Born in Arizona, but currently residing in Los Angeles, Daniel Blake is an eclectic musician with roots in classic rock, old school and 90’s country and blues, and contemporary folk. Having released a number of singles, including his most recent, “Freeway”, and his EP, Circle Mountain, Daniel is quickly gaining recognition, with his music already being featured on a number of television shows and a Spotify-official playlist.
Daniel’s music immediately struck a spot in me, as it possessed the same calm yet haunting expressiveness of some of my favorite artists, Ben Howard, Bon Iver and Adam Granduciel, and the same simplified, emotive style of contemporary musicians like All Them Witches, Wild Child and Josh Abbott. Blending styles from across blues, folk, country and rock, along with the ambiance of synth and keys in the background, Daniel’s music echoes in your mind with calming yet soulful songs of love, life and a roaming freedom.
When Daniel and I first started talking, he communicated in a handful of 3-5 word sentences, and I thought, “Fuck, I’m gonna have to wring the answers out of this guy.”
However, despite Daniel’s laconic first responses, once he did open up about music, his answers were some of the most detailed I’ve received in interviews (even beating out a few writers I’ve talked with) and Daniel’s passion and experience with his craft became crystal clear.
And so, while I usually include much of my own thought in these sorts of articles, with this article, I let Daniel do much of the talking and step back more than I usually do.
Without further ado, here is my article/interview with Daniel Blake.
We began our interview discussing how Daniel became involved with music and how he eventually arrived where he is now.
Xander: “So, to start off with, how did you get into music? How did you start singing and playing? Have you had any formal training in music, or are you self-taught? Have you been a part of any other bands or musical projects, and, if so, what were those like?”
Daniel: “My dad played music at church so there were always a couple of guitars lying around the house. I eventually learned a few of the basic chords (G,C,D & EM) which gave me something to build off of. I later took some lessons at a local music shop but wasn’t too involved in music at school. I had tried forming a couple of punk bands when I was in Junior high and High-school. However, they never amounted to much. mostly just recording 15 minute instrumentals we would listen to while driving around town. I didn’t really start singing until I was in my 20’s when I started singing at church. From there I started messing around with an old 8 track recorder we had lying around the house.”
X: “How have you developed over the years? And how have you arrived where you are now in your career?”
D: “When I first started out I really had no clue what I should be doing. I pretty much just started recording music and uploading it to Soundcloud. It was sort of nice to work at my own pace to learn about the best ways to use my voice. I eventually had to step out and present it to the world, which is when the journey really began. It was difficult to find a venue that would allow me to do a set so I had to start at ground zero. Basically playing anything available which at the time was mostly open mics. Like anything else, one door always leads you to another door until one day you look back and say, ‘man, that’s a lot of doors!’ haha.”
Next, Daniel and I delved into his musical influences. I knew about a number of them, and his songs possess the unmistakable echoes of voices and sounds still reverberating from the dawn of folk, country and classic rock (Dylan, Cash, Neil Young, etc.). I called Ben Howard the moment I heard his first song, and I wasn’t surprised to learn he listened to Iron & Wine. Still, Daniel’s catalog of influences was quite broad, and I enjoyed hearing about all the artists who’d left a mark on his music.
X: What other musicians, musical groups or eras of music have influenced you? How did early influences like Tom Petty, The Beatles, Van Morrison and others affect you? What about their music do you enjoy? And are there any contemporary artists you resonate with or find any inspiration from?
D: I love old country music (Hank, Willy, Waylon & Cash). The songs remind me of my grandpa and his friends sitting around in a circle, telling stories and teasing one another. It sort of feels like home I guess. I’m also a big fan of a lot of 90’s country/blues music too (Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Brooks & Dunn, Bonnie Raitt, SRV, Dire Straits…). All of these artists are a piece of me in one way or another. The common thread for all of these artists is great songs.
D: However, there is something much deeper (especially for groups like the Beatles). They constantly evolved and experimented with different ideas. they pushed the envelope and opened the world up to new sounds. Every song didn’t need to be a love song. It was okay to create something just for the sake of making something new. As far as contemporary music goes, I feel like I may be a little behind, haha. However, I have definitely been influenced by artists like David Grey, Ben Howard, Band of Horses, Iron & Wine & Postal service.
After this, we discussed Daniel’s influences in a more general sense.
X: Are there any cultural, social, religious, or other kinds of influences on your music or your songwriting? Are there any personal experiences that have shaped your music and songwriting, or even your outlook on making music?
D: I think that if you are an honest writer it is impossible to write something that does not somehow reflect the issues that are going on in the world. At the same time, I really try to zoom in on a moment and tell a story. It’s sort of like painting.
D: If you try and paint the whole world it would be impossible to include enough detail to really give anyone a sense of what it’s like to live here. However, once you zoom in you can start to see more and more detail. If you were to paint a doorknob you would be able to express all of the reflections and metal fibers. People could determine if it is on a wood door or a glass door. If it’s night or if it’s day. Whether it’s on the inside or the outside of the building. All of the clues on and around the doorknob help to give you a sense of the environment, just like the subject matter of a song. I basically try to say it without saying it.
D: There are a few moments that really stick out as playing a major role in the way I approach songwriting. I remember driving home from work listening to the radio when a Red Hot Chili Peppers song came on. I realized that I don’t understand most of the lyrics. However, the overall sound (melody/production/cadence) all flowed together in such a way that it didn’t seem to matter. This memory stuck with me for a really long time. The foundation for any great song is always a strong melody and production. This however sets up roadblocks that you must learn to navigate around. In fact, it forces you to write better lyrics because you need to figure out ways to say what you want to say within the constraints that you have setup for yourself.”
Next, Daniel and I spent some time talking about his some of his specific songs, as well as a bit about the recording process for his recent releases.
X: Can you tell me a bit about your latest release, Freeway? What was the inspiration for it? How was the process of recording and producing it?
D: I’m originally from Phoenix, AZ. Throughout the years I’ve made dozens of trips back home to visit family. Whenever I would get to the middle of the stretch; I would look at the small clusters of housing developments and trailer parks. I imagined what it would be like to grow up in a town like that where you constantly see cars passing by on the freeway. I imagined that the freeway could become a symbol of hope, especially for a couple of kids growing up in broken homes.
D: The recording process was a lot of fun. I worked with Bill Lefler; who had produced all of my previous work. My good friend/guitar player Paul Redel came into the studio and laid down probably 100 different guitar tracks. I stood at the doorway and watched as Paul would play a lick and Bill laid on the ground turning knobs on the pedals. Each take was completely unique, magical and a mess at the same time. From there, Bill had the task of sifting through all of the takes, cutting and pasting things together until it started to sound like something completely out of this world. During an unrelated session, Bill had hired a horn player for something else he was working on at the time. The horn player had finished the session a little early so Bill asked him to mess around with a few takes on Freeway, which sort of added a whole other element to the song.
X: Can you tell me a bit about your other releases, like the Circle Mountain EP, Here With Me and The Ones You Love? What have been some inspirations or motivations for these songs and others?
D: I had eventually come to the point where I realized that you are extremely limited without having any music out in the world. When you first start out in this industry you have a lot of unrealistic expectations about the way things work. You imagine being greeted by some A&R rep the second you step off stage who signed you to a label. The sad truth is that there are very few stages you can step off of if you don’t have any content, not to mention the fact that A&R reps typically go after people who are doing pretty well on their own. I realized that the next step would be to release my music out into the world, even if it didn’t receive much attention.
D: I spent several months trying to record my music at home when I finally threw up my hands and decided I needed a producer which–was the smartest decision I ever made. I met my producer Bill Lefler through a friend of a friend. I was impressed with the artists he had worked with in the past and quite frankly I felt honored that he would be willing to listen to some of my homemade demos. Bill really sold me on his enthusiasm. He appeared to understand what I was going for and was excited to share some of the ways he thought we could get there. We initially agreed to do the first track on spec; which is another way of saying “if you don’t like it then you don’t pay for it and move forward with someone else”. However, it didn’t take much time into recording the first track that I realized Bill and I would be working together for a long time.
D: At the time, I had about 20 songs I had written which gave us a lot to work with as far as options. I was open to Bill’s opinion because I wanted him to be excited about the songs he was working on. I also figured that eventually all of the tracks would be released, each at the right time. We decided to do 5 tracks and picked four that we were both excited about. We left the last slot open for something new I would write based on the feel of the first 4 tracks which happened to be “All I Need”. Overall, the experience was really great.
D: After releasing Circle Mountain, the EP had caught the ear of a music supervisor who asked me to record a cover of the Dido song “Here With Me” for the TV show “Roswell New Mexico”. This was a major milestone in my career as up to this point I could only dream of having a song on TV. “The Ones You Love” was a Christmas song that was mixed in with the other demos I had originally sent to Bill when we were working on the first EP. I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to release an original Christmas song for the simple fact that there are too many covers floating around and Christmas songs typically get re-visited every year. Bill liked the idea of doing a really stripped-down version to sort of give it that “Carpenters” sound. Again, the recording process was a lot of fun and is something I will always cherish.
The last thing Daniel and I talked about was probably my favorite part of the interview. It’s really goddamn hard to make it as an artist, as a musician, as a writer, and so forth. While so many of us look up things like, “What is ‘so-and-so’s’ morning routine?” or “What does ‘Person X’ do to get motivated?”, I don’t think enough people take the time to listen to the actual advice and experience of people who’ve made it further down similar paths that we’re walking.
So, I’ve been trying to talk with people I interview more about what people actually need to do to be successful. The sad truth is that recording a beautiful song, writing a deep piece of fiction, or painting a stunning landscape is only the first step in an endless marathon to success. Luckily, with this knowledge, you can start learning what steps to take next.
While Daniel’s response here is more geared toward music, a lot of what he says can certainly be translated to other creative industries.
X: A lot of people who read the magazine are independent artists, musicians, writers and so forth who are trying to break into their respective fields, or are even just starting, and so I’m sure a lot of people would love to hear from someone who is a bit further down the path from where they are.
X: What do you think is important for aspiring musicians to know about the business? Do you have any advice for musicians trying to start their career? What are some things you wished you knew getting started? And do you have any advice for marketing music, getting your name out there and picking up traction with your music?
D: It’s a very difficult question to answer because no two artists’ paths are the same. However, there are a few things that I think are key to being successful in this industry. First off, it is extremely important to be a part of the music community. Seek out local open mics or artists hangs and make as many friends as you can.
D: When you’re first starting out, the friends you make in the music community are often the only ones standing in your corner, pushing you to keep going. It’s also a good way to expose yourself to any potential opportunities that may come up (“oh, you need a keyboard player? I know just the person”). You will learn about the best producers, mixing engineers & mastering engineers. You will learn who curates which events or which events are simply a waste of time.
D: Secondly, I think it is extremely important to have a balanced perspective of the world. Understand that this thing you are trying to be successful at is un-relatable to 99.9% of the people in the world. At the same time, you need these people more than they need you. Don’t use your platform to complain about all of the struggles that come with doing this thing you chose to do. Instead, make great content that can provide an escape for these people.
D: Lastly, I would say that you need to work harder and smarter than everyone around you. Figure out a way to make the best content possible. As an indie artist, you are pretty much self-funding all of the services that would come with a record deal. No one says, “This guy looks like a complete hack but I know he’s indie so I’ll give him a chance.” You want people to look at the work you put out and assume you are already signed. You may need to work a full-time job so that you can afford recording/marketing/PR fees on top of food, gas & rent. The hard work doesn’t end once you have a mastered track. In fact, often the hardest part is getting people to listen to your beautiful track. This is in part why it’s so important to make as many friends who are proud of your work and are willing to pass it along. Everyone you have in your corner (friends, curators, producers…) are all advocates for the work you put out to the world.
And here we’ve arrived at the end of my interview with Daniel Blake. It was great getting to hear from Daniel about his experiences creating and recording music, and he definitely gave some solid advice for anyone looking to make a name for themselves in their respective creative fields.
There’s one thing he said that stuck out to me: “Understand that this thing you are trying to be successful at is un-relatable to 99.9% of the people in the world.”
I could probably write an entire article just on this sentence.
If you’re out there trying to make it as an artist, musician, writer and so forth—if you’re out there trying to do the impossible—you might find yourself living a life that no one around you understands. As Elton John said, “It’s lonely out in space.”
Most people will never even put in the initial effort to try. Just taking the first step forward will set you aside from almost everyone else in the world. From there, the path forward is difficult. You’ve already set yourself apart from most other people in the world, and now you have to set yourself apart from all the people who’ve already set themselves apart.
But, it’s worth it. It’s worth it to at least put in the effort and say, “I gave it what I had.”
And, even if the path is an isolated one at times, know that you are not alone. Know that there’s others out there walking, hiking, crawling and climbing similar paths.
I definitely had a great time hearing from Daniel, and I always love getting to sit down and enjoy new music. You can find Daniel’s music on Spotify (“Daniel Blake”), and you can find him on both Instagram and Linktree as @danielblakemusic. Give him a listen, and expect to hear more great songs from him in the future.
Now, I will pivot into the second half of the analysis, the inversion of Thing as Metaphoric Object.
Analysis Part 2: Thing as Phenomenological Object
While the first half of the analysis is fun and interesting, and possesses moral/ethical/political considerations that are worth discussing (and will be discussed), this second half of the analysis is far more interesting to me.
For this, we will be examining what the Thing is to the humans.
For this, we will be examining the Thing from the perspective of humans as a metaphoric, narrative object, meaning: what is the Thing from a symbolic and psychological perspective?
But, if this is more important and more meaningful to me, why begin with the other analysis?
Because, while we are now looking at the Thing as an object, the nature of it as an object must be understood as an object capable of subjectivity.
When the humans are perceiving the Thing, they are not looking at an inanimate object, they are looking at a conscious and rational object.
However, the Thing and the contents of its subjective experience is a “black box”, a programming term that here means the contents of the Thing’s consciousness and cognition cannot be known.
In programming, a “black box” is a piece of code that has a function—there are inputs, which are then processed by whatever code exists in the black box, and then there are outputs produced by the code—but the function of the “black box” is completely unknown. The contents of the unknown programming can be guessed by looking at the inputs and the resulting outputs, but the code within nonetheless remains a mystery.
The fact that the Thing does have a consciousness and is capable of rational thought is known. There are measurable inputs and measurable outputs, the inputs being reality and events, the outputs being the actions the Thing takes. However, the humans do not know what the consciousness and rational thoughts of the alien are—they cannot examine the “code” inside the Thing’s “black box”.
So, when the humans perceive the Thing (possibly the most apt name here), they perceive an organism they cannot fully understand, with a psychological/cognitive/subjective black box that they cannot examine.
All humans are actually like this to all other humans.
No two humans can actually know what is happening inside the other human’s mind—not fully, at least.
The minds of all humans are like “black boxes” to all other humans.
Here, I can recall the fictional (though, unfortunately, not completely unmoored from reality) anecdote of the lesbian in a Muslim society.
She might be the only person on the planet who knows she is a lesbian. She might not have shared with any other human the fact that she secretly has a sexual and romantic attraction to other women. This, being a function of her mind, experience, psyche, etc., remains a content of the “black box” of her psyche.
This “black box”, however, extends beyond just our thoughts, our motivations, our sexual preferences, our beliefs and so forth, and extends to things like our memories—which then extends epistemologically to our actions, our experiences, our decisions and so forth. Not only can we hide from others what we think, feel or believe, but we can also hide from others our actions, our patterns of actions (actions taken as part of an agenda) and the things we have experienced in our lives.
Now, one of the great peculiarities of humanity is our ability to communicate the contents of this “black box” to others. We can tell other people: This is what I think; this is how I feel; this is what I have done; this is what I have gone through in my life; etc.
And here, we find the interwoven segments of a functioning, healthy society (or, on the micro-level, functioning, healthy relationships): communication, honesty and trust.
Humans have the ability to communicate what resides within our “black boxes”, so long as we trust what the other person is communicating.
By knowing what these contents are—so long as we also know these contents do not indicate a hostility towards us—the people we know can be perceived as something we understand.
That may be one of the most important functions of language and society: providing every individual with a socio-linguistic structure that allows us to understand to a high enough resolution who everyone else within a society is.
You don’t have to know someone’s name, you don’t have to know their address, you don’t have to know their job, but we are able to safely and comfortably walk into a Starbucks without immediately backing into a corner at the sight of a dozen hairless primates because society has provided us with enough information to know (or believe) that none of the people are actively or passively hostile towards you.
However, what happens at the point at which someone doesn’t make any sense? Let’s examine this.
If we have a socio-linguistically mediated epistemological structure which provides us with the information about others, and this information ensures as that particular individuals will not be hostile, what happens when this epistemological structure is violated?
What happens if you go into a Starbucks, and someone pulls out a gun?
What happens, I think, is much deeper than most might suppose.
On a rational, material level, very little has actually changed. The only change in the material environment around us is that a small, mechanical object has been introduced to the physical contents of Starbucks.
However, from a deeper cognitive and psychological level, the change is nearly infinitely drastic.
You are no longer standing in a Starbucks waiting for your coffee to be made. This idea, this perception of reality, is not the material reality, it is a cognitive, phenomenological reality. The idea of Starbucks, the idea of what you are doing in Starbucks, the idea of what others are doing in Starbucks, and the idea of how these things are situated within our understanding of reality are all socio-linguistically mediated knowledge-structures we base our decisions on.
Suddenly, by the introduction of a gun into the environment, these socio-linguistic knowledge-structures have disintegrated. The reality of standing in a Starbucks waiting for your coffee no longer exists—that reality is gone—and a new reality of being in a place where a stranger has a gun has taken its place.
In addition, the person who was also waiting at Starbucks for a cup of coffee also vanishes, and they become an entirely different person. They may not even be a person anymore—at least as far as your psyche is concerned. The benign stranger at Starbucks (another mediated knowledge-structure) has suddenly vanished, and is replaced with an object whose intentions, motivations, knowledge and experiences you suddenly don’t understand.
That person transforms into some other thing that is no longer a person as you understood them to be.
That person, on a psychological or phenomenological level, literally transforms their being from a defined, articulated, mutually understood citizen of a country into a living, thinking, acting black box.
And here, now, I hope you can begin to see how this connects back to The Thing.
At the moment at which one of the dogs or humans is transforming into its alien form, what precisely is happening from the perspective of one of the non-aliens?
What subjectively and psychologically is happening?
We’ll take the scene at which Palmer is revealed to be one of the Things.
The poke his blood with the hot metal, and the blood reacts as a living organism.
Suddenly, we now know Palmer is a Thing, and at this precise moment, Palmer “physically” begins to transform.
He begins convulsing unnaturally; his eyes bleed and bulge; his head grotesquely deforms; his entire body transforms into a pseudo-human horror; his head splits open into a giant, monstrous mouth and attacks Windows; and MacReady finally burns the creature alive then kills it with dynamite as it tries to escape outside.
What is happening is Palmer begins with a defined, articulated, orderly form. What Palmer is—Palmer’s being as a perceived object—is understood. Then, at the moment Palmer is revealed to be a Thing, Palmer transforms into something that is not understood.
What is happening when the humans or dogs are turning into the chaotic monstrosities we refer to as “the Thing”? All of our fundamental and assumed knowledge about their being suddenly vanishes. They transform from something that has a rigid, defined form and a concrete definition-of, into something that cannot be easily described, except as something grotesque, volatile and chaotic.
Now, viewing this as a phenomenological event (rather than an actual, physical event), it is not that the people and animals are physically turning into these chaotic alien-creatures, it is that we are witnessing the psychological transformation of these beings from the perspective of the human-observers. The moment a dog or human transforms into a “Thing” is the moment where a defined, ordered, articulated being transforms into something that we cannot understand.
The perceived physical transformation is therefore actually a projected psychological transformation of the other being.
So here, if we view the entire film in this light, with the transformations as symbolic, phenomenological transformations, what is happening is quite peculiar.
What if, instead of viewing the movie as a sci-fi horror film where they’re being attacked by these assimilating aliens, we view this as a movie where everyone is subjected to a mass hysteria where they begin to “hallucinate” that their fellow outpost members are turning into monsters?
What if the members of the outpost are going insane, and begin projecting these monstrous psychological transformations onto each other?
Throughout the beginning of the movie, we see many of the characters at odds with each other, just over mundane things. With the introduction of the Thing into their midst, they suddenly become paranoid, suspicious of one another, and delusional. They perform purity tests on one another (like the blood tests), and enact a sort of martial law where the typical legalities and civilities are out the window.
How much of this is caused by the actual introduction of the Thing into their population, and how much of this is caused by a mass hysteria?
To bring this back to our prior quasi-fictional anecdotes:
At the moment the lesbian woman reveals herself to be a lesbian in the fundamentalist Muslim-dominated society, she is no longer an accepted, understood human within that society; she transforms into a being that must be ritually annihilated.
At the moment the benign coffee-drinker at Starbucks pulls a gun out from their pocket, they are no longer a benign stranger in a socially mediated/understood setting; they have transformed into a chaotic, undefined being who is armed with a mechanism that can quickly and effectively end lives.
To bring this back to our prior analysis of Thing-as-Subject, we (“we” as all of us as individuals) are at all times both Thing-as-Subject and Subject-Observing-OtherThing-as-Object.
And now, to wrap this analysis up, we will examine what this perpetual duality means.
Conclusion: Bring the Pieces Back Together
There are two obvious but conflicting moral or ethical statements to the analysis:
Communication between two beings—and so an understanding between two beings—must be established in order for there to be peaceful co-existence.
