Fan Fiction and Transformation Theory, Veerle Van Steenhuyse, Ghent University

Van Steenhuyse goes on to elaborate about the concept of immersion, transportation and flow. Flow is greatly increased in fanfiction because the cognitive buffer period of having to imagine the look and feel of the world is eliminated. But that brings on new challenges. The writer does not simply describe the world in fanfiction. The writer often describes the world through the eyes of someone the original author (or director) hasn’t given a perspective to. Van Steenhuyse has taken the character of Allison Cameron from the House MD TV show and shows how the same locale is not described as it is in traditional fiction but described through the eyes of someone different in fanfiction. And that is the extent of differentiation.

But, before we get ahead of ourselves, who or what is a fan?

someone who admires and supports a person, sport, sports team, etc.

is how the Cambridge Dictionary defines a fan. And that obviously entails a degree of loyalty and fidelity to the object being admired. But beyond that, it entails familiarity.

The concept of fanfiction ties in to a greater concept called fandom. 

The community that surrounds a tv show/movie/book etc. Fanfiction writers, artists, poets, and cosplayers are all members of that fandom. Fandoms often consist of message boards, livejournal communities, and people.

That’s Urban Dictionary.

The purpose of exploring these things is to move on from the question of ‘Why read these?’ (because familiarity entails faster flow and alternate approaches to very well known worlds) to ‘Who reads these?’

Well? The fandom does. And the nature of the fandom is such that they have watched every episode, read every page or watched every movie the original creator has put out. In addition to that, they have picked these characters, worlds and locales apart on their own and collaboratively. They know these characters as well as the author does, sometimes even better. So, they are very familiar. And familiarity is a necessity for enjoying fanfiction the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

Which brings us to the next question. Why write them?

To understand this, I asked the community of fanfiction writers on Wattpad and got very illuminating answers.

epichorn31 approaches it largely from the perspective of being a fan themselves.

When you get into a fandom enough, whether it’s a book, movie, TV show, band, etc., sometimes you come up with wild theories or ideas that just weren’t explored in the original work. Alternately, you just want to ship your favorite characters. It’s mostly the last one.

So it’s all about playing with the familiar and exploring new concepts with what has already been established. This extends even to the concept of shipping where romantic partnerships are created between characters who were not romantically paired in the original work.

For Getting_to_Know_Them, writing fanfiction is a way to practice  writing.

In all honesty it is a great way to get started with writing, not only are some of the harder parts such as Character Design, Plot navigation and world building already done for you allowing you to focus on the story but you also have a solid base to start exploring and experimenting and figuring out what works in terms of design. Due to writing within the constraints of another persons writing you will find yourself thinking about why they wrote the world to be in that particular way and you will also start to think of the problems that come from designing and creating worlds and characters.

jettmanas  shares a similar perspective.

This idea extends to characterization as well, as Getting_To_Know_Them puts it.

After the basics most people move on to OC’s where they are looking at the basics of character design and melding their own characters to another persons set of rules. Most initial characters from younger writers will end up being Mary / Gary Stu’s due to the lack of experience in character design that allows for the person to understand the strengths and flaws of characters and how they work into a narrative (Good Fandom to see bad Examples: Harry Potter – 90% of fics re-balance the story by having Harry become some sort of God-like character with 6 different “secret” magical abilities and being a shifter etc) Eventually a writer will learn to balance characters.

These writers explore a very intriguing aspect of fanfiction writing. What do you learn from writing fanfiction? Well, fanfiction must (to an extent) entail being part of the fandom which must entail familiarity. But writing good fanfiction must go a lot deeper than that. The writer must have a firm grasp on the way the world operates. The writer of good fanfiction is forced to pick apart the worldbuilding of the original work which is always good practice for any writer.

As far as characterization is concerned, the challenge becomes even harder because to achieve cognitive familiarity, the portrayal of the  character in the fanfiction has to have a high degree of fidelity to the character in the original work. And that isn’t easy writing to accomplish, especially if the work in question involves complex characters with difficult motivations (Harry Potter works as a fair example.

The challenge ramps up when the characters are real people. Which is why I have this longstanding theory about why 1D fanfics are better than Justin Beiber ones and outnumber the latter vastly. It’s because 1D seem to be more interesting characters, personally. This even extends to the Phan fandom. Real human beings have to be picked apart for flaws, traits and insecurities. What better way to learn how to invent fake people?

