Friday, July 31, 2020

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.


Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)


Monday, November 18, 2019

Inconceivable

It isn't possible to turn a book into a film. At best, a film-maker is a translator reading a page of words and turning them into a few minutes of pictures as faithfully as possible. But there is more than one kind of translation: literal, idiomatic, word-for-word, thought-for-thought. I have been studying a single book of the Bible very closely for the last twelve months; and I have learned how many different ways there are of turning the same Greek paragraph into English. 

Most book-to-movie adaptations are not even trying to be translations. They are more like artistic copies. It sometimes happens that one artist makes a copy of another artist's painting. The new painting isn't a forgery. It may not even be a very good copy. But it is sometimes a very pretty picture in its own right. 

The same book can be adapted more than once; in the same way that the same text can be translated more than once and the same picture can be copied more than once. Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein is a more literal adaptation of Mary Shelly than Boris Karloff's: it is not necessarily a better movie. 

If The Princess Bride were simply a thirty-year-old adaptation of a fifty-year-old novel, there would be nothing particularly silly about the idea of making the film all over again. You would simply end up with two different directors giving you two different ways of looking at William Goldman's original novel -- like two artists painting the same bowl of fruit in two different styles. Little Women is turned into a movie about once a decade. Les Miserables has been filmed at least seven times, sometimes with songs. No-one was especially shocked by the notion that someone might turn The Princess Bride into a musical: it might have been good; it might have been bad. In the end it never happened. 

If The Princess Bride were merely a very, very famous adaptation of a not-particularly well known novel, then there would be some justification in producing a new version. It might be very interesting to revisit Noel Coward's original stage version of Brief Encounter, a one-act two-hander set in a tea-room with an ambiguous ending. But Celia Johnson's vowels and Rachmaninov's incidental music would haunt any production. The BBC did a passably good Les Miserables last year: but when the students in the ABC cafe joined in Le Marseillaise everyone had "Do You Hear The People Sing?" playing in their head. The Importance of Being Ernest had been around for half a century before anyone thought to film it: but since 1935 every actress has had to work out a way of delivering two innocuous words about handbags without sounding like Dame Edith Evans. (Does history record how the line was uttered in Oscar's presence on the first night?) 

I am devoutly hoping that the BBC version of Pullman's Dark Material's is an abject failure: if it succeeds then a fifty six hour adaptation of Harry Potter is historically inevitable. It isn't clear whether Jaykay Rowling thinks that the movies are simply the Potterverse translated to the cinema; or whether she would allow a different director to visualize Hogwarts in a different way. Richard Harris said that his role as Dumbledore was completely unrelated to what he normally means by "acting". In an acting role you look at the words and use your skill and insight to build a character and work out how he would say them. In Harry Potter, you said the lines how Jaykay told you to. A new TV version could justify its existence by including all the scenes which the films had to omit.(Dark Materials justifies its existence by not being quite so dreadful as the movie.

The Princess Bride is not merely an adaptation, or a translation, or a very, very famous movie based on a very, very, very good book. The book and the film are irrevocably entwined. I can't think of another case where film and book are so clearly two aspects of a single work. Some of us regret the fact that our mental image of Tolkien's Gandalf has been over-written by our memories of Sir Ian's film version. If we ever re-read Frankenstein we would have to make a positive effort not to see the Hollywood version in our head. When we go back and read The Princess Bride, we see Cary Elwes and Robin Wright and Mandy Patinkin in our heads. William Goldman tells us, in the text of the book, that this is the way he reads it. The movie characters embody the literary ones and can't ever be done better. And the making of the film is part of the text of the book: Goldman -- the fictionalized Goldman who narrates the story -- talks about visiting the real-life Cliffs of Destruction during the making of the movie, and claims that a "then little-known Austrian body-builder" was very nearly cast as Fezzik. 

But this is not to say that the film is simply a dry-run for the novel or that the novel is simply a plodding transcription of the film. It is sometimes said, a little cruelly, that Terrance Dicks' created Doctor Who novels by going through BBC screenplays and adding the words "said the Doctor" and "said Leela" in blue pencil. It is sometimes said that John Grisham's courtroom dramas are only ever movie-pitches. The Princess Bride is full of bookish detail which doesn't show up in the movie. Cinema audiences observe the clifftop duel from the outside: the book places the reader firmly inside Inigo's head. The film assumes that the audience will notice that the Man in Black is left handed; in the book, we notice when Inigo notices; and follow Inigo's thoughts as he realizes he will have to switch hands. But the book can't show us the cut and thrust of the fight in the way that the movie can. The actors practiced for weeks; using real fencing moves, but light fibreglass swords. It often happens that one says of a movie "oh, you must read the book first; the film will only spoil it." The Princess Bride is a rare exception: I tell people that reading the book will spoil the film; but that once they have seen the film, the book will enhance their enjoyment of it. The book is one of the most bookish books I have ever read; the film is consistently filmish. 

Both the book and the film have a framing sequence. The book's frame is very involved indeed. It tells the story of how, as a young child William Goldman got hooked on adventure novels; about how his father used to read him the Princess Bride; about how years later he tracked down a copy of the book and gave it to his son; and only then discovered that his father had been reading him edited highlights and skipping the boring bits. Over the years, Goldman has extended this backstory: there are now introductions and epilogues and a print-out you have to write to the publisher and request. We learn about how the book was turned into a movie; how Goldman traveled to Florin and saw many of the places where events in the book took place; and about his ongoing struggle with the literary executors of S Morgenstern who wrote the original book. 

It's all a conjuring trick, of course: Morgenstern doesn't exist and "Bill Goldman" who appears in the book has nothing to do with the "William Goldman" who wrote it. Geoffrey Chaucer pulled off a not entirely dissimilar stunt four hundred years earlier. 

