The Last Wave


The Last Wave (1977)
Dir. Peter Weir

The best intentions have not achieved change (…) in every area of life for our people, inequality persists. Much more needs to be done.
-Patrick Dodson, 2017

A myth persists that the 1967 referendum gave Aboriginal people Australian citizenship, the right to vote, and made it so they were finally represented by the Commonwealth as people instead of ‘flora and fauna’. While some have pointed out that Aboriginal people could apply (!) for citizenship before this date, were already able to vote in some places, and were never classified as flora and fauna, the 1967 referendum represented a genuinely momentous time in Australian history wherein non-Indigenous Australians voted en masse for the rights of Aboriginal people. The fact that these myths were and are still believed by many Australians is not indicative of some sort of historical ignorance on their part, but instead speaks to the fact that they seem like entirely plausible realities.* The Last Wave moves uneasily through post-referendum Sydney- it has after all been ten years since white Australians agreed that they would like the country’s Indigenous people to become recognised by the same laws and rights that they have, and now an Aboriginal man is found dead outside a pub and there’s no way it’s not ending up in court.

David and Annie are the average white Australians that voted Yes. David jumps at the chance to represent (through Legal Aid) a group of Aboriginal men accused of murder, even though his only experience is in corporate taxation. He’s never done this before, but he wants to do good for those who are now subject to the same laws as non-Indigenous Australians. He and Annie sit around their nice house with their blonde children reading books on Aboriginal culture, and both of them pause on a ‘then’ and ‘now’ image. ‘Then’ is a low-angle shot of a proud elder looking into the distance, ‘now’ is a homeless man drinking piss under a bridge. They pause because they did their bit letting the government know that they feel bad about the concentration camps that were built to annihilate all Aboriginal people, but here we are in the present witnessing self-annihilation. This mindset- to mourn those who’ve been historically wronged, is one of the dangerous forms that ‘best intentions’ can take- the Dying Race is revived through peoples’ inability to recognise that they must continue to act and listen. This is in no way specific to Australia- the average white New Zealander will walk past art by living Māori to find the portraits of Māori painted by Charles Goldie, triggering a nostalgic recognition of when Māori were Dying.** This pseudo-respect means mourning those who are still very much alive, and responding to problems with Oh, isn’t it sad.

When the Aboriginal men Chris and Charlie come to dinner, very much alive and not dead or pissed under a bridge somewhere, the Burtons freeze up. Annie attempts to make conversation, ‘I paint’, gesturing to the wall which has two paintings- a watercolour of a frog and a rough approximation of an Aboriginal dot painting. It is unclear which is her painting and what that means- if hers is the attempt at the dot painting then the Burtons fully misunderstand the nature of those paintings as concealing secret rituals unavailable to the non-Indigenous viewer (the market for dot paintings made a lot of white art dealers very, very rich, they line the walls of many a wealthy art collector’s house). If hers is the frog then we see two parallel worlds in stark contrast. Later, Annie looks out the window and sees Charlie standing out on the road. She’s met him, but she goes to call the police. A knock at the door follows and she is relieved to find a white face on the porch, and not Charlie’s. Aside from the fact that these scenes are very much an Australian forbear to Get Out‘s first act, they highlight the overlapping of worlds that takes place when colonists realise that they cannot ignore the other voices; those who’ve been there for something like 75,000 years. The explanation of Dreamtime is a vivid way of making David understand what is happening, but this occurs in any meeting of worlds. His journey is not a descent into obsession or madness, but what comes with the act of actually empathising. The film does not offer a way forward, but it is not meant to. It asked ten years on whether any real progress had been made since the 1967 referendum, and this year marks its fifty year anniversary. I am not Australian, and this is very much a conversation for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, but from a distance it seems that for every movement trying to improve things, cuts are made to communities, sacred sites are deregistered, and works of anti-Aboriginal propaganda are produced by popular national historians. Whether or not things are improving, the task is continued empathy and the risk is thinking, with the best intentions, Oh, isn’t it sad.

Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, there is much to be said about the colonist’s own alienation from a landscape that they have tried and failed to turn into a simulated Home (England), as well as from this (imagined) Home itself, but a million words would not be enough. Weir’s films are almost compulsively elusive, and yet describing the themes and narratives of his works comes too easily. This ease is what makes his films so frustrating- they are frequently described as dreamlike, but they are more like waking up and spending the entire day trying to remember past the boring residual bits you’ve been left with. It is not that he obscures simple ideas with arthouse tricks, but that simple descriptions don’t do these ideas justice. His solution is to turn us into bewildered amnesiacs. I remember in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, the author using the word ‘despair’ and then having to backpedal to say No, really marinate on the word for a minute. This can be a problem in art- recognising words and concepts in a work can lead to the generation of a platform from which to appreciate the thing from afar. Our understanding comes premeditated, our feelings hypothetical. Weir’s films use their medium to ensure that we are not just gliding over words and ideas- we can cite ‘the tyranny of distance’, alienation, annihilation, and the collision of worlds, but Weir absolutely forces us to feel them.

*Aboriginal affairs before and after 1967, regardless of what the referendum said, still tended to be dealt with on a state by state basis rather than according to the laws of Commonwealth, and often by departments whose chief concerns were flora and fauna, not people. Not not people, but not people either, then. Before the 1967 referendum those with Aboriginal ancestry were added up in order to be subtracted from the population census numbers. Not not not people, but something to subtract from human numbers. An absence. Terra nullius: How can a country be taken from a people that never existed?

**Goldie was actually painting as the Māori population of New Zealand was for the first time since colonists arrived, growing. His subjects look back, defeated, but what we are actually seeing is a white New Zealander fetishising colonial subjugation. Contemporary viewers thus take part in a second or even third hand perpetuation of the Dying Race. He might be one of our best technicians, but he is certainly our worst artist.

