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Looking at Module A responses recently, I have noticed something strange: students understand the context of Frankenstein, they have a handle on Romanticism, the Enlightement and the effects of Industrialisation; however, they don’t get the context for Blade Runner. There are some vague references to globalisation and capitalism but no real evidence of the values underpinning those movements. I think that it’s possibly because many teachers (like me) grew up in the 80s and so we assume that part of history is common knowledge. It’s not. Students completing the HSC this year were born in the early 90s and 1982 is outside their experience (and, let’s be honest, their interest). Here are some points to help rectify this problem.

The Cold War: Although it broke out into “hot” wars throughout the 20th Century (Korea and Vietnam being the most obvious examples) the Cold War consisted mostly of spying and tense international relations between the US and the USSR. It also manifested in the Space Race, the over-emphasis of western nations on capitalist policies and their continued interference in the politics of developing nations. The tone of this period of history was pessimistic, with the constant threat of nuclear war hanging over the world. This pessimism about the future of the human race and of the planet is clearly seen in Blade Runner.

Globalisation: this is a term which refers specifically to the unification of economies through free trade. It can also be used to describe the shrinking of the world through media and communication technology. Its effects can be seen in Blade Runner in the Chinatown scenes, where the movement of peoples and languages across borders is evident.

The Reagan Doctrine: Ronald Reagan was President of the US from 1981 to 1989. His policies were shaped, at least in part, by the Cold War, and so included funding anti-Communist groups overseas  (like the Taliban – oops) and being aggressively pro-capitalist.

Thatcherism: Margaret Thatcher (who famously said, “No woman in my time will be Prime Minister” ) was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990. She was aggressive in her economic policy, which involved prioritising the control of inflation over the control of unemployment; and limiting the power of trade unions. Many people saw this attitude as being “money over people”. To understand more about the potential of Thatcherism see…

Alan Moore was not a fan of Thatcher or her politics.

One of the main practical outcomes of both Reaganism and Thatcherism, was Deregulation. This is the removal of government controls on corporate activities. Usually the justification was “free market competition”. The consequences of deregulation can be seen in Blade Runner in the unrestrained commercialisation of not only our planet but the offworld colonies. The looming presence of the Tyrell Corp over the government offices is a visual representation of the power shift which took place during the 1980s. It was during this time that many companies went multinational, thus breaking down national boundaries, furthering globalisation and the disempowerment of governments.

A useful word to use for this worldview is Neoconservatism. The main values associated with Neoconservatism are competition (in the free market sense of competition between corporations, free of government interference), economic freedom and traditional “family” values. In some ways, Neoconservatism is the natural child of America’s puritan past and its focus on the Protestant work ethic.

Another consequence of the deregulation of corporations and the commodification of everything is Environmental damage and its reactor, the Environmentalism. The fear of irreversible environmental damage is clear from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

The message that is explicit in the novel and implicit in the film is that the destruction of natural habitats, and the animals that live in them, is ultimately dehumanising. The key to passing the Voigt-Kampf test is demonstrating empathy with animals. This is almost ironic as the corporation that administors the test is probably one of the corporations responsible for the utter destruction of nature. The potential for mass extinctions due to human interference became a real concern for a number of people by the 1980s.

Technological Innovation. In the 1980s scientific progress had moved from the industrialisation of the 19th Century to a new medium: information. Innovation of this time focused on computers and software. The ’80s were the era of the personal computer (for the first time people had computers in their homes) and of arcade gaming. The replicants can be seen, perhaps, as just another consumer gadget, like a PC.

Space Exploration was also huge. American had won the Space Race in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon but there was more to explore. In 1977 NASA launched Voyager 1, a probe designed to visit the outlying planets of our solar system and continue beyond. It also carries a “golden record” designed to convey information about the human race to any extraterristrial life the probe may encounter. Space exploration was the antidote to the pessimism of the Cold War. In Blade Runner the optimism of colonising new worlds is undermined as they are necessary refuges from the polluted ruin of Earth rather than symbols of human endeavour.

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Shakespeare’s plays are just that: plays, and there is nothing more likely to put a student off the Bard than a bored, expressionless read through in class, by their peers. I first experienced Shakespeare at the age of 9 when my parents took me to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne. Two years later I saw Romeo and Juliet performed in the same venue. As firsts go, this was, of course, ideal. It was also expensive and logistically challenging. Fortunately most people can access high quality performances of most of Shakespeare’s plays through film. Although not as immediate as a stage performance, a film version gives students a sense of meaning and movement in the play that is missing from a monotonal, sedentary reading.

