Commodifying the California Dream

In our latest guest post, Ann Davis of Travelbloom explores California’s significance in the AMC drama Mad Men, including the cultural contrast between east and west in the 1960s and 1970s.

By Ann Davis

Warning: this article contains spoilers from Mad Men, including its seventh and final season.

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? … reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay”. In the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper establishes his personal ethos when it comes to advertising. Unbeknownst to his peers, this ethos rests in stark contrast to Don’s personal struggle: he is unable to accept himself, represses his past, and is therefore a profoundly unhappy person. So where does one go to find acceptance in the 1960s? Not to New York City, where the majority of Mad Men takes place, but rather west, to California. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, California became emblematic of modern thinking and bohemian ideals, a hotspot for counterculture, the way of the future. Likewise, in Mad Men, Los Angeles is a city full of hope and potential, a symbolic contrast to New York.

Don’s New York style is entirely out of place in California, showing the culture clash between east and west coast. Photo: Screencap from Mad Men

Don Draper is an east coast ad man who struggles to adapt to a changing industry, as his internal struggles inhibit him from changing with the times. During periods of duress – marital issues, career trouble, identity crisis – he goes west, seeking escape in the Sunshine State. California is depicted as an idyllic dreamscape, both within the universe of Mad Men and on a meta-textual level. It’s aesthetically beautiful: sunshine, palm trees, blue skies, swimming pools, bikinis, bohemian fashion. Bohemian is a key word when it comes to 1960s California. Don’s first visit to Los Angeles is disrupted by his involvement with a group of people who encapsulate this California fantasy: wealthy, educated drifters who lounge poolside, take drugs, and have casual sex with each other. A woman invites Don to join them. “Who are you?”, he asks. “I’m Joy”, she replies (S2E11). When the Madison Avenue ad men need to escape reality, they go west to the fantasy world of California.

Part of what makes California so idealized is that it’s a place of acceptance. Behaviour that deviates from the status quo is part of the west coast fantasy. But for Don Draper, California is home to the ultimate symbol of acceptance: Anna. Anna Draper knows Don’s biggest secret: he is not Don Draper. During the Korean War, he stole the identity of his dead commanding officer (Anna’s husband) in order to secure a better life for himself. Anna’s forgiveness and reassurance that what he is doing is okay allows Don to be at peace with himself when he visits her. However, acceptance from others does not equate to self-acceptance, and Don struggles to capture the same feelings of acceptance in California after Anna’s death in Season 4. After visiting California for a highly unsuccessful business trip in Season 6, he laments “I don’t know what happened … I usually feel better out there” (S6E10).

It is only with Anna that Don is able to reconcile with himself. Photo: Tumblr

He tries to reconstruct the California fantasy with his secretary-turned-wife Megan Calvet. Though initially living and working with Don in New York, Megan moves to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. Through her own participation in the California dream, she transforms from Don’s idealized wife to a self-actualized woman. When Don is fired in New York, he seeks solace in California, offering to finally move in with Megan in Los Angeles. By this point, Megan does not offer Don the same unconditional acceptance that Anna Draper offered, and he is not welcome. The two divorce. Without unconditional acceptance from another, California is no longer refuge for Don, and he must seek this acceptance elsewhere.

Megan’s character transformation is emphasized through costume design. As she embraces the California lifestyle, her fashion follows suit. Photo: Screencaps from Mad Men

Don’s search begins on the east coast, where he opens up about his past in an effort to pitch an ad to Hershey’s. Rigid east coast companies are unwilling to accept deviance from the status quo, and Don is subsequently suspended from his ad agency. With nowhere else to go, Don ventures west one final time, eventually following Anna Draper’s niece to a spiritual retreat in the hills outside of Los Angeles. The Esalen-like retreat exemplifies California’s bohemian, progressive attitudes of self-acceptance and spiritual enlightenment. It is here, during the series finale, that Don bares his soul to Peggy, his protégé, and experiences catharsis during a confessional seminar. It is here, in the sunshine of California, that Don accepts himself and is able to reassure himself that what he is doing is okay. He is okay.

