Showing posts with label Films. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Films. Show all posts

Monday, September 16, 2013

What Do You Mean, We?

I know six things about the Lone Ranger. That’s probably one more than you do.

1: He wears a mask.

2: He has faithful Indian companion named Tonto, who calls him "kemo sabe".

3: He shouts “Hi-ho, Silver!” to his horse.

4: He uses silver bullets.

5: His theme tune is the William Tell Overture.

6: He’s the Green Hornet's great-uncle.

And that’s literally it. I have no idea if he had a secret identity, a supporting cast or a back story. I assume that’s why the character was so durable -- three thousand radio episodes, and a TV show that ran for five seasons. He’s a peg on which to hang any cowboy story you feel like telling. No-one knows his name; he rides into town; he sticks up for the little guy against the big guy; and then rides out again. And that's it

But it turns out there's a narrative. I took the precaution of watching the first episode of the Clayton Moore TV show before writing this piece, and was surprised how much of it was carried over into Johnny Depp movie. I don't know if that shows a terminal lack of imagination on the part of 21st century screen writers, or a touching respect for foundational texts. Seven Texas Rangers ride into the badlands in pursuit of a baddie called Butch Cavendish. It turns out that they're being led into a trap, and Cavendish kills them all. But then it turns out that one of them is only mostly dead. A passing Indian, Tonto, nurses this Ranger back to health, and they decide that they'd better hunt down bad guys in general and Cavendish in particular. So much for the joke about why he's the "lone" Ranger if Tonto is always with him. 

Stuff I thought was probably late-in-the day over-interpretation (like the idea that the Lone Ranger’s mask is made out of his dead brother’s jacket) turn out to go back to the TV show, if not to the original wireless version. The one substantive change is that the original Lone Ranger was a creature of the Westward expansion, whose every adventure contributed to the development of this great country of ours; the movie version (like Jack Sparrow) represents the last hi-ho of a dying age, starting his adventures just as the coast-to-coast railway is taming the wild West once and for all.

This summer’s misbegotten Man of Steel was so heavy with invented back-story that I wondered why they had even bothered stamping the Superman branding on it. Poor Henry Cavill hardly got to play at being Superman at all: he's mostly a pawn in a manichean struggle between God, voiced by Jor El, and Satan, ghosted by Zod. But the bit about ickle baby Kal being shot into space when his planet blows up remained in place, as if that was the inviolable core that makes it a Superman movie. The Lone Ranger movie makes the killing of Dan Read (our hero’s brother) and the other rangers a cog in a huge conspiracy in which an evil rail-road magnate is in league with a psychotic cannibal who may or may not be Wendigo in order to get possession of a secret Indian silver mine which would enable him to buy all the shares and thus....I admit I got a bit lost. Ever since Jack Nicholson turned out to be both the crimer who shot Brucie’s mummy and daddy and the crazy grinning guy with green hair, superhero movies have worked a bit too hard to tie everything together into single all-encompassing plots. (Did Sandman turn out to be the burglar who shot Uncle Ben? I think I wasn’t paying attention.)

But this time around the backstory avoids smothering the Lone Ranger and Tonto. They may be embedded in a CGI and pop-corn remake of "Once Upon a Time in the West" but they are still basically a whiter than white white guy in a mask and a wise Indian scout who ride along trails and fight bad guys. Every conceivable buckle is swashed. Horses race trains (repeatedly); heroes leap from burning buildings into hails of bullets; the pair rob a bank (for good and adequate reasons) and are buried up to their neck in a scorpion invested desert. Logic and physics are completely abandoned for a climax involving trains, horses, firing squads and exploding bridges. And a ladder. (With the theme tune blasting out in the background, or course. Who was it who said that an intellectual is a person who could hear the William Tell overture and not think of the Lone Ranger?)

God knows, it's a flawed movie. It runs for two and half hours and feels like five, although it is far from obvious how you could make it shorter and retain its encyclopaedic scope. Uneven in tone doesn’t even begin to cover it. Parody of the Lone Ranger? Affectionately camp reworking? Pastiche? Serious engagement with an American icon? The final minutes include a very wholesome tribute the TV show, with everyone thanking the Lone Ranger and asking him to stay around before he rides of into the sunset. No-one says “Who was that masked man?” but you feel that someone might have done. (Like "Play it again Sam" and "Beam me up Scotty", it's a very famous quotation that no-one ever actually said.) But then we cut to him wondering whether to call himself “The Lone Avenger” or “The Masked Rider” which is straight out of Black Adder. I'm not quite what the the point is of making us sit through three hours of John Reid's personal journey from inept goody two shoes to fully fledged hero, only to portray him as an oaf in the final seconds. It really does feel like a cut and paste job between four or five different scripts.

When you don’t have pictures, you need verbal signals to tell the audience what is going on. Radio Superman used to say “Up, up....and away” to signify that he was flying; radio Lone Ranger similarly said “Hi-ho silver...away!” to warn of an impending chase sequence. The TV series used spoken voice overs (quite effectively, based on my extensive survey of one and half episodes) to make the pictures more dramatic, but kept the “Hi-ho silver” catch phrase, must famously in the opening credits. When Armie Hammer delivers the line, Johnny Deep wearily replies "Never do that again." That joke arrived approximately 60 years too late.

The burlesque may be mostly unfunny, but the Lone Ranger’s basic goodness is left intact -- this is the character about whom all those jokes about cowboys walking into saloons and ordering glasses of milk were originally made. We're nearly always laughing with him, hardly ever at him. We are never asked to find the idea of goodness funny, as we were in those cynical Mummy films. We’re nearly always on the hero's side. Johnny Depp’s Tonto is a lot less over the top than I expected him to be.

Don Quixote is the story of the friendship between a man who is clever but insane and a man who is sane but stupid. Together, they just about make up one hero. This most Quixotic of movies gives us a hero who is good and brave but completely inept; and pairs him with a companion who is wise and clever but crazy and cynical. Tonto honestly believes that the Lone Ranger, having died and risen again, is the legendary spirit walker who can’t be killed and whose gun never misses. Both sides are arguably frauds: Tonto is making up Indian mythology on the spot (his own tribe regard him as a crackpot) and the Ranger is a lawyer thrust into the role of hero by accident. The idea that these two half competents together make one superhero works better than it probably ought to. The relationship is unpredictable enough and funny enough to very nearly hold this monster of a movie together.

The whole film is wrapped in a frame in which a little boy in a Lone Ranger suit encounters the elderly Tonto in a 1933 Wild West Show. Why? Why, oh why? As if the thing wasn't long enough and confusing enough already? Perhaps it's intended to place it all in some kind of historical context: the Lone Ranger folk tale emerged at a time when the Wild West was still very nearly contemporary -- as close to the first radio listeners as the 1950s are to us. Perhaps it wants to make the point that the Lone Ranger is an iconic figure of whom you ought to have heard, for the benefit of the 90% of the audience who looked at the posters and said “The Lone what?” Perhaps the frame is an apology for the preposterousness of the action: maybe what we’re watching is a tall story, made up by Tonto. Maybe one of the dozens of discarded scripts was going to be reveal a realistic, “historical” Lone Ranger who lay behind the myth. Or maybe someone involved just really liked the Princess Bride. 

There’s definitely some weird shit going on: when Tonto pours peanut shells over the graves of the murdered Texas Rangers in the “historical” segment, the little boys “modern” carnival peanut bag blows across the screen; Tonto is first seen as a waxwork in the exhibition, but then, without explanation, he comes to life. I would bet pence that the original idea was for the little boy in the Ranger suit to have been looking at museum tableaux of the Wild West and then imagining, or dreaming the story, with himself as the hero. Remember the poignant ending of the original Secret of Monkey Island RPG? (1)

All through this summer, and every summer, we’ve had bigger and louder space movies until even those of us who love Marvel Comics with all our hearts are wishing we could just take off the 3D glasses and calm the hell down. The Lone Ranger is having a dang good go at being something better and more interesting than that. It’s a big meaty mythological movie which acknowledges that the guy in the white hat who carries six-guns but doesn’t kill anybody is basically ridiculous. That's what the frame is about, I suppose: it's telling us that this is fantasy wild west; peep show wild west, pop corn wild west, frankly rather racially patronising wild west, the wild west as imagined by a child of ten -- but that at some level, the material is so iconic that it has to stand as some kind of aetiological myth about America. 

It doesn’t work, of course. I lost track of the plot several mcguffins down; and the action is so relentless and over the top that a law of diminishing returns sets in quite quickly. (My heart sank particularly when we arrived at Helena Bonham Carter’s brothel.) On the other hand, the revelation of what the railway boss was planning to do with Tonto’s silver genuinely impressed me, and I can’t deny letting out a (very quiet) whoop of excitement when the Lone Ranger throws the silver bullet to his nephew. I wish that these heroes could be allowed to exist in something like their trashy pulpy context; part of what made Superman and the Lone Ranger and, er, Doctor Who seem so epic is that they appeared in an endless sequence of small adventures; saving America one homesteader at a time, every week for twenty years. An eighty year old radio show is very flimsy material to build a multi trillion dollar epic out of. But where Star Trek and Man of Steel and the Hobbit seem to hate their source material, the Lone Ranger seems to be created by people who love the masked rider of the plains and want to honour his memory. It's much better than I expected it to be, and very much better than it had any need to be.

