As reported by ScreenCrush.com:
‘Ex Machina’ is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, the talented screenwriter of ’28 Days Later,’ ‘Sunshine,’ ‘Never Let Me Go’ and ‘Dredd.’ With a resume like that, we can’t think of anyone better suited to helming a small and (seemingly) smart science-fiction drama like this. Color us intrigued.
Here’s the official synopsis:
“Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test – charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence. That experiment is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a breathtaking A.I. whose emotional intelligence proves more sophisticated, seductive––and more deceptive––than the two men could have imagined.”
‘Ex Machina’ is set to open on April 10, 2015.
I am on my way back home from a symposium at Baylor University in Waco, Texas on faith and film. I enjoyed many of the presentations and sessions, including one on science fiction. One of the presenters was Sylvie Magerstadt, Senior Lecturer in Media Cultures at the University of Hertfordshire, UK. She presented a paper that distilled some of her discussion in her book
Body, Soul and Cyberspace: Virtual Worlds and Ethical Problems
Palgrave MacMillan, 2014
Body, Soul and Cyberspace explores how recent science-fiction cinema addresses questions about the connections between body and soul, virtuality, and the ways in which we engage with spirituality in the digital age. The book investigates notions of love, life and death, taking an interdisciplinary approach by combining cinematic themes with religious, philosophical and ethical ideas. Magerstädt argues how even the most spectacle-driven mainstream films such as Avatar, The Matrix and Terminator can raise interesting and important questions about the human self and our interaction with the world. Apart from these well-known science fiction epics, her analysis also draws on recent works, such as Inception, The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ, Aeon Flux, Total Recall (2012), Transcendence and TRON: Legacy. These films stimulate an engaging discussion on what makes us human, the role memory plays in understanding ourselves, and how virtual realities challenge the moral concepts that govern human relationships.
Sunday 22nd March – Tuesday 24th March 2015, Lisbon, Portugal
Call for Presentations
This inter- and multidisciplinary conference focuses on the relationship between the monstrous and the geographic. We welcome proposals by academics, teachers, independent researchers, students, artists, NGOs and anyone interested in manifestations of monstrosity in space. Possible topics may include topics as diverse as ancient burial sites, haunted houses, post-apocalyptic landscapes, and even recent topographical manifestations of the Gaza conflict or the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Even if they no longer bear the physical markers of violence, devastation and human suffering geographical locations are often imbued with memories of horror that are passed on from generation to generation through various textual, audial and visual media.
Apart from historical events of monstrosity the scope of our conference entails imagined monstrosities and future landscapes of annihilation and death. Philosophical discussions are just as much welcome as artistic performances and explorations of literary, filmic or musical case studies of evil and the monstrous. The following questions may trigger ideas for presentations: What is the relationship between evil and the monstrous? Is the monstrous always rooted in the element of evil? Can disasters caused by nature be regarded as evil? Can we talk about geographies of poverty, hunger and homelessness in relation to monstrosity? Can evil and/or monstrosity be immanent to place or are they performed by cultural discourse, rituals and practices of memory? How do the monstrous and the geographic intersect in architecture, the arts, popular culture, politics, and the sciences?
We welcome presentations, papers, reports, performances, work-in-progress, workshops and pre-formed panels from all academic disciplines. Presentations may include but are not limited to the following topics:
- Unknown worlds
- Dystopic landscapes
- Sites of heterotopia
- Malevolent regions
- Bodies as maps and maps as bodies
- Places of isolation, incarceration and madness
- Places of rituals and incest
- Sites of experimentation
- Evil planets and dimensions
- Worlds as dark reflections/twins of Earth
- Alien landscapes
- Sites of environmental disasters (both natural and manmade)
- Sites of starvation, disaster and pestilence
- De-militarized zones and no-man’s lands
- Monstrostiy and liminality
- Religion, ritual and monstrosity
- Haunted sites and spectral spaces
- Sites of conflict and violence
- Terrain vague, abandoned buildings
- The architecture of death and destruction (sites of torture and extermination)
- Geographical manifestations of the uncanny
- Tourism and monstrous geographies
- Monstrous Dreamscapes
- Monstrous materialities
- Ethics and morality in relation to monstrosity and evil
- Monstrous geographies of the body and the mind
The Steering Group particularly welcomes the submission of pre-formed panel proposals.