That which cannot be communicated with or understood may have to be annihilated if it cannot otherwise be survived.
While with the 1982 The Thing, the ethical question of communication and survival may remain ambiguous, in the original 1951 version of the film, The Thing From Another World, this ethical question is actually confronted, but is answered in a much less ambiguous way.
One of the characters attempts to communicate with the alien, but is killed for his efforts, and the remaining characters then annihilated the alien in order to survive it.
While I can applaud the original film for confronting this question more outrightly (itself adapted from the 1938 novella, Who Goes There? (of which I know little about)), and perhaps the 1982 The Thing ought to have brought this ethical issue more to the surface, the 1982 film nonetheless captures the true, phenomenological or subjective reality of this moral issue more accurately (though opaquely).
The problem is we never can know what to do.
The problem is not that we should create a society where there are no Starbucks shooters, or a society where we don’t murder lesbians in the streets (though both are admirable goals).
The problem is that it is impossible to create a society that does not possess analogues to these anecdotal societies.
The true “point” to the 1982 The Thing is not a moral answer to this combined problem of every individual being at once a Subject-Who-Perceives and Object-Being-Perceived.
The true point here is a pragmatic and amoral one, and the point is this:
We cannot know what is truly going on in the minds of anyone else. We cannot truly know what is happening in others’ minds, what they are motivated by and what actions they may take for or against us. We cannot truly know who (and, so, what) another person is.
And, so, psychologically, people we cannot understand transform into grotesque monsters before our eyes, even if physically they are exactly the same.
What The Thing proposes to us is not a moral proposition, but an amoral Truth about the reality of subjective experience and the phenomenology of human relationships.
All humans—all organisms and, more broadly, all objects with a personal subjectivity—are simultaneously:
Subject Perceiving Other-Object
Object Perceived by Other-Subject
Now, this is more applicable in situations where the aforementioned social-structures have been violated, but the problem here, as I tried to illuminate, is in part that we can never know when these violations will be made, or what the nature of this violation is.
So, I said previously these were not intended to be made into political/moral value statements, but, fuck you, I’m a lying black-box-bastard, live with it.
What is the most pressing moral/ethical/political and even epistemological (knowledge-based) issue today in America? (And, likely, throughout the world right now)
Our ability to communicate with one another has all but been corrupted to an impossibly unreconcilable state.
Our politics (in America, and, from what I know, in many places across Western society) has become so polarized that to say you support Trump is to self-declare yourself as a Fascist, and to say you support Biden is to self-declare yourself as an Anarchist.
Of course, except in the marginally extreme, neither of these cases are true. 99% of Trump-supporters are not Fascists, and 98% of Biden-supporters are not Anarchists (I’m kidding, fellow-Liberals, I really mean 97%).
However, those 99% who’ve fallen into the “Trump Camp” cannot convince those in the “Biden Camp” that they are not Fascist Bigots intent on inciting the Fourth Reich; and those 95% (I kid) who’ve fallen into the “Biden Camp” cannot convince those in the “Trump Camp” that they are not psychotic Anarchists seeking a Communist Revolution.
So, what has happened?
Both sides of our political divide have decided they can no longer convince the other side that they are not vicious monsters, so they’ve taken to treating the other side as vicious monsters.
What has happened to both sides of our current political “war”?
The Right and the Left currently perceive themselves as the humans, and they perceive the others as the “Things”.
We have a strange and potentially catastrophic situation right now where both the Right and the Left are simultaneously Subject-Perceiving-Object-as-Thing and Object-as-Thing-Perceived-by-Subject.
So, what do we do?
Obviously, we must come to understand that the shooter at Starbucks may actually be a Muslim Lesbian. I mean this jokingly, and I mean this seriously.
Imagine the moment you realize someone you know supports the candidate you currently oppose. How quickly does that person transform into something grotesque and horrific?
If you support Trump and you discover someone you know supports Biden, how immediate is the effect on you? How immediately do you either go quiet and politely smile and nod before walking away, or attack them on the spot, engulfing them in the fiery Truth of your words?
How immediately do you, a Biden-supporter, see your friends transform into a Fascistic Existential threat to equality and compassion the moment you see them don a MAGA hat?
At this moment, you may even be wondering whose side I am on, so you can know whether or not to condemn my words as profanity or praise them as sacred wisdom. “He poked fun at Liberals, but then he called himself a Liberal, but then ambiguously quasi-supported/quasi-criticized both sides, so what the hell is he?” Fuck you, that’s what side I am on.
The ending of this upcoming election may precisely reflect the ending of The Thing. The architecture we live in that protect us and trap us with the Thing—the structures of society/the outpost of Antartica—are destroyed in fire. We are left in the wreckage, only remaining alive by the dying light of burning buildings. And we face each other as the last survivors of a great cataclysm, wondering if the Thing across from us is a friend or foe.
We must communicate with each other.
We must learn to trust each other again, whether or not we agree on the other’s opinions.
We must learn to understand each other again, to open up our own black boxes, despite the ensuing vulnerability, so that others may open up their own black boxes.
And while we may find that our friends turn into Things and Things turn into friends, maybe, just maybe, if we can stop, think and speak to each other, we’ll come out of this alive.
This article is the first of two on the 1982 The Thing. This article will introduce the movie and the two halves of the analysis, then present the first half of the two-part analysis. The second article will present the second part of the analysis, then conclude by examining both and comparing them to current social events.
The contents of the first article will focus on a theoretical analysis of the film revolving around the key element of Information Control, while the second article will delve into more philosophical and psycho-social territories.
The 1982 remake of The Thing has gone down in history as one of the best sci-fi/horror films of all time, with good reason. It’s a tremendous movie, it was made in the golden age of classic special effects, right in between the developing stages of earlier films and the rocky slide into 90’s and 00’s effects and CGI.
The setting was great, the characters were memorable and unique, the pacing and storytelling was masterful, and the underlying Cosmic Horror themes and tones of the movie were pitch perfect.
However, while The Thing has gained enormous notoriety since its initial box office flop, I still think it’s a vastly misunderstood movie, and even a vastly underappreciated movie. The source of this misunderstanding and underappreciation comes from the most overlooked element of the film: Control of Information.
The key to understanding The Thing, what made The Thing so horrifying and why the The Thing has been misunderstood is how the film’s director and screenwriter, John Carpenter and Bill Lancaster, controlled what information the viewer does and doesn’t know:
– The absolute knowns, or facts
– The assumptions
– The absolute unknowns, or known unknowns
– The unknown unknowns, or things we don’t even know that we don’t know
Control of Information is important in any form of narrative, but it is key in genres like sci-fi, horror and mystery, where so much of the meaning or emotion is derived cognitively rather than aesthetically.
With The Thing, nearly the entirety of the film’s true horror is derived from what we know and don’t know as opposed to what we are perceiving physically or aesthetically. So much of the horror is derived from Carpenter and Lancaster’s Control of Information: What we know; what we don’t know; what we’re lead to believe; what we assume; what assumptions we’re forced to question; and what information is left to the imagination.
The entire film is centered on an alien who can assimilate other organisms and disguise itself as any organism it has assimilated. So, throughout the movie, right to the final scene, we are constantly questioning who is an alien, who isn’t an alien, how the alien can be discovered, how the alien can be defeated, and what might happen if the alien isn’t defeated.
While The Thing is a master-class on Control of Information, with its ability to penetrate and terrorize your consciousness with doubt, isolation, paranoia and these constant questions, one question is never actually asked—one question is kept hidden by such overt terror, or the answer seems so obvious we never think to ask it—and this may be the question that is most crucial to understanding the film:
What does the alien want?
This is one piece of information is secreted away, hidden and kept beneath all the other layers of the story to such a greater extent than anything else in the movie.
And so, the Control of Information—and, as sub-sets, both the ignorance of individuals and the inability to communicate or perceive information cohesively or coherently—may actually be the deepest and most important theme of the movie.
The instinctual assumption of both the characters and the movie-viewers is that the alien wants to assimilate other organisms for its own gain, and to eventually take over the world by assimilating all other lifeforms. However, this may only be a projection of motivation onto the organism, as this motivation is never explicitly confirmed by the end of the movie. The grotesque, violent horror of The Thing is so great that we never stop to question this motivation. We simply take it as a given.
However, we know so little about the monster in The Thing that it seems foolish to assume anything about it:
– We don’t know where it’s from
– We don’t know why it came to Earth
– We don’t know what it was doing before it came to Earth
– We don’t know how it’s able to assimilate organisms (we don’t know very well, at least)
– We don’t know what it is, that’s part of the point of the film: it’s just a thing that came from space
This of course connects to Cosmic Horror and the Lovecraftian Cosmic Nihilism, but I won’t delve too much into this. Feel free to read my articles if you want to read more about Cosmic Horror/Nihilism.
The short of it is we are small, limited creatures living on a small, blue dot in an imperceivably vast reality. We are far more blind and ignorant that we are perceiving and knowing, and the knowledge that we don’t know is so tremendously more massive than the knowledge we do know.
We don’t know where the alien is from or why it’s on Earth. We don’t know what the alien is or what it is capable of. We don’t know what it wants, what it’s goals are or what it it’s like to be the alien.
What is interesting, is that we do know the motivations of those who have remained humans: survival.
The motivations we do know (of the humans) are the will to live. The motivations we don’t know (of the aliens) are assumed to be violence, domination and usurpation.
But, we don’t know what the alien’s motivations actually are.
What are the motivations of, what is going on in the mind of, and what is it like to be The Thing? As an important inversion of this, why are the Thing’s motivations, and the Thing itself, perceived the way it is?
These will be the focus of the analysis.
Summary and Structure of Information
This summary will, of course, have spoilers in it, so be warned.
However, the summary will be centered on how information is controlled throughout the film, so, though much of the film is luckily centered on this as well, it will likely leave out decent swaths of the film’s content.
If you haven’t watched The Thing, it goes without saying that I highly recommend it. If you have watched The Thing, this will all be old news, so feel free to skip to the meat of the analysis.
After one of the most memorable and iconic opening title scenes in sci-fi history (up there with the 1979 Alien), the movie begins with two Norwegians in a helicopter, chasing a husky dog across the icy wastes of Antarctica.
The Norwegians are shooting at the dog, and at one point throw dynamite at it. The husky arrives at the American Outpost, Outpost 31, where the majority of the film takes place.
The Norwegians follow the sled dog and soon arrive at the outpost as well. One of them accidentally blows themselves and their helicopter up, while the other pursues the dog on foot with their rifle.
While trying to kill the dog, the Norwegian shoots one of the Americans, then begins yelling something at the Americans in Norwegian, brandishing the gun at them. However, no one can understand the Norwegian, and they shoot the man dead, then take the dog inside their outpost.
Immediately, we are introduced to both the key tool of the film, Control of Information, and a key theme of the film, Communication.
The sad irony of this opening scene is that the dog (spoilers) is actually the alien that will later terrorize the outpost for the remainder of the film. The Norwegians know this, and their actions to kill the dog may have (spoilers) saved the lives of everyone at the outpost, but the Americans cannot understand the Norwegians, and so kill them.
However, we as the viewers cannot know this, just as the characters cannot know this, and so we are left with the same blind assumptions as the Americans (if that ain’t a metaphor).
The dog is allowed to wander around the outpost, doing god-knows-what behind the scenes, while we still assume it is only a dog, until it is put into a kennel with the other dogs.
After MacReady and Copper have investigated the Norwegian base, the dog finally reveals itself to be what it truly is: the Thing.
The dog’s body begins to change, with tentacles and other appendages growing from it, and its face eventually splits open to reveal a monstrous “mouth”. It begins attacking and assimilating the other dogs (meaning it absorbs their bodies into its own and begins copying the cells of the dog). But then, the alien is killed by the Americans, though the question remains open as to whether or not other members of the outpost have been assimilated.
There are two important threads to follow through the beginning of the movie:
One: we see the relationships of the characters as tense, often with a lot of conflict between them that erupts over minor things. One example is Blair asking Windows if he’s been able to reach anyone over the radio, with Windows blowing up and saying it’s impossible to reach anyone at this time. (This, along with other moments, builds on the them of communication, and comes into play more in the second half of the analysis.)
Two: our knowledge of the alien/Thing is developed, though only to a certain degree (we never fully/explicitly learn much about the Thing). Primarily, we learn of its ability to assimilate other organisms, and of the possibility that it could eventually assimilate the entirety of organisms on the planet, if it were to make it to any other continent (if it was motivated to do so).
And, of course, much of the rest of the first two thirds of the film is devoted to determining who has been assimilated or not.
Blair suspects Clark, who was in charge of looking out for the dogs, and was alone with the dogs when the Thing began assimilating them.
Bennings becomes partially assimilated, and attempts to escape, but is discovered and killed before it could fully assimilate.
Blair goes crazy, suspecting anyone and everyone could be an assimilated alien, and is locked up in a building outside of the main structure.
A supply of blood samples that could’ve have been used to test who has been assimilated is destroyed, implicating the small number of people with access to the blood as being assimilated (and subtly implying the alien may have assimilated the DNA of all members at the outpost).
Fuchs goes outside to find a piece of clothing with MacReady’s name on it (this happening shortly after MacReady himself mentioning the alien seems to tear apart people’s clothing while assimilating them).
Fuchs is then found dead outside, apparently burning himself alive to keep himself from committing suicide.
Mac and Nauls go out to check on Blair. However, a storm hits, so the two are late coming back. The rest of the outpost decides to close off all entrances.
While closing off one of the last entrances, Norris sees Nauls coming back alone through the blizzard. Nauls is let back inside and says he found a scrap of clothing with Mac’s name on it (the same one Fuchs previously found).
Mac then returns to the base, but the outpost members refuse to let him inside. Palmer and Norris are both quick to decide Mac ought to be killed, since he has likely been assimilated.
Mac breaks into the outpost, brandishing a flare and a stick of dynamite, letting everyone know he’ll blow himself and the others up if the try to stop him. However, Norris then collapse and stops breathing. He is brought to the infirmary where Copper tries to revive him, but Norris’s stomach splits open into a giant mouth and kills Copper (thus revealing Norris to have been assimilated all along).
After the Norris iteration of the Thing has been killed, Mac forces everyone to do a blood test to see if they have been assimilated. The assumption is that the cells of the Thing act autonomously, and so will attempt to survive if harmed. Mac uses a hot piece of metal to poke the blood, and eventually Palmer is revealed to be a Thing.
Palmer transforms and attacks the other outpost members, killing Windows before Mac can kill the Thing.
Here, we finally arrive at the wind-up to the climax.
The team discovers Blair has gone missing and has built a spacecraft beneath the structure he was put in, and so Blair is the last remaining Thing (that they know of).
While getting ready to blow up “Blair’s” spaceship, Nauls sees Childs run off into the blizzard. Immediately after this, the power for the entire outpost goes out. They assume this is Blair shutting down the power so that everyone else will die and Blair will be frozen until a search party comes and recovers everyone’s body (effectively reviving Blair/the Thing once its body thaws).
Mac, Nauls and Garry decide to blow up and burn down the outpost, effectively committing suicide, but ensuring the Thing does not survive as well.
While preparing the explosives and incendiaries, Blair picks off Garry then Nauls, then attacks Mac. Mac kills the transformed Blair-Thing and blows up the outpost. Mac escapes outside and is sitting in the cold as the outpost burns down.
Childs finally returns and sits down with Mac, telling him he ran off into the blizzard because he thought he saw Blair, then got lost and couldn’t find his way back. Neither can tell whether the other is a human or a Thing. The film ends ambiguously with the two of them sitting outside, “[waiting to] see what happens” as the outpost burns down and the Antarctic cold sets in.
That’s The Thing. Got it? Good.
The Poetry of Squaring Off: Analyses of the Thing as Subject and Object
And so, I will jump as quickly as I can into this.
This analysis has two halves: One, examining the Thing as a Literal Subject capable of perceiving, rationalizing and critical strategizing; and Two, examining the Thing as a Phenomenological Object being observed by humans.
The Thing as Literal Subject must be understood first in order to transition into an understanding of its inverse, the Thing as Phenomenological Object.
What do I mean by these terms?
Thing as Literal Subject is exactly that: we assume the Thing has sentience, and we build a possible model of its phenomenological reality from what we can assume in the film, then examine this reality.
This will fall more into a “film theory” than a proper “analysis”, though it is pivotal to understanding to the second half of the analysis.
Thing as Phenomenological Object: we examine not what the Thing is perceived as by the humans, but we examine why there is a Thing being observed by the humans.
This will contain more of my typical approach to analysis, though more focused on one specific aspect of the film rather than the broader narrative analysis I typically write.
Analysis Part 1: Thing as Literal Subject
What is the immediate conflict that arises in The Thing?
The Norwegians and the dog.
The Norwegians are chasing the dog through the Antarctic wastes, trying to kill it—knowing fully what the dog is and what it is capable of—but the last standing Norwegian is killed because the Americans can’t communicate with the Norwegian, can’t understand why the Norwegian is doing what he is doing, and don’t know what the Norwegian knows or perceives.
Of course, the brutal irony is that the Norwegian could have saved the entire American outpost from catastrophic destruction and death, and this as I mentioned implicates the deepest themes of the film: ignorance and communication.
What is the dog/alien thinking at the start of the film?
What is going on in the alien’s mind at this point?
Well, first, let’s construct a potential reality for the alien as a conscious subject. This might be technically impossible, considering there’s so much about the alien we don’t know (and that’s part of the point of the film), but, if we start from one basic assumption or premise, we can work our way to something that I think is most likely to be true.
The one basic assumption is: the alien wishes to survive.
Why assume this?
Because, as far as we know, all life forms share this instinct. Instinct might not even be the right word, it may go even deeper than instinct, as it’s difficult to say single-celled organisms possess “instincts”. The will to live seems to be a mechanism that is embedded so deeply in the fabric of “living” that it may be at the core of existence for life or even proto-life.
The will to live, or something like it—and, as tangents of this, the will to maintain life through various motivations and functions, including replication—had to have been present even in the earliest stages of life as the theorized “first replicators”.
So, assuming the alien wishes to survive, let’s reconstruct what its experience would be like before the start of the movie and at the start of the movie.
The alien crash-lands on Earth, and we know the alien piloting the ship is the same alien capable of assimilation (rather than the pilot of the ship becoming assimilated pre-crash) because Blair as the assimilated alien version of Blair has begun constructing a new spaceship by the end of the film.
The alien is frozen in Antarctica, and is then unfrozen by the Norwegians. We don’t know the full scope of what happened with the Norwegians, but we do know something went fucky-wucky, and the Norwegians and the alien decided they couldn’t work out their differences.
Now, another assumption here is that the alien likely treats assimilation as something relatively natural and commonplace. We are capable of natural acts like eating, speaking and procreating, and the alien’s act of assimilation is likely as natural to it as any of these acts. So, while assimilation is remarkably violent and grotesque to humans, it may not be so violent and grotesque to the alien.
However, assuming the alien’s act of assimilation was at least a part of what led the Norwegians to hunt down and try to kill the last remaining alien, and knowing the alien is intelligent enough to build a spacecraft and pilot it across the cosmos, then the alien is probably smart enough to have realized the humans do not appreciate the alien’s act of assimilation. That said, the alien may not fully understand why the humans do not like this, just as we would be confused if we went to another planet, and the natural inhabitants did not enjoy us trying to breathe air, eat food, have sex or speak words.
So, the last of the Norwegians attempt to hunt down and kill the last of the aliens, resulting in the brutal irony of The Thing’s opening scene.
Throughout the rest of the film, once the alien is discovered in the iconic dog scene, the plot turns into a sort of cat-and-mouse/Clue/who-dunnit plot where the humans are trying to survive and the alien(s) are trying to survive.
So, what is the rest of the film after the opening scene like from the perspective of the alien?
Each scene must be looked at as the alien’s attempt at survival, rather than the pre-supposed attempt at world domination. Why?
Well, other than the base instincts the alien likely has, there is one telling scene: the Thing-as-Blair attempting to build a spacecraft.
Why would the alien build a spacecraft rather than find some other mode of transportation or find some other mode of survival? Obviously, because it is trying to leave the planet Earth and return to its own civilization, or return to whatever it was doing beforehand.
It could be argued that the Thing would use the craft it created to travel to some other part of the planet and begin its worldwide domination there, but why? Why would it want to?
It has already seen the humans to be incredibly hostile towards it, and it landed there accidentally rather than on purpose, and, if we assume the alien’s core motivation is to survive, why risk trying to interact with other Earth-organisms that are likely to be just as hostile? On top of this, all it knows of Earth so far is the frozen wastes of Antarctica, unless it is smart enough or has learned enough to know what the rest of Earth is like (which may be unlikely, since it crash landed thousands of years ago, pre-civilization).
So, in these circumstances, why would the alien behave as we see it behave?
With the dog scene, this is possibly the most unclear, but, if it was assimilating the dogs as an act of survival, than perhaps it was doing so to create “allies”, or to spread itself out among a wider array of individual organisms and so increase its likelihood of survival. Perhaps it was an attempt at communication, though we don’t know enough about assimilation to know if this is a form of communication, and we do know enough to know it is used for functions other than communication.
The rest of the movie after this, however, is much more clear.
The dogs are now all under suspicion, and are killed because of their potential contact with the alien. And, while all the other humans are now under suspicion, they cannot be killed so recklessly. So, the alien begins assimilating humans to blend in and survive.
Another reason for assimilating humans is that this may be the only mode of communication the alien currently possesses. If you are trying to survive, one of the best places to start is to ask the hostile population, “Please! Don’t kill me!”
