Showing posts with label MOVIES. Show all posts
Showing posts with label MOVIES. Show all posts

Monday, November 18, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Tolkien -- The Movie

Young people. Bright young things. Public school. Rugger. Oxford. First love.

The horror of the First World War.

Survivors, in the days after the war, nursing injuries and remembering fallen comrades.

A whole lost generation, the waste, the waste, the waste.

Empty chairs at empty tables.

Middle aged family men, years later, raising children doing mundane jobs, smoking pipes, the horror locked inside, never spoken off.

We've seen it. Over and over. And yes of course it bears repeating.

But what does this particular First World War film have to say about the particular Tommy who would grow up to create Middle-earth?

Absolutely fuck-all.

Pardon my Sindarin.

Tolkien had a boring life. Which is to say, he had the best possible life any writer could possibly have: he stayed at home and wrote. After 1918, says Humphrey Carpenter, nothing much happened. He taught undergraduates about Anglo-Saxon vowels and was the first person to spot that Beowulf is a good story. He drank beer with C.S Lewis and entirely missed the point of the Narnia stories. And he wrote some books which were in his lifetime modestly popular but attracted a cult following. He never finished his Great Work, but that's because his Great Work was pretty much un-finishable.

Compare and contrast with the life of his friend C.S. Lewis who kept getting himself into the most complicated and dramatic psychological scrapes. The story of his life is in grave danger of becoming more famous than his actual books.

Priscilla and Christopher Tolkien are both alive although approaching their one hundredth birthdays, and they have very sensibly deemed that their father's personal papers -- those not related to Middle-earth -- are not to be published in their life-times. I don't think that there are any Dark Secrets waiting to be revealed, but clearly sometime in the next decade it is going to be possible to publish a much more detailed and intimate biography of Tolkien than has been possible up to now.

In the mean time, there is this. It is hard to say much more than "Son; you are no Shadowlands."

Any Tolkien bio-pic was always going to fall into a fairly predictable shape, based on two inescapable biographical facts. In his rambling introduction to Lord of the Rings, Tolkien complains that everyone assumes that the story was inspired by the 1939-45 war, even though the Great War was a more significant event in his own life. And then he suddenly blurts out "By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead." And in Wolvercote cemetery in Oxford, anyone can find a grave bearing the real names John Ronald Reul Tolkien and Edith Mary Tolkien, along side the fictional names Beren and Luthien.

So there is your story. While he was at school, Tolkien used to go and drink tea and eat cake with three other young men, and talk about the novels, poems and music they were going to write. They jokingly called it the Tea Club and Barovian Society. (Their tea shop was in a department store called Barrows.) As they got older and moved apart, they started to mythologise the TCBS. It is hard to know if Geoffrey Smith would really have been a great poet and Robert Gilson would really have been a great artist if they had survived the Great War. You would hardly have known from his juvenilia that young John Ronald was going to write the Best Loved Book of the Twentieth Century. Young people always think that their friendships are the greatest and most important friendships that there have ever been, just as they always feel that no-one before them has ever been truly in love.

People of Tolkien's age and class seem to have been more than usually prone to carry childhood jokes and nicknames into middle-age. C.S Lewis's letters to his brother are dense with private jokes about piggiebothams and pdaddybirds. I wonder if this is a product of the public school ethos which teaches that you are an Etonian or a Harrovian first and everything else a very poor second. Nothing of any real importance happens after you are done with Hogwarts.

Geoffrey and Robert died in the trenches, and the fourth member of the group, Christopher Wiseman, gave up his ambitions to be a classical composer. Before he died, Geoffrey Smith wrote a letter asking Tolkien to "say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them."

So there is one half of the story: four young men set out to change the world through their art. Two die; one comes home damaged and never fulfills his dreams; but the last makes good on the promise and really does change the world.