(1) There’s a very odd moment when the boy interrupts the narrative to say that Tonto is getting the story wrong and that Dan Reid, not John Reid was the Lone Ranger. Tonto claims that “kemo sabe” means “wrong brother”. At first, I thought that this was some kind of continuity easter egg for advances Rangerologist. In the TV version, we are told that Daniel Reid is one of the murdered Rangers, and that he is the brother of the hero, but we pointedly don’t see the surviving Ranger’s face or find out what his first name is, although he had been called John on the wireless. But there doesn’t seem to have been any version in which he was called Dan.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Avatar (a film)

"I thought that was very good," said Andrew at the end of Avatar.

"I thought that was very good," replied Louise.

"I thought that was very good," added Jonathan.

"Bugger," said Andrew "What are we going to talk about for the rest of the weekend?"

Avatar is a gripping, involving, but not particularly original Cowboys and Indians movie; transposed to a well-drawn and convincing science fiction setting. Jake, our hero, has his mind transferred into the body of a member of a tribe of blue aliens called the Navee so he can learn their ways and help the Human Colonists negotiate with them. But – astonishingly – he Goes Native and sides with the Navee against the Humans when the shooting starts.

Jonathan, who reads Empire, tells me that all the alien planet sequences were constructed entirely on a computer: since I'd assumed that it was doing the Peter Jackson thing of recording footage in New Zealand and using a computer to enhance the scenery, this must count as an unequivocal success.

Some of the plot devices were a little clunky, but they were all either the kind of clunky plot device that is part and parcel of a movie of this kind -- or else so carefully foreshadowed that they don't seem that clunky when you got to them. It's pretty much inevitable that the squaw who finds the hero when he's separated from the cavalry is the daughter of the big chief, and equally inevitable that our hero will fall in love with her. And the silly climax, in which all the fauna on the planet spontaneously attacks the Bad Men who are going to burn the Sacred Tree, doesn't feel silly at all because we've seen our hero praying to the Sacred Tree and asking it to help him win the battle. Since we've already been told that the all the animals and plants on the planet are connected together into a sort of vegetarian computer, it makes complete sense that he should be able to influence the tree to influence the animals to attack the Humans. We spend the slightly too long final battle saying "How will the tree help out?" and react to this literal deus ex machina by saying "Ooo...clever," rather than "Oh, what a literal deus ex machina!"

It was, both literally and metaphorically, a little too green. Say what you like about the Star Wars prequels, and I have, but they keep jumping from one jaw-dropping landscape to a completely different jaw-dropping landscape, so your eye never gets bored. Avatar dumps you in one jaw-dropping rain forest and leaves you there for three hours, rather as if you'd had to spend the whole of Return of the Jedi on Endor.

And speaking of which: the final battle does rather lapse into Ewok logic. At the beginning of the film we are supposed to find it silly that savages think they can damage giant mega-tanks with bows and arrows; but at the end of the film we are are expected to believe that bows and arrows fired by a large number of really motivated and very noble savages would be able to do so. That we largely do believe this is a tribute to how well drawn and immersive the film is. But still. If a herd of really angry elephants charged a tank, I'm not completely sure which side I'd place my bet on.

The natives have a sort of biological scart cable in the pig-tails, and can literally plug their brains into the planets flora and fauna. They can become literally "at one" with their mounts; they can commune with planet's ecosystem; and the minds of their dead are literally downloaded into the biosphere. A nice science fictiony idea, this, and someone will tell me where it was swiped from. But I rather suspect that Mr Cameron has a notion that it is also a Really Profound Metaphor, and just as the Navee can literally plug themselves into the soul of the planet, so can we in a very real sense, commune with the Earth, provided we stop destroying the environment by fighting wars, burning carbon, going to the movies, etc.

The one really weak point in the movie is the characterisation of the human colonists, who work, of course, for The Company. (Sigourney Weaver herself shows up to provide the technobabble.) The Company are only interested in the planet as a source of a McGuffin called (I liked this) Unobtanium; it answers only to it's shareholders. The Colonel in charge is so one dimensional that he would be chewing the scenery if it wasn't computer generated: unable to quite decide if he's in Apocalypse Now or Moby Dick. When he announces that he's going to gratuitously nuke the Navee's Sacred Tree in order to generate some "shock and awe", his team of marines nod and grin, and seem to have been recruited entirely from the brute squad. (Had the humans been on the planet to obtain, say, a precious drug which was the only thing which could possibly save the human race from a terrible lurgyplague then Jake would have been faced with a genuinely difficult moral dilemma. Now, one man must choose, between a race entirely consisting of happy, spiritual folk living an idyllic life and a race entirely consisting of nasty sweary money grabbing thugs. Gee, which way will he decide?)

Clearly, the thing has been over hyped to an embarrassing degree: we are told that there are people who have seen the film dozens of times, that it has changed their life, that there may have been suicides by people who don't want to live if they can't live on Pandora. In fact a ludicrous amount of money and skill has been spent on what is really a very, very slight narrative.

But this doesn't matter: the film isn't making any particular claim to be a new religious movement, although the Hollywood publicity machine may be. From the opening moments when the crippled ex-marine agrees to have his brain transplanted into a Navee it is absolutely clear what kind of a movie we are watching, and it delivers on all its promises. The hero does indeed get the girl. The Navee do indeed, after much sacrifice and derring do, repel the invaders who want to steal their land. The hero does indeed get initiated into the tribe's ways, and we do indeed feel that those Ways are plausible and interesting and quite pretty and inspirational. The first time we see the nasty Colonel, he is in one of those Transformer-type exo-skeletons and, sure enough, after his big space ship has been destroyed and the Holy Tree has been saved; everything comes down to a one-on-one between Smurf and Armoured Space Marine.

The Skiffynow writer's guidelines list "does exactly what it says on the tin" as a cliché to avoid at all costs. But Avatar does.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man is an odd character. Little kids wear Spider-Man tee-shirts and play with Spider-Man toys, but you could hardly imagine a less kid-friendly hero. The comic book is full of angst and misery: Peter Parker's family and friends keep getting murdered, the world thinks he's a baddie – being a Spider-Man has pretty much ruined his life. The movies are just as depressing -- although director Sam Raimi did bottle-out and give Spider-Man 2 a happy ending.

The most depressing thing about Spider-Man 3 is how familiar it all feels. The last time we saw them Peter Parker (Tobey McGuire) and his frequently-kidnapped girl friend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) had settled their difficulties and fallen in love -- but someone has pushed the 're-set' button on their relationship. So we have to go through the angst and slush all over again: another scene in a theatre; another break-up in a restaurant, and, once again, M.J running from Peter into the arms of his best mate Harry Osborne (James Franco). This is even more angsty than usual because Harry is moonlighting as the villainous Green Goblin, a role left vacant by his father since the first movie. There are also scenes in which Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) dispenses wise advise, scenes in which newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K Simmons) loses his cool -- all pretty much encores of the first two films. Marvel Comics has been churning out arachnid adventures on a monthly basis for 40 years, but it seems that, after only three movies, Spider-Man has got tired.

Peter Parker has discovered a snazzy new black spider suit, which turns out to be a parasitic E.T which needs human host. While he is wearing the new suit, he behaves in depressingly un-heroic ways: kissing new girlfriends in front of M.J, mercilessly killing bad guys and, worst of all, doing nerdy dances in night-clubs. But the film can't decide whether it's a morality play about choosing between your dark side and your ... err.... red and blue side, or whether it is a simple horror story in which the hero is possessed by an evil space alien. In the end, Spider-Man doesn't come back to the light because he makes the right moral choice, but simply because he finds a comic-book cop-out which lets him rip the costume off. It then forms a symbiotic relationship with a rival news photographer (Topher Grace) creating a new villain, Venom, who Spider-Man defeats in a big fight. The greatest battle is within? Not really.

The third villain, Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), feels like an afterthought. The first two movies gave their bad-guys extensive back-stories -- this one takes it for granted that when escaped convicts wander into nuclear experiments, they turn into a walking, talking piles of sand. Sandman had a hand in killing Peter Parker's uncle, but on the plus side he only turned to crime because of his terminally ill daughter. This feels like a good idea for a story, rather than a properly developed element in the film.

The multi-villain action sequences are as spectacular as you'd expect; and everyone acts a lot, even in the embarrassing slushy bits. But it doesn't have the moral conviction or the emotional heart of the earlier films.

How depressing.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Saw an interesting film yesterday. It involved a man with an American accent who kept pretending he was Jesus. All the other people also had American accents, but they also pretended he was Jesus even though he kept getting the lines wrong, even the most famous ones. There's quite a good bit at the end where the director pretends that Jesus wasn't crucified after all but lives a long life, gets married and has babies but that bit seemed to have been ripped off from The Da Vinci Code. It also steals me and Jeffery Archer's idea about Judas being a goody. But at the end he (the director, I mean) chickens out and goes back to the real story. He (the American man whose pretending to be Jesus, I mean) keeps rolling his eyes and looking mad, like C.S Lewis said, and I kept thinking 'So when is he going to turn into the Green Goblin?'

If it comes on telly it's probably worth a look.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Most Important Question Facing Cult Movie Fans Today

The Silver Surfer was originally depicted as an alien being. He was a scout for Galactus, searching out planets that were fit for his master to consume. He is surprised that humans have to eat food in order to survive: he thinks it is more efficient to simply turn matter into energy. He doesn't understand the meaning of the word 'nobility'. He has never interacted with any other sentient life form; indeed, he seems to be surprised that the planets that Galactus destroys have people on them. 'Never have I beheld a species from such close range. Never have I felt this new sensation. This thing called...pity.' When he discovers that humans have thoughts and emotions of their own, he turns on Galactus. As a result, his master takes away his 'space time' powers and leaves him trapped on Earth.

