The Walking Dead Analysis

After the incredibly long radio silence on this blog I’m finally ready to reveal what I’ve been up to the last month… I’ve been busy marathoning AMC’s The Walking Dead. And omg… I think I’m obsessed. So I’m just going to use this post to plonk down a few observations that have been percolating in my brain for a while now.

A few months ago I wrote an entry on Train to Busan (2016) and talked about how all the different zombies represent different things about us, like where they congregate, what caused the outbreak, specific zombie behaviours, and how humans react to them. At the point in time when I wrote that particular entry I’d only watched TWD up to the first half of the second season. The big reveal at the end of the second season about what Dr. Jenner whispered in Rick’s ear at the end of season one allows me to say now that TWD is of the camp that sees these zombies as mirrors that reflect back the deepest, darkest parts of human nature. This is achieved from the way they’ve shrunk the gap between zombie and human by making all humans dormant carriers of the zombie virus. It is no longer a matter of us becoming them but that we inherently ARE them.

I don’t know why I got excited but I thought that was a pretty cool development because in other zombie films/franchises, it’s always been spread by the bite. By saying that we’re all already carriers implies that the violence and the decay is a part of us. It’s no longer about a spread or an infection, or any kind of contamination or intrusive/invasive element being introduced into a safe/pure/whole/intact body. By saying that we are already infected, it is damning the way we’ve lived our lives suggesting that we are already dead or that we carry death in us. I think that’s a pretty strong statement and a pretty sobering one as well.

I kinda get the impression that that may be the reason why the series has been pretty kind to minority characters like Glenn, T-dog, and disenfranchised groups represented by the Dixons. In Fear The Walking Dead, Nick Clark is a drug addict, and Travis Manawa is Maori-American, his ex-wife, Liza Ortiz is Latino. It’s as if only after the end of civilisation that these marginalised groups have an opportunity to move to the fore.

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This idea of wiping the slate clean and reimagining society and social norms is also reflected in the alternate family dynamics in both TWD and FTWD. In TWD there is the Rick-Shane-Lori dynamic that dominated much of season 1 & 2 and how the characters had to deal with that odd post-marital set up. In FTWD you have Travis Manawa living with his current family and his ex-wife and son under the same roof in the safe zone. The comic books I know have also been pretty adventurous with Dale Horvath and Andrea. In the comic books, they aren’t locked into the more comfortable and conventional surrogate parent-child relationship, they’re lovers.

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Since I unwittingly led with the comparison between TWD and FTWD, I’m going to just finish this up before discussing specific episodes in TWD. I sampled a couple of episodes from FTWD the other day and noticed a few differences. I immediately got the impression that while TWD is highly stylised and seems to focus on the broad sweep of things in the wake of the apocalypse, FTWD tends to be or tries to be more realist with a tighter focus on the individual experience of the apocalypse in a more contained setting and narrative.

Perhaps this impression is prematurely based on too small a sampling of FTWD but it feels far more claustrophobic than TWD which in the first season already shows Rick traversing a vast amount of space – from the hospital to the suburbs, to the city of Atlanta to the quarry and then the CDC. While FTWD seems trapped in the militarised safe zone.

Furthermore, the sprawling geography in TWD is hardly random, with season one being set in the city and season two the country. Season three clearly utilises juxtaposition again by setting up Woodbury as a facsimile of civilisation used in counterpoint to the prison as the site for elements that can’t be civilised. But of course, season 3 complicates this by flipping the dynamic and having Rick and Co., which the audience have come to know as decent folk, live in the prison. In so doing, the series throws a spotlight on the accrued meaning behind different spaces in society when they are seen in relation to others such as a prison, the suburbs, the countryside, the city, etc.

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This binary set up between a civil society and prison is further complicated in Season 5  when they enter the Alexandria Safe Zone. I really enjoyed how for a period of time the main characters become the aggressors and a danger to those around them and even to their own prospects of a safe/secure future in a walled off community.

