Thursday, August 31, 2006

When Pants Ignite

Every time that people talk about "creating the characters," I always say I co-created them. I co-created Spider-Man with Steve Ditko. I co-created The Fantastic Four and the Hulk with Kirby. I co-created Iron Man with Don Heck. Very often, when people would write about us in the newspapers or the trades, they would say, "Stan Lee – Creator of Spider-Man," and that would get Ditko angry – but I had nothing to do with that! I have no control over what journalists write.

Stan Lee, interviewed on IGN, June 2000

Celebrating his 65th years at Marvel, Stan "The Man" Lee comes face-to-face with some of his greatest creations of all time. Five all new 10 page stories by Stan Lee with 10-page backup tales from top talents in the industry, along with reprints of classic Stan Lee stories. Stan Lee Meets Spider-Man. Stan Lee Meets Dr. Strange. Stan Lee Meets The Thing. Stan Lee Meets Dr Doom. Stan Lee Meets The Silver Surfer.

Marvel comics flyer, September 2006.

(Stan Lee's name appears 17 times in this leaflet. A no-prize for anyone who guesses the number of occurrences of the words "Ditko", "Kirby", "Jack", "Steve". The cover for the Spider-Man comic appears to be have been copied from Ditko's art on Amazing Fantasy #15, and the cover for the Thing appears to have been copied from Kirby's art on Fantastic Four #51.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


For those of us who have read A.N Wilson's mendacious biography of C.S Lewis or his goofy book on Jesus this is quite siimply the funniest thing which has ever happened in the entire history of English literature.


"The strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force are irreconcilable, in my view. That’s the whole point of the debate. The weak nuclear force (YHWH, he/she/it, Marxist-feminists, the Feminist-Homosexualist Axis) wants to be the strong nuclear force (God, masculine men) and can’t be and therefore everywhere across time and space is doing what he/she/it has been doing in our own society since 1970. Screwing things up. The science isn’t suspect, I don’t think. The he/she/its don’t like it because if follows the evidence and concludes that he is preferable to he/she/it. Strong instead of weak."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Walking With Jesuses

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

...and then one Thursday, nearly 2,000 years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change...

The Genesis Code; The Gospel Code; The Magdalene Deception – W.H Smiths bookshelves are sagging under the weight of silly conspiracy theories about Jesus. So the time is right for the BBC to do a documentary called The Miracles of Jesus. The series promises that it will 'decipher' the meanings of Jesus' miracles. A cipher, you see, is a sort of code. If we can fit the words 'Jesus' and 'Code' into the same sentence, then maybe the young people will turn on the TV during the godslot. Or, on the other hand, maybe they won't.
The shtick is that the programme is presented by a Muslim, BBC war-reporter Rageh Omar, who pretends that he is looking at the Gospels with an outsider's eye. The last time the BBC did a major series on Jesus, it was presented by Jeremy Bowen, another news reporter. God forbid that religious documentaries should be presented by historians, archaeologists or clergymen. That would be old fashioned and deferential; it would suggest that we lived in a world where experts taught and everyone else learns from them. TV shows of this kind have to be presented by naive seekers-after-truth. Unfortunately, it's clear that Omar is better informed than the format permits him to let on. He keeps saying 'many scholars believe....' which makes us suspect that he has read actual books – but he isn't allowed to tell us which books, or what they said.
The hidden message which he finds in the Gospels is – and stop me if you've heard this before – that Jesus believed himself to be the Son of God. Not only that, but he thought that is was necessary to suffer a violent death in order to overthrow Satan. Oh, and his disciples very probably believed that he had come back from the dead – in what was 'perhaps' the greatest miracle of all.
Reith forbid that a Sunday afternoon TV series about Jesus should contain anything so mundane as any actual passages from the Bible. Oh no; it uses 'special photography and computer generated images to bring the miracles of Jesus to life'. That is to say, actors wander around dusty landscapes and roll their eyes a lot. Jesus looks Wild and Strange. The Disciples look Surprised and Foreign. There are subtitles. There is some fairly tasteful pre-watershed flagellation, so I assume that the language must be Aramaic. We get to see the scenes repeatedly, from different angles, sometimes in black and white. Jesus turns water into wine in Matrix-style bullet time.
Since Walking With Dinosaurs the buffer-zone between documentary and fiction has been hopelessly compromised. A sensible viewer might reasonably watch a computer generated reconstruction and say 'How do we know that the disciples laughed when Jesus refused to exorcise the gentile woman's daughter?' or 'How do we know that a brontosaurus marked out its territory with wee?' The answer, in both cases, is 'We made it up. Out of our heads.' But Omar is inclined to treat the filmed reconstructions as if they were the events themselves. He then sets about decoding their meanings. Since the dramas are based on someone's interpretation of what must have happened, this is a dangerously circular argument. Each scene is introduced with a little caption that says something like 'Sea of Galilee, A.D 28' which insidiously suggests that we are watching documentary, rather than historical fiction.
So, after he has been baptized by John the Baptist, we are told that Jesus had a mystical experience, seeing a dove and hearing the voice of God in his head. We see a computer generated dove super-imposed over the actor's face, to make it quite clear that this is a subjective psychological event experienced by Jesus alone. When mystics have such visionary experiences they often become quite confused and have to spend weeks working out the meaning of their vision. And sure enough, we see Jesus spending the month after his baptism in the wilderness, looking very agitated and confused. Omar draws various conclusions from this: Jesus state of mind suggests that he himself was surprised by his vision, and doubtful about the nature of his mission and his role. The trouble with this is, the fourth Gospel is quite explicit that it was John, not Jesus who saw the the Dove. ('And John bare record, saying 'I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.') The other Gospels could be read either way. And you have to push the text quite hard to put Jesus in a confused state during the next 40 days. The Gospels describes a personal Devil tempting him, and Jesus responding confidently with quotations from scripture.
All of which is a shame, because Omar's central argument is actually rather good. Jesus was not the only exorcist and healer in first century Palestine – so why did he inspire devotion in some people and hatred in others? The answer is that his miracles conveyed a very specific and shocking message, quite different from the other wonder-workers. For example:

  • Exorcists traditionally used spells and rituals to evoke the power of God: Jesus simply told evil spirits to go away, as if he personally had authority over them. But the only person who has authority over Satan is God. It is very significant that the Gadarene swine ran into the sea, because Leviathan is a symbol of the devil, Leviathan lives in the sea, and in the Old Testament, YHWH is sometimes depicted overcoming Leviathan. (Er...nice try.)

  • When a crippled man was brought to him, instead of healing him, Jesus announced that his sins were forgiven – something which only God can do. Omar implies that in saying this, he is pointing out (or possibly deciphering) a previously neglected significance. In fact, the meaning of the story is absolutely explicit in the text of Mark's Gospel.'Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?'

  • On another occasion, Jesus calmed a storm on the sea of Galilee. He seemed to be giving orders to the elements – which everyone knew was God's job. Indeed, one of the Psalms specifically talks about God controlling a storm. (We aren't told which Psalm, because that might make us switch over to Emmerdale instead.) But there was no need to do any deciphering to discover this, because it is quite explicit in the synoptic account. 'Who can this man be? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'

  • Finally, the disciples are shocked (in the film, if not in the Bible) when he changes his mind and heals the gentiles daughter; because Jesus appears to be unilaterally extending the privileges of the chosen people to a goy – which surely is God's prerogative. Omar goes so far as to say that Jesus himself is surprised by this; a pretty weak point, since Jesus has on several occasions argued from the Old Testament that God is concerned with non-Jews.

Most interestingly, we are told (without supporting evidence) that firstcenturyjews regarded Rome, the occupier of the Holy City, as the immanent representation of Satan on earth. The old conundrum – 'If Jesus was a spiritual leader, why did he end up being killed as a traitor by the Romans? But if he was a political revolutionary in what sense was he a spiritual leader?' turns out to be a false dichotomy. Jesus 'would have' regarded curing demon-possessed Cyro-Phoenicians and freeing Jerusalem from the Romans as the same kind of action – kicking Satan out of places he wasn't supposed to be. If this is so, then throwing himself on Roman justice and allowing himself to be killed on the symbol of Roman oppression was a clear and symbolic way of saying 'I am engaged in the ultimate conflict with Satan.'
What the programme needed – and I never thought I would say this about a BBC religious documentary – was a healthy dose of skepticism. It is a good idea to discuss the significance of the miracles as stories, without wasting too much time worrying about whether it is scientifically or philosophically possible for them to have occurred. But once you have decided to treat something as a story, surely you have to ask: Who told this story? Under what circumstances? To whom? What, to coin a phrase, was it's life-setting? But Omar accepts uncritically that the Gospels are reports about incidents in Jesus' life – possibly inaccurate and biased, but essentially historical accounts. The story of Jesus temptation is, for him, a psychologically plausible event in the life of a visionary: the idea that '40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness' could be an allegorical or symbolic reference to the book of Exodus isn't even hinted at. We are told that 'some scholars believe' that the calming of the sea isn't literally true, because it is 'just too spectacular.' But he doesn't mention that the parallels with the book of Jonah – or indeed, the allusion to Psalm 107 – make other scholars think that the story is a literary creation.
Perhaps this doesn't matter. Mark reproduces a story in which Jesus acted as if he was God. And Mark certainly believed that Jesus actually was God, which is why he thought the story worth telling. It may not make much difference whether he was repeating a story told him by an eye-witness (say, Peter); recording one element of a 'Jesus tradition' that had been embellished by many hands; or making it up himself. Either way, the meaning is the same. And this really is as far as you can go. The New Testament writers write about a Jesus who believed he was God, because that is what they believed; and what they believed he believed. Is it what The Historical Jesus believed? We certainly can't find out by reading the Gospels and trying to 'decipher' what is blindingly obvious on every page.
When the BBC transmits this kind of programme, some Christian always stands up and says 'Pah! You wouldn't make a film that was nearly so skeptical about Mohammed!' I would be inclined to draw a different conclusion. You wouldn't make a film about Mohammed that gradually and tentatively came to the conclusion that he may perhaps have believed that the Koran was written by Allah and delivered to him by an Angel – and which expected your audience to be surprised by this information. Most people have got a rough idea what Islam teaches about the Prophet. But despite an Established Church and a degree of compulsory religious indoctrination that would be un-believable to most Americans, the population of the UK seems to be largely ignorant about The Jesus of the Gospels. (Look at the furore over The Passion of the Christ: most commentators seemed genuinely not to know what significance the Crucifixion has in Christianity.) Most of us seem to sincerely believe that Hippy Jesus – the one who preached peace and love and was murdered for it by those pesky Italians – is the one venerated by the Church. So I guess there is some point in the BBC using CGI to remind us that Scary Jesus – the person who said he was God and lived up to it – is the only Jesus you'll find in the Bible.
And yes. They do quote the appropriate bit of C.S Lewis.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Silver Age Jesus

I just came across a 1955 Superman story called 'The Girl Who Didn't Believe in Superman'.

