What does Neil deGrasse Tyson think about this summer’s sci-fi movies? We’re glad you asked

(image vie YouTube (c) The Late Show with Stephen Colbert)

 

Unless you’ve been living on the dark side of a particularly remote moon of late, you would be aware that Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, author and all science expert, is insanely good at communicating everything you could possibly want to know about the world around us and the space that it inhabits.

So it makes perfect sense that The Late Show with Stephen Colbert would draw on his expertise to take a look, tongue partially in cheek at some of this US summer’s slate of sci-fi movies such as Alien: Covenant and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and um, Baywatch (the less said about that film the better frankly).

Selecting him to comment on these films is pure genius because he is amazingly articulate, funny and able to touch on the great divide between scientific reality and movie-making fantasy in a way that doesn’t sound pompous or overly serious, just pretty damn sensible.

It’s entertaining and thought-provoking and a great primer for any upcoming trips to the cinema.

Now all you need is a really big box of buttery popcorn and an enquiring mind …

(source: Laughing Squid)

 

Book review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

(cover art (c) Hachette Australia)

 

It would be hard to argue with the fact that humanity has, over the countless eons of its existence, provided a plethora of reasons why its future shouldn’t be every bit as fractious and be devilled as its past.

And yet, for all the evidence stacked high to the rafters to the contrary, there are still a great many people who believe that Homo Sapiens can pull an unexpected idealistic rabbit out of the hat and advance somewhere admirably humanistic, the sort of place that people like Gene Roddenberry, who gave us the wonders of Star Trek and its far less blighted world, would happily recognise.

One of those people is Becky Chambers, a writer who grew up in a family steeped in space science, an upbringing that seems to have predisposed her to the idea that we are not only capable of greatness but that it can emerge despite ourselves.

“That was the thing that had hammered home just how far from Sol she was – the menagerie of sapients standing alongside her in the ticket line. Her homeworld was fairly cosmopolitan, but aside from the occasional diplomat or corporate representative, Mars didn’t see much in the way of non-Human travellers.” (PP. 12-13)

In the universe in which the events of her debut novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, take place, humanity has managed, through sheer luck and happenstance mainly, to survive the near-extinction of life on Earth.

The planet itself remains intact, populated by Gaiaists, far right environmental extremists who believe it’s humanity’s once and only future home, no alien assistance needed thank you very much, but most of its inhabitants have scattered to the stars; the rich to Mars and other inner Sol system planets and moons, and the less well-off to systems well beyond that, courtesy of refugee fleets that took off into the galactic unknown in search of a viable future.

This desperate roll of the dice, which consigned the rest of our self-destructive species to die an ignominious, self-perpetrated death on a dying world, found success, thanks in part to the ingenuity of the Exodans, as they are known, but mainly, think many, to the intervention of the Aeluons, a highly-advanced, highly-cultured race of learned silver beings, who championed humanity’s right to a second chance, largely by way of membership of the Galactic Commons (GC), Chambers brilliantly-grounded take on Roddenberry’s Federation.

In this community of aliens, in which the Aeluons, the lizard-like Aandrisk (thought don’t use that Earth animal-allusion to their face as its considered quite speciesist) and the onetime hardline rulers of the galaxy, the blob-like Hamagians are the top three races, humanity has found a happy, though not always perfect niche, one in which Captain Ashby and the crew of the Wayfarer, have carved a successful career as subspace tunnelers, responsible for linking the GC via a series of stable, civilisation-sustaining wormholes.

 

(cover art via Aidan Moher)

 

While the amazingly-detailed future world that Chambers has created for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a delight in every way, presented with a kind of matter-of-factness that invests a galaxy of multi-species mingling and mostly harmonious politicking with an admirable authenticity and truthfulness, it’s the characters who populate the Wayfarer that are the true joy of the highly-readable, joyously optimistic book.

Unlike other authors who may see perpetual acrimony and infighting as the way to engaging, intensely-readable drama (and yes, let’s face it, that does work a treat, even if it does get a little exhausting), Chambers has taken a leaf out of Firefly’s book, though not at all derivatively, and given us a crew who actually, for the most part, like each other.

More than that, with the exception of grumpy algae-fuel chemist Corbin, who dislikes pretty much everyone, they are a family, a do-anything-anytime grouping of people including techs Jenks and Kizzy (who’s a firebrand of delightfulness), Aandrisk pilot Sissix, Sianat Pair Ohan (this race deliberately infects itself with a virus that heightens its mathematical and scientific skills, thought at great physical and social cost) and Dr Chef, one of the few remnants of a near-extinct race, into which troubled Martian exile Rosemary steps as an admin officer.

