Zombies, Contamination, and Only Lovers Left Alive

I recently re-watched the 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive. Wow. What a great film, and where was this film when I was writing my paper on the evolution of the vampire monster in popular culture??  Okay, I watched it in the first place because, well, I must watch all vampire genre films, but as I continued into it I saw that threads of the Zombie theme are present within the vampire genre also.  I know that they both deal with a “supernatural monster” but it is more than that.  It is something that is certainly, acutely, and most poignantly human.

Only Lovers Left Alive starring Tom Hiddleston and the always fabulous Tilda Swinton is brooding, surreal, sensual, romantic, saddening, tragic, and a whole bunch of other emotive adjectives.  Hip and cool, this film is also about loneliness and otherness, and the struggle to rise above the often blinding servitude to meaninglessness to which the lonely outsider is often relegated.  As mortal humans, we don’t live long enough to fully rough out the extents of love and “lifefulness.”  And thus we can’t hand the knowledge as a “certainty” down the generational ladder.  But that’s where the immortal creatures of human imagination come in—to offer the time so crucial to the exploration of life and all its foibles…and the great mystery of love.

This film is about “Adam” (Tom Hiddleston) and “Eve” (Tilda Swinton) who are vampires that have been around since the Crusades.  Most importantly, they are married and love each other to a depth that defies delineation.  Every few hundred years, they repeat the marriage ritual—like a reaffirmation of their literally undying love for each other.  In the world of this film, the vampires refer to humans as “zombies.” There are amusing details about them as individuals: Adam is a musician who gave some of his music to Schubert “just to get it out there.”  He hung out with Shelley and Byron, and was present at Diodati where they all “got high and told stories…vampire stories.”  He describes Byron as an “arrogant ass”, Mary Wollstonecraft as “delicious” and John Keats—whom he incidentally never met—as “the best of them all.”

As for Eve, she hangs out in Tangier with an older gentleman vampire who is none other than Christopher Marlowe, and who confirms that he indeed wrote everything Shakespeare was accredited for.  He remarks, “I do wish I had met Adam before I wrote Hamlet.”  Eve is always after Marlowe to let a bit of the truth emerge in the zombie world, just so that they can be entertained by the certain chaos it would cause.

Eve lives in Tangier while Adam lives in the abandoned section of Detroit.  Eve is current with the world while Adam is alarmingly out of touch.  Eve prefers to hear the bustle of the world around her, while Adam prefers silence except for his own compositions of “funeral music” as he calls them—actually a marriage of heavy metal and classical dirge.  Eve quite likes the zombies and enjoys observing them while Adam loathes most of the zombies, except young Ian, and his loathing of the zombies is driving him to the verge of suicide.  “It’s how they [humans] treat the world. And now they have succeeded in contaminating their own blood, never mind their water.”  Ian, however, is Adam’s very likeable human “manservant” whom Adam describes as “alright for a zombie.” Portrayed by Anton Yelchin, Ian is the human upon whom Adam relies to bring him the things he needs—things accessible only during the daylight hours.

There is the sense that when one is immortal, time and distance lose significance and human norms become inconsequential. Thus, Adam and Eve live in their own separate worlds on separate continents…sometimes for years at a time.  But they write letters and “Skype” back and forth on a regular basis.  Fully accepting and at peace with each other’s individual differences and preferences, they do not feel the need to live together at all times—although the audience fully understands that Adam and Eve both enjoy a standing invitation to cohabitate at any time and at a moment’s notice.  They are married, after all.  In this case, it is Eve who senses Adam’s growing melancholy and immediately travels to him in Detroit.

While Adam and Eve are not bound by so-called “human convention”, the audience sees that they are bound indeed by their mutual respect for each other.  This respect is beautifully portrayed in the elegant welcome Adam extends his wife, as he takes her by the hand and leads her into his house.  A deliberate ritual is made of Eve waiting on the threshold while Adam first sets her luggage inside and then invites her to enter.  She then asks his permission first before removing the gloves she is never without.  Eve’s gloved hands suggest an intimacy between them that transcends their physical separation, but once she is together with Adam, the gloves can be removed.  The intimacy is further enhanced when Adam removes her gloves for her and kisses her hands. The gloves are symbolic of their mutual fidelity, since Adam also wears them when he goes out of his house to buy blood from the local lab.  They also wear the gloves when they go out together, and this is symbolic of them preventing contamination by the polluted zombie world.

