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

BBC/YouTube screengrab
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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.