Don achieves self-acceptance by embracing California. The strong visual cues in Mad Men’s final scene emphasize this shift to the west coast. Photo: AMC

It is here that he realizes the value of self-acceptance, the bohemian movement, and the California fantasy.

The California fantasy will sell Coca-Cola, and we will buy it.

This Coca-Cola advertisement is the final impression we’re left with, at the end of Mad Men.

Ann Davis is a digital content creator from Ottawa. Currently based in Nottingham, England, she founded Travelbloom in 2019 to document her move from Canada to the UK. You can find more of her work here.

“We Cannot Speak Other Than By Our Paintings”

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most renowned painters in the world. In a stunning visual undertaking, Loving Vincent pays tribute to the artist by reinterpreting his paintings in the world’s first painted feature-length film.

By Serena Ypelaar

Moviegoers often remember visually stunning films for years to come. Beautiful cinematography, outstanding production, and vivid imagery stays with us – that much is certainly true with the biopic Loving Vincent (2017), a feature-length film about Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.

A still of Vincent van Gogh as depicted in Loving Vincent (2017). Photo: Medium

Starring Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd, Helen McCrory, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jerome Flynn, Aidan Turner, and Robert Gulaczyk, Loving Vincent is a Polish-British co-production exploring the end of Van Gogh’s life. Though the film’s pacing is somewhat drawn-out at times and the plot is speculative, it stands out for one reason: it was entirely hand-painted in the style of Van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh, “Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky” (1890). Image: Wikiart

Loving Vincent is the first feature-length painting animation film in the world. 94 of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings were reimagined for the film, along with new visuals. Dorota Kobiela, the film’s co-director alongside Hugh Welchman, launched the project after reading Van Gogh’s letters. She felt a profound desire to tell his story by capturing his art and its subject matter from a biographical perspective. Kobiela thought it was only right that the film should be painted. Despite pitching a seven-minute short film in 2008 and having been told it would be impossible to pursue a feature-length film, Kobiela started a successful crowdfunding campaign and set to work.

You may wonder how paintings can integrate seamlessly as a film. Surely they were supplemented with computer-generated imagery (CGI)? The answer is no – the actors performed their roles and CGI was only used to supplement the visuals captured on film, as well as to add the movement of the backgrounds. However, none of that footage was really used in the final cut of the film, which was entirely comprised of paintings. Every single frame was its own painting, with 12 frames per second. That’s 66,960 frames – which means just as many individual paintings were created by hand.

From left: Eleanor Tomlinson during the live-action filming phase; Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (1890); the final keyframe for “Loving Vincent”. Photo: Loving Vincent
Vincent van Gogh, “Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin” (1888). Image: Wikiart

Production took place largely in Gdańsk, Poland, with 80 highly skilled painters recruited from worldwide to paint each frame of the film. These paintings interpret the story of Van Gogh, diverting us from details we’ll never know for sure and redirecting our attention to the essence of his visual art. The delivery of this film is what captivates us – its sense of movement brings Van Gogh’s work to life. Some of the famous paintings used in the film had to be extended or reimagined; Van Gogh used many different sizes of canvas for his works, whereas the film had to be one frame size. Producers also changed some colour palettes of well-known paintings on a seasonal basis, as Loving Vincent takes place in summer.

For the sake of authenticity, actors who closely resembled Van Gogh’s portrait sitters were cast – though their questionable accents and pronunciation slightly hamper the film’s impact. There are no French accents to be heard, though the film is set in France, and Van Gogh does not sound Dutch – the actors also anglicize the pronunciation of Van Gogh’s brother Theo’s name (which would be “Tay-OH” in Dutch). If these slight details were presented more accurately, the film could be even more absorbing; it’s definitely a tad distracting to hear the dissonant accents. Nevertheless, the true marvel lies in the visual spectacle.