“Ashby sat at his desk, staring out the window, trying to get it into his head that it wasn’t his fault. He’d thought the words over and over, but they refused to stick. What did stick were all the things he couldn’t done instead. He could’ve asked more questions. He could’ve called one of the carriers the minute that Toremi ship showed up. He could’ve turned down the job.” (P. 372)

While there is drama aplenty at times, ranging from piracy through to inter-species conflict, the focus is firmly on the crew, and much of the novel’s endlessly readable time – trust me you will fly through this accessible but emotionally substantial book almost as fast as the Wayfarer digs wormhole tunnels – is devoted to getting to know them, to understanding what brought them together as a family (in Sissix’s case, quite literally) and to celebrating how a disparate group of people can come to mean so much to each other.

This is The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet‘s real joy.

It doesn’t pretend the galaxy is perfect, and in fact, much of the narrative is driven by the fact that a tenuous peace in the galactic core between the GC and the tribal Toremi, but it acknowledges that like our present day, that this doesn’t preclude real, deep connections between people, selfless, unbounding relationship that go far beyond doing the least bit necessary, and a palpable, transcendent sense of belonging.

Lest you think it’s some giddy hurtle through an overly optimistic universe, the book is firmly rooted in the reality and ways of a pragmatic galaxy, but rather than throw its existential hands up in despair and declare all is lost without hope of reprieve, Chambers dares to argue, through characters you will come to love and adore in a way few manage, that being hopeful about our hapless species is not such a silly idea after all, and we might just make it after all.

 

Stephen Hawking needs a new voice – which celebrity can fit the bill?

(image (c) Comic Relief)

 

SNAPSHOT
Stephen Hawking has had the same trademark voice for 30 years and has now decided it’s time for a change. Watch him view the audition tapes from hopeful celebrities… (synopsis via Laughing Squid)

You know how it is – you’ve had something for a while and true you don’t exactly hate it but it’s long lost its novelty-rich lure and lustre and you decide that it’s high time you mixed things up and got yourself a new one.

For pretty much all of us that usually means getting a new toaster or a new car or a new job, but if you’re Stephen Hawking, who’s had the same distinctive voice for years and years, it’s a whole new vocal sound.

A big step you will agree and one that a slew of celebrities, in this hilarious skit for Comic Relief which raises money for charities through all manner of fun entertainment options, are eager to be a part of if they can just pass the stringent audition.

Naturally given how big a move this is and how Stephen Hawking is not prone to rash decisions, the culling process is a lengthy and rigorous one that ends up in a surprisingly dramatic decision.

What does he decide? Ah that is for the video, chock full of laugh-out-loud auditions from earnestly-excited, and slightly snarky celebrities, to reveal …

 

Guide to the classics: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (curated article)

Yggdrasil, the tree that supports the world in Norse myth, can be found in America in Neil Gaiman’s mash-up of world religion. (image courtesy Starz)

 

Article by Elizabeth Hale, University of New England

Fans of Neil Gaiman are having a bountiful year. In February there was the release of his retelling of the Norse myths. In March, Dark Horse released the comic book adaptation of his influential 2001 novel American Gods. And this month, American Gods comes to the small screen, released through Starz. The Conversation

If you like your literary gods multiple and varied, from cultures galore, in a controlled riot of power, fear, wit, and wisdom, then American Gods is for you.

Its premise is one of the book’s many appeals: the United States contains all sorts of ancient gods from abroad, surviving in the myths and stories and imaginations of the immigrants who brought them there. It’s a novel that investigates the American condition through its beliefs, and its contradictions, and offers the idea that gods walk among us (if we only know where to look for them).

‘All the tradition we can get’

In American Gods, a man named Shadow is released from prison when his wife dies in a car accident. As he travels home, he falls in with Mr Wednesday, a mysterious grifter, who offers him a job as a bodyguard. When he accepts the offer, they seal the deal by drinking mead, the honey-wine that is the drink of Norse gods and warriors. “We need all the tradition we can get,” says Wednesday, referring to the seriousness of their deal, but also to the key concept of the novel.

 

(image courtesy Harper Collins)

 

It emerges that Wednesday is really the Norse god, Odin, drawn to the US by Viking voyagers. “Tradition,” in the form of old gods like Odin, is under threat, he tells Shadow. People don’t believe in old gods any more; they’re too busy worshipping new gods, or concepts, like cities and towns, roads and rails, high finance, media, and digital technology. As an “old” god, Wednesday is preparing to do battle with the new ones. A god who is not believed in suffers a particularly final form of death.

With Shadow in tow, Wednesday traverses the US, calling the old gods to action, convincing them to gather and fight enemies like Mr Town and Media.

They call on Czernobog, the Bulgarian god of darkness, who lives in Chicago with the Zorya star sisters of Morning, Evening and Night. And Easter, the German goddess of fertility and rebirth, in whose footsteps flowers bloom, who is living in San Francisco. Mr Jacquel, the Egyptian god Anubis, runs a funeral parlour with his partner Ibis (the god Thoth), in Cairo, Illinois. Mr Nancy, Anansi the African spider-trickster god, and Mad Sweeney, an original Irish leprechaun, appear from time to time, as do many others.

