Sunday, 31 January 2010

Foolish Is the Man

who attempts to tame the beast. This is a piece I wrote for a student newspaper, apparently about 700 words got cut so here is the uncensored version - take THAT lousy fresher editors!!!

Foolish is Man
But to What Extent did the Media Contribute to Their Deaths?

Patrice Faye, Timothy Treadwell and Steve Irwin. All three of these men shared a consuming and ferocious passion for dangerous animals. The latter two, however, share something altogether more sinister ; they were both killed by the creatures they wanted so desperately, and publicly, to protect. Steve Irwin, who served as a benchmark of what it meant to be Australian with his khaki shorts, inane catchphrases and enthusiastic disposition was killed, not as so many had predicted, by one of his beloved crocodiles, but by a stingray that put a barb straight through his heart. Treadwell, who possessed an almost identical mop of blonde hair and fervent attitude to his animal of choice, the ursus actos (brown bear), got not only himself killed, but his girlfriend, Amie Huguengard, and two of the bears he had spent the last thirteen years trying to protect. The three men share, or shared in the case of Treadwell and Irwin, an insatiable passion for the spotlight.

However, despite what some might dismiss as simple fame-whoring or desire to increase awareness of their cause, we should ask ourselves what part the reader and media contributed in their endless production and consumption of dangerous acts. Irwin, the most infamous of the three, was built up by the media as an outsider, the 'Other', yet simultaneously assuming all the characteristics of a clichéd Australian, with his dark tan, bleach blond hair and relaxed air when staring into the 'jaws of death', as a local Sydney newspaper so breathlessly put it. As Adam Hills accurately joked, 'he was like Australia's Princess Diana'. However, Irwin's title as 'king of the crocodiles' (another media -assigned pseudonym) was stripped after he pulled a Michael Jackson, dangling his baby son in a crocodile pen. He afterwards explained that the child was not in any danger - one might wonder what he thinks does qualify as a dangerous situation - but it was too late: the media had banished him from their list of extreme heroes, and he would only regain this status posthumously.

Now it feels as though Irwin has been both lionized as some kind of royal institution, yet also held up as an example of what happens when man and nature mix. I remember me and my brother approaching our sleeping dad, my brother gravely narrating in Irwin's familiar twang: 'now I'm gonna poke him with this stick. what a beauty! Let's see what he does,' and running away as a predictably enraged dad awoke. Irwin's lure to children, with his natural enthusiasm for touching and provoking animals is obvious, and was criticized by Jean-Michel Cousteau, who insisted against his hands-on approach, stating: 'you don't touch nature. You just look at it.'
In Treadwell too, there is a natural childishness that endeared him to the youth of America. Werner Herzog, who made the documentary Grizzly Man about Treadwell, described him as visiting thousands of schools, un-paid, in order to 'educate the pupils about the bears.' Quite what we taught them is unclear, as he is described as a self-taught naturalist and former alcoholic and drug-addict, who continuously flouted park legislation. He did not carry pepper spray or use electric fencing in camp, two things he was repeatedly asked to do for his own safety.

He said he had used pepper spray once and was distressed by the bear's reaction. He lived in the Katmai national park in Alaska, a federally protected reserve rather than the inhospitable and remote wilderness he made out. Park rangers, irritated by his constant violations even proposed new legislation titled: 'The Treadwell rule', insisting that persons should not camp in the same place for over seven days. In Herzog's documentary we see him get precipitously close to the animals he claims are his friends; at one point, he is swimming in a lake with a female bear and narrowly misses getting clobbered across the head by her. "At best he is misguided," Deb Liggett, former superintendent at Katmai told the Anchorage Daily News in 2001. "At worst, he's dangerous, if he models unsafe behaviour that ultimately puts bears and other visitors at risk." A worse consequence than that, however, is the fearful response that the dual killing provoked in the public. Though we understood it as partly 'deserved', a stance which many media outlets took, the grisly reporting's: photos of Treadwell's chewed leg and lurid descriptions of the four bags of remains that were taken out of a bear's stomach certainly did not help Timothy's assurance of bears as 'mostly harmless.'

Herzog got hold of some audio footage of the couple's death, and listens to it in the film. Whilst it is almost certainly a distressing experience for him, and despite urging the owner of the tape that it should be destroyed, the fact is that Herzog did listen to it, and thus is much a spectator to the extreme sports of these men as we are. The most dangerous threat that is posed to these men, is, it seems, their bravado.