The frame is absolutely essential to the story: The Princess Bride is only believable if it is presented as a story-within-a-story. Put another way, The Princess Bride is not a story about a farm boy rescuing his lady from a wicked prince: it is the story of a young American kid discovering that he really likes books. Goldman, a screen-writer to his boots, saw that the book-frame was far too complicated for a movie; and replaced it with a much simpler narrative in which a Grandfather reads the book to a Boy who doesn't really like books. Goldman initially thought of setting the frame in the 1930s, the golden age of swashbuckling movies; but sensibly decided that it needed to be anchored in the present day. Present day is a slippery term, and that 1980s baseball sim is now almost as far removed from us as the depression would have been in the 80s. 

And that, of course, is the answer. If you told me that I was to create a new work of art based on the Princess Bride -- "Rilstone after Goldman", as it were -- that is what I would do. Film the framing sequence: the full framing sequence with Goldman's father and his lawyer and Kermit Slog; his fictional wife and kids; his elementary school teacher. I would make the audience very aware that there was a real Goldman and a fictional Goldman; but I would make the frame look as much like a documentary as I could manage. I'd be aiming for something like American Splendor, which slid between a cartoon Harvey Pekar; an actor playing Harvey Pekar; the present-day-real-life Harvey Pekar; and contemporary footage of a younger Harvey Pekar. I'd show you Goldman visiting the cliffs of destruction and looking at Inigo's sword in a museum. I'd incorporate material about the struggle to make the original movie. I bet there are out-takes and backstage material on a cutting room floor somewhere, and if not, that kind of thing can be faked. I'd show the audience Arnold Schwarzenegger's failed audition. I might even flash back to Andre the Giant on the school run with the famous poet.

Most importantly, I would reinstate the brilliant triple ending: how the novel ends; how Goldman’s father told him it ends; and how Goldman thinks it ought to have ended…. 

And here is the stunningly clever bit. I wouldn't refilm the story-within-the-story: I would incorporate the existing film into my remake. When Bill Goldman's dad starts to read to him from the Princess Bride we would cut to Robin Wright bullying Cary Elwes on the farm. When Goldman starts editing the duel section we would cut to Elwes and Patinkin sword fighting on the cliff. Obviously I would remove Peter Falk's voice and replace it with the voice of "Goldman". I would probably retain the Mark Knopfler sound track, but that's negotiable. And I would doctor the original footage. I would put it in black and white and I would juggle with the speed and resolution so it looked as if it came from an old, silent movie. (But with the dialogue intact.) 

The question of manipulating images from old movies is a bit of a fiddly one. I think that George Lucas is free to do what he likes with Star Wars, but it is a shame that the original version is unavailable. It think that Invasion of the Body Snatchers would be improved if the happy ending ere deleted. One day I may watch the definitive definitive definitive Blade Runner. Ripping a classic to pieces to create an inferior work seems to me to be an entirely legitimate part of the artistic process; certainly as legitimate as Lichtenstein turning panels of comics into wall-sized canvasses. The film-school project of taking the silent, black-and-white Metropolis and adding colour and sound seems off-the-wall enough to be worth watching. It doesn't replace the original movie; but stands as an interesting commentary on it. Some day I may even watch it. 

So: there is my idea. And now I have had it, it is no longer a thought experiment, but a genuine suggestion. I hope that they do remake The Princess Bride and I hope that they remake it in that way. It would be kind and fair of them to give me a credit and a small financial consideration, but of course, life isn’t always fair.


I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, November 11, 2019

There Will Be Ewoks

The more Star Wars trailers there are the more indistinguishable they become. 

There will be space ships against a dense starry background. There will be lightsaber fights. There will be cockpit shots and close ups. Chewbacca will roar and Han or Lando will go "yee-ha". There will be jungles and deserts. It will be THIS CHRISTMAS and EVERY SAGA will have a BEGINNING or and ENDING. 

We don't need to be told that a cowboy film will have a gunfight and a saloon and a stagecoach and a bank robbery and very probably a hanging and a stampede and a drunk doctor because if it didn't have those elements it literally wouldn't be a cowboy film. 

Say what you like about the Last Jedi: it certainly had spaceships, and lightsabers and mysticism and blasters and a bar filled with aliens and the Falcon and some robots. (And, also, much to some fans' annoyance, some girls.) Because otherwise it wouldn't have been a Star Wars movie. 

The more Star Wars movies there are the more indistinguishable they become. 

*


I am in a games shop. After Warhammer and Magic, the thing they have most of is X-Wing a miniatures war-game using the space ships from the Star Wars movies.

Tiny little model X-Wings, presented ready painted, with the various cards and markers that you need to operate them, sold individually in little blister packs. A single model will set you back £13. The Millennium Falcon costs £40.

I remember a game called Ace of Aces. Two little books: each containing a large number of views from the cockpit of a World War I bi-plane. You fought dog-fights with another player. The picture in your book showed you what you could see from your plane. The picture in the other player's book showed you what he could see from his. You each picked a maneuver and read them off on a matrix and found out what page to turn to. You had to get the enemy in your sights while keeping out of the enemy's sights. It was the closest you could get to actually flying a plane. This was before computers.

Eventually there was a Star Wars version where an X-Wing pilot and a TIE-Fighter pilot circled each other endlessly while flipping through the pages of two little books. It arrived just too late for it to be the thing I most wanted in the whole world.

Red versus black. Long and thin versus round and stubby. Straight lines versus curly lines. Good versus evil. I have two of the old Micro-Machines models, an X-Wing and a TIE-fighter, on display in my front room, along with two Black Series action figures of Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi.

Back when Star Wars was Star Wars and Space Dust was a relative novelty there was no way of owning or possessing an X-Wing. The closest you could get was a very expensive plastic construction kit and you knew full well that construction kits involve glue on your best school trousers and oil paint on the bedroom carpet and a crucial piece that doesn't fit and recriminations about how you could possibly have wasted your pocket money on a piece of plastic you were never going to do anything with. It seemed so unfair that the only people who could have X-Wings were the people who actually liked making models and already had Nelson's Victory and the Flying Scotsmen. The bastards.

"Don't dream it, be it" is a line from Rocky Horror. It was sometimes used as a slogan when we used to play role-playing games. Don't dream it: write down a lot of numbers and then spend the evening arguing about what they mean.