Chris O’Dowd as Postman Roulin in “Loving Vincent” (2017). Each frame of the film required an individual painting. Image: Loving Vincent

How might Van Gogh feel if he saw this film? Would he be flattered, touched, or feel it invasive? Some may question the artists’ approach of directly imitating Van Gogh’s style, from his signature brushstrokes to the colours that grew more vivid over his career. In fact, there is a long-standing tradition whereby painters engage in artistic “schools” of thought or technique. You may have seen portraits “in the style of” Hans Holbein the Younger, for instance, or heard of numerous students of Rembrandt van Rijn. Even today, artists often have a team of painters who do some of the work when creating large-scale paintings. With this in mind, it might therefore be an oversimplification to call Loving Vincent‘s paintings plagiarism rather than an act of reinterpretation.

Vincent van Gogh, “The Night Café” (1888). Image: Wikipedia

Whatever your opinion on a brigade of artists painting literal thousands of Van Gogh-esque paintings – whether you think they’re a form of uncanny talent, plagiarism, or a bit of both – the production team working on this biopic took the ultimate risk, both financially and creatively. Loving Vincent could have been a flop; it could have been poorly executed (some may think it is). But I feel it’s a gorgeous treat for the eyes, one that pays tribute to Vincent van Gogh the best way it knows how: by bringing his paintings to life.

As Vincent himself said in his penultimate letter to his brother Theo (which was found on Van Gogh’s body after his death): “We cannot speak other than by our paintings”. If anyone lived up to that edict, it was certainly Van Gogh. He constructed the most beautiful scenes for us, telling stories in landscapes and portraits we still love over a century later – all through his paintings.

Science in Storytelling: Interstellar and ’39

Both Queen and Christopher Nolan have used the theory of relativity as a foundation for storytelling in surprisingly similar ways. Their ventures show how science can be used to tell human stories.

By Sadie MacDonald

I don’t think that everyone is aware of the song “39” by Queen. This underrated gem sounds like a folksy shanty with its lyrics about ships and seas, but it’s not what it seems.

“39” was penned by Brian May, who put his astrophysics studies on hold to pursue his career as lead guitarist of Queen (as one does). With that fact in mind, the song becomes very different from what its genre initially implies it to be.

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Dr. Brian May eventually did finish his Ph.D in astrophysics thirty years after starting it! Photo: HuffPost

The song’s “ship” is a spaceship, and the “milky seas” refers to the Milky Way. The “world so newly born” is another planet that offers hope for an “old and grey” Earth. Some lyrics in the song are strange: the chorus mentions “the land that our grandchildren knew” and the narrator observes in the final verse that “so many years have gone though I’m older but a year.” He addresses someone mournfully, saying “your mother’s eyes from your eyes cry to me.”

May once explained “39” in an interview:

It’s a science fiction story. It’s the story about someone who goes away and leaves his family and because of the time dilation effect, when you go away, the people on earth have aged a lot more than he has when he comes home. He’s aged a year and they’ve aged 100 years so, instead of coming back to his wife, he comes back to his daughter and he can see his wife in his daughter, a strange story.

Essentially, “39” is about the human effects of the theory of relativity. I had too much of an arts education to explain relativity properly, but what’s important to this discussion is that time is relative; it will not pass at the same rate for all observers, and can be distorted. Some causes for extreme time dilation include black holes, which can distort the fabric of space-time itself, and light-speed travel (the closer something gets to the speed of light, the slower time will pass for it). For the traveller in “39,” only a year has gone by, but much more time has passed back on Earth, and the person who wrote him “letters in the sand” is no longer alive when he returns.

If you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar, this might sound a little familiar.

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Matthew McConaughey as Joseph Cooper in Interstellar. Photo: FilmGrab

To sum up (and spoil) Interstellar: the film is set in a future where the Earth is a dying dust bowl and its population is at risk of extinction. NASA sends explorers into space to find a planet to serve as a new home. Protagonist Cooper is one reluctant explorer, leaving his children in hopes of giving them a future. Near the midpoint of the film, Cooper arrives on a planet where time is so dilated that while a few hours pass for him, 23 Earth years go by, as he discovers when he returns to the ship to find recorded messages left by his aging children. By the end of the film, his daughter Murphy is an old woman, and Cooper reunites with her on her deathbed.