Treadwell adopted a posturing and posing bluster, demonstrated in his endless re-takes of action shots of him running down hills.
He, and Irwin were renegades, in their childlike nature, their fearlessness, and refusal to join normalized society. Treadwell, who dressed like a pirate with his black bandanna,
seems to be a lovable and harmless man, whose years alone turned him into a proselytizing lunatic. He gives his bears ridiculous nicknames: 'Cracker, Aunt Melissa, The Grinch and Mr Chocolate' being just a few of my favourites, and possesses a boyishness that seems slightly naive in the face of the animals he was dealing with. Yet, it must be taken into account that he lived and continuously interacted with these bears, and other animals for thirteen years. He got amazing footage - Grizzly Man is all up on youtube and worth a watch- and had an indubitable affinity with the creatures. In a particularly lovely scene Treadwell is joined by a fox, 'Spirit' and her cubs while he ponders on leaving the idyllic plains of the park to venture into the altogether more inhospitable 'grizzly maze.' Fellow grizzly enthusiast Charlie Russell defended him, saying: 'If Timothy had spent those thirteen years killing bears and guiding others to do the same, eventually being killed by one, he would have been remembered in Alaska with great admiration', and it seems clear that his death has been used by some organizations as propaganda for the shooting of bears.

There seems to be have been a re-appropriation of the landscape by all three of the adventurers. Irwin used both sea and land as his own personal playground, getting his hands on whatever beast he could find. Treadwell spoke at length at how he was a visitor in the bears world, 'I am like a flower...a fly on the wall' but there is no doubt that he felt he was the most deserving of being their guest, and often makes problematic statements
to the camera about being both one of them, and ruling over them: 'I will be one of them. I will be master.'
In Faye's case, he has re-invented himself as a primary figure in Burundi, the east African home of 'Gustave', a crocodile estimated to be 60 years old, 20 feet (6.1 m) in length and to weigh around 1 ton. A Telegraph feature on Faye describes him as taking a 'young, beautiful Burundian wife', and despite his similar position to Treadwell as an autodidact, he sees himself as conservationist and lecturer to the people in the villages. There is an uneasy colonial air about Faye, only increased with his dismissive attitude towards the inhabitants of the area surrounding the Ruzizi river. Faye attributes Gustave's nature as a man-eater to the war in Burundi, which left hundreds of human bodies floating in the rivers.

Gustave, he says, then developed 'a taste for human flesh', and became so large and greedy that his only prey now are slower animals, such as humans. Though there have been estimates of him eating 300 people, Faye dismisses the wild estimate, stating that 'it has been more like 60, and he doesn't eat all of them - he just hunts them for sport.' Faye's somewhat blase attitude in the article becomes even more disturbing on learning that the death of his friend and fellow researcher, a Burundian villager, was Faye's first reason to take revenge on Gustave. Now though, he is seemingly entranced by the animal, even stating at one point that he would not kill Gustave even if he ate 'someone in my close family.' Immortalized by the 2007 film, Primaeval, the digitized Gustave gallops across the screen like "a champion of cross-country races who devours campsites and cars, climbs trees, and swallows boats," Faye wrote in an indignant letter to Burundi's newspapers. "In short, poor Gustave is a victim of fantasies and becomes more monstrous than ever."

His assumed indestructibility: there are reports of him having scars on his side, face and even the inside of his mouth where soldiers have shot at him give him status as a mythic creature from the deep, compounded by locals calling him 'a red monster with glowing yellow eyes'. Despite this, Faye insists, it usually only take 3 weeks after a death before the villagers use the riverbanks once again. 'It is hot, the water feels good and they forget.' This seems remarkable, until we remember that the people need the water, both for bathing and washing clothes, and for fishing.

The trio of adventurers all have similar admirable qualities: of boyishness, courage and a fearlessness that transcends danger. Ultimately, though, their desire to, as Herzog puts it 'leave the confines of [their] human-ness', rather than any boring aim of protecting or educating the public, is dangerous, not only for them, but for others swayed by their mythologizing in the media. It is up to us to decide whether these 'conservationists' are furthering the cause of animal rights, or hindering it with their choices.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The trap

hmmm. A friend recommended this to me, gushing about how it chnaged your perception of the world we live in. It is certainly very interesting, but I literally hear my tutor's voice throughout the entire documentary; namely, paranoid and scaremongering. It's basic premise is that in a seriosuly misguided attempt to give the british public back our freedom, a liberal democractic party has basically ensured our confinement and restriction in any direction possible.

here's the link:

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Lets stop using the Word Clever

One meaning, right?

when pushed for its meaning, people will usually respond with a bemused, 'who gives a shit' expression and then just repeat said word, usually accompanied with another name for it. 'You know-clever. smart'

'Yes, but what do you mean by smart. Street smart? Book smart? [to use two popular expressions?] Has been awarded educational privilege according to various factors of
1. race (white, natch)
2. age
3. social class
4. location
5. wealth?
Or, has street smarts owing to his privilege of
1. having an older brother in juvi
2. living in an area where 'how to make a car bomb' was the only adult education course available at the local village hall
3. being so poor that learning to pick a lock in under 30 sec was a necessary skill

If someone knows a lot aboput spectroscopy but can't open a tin of macaroni, are they intelligent or a fool? If someone can rewire a refrigerator but can't tell you the date of the second world war, is he a skilled craftsman or an ignorant twat?