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Within the Alexandria Safe Zone there were a bunch of things that happened that I thought layered up in a very satisfying manner. One episode that really stood out to me, and I still remember with surprising clarity even though I must have watched this almost a month ago, is season 5’s episode 13, “Forget”.

In the last part of “Forget”, Alexandria’s stateswoman, Deanna insists on throwing a party at her house to welcome the new members of the community to their little slice of civilisation. At this party Jessie’s son, Sam, is running around stamping a big, red letter “A” on people’s hands, ostensibly to indicate that they’re members of Alexandria. But this large red letter “A” stamped on Rick’s hand comes to mean something more – it is the scarlet letter Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, was made to wear because she was accused of adultery.

In the last scene of the episode that takes place the next day, Rick sees Jessie and her husband walking along the street and can’t resist touching the same hand to his revolver. And when he hears a noise coming from the opposite side of a nearby wall, he walks over and in a poignant shot from above, we see Rick mirroring the position of the zombie on the other side, clearly displaying the red letter “A”. As the zombie tries to get in, Rick tries to break out of the confines of society, once again represented by more than just the walls but by marital norms.

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As I write this entry I’m surprising myself at how some of these points naturally line up and group themselves into coherent arguments. If you weren’t aware before now, I’m making this up as I go along because it’s past 2am right now… Anyway, with regards to marriage and alternative lifestyles, there’s also season 6/7’s Negan to add into the mix because of his harem. Thus, again and again we see the series using the institute of marriage as an interrogative device by which the erosion of social norms and the sanity of individual characters can be measured.

Interestingly enough, the homosexual relationship between Aaron and Eric is used in a very life-affirming manner and NOT to indicate that something is broken in society. In season 5 episode 11, “The Distance”, when Aaron first introduces himself to Rick’s group, which had grown increasingly feral by this point due to the scarcity of food and water, both audience and the characters are left with a seemingly insurmountable conundrum of how to ascertain the authenticity of Aaron’s intentions. Does he really mean to bring them back to a safe community or is he laying some elaborate trap for them? The tension from this quandary is wound tighter and tighter throughout the episode but dissipates all at once when Aaron is reunited with Eric and he pulls him into a kiss. The display of genuine human emotion becomes concrete proof that Aaron is not a psychopath.

I guess this comes as no surprise because another marginalised group that the series favours is the LGBTQ community. Tara, Denise, Aaron, Eric are homosexual characters. From the comics, Paul Monroe (Paul Rovia in the TV series) is gay as well. There was even talk of making Daryl Dixon a gay character but that idea was scrapped after fan protests.

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I think one last thing I want to talk about before I tie off this entry is another episode that’s really stayed with me. In season 2, episode 11, “Judge, Jury, Executioner”, I thought Dale’s death was particularly well done, in part because it brought together three different lines of narrative tension and flipped them for ironic value.

Dale has always been the fount of good will to all mankind and decent human behaviour. In that episode, the main narrative was about what to do with Randall who was an intruder from another community that, based on his responses when Daryl interrogated him, enjoyed murdering and raping. The group had to decide whether or not to execute him or release him blindfolded far away enough from the farm that he wouldn’t be able to find his way back to them or bring them harm. Dale insisted that the decent thing to do would be to release him. And his argument was that they needed to set the right example for Carl, Rick’s son, who was growing up in a world that had gone to shit.

Ironically, instead of Randall being executed, Dale is the one who had to be put down after a zombie rips open his abdominal cavity. The doubly ironic thing about this is that the walker that killed Dale is the same one that Carl spent the earlier part of the episode taunting relentlessly by using it for target practice. The perverse joy that comes from hurting something else is itself a kind of indication that whatever goodness in Carl Dale was trying to protect has already been tainted. Stylistically, by allowing the same zombie to find its way back to the farm to attack Dale makes it a compelling visual metaphor for Carl’s budding monstrous nature. The third form of irony that is layered over Dale’s death is that Dale who has very clearly stated his objection to suicide in previous episodes, in his final moments seems to be the one who needs an assisted suicide so he doesn’t turn into a zombie.