When he was only sixteen, Tolkien fell in love with a slightly older teenager named Edith Bratt. He was a catholic and she was a protestant and his legal guardian, a Jesuit, told him to stop seeing her or lose his inheritance and any chance of going up to Oxford. He wrote an proposed to her when he became a legal adult on his twenty first birthday. The whole thing sounds so much like an operetta that we should be relieved he wasn't born on the twenty ninth of February. They got married and lived happily ever after, for certain values of "happy". The story of Beren (who can't marry Luthien unless and until he steals one of the holy Silmarils from the Crown of Morgoth) and Aragorn (who can't marry Arwen unless and until he becomes king of the reunited kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor) are to some extent inspired by Tolkien's own circuitous love story.

And it is at this point that the film collides with a very large and very immovable object. The basic facts of Tolkien's life are in the public domain. His stories and poems are very much protected by the Berne convention. So we are faced with a film about the origins of Middle-earth which cannot quote from any Middle-earth related story and which is barely permitted to actually use the term Middle-earth. At one point we see Tolkien looking at the nigh sky and muttering a verse about "bright Earendel", but no-one gets around to telling the, actually rather fascinating, story about how the Anglo-Saxon name for the planet Venus got incorporated into Tolkien's private mythology as the name of Elrond's legendary father. Although we see Edith dancing in some woods by moonlight, we can't be told directly that this is awfully like the moment when human superhero Beren meets elvish demi-goddess Luthien. Similarly, when the sick JRRT is blundering around the trenches in the company of his loyal batman, we are left to draw our own conclusions from the fact that the batman's first name is, er, Sam. 

It is beautifully filmed and impeccably acted -- there is even a funny turn by Dear Dear Sir Derek as Tolkien's tutor Prof Wright. It takes place in that movie version of the Olden Days where the sun always comes through the trees at exactly the right angle and everyone's motor car is shiny and new.

But it is probably the silliest film you will see all year. Ludicrous, overwrought scenes tumble off the screen. The script is a dead cert for the "Most Bio-Pic Cliches In a Single Movie" Oscar. The high production values and decent cast make the unintentional comedy seem even funnier.

It is hard to select a favorite moment. Perhaps it is Tolkien's departure for The Front. He and Edith say goodbye in a restrained, stiff upper lip kind of way, and he marches off….and then suddenly turns around, runs back, puts his tongue down her throat and proclaims undying love. ("Stay alive!" she suggests, not entirely constructively.) One wonders why they didn't just play Rachmaninov in the background and have done with it.

FACT: Tolkien and Edith were already married when Tolkien left for France.

Or is it the scene when Tolkien, having been sent down from Oxford for failing his exams and holding a rather drunk TCBS meeting on a bus, receives a letter to the effect that his True Love is Betrothed To Another and starts proclaiming Elvish poetry to the heavens, waking up everyone in college. But -- how ironic! -- Prof Wright is one of those he wakes up, and he wants to know what language Tolkien was speaking. Tolkien follows the old man around Cambridge for some time until he agrees to let him join the philology department. On condition he writes a 5,000 word essay on Norse Survivals in Gawain. That afternoon.

FACT: Tolkien started out studying Classics, but did disappointingly in his first year exams. He was allowed to switch to English because he had scored 100% on his philology paper.

I adore the scene in which the relatively uneducated Edith puts brilliant Tollers to rights on the True Nature of Language. He only cares about the sounds of words, and goes off on one about why Cellar Door is the most beautiful sound combination in English. She shares with him the original insight that the beauty of language consists in both sounds and meanings. This gives him the idea of creating imaginary people to speak his imaginary languages. So it's all her fault. 

Another moment of comic genius occurs when Edith has a falling out with Tolkien. Tolkien takes her to meet his tea shop friends, but becomes jealous because she shares an interest in Wagner with Christopher Wiseman. Tolkien doesn't particularly like Wagner. "It shouldn't take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring" says Gilson, at which point several members of the audience cut their own throats in desperation. To make it up to her, Tolkien takes her to hear Rhinegold at the Birmingham opera. Only they don't have tickets and aren't dressed for the opera and can't get in. So, and you'll like this, they climb over a wall and sneak into a costume store from which they can over hear the music...and dress up in the costumes and mime the story as the music plays.

