Thursday, December 13, 2012

(warning: stayed up very late last night listening to folk music, got on coach very early this morning to travel oop north to visit friends, godchildren, dogs, etc and, incidentally, listen to folk music; consumed coffee and far too many Pro Points worth of sugary snack in cafe with wifi connection. may possibly be shooting from the hip slightly more than is traditional.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter

Appendix


Well, it's obviously a mess, but.

There is a famous story about a Catholic and a Jew who wanted to get married. The local Priest didn't think Catholic boys should marry Jews, and the local Rabbi certainly didn't think that Jewish girls should marry anyone other than Jews. However, the local Vicar thought that it was his job to marry anyone in his parish who wanted to get married, regardless of their faith, so he married them. 

Anyone who ever read the Dandy knows that the longest word in the English language isn't "antidisestablishmentarianism", it's "smiles".

Some Anglican clergy have genuine, sincere, theological beliefs that marriage is something which can only occur between a man and a woman. I realize that territorial battle lines have been drawn, and you either have to see these people as martyrs or homophobes, when they are mostly neither. The point isn't whether they are right, the point is that it's really what they think.

It is very easy to write a law which says "so far as the state is concerned, marriage is now between any two people regardless of sex, but naturally, the Seventh Day Adventists and the Wesleyan Holiness people don't have to marry two men if they don't want to, any more than they have to marry two people who they don't think are sufficiently Wesleyan, sufficiently Holy or sufficiently Adventurous." The state has no interest in what ceremonies are performed by particular sects. 

But it is very difficult for the law to say "marriage is now between any two people, but individual clergy of the established church don't have to marry two ladies if they don't want" because the whole point of the established church is that it will marry anybody, christen anybody, and bury anybody who asks them do. (It prefers that the parents of the people it christens so some signs of understanding the Anglican teaching on baptism, and that the people it buries are dead.) 

So, as someone with some background in games design, the proposed law which says that any sect is free to conduct same sex weddings if they want to, no sect has to conduct same sex weddings if it doesn't want to, and the established church isn't allowed to even if it does want to is actually a brilliant manoeuvre  given that the rules of the game are where they are. If we didn't have establishment, then the situation wouldn't arise, but we do, and we're stuck with it, because Dave and Ed and Nick love basking in the reflected glory of the Queen, and any suggestion that we might change the Queen's job description would be denounced as treason by the people who really run the country (Murdoch and Dacre.)

It's still a mess, though. I still think we should go for the Hamlet option...

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Book Review

Unapologetic 
by Francis Spufford
I am old enough and uncool to have sung "I serve a risen Saviour" without any sense of irony. (Irony not being something which Methodist youth groups named Sunday Session are known for.) You remember the one: 

“He lives! 
He lives! 
Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me! 
He talks with me! 
Along life’s narrow way!
He lives! 
He lives! 
Salvation to impart! 
You ask me how I know he lives?
He lives…!
Within…!
My heart…!”

I recall a (male) speaker at my college Christian Union taking issue with the song, pointing out that it invited the response “You ask me how I know he doesn't live? He doesn't live within my heart.” Had you asked St Paul how he knew Jesus lived, he suggested, he would have replied “He lives because a massive great stone was moved away from his tomb, and five hundred people actually saw him, go and ask them, they’re still alive.”  Which wouldn't have scanned.

Christian Unionists insisted on Christianity being historically based; objectively true; a God Who Acts in History; not a dead hero but a risen saviour, the Resurrection is the best attested event in history. Once you have memorized Who Moved The Stone? and can confidently show why it is impossible that Jesus Swooned On The Cross; The Disciples Moved The Body; or The Women Went to the Wrong Tomb then you've established the literal truth of Christianity with geometrical certainty. I wonder what they would make of this book?

In one sense, Francis Spufford is making an even weaker claim than "he lives within my heart". 

"I don’t know whether there is (a God). And neither do you and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins and neither does anyone. It not being, as mentioned before, a knowable item. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if He’s there…"

Which does, I suppose, invite the Village Atheist to respond "I don't know whether there is a God either. But it doesn't feel as if there is one, and so it makes sense..." I doubt that he would have got even that far, actually: he knows in advance that nothing exists except "knowable items", and that "not being a knowable item" is the same as not existing. 

But that's what makes this book such a refreshing read. The New Atheists say that there is No Evidence and that you should just stop worrying and enjoy your life. The Evangelicals say that there jolly well is Evidence That Demands A Verdict and that you should take on the Atheists on their home turf.  (That rarely ends well.) Spufford sort of admits that there isn't, in that sense, any evidence, and that all he has got to go on is a feeling, and then has a pretty good stab at saying what that feeling is like and why it's the kind of feeling which makes the whole "evidence" thing seem pretty unimportant. 

Some parts of his description work better than others. He's rather more convincing about Jesus than he is about God, as you might expect, and he gets a bit stuck on the problem of evil. Even Old Atheists might lose patience with his lack of answers. How does he know there's a God? He doesn't. There may well not be. If there is a God, why is the world so obviously horrible? He doesn't know, but when you've come a certain distance in believing in God, it seems to stop mattering. Did the story of Jesus actually happen? "Well, I don't know. I think it did. Miracles, resurrection and all. But I don't know." What about all the terrible things the Church has done? Well, a lot of that's true: but on the plus side, there's Holy Communion. 

It's an exaggeration to say that nothing like Unapologetic has been attempted before: it's recognizably a spiritual autobiography, and in it's jaunty, witty, four-letter-word-including way it follows the trajectory of a lot of spiritual autobiographies: becoming conscious of sin; calling out to God; encountering Jesus; coming to the foot of the Cross. ("Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners" might have done nicely as a subtitle although "Why Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense" looks more snappy in Waterstones.) But spiritual autobiography normally forces psycho-spiritual experiences through the sieve of theological language (because that's what that language has been developed to talk about) or else turns them into allegories (because making up concrete symbols for things you can't otherwise describe is what allegory is for.) I can't off hand think of another book written from the point of view of the man in the pew trying to be as honest as possible about how (rather than what or why) he believes.  

It's very entertaining: a lot of the fun is in the digressions, where he wanders off the point to talk about John Lennon or the gnostic scriptures or the wealth of the Church of England. There are some terrific footnotes. He has a direct, engaging, funny style, full of pointed analogies, direct addresses to the reader and very long sentences. 

He gets in some good hits at deserving targets:

"In fact the're something truly devoted about the way that Dawkinsites manage to extract a stimulating hobby from the thought of other people's belief......some of them even contrive to feel oppressed by the Church of England , which is not easy to do. It must take a deft delicacy at operating on a tiny scale, like doing needlepoint, or playing Subbuteo, or fitting a whole model-railway layout into an attaché case."

This is good, crowd pleasing stuff (always depending on who is in the crowd) but when he gets into serious argument, Spufford can be very nuanced. Take this passage, talking about the popular myth which says that if only you can cast off the taboos and rules which are preventing you from being yourself, you'll become truly happy, stop worrying and enjoy your life:

"Like all potent myths it has a large amount of truth in it. Over the last fifty years we really have been escaping, as a culture, from a set of cruel and constricting rules, particularly about sexuality and gender roles which (yes) did have the sanction of religion behind them. (Not that religion caused those rules to exist, on the whole. There was a malignant cultural consensus in their favour, of which religion was a part."

I suspect that that kind of honest good sense — Christianity was involved with the Bad Thing, but it didn't cause the Bad Thing and it doesn't follow that if you just took Christianity away the Bad Things would go away as well — is likely to irritate both sides. You can just imagine the Village Atheist howling "So you are trying to MAKE excuses for the Church's HOMOPHOBIA, are you, you obviously AGREE with it" while the evangelical would want a more robust defence. His chapter on the Church ("the international league of the guilty") is one of the best things in the book: rejecting out of hand the Sixth form Religion-Causes-All-Wars canard, but painstakingly going through all the specifically bad things that the church has specifically caused (anti-Semitism, body-hating asceticism, fear of hell) and looking at how they came about.  (Twistings of the message in most cases, but it was always part of the nature of the message that it could be twisted in those particular ways.) Very few axes seem to be being ground. He doesn't seem to be translating pre-conceived theology into journalism-speak. He really seems to be saying what he actually feels, whether or not it is going to support his case.