Dawn of the Dead


Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dir. George A. Romero

Beginning with a cacophony of overlapping information from disparate angles and voices and perspectives and then clearing out for a dizzying absence of anything- information, communication, direction- Dawn of the Dead is the greatest movie that ever eschewed dramatic beats for aimless confusion. The context we receive at the start reiterates what we already know, but gives it a sense of consequence in disarray- we perhaps take the zombie for granted in intimate settings, so here’s the world collapsing with a series of bangs and screams and sloppy arguments. For the rest of the film Romero and the survivors experiment within the rules established, killing time because there’s nothing else left to do.

There is a tension between freedom and fate that goes hand in hand with the mall setting and the ‘slow zombie’. Before long the stretches of the mall become a kind of playground- with the undead as obstacles to duck under, run through, and confuse like it’s a great day out. It could not be more different than Night of the Living Dead‘s fraught kinetic terror. Joe points out that the mall casts and embodies an illusion of timelessness and non-space, and Romero simulates this daze in his editing. It is performed and arranged without a legible hierarchy- significance is cut the same as the mundane, and some takes linger where others throw us into a new space and tone altogether mid-sentence (again it’s impossible to tell what time or day it is). Romero’s editing is as relentless and uncaring as the seconds hand on a clock. The survivors are free from timekeeping, but not from time itself.

Characters during conflict are paralysed by possibility- the person being attacked is given closeups and POVs so that we are trapped with them, but for the others the frame is fully open- do we grab the zombie and pull them away, or do we go back for a gun? Do we hand them the weapon they’re reaching for, or pick it up and use it ourselves? Do we just run? And then where to- inside that building or that one over there? To the car, up the hill, or down the road? What next? Dawn of the Dead is a strange ‘classic film’ because it is so painfully aimless. There is an analogy for which I cannot remember the source (or even the context lol, but it was probably for the death of God)- there was a fish in a tank and the fish thought If only I could go here and if only I could go there and then one day the glass cracked and the tank broke and the fish flopped around a bit and died.

Flyboy and Trooper see the collapse of civilisation as the removal of (for them) troublesome institutions, ushering in a return to the Wild West- women can stay at home while men run about guns blazing. This is a recurring image in fictional Bleak Futures- many authors struggle to imagine any future that is not a return to 1950s domesticity but with more blood, beards, and plaid shirts. The predictable irony is that these function as escapist texts for their intended audiences, tracking a line between Paleolithic hunter gatherers, 1950s breadwinners, and boys adventure magazines. They imply that there’s a conspiracy in place stopping men from being men, and that a collapse might get us back to the Natural Order of Things. Romero paints these idiots as horrifying manchildren. Paring things back Flyboy proposes to Fran, but no, these institutions have collapsed, remember? Queue white male ennui, the fish floundering.

Fran foresees this happening and tries to ensure that this future won’t be a regressive one- freedom for the others is uninhibited access to the freedoms they take for granted. Peter as a black man is the only other person for whom a return to the Wild West via the 1950s is a thing to absolutely avoid at all costs- when Fran says mockingly ‘It’s a shame I can’t cook you all up some eggs,’ he looks back knowingly, and when she says she wants to be on equal footing with the men and learn how to shoot a gun, he says ‘I know what you mean’ (Flyboy looks like he’s just been told he has to bring his mother to a party). It’s a fair point- whether or not power structures collapse, they will reinstate and support themselves through those who’ve never questioned them.

Dawn of the Dead has this ungainly body of masochistic silliness and a big bruised heart. Its happy bits are the most exhausting and satirically playful, while its darker passages advance things dramatically in a sea of hazy indifference. The film’s status as ‘the great zombie film’ is as strange as if The White Album and not Abbey Rd or Revolver was considered the most popular and important Beatles album, and if the tracklist was slightly different.* The haze is a good means of evoking Sunday afternoon nausea, but moments in the film stand like lighthouses to guide us through. Peter executes a group of zombies locked up in a tower block and he is crying, partly because he looks right down the centre of the ‘rational v humane’ debate, and partly because he knows that these are some of the last people of colour that he will see for the rest of the film. They are caged within a tower block which is a cage in its own way- these people were always doomed.

Romero’s and Argento’s cuts vary in terms of how much Goblin and how much mall music is featured in the film, but whatever the cut, music is used to create subjectivities. When our group gets into the helicopter the music is tense and buzzing, and they fly over a group of people swarming the countryside. Someone says ‘They probably enjoy it’ (gathering together and hunting people), and at this we jump from the helicopter to inspect what is happening on the ground all by ourselves. Down here the music is joyous and the cameras switch to a photo essay style in order to bring us in via observation, and sure enough the people on the ground seem to enjoy doing what they’re doing. We cut abruptly back to the helicopter and the music’s tense again. We remember how Night of the Living Dead ended, and suddenly all these smiling faces look familiar, malicious. This sequence of non-diegetic music, and the Goblin passages, make it clear that the mall music following the group is not incidental to the setting- they’re just living in a lonesome carnival.

Elsewhere edits cut for distance instead of proximity- the conversation between Peter and deathbed Trooper pretends it’s shot reverse shot, but it starts with closeups and finishes out in two separate doorways. We can feel connected, but we die alone. Peter only enters the stage when Trooper’s gone. For the mall we get an establishing shot from the helicopter, but then Romero goes the essay route again, treating its exterior with the apprehensive curiosity that one might treat a just landed UFO. It seems alive, or like it contains some interior life force we’re not quite privy to. Everything that is not beautifully framed is utterly cheap and rushed, and the best shot of all is Flyboy and Fran in bed, him slumped and humiliated, her sitting up. It’s an unsettling thing seeing posed bodies frozen as the film keeps running, and it’s usually reserved for the art house. Here it feels fitting, like a gravestone at the head of their failed story.