Jack Kirby created the Silver Surfer without input from Stan Lee. Lee, however, was very impressed with the look-and-feel of the character. It is likely that Stan Lee suggested that Kirby expand the the Silver Surfer from a very minor bit-player in Fantastic Four # 48 to a major supporting role in # 49 and #50. Several of the subsequent stories that feature the now earthbound Surfer – particularly the one where Doctor Doom usurps his cosmic powers – look as if they were Stan's ideas. And there is no doubt at all that Lee created the Surfer's dialogue -- although it is open to question whether this is anything to be very proud of. 'Nay. Tis supremely credible The earth is but a twinkling dot. A paltry pebble in the vastness of space.'

The Silver Surfer went on to star in his own comic. The writer was again Stan Lee, but, as everyone knows the term 'writer' can only be applied to Stan in a rather Pickwickian sense. As he puts it 'There was really no need for me to labour over a fully developed script if Jack was to be the illustrator. All that was necessary was to discuss the basic plot with him, turn him loose, and wait until he brought me the pencilled drawings.' Which is as much as to say: while Lee was writing the captions and the speech balloons Kirby was creating most of the plot. So when Lee decided that John Buscema should draw The Silver Surfer, Kirby was deprived of all input into the development of the character which Stan Lee admits that he had originally created. This seems to have been the beginning of the rift which caused Kirby to leave Marvel, although I imagine Yoko Ono had something to do with it as well.

The Lee-Buscema version of the Silver Surfer is radically different to Kirby's. Far from being an outsider who has to learn about human life from the ground up, this Surfer is a mortal from a futuristic, decadent, but essentially earth like planet named Krypton, sorry, Zenn-La. When Galactus pays the planet a visit, a hippy named Norrin Radd offers to become his herald if he will take Zenn-La off the menu. It's never very clear how this is supposed to benefit Galactus. The idea may be that Radd will find uninhabited planets for him to eat; but this doesn't fit in at all well with Galactus's Lovecraftian claims that humans are simply beneath his notice, or with the Surfer's surprise that the inhabitants of earth are even sentient at all. (And anyway, if Galactus is so dammed powerful and wants a scout, why does he have to wait for a volunteer?) At any rate, he coats Radd in what is technically described as a 'life-preserving silvery substance' and sends him foraging for edible planets.

Subsequent writers have tried rather desperately to make this consistent with the original Fantastic Four story, suggesting that at some point between the flashback sequence in Silver Surfer #1 and his arrival on earth, Galactus took Norrin Radd to Anchorhead and had his memory wiped. No-one is very convinced. John Buscema's art is absolutely gorgeous.

Jack Kirby was well aware of the religious resonances of the character. When Galactus exiles the Surfer to earth, we are supposed to think of God casting his favoured angel out of heaven. (This is particularly pronounced in the 1978 graphic novel version of the story, in which the Surfer spends a full page plummeting to earth.) Of course, 'God' is here the baddy, and 'Lucifer' is the goody, but Kirby revelled in reversals of this kind. Think of the scene in Eternals where the handsome Reject turns out to be a psychotic killer; but the monstrous Karkas is noble and gentle; or the episode of Boys' Ranch where the cherubic 'Angel' is a vicious brat.

But Stan Lee either missed or deliberately expunged Kirby's Luciferian symbolism. He also claims a religious significance for the character, but can't really get beyond "silver equals good equals Jesus."

'Somehow or other King Kirby had imbued this new, unique, totally arresting fictional figure with a spiritual quality, a sense of nobility, a feeling of almost religious fervour in his attitude and his demeanour. As I studied that first drawing ,and the ones that soon followed, I immediately realised that there was something very special about this solitary figure upon the high flying space board -- something seemingly mystical, and totally compelling I knew I couldn't give him the sort of dialogue I'd write for any other colourful supporting character in one of our fanciful little epics.'

This isn't true, incidentally: the artwork that Lee must be talking about – the pencils for Fantastic Four #48 -- don't make the Surfer look particularly spiritual or noble : he flies through space, signals to Galactus, and gets punched out by the Thing. And he doesn't get a single word of dialogue. As usual, Stan is thinking of what the character eventually became, and pretending that that is what he had in mind from the beginning. But once the Surfer got his own comic, Lee certainly did depict him as, I quote, 'purity personified'. He speaks entirely in sermons:

'It is as if the human race has been divinely favoured over all who live, and yet in their uncontrollable insanity, in their unforgivable blindness, they seek to destroy this shining jewel, this softly spinning gem, this tiny blessed sphere which men call earth! While trapped upon this world of madness, stand I...'

It turns out that when the Surfer sacrificed himself to save the Earth from Galactus it was only a reprise of his previous offering up of himself for Zenn-La. In case you miss the point Stan makes the Surfer's main adversary a demonic figure called, very subtly, Mephisto, who wants to destroy the Surfer because, er, he does.
('How oft before have I trembled in the presence of such awesome goodness; martyrs all who men themselves in their abysmal madness did so noble must not walk freely among those whom Mephisto would exploit, and so I now ordain that he shall die.') Where Kirby's Surfer has been cast down to earth from space, Lee's is merely home-sick for his very unpromising home-world. Kirby's character was an alien outsider who had to learn about the human race. (He was naive and childlike enough to be totally taken in by Doctor Doom.) All Lee's can do is angst about man's inhumanity to man and the girl he left behind. Buscema's art is absolutely gorgeous.

Superhero costumes are intrinsically unrealistic, but very easy to draw. They are pretty much nude figures overlaid with colours and insignia – you never saw a crease in Spider-Man's suit, not even when Ditko was drawing it. The Surfer takes this to the Nth degree: he is neither flesh nor spandex but silver all over. Kirby occasionally sketched a line along his waist and maybe diagonals at the tops of his thighs, but he's essentially featureless. In cheap four colour printing, 'silver' is pretty much the same as 'white', so the Surfer is a blank white nude: a plain sheet of paper waiting to be drawn on. In Buscema's art, the lines on the Surfer's middle are much more pronounced: he clearly intends us to think that the Surfer is wearing swimming trunks or shorts. This makes him look rather like an Action Man. The same Comics Code that would allow 'Mephisto' but not 'Satan' seems to have had a problem with cosmic skinny-dipping.


The superior Kirby version of the Surfer is an alien, very probably created out of thin air by Galactus. Possibly, like his board, he's made of energy and sometimes takes on a solid form. He doesn't have digestive organs, so there is no reason to think that he is biologically human in any other respect. Although he is impressed by Alicia's nobility, there is never the slightest hint that he is sexually attracted to her -- he simply doesn't understand Ben's jealousy. And he goes naked.

The inferior Stan Lee version has flesh, bones and all things which pertaineth to man's nature: they just happen to be coated with a life-preserving silvery substance. He has emotions and a human lover, and he always keeps his knickers on.

So the answer to the pressing question 'Does the Silver Surfer have a willy?' is 'Up to Fantastic Four # 70, no; after Silver Surfer #1, yes.'

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The US vs John Lennon

The way things are going, they're gonna crucify me.

'I suppose they tried to kill John,' says Yoko Ono in the last moments of David Leaf's documentary about John Lennon 'but they couldn't, because his message is still alive.' Yoko has made a career out of inviting people to imagine that the moon was a grapefruit, but this is a baffling remark even by her standards.

Who are 'they'? In 1998, Sean Lennon revealed that he believed his father had been murdered by the U.S government. Does Yoko also now believe this theory? In the newspaper adverts she took out on the 26th anniversary of Lennon's murder she admitted that she could not forgive 'the one who pulled the trigger' -- as if she thought there might indeed have been other people involved. But if this is what she thinks, the subject is not mentioned, or even alluded to, anywhere else in the film.

If you like conspiracy theories, here's one. The makers of the U.S vs John Lennon set out to prove that the C.I.A murdered the singer. They assembled the evidence; they recorded their interviews--, but at the last moment, the studio decided that it was too hot to handle and deleted all references to the assassination from the film -- except for that one elliptical comment from Lennon's widow.( Oh, and if you play the film backwards, you can hear President Nixon saying 'I buried John.') Completely bonkers, like all conspiracy theories, but it does account for one otherwise inexplicable fact. How did such a dull movie as this ever come to be made?

If you are a John Lennon fan then very little in the film will be new to you. If you are not, then this isn't a particularly good introduction. For one thing, it is relentlessly Yokocentric. 'When he met Yoko' we are told 'He found the other half of his voice.' If Lennon had a song-writing partner before he married Yoko, then they are never mentioned by name. Indeed, but for a few bars of 'Revolution' and 'The Ballad of John and Yoko', you would hardly be able to tell that John Lennon had ever been in a group called the Beatles. And it is a very selective account, ignoring facts which don't fit in with the story it wants to tell. Yoko may have been half of John's voice, but during the period covered by the movie, Lennon walked out on her (or perhaps she kicked him out) for two years. Since the movie celebrates a Johnandyoko who believed in non-violence and compared themselves with Ghandi, it conveniently ignores his rather embarrassing sympathy for the I.R.A. ('You Anglo pigs and Scotties / Sent to colonize the North / You wave your bloody Union Jacks / And you know what it's worth... / ....Though Stormont bans our marches / They've got a lot to learn / Internment is no answer / It's those mothers turn to burn!') Occasionally, the film is downright misleading: John is allowed to describe himself as working class without anyone pointing out that while Paul lived in a council house, John decidedly grew up in the middle-class part of town and even went to grammar school. And the song which begins 'What a waste of human power / What a waste of human life' is placed over footage of the Vietnam war, even though it is actually about a prison riot.

The film starts with a brief recap of the 'bigger than Jesus' debacle. It isn't really clear what bearing this has on the overall argument. It is certainly true that some people in the Bible Belt were inexplicably offended by Lennon's suggestion that 'Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right'. I wonder how extensive the ensuing antibeatlemania actually was? It's always the same Beatle records we see being put on the same bonfire: if that's the only footage anyone has, how widespread a phenomenon can it have been? Is the film trying to say that America hated Lennon from the beginning because he wasn't a Christian (except on the days when he was)? But I have never heard it claimed that his subsequent troubles with the U.S government were religiously motivated.

We then proceed to Lennon's marriage to Yoko Ono, and the story of how the couple turned their honeymoon into a publicity stunt against the Vietnam war. This is pretty familiar stuff, although the scene where he records 'Give Peace a Chance' lying in bed and surrounded by miscellaneous hangers on most of whom can't quite manage to clap in time with the music remains very funny and rather moving. At some point after this Bed-In for Peace the Beatles split up, but this isn't mentioned: what matters is that John and Yoko relocate to America and get involved in the peace movement and radical politics there.

The film argues that the pivotal event is John's appearance at a benefit concert in December 1971 to campaign for the release of one John Sinclair, a political activist who'd been given a ten year jail sentence for possessing two joints of marijuana. John wrote a protest song (possibly in his sleep) and performed it at the concert. Astonishingly, 55 hours later, Sinclair was released from prison. The following February, John and Yoko's temporary visas were withdrawn and they were told to leave America. I don't think anyone now doubts that this was not, as the immigration department claimed at the time, because John had a trivial conviction in the UK for possessing marijuana, but because the Nixon administration was frightened of him as a political activist and peace campaigner with an influence on newly enfranchised young people. J. Edgar Hoover himself wrote 'All extremists should be considered dangerous' across his F.B.I file. The film shows documents which appear to prove that President Nixon must have known about, if he didn't personally order, the campaign against the Lennons.

Lennon hired a clever lawyer and staged publicity stunts and 'happenings' to further his campaign to be allowed to stay in America. We see some very amusing footage of the press conference at which he announced that he had founded a new country, declared himself an ambassador of it, and therefore granted himself diplomatic immunity. It was not until 1976 that he was finally given indefinite leave to remain in the U.S.A by which time Nixon had resigned in disgrace.

The film ends with some unfamiliar home movies of John during his 'Househusband' phase, including an amusing recording of him interviewing Sean while changing his nappy. This sequence is cut short by the sound of five gunshots, but nothing else is said, either about Chapman or the circumstances of John's death. And it wisely avoids mentioning the appalling fact that if President Nixon had been successful in his attempts to kick him out of America, John Lennon would almost certainly be alive today.

So there is a massive gap in the film. We are being asked to draw a line between the 'bigger than Jesus' controversy; the attempts to deport John from the U.S.A; the acknowledged criminality of the president (we actually hear Mr. Bernstein himself explaining what a bad egg Richard Nixon was); and what happened outside the Dakota Building in December 1980. But so far as I can tell, no link is proven to exist. The immigration department acted legally (if in a petty and paranoid way) in trying to deport a political agitator with a drugs record. If it is true that the F.B.I bugged Lennon's phone then I believe they were within their constitutional rights to do so if they thought he was a threat to national security. His anti-Christian remarks were not (so far as I know) cited as a reason for removing his visa. And I'm sorry, but Mark Chapman was a lone nut who thought (rightly) that he could gain a kind of fame by selecting a famous person and murdering them. So what, in the end, is the film saying?

'I suppose they tried to kill John, but they couldn't, because his message is still alive.' What message? This film is possibly worth 90 minutes of your time because it gives you the opportunity to look at clips and recordings of John Lennon. His charisma jumps out of every frame: this poorly educated, pretty obviously damaged young man, shooting from the hip, saying whatever comes into his head, angry, passionate, witty, surreal. In the middle of answering questions about Vietnam when he is still a mop top, he suddenly interrupts himself to do a riff about 'show business, darling.' When asked how he feels about the people who tried to deport him he says, apparently off the cuff 'Time wounds all heels.' And his energy and commitment as a performer take your breath away. 'It ain't fair / John Sinclair / In the stir for breathing air' is a terrible, terrible song -- yet this doesn't seem to matter as Lennon uses it to channel the anger of a stadium full of people. I defy anyone not to be moved when we see Sinclair coming out of prison hours after Lennon sung this song. So the film does nothing but reinforce my admiration for Lennon the man.

But Lennon's message? The film suggests that he allowed himself to become a political tool of left wing activists like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman (who he later described as 'Mork and Mindy'). It rather pointedly doesn't say that he was also a tool in the hands of a radical surrealist named Yoko Ono. Lennon seems to have been one of those natural forces that needed to be harnessed and pointed in a constructive direction by someone. But can he really be said to have had a 'message' of his own?

Lennon's later work consists of powerful, memorable, but ultimately meaningless phrases, endlessly repeated: 'Woman is the nigger of the world'; 'War is over, if you want it', 'Just Give Me Some Truth'; 'Power to the People, Right on!', 'Free the people, now!' There is no suggestion of what the people are going to do once they are empowered, or what feminists need to do to improve the position of women in society. He refuses point blank to make any specific critique of U.S foreign policy. When someone asks him 'What should the President do?' he replies simply 'He should declare peace.' Yoko once suggested that people should go naked for peace. (How? Why? To what end?) 'Peace' seems not to be a political concept or a state which can exist or not exist between nations: it's a magic word to be said over and over, like one of the Maharishi's T.M mantras, until it stops meaning anything at all.

Lennon may have believed that he was literally raising people's consciousness, that repeating a phrase could somehow release peace and love into the world: instant karma. One can't help thinking that much of this came from Yoko, and that the authentic voice of Lennon comes through only in the (often inaudible) intermediate stanzas. 'Everybody's talking about ministers, sinisters, banisters and canisters, bishops, fishops, rabbis and popeyes, bye bye.' There speaks the true voice of the man who used to think he was a walrus.

Above all, Lennon was a performer. Aligning himself with the 'peace' movement – on the days when he wasn't sitting in paper bags, demanding acorns at the wrong time of year, or making 45 minute films of his penis (*) -- was indeed a powerful political act. But take away the surrealism, the bottoms, the silly little drawings, the records consisting of nothing but feedback and try to present him as primarily a peace campaigner and revolutionary and it becomes painfully obvious that he didn't have a message. All he was saying was 'give peace a chance.'

What we really need at this stage in the day is a long, joyous documentary with lots of complete recordings of Lennon's music and lots of unexpurgated interviews and footage of John Lennon: swearing, angry, silly, infantile, magnificent. What we don't particularly need is to rake over this ancient quarrel.

I saw the movie on the 26th anniversary: the cinema was empty.

(*) A good joke, to be fair. He'd previously made a film called Erection which turned out to be nothing ruder than a 20 minute film of a building site, this one, called Self-Portrait was a film about a prick. Like most conceptual art, once you've heard it described, you don't actually need to see it.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sacha Cohen has been promoting his new movie by giving in-character interviews in his Borat persona. Some of these have been very funny. (Empire magazine: "Which is your favorite James Bond Movie?" Borat: "It hard to say. I am like all five.")

It would have been very easy to mistake the Daily Mail's "Borat's Guide to Britain" as a contribution to this genre. In fact it is a parody. "Here, David Thomas imagine what guidelines he might have for immigrants visiting Britain" (I particularly like the combination of 'immigrants' and 'visiting')

A parody of Borat is a rather pointless exercise: I recall that impressionist Mike Yarwood declined to "do" Frank Spencer or Edna Everage, because they were fictitious characters who were already being "done" by Michael Crawford and Barry Humphries. But you might expect the parodist to get the joke. Borat has a set of prejudices which no sensible person could possibly share; and he doesn't understand America at all. The character in the Daily Mail piece has a set of prejudices shared by the editorial staff of the Daily Mail; and understands the U.K very well indeed.

The piece could be taken as a lexicon of Daily Mail prejudices. Borat thinks that in England, you will be arrested if you try to court a woman; but that homosexuality is almost compulsory, certainly a necessary path to promotion in certain careers.

But if British man is having sexytimes with person who is not a girlie, he not arrested. On contrary, he given contract Channel 4 TV, seat in Parliaments and invitation go swimming with Michaels Barrymore.

He has noticed that English Christians are a persecuted minority:

Chrissiemas. Is banned because not inclusive other religions. Nowadays, British only allowed have religious ceremonies, prayers, days off, etc if not Christians.

Foreigners are given advantages over English people in employment:

If you Polish, just be plumber. Don't worry if can't tell hot tap from colds — British peoples think all Polish great plumbers. Otherwise, can pick fruit and vegetables, cleaning streets, become "ethnic" candidates on Conservatives' A-List.

(The nastiness of that final quip takes one's breath away.)

Borat has spotted the Most Important Issue Facing Britain Today:

In Britain, some women wear veils, mostly if radical teachers, lawyers etc hoping to get into papers, cause fuss, maybe pick up compensation monies.

And of course, he understand the British immigration system.

What to do when First Arrivings. Do not say: "I like very much Britain, long tradition freedom and democracy. Now I hoping work hard, raise family, and celebrate Christmas with all my friends, even the Jews." If say that, immigration officer reply: "Get lost, mateys, we don't want your kind here!" Do say: "I HIV-positive hijacker, sex criminal and terrorist fear persecution in own country. Now I hopings buy fake National Insurance number, claim benefits and plotting attacks on infidels, especially Jews."If you say that, immigration officer reply: "Certainly sir. Just jot your details down here. The Home Office should be able to lose them in a week or two.

Which is, being interpreted: "Me think England darn nice place. Much too nice for white man race."

Anyone who thinks that this is a parody of Daily Mail attitudes, intended to show how absurd they are, should run their eyes down the readers comments section. "Not too far from the truth...what a brilliant articles, its completely true...very funny but more importantly very true....this is the sort of country you get when you let the liberal elite be in charge and take orders from undemocratic institutions like the EC commission....profoundly and unfortunately true....frighteningly accurate description of Britain in terminal decline..."

You have to be quite careful with characters like Borat. Johnny Speight and Warren Mitchell had impeccable left wing credentials, but there were always a certain number of people who liked Alf Garnett because he said what they thought. Ali G is meant to be a complete pratt, but one got the impression that some people missed the joke and thought that he was quite cool. I have even heard stupid people repeating the phrase "Are you having a laugh?" over and over as if they thought that it was funny, where the entire point is that it isn't.

However, at their best, Ali G and Borat are powerful instruments of satire. A fictitious person expresses a ridiculous prejudice, and a real person reveals how stupid and bigoted they are by agreeing with them. In general, Ali G had to conduct long interviews with people in order to trap them: Sacha Cohen must be pretty chuffed that he is made the Daily Mail look stupid and bigoted without even going near their offices.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Monday, August 07, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 24, 2006

Superman Returns

In 1977, Ma and Pa Kent were dead but Krypto the superdog was still alive. Jor-El looked like an extra from Buck Rogers and no-one had heard of John Byrne. Since then, the D.C Universe has been wiped out and reconstituted (twice). Superman has been portrayed as a yuppie by Byrne and as a fascist by Frank Miller. On the TV he's been one half of a romantic comedy and the lead in Little House on the Huge Pile of Kryptonite. But Bryan Singer's Superman Returns manages to ignore these developments, as if the Superman mythos was fossilized at the end of Superman II.(We're intended to pretend that Superman III and Superman IV didn't happen, instead of simply wishing that they didn't. The only difference this makes is that Martha Kent's death is reported in Superman III whereas in Superman Returns she is rather gratuitously alive.) From the opening bars of John Williams second most famous theme tune to the final image of Superman cavorting among the clouds, Singer seems obsessively unwilling to bring anything to this film which wasn't implicit in the first two movies. This is neither a sequel nor a remake: it's a collection of very reverent annotations.

Christopher Reeve is both brilliant and dead, so he is treated with the most reverence. The film is, of course, dedicated to his memory. Brandon Routh doesn't so much play Superman as play Christopher Reeve playing Superman. He doesn't look or sound very much like Reeve, but his acting style is eerily similar – especially in the Clerk persona, of which we see too little. Kevin Spacey doesn't attempt to turn in an impersonation of Gene Hackman, but he follows the zany megalomaniac persona to the letter. It's long enough since I saw the old films that I kept having to remind myself that it wasn't the same actor. (The most obvious difference is that Hackman mostly wore a wig, but Spacey is mostly bald.) Only Kate Bosworth is incongruously playing a completely different character from Margot Kidder, who admittedly never had a great deal to do with Comic Book Lois. Kidder was a career woman who had seen it all before; Bosworth seems almost to be an innocent caught up in events slightly too big for her. Jimmy Olsen and Lois seem to have aged in opposite directions.

There is nothing wrong with trying to recreate the cast list of a well-loved classic. But the characters seem fixed in pre-ordained roles; as if the earlier script circumscribes their range of actions. Not only is Lex carrying out a ridiculous real-estate scam that will kill billions of people; not only does he have a comedy moll who has a fit of conscience at the last moment; but he even reprises his "What my father told me about land" speech from Superman I. Perry repeats the "give me every possible angle on the Superman story" pep-talk. When Superman has saved the lives of the passengers on an experimental space shuttle he feels obliged to encore the old joke abut flying being statistically the safest form of transport. Is Superman a sufficiently iconic movie that today's teen audience can be assumed to have this level of familiarity with it? Over and over again, lines are given special significances because people had said them before – Superman not only greets Lois with the words "You really shouldn't smoke", but keeps blowing her cigarette out as a sort of symbolic romantic gesture. Would you automatically have remembered that that was the first thing he said to her in the old movie? And if you haven't seen Superman I in any recent decade you might very well not understand why everyone keeps quoting the speech about the father becoming the son and the son becoming the father.

The films structure also seems straitjacketed to that of the original. We get a ten minute sequence of Superman visiting his mother in the old homestead, which seems to contribute nothing to the narrative, but conforms to some rule that says that the story arc must go from Krypton to Smallville to Metropolis. At the half-way-point Superman shows off his special effects by flying Lois around the city – although, mercifully, she doesn't feel the need to recite any poetry. We get a montage of him zooming round the world doing a sequence of low-level good turns; followed by a build up to Luthor's mad scheme, and then a huge apocalyptic battle against disaster, climaxing with him turning the world backwards in the old film and bench-pressing a continent in this one.

Most curiously, every major plot event is directly extrapolated from Superman I and II – as if Singer thinks it would be blasphemy to bring anything new to the mix. In Superman I Luthor likes to make money out of real-estate; and the crystals in the Fortress of Solitude are shown to be able to grow and reproduce; so here, Luthor steals kryptonian crystals and tries to grow himself a whole new continent. (He gets into the Fortress of Solitude without much trouble. In the comic book, the door is locked with a very large key that only Superman can lift.) Even the Big Reveal -- which genuinely took me by surprise -- is a very natural development of something which happened in Superman II.

Cinematic vocabulary has moved on, and there are some very creative depictions of Superman's powers. The slowed-down-bullets thing, a monumental bore in every film since The Matrix was put to excellent use here: Superman bouncing machine gun bullets off his chest, and finally off his eyeball may have been the best scene in the whole movie. On-screen action is more frenetic compared with the old days: when Superman rescues the crashing jet, we keep cutting to very disorientating scenes inside the plane.

The film was oddly coy about iconography. The first time Clerk pulls his shirt off, we only see it for a split second; and during the first action sequence, we are not allowed many clear views of Superman. It was almost as if Singer was specifically trying to avoid a Big Moment in which Clerk reveals the "S" on his chest and launches himself into action. However, when someone snaps a photograph which looks oddly like the cover of Action Comics #1, Perry White helpfully tells us that the picture is iconic.

But the iconography of Superman isn't just lifting cars and rescuing aircraft: it's also about the Daily Planet; about Superman's double-life and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, and above all the Cyrano-like love triangle between Lois, Clerk and Superman. We see very little of this in Superman Returns. Perhaps if he'd had more screen time, we would have been unable to avoid asking how even Lois could have failed to notice that Clerk had been away for five years, and, er, Superman had also been away for five years.

At the beginning of the film, Superman stops a plane from crashing into a city. That is also now an iconic image. The posters advertising the film showed Superman swooping in front of a stricken jet over a landscape full of skyscrapers. Is the message that, if only Superman had been here, September 11th would have turned out differently: the world really does need a saviour. As with its overblown use of religious symbolism, the film is using highly charged icons to evoke emotions that it hasn't earned.

This is the heart of the problem. Singer thinks that he's allowed to use sacred images because he is approaching the character of Superman, the performance of Christopher Reeve, and the whole of the 1977 movie as something like holy writ. You can reverently illuminate it, but you can't alter it, much less have any fun with it. Superman Returns is at a very deep level, pretentious: a great deal of awe, but very little heart.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Superman: the Second Coming

Superman is not Jesus. The Old Superman is a boy-scout who regarded rescuing sinking ocean liners and saving the earth from asteroid collisions as 'super-chores.' The Very Old Superman was a tough-guy who socked wife-beaters on the jaw and said 'you aren't fighting a woman now, coward.' The Superman of the radio serials and the Fliescher cartoons 'came to Earth as champion of the weak and the oppressed.' Truth, Justice and the American Way came later.

But he isn't Jesus. The names of Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster appear on every comic featuring the Man of Steel – which is greatly to the credit of D.C Comics: Marvel are still reluctant to acknowledge the existence of any creator other than Stan Lee. According to one reckoning, Siegel and Shuster are jointly the 100th most influential Jews in history: Superman being the foundation stone on which the comic-book industry and therefore much of the movie industry was constructed. More people have heard of Superman than have heard of Hamlet. In 1938 it was understandable that a pair of young Jewish artists might have wanted to imagine a champion. A Messiah, even.

So there is no way that Superman can be Jesus. (His adversary is called Luthor, for goodness sake.) Would it be going too far to suggest that there is a racial motive in the incremental appropriation of Jerry and Joey's character as Christian symbol? Christopher Reeve was paralysed in a tragic riding accident; George Reeves, the first TV Superman, committed suicide. And since it is always possible to construct a straight line between two points, some people believe in a Curse of Superman which anyone who dons the red underpants will be touched by. At first, Siegel and Shuster, who sold the rights to Superman for a few a hundred dollars and died in relative penury, were imagined as victims of this jinx. But the latest iteration of the myth has Jerry Siegel, shortly before the release of the 1977 movie, calling down a curse on all those who have made money out of his character. To re-imagine Superman as a Christian saviour, maybe we had to turn his creator into an old, blind, bitter, Shylock, cursing his treasure.

The Very Old Superman leapt tall buildings in a single bound. Christopher Reeve flew. Bryan Singer's re-invention of Superman floats. Not to put to fine a point on it, he Ascends. He looks down on the earth from above, and says that he can hear everything anyone is saying. 'You say that the world doesn't need a Saviour, but I hear people crying out for one.' And sure enough, he ends up carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders: first, lifting the gigantic globe from the top of the Daily Planet building; then carrying Lex Luther's re-created Kryptonian continent into space. (Luther sees himself as Prometheus, and Superman as a selfish god from whom he is going to steal fire.) Having saved the world but exposed himself to Kryptonite, Superman takes on a cruciform pose and falls to earth. At great length. But of course, he's only Mostly Dead, and when the hospital staff go to check on him, they find the place empty where they had laid him.

No one tried to crucify the man of steel in the 1993 'Death of Superman' comic. He was just beaten to death by a big strong alien. He got better.

Mario Puzo's script for the 1978 Superman movie had Marlon Brando drawing fairly explicit parallels between the origin of Superman and the birth of Jesus, even though it is blindingly obvious even in Puzo's own script that the real parallel is with Moses. But the 70s Superman never became Christic other than in the Kryptonian prologue. Considering that he defies his Father's will to turn back time in order to save Lois's life, and subsequently relinquishes his powers in order to fuck her on his fathers shrine, you could argue that there was something Luciferian about him. Bryan Singer references Marlon Brando's speech no less than three times.

'You will carry me inside you all the days of your life. You will make my strength your own, and see my life through your own eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father, and the father the son....They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son.'

In Puzo's script, this lends some cheesy gravitas to the proceedings. Here, it is merely pretentious.

Spider-Man, Frodo Baggins, Neo, Leo DeCaprio, Indiana Jones – Hollywood turns all its heroes into Christian symbols. (All except Aslan, obviously.) But do the symbols actually symbolize anything? It's hard to see how the story of Superman would help Christian viewers understand the story of Jesus; but neither does it seem to be critiquing or commenting on that story. When Bryan Singer has Magneto use the words 'By any means necessary' at the end of the X-Men, he is asking us to look for connections between his mutant fantasy and the civil rights movement. When Superman thrusts out his arms and falls to earth, he is simply borrowing significance from a bigger story: pretending to be far more important than he has any right to be.

Superman is a friendly alien. He was born on a planet with atomic cities, art-deco architecture, and Flash Gordon fashions. He grew up in Anytown and went to the Big City. Oh, all right, Smallville and Metropolis. Lex Luthor is a mad scientist. Luthor has outrageous schemes; Superman cleverly defeats them. His other enemies include a mad scientist with green skin who steals cities and keeps them in bottles; and a mischievous sprite in a derby hat. He started life in Action Comics and on a radio series presented by the makers of Kellogs Pep, (the super-delicious breakfast cereal). Superman may be able to lift whole continents on his shoulders, but he isn't substantial enough to carry such weighty symbolism.

Superman isn't Jesus. He's a comic-book character.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

"I cannot say what he says, Oyarsa, in your language." - Out of the Silent Planet


I thought that "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was a very good movie. It is pretty faithful to C.S Lewis's book and quite moving at times. Mr Tumnus's house, the Beavers' cottage and the White Witch's palace all looked very much like Pauline Baynes illustrations -- although I had my doubts about Cair Paravel. The talking animals were extremely convincing, although some of the monsters were less so. All the main characters should be nominated for Oscars, and Tilda Swinton should actually win one. The religious content was neither overlooked nor overplayed. Above all, it succeeded in making me feel that I was in Narnia. I enjoyed it very much indeed.



In Chapter 12 of C.S Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" the Pevensie children meet Aslan for the first time. The Lion asks them what has happened to their brother Edmund. Mrs. Beaver tells him that he has betrayed them and joined the White Witch. "That was partly my fault, Aslan," says Peter. "I was angry with him, and I think that helped him to go wrong."

This is a good and generous act on Peter's part. It isn't Peter's fault that Edmund is a bully: Lucy thinks he was turned bad by a "horrid" school. It isn't Peter's fault that Edmund is bewitched by the magic Turkish delight; it isn't Peter's fault that Edmund decides to lie about having been in Narnia with Lucy. But when he discovers this lie, Peter calls his brother a "poisonous little beast". In Mr Tumnus's house, he shouts down Edmund's perfectly reasonable comment that there is not much that four children can do to rescue the Faun from the Witch. Had Peter not been angry, or if he had forgiven him sooner, then Edmund might not have sneaked out of the Beavers' house and gone to the Witch. Peter has told Aslan the exact truth -- his anger helped Edmund to go wrong, so he is partly responsible for the betrayal.

In Andrew Adamson's (1) movie version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", when Aslan learns that Edmund has betrayed his family, Peter says "That was my fault. I was too hard on him." Susan puts her hand on Peter's shoulder and says "We all were." For some reason, movie-Peter takes all the blame for Edmund's misconduct on himself.

In Chapter 16 of the book, Aslan arrives on the battlefield, along with the prisoners who he has freed from the Witch's castle. The Lion leaps onto the Witch and the freed prisoners charge her army. Lewis tells us that, once it is clear that the Witch is dead, all the bad creatures surrender or flee.

In the movie, the Lion tears out the Witch's throat with as much ferocity as is compatible with a P.G certificate and then says solemnly "It is finished." Adamson has spent the last month telling the media that there is no specific, unique or necessary "Christian" interpretation of the story: nevertheless, movie-Aslan adds an explicit religious gloss to a scene which, in C.S Lewis's book, doesn't have one.

Chapter 17 of the book, Edmund is mortally wounded from his battle with the White Witch. Lucy puts a few drops of her magic elixir into his mouth, and waits to see if he will recover.

"There are other people wounded" said Aslan....
"Yes, I know", said Lucy crossly. "Wait a minute."
"Daughter of Eve" said Aslan in a graver voice "Others are at the point of death. Must more people die for Edmund?"

In the movie version Lucy waits and sees Edmund come back from the point of death. His two sisters embrace him, and Peter says, with mock severity "Why can you never do what you are told?" This family reunion comes to an end when Lucy bounds off (without being prompted) to tend to the other wounded soldiers. In the book, Lucy is mildly reprimanded for caring more about her brother than about a group of strangers: in the film this is accepted without question.

So: Adamson's movie is quite astonishingly faithful to C.S Lewis's book. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be able to play this kind of game. (If you tried to put scenes from Tolkien alongside scenes from Jackson, your little head would explode.) It's a scene by scene, if not quite a line by line, translation of the story from book to movie. But fairy tales and disney-multiplex-franchise-movies speak a different language and inevitably in the course of the translation, something gets lost.


The problem with the movie doesn't come where I expected it to.

It wasn't the child-actors. Peter looked too much like Prince William, and Lucy said "actually" too often, but they were all pretty natural and convincing. I felt that I was watching 'real' kids, not drama school prima donnas.

It wasn't the character of Aslan. You can't put God on the screen and you can't make the audience feel that "some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music has just floated by" when they hear his name. But a larger-than-life Lion that sounds like Qui-Gon (Obi-Wan was unavailable) is a pretty good cinematic representation of numinous wisdom. Aslan's first entrance -- a gigantic paw emerging from a tent; all the various centaurs, cheetahs and rhinos falling to their knees; Peter, slightly awkwardly, saluting with his sword -- was one of of two unequivocally magical moments in the film. If we'd never heard of "CGI" I think that we'd have assumed that this was a real lion, borrowed from circus and bribed to do what the director told it to. But Aslan's movements are slower and more regal than a real animal's. That adds to his mystique; like a lion, and yet not quite like a lion. I do regret that we entirely lost the playful side of his character: he does let the girls ride on his back, but we don't see the "mad chase" round the hill, "such a romp as no-one has ever had except in Narnia."

The other genuinely magical moment, surprisingly, was the arrival of Father Christmas. Many people, including Tolkien and Roger Lancelyn Green thought that his appearance in the book was a great mistake.(2) The film navigates this fat jolly minefield by avoiding any stereotypical "coca-cola" imagery. Yes, he has a beard; yes, he is dressed in red, and yes he rides a sleigh ("I've been driving one of these longer than the Witch has!"). He even laughs, although he avoids saying "Ho-ho-ho". But until he produces his sack, you could easily not realise who he is. James Cosmo plays him absolutely straight, as if this is the first time anyone in the world has ever worn a Santa suit. As in the book, the incongruity of the scene is its real point. It's not strange that Father Christmas should be giving out gifts; it's not odd that the heroes should be given magical weapons; but it is very odd that the High King should get his sword as a present from Father Christmas....and this oddness somehow puts a new shine on the cliché.

Department of Polly Toynbee: The line "Battles are ugly when women fight" is changed to "Battles are ugly affairs."

The religious element was handled with a fairly light touch – not laid on with a Gibsonian trowel, but not ignored, either. The death of Aslan is genuinely horrifying, due less to the zoofull of CGI hags and minotaurs than to Tilda Swinton's lumininously evil White Witch. It would have been so easy to have camped up this part, turned her into someone's ugly sister. Instead, Swinton is a kind of female Iago; speaking softly and plausibly and only occasionally allowing the mask to slip. When she whispers "Did you think by all this to save the human child?" we feel Aslan's despair and humiliation. We don't see the knife pierce Aslan – in general, the film tones down the books slightly bloodthirsty atmosphere - but the film unflinchingly squeezes every last tear out of Susan and Lucy. The actors are excellent, convincingly fighting back tears rather than sobbing. Susan's first reaction is, in fact, a forced smile "He must have known what he was doing."

Department of Polly Toynbee: In neither the book nor the film is Aslan "thrashed" by the Witch's minions, although he is tied up and shaved. Perhaps our Polly was confusing Lewis with Gibson? An easy mistake to make.

So: the four children, the Witch, the death and resurrection of Aslan and even Father Christmas – the film handles them all with great confidence and style. And it all looks absolutely terrific; the first shot of Tumnus and his parcels and the lampost and Lucy just takes your breath away -- they've brought Narnia to life, how have they done that?

The problems start when Adamson has to make up stuff for the characters to say.


C.S Lewis is at his best when he is talking to his readers in his own voice: telling them, often in summary form, what happened next or how someone feels. When Aslan dies he writes:

I hope no-one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been -- if you've been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you -- you know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again.

--as good a description of grief as I think anyone has ever managed.

He is less good at dialogue, although in the more mythical sections of the story, his characters often get good lines. When Edmund arrives at the castle, the Wolf says "Welcome, fortunate favoured of the Queen, or perhaps not so fortunate." Many of these lines are carried over into the film: Lucy tells Tumnus that he's "the nicest Faun I've ever met"; Edmund tells the White Witch that his siblings are "nothing special." Adamson only rarely gives in to the Jacksonian urge to redistribute lines between characters. When he does so, it's usually for a clear reason. In the book, when the Witch demands Edmund's blood, a talking bull says "Come and take him!" In the film, the line is given to Peter, which fits in with his hero role, and shows that he really has forgiven his brother. (3) And it was a very good idea to give Mrs Beaver's lines about how Aslan will "always be coming and going" to Mr Tumnus: it means that the Narnian section of the film is neatly book-ended by conversations between him and Lucy.

But when the characters are engaged in ordinary conversation, Lewis's writing ranges between the bland and the positively bad. No modern actor could be expected to say "We've fallen on our feet and no mistake. This is all going to be perfectly splendid" to end sentences with "By Jove!" and "Great Scott!" or to describe things as "beastly". Although Lewis's characters talk a lot, most of what they say is concerned with pointing things out ("Look, there's a robin!") or explaining what they are going to do next. No real relationship or dynamic between them ever emerges. Edmund is treacherous; Peter is angry but forgives him; Lucy is good; Susan is...their sister – but except in so far as it drives the plot they have no real voices of their own.

This is not really a fault on Lewis's part, but a characterstic of the fairy tale form he is writing in. We experience Narnia more vividly because we see it through the eyes of a non-descript Everyboy and Everygirl. Either we imagine that we are in Narnia or we we imagine for ourselves what kinds of children Peter and Lucy must be. The Brother's Grimm don't tell us what Hansel and Gretel studied at school, or what Rapunzel did all day in the tower. But in a movie we are necessarily looking at four specific people represented by four specific actors: they have to be fleshed out as people. And you can't have a movie script where four people spend all their time agreeing with each other: Adamson has to give the group an internal dynamic. This gave me a sense that I was watching two movies simultaneously. In the background is Lewis's story, faithfully rendered; beautifully visualised; powerfully acted. But in the foreground is a "character driven" story about four wartime evacuees that Adamson has made up out of his head.

Just as the fairy tale genre imposes limits on Lewis, so the movie genre imposes limits on Adamson. Hollywood is founded on a Deep Magic that determines what kind of stories can exist. Everything must center on a single hero, who must be central to, or preferably initiate, the action. The hero must be faced with a choice between doing the Right thing and doing the Wrong thing. This choice must involve Personal Growth -- the hero at the end of the movie cannot be quite the same as he was at the beginning. For most movie heroes, from Rick Blain via Han Solo to Merry and Pippin, this Choice has usually been cast in the form "Should I stay or should I go?" Because movies are a democratic genre, the Right Thing is usually defined as a platitude: not Justice or Democracy, but a Good which literally everyone can agree on. It is good to keep promises; it is good to stick together as a family; it is good to help people who have helped you; the bond between Father and Son (and Mother and Daughter, but that's obviously less important) is sacred in an almost literally religious sense; it is good believe in yourself. And at some point in every movie the Deep Magic demands that someone should say "Why don't you try and get some rest?"

Adamson's tells the only story that the Rules of Movie allow him to tell. But it is at times hopelessly at crossed purposes to the story by C.S Lewis on which it is ostensibly based.


We begin with an air-raid during the blitz. The first image in the movie is of German aircraft over London.

This has a triple function:

1: The Deep Magic requires that something should go "bang" within the first five minutes of a movie, otherwise "it's boring"

2: It spells out the concept of "evacuation" for the benefit of any slow boys in the back row. (4)

3: It introduces the central theme of Adamson's invented plot, which which is the conflict between Peter and Edmund.

(It is also "kewl" to start a fantasy movie with a scene from a war film: do you remember how the Oscar Wilde biopic started out looking like, of all things, a Western?)

Since Peter (as opposed to Aslan) is the hero of Adamson's story, as much of the action as possible has to center on or be initiated by him. Adamson has seized on Peter's remark that Edmund's fall is partly his fault and made it the organising principle of the first half of the movie. Peter treats Edmund badly in order that Peter (the hero) can be completely (as opposed to partly) to blame for Edmund's fall. Edmund's repentance can thus be "about" Peter's self-recognition, keeping Peter in the central position. However, this strategy has the incidental effect of making Edmund a more sympathetic character. In the book he is merely spiteful; here, he is to some extent a victim of his ill-treatment. This, in turn, changes the meaning of Aslan's sacrifice. In the book, he is dying for a very nasty and spiteful little boy - giving the light for the darkness. In the film, he is dying to extricate someone from the results of bad choices for which they were not entirely to blame.

So, in this opening scene, we see Peter rushing back into the house (with doodlebugs falling all around him) to rescue Edmund. This establishes that he is a basically decent sort who loves his brother; and that Edmund is stupid and disobedient. Once they get to the bomb shelter, Peter calls Edmund an idiot and asks "Why can't you ever do what you are told?" This rather puts us on Edmund's side -- no-one wants to be told off by their big brother. And the reason Edmund returned to the house is to retrieve a photograph of his soldier Dad, for which we can hardly blame him. Edmund especially idolizes his absent father ("If Dad were here, he wouldn't send us away") and thus especially resents the fact that Peter tries to take on a fatherly role. Pretty much the whole of Adamson's plot has been established. Not quite Oedpus Rex, but still.

The next scene shows the children at the railway station, being evacuated to the country, and saying farewell to their mother (5). The main themes of Adamson's story are further established: Mrs. Pevensie explicitly puts Peter in loco parentis. Peter "promises" to take care of the others. Promises are important and unbreakable in Movies. (It will be remembered that in Jackson's parody of "Lord of the Rings", Sam's stated reason for leaving the fellowship and going to Mordor was neither loyalty nor love for his master, but "I made a promise to Mr. Gandalf. A promise.") "I promised Mum..." is going to become a refrain throughout the Adamson thread of this film. Peter immediately tries to behave like a father, and Edmund immediately resists it ("I know how to get on a train".)

The credits roll over the train-ride to the Professor's house. Before we have seen any wardrobes we have undergone a kind of magical journey: from the nasty urban reality of bombs, railway stations into a rural arcadia where people still travel by horse and cart. As the train puffed through the astonishingly unspoilt countryside and the silly new age theme tune played in the background, every single member of the audience simultaneously thought "Hogwarts Express!"

The first ten minutes or so in the Professor's house are an extremely well-characterised elaboration of Adamson's basic themes. Peter tries to take on the role of Father; Susan needles him for doing it inadequately ("Well, that was nicely handled") and Edmund sulks because Susan is trying to Mother him. ("Yes Mum"). Peter is far too willing to tell Edmund off, but very reluctant to do so to Lucy. This tends to put us on Edmund's side. By the time Edmund meets the White Witch we, like him, are losing patience with Peter. We can understand why Edmund likes the idea that when he is King of Narnia, Peter will be his servant. (In the book, the deal is that Edmund will be King and Peter and Lucy will be Dukes and Duchesses.) Edmund's betrayal is motivated by a wish to humiliate Peter. Peter thus is kept center-stage.

So, we have a positively Ibsenesque little family drama. A surrogate father being cut down to size by a wannabe surrogate mother; and a rebellious son who accepts neither of them due to his (admirable) fidelity to his absent father; and who has therefore become embroiled in a scheme to make his brother-father into his servant. Lewis's fairy tale is a much simpler conflict between three good children and one traitor.

In the book, when the children discover Tumnus's house wrecked by the White Witch, everybody but Edmund agrees that it is their duty to try to help him. Here, Lucy wants to help Tumnus, but Susan and Peter (like Han Solo, Merry, Pippin and those Cheese-Eating-Surrender-Monkeys) think that We Should Stay At Home and Not Get Involved. Susan thinks that This Is Not Our War; Peter's over-riding concern is to keep his brothers and sisters safe, because "I promised Mum." This remains their motivation right through their first meeting with Beavers, up to the point when Edmund consummates his treachery. Discovering that they are the subjects of an ancient prophecy doesn't make any difference. We may also detect the increasingly cancerous influence of Joesph Campbell at this point: the first stage of the journey of the Hero is the Refusal of the Quest. "We aren't heroes. We come from Finchley". (It's not that I like the Empire. I hate it. But there's nothing I can do about it right now. It's all such a long way from here.) It is only when they discover that Edmund has run off to join the Witch that Peter agrees to go and meet Aslan at the Stone Table. But Peter does this only in order to enlist Aslan's help in rescuing Edmund. Arguably, Aslan's sacrifice itself is made sub-ordinate to Peter's need to keep his promise.