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In memory of Dale Horvath, let us ponder the quotation about time from William Faulkner that Dale offers to the group in explanation for his morning ritual of winding his watch:

 “I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire, which will fit your individual needs no better than it did mine or my father’s before me; I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you may forget it for a moment now and then and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it.”

Time in TWD is a symbol of order and civilisation and if you look out for it, every season will say something about time. In Season 1, it was Dale’s quotation about his watch. In Season 4, Rick offers his watch to two stray survivors he had hoped to bring back to the prison. When Rick and Carol part ways after he exiles her from their community, she gives him her watch, ridding herself of time and memory in more ways than one because it was an anniversary gift to her from her abusive husband. Rick then gets his watch back from Carol who retrieves it from the stores at Terminus in Season 5 when she rejoins them. When they finally reach the Alexandria Safe Zone, during Deanna’s interview with Rick, one of the last things she says to him is the time, “It’s 3.37pm.” And his decision to stay and rejoin civilisation is signified by him adjusting his watch.

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Ok. That’s it from me. If you liked this entry or found it informative, click the like button below, follow the blog and share it on Facebook and other social media sites. Thank you for helping me grow my readership!

Film Musicals: La La Land Vs…

La La Land (2016) has scored for itself six Golden Globes and has been nominated for a bunch of Oscars which it looks on track to winning too.

The thing is no matter how beautiful this film looks, or how passably melodic the songs are, it still looks like a film that has only gotten so far because of Hollywood’s undying penchant for sucking its own dick.

To be sure, La La Land is a beautifully shot film. Like visually – stunning. Just beautiful. The use of primary colours popped and the panoramic shots of LA were breathtakingly beautiful. The use of primary colours as a motif for fantasy and the blending of the colours into more drab and realist tones also a subtle touch to show the collision between fantasy and reality.

BUT even the well-publicised news of Ryan Gosling spending 3 months learning how to play the piano so he could do the piano bits himself, is not enough to distract from the mediocre singing from the two leads that often left me cringing in my seat waiting for the songs to be over.

The fact of the matter is that there are so many other films that have focused on similar themes and done so in a more streamlined, more succinct manner.

The two main lines of tension in La La Land is firstly, the struggle to straddle the line between being true to yourself and your artistic vision versus selling out in order to become famous and make a living from commercializing your art; and secondly, how the romancing of one’s art can get in the way of the romance between two people.

With regards to these two lines of narrative tension being perfectly intertwined and balanced in a single narrative that works, we can look back 40 years to Martin Scorsese’s New York New York (1977). There you had a real powerhouse, Liza Minnelli, to belt out the title song.

You also had the dramatic use of music/art as the very thing that drives a wedge between the couple (Liza Minnelli as Francine Evans & Robert De Niro as Jimmy Doyle), such that you really felt the tragedy of the ending where even after both parties have made it (Jimmy with his night club & Francine with her successful singing career), the healthiest thing they both could do for the sake of their own sanity was to stay far away from each other.

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Granted that at 2hrs 43mins, the film can feel a little overlong but it tracks their relationship from attraction to marriage, pregnancy and divorce, blending in the developments of their respective musical careers at every step of the way.

Another film that uses the romance between a man and a woman to talk about musicians and the music industry is the 2014 film, Begin Again, starring Adam Levine and Kiera Knightly. In Begin Again, a musician couple – where one half represented the indie music scene and the other, whatever it took to become a commercial success – function as a stand-in for a story that is about more than just a girl in love with a boy.

It is another narrative that ends in the eventual dissolution of the romance between the two lovers. Personally, I felt these two films were more succinct than La La Land because as I was watching La La Land, I kept asking myself why an actress and a jazz musician? What’s the connection there? Worse still, what’s the conflict there? The conflict always seemed more personal, in a way that was completely unrelated to their art, than professional or career-driven because when they finally meet with success in the end, there was nothing concrete that prevented them from being together other than the fact that they gave up too early on each other instead of sticking it out to the very end.