What to send:
300 word abstracts should be submitted by Friday 31st October 2014. All submissions are minimally double blind peer reviewed where appropriate. If an abstract is accepted for the conference, a full draft paper should be submitted by Friday 23rd January 2015. Abstracts should be submitted simultaneously to the Organising Chairs; abstracts may be in Word or RTF formats with the following information and in this order:
a) author(s), b) affiliation as you would like it to appear in programme, c) email address, d) title of abstract, e) body of abstract, f) up to 10 keywords.
E-mails should be entitled: MG4 Abstract Submission.
Please use plain text (Times Roman 12) and abstain from using any special formatting, characters or emphasis (such as bold, italics or underline). We acknowledge receipt and answer to all paper proposals submitted. If you do not receive a reply from us in a week you should assume we did not receive your proposal; it might be lost in cyberspace! We suggest, then, to look for an alternative electronic route or resend.
László Munteán: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rob Fisher: email@example.com
The aim of the conference is to bring together people from different areas and interests to share ideas and explore various discussions which are innovative and exciting. All papers accepted for and presented at the conference must be in English and will be eligible for publication in an ISBN eBook. Selected papers may be developed for publication in a themed hard copy volume(s). All publications from the conference will require editors, to be chosen from interested delegates from the conference.
Inter-Disciplinary.Net believes it is a mark of personal courtesy and professional respect to your colleagues that all delegates should attend for the full duration of the meeting. If you are unable to make this commitment, please do not submit an abstract for presentation.
Courtesy of Open Graves, Open Minds
Daughter of Fangdom:
A Conference on Women and the Television Vampire
18 April 2015
The University of Roehampton
Following the success of TV Fangdom: A Conference on Television Vampires in 2013, the organisers announce a follow-up one-day conference, Daughter of Fangdom: A Conference on Women and the Television Vampire. Though Dracula remains the iconic image, female vampires have been around at least as long, if not longer, than their male counterparts and now they play a pivotal role within the ever expanding world of the TV vampire, often undermining or challenging the male vampires that so often dominate these shows. Women have also long been involved in the creation and the representation of vampires both male and female. The fiction of female writers such as Charlaine Harris and L.J. Smith has served as core course material for the televisual conception and re-conception of the reluctant vampire, while TV writers and producers such as Marti Noxon (Buffy) and Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries and The Originals) have played a significant role in shaping the development of the genre for television.
Since vampires are not technically human, the terms male and female may apply, but representation of gender has the potential to be more fluid if vampires exist outside of human society. Given the ubiquity of the vampire in popular culture and particularly on TV, how is the female represented in vampire television? What roles do women have in bringing female vampires to the small screen? In what ways has the female vampire been remade for different eras of television, different TV genres, or different national contexts? Is the vampire on TV addressed specifically to female audiences and how do female viewers engage with TV vampires? What spaces exist on television for evading the gender binary and abandoning categories of male and female vampires altogether?
Proposals are invited on (but not limited to) the following topics:
• TV’s development of the female vampire
• Negotiation of gender and sexuality
• Evading binaries
• Female writers/ directors/ producers/ actors in vampire TV
• Adaptation and authorship
• Genre hybridity
• Female vampires in TV advertising
• New media, ancillary materials, extended and transmedia narratives
• Intersection with other media (novels, films, comics, video games, music)
• Audience and consumption (including fandom)
• The female and children’s vampire television
• Inter/national variants
• Translation and dubbing
We will be particularly interested in proposals on older TV shows, on those that have rarely been considered as vampire fictions, and on analysis of international vampire TV. The conference organisers welcome contributions from scholars within and outside universities, including research students, and perspectives are invited from different disciplines.
Please send proposals (250 words) for 20 minute papers plus a brief biography (100 words) to all three organisers by 15th December 2014.