FACT: Edith never attended a TCBS meeting: Tolkien's friends didn't know about her until after they were at college. 

But the greatest moment; the moment which will live in cinematic infamy, comes in the final seconds. It is just the most perfect mixture of historical inaccuracy and cliche you ever saw in your life. Some years after the war, Tolkien is sad because he doesn't know where his Great Work is going. Edith counsels him to decide what he really wants to write and write that or to write what he knows or something of that sort. Out for a walk in the Shire with their children, Tolkien starts to promise a new story, which the kids will help him with -- and which, he promises, will be about love, loyalty, quests, dragons, small people who are big on the inside, skateboarding elves....

Alone in his study, we see him take a beautiful clean sheet of manuscript paper. We see an extreme close up of a fountain pen nib. We see the pen dipped in ink. We see it start to write on the pristine page, in beautiful hand writing.










And then bugger me if he doesn't stop and think and we go into extreme close up on his lips and hear him whisper the word "hobbit" just before the screen blacks out.

FACT: Tolkien wrote "in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" on the back of an old exam paper on the spur of the moment. He didn't at that point know what the story was about, and had no idea that it would eventually connect with his long germinating mythology.

There may come a day when someone will make a worthwhile movie about the life of Tolkien. But it is not this day.

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

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

I didn't hate Disney's Christopher Robin nearly as much as I intended to. It was funny when it was trying to be funny and charming when it was trying to be charming. It is hard not be charmed when the adult Christopher Robin walks across the Pooh Sticks Bridge and finds that Eeyore's stick house is still standing and accidentally falls down one of Pooh's heffalump traps. It seems to understand -- or at least have a passing interest in -- A.A Milne's original short stories.

I believe scientists have to write up failed experiments as well as successful ones, so honour demands a review. I am sorry it will not be as funny as it would have been if I had hated it. I promise to get around to the Tolkien biopic in due course. 

Christopher Robin is all growed up. He has a very boring office job working for a company which makes suitcases. His boss, played by Mark Gatiss, needs him to work right through the weekend, even though he had promised to spend it with his wife and little girl. While he is struggling through his sales figures, his old friend Winnie-the-Pooh pops up in the park outside his London home. With, as they say, hilarious consequences.

Almost the best part of the film was the opening credits, in which simplified versions of E.H Shepard's illustrations are gently animated to re-acquaint us with the stories of the boy and his famous bear. These tiny vignettes caught a very large amount of what is entrancing about the original tales. A little boy and his toy animals pull a fat teddy bear out of a rabbit hole. The bear gets stuck up a tree, floating improbably on the end of a toy balloon; the little boy rescues him by bursting the balloon with a toy gun. These animations lead directly into a "live action" version of the final story, "in which" Christopher Robin says goodbye to his childhood friends and leaves the Forest. 

Christopher Robin is played by a child actor and the forest is a real landscape, but the stuffed animals are 3D animations. The toys are part way between "classic Pooh" and "Disney Pooh": Piglet and Eeyore look very like Shepard's pictures but Tigger is pure Disney. Pooh is fuzzy and teddy-like and avoids being too bright a shade of orange, but he retains his red waistcoat. Christopher has a mercifully English accent; no gophers are in evidence. 

The scene starts out by following the book pretty closely, with Rabbit making his pompous "goodbye" speech and Eeyore reading out his awful poem; but it rapidly degenerates into CGI animals throwing bits of cake at each other. I suppose Corporate Pooh can only think in terms of slapstick and farce. Pooh and Christopher go to their enchanted place and say goodbye and deliver most of the lines from the book. The line "I am not going to do nothing any more. They don't let you" has been changed to "I am not going to do nothing any more. They don't let you in boarding school." We zoom through Christopher Robin's post Forest life -- school, army, death of parents, marriage, baby, job -- in a few moments, and then the story proper gets under way.