When I saw Interstellar’s trailers, I wondered if it was connected to “39”, and after watching the film, I felt certain of it. As far as I’m aware, though, Nolan never confirmed if “39” inspired Interstellar. There are several key similarities. Both feature explorers leaving a failing Earth in a spaceship in search of a new world. Their quest is ultimately successful, but at huge personal – and temporal – cost to the explorers and their loved ones. Time acts as a destructive force that irrevocably disrupts the natural lifespans of those involved, but it is also a precious resource for the protagonist, who gets to see his daughter in her old age.

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Cooper saying goodbye to his daughter Murphy as he leaves for his mission. Photo: FilmGrab

These stories show that science fiction can be intimately human. Both “39” and Interstellar use physics to tell stories of love, loss, and hope. Cooper realizes that his and Murphy’s love for each other is “the key” to transmitting the data that will save humanity, and the narrator of “39” promises his partner he will return to Earth. Interstellar ends optimistically, but the narrator of “39” laments that “all your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand / for my life still ahead, pity me.” Scientific discoveries and saving Earth’s population is not enough to make up for what was lost on a personal scale, but love endures nonetheless.

Science fiction, though often maligned, offers unique opportunities to explore human relationships and emotions in technologically fantastic settings. These elements have been tied to the genre since its beginnings in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and have endured up through Star Trek and Carl Sagan’s Contact. We could use more marriages between science and storytelling. As Dr. Brian May himself says, “I think we all realize ourselves best by opening up both sides of our intellect… artistic and scientific.”

Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Last week Bretton and Serena attended an advanced screening of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. Your friendly neighbourhood Ramblers discuss their impressions of the film below.

By Bretton Weir & Serena Ypelaar

Bretton

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) isn’t just a biopic of one of the greatest personalities of many of our childhoods, but a continued learning opportunity, especially for those of us who grew up with the show, to reflect on how times have changed, how we have changed, and the transcendence of kindness, compassion, forgiveness and understanding. True to its source content, the delightful, formative and accessible children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the film tackles questions around family and relationships — and how we manage relationships as they become more complex — into our adulthoods. 

Released in the wake of the 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which chronicles the trials and triumphs of the real-life Mister Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes a different narrative approach. Focusing instead on writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) as he struggles to write a magazine profile about Mister Rogers, Lloyd must also deal with personal relational baggage that comes with being an adult. True to form, Mister Rogers acts as a guiding force and helps Lloyd embrace his inner demons and become a better human being.

Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers was a delightful homage to the kind and caring personality that is Mister Rogers. Hanks’ vocal cadence was masterful. He had the listless soothing quality that Mister Rogers came by so naturally.

What could have been a very standard, cookie cutter biographical feature film proved to be an exciting and, at times, surreal ride. The story isn’t about Mister Rogers, proper, but the universality and long-lasting effect Mister Rogers, his program, and his life-lessons have on us all these years later.

Tom Hanks stars as Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). Photo: Lacey Terrell

Serena

“If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.”

One of the most memorable lines from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood also comes from the real Mister Rogers himself and still holds relevance today. Societal conventions seem almost to promote the suppression of emotions, but Mister Rogers proves that it’s possible to be both rational and emotional — at the same time. Tom Hanks’ Rogers drives that point home through his calm affirmations and bald statements of fact, which he delivers during moments of earnest emotional reflection.

The film is not what I expected. In place of a syrupy timeline of Mister Rogers’ rise to popularity, we instead glimpse the career of an established Mister Rogers and his effect on those around him. The best quality of the film is its simplicity — it doesn’t ask for anything except our undivided attention, which is what the real Fred Rogers always had to offer. The result of this ever-present mindfulness is that the viewer must turn inward to their own experiences and emotions, just like Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel. When was the last time we felt angry? What did we do about it? In those moments of honesty we become Lloyd, and it feels like we are being counselled by Hanks-as-Rogers.

Given the subject matter, it’s fitting that we saw the film on International Kindness Day. The script excels in that it doesn’t try to be over the top; its message is quiet but marked by conviction. There were moments when I could hear a pin drop in the cinema, as well as moments when I couldn’t help but shed tears. The fact that my expectations were so divergent from what we actually got was a highlight; it felt almost like a raw therapy session. “The most important thing to me in the world right now is my conversation with Lloyd Vogel,” Hanks-as-Rogers says in one scene where the two are on a phone call. That statement captured the essence of Mister Rogers so well that it sparked memories of why we found (and continue to find) his show so comforting. He accepts us as we are.