But, knowing the humans are hostile towards it, it may have decided not to communicate in the given circumstances—especially since no communication from the humans has been attempted.
So, the alien is in a circumstance where it is being hunted down. It may wish to communicate to the humans, which would be a reason to assimilate the other humans, but communication may also result in its own death.
Let’s say, as an example, you are a lesbian woman in a non-Western country that is predominated by a Muslim population (just to be arbitrarily controversial): while one mode of survival may be to yell out, “Please! Don’t kill me! Yes, I am a homosexual, one of the things you wish to kill, but, please, I mean you no harm! Don’t kill me! Let me live!”
What are the odds this woman won’t be killed?
The better, though less-optimal, choice would be to blend in with the population around you, and survive as long as you can until you can find understanding allies in others, or until such a time that you can escape to a less hostile population.
Let’s say the alien as an assimilated human were to shout out, “Please! Don’t kill me! Yes, I am the alien that has assimilated other organisms, but, please, I mean you no harm! I only wish to survive! Don’t kill me! Let me live!”
What are the odds the alien won’t be killed?
The better, though less-optimal, choice would be to blend in with the humans around you, and survive as long as you can until you can find a human willing to communicatee with you, or until such a time that the alien can escape Earth and go back home, or at least go somewhere it won’t be hunted down.
These assumptions and this understanding of the alien as a conscious and at least somewhat intelligent/rational creature can explain its actions throughout the rest of the film:
Attempting to escape as the half-assimilated Bennings
The alien as the fully assimilated Palmer and Norris being so quick to want MacReady killed, knowing MacReady is not an alien and that MacReady is the biggest threat to their existence
The alien as the “deceased” Norris attacking Copper before attempting to escape
The alien as Palmer attacking the others once it is discovered
The alien as Blair constructing the spaceship
The alien as Blair attacking the remaining humans once its spaceship is destroyed and the other humans are attempting to kill it
There is of course the ambiguity at the end of the film, with the final scene of Childs and MacReady in the wreckage of the destroyed outpost. While I could go into this and the various theories of whether or not one or both of them are the alien, and then what this would mean for our analysis, it is not so important, and I will let you decide.
So, here we have a construction of what the subjective reality and the motivations of the Thing most likely are.
There is a single hole in this argument: why didn’t the Thing-as-Blair simply run into the cold and be frozen, which would allow it to survive until a rescue party came and recovered their bodies, which would result in the Thing surviving until it was thawed out enough. But, this “hole” can have several counter-arguments to explain it, the least of which being: fuck it, it’s just a movie, and what a shitty ending that would have been.
Plus, if Childs or MacReady are an alien, then the alien being frozen and revived will likely happen anyway.
The Thing is trying to survive on an alien planet. It has woken up in an incredibly hostile environment, Antarctica, and it finds itself being assaulted on all sides by incredibly hostile lifeforms which do not seek to communicate with it.
The grand conflict here is on two levels a conflict of survival (the deeper, though maybe less interesting conflict), and the conflict of epistemology: the conflict of what is known and what is unknown.
The Thing cannot communicate with the humans unless it assimilates them. If it assimilates a human, then that assimilated human will be killed, so broadcasting that you are the alien disguised as a human will likely result in death.
I will return to this in the conclusion, but I think you get the idea here.
This essentially wraps up this part of the analysis. There’s no grand conclusion here, but it’s intended to roll right into the next analysis (where you will find a grand conclusion).
Big O could’ve gone down in anime history alongside Neon Genesis Evangelion as one of the best giant mech anime of all time, and even as one of the best anime in general of all time.
However, Big O suffered not only similar flaws as Neon Genesis, but enough other of its own flaws that it is hardly even remembered (ironically). It’s a forgotten relic of the late 90’s and early 00’s: a giant robot anime that tried to fuse neo-noir Gotham-City-style action and mystery with the Modernist techno-dystopia style of movies like Metropolis, Bladerunner and Dark City.
Underlying this neo-noir, Modernist dystopia are questions of existentialism: free will, purpose, meaning, the relationship of the individual to society and the universe, the nature of being. And here, we can begin to see how Big O inevitably failed where an anime like Neon Genesis succeeded. Big O spread itself out across too many themes.
Both shows ran for 26 episodes, both were unique takes on the giant mech genre, and both were incredibly ambitious—delving into depths many “deep” anime only scratched at. The problem with Big O was that it was too scattered, too schizophrenic and too self-aware. Where Neon Genesis never felt like it was trying to be anything other than Neon Genesis, Big O felt like it was trying to be Kafka, Huxley, Orwell, Joyce, Bradbury and Asimov all at once.
Where Neon Genesis had a solid structure, a solid core to it (albeit a structure/core that was difficult to articulate at times, but was at all times clearly felt), Big O feels unstable, loose and uncertain. It’s difficult to even know how one should feel about it.
And, as one final critique, Hideaki Anno is simply a better story writer. Neon Genesis was able to wedge its characters and the central plot into our minds almost immediately, then develop the characters, plot and themes at a perfect pace (until, of course, the very end). Big O just has too much going on: too many sub-plots, too many mysteries, too many revolving-door-characters and standalone story-arcs.
The plot of NGE builds and stacks itself, like the stories of a tower, where Big O schizophrenically assembles the disparate and thinly-associated pieces of a broad puzzle. 90% of the characters appear in only one or two episodes; most individual or standalone story-arcs support the broader plot and themes, but are much more self-contained; and the philosophical themes of the story can never agree with each other on what questions they ought to be asking.
While this style of storytelling—the neo-noir, mystery/detective style of a succession of standalone plots supporting a larger plot—can work incredibly well if executed properly (such as in Cowboy Bebop), Big O was too cluttered to execute it as well as it should have been.
However, I did in fact start this analysis saying, “Big O could’ve gone down in history…” and I mean it. I want there to be no confusion here, despite my criticism, how I feel about this anime.
I love this anime.
Big O has such fucking style, such unique blends of themes and aesthetics, and such memorable, if not at times flawed, characters, plot points, scenes, settings and tone.
God, I fucking love this anime.
Big O was ambitious. In many ways, it was an homage to the science fiction, noir and modernism of the 20th century, and borrowed quite a lot from series like NGE and Batman (yes, there’s a lot of Batman in this show), but in many was its own, wholly unique show, tempered by the style and storytelling of anime.
This show is incredibly fun and unique—the robot fights, by the way, are sweet and plentiful—and the show contains quite a lot of depth to it, as well as good complexity beneath all the not-so-good complexity. And so, with the rest of this article, I will delve into the depths and attempt to come to terms with Big O.
There is a lot I won’t be able to cover. There is a lot you will simply have to experience for yourself and try to understand in your own fashion. But this analysis will hopefully provide a solid framework to understanding Big O.
If you don’t want spoilers: stop reading, go watch the short 2 seasons of Big O, and come back and read this when you’re done.
I will try to keep the initial explanation of Big O as short as I can, but, if you know Big O well enough, feel free to skip to the Literary and Structural analysis. Or, feel free to skip the next part and come back to it as a reference (or just do whatever).
Setting, History and Plot of Big O
Big O is set in Paradigm City, “a city of Amnesia”. There are a number of domes throughout the city: giant, spherical, glass-and-steel enclosures that separate the rich from the poor. The city within the domes is affluent, clean and often beautiful—the parts of cities you see on post-cards or Google-image searches—and the massive domes provide artificial skies and sunlight. The city outside the domes are run-down, dirty and bleak—the parts of cities you see when you actually drive through the cities in post-card—and are fully exposed to the “real sky”, a perpetually overcast sky where the Sun, stars and Moon are never visible.
On one side of the city is an ocean, where hundreds of drowned skyscrapers peak out from the water’s surface. On the other side of the city is a vast, desolate wasteland—a desert where even more of the city’s past is buried beneath the sand (evidenced by images of buried buildings, abandoned military outposts and even a sand-covered amusement park).
It is suggested that there is no civilization outside of Paradigm City—no countries or other cities beyond the ocean and the desert—but there is a mysterious group known as “The Union”, led by Vera Rondstadt, who are comprised of “foreigners”. However, even the legitimacy of these people being “foreigners” is called into question.
There are a number of other factions in Paradigm City in addition to The Union, but the two most important ones are the Military Police, led by Dan Datsun, and the Paradigm Corporation, led by Alex Rosewater. The Military Police act, as the name would imply, as both the domestic police force and the military army of Paradigm City, though they are also work under Paradigm Corp as the corporation’s “watchdogs”. Paradigm Corp essentially controls or rules over Paradigm City and all the organizations and business within the city.
It is remarked at one point that a business Roger is asked to work for is controlled by a parent company, and Roger states that anytime “parent company” is mentioned, it inevitably refers to Paradigm Corp.
The nature, design and isolation of Paradigm City, the perpetually gray skies and the drowned and buried cityscape surrounding Paradigm City are all a result of the City’s past.
No one in Paradigm City can remember anything prior to 40 years ago, though there are many relics of the past—such as the titular mecha, Big O—and many citizens of Paradigm City have scattered or partial memories of the past. While these memories play a large part in the show, they are also a great mystery in the show, even after its conclusion
What we can surmise from these memories, and from revelations throughout the show, is that there was some great and likely worldwide catastrophe 40 years ago. We are shown visions of Paradigm City engulfed in flame. Giant mechas known as Megadeus, or the plural Megadei, are rampaging through the streets or flying through the skies. While there are only three individual Megadei in the show’s present time—Big O, Big Duo and Big Fau, with a number of other “Bigs” that don’ qualify as Megadei—in the memories of 40 years ago, we see vast armies of Megadei.
Hundreds of Big O mechas march through the streets, with hundreds of Big Duos flying through the sky, and at least one Big Fau. On top of this, we see a number of other “Bigs” battling the Megadei, many of which are also present throughout the contemporary story of Big O.
In addition to the Megadei, there are also human-esque androids that have survived from the past. While most of these androids are quite obviously robotic, a few of them, such as R Dorothy Wayneright (one of the main characters of the show). The existence of androids like Dorothy also calls into question who is and who isn’t an android. These androids were constructed in the past, and only a few survivors of the past apocalypse remember how to construct androids. The same goes for the Megadei—only a few people know how to construct or repair the Megadei, and even fewer know what the nature or purpose of the Megadei are.
With the past ever-looming over the present events of Big O, the plot revolves around Roger Smith, Paradigm City’s “top negotiator” (or just, “The Negotiator”) and the pilot of the Megadeus, Big O. While working for a plethora of clients throughout the City as “The Negotiator”, Roger Smith secretly pilots Big O and protects the residents of the City from various attacks and catastrophes, and slowly works to unravel the history and the secrets of Paradigm City.
The protagonist of Big O is, of course, Roger Smith and his Megadeus, Big O.
Roger Smith is characterized as a sort of Bruce Wayne/Batman character: a wealthy individual who possesses an array of technology and resources, and secretly protects the city as the pilot of Big O (which could be argued is Roger Smith’s alter ego). Roger Smith as The Negotiator works outside of the various political and social forces of Paradigm City, and, as the pilot of Big O, works outside the law.
At one point in the rememberable past, Roger Smith worked as a Military Police, but left, presumably, because of the police’s connection to Paradigm Corp and the resulting corruption of the police. Nonetheless, Roger is still friends with and frequently works in tandem with one of the primary officers/commanders of the MP, Dan Datsun.
However, as the history of Paradigm City unfolds, Roger Smith’s character likewise unfolds. It is suggested that Roger Smith is a creation of the Paradigm Corporation. It is also suggested that Roger Smith was one of many “creations” of the Paradigm Corporation from the City’s past, and even, possibly, a member or associate of Paradigm City.
If one reads between the lines a bit, it may even be that Roger Smith himself is an android (and once you see it, it’s hard to unsee it). For me, this is evidenced in Roger Smith’s mannerisms and behavior throughout the show, particularly in Roger’s dialogues with Dorothy. Roger’s speech patterns, logical processes and behavior seems to mirror Dorothy’s own, much more pronounced mechanical behavior and logic.
Dorothy is probably the second-most primary character in the show, though her place in the show is often rivaled with Angel (who plays arguably the largest role in the show’s conclusion).
R Dorothy Wayneright is an android created by Miguel Soldano, who was commissioned to create her by the affluent Timothy Wayneright. Timothy Wayneright presumably had a now-deceased human daughter named Dorothy, whom the android Dorothy was modeled after.
The show begins with Roger saving Dorothy as a part of his contract with Soldano, learning after this that Dorothy has a “sister” who is in fact a giant mech, or Big, who Roger defeats in robot-combat. Dorothy eventually decides to stay with Roger in his mansion and work for him out of gratitude. While initially she mostly does housework alongside Roger’s butler, Norman, she begins assisting Norman with the repair and maintenance of Big O and aids Roger in his negotiation contracts and his giant robot side hustle.
Dorothy is a unique android in several ways. While most androids in the city follow Asimov’s three rules of robotics, Dorothy frequently does not, particularly in her relationship with Roger (though this may be evidence of Roger’s own robotic nature). In addition to her passive aggression and, at times, blatant insults towards Roger, she begins developing a romantic attraction towards Roger, which, to the despair of Dorothy, Roger denies. This also shows that Dorothy is capable of human emotion, particularly jealousy, but she also is shown to possess other human capacities, such as fear, sadness, contempt, self-awareness, and (in one short but glorious shot) smugness.
Dorothy is also one of a few androids who appears on the surface level to be entirely human, and Dorothy has some sort of unexplained connection to Big O. On top of this, she has some sort of empathic connection to other “Bigs” and other androids or machines.
Angel appears early on in the show, going by the alias Casseey Jones, and then later as Patricia Lovejoy. After calling herself “Angel”, Roger remarks that she is a “Fallen Angel”. Angel works for Paradigm Corp, though she seems to have her own agenda. Later, it is revealed that Angel is a part of the Union, which is a group of foreigners living outside of Paradigm City (though it is mentioned by their leader, Vera, that they were actually “cast out” of Paradigm City 40 years ago) who rebel against Paradigm Corp/City.
Angel often works either alongside Roger Smith, or at odds with Roger Smith—their motivations and agendas oscillating between allyship and conflict. However, as the show progresses, Angel and Roger seem to develop a romantic relationship, which is at odds with Dorothy’s romantic attachment to Roger (which at one point results in Dorothy’s aforementioned smugness).
It is later revealed that Angel has two scars going down her back, which is even later suggested to be where “wings” have been “cut off”. There are frequent allusions to Angel being Lucifer, or something equivalent in the story’s narrative. In the show’s conclusion, she becomes the pilot of Big Venus, the fourth Megadeus. Big Venus—Venus being an allusion to the Morningstar, being a name for Lucifer—essentially “resets” the show and returns Paradigm City to the amnesic state it was at the beginning of Big O.
Schwarzwald (“Black Forest” in German) is only an active character in a handful of episodes, but he is a major character in these episodes, and his presence is felt throughout the show—particularly in philosophical narrations permeating the show, even after his death.
Schwarzwald, born Michael Seebach, is the pilot of the Megadeus, Big Duo, and is motivated towards exposing the truth of Paradigm City’s corruption, its many secrets and its forgotten past. In addition towards this motivation, which he frequently gives manic monologues about, he seems to revere the Megadei as godly creations, or perhaps even as gods themselves (the Megadei and other Bigs as gods being a semi-frequent theme throughout the show).
Schwarzwald uses his Megadeus, Big Duo, to combat Roger Smith and Big O, but, while initially having the upper hand, is finally defeated by Roger and “dies” in the event. However, it is implied that Schwarzwald’s “ghost” may still be lingering in the City, still searching for the Truth.
Alex and Gordon Rosewater
Alex Rosewater is the leader of Paradigm Corp, the corporation in control of Paradigm City, and eventually becomes the pilot of Big Fau, the “Third Big” or third Megadeus. Alex Rosewater looks down on the poor population of Paradigm City, who reside outside the domes, and uses the Military Police to pursue his own goals, rather than for the protection of the City. Alex possesses something like a God Complex, and believes himself to be a superior Dominus to Roger Smith (“Dominus” being a term referring to the pilot of a Megadeus).
However, while Big Fau seems to be technologically superior to Big O, Alex does not seem to be as capable of a pilot as Roger and cannot maintain control over Big Fau as Roger maintains control over Big O.
Gordon Rosewater is the father of Alex Rosewater, and in some ways seems to be the ultimate “king” or patriarch of Paradigm City. He was in charge of Paradigm Corp before Alex was, and it is revealed that the construction of the contemporary Paradigm City (the domes, in particular) and the construction of androids was done under Gordon’s rule.
In the present times of Paradigm City/Corp, Gordon resides in his own personal dome where he lives on a large and beautiful farm and raises tomato crops. The tomato crops are implied to be something of a metaphor for Gordon’s creations—including the androids, “humans” such as Roger and Alex, and possibly even the Megadei themselves. After Roger Smith’s first encounter with Gordon Rosewater, Roger begins questioning if he himself “is a tomato”—a creation, crop and commodity of Gordon and Paradigm Corp.
While Big O and the other Megadei aren’t necessarily characters in the same sense that Roger Smith, Dorothy, Angel and so on are, they do play an integral role to the plot and history of the show, and it is frequently implied that they possess some level of sentience. The Megadei and other Bigs are also semi-frequently referred to or revered as gods.
The three primary Megadei are Big O, Big Duo and Big Fau. With frequent allusions throughout the show to Behemoth and Leviathan from Judeo-Christian myth and lore, it has been speculated that the three Megadei are partially symbolic of Behemoth, Leviathan and Ziz, Big O is entirely land-based, which would align with Behemoth, a giant land monstere; Big Duo is capable of flight, with the Ziz being a flying creature in Jewish mythology; and Big Fau is capable of maneuvering through water, with the Leviathan being a sea creature.
While typically not included in the roster of primary Megadei, there is the fourth Megadeus, Big Venus, which, as stated before, could be symbolic of Lucifer. This may also complete the metaphor of land, air and water, with Lucifer often being associated to fire (the “fourth element” of classical philosophy and alchemic writings). In the conclusion of Big O, Big Venus seems to be the force that brings an end to the current iteration of Paradigm City, resulting in the new era of Paradigm City where everyone has lost their memory once again.
In addition to the three/four primary Bigs, there are a number of other Bigs, as well as giant monsters, including (but not limited to):
– Dorothy-1, Dorothy’s Big sister
– The Archetype, a proto-Megadeus that appeared in one of the Schwarzwald
– Bonaparte, a Big controlled by the Union
– The Bigs created by Beck, various Bigs created and controlled by the recurring side character, a criminal known as Beck
– Eel and Hydra Eel, organic Bigs that utilized electricity (which appear both in the contemporary story and in memories of the past)
– Leviathan, a serpent-like mechanical Big that came from the desert
Structural and Literary Analysis
As you may have surmised from my “brief” summary of Big O, there are a lot of details and moving parts to this anime, as well as many things I didn’t mention.
I’ve only “briefly” discussed the main components of the anime, and there are single episodes that could have their own, individual analyses written over them. Just like Big O’s Big Brother, Neon Genesis, there’s too much to comprehensively discuss in one analysis, so—like I did with NGE—this analysis will be a broader exploration of the show, attempting to provide something more like a foundation or framework to understand the many individual components of the show.
Hopefully, however, this will be a shorter analysis.
First, we have to examine the setting of Big O, Paradigm City.
Paradigm City has as handful of major components: its history, its design and the ocean and desert surrounding it.
However, while the design of Paradigm City and the geography it is embedded within are meaningful, the history of the City is most important to understanding Big O.
Paradigm City is a city with amnesia. No one can remember anything about its history prior to 40 years ago, with the exception of a small number of people who can recall fragments of its past in brief glimpses.
At the conclusion of Big O, Paradigm City is essentially reset to its initial state at the beginning of Big O. The City is being rebuilt, and, presumably, none of the characters remember the events that took place throughout the anime. There are implications that Paradigm City has changed after its latest “apocalypse”, with the City still partially destroyed and Angel and Dorothy being shown together, possibly as friends or companions rather than beginning the show not knowing each other.
However, we can also presume that the state of Paradigm City at the beginning of the show was different than the state of Paradigm City prior to 40 years ago, and we can presume that history will repeat itself again.
This, in many ways, is the state of society and civilization as it is now—as it ever is, was and will be in “the now”.
While our history looms over us as an ever-present ghost, or maybe more accurately as a revenant, so much of our history is lost to us. Even the history that we can remember, the brief glimpses of the past that is recorded in our history books, is lost to most of us. We are so caught up in the tides of the present that we forget the lessons of the past.
And with this forgetting of the past, we forget our place in history. Nietzsche described Modern Humanity as begin disassociated from the rest of history, as being unmoored from its past, and so having no clear understanding of who or what they are, what their place, purpose or meaning in existence is, and no understanding of where to move on from here.
With Paradigm City’s past being so shrouded, it’s nearly impossible to understand the ongoing, historical narrative that one is a part of.
It is implied that the Megadei were created, and even mass produced, by Paradigm Corp under the rule of Gordon Rosewater, but what was their function or purpose? Why were they created and what was their function?
We don’t even necessarily know that Gordon and his intentions were evil, as his character is highly ambivalent to the plot and meaning of the show. If we don’t know what happened 40 years ago and why it happened, then how can we understand what is currently happening.
In addition, it is implied that androids, even Roger Smith androids, were created and mass produced by Gordon/Paradigm Corp. What were their purposes? Roger Smith is shown in a flashback as wearing a military uniform while piloting one of the mass produced Big O’s during the great event that resulted in the end of the previous historical era. It is also revealed that Roger Smith as The Negotiator had a contract with Gordon Rosewater prior to 40 years ago, which is contrasted to Roger’s current distrust and contempt towards Paradigm Corp. What was Roger Smith’s purpose?