They live in fear of contamination by zombies since drinking poisoned blood will kill them.  Therefore, Adam and Eve value the clean blood they are able to procure and do not waste even a drop of it.  There is none of the vampiric clichés of gushing blood streaming down chins.  To them, blood is precious and difficult to come by, and so it is meted out in dainty, gold-trimmed liqueur glasses.  For them, there is a moment’s euphoria as the blood enters them, followed by the relief of hunger and a great release of stress.  And in this film, blood is not sexualized.  Rather, it is symbolic of their return to a better, cleaner world—a world they mourn for.

In fact, these vampires are not murderous fiends, or rather, have evolved away from killing for blood over the centuries.  They have adapted with the changing times by buying blood now, and are intensely aware of both the damage to the environment and the disturbance of the natural world.  Eve gasps with delight at the many species of wildlife in Detroit and calls them by their Latin names.  She is also distressed to see a breed of mushrooms growing out of season in Adam’s garden, who quips dryly, “It just goes to show you that we know shit about fungus, even though everything would die without it.”  Adam holds the human use and conveyance of electricity in contempt, having known Nikola Tesla, and based on Tesla’s theories, powers his house and car with clean energy that harnesses electromagnetic pulses in the atmosphere and orbital space.  All of this is a means of avoiding the contamination by humans, and by approaching their Mother Earth with veneration and devotion.

The conflict in this film revolves around intrusion: there is the intruding contamination of the zombies as an overhanging cloud, the doorbell ringing outside Adam’s door when zombie fans come to his house, and the inside intrusion of Eve’s sister Ava whom they return home to find on Adam’s couch.  Thus, the audience senses that the contamination is not merely in the atmosphere of the world, it is pounding on the door and sometimes finding a way in.

Ava is disrespectful and wasteful.  She takes advantage of Adam and Eve’s hospitality, drains their blood supply in a night, and then murders unsuspecting Ian—drains him dry in Adam’s living room.  Horrified and outraged by Ava’s blood-splattered face, Ian’s sprawled corpse, and the broken mess in the room, Adam and Eve throw Ava out into the street.  And now have Ian’s body to deal with.  The usually hip and laid back Eve exclaims, after sinking Ian’s quickly dissolving body into an acid well in an abandoned car plant, “That certainly was visual,” while Adam shudders in revulsion.  But now that Ian is dead and was seen with them, they are forced to leave. And they do leave quickly, taking only what they can carry.  Adam returns to Tangier with Eve, to find that their old friend Marlowe is dying of blood poisoning.

Alone together without a blood supply, Adam and Eve are forced to do what Eve describes as “so fifteenth century!”  They have to find healthy humans to drink from or they will die of starvation.  They find a young couple on a quiet street, and promising each other that they will not kill these two young people, Adam says “Okay, but I get the girl.”  Adam and Eve live in the world, and while they live at an extended arm’s reach, they cannot ultimately be separate.  They must necessarily live within the natural world—and humans are an unavoidable part of their world.  That Adam and Eve are forced to make personal contact with zombies in order to live is metaphorical of their unbreakable union with a polluted world, and their inevitable, eventual contamination.

Anyway…I have to say that I loved this film.  It was artsy, cerebral, and über-cool.  And the wit was absolutely scathing.  I recommend it for anyone who is a fan of film and doesn’t mind following whimsy at a meandering pace.  This one requires a glass of wine, and there is no gut-wrenching action or splashy special effect or exploding cars.  The soundtrack is excellent.  There is also a delightful treat toward the end of the film in the full length performance of the song Hal by Yasmine Hamdam.  If you have two hours, it’s worth it.  Only Lovers Left Alive is On Demand.

Frankenstein v Zombies: An Interesting Connection

Now that my outlines are completed and I have my thesis squared away for the final project, over the last week, I have been watching movies, reading articles, and snooping through Netflix documentaries for anything that might be applicable—when the eyes are too sore from reading and need to focus on something at a distance.  One of my past professors suggested I watch the film Splice, and my current professor suggested the film Contagion.  I have watched both, and found the connection between them—Frankenstein and Zombies.

Thank you to both Jolene and Mark for your film suggestions.  I feel that making the connection I have made has been like getting over one of those big-ass wall that soldiers in basic training camps need to negotiate.

So Splice.  This is a 2009 Canadian film directed by Vencenzo Natali, and starring Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, and David Hewlett.