 

Wednesday (Ian McShane) and Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) in the 2017 adaption of American Gods. (image courtesy Starz)

 

From Haitian Voodoo figures to Hungarian Kobbolds this America is inhabited by a panoply of old gods. It’s symbolic of the elaborate tapestry of heritage that makes up a nation that prides itself on its newness, but is uneasily aware of its traditions. As Shadow crosses America, he reflects on these ironies, as well as the local quirks he observes, slotting them into an increasing sense of the nation’s variety and commonalities.

Interspersed throughout American Gods are extracts from a history, ostensibly written by Mr Ibis (the Old Egyptian God, Thoth). These extracts tell how other gods and mythical beings make their way to the US, in the beliefs and stories of different culture. There’s Essie Tregowan, a Cornish con-artist who is transported to America, and who brings with her the piskies of her youth, or Salim, a taxi-driver from Oman who becomes a jinn. Postmodern novels often use approaches like this to broaden the range of reference; these inset stories provide a neat way of exploring different gods and myths as they connect to Gaiman’s America.

While American Gods is a serious reflection on the nature of American culture, its most appealing aspect is the concept that the gods live among Americans, hiding in plain sight.

This is the key to American Gods’ continued popularity, I think: it offers the fantasy, the hope, (or the fear) that our reality is merely one plane of existence, that just out of sight, or in plain sight if we choose to look, is something bigger, something mythical, something more powerful.

 

Shadow Moon crosses America, gathering its tapestry of heritage. (image courtesy Starz)

 

And if you know how to find them, you have the opportunity to collect them, as Wednesday and Shadow do, to gather them together for a final battle, much as one might in an epic game of Dungeons and Dragons, or a supernatural round of Pokemon Go.

I do believe in fairies

Gaiman is not alone in exploring the power of belief and fantasy to keep the gods alive. It’s a theme that never quite goes away: witness JM Barrie’s comment in Peter and Wendy (1908):

Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.

In Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (1979), eroding belief in fiction is killing an imaginary kingdom called Fantasia, until an ideal child reader can bring it back to life. In contrast are Terry Pratchett’s piling of myth upon myth in the hugely popular Discworld series, or Rick Riordan’s recasting of the Perseus myth in the Percy Jackson series. All play in different ways with ideas about mythology, the role of belief, and the endurance of ancient ideas about power and creation.

In American Gods, Gaiman contrasts belief in the old gods with the flattening, meaningless forms of new media and digital technologies. But a lot has changed since June 2001 – not least the continuing evolution of the internet – which has turned into the ideal tool for reinvigorating and investigating them.

 

A new god, Technical Boy, played by Bruce Langley. (image courtesy Starz)

 

From online gaming communities, to exhaustive wikis, to the project I’m currently involved in, Our Mythical Childhood, which gathers and analyses the retellings of classical myth and culture in children’s texts around the world, people interested in mythlore are finding ways to think about myth using technology.

We like observing the gods, exploring their powers, telling their stories in different ways, collecting them, arranging them, playing with them. We seem to like all the tradition we can get, even on the most cutting edge of technological advancement.

‘Right angles to reality’

American Gods is a response to the perceived flat soullessness of a tech-heavy, media-heavy, corporatised, citified, sophisticated world. Divorced from the old gods, which symbolise the meaningful association with life and the land, Wednesday wonders what hope is there for society.

And yet, it emerges that Mr Wednesday is as much of a soulless con-artist as any of the new gods he despises, manipulating the battle for his own power. It takes an act of real, primal sacrifice on Shadow’s part to let him to see through the con, and understand that, when it comes down to it, as a human, all you have is yourself:

You know, I think I would rather be a man than a god. We don’t need anyone to believe in us. We just keep going anyhow. It’s what we do.

Though the advertisements for the upcoming television series exhort viewers to “Believe,” the response might well be: “Believe in what?”

In the novel, it is the land that eclipses gods and men, as Whiskey Jack, the Native American trickster spirit, tells Shadow after the battle is over:

Listen, gods die when they are forgotten. People too. But the land’s still here. The good places, and the bad. The land isn’t going anywhere.

Believe in the land, then. Gaiman’s novel finds its power in the land, in the people’s relation to the land, in the quirky, carnivalesque, homespun totems and places of power he nominates as places to overlay his web of mythicalism. This is the ultimate appeal of American Gods: the idea that all you have to do is find the places of power.

In this novel they are out-of-the-way carnivalesque sites carved into rock-faces, such as Tennessee’s Rock City and Illinois’ House on the Rock (both real-life American tourist attractions).

