The metaphorical life

From anti-capitalist zombies to existentialist New Orleans, this week’s world of arts brings allegor

Zombies and Brains: The un-dead and the well-read

The living dead are back in cinemas across the UK, bringing a new onslaught of films about flesh-eating zombies and the unintended consequences of scientific experimentation.

First, zombies terrorise a small town in Texas after an experimental biological weapon is accidentally released from a remote US military base in Planet Terror, released in the UK tonight, on 9 November.

Then a few weeks from now we’ll see the UK premiere of I Am Legend on 19 December (with the national release on 4 January). In this film a biological war leaves Will Smith the lone survivor destined to battle against a breed of mutants.

I love zombie films, but perhaps not as much I love the critics who over-intellectualise these flicks as paranoid allegories for capitalism’s automatons who trawl the strip malls of our consumerist culture like the zombies in Romero’s 1979 Dawn of the Dead.

Yes, it’s true that Marx once called the capitalist system "vampire-like," evoking images of blood-sucking middle-managers preying on the working class.

But the intellectual elite seem to have run away with their metaphors, descending deeper and deeper into the theoretical esoteric of the "politico-aesthetic."

Curl up with one of Amazon’s "10 Best Zombie Flicks" and a copy of Mute magazine’s excessively theoretical article Zombie Nation, and see for yourself if the zombie sub-genre is truly a radical satire of capitalists devouring themselves (the ultimate in consumption!).

Meanwhile, the most radical consequence of pop culture’s devouring obsession with zombies is more likely the surprising proliferation of "Zombie walks."

Sprouting up around the world and mixing cultural critique with flash-mob style, Zombie walks – where people dress up like zombies and gather for marches and rallies of the un-dead – have kicked off from New York and Boston to London and Amsterdam.

Check out a video of London’s Zombie Walk from Leicester Square in August 2007. Also, see www.brains4zombies, the parody of Amazon that is "Your online home for Brains and Brain-Related Products."

Related

The web editor of the Los Angeles Times opinion page, Tim Cavanaugh wrote a piece on Reason.com this February on "We the Living Dead: The Convoluted Politics of Zombie Cinema."

Jamie Russell’s Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema, 2005

"Cowardice, Complicity and the Withering of the Soul of America," Zombie Nation in Counterpunch, 2 November

Waiting for Godot in New Orleans

As US authorities scurry to the rescue of their beloved Golden State, recently scorched by epic forest fires, residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward are still waiting – for their homes to be rebuilt, for their streets to be repaved, and for their neighbourhoods to be repaired and repopulated.

And as the government takes care of their Hollywood stars, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has arrived in New Orleans.

As the time drags on without reprieve, residents of the city will see free, outdoor performances of Godot this weekend. New York’s Creative Time and the Classical Theatre of Harlem are behind the production.

A play with a history of radical performances, Waiting for Godot has been repeatedly staged at San Quentin Prison in California since 1957. Then, in 1976 a mixed-race production was staged in apartheid South Africa, and in 1993 Susan Sontag staged it in wartime Sarajevo.

Meanwhile, the Beckett-acolyte Tom Stoppard’s newest play Rock ‘n’ Roll– about 1960s Czechoslovakia, socialism, and the Plastic People of the Universe – is up on Broadway in New York.

The political possibilities of theatre are then further explored in London this month with the production of The Lady of Burma (on from 7 Nov – 2 Dec at Riverside Studios), about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning democratically-elected leader of Burma currently under house arrest in her country, amid the unfolding crisis.

Related

NPR’s story on the New Orleans’ productions of Godot

Anthony Minghella on Beckett in New Statesman

Clifford Odets’ 1935 play Waiting for Lefty, has workers waiting for Lefty, the union’s elected chairman, who never comes.

Bollywood does Dostoevsky

Tonight’s newest Bollyood blockbuster, Saawariya, is based on Dostoevsky’s short story "White Nights".

A love story about a chance encounter between an itinerant musician and a worker in the city’s red-light district, the romantic musical opens in the UK 9 November just in time for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

But it’s not the first time Bollywood has tackled European classics -- recall the industry’s adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Bride and Prejudice), where "the Bennet family becomes the Bakshis and Mr Darcy becomes a wealthy American." Bollywood has also done numbers on everything from Fight Club to Othello (Omkara) and Macbeth (Maqbool).

See India’s national newspaper, The Hindu on "Shakespeare in Bollywood."

Part of a much larger theme, Bollywood’s adaptations of Western literature and film echoes the similar experience of West Africa, where Greek tragedy in particular has become a model and inspiration for African playwrights. Favourites include: Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Uripides and Sylvain Bemba’s Black Wedding Candles for Blessed Antigone.

Related

The BBC on "Are Bollywood remakes a good idea?" Dec 2006

Kevin Wetmore’s The Athenian Sun in an African Sky: Modern African Adaptations of Classical Greek Tragedy, 2001

Scott Cresswell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.