In Lewis, the Pevensies accept the reality of Narnia almost immediately. When they step through the Wardrobe, they are transformed into characters in a fairy tale. They seem to know this and behave like fairy tale characters should. Adamson keeps his children anachronistically out of place in Narnia for as long a possible. Susan accepts the existence of magic wardrobes and fauns, but still affects to be surprised by talking beavers. They continue to make references to our world – Lucy boasts that she is the tallest girl in her class ("actually"); Edmund tells the Witch what Mum thinks about Peter. Even after they have met Aslan, Lucy and Susan are still wondering about whether they can take some Narnian dresses home to Mum in the England of rationing and clothes shortages.

But just as Lewis's characters go from being "real" children to fairy tale characters, so Adamson's go from being "real" children to Movie characters. The tipping point is the arrival of Father Christmas. Peter's acceptance of his sword is, in some sense, an acceptance of his role as Hero. Adamson celebrates this by plunging him into the stupidest scene in the movie – and the only one which has no basis in the book. In the land of Movie, the end of the long Winter represents, not the onset of Spring and the return of the true King, but a Hazard for the movie-hero to overcome. The frozen river they are trying to cross starts to melt. All pretense of being 1940s schoolchildren is abandoned. (Not that this pretense ever went much deeper than striped pajamas and a habit of calling everyone Sir.) They realise that they are Action Movie characters. Peter develops an Indiana Jones like ability to, er, surf on lumps of frozen ice. Sticking a sword into the ice would be a good thing to do in the middle of a frozen lake. Apparently. Susan drops out of her mumsy-big-sister role, and realises that she is the Spunky Side Kick of a Movie Hero. "Just because a man in a red suit gives you a sword, that doesn't make you a hero!" But it does, Sue, it does. That's the whole point.

The characters are, incidentally, a little confused about whether to speak British Movie or American Movie. They play cricket, but they say things like "We could all use the fresh air" and "I guess I could try". The Witch says "He turned you in -- for sweeties" as opposed to, say, "He grassed you up -- for candy."

Edmund's scenes in the Witch's castle arguably improve on the book. The idea that Edmund should meet Tumnus in the Witch's dungeon is inspired. It keeps Tumnus on stage – he rather disappears from the book after the first few chapters – and it allows Edmund to see the results of his pettiness. Adamson has already drawn a direct parallel between Tumnus and Edmund: both planned to hand Lucy over to the White Witch, but Tumnus changed his mind, explicitly because he was ashamed of letting down the memory of his solider father. ("We're not really very similar at all.") When Edmund arrives in the wreck of Tumnus's house, it's he that notices the picture of Tumnus Snr. on the floor – taking us right back to the first scene. Again, because we feel that Edmund has blundered into his situation, we feel sorry for him as he grasps the enormity of what he has done: when the Witch turns Tumnus to stone, we feel more sorry for Edmund, who caused it, then for Tumnus himself.

As we've seen, when Peter meets Aslan he takes all the blame for Edmund's treachery because he was "too hard on him." This is an interesting phrase. Edmund resents Peter for having tried to take the place of his father; but Peter sees that the problem is that he has been a bad father: demanding too much of his "son" and over-reacting when he does something bad. (In Movies, "Bad" means "Strict": we never see a Father suddenly realising that he has been too lenient with his son.) This is Peter's Moment of Personal Recognition on which everything else turns.

In the book, we are told that, after Edmund is rescued from the witch and forgiven by Aslan:

"Everyone wanted very hard to say something that would make it quite clear that they were all friends with him again -- something ordinary and natural -- and of course no-one could think of anything in the world to say." ..

Adamson, however, is able to think of something. Peter says "Try and get some rest" and then adds with a smile "And don't go wandering off." Adamson's family plot is effectively resolved at this point. Peter, by pretending to tell Edmund off, concedes that he has been a bad father; Edmund, by smiling, accepts Peter's paternal role and his own place in the pecking order. Susan, incidentally, stops trying to be motherly and starts fooling about in the river with her kid sister. Everything is now in the proper order. All that remains is for Peter, just before the battle, to experience Heroic Self-Doubt (Copyright Viggo Mortensen) and for Edmund to say "Aslan believed in you. And so do I."

Quite astonishingly, even after Aslan has appeared and Edmund has been rescued, Peter still keeps singing his should-I-stay-or-should-I-go song. Now that they have Edmund back, they have to go home "because I promised Mum". This is appallingly impoverished writing: we are being asked to entertain the notion that Being Asked to Become King by Jesus Christ or a Furry Analogy Thereof is trumped by I Made a Promise To My Mum. And we all know the main character can't miss the big climax, in any case. Granted, Peter's scheme is that he should stay and fight while the other three go home, but that only suggests that he hasn't been paying attention: the prophecy requires four human children to be monarchs.

No-one ought to be surprised that the battle, which takes place off-stage in the book, is played out in all its glory. As the ranks and ranks of monsters and animals lined up for the cavalry charge; as we see Peter and the White Witch facing each other across the valley and the gryphons dropping rocks on the enemy, and an honest to god phoenix lighting up the sky, everyone in the audience must have thought "Doesn't Peter Jackson do this kind of thing so much better?"

Putting the battle on screen has one unintended consequence: it means that we actually see Edmund realising that he should strike at the Witch's magic staff, rather than at the Witch herself. In the book, this occurs off-stage, and when Aslan arrives, the first thing Peter does is tell him that it was his brother's bravery and good sense that saved the day: a nice gesture of magnanimity and generosity which would have fitted in nicely with Adamson's invented story, but can't fit into a Movie which requires a climax in which Stuff Blows Up.

And so we are left with Susan giving Edmund the magic elixir, which, as we have seen, is given a very different spin from that in the book. In the book, the fact that Lucy has to go and tend the other soldiers first indicates that family is not the only important thing. This would utterly contradict Adamson's invented storyline, which is about how a dysfunctional set of siblings, running away from one war (in which they are helpless bystanders), establish healthy, functioning relationships by finding themselves in the middle of another (in which they are pivotal figures.) The idea that there is anything more important than family simply cannot be expressed in the language of Movie.

When the battle seemed to be turning against the good guys, Peter told Edmund to "take the girls and go home", so when Edmund is revived, Peter says "Why can't you do what you're told?" in a friendly, ironic manner. This is the same thing he said to him in anger in the bomb shelter. The fact that the line is said twice, but in a different context, establishes that there has been Character Growth: Peter is now longer "too hard" on Edmund, and Edmund now respects Peter. So the Deep Magic of Hollywood is satisfied, and we can all go home.


None of this really matters.

There is only one important question to ask about this film. "Did it, or did it not, put a lump in your throat during the key set-pieces?" According to this criteria, Adamson's "The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe" succeeds admirably. Lucy's first trip to Narnia; Father Christmas; the first appearance of Aslan; Edmund's rehabilitation; Lucy and Susan at the stone table – all these scenes must have had everyone apart from Polly Toynbee reaching for their pocket handkerchiefs.

So despite the Disneywood nonsense, the film actually remains pretty close to Lewis's intentions. The point of Aslan's death is not that it is a rather clumsy "allegory" of the Atonement; but that our reaction to it is emotionally congruent with what our reaction to the death of Jesus would be if we believed that story were true. Ten years from now, children who saw this film will not remember that the explanation of the Deep Magic was rather truncated or that there was some dross about Family and Doing the Right Thing. What they will remember is how sad they were when Aslan died, and how happy they were when he came alive again, and how the "real" Father Christmas is scary and holy as well as being kind and jolly. Poetry is lost in translation; but myth remains the same in any language.


(1) The director's name is, of course, an allegory. "Adamson" means "Son of Adam", so "Andrew Son-of-Adam" and "Peter Son-of-Adam" are symbolically brothers. In the Bible, the apostles Andrew and Peter are brothers. Just as Andrew brought Peter to Jesus, so Andrew Adamson brings Peter Adam's Son to Aslan. (The director's name is also a deliberate reference to the movie "Born Free", which is itself an allegory of the conversion of C.S Lewis. Joy Adamson made friends with a lion called Elsa, which is very nearly "Aslan" spelled backwards. This represents the fact that it was the experience of "Joy" which led Lewis to "befriend" Christ.)

(2) In fact, he is indispensable to the symbolism. In the story his arrival represents the beginning of the end of the White Witch's "always winter but never Christmas" spell. (The English "Father Christmas" is primarily the personification of the season although he acquired the habit of gift-giving from the Dutch-American "Santa Claus".) At a religious level, it's important that Aslan and Father Christmas arrive at the same time. But Lewis is also invoking a world where Father Christmas and Christ, the merry making and the holiness are inseparable parts of the same festival. He claims that one Easter Sunday he heard a toddler chanting "chocolate eggs and Jesus risen!" and commented "This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable theology."

(3) Peter drawing his sword to defend Edmund is an allegory of Peter drawing his sword to defend Jesus in Gethsemane. Santa giving Peter a sword is an allegory of Christ telling Peter to put away his sword.

(4) I think the film is confused about the nature of evacuation. The kids who were sent away from railway stations with name-tags round their necks were part of an organised programme, where whole schools were sent to the countryside and compulsorily billeted with strangers. The Pevensies know that they are going to meet Mrs McCreedy; and Mrs McCreedy evidently knows they are coming. So surely this a private arrangement between the Professor and Mrs Pevensie. Why the name tags?

(5) Lucy mentions that their mother is called "Helen". This suggests that Edmund and Peter are allegories of David and Douglas Gresham, who were taken by their mother Helen Joy Gresham to live in an old house that was owned by a learned Professor, who knew about secret worlds.

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