 

Gaiman turns the surreal – and highly popular – House on the Rock attraction into an all-American place of power.
(image courtesy House on the Rock)

 

To access the mythical plane, go to places like these, and turn at “right angles to reality” (easier said than done, but at least Gaiman gives us the clue). That’s the ultimate point of novels like this, which invest reality with mythology, magic or fantasy: the promise of finding out the true story lying beneath the surface, the secret to the universe.

This book, beyond collecting, analysing, and arranging American gods, is an examination of power – what is real power, and what is not. “Mythologies,” Gaiman said, round about the time he must have been mulling over American Gods, “have always fascinated me. Why we have them. Why we need them. Whether they need us.”

It will be interesting to see what the TV adaptation does with American Gods, whether it takes on this questioning. But the questioning may also have changed. The novel was published in June 2001, and the Western world turned sharply at right angles to itself not long after.

One new element of the adaptation, preview writers have noticed already, is the addition of Vulcan, the Roman God of metallurgy and weaponry. It’s a highly appropriate comment on an America now more than ever in the grip of gun-ownership, and intriguingly it adds a figure from the classical Roman pantheon, missing from the original. Adaptations always move the conversation on a little. Perhaps the gods, too, move with the times.

Elizabeth Hale, Senior Lecturer in English and Writing (children’s literature), University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What what?! What do Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal make of their most popular Google searches about them?

(image via YouTube (c) Wired)

 

While Life, the film they were promoting may not have performed to expectations, being variously described by critics as “an inferior addition to the genre” (David Stratton, The Australian) and a film that “goes nowhere fast” (Gary Dowell, Dark Horizons), stars Ryan Reynolds (not Debbie Reynolds son FYI) and Jake Gyllenhaal (did not climb Everest FYI) had an absolute ball responding to Wired’s most searched questions about themselves.

Joking that everyone Googles themselves at one point or another, even Hollywood stars, they take turns making merry with these searches, giving some frankly HI-LARIOUS to the questions on a lot of fan’s lips.

In fact, so much fun do they have that they ask to keep going beyond the originally allotted time frame.

Clearly good friends, they can’t stop laughing as they shed some fairly fake news-y light on their personas, granting some very funny if factually dubious insight into life behind their PR-generated facades.

Bottom line, the film might’ve sucked but Reynolds and Gyllenhaal are just fine, thank you very much.

(source: Laughing Squid)

 

Farewell Grimm: “Zerstörer Shrugged” / “The End” (S6, E12 and E13)

(image courtesy NBC)

 

It is a rare thing indeed to get to the end of a six-season old show, even one you have loved passionately from the start, and be able to say that it is as good now, if not better, than when it began.

Most shows either start out strong, or at least with some promise until they hit their stride, before reaching an apotheosis and then beginning a decline, which can be gentle or jump-the-shark precipitous.

Either way, sustaining any TV show over six seasons is not an easy undertaking, and yet Grimm, an appealing mix of fantasy and police procedural, managed it with seeming ease, delivering season after season that, while not always perfect, remained consistently watchable and engaging.

One of the things that anchored the show solidly in many peoples’ affections was the sense of family that undergirded pretty much everything that happened in the show.

This was significant for a number of reasons – firstly the titular Grimm, in this case Nick (David Giuntoli), were a traditionally solitary lot, their bloodied journey in life a lonely one, dedicated to keeping humanity safe from the beastly Wesen, human/animal hybrids who when not “woged” were indistinguishable from their non-Wesen counterparts.

With their members responsible for not just the many creatures in the Grimm fairytales – not, in the show’s beautifully-detailed and richly-expressed mythology, so much make believe as recounting of real life instances – but other inhabitants of myths large and small (think Chupacabra, Wendigo and Anubis), they had been viewed as monsters, ghoulish denizens of peoples’ waking dreams, that must be vanquished and destroyed before they threatened humanity.

Given the pervasive reach of Wesen in society, keeping them under control was a full-time, distinctly unusual job, one that did not make any allowance for personal entanglements of any kind, something that Nick was painfully aware of through the experiences of his Aunt Marie (Kate Burton) and mother Kelly (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).

Even so, Nick, a thoroughly modern Grimm in many ways who only killed when absolutely necessary – while modernising, the Wesen world, like ours, has its more tribal, conservative stalwarts who don’t observe the rule of law – constrained in large part by his job as a detective with the Portland PD but also personal ethics, eschewed that, sticking with girlfriend Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch) through thick and thin, often at great cost to her (mostly) and him.

His unwillingness to lock himself in an emotional ivory tower extended to police partner Hank (Russell Hornby), Sergeant Wu (Reggie Lee), Blutbad (werewolf) Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell) and Fuchsbau girlfriend/wife Rosalee (Bree Turner), fellow Grimm Trubel (Jacqueline Toboni) and even onetime enemy Adalind (Claire Coffee) and frenemy police captain Sean Renard (Sasha Roiz), all of them became family, in one sense or another, over the six seasons, and gave the show an emotional intimacy that enriched its diverse and intelligent storytelling.