And what does Roger Smith’s shrouded history say about his current purpose in the present era?
Why does Robert Smith pilot Big O? Why is he The Negotiator? Why does he disdain Paradigm Corp, and why is he constantly seeking the Truth of Paradigm City’s history?
While Schwarzwald in many ways is a foil to Roger Smith, he is also a mirrored image to Roger Smith. Just like Roger Smith, Schwarzwald seeks the Truth, battles against the perceived corruption of the City, and pilots the Megadeus, Big Duo.
Schwarzwald might in fact be the underlying or unconscious manifestation of Roger’s obsession with uncovering the secrets of the past and present, and his motivation to do good for the world. Schwarzwald is like a ghost throughout the show—a spirit that refuses to die, even after physical destruction. Schwarzwald is the manic, unconscious motivations we shroud and repress, but that still emerge from beneath our surfaces in all our beliefs, motivations and actions.
This repression, however, may be healthy. The irony of Schwarzwald’s search for the Truth is how blind he is to his own actions and decisions. Where Roger is tempered by his self-awareness and his awareness of the ethics of his actions, Schwarzwald is reckless and blind to the destruction his own pursuit of Truth and righteous vindication engender upon the innocent and down-trodden.
Here, we can find something I’ve personally been thinking quite a lot about lately: the relationship of moral values and the resulting actions and motivations.
Schwarzwald is obsessed with uncovering the Truth and executing vengeance upon Paradigm Corp/City. These are his highest values.
However, while these values are important to Roger, they are subordinated under his desire to protect the citizens of Paradigm City. Whatever Roger’s past is, whatever his purpose and role in Paradigm City was and is, he is driven by his current moral obligation to protect the City.
Roger even mentions on several occasions that he is not defined by the past—something Gordon Rosewater also mentions. Gordon at one point says that he hopes one of his creations can break free of its pre-ordained purpose or role, and decide its own fate.
Still, it is ambivalent whether this is accomplished or even possible.
If Roger was a soldier and Megadeus pilot prior to 40 years ago, as well as a Negotiator working under Gordon Rosewater, and if Roger became a Military Police member before once again becoming The Negotiator and pilot of Big O, then has Roger simply returned to his prior role? And will he return to this role with the resetting of society?
Has and will Roger always be a soldier, Negotiator and Megadeus pilot whose role in the grand narrative of Paradigm City always been to protect the citizens of the civilization?
And one final, and quite obvious note, on Paradigm City and Paradigm Corp is the name itself, “Paradigm”.
The original and primary definition of a paradigm is as a pattern, a reoccurring set of events or circumstances, or an underlying structure.
Plato used the idea of a paradigm in his metaphysical notion of the Demiurge creating reality from a model or pattern.
Merriam-Webster defines a paradigm as “a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated; broadly: a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind.”
When speaking more cynically about a paradigm in the context of society, government, law, etc., the paradigm of a society is essentially the ruling ideology, the ruling narrative or the ruling way of thinking and being. While the definition of paradigm is a complicated one, the use of paradigm in Big O in all its complexity may be intentional.
In this way, Paradigm City may be a City of Patterns, a City of Eternal Reoccurrence. But, Paradigm City may also be referring to the ruling ideology that permeates a society or culture.
The Paradigm, on the surface, may be the oppressive and dominant paradigm of the City’s rulers and elite—the paradigm created by Alex and Gordon Rosewater. But underlying this, the Paradigm of Big O may be the cyclical pattern of history, and the cyclical pattern of roles that individuals play in that history.
Roger’s paradigm is that of protector and Negotiator—mediating between the citizens and the higher powers of Paradigm City.
In concordance with a paradigm is a paradigm shift, a revolution in the ways of thinking. While this idea of a paradigm shift originated and is used more in the sciences—with Einstein and Darwin being two of the biggest examples of people who caused a paradigm shift—the idea can be applied to nearly anything with an ideological, legal, social or philosophical framework.
In Big O, the paradigm shift is the shift in society Alex Rosewater and Vera Ronstadt both seek.
Alex Rosewater as the figurehead of Paradigm Corp seeks to cleanse the city of “undesirables” (poor people, essentially, but also foreigners and others) and create a better, more perfect world. Vera Ronstadt as the figurehead of the Union seeks to destroy Paradigm Corp and create a world that accepts the “undesirables”, and possibly even where the “undesirables” are in power.
It could be argued (though it would be a pretty reductionist argument) that these two forces and their desired paradigm shift are equivalent to the two primary political forces, particularly in Western society: Liberalism and Conservatism. However, the term “Liberal” has been somewhat bastardized as of late, so a better comparison would probably be: Progressivism and Conservatism.
At their ultimate examples, Communism and Fascism (in many ways similar, but still the hyper-products of far-left-wing and far-right-wing politics), we see direct parallels to Paradigm Corp and The Union. The Union seeks a grand levelling of a society, essentially calling for a destruction of culture where the disempowered rule, and Paradigm Corp seeks a grand cleansing of a society, essentially calling for a Holocaust of those outside the ruling culture where the empowered rule.
Angel, who works both for Paradigm Corp and the Union, and is frequently allied with Roger Smith, sits squarely in the middle of this Paradigm Shift, and inevitably is the driver of the final Paradigm Shift resulting in a New World, or new iteration of Paradigm City. She is the pilot of the Big Venus, the Morningstar—the Lucifer or Light-Bearer of the apocalypse who brings about and oversees the final battle of the revolutionary moment.
Not only this, it is (confusingly) revealed that Angel is the daughter of Vera Ronstadt and/or Gordon Rosewater—the Matriarch of the Union and Patriarch of Paradigm Corp/City. Angel worked throughout the show on both sides, working both for Alex Rosewater and for the Union.
And Roger Smith is the Negotiator, the person mediating between these two political forces. Roger is both a wealthy, powerful elite himself and is the protector of the average citizen, and he ultimately stands as the savior of Paradigm City. Roger Smith mediates between the various conflicting forces of society, and, in the end, confronts Angel as the revived pilot of the Morningstar.
The destruction of society and culture is stopped, the average citizen and the down-trodden are saved, and the cycle of history begins once again.
Now, there is still more to get into here, and this is in part where Big O starts to fray.
There is still the matter of the androids—of Roger as an android/tomato—and the Megadei. While these do fit within the underlying theme of the reoccurring conflicts and the revolutions of society, they can distract from this underlying theme, both philosophically and narratively or as events/plot points in the show.
So, the androids. The androids are creations of the state, creations of Paradigm Corp. In the end of the show, there are a few moments that imply everyone might be an android, or at least that it’s impossibly to really know who is and who isn’t an android. This could mean that everyone is a product of the state—everyone is a tomato, or a crop that is grown and harvested by the ruling class of society.
Roger, for example, often goes into existential spirals wondering if he is in fact a tomato, and this, connecting back with the cyclical paradigm shifts of history, gets into a question of free will.
Free will has always been a topic that comes up with Artificial Intelligence or Robotics of any kind, and one of our biggest fears is that sentient machines will rise up against us. Maybe this is the same fear that those in the ruling class have of those they rule: they will gain a higher sentience and self-awareness, causing them to rise up against those in power.
However, free will in Big O is more nuanced and much more personal than this. It isn’t necessarily about political movements, it’s also about us as individuals. Do we have free will? Or are we pawns in the machinations of culture at large?
For Roger, are his actions free? Or is his role in society pre-ordained by history and by contemporary culture?
There’s some ambivalence here though, because perhaps having this role in society is necessary. While Roger’s actions both reset the cycles of history and return him and everyone else to a more blissfully ignorant state, he does in fact save Paradigm City—moreover, the innocent people of Paradigm City.
And, there’s even more ambivalence here. Who is actually in charge of these roles? Who is in control of the narrative? Alex Rosewater certainly isn’t in control of the narrative, or in control of the roles people play in the narrative. If he was, Angel and Roger wouldn’t have “won” (or whatever you’d call what happened).
Gordon Rosewater certainly doesn’t seem to be in control of anything by the end of the show. Vera isn’t in control. Angel isn’t in control. Roger isn’t in control.
So what is in control? What is the paradigm or source of the paradigm that pre-ordains the narratives and roles of society? Is this simply “how things are”? Is this simply how things always were and always will be?
And of course, to follow Roger’s personal desire and Gordon’s desire for his creations, will it ever be possible to break out of this paradigm?
And would we want to break out of this paradigm? What would happen if we did? What would that reality be like?
And how could we break out of this paradigm without actually being an unknowing participant in the paradigm?
Is the act of trying to break free of these pre-ordained structures, narratives and roles in fact a part of the paradigm itself? Is the act of trying to obtain free will a part of what creates, drives or perpetuates the paradigm?
And finally, the Megadei.
Borrowing a bit from my Neon Genesis analysis, the Megadei and the other Bigs can likely be seen as a number of things, but, most relevantly, the Megadei are like transcendent manifestations of various aspects or forces within the paradigm.
The Megadei and the Bigs are manifestations of the various conflicting forces, ideologies, motivations within the grand narrative of Big O.
Big O is the manifestation of Roger and Roger’s motivations:
– Big O being the “Behemoth” or land creature is “grounded” or terrestrial, rooted in the reality of everyday people and everyday existence
– Roger seeks to protect the people of Paradigm City; Big O is the ultimate protector of Paradigm City
– Roger seeks to mediate between the various forces of Paradigm City; Big O is the vehicle that meets Big Venus in the end to “compromise” on a new society or reality
– Roger seeks free will and the ability to act as his own individual; Big O is that power, or at least what gives Roger the ability to act as his own individual
Big Duo is the manifestation of Schwarzwald and Schwarzwald’s desire to seek the truth and strike vengeance on Paradigm Corp/City. Big Duo is literally “above it all”, Big Duo is capable of flight, and is capable of reaching heights that are impossible to reach for the other Megadei. Schwarzwald is also blind to his own actions, blind to what his manic ambitions to him and others. The final destruction of Big Duo flying into one of the lights at the top of the dome alludes to Icarus, and mirrors Schwarzwald’s desire to see the truth of the artificiality of Paradigm City. Schwarzwald as a ghost or spirit might be manifested in the “resurrection” of Big Duo later in the show.
Big Fau is the manifestation of Alex and Alex’s motivation. It is gaudy, it is technologically superior, and it is used to bring about the destruction of the undesirable aspects of Paradigm City. In addition, Alex throughout the show believes he is in control of everything, including Big Fau, but in the end is just a pawn himself. Big Fau acts on its own accord, and seems to control Alex more than Alex controls Big Fau.
The list goes on.
Beck’s Bigs are gaudy, useless, lack the capabilities the other Bigs have.
Bonaparte, the Big controlled by the Union, is an amalgamation of various other Bigs, just as the Union is an amalgamation of various foreigners of different backgrounds, lower class individuals from different walks of life, and even androids and human-android hybrids such as Alan Gabriel.
Big Venus is a manifestation of Angel as “the fallen angel”, as the central figure in the paradigm shift, and as the child of two conflicting political forces (the creation of God that eventually opposes God and brings about Armageddon), but also more literally as the Morningstar, as the light heralding the new day (the new day being the new cycle of history).
The Archetype is the manifestation of the unconscious and unconscious forces, but also of the past and the underlying influence the past has on the present.
The Eel, Electric City as a blue collar residence eventually used by the Union; the Construction Robot, working class hijacked by the Union; Chimera, the horrors of science; Osrail, the revenant of revenge; Eumenides, a Big used for assassination/vengeance.
The Megadei and the Bigs are all the manifestations of some grand, underlying force of society. They are a collective of individuals who share an ideology or common motivations, or they are an inevitable force of culture and society, which emerges as a grander force or active agent.
The only exception might be Big O, as Big O might be more of a manifestation of individuality itself. However, even if Big O is this manifestation of individuality (Roger the “Negotiator” being the Ego of the psyche), Big O might be a manifestation of the collective desire for individuality present in society.
And while I could go on for several thousand more words on giant robots, this is a good place to stop.
Big O, like its Big Brother, NGE, is a dense, complicated and opaque anime.
There’s a lot to digest, and it doesn’t give its secrets away readily.
I remember watching this show as a wee lad and being both incredibly excited by the giant robot fights and incredibly confused by everything else. But, even as a young lad, I knew there was something to this anime.
As an older lad, I still love the robot fights and am still incredibly confused by everything else, but I think less confused.
The show is definitely underrated, and I don’t think it or many other giant robot anime have been given the proper acknowledgement or understanding they deserve. The metaphors I’ve discussed, both in this analysis and the NGE analysis, of robots being manifestations of socio-cultural, individual and potentially metaphysical forces and realities are grossly under-analyzed and under-appreciated.
Still, Big O doesn’t do itself any favors.
I’ve simplified the show quite a bit, and so it might sound like I’ve got Big O pinned down, but I really don’t.
Big O feels like it contradicts itself, or that it’s confused as to what it’s trying to portray, but the show is such an elusive tangle of exposition and events at times that many of these internal contradictions and confusions are nearly impossible to even pin down.
It might simply be the execution in parts of the show, and the show did have a somewhat rocky production at times, but so did Neon Genesis—so do most shows and movies.
It could be that Big O was trying to do too much—to be too much—and that the show became too cluttered with its own aesthetics and its own ambitions.
It could also be that I’m a dull, incompetent, uncultured swine who doesn’t understand the nuances of modernist neo-noir/giant-robot/vintage-sci-fi fusion anime, and I’ve certainly taken this into consideration.
Still, I do think the best way to see where Big O went wrong is to look at where Neon Genesis went right.
Both shows are incredibly complicated, dense and opaque, rife with tangled philosophy and psychology, and both possess a large cast of complex characters.
However, Neon Genesis had a solid focal point or central plot-mover that moored the complexity of the show: the battles between Eva and Angel.
Big O doesn’t have this focal point to the same degree.
The show is about Roger Smith working as The Negotiator, and all the shenanigans he gets into. It’s also about Roger Smith protecting Paradigm City with Big O. It’s also about Roger Smith uncovering the truth of Paradigm City and its past. It’s also about Roger Smith’s conflict with Paradigm Corp and Alex Rosewater. It’s also about a lot of other things.
While Neon Genesis had many sub-plots, tangential exposition, and labyrinthian character development, the entire show, from start to finish, was focused on the Eva-Angel conflict, which, ultimately, was about the Third Impact.
The events of the past were the result of previous Impacts, the present events were the inevitable steps leading to the Third Impact, and the finale of the series was the Third Impact.
While, yes, the various focuses of Big O were all centered on the apocalypse of the previous era, and the finale of Big O was the new apocalypse that brought about the next era, these were all too disassociated from many of the events of Big O. It didn’t feel centered, and Neon Genesis was very powerfully centered on the Eva-Angel and Third Impact plot.
Maybe Big O was too opaque. Maybe it didn’t give us enough information, and the information it did give us was hand-fed and little was left to the imagination. The pieces of the puzzle were always present in Neon Genesis, and we were given the freedom to put a few of the pieces in ourselves; whereas the pieces of Big O’s puzzle were like disparate islands that eventually (kinda) came together in the end, but only by the hands of its creators.
Big O is nonetheless a terrific anime. It’s flawed, but everything is flawed.
The confusion and schizophrenic plot development of Big O might just be the confusion and schizophrenic state of modernity as it is. Big O is cluttered: life is cluttered. Big O is confusing: life is confusing. Big O is scattered, the pieces don’t all fit perfectly, and a few are missing: have you figured out life yet?
And flaws aside, when the pieces of Big O are put together, they’re absolutely brilliant. What the creators of Big O tried to do—and the things they did do—were incredible and impressive.
Flaws aside, Big O is a fun fucking anime. The setting of Paradigm City is wicked cool; the constant mystery mixed with the action mixed with the retro-modern aesthetic is A+; the characters can be a lil’ flat at times, but they’re still great and very memorable; and the giant robots and monsters are sick, bruh.
The Blair Witch Project, one of a number of the 90’s death throes, has become something of a meme. It’s a low-budget horror flic written by film students in the 90’s: it was filmed in 8 days, the entire script was improvised with almost no retakes, 80% of the movie is three people walking through the woods, and we never actually see the “villain” of the film (the mysterious Blair Witch). The Blair Witch Project has often been epitomized as the quintessential cheap, shitty, b-horror film. However, a less cynical and more appreciative mind might find this film to be quite enjoyable, and possibly even far more intelligent and intelligently created than it’s ever been given credit.
While I could spend this article exploring why The Blair Witch Project is an example of impressive cinematographic ingenuity on the part of its amateur cast and crew, and how it influenced countless films after its release, this has been discussed at length in the 21 years since Blair Witch’s release. What I’d rather talk about is the overlooked genius of the film that I doubt anyone has ever realized—possibly not even by the creators. The horror of The Blair Witch Project is being lost in the wilderness, stalked by unknown, unseen forces, with no map to help you return home—the genius of The Blair Witch Project is that this horror reflects one of the underlying horrors of modernity.
I was conceived and born smack-dab in the middle of the 90’s (~June 1995 – March 1996). The first birthday I remember was my third birthday, which would have been in 1999 (which would have been 3 months before The Blair Witch Project was released). I also remember my fourth birthday in March 2000, my fifth birthday in March 2001, and the collapse of the World Trade Center in September 2001.
It would be over a decade before I realized the 9-11 attacks were precipitated in part by the military actions of the US during the decade I had been born. It would be almost another decade later before I would really appreciate that the events that had precipitated 9-11 were precipitated by a vast number of prior events, which had been precipitated by an even vaster number of prior events, which had been precipitated by a nearly infinite gulf of prior history, which all create a continuum of history that resulted in our current state of society and reality, along which 9-11 happened.
The 90’s were something like a pivot point, both culturally and historically. Long-held traditions were, for many, little more than a joke at this point. A sense of Nationalism had in large part been disintegrated in America and across the world—a phenomenon that seemed to have begun post-WW2 and, in America, after the death of JFK and the rise of Hippie, Punk and other underground movements.
By the time of the 90’s, so little was genuine anymore—if it ever had been. Everything was cartoons and sitcoms, everything was commercial breaks and advertisements, everything was playing pretend, ignoring foreign wars, ignoring drug epidemics, ignoring government and economic corruption. Or, conversely, everything was Rage Against the Machine, but there was only Rage and the Machine, and no Against: no action. Now, even Zach de la Rocha has sold out, with “the Machine” providing him a net worth of 30 million dollars, despite still “Raging” about the broken system to sold-out shows.
So few things by the 90’s were genuine—no genuine wars, no genuine political movements, no genuine arts—and the things that were “genuine”, like the Grunge movement, were, with some exception, hopelessly cynical. This was because the only things that could be genuine, other than, perhaps, science, were the cynical things that shed light on the disingenuous nature of contemporary humanity.
No one really knew who they were anymore. As individuals, and as a society—possibly even as a species. Then, in 2001, 9-11 happened. The world watched in quiet shock as the World Trade Center collapsed in the middle of New York City—the crown jewel of America—and we still don’t know what this event even means for us.
We’re still living in the post 9-11 era, still stumbling from the aftershocks of that massive quake. We can’t agree on whether or not the resulting war was justified or even worth the effort. We can’t agree on the motivations of the aggressors and their allies. We can’t even agree on whether or not our own government was involved in the attacks of 9-11.
And now, we live in a world that seems entirely disingenuous, beyond what it was before. With social media, with ideological tribalism, with all facets of information and sense-making from all angles coming into question and under attack, with the inability to agree on the facts and “facts” of reality, we can’t even agree on what reality is. Who among us even can tell what reality is anymore?
We can’t agree on a common narrative. We can’t agree on what our various narratives even mean or signify. We can’t agree on what is meaningful, what is moral, what is true—or even what it means for something to be true, or if it is even possible for something to be “true” (whatever “true” might mean).
We are living in a chaotic time, with existential threats standing all around us like specters at a deathbed, and we’ve lost all ability to even understand what is happening. We don’t know what is going on around us, we don’t know who we are, and we don’t know where we are.
And this brings us back to The Blair Witch Project.
Blair Witch was developed throughout the 90’s and released right at the end of the decade, in ’99.
The entire movie was filmed as if it was an amateur documentary—a mockumentary, or a pretend documentary. It depicts three individuals—Heather Donahue (Heather), Michael C. Williams (Mike), and Joshua Leonard (Josh)—going to the small town of Burkittsville, Maryland to investigate the legend of the Blair Witch. After interviewing a variety of townsfolk, the trio embarks into the woods north of the town, where the Blair Witch is said to live.
As a quick aside, the names of the three characters are actually the names of the real-life (“real-life”) actors who play these characters.
Intending to stay in the woods overnight and return to civilization the next day, the trio ends up getting lost in the woods. While lost in the woods, they find strange things, such as piles of stones in a small clearing and sculptures or perhaps totems made from branches and vines that are hanging in trees. At night, they hear strange sounds coming from the woods and are even attacked at one point while trying to sleep in their tent.
In the end, Josh goes missing, and then Heather and Mike find an abandoned house, where they presumably meet their demise (though their demise is not seen).
Throughout the movie, Heather relies on a map to guide them through the forest, though Mike does not trust Heather’s navigation skills, and Mike does not trust the map itself. However, Heather wakes up one morning to find that the map is missing. Josh blames Heather for losing the map, and Heather questions whether or not Josh or Mike took the map as a joke. We later find out that Mike actually took the map and essentially destroyed it, laughing as he tells Josh and Heather:
“…I kicked that fucking map into the creek yesterday. It was useless! I kicked that fucker into the creek!”