It’s well documented that the classification of ‘witch’ was once used as an excuse to torture and murder innocent women. But how were these so-called conjurers and sorceresses portrayed in art? The answer can be found at Witches and Wicked Bodies — the exhibition now at the British Museum, after a successful showing in Scotland last year.
More at the Londonist.com.
(Artwork: Witchcraft scene, three nude figures in a darkened interior, including figure at right holding a recumbent skeleton by the shoulders, and a female figure on the left holding an open book and a bone above a flame. c.1780, Inscribed: ‘Goya.’ attributed to Luis Paret y Alcazar, pen and ink with watercolour. © The Trustees of the British Museum.)
Devoted to Death: Santa Muerta, the Skelton Saint by R. Andrew Chesnut (Oxford University Press, 2012)
R. Andrew Chesnut offers a fascinating portrayal of Santa Muerte, a skeleton saint whose cult has attracted millions of devotees over the past decade. Although condemned by mainstream churches, this folk saint’s supernatural powers appeal to millions of Latin Americans and immigrants in the U.S. Devotees believe the Bony Lady (as she is affectionately called) to be the fastest and most effective miracle worker, and as such, her statuettes and paraphernalia now outsell those of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Saint Jude, two other giants of Mexican religiosity. In particular, Chesnut shows Santa Muerte has become the patron saint of drug traffickers, playing an important role as protector of peddlers of crystal meth and marijuana; D.E.A. agents and Mexican police often find her altars in the safe houses of drug smugglers. Yet Saint Death plays other important roles: she is a supernatural healer, love doctor, money-maker, lawyer, and angel of death. She has become without doubt one of the most popular and powerful saints on both the Mexican and American religious landscapes.
Robert Geraci has been interviewed here previously regarding his work in artificial intelligence. With his return below we discuss his new volume Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life (Oxford University Press, 2014).
TheoFantastique: Thanks for your willingness to discuss your new book. How did you come to see video games and online social worlds as social places that are part of the new spiritual marketplace rather than merely entertainment?
Robert Geraci: Those realizations happened mostly just by taking the online residents seriously. I listened to what they had to say about their own experiences and the nature of their expectations; that led me to realize that what many hoped for from their experiences online. The Second Life (SL) residents told me of their hopes for the future and technology, and that led me to wonder what might else be at play for online residents. Then I attended an academic conference hosted in World of Warcraft (WoW) — which was my introduction to that world — and I started seeing that games like WoW provide different kinds of opportunities than worlds like SL, but that in both cases one crucial element was that both worlds could re-enchant the cosmos, providing opportunities for online residents to experience meaning and transcendence.
TheoFantastique: What kind of analytical framework guided your research?
Robert Geraci: I am a multidisciplinary kind of researcher, but actor-network theory (ANT) in science studies is probably my primary methodological affiliation. Given the strange things I do, however, I don’t know if Bruno Latour, Michael Callon, and that crowd would accept me as one of their own. I engage a kind of anthropology that is rooted in ANT but never strays far from the fundamental categories of religion as explored by Mircea Eliade, J.Z. Smith, and David Chidester. At the same time, this recent work was deeply, deeply influenced by a few authors in game studies: Gary Fine’s pioneering study of pen-and-paper role-playing games, first and foremost, but also William Bainbridge, Bonnie Nardi, Tom Boellstorff and others in the sociological and anthropological study of game communities.
TheoFantastique: How do virtual worlds, especially when combined with fantastic narratives and creative possibilities, lend themselves to spiritual exploration?
Robert Geraci: We are, at our core, religious. By this, I mean that I am comfortable naming our desire to claim the world as meaningful — to see the world as magical and as meaningful — religious. We are driven to find value and meaning in the world and we will persistently engage in that effort. Virtual realities allow almost limitless possibility in such practices. We can tell the stories we want to tell, join the ones we want to hear, and even reshape the landscape according to our needs. If we desire dragons at the limits of our maps, then not only can we draw them in but we can actually visit their domains. We can find, if we want to, various kinds of meanings that we often lack in daily life. The conventional, physical world is rich in opportunity for reflection and it lends itself to many kinds of consideration. Among those, however, has always been that we can invent new ways of thinking and storytelling. We want to enchant the world, which comes to us fundamentally banal, and our stories are crucial in this process. Virtual worlds can provide landscapes for our imaginations to walk through. They are bigger than maps — though I would never understate the magic of cartography — as we can walk, embodied, in the world of our dreams. We can be present in worlds of magic and meaning. It’s hard to overstate how valuable that might be for people.