 

 

This strong sense of family was never on more powerful display that in the final two episodes of the show, part of a truncated final season, that saw this once-hitherto union of Grimm and Wesen, fighting back against a monstrous, literally Satanic-like evil, from “The Other Place”.

Come to claim a missing part of a powerful rod – inspiring the quotes that began each episode; respectively, “You shall break them with a rod” and “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” – and claim Renard and Adalind’s child Diana (Hannah R. Loyd) as his bride (she is a powerfully magical girl with immense gifts) Zerstörer is a grey and red glowing skull-like being with glowing green eyes and the body and a face of a Scandinavian supermodel when he so chooses.

Breaking through from “The Other Place” to our reality via gas station restroom mirror, as you do, and killing two people and a lot of bats as he did so, he laid waste to people and places in his search for Diana, cleverly hidden away in the remote forest lodge where Grimm first began its unique adventures all those years ago (yes it is only six years but when it’s a show you’ve become immersed to and wedded in, it comes to feel, in the best way possible, like it’s been there forever).

Rather crucially – SPOILERS AHEAD! – he kills off, one-by-one, Nick’s family, the replacement for the actual one he never had, leaving everyone bar Nick and Trubel, lying dead at various places in Portland, a shocking turn of events that leaves you gasping since it attacks the very heart of what made Grimm such a heartfelt show to begin with.

Far from just being a freak-of-the-week show, Grimm was far more nuanced, drawing the constituents elements of each week’s storyline, where Wesen began to outnumber humans, or at least it seemed that way, out into a luxuriously rich mythos-laden narrative that reaffirmed the importance of basic humanity, irregardless of whether you are man or beast.

While it pivoted on its cases, much like Fringe before it, it was never constrained or wholly defined by them, allowing itself the freedom to explore large, wide-ranging narrative arcs such as the one that leads us to this calamitous and then not-so-calamitous – SPOILER AHEAD! – happy ending.

In that way, Grimm was an entrancingly different kind of show – wedded yes to bloodthirsty, horror-lite storylines that challenged our concepts of reality, but equally, if not more so, committed to affirming how vitally important the bonds of friend and family are when faced with all kinds of threats, physical and existential.

The final episodes played with the character of the show beautifully, giving us terror and thrills, heartache and joy in crowd-pleasing measure, and drawing a close to a remarkable tale of man and man/beast, and the fact that not only are we not that different from each other, but that times changes and with them must change those occupying them, lest the same old pointless patterns repeat themselves over and over.

 

The much-loved cast of Grimm (image courtesy NBC)

Don’t be scared! Will and Grace are coming back, with a brand new trailer to boot

They’re back! (image courtesy NBC)

 

SNAPSHOT
That’s right, honey! A decade after their unforgettable eight-season run, comedy’s most fabulous foursome is back. Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally reprise their infamous roles as Will, Grace, Jack and Karen in this exclusive 12-episode event. There’s no doubt that with this crew’s indelible bond and all the happenings in today’s rollercoaster world, the banter will be on point. The legendary James Burrows, director of every original Will & Grace episode, returns along with a slew of razor-sharp jabs and dirty martinis. Behold once again, from the minds of Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, TV’s wittiest ensemble ever. Did somebody say encore? (synopsis via Laughing Squid)

One of the most interesting aspects of the current golden age of television, more correctly termed televisual entertainment since many programs are now consumed on streaming services not all of which find their way through the TV itself, is that many old programs, once thought dead and buried, alive only in the hearts of nostalgic fandom, have suddenly sprung back to life.

High profile examples include the Gilmore Girls, Full House (now Fuller House) and Twin Peaks, and now Will and Grace is set to join this US autumn on their old home NBC.

 

 

Springboarding off an inventive short piece filmed for the US Presidential campaign last year, the revival, which will comprise 12 episodes, a far cry from their old allocation of 24 episodes but very much in keeping with modern episode counts per season of 10-13 episodes, looks to be a welcome return to the lives of the eponymous Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) and their friends Jack (Sean Hayes) and Karen (Megan Mullally).

If the trailer, which contains a brilliantly-realised musical number in which a reluctant Debra Messing is re-enthused about returning to her old sitcom stomping grounds by Eric, Karen and Sean, the latter two seemingly unaware they were in a show at all (ah obliviousness we love you!), is any guide at all, this will be one revival worth checking out, with all of the old comic timing intact and showrunners David Kohan and Max Mutchnick back at the helm.

Will and Grace returns Thursdays on NBC this autumn.

 

Now that the glitter has settled: Eurovision Song Contest 2017 wrap-up

(Photo: Andres Putting courtesy Eurovision.tv)

 

This was an oddly quiet year for the Eurovision Song Contest.