At times, his style makes me uncomfortable -- embarrassed, even. Because he’s trying to talk about faith from the inside, he’s necessarily telling us about his most personal feelings. In his opening pages, talking about how Christianity is regarded, outside of the Dawkins bubble, as not so much wrong or evil as tragically uncool, he remarks that “we get down on our actual knees” and something in me said “Do we? I mean, of course we do. But I wish you hadn't mentioned it.” Maybe the shifts between the jokes and the piety sometimes happen too quickly; maybe a book which refers to original sin as "the human propensity to fuck things up" needs some hand signals before doing a right turn into churchgoers being engaged in “the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us…as if we were all precious beyond price…” It’s like that cringe when the biology teacher shifts without warning from the reproductive organs of frogs to masturbation. A clash of register. But that may well be just the reaction he’s aiming for. 

The thrust of his argument is thusly. The Human Propensity To Fuck Things Up is a given; we all have the experience of waking in the night realizing that we have messed up our lives, though our own choices and that’s not pathological but a fact about what it is to be human. (Sin is “what flying a plane into a skyscraper has in common with persecuting the fat kid with zits” - bravo!) This can bring you to a point where you “turn to the space in which there is quite possibly no-one” and cry out “Hello? A little help in here, please?” and usually get no answer. I almost wish he’d left it there, and said that faith is precisely that: calling out to the empty space and not getting an answer. Noble Christian existentialism: I think that was probably what Kierkergaad believed in. 

Greatly to his credit, he doesn't do this, but instead gives us a rather awkward chapter about sitting quietly in church and just feeling that there is something real and loving underlying the universe. ("Behind, beyond, beneath all solid things there seems to be solidity.") Again, to his credit, he doesn't attempt the the manoeuvre that some Quakers, Hindus and Archbishops would attempt — that the feelings you experience in the silence are what is real, and “God” is simply a name we give to those feelings. He thinks that his experience of "bog standard transcendence" is a feeling about something: it sometimes feels as if God is there because he is. 

He admits that it's this experience of God which creates the "problem" of evil, because without the sense of a loving thing behind the universe, there isn't a problem, there's just stuff. He gives the standard theological solutions to the problem pretty short shrift: I was particularly pleased with his idea of the Eden story as a "cut out or circuit breaker (between) God and a derelict creation", and he's surely right to say that the story tries to have it both ways "We're fallen because of our HPtFtU; we have the HPtFtU because we're, um, fallen". But I think I have enough faith in Tradition to think that a story which has scriptural backing can’t be quite so easily rejected out of hand.  (A hypothetical Martian reader could, I think, get to the end of this book without realizing that the Hebrew scriptures were part of the book which Christians call the Bible, although his imaginative description of first century Judaism in the Jesus chapter is excellent.) If I felt slightly uneasy with his conclusion — that there is no answer to the problem of evil, but that most Christians find that it doesn't matter, they can still hold on to the thing they experienced in the quiet in church regardless of the obvious horrible stuff in the world — then I imagine that it would make the Village Atheist chuck the book across the room in disgust. But again, it’s the honesty which makes it such uneasy reading. And the fact that I think he’s probably right.

The impossibility of solving the problem of evil is preliminary to his quite brilliant chapter about Jesus, who he de-familiarizes as "Yeshua". I can see this chapter being taken out of context and used as devotional Easter-time reading for many years to come. I don't know if it's specifically intended as a riposte to Phillip Pullman's feeble book about the two Jesuses, but it feels as it could be: a novelistic synthesis of the gospels, at times very traditional (he seems to conflate Mary Magdalene and the woman taken in adultery) and at other times wittily iconoclastic:

"So tell me, teacher, says a solid citizen, as the remains of the baked eggplant are cleared away what must I do to be saved? Yeshua's gaze slides across the tapestries, the silver bowls for washing guests' feet, the candlestick blessed by the Chief Priest of the temple himself. I'd get rid of this lot for a start, he says."

I think he even allows Yeshua to say "fuck" at one point, although he doesn't put it in quotation marks. 

"This is the story that we have instead of an argument" he says -- meaning an argument which solves the problem of evil -- "and it is important that it is a story, making a story-like sense". In "The Child That Books Built" he used the expression "story-like sense" to gloss the argument that Tolkien famously made to his atheist friend Jack Lewis that Christianity was "a myth that really happened". Spufford mentions that Lewis's mad/bad/god trilemma is one of the all-time classic bad arguments; but no-one who has read the earlier book will be surprised to learn that his Yeshua sounds an awful lot like Aslan.  

I assume that everyone will take him at his word that the feelings he's describing are feelings that he has really had, and that they really are the source of his beliefs. ("It’s the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feeling; I don’t have the feelings because I've assented to the ideas.”) You’d have to be a very uncharitable Dawkinsbot to read this kind of book and say “Oh, don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes: you really believe in an old chap with a beard who made the world in seven days and all this subjectivity stuff is just spin-doctoring." But he's specific enough about what he does feel and what he does believe that no-one is going to go the other extreme and say that he's replaced God with a vague, mushy, spiritual mood. 

He comes out as a fairly mainstream C of E believer. The Yeshua of his story is definitely God; the miracles and the resurrection are an important part of that story; Yeshua's death really was to save us from sin. He avoids the language of punishment and retribution, talking instead in terms of  Yeshua sort of sucking in all the guilt for the bad things we've actually done. At one point it sounds as if he thinks that nearly the whole point of the Church is Holy Communion, and he doesn't quite commit himself on which side of the miracle / symbol line he comes down. He may not be a fully-fledged Alpha Course evangelical, but he's a traditional enough Christian that Giles Fraser would probably denounce him as a death-cultist.

He says that he think the life of Yeshua was all about mending and forgiving broken people in the here and now and that he doesn't really think in terms of heaven. While I agree that the whole "watching and waiting, looking above" otherworldliness is unhelpful, and that Yeshua did have a lot of awkward things to say about this-worldly social justice, I think the whole story is seriously compromised if you don't think it leads, in the end, out of this world into a different one. I also think Spufford is a little optimistic to say that Hell has been abolished, except for a few extremists. Probably no-one sensible still thinks of Hell in terms of an eternal step on which God is going to make the naughty sit for ever and ever (that would, he rightly says "make God himself a torturer") but the idea that the HPtFtU is such that some people will not let Jesus mend then and are going to carry their fuck-ups into eternity is pretty widespread, and I think, pretty important. (It's hard to avoid the fact that the New Testament puts passages about God's judgement into the mouth of Jesus himself. I'm also, incidentally, not quite convinced that Jesus' relative silence on sexuality means that he didn't think that what we did in bed really mattered, or that his absolutism about divorce should be read as proto-feminism.) 

It isn't quite clear whether Spufford thinks that what are universal human feelings have, for him, flowed into the shape of Christian orthodoxy because he happens to live in a Christian culture; or whether he thinks that the twin facts of guilt and transcendence necessarily add up to the Christ-story, or something a lot like it. 

It's hard to know who the book is aimed at. Atheists almost certainly won't read it. (The first chapter was published in the Guardian, and the on-line comments from "New" Atheists ranged from bafflement to simple rage.) Christians, both of the old style evangelical mould and the new style Giles Fraser social gospel type, may feel that he's divorced Christianity from reality, immunized it from criticism and therefore made it pointless. (The real thing is not about how you feel: it's either about the objective fact that you were objectively going to an objective hell and now you are objectively going to live forever in an objectively real heaven; or else it's a social programme about not picking on the fat kid and erecting tents outside St Pauls Cathedral.) 

But I think its going to prove to have been a genuinely important book. Many of us read Dawkins and Hitchens and say "Well, what you say is sort of right, but it isn't really the point." Spufford has done a pretty good job of articulating what the point is. The idea of the book, the whole concept of "a defence of Christian emotions" is what's important. If you "get" what he's trying to do, then he's probably made his point, even if you don't in the end think he succeeds. Maybe some serious theologians and philosophers and (most importantly) saints will get to work on the book and say that faith has to have some objective elements as well as some purely subjective ones. But the book will have still been worth writing. What's important is that he's attempted the journey, even if you can't go with him right to the end of the road. 