Definitely dealing with the Frankenstein theme in this film, the scientists splice together genetic materials, and then add some human DNA in—just for funsies.  I really questioned that, but the film makers wanted to incorporate the mad scientist element (I assume), and one of the hallmarks of the mad scientist is curiosity BEFORE ethics.  Or…it’s okay for someone like ME to do this since I know better than anyone else in the room, so the rules don’t apply to me.  Sarah Polley—women can also be mad scientists—is the Victor Frankenstein archetype.  And the creature that emerges from the manipulation of genes is called “Dren”.

First, the scientist “Elsa” is not evil.  She’s an overly curious, rash, and unethical narcissist—but not evil.  And she doesn’t reject the creature immediately and without cause.  In fact, she befriends the creature and comes to love it.

Second, the creature “Dren” is not ugly.  Admittedly, it is rather unusual looking, but not hideous.  And it starts as a female and then changes to male afterward.  In fact, Dren is constantly evolving throughout its early life—what I assume is its childhood.  It spends its young stages as a female, but reaches maturity (I think maturity) as a male which is, hmmmm, a whole other paper.

The creature develops rapidly over a few weeks. The young Dren is delightful, shy, a bit spoiled, kinda cute, and extremely intelligent. She has a long tail with a single retractable poisonous barb. She also has amphibious lungs, and retractable wings.  The “teenage” level Dren becomes temperamental, easily bored, highly intelligent and rebellious, with a strangely beautiful face, and a fully developed female body. And wide, fairy-like wings. She is also sexually precocious now, flirtatious, and aware of her own physical beauty.  She seduces Elsa’s spouse Clive, and of course, Elsa finds them together.

This part of the movie is not just AWKWARD but bizarre. Dren is not a woman, so what was this? Bestiality? A bit of pedophilia, since she’s only a few weeks old? Whatever, it is extremely off-putting, and the most foolishly gratuitous, implausible part of the movie.  Clive is Elsa’s scientist partner, and has been—to that point—the sole voice of reason.  I found it utterly ridiculous that he has so little control of himself that he would engage in sexual intercourse with the specimen of his own study simply because the sexually provocative but sexually innocent Dren made a pass at him and tried to kiss him a couple of times.  Good grief!!  If that’s all it takes for this guy, he best never go out in public again—and hang up his unbiased scientist spurs—because it is he and not Dren who is the responsible party. Utterly daft, and just plain “dirty.”  Shame on the film-makers’ embarrassing lack of creativity.

After Dren has her disturbing encounter with Clive, she becomes more and more aggressive toward Elsa and finally she tries to kill her.  Clive intervenes, and hits Dren on the head with a shovel. (The male violator evolves from sexually to physically violent.  No end of clichés in this film.)  Elsa and Clive believe they have killed Dren, and so bury her, and begin to destroy all evidence of her life.  But Dren once more evolves.  This time she emerges as a powerful, winged creature…and male.  He is now extremely dangerous and violent.  And he can speak. (Hmmm. As a female, Dren had no voice, but as a male, can speak.  Did the film-makers do this crap on purpose? Like I said, another paper.)  After incapacitating Clive, he rapes Elsa. (A moment’s pause and nod to Sophocles.) Clive revives in time to run Dren through with a sharp metal something, but is stung by Dren’s poisonous barb.  Clive dies quickly, and Elsa crushes Dren’s head with a huge rock.  This time, she makes sure Dren is completely dead.  But now Elsa is pregnant, so SEQUEL!!  Good heavens, I hope not!  This film is not Oscar-worthy, but it certainly does have a strong Frankenstein component.

While most of the terrible violence in Splice takes place off screen, there’s still an overwhelming “yuck factor” in this movie that draws me back to the first Frankenstein films I watched, namely, the 1931 Frankenstein and the 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Grave robbing, the dismemberment and sewing together of body parts, gallons of liquids and semi-liquids, lotsa blood and guts, gelatinous masses of goo everywhere. Watching Robert De Niro and Kenneth Brannagh as the creature is “birthed” from collected amniotic fluid (retch), one can almost smell the stench of decomposition and the rotting filth of the place.  It’s intensely sensual—but in the most disturbing, grotesque way imaginable. Most importantly, the creature is a thing that must never be seen by decent “good” people, because it represents the moral heart of Humankind—it must be hidden at all costs, relegated permanently as “other.” People hide their shameful sins, and go to the greatest of all lengths to prevent anyone from probing into their private secrets. To look upon this “other” could lead to the spread of this knowledge, like…a plague.

