The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular

homeHeaderTitleImage_en_USMy paper, “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular”, appears in the latest issue of International Journal of Scottish Theatre and Screen.

In a number of recent films, Scotland has served as the setting for dramas that could have taken place anywhere. This has occurred in two related ways: First, there are films such as Perfect Sense (2011) and Under the Skin (2013). These films involve storylines that, while they do take place in Scotland, do not require the country as a setting. Second, there are films such as Prometheus (2012),The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Cloud Atlas (2012), and World War Z (2013). These films, while being filmed (at least partly) in Scotland, have plots that do not involve Scotland. Scottish locations, in this second group of movies, act as stand- ins for locations in other cities, or even other worlds.

This phenomenon, in which the uniqueness of Scottish locations is deemphasized so that they may act as mere backdrops for the primary action in films, is a relatively new one. It is in sharp contrast to another, more traditional tendency in movie making in which Scottish locations are foregrounded to dramatize myths and stereotypes uniquely Scottish; such as Kailyard, Tartantry or Clydesideism. In this paper I pursue an analysis, drawing on the work of Martin Heidegger, that characterizes this trend as part of a new Scottish myth in the making: the myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular.

The myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular takes the countryside and cities of Scotland as raw material for the telling of stories having transcultural interest. In this, Scotland becomes a space or clearing with no particular defining characteristics of its own to distract from the dramas themselves. This allows for the unfolding of narratives that, while they use Scotland as a setting, have little if anything to do with Scotland, and thus appeal to anyone, anywhere.

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Film-Philosophy Conference 2014: A World of Cinemas

pageHeaderTitleImage_en_USThe 2014 Film-Philosophy Conference will take place July 2 to July 4 on the campus of the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I will be making a presentation on July 3 titled “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular.” Here’s the abstract:

In a number of recent films, Scotland has served as the setting for dramas that could have taken place anywhere. This has occurred in two related ways: First, there are films such as Doomsday (2008), Perfect Sense (2011), and Under the Skin (2013). These films involve storylines that, while they do take place in Scotland, do not require the country as a setting. Second, there are films such as Prometheus (2012), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Cloud Atlas (2012), and World War Z (2013). These films, while being filmed (at least partly) in Scotland, have plots that do not involve Scotland. Scottish locations, in this second group of movies, act as stand-ins for locations in other cities, or even other worlds.

This phenomenon, in which the uniqueness of Scottish locations is deemphasized so that they may act as mere backdrops for the primary action in films, is a relatively new one. It is in sharp contrast to another, more traditional tendency in movie making in which Scottish locations are foregrounded to dramatize myths and stereotypes uniquely Scottish; such as Kailyard, Tartantry or Clydesideism. In this paper I pursue an analysis, drawing on the work of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, that characterizes this trend as part of a new Scottish myth in the making: the myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular.

The myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular takes the countryside and cities of Scotland as raw material for the telling of stories having transcultural interest. In this, Scotland becomes a space or clearing with no particular defining characteristics of its own to distract from the dramas themselves. This allows for the unfolding of narratives that, while they use Scotland as a setting, have little if anything to do with Scotland, and thus appeal to anyone, anywhere.

The conference website can be found at:

http://www.film-philosophy.com/conference/index.php/conf/F-P2014

Walking Through Glasgow

DSC03883The name of the city of Glasgow comes from the Gaelic words “Glas Cu,” which mean “dear green place,” and it certainly is that. In California, there is currently a drought, and when I mentioned this to my Scottish hosts, they laughed, suggesting that we arrange some sort of weather exchange between our two countries. There is more than enough moisture falling from the sky in Glasgow, and the green surroundings bear testament to this fact, just as California’s golden hills and empty resivoirs bear testament to its current dry spell.

DSC03749I stayed with my cousin Amanda and her husband Andy, who were kind enough to put me up in their flat during the time I was in Glasgow. Their place is in a neighborhood on the south side of the River Clyde called Strathbungo. Strathbungo was incorporated into Glasgow in 1892, before which it was an independent village. It still feels like a village in some ways. There is a town council that enforces rules governing local architecture, ensuring that the neighborhood buildings retain their stylistic integrity.  On the streets people know one another and exchange greetings.  Amanda and Andy tell me that Peter Mullan, the actor and director of such Scottish film masterpieces as Orphans and NEDs,  is a regular around here, often seen on the streets or in the pubs.