Friday, November 09, 2012

Letter from WC I (3)

Gotterdammerung
Covent Garden



In one respect, the Ring is a lot like Star Wars.

Wagner wrote a single opera called Siegfried. He realized it was too long, so he split it in half (Young Siegfried; Siegfried's Death). Then he realized that he needed a prequel to explain the back-story And, like George Lucas, Wagner's understanding of the plot and the characters changed during the writing process, so the early episodes are a good deal more complex than the later ones. We have to work quite hard to convince ourselves that the pantomime Dark Lord in Episode IV is the same character as the flawed Chosen One of Episode I. We have to work almost as hard to make ourselves believe that the favoured daughter of Wotan, we meet in Valkyrie, the personification of the All-Father's will is the same character as the vengeful ice-queen in Gotterdamerung.


The loose ends never really get tied up. Gotterdamerung is more primitive — more like an opera — than either Siegfried or the Valkyrie. It has a chorus. It has a silly plot involving a love potion. It has a revenge trio. Am I the only person ever to spot that the elaborate revenge plot in Act II makes no difference whatsoever to the final outcome? Brunhilde, Hagen and Gunther agree to kill Siegfried during a hunting trip; but then Hagen stabs him in the back and immediately admits that this is what he has done. He might as well have just stabbed him when he first saw him. (Their original plan is to make it look like an accident for the benefit of Gutrune, who has just married him, but they forget about this during the interval. They were probably also drinking cocktails.) Have all the shenanigan of Acts I and II really just been to generate a situation in which Brunhilde will reveal Siegfried;s Achilles heel to the villains? (It turns out that he is indestructible from the front but vulnerable from the rear "because he would never turn his back on an enemy". I believe that in the original legend Brunhilde guides Hagen's Spear into Siegfried's Achilles-Spot-Just- Below-The-Left-Shoulder blade. I recall even less distinctly that the sympathetic villain in Maharbarat has an Achilles Bottom, which causes endless problems because the hero is too chivalrous to strike below the belt.) Chunks of the libretto of Acts 1 and 2 feel like one of those bad Dungeons and Dragons games where the GM desperately tries to retrofit the scenario to the mythology. Brunhilde suddenly remembers that, despite having been de-Valkyried at the end Valkyrie, still has "magical powers" inherited from Erda; and that she has, without telling anybody, cast magic indestructibility spells on Siegfried. On the other hand she seems to have completely forgotten all the hours of exposition that she went through with Wotan. She knows what the significance of the Ring is — yet when Siegfried hands it to her she seems to regard it as important only as a token of love. (Are we being asked to believe that when Wotan sends her to sleep he also has her memory erased? But then how does she know who Siegfried Help!)

There is also, in the Ring as in Star Wars, a problem about the passage of time. So far as I can see, it takes Siegfried a matter of hours to get from the dragon's cave to Brunhilde's rock, and he sets out on new adventures after one ecstatic night of love with his new bride. Siegfried's Rhine Journey must take a few days at the most. But by Act III of Gotterdamerung, the slaying of the dragon has become an event which took place in the hero's youth. When he says that he hasn't talked to any birds recently, does he really mean "since yesterday afternoon."

"There you are, Andrew" I hear you saying "That is why it was much better in the olden days when we used to listen to Wagner without surtitles. We understood that the music tells the story of the universe from creation to apocalypse, starting and ending with that undulating B flat buzz; and as long as we couldn't understand them we could pretend that the words must be saying something very profound indeed. (It also meant that we could treat Tristan as a love story and ignore all that Buddhist shit.) If you insist on listening to a running translation of the lyrics you can't complain if they turn out to be tosh."

Well, up to a point. It is true that there are sections of the work which don't make sense once you understand them, it is also true that once you know what is going on, you discover that the opera is full of significance and connections and subtleties that you hadn’t noticed before.

For example. Act I of Gotterdamerung is very long. Very, very long. Longer, as everybody knows, than a complete performance of La Boheme. And there is no doubt that it can feel like a bit of a marathon. Scene two sets up the climax — Siegfried is going to climb up the mountain and awaken Brunhilde all over again. But before you get to that pay-off, you have to go through a long (and very beautiful) musical interlude and a long (and very powerful) scene in which Brunhilde is visited by another Valkyrie.

Wagner loves to embed back-story in narrative: even he can't put the whole of Norse mythology on the stage, so he engineers sections in which Wotan, Waltraute (the Other Valkyrie) or the three Norns tell us about the creation of the world and the cutting of Wotan's spear from the World Ash Tree. The narrative of Waltraute is very powerful indeed. Wotan is, she explains, still sitting on his throne in Valhalla with the broken fragments of the spear on his knees, waiting for the universe to come to and end. She tells Brunhilde that he is saying that the end of the gods could be averted if only she will return the Ring to the Rhine-maidens

Brunhilde says no: she's not giving away Siegfried's wedding present no matter who asks her too. What she actually says — I've never noticed this before — is "I will not renounce love". She would have to renounce love in order to return the ring; Alberich had to renounce love to steal the ring in the first place. The music agrees: the two scenes are parallel. Thematically and philosophically and musically it all hangs together wonderfully. But you do rather need to know what she is singing about.

People who'd rather not have surtitles are as silly as people who'd rather have a concert performance or just listen to it on the wireless. 

(Except…why is Wotan asking her to return the ring to the Rhine? I thought the whole point was that he has accepted and was positively seeking, oblivion and the end of the gods? Help.)

There is, by the way, nothing more surreal than a men's lavatory in the interval of an opera. Lots of men, all in their extremely smart tuxes, standing alongside each other doing what they came into the lavatory to do, and all humming different bits of the opera while they go about it.

Once again, the most memorable scenes in the production are the most minimal. Hagen stabs Siegfried in the not-invulnerable back and kills him. There follows two of the most beautiful bits of music in the Ring, and therefore anywhere. First Siegfried's death itself; the harp notes of him dying are precisely the same as those we heard when Brunhilde woke up. And then, of course, the mighty Funeral March which is arguably what the whole sixteen hours have been building up to, thumping out all the motifs, with that huge explosion of brass in the middle. (Don't bother to listen to it if you haven't been to the opera: it doesn't work out of context, any more than the Mona Lisa's smile works out of the context of her face.)

The script says that during the funeral march, Hagen’s vassals come and carry Siegfried back to the castle. This production simply left him dead on the stage, picked out by a spotlight and left the music to do the work. Just when we thought that nothing was going to happen at all, we realize that Wotan (presumably not Bryn Himself) has come in and is standing over the body of his dead grandson, paying his respects. That’s it. Astonishingly powerful. And, of course, it was powerful precisely because the simple empty stage was such a contrast to the relatively crowded imagery of much of the rest of the cycle.

There were other powerful ideas. At the beginning of Act II, Alberich appears in Hagen's dream, floating above him in a boat, the same boat in which he approached the Rhine-maidens on Friday night. (Siegfried finds the remains of the boat on the banks of the Rhine at beginning of Act III.) The Tarnhelm has been represented as a transparent perspex cube throughout: when Siegfried arrives at the Gibiching castle, the whole stage has become a cube; as if he is somehow inside the helmet. (Opera-buddy spotted that the glass of one of the windows was cracked, and the Tarnhelm was cracked in exactly the same place.) Act I ends with Siegfried using the helmet to take on the form of Gunther, and going back up the mountain to woo Brunhilde all over again on Gunther's behalf. (The love potion means that he's forgotten her and fallen in love with Gutrune, Gunther's sister. Please try to keep up.) This usually means we see Siegfried but have to imagine that Brunhilde sees Gunther. Tonight, the wooing/abduction/rape was acted by Gunther, while Siegfried stood on the stage, wearing the helmet, and delivering his lines. This may have been the cleverest invention of the whole cycle: it was easier to understand, more dramatic and less silly than the standard staging. (Oh, and Hagen — John Tomlinson again — remains on stage as a malevolent reminder of who's in charge for the whole of the second half of the act.)

Years ago, I saw a version of Pygmalion in which introduced Bernard Shaw as a character, reading out his own impossible stage directions. Has anyone ever tried to do the Ring on a bare stage, with the text of Wagner’s descriptions projected as text or read out as a commentary? It would be fair to say that his instructions for Act III of Gotterdamerung are literal unperformable. 

