Tuesday, September 11, 2001

What Happened During My Summer Holiday

Arthur:  And what happened to the earth?
Ford:  It’s been disintegrated
Arthur:  Has it?
Ford:  Yes. It just boiled away into space.
Arthur: Look, I’m a bit upset about that.
Ford:  Yes, I can understand.
So; Flash and me and Darren and Keith hired a little pleasure boat at Inverness, and spent a week tootling down the Great Glenn, across Loch Ness, Lock Oich and the imaginatively named Loch Lochy.
Flash and I flew from London to Scotland. That meant on one day I traveled on a train, a car, a bus, a plane and a boat.
Scotland is very pretty. There are hills and lakes.
One night, we tied up at mooring point a mile or so from the nearest village. There was no artificial light. We couldn’t take our eyes of the stars (until it got too cold and we went into the boat and drank whiskey and read poems out loud out of a book).  It surprises townies that the night sky has stars in it.
According to the guidebook, you could drown the whole population of the world in Loch Ness, three times over. Somewhere in its murky depths there hides a Monster.
Never mind the scenery, the whiskey, or the stars. It’s the Loch Ness Monster that keeps the tourist business going. Souvenir shops offer you soft-toy Nessies (usually sea-serpents) or china ornament Nessies (usually plesiosaurs). Dumnadrochit has got a large fiberglass plesiosaur in front of a mocked up boat, so you can show your friends a photograph of you with the Monster. As you sail through the lock system into Fort Augustus, there’s a topiary of the monster and a little baby monster.
Flash explained that in Scots, you can’t mistake the word “Lock” for the word “Loch” because “Lock” is pronounced “lok” whereas “Loch” is pronounced, er, “clorrk”.
It only takes two people to pull a little boat through a lock, so while Darren and Keith held onto the ropes, me and Flash jumped off, walked into the canal-side pub (the Lock Inn, ho-ho) downed a quick pint, and rejoined them on the other side.
It was September, so the weather wasn’t perfect but we didn’t have any thoroughly washed out days. There’s a snapshot of the three of us looking very drenched by a very disappointing historical monument.  (An ancient well where the dismembered heads of seven people who had been executed in some blood-curdling highland feud were washed before being presented to the clan chief, apparently.)
The worst disaster occurred when we thought it would be a Good Idea to take the boat out into the middle of the lake while Keith was preparing a good healthy English cooked breakfast. The first time a teensy tiny little wave struck us, he poured a – fortunately not very hot pan -- of cooking oil over himself.
The charter company set Fort William as the limit of how far we could take the boat. It was Tuesday. A nice enough medium size town, containing the one good pub we found, name-check the Goose and Gruel. It’s the place you go if you want to climb Ben Nevis. We didn’t. We did visit the Ben Nevis whisky distillery, however. Not a whisky drinker myself, but I forced myself to try the free samples.
We took a taxi back to the marina where we’d left the boat.
“Och, have ye heard the news?” said the driver “Apparently, an aeroplane has crashed into a big hotel in America.”