TheoFantastique: What advantages do they have that traditional, institutional religions lack?
Robert Geraci: They have two key advantages: creative expressiveness and transcendent space-time. on the one hand, if you can dream it, you can probably code it. Virtual worlds are limited only by what we want them to be. That’s a pretty distant frontier! We can build playscapes, meditation gardens, foci for prayer and contemplation, futuristic technofantasties, arenas for heroic deeds, even commercial and consumerist shopping malls….they give us the chance to be the people we want to be…or, by practicing other options, they teach us who we want to be in the conventional world. It’s not just that we can be who we truly want in virtual worlds. Sometimes they are opportunities to think about how we’d like to be someone else when we log off. But I promised to mention time and space also. Ordinarily, we must be in one place in one time. But virtual worlds allow us to occupy many spaces and to perceive the passage of time according to those unique spaces. This means that we can form communities across vast gulfs and (unlike in ordinary website or chat room enabled communications) we can experience those relationships “bodily,” just as we do in traditional, conventional life. That means they can leverage some of our evolutionary heritage in mediating communication. Obviously, they are a far cry from face-to-face interaction, but at least they allow us to move around one another, shake hands, look one another in the eye, etc. As the technology improves, it is probable that we can even map physical expressiveness (such as of a user’s face) onto the avatar in a virtual world, which would then enhance the already meaningful embodiment that users experience in virtual worlds.
TheoFantastique: Why did you choose World of Warcraft and Second Life as case studies?
Robert Geraci: I confess that it was mostly by accident of fate. When I first read about SL, I told my wife and she joined it to see what it was like. Seeing as how I was allegedly interested in religion and technology, I felt obliged to follow her good example! There, I learned much that was relevant to my overall interests in how religion and technology intersect in a variety of ways and so I remained for some years. SL became part of my first book (Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality) thanks to interviews I conducted with people who wished to transfer their minds into virtual reality or who told me that their online personas were meaningfully separate from their conventional personas (separate people, as it were). I joined WoW because of a conference being hosted there by the eminent sociologist William Bainbridge. I just wanted to attend his conference while I was doing work on SL. But as I was present for a few weeks, that became a few months, all engaged in why people wanted to be there and what the game world gave back to them. Ultimately, I remained in both SL and WoW for many years and had an opportunity to see how much those worlds could conceivably give back to the residents.
TheoFantastique: How do these virtual worlds serve as “virtually sacred” and “do religious work” in a secular context?
Robert Geraci: They provide a host of religious and quasi-religious opportunities. In the book, I am interested in the ways in which WoW serves as an “authentic fake” (David Chidester’s term): a secular practice that fulfills genuine religious goals. In WoW, these are associational in that they provide tools for creating meaningful communities and ways of reflecting upon ethical concerns, and they are devotional in that one can have meaningful and even transcendent experiences in the game. Regarding the first, there’s been much work on the community-building aspects of games like WoW, but little that connects this element to other parts of the game that, in concert with one another, provide the virtually sacred experience. It’s not just that gamers build communities. For example, the game challenges them to think ethically (about good and evil, about the economy, about the environment, etc.). Now whether the players take advantage of this to grow as ethical people and citizens remains a separate question…but quite frankly the same is true of traditional religious organizations that attempt to teach moral codes. Furthermore, when you combine these with the fact that people can identify with a heroic version of themselves — one that flies, fights evil, and has superpowers…perhaps that might even one day be an uploaded form of their consciousnesses — then the overall package is profoundly religious even if not all players invest themselves in such a way. Now for SL, i had two separate interests. One was to trace the ways in which certain religious groups shift operation into the world, forming virtual extensions for traditional religions, including the creation of new models for those traditions (e.g. a group that created a Narnian landscape that permitted learning about Christianity while also allowing for Narnian-themed entertainment). In a separate chapter, I engaged transhumanist communities and their participation in SL, both in terms of individuals who desire a transhumanist future of mind uploading, etc. and in terms of the way that the designers and founder of SL also share a transhumanist perspective. Both by providing places for the religiously-minded to form groups, build places of worship, and convene and by providing a transhumanist world (and worldview?), SL is also deeply connected to contemporary religion. I hope that quick summary was coherent!
