EXPANDED NARRATIVE: Role of the Wolf in Contemporary Media

The wolf as a motif has had an extremely varied history in mythology; sometimes it is portrayed as a master hunter, sometimes as a loyal protector, sometimes as a villain. In more recent history, the wolf has definitely been a symbol of fear: along with Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster, the Werewolf completes the triumvirate of classic horror film monsters that so terrified early cinema-goers. Yet I would argue that the role of the wolf, and in particular the mythological werewolf, has changed again and is presented in a very different light in contemporary film and literature.

I feel this is particularly true of media aimed at young adults and teenagers. In recent YA literature, the werewolf has, amazingly, become something of a romantic figure. This is something that has never gone before – although the stories of Count Dracula and vampires may have always contained an erotic undertone, stories of werewolves have generally been more straightforwardly violent and frightening. There have been occasional attempts to inject humour into the genre – such as the Michael J. Fox film Teen Wolf – but, on the whole, the transformation of a human into a wolf-like creature has been presented as horrific, and these characters as uniformly evil. However, in modern works such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, the werewolf is not the villain, but is rather shown as a sympathetic character and a potential love interest for the protagonist. In other works, like Maggie Stiefvater’s The Wolves of Mercy Falls books and the BBC television series Being Human, the state of being a werewolf (or ‘lycanthropy’) is shown as being a painful affliction for the characters affected. It is something that they loathe about themselves and seek to control and overcome, because these characters are good people who do not wish to harm anyone while in their beast-like state. Their struggle to overcome the wolf part of them is presented in a poignant and poetic way, and may be intended as symbolic of man’s perpetual struggle with his more base nature.

Another example of the changing perception of the wolf in modern media is the character of Remus Lupin from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Infected with lycanthropy as a child, Lupin is nonetheless a heroic character, but is required to drink a magical potion every full moon to prevent himself from becoming violent and dangerous in his werewolf form. Rowling is quoted as stating that she intended for Lupin to be a metaphor for people infected by HIV, which would make this incarnation of the werewolf a symbol of the unfair prejudice society inflicts upon people whose condition is beyond their own control.

There is also the 2011 American TV series Teen Wolf, a very loose adaptation of the afore-mentioned 1980’s film, though largely omitting the film’s comedic elements. Here, werewolves as shown as being very similar to humans in that some are good and some are not, and it is in fact that werewolf hunters who are presented as the true villains due to their inability or refusal to make that distinction.

It is undeniable that, like vampires, werewolves (and, by extension, wolves themselves) have become much less threatening figures in contemporary media. I think the fact that, in these modern stories, it tends to be normal humans who are the villains speaks volumes about what we are afraid of now compared to our predecessors, who viewed the supernatural creatures as the danger and the humans as the heroes.

Bibliography

Meyer, S., 2005, Twilight

Stiefvater, M., 2009, Shiver

Rowling, J.K., 1999, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

EXPANDED NARRATIVE: Lecture Summary

The wolf has been an important figure in the mythology of many cultures throughout history:

–          The Ancient Egyptian war deity Wepwawet, known as Opener of the Ways, was a jackal-headed god.

–          ‘The She-Wolf’ – in Ancient Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus were nursed by a female wolf after being abandoned. This idea of human children being raised by wolves has reoccurred in more modern literature and media, such as Mowgli in The Jungle Book and San in Princess Mononoke.

–          In Norse mythology, Odin (or Wodan) was said to wear the pelt of a wolf in battle.

–          In North American tradition, the wolf was a totemic animal and represented strong family ties, good communication, education, understanding and intelligence. The wolf was considered the most accomplished hunter of all the land animals, as well as the one with the strongest supernatural powers.

–          Also in Ancient Roman legend, Lycaon, King of Arcadia, was transformed into a wolf by Jupiter as punishment for serving him a meal of human flesh. This possibly gave rise to origins of werewolf stories.

–          Some of Aesop’s fables involve wolves, usually in an antagonistic role. In ‘The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’, the wolf tricks and devours lambs by wearing the shorn coat of a sheep, with the supposed message that ‘appearances are deceptive’. In ‘The Wolf and the Lamb’, the wolf attempts to convince the lamb that he has the right to eat him but, being unable to do so, eats him anyway. The message behind this fable is that ‘the tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny, and it is useless for the innocent to try by reasoning to get justice, when the oppressor is unjust’.

–          The wolf is a central character in the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which has undergone numerous revisions since its original telling as a piece of folklore. Originally a tale about a little girl outsmarting a wolf which means to eat her, it gradually became a cautionary tale about the dangers that can befall girls (and by extension, women) who do not take care to beware of strangers.

MOVING TOWARDS THE POSTMODERN: Modernism vs. Postmodernism

In terms of art style, the motto of modernism was ‘less is more’. However, the underlying philosophy of the art movement ran a lot deeper. Modernism was very much a rebellion against the 19th century aesthetic and culture, both of which drew heavily on what Modernists considered to be outmoded and thus redundant tradition. These artists examined all aspects of life afresh and took a never-before-seen approach to their work, and this is evident in art, architecture and literature from this period. They felt that clinging to outdated beliefs and constantly making reference to classical art of the past was inhibiting the progress of both art and culture as a whole, and so they sought to cast off all that had gone before and create something totally different and fitting for the new age. Unfortunately, the public at large was not prepared for this new and radical approach and often found modernist art strange or unsettling, or did not consider it ‘art’ at all, which led to many artists being unable to exhibit their work in galleries. Although exhibiting their art in other, less conventional ways suited their anti-status-quo philosophy, it meant a struggle to get widespread publicity. Some Modernists saw themselves as revolutionaries, while others – particularly Dadaists – were more nihilistic and aimed only to increase political consciousness rather than actually alter the politics of the time. On the whole, it was a hugely important art movement – which, in fact, encompasses many art movements, such as Bauhaus, Surrealism and Futurism – which was considered shocking and highly subversive at the time.

“It stressed freedom of expression, experimentation, radicalism and primitivism, and its disregard for conventional expectations often meant startling and alienating audiences with bizarre and unpredictable effects (e.g. surrealism in art, atonality in music, stream-of-consciousness literature).” (Mastin, 2008)

However, after World War II, Modernism began to be seen as having failed in its goal to revolutionise art and culture, in large part due to the fact that, by this time, it had actually become extremely mainstream. It redefined tradition and therefore became the new tradition, which went against its founding aim to enable progress. Postmodernism, then, was a reaction to the downfall of Modernism and was in many ways its opposite. Mies van der Rohe is credited with coining the Modernist motto of ‘less is more’ – in turn, Venturi declared that, for Postmodernists, ‘less is a bore’. Postmodern art set out to contradict Modernist art, particularly in terms of drawing on the past. Whilst Modernist artists rejected the part completely, one of the key characteristics of Postmodern art is the integration of past styles into highly contemporary works.

Postmodernism also has a highly complex underlying philosophy, which essentially sets out to question that which more traditional philosophical stances take for granted, such as the idea of a single objective reality or the universal validity of logic.

“Postmodernism as a philosophical movement is largely a reaction against the philosophical assumptions, values, and intellectual worldview of the modern period of Western (specifically European) history—i.e., the period from about the time of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries to the mid-20th century. Indeed, many of the doctrines characteristically associated with postmodernism can fairly be described as the straightforward denial of the general philosophical viewpoints that were taken for granted during the 18th-century Enlightenment, though they were not unique to that period.” (Duignan, n.d.)

Works Cited

Duignan, B., n.d. Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1077292/postmodernism

Mastin, L., 2008. The Basics of Philosophy. [Online]
Available at: http://www.philosophybasics.com/movements_modernism.html

 

Further Bibliography

Witcombe, C., n.d. Art History Resources. [Online]

Available at: http://arthistoryresources.net/modernism/roots.html 

MOVING TOWARDS THE POSTMODERN: Lecture Summary

In 1919, the Bauhaus school was formed in Germany by a group of artists and designers led by Walter Gropius. The aim of this new school was to “create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist”. The Bauhaus and its approach to design had an important influence on many subsequent developments in art and especially areas such as architecture, interior design and typography.

In the Netherlands around the same time, there was the De Stijl movement, also known as neoplasticism. Work by De Stijl artists was highly abstracted and tended to use only primary colours plus black and white. It was also extremely geometric, using only straight lines, squares and rectangles in compositions and designs.

Both the Bauhaus and De Stijl were influenced by Russian Constructivism, which encouraged the use of art for social purposes. It had a major influence on architecture, fashion and graphic design.

There was also Modernism, which encompassed many things including scientific positivism, realism and formalism. It extolled principles such as (national) identity, unity, authority and certainty – it was greatly affected by developments in science and work from this period often had a minimalist appearance.

Modernism was followed by Postmodernism. If the motto of Modernism was ‘less is more’, Postmodernism’s was ‘less is a bore’. 

THE AVANT-GARDE: Reappropriation of Nazi Aesthetics

Following the end of the Second World War, everything related to Nazism was immensely taboo, not least the uniformed aesthetic and well-known symbols of the regime. The swastika had become a symbol of fear, its appearance starkly calling to mind all the horrors of the war and the Third Reich. The distinctive uniform of the SS became a motif for evil; even today, seeing a character in any work of fiction dressed in a similar way is a sure indication that they are a villain of the worst kind.

Then in the mid-1970’s, there was the emergence of the punk subculture, made up largely of a new generation of young people who had not lived through the war. Punk is, fundamentally, anti-establishment and aims to shock and subvert the current ‘norm’. As part of this endeavour to be shocking, it was not uncommon to see punks and punk musicians sporting clothing emblazoned with Nazi symbols and iconography. Bands like The Stooges wore swastikas at some of their performances. Joy Division – a band “named for the squad of sex slaves used to pleasure SS officers in concentration camps” (Beeber, 2007) – wore Hitler Youth-esque uniforms. This led to a new and often fetishist fascination with the Nazi aesthetic, which lingers in our culture even today. Prince Harry famously dressed as an SS officer for a Halloween party; the 2011 Armani collection was oddly reminiscent of Mussolini’s fascist uniforms:

The reasons for this revived interest have been debated at great length. Writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag argued that part of the attraction, particularly for the early punks who presented themselves as sexually subversive, lies in the fact that all aspects of the Nazi regime had inherent erotic undertones:

“Hitler regarded leadership as sexual mastery of the ‘feminine’ masses, as rape. (The expression of the crowds in ‘Triumph of the Will’ in one of ecstasy; the leader makes the crowd come.) Left-wing movements have tended to be unisex, and asexual in their imagery. Right-wing movements, however puritanical and repressive the realities they usher in, have an erotic surface.” (Sontag, 1980)

In addition to this, Sontag stated that the recurrence of Nazi aesthetics in fashion could be due to the powerful connotations of fascist uniforms, which “suggest community, order, identity (through ranks, badges, medals, things which declare who the wearer is and what he has done: his worth is recognised), competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence” (Sontag, 1980).

Setting the reasons for the attraction aside, however, perhaps a more important question is whether or not it is, in fact, right to reappropriate Nazi aesthetics in this way. Can it be appropriate to take the symbols of such a horrific, oppressive regime and apply them to any aspect of modern culture? I would argue that the answer is no.

Many people argue that reclaiming Nazi symbols is an empowering act – that it causes these symbols to lose their impact and almost makes a mockery of them and what they represent. Others point to the fact that the swastika pre-dates the Nazi party and in other cultures is still considered a positive symbol. I do not find this to be a valid argument: the swastika’s original meaning, and its current connotations in other cultures, does not change the fact that in the majority of western countries it is now a symbol of violence, hatred and genocide. The punks of the 1970s did not wear the swastika in an attempt to change its meaning or to make it a more positive symbol; they were utilising what they knew were its terrible associations in order to shock and offend. Punk icon Sid Vicious even allegedly wore a swastika t-shirt while walking around a Jewish community in France; there could have been no purpose behind this except to be offensive.

Online dictionary Grammarist defines ‘reappropriate’ as “to appropriate something pejorative and make it positive”. Clearly, this was not the intention of punks in the 70s, nor is it the intention of any fashion designer who incorporates Nazi style or symbolism into their products – therefore what these people have done or are doing cannot be considered reappropriation, but rather thoughtless use of these symbols in an attempt at creating shock value. Grammarist also goes on to add that “reappropriated terms are usually best avoided by anyone outside the reappropriating groups”. Reappropriation is something that can only be carried out by the group whom the pejorative symbol or slur was originally intended to demean. A relevant example in this case would be the gay community’s reappropriation of the ‘pink triangle’:

This symbol was used as a symbol of oppression in Nazi Germany, much like the Star of David that Jewish people were forced to wear. The downward-pointing pink triangle was stitched onto the clothing of male prisoners of concentration camps who had been sent there because of their homosexuality. It was intended as a symbol of shame and subjugation, but in the 1970s it was reclaimed and adopted as a symbol of pride and self-identity and was used extensively at gay rights protests. Today, it is a universal symbol of the gay rights movement, second in popularity only to the rainbow flag.

I think it is clear that this – taking a symbol originally designed to degrade and turning it into a symbol of pride and empowerment – is entirely different to wearing a swastika in an attempt to look scandalous. I think that the unthinking use of Nazi symbols in modern fashion and music is disrespectful to the many people for whom these symbols still resonate, and I also feel that it is little more than a cheap ploy to create a shocking, ‘edgy’ persona without having any particular beliefs or ideology to back it up.

Works Cited

Beeber, S. L., 2007. Jewcy. [Online]
Available at: http://www.jewcy.com/post/blitzkrieg_stop_the_nazi_aesthetic_of_the_stooges_and_the_punk_music_they_begat#sthash.9yr4od61.dpuf

Sontag, S., 1980. Fascinating Fascism. In: Under the Sign of Saturn. s.l.:s.n., pp. 73-105.

Further Bibliography

Kreuter, N., 2007, viz. [Online]

Available at: http://viz.cwrl.utexas.edu/node/115

Grammarist [Online]

Available at: http://grammarist.com/words/reappropriate/

Punk and the Swastika [Online]

Available at: http://www.punk77.co.uk/groups/punkthe.htm

THE AVANT-GARDE: Lecture Summary

In the period from 1900 – 1937, there were a number of overlapping art movements, including Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, Dadaism, Vorticism, Constructivism and Surrealism. These were known as the first wave of the Avant-garde, and the artists involved sought to reject everything that had gone before. They felt that art history was ‘slowing everything down’ and wanted to cast it off and create work that was completely new and opposed to the classical art of the past. Their work was often considered shocking or looked down upon and was refused by galleries and other means of traditional exhibition. This led the artists to explore new means of distribution, such as posters, magazines, artist’s books and photo-books. Many artists grew to be synonymous with particular magazines or music.

The development of the Avant-garde was largely brought to a halt in Germany with the rise of Nazi power in the 1930s. Hitler declared work of this type to be ‘degenerate’ and had many artists dismissed from their teaching positions and even banned them from practicing art or buying materials. This intolerance for the non-traditional extended to music and literature, too, and there were book-burnings and many musicians were also dismissed. Hitler took control of the country’s whole culture. The Nazi regime confiscated thousands of pieces of artwork from Avant-garde artists and collected them together for a ‘Degenerate Art Exhibition’ in an attempt to show the public just how wrong it all was. This may have backfired somewhat, as the exhibition was extremely well-attended.

Hitler was highly aware of the importance of art in controlling the culture and also of the importance of appearances in projecting a sense of power. He hired former Avant-garde artists to work for his propaganda campaign, such as film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, who made publicity films for the 1936 Olympic Games focusing on the strength and athleticism of the German athletes, and Albert Speer who organised the Nazi party’s massive rallies. He also had the SS uniforms designed by Hugo Boss to ensure a finished product that evoked the powerful aesthetic that he wished for.

THE PURSUIT OF REALISM: Continued Interest in Japanese Art

During the 19th century, with improving trade links between Europe and Asia, there was an explosion of interest in Japanese art and culture. Its popularity has come and gone many times since with changing fashions, but one particular aspect that has gained prominence in more recent years is a fascination with Japanese animation.

Western fans of Japanese animation, or anime, are very much considered a sub-culture unto themselves, though the genre has become more mainstream and well-known since the widespread popularity of children’s television shows such as ‘Pokémon’. Many people have a certain level of disdain for anyone over the age of twelve who declares themselves a fan of Japanese animation, but that disdain – that expectation that animation is somehow juvenile and should only be enjoyed by children – is very much a product of western culture. It is likely that part of the reason that so many people in the west are so fascinated by Japanese animation is that it is not governed by those rules, and instead caters to both children and adults.