Cameras as an artistic tool crop from the physical world, and similarly we expect details and exchanges which don’t service the greater narrative to be edited out of a film. Unlike books, paintings, or sculptures, we are subjected to the film’s own patience or impatience in the way of time-keeping, and we are trained to expect efficiency from mass-produced, linear cinema. An articulate reading of Dawn of the Dead‘s politicised time is open for anyone to attempt, but for now it is fair to say that the film’s approach to duration is akin to slow cinema- Dawn of the Dead begins and ends and things happen in it, but it feels discontinuous. Its time is liberated, its cash and commodities are reduced to nothing, and there’s this hope that establishing new parameters for a better future will mean that we don’t return to barbarism or die of exposure.

*The White Album, Romero/Argento edition

1. Revolution 9
2. Happiness is a Warm Gun
3. ‎Long, Long, Long
4. Back in the USSR
5. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
6. Piggies
7. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
8. Rocky Raccoon
9. Piggies
10. Back in the USSR
11. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
12. Rocky Raccoon
13. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
14. I’m So Tired
15. Wild Honey Pie
16. Back in the USSR
17. Piggies
‎18. Piggies
‎19. I’m So Tired
20. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
21. Dear Prudence
22. I’m So Tired
23. I’m So Tired
‎24. Yer Blues
‎25. Piggies
26. Helter Skelter
‎27. Yer Blues
28. ‎Good Night

I Walked with a Zombie


I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Dir. Jacques Tourneur

In spite of scientific, philosophical, and historical insistence to the contrary, the belief in a single set of values and binaries presented as an objectively True Reality was and still is upheld and imposed on others, often by those with access to said scientific, philosophical, historical insights. This contradiction is simple when we look at colonial encounters- the contrast in belief systems between colonists and indigenous peoples make clear the fact that we should be talking about different worlds rather than just different perspectives on the same plot of land. A more complicated network of conflicting and complementary worlds emerges where indigenous peoples are wiped out by colonists who then kidnap people from their home-worlds and enslave them in the New World.

I Walked with a Zombie is written and paced like a step by step mystery romance, but its narrative comes already undone by a hazy free-associative world of connections, echoes, and ambiguities. As such it is difficult to engage with in any way other than pulling on threads to see which others go taut or slack, and to call out and listen for the answer.

The film takes place outside of the War, but the War is ever present. It takes place away from but within earshot of the War. It is said that the First World War created hell on earth, with the geographical scope of conflict expanding but nationalism and genocidal machineries condensing time and space leading to a rupture. We see in this period unprecedented masses of people traversing different worlds- they begin in small towns cut off from a large world, and suddenly they arrive in hell and they see more bodies than they have ever seen in one place, in the mud and sticking out of shallow graves and with their guts strewn over fences.

There has been significant work on the differing ways that colonisation and World Wars are accounted for in traditional histories. Colonisation, it is said, is treated as history, whereas it is insisted that we remember the World Wars personally. Memory is something we travel to and from constantly, whereas history is a series of linear narratives that we can look at from a distance and forget once we are done with them.

These people went back to their home-worlds and influenza killed twice as many as the War did, and then two decades later they were invited back to hell again. The zombie here is those who are living after the war, who are living and dead and who relive their friends being blown apart because to forget them is to leave them behind, so they see their friends die and come back to life a hundred times every day. The zombie is the hope that your loved ones will return from hell back to your world when this is over, but it is also the hope that your loved ones who died in their beds at home (where things are meant to be safe) from the flu will just rise up from the grave and lie there bedridden again forever.

James Cook conducts himself as Enlightened and non-judgemental to the peoples of the Pacific, and in one episode, as a result of a misunderstanding, he loses his temper and fires canons at a group of Tahitians. A member of his crew looks down to see a Tahitian man looking at a woman torn in half by a cannonball, floating in the water. The man is not mourning, because he cannot believe what he is looking at. We see multiple worlds overlapping, and we see a person looking at a person looking at a dead body: how can anything just tear a human body right in half?

There is this white New Zealander a hundred and forty years later who says that he arrived at the Western front and a new gun was wheeled out and before he knew it his friend was just wet pink air save for the tragicomic (it’s not funny but he’s laughing as he tells it) exclusion of his boots with his ankles still sticking out, both coloured red. How can anything tear a human body right in half?

So that’s memory, they insist, and here’s history: people are kidnapped from their home-worlds and beaten and starved and they arrive at a place and they say Whose land is this? and the kidnappers say It is ours, and they all see the people that lived there and built their lives there dying of these diseases, and they see their worlds flickering with them. Your world is gone, they tell them, And this is your world now.

The colonists belittle the idea of Te Po (the world of darkness and ancestors) on the basis that the only world is the one that can be observed and understood scientifically. They then go on to tell the Maori about their god whose name is God and who is invisible (they are of course mocked for this). It is strange how much of I Walked with a Zombie looks as though it is taking place at day time, when reference is made to it being night.

Cook, unlike his crew, was not appalled by any of the rituals he encountered on those voyages, explaining that European customs would seem just as strange to the people of the Pacific. His ‘non-judgement’ was not irregular among Enlightened colonists, because the truth is that these people had access through their knowledge of anthropology, philosophy, and scientific discovery, to as many different worlds as they desired, and they knew well that no particular world was any more or less True than any other.