We only had a radio to communicate with the outside world. But then one would automatically turn to  Radio 4 in a crisis in any case. When we turned on, there were car bombs going off all over America and tens of thousands were dead. Canary Wharf had been evacuated. Things only gradually got back to normal. I am happy to say that I still haven’t seen the footage of the tower collapsing.
I was going to use the word “stunned” to describe our reaction. Perhaps “embarrassedly not sure how to react” would be more honest. Since none of us on had friends or relatives in New York we turned off the radio and carried on with our holiday. There didn’t seem a great deal else to do.
There was an American family we’d passed in a couple of locks, with a star and stripes tied to the back of their boat. We noticed they’d lowered it to half-mast.
Last February, I lost a very close friend in a pointless futile stupid railway accident. That’s left me a bit mixed up over how to mentally process big disasters. I’d been through the experience of seeing a news report of a major accident, saying “tut tut, how terrible” and finding out twelve hours later that there was a real person involved. It would be nice to say “and that made me feel much more Christian sympathy for the horror stories coming out of New York”, but it actually just made me want to switch off. Must then a Christ perish in torment in each age for the sake of those with no imagination?
I think the media actually does very well at bringing minute-by-minute reporting of major events. In the old days, the morning papers were history’s second or third draft: by the time you heard the news, it had been tidied up. Journalists knew the facts before they reported them. Live news creates a weird immediacy, despite its inaccuracy. Fog of war – conflicting reports – “something terrible has happened, we don’t know what the details are yet”—too early to speculate. Real life must be very much like that. 
But after a few hours, it very rapidly reverts to normal; human-interest items about children who have lost parents and arty photos of the fire brigade raising the Stars and Stripes. Would the girl who lost her fiancĂ© be any more traumatized if he’d slipped on the steps outside his house and broken his neck? But because he perished publicly, her grief is News.
I know what they were doing and I don’t blame them for it. 6,000 dead is just a number, they want to put a human face on it. But it has the effect of assimilating the shock into an easily digestible narrative:  tragedy as soap opera. At some level, those of us who weren’t directly involved were enjoying it. God help us, we were.
“We are all Americans now,” said one commentator. I was at college in Brighton when the IRA came within a hairsbreadth of assassinating Mrs. Thatcher; one of those rare moments when strangers are allowed to talk to each other, even if it’s only to look down at the paper and say “Tut tut, nasty business.” People stood on the beach and gaped at the wreckage of the Grand Hotel. A man with one of those RAF moustache accents said “You a Tory supporter, then?” and I said “No, but that’s a bit irrelevant, isn’t it?” -- as if my opinion of the Falklands War or the Miners Strike might have any effect on my opinions of the moral wisdom of putting explosive devices in hotel bedrooms.
My opinions on the U.S foreign policy, the middle-east situation, George Bush’s brain-power, globalization and the fact that Starbucks make crap coffee remain precisely where they were on September 10. But that’s a bit irrelevant, isn’t it?

The most moving sound image which Radio 4 piped at us was the Queen’s guards playing the Star Spangled Banner outside Buck House as part of the changing of the guard; and the mainly but not entirely American voices singing the words. The cynic in me knows that “the Queen’s” decision to change the ceremony was really the result of a press adviser who wanted to make sure that she didn’t fumble the ball like she did when Di died. But it was very moving, nonetheless.
We can’t do patriotism; we aren’t allowed. At about this time of year, there is a minor classical music concert in the Albert Hall. Tradition dictates that the second half includes Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and a silly medley of English Sea Songs, culminating in Rule Britannia. And every year, I mean, every year, without fail, there is a minor controversy about whether these songs are a bit bellicose and jingoistic and it wouldn’t be better to sing “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing In Perfect Harmony” instead. This year there was even more mumbling. As it happened, the little American conductor with the line in weak jokes replaced Land of Hope and Glory with Ode to Joy but still let the multitudes belt out Jerusalem and everyone went home relatively happy. But one couldn’t help comparing our embarrassed confusion about patriotic traditions with the purity and wholeheartedness of that of the Americans.