I think I first read it in a British Superman Annual when I was a kid. I can't think why I, a devout Marvelite, allowed such a book into my bedroom. Re-reading it makes me wonder if there is after all a precedent for identifying the Last Son of Krypton with the Son of God.

The Daily Planet is organizing it's annual 'Lovely Child' photo competition. The prize is a round-the-world sightseeing tour with Superman: but the winner of the competition, little Alice Norton, turns out to be blind. Not only that -- but she doesn't believe that there is any such person as Superman. The Man of Steel uses his super deus ex machina power to become an accomplished eye-surgeon and performs an operation which restores Alice's sight. She realizes that Superman is real after all, and he takes her on the promised world tour. Because of the publicity, Alice's long-lost father turns up: he's been in hiding because he blames himself for the road accident which blinded her. His wife reveals that he wasn't really to blame. Superman has not only restored her eyesight and her joie de vivre, but also Alice's family.

The splash-page for the episode shows Superman dragging a truck through the street on a chain to demonstrate his super-strength. Alice stands to one side saying "It's all a trick. There is no such person as Superman." This idea is elaborated in the first section of the story: Superman demonstrates his various powers to Alice, but she provides a rational explanation for each of them. (For example, when he uses his telescopic vision to tell her what her mother is doing she replies, not unreasonably, that it's common knowledge that she works as a child-minder in the afternoons.)

This is a modern take on the old story about the blind men and the elephant. It amusingly shows how someone's beliefs about the world are determined by their point of view. It is also a classic Superman puzzle story. The young reader is supposed to be amused by the ingenuity of Alice's rationalizations, and to wrack his brain to think of a super-stunt that she can't explain away. (Much of the 1950s was spent pitting Superman against deliberately un-super opponents. "How can I convince a blind girl that I am Superman?" is really the same kind of question as "How can I trick Mr. Mxyzptlk into pronouncing his name backwards?") The resolution to the puzzle – that Superman's X-Ray vision accidentally reveals the cause of Alice's blindness – is actually a bit of a cop-out. But it takes the story off in a new and much more interesting direction.

Alice's real problem is not her blindness: it's that she is caught up in a post-modernist paradox. She thinks that Superman is "a myth, make believe, a modern fairy tale." She tells the Man of Steel that "No man could have super-powers like that! Superman is just make the fairy tales Mommy tells me!" But from our point of view, that is precisely what Superman is: a modern fairy tale. The imaginary Superman-free world that Alice has created for herself is the same as ordinary world which we readers live in every day. Alice's mother say that "she retreats from reality more and more each day" – even though for us, it's believing in Superman, not doubting him, that would be considered a retreat from reality.

Alan Moore's classic 1986 story "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow" began with the brilliant line "This is an Imaginary Story. Aren't they all?" I think that Bill Finger had made the same joke 30 years previously.

Alice's physical blindness is a metaphor for her inability to perceive the innate goodness in the world. According to her mother "Because of her blindness, Alice has become a bitter, cynical child!" This cynicism is explicitly connected to her disbelief in Superman. "She must be drawn out of her shell! She must be made to believe in life again! If I can make Alice believe in me, she might begin to believe in the world around the pleasure even a blind child can have! That's why it's so important that I convince her there is a Superman!" It's her skepticism, not her disability, which is the problem: if she believed in Superman then she could enjoy life – even if she remained blind.

Having restored her sight, Superman flies Alice around the world. This is not depicted merely in terms of a person who has suffered a temporary loss of vision enjoying their restored faculties: we are supposed to imagine someone seeing the world for the first time – indeed, discovering for the first time what kind of world they live in. "This is your country" says Superman. "Golly! I never realized America was so big!" she replies. The word "wonder" is used four times in this sequence: Alice says that Superman is wonderful for having healed her; Superman says that it is the world itself that is wonderful. And Alice, who a few pages before was being cynical about fairy tales, suddenly decides that the whole world is like children's fantasy and she is a character in it. "It's just like you said it was...wonderful! Alice in wonderland, that's me!" Bet you didn't spot that line coming. The restoration of Alice's physical sight is a metaphor for the restoration of her "sense of wonder".

What does the story 'mean'? In 1955, comics were written by adults and read by children. (Today, they are written by fanboys and read by no-one.) The comic may be playing with the idea that adults who lose their childlike enjoyment of fantasy also stop enjoying real life. It may simply be a warning to its readers not to lose their sense of wonder. It may even be telling them, very gently, that although they will one day grow up and realize that there is no Superman, the world is still very wonderful without him. At the beginning of the story, Alice's rejection of Superman is a rejection of the world itself. When she recovers her vision, she wants to give all her attention to Superman, but he points away from himself, and toward the world. In the penultimate frame, Alice has literally turned her back on Superman, because her attention is directed to her happy family. Superman slips away without saying goodbye, leaving Alice, in a very positive sense, back in a world without Superman. "Come on" he says to Lois "They don't need us any more." The Alice of the splash page ("there's no such person as Superman") and the Alice of the last page ("they don't need us anymore") could be seen as negative and positive metaphors for growing-up.

