Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Cavalcade of Zombies

There has been a preponderance of zombies, a confluence of zombie themes circling about my last few days. I mentioned this to current houseguest Hamilton Morris, and he supported my assertion emphatically--"There's definitely a zombie zeitgeist," he agreed, making great, if unintentional, use of alliteration. Hamilton is not an expert per se, but is certainly better-versed in zombie lore than the average person. As part of his Vice TV program, Hamilton's Pharmacopeia, in which he journeys to far-flung destinations in search of rare drugs, Hamilton made a 3-week trip to pre-quake Haiti, seeking out the elusive, ethnobotanical underpinnings of Haitian Vodou--specifically, the potions and poisons used in the creation of zombies.

Exotic stuff, if not entirely uncharted--Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis made similar investigations in the 1980s, concluding that Vodou sorcerers zombified their living victims with a brew derived from pufferfish poison and other island ephemera. Davis' findings were controversial--nothing about Haitian Vodou, seemingly, is conducive to clear-cut answers. Forged out of slave uprisings in the 18th century, the religion is a witches' brew of West African pantheism, beliefs borrowed from the Arawakian Indians native to Haiti and Roman Catholic flotsam. Hamilton characterizes it as a religion centered largely around poison. The Vodou conception of zombies bears only passing resemblance to the brain-eaters of modern pop; here the zombie is a person purportedly brought back from death by magical means, who serves as a slave to his or her wizard master, laboring willessly in a state of suspended animation. Zombies are not themselves fearsome creatures to Vodou practitioners, Hamilton explains--the fear is of becoming a zombie. The magical thinking so central to Vodou is omnipresent and very real among Haitian followers, he says. The only way to dispel unruly throngs of villagers who'd swarm Hamilton's film crew every time they went out in public--some of them glimpsing their first white face--was for their Haitian bodyguard to pose as a sorcerer and threaten to turn the people into goats.

There is also a major exhibition of Vodou art and artifacts currently at the Ethnologisches Museum here in Berlin, which I visited this last week. The contents of the exhibit are quite beautiful and sometimes deliriously creepy--one dimly-lit room featured row upon row of black-clad warrior-dolls with little round mirrors sewn into their clothes.The exhibit, while stunning, does not much address zombies, noting only that the idea has been thoroughly perverted by Western popular imagination, and that reports of zombie sex slavery and the like misrepresent Haitian Vodou.

If the traditional zombie has been perverted by the Western imagination, however, it has sometimes been to spectacular effect. Outside of its Voudo context, the zombie has taken on a massive metaphorical and archetypal stature--"As of 2009, zombies are challenging vampires for their popularity," notes Wikipedia. As a symbol, the zombie is malleable enough to fit a whole range of styles and agendas. A recent twist is the gay zombie, brought into being by Canadian filmmaker Bruce LaBruce. "If you're gay before you become a zombie...," Labruce ponders--surely something as trifling as death wouldn't alter all-powerful Sexuality. His 2008 feature Otto; Or, Up With Dead People tells the story of Otto, a gay zombie who hitchhikes to Berlin and takes up residence in an abandoned amusement park. Labruce is a part-time Berliner, and this weekend hosted a special preview screening of his new zombie film, LA Zombie at the Arsenal Kino in Mitte.

Shot in LA over a mere eight days, with a relatively paltry budget of $70,000, LA Zombie is nonetheless slicker, and lusher, than Labruce's earlier films. It certainly registers more as agit-prop art piece than midnight movie, though the gore is abundant. Almost purely visual, shot with no script and very little dialogue, the film follows a muscle-bound zombie who, dressed in rags and airbrushed a grotesque green-blue, wanders around the seedier parts of LA, pushing a shopping cart and seeking out fresh male corpses. Pulling out his monstrous, malformed member, which more resembles some awful sea creature than any human sex organ, the zombie fucks each fresh kill in their fatal wound, climaxing with a fountain of blood-black semen as the corpse returns miraculously to life. Shock value aside, the gore-porn is at times transcendently beautiful, even tender. There's no plot to speak of--the zombie merely stumbles from one blood-drenched gutter-boudoir to the next, upping the raunchiness with each encounter, until a final scene where a bunch of coked-up leather daddies are slaughtered in a drug deal gone awry, their playroom becoming host to what is surely the bloodiest sex-scene, gallon for gallon, in modern cinema, as the zombie enters and re-animates the whole bunch in a resplendently gnarly gang-bang. 