The Vicar preached an entirely adequate sermon about Recent Events in the World. He said that it reminded us of the frailty and contingency of human existence; he said it reminded us of the weakness of human endeavor compared to the will of God; he said that if we put our trust in God rather than towers made by men, that, in the long run, even in the face of terrible events, we would be OK: that death needn’t be the final and total evil. He pointed out that in the Psalm, where it says “God is our refuge” the word “refuge” means literally “unassailably strong tower.”
All doubtless very true.
But it struck me that all he had really done was use an “item in the news” as a sermon illustration: rather as if he had drawn an moral point out of England losing the football (don’t set your hearts on human heroes, they may let you down) or, less likely, England winning the football (press on towards the goal however hard it seems.)
And that, one feels, is what a lot of people have been doing: like any big event, it can’t just be a Terrible Thing which happened: it has to be a metaphor of Titanic proportions; onto which we gradually project meanings. Sensible meanings, if we are C of E vicars; mad ones if we are Richard Dawkins or Pat Robertson. There are crazed fundamentalists on all sides. (Tony’s “reorder the world” speech reminded us that it was possible to be a well meaning liberal and a crazed fundamentalist at the same time.)
It’s unlikely that “Why does God allow bad things to happen” was at the forefront of the congregations mind. If we regarded “the problem of evil” as an impediment to Christian belief, it’s unlikely we would have been in church in the first place. The issue that we could have done with guidance on was, I thought, more practical. “What’s the Christian response to evil? Should we try to forgive the people who did this terrible thing, and encourage our leaders to turn the other cheek? Or should we rather take up arms against Evil, and prepare for a Holy War?  Great Christians have  taken both positions. And if a Just War it is to be should we regard it as a Crusade against Islam, or merely a crusade against a minority of bad people? Or perhaps a police action against one Evil person? But if it is a war against bad people, why these bad people in particular; why not a never-ending theocratic war until a holy world government ushers in the Millennium?”
Answer came there none.

Someone said that reacting to a terrorist is rather like smacking a naughty child. You know that he’s trying deliberately to provoke you, and in reacting, you are in one sense, giving him precisely what he wants. But if you don’t, then he smashes up your house. There’s no doubt that the point of a terrorist attack is to provoke a retaliation, to make the target behave like the wicked oppressor that the terrorist believes him to be. (Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Look at me I’m being oppressed!)  But in one sense, what else do you do?
As a dyed in the wool liberal with dangerously pacifist tendencies; I would like to hear a good deal less about good wars, about how we are going to defeat the forces of evil and make the world a good and happy place and a great deal more about straightforward retaliation. Swift retaliatory justice, annihilating the perpetrator of the atrocity, in so far as we know who he is, and indeed where, taking out as many civilians and tacit supporters as happen to be in the way – nuke the whole country if you like, I don’t mind. It may not be an ideal solution, but it seems to be morally straightforward, in a brutal, Old Testament way. I can understand the morality of “If you kill our citizens, we will kill you”. It has limits. A blood-letting , some mourning, and we get back to normal. But a general war against terrorism – or, in some views, against evil in general – seems too open ended. It could go on forever. Millions could die. And it’s a blank check to give power to our rulers. Of course we aren’t going to be too critical of them during a crisis; but don’t let it go to their heads, otherwise the crisis could mysteriously drag on for ever and ever, with more and more of our liberties being eroded along the way.

And so everything gets back to normal; my holiday is over; there are reports of bombings on the news and some vague mutterings about anthrax in the stock exchange. It’s not even very interesting any more. Just some dead people in a foreign country; a subject to write about; slag off the clergy, maybe a parenthesis or two about Tony.
It’s been a standing joke in this column for years that half the readers are a mysterious alien race called “Americans”. I drop in friendly little asides about how “my readers” won’t pick up on the irony or understand my references to English literature. Assuming that they exist it would have been nice if I’d been able to think of something better to say to my Americans readers beyond “sorry”. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

You could drown the whole population of the world in Loch Ness, three times over. Somewhere in its murky depths there hides a Monster.

Thursday, February 01, 2001

Dungeons & Dragons

 Dungeons & Dragons


Mine eyes have seen the glory of the umpteenth level priest
If you're evil and he turns you then you're instantly deceased
He's got wisdom twenty seven, it's been magically increased
And he goes marching on…

The receptionist at my office expressed surprise that Dungeons & Dragons could be turned into a movie at all. "After all," she said, "It’s only an old cartoon series."

Well, no, actually, not.

Before D&D was a cartoon, it was a game. Those critics who have heaped abuse on the movie also entirely missed this point. Dungeons & Dragons was, as the title proclaims, an attempt to capture the essence of fantasy role-playing on the screen; and it did this remarkably well.