TheoFantastique: What is the relationship of these virtual worlds to traditional religious institutions as they navigate the spiritual?
Robert Geraci: I consider them to be both competitors and collaborators. It is certainly possible for traditional religious institutions to use the virtual worlds as ways of forming additional communities, as long as the creators understand that virtual communities are not particularly good at lending concrete support to conventional, physical communities…they have to be allowed to operate according to their own rules. Given that, however, virtual worlds become accessible locations through which religious groups can share their faiths and even respectfully communicate with others. At the same time, when virtual worlds become sites for religious activity as authentic fakes, then they also provide many of the features of traditional religion without requiring that people join those traditional communities. I once saw Tom Waits perform the song “Chocolate Jesus” on the David Letterman show. He said something very close to “this is a song for everyone who has trouble getting up on Sundays.” It’s a brilliant song, by the way, and a fabulous meditation on contemporary spirituality. Well, anyone who can have a community of close friends and confidants, think about what it means to be a good person, find meaning in his or her activity, and acquire increasingly wondrous superpowers in a fantasy landscape…that person might not feel a need to get up early on Sunday.
TheoFantastique: Thanks again for your time and for addressing this important subject.
Robert Geraci: Thanks for having me.
Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015), by Joseph P. Laycock.
The 1980s saw the peak of a moral panic over fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. A coalition of moral entrepreneurs that included the Christian Right, psychologists, and law enforcement claimed these games were not only psychologically dangerous but an occult religion masquerading as a game. Dangerous Games explores both the history and the sociological significance of this panic. Fantasy role-playing games do share several functions in common with religion. However, religion—as a socially constructed world of shared meaning—can also be compared to a fantasy role-playing game. In fact, the claims of the moral entrepreneurs, in which they presented themselves as heroes battling a dark conspiracy, often resembled the very games of imagination that they condemned as evil. By attacking the imagination, they preserved the taken-for-granted status of their own socially-constructed reality. Interpreted in this way, the panic over fantasy-role playing games yields new insights about how humans play and together construct and maintain meaningful worlds. Laycock’s clear and accessible writing ensures Dangerous Games will be required reading for those with an interest in religion, popular culture, and social behavior, in the classroom and beyond.
See a related title from a previous post, Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life by Robert M. Geraci (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Religion Dispatches recently published an interesting article by Robert Geraci that contrasts the The Monster Manual from Dungeons & Dragons with ancient bestiaries and tales of monsters and miracles. The essay is titled “Monstrous Futures: Dungeons & Dragons, Harbinger of the “None” Generation, Turns 40.”
Two quotes of note:
“We wish for an enchanted world, and such a world is by its very nature monstrous. How then, if we hope to see the world reconfigured and made meaningful and transcendent, could we do so without welcoming back the demons and dragons in all their glory? Indeed, our popular culture is rich in zombies, vampires, and even a 50-meter radioactive lizard, all being reimagined, reinterpreted, and pressed into the service of each generation’s dreams.”
The dreams we realize in movies, virtual realities, and videogames are the dreams we have always dreamed; the monsters we find there are the monsters we cherish, for it is their presence that reminds us of what matters. Or, better, it’s their presence that reminds us that we must make the world matter.”
This post is a guest essay from Brandon Engel.
For the average baby boomer movie-goer, John Carpenter will always be the answer to the the trivia question, “who wrote and directed the horror classic Halloween (1978)?” For film aficionados of any generation, Carpenter will be know as a film artist who crafted some of the finest, if not lesser known, cult classics.