A third reason is a lot more commercial.

As DysgraphicBen  puts it:

The first (goal of fanfiction) would be to entertain fellow fans, especially when something new is either so far off or no longer possible.

According to jettmanas :

Another advantage is people are familiar with the brand, and are typically more likely to read it than something random.

In Wattpad, a fanfiction story collects reads, votes and comments a lot faster than stories in the other genres precisely because of the fandom. Which acts as a motivation for others in the fandom to write. And those will also be read, motivating others to write and so on.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Why are we horrified by this phenomenon? What does it mean?

China Mieville (yes, him again) in his talk about The Future of the Novel at the EWWC, discusses the idea of the liberation of the narrative. The text will no longer be closed but will open with everyone given the ability to mashup, remix, muck around with and enjoy a text in a vastly different way from what is already happening. And I was all like, dude, that’s already happened.

Fanfiction represents something beautiful. It shows that the text has already been liberated. It does not deny the originator any credit (on the contrary, the originator is often worshipped) but adds to an existing canon with ideas ranging from the crowd-pleasing to the outre and the bizarre. And it ushers in a cadre of new writers who know how worldbuilding works, how good characterization is to be done and how to constuct a plot.

Fanfiction is like a self-taught Creative Writing course when done well. It deserves not scorn but close, careful study and a lot of respect.

My thanks to @epichorn31  @DysgraphicBen  @jettmanas and @Getting_to_Know_Them for their well thought out, detailed responses to my queries. 

Weird Wednesday – The Conspiracy

This is part of a new cinema thing I plan on doing every Wednesday just to keep things fresh. Enjoy 🙂

The translation of the weird into a medium that is primarily visual (be it movies or video-games) is something people get their proverbial panties in a twist about for no reason I can really comprehend. The idea goes that movies tend to show you everything, so that ‘estrangement of that which cannot be described’ element is lost.

Let me be the first to call bullshit. Movies don’t show you everything. Movies give you a peephole the size of your screen into a world that ideally should be as three dimensional and well realized as our own. When done right, weird cinema is all about what’s going on in the places around the screen. It’s all about what we don’t see.

If you’ve burned through the entire Lovecraft collection, managed to wrestle with the Night Land behemoth and have already reread all the Mieville and Moorcock stories you happen to have, conspiracy theories are where you should be going. Most people only really watch the TMZ-esque five minute conspiracy theory videos on YouTube but that’s not really where all the weird fun is. If you google hard enough, you’ll find entire works of non-fiction going up to twenty chapters about Monarch, MK ULTRA and the lizards.

I leave the choice of whether it is fiction or not entirely up to you but I can assure you, this stuff is most certainly weird. Why? Because it follows the intrinsic idea of the weird. The novum is something that has always been there, watching us. It is something we haven’t noticed yet but has always been there, subtly shaping world history. And that’s squarely where conspiracy theories lie. The government is working against you. Everyone in charge are satanists. Horrible mind-control experiments have been going on (and are going on) with young children as the guinea pigs. And most of all, all the music you listen to, every news source and every movie you watch is subliminally controlling you.

If that isn’t weird fiction, I don’t know what is.

Which brings us to the topic at hand: The Conspiracy. The Conspiracy is a 2012 Canadian horror-thriller directed by Christopher MacBride. It follows a two-man documentary crew interviewing an enigmatic figure named Terrance. Terrance (portrayed brilliantly by Alan Peterson) is one of those nutters who think 9/11 was an inside job, the government has been overrun and that shadowy organizations control the global financial and political systems we have come to rely on. They are initially skeptical. Then, Terrance disappears and they fall down a dark, dangerous rabbit hole trying to find out what exactly happened to him.

I’m generally not into found footage movies but this one is very very unobtrusive. For most of its run-time, it handles itself like a well-shot documentary and avoids most of the gimmicks that plague this genre. The performances by Alan Poole and James Gilbert are very nuanced and balanced and it is never implausible as a proper documentary. There are no jump-scares and nothing particularly supernatural but it does a gradual buildup of tension that is just so tangible and effective.

I knew this movie worked because the moment it was done, that weird conspiracy thing started happening to me. I started reading up on all this stuff again and that sort of shift started happening in my mind. I was starting to consider whether the government conspiracy thing was plausible.

The Conspiracy is produced by Resolute Films and distributed by XLRator.