But when I read a story about faith, which involves the healing of a blind person, I am inclined to ask whether the story is "really" about Jesus. In the Bible, Jesus heals several blind people; indeed, he begins his mission by announcing "freedom to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind." The New Testament healing stories are just that – stories about supernatural cures. But Christians also read them as metaphors about spiritual healing and forgiveness. "I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see." For a Christian, to come to believe in Jesus is to have your eyes opened; to see the world in a new way. Can this possibly have been in Bill Finger's mind when he depicted a little girl healing her life by believing in Superman?

The scene in which Alice is healed is worth a close look. Superman can instantly memorize the contents of an entire medical library and uses his X-Ray vision and super-speed to perform an operation which no earthly surgeon could ever do. (This raises a question -- why doesn't he use his knowledge and power to heal all the other blind children in the world? – which some people have also wanted to ask about God.) The actual surgery isn't shown: all the drama is saved for the day when the patients bandages are removed. I don't know what post-operative dressings look like in a real hospital, but here, they look exactly like a blindfold: as powerful a way of illustrating "recovery of sight" as you could imagine. The whole sequence has a Biblical whiff. The captions drift into archaic language "Slowly, the binding cloth..." (why not just "bandage") "is unwound" (not "removed" or "taken off")"and light falls upon Alice's staring eyes!" Alice only gradually works out that what she is looking at is the Man of Steel. "'s getting's a man wearing what I think must be a cape! I can see! I can see!" Bill Finger has temporarily forgotten that she was only blinded four years ago and knows perfectly well what a cape looks like. The metaphor about "seeing the world for the first time" has temporarily overridden the literal story about a child with a fragment of a windshield in her optic nerve. Does this recall the Biblical story of the blind man who said "I see men as trees, walking."? Many a preacher has pointed out that the first person that the blind man saw was Jesus: Alice's mother exclaims that the first person her daughter sees is Superman. In the next frame, Alice adopts what is distinctly an attitude of prayer to thank her saviour. Her words to Superman seem a bit prayer-like as well "Oh Superman! There's no-one like you in the whole world!"

The final incident in the story is also worth a glance. (Didn't they cram a lot of story into 10 pages in the 50s?) It seems that Alice's father disappeared after the road accident which originally blinded her. "I couldn't look at my little girl's sightless eyes without knowing that I was responsible because I was driving the car!" In fact the crash was caused by a mechanical fault for which he was not to blame. He's been "running away needlessly from his own conscience!" It would be over-subtle to see this as an allusion to the disciples' question to Jesus about the blind man in John's Gospel ("Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?") But it is very, very striking that Superman's actions have not only cured Alice of her blindness, but also cured her father – who is called John, by the way -- of his guilt. It goes without saying that for Christians, the important thing about Jesus wasn't that he cured sick people, but that he told them that their sins were forgiven. Alice's father is briefly suspected of wanting to steal the money which generous Daily Planet readers have donated to help Alice and her mother. This also represents a change in how Alice sees the world "I never realized people were so good."

For anyone who grew up with Stan Lee's melodramatic over-writing, this 1950s Superman is astonishingly simplistic; even naive. There is hardly one word of what you could call dialogue in the whole story: everyone talks in pure exposition and the "Alice in Wonderland" line made me cringe with embarrassment even when I was 10. However, like many superficially naive children's stories, it actually has considerable complexity and emotional depth. We have a character whose literal darkness is the outward representation of an inner darkness – she has no father, her mother is poor,she thinks that there is nothing nice about the world -- all summed up in her disbelief in Superman. Superman heals her, restores her inner light, her family, and makes her see things she never saw before – the beauty of America, the inherent goodness of the human race.

Any relationship between Superman and Jesus is one of resemblance rather than symbolism: Superman, the character, does some of the same kinds of things which Jesus did, with some of the same kinds of results. This seems to me to be more sophisticated and effective than the approach of the movies, which do little more than point up certain supposed similarities between the origin of Superman and religious saviour myths. I think that the religious language that is used in the "healing" scene makes it more than likely that Finger was aware of the overtones of his story. But maybe a half-remembered Sunday School lesson just worked its way onto the page while he was writing against a deadline.

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England.

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The Girl Who Didn't Believe in Superman was written by Bill Finger and drawn by Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye. Superman is copyright DC comics. All quotes and illustrations are used for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copywriter holder.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Would anyone mind if I punched a charity collector on the nose?

Do you remember when cars treated "stop" lights as an instruction, rather than a suggestion?

Yes, I have heard of Childline. They are the ones who hang around shopping malls, hassling people and trying to sell them credit cards.

Do you remember when the only people you ever saw cycling on the pavement were on tricycles?

Yes, I have heard of the WWF; but personally, I think it's all staged. And even if it isn't, I still don't want a credit card.

Do you remember when cyclists tried to avoid pedestrians, as opposed to swearing loudly at pedestrians who don't avoid them?

Last week it was extinct animals, this week it was abused kiddies, next week it will be save the kangaroo, but I still will not want one of your damn credit cards.

I asked a policeman what side of the pavement cyclists are supposed to cycle on, and whether they had to obey traffic lights or not, and he said "Mind how you go, Sir."

"Free broadband forever." The "free" part means "twenty pounds a month" and the "forever" part means "you will wait forever for us to connect you."

There are some stretches of pavement where you don't have to dodge cyclists. These are the stretches occupied by parked cars.

Has anyone ever actually managed to buy a Megabus ticket from Bristol to London for £1?

Or the stretches of pavement occupied by the 143 new kinds of wheelie bin the council has issued us with.

