Thursday, November 28, 2019

Jonathan Miller

If you were at all interested in theatre or opera in the 1980s, then Jonathan Miller was a magical name.

"It's a Jonathan Miller production " implied something surprising and controversial, something which was going to be talked about for years to come.

The old fashioned theatre critics hated him. I imagine that the Quentin Letts of this world still do. It isn’t “Jonathan Miller’s Hamlet” they snarled, “It’s SHAKESPEARE’S Hamlet.” They even invented a snarl word, “producer’s opera”,  to describe what he was doing.

Miller had an answer for them. I heard him lecture several times at Sussex, when I was doing English and he was doing brain surgery. There is no such thing as a production without production ideas, he said; all there can be is a production which copies the ideas of the last production, and the production before that. For years, Chekov had a reputation for being stodgy and boring because the Moscow State Theatre held the copyright, and endlessly reproduced the same play, with the same sets and the same costumes and the same out-dated acting styles which had been prevalent at the end of the 19th century. The works had, as he put it, become mummified. “The D’Oyly Carte did much the same thing to Gilbert and Sullivan” he added “But in the case of Gilbert and Sullivan it doesn’t matter one way or the other.”

In 1987 he produced the Mikado for the English National Opera. Everyone knows what he did: reimagined the play on a 1920s film set, with largely black and white costumes, all the characters wearing smart suits and cocktail dresses and speaking with clipped English accents. “But the Mikado isn’t set in England!” cried people who hadn’t seen it. Maybe not: but I doubt that there were too many second trombones performing English sea shanties in feudal Japan. However you stage it, the play is about English people playing at being Japanese. Yum-Yum is an English school girl, so why not accentuate the gag by putting her in an English school uniform as opposed to a kimono. “But I do love you, in my simple Japanese way...”

And then of course there were the changes to the script. “And that’s what I mean when I say, or I sing...oh bugger the flowers that bloom in the spring...”. The production has been revived fourteen times. It arguably saved the company.

Moving classical works from one time frame to another is what we all associate with Miller. I think his Rigoletto (or, if you insist, Verdi’s) was the first live opera I ever saw. The setting has moved from Italy to “Little Italy”; the Duke is now “Da Duke” and Sparafucile is a “hit man” rather than a “murderer for hire”. “But I didn’t think they had court jesters in 1930s New York” complained by traditionalist Grandfather. No: but with a little judicious jiggling of the libretto (the E.N.O always work in translation) the story of the hunchbacked bar-tender and his tragic daughter made complete sense. Miller said that audiences who didn't think they would like opera responded to this. (“Oh, it’s just like a musical” he said in his Pythonesque normal chap accent.) Possibly this was why the old guard couldn’t accept him: audiences liked what he was doing.

My own acting career began and ended with a walk-on part as “third servant on the left” in a student production of Twelfth Night, and Dr Miller sat in on one of our rehearsals and made some suggestions to the producer. (This was a nice thing to do: an amdram show couldn’t have been very interesting to him; but it did mean we got to put his name in the programme.) He said that contrary to popular belief he didn't think there was any point in "updating" Shakespeare: making it "relevant" made about as much sense as going to Spain and refusing to eat anything except fish and chips. On the other hand, most modern actors look incredibly awkward in doublets and togas. The thing to do, he said, was to treat it as an uncostumed production, but to choose clothes which might suggest to the audience what character types we were portraying. Avoid at all costs allowing Andrew Aguecheek to become a falsetto ninny, he said. That was, of course, exactly how our guy had been playing him. Ever since, in every production of Shakespeare I have seen, I have waited for the arrival of the Falsetto Ninny and rarely been disappointed.

I think some people imagine that producers sit in rooms and have Production Ideas and then let the cast do all the actual work. In fact, it is all about the detail. Yum-Yum singing the Sun Whose Rays perched on a grand piano; the Duke putting a dime in the jukebox before embarking on La Donna e Mobile. Hamlet checking his make-up in a looking glass and noting that the point of theatre is to hold, as it were, the mirror up to nature.

Not all the ideas worked. There is some truth in the accusation that he took other people’s texts and filled them with his own ideas. (“I think that the blackness of Othello has been over-emphasized” he once wrote. “Presumably by Shakespeare” retorted Private Eye.) His BBC King Lear strayed into ludicrousness. Spotting that Edgar descends into a kind of hell at the beginning of the play and then rises again in the final act, he made the poor actor deliver all the mad scenes in a full crown-of-thorns and stigmata. Considering Ibsen’s Ghosts, he pointed out that that is just not how syphilis works. You can’t go from being fine and lucid to crazy and blind in one afternoon. So he invented a parallel play in which Osvald only thinks he has inherited the disease from his dissolute father; briefly suffers from hysterical blindness and is presumably euthanized by his mother while in perfectly good health. But no-one who has survived an unexpurgated Long Days Journey Into Night (which doesn’t clock in at less than five hours) can have had the slightest objection to Miller’s legendary production, featuring Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey, in which the big idea was that all the characters talk at once.

This is the main thing which seems to have interested him: in opera, theatre and science: how communication works; how people talk; their gestures; their body language; where they position themselves in the discourse. What if you took Eugene O'Neill's words and made the actors say them as if they were part of a normal conversation, overlaps and interruptions and all? What if Violetta behaved like a terminally ill patient with the symptoms of tuberculosis? What if Alice in Wonderland was not a whacky panto but a disturbing Kafkaesque dream-world populated, not by mad comical hatters, but frighteningly insane people who serve you empty cups of tea and threaten to cut your head off and won’t tell you why. What if? You can only know by trying it out; it doesn’t matter if it sometimes doesn’t work. I think that is the most important thing he taught us. Texts are unstable. There is no true version of Twelfth Night. Each production is a conjecture. In the theatre, anything goes.

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

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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Spider-Fan, Spider-Fan

Spider-Man fans. They are very cross about the last film and the film before that. Not sufficiently close to the source material. 

They are kind of right. Far From Home is kind of not a Spider-Man movie. It is more interested in its position in the Marvel Cinematic Canon than in faithfully reflecting the core of the Spider-Man myth. 

VOICE OVER—EITHER TOM WATTS OR THE GHOST OF STAN LEE: "Sod you, Core of the Spider-Man Mythos. We set out to make a movie."

This is where we are with Star Wars as well. We can all agree that Last Jedi was a very different take on Star Wars: almost a subversion and deconstruction of Star Wars. We can disagree about whether Star Wars is the kind of thing we want to see subverted and deconstructed. But not if it make us want to cut the heads off dolls.

I think that Far From Home is a decent film, not as good as Homecoming but better than Amazing Spider-Man II. The Toby Maguire series still feel like the serious important definitive attempt to make Spider-Man Ther Motion Picture. The Andrew Garfield duology and the five Marvel Universe appearances feel more like some new Spider-Man cartoon episodes.

Nothing wrong with Spider-Man cartoon episodes.

Christopher Reeve still feels like Superman: Henry Cavill feels like some actor playing the part of Superman. I don't think any of the three actors we have had so far have claimed the role of Spider-Man as their own. Michael Keaton and Christian Bale and Ben Affleck are definitely pretending to be Batman. The one and only true and real Batman is still Adam West, and I say that as one who doesn't particularly like the Adam West version of Batman.

Different kinds of apples have different kinds of cores and there is more than one way to skin an onion. It is certainly true that Spider-Man: Homecoming was much more of a Kid Iron Man story than it was a Spider-Man story. It wasn't about a radioactive spider; it was about a young kid who has blagged a very powerful suit of techno-armour that he really can't operate. It reminded me quite a lot of the Rocketeer, a movie I could never bring myself to hate. 

The Original Comic Book Spider-Man is definitely not Kid Iron Man; but then, Marvel Comics were never particularly interested in how their characters interacted with the Greater Marvel Comic Universe (TM). Not for the first 25 years, at any rate. If the point of Spider-Man is that he is very young, very well meaning, and really not terribly good at being a superhero then it makes a certain amount of sense for him to be Tony Stark's protege. The newbie kid learning the superhero trade from the veteran. Spider-Man the hero who can never live up to his heroic role-models, or fears he can't. If this isn't the Core of the Spider-Man Myth I don't know what is.
In any event it would have been a shame to have missed out on Tony Stark saying "if you are nothing without the suit you don't deserve to have it."

I am not automatically right just because I am older than you. I have a great deal of sympathy for who-ever-it-was who said that the only people capable of judging a pop song are teenage girls. That's who they are written for. The true version of Spider-Man is the version of Spider-Man which appeals to eleven year old boys, not the version which appeals to thirty-five year old collectors.

But still, my memory goes back a further than yours. I am one of the last living examples of Great Western Fan. I remember the days when there were no superhero movies at all: when a showing of The Adventures of Captain Marvel or King of the Rocket Men on BBC2 could garner considerable excitement. (Grown ups! In superhero costumes! In black and white! With questionable flying effects!) I remember the days when American comics were obscure, rare, non-sequential objects and literally no-one knew who Spider-Man even was. I remember Nicholas Hammond. I remember a live-action TV series which had no point of connection to the comic book apart from an actor looking deeply uncomfortable in a poorly designed Spider-suit, with mirror lenses on his mask and web-shooters outside his gloves and a ballet dancer's bulge in his tights. No Uncle Ben, no Gwen, a perfunctory Aunt May, no swinging, no super-villains of any kind. I remember how excited I was at the prospect of seeing a man in a Spider-Man suit, sorry, a REAL LIFE Spider-Man. Hell, I remember how excited I was by the first or second issue of FOOM magazine which contained a couple of black and white stills from an unofficial film-school Spider-Man movie which never got released: because they were PHOTOGRAPHS of SPIDER-MAN.

The early issues of the British comic offered a PHOTOGRAPH of Spider-Man as a promotional item. I have managed to find a reproduction of it. It would have disillusioned my eight-year-old self for life.

I can even remember when I first saw the cartoon: not Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends but the original Spider-Man-Spider-Man does whatever a Spider-Can version. The mere existence of Betty Brant and J.J.J on the small screen was thrilling and validating.

So moan moan moan because the big screen blockbuster that everyone is talking about is not quite faithful enough to the Original Comic Book Spider-Man. You have no idea how lucky my twelve year old self thinks you are.

And anyway. There is no Original Comic Book Spider-Man. There are a number of different versions. Ditko's Spider-Man is not Romita's Spider-Man; Romita's is not Todd MacFarlane's. MacFarlane's Spider-Man was quite different it is who is drawing him at the moment. Everyone knows which version I like best. Hardly anyone agrees with me. That's okay. That's how these characters work.

I had quite a lot of time for Ultimate Spider-Man. Ultimate Spider-Man was a reboot. Ultimate Spider-Man tried to strip away everything which had been added to Spider-Man between 1963 and 2001 and present the refreshed essence of the character. The New Spider-Man was so much like the Old Spider-Man that old-time-fans like me could have just wept. But then stuff happens and the character moves away from his origins. He doesn't become Tony Stark's protege, but he does get recruited by Nick Fury. 

Ultimate Spider-Man is already a very old comic book: hell, it's nearly a decade since that version of Peter Parker handed the webs over to Miles Morales. You polish off all the dust that has accumulated on Spider-Man; you wind him up and set him in motion; and a whole lot more dust accumulates; and you can no longer see the character you know and love. So you either clean him up again, or else you learn to love dust.

This is not a criticism. This is what happens to fictional characters. Roll with it and accept it. There is no one true Spider-Man. There is no pure Batman. There is no right way of doing Superman. In fact, there is no Superman: there are only 60 years worth of Supermen...

I am in the minority about Sherlock Holmes. I think that Sherlock Holmes means foggy London streets and bobbies in funny hats threatening to administer clips-round-the-ear to street urchins. I think that Sherlock Holmes means deerstalkers and curly-pipes and horse-drawn taxis and the Baker Street address. However clever Benedict Cumberbatch may be, and he may be very clever indeed, I don't think that having a companion called Watson makes you Sherlock Holmes. If it doesn't have Tower Bridge and a hanging judge and people who call rooms "diggings" then it isn't Sherlock. 

Not that things which aren't Sherlock can't be interesting.

I shouldn't blame the Spider-Man-Twitterati for taking it too seriously. I take it too seriously. I shouldn't blame them for over-thinking it. I over-think it. But they act as if it really, really matters. And I don't think it matters. They behave as if they think Far From Home was a personal insult. Their identity is somehow bound up with Spider-Man.

As a matter of textual fact, Uncle Ben was not a very important part of the Spider-Myth in the inaugural Ditko era: Spider-Man was more likely to be kept on the straight-and-narrow by Aunt May's Gumption or Johnny Storm's Pep Talks than by his deceased step-father. Ben became increasingly important as Stan Lee reconfigured Ditko's objectivist anti-hero into a more mainstream superhero character; but when Ben was mentioned, it was still less as a moral influence and more as a plot excuse. Why would a young man dress up as a spider and fight crime? Because Uncle Ben. Why wouldn't Peter Parker quit being Spider-Man if he is obviously no good at it? Because Uncle Ben. Why not become a scientist rather than a guy who catches jewelry thieves just like flies? Because Uncle Ben. 

Uncle Ben was omitted from the Tom Holland version of Spider-Man for clear and logical reasons. The Toby Maguire movies showed how Peter Parker was bitten by a magic spider and how he vowed to use his new found powers to fight crime. The Andrew Garfield movies showed how he was bitten by a magic spider and vowed to use his new found power to fight crime. Both the Toby and Andrew's versions showed the murder of Uncle Ben. The auteurs of the Marvel Cinematic thingummybob made a very sound judgement-call that we didn't need to see the same origin myth three times in fifteen years. Why not introduce us to Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man as a going concern? Why not take the power and responsibility thing for granted?

I'd like to have seen more of Peter Parker in a silly home-made costume doing his best to catch small time crooks on his home turf.

"But removing Uncle Ben changes the character." 

Well: no, demonstrably, it doesn't. Tom Holland does a far better job at playing the comic book Spider-person than any of the previous actors. The most important thing about Spider-Man is not "has a dead uncle". The most important thing about Spider-Man is "snarky banter." 

"But that character could not have come into being without first committing avuncularcide by omission". 

Again, pretty much, no: there are good people in the Marvel Universe, and indeed the Universe, who are not trying to atone for a past transgression. People can acquire a sense of responsibility from school, literature, from Church or Synagogue. I doubt if a single person watching the film said : "But this makes no sense. Why would Spider-Man try to do the right thing if he hasn't got a murdered parental figure somewhere in the background?"

Yes; Batman's Dad was murdered. Yes; Superman's whole planet blew up. Yes; Stan Lee wanted to make Peter Parker more like the Big Two. No; that isn't the only thing about Spider-Man.

But most bizarrely of all; they speak as if Spider-Man and Uncle Ben were real people. They speak as if Ben Parker the man has somehow been slighted by being omitted from the film; they talk about hairbrushing people out of history; they affect to be offended on his behalf.

I think that they are some of the same people who are Personally Offended by the new Star Wars movies, because they Denied Them their God-Given Right to see Old Man Mark and Old Man Harrison zipping around the universe having adventures together.

I think that the sheer intensity of the Spider-myth; the sheer potency of what Steve and Stan created is such that some people cannot be trusted to consume it. It maketh them mad.

The best version of Spider-Man, and indeed the best Super-hero movie is of course Into The Spider-Verse. It engages with and embraces the Core Myth of Spider-Man while at the same time being Fun. It turns Spider-Man into an anthropomorphic pig and still seems to take the character seriously.  The blonde cartoon Spider-Man who Miles encounters in the first act feels so much realer and solider than anything so far played by actors. 

It even has Uncle Ben in it, kind of.

They are making a film of New Gods. I hope fandom can keep its collective head attached. 

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

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Monday, November 25, 2019

This is an entirely hypothetical philosophical question.

Imagine that there are three trains, all out of control and without drivers, careening out of control towards the edge of a cliff; you have to choose one of them.

For some reason.

The first train is a racist train; hitched to an even more racist train; and backed up by a big racist train in America.

The second train is, according to some people, a bit racist, or at any rate, a bit slow at dealing with racism in its own carriages.

The third train is not at all racist.

As signalman, do you vote for the slightly racist train, which has a very real chance of winning.

Or do you vote for the not at all racist train and thus maintain your ideological purity, even though, this makes it practically certain, due to the first past the post signalling system, that the very racist train will win the election?

Purely hypothetically.

Monday, November 18, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, November 11, 2019

There Will Be Ewoks

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 04, 2019

Mark 5 21-43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"She had suffered many things of many physicians…"


"And spent all that she had…."


"But was nothing bettered...."

(Long pause.)

"But grew rather worse...!"

(Audience laughs.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey kid. Time to get up.

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

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

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