The movie is set a generic, undifferentiated fantasy-never-never-land. It contains crowded markets, crowded bars, castles, a forest, and not much else. It’s the sort of place where things called "orcs" and things called "elves" meet in bars; where things called "halflings" are mentioned in passing and where there is an obligatory "dwarf" who starts fights and spills food on his beard. At one point we see an establishing shot of a city floating in the clouds, but nothing comes of this: it’s just another collection of taverns, markets and a thieves' guild. The non-humans don’t regard the elves or the orcs as remarkable, alien, or even foreign; when one of the characters spots an elf in the bar, he just tries to chat her up. All the archetypes are dragged out of Tolkien and Howard and made contemptible by decades of familiarity. This looks like Middle-earth, but it's actually New York, or, at the very best, Disneyland. Even the dragons are significant primarily as a kind of nuclear deterrent.

Total absence of sense of wonder; just like a D&D game. Check.

The two main characters, Ripley (or possibly Ridley) and Snails (no, really) are nominally thieves. Ridley is played by Jimmy Olsen out of the Lois and Clerk, and Snails is the result of a terribly experiment in genetic engineering involving DNA from Eddie Murphy, Red Dwarf’s Cat, and Jar Jar Binks. I don’t know if you call his dialogue "rap" or "jive" or just "very, very irritating." I’m pretty sure I heard Ripley and Snails calling each other "dude"; and they definitely do that high-five thing with clenched fists. It is impossible not to think of them as Bill and Ted wandering around Middle-earth. The movie starts with them ineptly robbing the wizards’ guild. The funny black man is comically terrified, while the swashbuckling white man remains cool and confident, yet it is very clear that neither of them actually believe themselves to be in the slightest danger. They behave, get this, as if they are playing a game.


Then there is the matter of the plot, or rather scenario, or rather scenarios, because the script keeps changing its mind. Having been captured by a girly wizard while robbing the guild, Jimmy Olsen finds himself involved in a quest to find the Staff of Something-or-other, which confers on the wielder the power to control computer animated dragons. At the beginning of the film, the point of this is that the Evil Chief Wizard is going to take the staff of office (which also controls dragons) from the Good Empress, so we need a spare staff to protect ourselves from him. But at the half way point, up pops Tom Baker in a blonde wig and pointy ears and talks some guff about how wizard's USE magic, but elves ARE magic. The point of the quest is thus really to stop anybody using magic staffs of any sort because every time a dragon gets killed you upset the balance of the Force. (At this point some black elves in masks look at each other and then look at Ridley and say with sub titles "Does he understand his full potential?" No he doesn’t, and nor do we, but this is all right because the subject is not raised again.) One has the impression of a scriptwriter chucking a McGuffin at our hero and retrospectively working out some reason for it to be important.


The story about the Evil Wizard and the Good Empress is lifted wholesale from Phantom Menace. The Empress actually wears one of Amidala's cast-off costumes, until the end when she changes for no good reason into Mordred’s armour out of Excalibur. The scene in the Wizards Council Chamber (which looks like an Italian Opera house, actually rather cool) where Jeremy Irons as Profion, Chief Evil Wizard, asks the Empress to hand over her staff and she, speaking up for the rights of Commoners everywhere, says "That is something I cannot do" is almost frame-by-frame the Senate scene from Episode I. The end of the movie, which is completely over the top and almost worth the price of admission, has Ripley sword-fighting with Profion at the top of an absurdly narrow tower, while dragons of various types set fire to things and fall out of the sky. (It is one of the perils of computer animation that once you have rendered out one dragon, you can just as easily show 1,000 of the beasts; and therefore do so.) Profion suggests that Ripley should use the Staff of Something against him.

"No" shouts Ripley "NO. I’ll never turn into you. Never."

The possibility that Ripley/Ridely might in any way be in danger of turning into Profion has not even been mentioned up to this point. But still, we can at least be grateful that Profion resists the temptation to tell Ripley that he is his father. None of this makes the slightest sense in terms of the "plot" we just feel that the characters are re-enacting their favourite bits from the Star Wars trilogy because it felt like a fun thing to do.