Heather and Josh are rightfully indignant, and the movie from this point on takes on a markedly nihilistic and dread-filled tone. At this point, they are lost in the forest, they are being stalked by unknown forces in an uncivilized pocket of nature, and they have no map to return home.
And this is both the central horror and the central theme of the story.
Blindly wandering through the wilderness, stalked by unknown, unknowable forces beyond our control, without any useful form of navigation.
Now, there is one more important aspect of the movie that must be brought to light here: the filming of the movie itself.
The entire film, as I mentioned earlier, is supposed to be shot as if it were a documentary, giving it a Gonzo style of film (meaning the one filming the movie is also an actor, and the fact that the film is being shot is an element of the film itself). The entire film is shot from cameras the characters/actors are holding, which is constantly made obvious or relevant by the character referencing or interacting with their film equipment.
While this is important, obviously, to the horror of the movie—giving the movie it’s “real” quality, where the horror is that the movie is supposed to a depiction of reality—it is even more important to the underlying themes of the movie.
The film we watch is not in fact reality, it is a representation of reality, and it is a filtered representation of reality. This is made explicit in the film when Josh tells Heather:
“I see why you like this video camera so much. […] It’s not quite reality. […] No, but it’s totally like a filtered reality, man. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is.”
Now, we can begin breaking down some of the major components of the film: the map, the wilderness, the camera and the witch.
The map that Heather uses is their symbolic representation of reality. The map is not reality, but it is a symbolic depiction of reality, signifying the geography of reality, that is used to navigate that reality.
That reality is the wilderness, and the wilderness is symbolic of the true nature of the world we exist in: the world in-and-of-itself, as it is outside of our representation. If you look at a cellphone, you see the cellphone as what your brain decides it is. The cellphone is an object—an incredibly complex object—designed, primarily (or at least initially) to communicate with other people who have an object that can communicate with your object. That is our “map” of the cellphone. However, a cellphone is also an object made out of plastic, metal, glass and other materials, arranged by humans in a specific pattern to achieve its desired outcome.
However, these components of a cellphone are things that are only signified by our words, which have an agreed upon definition. These material components are only known to us as they are (these materials as such) in an incomplete way through science, or through Empiricism. We can never completely understand, know, perceive, etc. these material components because we can only experience them as external stimuli that have been filtered through our knowledge structures and our personal, subjective experience (more complexly, through our neurological structures, but we won’t get into that).
The wilderness is this primary reality—the true, actual reality that we exist within, but that we can only partially experience and imperfectly represent.
And this brings us to the cameras used in the film. These cameras are our knowledge structures and our subjective experience. They are the lens, the filter, and the mechanism by which we perceive reality. The camera is both our neurological mechanism representing reality—our imperfect capabilities of perceiving the wilderness we live in—and it is the knowledge structure of our society—the camera literally being an invention of modern humans.
Finally, the Blair Witch her/itself. The Blair Witch is a bit more complicated. Mythologically, we can connect the Witch to the Occult, most commonly thought of as Pagan or Satanic practices (though “Satanic” is usually a reactionary description of witchcraft). More deeply, the Witch can be connected to Nature—a priestess of the wilderness. She is the invoker of Nature, of the Wild, of the ambivalence of reality—both one who can heal and one who can curse, one who invokes the growth and life of nature and the destruction and cruelty of nature, and one who lives outside the scope and structure of civilization.
If we combine these two—Nature, or the wilderness and the occult—we get a “clearer” picture of the Blair Witch. “Occult” actually means “hidden” or “secretive”—that which is esoteric, unknown or unknowable. “Occult” practices were not “Satanic” practices, as they are often represented, but in fact practices meant to invoke “hidden” forces or discover “secret” knowledge. But the Blair Witch is also an entity which lives in the depths of the wilderness, far removed from society, who exists within and as a part of the forces of the unknown that we fear and cannot understand.
She might in fact be a symbol of this wilderness—a personified representation or manifestation of the wilderness.
We never see the Blair Witch: she is in fact the Occult—the unseen, the elusive, the hidden, the unknown and unknowable. She cannot be represented by our cameras—our subjective experience and our cultural knowledge structures.
To summarize these:
The map is the representation of reality.
The wilderness is that reality (reality in and of itself).
The camera is the lens of knowledge structures and subjective experience we view reality through.
The Blair Witch is the personified embodiment of the wilderness, or the personified embodiment of that which cannot be truly seen or understood.
Now, to bring these together.
On the surface, The Blair Witch Project is about three film students attempting to investigate the Blair Witch, and end up getting lost in the wilderness after their map is destroyed. They are stalked and eventually killed (presumably, we don’t know actually know) by the very thing they are investigating, the Blair Witch.
However, if we take the deeper analysis of the various aspects of the film, The Blair Witch Project is about individuals attempting to understand and represent the wilderness of reality in and of itself. While exploring the depths of reality, they find that their representation of reality does not adequately describe the world they live in. Their representation of reality is destroyed, and the three try to escape the reality they no longer understand and return to a reality they do understand. However, they ultimately meet their demise by the forces of the unknown and unknowable.
This demise could represent a few things. The death of these three individuals might be the death of their knowledge structures. They perceived reality with their pre-created representation of it (their map), and this representation was destroyed. As they attempted to flee the wilderness of reality and the overwhelming horrors of existing in a reality they don’t understand, they inevitably were lost inside this wilderness and could not return to the society they once existed in. They themselves might not have died physically, but the framework they represented the world with collapsed, and so it was impossible now to escape the wilderness of reality.
Now, to bring this back to the actual state of society as it is now and as it was when this film was created, I’m going to tie in the postmodern philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, and his book, Simulacra and Simulation.
Now, postmodernism is a somewhat controversial collection of philosophies, and I myself have a few issues with some of the tenants of these philosophies, but they raise a number or important issues about humanity and the knowledge structures of humanity that are certainly worth discussing. These issues may even be at the core, or at least a portion of the core, of the current predicaments of society.
The central tensions of Postmodernism could be characterized as a criticism of our representation of reality—though there is admittedly quite a lot of nuance in the Postmodernist philosophies and one ought to simplify Postmodernism with caution. Since our beliefs and how we act within reality and society is determined by our representation of reality, Postmodernism is also a criticism of our beliefs and our actions.
Jean Baudrillard’s primary contention in Simulacra and Simulation follows this core concept of criticizing how we represent reality.
The first two paragraphs of Simulacra and Simulation go as follows:
“If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts – the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction testifying to a pride equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused with the real through aging) – as the most beautiful allegory of simulation, this fable has now come full circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.
“Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.”
Now, in the text following this, Baudrillard immediately contradicts everything he just says, adding to the opacity of Baudrillard’s writing, and means that quoting Baudrillard and referencing his work can be a bit perilous, but this quote will do.
To simplify what Baudrillard is saying here, we have a socially/culturally “agreed-upon” representation of reality (the map), and the map represents what we believe to be reality (the territory). Now, as what we believe to be reality erodes (the territory), so too does our representation of reality (the map). What we are left with is the “The desert of the real itself”, which parallels the wilderness of Blair Witch.
Baudrillard goes on throughout his book to use his metaphor of the desert-territory-map to analyze and critique a number of things, including (put simply) the disingenuous state of “reality” as the map and territory—leaving the desert as a blank, ungraspable truth beneath the map and territory.
However, here I would say that the Blair Witch’s forest—the wilderness—is a better representation of “the real itself”. The “real” is not an empty, desolate void, but an incredibly complex and dense tangle of existence. The problem of contending with “the real” is not that it is an empty wasteland, but, quite the opposite, that it is an infinitely complex landscape of objects, information, perceptions, interpretations, morals and decisions.
While Baudrillard simplifies the reality that exists beneath, or perhaps outside, our representation of reality, Blair Witch shows us this reality for all of its infinite complexity.
Nonetheless, the parallel metaphors paired together give us, ironically, an accurate representation of our current state of being.
This is the state of reality we find ourselves in today—the state, you could say, that was in the process of either being created or destroyed by the time the 90’s rolled around.
Currently, we are all blindly stumbling through a wilderness. The territory we reside within is crumbling, and, with it, so too crumbles our map. We do not understand and cannot adequately represent reality, and so our actions are all either ignorant fumblings or self-destructive collapsings.
Blair Witch can be seen as a commentary on this state of reality.
There is a major ambiguity in Blair Witch that is important to explore here.
The trio seemed to be lost in the woods even before Mike “kicked that fucker into the creek”. Despite Heather reassuring Mike and Josh that she could read the map, and that she knew exactly where they were and where they were going, the three of them couldn’t find their way out of the woods, even while Heather possessed the map.
The three different characters each had their own beliefs as to why they were lost. Heather thought they were lost because they lost the map. Josh thought they were lost because he didn’t think Heather knew how to read the map. Mike thought they were lost because the map itself was inherently useless or flawed.
So, following the three different beliefs of the three different characters, we as a society might be in our current state of confusion for three different reasons:
– We’ve lost the map / Our representation of reality is accurate and decipherable, but it was destroyed
– We are incapable of deciphering the map / Our representation of reality is accurate, but it cannot be deciphered
– We never had an accurate map to begin with / Our representation of reality was never accurate to begin with, so, rather than attempt deciphering it, the map ought to be destroyed
Whose interpretation of the situation is correct?
These interpretations and the question of which one is correct can be transferred to our current state of society and our current relationship with reality.
Do we / Did we have an accurate map of reality, but our map is being destroyed, and this is how we arrived at where we now are?
This would be a nihilism aimed at the actions of fellow humans.
Is our map of reality accurate, but the map is impossible to decipher by us, and so we cannot agree on what the map depicts?
This would be a nihilism aimed at the ignorance of fellow humans.
Is our map actually inaccurate, and so any attempt at contending with reality using our representation is inevitably worthless?
This would be a nihilism aimed at the nature of humanity and the state of reality itself.
And lets look at how the characters of Blair Witch were “picked off” throughout the end of the movie, in the order that these events happened.
First, Josh went missing. His voice could still be heard in the wilderness, and Heather and Mike still tried to save him, but he couldn’t be found, and the search for Josh inevitably led to the demise of both Heather and Mike.
We didn’t lose faith in humanity’s ability to contend with reality, but we lost faith in our ability to comprehend reality.
Second, Heather finds Mike staring into the corner of the room. Mike went to the basement of reality, to the darkest pit of the witch’s lair (to the darkest pit of the unknown and unknowable), hoping that salvation was still possible even without a map, and succumbed to a motionless apathy.
We stopped believing that it was in fact possible to contend with reality.
Finally, Heather drops the camera she is holding (her entire subjective experience/knowledge structure falls) and the movie ends. Heather finds that she has lost both Josh and Mike to the Blair Witch, and, in her presumed demise, lets go of all attempts to perceive or even experience reality (self-destruction, possibly to the point of suicide).
We stopped believing in humanity itself.
2 years, 7 months and 20 days after The Blair Witch Project was released at the ’99 Sundance Film Festival, the whole world, my 5-year-old self included, watched the Twin Towers fall.
Almost 10 years after 9-11, we still can’t agree on why it happened, we still can’t agree what happened that day, we still can’t agree how we should have reacted to what happened, and we still can’t agree on the state of reality as it was and as it is now.
Who are our enemies? Who are our allies? Where are we? What is our civilization? Why are we where we are right now? What do we do? How do we do it? Why do we do it?
With our map destroyed, how do we move on?
With our faith in our knowledge, our perception, our structures and even our fellow humans crumbling in our hands, what do we do next?
The only thing I can say we do is salvage what we still have—which I would say is quite a lot more than what many people suspect—reinvigorate and reconstruct our knowledge structures and our social systems, and regain faith in humanity.
Perhaps it is good for portions of our structures and systems to be torn down, but, with them, there is much that ought not to be torn down, and in the wake of these structures’ collapse, there must be better, stronger, truer, more genuine structures that are erected.
We have to create better maps—maps that do accurately represent the reality we live in; we have to grow as people, as individuals—so that we can create these better maps, interpret these maps and act appropriately by these maps; and we have to maintain our faith in fellow humans—maintain faith that we can understand reality, that we can trust other people, and that there is a way out of the wilderness.
There is nothing else we can do, except stumble into our own self-destruction and be devoured by the wilderness manifested by our actions and our disintegrating humanity.
We can emerge from this wilderness alive.
The Blair Witch Project may go down as a b-movie horror flic that grossed an impressively large amount of money and inspired two decades of b-movie horror flics in its wake.
However, I think Blair Witch represents a deep aspect of the society it emerged from, and ought to be remembered as such.
Not only should it be remembered as a film that quite profoundly represents one of the many horrors of modernity, how it represents this ought to be remembered.
Someone who excels at their given craft can engineer beautiful, thought-provoking creations with that craft.
Someone who can take their craft to the next level can use the aspects of their creations, in-and-of-themselves, to communicate meaning.
With a writer like James Joyce, meaning is not only conveyed with the plot and characters, but meaning is also conveyed with sentence structure, paragraph placement and with language itself (rather than the meanings of specific words used in that language). With the abstract movements of modern art, the elements of art are broken down to their constituent elements (color, tone, form, shape, line, etc.), and these elements are the focus or the subject of the art, rather than the elements that create the focus or subject.
With film, David Lynch might be the most well-known example of someone who can make the elements of cinematography themselves to communicate meaning. It isn’t only that the camera angle helps the subject of the film communicate meaning, or that the words of the dialogue are all that is communicating meaning, or even that the events of the movie contribute only to the meaning derived from plot and character arc. All of these elements in a David Lynch film not only help the subjects of the film communicate meaning, but the elements themselves are meaningful and communicate meaning.
With The Blair Witch Project, while much of the meaning is communicated in what is being communicated through the subject of the film—three students lost in the woods, stalked by an unknown and unknowable force—meaning is also communicated in how the subject is depicted to us. It isn’t just the tribulations of three people trying to survive in and escape from the woods, it’s that we see these tribulations through the lenses of their perceptions and knowledge structures.
The documentary intended to investigate and depict the legend—the narrative or modern representation—of the Blair Witch devolves into the last record of three people’s lives. The representation of the film begins as an attempt at objectivity—investigative journalism or documentarianism—with this lens of modern society and civilization, but the documentary falls apart and gives way to fear, dread and hopelessness.
The lens of modernity gives way to the survival of humanity amidst the wilderness of reality.
Remember this movie not as a strange novelty that emerged at the tail end of the 20th century, but as a misunderstood representation of the historic pivoting we currently find ourselves stumbling through.
Evlampia, an alumnus of the magazine, is a Russian artist who mixes the morbid, the horrid, the haunting and the beautiful. Her artwork presents dark, dream-like visions of animals, figures, creatures, settings or objects, many of which seem esoteric, uncanny or possess a mystique. This will actually be the second article I’ve done with Evlampia, the first article having been published about a year ago, and it is as much a joy to write about Evlampia this time as it was with the last article.
While it may in part be due to a language barrier between her and I (or perhaps misaligned expectations on my part), Evlampia has at times seemed like an opaque and elusive individual to talk with, which only adds to the mystique of her work. Nonetheless, Evlampia is a sweet, thoughtful individual, dedicated to her craft, and her artwork, though at times morbid, dark or uncanny, carry with them beauty, feeling and love.
Since our first article, Evlampia (@ginger_dragon_bones on Instagram) has continued creating and putting out artwork on a regular basis, sharing the contents of her mind and notebooks with a dedicated group of admirers who love her style and tone (including myself).
With a few exceptions, Evlampia’s art is mostly black and white. Most of her art is made with ink, though she uses graphite and/or paint in some of her pieces. The pieces she does make that include color other than black white usually only add red, though there’s an even smaller number of pieces with more than black, white and red. That said, Evlampia has been experimenting with more color lately.
“I tried adding new colors in my art. They didn’t really fit in. Still, my favorite colors are red, black, and white. It is always interesting to put yourself in new conditions.
“I try to combine tenderness with cruelty in my works, not in the drawing technique but in the idea itself. Regarding technique, the combination of rough strokes and fine lines frustrate me. I’m always trying to find new details. Some of them take root and move from one piece to another.”
There are a number of themes, series or styles Evlampia has maintained since she began posting her art. There are a few figure-series she’s developed, which either possess recurring characters or themes. She has a series of animal drawings, which are all done on a parchment-like paper. These depict various animals on a starry background that are dripping with some sort of black fluid. Other creations of Evlampia’s include strange, nightmarish creatures, dark, surreal scenes, or other miscellaneous and ominous creations of a nocturnal mind.
One series of Evlampia’s figures that has been around since she first started posting her art have been a male and female duo. These two are often depicted in nocturnal settings, sometimes alone and sometimes together, are shown fighting monsters at times, and are almost always wearing iconic dragon-skull masks.
Other newer series of figures include a yoga-pose figure, a series of bat-like figures accompanied by various internal organs, and an “insane” series, featuring a figure with black pants and red fur coat. These figures develop a wider cast of characters and ongoing themes in Evlampia’s work, and help explore more elements of her style.
“The Surgery series was completely accidental. I drew a brain, then a heart, and so on. Why is the bowel worse? Lungs? They are also indispensable for our bodies.
Yoga got its name because of quirky poses. Only yogis are capable of such tricks. The red yoga mat is included.”
Other than her color schemes, Evlampia’s style does vary a bit from piece to piece and series to series. Many individual pieces, particularly still-life’s that usually contain skulls, bones, flowers and insects, fall more into realism, and are impressively detailed. Other pieces depict more surreal and fantastic visions of otherworldly creatures or settings, or near-hallucinogenic spectacles of violent elegance and tenebrous epiphany.
However, there is a consistent balance in Evlampia’s art between the uncanny, eerie or disturbing with images that are intriguing, beautiful or sweet and nostalgic.
As one example, her animal series depicts animals dripping in black fluid, oftentimes with other macabre or fearsome details included, but the animals are also made in such a way that they remain cute, beautiful or in some other way likeable. They are not presented in a way that repulses the viewer from them, despite the macabre style of Evlampia’s work.
Another example would be her organ series, where a fox bat-like person accompanies images of internal organs. The animal-person alone has a darker style to it, with a pitch-black body and a face that only possesses white eyes and no other visible feature. The organs are starkly displayed in all their grotesque unmasking, serving as a reminder that we humans really are quite disturbing machines once you look beneath our skin.
Still, the animal-people have a sympathetic and cute quality to them, on top of their mysterious, ominous visage. They are both foreboding and welcoming in appearance. The organs are neatly and cleanly displayed, almost like organs you might find in a text book or on display in some anatomical museum, where their strangeness and the shock of seeing them is made safe by the environment. In addition, they are displayed inside circles, like frames or windows, encircling them almost protectively like you might protect an insect collection behind glass; and each piece includes some form of vegetation, like leaves, grass or vines.
Similarly, another animal, the “circle of death” series, uses circles in every image. This second series of animals depicts zombie-like critters with rotting flesh and exposed bones, all of which are paired with a large, red circle, oftentimes set like a halo behind their heads. There are the disturbing elements of zombified animals, but they are still beautifully depicted, and the circle adds a sort of symbolic meaningfulness to the animals.
Her ongoing series with the male and female figures act in the same way, where there is a sympathy towards the characters and the relationship between the two. While there are many mundane situations the two of them are depicted in, they are also often put into violent or ominous situations.
Beyond this, and beyond the recurring styles of Evlampia’s different series, there are a variety of individual pieces that stand out quite distinctly in Evlampia’s artwork.
In one of Evlampia’s pieces that includes additional color, she has a squid or octopus paired with red flowers and orange leaves. There’s definitely an autumn-color scheme going on here, but there’s also a neat parallel between the flowers and the movement of the octopus tentacles. These are both paired by the shared red and orange colors the flowers and octopus have, but also contrasted by the black-and-white colors of the octopus. The shapes of the plants and the octopus similarly are paired together by the flowery, spreading design of both, but then contrasted by the more fleshy, aquatic shape of the octopus vs the vegetative, terrestrial shape of the plants.
The colors give that same foreboding sense we might feel in autumn, as the world grows colder, the nights longer and darker, and we begin to watch things die. That paired with the strange, alien shapes of cephalopod appendages creates something eerie and strange. However, the limbs paired with the flowers takes this eerie, uncanny imagery and turns it into something as beautiful and elegant as it is foreboding and haunting.
In another colorful piece, this one of the male and female characters, Evlampia shows us the dragon-skull-wearing protagonists of much of her art investigating some fleshy, surreal landscape full of otherworldy vines and vegetation, bloody, bulging masses across the floor and walls, and many other small details that set this near-psychedelic scene.
This nightmarish space would normally repulse most people, maybe even drive them mad if they were to ever find it in real life, but Evlampia’s characters seem perfectly at ease exploring this landscape, which makes the viewer at ease as well. Evlampia’s “fairy tale” world is presented like a happy invitation to gleefully explore new curiosities, rather than a depiction of a nightmare we ought to recoil and flee from.
I think this contrast between terror and dread, and beauty and warmth we can find in Evlampia’s art is epitomized in a painting she made of a woman with various animals: birds, wolves, a hyena. The colors are like the shadows and the moonlight at midnight—blacks, inky indigos and pale blue-grays. The woman is wearing a horned skull on her head, and she is surrounded by predatory animals, except for the raven, which perches on a branch like a living omen in the dark. Everything about the scene ought to elicit some level of fear, dread or revulsion. And yet, the darkness of the image is accompanied by something comforting.