One of the neighborhoods adjoining Strathbungo is the infamous Gorbals, which features prominently in the 1935 novel No Mean City, a story chronicling the rise and fall of Johnnie Stark, a gangster who slashes his enemies with straight razors, thus earning him the honor of being called the “razor king.” I was eager to see the Gorbals, since it plays such a key role in Glasgow’s popular image as a rough place; and yet I was also eager to avoid having my ears sliced off and handed to me as a gift. My cousin assured me that it is no longer the dangerous place that it once was and that I should not hesitate to wander around and see what there is to see. So I set out on foot toward my destination, eyes open, alert to my surroundings and prepared to flee if I met any razor kings. As I approached Gorbals Street, I did hear someone coming up behind me, so I turned to see who it was. My heart skipped a couple of beats. There was a Glaswegian skinhead in all of his gear: cherry red Docs, a black flight jacket, suspenders hanging down from his pants. A sense of relief overcame me when I realized that he was completely uninterested in me and solely concerned with taking his grocery shopping home. Just a Gorbals skinhead running his daily errands!

DSC03909To me, the Gorbals looks like many other neglected and destitute locations. There are a lot of crumbling buildings, housing projects, litter in the streets and signs for charity services. But there are also signs of renewal. There are new buildings being constructed, operating businesses and a highly visible and established Citizen’s Theatre that stages regular productions and that engages in education and community work. The place didn’t feel particularly unsafe or unfriendly, and there were plenty of school kids and prosperous looking adults wandering about. A banner adorning one of the new, very nice and upscale apartment buildings made reference to the “New Gorbals,” demonstrating that this is still, however, a place aware of its lingering reputation.

DSC03786I left the Gorbals, crossing the Glasgow Bridge and making my way downtown to George Square. This is the location where the beginning scenes of World War Z were filmed. In that film, Glasgow acts as a stand-in for Philadelphia, but Glasgow has also stood in for San Francisco (in Cloud Atlas) and for New York City (in The House of Mirth), suggesting something interesting about the nature of Glasgow. While it is a metropolis with its own unique culture and style, its urban atmosphere is also similar to, and in some ways perhaps even indistinguishable from, other world cities.  The streets form mazes of shops, restaurants and clubs that play host to hundreds of shoppers and tourists. Many of the usual corporate DSC03780store names are there: Starbucks, McDonalds, Apple, Dr. Martens. But there are also variations: instead of TJ Max, there is a TK Max, and the most popular pharmacy is called Boots, which somehow seems like an appropriate name for a Scottish store. The downtown shopping district is buzzing with consumers buying things and overindulging, just like in any other prosperous city. It is the perfect place for a zombie invasion!

DSC03885I wandered down Sauchiehall Street through the West End and toward Kelvingrove Museum, which was to be my destination for the day. The West End neighborhood is quite nice; there are pubs and cafes and even a restaurant named after the Big Lebowski. The whole neighborhood has a really good feel to it; there is a sense of vibrancy and signs that various sorts of cultures are now making contributions to Glaswegian life. The streets are lined with more than just a bunch of drinking establishments; there are Hindu and Buddhist temples and Italian, Japanese and French restaurants.

DSC03803All of the museums in Glasgow are free of any entrance charge –  something that should be the case everywhere in my opinion – but Kelvingrove Museum would still be a bargain even if you had to pay San Francisco-sized admission prices.  Upon entering this museum, my ears were filled with the deep, ominous sounds of a pipe organ. The instrument occupies an entire wall of the central hall, and it dwarfs and engulfs the organist, who sits perched up on high as DSC03862he plays. It is an awe-inspiring sight, and coupled with the organ’s sonic effects, I felt like I was entering a solemn place – until I saw the Spitfire airplane hanging from the ceiling! This vehicle swoops down from above, creating a quirky and rather humorous atmosphere, giving the sense that this place is both serious and weird; and that’s a good thing in my mind! A grotesque Elvis statue helps to reinforce the feeling.

There were a few exhibits at Kelvingrove that I especially enjoyed during my visit. First of all was the exhibit on Scottish myths; a topic directly related to my sabbatical research. It is quite apt that alongside the current push for independence there is a renewed sense of the distinctiveness of RobbieBScottish culture and a heightened urgency on the part of the country’s cultural institutions to debunk many common stereotypes about Scotland. In the “Scottish Identity in Art” exhibit at Kelvingrove, ideas about the origins of tartantry, the use of weapons, and the real lives of Mary, Queen of Scots and Robbie Burns are called into question. My favorite image from the exhibit is one of Robbie Burns reimagined in the style of the revolutionary Che Guevara! (I’ll have more to say about Burns in another posting.) Overall, this exhibit conveyed the sense that Scotland is an underdog of a country that still has to fight in order to gain respect on the world stage.

DSC03824In the gallery right next to the exhibit on Scotland’s depiction in art is a truly stunning painting: Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross. The piece occupies a room all to itself, which serves to highlight the dramatic nature of the image. Apparently, after the museum acquired this painting in 1952, a visitor to the exhibit tore the canvas in two and tried to destroy it. You might think that this was the result of religious outrage or something of that nature, but in fact the vandalism was motivated by the fact that the patron considered it was a very bad likeness of Christ. He should know, since  he claimed to be Jesus, and the painting looked nothing like him!