Granted yes there was the kerfuffle over Russia sending along an act to compete who had, in contravention of well-documented Ukrainian law, performed in Crimea, a brazenly provocative act that saw them withdraw from the event this year, but but by and large, it was a year of fairly ordinary songs, only occasionally weird props (A man with a horsehead sitting on a giant ladder? Why yes, thank you Azerbaijan! A man sitting atop a Dreamworks moon? Don’t mind if I do Austria!) and a gracefully beautiful song by Portugal that thoroughly deserved to win.

Standouts this year were the UK actually having a singer that could do justice to a fairly lacklustre song, Romania making yodelling hella cool, Norway having the best bridge of any song in the competition, Greece’s HOT muscular back-up dancers and Croatia’s thoroughly odd though strangely endearing two-singers-in-one schtick.

Once again, it was wonderful to be surrounded by great friends while watching it all unfold and I’m looking to heading off to Lisbon, Portugal, for Port, Portugese tarts, marmalade and yes, tempura (it’s a Portugese invention!).

 

(courtesy Eurovision.tv)

 

And now for a fantastically wrap-up of the event, I present to you …

Fireworks, feelings, and fraught relations at Eurovision 2017

Jess Carniel, University of Southern Queensland

 

For one week in May, the bleary-eyed in our workplaces are not the sports fans following northern hemisphere leagues, nor are they the new parents. They are Eurovision fans. And we are legion. The Conversation

The Eurovision Song Contest offers its fans glitz (or at least glitter), glamour, politics, intrigue, increasingly limited lessons in how to count in French and, of course, music. This year’s contest, hosted by Ukraine in Kyiv, offered up these elements in spades with music, in the words of Portuguese winner Salvador Sobral, proving to be the ultimate victor. As he effused in his acceptance speech,

This could be a victory for music, with people who make music that actually means something. Music is not fireworks, music is feeling!

 

 

Indeed, it was the charm and emotional intensity of Sobral’s performance of “Amar Pelos Dois” at both the first semi-final and the grand final that won over both popular and jury voters. The gentle, lyrical jazz/pop ballad was written by his sister, Luisa Sobral, a graduate of the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston, and is Portugal’s first win.

As Salvador suffers from a heart condition that requires frequent rest and medical attention, Luisa took his place in the rehearsals throughout the week. Fans were finally treated to her own singular vocals when she joined her brother on stage for the victor’s reprise.

Pop politics

Portugal’s victory was a surprise to many – and several expressed displeasure at how Sobral’s acceptance speech derided pop music and by extension his fellow contestants. It was an upset for Italy’s Francesco Gabbani who had led the bookmaker’s favourites until Saturday afternoon.

 

Italy’s Francesco Gabbani performs the song “Occidentali’s Karma”: he had been the bookies’ favourite. Gleb Garanich/Reuters

 

But odds are never a sure thing. Last year’s favourite Sergey Lazarev (Russia) led the odds, only to come in third to Ukraine’s Jamala and Australia’s Dami Im.

It also signals the first non-English language win at Eurovision since Serbia’s Marija Šerifović in 2007. While there are currently no rules about the language used in submissions, from 1966 to 1999 (with the exception of three years), it was a requirement that songs be performed in one of the official languages of the country. These days only a handful of artists perform in their own language each year, preferring to sing in English.

 

Sobral celebrates the win. (image Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

 

Still, the tide could be turning on the popularity of English lyrics at Eurovision. While the number of entries has not necessarily increased, their popularity has. All non-English acts qualified from the semi-finals – Portugal was joined by crowd favourites in Hungarian and Belarusian – and France, Spain and Italy sang in their own languages. (Croatia also warrants a mention, as Jacques Houdek’s “My Friend” includes operatic Italian lyrics.)

With the exception of Germany, which placed second-last, the Big 5 (France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the UK) performed solidly. These are the biggest financers for the contest, and in return qualify automatically for final.

Brexit at Eurovision

Eurovision and the UK have had a bumpy relationship, and at least one survey suggests a British vote to leave Eurovision would have the same result as the EU referendum.

Over the past decade, the UK has done notoriously poorly at Eurovision. Hostility from Eurovision audiences toward the UK is primarily based on the opinion that they do not take Eurovision seriously, withholding quality performers and songs. On occasion the UK has defended itself, citing politics for its poor performance. In 2003, both BBC commentator Terry Wogan and performer Chris Cromby responded to the no-score result for Jemini’s off-key performance by accusing Europe of post-Iraq backlash against the UK. There may be some truth to this claim (Jemini’s dressing room was allegedly vandalised).