While certainly comforting, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood dives deeper than nostalgia. It celebrates the legacy of a caring and understanding man while promoting the emotional intelligence that is healthy for people of any age.

You Just Know When a Song is ‘Peaky’

Soundtracks are integral to the overall feel of a television series. The music in BBC’s Peaky Blinders has left such an impression on viewers that it even spawned a music festival earlier this year, demonstrating how stylistic details convey mood in storytelling.

By Serena Ypelaar

Warning: this article contains minor plot details from Seasons 1 to 4 of Peaky Blinders. However, it does not include spoilers from the recently aired Season 5.

“They’re still not playing it,” I grumble as the opening credits take up the screen.

It’s a Sunday night and I’m watching the Season 5 finale of Peaky Blinders with my siblings. In this case, the “it” refers to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ brooding “Red Right Hand”, the theme song for the BBC television show starring Cillian Murphy and Helen McCrory.

An example of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand” in the opening sequence of Peaky Blinders.

It seems my indignation is here to stay, as the show producers seem to have abandoned the use of “Red Right Hand” altogether in the later seasons. In Season 1, I could always depend on the track’s clipped tones to signal my absorption back into early 20th century Birmingham. By Season 3, however, we started getting covers of the song instead of the original. And now in Season 5, we’ve lost the Red Right Hand altogether. It’s become so strongly associated with the show that it feels disorienting not to hear it at the start of each episode, which is a testament to one aspect of Peaky Blinders I can never stop thinking about: the music.

The curation of a soundtrack, especially during montages and in the opening and closing credits of a television show, can drastically transform how a story comes across. Through music we receive guidance on how to feel when watching: the selected songs convey emotion, which in turn sets the tone for a scene. I’m sure I’m biased because my music taste consists primarily of rock music, but I’ve always felt that Peaky Blinders nails it on the music front. Tracks are hard-hitting when they need to be in order to illustrate the gritty underbelly of Birmingham in the 1910s, 20s, and now 30s.

Take this scene, for example, in which Tommy Shelby (played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy) attempts to carry out a murder, set to “Bad Habits” by The Last Shadow Puppets.

It’s almost like someone plugged my Spotify into the show, as so many scenes feature my favourite bands and artists!

Today, an official Peaky Blinders soundtrack is being released, with music spanning the series’ five-season run so far. Musicians such as Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys, Royal Blood, Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, The White Stripes, David Bowie, Radiohead, Anna Calvi, and Black Sabbath have been featured on the show and likewise on the soundtrack. The series balances edgy hard rock with softer, more languid choices to illustrate vulnerability; the result is endearingly human.

“The Peaky Blinders story and the music we use are twins, born at the same time. It would be difficult to imagine most of the pivotal moments without the soundtrack.”

Steven Knight, Creator

In many instances, the music drives the action forward in Peaky Blinders. It’s often used to drown out the rest of the sound, building suspense and capturing the tone of any given scene. The tracks are well-selected as tools of characterization, such as Arthur Shelby’s attack on Luca Changretta’s men in Season 4. Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes’ “Devil Inside of Me” is overpoweringly apt, but we also know Arthur isn’t unilaterally bad – his internal struggles are laid bare with the help of the soundtrack.

Watford-based Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes pound out the showdown between Arthur Shelby and Luca Changretta’s men. Warning: scene contains profanity and violence.

As if that weren’t enough, this past September saw a music festival crop up as another means of hyping the new season: The Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival. A lineup of artists whose music was played in the television series was (flat)capped off with secret special guest Liam Gallagher of Oasis fame (or rather, notoriety). Fans dressed up in their best tweeds and three-piecers to attend the festival in none other than Birmingham.

“You just know when a song is ‘Peaky’. The artists are outsiders. They have resisted the tyranny of the mainstream, shall we say?”