From the ruins of the fallen hall, the men and women, in the greatest agitation, look on the growing firelight in the heavens. As this at length glows with the greatest brightness, the interior of Walhall is seen, in which the gods and heroes sit assembled, as in Waltraute's description in the first act. Bright flames appear to seize on the hall of the gods. As the gods become entirely hidden by the flames, the curtain falls.

The producer claims, however, that tonight’s production found some stage action to represent virtually everything which Wagner describes. I can will believe this.

In Act II, huge golden statues of the gods from Rhinegold dominate the stage. (This makes a lot of sense, since the act actually ends with sacrifices being made to Fricka to celebrate the marriages of Siegfried and Gutrune and Gunther and Brunhilde. Instead of taking oaths on the point of Hagen's spear, they take oaths on Wotan's spear, which Hagen has taken down from the statue for the purpose) In Act III, the dead Siegfried is wrapped in a shroud, like a mummy, and Brunhilde embarks on her monumentally epic Immolation aria, in which she decides that the resolution to all dramatic, theological and philosophical problems that have developed in the story up to this point is to throw herself onto Siegfried's funeral pyre. Typically for this production, she puts a lot of light and shade into the final solo; she's particularly convincing and dramatic in the bit when she says that Siegfried was both the most faithful, and the least faithful of lovers. (The scene where poor Gutrune realises that she was never married to Siegfried at all is also carried off with unusual sympathy and drama.) Considering the pyrotechnics we've had on Brunhilde's rocks and Mime's forge, it's not surprise that the funeral pyre is done with real fire, sprouting from both the Rhine and from the arches (possibly representing DNA) which have been cropping up since Day 1.

But the really inspired bit was that the long-suffering vassals also carry the four golden statues from Act II back onto the stage and then dropped them into the Rhine, where they burned impressively. So while we don’t actually get to see Valhalla going up in flames (we never, ever do) we do very much get to see the Twilight of the Gods. (Didn’t Wagner’s mate Freddy write a book called Twilight of the Idols?)

This spectacles didn't completely swamp out the joy of the Rhine-maidens finally getting their ring back; although we felt that when Brunhilde jumped into the river (as opposed to riding on to the pyre) it felt slightly bathetic, as if the immolation had turned out to be a dip in the pool.

The very very final image had the double-helix-archy-things rising up out of the Rhine, now formed into a circle (or, indeed, as you might say, a ring) with a previously unseen and unidentified youth sitting on them. I assume that this represented Rebirth or the Triumph of Youth or Birth of a New Society or something. Tomorrow belongs to me. (This was possibly the one point in the whole week when I felt that the part of my brain that said What are they doing? What does this mean? destracted the rest of my brain from listening to the actual music.)

I am told that this is the first production in Covent Garden history where, during the final curtain call, the orchestra comes onto the stage and got, naturally and justifiably, the only actual standing ovation of the week.

Bravo.

Groß Glück und Heil lacht nun dem Rhein,

Whoot whoot.

It may, however, now be that I have seen enough Wagner for one year.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Letter From WC 1 (II)

Siegfried
Covent Garden



The English National Opera (the less snooty wing of the London Opera Scene) is currently engaged in a risible “undress for the opera” advertising campaign. Opera is now a democratic art form, open to everyone prepared to spend £800 on a ticket, regardless of whether or not they can afford a dinner jacket.

This might have made sense 50 years ago when there may have been people who wanted to go to the opera, could afford to go to the opera, but didn't think that they'd would feel comfortable at the opera among all the people in posh suits. It makes no sense at all in the democratic twenty-teens when the very rich wear jeans and the very poor wear…well, jeans. It’s a bit like one of those religious campaigns that says “Come to Church! You might like it! We no longer burn heretics at the stake! We have black people and everything!”

Covent Garden is posher, more expensive and more traditional than the English National, but the dress code was very democratic. I did three nights in coloured waistcoat and one night in D.J and didn't feel either over or under-dressed on either occasion There weren't that many penguin suits, actually; although some of the ladies had dressed up. There were men in business suits, men in tee-shirts; a lady in an impressive turban; a young lad of fifteen in a grey suit enthusiastically explaining the finer points of the plot to a long-suffering middle-aged lady companion. Very little evidence of "Corporate Jollies": everyone around us seemed to be keen and enthusiastic Wagnerians. The man in front of us spent the interval studying the libretto. The man next to us had never been to a Ring before and was reading the synopses after the acts finished so as not to spoil it. He told us that he was "all pumped up" before Act III of Gotterdamerung to find out how it came out. 

Covent Garden gave us decent length intervals: around 30 or 40 minutes after Acts 1 and 80 or 90 after Acts 2. There were singletons reading big thick books; groups who had pre-booked the sit-down dinner (we were impressed with the numbers of Lords and Sirs on the reservation list); people who had brought sensible hampers of smoked salmon sandwiches and bubbly and eccentrics who were laying out tablecloths and jars of HP Sauce and Helmans Real  Mayonnaise. I hear that a large number of people beat a course to Zizis Pizza over the road, who carefully laid on timed interval reservations. Opera-buddy and I ate at a Very English Pub before Act I and spent the intervals leaning on the swish bar drinking champagne cocktails that were not quite as expensive as you might have expected under the circumstances.

This is what Wagner meant by gesamtkunstwerk, I suppose. There were no bratwurst to be had, not even for ready money.

Dinner Jacket is the British English for "Sidewalk". May I apologize about a decade late to the person who thought my reviews of  English National Opera Ring were going to be about Brian Eno performing classical music. 

Wagner has a tendency to drive producers crazy, but I am happy to report that some of the prettiest and most powerful moments of the week were the simplest and therefore the bravest. The Great Big Revolving Wall from Valkyrie reprised its role as Brunhilde's rock and all purpose stage-symbol in Siegfried. It tilted on its side and rotated during Wotan’s confrontation with Erda at the beginning of Act 3: Bryn Himself sure-footedly walking around it in the opposite direction while continuing to sing. (Possibly an over-literal interpretation of Erda’s line "wild und kraus kreist die Welt!" ("wild and askew rotates the world") but it worked. Erda herself materialises in her armchair from Rheingold, floating in mid-air. By the end of the scene, we've worked out that it’s actually perched on a big black column, but that doesn't stop the initial effect from being striking.

It has reverted to being a vertical wall for Scene 2, where Wotan does the "No Luke, I am your father" thing with Siegfried. Flames are projected on it while Siegfried is passing through the magical fire on top of the rock. Slightly oddly, Siegfried's finding of Brunhilde is mostly mimed; with Siegfried saying "look, there’s a horse" and "a man in armour, shall I take off his helmet" to empty air. Presumably this was to stop the audience from laughing when Siegfried takes off Brunhilde's breast plate and cries out "This is not a man!" They laughed anyway.  But it also meant that the first we saw of Brunhilde is at "Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!" when she steps through the door in the rotating wall, light streaming behind her; a nice image. She and Siegfried don’t attempt to play the Dreadful Quarter Hours in the love duet as drama: it makes far more sense for them to talk about how they feel the seas raging fire when their blood surges towards them directly at the audience.

Siegfried has to brave Wotan’s spear-point before he can ascend the mountain to Brunhilde. (Opera-buddy and I agree that this is a bit of the opera that just doesn't make sense: if he's already guaranteed that only the Noblest Hero of All will wake her up, why guarantee the destruction of the gods by also standing guard himself?) Tonight, he  put his spear across the door in the rotating wall, so Siegfried has to physically break it to pass: a very cool image. 

But the most striking image of the third evening is Bryn Himself standing in front of the Revolving Wall holding the two broken pieces of the spear. That's the last we see of Wotan (more or less) and, without any dramaturgical jiggery pokery: it sums up the whole plot of the opera so far. The power of the gods, represented by Wotan’s spear, is over. Wotan has been destroyed by the contradiction in his own being: he has finally created a hero who is independent of the gods, but that hero has (by definition) to destroy him. "Pass on! I cannot prevent you!" The music doesn’t say that Wotan has lost, but that he's won. Or at any rate, that he’s cool about losing. Very possibly it's a Buddhist thang about true being being being non being, or, come to that, a Christian metaphor about the only true messiah being the one who denies his divinity.

Bryn Himself is magnificent throughout. He’s gone from the slightly capricious "Percy, who’s All-Father?" deity of Rhiengold, through the tortured, self-doubting father of Valkyrie, to achieve a godlike serenity in Siegfried: he’s achieved the true divine dignity now he knows that his time is over and he has to be overpowered by his (grand)son. Bryn’s subtle acting is a joy to watch. The "riddles" scene in Act I (when Wotan and Mime spend 20 minutes telling each other things they already know for the benefit of the audience) can be a musical hurdle that you have to get over before the macho magnificence of the sword forging. Bryn Terfel and Gerhard Siegel make it both funny and dramatic; Wotan listening intently to Mime’s questions and nodding to himself when he is confident he knows the answer; tying Mime up and casually pouring petrol over him when the latter fails to answer the third question. 

Opera-buddy and I once again agreed that we didn’t quite understand what Wotan is up to in this scene: if only Nothung can kill the dragon and only Siegfried can forge Nothung, isn't Wotan cheating, yet again, by giving Mime this crucial fact? And did Mime really need to be told — wouldn't Siegfried eventually have done it for himself anyway?

At first, I thought that Stefan Vinke did not have a sufficiently powerful voice for Siegfried. But it grew on me as Act I dragged on, and I was totally won over by the Very Famous Sword Forging Scene (shamelessly ripped off from the scene which Tolkien left out.) He had great nuance, great characterisation, and pulled off the humour pretty well. This was an easy going, nonchalant Siegfried. I wasn't convinced that I was going to like having the Woodbird played on stage by a singer (rather than being a special effect voiced from the orchestra pit.) We first meet her peeking out, like a cherub, from the hyper romantic painted blue sky during the "forest murmurs", dangling a paper bird over Siegfried on a piece of string. I understood why the set suddenly had astroturf grass and warm green lighting — to contrast the pastoral interlude with the dark grim scenes with Mime and the Dragon. But wheeling on stuffed animals when Siegfried starts wondering whether his mother’s eyes were as soft as a roe-dear was, shall we say, a Production Idea Too Far. When Siegfried gets a lick of the magic Dragon's Blood of Birdtalking, the singer comes down from the roof and runs round the stage. There’s a nice running gag about Siegfried forgetting things. The Word-bird beckons him playfully to come and find the fiery mountain where there is a magical companion, and Siegfried runs after her, and then runs back to pick up the Tarnhelm. Which is also a nice piece of characterisation: Siegfried’s power and freedom depend on the fact that he has powerful magic items like the Ring of Universe Ruling and the Magic Helmet of Shape-shifting, Invisibility and Teleportation and doesn't actually care. A bit like that Tom Bombadil, in fact.

Neither ether Opera-buddy nor I quite knew why there was a great aeroplane in the middle of Mime's forge, although there has been Propeller Imagery throughout the opera. I wondered if we were being asked to imagine that Sieglinde and her baby had somehow been flying from Wotan in a plane and crashed in the forest? It didn't matter, though. An aircraft hanger, with tools and vices and blowtorches, is as good a place as any to forge the Perfect Sword. My one quarrel with Phylida Llloyds English National production was that she said that she found the forge scene to be too testosterone-soaked, and toned it town a little. It seems to me that when you are the Noblest Hero of All and the Man Who Has Never Learned To Fear, you are allowed to be a little bit macho. Here it was shown in all its mechanical details. He grinds it, he splinters it, he blow torches it, he plunges it in water, he sharpens it, he brandishes it; and he cries "Hi-ho, hi-ho" and "hi-ho-ho-ho".

Mime is sufficiently smarmy and unpleasant (we see him beating the child Siegfried during the overture) that the Perfect Hero mostly avoids coming off as nasty Aryan bully when he kills him. I even forgave them the man in the teddy bear suit.

“Schau, Mime, du Schmied: so schneidet Siegfrieds Schwert!” Or words to that effect. 

viii






Sunday, November 04, 2012

Letter From WC1

Das Rhiengold
Die Walkurie
Covent Garden


There is never, ever an encore at an English opera — Jonathan Miller wouldn’t even allow them to encore Three Little Maids in Mikado. But still, opera audiences shout out “MORE!”. Even at the end of Wagner operas where they have arguably had quite a lot already. I have resolved never to shout “MORE!” but to replace my customary folk-whoop with a more restrained Covent Garden “BRAVO!” 



John Tomlinson got distinctly the biggest ovation at the end of Valkyrie. People not only shouted MORE and BRAVO, they also stamped their feet. It says something about the production that such a beloved performer is handling one of the supporting roles. The last time they staged the Ring, Bryn Himself became temporarily indisposed and John Tomlinson stepped in and did Wotan. Tonight he is doing Hunding. That means that Bryn Himself gets to kill him at the end of Act II. So This Generation’s Wotan is killing the Last Generation’s Wotan. (He’s back on Friday as Hagan in Gotterdammerang.)


I am happy to say that the production keeps the symbolism of the sword in place. Some producers have Siegmund throwing his sword down so he can screw Sieglinde on the castle floor, where clearly they are are supposed to go out into the feminine forest holding the symbol of his manhood aloft. 



This is, indeed, a production which is refreshingly free from Ideas. Some of the newspapers are still saying that you should watch it with your eyes closed in case the imagery distracts you from the music, but that’s because they get music critics to write about Wagner, and Wagner isn’t really music, he’s theater. The best description is “abstract”: Hunding’s homestead has a marble table with a backdrop of flowery wall paper. There are lots of ladders and walkways for people to interact with. There is an extractor fan hanging from Hunding’s ceiling and there is a propeller projected on the curtain at the beginning of the Ride of the Valkyrie. One of the items of the Nibelung’s magic treasure seems to be a metal aeroplane. 

But everything seems to be in the service of actually telling the story. This isn’t one of those evenings when the producer has worked out his own story and decided to ignore Wagner’s. There is some invented business, but it almost always makes sense. At the end of Act II, after Siegmund and Hunding are both dead, Fricka (Sarah Connolly) comes and stands in menacing silhouette at the back of the stage, looking at the havoc her principled objection to brother-sister incest has created. 

I could have done without the gigantic sword hanging from the ceiling during “Walse! Walse! Wo ist dein scwert?”. With the best will in the world, it makes you wonder if someone is going to shout out “It’s behind you!” But the symbolic pulling of the sword from the tree works very nicely indeed; Siegmund stands with a perfectly normal sized sword suspended above him, and it drops magically into his hand for “Heraus aus der Scheide zu mir! ”. ("Come forth from thy scabbard to me!” I am afraid I first got to know Wagner on the Reginald Goodale recordings, and I still think of the rather feeble Andrew Porter translation as the Proper Words. There is no doubt that Wagner sounds better in German, and its perfectly possible to follow the story with surtitles.) Everyone is in dramatically stitched together fur coats. When we first see Wotan in Rheingold, he’s carrying an rough wooden staff as if he hasn’t got around to making a spear yet. But when they take their coats off, they’ve got standard issue Edwardian opera costumes on underneath. One could almost feel we have reached a point when “Edwardian” is theater short hand for “Time Period: Legendary”. Donner and Froh are wearing silk dressing gowns, possibly intended to suggest prize-fighters, but Donner has a proper big hammer. (I though his invocation of the hammer was the only musical disappointment of the first night: not quite loud or loud enough.)A shower of petals fall on Sieglinde for “winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond” ( “winter storms have vanished at spring’s command!”) 

John Tomlinson has an astonishing clarity for the bass villain Hunding. He comes across as more the wronged husband, less the horn helmeted thug than he sometimes does. (Not that he’s above violently kissing Sieglinde when he comes in from a hard days pillaging and violently telling her to make dinner.) He doesn’t quite chew the scenery, but I think he is doing slightly more crowd-pleasing old school opera acting than Bryn Terfel. But that’s because Bryn’s sctick is under acting and in a sense, under singing. It’s a marathon rather than a sprint: the Ring is Wotan’s story, even though he isn’t in Gotterdamerang. He is both the mythological king of the gods and a metaphor for God and a husband and father and grandpa; a combination of music, libretto and “acting, darling” has to convince has that Wotan’s trajectory makes sense. Where Hunding is a comic opera villain and Alberich is a stage in an argument, Wotan is a character with the kind of complexity and ambiguity of Hamlet. In Rheingold, he is still, to a great extent, enjoying being God. We see him playing chess with Fricka; and he’s very calm about having agreed to hand her sister over to the giants in return for their building Valhalla. The giants are not very giant, although we first see them as huge shadows on the back of the stage, but they are very monstrous: Fasolt wears a tall Isenbard Kingdom Brunell top hat, but when he takes it off, reveals a high Mekon-like forehead underneath. Fafner is more of a workman, but rather than being just a brutal kidnapper, seems actually affectionate to Freia and quite sad when he has to give her up in return for Infinite Wealth. There are nice moments when Wotan casually grabs Donner’s hammer-arm in mid-tantrum as if to make the point that whatever else is going on, he is the Father of the Gods and we shouldn’t forget it. 

Scene 3 of Rhiengold (in which Wotan and Loge go down to Nibelheim to steal the Ring from the Dwarves) was the only section which left us perplexed. The Nibelung caves seem to have become a dissection laboratory, or a mad scientist’s lair. Mime dances with a dead body at one point, and Alberich distinctly sexually molests one. Opera-buddy noticed that the corpse had been dressed up to look like one of the Rhine-maidens, so it may have been adding an element of Thanatos Alberich’s giving up of love in return for Infinite Wealth. 

The Tarnhelm (the Magic Helmet of Invisibility, Shapeshifting and Teleportation) is tonight a big perspex cube; possibly designed by Dr Rubik. The shape shifting special effects are great fun: the "dragon", in keeping with the Frankenstein imagery, is a gigantic zombie, with a huge head at the back of the stage and gigantic arms coming down from the sides.

Rheingold is meant to finish with the gods walking across the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla; this production finished with Wotan jumping down a hole, presumably because he is going to spend the period between Rhiengold and Walkurie producing mortal children and leaving swords in ash trees. There is a nice motif running through the production of a red rope, which characters climb up and down, connecting the realms of the gods and and the realm of mortals. 

Brunhilde (Susan Bullock) is not as boyish as she sometimes is; she’s very small (Bryn Himself is very tall); almost puppyish as she bounces around one of the obligatory ladders in Valhalla and the All-Father playfully slaps her backside with his spear. (Yes, I also spotted the safety harness.) I didn’t think that she managed to numinous and scary when she appear to tell Siegmund that he’s going to die and go to Valhalla, but there’s an obvious and immediate connection with Sieglinde which convinces us that she’d be prepared to defy Wotan over this mortal woman. (Is Brunhilde simply defending an innocent woman and her baby against Wotan’s unreasonable wrath? Or is the point that, in ensuring that Siegfried will be born, she’s still carrying out Wotan’s wishes against his will? In the Dreadful Quarter Hour during which Wotan explains the back-story, he keeps saying that Brunhilde is his will, that in telling her all his secrets he’s only telling them to himself. How literally does Wagner want us to take this?) 

Act III of Valkyrie contains quite a famous tune. The Valkyries come across more as Greek furies than as ladies with horns on the helmets. They mime riding, holding horses skulls in front of them. They bring in dismembered heroes which look like lumps of meat, and cast spells which make their spirits ascend to Valhalla, via the magic of back-projection. But its the following scene, which which Wagner obviously ripped off from Peter Jackson, in which Brunhilde gives Sieglinde the shattered fragments of Siegmund's magic sword to pass on to her baby when he grows up, which is my single favourite moment in the Ring and therefore in anything. “He will forget them anew and someday wield the sword”, she explains. It’s moments like this which explain why Wagner has to be so long and such hard work: the drama depends on the blaring out of the sword-motif that we last heard two hours ago when Siegmund pulled the sword out of the tree (and first heard, oddly, back in Valhalla when Wotan was about to step onto the rainbow bridge) and are going to be hearing again tomorrow. 

The final confrontation between Wotan and Brunhilde manages to clear away a lot of the crowded junk which has been accumulating on the stage; there is a single huge revolving wall with a single door in it, which Wotan keeps rotating. In the final moments he sends her to sleep and carries her through the door; the whole thing rotates and we find her delicately asleep on an old-fashioned chaise-long. The programme notes suggest that the two big arches (which have been appearing on staqe in various guises since Wednesday) represent the double helix. I am not quite sure about this; or at any rate I am not quite sure that this matters. What we’re all paying attention to is Wotan calling on Loge; and Bryn calmly hold magic fire in the palm of his hand; and the final beautiful image in which real flames ignite along the two arches.

Wagner intended the Ring to be a spectacle even if (by all accounts) early productions could be rather like Victorian pantomimes. While there were a few moments which made us scratch our heads, it was the simple beauty of the spectacle which carries the day. Magic fire in the music. Real fire on the stage.

MORE! MORE!

Please see Other Blog http://www.folkbuddies.blogspot.co.uk/ for this months batch of music reviews: Nic Jones, Nancy Kerr/James Fagan, Robin & Bina Williamson, Faustus and Don McLean.

Copies of Once Upon a Time Third Edition should be arriving in game shops any day now. Remember, it's the un-autographed copies which are the valuable ones.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

I'm still alive. Quite likely to write something about something before too long. I'm sure by now you've all been to the Other Blog and read the album reviews. If all 495-730 of you went and had a look at Brian's new on-line guide to coffee it would make him very happy. In fact I'm sure he'd buy every one of you a latte the next time he sees you.

Dylan's awfully good, isn't he?

Monday, September 17, 2012

But in the meantime:

Lawrence Miles has written the best thing that has ever been written about Doctor Who, starting here. I only mildly want to kill him because it is quite close to and better than a thing I have been wanting to do for a while. It is wrong in many particulars, but criticism doesn't have to be right, only interesting.

The sad, inspiring, infuriating tale of Cerebus the Aardvark has taken so many twists and turns in the last month that I start to wonder if Dave is actually a person at all, but rather a sort of virtual construct in a meta-novel. The series of on-line interviews starting here  make fascinating depressing reading. Mostly sane, though, as if we've got Old Dave back. ("I'm a very orthodox religious person, although I wouldn't be in the eyes of most religious people". That word; you use it all the time. I don't think it means what you think it means.)

Very shortly, I will still be a game designer again. 

For all those waiting for some feedback on Doctor Who, you should be warned than an elderly American man has just released a gramophone record with some songs on it. If you are interested in finding out what I would be like if I was brief, some of my stuff is on the Sci-Fi Now website.  (I believe that you can get it on your I-Tablet-Thing if that's you thing.) 

I've been enjoying Gerard Jones book on the origins of comic books. Very perceptive on the difference between Superman and Bat-Man. And he uncovers a genuinely jaw-dropping biographical fact about Jerry Siegel. (At least, I hadn't heard it before.) 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

At risk of turning this Blog into the Tom Paxton fan site, today would be an excellent day to listen to this song again.


I think it must be one of the four or five genuinely great "authored" folk-songs of all time. (*)

There is absolutely no excuse for The Marvellous Toy.

P.S

(*) Grand Coulee Dam, Masters of War, The World Turned Upside Down, Hollow Point, maybe?

Saturday, September 01, 2012

One Man Must Choose....


Superman didn't have any humble beginnings. Superman ate fire and shit ice from the git-go.
Dave Sim




Sea lapping on the shore. A washing line. A white-washed house, with a seagull flying overhead. A fishing boat putting out to sea: emphasis on a young, bearded sea-man. A photo album; a child running around at a birthday party. Bearded chap walking along a desolate road with a backpack, hitch hiking. Sunset. A butterfly. Child by washing line playing with a red sheet. Clouds.

What kind of a film is the Man of Steel trailer promoting? What story is it telling? What would you make of it if you didn't know what it was about -- if you had never heard of Superman? (It's a film about fishing and underwear, right?) What do the images have to do with the human figure we see flying through the air like a rocket in the final seconds? Before answering that question, it's worth glancing back at the teaser trailer which promoted the original Christopher Reeve Superman movie, more thatn 30 years ago.




Swirly red clouds; a figure that we can hardly see in the sunset; a portentius voice-over and an extended cast list. It doesn't contain one single clip from the movie, and gives virtually no hints about the plot. But it does give a rather patronisng run-down of the history of the character:

"He began, not as flesh and blood, but as a simple line drawing.

His comic strip has thrilled millions around the world.

The magic of radio gave to his name a breathless signature and sound. 

Then with television came a whole new generation to idolize his exploits. 

Today at last his evolution is complete. 

Brought to life by the awseome technology of film and by an extraordinary cast of stars...

Until now his incredible adventures have been beyond the power of any known medium to realise...

He has come of age. 

Our age."

Fairly clearly, in 1978 studios were still jumpy about the whole idea of making a film about a superhero. The trailer was establishing the film's credentials and trying to give it some gravitas. This isn't a film of a comic book – this is a film about a character who happened, many years ago, to have started out in a comic book. Comics, radio and TV were just the embryonic stages which allowed this film to come into being. It pointedly shows us stills of the A list cast, but doesn't give us a good look at Christopher Reeve in his tights. The title of the film was not Superman but Superman: The Movie. Movies are very important things. Superman is a part of American folklore which the movies – sorry "the greatest creative and technical minds in the motion picture industry" are going to take very seriously indeed." 

The poster campaign betrayed a similar caution: no image of Superman, just that stylized logo, and the phrase "You'll believe a man can fly." Movie posters were doing a lot of teasing that year. All we knew of Alien was the glowy egg and the phrase "In space, no-one can hear you scream". Star Trek – sorry Star Trek Ther Motion Picture -- had some very blurry images of Kirk, Spock and a bald lady and the very jittery tag line "There is no comparison." (Between the TV series and the movie? Or between Star Trek and that new thing George Lucas had just put out?)




The full length 1978 trailer is also quite interesting. It amounts to a summary of Act I of the movie – from the destruction of Krypton to Chris Reeve's arrival at the Fortress of Solitude – which is itself simply an expansion of the one page origin of Superman from Action Comics #1 and elsewhere. "Doomed planet; desperate scientists; last hope; kindly couple" as the fellow said. A voice over – sounding this time like someone narrating a school science programme - tells us what is going on, in case it isn't clear from the pictures:

"Once there was a civilisation much like ours, but with a greater intelligence, greater powers and a greater capacity for good. 

In one tragic moment, that world was destroyed, but there was one survivor. 

Because of the wisdom and compassion of Jor-El, because he knew the human race had the capactiy for goodness, he sent us his only son. 

His name is Kal-El. 

He will call himself Clark Kent. 

But the world will know him as Superman."

This is not, in fact, very far removed from the classic intro which everybody remembers from the TV and radio versions:

"Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! 

Look! Up in the sky...It's a bird...it's a plane...it's SUPERMAN. 

Strange visitor from another planet who ho came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. 

SUPERMAN who can change the course of mighty rivers; bend steel with his bare hands and who disguised as Clark Kent, mild mannered reporter for the Daily Planet fights a never ending battle for truth and justice."

"Truth and justice" was, of course, changed to "Truth, justice and the American way" during World War II and for the TV series. Earlier, the job description had been "defender of law and order, mighty champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice". Even earlier it had been simply "champion of the weak and the oppressed."

In that 1940s opening, the point of Superman is that he is Superman – that he has fantastic powers and goes on amazing adventures. His extraterrestrial origins are mentioned almost in parenthesis, as an explanation of his powers. He's the champion of a cause: he believes in something – truth, justice, America, equality, standing up for the little guy. The best adventures of Radio Superman are indeed the ones where he defends his aggressively liberal beliefs, warning us that the real threat to America isn't the atom bomb but prejudice and intolerance: "Whenever you meet up with anyone who is trying to cause trouble between people—anyone who tries to tell you that a man can't be a good citizen because of his religious beliefs—you can be sure that troublemaker is a rotten citzen himself and an inhuman being."

In 1979 the unique selling point of Superman was that he was alien and that he was good -- and, incidentally, the he could fly. The spiel takes his tragic origin as a starting point, as if that was the most interesting thing about him. There is a very clumsy Christ allegory – we are told that Marlon Brando so loved that he sent us his only son, while the Supertoddler is holding out his arms in a cruciform pose (and, incidentally, unapologetically displaying his Willy of Steel. Would you get away with a naked child in a modern film, much less a modern trailer?) But the point is that Superman, because of his alien heritage, is gooder than us. That is his superpower. And, indeed, the film drew both humour and drama from setting Superman's morality and Clerk Kent's naivety against the worldly cynicism of Lois Lane and Perry White.

Now, the 21st century reboot involves a different kind of sell. We already know that movies can be adapted from comic books. In fact, it is sometimes hard to remember a time when movies were adapted from anything else. Journalists, granted, have not yet heard about Christopher Nolan, Tim Burton or even Frank Miller, but the rest of us know that superheroes are not necessarily for kids -- we're probably watching the trailer in the middle of a very long, very serious treatment of the fellow who lives in a cave and dresses up as a bat. (Holy Reboot!) We don't need a teaser which tells us who The Man of Steel is or convinces us that a film about him isn't a ridiculous proposition. We need one that tells us why, in a world which already has the Avengers and Thor and the X-Men and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles and Judge Dredd and Peppa Pig we should care, particularly, about a fellow who can change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel with his bare hands.

"Show, don't tell" is a good rule, but you can take it to excess. The trailer is aimed firmly at those of us who can be relied on to draw inferences from very small hints. The 1978 trailer told us absoluely everything; this one tells us nothing and shows us very little. It's evasive tone (the camera doesn't point directly at anything) positively encourages over-interpretation. Is that washing line a sly hint that this Superman will not wear his underpants outside his tights? Are we meant to look at the seagull and think "Is it a bird?"? The trailer's only really striking image, of a small child standing with his hands on his hips with a red blanket round his shoulders only makes sense if you already know the iconography of the comic book. Which (partly as a result of the 1979 movie) pretty much everybody does.

Do the images add up to anything? Presumably the man with the beard who is hitchiking somewhere and travelling somewhere by boat is the same person as the little kid with the washing line. Maybe Beardy is remembering when he was Kid, or Kid is looking forward to being Beardy. So we can assemble a sot of narrative: "This is a story of a little boy who grew up to be a man with beard who left his home and family, went on a journey". What has that got to do with Superman?

The trailer is, I think, intended to remind us of the scene from Superman Ther Movie in which (right after his father's funeral) Clark Kent leaves Smallville and heads North, guided, so far as we can tell, by the crystal which was salvaged from his space ship. When he gets to the North Pole, the crystal grows into a Fortress of Solitude. In the comic book, the Fortess was nothing more than a secret base where Superman hangs out, does experiments and keeps souvineers of the old country. Here it has became a Kryptonian temple where Marlon Brando reveals the secrets of his origins and his destiny.

Not insignificantly, the first question Clark / Superman / Kal-El asks his father is "Who am I?"

Why has this relatively minor element in the Chrisopher Reeve movie -- which doesn't really feature in any other version of the mythos -- been singled out and presented as the whole of Man of Steel – or at any rate, the only part of Man of Steel which we are prepared to talk about at this stage? Mr Snyder has fixed on it because it is the one place where Superman goes on a journey? A sort of kind of quest in which Clark Kent finds out who he is?

Trailers can be misleading. The trailer for the Amazing Spider-Man implied that the film movie would be all about Peter Parker finding out what happened to his parents and in doing so discovering the truth about himself. In the trailer, Curt Connors asks Parker "Do you have any idea what you are?" This scene isn't in the film. In the trailer a Mysterious Figure who will turn out to be Norman Osborn asks Connor whether Spider-Man has worked out the Great Secret about his family. That scene is in the film, but only in the closing credits, as a teaser to the next film. (Is this the first time we've ever seen a post-cred in the trailer?) Hardly any of the Parents of Peter Parker stuff makes it into the movie, which is a pretty faithful conglomeration of the Ditko-Lee origin of Spider-Man, the Ditko-Lee Lizard storyline with a dollop of the Lee-Romita George Stacy storyline worked in for good measure. But someone evidently decided that the story could only be sold to us as Spider-Man's quest to discover his identity -- because that's the only story that there is. In the final scene of the movie, Peter Parker's English teacher tells him this in so many words. "We're sometimes told that there are only ten stories in the world. But there's really only one: who am I" (*) At least since Mr Keating, school teachers have had a very bad habit of offering kids homespun philosophy rather than Lit. Crit. (The fictitious Prof. Lewis in Shadowlands asks an undergraduate to comment on the proposition that "we read to find out that we are not alone", rather than, say, Anglo-Saxon vowel shifts.) We've seen how Joseph Campbell's relatively complex map of the various hero myths was reduced to Vogler's silly diagram of the One True Story. There is something positively Orwellian about seeing Vogler's diagram further reduced to the single, meaningless phrase "Who Am I?"