I remember when we were surprised by Roger Rabbit and Jar-Jar Binks and Gollum: but now we all accept that a stuffed kangaroo can be part of the cast of a movie. The day is not infinitely remote when the idea that human actors had to go into a studio and perform their lines will seem outdated and quaint. Fortunately that day hasn't come quite yet: Ewan McGregor carries the film almost single-handedly. The whole of the second act consists of him interacting with a CGI bear; the bear is joined by an entire CGI menagerie, but no humans, in act three. Ewan only gets to talk to actual actors in the finale. I never once doubted him.

The film has essentially the same plot as Hook -- the distant work-obsessed father remembers his own childhood and reconnects with his family -- but McGregor never allows the adult Christopher Robin to come across as a monster. We entirely believe that he is unwillingly forgoing his holiday because Mycroft Holmes has forced him to; that he deeply loves his daughter but honestly thinks that making her cram to get into a prestigious boarding school is the right thing to do. He doesn't embarrassingly revert to childhood, but there's a light in his eyes when he meets his old friends and starts to remember the olden days. He pitches the thing entirely right; treating Pooh partly as a naughty child and partly as an embarrassing old college mate.

And he never once calls him "my young apprentice".

The "iconic" theme song only troubles the score a couple of times, and even I can't begrudge the brief reprise of The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers. ("He does that a lot," says Eeyore, gloomily.) But I have always found the Disney version of the willy-billy-silly-old Bear incredibly charmless. Slow and lugubrious, it is very hard to imagine this Pooh composing a pome or inventing a honey pot shaped boat. Almost his only personality trait is that he sometimes says the kinds of things that you can put on greetings cards and motivational posters. When Christopher Robin said that he liked to do nothing, he did, in fact mean something. He meant that he liked doing the kinds of things which are important to children but which adults don't understand. Playing with toy bears. Having wars with toy soldiers. Making up stories. But Disney-Pooh uses "nothing" simply as a play on words: "People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day." It sounds vaguely wise; it goes nicely on a greeting card. But it doesn't actually mean anything at all. (How does the old Irish riddle go? "I am greater than God; I am worse than the devil; dead men eat me; if you eat me, you'll die. What am I?")

When he first visits Christopher Robin's house Pooh knocks over a cup which rolls along the shelf causing everything in the kitchen to crash to the floor. Someone has him confused with Paddington. The other characters come across very much as a rabble of badly behaved toddlers; only Eeyore feels like a character. Never having seen a grown-up before, the animals all assume that Christopher Robin is a heffalump. Which is rather cute.

The film has taken some trouble to think about the metaphysical status of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. It would have been tempting to make Pooh function like Hobbes in Calvin and Hobbes: a living being to Christopher Robin, but a stuffed toy to everyone else. But this Pooh definitely has agency and individual life and literal existence -- when people in the real world encounter the crying talking sleeping walking living teddy bear, they are freaked out. Although the film doesn't put it in these terms the Hundred Aker Wood seems to be a separate magical universe connected to our world via a magical tree. The magical tree is situated near Christopher's childhood home, but when Pooh travels back through the, as it were, wardrobe to 1950s England, he emerges in a park near Christopher's Bloomsbury home. "I suppose it is where ever it needs to be," he explains. He may be a bear of very little brain, but he knows a Plot Device when he sees one.

The trouble with this is that it removes any of the symbolism and poignancy which Winnie-the-Pooh could have had. This Pooh is not an imaginary friend: he's just a friend. 

You could make a good story around the question of what happens to imaginary friends when their children grow up. Perhaps they go and find new children to befriend. Perhaps they Cease To Be. Perhaps they wait around like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, hoping that their erstwhile playmate will appear again? Peter Yarrow sanctioned a picture book in which a little girl arrives in Puff's cave shortly after Jackie Paper deserts him. Father Christmas told young Christopher Tolkien that he wouldn't be writing for a few years, but would catch up with him when he had children of his own. A cartoon did the rounds on the internet a while back in which a grown up Calvin found an old stuffed tiger when his own little girl was being menaced by monsters under the bed. And there are some people who would say that "where does the delusion go once you are cured of it?" is a silly question, like "where does eighty miles an hour go when the car stops?".