Cillian Murphy

If you’d told me that a television series had enough weight behind it to justify an immersive music festival, I’d never have believed it, but it really did happen, with cast members present. The organizers even hired hundreds of actors to start brawls onsite amidst the live performances of musicians who had one thing in common – being on Peaky Blinders.

John Shelby (Joe Cole), Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson) are the Peaky Blinders triumvirate (with Polly Gray, not pictured, as their Queen, of course). Photo: Esquire

I’m not sure what this tells us about how people in the United Kingdom and beyond have adopted the Peaky Blinders as part of popular culture today. But I sure am glad that a real-life history has been reanimated and acknowledged with such vigor through artistic interpretation, and aided by a killer soundtrack. Yes, the Peaky Blinders were a real gang, and a terrifying one at that. Yet the television series and its corresponding music has put the story on the radar in a strangely favourable way – by order of the Peaky Blinders.

Kindness Among the Unkind: Penny Dreadful and the Art of Adaptation

Showtime’s short-lived horror drama Penny Dreadful embodied the very best of Victorian Gothic. The show’s investment in literature proves that the best adaptations are unafraid to honour their origins. 

By Adriana Wiszniewska

As we discussed earlier this month, the Victorians were much more than their stodgy reputation leads us to believe. Victorian society was slippery and grey, invested as much in the supernatural as the natural. It was, after all, a time of great upheaval. And out of that shadowy underlife emerged some of the most iconic Gothic monsters.

Do you believe there is a demimonde, Mr. Chandler? A half-world between what we know and what we fear? A place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt?

Penny Dreadful, “Night Work” (1×01)

While Gothic literature had its heyday in the late eighteenth century, the genre underwent a massive resurgence in the Victorian era. The old forms of eighteenth-century Gothic were updated to reflect the anxieties of a society teetering on the edge of modernity. It’s remarkable just how many Gothic novels were published in the final decades of the nineteenth century, including classics like Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).

Among this slew of new horror fiction were penny dreadfuls, cheap, sensational, serialized stories that were looked down upon not just for their lurid subject matter but also for their mass popularity. Which brings me to Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), a TV series that took its inspiration from all of the above.

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Eva Green is mesmerizing as Penny Dreadful‘s Vanessa Ives. If there’s one reason for you to watch this show, it’s Eva Green. Photo: IMDb

Written and created by John Logan (who also wrote the play Red), Penny Dreadful takes the monster-parts of classic Gothic literature, from Dracula to Dorian Gray to Frankenstein, and stitches them together into one exquisite tapestry of postmodern beauty and terror, blurring the edge between the lurid grotesque of pop culture and the high-minded literary aspirations of high art.

Penny Dreadful wears its literary influences on its puffy Victorian sleeve, shamelessly flaunting its literariness at every step. While most obviously shaped by nineteenth-century Gothic, the show is also knee-deep in Romantic poetry.

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She’s not wrong. Sad monsters too, apparently. Photo: Tumblr

In Penny Dreadful, two strangers can casually recite the same poem to each other from memory like it’s nothing. Victor Frankenstein, in seeking a name for his creation, reaches not for the Bible but for Shakespeare, because “theological connotations aren’t very ‘us’, are they?”

The same could be said of Penny Dreadful. In a world of vampires, werewolves, and witches—a world of senseless death and cruelty—existence seems devoid of the divinity and order that the Romantics saw in nature. As Frankenstein’s monster puts it:

I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil?

Penny Dreadful, “Resurrection” (1×03)

The Gothic is the dark underside of Romanticism, anticipating the bloody monstrous mechanized world that Penny Dreadful knows has already arrived and still haunts us to this day. But the show’s investment in poetry, in beauty and love and kindness among the unkind, shows that there are ways to hold back the dark, even if just for a moment.

That’s why all monsters in Penny Dreadful are secretly poets, the Creature perhaps most of all. Just as his creator reached for Shakespeare, the Creature renames himself John Clare after the poet of the same name  in an attempt to shed his monstrous past. And in the cavernous dark beneath London (a place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt), Clare finds kinship with Vanessa Ives, another damaged person who dwells in the halfway place between light and dark (Vanessa, notably an original creation, is the glue that holds the show together). She looks at his scarred face with warmth and the two trade soft words and lines of poetry:

The characters of Penny Dreadful speak in and through literature, finding solace in poetry when the world offers them only pain and loss and darkness. This is a story about monsters—the scary, bloodsucking, evil monsters, of course. But also the sad, lonely, misunderstood monsters—the broken things—the kind of monsters that shed light on what it means to be human and, conversely, what it means to be cast out from humanity.