The cool blues relax and calm as much as the excite. The animals seem to be in no way threatening to the girl, who stares at with a calm expression and peaceful eyes. She somehow seems both all-knowing to the threatening and dark world around her, and also perfectly innocent and at one with it. We are entranced by this midnight world, and enveloped in nature and the wild.
Still, these descriptions of the unity of threat and comfort in Evlampia’s art doesn’t completely describe her art, or the emotions and thoughts Evlampia’s art elicit inside you. This might be because words aren’t the right language to describe the deeper waters and darker forests of Evlampia’s artwork.
With Evlampia’s work, it’s difficult to really pin down specific themes or ideas behind her art, and Evlampia doesn’t delve into these too deeply in conversation. With her artwork, it’s more about feeling what she is showing you. It’s about getting lost in the tentacled tangles of unconscious creatures and denizens of a dreaming landscape. It’s about empathizing with the characters she shows us, or feeling the emotions of the animals and the contrasts in colors, textures and images.
Evlampia shows us a world pulled up from her unconscious and from the landscapes of her thoughts, emotions, daydreams and perceptions of the world around us.
Evlampia said this about her male-female-duo pieces, but I think it reflects quite a bit of her work:
“These are just fragments of my life and the life of my friends. Perhaps, you can also find a fragment from your life in these drawings. These are human emotions. Almost all of us tied a blanket as if it was a knight cloak. Here it is – the emotion when we did it.”
There’s almost something like a veil around a lot of Evlampia’s work—a veil like the veil of darkness in the woods at night, hiding the secret comings and goings of nocturnal beasts; a veil like the shroud of leaves, the hide of bark or the skin of grass and dirt hiding the secret societies of plants and insects; a veil like the stony face of rocky hills hiding the caverns and tunnels behind it.
The key is not to try pulling this veil out of the way, tearing at it with your hands, or prying at it with logic or theory, but delving into her artwork and exploring the visions and feelings she depicts for yourself. Explore the midnight fields and underground forests with knowingness and innocence, and let Evlampia’s art show what she was feeling and seeing when she made it. That’s the beauty of her work, the quiet things that suddenly become as loud as a symphony when you quiet your own mind.
“The unconscious is something that we once gave up, intentionally and accidentally. This happens under the influence of society, mostly. Everyone is dependent on the opinions of others and all strive for personal satisfaction. The approval of others is a joy for us. Therefore, everything that does not find a response, praise, or some kind of approval eventually goes out of our lives and turns into the unconscious. In some secret desires, in magical creatures, in the Treasury of our brain. Sometimes they go for a walk.”
I asked Evlampia a bit about her moniker, “Ginger Dragon Bones”, trying to see if I could pull back the veil a little here, and she replied with this:
“Once upon a time, there was a prince and he went to rescue a princess from a tower. The tower was guarded by a dragon, of course. He didn’t get to the princess. The dragon had a fire inside that made the dragon’s bones red hot. This sight was beautiful and terrible at the same time. Prince took the dragon, leaving the princess to rot in the tower. And they lived almost long and almost happily.
As with all of Evlampia’s artwork—all of its beauty and cruelty, all of its tenderness and terror—make of her story what you will. Don’t pry at the veil, delve into it.
Though I’ve only talked to Evlampia over the internet, she comes across as a very sweet person, and she is certainly a talented and incredibly imaginative artist deserving of your time. And despite the wild, fantastic visions depicted in her artwork, she seems like someone you’d want to have a conversation with over coffee, or go on a quiet walk with to discover the extraordinary details of an ordinary world.
I asked Evlampia a bit about her life and where she lived—mostly because I’ve never met her in person, and, despite being an admirer of hers, I don’t really know much about her beyond what I’ve talked with her about and what I can find on Instagram. She told me this:
“There are no unexciting things. There are incomprehensible ones. They will remain incomprehensible until you want to understand them.
“There won’t be enough time to find out everything.
“There is a saying, ‘The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.’ In my subjective opinion, my life is pretty standard. Yes, it is not limited to the usual route from home to work and back, but without circumnavigating the world, red carpets, skydiving and other standard attributes of ‘interesting’ life. Instead of this there are yellow-headed wagtails on the lake at 5 am, there is a delicious ginger coffee boiled for my arrival, there are night walks and observations of the tow truck taking incorrectly parked cars. All this is happening daily and right now.
“What is it like where I am?
“I am in balance. It’s like being on a tightrope over a precipice. But sometimes it’s like being on the seashore.
“Every bit of life is important. This is a lot of emotions that teach us something, lead us to something. They help you understand, make choices, and become aware of something. We make mistakes, try new things, meet people, break up with them, spend time apart. We are bored, we are happy, we are sad, we are angry, we are mad. All these moments are very important, whatever they may be. It doesn’t matter if they are good or bad.”
If you want to check out more of Evlampia’s work for yourself (and please do), you can find her on Instagram @ginger_dragon_bones. There, not only can you view her artwork, but you can also contact her about commissions, prints and other merch. Please give Evlampia’s art a look, and, if you enjoy her artwork, give her a follow.
I recently finished watching Netflix’s first German series, Dark, a sci-fi drama set in Winden, Germany. Dark is not only a rather philosophical show that delves into questions on human nature, morality, the philosophy of time and the nature of reality, but it is an incredibly well written show with a narrative that stands on the knife’s edge of complexity and cohesion.
While there’s much about the underlying philosophical themes I want to discuss in other articles in this article I want to focus on the narrative structure of Dark. It is an impressively complex show that manages to keep its storyline and character arcs cohesive, without any glaring plot holes or (with some exceptions) lazy writing.
However, in tangent, I also want to discuss something that has been interesting me for a few years now. The adoption of soap opera narrative structures into “non soap opera” genres.
Why? Because Dark was essentially a short and sweet soap opera involving time travel, parallel realities and philosophical and moral quandaries.
How to Write a Good Soap Opera
It was Game of Thrones that made me realize the vast majority of televised media is either mindless hypno-spirals or glorified soap operas. For anyone who isn’t already disappointed with Game of Thrones, it’s just a soap opera with swords, dragons and incest. Similarly, The Walking Dead is a soap opera about zombies and homeless people, and Breaking Bad is a soap opera about meth addicts and cancer patients.
Now, while the term “soap opera” can be a bit of a pejorative for those of us who aren’t fans of Days of Our Lives, being a soap opera isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Among the soap operas out there, some are good soap operas. Game of Thrones, for example, wasn’t bad. Until it was. Soap, a parody of soap operas (though, still essentially a soap opera), was a surprisingly good show. Among these not-bad soap operas are a few really good soap operas.
But what makes something a soap opera?
A soap opera is essentially an episodic, televised narrative with long story and character arcs, which are typically the focus of the show. We are given a stable, or at least semi-stable, ensemble cast of characters, each with their own unique circumstances, motivations, problems and goals.
While the problems of the characters may be interwoven, their goals and motivations either convergent or at odds, and their circumstances tangential, they are all fully-developed and dynamic characters, and each character typically has their own developed story arc.
The plot arcs of soap operas can span over several episodes, an entire season, or an entire series. An issue can be presented at the beginning of a series that isn’t resolved until the end of a series, or is never resolved at all. That problem might even morph into other problems as the series progresses, creating a train of causal story arcs like a line of dominoes.
Not only this, there can be a multitude of these domino chains going on at once, and usually there are. With each character possessing unique long-standing problems or goals, each character will have their own series of major plot events. On top of this, each character may have more than one plot or story arc, or sub-arcs related to major arcs—or, their arcs may, and usually inevitably will, overlap or interweave with other characters’ arcs. This soap opera style narrative is really nothing but unending drama.
Part of the intention of a soap opera is to end each episode leaving viewers wanting more. Each episode ends with a cliff hanger, some sort of big reveal, or a twist. There is no finality to a soap opera, there is only a continual tipping of dominoes. That’s why shows like Days of Our Lives have been on air for ridiculously long spans of time (50+ years).
However, the tropes and narrative style of a typical soap opera, which usually has pretty distinct aesthetics and subject matter as opposed to “non soap operas”, can be applied to “non soap opera” shows.
So then, the term “soap opera” might be better referred to as “longform drama” or “longform dramatic narrative”. It is a style of narrative that is not only designed to span chronologically over long breadths of time, but also to delve deeply into each character’s story arcs and growth, and it is a style of narrative designed to constantly engage the viewer with new developments that will not immediately be resolved.
This skeleton of longform narrative can then be applied to stories that aren’t typical daytime dramas. This is how you get aforementioned shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, or Game of Thrones. A lot of not-much-but-seems-important happens over the span of several hour-long episodes, and yet we are still thoroughly engaged with whatever is happening in the show.
The issue that can happen with these longform narratives is that they aren’t designed to end. They are designed to keep going, to add more drama and tension and side-stories and plot twists and Jimmy gets Angie pregnant, and how will so-and-so escape the zombies, and what happens now that so-and-so #2 gets shot by the mean drug dealer, and how will Daenerys save her dragon, but wait, there’s more, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum…
How do you end a show that isn’t designed to end? You end it quickly.
You either die with millions on the edge of their seat, or you live to see yourself become a stumbling disappointment. Or, somehow, you keep bored, pill-popping wino-housewives coming back for more, week after week. Month after month. Year after year. Decade after decade. Ad infinitum.
Breaking Bad did it right. 5 seasons. Near perfect story and character arcs, in keeping with the underlying moral themes of the show. Doesn’t overstay its welcome, leaves before it’s unwanted, and gets carried out on its shield like a G. Game of Thrones did it right, until they didn’t. And then, boy, did they not do it right. And, as much as I love Negan, Walking Dead should’ve died with Shane.
Wanna know who did stick the landing? Wanna know who didn’t overstay their welcome and who crafted a brilliant story while they were at it? Dark.
Dark, The SoapTime Continuum Opera
Dark used this narrative style—“soap opera” or “longform dramatic narrative”—almost perfectly, and caps off the series at season 3. Not only does Dark masterfully employ the soap opera narrative structure to a T, it goes beyond what the original masters of the art had ever imagined, with story arcs that span across future and present timelines, as well as parallel universes. Dark has transcended the original art of soap opera writing into something truly grand and beautiful.
On top of this, Dark escaped the downward spiral of good drama by knowing not only when to stop, but how to stop—how to stick the landing like a champ.
The story begins by introducing us to the lives of various characters and showing us their relationships to each other. There four primary families whom the show revolves around: the Nielsens, the Kahnwalds, the Tiedemanns and the Dopplers.
In the Nielsen family, Ulrich and Katharina Nielsen, and their children, Magnus, Martha and Mikkel.
In the Kahnwald family, there is Hannah and Michael Kahnwald, and their son, Jonas Kahnwald.
In the Tiedemann family, there is Aleksander and Regina Tiedemann, and their son, Bartosz.
In the Doppler family, there is Peter and Charlotte Doppler, and their children, Elisabeth and Franziska.
The show begins with Michael Kahnwald committing suicide. Jonas Kahnwald goes to a psychiatric ward for two months, and returns to find that his best friend, Bartosz, is dating is love interest, Martha. At the same time, Ulrich Nielsen is cheating on Katharina with Jonas’s mom, Hannah.
We find out that a teenage drug dealer named Erik Obendorf has gone missing, and this has raised alarm across the town of Winden. Ulrich, a police officer, is one of man who are searching for Erik, along with Charlotte Doppler, the chief of police/Ulrich’s boss. Charlotte’s daughter, Elisabeth, is deaf, and Charlotte’s other daughter, Franziska, is developing a romantic relationship with Magnus, Ulrich’s son.
At the same time, Charlotte is having tension with her husband, Peter Doppler. In later episodes, we find out this is because Peter cheated on her with a transgender prostitute named Bernadette. Also, Peter’s father/Charlotte’s father-in-law, Helge Doppler, who seems to be senile to some degree, begins ranting about how “it’s all happening again” or “it’s going to happen again.
This indirectly ties back to how Ulrich’s brother, Mads Nielsen, mysteriously disappeared in 1986, just how Erik disappeared, and Ulrich, among others, frequently questions if these events are somehow connected.
On top of this, Aleksander Tiedemann, Bartosz’s father, mentions that Winden’s nuclear power plant—which Aleksander runs—will soon be closing down, and also mentions that he’s been working there for 33 years (since 1986). Aleksander’s wife, Regina, co-owns a hotel with her husband which is currently going out of business because no one wants to visit a town where a child has gone missing.
Then, at the end of episode 1, Mikkel (one of the Nielsen children) goes missing.
What a way to start a show—that’s episode 1 (mostly)—and if that doesn’t sound like the pilot of a soap opera, I don’t know what would.
From here, the show is focused on the disappearance of Mikkel. Everyone in the town is now searching for two children. Charlotte Doppler now has to organize searches for Mikkel. Ulrich begins investigating Aleksander Tiedemann, who runs Winden’s nuclear power plant, which is near where Mikkel went missing.
In addition, tensions begin to build between all the characters, and every scene in the episodes after Mikkel disappears further develops the drama and the relationships established in the first episode (or, in some cases, proceeding episodes).
Ulrich stops seeing Hannah because he is focused on finding his missing son, but Hannah strongly desires Ulrich.
Hannah begins resenting Ulrich, while at the same time Katharina begins suspecting Ulrich of being unfaithful.
Ulrich also begins suspecting Erik’s father, Jurgen Obendorf, of being involved in Mikkel’s disappearance, because Jurgen works for Aleksander Tiedemann and at the nuclear plant (which is near where Mikkel went missing).
Magnus still is interested in Franziska, but is also angry at her because she was in the woods where Mikkel went missing the night of his disappearance.
Peter Doppler begins acting strange and emotional after the disappearance of Mikkel and the discovery of another child’s body, though we don’t know why.
We find out that Helge used to work at the power plant in 1986 (around the time Mads disappeared).
Martha begins distancing herself from Bartosz while trying to get closer to Mikkel.
This and more are all developed throughout the first season of the show, amidst the turmoil of searching for Mikkel.
However, in the third episode, it is revealed that Mikkel has travelled back in time to 1986 (the same year Ulrich’s younger brother went missing).
And here, the primary subject matter of the show is kicked off.
The show, really, is primarily focused on the plotlines associated with time travel (and eventually travel across parallel dimensions).
So now, we have three layers of the show:
Drama and relationships
Disappearance of Mikkel
But then, because of Time Travel, even more layers of the show are revealed.
And here is where the writers of Dark began to seriously impress me.
Because Mikkel travels back to 1986, and we begin witnessing events that occur while Mikkel is in 1986 Winden, a whole new layer of drama is created. We get to witness not only the drama and relationships of Winden in 2019, but also the drama and relationships of Winden in 1986.
On top of that, because we are witnessing events of the past, many of which involve characters in “present-day” Winden (Ulrich, Katharina, Regina, Hanna, Helge Doppler, Charlotte, etc.), we witness events that will eventually shape the future.
So, there are now two timelines going on. There is the 1986 timeline, where the future adults are high-schoolers, and the 2019 timeline, where the teenagers of 1986 are adults, and their children are now high-schoolers.
The 1986 timeline, while slightly simpler (in the beginning) than the 2019 timeline, still maintains a level of depth and dimensionality comparable to the 2019 timeline. There are complex relationships between characters, there are dramas, there are tensions, and there are major, impactful plot points. In addition, the 1986 plot-line informs the 2019 plot-line, so that what we know about 2019 is altered by 1986. In addition, the 2019 plot-line also informs the 1986 plot-line so that what happens in the “present” timeline informs us about characters and events in the “past” timeline.
If you don’t know how difficult this would be to write—and difficult to write with as many interesting, dynamic/3-dimensional characters and with as many intriguing, engaging plot points as Dark has—go try it for yourself. Give it shot.
Just try to write as good of a show or narrative with one longform narrative, and then try to write a parallel yet chronologically distinct narrative that is as complex and engaging, and maintains the narrative integrity of the other timeline (no plot holes), and informs us on the characters and events of the other timeline.
On top of this, there is an entire, mysterious sub-narrative involving mysterious figures that have come to Winden, and it is slowly revealed how they are connected to time travel and the missing children.
There’s two super-narratives or timelines going on—the 1986 narrative and the 2019 narrative. For each super-narrative, there’s close to a dozen characters with individual narratives, which all interweave and co-develop each other’s character and narrative. And then, these dozens of narratives inform the narratives of the other super-narrative and the individuals of that super-narrative. And then, there’s a sub-narrative that slowly begins developing even deeper implications about the show, the show’s plot and the characters of the show.
Now, here, I’ve only really discussed events that have happened in the first season, so I wouldn’t really call them spoilers. However, if you haven’t watched beyond the first season, or haven’t watched the show at all, here there be spoilers.
At the end of season 1, it is revealed that the future of Winden (circa 2052) is a dystopian. So now, a third timeline is created.
Throughout season 2, not only are the 1986/1987 and 2019/2020 timelines developed, but so is the 2052/2053 timeline (though not in as much depth). Season 2 also introduces the 1921 timeline (99 years prior to 2020) and the 1953 timeline, in which the adults of 1986 are now children.
In season 2, there are now five timelines. The 1921 timeline isn’t developed in as much depth as the others, but the 1953 timeline does have a number of characters who are either already established in the 1986 and 2019 timelines, or are otherwise important to the story.
By this point, characters have begun travelling across time to various other timelines, which means individual narratives now take place across various timelines or super-narratives. This also means that the primary focus of different timelines or super-narratives now take place across multiple super-narratives. The plot of Mikkel disappearing, for example, now develops across the 1953 timeline (where 2019 Ulrich travels), the 1986 timeline (where 2019 Mikkel travels), the 2019 timeline (where Mikkel’s family is still trying to find Mikkel and now Ulrich as well), and the 2053 timeline (where Jonas has traveled).
The boarder between timelines or super-narratives has now been all but eroded. Characters from various timelines travel to other timelines (teenage Jonas travels to 2053, then to 1921, where he meets the elderly Jonas and adult Jonas travels to 2020 and meets teenage Martha/adult Claudia from 1986 begins time travelling, and we are introduced to the elderly Claudia, who also time travels/adult Hannah travels back to 1921 and meets adult Ulrich, who is now trapped).
There are no real separate super-narratives across time anymore, these different timelines are not more or less treated as separate settings with different characters. However, the events that take place in past “settings” still have an effect on and inform us about future “settings”.
Finally, in season 3, not only are there all of the timelines and individual narratives established in the first two seasons, but there is now a parallel universe (we’ll call it Universe 2, or, more fittingly, the Emoverse) with its own timelines (though fewer timelines are established). In the first universe/set of timelines, the 1888 timeline is also established.
In addition, a third universe is eventually established, which is the “original” reality, from which Universe 1 and the Emoverse are created.
Okay, so now we have Universe 1, which contains 6 timelines, the Emoverse, or Universe 2, which contains a small number of timelines, and the original universe (which only has one established timeline). From each universe and each timeline are characters who not only travel across time, but their actions in various timelines both cause and inform events in future timelines, or are caused by or are informed by the events of past timelines.
However, because people time travel, someone could travel to the year 2053, and then an event in 2053 will cause a change in that character’s personality. Then, if that character travels to the year 1921, anything caused by that character will essentially have been the result of what happened in 2053. So, the events of the future can influence the events of the past.
And, because people can now travel to parallel realities, the events that happen in one universe can (through the actions of characters) influence the events that happen in another universe.
This gets incredibly complicated. As as “simple” example, the events of 2053 can influence the events of 1921, which can influence the events of 2020, which can influence the events of 1986, which can influence the events of Universe 2’s 2053, which can influence the event’s of Universe 1’s 1888, which can influence the events of Universe 2’s 2020, which can influence the events of Universe 1’s 2053 (which we already established influenced the events of Universe 1’s 1921, which influenced the events of 2020).
The weakest points of the show may come in season 3, and they come simply because of the incredible complexity of the multitude of narratives that are occurring simultaneously across time and across parallel realities. Ironically, and somewhat paradoxically, because the show is now so complicated—because there’s so much going on—much of the second half of season 3, feels simplified and rushed.
The first half of season 3, however, feels tedious and slow (and the Emoverse is really depressing). Not only that, but you get the sinking feeling that this show is going to go on forever. It suddenly feels like a soap opera that is in year 3 of a 50 year reign, and the characters are just going to keep time travelling and universe-hopping—and, now, you can just keep adding more universes and more timelines—and god fucking knows how long this show is going to go on.
There’s, like, 20 new characters that are suddenly added to the show (though some of them are just Emo versions of other characters), and we have to completely learn and relearn the backstories and motivations and goals and conflicts of completely new characters and timelines, and, at this point, we’ve completely stopped giving a shit about the missing Mikkel (because, as we find out, Mikkel is actually Jonas’s dad who commits suicide at the beginning of the show, so the Mikkel plot is really just an empty loop that eventually only serves to develop Jonas’s story and character arc).
The show now is incredibly complex. There’s nearly 70 characters in season 3, most of which are the same characters from different timelines, and over 70 if you count the different versions of characters from the parallel universes. The show takes place across ~10 timelines in two separate universes (three once the original reality is introduced). Not only are there parallel universes, but there’s parallel timelines in parallel universes (timelines, say, where Jonas did or did not die, timelines where Martha did or did not travel to a parallel universe, and timelines where Martha did or did not die).
What was once a beautiful, magnificent storyboard has now become an omnipotent yet grotesque, uncomfortable-to-watch monster, much like Tetsuo at the end of Akira, and there is no hope for an end in sight.
But then, the second half of season 3 comes, and the second half of season 3 is where the story becomes rushed. Rather than the slow and deliberate, yet engaging and thought-provoking events of the first two seasons, the second half of season 3 runs through various plot points and important developments in character arcs at a sprint.