DSC03830I mentioned in an earlier posting that there are aspects of Glasgow that remind me of Buffalo. Well, I found yet another reminder of Western New York in the Kelvingrove Museum: a statue depicting two women in bed with one another. This is a casting of a piece of marble funerary art that adorns the plot owned by a lesbian couple in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York. It was installed before gay marriage was legalized there. The artist, Patricia Cronin, writes that “In death, I make official my ‘marriage,’ which was not legal for most of our relationship.” It’s a great quote, and it made me think back to when I lived in Buffalo and would spend hours wandering around Forest Lawn, reflecting on death and how stupid life can be sometimes.

I’m sure that I’ll be doing more of that kind of reflecting in the days to come when I make my way over to the spectacular Glasgow Necropolis. But on this day I still had to walk back across the city to get ready for a Burns Night Supper. I’ll be posting the sordid details of that event soon.

The Human Body as Raw Material

DownloadedFileIn World War Z , an otherwise uninteresting and emotionally flat film, the most powerful and disturbing images are those that depict masses of zombies coming together as one enormous mass. Throughout the movie, these creatures rush forward like flooding water or armies of ants. They pile up on top of one another, obliterating all individuality and creating the appearance of undulating mounds. They flow in torrents, like lava, knocking over those obstacles that stand in their way. While normally I find computer animation much too artificial and clean to be truly horrifying, in this film the only feelings of horror that I experienced were precisely the result of these effects. What CGI has made possible in World War Z is the depiction of the human body as raw material on a massive scale.

There is a sense in which all horror might be thought of as derivative of this idea. In horror, there is usually a visceral component that engages with human embodiment and with our fears of death, dismemberment and the loss of bodily integrity. Juneko Robinson, in her paper Immanent Attack: An Existential Take on The Invasion of the Body Snatchers Films, makes this argument, claiming that the horror in the Body Snatcher films is connected to “motifs of engulfment and forced transformation.” (p. 25) Images of human bodies mutating, losing form and melding with other bodies produce in us feelings of horror precisely because they challenge our sense of individual uniqueness and dignity. Such imagery reminds us of our brute, physical, bodily nature, which is governed not by intellect and free will, but by the natural forces of cause and effect. It is horrific to think of ourselves as “things” that can be torn asunder and utilized for purposes that have nothing at all to do with our own personal desires.

The masses of dead bodies discovered by the allied forces in Nazi death camps are the closest real-life equivalents to the masses of zombies depicted in World War Z. The two main differences of course are that: 1) the bodies in the death camps were real; and 2) the bodies in the death camps did not move and attack others. In a horror movie, part of what makes the imagery entertaining is the assurance that what is being depicted is a fantasy. So while looking at photos of death camps is simply depressing and repulsive, looking at images of zombies is somehow enjoyable. While such images are frightening, disgusting and awful, they are also spellbinding. They absorb our attention while also provoking a visceral feeling of horror. Robinson offers a possible explanation for this strange ambivalence toward such depictions when she notes that while engulfment and transformation are frightening, they are also associated with feelings of awe and transcendence. The same awe-inspiring sense of being overwhelmed is described by Immanuel Kant in his book The Critique of Judgment as the experience of the “sublime.” When encountered in this manner, loss of individual identity has a positive cast to it, being associated with wholeness, connection and unity. In the encounter with the sublime, we move beyond the confines of our separate and finite experience of reality, moving instead in the direction of the infinite. This is the path toward God, Being and Totality.

imagesSo it seems thaty while depictions of the human body as raw material are horrifying, they may also potentially provoke other sorts of feelings. Such depictions can provoke sexual arousal (as in porn films), curiosity (as in documentary and instructional films), awe (as in religious depictions), and even humor. Commonly, more than one of these reactions is provoked at a time. So, for instance, in World War Z, there is a sense of horror mixed with sublime awe concerning the flowing tide of thousands of zombie bodies. On a smaller scale, in a film like The Human Centipede, horror is mixed with curiosity about the medical possibilities of surgically joining three bodies, mouth to anus. (The film was advertised as “100% medically accurate.”) Horror and humor co-mingle and become confused in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, a film in which body parts pile up to such ridiculous extremes that all sense of individual identity gets forgotten. Then there is the unsettling mix of sex, horror, humor, and history in a film like Caligula where human bodies are sexually used, abused and dismembered in all sorts of inventive and creative ways. In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, one human body is subjected to more than two hours of torture for both horrifying and religious effect. In all of these films, the dramatic results are achieved – at least in large part – by means of the human body being treated as a “thing,” an object that can be manipulated, stimulated, torn asunder or sewn together like any other objectively present “thing” in the world. In this, the potentiality of the human body as raw material for any sort project, good or bad, is revealed.