Stories make up Penny Dreadful‘s blood and bones. Its characters use literary texts to define themselves, to narrate their lives, to make sense of the world around them. They themselves are texts, living and breathing and endlessly generative. That’s what makes literature so powerful to begin with, and Penny Dreadful understands that better than any show on television.

“Containing the Spread of Misinformation”: “Chernobyl” and Historic Truth

Fresh off the series’ Emmy win for Outstanding Limited Series, we take a look at how HBO’s Chernobyl makes us reconsider how we think about “The Truth”.

By Daniel Rose

Growing up in the shadow of American media has given me a stilted view of Russian and Soviet history.  From the patriotic cheese of “Rocky IV” to the tales of espionage and intrigue in “The Hunt for Red October”, we have been led to believe that Eastern Europe is the homeland of villains who are dastardly at best and incompetent at worst. Today, some people still believe that the fall of the Soviet Union was the inevitable victory of the “good guys” from the West over the “bad guys” from the East, a gross oversimplification that some media is still eager to support. The tenuous relationship that exists between Western depictions of the Soviet Union and the reality of life in Eastern Europe’s communist bloc is what makes HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries so refreshing.    

Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) coordinate cleanup at Chernobyl.
Photo: IndieWire

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

Jared Harris as Valery Legasov in “Chernobyl”

Set between April 26, 1986 and April 27, 1987, Chernobyl follows events set in motion immediately following the explosion of reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat (now in modern-day Ukraine). The disaster, which exposed hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe to frightening levels of radiation, is framed in a way that balances the truth of the incident with the portrayal of the explosion in Soviet media. Rather than presenting the subject matter in a fully-realized, academic light, the series only provides viewers with as much information as characters on-screen have access to at any particular moment. When plant engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) remarks that the level of radiation in the aftermath of the explosion, 3.6 roentgen, is “not great, not terrible”, we are not immediately given context as to what roentgen measures (the exposure of x-rays and gamma rays) or what would constitute an alarming measurement. Even the soundtrack, which maintains a constant sense of unease throughout the six-episode miniseries, leaves the viewer in the dark as to when misfortune will appear on-screen.

The narrative structure adopted in Chernobyl mirrors the cultural climate in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. After decades of extreme government censorship of the press, the Soviet Union adopted a policy of openness or “glasnost” as part of a larger restructuring, collectively known as “perestroika”, aimed at maintaining parity with the West. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, however, Soviet media repeatedly under-reported the damage and risk of exposure to radiation, even as Western scientists as far away as Scandinavia reported alarming levels entering the atmosphere. In Chernobyl, viewers are reassured by characters that the situation is under control, contrary to the scenes of fire and destruction on display. It isn’t until later in the series, when expert scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) is introduced, that the scale and impact of damage becomes apparent to the viewer.

What sets Chernobyl apart from other historical dramas is the effort to capture the Soviet Union in this brief moment as accurately as possible. In particular, Chernobyl‘s cinematography does a masterful job at showcasing the cost of the cleanup in contrast to the measured takes of its characters. The portrayal of radiation poisoning turns the viewers’ stomachs, with the camera lingering long enough on victims to evoke sympathy as well as horror. The effort goes beyond the actual series, with the writers collaborating on a podcast that explores each scene in every episode to give viewers insight as to how some events are framed. The filmmakers are open about any inaccuracies in the series, including the fictional character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a composite of the many scientists who contributed to the cleanup.

Chernobyl is an eerily accurate representation of a long-changed era. The miniseries does a phenomenal job of placing the viewer in the action, equipping those of us who grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall with the tools to understand why people acted and thought the way they did in 1986. Outside of time travel, Chernobyl is the closest people can get to life in the Soviet Union.