The particular form of nostalgia triggered by Star Wars merchandise is neither about dreaming nor being. (Not nostalgia. I am pretty sure I felt those exact same feelings the first time I saw Star Wars; and the second; and the fifth; and tenth. It was the exact reason I needed to watch it it over and over again.)

Don't dream it. Possess it. Own it. Have it.

Yes, of course, they shoot across the screen very quickly, and a model or a technical manual lets you get a proper look at them, but that is not what I am talking about. And yes when you are a kid you want to cross the fourth wall and become Luke Skywalker.  (No. not Luke. Not Han. I wanted to be the third rebel soldier on the left or to be Gold Six Standing By -- to have a minor walk-on part in the saga, to be a hidden part of the story that no-one else knows.)

It's about crystallizing a moment in time. Holding onto the experience. If only I had a model of the Big Pointy Star Ship and the Little Square Star Ship then I could hold the first seconds of the first time I saw Star Wars in the palms of my hands.

It isn't a very new thing for a little boy to see a steam engine or a bus or an aeroplane and want to own a model of it. And his dad isn't content with looking at pretty motorcars in showrooms: he wants to own one, even if it is not that practical for driving to Sainsbury's in.

I still can’t make models and I have never actually cared very much for that kind of war-game. God knows I never won a game of Ace of Aces or Wing Commander. But here I am in the games shop. Individually, these miniatures are very expensive, but they are tiny little X-Wings and they come ready painted and I could perfectly well afford to sink a hundred quid on a squadron of ten or so and get some black cloth and a table and fight battles. X-Wing versus Tie Fighter, on the floor of my flat, for ever and ever…. 

*


Finn speaking: "It’s an instinct; a feeling; the Force brought us together."

The Force is the great repository of Plot Devices. Code for the Author’s Hand. Finn and Rey's meeting is very important; it is also very unlikely. So we have to get right in there at the beginning and blame The Force.

We are in a forest. It is probably Endor: it would make sense for it to be Endor. That is where the central trilogy ended. That is where Death Star Two blew up. That is where the Emperor died. Kylo Renn must have come here and pulled Vader's mask from the ashes of his funeral pyre.

If it’s Endor, there will be Ewoks. I can cope with Ewoks.

Rey is running, left to right, across the screen. And then she leaps, improbably, across a chasm, and suddenly, she is in a different scene, in the ruins of a great building or the wreckage of a great structure. It must surely be the remains of Death Star Two. In the Other Trailer she was running through a desert into the path of a TIE Fighter, and doing an equally improbable leap. She spends so much time running and leaping that you start to think she has turned into a character from one of those computer games. Rey the Hedgehog.

Finn is looking through binoculars. At first I thought he was in a desert but now I think he is on Endor too. But people looking through binoculars make us think of Luke and Tatooine and the binary sunset. Looking to the future. Longing.

Poe speaking: "We’re not alone. Good people will FIGHT if we LEAD them."

The last movie left us with the Resistance all but wiped out. So this one has to be about ordinary people defeating the First Order. The first trilogy was about a rebellion; so far this one has been about a resistance. But the story has to end with a rising.

One of those scenes in an aircraft hangar, with Poe this time giving the plucky rebels a pre-match pep talk before they all get blown up. We few, we happy few, only there are now quite a lot of us.

Glimpses of characters. Rose, running through the rebel base. Finn, Poe and Chewie standing by an X-Wing. A Blockade Runner flies over the forest.

We know our sacred iconography. We don’t want new ships. We want to dust the old toys off and play with them one last time. The Blockade Runner is the little small ship which got eaten by the great big ship in the first seconds of the very first movie. What would you bet me that Leia is on it, and that the robots are on it as well and the last trilogy will end where the first one started?  

Rey speaking: "People keep telling me they know me. But no-one does."
Kylo speaking: "I do."

We are teased with the idea that Rey still has a Big Secret to discover, that contrary to what was said in the last movie, she is not no-one. I think that she should be someone. The Saga is about the Skywalker dynasty and Rey is part of the Saga. The Phantom Menace was all about a Special Child with Special Force Powers. If just-anyone can be a Mighty Force User then much of the Prequel Trilogy is wiped out. 

Some people think that much of the prequel trilogy being wiped out would not be that bad an idea.

A cruel sea, with something which could be a dam or an oil refinery, and we are back to Rey and her lightsaber standing still for a moment, looking at us, and suddenly Kylo walks through the spray spinning his lightsaber round his wrist.


TIE-fighters flying towards an island, which could be floating in space or could be reflected in a very calm sea. It is made of ice. Is it possibly perhaps maybe Cloud City abandoned these I-don't-know-how-many years and frozen over? Is that possibly perhaps what Old Lando is doing in the movie: serving as a guide? Someone must have gone back to Bespin at some point to retrieve Luke's lightsaber.

A shot of a dark throne, suitable for being occupied by dark lord, very possibly one who lives in a land where shadows lie. 

The Emperor speaking: "Long have I waited, and now, your coming together is your undoing…."

The Emperor is Still Alive. There is a kind of extra-narrative tension in trailers. What we learn about the movie before the movie starts is part of the experience of watching the movie. (This is different from the old kind of trailer which spoiled everything on general principles. "This year, coming to a cinema near you, an unforgettable motion picture experience in which Bruce Willis turns out to have been dead all along.") The return of the Emperor is not a twist, but a premise.

The Emperor is a plot device. Everything which happens happens according to his will. The whole of the Clone Wars was really only ever a trick, with Palpatine running both sides. It is impossible to know who the "you" that the Emperor has brought together might be. Was it he who brought Finn and Rey together, maybe to produce new Force Babies for the next trilogy? (He let Finn go. It's the only explanation for the ease of his escape.) Has the Emperor been arranging for all his enemies to assemble in one place? Or is it the big lightsaber fight which he's referring to?

A Star Destroyer floats up out of the sea: one imagines Yoda standing off-stage with his little paw in the air, saying "No! Different only in your mind." 

The Millennium Falcon at the front of a fleet that would cost several months disposable income to acquire the miniatures for. Bigger is not necessarily better; less can sometimes mean more; but after Avenger's Endgame no-one is going to begrudge The Last Star Wars Film wanting to have the biggest and most impressive concentration of spaceships ever seen in 3D Imax.