There are more than 70 film versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, making it one of the most filmed stories ever. Finding a good one to help you understand the plot, characters and language of the play is therefore a challenging task. Here’s my top five:

5. Gamlet directed by Grigori Kozintsev and starring Innokenti Smoktunovsky, 1964. Nobody does tragedy quite as well as the Russians. I suspect the gothic setting of this very cinematic version influenced our number 1.

4. The Bad Sleep Well directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune, 1960. From Kurosawa we might expect a sweeping samurai epic but The Bad Sleep Well is actually a fast paced corporate drama set in post war Japan. Probably more useful for a study of changing context in an Extension course.

3. Hamlet, directed by Michael Almereyda and starring Ethan Hawke, 2000. If you liked Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet then this is the Hamlet for you. Transposed to 21st Century New York, Hamlet is a disillusioned film student, struggling to come to terms with the death of his Wall Street Executive father. My favourite thing about this film is that it explains why the guards went to Horatio when they first saw the ghost. They are security guards at Denmark Corp. and one of them is Horatio’s girlfriend.

2. Hamlet, directed by Gregory Doran and starring David Tennant, 2009. This is a filmed version for television of a stage production that played on the West End in 2008/2009. The most interesting interpretative point in this production was the casting of Patrick Stewart as both Claudius and the Ghost. Ponder the implications of that.

1. Hamlet, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, 1996.  This is the Mecca of Hamlet films. Unlike other directors, who cut and rearranged lines, characters, and whole scenes to make this huge play palatable to modern audiences, Branagh tackled the whole lot. As a result, the film is four hours long, but well worth the time. Elsinore Castle  is nineteenth-century Russian inspired palace trapped in a seemingly eternal Winter. The performances from Branagh, Kate Winslet, Derek Jacoby, and Richard Briers are outstanding.

Final note: a film (or stage) version of a play is not the play itself. That’s what your text is for. A film is an interpretation of the text, just the same as a critical essay interprets. Do not make the mistake of conflating Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Branagh’s or Kurosawa’s in your responses.

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The epigraph to Frankenstein reads:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?”

This is Adam addressing his Creator in Book 10 of Milton’s Paradise Lost. This epic poem has been hugely influential, not just on Frankenstein or the Romantics but also on Western Christian thought.

Take a look at the powerpoint below. It is not comprehensive but it should give you some idea of the relevance of Milton’s great work to your study of both Frankenstein and Blade Runner.

Paradise Lost and the (post)Modern Prometheus

The image of Satan by Gustave Dore, like Milton’s text, emphasises the fallen angel, heroic rebel aspect of the character. His bat-like wings distinguish him from the angels of heaven but his pose is that of a victim and Dore has drawn him in the armour of a classical hero.

William Blake was one of the earliest of the Romantic Poets*. Nature was deeply spiritual to Blake and, as a child, he often saw visions, including one of a tree filled with angels. The bible, often mediated through interpretations such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, was important to Blake in both a literal and an interpretative way. He, like many of his time, saw the French Revolution as a sign of the end of the world, as foretold in the book of Revelation. The image of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar** turned into a beast of the field, carries the same warning as Frankenstein and Blade Runner: there are serious consequences for humans who play at being gods.

Jacob’s Ladder, again by Blake, shows a Romantic interpretation of the vision of Jacob (one of the patriarchs of the Israelite nation) from Genesis chapter 28. Jacob saw angels ascending and descending on a ladder from heaven; this was, the bible tells us, a sign that through Jacob’s lineage, all the inhabitants of the earth would be blessed. This reminds me of Victor Frankenstein’s insistence that his creation would be of benefit to mankind (though I notice that neither the almighty nor Frankenstein explain exactly how their blessing will work). Like Dore’s Lucifer, Blake’s angels are classical figures, showcasing the abandon with which the Romantics mixed biblical and classical mythology.

The Romantics and their influences are key to understanding the context of not only Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but also Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

If you have any specific questions relating to posts or resources, please ask in the comments. I’ll do my best to respond.

*The Romantic Poets can be thought of as two groups or generations: those who were old enough to experience the French Revolution (either first hand by visiting France or through the many political pamphlets written about it) and those of the subsequent generation. The first group includes Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth; the second, Byron, Keats and Shelley.