The thing about New York New York and Begin Again is that the male and female leads are both musicians and there’s a real conflict of professional ideals mixed in with the romantic hardships each couple faces that eventually prevents them from getting back together. Francine Evans and Jimmy Doyle would have destroyed each other if they got back together and Greta (Kiera Knightly) and Dave (Adam Levine) couldn’t because they were each pulling for aspects of the music industry which, according to the way the film set it up, were in direct conflict with each other.

With Begin Again, I also liked how it introduced another element, a music producer (Mark Ruffalo), and spent a huge amount of the plot on the difficulties of producing an indie album that eventually had to welcome and embrace the ambient sounds of the streets since Greta’s makeshift band couldn’t afford to book a studio to record in. Fortunately, that resulted in an inspired piece of work.

Arguably, Begin Again ends with some ambiguity, unlike New York New York and La La Land, with two radio friendly versions of the same song, “Lost Stars”. It leaves it up to the audience to decide which version they prefer and consequently, who they side with, and which side of the tension between indie and commercial music they fall on.

Speaking of the sounds of the street, another film that came out in 2016 that has achieved both critical and popular success and was nominated for the best comedy/musical category at this year’s Golden Globes too, is Sing Street.

Undeniably based on the romanticised version of how the Beatles came to be, Sing Street is about a group of school boys from Dublin forming a band. Although a homage to great bands through the ages like The Cure, Duran Duran, The Jam, Motorhead, etc., this film also had a split focus between visuals and music but managed to marry the two quite effectively by inserting a young model, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), as the female star in the band’s self-made music videos, and having the band lead’s (Cosmo played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) clothes and hair style change comically based on whichever strain of music was influencing his songwriting at that point in time.

The shy awkward tones of male voices breaking in the midst of puberty blend together in a heartfelt narrative of small town artists wanting to break away and make it in the big city. Both La La Land and Sing Street feature the film musical trope of having the music overtake the visuals at the height of the film’s narrative and emotional tension to weave an internally focalised illusion of what the musician sees.

In La La Land this is in the much talked about climax at the end of the film where Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) plays the theme song on the piano one last time in his club as he and Mia (Emma Stone) share a fantasy of what their lives could have been. Easily the best moment in the film but also an overly melodramatic and highly manipulative one aimed at bringing audiences to tears.

In Sing Street, this comes before the final sequence in the film about two thirds?three quarters? of the way through the film when the band books the school hall to make another music video and Raphina doesn’t show up. We’re left with Cosmo’s version of how he imagines the music video to look before he and the audience crash back to reality at the end of the number.

What I liked better in Sing Street is that the film musical’s predictable use of this syntactic element of the genre was not left to the end as a climactic scene. Instead, the film ends on a much more subtle note. The young lovers, Cosmo and Raphina, leave on a tiny motorboat with the intention of sailing to England from Dublin to find their fortune in London.

It’s meant to be an uplifting scene with the smiles on everyone’s faces and the rousing soundtrack in the background but this is where soundtrack and visuals clash in a highly satisfying manner. They leave in the midst of a blinding rainstorm, nearly collide with a cruise ship, bring nothing with them except the clothes on their backs, their demo tapes and portfolio of head shots. In the background, Cosmo’s parents are getting divorced, the family is going to lose their house and the kids will have to shuffle between mum and dad. Without any indication of whether they succeed in their journey or drown at sea, the film ends with a decent amount of hope pinned on their endeavour amidst the crashing waves of reality that results in a lovely feeling of ambiguity as you leave the theatre.

I suppose by this point everyone if feeling like, “What the hell? Why are all these musicals so ambiguously depressing?!”Well, if you want a light-hearted romantic comedy with a happy ending, there’s always Music and Lyrics (2007). Again it features the tension between staying true to one’s artistic vision and compromising for the sake of commercial appeal. Except, this time the slant on the music industry is the tension between performer and the lyricists. Anyway, this one ends happily with Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) getting together just as how his melody and her lyrics are eventually performed the way they are meant to be performed.

That’s it. That’s all I have to say about La La Land and how while it looks great, narratively speaking it didn’t quite hit the spot for me.