Finn, Rey, Poe and Chewbacca take their place in the cockpit. X-Wings fly over the sea again. 


And then the atmosphere changes slightly: to actual dialogue. C3PO, all shiny and plugged in and taking one last look at his friends. A blast of emotion from the robot butler with the British upper lip. A warning that Threepio may not survive the episode. And an epigram. This episode is the one in which we say goodbye. Not really, of course, but conceptually the place where THE SAGA ENDS.

Rey hugging Leia. Man, that's going to be hard to look at. I would rather they'd CGI'd her, like James Dean.

Luke speaking: It is the destiny of a Jedi to confront fear. Your destiny…. The Force will be with you
Leia: Always

"The Force will be with you always" are, of course, the last words spoken by Obi-Wan to Luke Skywalker in the original movie. "Your destiny…." means, once again, The Plot: the thing you have to do not because it is sensible or follows from anything but because it is what goodies do in this kind of movie.

Some kind of chase through some kind of desert, very probably a callback to the pod-race from Ph*nt*m M*n*ace.

A really odd vignette of a cavalry charge through what could be the oil tanker that Rey and Kylo were facing each other on.

An almost subliminal image of them facing each other on what I am pretty sure is the Emperor’s Throne Room from Return of the Jedi.

And then a really perplexing scene in which Kylo and Rey both seem to be jointly confronting a third figure in a clean, white, empty antiseptic location. Kylo has his Kylo mask on. And just possibly they are destroying the mask of Vader.

More Star Destroyers than have ever been exhibited in captivity before.

A close up of Rey; a close up of Kylo. And a majestically slowed down theme, and the words RISE OF SKYWALKER.

The more reviews of Star Wars trailers I write, the more indistinguishable they become.

STAR WARS: EPISODE IX 

THE RISE OF SKYWALKER 

PALPATINE has risen from the dead. PRINCESS LEIA has disappeared. C3PO has Red Eyes. CLOUD CITY has frozen. And there are still girls in it. 



READ: The Year of Waiting For Star Wars
ALSO READ: The Last Jedi

BUY: George and Joe and Jack and Bob
ALSO BUY; The Last Jedi
OR EVEN BUY: The Last Jedi, special edition.


I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, November 04, 2019

Mark 5 21-43


The opening chapters of Mark's Gospel show an escalation of Jesus' power and popularity. Bigger and bigger crowds follow him. His enemies become more and more hostile. His miracles become more and more impressive. This chapter marks the culmination of that process. Jesus has shown himself to be Boss of the weather. His power over the spirit realm is so absolute that an army of six thousand demons has grovelled and begged for mercy. There really is only one enemy left.

and when Jesus was passed over again by ship unto the other side,
much people gathered unto him:
and he was nigh unto the sea

Yesterday, Jesus left a huge crowd of people on the Capernaum beach. Today, he has come back: and the crowd is still there. Perhaps they had been waiting all night. Maybe some of them had set off on foot to intercept him when his boat reached Garderene country, and had to turn back half way there. 

and, behold,
there cometh one of the rulers of the synagogue,
Jairus by name;
and when he saw him, he fell at his feet,
and besought him greatly, saying,
"My little daughter lieth at the point of death:
I pray thee, come and lay thy hands on her,
that she may be healed;
and she shall live."

"My little daughter is at the point of death". What Jairus actually says is something like "she is holding at the end". ("The end" is eschatos, a word sometimes used to talk about the end of the world.) "She is near the end," would be perfectly good colloquial English. The Good News Bible opts for "my daughter is very sick", and I wish it wouldn't.

Jesus seems to have been avoiding crowds, preferring to teach those who will properly listen to him. But today, someone asks him very graciously to do a special favour, and Jesus agrees. Probably "ruler" means something like "director" or "chairman": not necessarily a rabbi or a teacher, but someone whose job it was to keep the synagogue running in an orderly way. Jairus is an important person in the local Jewish community, at any rate. The lawyers from Judea are planning to kill Jesus; but the Galilean synagogue bosses are begging favours from him on their hands and knees.

and Jesus went with him;
and much people followed him
and thronged him.
and a certain woman
which had an issue of blood twelve years,
and had suffered many things of many physicians
and had spent all that she had
and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse,
when she had heard of Jesus
came in the press behind,
and touched his garment.
for she said,
"If I may touch but his clothes,
I shall be whole."
and straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up
and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague.
and Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him
turned him about in the press, and said,
"Who touched my clothes?"
And his disciples said unto him,"
"Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou,
Who touched me?"
And he looked round about to see her that had done this thing.
But the woman fearing and trembling,
knowing what was done in her,
came and fell down before him,
and told him all the truth.
And he said unto her,
"Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole;
go in peace, and be whole of thy plague."

The people are "thronging" Jesus: crushing or squashing him. We have to picture him forcing his way through the crowd. He is on his way to save a girl's life, but the rubberneckers still won't let him move. Maybe the disciples are in front, trying to make a path for him. And suddenly, while time is apparently of the essence, he stops and says "Who touched my clothes?" You can see why the disciples would be surprised by this. It is just about the least sensible thing anyone could possibly have said under the circumstances.

Someone has touched Jesus' robe, or maybe his cloak. We're not talking about anyone grabbing his sleeve or his collar; just the edge of a loose fitting garment, from the back, as it swishes past.

It's a woman. We aren't told anything about her name or social status. "A certain...." is an English filler word the translators like to add. It doesn't mean "one particular woman" or "a person you may know." She's just someone in the crowd.

The woman suffers from long term bleeding: some translators say "hemorrhaging" and a lot of people assume that she must have had some kind of embarrassing Woman's Problem. But a "flux of blood" could just as well be dysentery. Either way it's a disgusting illness, an illness which makes you unclean and unable to participate in the Jewish rites.