The Royal Society’s instruction to Cook was to observe the transit of Venus, to chart territories unaccounted for, and to find the unknown Southern continent (thus making the world as they knew it smaller). The other instruction was to seize as much land as possible from these ‘savages’ who were of course not being judged as lesser or interfered with. A world liberated from imperialism becomes a tool of imperialism, and is in itself imperialist. Mrs. Rand tricks slaves into working harder by imitating and using their beliefs against them. She can see in and out of multiple worlds, but what she doesn’t expect is for hers to start cracking up.

The dead can’t just up and walk! Except they do, as we’ve seen. Lazarus rose from the dead and stunk like a corpse. Saint Sebastian was shot full of so many arrows he ‘looked like an urchin’ but he got up and found Diocletian (who then beat him to death and dumped him in a sewer). The symbol of Saint Sebastian in the film seems like a non sequitur, but is it possible to think of a slave ship without also thinking of people thrown overboard and drowning? Symbols like any other thing are never fixed- they come and go and take on new meanings depending on who needs them and to what ends. The thing here is martyrdom, and rising again.

It is common for prophets to adapt ideas and imagery from the worlds of European colonists in order to fight for a new world invariably born post-encounter. ‘We will use your weapons against you.’ It is common for people who have been forcibly made to forget their old worlds as they were, to remember what they can and add what is necessary from the colonial world to make something new that is connected to the past. Nobody walks out of this with their world entirely intact, forgetting about the others they encountered.

This world outside of the War is full of sleep instead of fear and rage, but its worlds are collapsing every second. The thing contextualising it outside of itself is slavery, and not the War at all. I Walked with a Zombie, against imperial histories, presents the War as history and slavery is memory.

What do an abusive Brontë villain, an American used car salesman, a Canadian nurse, and an English colonist all have in common with Voodoo practicing slaves on a sugar plantation? A shared history that can’t and won’t be forgotten: I Walked with a Zombie.

Blade Runner 2049


Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Dir. Denis Villeneuve

There is a cropped close-up of a hand wresting on a dashboard, and it’s shot so we notice its veins running wrist to knuckle. This matters in every way for 2049‘s Pinocchio story, but it also highlights Villeneuve’s hangups over his own direction, specifically how as a mainstream descendent of arthouse detachment he desires detachment as well as real humanity in his films. His is the urge to basically impersonate the right reference points and then locate a pulse, and never move from that pulse. We can see why he would want to do this, but Villeneuve is best when his images build a messy grammar of ideas, and worst when he thinks that he is communicating clear ideas through images. What this means is we have a director averse to tacky exposition, who is celebrated by masses of people just for letting each scene and image breathe, but who struggles to convince himself that he’s birthed a humanity that exists through arthouse beats and spacious images. 2049 is a moment of self-realisation, and is every bit as messy as that should be.

Deakins goes for near-abstractions of 2019 concept art with hazy monoliths at a distance, and makes direct quotations of Stalker and The Sacrifice. Tarkovsky, Malick, and Kubrick are the holy trinity of artists that hack directors imitate when they want to shortcut profundity, and Villeneuve has been known to use any of the three as a crutch when he’s needed it. What has changed here is that these quotations serve a purpose emotionally if not also thematically. Villeneuve seems to have realised that these people worked or are working within film as a popular art medium, and that there is nothing to be afraid of if the work is good (I kept thinking of nathaxnne’s perfect description of Halloween III: ‘McDonald’s Happy Meal Version of The Wicker Man’). There is an anxiety prevalent in contemporary directors to Make Art, as if they are embarrassed about film as a format, and this stops them getting anywhere close to their heroes (see Nolan, Iñárritu et al.). Villeneuve steps up to something better, even potentially enduring, in using quotation across artworks to bring the others’ baggage, and not being daunted by the material. He tries something new built on knowledge and respect for the past.

Where he theoretically stumbles is in creating a sense of Being in his world, and this is a weakness we see owned and evaded and experimented with across works. Prisoners employs all the signifiers of the authentic American experience (as read in Carver and imagined in Springsteen) and has its actors not just walk but barge through and throw tantrums in all of its interior spaces. Still this seems plastic until the film’s lurking chaos pulls everything else under (this becomes clearer after repeat viewings). Sicario sees scripting, editing, camera-type, and tactical choreography wound tight into a gestalt horror of action. Blade Runner‘s world is one that viewers have watched and theorised about and imagined themselves in endlessly, and Villeneuve understands this. Instead of trying to overcome his inadequacies with tactile cinema, he allows the nightmare of non-Being within it to take over. As with Sicario every view, action, and thought works to generate the world as we know it, and as with Prisoners this means the slippage of physical struggles for control, and cosmic and emotional chaos.

In a world of replicas and celebrated audience-tested forgeries, Villeneuve realises that humanity exists if you know where to look for it. Gosling is the perfect lead because he shares the director’s fears and anxieties. He is fascinating to watch when he gets it right, and impossible when he gets it wrong. He is a self-modeled Beautiful Loser with a face too long and symmetrical to convince. He slurs his words and mimics the lumbering physicality afforded the great losers of deliberate artlessness, but he doesn’t have their bones or their lives so he works out until his neck gets thick and he can stomp around in something resembling their boots. His merit is entirely his pained opaque eyes, because he knows Kuleshov and thinks everyone else forgot. Here he’s sad eyes and aimless shuffling, unsure lumbering- you can feel him in places asking Am I doing it right? and in others he’s adjusted to the forceful lack of direction. He takes centre stage but floats like a dead dream, and the deeper he goes, the more he unravels, the less substantial he becomes- not like a romantic mess of raw nerves, prejudices, and betrayals, more like blink and he’s gone. This is the film entirely.