Ticket reservation is compulsory on this service; but if you try to sit in the seat you have reserved, then the person sitting in it will turn up his I-Pod and threaten to knife you.

It said "Haircut for £6" so I said "A couple of inches off all round, leave it over my collar and ears, and brush it forward." He said "That will be £10 in your case." I said "All right, how much will you cut off for £6"

Would you like to donate to Mencap? Do I look mad?

Yes, thank you, as a matter of fact I do have 20p for a cup of coffee. (But if you tell me where you can get a cup of coffee for 20p, I'll give you a quid. Boom boom.)

Would you like to donate to Amensty? Not if you attached electrodes to my genitals.

A female attendant is on duty in this toilet.

Would you like to donate to the RSPCA? La-la-la-I'm-not-listening.

Run of out petrol? No money in your wallet? Need £5 for a taxi. Yes; that seems to happen to people a lot on this street; although I must admit that the mobile phone call to your wife was a nice touch.

The cashier in Tescos chased me down the aisle and out of the shop because I had forgotten my pot of jam; but no one ever mentions it when someone is unexpectedly helpful.

But seriously; would anyone mind if I punched a charity collector on the nose?


This time last year:


Monday, August 07, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

About half way through Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest the cast arrives at the pirate haven of Tortuga. Last time they walked through this town, a group of pirates were dunking a nobleman in a well. This time the same pirates are dunking the same man in the same well. This is just about the only moment at which the film betrays it's Disneyland origins. If Curse of the Black Pearl was a theme park ride, Dead Man's Chest is a computer game.

The film is made up of four or five relatively self-contained units: at times it feels as if we are watching a collection of shorts. The first major sequence – in which Will Turner rescues Jack Sparrow from an island of cannibals – is pretty much a stand-alone adventure. It has beginning (Will arrives on the island); a middle (Will finds Jack) and a satisfactory climax – everyone gets back to the ship with a mob of furious natives at their heels. Similarly, the brilliant central sequence in which Will becomes a sailor on Davy Jones ship (eclectically named the Flying Dutchman) could have been a free-standing sea-faring yarn. The sense of watching a series of different films is increased by the shifts of tone The cannibal island section is played as farce – Jack putting paprika under his armpits before the natives try to cook him and pole vaulting over a cliff with the cooking spit still tied to his back. But the Davy Jones section is very dark indeed: the first thing that Will's long-lost father does is administer a flogging to his son – as an act of mercy. Where the cannibal sequence is full of mad action, the climax of the Flying Dutchman scene is Will dicing for his soul against Davy Jones. (Making the plot turn on such a complex game as Liar's Dice was a very courageous decision, I felt.)

This unconventional structure means that one has no real sense of where one is in the movie. You feel that you have already spent a long time in the cinema when everyone finally converges on the island where the eponymous Dead Man's Chest is buried. There is a dramatic, three-way sword fight for possession of the Chest, which turns into an audacious series of stunts and chases. I think it's rather a pity that so many directors believe that the best way to make a sword-fight exciting is to use CGI to put the protagonists in an unlikely location – as opposed to choreographing a dramatic fight with swords. (I may have previously mentioned The Princess Bride in this context.) But there is no doubt that having Will Turner and ex-commodore Norrington duelling on top of a giant water wheel made for a spectacular set piece. You could have been forgiven for thinking that this would be the Climax of the whole film – but no, the fight on the island is only the prelude to an even bigger climax in which Davy Jones' Kraken finally catches up with the good ship Black Pearl. At the end of this even more enormous special effects set-piece, the first mate says, and I quote, 'We're not out of this yet...' The audience could have been forgiven if, at this point, the phrases 'Good thing' and 'Too much of a' drifted across their minds.

To add to the sense of disorientation, the film doesn't come to any actual conclusion, but ends on a (brilliant) cliff-hanger. The story doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but you carry on watching in order to find out what the next amazing location, stunt, villain or monster is going to be. Dead Man's Chest is very canny about spacing out its revelations: you are a long way into the film before you properly see the Flying Dutchman; you have to wait to the end to get a good look at the Kraken, and there is a final surprise in literally the last frame.

The characters are propelled between the various levels – I'm sorry, the various sub-plots – by a collection of more or less arbitrary magical objects. Rather than being autonomous entities with actual motivations, they ricochet around the Caribbean performing quests and sub-quests imposed on them by other characters. Where Curse of the Black Pearl was driven by a plot device of breath-taking elegance (everyone wants the cursed medallion that Will inherited from his father); Dead Man's Chest piles up the macguffins until you wonder if they are taking the piss. Jack has a picture which leads to a key which opens the chest which contains Davy Jones heart. Will wants Jack's magic compass in order to trade it with the sinister Lord Beckett for Elizabeth's life; Lord Beckett wants the compass because it will lead him to Davy Jones' chest which will give him mastery over the seas. But Will wants to free his father from the curse of Davy Jones, and to do that he must kill Jones by finding the key which opens the box which contains the heart. Lord Beckett has given Will letters of Marque to trade with Jack for the compass which leads to the box; but Norrington (who has lost his honour, as one does) wants the letters of Marque to clear his name.

This could have become wearisome and artificial: but the film is brilliantly aware of its own ludicrousness. Jack's explanations to his crew abut why they need the key that they haven't got to open the chest that they haven't got are brilliantly convoluted. When Norrington, Will and Jack end up in their three-way duel over the magic chest, we get a quick recap by the two comic pirates as to who wants what and why: they are obviously just as confused as we are.