Way, way back many centuries ago I saw the English Thespian -- actor is too short a word -- Sir Alec McCowen performing the entirety of Mark's Gospel as a theatrical piece. It looks a little dated now, all English vowels hurled to the back of dress circle. But one of things I took away from his performances was how much humour there is in Mark's Gospel. This story contains one of Sir Alec's laugh lines. You have to deliver it deadpan, with British intonation. Here is a woman. She has been to lots of doctors. They have humiliated her, and charged her for the privilege of being humiliated and it hasn't done any good.

"She had suffered many things of many physicians…"

(Pause.)

"And spent all that she had…."

(Pause.)

"But was nothing bettered...."

(Long pause.)

"But grew rather worse...!"

(Audience laughs.)

Jesus feels that "virtue" has gone out of him. Several times, Mark uses the same word -- dynamin, power -- as a synonym for "miracle". So perhaps we should say that Jesus could feel that a miracle had gone out of him; or perhaps we should say that people were always asking Jesus to "do a power" or a "perform a virtue". We are talking about energy; what a player of role-playing games would immediately recognize as mana. My highly inaccurate paraphrase would translate it is a miracle-juice.

It's the miracle-juice that cures the woman. Mark does not say that when Jesus pays attention to the women, other people pay attention to her as well, and feel bad about how they have treated her and say that she can come back to synagogue even though she is bloody and smelly, and that's why we should welcome people who don't really seem to fit in with our church communities. And Mark does not say that Jesus has lived such a holy life that when he asks his God to heal someone, God is specially disposed to do so and if we could aspire to to that special state of grace, then God would answer our prayers as readily as he answered Jesus's. Jesus's unique supernatural nature -- an energy insider him -- has the power to cure. And it's involuntary. Jesus doesn't will it. He heals because the miracle-juice is in him.

Jesus says that the woman has been healed by her own faith. I have heard people say that this is Faith in the Wizard of Oz sense. The power to heal herself was inside her all along. The hem of Jesus garment was only ever a placebo. If you stop believing that you are passing blood then you will find you are not passing blood any more. I have also been told that Faith is a supernatural conductor. Everyone is touching Jesus: the miracle-juice only went into this particular woman. So mere physical contact is not enough: faith is necessary as well. Neither explanation does justice to the story. "Faith" here is simply trust: confidence or cheek or chutzpah

The reason you got healed is that you had the audacity to touch me without my permission. And instead of being cross, I am proud of you.



while he yet spake, 
there came from the ruler of the synagogue's house certain which said,
"thy daughter is dead: why troublest thou the Master any further?"
as soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken,
he saith unto the ruler of the synagogue,
"Be not afraid, only believe."

Things looked pretty hopeless on the boat, when Jesus told his disciples to have faith and not be afraid. But things must look entirely hopeless here. Jesus has been trying  to get to the house in time to save the man's daughter. A dirty smelly woman grabs his cloak. He could have ignored her, but instead he pauses, and singles her out, and listens to the story of her life, and praises her....and someone comes out of the house and says, don't bother, you're too late, she's already dead. Synagogue-guy would have had every right to be angry at this moment. But Jesus says the same thing to him that he said to the disciples when they thought the boat was going down. "No fear. Only faith."

and he suffered no man to follow him,
save Peter, and James, and John the brother of James
and he cometh to the house of the ruler of the synagogue,
and seeth the tumult,
and them that wept and wailed greatly.
and when he was come in, he saith unto them,
"Why make ye this ado, and weep?
the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth"
and they laughed him to scorn
but when he had put them all out,
he taketh the father and the mother of the damsel, and them that were with him,
and entereth in where the damsel was lying.
and he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her,
"Talitha cumi"
which is, being interpreted,
"Damsel, I say unto thee, arise."
and straightway the damsel arose,
and walked;
for she was of the age of twelve years
and they were astonished with a great astonishment.
and he charged them straitly that no man should know it
and commanded that something should be given her to eat.

I have often wondered why Jesus didn't invite Andrew to come into the house with the others. I suppose Andrew had be given some special important task that Jesus couldn't quite trust Peter with.

Jesus touches the dead girl, and she returns to life. Mark has already told us that physical contact with Jesus can allow for this mysterious virtue stuff to go out of him. The girl, being dead, presumably can't have faith in Jesus; he brings her back just by being there, holding her hand. (I suppose you might say that it was her father's faith that facilitated the miracle.) 

When Jesus did his very first exorcism, everyone was stunned. The people who witness this resurrection are "overcome with great ekstasei". They are hysterical; literally in an ecstatic state -- almost going into trances. We have to imagine a crowded noisy house, full of people ostentatiously hollering and singing dirges, while the five in the bedroom are freaking out and Jesus is calmly saying "Won't someone get her some food?"

The little girl is twelve years old. The older woman had suffered from bleeding for twelve years. There is probably some significance to this, but I am darned if I know what it is. 

Mark writes in Greek. So why does he lapse into Aramaic at this moment? Why does he think it is important that we know the exact words that Jesus spoke? Perhaps he thinks that there is a verbal component, as well as a physical one, to Jesus's magic. To call someone back from the dead, he has to utter words of power, so Mark records those words exactly. A bit later on he will tell us the exact Aramaic word that Jesus used to heal a deaf man. When Jesus asked for the demon Gardarene demon's name he was following standard exorcist procedure. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus brings a dead man back to life, a few minutes before his funeral, and he uses the exact same formula: "Young man, I say unto you, arise!"

Perhaps this is such a significant moment -- almost the climax of Jesus's career so far -- that Mark wants to bring us as close to it as we can possibly get. Only three disciples were there: Peter, James, John. Years later, Peter told Mark what happened. Now Mark is telling us. It's part of the great big Secret. The mourners don't see what Jesus did. Neither does Andrew, or the other eight disciples. The multitude certainly don't. But we are hearing Jesus's exact words. We are part of the special inner group.

Or perhaps it is simpler than that. Hebrew was the holy language; and Greek was the international language; but Aramaic was the language Jesus's people spoke among themselves. So maybe Jesus talked Hebrew to the synagogue-leader; maybe he even preached in Greek. The New Testament certainly seems to take the Greek translation of the Old Testament for granted. But here he is doing something normal and kind: shifting from formal public speech to common, intimate speech.