Which brings me to the other film I watched—Contagion. This 2011 film directed by Steven Soderbergh, stars Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Jude Law. A certain bat came in contact with a certain pig on a certain Asian farm with lax health codes. A virus emerged and mutated, and was passed to the hands of a farmer, then to the hands of a butcher, then to the hands of an agriculture executive who contacted all sorts of people, then got on a plane, and returned home to her family in the States.  And it spread by touch, and then became airborne.

The government moved in, and the efforts to control the contagion was soon, as expected, fully militarized.  Yet, it’s not about the military strong-arming helpless citizens into compliance, and forcing people to accept their fate with blind obedience. It’s not about scientists lying and hiding the truth after playing God with a substance that ultimately escaped them and then turned on humankind.  Actually, this film depicts human government, scientists, and military behaving in a positive way.  The scientists of the world have organized themselves to beat this contagion with their governments’ full support, while it is left to the poor soldiers to try to maintain some semblance of order in the cities—and people, including them, are dropping like flies.  No one is safe from this thing, and even one of the lead scientists dies.  Trying to contain it and trying to cure it—this is the theme of this film.  Basically, this film unites humankind as the great “WE” in that we are all bone and blood and mortal.  Even if the disease doesn’t kill us personally, it kills our life by killing everything we love and hold dear—a theme also explored by the film in those immune few.  Like the survivors of the zombie apocalypse.  There is a difference between living life and barely existing.

This film also explores what we as humans choose to put our faith in.  Do we believe or do we deny?  And if we deny, do we lie? Do we cheat for our own reasons? This is another theme explored in the film.  Greed is certainly a weakness of mortal flesh that craves and mindlessly desires. We are all flawed humans, susceptible to the corruption of our imperfect bodies, either by what invades us or by what we willingly take into ourselves. This film, and ones like it, explore the fragile flesh of Humankind.  By contrasting the themes in Frankenstein and the Zombie genre, a link emerges: the uncontrollable flesh can sometimes be controlled by the heart…sometimes.  The moral heart and the craving flesh are always at enmity with one another—and I say always because the flesh is mortal and the heart desires life.

I have just watched the so-called zombie comedies: Zombie Land and Shaun of the Dead.  Very tongue in cheek, but not what I’d call comedies.  Or maybe my sense of humor is not twisted enough to appreciate them as such.  But interesting.  More to follow.

Frankenstein, Pop Culture, and Being Relevant in 2015

After my last post, “Frankenstein Meets the Avengers,” I thought about it—or re-thought about it.  Then my friend Angelika made her astute comment on my blog and got me thinking further.  Geez, I was about to hand in the outline for my paper, and now I know I have it all wrong, and I have begun again.  Because it occurred to me, exactly why am I seeing parallels to Frankenstein in The Avengers? Can it be because Frankenstein is still relevant in today’s popular culture?

For a few minutes there, I thought I was grasping threads.  I thought I had first seen a connection, but at closer look, had seen there was no connection at all.  And it’s too late to start again…. But now, there it is.

Frankenstein illuminates the difference between darkness and light, between what is truly ugly and what is truly beautiful, and it explores what it means to be a human being.  It is also an examination of free will, and of good and evil.

In past posts, I have discussed what evil might be, and that free will, when exercised against the natural good, results in the free will agent becoming engulfed in a state of evil where the ability to exercise free will afterward is lost.  So, like a man who cannot swim jumping, of his own free will, into the deep end of the pool.  He is engulfed by the water and cannot make any additional choices.  This is what happened to both Victor and his creature.  Victor got in so deep that he could not navigate his way out.  The creature became so overcome that he set out to do what he knew was wrong in order to get revenge.  They both started a cycle of unnatural choices that ended in death and destruction-they both became monsters.  We see this portrayed in pop culture all the time.

More than that, Frankenstein’s creature poses questions—the answers to which are still sought out today in 2015.

  1. The creature searches for his identity as an individual.
  2. The creature wishes to learn what it takes to be a whole person, and grieves that his ugliness and the circumstances of his ‘birth’ seem to make him less of a person.
  3. The creature wants to know where his life came from, and what the purpose is of that life. He also contemplates the finality of death.  He wonders if he has a soul.

In today’s pop culture, the tragic tale of Frankenstein and his Creature is always a story about pain, loss, and vengeance.  It is also a story about one person’s search for his soul, and his desperate need to define himself as a human being. The story also asks ‘what is a monster?’ In our Western society, this search goes on all the time as individuals work out their own lives, define themselves in terms of their own being in the world, and connect with their concept of the divine whether inside or outside of themselves.  Finding our humanity is an aspect of the human condition.  The meaning of life is searching for the meaning of life.  Frankenstein will be in fashion as long as people ponder ‘what makes a person a person?’