This year’s entry, Lucie Jones singing “Never Give Up On You” (penned by Danish Eurovision-winner Emmelie de Forrest, Daniel Salcedo, and Lawrie Martin), was doubtless a concerted effort by the UK to reverse this view, and was seen by some as a post-Brexit apology.

 

UK’s Lucie Jones performing Never Give Up on You. (image Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

 

“I’ll never give up on you,” Jones belted beautifully, “You’re the one that I’m running to/Just give me your hand and hold on/Together we’ll dance through this storm.”

As many of the economic and political ties between Europe and the UK are dissolved, cultural connections like Eurovision will become even more important to sustain.

While the UK is staying in the contest for the time being, Israel sadly announced its departure from the competition live on air during the voting. Israel’s public broadcaster IBA closed down this week. Its replacement channel, Kan, doesn’t satisfy the requirements of Eurovision membership.

Bloc voting remains a key characteristic of Eurovision, but the trend hit a sour note with the punters this year as the crowds booed obvious vote-swaps between Greece and Cyprus during the jury vote.

Solid performance from Australia

And how did Australia fare in its third time competing? Former X-Factor winner Isaiah Firebrace still needs some time to find his comfort zone on the stage, but his grand final performance of “Don’t Come Easy” shed the problematic notes of the semi-finals to place ninth in the final tally.

 

 

Speaking of Australia and bum notes, viewers were mortified at the sudden appearance of an Australian flag-clad man baring his derriere during last year’s winner Jamala’s performance of her new song, “I Believe In U”. The good news (well, for Australians) is that the flasher has been revealed to be Ukrainian serial prankster, Vitalii Sediuk.

Russian-Ukrainian tensions

The Ukrainian hosts ended the show on a political note. Their closing declaration – “We are a tolerant, open, and modern country”- seems a pointed response to the criticisms and controversies that have courted Ukraine and the Kyiv production in the lead-up to this year’s competition.

 

Ukraine’s O.Torvald performs the song Time in the final. (image Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

 

 

Ukraine’s 2016-winning song “1944” referred to Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tartars, and was interpreted by many – certainly by Russia – as commentary on the more recent annexation of Crimea. This prompted speculation about whether Russia would submit an entry at all in 2017.

Next, staff from Ukraine’s broadcaster walked out of the organising committee. Finally, Russian-Ukrainian tensions over Crimea reached boiling point (again) when Ukrainian authorities banned Russian contestant Yulia Samoylova from entering the country because a 2014 visit to the Crimea violated Ukrainian law. The European Broadcasting Union offered two solutions that would enable Russian participation, but Russia elected instead to withdraw from the contest.

With this in mind, Portugal offers a fairly benign respite from the political turmoil of 2016-17 – Sabrol’s challenge to pop music notwithstanding. I look forward to seeing what they, the rest of Europe and, of course, Australia have to offer. See you again at 5am next May.

Jess Carniel, Lecturer in Humanities, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Video essay: Wonder Woman – A Symbol of Progress @kaptainkristian

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

 

Hailed by her writer W. M. Marston, who was the educational consultant at publisher DC Comics, as “an antidote to the bloodcurdling images of masculinity”, Wonder Woman made her debut in December 1940 in the final eight pages of All Star Comics #8.

While she didn’t get the front cover debut accorded Superman and Batman, she quickly grew in popularity joining them as the holy superhero trinity of DC Comics, and a powerful expression of self-empowered feminism.

But as Kaptain Kristian explains in another of his excellent video essays, Wonder Woman has not always received the treatment she deserves, constantly left in Superman and Batman’s shadows.

Proof of this mistreatment, which is odd considering her iconic status – to be honest thanks to the 1970s TV series, I loved Wonder Woman way more than her male counterparts – is that the first feature film starring her is only coming this year, 76 years after her debut.

Still, at least it is coming to cinemas soon and as Kaptain Kristian beautifully explains it is proof that here is a character with real staying character and enduring appeal.

 

I have been waiting for these Visitors: @gezanthony’s amazingly evocative ABBA videos #Eurovision2017

He has been waiting for these Visitors (image courtesy Gerard Maree)

 

If there is one thing that really made ABBA’s name, apart from their superlatively good music and a handy high-profile win at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, its the way they pioneered the use of visual images, in concert with now-famed director Lasse Hallström, to promote their songs as they were released.

While it was prompted in part by the reluctance of the band to be away from home for too long – Björn and Agnetha were the parents of young children and touring would have meant long stints away from them – the videos soon took on a life of their own and became a way of expressing who the band were as much as what they sounded like.

In line with that grand tradition, Australian ABBA fan Gerard Maree, who I’m happy to call a friend, has married songs such as “The Visitors”, “The Day Before You Came” and “Head Over Heels” with scenes from the golden years of Hollywood films, most notably those of Alfred Hitchcock, creating richly atmospheric clips that lend a whole new lease of life to ABBA’s sophisticated pop gems.