Here in the UK, and indeed most other countries in the western world, animation is synonymous with Disney, Pixar, and television channels like ‘Cartoon Network’. There are animated films such as ‘Toy Story’ that appeal to audiences of all ages, and there are animated TV shows such as ‘The Last Airbender’ and, more recently, ‘Adventure Time’ which attract older viewers, but all of these are, in essence, still aimed at children. They are made with children in mind, which is to say that they are made to be ‘appropriate’. They can be entertaining and enjoyable, but they must always be, to a certain degree, watered down and kept from becoming too adult in order not to offend. It is almost impossible to find examples of western animation, beyond independent shorts, that are aimed at adults. So ingrained is the belief that ‘cartoons’ are only for children that attempts by the British animation industry to make films with somewhat darker themes – such as Martin Rosen’s ‘Watership Down’ and ‘The Plague Dogs’ – were met with some disapproval. People assumed these films were aimed at young children, and were left somewhat appalled by their violent content.

The only popularised instances of western animation aimed at older audiences are television shows such as ‘South Park’, ‘The Simpsons’ or ‘Family Guy’, which contain more adult humour. There are certainly many shows in this vein, but they are invariably comedies with very little plot or structure, and tend to be animated very simplistically (particularly true in the case of ‘South Park’). They seem not be animated due to any wish on the creator’s part to make use of animation as an art form, but rather due to the fact that animated characters do not age or change, thereby enabling the show to continue indefinitely without even the need for a logically progressing timeline.

In Japan, the attitude towards animation is very different. It is seen simply as another medium of film-making, and there is a wealth of films and TV series made exclusively with adult audiences in mind, to the point that many of them are completely unsuitable for children. A prime example of this is Satoshi Kon’s psychological thriller ‘Perfect Blue’, a 2D-animated feature film (which shares many plot similarities with the American live-action film ‘Black Swan’, which was made several years later). ‘Perfect Blue’ was originally intended to be made as a live-action movie, but the 1995 Kobe earthquake caused the production budget to be cut, and so it was adapted and made as an animated film instead. This certainly shows that animation is not considered ‘lesser’ than live-action in Japan, since it was clearly considered a perfectly acceptable alternative way of making this film. I personally feel that ‘Perfect Blue’ benefited from being an animated feature, as its plot deals a lot with the blurring of fantasy and reality and I do not feel that this would have been as visually effective in live-action. The film has been compared to the works of Alfred Hitchcock and is solidly rated 18 for its violent content and scenes of a sexual nature. It is an intelligent, dark and often scary film that deserves no less acclaim than its live-action counterparts.

It is not the case, however, that all Japanese animation aimed at older audiences contains explicit scenes. Some, in fact, depict true historical events, such as ‘Barefoot Gen’, a film loosely based on the manga series by Keiji Nakazawa which was itself based on Nakazawa’s own experiences as a child survivor of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. The film is a powerful statement against war and contains shocking, unflinching scenes depicting the aftermath of the bomb as well as the horrors endured by those who survived. Similarly raw and heart-breaking is Isao Takahata’s film ‘Grave of the Fireflies’, which is based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel detailing the World War II fire-bombing of Kobe. Film review website Rotten Tomatoes describes ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ as “an achingly sad anti-war film” and “one of Studio Ghibli’s most profoundly beautiful, haunting works”.

These are only a few examples, but there is an abundance of similar titles for western animation fans that have perhaps tired of Disney and its undeniably beautiful but often sugar-coated productions. Anime covers all genres – from fantasy and sci-fi to romance and from horror to comedy – and has even created a few unique to itself, such as ‘mecha anime’, which encompasses all films and series which involve the ever-popular character-piloted armoured robots, and ‘magical girl anime’, which features super-powered female protagonists and is typically more childish, though this has been subverted in the recent series ‘Puella Magi Madoka Magica’, which challenges many of the genre’s clichés. There are films which are visually stunning as well as engaging, perhaps most notably the lavishly animated films of Studio Ghibli and latterly the works of Makoto Shinkai, well-known for their beautiful background art. Many people in western countries continue to brush Japanese animation off as something not worthy of serious attention, but its appeal is undeniable to those for whom animation is more than just a means of producing cartoons for children. And, at its core, perhaps our long-running fascination with Japanese art in all its forms stems from the fact that it offers us something that our own culture simply does not.

Bibliography

Rotten Tomatoes

Osmond, A, 2009, Satoshi Kon: the illusionist