Frankenstein Meets The Avengers

So, my husband and I went to see “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” last night…because we are both superhero aficionados from way back, and because we’re both kinda immature that way. I expected to see Thor and Iron Man flying, Black Widow seducing, Hawkeye bulls-eying, Captain America leading, and the Hulk smashing.  Imagine my surprise to see them “creating.”

(If you haven’t seen the Marvel series, or don’t care to, I will only explain enough of this movie for you to follow my meaning.  For Marvel fans who haven’t seen the new Avengers—spoiler alert.) An interesting take on the Frankenstein theme, there is already a “life force” that exists in a jewel from another world.  This jewel has made its way into our world via Loki’s sceptre—which he was good enough to send through the portal to the bad guys.  That Loki…tsk! The jewel, basically, is a living computer program, and it is this program that makes Ultron live and have being.  But Ultron sees in his first moment the history of Man—via the World Wide Web—in all its unbridled savagery and violence, and instantly hates all humans.  Well…of course he thinks we need to be exterminated.  So begins the conflict of the film and the Avengers get to show off their Avengerness.

Ultron believes he needs to “evolve” into something more than his first self.  He therefore begins to build an android/biological “body” in order to house his consciousness—a creature after his own improved image with whom he can unite.  However, the “body” is hijacked by the Avengers, and once in the hands of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (aka Ironman and Hulk who also happen to be genius scientists—I know, I know, lol) they consider their options.  Stark suggests they upload Stark’s personal computer program, J.A.R.V.I.S., into the body.  They do, with the help of Thor’s lightening hammer, and what they produce is an amalgamation of Stark’s program, the Hammer’s energy, and the body originally created by Ultron.  Very much alive, this creature is unbelievably powerful and good, and a respecter of life.  And—joins Odin and Thor as the only creatures in the universe able to pick up the Hammer.  This new creature’s name is “Vision” and is one of the established Avengers in the Marvel comic book series.

So, how is Vision identified with Frankenstein?  Aside from the obvious, Vision is a sensitive and moral creature of light.  Unlike Victor Frankenstein’s pitiful and rejected creature gone mad with heartbreak, Vision is beautiful and embraced by his Avenger “community.” Frankenstein’s creature has no place in the world, yet Vision’s place in his new world is immediately established.

On a side note, that phrase “has no place in the world…” was one that was used more than once in various paraphrases—not that it belongs to Marvel.  But it’s interesting that many of the “superheroes” that comprise the Avengers are like the Frankenstein creature in so many ways:

Captain America began his life as a short and scrawny weakling with a heart of burnished gold.  He kept getting rejected from the army during world war two as he tried to enlist and “do his duty.” However, he was discovered by Tony “Ironman” Stark’s father for a “special experiment” that reformed his body into his imposing 6’2” and 260 lbs of “I will beat the crap out of bad guys.” He is created out of “worthless” parts to become something unique—a being made according to the vision of a man.

Black Widow was recruited by S.H.I.E.L.D. to become a spy.  She was broken down psychologically and sterilized to prevent pregnancy.  Then she was rebuilt physically and emotionally to be the creature that S.H.I.E.L.D. would be able to use.  Along the way, Black Widow, like Frankenstein’s creature, suffered a break that sent her careening into the dark side.  However, unlike Frankenstein’s creature, she had a friend who led her back into the light.

While the Hulk is more closely referenced to Jekyll and Hyde he still bears some similarity to the Frankenstein creature.  Both Jekyll and Frankenstein reject their “creatures” as the vile other, and likewise, Bruce Banner rejects the Hulk as such.  He sees the Hulk as a destructive creature beyond any control and the entity that has ruined his life.  Unlike Jekyll’s Hyde alter-ego but much like Frankenstein’s creature, the Hulk seeks his own purposeful identity that can co-exist with Bruce Banner.  Hyde wanted to dominate and eventually eliminate Jekyll where the Hulk fiercely protects Bruce Banner—even from Bruce Banner.  Hulk seeks a compromise with Bruce, much like Frankenstein’s creature who asked Victor to create another like him to be his life’s companion.  In this film, the audience begins to see “the being” that is the Hulk—that he is not necessarily a mindless monster.

In any case, now that I am looking in on Frankenstein’s creature, I see him everywhere—just like zombies are everywhere I look.  Lol.  By the way, zombies also show up in the Marvel Universe.  So, not completely my imagination for you nay-sayers out there. Hehehe.  There you have it.

And now, back to paper writing….

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