And all the silliness manages to hang off a relatively sensible premise. The person who sends Will off on his quest and who seems to have the upper hand at the end, is the very realistic – or at any rate, deadpan – Lord Beckett, representative of the prosaic East India Company, whose relatively mundane aim is to rid the seas of pirates who are bad for profits. It's quite an achievement when a realistic-romantic story involving stolen letters of marque, girls dressed up as boys, disgraced commodores and a hero who is blackmailed to save his love from the gallows dove-tales quite so seamlessly into one involving voodoo ladies, a Kraken and a ship crewed entirely by crustaceans, but the film seems to carry it off. When Norrington presents Lord Beckett with the still beating heart of Davy Jones, we very largely believe it.

Curse of the Black Pearl exhausted every pirate clich̩ in the book; so Dead Man's Chest invents new ones. It does manage to dredge up a few archetypes that the first film missed Рdigging up a treasure chest; a duel on a beach. And probably the only reason that the Black Pearl has rigging is so that Will can swing in it. He even gets to slide down a sail using a dagger; a stunt first tried out by Douglas Fairbanks. There are some half-hearted attempts to borrow from Treasure Island : the first mate recites 'Fifteen men on a Dead man's chest' without seeming to know that it's a sea shanty. Davy Jones uses a Black Spot to mark Jack for damnation, but it appears to be some kind of dermatological complaint. But most of the time, the film simply makes up its own material. There's no real mythology associated with Davy Jones Locker: like 'Boot Hill', it's not much more than a figure of speech. But here, Jones is imagined as a terrible captain, half-man half-squid, conflated with the Flying Dutchman and possibly the personification of the Sea. The imagery of Davy Jones ship Рcrewed by dead seaman who are gradually turning into fish Рis sensational, much the best thing in the film. Yes, there are times when you feel that the designers have gone slightly insane Рthe ship has a fully equipped pipe organ on board, which Jones plays with his tentacles. But oddly, the Dutchman feels like a real ship Рgrim, sadistic, with a crew of sailors getting by on small amounts of camaraderie Рwhere the Black Pearl ultimately feels like the home of some Lego pirates.

The most unexpected thing about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is that, after all the duels, the bar room brawl, the sea-monster, the cursed ship, the cannibals, and Jack Sparrow's repeated attempts to become Indiana Jones, the denouement of the movie turns out to be entirely character driven. Yes, Orlando Bloom is still the generic hero, a slightly girly Errol Flynn with no personality or motivation apart from his absolute dedication to Elizabeth. Yes, Elizabeth is still simply Will's love interest – even though she somehow manages to become a brilliant swordsperson once she dresses up as a boy. And yes, Jack Sparrow is Jack Sparrow, a classic comic creation or a steaming pile of camp overacting, depending on your point of view. But the film allows us to spend a lot of time in the company of these characters. We get used to them. So when Elizabeth tells Jack that, one day, he will do something good: and Jack tells her that, on the contrary, one day she will do something bad – we realise that these animatronic dummies have over the last six hours, become actual people.

The resolution is genuinely clever. Davy Jones wants Jack Sparrow's soul – you see, even the villains have macguffins – and has sent the Kraken to collect it. Ship in danger; cursed sailor; sea monster: the logical thing is for Jack to do a Jonah and jump overboard. But Jack being Jack this is the one thing that can't happen. So Elizabeth forces him to stay on the ship and face the monster while everyone else leaves; she distracts him with a kiss and then handcuffs him to the mast. So while everyone else believes that Jack has finally done a good deed, we know that in fact, Elizabeth has done a bad one. And Will, having seen the kiss, believes that his true love has betrayed him. The film ends with everyone except Will toasting the dead (yeah, right) Jack: and we realise that this has turned into something rather more than a silly film about an omni-competent action hero who some Ewoks nearly turned into a kebab. Hopefully, the working through of these various misunderstandings will drive the plot of the third part of the trilogy, rather than another treasure hunt for magic power crystals.

Curse of the Black Pearl was far more fun than anyone expected a movie based on a theme park ride to be. Dead Man's Chest was far, far more smart, involving, and enjoyable than any movie that stole its narrative structure from computer games has any right to be. Avast ye!

Saturday, August 05, 2006


What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.

So, Tony Blair has gone mad. This is no great surprise. Politicians go mad during their third term in office. The United States constitution recognises as much. Blair's recent speech to his bosses at News International provides us with a depressing insight into his current state of mind.

Blair says–stop me if you've heard this before–that the old political dichotomy between Left and Right no longer applies.

Most confusingly for modern politicians, many of the policy prescriptions, cross traditional Left/Right lines. Basic values, attitudes to the positive role of Government, social objectives - these still do divide along familiar Party lines. But on policy the cross-dressing is rampant and is a feature of modern politics that will stay. The era of tribal political leadership is over. But across a range of issues, there is no longer a neat filing of policy to the Left or the Right.

This is not exactly news: it's the theory on which New Labour was founded. Although Blair has stopped using the phrase, the concept of the Third Way is central to his thinking. It's the nearest thing he has to a political philosophy. Whatever he is talking about–foreign policy, education, law and order–he invariably says that in the Olden Days there was a debate between two opposing viewpoints; but that he, Tony Blair, discovered that this polarity was redundant, and everybody now agrees with him. In his recent speech in Bristol, Blair claimed that there used to be a difference of opinion between those who thought that you should deal with the social causes of crime and those who thought that you should simply punish criminals.