Hey kid. Time to get up.


FUN FACT:
Seventeenth century English happened to use the same word "suffer" to mean "endure" and "permit". The sick woman has "suffered" at the hands of doctors, and Jesus "will not suffer" anyone to follow him into the little girl's sick-room. But "endure" and "permit" are two quite different words in Greek (pascho and aphiem, respectively). You can apparently be the sub-editor of a national newspaper and still think that "suffer the children.." means "inflict suffering on children".




I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, October 28, 2019

Mark 5 1-20


and they came over unto the other side of the sea into the country of the Gadarenes

and when he was come out of the ship, 
immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit,
who had his dwelling among the tombs;

and no man could bind him, no, not with chains:
because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains,
and the chains had been plucked asunder by him,
and the fetters broken in pieces:
neither could any man tame him.

and always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones

but when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him,
and cried with a loud voice,
and said, "what have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God?
I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not."
for he said unto him,
"come out of the man, thou unclean spirit"
and he asked him,
"what is thy name?"
and he answered, saying,
"my name is Legion: for we are many"
and he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country.

mow there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding.
and all the devils besought him, saying,
"send us into the swine, that we may enter into them"
and forthwith Jesus gave them leave.
and the unclean spirits went out,
and entered into the swine:
and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea,
(they were about two thousand;)
and were choked in the sea

and they that fed the swine fled,
and told it in the city, and in the country.
and they went out to see what it was that was done.
and they come to Jesus,
and see him that was possessed with the devil,
and had the legion,
sitting, and clothed,
and in his right mind:
and they were afraid.
and they that saw it told them how it befell to him that was possessed with the devil,
and also concerning the swine
and they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts

and when he was come into the ship,
he that had been possessed with the devil prayed him that he might be with him.
howbeit Jesus suffered him not, but saith unto him,
"Go home to thy friends,
and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee,
and hath had compassion on thee."
and he departed,
and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him:
and all men did marvel.


Capernaum is on the west side of Galilee. Anything on the East could be said to be "on the other side", although the lake is only about eight miles across. No-one knows where "the country of the Gardarenes" is: even the various manuscripts of Mark don't agree. Some say "Gadarenes"; some say "Gergesenes", some say "Geresenes". Some people would like it to be "the country of Girgashites" because that might make it a place where some of the original, pagan inhabitants of Israel still lived. Pilgrims have settled on a place called Kursi, which was once near a town called Gergasa.

But for the purposes of the story, it doesn't matter a great deal. The Country of the Gadarenes is foreign; far away; different; a place where no-one has heard of Jesus; a place where they farm disgusting animals. I said that chapter one of Mark felt like the opening of a movie and chapter three more like a cinematic montage. Chapter five feels a little like a dream sequence. We go from Capernaum, where there is a house and a boat and a synagogue, and pass through a storm, and end up in this strange place, full of pigs and demons.

The tone of Mark's story telling changes. We heard how Jesus healed a leper: but we weren't invited to look at his skin or his disease or the rags. We have been told that Jesus healed a man with a withered hand, but we don't actually look at the stump. But this story is full of poetry and description. A strong man; a man who smashes chains; a man who makes a lot of noise and self harms; very probably a naked man; a man who prefers the company of the dead to the company of the living; a man who is by Jewish standards, unclean. Mark really wants us to imagine what he looks like.

The narrative feels like a stream of consciousness: it jumps forwards and backwards. A man came from the tombs who couldn't be tied up. He couldn't be tied up with chains. Because did I mention that people kept on trying to chain him up? But when they tried to chain him up he just broke the chains and ran away. To the graveyard; which is in the hills. Did I mention he lived in a graveyard? Like I said he came down from the tombs and begged Jesus not to punish him. That's because, I forgot to say, that Jesus spoke first and told the demon to come out of the guy. He even asked the demon's name. But it wasn't just a single demon, it was loads and loads...

King James says that the mob of demons worshiped Jesus; but that makes it sound too much as if they were engaging in a rousing chorus of Kum-By-Ya. What they actually did was fall on their knees and beg for mercy. "What do you want with me? Please don't punish me…."

One has to assume that Jesus's disciples are on the boat, and don't hear any of this. They have just witnessed the weather-miracle and are presumably still wondering who Jesus is. The regiment of demons is yelling the solution to the mystery. "Jesus, Son of God in heaven!" But they don't hear or aren't listening.

Legion is very specifically a Latin word, denoting a unit of the Roman Army -- maybe as many as six thousand men. "My name is Legion" is on a level with "My name is Panzer Division" or "My name is S.A.S". The Good News Bible has no excuse whatsoever to make the demon say "My name is Mob, there are so many of us." The American Bible Society produces a document called the Contemporary English Bible which hugely improves "My name is Legion" to "My name is 'Lots'". (If Contemporary Americans don't know what a legion is. couldn't he have said "My name is Army.")

Jesus orders the demons to leave the man, but gives them permission to go into a drove of pigs. Are demons like Nazgul and hate the idea of being disembodied? Or are they going to inhabit the pigs for a few years as an alternative to heading back down to hell and reporting their failure to Beelzebub? Did Jesus trick the demons? Or was he honestly showing them mercy by letting them go into the pigs? Demon-possessed people seem to know they are demon-possessed and to dislike it; I suppose the man was cutting himself with stones to try to get the devils to leave him. The pigs take a more drastic approach, and commit mass porcine suicide, presumably depriving the devils of their host body. The man ran down from the mountains when he saw Jesus, so the beach must have hills and cliffs all round it. I think we often imagine the pigs running off a cliff into the water, like so many curly-tailed lemmings, but the story only requires them to run down a hill into the water.

The news that something amazing has happened on the beach flies round town, and people come to have a look. The reporters have decided that the headline is "Two Thousand Pigs Jump Into Sea For No Reason". But when they arrive, they discover that the real story is "Graveyard Lunatic Totally Cured". Mark mentions that he has put some clothes on. This obviously struck Luke as important, because when he retells the story, he adds the detail that the demon-possessed man was naked. Presumably, Peter or James kept a change of clothes on the boat in case anyone fell in the water on a fishing trip. The reaction of the onlookers is not "Thank goodness! You've cured that poor man." It is "Please go away. We can't afford to lose any more livestock."