For example, the adult Jonas, who has essentially become Nicolas Tesla in the 1888 timeline, seemingly morphs into Darth Vader overnight, and his transformation from 1888 to 1921 is glossed over, the events only implied.
A lot happens in only a few episodes, and a lot happens exponentially fast in only a few episodes.
While the events leading up to the climax of Dark are certainly rushed, the silver lining is that the show does end at the finale of season 3. Not only does it end, all the events of the show are wrapped up quite gracefully and thoughtfully, and with a bittersweet, nostalgic cherry on top (I won’t spoil this. Either you know what happens, or you don’t.)
Season 3 gets rocky, but the show sticks the landing.
Dark gets almost overwhelmingly complex and, ironically, over-simplified and rushed in season 3, but it all comes to an end quite gracefully.
What Dark Got Right Narratively
Looking back on Dark after watching the final episode, what the creators of this show did was incredibly ambitious, and I do criticize the show both respectfully and cautiously.
Season 1 of Dark was a master-class on writing an engaging and multi-dimensional narrative, and Season 2 was something beyond a master-class. While Season 2 certainly did have its faults, and the narrative got a bit muddied at times, the sheer scope of what they accomplished was mind-blowing.
I dare you to write one good season of a “soap opera”. Now, go write one good season of four “soap operas” occurring simultaneously, with the events and characters of each “soap opera” influencing the events and characters of all the other “soap operas”. Season 2 really did push the envelope of what one can do with a longform narrative. Granted, Dark is not the only series to have done this.
Time travel and parallel realities have been a staple in comic book series for decades now. God knows how many novels and book series have explored both of these themes. And TV series like NBC’s Heroes have created longform narratives with time travel and parallel realities in them. But no TV series has quite fleshed out the possibilities of what one can do with this sort of narrative quite like Dark has done.
The show is admirably detailed in story structure, and times incredibly clever and subtle. And the writing, beyond being structurally impressive, is just good. The character development isn’t the best of all time, but it’s certainly nothing to scoff at. There’re some clichés in the beginning, some lazy spots, especially as the show begins wrapping up, and definitely some cringe moments (like Jonas getting his parallel-universe aunt/great-great-great-grandmother pregnant (which means Jonas is both his own great-great-great-grandfather and his own uncle-in-law)), but the ratio of good writing to bad writing drastically skews towards good.
On top of this, the show uses its narrative to explore not only the events and causality of time travel and parallel universes, but also the associated philosophy, paradoxes and moral problems that arise from them. The narrative structure of the show is inherently important to the underlying meaning of the show (that’s how you can spot a meta-level writer).
Season 3 of Dark maybe wasn’t the best season of television/web-series history, but it wasn’t necessarily bad. It was maybe just overly ambitious and had abstracted itself too far from the narrative of season 1 and 2. It was certainly still fun and engaging, the twists and turns of the show were rapid-fire at this point, and the philosophical conundrums were dialed up to 11 (such as: Is it okay to have sex with your aunt if she’s from another universe?).
The ending of season 3 was executed well enough that it more than redeemed some of the faults of prior episodes, and left me wishing there was more (and glad that wish wasn’t granted).
In short, the show is kinda brilliant. Is it a soap opera? Yes, but so is every other show you like. Does it have its faults? Yes, but it’s an ambitious show, and it lives up to many of its ambitions. Am I done talking about Dark? Probably not. There’s still more to write about, though I might not write more about Dark in the immediate future. Nonetheless, if you’re interested in the show, keep an eye out for future articles, and thank you for reading.
Depicting visions of madness, surreal hellscapes and realms outside our scope of understanding, Mason Laufer is a New York based artist who uses photo-editing software to create surreal environments and a menagerie of abyssal and otherworldly creatures. Mason’s dark, eldritch visions draw on a broad spectrum of influences, including psychology, religion, occultism, science fiction, horror and more. Beyond just what Mason creates, how Mason creates and his inner motivations to grow and create are just as interesting. As deep as Mason reaches into dark pits of the unknown below, Mason reaches equally as high into bright vaults of potential above.
Mason and I quickly connected on a number of subjects when we first started talking with each other, and my respect for him and his work only grew as I learned more and more about his journey from playful, creative experiments to making a leap into the unknown, starting his own art business at the onset of the Covid Pandemic.
“[…] I never had any formal art training past simply doing the required art classes throughout school. I was always frustrated because I was not naturally gifted artistically in the slightest. Both my handwriting and my drawing abilities have been poor since I was young. Which forced me into other creative avenues. […] I honestly just started making fun photo edits as inside jokes with my best friend. Eventually, I would just make stuff with photoshop type apps in my free time. The idea that I had a talent for it didn’t come about until my best friend said that some of my stuff was actually really good. So, I slowly started taking it more seriously.
“Once I learned about being able to promote your art on Instagram, I decided to convert my personal account to an account for art. […] And then I decided to go full out on creating an art business when I stopped going to work at the start of Covid. So, I spent my stimulus check on my new iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. And I began teaching myself how to paint digitally. So, I didn’t have any formal training, I just watched a lot of tutorials as I had all the time in the world since I didn’t work.”
All the causes and effects of the Pandemic, and of course all its eventual outcomes, are yet to be seen. Some of the effects I’ve been interested in is how the Pandemic will affect things music, writing and art. While the effects of the Pandemic on live performance have been devastating, the effects on online media have been particularly positive, and Mason’s story is an example of this.
What potential is lying in wait for those who can seek it? What opportunities might have been shaken loose by the world in wake of catastrophe? What experiments with art, music, writing, business, travel and so on are hanging ripe and ready to be picked by those who reach out to grasp them?
Of course, Mason’s story is not as simple as this, and the subject matter underlying his artwork is not something arbitrary he stumbled on one day. Mason’s art has roots spread across a number of creative genres, intellectual traditions and religious and occult teachings, and these roots of course dig into Mason’s own personal history.
The subjects and settings of Mason’s pieces vary widely, though they bimodally tend toward either the surreal or the occult, with both containing dark or weird elements.
Many pieces depict strange, monstrous entities, giants with flayed skin and flesh, or prehistoric, alien wastelands. In one image, there is a tropical landscape with a river or lake at its center. In the foreground is a woman or girl in a white dress, and in the background is a tentacled behemoth with a transparent, grid-lined head. This gives the impression not only of some dark, aquatic god wandering deep in some primal landscape, untouched by humanity, but of something that exists outside the bounds of knowledge and reason, something existing beneath, through and above our reality.
In another image, the skeletons of dinosaurs wander and fly through a dead, desert landscape. There is an eye hanging above the desert, beaming red light onto the land below it, and the hybrid of a skull and nautilus shell in the foreground. This seems almost like a mix between Salvador Dali’s surrealism and the imagination of weird sci-fi pulp authors.
Another depicts a woman held in the clouds by the tentacled embrace of some half-seen monstrosity, dangling in the heavens like a goddess in the embrace of an otherworldly demon-god.
On the darker and more occult side, there are depictions of skeleton, abyssal entities haunting the depths of forests, or fiery, volcanic bull-gods emerging in ashen storms from the violent eruptions of a volcano. Many pieces depict the body in a half-corpse form, or even as a completely mangled body devoid of any humanity.
There’s an unsettling violence done unto the body, an anti-worship of the flesh as foul, horrible, mangled subject than as something beautiful or sacred. The bloody, fleshy chaos beneath our skin is exposed, revealing the madness of the true human form we all try to ignore. Perhaps these fleshy, maddening bodies are one in the same with the fleshy, tentacled bodies of the ancient gods that roam primeval and ruined landscapes of ancient and forgotten realms.
There is a disfigured, horrifying creature that lurks just under our skins, and we constantly seek to ignore this vile, terrible vision, just as we constantly seek to ignore the terrible visions of reality and the cosmos that lurk just under the illusions of our perception. The monsters Mason depicts stalking the woods, lumbering through jungles or peering through caves are monsters stalking, lumbering and peering through our own perception of reality—the fear we have of what hunts in the dark; the dread of those forces we cannot understand, cannot reason with, cannot intervene upon; the anxiety of being seen, being watched, being known by things unknowable; and the imposed self-ignorance of the chaos beneath our skin.
Addressing how Mason came up with his ideas, he said:
“I always keep a note page of ideas so that whenever I hear a word or phrase that I like, I just write it down in my ‘idea cauldron’ haha. That way I always have content to pull from. But usually I go off whatever idea I’m super into at that moment. I follow the idea and then make something from that. I also like to consume media a lot because seeing and reading and observing is what will start the sparks of ideas in my head. Consuming topics I’m interested in is like the gas to the fire of my brain in a way. It fuels my creativity.
“[…] usually I like to free associate. So, I open my mind when consuming any kind of media to allow thoughts to connect and make new ideas. So, super imagery-heavy texts like The Divine Comedy allow my brain to make connections and basically brainstorm in real time. Sometimes, a simple phrase can trigger some sort of connection in my head that I then visualize and write down what I’m thinking so I can [actualize] it later. A lot of what I make usually comes from just reading articles about topics I’m into or source material from those topics. One book that I pull ideas from often is the book of House of Leaves. The fascination of an imperceptible paradox challenges me to dive deeper and really try to personify what should be impersonifiable.”
I found Mason’s style of generating ideas quite interesting, and his methods of free association harkened back to some of my favorite thinkers: the psychoanalysts. There’s a blend of conscious effort and unconscious “fishing” or “farming”, where one goes out and consciously gathers various ideas, lets them grow and blend in the unconscious, and gather whatever fish or fruit come to the surface. This half-conscious, half-unconscious approach is definitely reflected in many of his pieces.
Mason spoke at length about the sprawling collection of influences that inspired his work, much of which I resonated with as personal influences or inspirations as well:
“[…] a lot of my art is obviously on the darker side, thematically. That’s just honestly the kind of stuff I’ve always been interested in. Growing up in a strict Catholic household, and going to Catholic school, I know much more about the Bible and Christianity than most. I never really bought into religion, however, I fixated on the darker aspects of the faith as early as 5 years old. The idea of fire and brimstone, Lucifer and Revelation were so fascinating to me. So, I dug deeper, and began to incorporate those elements into my writing, which was easy to transfer over to my art.
“I started reading books on these subjects and the imagery of hell and devils, The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost being two of my favorites. Such beautiful imagery being used to describe such horrors really captivated my mind. It wasn’t until college that I started doing research on my own time into other forms of this literature. It’s almost as if it was sort of a subconscious rebellion against my upbringing to be naturally drawn to the most taboo topics. I started reading books on demonology, satanism, hermeticism, paganism, books on serial killers, the paranormal, true crime. And for some reason, delving into the darkest subjects was where I felt the most at ease.
“I really more recently started getting into the idea of cosmic horror. So, naturally I consumed all of HP Lovecraft, John Carpenter, Cronenberg, Albert Camus, etc. I loved the challenge that the genre posed to creatives—describing and depicting the unknowable and indescribable. I took these elements of the unknown and used what I’d learned in classes I took in college, namely a class on the American Gothic, and a Film Horror class. So, I guess I brought a completely different and unconventional set of skills and interests into art with no real knowledge on art theory. So, I could see art through a different lens than most artists.
“Other more passive influences would be artists of the surrealism movement, such as my favorite artists, Francis Bacon, as well as Salvador Dali and strangely enough his lesser-known poetry that he wrote. Again, I loved the ethereal and musical imagery they used.”
Thematically and visually, Mason draws on a number of disparate yet complementary creative traditions. From writers like Dante and Milton, we get dream-like or nightmarish, or even hallucinogenic, visions of hell and its denizens, and heaven and its lofty, inarticulable grandeur—which much of modern horror, fantasy and sci-fi still struggle to match in scope. From authors who mastered elements of either existential absurdism or cosmic nihilism—among the few who have managed to match the scope of ancient mythologies—Mason draws on the vastness of reality, the inexplicable nature of being that escapes humanity except in fleeting moments of enlightenment or maddening visions of the infinite. And then, from the surrealists, Mason blends these mythological and cosmic elements into artistic visions that carry the torch of modern art’s rebellious, reality-warping ventures.
However, these influences on Mason go deeper than just aesthetic considerations, and Mason explained to me how many of these influences impacted him and his outlook on life:
“Growing up in that [Catholic] environment was very repressive to growing emotionally mature. Entering adulthood, I felt very sheltered and naïve about the complicated grey nature of most things as opposed to the black and white, right and wrong view that Catholicism teaches. Thankfully, I was a curious child and always loved learning and attaining more knowledge on things I found interesting. So, this allowed me to learn to critically think, which led to a lot of questioning what I was being taught as I got older. I would research on my own, not just blindly follow an ideology that I didn’t believe in. I think that helped me to form this fascination with the grey that exists between good and evil, how there is actually a lot of beauty behind most concepts that we are afraid of.
“But people are so ingrained in believing that dark topics are bad and not to look into them. I began immersing myself in this world and finding that by not allowing the darkness into our minds, that we are repressing a major part of our nature. So, I let the dark thoughts in and let them have their space. And I found that the more I did this, the more I found peace and the less afraid I was of things like death, pain, horror, evil. They say the root of fear is that of the unknown. But a lot of times that’s because we don’t allow it to BE known. We shun the very idea of it. By letting it in and acknowledging it, it actually makes us less afraid.
“And as far as the Occult, if people took the time to really look into those ideas, they’d find that the methods of living these faiths suggest are much healthier emotionally and mentally than traditional religion. Applying these ideas into my mental health has actually made me so much happier in general than I used to be. Using magick and rituals are actually just a form of meditation and mindfulness. Creating sigils and doing rituals actually [act] as positive affirmation. At their core, it’s not about ‘worshipping demons, or believing in hell and monsters and suffering.’ It’s actually about believing in yourself. They teach you to create the positive change that you desire in life, as opposed to following archaic teachings rooted in fear of eternal damnation and a vengeful creator. These ideas open your mind to the grey area. It’s taught me how to be more emotionally healthy, much more empathetic, and just generally in tune with humanity.”
For some, it can be difficult to accept the beliefs and practices of others, and people often choose to close their minds—whether consciously or unconsciously—to the ways and wills of others.
While there are certainly some who take occult practices too far (just as anyone can take anything to far), I’ve always found Pagan and occult beliefs, from Wicca to Satanism, to be far different than most people assume.
Satanism, for example—easily the most misunderstood practice or belief system in the West—is focused on life-affirming actions, individualism and personal growth and self-education. Really, Satanism seems to be focused on freedom—on freeing oneself from constraints of society, from moral or cultural conformity, from intellectual or ideological tyranny—and, more particularly, the freedom to become the Individual one desires to become. While some aspects of such beliefs, such as the more hedonic side of Satanism some people practice, could come under practical scrutiny, the broader implications of Satanic practices and other occult or Pagan practices are to question and challenge authority and belief systems; break down barriers to sources of knowledge or different states of mind; and live life according to your own values, rather than values hand down to you by the dictates of society.
The darker aspects of occult practices and aesthetics are often not a worshiping or revelry in the horrors they depict, but an acknowledgement of them, as Mason explained. In conjunction with the ideas and states of mind society and culture can obstruct, or even attempt to annihilate, there are entire portions or aspects of reality that people try to hide or ignore. People try to hide, suppress or mask the realities of sex, violence and madness. People try to hide the extreme, indifferent cruelty of existence. People comfort themselves with illusory stories and narratives, and attack anyone who questions those narratives.
Occultism is often not a conformity or worship to these darker aspects of reality, or to another narrative involving these darker realities, but simply an acknowledgement of these things.
Mason’s art reveals these dark aspects. Mason’s art pushes down boundaries into the unknown, and opens doors of perception into darker vistas of the cosmos. Mason depicts visions of what most would want to avert their eyes and their minds from—showing us without fear the monsters, demons and dark gods that inhabit the grey spaces and the inarticulable architectures of the cosmos and the unconscious.
As previously mentioned, Mason has begun developing a business with his art, and is currently broadening his horizons online.
“Yeah actually since you sent me these questions I’ve opened up a print shop to sell merchandise on. I’m starting out with prints and in a bit I will start doing shirts and hoodies and stickers maybe! As far as album art goes, I’ve done some commissions doing album art and it’s been a good format for that. Now I just put some of my designs up on an art grab account so people can buy the license to any of the pieces that I post and use it for whatever they want. It’s mainly intended for album art so I figured that may streamline the process for people looking for that kind of thing!
“I’m still exploring what other avenues there may be in regards to showcasing my art on a larger scale and finding new ways to monetize my stuff. Ideally I’d like to build my own website to use as a portfolio/blog so I don’t have to rely on Instagram’s fickle nature. It’s always a bit unnerving to know that they can shut me down or do whatever they want at any moment without my input, but it’s really been the best medium to build an audience.”
Give Mason some support by checking out his profile on Instagram, @bleede_art . There you can check out his artwork, follow him if you want see his art as it comes out, and check out the link to his merch and artwork.
Hailing from Dallas, TX, David Coffey’s is an artist whose figurative style and darker undertones and themes I quickly resonated with. Ranging across themes of power, abuse, human duality and beauty, David’s artwork expresses tangled and conflicting aspects of human nature, much of which we are averse to confronting in our waking lives, but are ever-present in our psyches.
David has been creating art since childhood and, as with many underground artists and creators, is self-taught.
“I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember. My love for art began with sketching during class at school, continued into drawing while lying on the carpet floor of my room as a boy, and I’ve never stopped drawing since. I didn’t start painting until just about 2 years ago, so that’s been a learning experience. I never have had any formal training. I use a lot of books, tutorials, and such to learn. I also just experiment a lot to see how things turn out. I try to imitate things that I really like. My greatest inspiration is other artists both living and dead. They are my teachers.”
Despite the many faults of living in this Digital Era, one of the great benefits—possibly one of the greatest benefits—is the access that everyone now has to information and education that might have previously been barred from many because of money or circumstance. While books and various forms of public access to them have been around for hundreds of years, the sheer level of information that can be accessed now is unprecedented, and it’s a tool that few seem to really appreciate.
So, I wonder how many artists and other creators like David—how many people even outside the arts—we’ll hear about in the coming years who found success from circumventing traditional routes of education and taking their talents and ambitions into their own hands.
David spoke quite a bit about some of his influences and inspirations, which span across historic eras and artistic genres:
“[…] my love of art began with comic book art as a boy. I still adore comic book art. Since around my teenage years I’ve been enamored with a number of famous artists: Picasso, Van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Bosch, Baselitz, Philip Guston, Max Beckmann, and others. I pretty much like anything that’s in the modern art time period. I also adore Japanese art of all flavors from the old school landscapes to contemporary stuff and Manga art.”
“[…] I’ve been reading [comics] ever since I was a boy and still at it. Swamp Thing (old and new), Watchmen, Sandman, Hellboy, anything by Charles Burns, Fables, Books of Magic, Paper Girls, Saga, Buddha (by Tezuka), Bone, Amulet, The Walking Dead, to name a few in my collection.”
“Yes, my Doppelgänger and Nephilim [series] definitely have some Bacon influence. They are dark in theme, have a fairly solid background, and involve a lot of chance and improvisation both within the body structures and the textured backgrounds.”
In David’s first figurative series, his “Artist Portraits” series, many of these famous artists emerge on canvas in a blend of David’s and the artist’s style. His comic book and manga influence likewise can be seen throughout many of his series, whether as reference material or as thematic inspiration for some of his work.
Regarding his art process and how he plans or organizes his pieces, David discussed quite thoroughly how his pieces come to be:
“I think about a larger general idea I’d like to explore, such as power or exploitation, I think about what sort of human figures I’d like to experiment with, some general thoughts about style and composition, and how many I’d like to include in the set. […].
“I don’t tackle any details at all until I start working on an individual painting. When I’m focusing on a single painting, I usually begin with source images that I want to use for composition. […] From there, I start making vague decisions about other elements that I’ll include in the painting (such as including snakes to the interact with the main character) and what colors I might like to use.
“On the actual canvas, I usually begin with a pencil sketch that is very close to the original pic I’m using as a basis. From there I alter the pencil markings. This is pretty intuitive, so I just keep changing things until I see what I like. The pencil serves as a basic sketch for where I might place paint. The painting process is super intuitive. I have ideas about what I might like to do, but I rarely make decisions beyond what I’m doing in the moment. I change colors often, experiment with movements and blends, add, cover, etc. It’s really just a constant work of adding and covering elements that I don’t like. I evaluate the work about every 30 seconds or so.”
The process of creation is something I’ve personally been interested in. The mechanical aspects of various forms of creation are endlessly fascinating. Composition, color arrangement, grammar, narrative structure, chord progressions—these are all the architectures of paintings, music and stories we’ve all come to love. But then there’s this sort of black-box of intuition, where the mechanics of art end and the subtler mechanics of the psyche begin. There’s a sort of jumping off point, a place where you’re swimming in open water.
With David’s work, this jumping off point comes as soon as the brush begins spreading color across the canvas. There’s the underlying structure of the sketch, and the themes he plans to incorporate, and then it’s all based on intuition from there.
Beginning with his “Artist Portraits” series, there is a lean towards figuratism, as well as expressionist and impressionist styles. For each different artist, David mixed the style of the artist with his own personal way of painting, making portraits that reflect both his and the artist’s work.
“The artist series was an attempt to explore some of my favorite artists by incorporating elements of their style into a portrait. I was the one making it thought so it actually was more about me than them and how I thought about them, what I wanted to learn from them and their lives. […] I mostly chose artists that I admire and that I personally felt provided major breakthroughs in the art world, but that’s just according to my own bias.”