He kindly agreed to be interviewed for this post, giving us great insight into his fandom, his creative process and what might be next for him.

It’s obvious from the care you’ve put into your videos that you are a long time fan. When did your love affair with ABBA begin and how has it taken form over the years?
ABBA and I go back a long way to when I was four years old and “Mamma Mia” was my first record. When I was six years old I was lucky enough to go to the Friday night concert at the Sydney Show Ground – some remnants of memory of that night still remain. The music and fandom has never left me. Naturally I love the whole ABBA catalogue but the later albums are my favourites and have meant the most to me in my adult life. I may be in a minority amongst the fans for that reason.

 

 

 

What inspired you to create these videos which are essentially stories set to ABBA’s songs?
Some years back I got the idea of a video for “The Visitors” using Hitchcock movies. Since childhood I have also been a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan. “The Visitors” is such a dark, richly atmospheric song. It’s narrative and building tension lends itself so well to the Hitchcock suspense. Also “The Visitors” is a largely underplayed song, and with no accompanying music video and therefore no visual images that previously defined it. So it was rich, untapped territory.

Last year I finally took some time to start putting it together. I’d never edited anything of that length and detail before. I honestly didn’t know how it would turn out or if I would even show it to anyone. After I edited the first clips played over the introduction I’ll never forget the chills I felt the first time I heard Frida start singing “ I hear the doorbell ring…..” and there was Jimmy Stewart’s petrified face on the screen. Having been a huge fan of both ABBA and Hitchcock for most of my life you can imagine what an ecstatic labour of love that project was!

How do you decide which songs will work best for the video you have in mind?
The ideas came from the songs and images the song creates. As I said “The Visitors”/Hitchcock thing just seemed to gel in my mind, and each time I heard the song I would contemplate which possible movie scene could be used. But it’s generally been unplanned. After I finished “The Visitors” clip I was very happy with it but didn’t plan on another one. Then probably because of seeing the old movie clips something gelled about “Head Over Heels” and the line “she’s a leading lady”. This led to the idea of the montage of the leading ladies of the so called “golden age” of movies. For many years prior to that I had mostly dismissed “Head Over Heels” as a nothing song and I often skipped the track when playing the album. But once that “leading ladies” idea was in my head it just grew. And when it came time to collect and edit the footage I found that the tempo of the song worked perfectly with the images of the star divas strutting across the screen. I am a lover of old movies as you may have guessed by that clip so I had an idea of the scenes I wanted to use. Doing that clip also made me appreciate that song a bit more. Although it would never have been a hit single, it is still quite a sophisticated song and – if I may say so – I think my Leading Ladies clip gives the song more zest and sass!

 

 

What is your favourite ABBA song or songs and do you think they will lend themselves to your evocative visual treatment?
Well I did bite the bullet with this one when I did the clip for “The Day Before You Came (TDBYC)”. In my adult life this song has emerged and remained my favourite ABBA song. Right after I did “The Visitors” clip a close friend immediately suggested I do one for “TDBYC”. My initial reaction was no. I couldn’t. It has it’s own music video which I felt was great, with its sad love story and all four members positioned and looking away from each other as the lights dimmed on them for the last ever recording. How could I do an additional clip for that song?

But some months later the idea grew on me and I thought about how powerful a clip with movie scenes for this song could be. The song is so brilliant because it is so understated. While Agnetha’s delivery is deliberately even the whole way through as she sings about the day before the person came – the subtle changes and shifts in the accompaniment suggest what is happening now. Also Frida’a harmonies play a huge, subliminal part in the emotional impact of the song. They suggest so many strong emotions and leave so much to the imagination.

When making all three music clips and playing the songs over and over to select and edit footage, I came to appreciate the full sophisticated musical arrangements even more. Of course I was all ready very, very familiar with them but this experience brought me right up close to the background elements of the recordings.

 

 

I was also fortunate to obtain all the movie scenes and as the editing of “TDBYC” went along Brief Encounter and Brokeback Mountain emerged as the two main bookends of the clip. During the Frida’s final harmonies and the last instrumental section I had originally envisioned having a montage of scenes from each of the films used but I realised the impact was better by allowing some longer scenes to play out fully – such as the jacket hugging scene at the end of Brokeback Mountain and the departure scene in Brief Encounter.

A similar thing happened in “The Visitors” when I originally thought of a fast montage for the final chorus until I realised that letting the climatic scenes from The Birds and Psycho play out in full was much better.

What’s next? Any exciting videos or ideas in the pipeline?
Nothing definite at the moment. If anything I’d like to do another of their darker songs that reflect a bit of what’s going on with some of our disturbing world leaders – perhaps “The Piper” or “Soldiers”? “Cassandra” was also suggested to me. I’d love to do that but at this point I can’t quite envision it. I shall keep you posted.

Happy Eurovision 2017!