The film, while probably not for everyone, does have surprising depth for a gay zombie porno, and a viewer can, if he pleases, find all kinds of allusions to the AIDS epidemic, homelessness and mental illness, religious iconography, and gay social critique. What any of this has to do with Vodou is unclear--if any sorcery is guiding this particular zombie, it's the simple black magic of Lust. LaBruce, after the film ended and he fielded some questions from the audience, certainly did not have the feel of a Vodou sorcerer--he was mildly witty and self-effacing. But who knows what black magic lurks in the hearts of men, what strange beasts or depraved deities they might be capable of conjuring? And is there not a bit of living dead in all of us?

Monday, July 12, 2010

From over the hill

Allow me to drool on about my personal life for one night. Every blog post needn't be hard reportage, it's not as if I'm getting paid. It's a quiet night here in Berlin, not even a plane in the sky, only the sound of a hose running interminably in back of the Rewe market, I'm on the back porch of my little sublet. We have a 20-foot strip of Nature running between us and the back of Rewe, home to a skittish black cat who won't touch our leftover fish scraps.

Let the old man babble! I've achieved a sort of temporal milestone these last days, and write to you, my 13 unlucky followers, as a 30 year-old man, with the papers to prove it! Say what you will about the arbitrariness of calendar years, but 30 has some real psychological implications. A person isn't particularly considered young any more--the number feels different, reflexively. You read a story in the paper about a 30 year-old man--whatever the poor bastard did he was old enough to know better, you decide, after all he's fully grown, a Man. You don't get special prizes for Most Promising Young Blogger, because really you're not such a Young Blogger any more, and should have no need for little gold stars--no, you're dumped in with the rest of the dogs, fighting for your life.

I could, theoretically, be a grandfather. Come sit with Grandpa Warfield, I've got some real purty little anecdotes that I'll just take off the shelf here and dust off a bit. So yes, I've entered my fourth decade of earthly hanging-around. My friends and I celebrated with a small party halfway up the waterfall in Viktoria Park, with cake and vodka and some New Orleans jazz on the radio courtesy of NPR Berlin. My friend Al Burian was there, splashing around in the water and drinking from a plastic cup--and he's 38! I may yet have some fun in my life!

In fact, were it not for my neuroses, I'd be having a whale of a time, 30 or no! We are having a real summer here in Berlin, days on end that are sweltering and call urgently for swimming and ice cream, nothing else will do. I'll pay for it some time, my sinful idleness, but the passing days demand little more than trips to Schlachtensee, where swans swim alongside naked urchins in the shade of the shallow water. It cannot last!--and coming to accept that transience is the first task of my 30+ spiritual development. Boys become men, Liam, they gain paunch and succomb to change, to death even! Even dreaded winter has its day, one cannot push mightily enough to stop it! I'm supposed to quit smoking now--it was a youthful promise, forged in the youthful conceit that I'd not actually see 30. Judge for yourself, by the tenor of my prose, whether I've held that promise, or whether sly Nicotine is guiding my hand...

But details, man! Our small apartment is a bit crowded these days, we have a houseguest staying, visiting from New York, one Hamilton Morris. He's a nice guy, an interesting guy. He's a rare breed of New Hippie, I think, and I say so unslightingly; not a carrot-munching earth-humper, but totally plugged-in, net-savvy, traversing the globe in search of exotic drugs and beaming wild-eyed transmissions back toward civilization through innocuous media like Vice Magazine, for who he on occasion writes. Yony was back in the States for a while and I was terribly lonely, unable to make friends or communicate with these fast-tongued Germans, but since he's been back a small posse has been forming, fellow swimmers and drinking buddies, and there's fun to be had, some of it even healthy.