Zimmer who now goes hand in hand with over-scored epics outdoes himself by amplifying his tricks to the point that they become a sort of nu metal approximation of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s electroacoustic moments in Arrival. The score mourns and roars. Further to the Pinocchio story, we get slow concrete plates grinding in abandoned warehouses which clear the room for the most human of sounds in the throat chant. Sometimes the distinction is lost. 2049 assumes that we know that there is no ontological or emotional difference between human and replicant, but the female ‘characters’ complicate this- Joi’s introduction is the film’s most pointed critique of gender conditioning and expectation (we see her morph from a 1950s housewife into a Cool Girlfriend into anything else to satisfy K’s mood), and the fiercely professional Luv ensures she does well by her employer, Wallace. The image of her in the water lingers so that we feel like crying. Dystopias tend to exaggerate issues that we see now for people who are somehow blind to them, but there is not enough hope (much less nuance or empathy) in the film’s portrayal of gender to make this feel anything other than depressing. I wanted Luv to go rogue (she could still be a villain), but the film is adamant we see her as a wasted life and that’s all.

These drones and eyes and dreams riff on the authentic and the real and the counterfeit, and they feel most human when they’re trying and failing to grasp onto something. Their Becoming is not when they realise that the universe has a plan, but when they’re forced to see that the opposite is the case. K’s journey is the clearing of that perversely cold feeling that comes with realising that you are not alone, and the mourning of your divine purpose. We are born with a counterfeit dream that insists that we are lost individuals at the end of history, and year after year we pay to see films which confirm this. In 2049 we see this countered with a shared memory of the past which leads to a collective dream for the future.

Over the Garden Wall


Over the Garden Wall (2014)
Created by Patrick McHale

“Led through the mist, By the milk-light of moon, All that was lost, is revealed”

What have we lost, and how is it going to be revealed? If it’s something we once had, then it must be something we’re familiar with, surely? What will it mean when we find it again? Nostalgia in politics speaks to something being lost, and appeals to our desire to return to some home that never was. It is tempting to shut it out given the obvious nationalistic and white supremacist forms that it takes, but it is clear that there has been some major disruption, something lost, that has lead to these misguided and destructive conclusions. It is frightening that this pain is being channeled into a toxic nostalgia, and that the horrors of the past seem to be returning with it. Over the Garden Wall is one of the first noteworthy nostalgic major cartoons released since Ren & Stimpy revolutionised the format decades earlier through making the past strange. Its rhythms and moods could be mistaken for a one-off gag in a contemporary show like Adventure Time, but the punchline never comes. Two minutes in and it’s obviously sincere. Is Over the Garden Wall rejecting contemporary cartoons in order to fetishise the past we ‘lost’?

“Dancing in a swirl, Of golden memories, The loveliest lies of all”

Of course not, but it’s interesting to see how it indulges ‘golden memories’ and underscores the idea of moving on. Over the Garden Wall has a rare generosity of spirit that makes it feel longer than one hundred minutes, in part because of each episodes’ richness, and in part because it is all so dense with familiarity. The narrator tells us that we are journeying into The Unknown which is a misnomer given that the show draws on things written, drawn, sung hundreds of years ago but which we call forth to enjoy in our own time. It is not Unknown but hyper-familiar. There is a sense here that the past does not go away and that we need it in the future, and that art is the trigger and the process of both remembering and reimagining.

This is not paradoxical- modernism’s ‘most important’ work Ulysses contains prose that still seems revolutionary to the present day reader, through in large part drawing on the entire history of literature and setting its words and figures in its own ‘present’. Exclusive rather than inclusive, the Pre-Raphaelites got British art out of stasis by forcing themselves to forget the three hundred years of painting that came before them. Over the Garden Wall does not reject its contemporaries (although sometimes it seems to), and rather than taking on the form of liquid as does Ulysses, it clearly delineates past from future in the form of the garden wall. For Over the Garden Wall, remembering is a creative possibility rather than a passive one- we change and our memories change with us.

“We can’t stay here forever”
“Why not?”

Over the Garden Wall‘s hyper-familiar Unknown makes our hearts sing and stretch for ‘the loveliest lies’, those ‘golden memories’ of when the sun was warm and the days were long and everything was an adventure until we wanted safety and then danger fell away and there’d be home right there. It openly achieves this through evoking many sights and sounds that we associate with history, or the past that was. History alone is data, like a book waiting to be read or in BioShock Infinite, a theme park ride with nobody there to ride it. Locating a rememberer to inhabit this mechanism and make it exist means creating a present that is (here Wirt and Greg). Like BioShock Infinite‘s theme park we understand that this is artificial- ‘the loveliest lies of all’ are presented as just that, lies. The past is not preserved but reinterpreted, and its past-ness contains hallmarks of the now. Its digital look is pronounced in the character models which again seem like an Adventure Timegag, but it takes on an uncanny feeling with the backgrounds which are almost painterly but not quite.

Why can’t we just stay here? Because we change, and ‘here’ changes with us. Over the Garden Wall begins and ends with the same vignettes set to music which might lead us to believe that its time is circular- endless repetitions with different subjects to bare witness. The key is change within the cycle.

“You sound uncharacteristically wistful”

The miniseries contains and evokes nostalgia, but it is not a strictly nostalgic work. Nostalgia is understood and experienced in any number of different ways, but in its simplest form it is the longing for a home that never existed. One of its toxic forms is predicated on the belief that the future can’t and won’t be as good as the (imagined) past. On an individual level we fabricate our memories as our bodies fade away, and on a social and political level we resort to barbarism as a way of expressing dismay over what has been lost. On the one hand the past is less scary than an uncertain future because we’ve already seen it, but on the other hand the past is actually horrifying.