**If you would like to read explore this story further it can be found in the biblical book of Daniel, chapters 2-4.

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I am currently working on a number of posts focusing on Module A: Texts in Time and Area of Study: Belonging. I am interested in the kinds of posts my readers would find useful. If I get enough votes for a particular topic I will add it to my “to write” list. You can also make suggestions in the comments for anything that’s not included (for example, Preliminary HSC topics and texts).

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Students of HSC 2011. You’ve already tackled one of the modules and probably completed at least one internal assessment. Not really happy with your result? I’m here with good news: don’t panic, it’s not too late to start transforming yourself into a top band English student.

How did you spend the Summer break? Did you read voraciously? Did you compose fifteen practice “belonging” essays under exam conditions using Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as a related text? No? Not to worry, as I said, it’s not too late.

So what can you do now?

Step One: Read

Does that mean rush out, buy Wolf Hall and spend a week immersed in Tudor England? No. Wolf Hall is a great book but it’s over 600 pages long. Put it on the list to read after your exams are over. At this stage reading for English needs to fall into one of four categories:

a. Core text. Before you complete any assessment task you should have read/viewed your core text at least three times.

b. Additional readings. Your English teacher will probably give you a booklet or a brick of additional or suggested readings for each Module. Or, he or she may take the History teacher approach and throw sheafs of paper at you each lesson. Don’t let those hours at the photocopier go to waste, take the time to read the articles. Many of them will not only give you new perspectives and helpful contextual information but also show you good essay structure.

c. Related material (familiar). One good approach, when choosing related material for the Area of Study and Module C is to choose a text you already know well. Try to avoid texts you’ve studied in previous years, too many schools do the same texts and many set English novels from the junior years of high school are too simplistic for the HSC. However, if you have a favourite novel or film that you’ve read or viewed multiple times, try approaching it with new eyes. If you can make a list of techniques and how they convey a sense of belonging (or not belonging, or history and memory, or conflicting perspectives) then chances are it will work for you. Writing about a text you already like can also lead into exploring Belonging through textual engagement. I’m going to write about that more in a later post.

d. Related material (new). Any new related material–and by new I mean a text you have never read or viewed before–needs to be short. Good choices include: newspaper articles, speeches or monologues from plays (especially Shakespeare – great for techniques), short stories, essays (magazines The BRW and The Monthly are good places to look), graphic novels, advertisements (check out the ones that air during the Superbowl each year, they usually have a solid narrative, clear message and easy to spot film techniques) and websites. This list is not exhaustive, it’s just a little inspiration for students who don’t know where to start.

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The composers of Frankenstein and Blade Runner both use non-human characters to shine a spotlight on the human experience. In addressing questions related to these texts we must ask ourselves, what are the fundamental needs, experiences and desires shared by human beings? We are all born, we all need nurturing, we all desire to know the answers to questions such as, ‘why am I here?’ ‘what is my purpose?’ We all want companionship at different levels, from acquaintances to friends to romance and sexual fulfillment. We are all aware, at some level, that we will one day die and we all fear that end of our existence, yet we all hope that something of ourselves, whether it be children or achievements or just moments in time, will live on after we are gone.

Thinking about these issues in relation to the characters and themes in key moments of both texts will help you to deepen your understanding of the texts and the module. Focus on scenes that have resonated with you as reader and viewer. Spend time reviewing them and journalling your responses. The more engaged you are with the texts and concepts of a module, the better your responses will be and, more importantly, the more you will enjoy it.

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During discussion in class today a student asked, “isn’t that the one where they randomly burst into song?” He was, of course, referring to one of my chosen appropriations, the Bollywood film, Bride and Prejudice (see previous post for an example of a musical number from the film). This got me thinking about the links between the cultural context of a text, the values portrayed (and questioned) in the text and the narrative and stylistic conventions of the genre. Characters randomly burst into song because it is a Bollywood film, not because it is an appropriation of a Jane Austen novel.

Similarly, Bridget Jones chronicles her weight loss and gain and smoking and drinking habits as well as the ups and downs of her love life, not because she is supposed to be a modern Elizabeth Bennett but because she a single woman of a certain age. What she shares with Lizzy (and with Bride‘s Lalita) is the pressure to marry and to marry well. In all three texts marriage equals social mobility, something that is valued across the three texts and their cultures.

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