Afraid I won't continue tonight--consider this a fashionable appearance, if you will, just in-and-out. Will return with further stories, further pictures.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Spreepark 2010

A few photographs I took recently at Spreepark, an amusement park in Planterwald which has been abandoned since 2002: 

Abandoned amusement parks may be a bit passe, as photo-subjects go, but the Spreepark at least has a bit of a sordid backstory. Opened in 1969 as Kulturpark Planterwald, the park was sold, after German reunification in 1989, to a company called Spreepark GmbH, who redeveloped the facility along more western lines, adding a modern roller coaster and several additional attractions. Despite the makeover, revenue fell dramatically, leaving Spreepark with a mountain of debt by the time it was shuttered in 2002. Company head Norbert Witte, along with family and associates, fled to Peru in early 2002, shipping along several of Spreepark's more popular rides for a doomed amusement-park venture in Peru's capitol. In 2004 Witte was caught smuggling 180 kgs of cocaine from Peru to Germany, hidden in the masts of his "flying carpet" ride. He was sentenced to seven years in jail. 

Today the park stands in a state of charming dilapidation, being slowly reclaimed by the surrounding forest, and is understandably popular among would-be photographers like myself. The entire perimeter is fenced off, though not particularly well, and it was with few reservations that I hopped over a weak spot and began exploring. Most of the structures remained intact, if slightly worse for the wear. Concession prices were listed in deutschmarks. My favorite was the eerie Grimm Haus, pictured above with frosted roof, and it was from this building that I was emerging when I was accosted by a security officer and his beastly, toothsome dog, who seemed more than ready to tear me to pieces. The security officer was not amused by my presence. He demanded that I either delete all of my photographs or fork over 20 euros, which he claimed the park's owner needed for upkeep. I was being shaken down! I tried to protest; he changed his story--he was the owner of the park, and I'd give him 20 euros or he'd call the cops. Not one to argue with security guards and their murderous dogs, I reluctantly parted with my 20 euros and beat a hasty retreat. Corruption at Spreepark, it seems, continues to this day, and I can only imagine what a tidy little extra income is earned in shaking down hapless shutterbugs like me.

I'm trying to take more photographs in general--Yony got a fancy new camera and kicked me down his old model, a Sony A-100 that is far beyond anything I've ever used before. But I can't seem to get over my misgivings about the photographic process. People love photographs, I think, but are innately suspicious of photographers. German speaks of "making pictures," but I think the English "taking pictures" better sums up popular attitude, with its connotations of theft. One is still expected to ask, generally, before taking a stranger's picture--to do so without permission is considered rude, even a bit perverse. Encounters like mine at Spreepark only enhance this aura of criminality; my transgression, it seemed, was not being on private property but rather photographing it, trying to take an elusive little piece of it along with me. One is made to feel greedy, a hangup I'll have to overcome if I ever intend to get serious with a camera...

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Robert Byrd, 1917-2010

News came over the internet the other day that Senator Robert Byrd had died at the age of 92, having served a record 50 years in the US Senate. I've long had a peculiar personal feeling toward Robert Byrd, and in consideration of his advanced age I've often imagined eulogizing him after his passing. I even, for some time, made vague plans for a journalistic pilgramage to Byrd's hometown of Sophia, West Virginia, where I would drum up biographical sketches and fond remembrances. I regret not being able to make the trip, but consider a eulogy, even in prose as stumbling as mine, to be both a personal and civic duty, especially as I've found news coverage of Byrd's passing to be surprisingly slim thus far, his complicated life and legacy rather glossed-over.