Over the Garden Wall lives and breathes melancholy, which makes sense because ‘melancholy’ comes loaded into ‘wistful’. Nothing in the world is fixed, and the rememberer changes as she rewrites her memories. Try as we might to document and preserve the past (we can even build museums, theme parks, and simulation villages), the thinking/remembering subject will always take something new from what she sees. It goes both ways- Wirt attempts to pass through histories that he thinks are dead and fixed, but the figures of the past call out You can’t do that!

BioShock Infinite dramatises toxic political nostalgia when the player encounters theme park monuments to national excellence in the museum (the holder of national identity and grand narratives). The player is distressed by them, and ends up peering behind the curtains to see the human cost of maintaining the illusion. These nationalistic appeals to nostalgia either forget past atrocities or view them as a necessary condition of a return to ‘greatness’. ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ We can’t just pass through and ignore the barbarism- our responsibility to the future lies in remembering the past. The cycle repeats itself, but differently- we need to ensure that it gets better and not worse.

“Where have we come, and where shall we end?”

In this hopeful image we have the past being critically reexamined by a present that is always coming into being. The preserved past is an impossibility but acknowledging this does not mean to confirm the fears of the chronically nostalgic. In their estimation if the past is not preserved then it is rundown and abandoned, not just dead and buried but left out and mocked by time itself, the wasteland pushing up against its borders and taking over. We can understand how frightening this must be, but the mistake is in considering the future as a wasteland.

Over the Garden Wall‘s picture of time can never atrophy- it is reflexive and ever-shifting. When Wirt and Greg wake up there is no question that it all happened, had happened before, and will happen again, differently. The books and paintings and songs that Over the Garden Wall draws on contain recent and ancient histories, all of which we recognise, and all of which change as we revisit and remember them. And like these works, it is made to be rewatched and remembered over and over again, never existing in some fixed state, and never meaning the same thing twice. Like Wirt and Greg we check in when we feel we need to, wanting to learn something that will matter, and the frog starts singing and we find exactly that.

Dead of Night


Dead of Night (1945)
Dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Basil Dearden

The architect comes up the drive and stops for a minute because he recognises the Tudor cottage, and we’ve seen it too, a million times. He walks into the room and says he’s been in here, met you and you, and we say Yes, and us too. The psychologist doesn’t believe him (or us) and thinks we’re transferring delusions between one another to create a mass delusion. He tries to find the culprit by having each of us tell our story.

This of course backfires, we know these stories, they’re in our bones, we remember being there and we remember them being told to us by others. The narrative act is partly to blame- the dredging up of collective fears and creating work after work that remembers the last one- every story’s haunted. But then do these stories dictate our memories of them, or do we watch read listen to them because we recognise something within them? We understand the political motivations for making a collective memory, a collective boogeyman, and telling us there’s been a collective exorcism, but there’s something personal about Dead of Night, like we ask who’s telling it (and so what’s the agenda) but we come out with nothing.

It is a distinctly British occurrence to take a step onto what one thinks will be solid ground, only to find oneself sinking into a cold muck. To go for a walk is to find some ancient evil burrowing its way out of the sand and rock. It’s two thousand and something and this movie is over seventy years old, but we go back a hundred and fifty years and every manor’s decaying and every person’s daydreaming about the past that was, with ghosts over their shoulder. “Ghosts aren’t attached to places but to people, to the living,” of course, but it’s hard to make distinctions when we’ve got the same damp nightmares and endless pastures and crumbling castles appearing now then and forever. Politically manipulative nostalgia tends to look like a nationalistic Eden, but Dead of Night is a kind of heritage horror.

The screenplay bounces with a radio play intensity of rhythm, its characters reflecting and adding bits and casting doubts swiftly, and we basically enjoy spending time with them and want things to go well for them, and so we empathise with them when they tell their/our stories. With longer nights our ghosts and demons are more likely to find us, hence Christmas having to allow for the telling of ghost stories. Ghosts and demons have got us through more winters than Christmas carols, and their oral tradition is much older than that holiday. Whether this tradition is the letting of some ancient pain, or a necessary response to a particularly haunted time of year is the debate that Dead of Night feigns interest in, settling for both and either.

Sing the Sorrow


Sing the Sorrow (2003)

Pop punk’s Romantic moment. AFI always had songs because of course they did, but by 2003 they also had the self-awareness to recognise that horror themed music for skaters before long equates to the awfully bathetic image of Night of the Living Dead t-shirts worn in skate parks, or a broad day banal pimpled demystification of the horror that Romero and whoever else pursued with an obsessive, enduring conviction and whose works in turn endure as they horrify dumb stupid human beings who are genuinely afraid of the dark. Of course more can be made of this but for now we can split common motivations for watching horror films down the middle- some giggle with joy as gore fx are employed for entertainment’s sake (aware that these are fx, or hoping with fetishistic concentration that said fx are invisible), and others shudder and tremble as right in front of them make-pretend people are made to not exist any more because nothing is sadder and scarier than someone dying, real or not. The horror that looms over this latter group is the kind that inhabits folktales where ‘they never came back’ or ‘that was the last time that’- where narratives have been forged and passed down as excuses for the inevitabilities of this horrible world, not to explain them and overcome them (as in Enlightened thinking), but to live with them- to cope. These are the creatures that steal children in the woods, and who sit quietly in bodies of water waiting to grab ankles, and who sing in the night and take the hands of those who’ll follow them, and who watch you from afar and who watch you sleep. This is more than just catharsis, but there is something in the lack and desire thereof- the murder sequence of a good giallo where closely framed filmic cuts guide the eye to instrument (cause) and violence (effect) vs anything with a trace of ‘folk’ in it. Sing the Sorrow rescues and remystifies horror through this ‘folk’ lens, adhering to expected styles but using them to summon those creatures from the picture books and fairytales of your childhood that have followed you to Now but which linger in your subconscious. This is not simply cosmetic as much as the band desired to package it as a dusty clothbound book rather than a record- it is fully convincing. Of course the same ghosts do not inhabit it that do its individual reference points, for one because it (proudly) dates itself, and for another because it very much wants to welcome itself into your room so that it may wallow the way that Disintegration did or still does. As with Disintegration, a cynic would call it corny and others would, as with a horror film, find a perverse comfort in its terror- it is above all human however much it desires to become ancient and elemental. It is a return to the mimetic and mythical- a rejection of reason. Sing the Sorrow is a reminder that everything is myths and belief systems- ghosts and monsters- and it eternally embodies that hopeless moment where everything becomes literature.

A Nightmare on Elm Street


A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s characters do not break into verbal metareference as they do in Scream, but the question of how and why we watch horror films is still foregrounded within the horror film itself. Craven understands that the slasher genre is the perfect analogy for trauma, as watching these films we see more or less the same things occurring to the same people in familiar but no less horrifying ways. For some, we revisit traumatic events via film so that we can feel as though we can overcome them. For others, these films stir traumatic symptoms in us and offer death as consolation- trauma is endless pain, and death is the painless return to non-being. For Craven this culture of trauma via cinema is not something to worry about or pity. Trauma emerges where bonds are broken, and our world is a broken one full of abusers that tell us that everything’s relatively okay. His cinema is for the broken and betrayed, and it is necessarily empathetic and affirmative.

Craven locates that betrayal in an uncanny hallucination of our collective attachments. There is an all-American suburb, a neighbourhood baseball pitch, and a group of friends on BMXs riding through the pine forests of the hearts and minds of all who dream this dream. They are present like a ghost is present- as a stand-in for an absence, or a request for a return. Of course this is pathological; these are not our memories, they are evocations of an impossible past buried within layers and layers of violent and exclusionary myth. We know how the dream started, how the ghosts were born, and we can identify the pop cultural artifacts responsible, but this doesn’t exorcise them. It instead imbues them with the quality of triggers to which we consent, and which result in new hallucinations in the form of “old new” originalsremakes, and soft reboots“We fetishise our own memory,” even when it’s not our own. These repetitions take the form of trauma.

People choose to relive traumatic memories because without them we are left with nothing, and when we have nothing we resort to madness. The insidious thing about the dream of collective attachments is that its repetitions work to override pain and discomfort- we dissociate rather than dealing, and we submit to the dream where bonds were never broken and there was never any pain. We become mad. None of the pop cultural triggers that we indulge ever recognise us and reciprocate our feelings, because they too are looking back in time to their very own triggers. The trauma of the second world war daydreamed its way into consumer capitalism, re-enforced gender roles, and the nuclear family. The constantly enacted trauma of the war on terror leads to commodified memories and the re-re-reoccurence reactionary politics and policy. Nostalgia is a safety blanket of transgenerational psychosis. Our death drive has been commodified and weaponised.

Craven recognises that this dream is dreamt when our death drive is strongest and we most desire giving up. He knows it makes us conservative, and weak, and he wants us to confront our fears so that we can become more open and caring and less alone. The police in Springwood do not listen to people when they say that they are suffering. When young women approach them and tell them that there is a child molester that wants to hurt them, they act annoyed and disbelieving. They won’t take words as evidence, so they demand something that’s impossible to prove. They don’t inflict the violence on these people directly, but they allow those who do to get away with it. They don’t believe that any danger could emerge from the dream they’ve created, the town they’e created, and so dream and dream while Marge remembers everything and chooses to drink instead of dream to make it easier. The silence of trauma is madness, and the acknowledgement of its pain is a burden shared. In the film’s final moments we see every person who has faced and acknowledged their problems, and how life appears now. Their traumatic symptoms emerge and presumably repeat themselves endlessly, but now no one’s going through it alone. The worst thing Freddy could inflict is lonely suffering, and the worst thing he could spread would be silence.

Witch’s Cradle


The finite artwork, as contained within the frame, or the exhibition space, or the storage container, has always pressed against the infinite. The 16th century Beeldenstorm saw the mass destruction of religious icons on the basis that the divine cannot also be material. The challenge for artists became how to provide an aesthetic context for that which cannot be understood materially. It is no wonder that centuries later abstract art was seen as the perfect method for evoking rather than depicting the immaterial, and it is also no wonder that earthly celebrity turned these works into icons for worship any way, and the museum into the church. The museum holds these worshipped objects which have variously grappled with the invisible and the inconceivable, from the geometric spiritualisms of Mondrian to the interrogations of the unconscious in the Romantics and then the surrealists.

Maya Deren places a witch in the holy space that is the art museum, and explores art’s material limitations while unlocking and suggesting magic spaces through the film format. Film is for Deren both immaterial in the sense that it can be reproduced and distributed endlessly (now even moreso with the internet) and so is by nature free from the painting or sculpture’s Divine Original, and material in the sense that it opens up new architectural spaces, is printed on celluloid, and uses duration and juxtaposition to build a fluid, uneasy subjectivity of meaning. It is magic drawn from the physical world, to be performed in the physical world, and it can turn our physical reality into one of Fuseli’s nightmares (whether this is demonic or psychological is up to the viewer and her beliefs).

A criticism of surrealism is that an artist like Dalí never actually managed to draw out the unconscious for the viewer directly, which is to say, without a surrealist iconography as proxy. The idea belying this is that our subconscious is surely a shifting liquid more than a rigid network of definitions, and that like those Protestant artists, one should never attempt to rationalise the irrational. Deren calls upon iconographies of witchcraft, but the spaces of overlapping meaning and subjective terror that she creates effectively break from this criticism- the emblems drawn in dirt and skin are not proxies or flat icons, but methods for unlocking terror here and now. The magical, the physical, and the psychological cohabit the same space.

The geometric abstractions of an artist like Mondrian or Mrkusich at once acknowledge their existence on a flat canvas plane, and desire transcendence alongside and through the help of the viewer. Composition with Red Blue and Yellow’s spiritual significance is in the way that each of the grid’s black lines reach the edge of the canvas. It comes cropped, so as to say that the life held within the painting extends beyond the work’s arbitrary cutoff point. Deren is sympathetic, but makes fun of this cropping and this supposed holiness of geometry. The photographer is given an infinite amount of ways to shoot a single object or scene, and so what we see of the photograph is everything the artist chose not to exclude from the frame. By nature the photograph asks us to wonder what exists beyond that edge. In Witch’s Cradle Deren focusses in on material objects which ask us to imagine the infinite- everything beyond the object- and then she turns the object so we see what lies beyond its aesthetic focal point. In the case of a painting, it is not God but stretcher bars and rusty staples that exist beyond the edge, just out of view.

When we see Duchamp appear as an actor we think of his Unhappy Readymade where a geometry textbook was left outside and exposed to the elements. Mondrian’s works find the sacred in the geometric; Duchamp’s find the geometric (and thus the sacred) printed on paper and watch as the wind and the rain tear them apart. Deren’s witch strangles Duchamp but she understands where he’s coming from. Deren is the elements, she knows these material limitations, but she will craft magic from them. There is an insouciant air to the film which goes along with its sinister obscurity, and moments where unexposed film flick in and remind us of the film’s artificiality don’t break but add to its spell.

The work of art as private property has allowed businessmen to profit from the divine, as well as have their holy (and necessarily earthly) value increase through removing them from the private sphere. The public church-museum has its perks in that it allows the public their right to pilgrimage, but for many this means worshipping at the altar of white male art. The museum and church are witch cradles- man-made environments to torture women into submission. Deren’s witch though acknowledges the material limitations of the device(s), and uses them to open spaces for women. The film is both a how-to-guide in using the weapons of patriarchy against itself, and an immersive example of art as opposition. It both illustrates and suggests. In the 18th and 19th century paintings and prints of Goya, we see darkness as ignorance and witches as propaganda justifying a brutal Inquisition. In countries that readily embraced the Enlightenment, darkness and witches mean different things. Deren as a young female artist in a field dominated by men, in a world of rationalised genocide and mass murder, finds heroes in witches and potential in the darkness.

It is important to remember that a finished work is only finished because the artist says it is, rather than because it is objectively complete. Every artwork could have had more paint or ink, or objects, or textures, or could have been longer, or indeed arranged differently, but the point at which we see it is when nothing more or less has been done to it. The artwork is always a work in progress, and the ‘finished’ artwork is just frozen in progress. One needs only to look at the late drawings of Picasso to see how an artist who once left patches of canvas bare, now struggles to know when to stop. His works in the Tate collection are so overworked, so unsure of themselves that they’re difficult to look at. It would have been nice to have Deren say This is Witch’s Cradle and I am happy with it, but in lieu of this we can appreciate it as prematurely frozen but no less developed than it might have been otherwise.

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer


The hotel resort and private island are narrative geographies that make for excellent thematic and atmospheric tools for artists to explore, particularly within the horror genre. On and in them we are asked to learn the new rules of these locations- how to behave, how to rebel, and how to look for clues. Scooby-Doo owes much to I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, although it amplifies the private island’s weirdness, the background magic schtick, and the artificiality of resort life. It proposes that our reality might be a fantastical simulation, whereas I Still Know What You Did Last Summer‘s group arrives to find that the resort is ‘dead’- a time of exception where the fantastic becomes mundane, more boring than back home.

It’s a non-time within a non-space, supervised by no one and inhabited by the dregs with nothing better to do than wait for it to mean something again. The difference between the dead resort and the mainland is that there are no police or military on the island, and no families or jobs to distract the group from just being useless. Dislocated as citizens and circumstantially unable to tourist, they cannot even order drinks or chill by the beach. The dead resort becomes a slumber party in a house with no parents, in an impossibly remote area, with a killer outside. It is a party where a bunch of people did not turn up when they said they would, where the alcohol has vanished, and where one of the few people that did turn up was a total creep that ruined Jennifer Love Hewitt’s vibe. And your cousin’s dealer was there and he was stingy and embarrassing and would not leave. The best thing about slasher movies from this period is that they are full of a kinetic energy that was lacking in their static post-giallo forebears. They are like the most intense hide and seek games ever put to film.

Because I Still Know What You Did Last Summer happens remotely and with very little sense of consequence, it floats by like a daydream hangover of the first film. It is similar to 2 Fast 2 Furious in this way, although because more Fast & Furious movies were released, 2 Fast 2 Furious now takes on the hallucinatory quality of a story that Roman still tells about his and Brian’s best summer ever. I x What You Did Last Summer on the other hand ended here. It seems too sweet, too relaxed to tie things up, which makes for a poignant end to JLH’s journey. The inference is that she is the slasher itself, a kind of Prometheus destined to die again and again and again wherever she goes and whatever she does. At her college, on an island resort, in the house she has just moved into with her husband, she will die. In Scooby-Doo the private island made reality hyperreal, and in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer her trauma makes reality her hell.

Slashers are said to punish teenagers for being teenagers, I x Know What You Did Last Summer punishes them for wanting forgiveness. It is a curiously wistful daydream that is beautifully shot, paced like a television soap, and ends with a sigh the moment we wake up.