It seems a bit hard on the swineherds, I must admit. I suppose Jesus' disciples would have said "If you will raise non-kosher beasts, you can't expect much sympathy from us. "

The local people want Jesus to leave. The demon-free man wants to come with Jesus and be one of his students. But for some reason, Jesus won't have him. (You don't think the boat was already overloaded with disciples, do you?)

Howbeit is a peculiar choice of words. Pretentious people still occasionally say "albeit" when they want to say "even though". (It would never occur to them to say "all be it" but they are happy to lapse into Middle English.) But howbeit is completely obsolete. It isn't clear why King James's men preferred it to "however" or "but" or simply another "and". This is why some people like Contemporary American texts.

In a few pages Jesus will send his special twelve out to extend the reach of his message; but he wants this man to start spreading the good news on this side of the lake right away. (Remember that fact: one of these days it will turn up in a religious themed pub quiz. The first Apostle to the Gentiles was not St Paul, but the Gardarene demoniac.) I don't how much proclaiming he was able to do. He hasn't heard any of the Jesus' preaching. All he knows is that out in Capernaum there is a supremely powerful exorcist.

Maybe we have to see miracles and exorcisms as a kind of theological loss-leader. The man goes round the city saying "Jesus can control demons! Jesus controls demons!" And some of the people who hear will cross over to Capernaum to find out for themselves…..

FUN FACT: 
Pigs can swim.




I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, October 21, 2019

Mark 4 21-45


is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed?
and not to be set on a candlestick?
for there is nothing hid,
which shall not be manifested;
neither was any thing kept secret,
but that it should come abroad.

if any man have ears to hear, let him hear.

Annoying people love to point out that popular proverbs sometimes contradict each other. It is undoubtedly true that many hands make light work but it is equally true that too many cooks spoil the broth. So the consensus of homely folk wisdom appears to be that you should have lots of helpers for jobs that need lots of helpers and fewer helpers for jobs that need fewer helpers, or, put another way, the right number of people for the job.

Thanks, homely folk wisdom.

But there can be deeper ways in which things can be contradictory but also true. A teacher may very well assert one truth; and then assert an apparently different truth; and hope that his students will tease out a third truth somewhere in the space between them. Casting the I-Ching involves randomly generating two different pieces of advise and trying to understand how the transition from one to the other describes your present situation.

Jesus has just said that he preaches in parables in order to hide and conceal his true meaning. He now says "Do you think anyone would light a candle or a lamp and then cover it up? And do you think anything can really stay a secret forever?" He says it twice. Everything which is hidden (krypton) will be revealed; and every thing  — every event  — which is secret (apokryphon) will come to light.

So we have two different teachings, placed next to each other either by Jesus himself, or by Mark. "The Gospel is a big secret. Shhh...don't tell anyone." "There is no such thing as a secret. Everything eventually gets out into the open."

and he said unto them,

take heed what ye hear:
with what measure ye mete,
it shall be measured to you:
and unto you that hear shall more be given.

A literal translation of this passage would go something like "With whatever measure you measure shall it be measured unto you, and more will be added to you." With what measure / you measure / it will it be measured are three single words in Greek: metro metreite metrethesatai. "Metron" is literally a "measure" — a measuring device — but it could also be taken to mean "standard". It's where we get our word metric from. So: "The same measuring device you use to measure and weigh with will be used to measure and weigh you — and even more so."

The Good News Bible chooses to render this as: “The same rules you use to judge others will be used by God to judge you — but with even greater severity." This is not a translation, but a commentary, and a tendentious one. Metron is a literal or figurative measuring device, so I suppose they went looking for an English word which could be used in both senses. And they came up with the word "rule" which could refer to either a piece of wood with feet and inches marked on it, or the  regulations of a game or an organisation. (The word "rule" in the first sense has been completely superseded by "ruler". School teachers occasionally refer to "meter rules" because "meter rulers" would have been a bit of a mouthful.) But having said "rule" the first time the word comes up, they decide to say "judge" the second and third time. The Bible never uses metron in the sense of "judgement"; it turns in contexts like "go and measure the walls of the city." And prostithémi doesn't mean "treat with greater severity": it simply means add, or increase. You could just as well gloss the passage as "The same standard you use to decide what gifts to give others will be used by God to decide what gifts to give you — but with even greater generosity." Except there is no need to bring God into it. Mark doesn't. It could be a general piece of advice: "If you are mean you will experience meanness — even more so. If you are generous, you will experience generosity — even more so."

People have asked me why I have a bee in my bonnet about the Good News Bible. This is why. 

Jesus has not, up to this point, been talking about rules or gifts or punishments. He has been talking about listening and understanding. So surely the verse is actually saying: "You will understand in proportion to how carefully you listen — even more so, in fact."

for he that hath,
to him shall be given:
and he that hath not,
from him shall be taken
even that which he hath

It is certainly true that poor people tend to get poorer and end up with nothing, while rich people carry on getting richer. But Jesus is presumably not talking about economics. He is still talking about preaching, and understanding, and listening. You have to understand Jesus' sayings before you can understand Jesus' sayings. If you start out understanding, you'll understand more. If you don't understand to start with, you'll get to the end of a parable understanding less than you did before. Grasp a little bit? That's great. We can work with that. Fail to grasp even the simplest parable? Sorry, but there is nothing that can be done for you.

and he said,

so is the kingdom of God,
as if a man should cast seed into the ground;
and should sleep, and rise night and day,
and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how.

for the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself;
first the blade,
then the ear,
after that the full corn in the ear.
but when the fruit is brought forth
immediately he putteth in the sickle,
because the harvest is come.

For a moment, it sounds as if Jesus is going to tell us the secret. This is the kingdom of God... The kingdom of God is like this... But anyone expecting a Big Reveal will be sorely disappointed. 

"This is the kingdom... a man planted some seeds, and they grew into a plants."