These portraits include Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh and William de Kooning. The one exception to this blending of styles seems to be with Leonardo da Vinci, where, rather than blend styles, David includes personal, childhood icons with his portrait of a man who made incredibly iconic pieces of art.
In the next series, the “Nephilim” series, David pushes his artwork into an almost surreal space of impressionist figuratism—which carries on into the series after it, “Doppelgänger”. This series consists of incredibly muscular—at times grotesquely muscular—figures painted in a style that blends abstract with impressionist. The figures in these paintings strike intimidating and violent poses, and are presented over backgrounds of layered and textured color. However, the most striking feature of these paintings are the unreal, bulging, chorded muscles of the Nephilim—showing the unhealthy excess of power each possesses.
“The Nephilim is basically about power and how it leads to destruction and isolation. Some of the stories of the Nephilim were based off of biblical accounts, extra biblical accounts, and some of it I just made up in a growing narrative. […] The figures were all inspired by comic book art. I chose some of my favorite comic drawings as source material for the forms, mostly coming from modern Swamp Thing comics and Animal Man.
“I did a lot of experimenting with using markers, various acrylics and sealants to get the affects. Lots of back and forth between drawing with black sharpie, covering it with white paint, letting it dry, adding a sealant, adding more marker, etc. They are better to see in person because they have so many layers they actually have very thick textures. Some of them are actually quite heavy and have deep grooves.”
In much of David’s lore surrounding the Nephilim, there are themes of isolation and corruption, and we spoke about these themes in tandem together.
My primary thoughts were, does corruption lead to an isolation from the larger community? Or does isolation lead to corruption? Do we seek power because of our own corruption? Or does the search for and eventual gaining of power corrupt us?
Or, coming around to the first questions, is it powerlessness and isolation that urges us towards seeking power, and having that power as an isolated, “evicted” individual spurn us toward abuse of that power onto the community that expulsed us?
These are a complicated tangle of ideas to parse apart, and it was interesting hearing David’s take on the themes:
“[…] I believe the corruption is both passed down and generated through personal actions. […] Though perhaps they desired to use it for good, the nature of the world must win out. Yes, their form does evolve over time. The more they use their power for evil, the more deformed their bodies become. The black form (the last in the series) is almost a purely spiritual form, but, in a sense, in the end the nephilim become fallen angles just like their fathers.
“I think power pretty much always lead to corruption, at least that’s all I’ve ever seen or experienced in this life. But I like your point that isolation could also lead to a hunger for power. A desire to change one’s destiny or perhaps hurt those who put one into a position of isolation. The thought that the ability to change circumstances and overcome others would lead to happiness is an interesting one. It’s very natural to think that way, but false I believe. […] All that being said, I don’t believe power itself is bad. I think there is a possibility of it being used for good…”
This corrupting influence—whether an inherited disfiguration or a maladaptation evolved across time—can be seen in the bodies of the Nephilim and in the heads and faces.
While the bodies certainly do have grotesquely muscular, powerful forms, it’s their heads transformed the most, and in many ways heads and faces communicate an individual’s identity.
With Nephilim #3 and #5, the rectangular and spherical-headed Nephilim, there’s a transformation to simplicity in shape, expression and simplicity, and a sort of self-dehumanization.
With Nephilim #3, the rectangular head reflects a flatness—an almost uni-dimensional, machine-like personality, devoid of warmth, compassion or empathy. It looks cold and calculating, like a computer screen, and the narrowness of its eyes and mouth might be the narrowness of its vision—it’s vision of power—and the narrowness of its ability to communicated with others—a narrowness of empathy and an inability to socially connect.
With Nephilim #5, the shape of its head is roughly spherical, but it’s like a head that’s been crudely molded and can’t decide what it is. It lacks any expression except for it’s tiny, slitted eyes and enormous, toothy mouth. This giant has lost any defining features, its vision has been narrowed to a tiny slit, and its mouth appears to be useful for little more than violence, consumption and animalistic vocalizations.
Following a similar thread as the “Nephilim”, the “Doppelgänger” series features surreal, heavily muscled figures over a textured background of simple colors. With the “Doppelgänger” series, David pushes both the surreal musculature of his figures and a darker, more abstract vision of human nature through their entangled forms.
“The doppelgänger series is about a personal belief in the dual nature of humans. I personified it in these figures. A lot of it relates to personal inner conflicts I’ve had throughout my life. The forms are inspired by comic book art again. I did get more experimental with the forms than in the ‘Nephilim’. […]
“In my view most of the interactions are negative. Either one form dominates the other or the forms are in conflict. There is a very strong undercurrent of violence and domination. When I drew details on the forms, I got more abstract with the muscle forms sometimes making it close to a vegetative or organic bubbly form. This was all very intuitive. I used the basic shapes as my guide but created lines from a moment to moment basis.”
The “Doppelgänger” series immediately struck me when I first look through it. There’s a tremendous intensity to many of these forms, and the various emotions of each piece seem to be ripping out of each figure’s bodies (perhaps the internal force that’s turning these subject’s muscles into such grotesque shapes). The extreme musculature shows the power of these forces, but their inhumanness and occasional grotesqueness show how they warp the subject into something equally inhuman or grotesque.
As David alluded to in his explanation of the pieces, with the doppelgängers, there seems to be this sort of reversion into a chaotic state, where the bodies of the figures are turning into stringy, tubular, or wet, bubbling, oozing states. The figures seem to be returning to the chaotic state of nature—to the bubbling, swampy morasses of life that we come from: the violent, grotesque state of nature modernity often tries to ignore, but that is ever present.
Doppelgänger #7, the white-background doppelgänger, is beating its identical twin—its clone, copy or its self—into a thick, viscous, frothing foam. The muscles on its body are on the verge of bursting—of popping with blood and bulging flesh—and even parts of its body seem to be turning into this bubbling, oozing material.
There’s this blend of violence done unto the self, or possibly of self-domination and self-submission, and this reversion into a primordial, hyper-violent chaotic state—the animalistic and grotesque reality humans have emerged from.
Doppelgänger #3, the red-background doppelgänger, similarly has this reversion into a dissolving, deindividualizing state. The muscles have lost any real resemblance to a healthy body, and are more like piles of intestines strung up on a skeleton frame. The two bodies are intertwined to the point where its difficult to tell which limbs belongs to which body, and, at certain points, there seems to be an entire dissolution of a concrete, bodily form. There’s just this fleshy, dripping entanglement where individuality reverts to primordial flesh and organs.
Finally, there is David’s “Siren/Muse” series, which is David’s latest and still ongoing series. Here, David takes a large leap from the style of his previous two series, but still retains elements of his figurative style, and explores similarly dark and all-too-human themes.
“For the ‘Siren/Muse’ set, I really wanted to go with more colorful figures that were females. I didn’t want them to look aggressive or violent, so I gave them more of an anime inspired smooth appearance. I also wanted to convey a sense of ‘fake-ness’. […].
“This series is basically about a potential danger in the pursuit of beauty. Hence the toxic creatures. It made sense to meld music and art. They accomplish a lot of the same things. I also liked exploring the myth of the sirens and the myth of the muses. I do think they’re related. I guess with the siren there’s a draw toward sex that ends in destruction. With the muses there is a desire for inspiration and the ability to create perhaps at the expense or abuse of the muse herself. I think those are both about creation in a way. Both can end in the abortion of a desire. Both can consume and ultimately destroy. I really love contradiction and contrast.”
When I was first reading David’s explanation of this, I was reminded of story arc in the Sandman comic book series where an author has kidnapped one of the Greek muses and sexually exploits her in order to find inspiration for his books. I brought this up with David, and found that this was indeed part of the inspiration for this series.
“So glad you mentioned the Sandman story about the muse. That actually was what first got this idea for the siren/must series percolating in my mind! What an amazing story (by the way, Sandman is probably my fav comic series of all time). I was so drawn to the idea of someone abusing a muse in order to get inspiration it made me think that perhaps that is a deeper truth about the lengths people will go to grasp fame or fortune, much like the writer did in that story.
“It also melds the idea of sexual dominance, but really again just a picture of abuse for personal gain. I guess when you think in terms of a siren though the tables are turned. The female is in the position of power.”
As with our conversations over David’s other sets, our conversation of “Siren/Muse” delved down its own rabbit hole.
In modernity, there is a tension between fact and opinion. This tension likely goes deeper than most people realize, but one of the most obvious tensions comes from beauty and aesthetic. Can something be objectively beautiful? Is there anything that can be said to be truly beautiful?
Or is everything regarding beauty and aesthetic just an arbitrary illusion of the mind? Is there a tangible reality or truth to beauty? Or is it all arbitrary opinion?
“I do think there is definitely something objective about beauty, but I’m not really sure what it is. I just know that people often agree on what is beautiful, but if it were totally subjective maybe that wouldn’t happen as often. For me though, beauty is just what I find physically appealing to my eyes. The structure, composition, color, framing, etc. so many things go into it. And the more refined your eye becomes the more you are able to appreciate beauty, like a fine wine.
“Personally, I’m obsessed with beautiful things because I love to consume them with my eyes. It’s much like enjoying a good steak or tasty beer. It’s very visceral to me and just flat out pleasing to my soul. But beauty can also be a marker that points to something beyond it. A deeper truth or a more lofty ideal. This is what creates such strong emotional reactions and perhaps has something to do with why people sometimes seek to destroy it.”
David’s “Siren/Muse” set has only just been started, with two completed pieces so far. One features a blonde-haired pop singer with green snakes emerging from behind her—similar, I would say, to not only the sirens and muses, but the gorgons as well. We have a beautiful woman, whose face implies pleasure, in front of a microphone onstage, with snakes surrounding her and facing the audience while her eyes are closed.
There’s a sort of narcissism here, being the center of attention and finding pleasure in one’s own existence as the center of attention. There are also a number of quasi-sexual phallic elements here, one being the microphone in front of the woman’s lips, the others being the snakes emerging from the woman herself. The microphone is where the singer projects herself—the center of her self-pleasuring narcissism, as well as the tool by which she holds the crowd’s attention.
Every man in the crowd might wish they could take the place of the microphone, and let the singer speak—or more—to them. The microphone might actually be the stand-in or an idol representing every man in the audience, almost like a voodoo doll by which she can manipulate from afar.
But this also comes at a cost, as everyone in the audience is ogling her. She loses her identity as well, and becomes simply an object of desire, just like the microphone is every man being turned into a tool to derive attention from. She is no longer who she was before she got dressed, put on her makeup and went on stage, she has become a sexual and artistic or musical object—her trade for siphoning the audience’s attention.
The snakes also hold additional meaning, as the snakes are what make her unapproachable. Though all eyes are on the singer, though every man in the audience wishes he could be the microphone she sings to, she is also writhed in fear and danger. Just as when we see someone we are attracted to, and freeze in fear, unable to think clearly or do anything but act like an idiot, we see the beautiful woman on stage singing to us, but we also see the fear of death around her like a venomous halo.
How often then do we seek to abuse, deface and destroy these beautiful things we are afraid of?
At times, these living idols, these people made living statues, are sources of inspiration. At other times, they are source of zealotry and obsession. At other times, they are the sources of our fear, contempt and resentment—the objects of our hate as much as of our love.
The second “Siren/Muse” piece possesses similar elements, though I won’t delve too deeply into these. The emotion of the singer is more lively, more energetic. Rather than snakes, the singer is surrounded with bees like loyal drones. With the first painting, the color scheme is roughly green, black and golden/yellow, which is somewhat suggestive of a dragon guarding gold. The second painting, by contrast, is primarily violet, blue and yellow, which contrasts cooler colors with the more energetic yellow body and red eyes of the bees. So, there is a calming effect, but there is still an awareness of danger. In the second painting, there is also the sexual implication of the microphone.
David’s art journey is still relatively early in its story. His works are still experimental in many ways, and his style and talent are still developing. However, the works he’s made so far are quite impressive. The emotions and ideas he’s able to capture in his paintings have drawn my own eye, and seem to be catching many others’ eyes. It will be interesting to see where he goes next with his “Siren/Muse” set, but it will also be interesting to see where he goes both with his work and with the themes he explores after this set.
There was much more we both could have talked about with each other regarding both his artwork and the themes surrounding his artwork (and, also, the long list of comic books we both love). Hopefully we can extend some of these conversations in the future.
In addition to his artwork on @davidcoffey_figz on Instagram, David also has many other pieces, primarily commission pieces, on his Instagram page @davidcoffey_artstudio. There are many beautiful paintings here as well, many of which follow a more impressionist or post-impressionist style. Please give his work a look and a like, and if you enjoy his creations, give his pages a follow.
From São Paulo, Brazil, Salua Saleh is an expressionist painter whose paintings depict dreams, emotions and everyday life with a myriad of colorful forms. Though our conversation was unfortunately impaired somewhat by our language barrier, Salua and I talked at length about her artwork, as well as the inspirations and stories behind much of her art. Carrying the torch of the expressionist movement of modern art, Salua reimagines the human figure and identity, and projects the colors and shapes of dreams onto the world around us. Through her artwork, Salua provides us with waking windows into landscapes of the mind, body and soul.
Salua is from São Paulo, Brazil, though she and her art have traveled across the world. Having been born in Brazil, she was exposed to a new generation of Brazilian artwork in Ribeirão Preto. After receiving her degree from the University of Ribeirão Preto, Salua moved to Italy, where she took painting courses and further developed her expressionist style, as well as London. Through her life and her travels, Salua’s work proliferated into a number of countries, including Britain, the United States, Lebanon, Greece and Brazil.
Salua’s style is primarily expressionism, though her artwork also has influences from the impressionists and the abstract movement, with similarities also to the fauvist movement. Her primary influences were Matisse, Klimt, Modigliani and Frida Kahlo, and these influences are quite prominent in her strong use of color and contrast, her alteration of form in landscapes and cityscapes and the expressions of her paintings’ subjects.
Salua’s paintings feature a wide range of settings and subjects. We see many paintings of figures, often nude figures, as well as portraits of people. Other paintings showcase a landscape or cityscape, and some are still life paintings, while others are much more abstract pieces that have ascended far enough from tangible, waking reality that they become difficult to readily describe.
In many of Salua’s figure paintings, portraits and nudes, we see the influence of artists like Modigliani and Klimt, as well as some of Matisse’s style.
With paintings like “As Tres Mulheres” and “As Quatro Mulheres”, there is certainly an influence of Modigliani in the reimagination of the subjects faces and expressions, as well as in nude paintings like “I Due”. Where Modigliani played with the shape of the nude form, as well as with the shape and proportion of expressions of individuals, Salua likewise transforms her subjects into new visions of an otherworldly humanity. In “I Due” and others, we can also see an influence from Klimt and the emotional dynamic of many of his nudes.
However, Salua also incorporates the fauvist style of Matisse into much of her work, including her figures and nudes. With pieces like Salua’s portrait of David Bowie, or “Blindness”, we see both the transformation of figure and form from Modigliani, as well as a vivid use of vibrant colors, replacing our normal expectation of colors with an almost otherworldly color scheme.
With the David Bowie portrait, the typical skin tones and shading are enhanced and transformed with yellows, greens, whites and blue greys for lighter tones, and reds, oranges and browns for darker tones. His hair is a blooming explosion of blues, yellows, reds, greens, turquoises, ruddy red-violets, sky-blues and sea-greens. All of this pops out even more with the dark contrast of the background, ranging from darker versions of the sea greens to the red violets of his hair, in addition to the contrasting dark and light blue on his clothing.
With “O Negro”, one of Salua’s first pieces, there is a very strong resemblance to Matisse’s portrait work, particularly pieces like “Green Stripe” and “Woman With a Hat”. Regular skin topes are replaced with reds, blues and oranges, while the white’s of the subject’s eyes are made green, and his hair mixed with some orange. His lips are painted a pale dark orange, and much of his skin is highlighted with dark-pale greys, tans and peach-tones
With paintings like “Hoje è Dia de Festa”, Salua incorporates even stronger elements of abstraction and fauvism into her artwork. The figures in this painting are practically mosaics of colors, their forms transformed into simpler renditions, and their expressions are entirely obscured in the colors comprising their bodies. The landscape surrounding these figures is similarly comprised of this colorful mosaic, both land and sky. In the distant background, there is a city made of pale blue and pink tones.
Salua’s abstract pieces, while they resemble in some ways the fauvists and expressionists, for me are more reminiscent of some pieces from Pollock, as well the orphists and the wilder side of abstract expressionism.
With paintings like “Caminhos” and “Metamorfose”, Salua uses similar color schemes as Kandinsky in many of his paintings, but also uses the geometric designs found in some of Kandinsky’s work, as well as many of the paintings made by the orphists. There is a chaotic explosion of vibrant colors, at times complementing each other and at times contrasting, as well as swirls and circles, paths of colors tracing across a wild landscape of color.
With other paintings like “Abstracões” and “Conexões”, we still see the Kandinsky-esque color schemes and the orphist geometry, but there is a chaos that is only really comparable to Pollock’s pieces. Salua maintains something of a semblance of rational design in the background layer of the painting, but the upper layers are storms of colors fervently blooming and bursting off the canvas.
Many other pieces are far more tame than this, such as “Anni 70”, “A Danca das Cores” or “Passagens Secretas”, though these pieces still employ vivid colors and energetic movements across the canvas. Others like “Tropicalismo” and “Todos os Olhos da Floresta Encantada” employ geometric patterns very unique to many of Salua’s other pieces. Pieces like “Tropicalismo” are almost landscape like, with many similarities to the landscapes and cityscapes Salua has created.
Salua’s cityscapes are often quite like puzzle pieces in various shapes and sizes and of various colors fit together. The colors she uses for her buildings create a fascinating arrangement of emotion across hills, mountains and other landscapes, and the composition of the shapes and forms of buildings in these cityscapes likewise suggest a sort of geometry of emotion.
One of my favorite cityscapes of hers, “San Lorenzo Bellizzi” feels truly like a representation of a city from a dream, with buildings of odd proportions stacked on top of each other, with roads and paths stretched across the city architecture, curving and wandering in and out of the blocks. It becomes difficult to distinguish wall from rooftop from road from doorway, and the proportions and shapes of each section of the painting cause the viewer’s brain to scramble trying to understand what it is seeing.
Another quite dreamlike city painting, “Sogno Lùcido”, we see buildings through a doorway or window frame at night. These buildings are oddly proportioned and shaped, giving them a surreal aesthetic, and the door frame or window we are looking through is surrounded with designs quite similar to the dream-like textures and fabric designs created by Klimt. The night sky in the background, in tandem with the strange architecture of the buildings and the cool colors filling much of the center of the painting, give an almost eerie or uncanny feeling to them—a feeling that can only be found in the stranger hours of night, in dreams, or captured in a painting such as this.
With Salua’s natural landscapes, as well as in her still life paintings, there is a more impressionist style similar to much of Monet’s work, as well as the post-impressionist style made famous by Van Gogh. Paintings such as “Paisagem Livre”, there is a very pronounced impressionist/post-impressionist style, with much of the emotion of the piece shown through the movement of the brushstrokes and slight derivations of natural colors. Still, other pieces like “Caos Calmo” still lean more heavily toward an expressionist style.
In other landscape paintings, such as “Caminho Ìntimo”, which may be one of my favorite pieces by Salua, Salua blends the styles of post-impressionism and expressionism into an almost Wonderland-like dream-world of paths of vibrant colors walled on both sides by swirling patterns of flower-like designs. This painting, as with many of Salua’s paintings, is like something from colorful, beautiful dream—a landscape that possibly could only be conceived in the mind of an artist.
Salua spoke with me about how this dream-like quality of her art comes from one of her primary inspirations: her own dreams. This inspiration is quite evident in Salua’s surreal depictions of people, still life images and landscapes. There is an element of the unconscious in Salua’s work, an element of uncanny otherworldliness to her work, that can be quite difficult to capture in words, but that Salua has quite adeptly captured in paintings.
Another inspiration for Salua’s work are everyday events and settings, or even passersby in towns and cities, that many of us may take for granted, but Salua finds much beauty in. Still, other inspirations come from Salua’s own emotions, and her artwork is an expression of these feelings. At times, her artwork is an expression of inner turmoil, such as in her piece, “Solitudine”, which Salua told me is a painting of her sitting at night, staring out a window, smoking a cigarette, and dealing with personal suffering.
Despite the unique beauty of Salua’s paintings, she spoke with me about how she used to destroy some of her works of art. She often didn’t feel they were good enough, and her inner critic railed at her until she gave in and got rid of these pieces. Still, Salua felt much regret about destroying her work, and received advice from a friend that many artists, writers, musicians and other creative types might find invaluable. It is not your place to judge your own work, it is your place only to create it, and let others see what you have made for their own consideration.
It is difficult for so many of us to silence our own inner critics. As helpful as they may be—as useful as it can be to have that voice always telling you to do better and to try harder—these inner critics may also tear us down at moments we need to be built up. These acts of destruction, or other similar acts of self-inflicted emotional violence, may seem appropriate in the moment, but they cannot be the guiding force of our creativity. We must strive to follow the voices telling us, “Yes! This is good”, and “Carry on, keep creating, keep building what you have”.
It has been a delight getting to talk with Salua about her artwork, as much as it has been a pleasure going through her art and pouring over every detail of her work. It is quite an achievement for an artist to be able to capture such subtle and nuanced emotions as Salua captures with her expressionist style, as well as the uncanny quality of dream-like visions in art, and both are quite a joy to see. If you enjoyed Salua’s art and want to see more, you can find her on Instagram @saluasaleh_artgallery. Please give her artwork a deeper look, and if you enjoy what she’s made, follow her, and comment or send her a message to let her know!