You see?

Thursday, 7 January 2010

The Misanthrope

I braced myself against the chilly streets of London last night to see a theatre production about which I had - well - curiously enough, no assumptions at all.

The play is a modern adaptation of Molieres: one of his most regarded, yet possibly most unique works. Unusually for the playwright, Moliere dispenses with character nuance and trajectory, whilst almost entirely ignoring plot. Alceste, a writer who is by parts admirably honest and laughingly idealistic, abandons his moral high-horse when he meets Celimene, a beautiful young actress who jars with his ethical snobbery whilst bewitching him utterly. Try as he might to open her eyes to the shallowness of the world she immerself herself in, Celimene remains, to the end, refreshingly vain. As ghastly as her charcter can sometimes be, the pure acceptance of the reality of her situation gives her a commendable practicality that the idealist Alceste seems to lack.

The satire of French aristocrats is transformed by Martin Crimp into a expose of the hypocrisy of modern-day intelligentsia. Unlike most 'updates' of classics (any and every re-working of Romeo and Juliet springs to mind), this didn't set my teeth on edge. Voicemail messages in rhyming couplets combine the modern and ancient to humorous effect, and whilst references to modern-day are slightly overblown: think the RSC, LLoyd-Webber and David Cameron, the audience certainly seemed very happy. Fairly 'straight' parts of Alceste (Damian Lewis) and wingman John (Dominic Rowan) were played well, reciting their verse with a punch, yet avoiding overstatement. The more flamboyant characters of Julian (Chuck Iwuji) and Alexander (Nicolas Le Prevost) could, and did, allow themselves a lot more freedom, taking great delight in shaping and twisting the words.

The mise-en-scene, a hotel room conceived by Hildegard Betchler is suitably apt for Knightley's starlet 'Jennifer' (changed from Celimene), strewn with Chanel bags, silver pumps and thousands of Vogues. As Knightley is the current 'muse' of Chanel this is suitably apt, and the connections that the director continously alludes to between Jennifer's life and Knightley's own makes one wonder if the part was at all a stretch.

I'm usually the first to jump on the bitch bandwagon, taking an instant dislike to starlets for an outfit, a phrase taken out of context, a professed love for nuclear physics (see Lou Douillon and Milla Jovovich), and the always coy confession to the interviewer of their past life as an ugly duckling (I've seen Cameron Diazs' high-school photo, ok?! Come on, now.) However, despite the sometimes dubious acting chops of Knightley and her admission of looking in the mirror and seeing a 'funny face', I can't muster the strength to hate her. Strasbourg and ilk may consider great actors such as Olivier, Day-Lewis to have sprung up from a warm rock somewhere fully equipped to cry on queue, look interested in some very boring dialogue and pull off pantaloons with aplomb, but skeptics could argue that acting, like may other crafts can be learnt.

Whilst Knightley's talent in stinkers like 'The Hole' and 'Bend it Like Beckham' can be questioned, the effect of a good script and great voice coach cannot be argued. Her wasp-esque interpretation of Jennifer is a curious mix of naivete, knowing sexuality and childish manipulation, and she plays off well against Lewis' self-righteous indignation and curse of the left wing intelligentsia. Martin Crimp's updated version of Molière's play can sometimes feel overly referential: attacking LLoyd Webber, The RSC and even us the theatre goer, but the rhyming couplets and adaptation thereof are a triumph. Worth a look, especially if you are a fan of pretty chanel-strewn sets and fit gingers.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Amanda Knox

Hardly breaking news, but I have been, as usual, gripped by this agatha christie-esque murder. As an afficionado of gristle and gore (Killing Mum and Dad, anyone?)*, this murder has all the key components: a beautiful would-be killer (see Basic Instinct), an Italian lover (erm, can't remember any horror films with an Italian stallion but sure there are hundreds), the token ethnic minorities to pad out the story (Rudy Guede and Patrick Diya Lumumba) and an innocent student (kercher)

The media of course blew it up, seeming to swing surprisingly in favour of the black bar-owner's innocence. Of course there was no evidence to convict him or even bring them to trial, but obviously the word of a white girl was enough to arrest. Also, the lure of a 'sex game gone wrong' headline proved to difficult to resist, and despite Knox's parents' belief in her getting off, going so far as to buy her a ticket back home, it seems as though the sentence was given and Knox's head placed on the axe before the jury was out.

As hard as I have tried to come to some sort of decision, to take one side in friends' numerous arguments, I find it impossible to form a bias. This, however, has not proved so hard for a lot of the public and media. For a catholic Italy, Amanda's promiscuity seems to have ran her own death knoll.

* on a side note, my mum came in last night, innocently asked what I was watching and then made an incredibly distasteful joke about me 'not getting any ideas'. brrr, thanks mum.