Byrd was my favorite politician. To talk about a favorite politician feels a bit like touting the pleasure of glass-chewing, but in my limited exposure to the man I found him to be a world-class orator, and could discern, beating within him, that which has become a true rarity in the political sphere--a warm, human heart. I must clarify that I'm fairly strictly a late-period Byrd fan. Much has been made of Byrd's misguided early years in West Virginia. He joined the KKK in 1942, at the should-have-known-better age of 24, and was an active member for several years before his election to Congress and subsequent disavowal. As a young senator, a Southern Democrat, he filibustered against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and supported the war in Vietnam. Even as late as the 90s he held backwards positions, such as opposing gay marriage. But gradually, over the course of his career, Byrd took a steady tack to the Left--not guided, seemingly, by the whims of his West Virginian constituents but out of a deep and evolving human understanding. He'd come to openly regret his past missteps, and when the Iraq War began to rear its hyrda-head Byrd was on the frontlines of the opposition, arguing fiercely and eloquently against this illegal and ill-advised campaign.

None of which says terribly much about the man himself, or why I am so powerfully drawn to him. My first encounter with Byrd was during the last months of 2002, when the war-drums were beating at their loudest. I happened to be sitting around the house, listening to NPR, and when Byrd came on, delivering his last-ditch speech on the Senate floor--it was the eve of the Iraq War resolution, which proposed to give President Bush the unilateral authority to declare pre-emptive war--I was struck by both his passionate eloquence and his charmingly-antiquated down-home-isms. "The president," he sneered at one point. "Who is he? He puts his britches on just the same way I do."

I started taping the speech, about halfway through. In the following weeks, I found myself listening to the tape over and over again. It became a bit of an obsession. It wasn't that it was a particularly historic speech--when I went hunting for it, these eight years later, I could only find it after some deep digging, buried in the C-Span video archives. Just the tone of Byrd's voice, his particular cadence, his scathing sarcasm, his deep traditionalism, enchanted me. I'd memorize choice bits, though none of the friends with whom I shared the tape could quite see what I was so worked up about. There would be plenty of detritus to skim through in the wake of Byrd's death, many hours of speeches available online, the fiery oratory rarely flagging--his 2007 speech against dogfighting is an especially poignant, bravura performance--but I found myself drawn, these last few days, to that obscure speech of October 10, 2002 which I'd so long ago loved. What a pleasure it was to find it again!

By the 10th of October, 2002 it was already clear which way the Senate would vote on the Iraq War resolution; Byrd's resolution, which reaffirmed the sole power of Congress to declare war, was far from having the support needed to pass. These were still the flag-waving days of the early War on Terror, when even hardline democrats were thirsty for Arab blood, by any means necessary. Byrd delivered his final harangues in a seemingly empty Senate chamber--it was so quiet on the floor, he commented bitterly, that you could hear a pin drop. For a full hour Byrd ad-libbed and proselytized, frequently waving around his pocket-edition Constitution. "They say it's too old!," he railed. "This Constitution that I hold in my hand is an anachronism! This modern president doesn't have time for old-fashioned political ideas that would complicate his job of going after the bad guy."

Did I mention that Byrd was a country fiddler, featured on the Grand Ole Opry? He was no Charlie Daniels, but certainly outclassed other performing politicians--Clinton blowing blues-lite sax riffs on Arsenio Hall, Richard Nixon's maudlin piano-playing on the Tonight Show. Byrd certainly had the cadences of a country fiddler, even while arguing the finer points of Constitutional law. At one point in the speech, he challenges Bush's lawyers to back up the constitutionality of their resolution--"Show it to me, laawwyers!," he cries, stretching the word to the limits of backwoods scorn; "Laawwyers of the White House"--the contempt in his voice unmitigated. "What in the world are they teaching in law school these days?," he fumes. "What are they teaching? I never heard such as that when I was in law school. 'Course, I had to go at night--I had to go ten years to get my law degree."

I'll not give an entire play-by-play. You can watch the speech itself, if you're interested. As a casual fan, I may not be qualified to weigh Byrd's life and career in toto--there are many ups and downs, to be sure--but I certainly can appreciate righteous rhetorical thunder when I hear it. At 92, Robert Byrd was certainly the last of his era, a breed of speechmaker the likes of which we'll likely not see again. Here he is--and I tip my cap to him--on the Opry, many years ago: