Monday, December 21, 2015

someone requested context....

On Monday, I placed two apples in the fruit bowl on my desk. 

On Tuesday, I placed two more apples in the same fruit bowl on my desk.

When I went back on Wednesday, I found that there were three apples there. 

“What ho!” I cried “Someone has been eating my apples!”

“Poor Andrew” said my Rational friend. “He thinks that two plus two equals three. And yet he still manages to hold down a job.” 


If I announce that no-one wearing a turban is allowed to join my club; and if the only people who wear turbans are Sikhs and the overwhelming majority of Sikhs are Punjabi and Punjabis have brown skin, then my “no turbans” rule amounts to a “no brown people” rule even though turbans are not a race. 

If the “no turbans” policy met with the widespread and enthusiastic support of people who don't think that foreigners ought to be allowed in the country to start with, and who aren't quite sure whether brown people should be allowed anywhere, my theory that the no-turbans policy is racist would be confirmed.


There is a catastrophically unfunny movie called "Life With Bells On” about an Englishman who travels to America to teach the locals to Morris Dance. The Californian dancers (rather offensively represented as gay) have replaced the wooden sticks used in English country dancing with special carbon fiber rods.

There is very good English folk-song called “My Son John” about a soldier who goes off to fight in the Napoleonic wars and comes back on crutches. (It’s known elsewhere as Mrs McGrath.) Martin Carthy updated the lyrics so that they refer to the Gulf War. The line about the crutches is changed to “up comes John, he’s got no legs, got carbon fiber blades instead.” 

The joke would have been different if the gay American Morris Dancers had been using plastic sticks; the song would have been different if the crippled soldier had had an aluminum prosthesis. A wooden leg would have made him sound like a pirate. Everyone knows that Abu Hamza had a hook, but no-one cares what kind of metal it was made of. So what's the deal about carbon fiber sticks and carbon fiber legs? That’s at least a bit interesting, isn’t it?


We’ve covered this before, but: 

Men, on the whole, care a good deal more about swords, guns, motorbikes and cars than women do; and often (in movies, say, or advertising posters) swords, guns, motorbikes and cars have symbolic value. A big shiny sports car shows that you are a Real Man. It shows other things as well: that you have got good taste, and that you are rich enough and important enough to be able to afford a big red car. But other things show that you are rich and important. A big house is a symbol of wealth, power and status (as well as being somewhere nice to live). So why aren't TV property shows fronted by loud, posturing, macho blokes?

If I remark, in this context, that a big red sports car is a “phallic symbol” or even a “phallus” some wiseguy will invariably say “ha-ha I hope yours isn’t shaped like that ha-ha”. Ten thousand spam e-mails testify that many men do in fact care about the size of their penis; and this seems mostly to be part of a competition with other men. Women don’t care all that much. So to say "the car is phallic" isn't to say "the car is shaped like a penis" so much as "cars and penises are both symbols of particular kind of aggressive, competitive masculinity. 

One of the most common euphemisms for “penis” is of course “manhood”. 

A lightsaber is not simply an old fashioned weapon; it’s a symbol, bound up with fathers and sons and the process of going from boy to man. If I say “when Darth Vader cuts Luke’s lightsaber hand off, it’s symbolic castration” I don’t mean that Lucas really wanted to to write a graphic scene of torture in which Vader physically cut off Luke’s genitalia. I mean that Star Wars is a growing up story and that Empire Strikes Back ends with Vader depriving Luke of the very thing that made him a man.

(There are at least two scenes where James Bond, the ultimate macho man, surrounded by guns, cars, planes and pretty women, is directly and literally threatened with having his penis and testicles destroyed.)

If I were to say that in Space Balls, Mel Brooks makes lightsabers “literally phallic” I think that you would understand what I meant: Dark Helmet and Lonestar position their swords at crotch level and then activate them; getting a childish, crude laugh from the audience when they "grow". I suppose I could have said “explicitly” or “directly” or “unambiguously.” But anyone who is that worried about small points of grammar English usage is literally a dickhead.


In 1963 the music critic of the Times famously described the Beatles song “This Boy” as being “harmonically intriguing, with its chains of pandiatonic clusters”. Paul McCartney, a self taught musician, claimed not to know what this meant. This has often been taken as a terribly funny joke at the critics' expense. The poor booby honestly imagined John and Paul sitting down and saying “Let’s put some pandiatonic clusters into this one, wack.” But it turned out they couldn’t have done so, so they aren’t there, so the critic was wrong, so the whole idea of music criticism and music theory is silly, ha-ha.

It is understandable that some writers and musicians should be cynical about critics: why should someone who can’t play an instrument himself get a say about whether my record is any good or not. (Actually, the question can be answered perfectly well on it’s own level: if I want to find the best fish restaurant in town, better ask Cecil, who can’t cook but eats out every night, than Brad, who spends every evening making perfect pastries in the back room of the Tart and Toad.) But the widespread suspicion of the humanities in general -- the doubts about whether literary criticism is a proper subject, the endless press sneering about Media Studies and Sociology are a little harder to account for. Nearly all of us listen to music and read books; and most of us can say which ones we think are good and which ones we think are bad. So it can look as if critics are using big words to tell us stuff we already know; or, worse, are spoiling our enjoyment of much loved classics. I don't know much about art, as the fellow said, but I know what I like. Sometimes, this may be perfectly true -- I have certainly come away from essays and said "you seem to have spent a very long time telling us that Tolkien's view of good and evil is basically the Catholic Church's view of good and evil, which was perfectly to obvious to anyone who has read the book." But very often, the man who says "I don't need an expert to tell me about books, I just want to read them" means "I don't want my preconceptions altered; I'd rather read Faust through 21st century eyes than hear someone telling me the kinds of things that could have been going through Marlowe's mind when he wrote it." 

Oliver Postgate says that when he was animator in residence at an Australian film school, he attended a lecture on the semiotics of film-making. The lecturer argued that film makers deliberately compose their shots in order to create particular atmospheres “impending danger, sexuality and other less definable moods, and infiltrate them subliminally into the unconscious of the viewer.” Postgate says that if any director really thought like that, they could never make anything worthwhile, because “it attempts to use the intellect to do something which is the business of the heart.” 

“I know how I choose the shot I take. I know how all the directors I have worked with choose their shots. They chose them because they looked right.”

He was, of course, absolutely right. He was an autodidact who worked out how to make cartoons from first principles and then discovered that what he was doing had been standard in the industry for decades. Of course he put shots into his cartoon because they looked right. And Paul McCartney, the most brilliant and intuitive song-writer of the last hundred years put notes into his music because they sounded right. The film studies lecturer and the music critic don’t claim to be able to make films or compose songs themselves: they don’t have that gift or that intuition. But they do claim, having looked at thousands of movies and heard tens of thousands of songs, to be able to explain why certain things “look right” and “sound right” and others don't. 

People who are skeptical about criticism never seem to say “Aha — that argument doesn’t work. You claim that in Episode 4 of Ivor the Engine, Oliver Postgate does this and it has that effect. Actually, he does that and the effect it has is more like this.” They always say “what business is it of yours to try to say what he was doing in the first place. What business is it of anyone’s to think seriously about cartoons, or pop songs, or the representation of sports personalities in the media”  

We have seen that Common Sense is the opposite of Political Correctness. Common Sense is whatever I think; the bundle of assumptions that I carry about in my head. Political Correctness is anything which challenges those assumptions. If Political Correctness can be defined as nonsensical then I need never question whatever happens to be going on in my head at the present moment. A sneering dismissal of all writing about the arts and culture has an equally useful effect.

(In fairness, Oliver Postgate was making quite a sophisticated point, much more interesting than Harold Wilson's reflex sneer about pandiatonic clusters. He felt that critical theory is a poor guide to the practice of film making; that film schools show students detailed critical analysis of great shots from classic movies and expect them to retrofit their own films to those ideas, and this doesn’t work. On the other hand, his claim that a director puts a shot into a film because it looks right and this can’t be further analyzed sounds a little bit like someone putting up a wall around his art: you’ve either got it, like me, or you haven’t got it, and if you haven’t got it, it can’t be taught.) 


Lots of women enjoy sport, participate in sport, watch sport. But it would be fair to say that many of the most popular sports — football, rugby, cricket and motor-racing  have a strong macho element to them. They are not merely about people competing to see who is the best at, say, tennis; they are about men competing with other men to see who is the biggest, strongest, gutsiest   who is, in fact, the most male. The most successful sportsmen are represented as being more male than other males, whether we are talking about huge posters on the sides of buildings of David Beckham in his knickers, or George Best surrounded by beer and beautiful women wondering where it all went wrong. One of the "justifications" for the still prevalent hostility to homosexual footballers and homosexual basketball players is that it is an intrinsic part of the game for sportsmen to all get naked together after the match, and a gay man in the showers would alter the macho dynamic. In that kind of a culture, being unsuccessful or weak or merely studious makes you less male or, put another way, more female. It follows that a sportsman who, through injury or some other reason, stops being able to play his sport might be seen as feminized (in the sense we talked about above) castrated. The way in which people talked about Oscar Pistorius was therefore very interesting, because he was a sportsman who had been physically maimed, but who as a result of his prosthetic limbs, was able to compete at the very highest level. His disability made him less male, which is kind of like being castrated; his prosthetic limbs made him a man again, which is kind of like saying they are an artificial penis. In fact, because he became a world-beating athlete, it could be said that his false legs made him even more of a man than he would have been without them. It is therefore interesting that descriptions of his prosthesis always concentrated on what it was made of: they weren’t just false legs or prosthetic legs or metal legs, but always “carbon fiber legs”. One reason for this may be that “carbon fiber” is used to make racing cars, guns, bicycles — the classic “phallic” symbols of male power. 

It is interesting that one of the boys toys classically made of carbon fiber are racing cycles. You sit inside a plane or a car and hold a gun in your hand; but a cycle goes between your legs, making the phallic imagery explicit and unavoidable. Girl's bicycles used to be different from boy's bicycles for just that reason. It would probably be careless of me to say "bikes are literally phallic"; but you would know what I meant. 


I do not know if the culture of “safe spaces” in universities has gone too far. Maybe it has. I haven't been a student for years. Certainly, part of being a college student is, or ought to be, robust debate. Having your paper torn apart by your tutor or other students ought to be part of the process of learning, just as being thrown on the mat is part of the process of learning Judo. On the other hand, there is no excuse for personal or ad hominem attacks, in any debate, ever; and the border line between a strident and forceful argument and browbeating can be a fuzzy one. This is a particular problem when it's a man browbeating a woman. The distinction between "winning the argument by having a louder voice" and "bullying" may also be a bit woolly at times. 

If you are the kind of person who thinks that it is perfectly normal to accuse a fellow academic, completely outside your field, in a public forum, of being an intellectual fraud, and to follow it up with language like "pretentious bilge" and "pretentious bullshit" you are probably not the best person in the world to be advising colleges on their policies about acceptable behavior. 


Christians who believe in the literal truth of Christ's miracles —  not all do —  do not believe that this is how the universe works as a general rule. A person who believes that Jesus literally turned water into wine at Cana does not believe that this is, in general, how wine is made. Even if they did, it is hard to see why this would be a serious handicap in the overwhelming majority of vocations. I think that you could function very well as a plumber, a filing clerk, a computer programmer, a road sweeper, a window cleaner or Chancellor of the Exchequer while still believing that Threshers employs a Jewish man to lay his hands on bottles of water. It would, I grant you, be a drawback if you wanted to work as a vintner. 

I wouldn’t be particularly perturbed by having a doctor who believed that God healed sick people indirectly through the actions of the medical profession. Lots of doctors do believe precisely that. Nor would I be perturbed by one who believed that occasionally, patients who had no chance of getting better scientifically speaking nevertheless recovered miraculously; and that those "miraculous" events were literally acts of God. I certainly wouldn’t be worried about one who believed that two thousand years ago the Son of God cured people of diseases which were, so far as anyone could see, incurable. The only doctor I would be bothered by is the one who thinks that people are only healed through the miraculous actions of God, that prayer for a patient should come before any natural intervention, that medicine and surgery are blasphemous. Vanishingly few people — not even Christian Scientists, I understand — believe that. 

The idea that Christians told the story of the Virgin Birth because they didn’t understand where babies come from is obviously silly. They told the story because they did know exactly where babies came from. That’s what the word “miracle” means. 


The question is not whether or not you agree with me. I have written this very quickly and I may have made some remarks that I will not be able to defend tomorrow morning. 

The question is not even whether you are going to have a look at Hickey-Moody's essay and decide that I am being too generous about that; that it in fact post-modernism really is a load of tosh and I ought not to be coming up with defenses of obscurantism. The question is whether you think it is the kind of thing which is capable of being talked about. 

There is, in the end, very little difference between labeling anyone who disagrees with your as a Social Justice Warrior who Always Lies; and labeling anything outside your field as "theology", "philosophy" and "the humanities" and declaring that that is "not a subject", "not really knowledge", "pretentious bilge" "bullshit" and above all "nonsense". In both cases, you are building a wall around your own beliefs and making discussin of them impossible. You know in advance that anything the other side says is nonsense before they start speaking; you may actually find yourself saying thing like "I don't have to know anything about post-modernism to know that it is nonsense". We can't even discuss whether you are right that cultural studies is nonsense and Social Justice Warriors are liars, because anyone who defends them is lying and talking nonsense by definition... and so on through as many iterations as you please.

Turbans are not a race. Theology is not a subject. There is not possible value in studying culture or the media. My way of looking at things is the right way of looking at things. Your way of looking at things is pretentious bullshit. 

It is increasingly clear that what the New Atheists disbelieve in is not the God of church and religion. It's also feelings and cultural meanings and subjectivity and the humanities and just about anything which isn't cold A = B logic.

If you find this kind of thing interesting then please consider promising to pay me 69p each time I write something. If you'd rather I just shut the hell up, don't bother. I was planning to write up the Star Wars Holiday Special but got distracted.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Have You Seen Star Wars VII Yet, Andrew?

My first reactions to Star Wars VII (at about 3.50 am last night) are available now, as a special extra for Patreon backers. An actual review will appear here in due course.

To become a Patreon backer and get access to this an other Exciting Extras, you just need to pledge to give me 50p or so every time I write something. (Between £2 and £4 a month, depending on how prolific I am.) Patreon is the only way I have at present of monetizing my writing at present.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


Luke: How long til we get to the secret rebel base?
Han: What, Yavin?
Luke: Thanks. Mine's a pint.
         Very Old Joke

Close up of ninja.

We deliberately start with an image that has nothing to do with Star Wars: a teenage mutant ninja turtle. Well: a ninja, at any rate. (The Episode I trailer began with a pretty direct Kurasawa reference. Robots sneaking through long grass in the mist.)  

Well, I saw a ninja. Possibly the image also calls to mind Princess Leia's disguise at the beginning of Return of the Jedi.

Ninja, climbing in the huge space of a space ship. Music in background is not Star Wars music. 

About the only thing I liked about The Abomination were the opening scenes in which Kirk's dad was seen crawling around a spaceship that looked very like the TV Enterprise; but being filmed in the style of Aliens or Blade Runner. Familiar, iconic images from unfamiliar angles. If the rest of the film had been like that, I would not have hated it. It wasn't, and I did. 

Showing us the Big Pointy Ship as a Big Pointy Shipwreck is a genuinely good idea. 

Voice: “Who are you?”
Ninja: “I’m no-one”

We can assume from this that she is someone very important indeed.  

Woman, who we can tell is the ninja by her big pointy stick, walking across sand-dunes, accompanied by spherical droid, and sitting in a tent in green fatigues. 

We know that the lady is Rey and the droid is BB/Beebee. (This is not quite as cute as FE/Effie, but it's getting there.) The planet is not, in fact, Tatooine, but Jakku. Is it possible that there are two desert planets in one universe?) 

These images scream “Star Wars” at us, The first ones allude to Threepio and Artoo in the opening minutes of A New Hope. The brief scene in the shelter calls to mind Watto’s shop in Phantom Menace.

Rey is “no-one”, but she’s not above dangling on ropes in huge shipwrecks. The one thing we know about her is that she is a scavenger. 

Conjecture: The amateur scavenger goes on board the wrecked ship and retrieves something the value of which she does not realize. "Rebels" and "Imperials" converge on her planet to try and get it back.

What is this macguffin?

1: Luke Skywalker's lightsaber
2: Luke Skywalker himself, encased in carbonite.
3: The seeds of the Force tree from the Jedi Temple on Coruscant.
4: BBD2 itself, who is carrying the secret plans to Death Star III.

Lucasfilm logo.

Sadly, the big green Lucasfilms logo screams “prequels” to us. (In 1977 “Lucasfilms” appeared in the same typescript as the rest of the credits.) But at least they are keeping any Disney branding at arms length. I don’t think I could have faced Star Wars with Tinker Bell's palace at the front. 

I know that the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare was played at the beginning of dozens of other movies; but for me, that Fanfare signifies that I am about to watch Star Wars. I hope Disney have come to some arrangement and will be able to use the fanfare in the theme tune.

Stormtroopers being addressed by leader in military uniform. TIE-fighters (with white sails) on either side. Snowy mountains in the background.

One of the things that Lucas took over directly from Flash Gordon was the single-environmental worlds. A New Hope has a desert planet; Empire Strikes Back gives us an ice planet, a swamp planet and a cloud planet; Return of the Jedi adds a forest planet; Phantom Menace throws in a water planet and a city planet...and then everything gets a bit messy. Are there snowy mountains on the desert planet of Jakku? Or is there a Tatooine-analogue and a Hoth-analogue? Or is Abrams going to settle on a planet with more than one ecosystem?

Stormtrooper (Finn) taking his helmet off. 

TIE fighter exploding. 

Finn looking out from a hill towards a town in the desert 

Finn’s voice: “I was raised to do one thing but I’ve got nothing to fight for”.

Finn is a stormtrooper; a disillusioned or turncoat stormtrooper. He gets separated from, or escapes from, the other troopers and takes up with Rey. 

Return of the Jedi ends with Darth Vader removing his helmet; but we never see a stormtrooper’s face in the original trilogy. We do see clone trooper’s faces in Attack of the Clones and the Clone Wars cartoons: they all have the face of Jango Fett. We know from Rebels that stormtroopers are not clones.

Anyone who can see Finn looking out at the settlement and not think "I bet it is a wretched hive of scum and villainy" is not a true Star Wars fan. 

Long shot of baddie — Kylo Renn — on bridge of spaceship. 

The scene is overwhelmingly red: the colour of evil Jedi lightsabers. As in the poster, the colour seems to be consciously used here as a symbol of evil. In some of the shorter adverts the Imperial March plays over this sequence. We do not hear Vader's heavy breathing.

Kylo Renn addressing the burned out helmet of Darth Vader.

Kylo Renn touching another character, a stormtrooper, no-one we recognize, on the head, making him scream.

Renn: “Nothing will stand in our way. Nothing. I will finish what you started”.

The first close up of Renn forcefully reminds us how much like a gas mask Ralph Mcquarrie's original sketches for Darth Vader looked. The villain is almost praying to Vader, treating his helmet as a unholy relic: as if he does not know that he returned to the good side before he died.

Question: what did Darth Vader start? The only time he expresses a personal belief is when he says that he wants to destroy the Emperor, and "bring order to the galaxy". (Anakin talks about strong leadership in Attack of the Clones.) Does Renn want to rule the universe? Or is there a more specifically Dark Sided scheme that Vader started and he wants to finish. The destruction of all the good Jedi, for example? Does anyone know what the Sith were for...

We have been introduced to the two goodies, Rey and Finn, and the baddie, Kylo, without getting a glimpse of anything specific from the original movies. The helmet ties us back to the trilogy and then…

Whoosh! Fast montage of TIE fighters chasing the Millennium Falcon through wreakage of Star Destroyer. Three classic ships from the Trilogy in one scene!

Rey and Finn together, in some kind of rebel base. Han Solo, facing them.

Voice of Rey: There are stories of what happened.
Voice of Han Solo: It’s true. All of it. The Dark Side…The Jedi

In the first film, the point of Han Solo was that he was a relatively young guy who didn’t believe in the Jedi or the Force. It will be nice if in this one, he’s the old veteran who has to deal with the fact that none of the young dudes believe in the age of heroes. 

Millennium Falcon in hyperspace

X-Wings flying over a body of water.

Kylo Renn with followers in darkness and driving rain.

Stormtroopers in ruined building.

X-Wing pilot ducks under the wing of his ship, sees Finn, taps him lightly on the shoulder, and walks on; the camera spins around as if Finn is staring at him.

For some reason, this was the one moment in the trailer which induced a proper tingling of the spine. I suppose because X-Wings, even more than lightsabers, are the central icon of the first movie; because the whole trajectory of A New Hope is a journey from Tatooine to Yavin; because it somehow only fully becomes Star Wars in that last quarter, when Luke becomes a rebel pilot. And obviously, because what Andrew Rilstone, chief Jedi Knight of East Barnet school, really wanted was to go to Yavin and be given his own X-Wing. 

X-Wing and TIE fighter dog-fighting. TIE-fighter crashes.

Rey and Finn running from explosion.

Han leads Rey and Fin into ancient flag-bedecked building: 

Is this the big ziggurat which the rebels used as a base on Yavin?

I think that Abrams is deliberately using imagery which calls to mind scenes from Star Wars: I very much doubt if we will actually see Hoth, or Tatooine, or anywhere else familiar, in the movie.

Figure with metal hand reaching out to touch Artoo Deetoo. 

Everyone assumes this is Luke, because they can’t think who else it can be.

Stormtroopers emerging from one of those three-winged Imperial shuttles, led by grand stormtrooper in cloak.

Kylo Renn wielding lightsaber

Rey looking sad. 

Han, Chewie and Finn having apparently just surrendered.

Beebee and Poe in an X-Wing: long shot of X-Wings and TIE fighters battling above an ice planet (the same mountains where we saw the stormtroopers assembling at the beginning?)

I am actually quite surprised that that implies that Han and Chewie are going to feature in an “action bit”. I’d wondered if General Solo might be limited to a minor cameo. 

VOICE: The Force. It’s calling to you. Just let it in.

 This is being used as a substitute for “May the Force be with you” on one of the “retro” posters. You’d think the Force would be calling to Finn; but the voice is the same one that was asking Rey who she was at the beginning of the trailer. Could it maybe be that Finn has a lightsaber, wants to be a Jedi, but that Rey is the one with the actual power? 

Stormtroopers disembarking. 

Angry Rey shooting. 

Stormtroopers in ruins. 

Kylo Renn turns round, ignites lightsaber, and makes Forcey gesture into camera. 

Millennium Falcon and TIE fighters in wrecked stardestroyer again. 

Han embracing Leia.

This is the only look we get at Leia in the trailer. The implication is that something bad has happened. Someone has died. Someone has gone over to the Dark Side. One of the shorter spots has Accented Voice saying "Hope is not lost today" which you would only say if there had been a serious catastrophe. 

The word Hope is specifically associated with Luke -- in the first film he is "a new hope" and in the second one he is "our last hope".

Final Image: Finn, looking scared, igniting blue lightsaber and defending himself from Renn. 

This is what we are meant to be left wanting more of. The title of the film is “the Force Awakens” after all. And Kylo Renn thinks there has been "an awakening". 

So the big climax has to be a bad Jedi fighting a good Jedi, or at any rate, a good wannabee Jedi. 

It took Luke two movies to go from being a farm boy to being able to have a go at facing Darth Vader: Kylo Renn must be a bit of a wuss if a stormtrooper can already stand up to him in part one of the trilogy.

Monday, December 14, 2015


It was in the last days of the second millennium. The gilt hadn’t quite rubbed off Tony Blair. The Dome hadn’t quite become a national joke. The only thing I knew about the World Trade Center was that King Kong had climbed up it. 

It was the last time I felt properly excited about Star Wars. 


Symbols are almost like letters of the alphabet. We know what they mean without consciously seeing them. But don’t assume. The other day a colleague asked me if the Jews had a Bible of their own. ("Is it called the First Testament or something?”) A thing that everybody knows can become a thing that nobody knows, overnight. There are people old enough to drink in pubs who have never heard of Bagpuss.

The die-hard fan sees a symbol: everyone else sees a picture.

They see sand. We see Tatooine. 

They see a dome-like Tunisian house. We see Mos Eisley.

They say “hang on, is there some kind of exposure error, there seem to be two suns” we hear the binary sunset theme in our head.

They read “Episode One” in small letters: we see Star Wars Episode I, the moment that has been implicit since the first seconds of The Empire Strikes Back. The moment that many of us thought would never come.

Yes: we can say that the prequels were a colossal disappointment. 

But we can also say that, in 1998, we went to the Bristol Odeon, very possibly to see Star Trek : Insurrection and were confronted by the Episode One teaser poster for the first time.

The long, thin version, on the big cardboard standee. 

Back view of little boy in slightly Jedi-ish clothes, walking past Luke’s house, or Ben’s house, or just a house.

Shadow of Darth Vader cast behind him.

One word on the poster: “Episode One”. 

My spine has never stopped tingling.

Nothing has ever looked as Star Warsy as the original posters. The strange, far-away ones with Luke holding his lightsaber above his head while Leia curls up at his feet; the beam throwing a cross across the poster. The montage one, painted by someone who’d seen the movie, with Luke firing directly out of the image, Leia shooting to the left, Han to the right, and Vader wielding his saber, splitting the poster into three.

The Force Awakens posters evoke, without quite quoting, those 70s images. A crowded montage is quite retro for a modern film: blockbusters nowadays prefer single motifs (like Captain America’s shield or Batman’s bat) or else a striking image from the movie itself. 

There is no single character dominating the picture. The closest to the center is actually a small figure of Threepio, possibly because the droids are the viewpoint characters of the whole saga. If anything, the fascistic military parade of stormtroopers are the focus of the poster. There's a cluster of familiar faces -- Han, Leia, Chewie, and also a fella in an orange jump suit who we know to be Dameron Poe, but who rather functions as an iconic Luke Skywalker substitute in the poster.

The biggest figure is Kylo Renn. (The face of Darth Vader presided over both the 70s Star Wars posters.) He is looking to the left, wielding his big red lightsaber. Finn has his back to Renn, wielding his blue lightsaber to the right.

The whole poster is split into red and blue, the dark side and the light: a very striking motif that has not been used before. There are ranks of stormtroopers pointing in both directions. Could this possibly mean that there is a proper civil war, with the white-armoured fellows fighting on both sides? Curiously Rey is on the red side of the poster, her pointy stick at the same angle as Kylo's lightsaber. Could this signify that she will be tempted by, or go over to, the Dark Side? Or is there some other connection between them? Mind you, there are X-Wings in the "dark" section so it may just signify that the two lightsabers are lighting up the scene.

I like the X-Wings best. Whatever else goes wrong, the presence of those original space ships -- the real space ships -- will make me happy. I like the fact that we are looking at paintings, not stills. Painted X-Wings have a dynamism that models never quite manage.

One of the trailers seemed to have X-Wings skimming the surface of a big space ship. But most interestingly and not otherwise hinted at, in the background of this poster, large and threatening, is something which is quite clearly a Death Star.

These are curious. Obviously, I want to love them, because they evoke the spirit of 1977. I don't think I saw them at the time; I don't think "Coming to your Galaxy this summer" was ever used in the UK. There was a slight whimsy to the advert; redolent of 2000AD costing 20p "earth money". We aren't sure how to market this thing; it's sci-fi, definitely, but it's not a classic space movie. ("A story of a boy, a girl, and a universe" was tried in the original cinema adverts.) "A Long time ago in a galaxy far far away..." has some of the same archness to it.

Some people have said that "galaxy" is code for "cinema". Not only is Star Wars coming to your "galaxy", but it is the kind of film you would have seen in a "galaxy" far far away when your dad was a kid and there was a newsreel with every movie. In which case the Star Wars comics are curiously tautological. "Beyond the movie. Beyond the movie house."

It was a nostalgic way of promoting a film in 1977. Now, it is meta-nostalgia, nostalgic for the nostalgia of punk and jubilee. Not many people even have grandparents who remember seeing Flash Gordon at the cinema; a few of those who were there when the credits rolled on Star Wars already have grand-children.

Do these posters declare their fidelity to the '70s vision of Star Wars? Or are they trying to usurp it -- from now on, this will be the movie you think of when you hear the 20th Century Fox trumpet blast?

 No-one but us Star Wars fans will understand the joke.

Rey's  poster is brown. She is slightly freckled. Her hair blows about in the wind. She is coded as wild, vulnerable, but determined. It isn't clear what she is holding. (From the trailers, we know that it is a pointy stick.) She has been hurt by the world. Stoical: a friend of heroes, rather than a hero herself? Androgynous: on the basis of this poster I might have thought she was a boy.

We do not know her surname. "Rey Solo" is a plausible sounding name. If Jedi are celibate, then it is hard to see where we would get a Rey Skywalker from. Assuming that Han the Leia got together after Return of the Jedi, she could be Darth Vader's grand-daughter.

Finn's poster is black. Finn is unshaven and sweaty. He looks bemused rather than grim, as if he has fallen into a plot he doesn’t understand. The lightsaber blade is the only light in the picture. A blue blade, telling us that he is one of the good guys. A smooth blade, telling us that it was properly constructed. Perhaps it was given to him: perhaps it is Luke's lost weapon? Although he is a Stormtrooper, he is definitely not the clone of Jango Fette.

Are audiences sufficiently colour-blind that Finn could be Leia's son? Or is the whole point of the racial difference to make it clear that he has a different heritage? 

It is a well-known fact that there is no paper in the Star Wars universe. Less well know is the fact that there are no razor blades.

This poster isn’t about Han Solo. It is about his gun. I remember this gun. It is one of the few guns that appears consistently through the movie. Luke has a blaster (taken from a stormtrooper) but I can’t picture what it looked like. I can picture Han's gun. There was even a toy in the second or third wave of merchandising.

So Han in the new film will have the same gun as Han in the old film. Somewhere between a ray gun and a cowboy pistol.

This is Han from the original movies; the same guy, the same clothes, the same gun. But older. His face is unreadable. 

Leia is green and black. Everyone else's face is bisected by a weapon: she is surrounded by those see-through heads-up displays from Empire Strikes Back. A serious face, authoritative but with something hidden beneath it. Grim. There is none of the inventive glamour of the old films, and certainly no earmuffs. This woman has seen a lot and lost a lot.

The hardest poster to take: would I know this was the Princess if you had not told me? Leia was the single most important thing in Star Wars. I hope that this Leia will not be a relic, or a stuffed shirt.

Kylo Renn is red and black. This tells us the least. We can hardly see that we are looking at a face. The original sketches of Vader made the mask look almost like a gas-mask: this seems a throwback to that. In the days before Phantom Menace, it was possible to believe that Darth Maul would be some kind of replacement for Darth Vader; he was actually barely more than a cameo. Abrams says that Renn is not a Sith: he has gone to the Dark Side and not taken the title Darth. His lightsaber is wobbly, jagged. Presumably he has made it himself, without Jedi training, and made it badly.

The absence of Luke is the most interesting thing about the movie until we see it. Once the reason is revealed, it will be something everybody knows, and has always known.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


But the habit of various protestant sects of plastering the landscape with religious slogans about the Blood of the Lamb is a different matter. There is no question here of doctrinal difference: we agree with the doctrines they are advertising. What we disagree with is their taste. Well, let's go on disagreeing but don't let's judge. What doesn't suit us may suit possible converts of a different type.
                  C.S Lewis

Most people think of Thought for the Day as a religious homily plonked anachronistically in the middle of a current affairs program. But it's really much more like a panel game. Contestants are challenged to give a three minute speech explaining why two randomly selected concepts are, “in a funny way” (or "a very real sense") quite like each other. Without hesitation, deviation or repetition...

“And you know, the Great British Bake Off is very like the Eucharist, because…”

“It may seem odd to be burning Guy Fawkes on the Feast Day of St Joannicus, but in fact…”

I had been rather looking forward to writing a funny take-down of Rev. Prof. Steven Wilkinson’s contribution to the genre, which showed that in a funny way Jesus is quite like Luke Skywalker. But I was careless enough to listen to the piece before writing my critique, and it turned out to be disappointingly good. The reverend professor shows every sign of both liking and understanding the Star Wars movies and, more surprisingly, of liking and understanding God.

So, waiting for a new film to come out is a bit like the Christian season of advent: well, yes, in a funny way, it is. Studying the trailers for hints about the new movie is a bit like studying the scriptures for signs of the Messiah: yes, up to a point, it is. The films are about how something intangible like the Force is more powerful than the baddies' big machines; which is like saying that the spiritual is more important than the material. Yes, definitely. Rev. Prof. even manages to work in a twenty word defense of the prequels. They are making a deep point about “How evil can develop from an obscure trade dispute to take hold of political and military structures on the largest scale. And how easy it is to be tempted and seduced by power even when trying to battle for the good.” Well, yes. Yes they are.

I particularly respect the fact that he doesn’t press his text too hard. Star Wars is not a Christian allegory. It was a good joke for Alec Guinness to reply "And also with you" to a fan who had said “May the Force be with you” precisely because blockbuster movies are, in a funny way, quite unlike the liturgy.

So. Having no excuse to talk about Thought for the Day, I had better talk about something else.

There is a long-standing tradition that the Church of England’s Christmas advertising campaign should create some sort of stir or controversy. There was the stupid “call center in heaven” one; the impenetrable “bad hair day” one and the incendiary “fetus Jesus” one. I doubt if anyone is ever persuaded to go to church by this kind of thing. “Short, interesting talk about the Nativity Story by someone you’ve vaguely heard of. Free mince pies” would do far better. 

This year, their holinesses thought it would be a wheeze to make a cinema advert and pay for it to be shown directly before The Force Awakens. The advert consists of lots of different kinds of people saying the Lord’s Prayer in lots of different contexts, ending with the message “Prayer is for everyone”. In a funny way, this is a lot like a film about a happy family mealtime which happens to mention that Mum used a particular stock cube to make the gravy; or showing lots of English pubs full of happy yokels, and just happening to mention what brand of ale they are all drinking. Present people with a lot of positive images of churches — cute school children, chirpy black people, wedding days, an evangelical baptism, remembering a loved one in a churchyard — and they’ll come out feeling well-disposed towards God, Church and Oxo cubes. Sell the sizzle, not the sausage. I see nothing wrong with the Church using the expertise of an advertising agency in this way; in the same way I see nothing wrong with a Vicar asking a public speaking expert how to put more zing into his sermons. 

It turned out – and you wonder why no-one checked this out in advance  – that the advert can't be shown because the UK cinema chains have a general policy against religious and political advertising. A general policy against all religious and political advertising. Which is to say, they do not accept advertisements from any religious group or political party. Put another way, that means that whichever church or political party had asked to place an advert in the cinemas, it would have been turned down.

Seems like quite a sensible rule to me. Religion and politics are out of place in entertainment venues. I wouldn't be quite comfortable with a Hindu prayer, because I wouldn't quite know what I was supposed to do. (Stand up? Bow my head? Cross myself?) I'd be even more uncomfortable if someone said a Christian prayer and I bowed my head but other people talked through it or heckled. Not "get out my gun and start shooting people" uncomfortable. Just "shuffle a bit and spill my popcorn" uncomfortable. Miss Manners still advises us to keep off sex, religion and politics in casual conversation, because people hold strong views abut them and you don't want people getting cross and heated at your dinner party.

Some of you may remember how, in 1997, Birmingham Council promoted a series of municipal events between November and January under the general brand-name Winterval. And some of you may remember how the extreme right invented a lie that Birmingham Council had banned Christmas and replaced it with a politically correct festival of their own invention. However many times the true story is told; and however many times you produce the original Winterval poster, with the Word “Christmas” and a Christmas tree prominently displayed, the story still circulates. Everybody knows that councils have banned Christmas so as not to offend the Islams. Poor Colin Baker was circulating the story only this week.

The story of how the Church of England had foolishly wasted its money on an advert which it could never show has transmogrified into a new myth. According to the myth, the issue wasn't that cinema chains had a policy against religious or political adverts. It wasn't that they were enforcing their policies inflexibly, or even that they'd given the Church of England the impression that they might be prepared to relax the rules and then changed their minds. The myth says that this particular advert has been singled out for prohibition, because the Lord’s Prayer is too offensive and shocking for movie audiences. Pundits queued up to condemn the fictitious ban. Boris said that the prayer shouldn’t be banned because it was very old and informed our whole culture. [*] Steven Fry said that it was “unfair” to treat the Church of England the same as everyone else. Richard Dawkins sneered that if anybody was offended by the prayer they deserved to be offended. Giles Fraser did one of his somersaults: he pretended that he thought that cinemas had said that the Lord's Prayer itself was upsetting and offensive, and then affected incredulity that anyone could find a prayer more shocking than an 18 rated movie.

Former Archbishop Rowan Williams' column in the London Evening Standard went beyond parody. He claimed that the pretend ban was part of a plot by “cloth headed persons” to avoid the terrible threat represented by mentioning the Christian origins of Christmas”. These cloth-heads were trying to “protect” the “delicate and sensitive public” from this “appalling truth”. Never mind that there are so many school Nativity plays that shops report an annual tea-towel shortage. Never mind the neon baby Jesuses spinning above every German Christmas market. Never mind rampaging mobs of carol singers and Carols From Kings live on the BBC. Or the Head of State's religious message to the nation on  Christmas day. The rejection of this one advert amounts to a general ban on mentioning Jesus in December. [**]

This kind of thing is pathetic when it’s Colin Baker moaning about “political correctness gone festive” in his local paper. When it’s an educated college lecturer writing in a national paper, it’s plain dishonest. He knows that it’s a stretch to talk about the Christian origins of Christmas. Some bits, like the nativity play, are clearly Christian; some bits, like Christmas trees, are pretty obviously pagan; some bits, like Turkish bishops flying through the air on luminous reindeer, are a bit of both. It’s even more of a stretch to say that we owe the whole idea of peace and goodwill to the story of the shepherd and the angels.

Williams is a clever man and a scholar. He knows perfectly well that the angels did not say “peace on earth and goodwill towards men”. What they said was “on earth peace to men on whom God’s favour rests” or “peace to those with whom God is pleased”. But he chooses to base his whole argument around the folk version which everyone knows. Then again, he claims that the Christmas story is “the story of a human life in which unlimited generosity and mercy were at work” and that that life is “a vision of what humans might be”, which is almost the exact opposite of what mainstream Christians believe.

I don’t, in fact, think that Rowan Williams is a pelagian. I think he believes as the Church believes, that Christmas is about God coming to earth in human form. I think he’s offering up a heresy because he thinks that his readers would recoil from the orthodoxy. I think he is, to coin a phrase, trying to protect his readers from the terrible threat of knowing the appalling truth of what Christmas is all about.

He's also weird on the actual Lord's Prayer. There is a story in the Bible about what happened when Jesus’ followers asked him how they ought to pray. Jesus tells them, in essence, to keep it simple. Don’t say long complicated prayers. Don’t pray in market places or cinemas where people can see you. Just ask God for what you need. And he gives an example. In the New International Version of the Bible it runs to some 30 words.

Hallowed be your name.

Your Kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins (for we also forgive everyone who sins against us)

And lead us not into temptation.

But this isn't complicated enough for the ex-bishop. He says that the prayer is important because it“contains the hope that there will be food and well-being for all”. Does it? I think it contains a very simple request that we should have what we need-- and a little bit more, so we don’t have to worry.

He says the prayer tells us “that we may learn not to think all the time in terms of what is owed to us but of what we might do to release others from guilt and debt”. Does it? I think it contains a very simple request to God to forgive us when we do bad things, and a promise that in return we’ll forgive other people when they do bad things to us.

The Lord's Prayer is, he concludes "a philosophy shaped by the conviction that we are most human when least obsessed with defending and promoting our self-interest and when recognizing our shared human needs.” No: no it really isn't.

It's clear enough what's going on here. Williams is trying to claim that the Lord's Prayer contains a set of ideas and an ideology that everyone can sign up to, whether or not they believe in God. Because he thinks that his readers will be shocked, embarrassed and offended if he tells them what he really believes: that we can all address God as "Father" and ask him for stuff we need.

Williams concedes that religion has done bad things, but says “We tend to forget that much the same is true of politics, capitalism, socialism, science, alcohol, sex and football. None of these seems to be a rival candidate for being excluded from the public eye.” Yes they are. Politics, capitalism, socialism and indeed sex are all on the list of things you can't advertise in cinemas. Liquor adverts are okay at the movies; but they are banned from the TV. This does not mean that the television companies have a "whiskey ban" or a "Jack Daniels ban": there's just a general policy of not accepting paid adverts for alcohol. And you never hear Jack Daniels moaning about the exclusion of whiskey from the public eye. And Jack Daniels doesn’t even get to run schools, or have 26 guaranteed seats in the House of Lords, or a ring-fenced three minute slot on the Today Programme.

Williams thinks we need religious advertising in cinemas to counterbalance the adverts and movies which promote a materialistic message. Everything else in the cinema is an advert for Mammon, so we need adverts for God as well. (He doesn’t say if he also thinks that all-you-can-eat buffets ought to carry adverts promoting fasting, or Spearmint Rhino should have stern posters warning you that if you play with it too much it will drop off.) He goes so far as to claim that when he visits the cinema he “has to sit through an assortment of adverts actively and aggressively promoting a set of values and myths that I find mostly incomprehensible or alien.”

Really? The Archbishop doesn’t understand why anyone would want pretty clothes, a smart motor car, delicious food, a big TV and possibly a bottle of posh whiskey? I get that he thinks we should suppress our desire for those things and aim at a simpler life, and maybe he’s so holy that he isn’t tempted by that stuff at all; but is he really saying he finds it weird that some people prefer the good life over the hair shirt?

He also claims that modern films are very expensive and promote myths about power. Well, some do, some don’t. There are big violent films like James Bond and little sweet ones like the Lady in the Van. You even get religious films once in a while. I watched the Hunger Games trilogy right through and was impressed by how moral (and morally complex) it was.

The Vicar/Professor on the wireless has it much more right than the Druid/Bishop in the paper. Star Wars isn’t about incomprehensible, alien values. In a funny way, and a very real sense, it’s sort of kind of vaguely a bit Christian. Whether there’s an embarrassing prayer video before it or not.

[*] What do you mean, we, kemo sabe?

[**] The fact that a particular student counselor was told not to express personal opinions to clients is also said to be evidence that some universities think that students should be protected from opinions of any kind. But he must know that non-directive counseling is a fairly standard way of helping people think through their problems?

Thursday, December 10, 2015


Darth Vader is standing on the bridge of a Star Destroyer, looking out into space. 

Boba Fett enters from behind. “I lost him” he says.

"This is most disappointing" replies Vader.

One of the great things about Darth Vader is that, while he is in some ways the personification of anger, he always speaks in calm understatements: "I find your lack of faith disturbing"; "The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am"; "No. I am your father." Not everyone writing Darth Vader after the fact gets this right.  

Vader has hired Fett to track down the boy who destroyed the Death Star. He thinks he encountered the same boy, armed with an oddly familiar lightsaber, on Cymoon 1. Fett has traced Luke to Tatooine, where Luke is trying to retrieve Jedi relics from Ben’s old home. Blinded by a flash grenade, Luke trusts to the Force (doubling all his attributes for one round) and manages to deflect Fett’s blaster fire with his lightsaber. 

Vader asks if Boba Fett got anything at all of value. “Just his name” he replies. “Skywalker.” 

This time, Vader doesn't speak at all. He just clenches his fists, and the Star Destroyer’s windows shatter. You can more or less imagine the heavy breathing sound effect and the Imperial March playing in the background.

Marvel's current Star Wars sub-imprint has a nice line in parallel plotting and intertwining narratives. Vader's discovery of Luke Skywalker identity occurs in issue #6 of Jason Aaron's Star Wars series; but the same scene is shown in #6 of Kieron Gillen's Darth Vader title. Gillen's version is somewhat decompressed: we are much more inside Vader's head. Between Boba's words and Vader's reaction are inter-cut a series of flashbacks — Amidala telling Anakin she is pregnant; the Emperor telling Vader that she is dead; her funeral; the Death Star Trench; Vader fighting Luke on Cymoon. A New Hope, Revenge of the Sith, and earlier issues of this comic are all equally canon, equally part of Darth Vader’s memories. It seems to fit together. Beneath the mask, Darth Vader is still Anakin Skywalker, with Anakin Skywalker's memories and Anakin Skywalker's feelings.

Ben wasn't even telling the truth when he said that Anakin Skywalker no longer existed.

In Kieron Gillen's version, he looks out through shattered glass. “I have a son. He will be mine. It will all be mine.” This doesn't work quite as well as "This is most disappointing". It's too ranty; too much the kind of thing a Marvel Comics Supervillain would say. ("Ha-ha. This is merely a temporary set-back. Soon the world will hear from me again.") In one of the Extended Universe novels, possibly Shadows of the Empire, Vader is seen using the Dark Side of the Force to completely heal his body so he can survive without the black armour. But he doesn't quite have the strength to do so; his love for Luke means he hasn't fully given himself over to the Dark Side. This struck me as pure Doctor Doom and not at all Darth Vader.

In A New Hope, Vader refers to Luke merely as "this one" -- an anonymous pilot who is somehow strong in the Force. By the beginning of Empire Strikes Back he is "obsessed with finding young Skywalker". We have all asked the question "what did the Dark Lord know, and when did the Dark Lord know it?" Aaron and Gillen provide an answer. Vader was completely unaware of Luke at the time of A New Hope (he could not sense his presence and it never occurred to him that anyone would hide his son on his own planet); he guessed the X-Wing pilot was someone important; he only found out what had happened when the bounty hunter discovered the pilot's name. It seems that although Uncle Owen hated the memory of Luke's father and Obi-Wan knew that secrecy was vital it never occurred to either of them to raise the orphan as Luke Lars.

There had to be one particular moment when Vader found out; the equivalent of Luke's moment on the bridge on Bespin. What we read in these two comic-books is exactly what we would have imagined that moment to be; exactly what we would like to have happened in a movie. It feels right.

And of course they made it up. Our of their heads.

It is possible for a scene, or a story, to be so well-imagined that that this doesn't matter. For a scene to achieve instant canonicity, not because a man with a mouse says so, but because we feel it can stand alongside Obi-Wan and Vader's duel, or Luke looking out at the binary sunset, or any other iconic moment. It's that level of iconic canonicity that The Force Awakens has to achieve if it is going to justify its existence.

Some texts force us to have faith in them by sheer force of imagination.