The Man of Steel teaser also has a voice-over, which helps us understand what the pictures mean. It's not the voice of a generic story-teller, like the 1978 trailer, nor of a cultural historian, like the '78 teaser, not of breakfast cereal salesman, like the radio version. It's a character, presumably Jonathan Kent, speaking from inside the story:

"You're not just anyone. 

One day you're going to have to make a choice. 

You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. 

Whoever that man is, good character or bad, he's going to change the world."

Now, I can be reasonably moved when Bud Collyer tells me that everyone is an American regardless of what colour their skin is or what kind of church they choose to go to. But I have to say that I find this stuff makes me want to puke. It harkens back, indirectly, to the Christopher Reeve movie, in which Superman's human father has a little heart to heart with him just before his own heart gives out. Clark wants to know why he has to keep his powers secret – why can't use them to be a great football star, for example? "One thing I do know, son" explains superdad "and that is you are here for a reason. I don't know whose reason, or what the reason is. Maybe.... But I do know one thing. It's not to score touchdowns." That in turns, points right back to Superman #1, in which the hero's character depended on the upbringing which his adoptive parents had given him. "This great strength" says his father "You've got to hide it from people, or they'll be scared of you." "But when the proper time comes you must use it to assist humanity" adds mother Mary. Their passing away "greatly grieves him", but strengthens his resolve "to turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind". That's really all that's necessary. Superman's an immigrant, but he's truly an American because he was raised with American values. Mario Puzo's allegorical Superman, who's strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure, is rather less interesting. Glen Ford is really just telling Christopher Reeve is that he doesn't have a choice: his path is laid out by God, Fate, Marlon Brando or the Script. It's his job to be the hero because that's what the Plot requires of him.

In fact, both Christopher Reeve movies do involve moral choices. The first film ends with him going against Jor El's instructions and using his powers to reverse time and alter history. The idea seems to be that this failure makes him in some way even more heroic than he was before: a humanist Messiah who's transcended Fate or God or Father or Plot – a true Nietzschen ubermensch. The second film has him giving up his mission to marry, or at any rate go to bed with, Lois Lane -- the oldest dilemma in the book. (Oh to be torn twixt love and duty!) But these aren't decisions about whether to be a hero: these are the kinds of decisions that you would expect a hero has to make.

Superman III and Superman IV don't count, obviously.

The Man of Steel teaser seems to be going out of its way to avoid both versions of supermorality. This Superman is not good by virtue of being Kryptonian; he's not good by virtue of having an American upbringing; and he's not characterized by his strong beliefs in justice and equality. At any rate, not yet. We are being asked to imagine that the really interesting question is whether he will decide to be a hero -- at any rate, the prospect of seeing him make that choice is supposed to get us all fired up about the movie.

"Gee. I wonder what I will do. Should I turn my titanic strength into channels that will benefit humanity? Or into channels that will harm it? Or shall I just stay home and do nothing?" It sometimes seems like Hollywood sees morality as one of those computer where you get different power ups depending on whether you choose the dark side or the light side.

There is nothing wrong with films about heroes who have to make choices. Of course there isn't. It would be a terribly boring story if there weren't some choices to be made. Han Solo is very definitely a baddie in Act I of Star Wars -- I don't know if you've ever spotted this, but he shoots Greedo before Greedo has even had a chance to go for his gun -- but in the final scene he chooses to stop being selfish and join the rebellion. Luke Skywalker hesitates before joining Ben Kenobi's journey to Aladeraan because he feels a sense of responsibility to his adoptive parents. (Oh to be torn twixt love and duty, again.) But no-one ever set up "one man must choose" as the be-all and end-all of Star Wars. It's one of the things which happens along the way. The Empire Strikes Back is widely regarded as a more sophisticated film than Star Wars because the choice which Luke Skywalker has to make is actually quite a difficult one -- between long and short term goals, between saving Han and defeating the Empire – and because he arguably makes the wrong choice, and because that wrong choice is the one that most of us would have made in his situation.

But when "one man must choose" between good and evil, or between being the hero and not being the hero, the choice is rarely very interesting and usually self-evident. Aragorn knows that the Plot says that he is going to be King but because of Heroic Self Doubt he has "turned away from that path." He hasn't really, of course: how can he have done, when we already know that the third movie is called Return of the King.The whole of the first Narnia movie turns on Peter, who knows that there is a crown and a throne with his name on it (literally) at Cair Parevel saying over and over again "I am not a hero, this is not my fight" when everyone already knows that he is and it is.

"You have but one choice" says Elrond in Jackson's Lord of the Rings. One wishes that Merry or someone could have replied "In that case, it's not a choice."

We could blame all this on Joseph Campbell. I often do. Campbell makes "refusal of the quest" one of the things which may happen in the class of stories called Hero Myths. Vogler made it an essential part of every Hero's Journey (and thought that the Hero's Journey is the only story which can ever be told.) Hollywood has progressively made it the whole road-map. We might concede that reluctant heroes are more attractive than very willing ones. We like the idea that Neil Armstrong didn't particularly want to go to the moon and didn't enjoy the adulation that he had when he came back to earth. Jim Hacker knows that he should not admit that he has ambitions to become Prime Minister, but that he went into politics to serve his country and if someone persuaded him that the best way he could serve his country was as Prime Minister , well, then of course....

What is most nauseating is the way in which the "you" of the voice-over isn't just Clark Kent, it's you. It's what every Daddy might say to every Son. We all have to decide who we are. To a lessor or greater extent, that decision has the capacity to change the world. Every story has to be about how Superman or Batman or Spider-Man or Conan or Solomon Kane or Sinbad the Sailor chose to become hereos to make the point that we can all be heroes if we want to be. We are all Superman.

Except that we're not. Really, we're not. That's why we like Superman so much. Because he is faster than a speeding bullet, and we're not. Because he can leap tall buildings in a single bound, and we can't. Because he stands up for the weak and the oppressed, and we're weak and oppressed and would quite like someone to stand up for us. (It can hardly be said too often that the whole idea of Superheroes was thought up by Jewish People in the 1930s.) Superman doesn't have to choose whether to have a good character or a bad character. What part of "superhero" don't you understand?

Yes, stories can be told about the reluctant Everyman hero. But that's not the only story, whatever Peter Parker's English teacher thinks. Superman is much more like the classic Western hero. He rides into town. He saves Everyman and Everywoman and Every Cute Red Headed Kid With Freckles and then he rides out. Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White are about the only three constants in every retelling of the Superman story. They are the Everypeople though whose eyes we see the amazing person in the red cloak.

Sam Gamgee had it right, didn't he? The heroes of stories are, by definition, the ones who made the right choices, because the ones who made the wrong choices never get stories written about them.

"Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually -- their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on -- and not all to a good end, mind you."

He might, I suppose, have added that a good storyteller might want to point out, from time to time, the moments at which the hero might have turned away from his path, or to occasionally contrast him with someone who did. (Tolkien contrasts Frodo with Fatty Bolger and the Knights of Rohan with the hillmen who weren't brave enough to ride with them to the final battle.) But it seems as if someone has decided that "the moment at which the hero decides whether to turn back or not" is all that any story can ever be about. 

And that isn't just wrong: it's boring.

(*) I believe the usual figure is actually six: rags to riches, riches to rags, boy meets girl, boy leaves girl, someone learns lesson, someone fails to learn lesson.




Thank you to Greg Gerrand for commissioning this piece.