In retrospect, the argument looks sterile, silly even. New Labour finally arrived at what has now become the conventional position, summed up in the phrase: 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'.

The Third Way isn't moderation–navigating a mid-point between too-far-to-the-Right and too-far-to-the-Left. New Labour is supposed to be a new thing: neither Left, nor Right but somehow a synthesis of both.

Of course, this is nonsense: there is no such thing as a synthesis between two mutually exclusive actions. Blair's Third Way turns out to be a re-packaging of bog-standard centre-right ideology. The synthesis between punishing criminals and dealing with the social causes of crime turns out to be building more prisons and sending more people to jail; the synthesis between nationalisation and privatisation turns out to be, er, privatisation.

So, take a look at Blair's plans to abolish–I'm sorry, did I say abolish? I meant 'reform'–the welfare state. Blair says that 'old fashioned' welfare systems and public services can't bring about social justice.

Today's world means that social justice can only be achieved through education, not regulation; through enterprise flourishing and creating wealth, not being constrained.

But this has nothing to do with 'today's world'. In yesterday's world, there were people who thought that you should deal with poverty by redistributing wealth–taxing the rich and using the money to pay for social security cheques and public services. And people will doubtless continue to believe this in tomorrow's world, and in any parallel worlds Tony Blair chooses to visit. People who believe in this are called 'The Left'. And there always have been, and always will be, people who think that if governments would only stop taking money away from the rich then the rich would build factories, open shops, hire servants and thus create wealth and give jobs to the poor. People who think this are called 'The Right'. Blair thinks that the Right are right and the Left are wrong. You may very well agree with him. But it's nonsense to pretend that something in the Modern Age has changed the nature of the debate. This is the old, old clash between socialists and capitalists, and Blair knows very well which side he's on.

Oh: and he also says that 'fairness, equality, opportunity for all' are 'good progressive values' but that although 'the values are constant, their application has to be dynamic.' But hang on -- aren't 'values' supposed to be the one area where people are still divided along traditional party lines? So if, as a loyal Labour party supporter, Tony believes in the socialist Values of Fairness, Equality and Opportunity, does that mean that he thinks that they are the kind of values which the Conservative Party rejects?

Proclaiming a consensus where none actually exists is a classic tactic to disenfranchise the opposition. If 'everyone agrees' that the argument between the Left and the Right is over, then it follows that anyone putting forward a Left-wing position can be ignored. They're not exactly wrong; they're merely camped out in the jungle fighting enemies who don't exist any more. Tony Benn, George Galloway, about two-thirds of the Labour Party and myself are thus discovered to be un-persons. When Blair says that politics is no longer divided between the Left and the Right, he means that the Left, in the person of the Honourable Member for Sedgefield, has rolled over and died. Which is presumably why he has travelled all the way to California in order to ritually kiss the bottom of the most Right-wing newspaper magnate the world has ever known.

The argument between the Left and the Right was an argument between two intellectually plausible positions. People became Socialists or Conservatives as a result of an intellectual process. Michael Foot used to meet up with Barbara Castle and other friends in order to study the writings of Karl Marx together–not something which you can really imagine Gordon Brown and John Prescott doing. It was therefore possible for both sides to engage in an intellectual debate; and even for a genuine consensus to emerge. If we both want a socialist utopia, then we can discuss whether this would be better achieved by incrementally increasing workers rights, or by storming the gates of Buckingham Palace. And you can challenge us about whether the workers would be happier under Socialism than under a prosperous Capitalist system. In the meantime, we can work together to provide free health care for poor people.

But according to Blair, this Left versus Right debate has been superseded by–I promise I'm not making this up–a debate between Open and Closed. The three most important debates in European politics are about protectionism, isolationism and 'nativism', which Blair defines as 'relating to immigration and national identity.'

In each case the issue is: 'Open or Closed'. The response to globalisation can be free trade, open markets, investment in the means of competition: education, science, technology. Or it can be protectionism, tariffs, tight labour market regulation, resistance to foreign takeovers.

Countries can choose foreign policies that are engaged and activist, seeking to sort out the world's problems; or try to avoid their problems; refrain from controversy or picking sides, isolating a nation from the pain of the hurly-burly of the world's challenges, but also from the opportunity to shape their outcome.

And not a major country anywhere is not riven by the debate on migration: do we welcome it as infusing new blood and ideas; or do we fear it as undermining our identity?

It isn't immediately obvious what the views which Blair has labelled as Open and those he has labelled as Closed have in common. Surely you could support a non-interventionist ('Closed') foreign policy, but a liberal ('Open') immigration policy? And what would inform your decision about whether to be Open or Closed in a particular instance? Not, says Blair any kind of political theory or ideology:

Where leaders stand on these issues has little to do with being on the Left or the Right but everything to do with modern or traditional attitudes to a changing world.

But in Blairspeak 'modern' means good and 'traditional' means bad, so to say that 'traditional' people support the Closed position is simply to say that the Closed position is wrong. Closed people are against education, science and technology; they don't want to sort out the world's problems; they don't like new ideas. Left vs Right was a debate between two credible positions. Open vs Closed is a row between the obviously right and the obviously wrong. It's an argument between nice and nasty, sensible and silly, modern and old fashioned–which, by a staggering coincidence, turns out to mean 'between those who agree with Tony Blair, and everyone else.'