This man is an ever bigger idiot than the sower in the first story. He has some valuable seed corn, but he doesn't realize that that is what he has. Maybe he was going to feed it to his chickens. Maybe it's what was left over after the miller made it into flour. For all I know, he has stupidly swapped his cow for a bag of beans. But for whatever reason, he just throws or drops the seed outside his house and forgets all about it. And then a few weeks later corn or sunflowers or a beanstalk pop up outside his front door — to his complete surprise. It seems to him as if the ground outside his house has suddenly come to life all by itself. Not that he's complaining. He picks the flowers or harvests the corn right away.

The first story was an allegory. The sower was Jesus, or perhaps one of Jesus's envoys; the seed was the Word; the Soil were different types of listener. But it is a cardinal mistake to assume that you can take the key to one story and use it to unlock a different story. This second story is not allegorical in the way the first one was. The seed is not the Kingdom of God; the crop is not the Kingdom of God; the man, his house, and the soil are not the Kingdom of God. What is like the Kingdom of God is the whole situation. The Kingdom of God is — will be — a complete surprise. It will just suddenly appear. And it will look as it it had just popped up out of the ground all by itself.


and he said,

whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God?
or with what comparison shall we compare it?

it is like a grain of mustard seed,
which, when it is sown in the earth,
is less than all the seeds that be in the earth:
but when it is sown,
it groweth up
and becometh greater than all herbs
and shooteth out great branches
so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.

It is a mistake, again, to try to find things in parables which are definitely not there. Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like mustard seed in one specific respect. We are not entitled to say that the Word of God teaches that the Kingdom is great for flavouring curry or that the Kingdom can be used as an ingredient of massage oil.

Once again, Jesus the carpenter tells his fisherman friends about planting seeds and harvesting crops. Mustard seeds are very small. Not, as certain anti-literalists would want to remind us, the smallest seeds on the planet earth, but very small indeed. And mustard trees are very big shrubs: not necessarily the largest tree in the world; but plenty big enough to provide shade for a passing pigeon. But very probably, we should read the piece as a kind of poetic hyperbole. Imagine if the mighty Canadian Redwood grew out of a tiny powder-like seed. That's what the Kingdom of God is like. A very, very big thing growing up out of a very, very small thing.

and with many such parables spake he the word unto them
as they were able to hear it.
but without a parable spake he not unto them
and when they were alone
he expounded all things to his disciples

Jesus speaks in puzzles. And if we can't see what follows from warnings about men who do not realize that there are seeds growing in their own gardens and huge trees bursting forth from small seeds than we are still outsiders. Without ears; incapable of hearing. 



and the same day
when the even was come,
he saith unto them,
Let us pass over unto the other side.
and when they had sent away the multitude,
they took him even as he was in the ship
and there were also with him other little ships.

I said previously that it was a mistake to treat the second and third chapters of Mark as continuous narrative: they are better thought of as a montage, as a collection of Jesus-stories and Jesus-sayings. But clearly this chapter does have a narrative structure: Jesus goes to beach; teaches his disciples on a boat; sails to the other side of the lake and performs a miracle there. So: is there a thematic or didactic connection between the different sections of the chapter?

Well, of course there is: otherwise I wouldn't have asked the question.

An overwhelmingly huge crowd of people have formed on the West side beach; all wanting miracles and wonders. Jesus gets onto a boat, and teaches his disciples instead. When he has finished teaching, rather than going and ministering to the mob on the beach, he turns the boat around and sails off to a completely different beach, over on the East side. 

and there arose a great storm of wind,
and the waves beat into the ship
so that it was now full.
and he was in the hinder part of the ship,
asleep on a pillow:
and they awake him, and say unto him,
"Master, carest thou not that we perish?
and he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea,
"Peace, be still."
and the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
and he said unto them,
"Why are ye so fearful?
how is it that ye have no faith?"
and they feared exceedingly, and said one to another,
"What manner of man is this,
that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

There is a storm. The disciples are scared. They are fishermen. They know this lake. They know what kind of storm is dangerous and what kind the boat can weather. Jesus isn't worried. He's asleep, at the back of the boat. Maybe he is in a state of spiritual serenity. Or maybe he is a land-carpenter and doesn't realize how much trouble they are in. So the disciples wake him up. And he rebukes the wind. He admonishes it; he talks to it sharply. And to the sea he says something like "Silence! Be muzzled."

Having given the weather a good ticking off, he turns round and chastises his disciples as well. "Why are you fearful? Do you still not have faith?" Don't you trust me yet? You've been my students for a while. Haven't you grasped the basics?

Jesus wants to know why they were afraid of the weather. But his question makes them even more afraid. They "fear with a great fear". But it isn't the sea they are afraid of now: it's Jesus himself.
I think there is a comic note to this scene. The disciples are convinced they are going to drown. A possibly slightly grumpy Jesus gets up from his nap and says "Wind — you are being very, very, naughty! Sea — shut up and put a sock in it right now!" And then, we assume, he goes back downstairs to bed, leaving the dripping wet fishermen in the middle of a dead-calm sea, looking at each other with open mouths.

"Who is this person?"

The Gospel is a secret which not everyone can understand. Jesus teaches in puzzles and cryptograms. The disciples need cheat sheets to solve even the easiest ones. And Jesus's biggest miracle yet raises the biggest question yet. Who is Jesus?

They don't know. They really don't know. 

There is a seed lying in the ground which the daft farmer has forgotten he even planted. The room is pitch dark because someone has put a bucket over the lamp. Someone has a handful of seeds which are so small you can hardly see them. But the tiny seeds are going to turn into massive trees; the daft farmer is going to be surprised, and someone is going to take away the bucket and we'll all be able to see what is going on. 

The big crowd don't know who Jesus is. The disciples don't know who Jesus is. Even Jesus' special twelve don't know who Jesus is.

But we do. We were in on the secret from the first chapter. almost the first verse. We know the mystery of the kingdom. The good soil is us.


Fun Fact:
When someone calls Jesus "Master" they are almost always calling him Didaskolos, teacher—not boss or lord. Until the middle of the 20th century, English school teachers were often referred to as "masters".


I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)