As a director, it’s not difficult to turn a $100M film budget into a $500M box office winner like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron have done many times over. With Halloween, Carpenter demonstrated that he could produce a commercially successful film with a budget less than $400,000 around and a small cast of mostly unknown actors (Donald Pleasence being one exception). Of course, Carpenter’s career has been continually beset by commercial failures, especially in the 1990s. Films like Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), and Escape from L.A. (1996) were box-office disasters and perhaps, directorial failures. Despite those high-profile mishaps, Carpenter often displayed brilliance, much of it in lesser known films.
Of his lesser known films, one that stands out is Starman (1984). In this story of alien who comes to earth to learn about humanity, Carpenter favored emotional substance over special effects. It’s a romantic adventure film with textures of science-fiction. Carpenter purposefully did not approach the film as a science-fiction thriller. The alien (Jeff Bridges) crash lands near the home of a widow named Jenny (Karen Allen). After absorbing some of the DNA from a strand of Jenny’s widowers hair, the alien transforms into a human form that is identical to Jenny’s dead husband. He forces her to take him to the Winslow crater where he can be picked up by the alien mothership. During their road trip, he is able to soothe her pain while she teaches him about human emotion. All the while, government agents are in hot pursuit, eager to capture the alien to chop him up on the slab. The film showcases Carpenter’s versatility and vulnerability, and confirmed his ability to make a mainstream blockbuster, if that’s what he wanted to do. What’s more, it contemporizes politically inspired sci-fi dramas from the cold war like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) which portray humans, and not the aliens, as destructive nuisances.
10 years earlier, Dark Star (1974) was Carpenter’s first feature film as a director. He shot the film while still a film student at the University of Southern California with the help of fellow classmate and nerd Dan O’Bannon. The film was shot with an estimated budget of $60,000. The story is a sort of self-deprecating science-fiction film, centered around four astronauts stuck on a spaceship (perhaps for life), trying to pave the way for earth’s expansion into space by strategically obliterating planets. With tongue-in-cheek, Carpenter explored these four personalities, using clever filming tricks that seemed beyond his years of experience. The film feels very much like a parody of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (HAL spoofed by a red beach ball named “Bomb 20″). That film may have been one of Hollywood’s first plausible looks at futuristic space travel, but Carpenter seemed to believe the film took itself too serious. But like 2001, Dark Star does poise the question: “why are human beings innately inclined to use their creative faculties towards needlessly destructive ends?”
It isn’t merely Carpenter’s science-fiction vehicles that get overlooked today, though. He also made a couple of terrific horror films that simply don’t get the praise they deserve. Prince of Darkness (1987) was part of Carpenter’s self-proclaimed “Apocalypse Trilogy” about the forces of evil seeking to destroy the goodness of human nature. A catholic group discovers a cylinder that contains the spirit of Satan. Once opened, those exposed to the contents meet disaster and untimely deaths. As Carpenter explores the occult, the influence of an ex-collaborator, English screenwriter Nigel Kneale (Quatermass and the Pit) becomes embedded in the film. Carpenter’s work on this film was panned by critics who just didn’t seem to get the point.
With In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Carpenter fell victim to budget constraints and the results showed it. The film is a loving tribute to the sinister genius of H.P. Lovecraft, about a popular horror writer who effectively manifests the surreal and nightmarish world of his literature. The film featured harrowing performances from Sam Neil and special effects that evoke eighties-era Clive Barker, but the film failed to catch on.
For all the flack he’s gotten over the years, it seems that Carpenter is still warmly regarded by film fans, and his status as an icon of cult cinema is irrevocable. He was also recently profiled by Robert Rodriguez on El Rey Network, and there’s also talk of a theatrical re-release of the original Halloween. For all his misfires, Carpenter is clever, efficient, creative and willing to take chances. In the end, Carpenter has made his bones as the “master of the horror film.” The reality is that his talents work across any genre because he has technique, vision and an acute understanding of human nature.
Brandon Engel is a Chicago-based blogger with a keen interest in genre pulp literature and vintage cult films. Follow him on Twitter: @BrandonEngel2