I could also mention the complete lack of emotional depth. I saw the film with an audience which was clearly made up of D&D geeks. There was no heckling or popcorn rustling; everyone was in the cinema because they positively wanted to see the film. Otherwise, they’d have been next door watching Hannibal. When the trailer for Lord of the Rings came on, there was a sense of religious fervour. But even so. When Snails gets killed off -- sorry that’s a spoiler isn’t it, the cute annoying humorous black guy who's the hero's mate gets killed, there’s a turn up for the books -- the whole audience collapsed into laughter. I mean, the whole scene -- Snails falling from the battlements; Ripley or Ridely falling to his knees and shouting out "Noooo". One would have to have a heart of stone to read of the death of little Nell without laughing. Quite clearly neither we nor Ripley nor Ridley really care that he’s dead: he’s just acting out the sort of thing that heroes do in movies when people die. One expected Wayne and Garth to pop up and say "Yeah, like we’d end the movie like that!". We all know it wasn’t real.


Finally, there are the stock characters. We’ve mentioned Amidala. We have Jeremy Irons doing a mock Shakespearean villain, e-nun-ci-at-ing every line. We have the ultimate geek icon, Tom Baker popping up for no reason to deliver some of Yoda’s old lines. Best of all, what almost makes the movie, we have Richard O’Brien camping it up as the head of the thieves guild, who puts Ridley, into, get this, a MAZE. Not, admittedly, a crystal maze, but nevertheless. If you ever played in one of those D&D campaigns where Elric and Frodo went up against Conan because the referee thought it would be kinda cool, you’d feel right at home.

Check. Check. Check.

Oh, I could go on. The way in which character's meet up at random and join "the party" without introductions or explanations because they are PCs and know that that is what they are meant to do. Arbitrary deus ex-machina for the good of the plot: when Ripley goes into the dungeon to retrieve the Staff of Something, the DM puts up an invisible barrier to keep the other characters out of the way "because only he is meant to go in." Arbitrary appearances by monsters from the monster manual who don’t actually do anything. The whole film is as perfect an impression of the kind of D&D games you used to play from about age 12 until you discovered Call of Cthulhu as it is possible to imagine.

The film ends with Ripley, wearing what appears to be a modern biker outfit, standing at Snails’ grave, and talking about how wizards and commoners are going to be equal, just like Snails, something of a civil rights campaigner in his spare time, wanted. When suddenly one of the elves starts talking mystical gumf again, about how maybe Snails isn’t really dead as long as we all remember him, when, bang, the writing vanishes from the grave stone and everyone is turned into a sort of swirly Tinkerbell bolt of lightning. The end.

You what? I mean, really, you what? What was supposed to have happened? It seems (seriously) obvious that something has been cut out. And I think I can guess what it was.

In the original version of the film, the swirly bolts of lightening were going to shoot over the city, out into space, and in one of those cosmic zoom effects, shoot off the planet and out of time and space. Whereupon, we were going to transfer to a geeky student bedsit, where all the actors, now in modern clothes, would be sitting around a table. There would be half-eaten pizza on the floor, and little miniatures looking like the characters from the film. Snails, of course, would be alive and well. There would probably be Doctor Who posters and Star Wars books and Crystal Maze videos, in order to drive home the point. I don’t know which character would turn out to be the DM; maybe Jeremy Irons? It would probably be filmed in black and white, like Wizard of Oz. All the characters would start to laugh and say "Yeah, that was a good game, same time next week". Snails and Ripley would shake hands to assert their real world friendship. Snails and the Elf-girl would probably be dating. Everyone would leave. The camera would linger for a few seconds over the dice and the character sheets on the table. The light would go out. The credits would roll. The end.

Had they left this ending in, it would be possible to appreciate the film for the classic it really is.