Blair is absolutely explicit here: the Closed half of the debate has absolutely no merit and nothing to offer:

In this battle - 'Open versus Closed' - those on the 'Open' side of the argument will meet fierce opposition. Yet the 'Closed' side of the argument in truth has nothing to offer a nation except the delusion that the tide of change can be turned back; or alternatively a weaker version of the same delusion, namely that hard choices can just be evaded.

He references his 1999 conference speech, in which he labelled his enemies 'the forces of conservatism'. This was, he says, widely misunderstood: he wasn't attacking the Conservative party, but small-c conservatives who opposed change. Of course, anything a government does involves changing something. If you oppose a particular change, you are, by definition, a conservative. To say that the 'forces of conservatism' are the baddies is perilously close to saying 'change is always good; to oppose change is always bad'. But how is this different from saying 'whatever the government does–whatever I, Tony Blair do–is right'?

If you opposed the war in Iraq, it follows that you support isolationism and that you don't want to sort out the worlds problems. You feel this way because you are Closed; which means that, as the result of a delusion, you hold 'traditional' views of the world. You are part of the forces of conservatism; a baddy. It follows that we don't have to listen to anything you say: indeed, as Leaders, our job is not to engage in a debate with Closed people, but to simply press on, resolutely, with what we know is right.

But how do we leaders know what is right? Not through conventional religion or morality. Both Tony Blair and George Bush have drawn some fire for saying that they think that God influences their decisions. It is slightly too easy to lampoon Bush's folksy religious language: when someone from the evangelical tradition says 'I feel that God told me to do this' they probably only mean 'I feel that I did what was right'. Whatever you may have read in the Guardian, neither Blair nor Bush have ever suggested that a supernatural being appeared unto them and said 'Invade Iraq!' or 'Expand the provision of nursery school places for the under-3s!'

However, if you suggest to Tony that he acted reprehensibly in the run-up to the Iraq war, his response is to assert that he sincerely believes that what he did was right; although he accepts that other people believe, equally sincerely, that he was wrong. 'Beliefs' seem to be something like birthmarks or allergies; you have them, you're stuck with them; but you certainly can't change them through rational discourse. When asked about how the Iraq war related to his religious faith, Blair didn't try to prove that what he did was correct according to the precepts of the Bible or the writings of Christian holy men. He certainly didn't pay much attention to what the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope thought. He simply said that he believed his actions would some day be judged by God.

Some people might think that the way to find out if an action is 'good' or 'bad' is to see if it follows some agreed set of rules: the Bible, the Koran, the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, the Boy Scout Law. But Blair thinks that his actions were good because he was experiencing a subjective emotional state called 'sincerity' at the time. And he trusts that in the future they will be declared to have been good according to a set of ineffable divine criteria. Only Tony Blair knows whether he really was sincere or not; only God knows what will happen on Judgement Day. So if you aren't Tony Blair or God, you had better shut up.

The present speech doesn't mention God, thank God. But it does say that Tony Blair's foreign policy is right because Tony Blair feels that it is right:

My anxiety over foreign policy is not in relation to the debate about terrorism or security. I have many opponents on the subject: but complete inner-confidence in the analysis of the struggle we face.

And what to do when those pesky Closed people suggest that it's possible that, even if you are very, very confident indeed, you might still be wrong?

The world changes fast; the policy changes necessary to cope are hugely challenging; opposition from traditionalists is immense. In these conditions, political leaders have to back their instinct and lead.

'Back your instinct.' Well of course. With ideology abolished, and with 'God' appearing to be synonymous with 'my own conscience' all you can do is follow your instinct; your gut feeling. And gut-feeling, unlike Das Kapital, isn't something that you can argue with. I like Marmite. Look, you know, I just happen to sincerely believe that Marmite is delicious. I have an inner-confidence about that. I accept that you sincerely believe that Marmite is disgusting. But there is no way that I can prove to you that you are wrong. We'll just have to wait until the Day of Judgement and let God sort it out.

In the meantime, if you are a leader, just do whatever comes into your head. In fact, do the first thing which comes into your head, because 'caution is error, to hesitate is to lose'. It doesn't necessarily matter what you do, provided you do something. 'Back you instincts, and lead.' Being a leader is an end in itself–not necessarily a leader of anything; not the spokesman of a party or the representative of an electorate, but just a leader.

For a leader, don't let your ego be carried away by the praise or your spirit diminished by the criticism and look on each with a very searching eye. But for heaven's sake, above all else, lead.

'For heaven's sake, lead.' The real distinction is not between Open and Closed. It's between Us, the Leaders, and you, the Led. Our function is to follow our gut-instinct; you're function is to follow us. The direction doesn't particularly matter.

So. For the next few months, we are going to being ruled by a raving lunatic who thinks that the basis of political decision making is 'whatever Tony feels like at the time.' But this is not the problem. The problem is that after a brief interregnum, David Cameron is going to be exactly the same.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Asexual Pride

"....and I think in the same way there are things that men can read which can send out signals, I think, which are deeply unattractive to women."

"Such as?"

"Well, sci-fi and fantasy. I think if you're the sort of man who's reading one of those lurid books with sort of triple breasted amazonian women on the front cover and inside it's all about swords and sorcery and so on then I think what you're communicating to any woman is that you're still an adolescent"

"Unless the woman is into that kind of thing, of course, I mean, it's possible"

"It is, it is, but I have friends who love that sort of stuff and many of them are still looking for women who are also similarly interested in that particular subculture. "

"Stick your nose in a book and you could find love. How the right book can find you the right partner." Today, BBC Radio 4, August 1st