The ending of the House at Pooh Corner is about a boy reaching a point in his life where he no longer plays with stuffed toys. The prologue to Christopher Robin is simply about a boy going off to school. Boarding school at that. It is taken for granted that the fall of man would have been averted if children never had to sleep away from home. Christopher Robin has become so busy with unimportant things like getting married, raising children and defeating the Nazis that he has lost touch with some of the friends he had when he was six years old. Once he gets back in touch with them, he's much happier.

I believe I remember the name of one (non imaginary) friend from when I was six. I haven't spoken to him in twenty five years. I still have some of my cuddly toys, though. The New York Library wasn't interested in taking them off my hands. 

The denouement of the film is quite clever. Christopher Robin applies Pooh's philosophy of "nothing" to the problem of suitcase manufacture and everyone lives happily ever after. Although the luggage company which Christopher Robin works for is very small, it is run by a mega-capitalist who owns nearly all the companies in England. Christopher points out that if he allowed his millions of employees time off to do "nothing"; they would be able to go on holiday and the company would sell millions more suitcases. 

You may think that trades unions had to fight tooth and nail for paid leave: it turns out it was actually gifted by a magic bear. Or perhaps that is the message. A world where mega-capitalists facilitate work-life balance of their own free will is about as likely as a talking teddy?

If this is the 1950s, why do Christopher Robin's "very important papers" appear to have come off a laser printer?

The more I think about the message of the movie, the more puzzled I am. Winnie-the-Pooh, who literally does nothing all day, is happy. When Christopher Robin hung out in the Hundred Acre Woods, throwing sticks in rivers and chasing non-existent heffalumps, he was happy. Now Christopher Robin has a job and a nice house in town and a nice cottage in the country, he is sad. Madeline Robin studies hard all day because her dad wants her to go to a prestigious boarding school: this makes her sad. When she stops studying and starts playing imaginary tennis matches with a balloon, she is happy. Play is good. Work is bad. School is bad: forests and teddy bears are good. Doing stuff is bad. Doing nothing is good. Quit your job. Lower your ambition. Spend more time with your friends and your family. Play instead of studying. Money doesn't buy happiness.

What was it Walt Disney paid to buy Winnie the Pooh from A.A Milne's descendants? Three hundred and fifty million dollars, wasn't it? The real life Christopher Milne's real life daughter got a cheque for forty four million. Which is nice.

There is nothing wrong with giving a child a book which says "be kind and generous and prayerful" when you yourself are cruel and mean and irreligious. That's just perfectly normal hypocrisy. And there is nothing surprising about grown-ups telling children actual deliberate lies. Of course an elephant can't fly if it wants to fly badly enough. But put the idea about and all the other elephants will start to believe that its their own fault they can't fly, that they would have been able to fly if they'd wanted to badly enough, and they will be content with their lot and go and work in luggage factories and not form trade unions like those nasty circus clowns.

But why on earth would anyone feed children with a morality that they themselves don't believe and which they definitely don't want the child to believe? If we all took on board the message of Christopher Robin, then it is certain that movies like Christopher Robin would never get made.

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

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

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The point of those articles was that someone said that they like a certain thing even though they thought it was terrible and I thought "I wonder what they mean by that."

Friday, October 10, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

work in progres

No Hipsters. Don't be coming in hear with your hairy faces, your vegan diets, your tiny hands and your sawdust bedding. No, wait. Hamsters. No Hamsters.


Wil Self wrote a piece in the Spectator entitled "Why I Hate Hipsters." I hope they commission another piece called simply "Why I Hate". And then one from a hipster entitled "Why I Hate Wil Self." 

I got as far as the bit where he complained about people who play loud music in coffee shops and got lost. I think he is mainly cross about the existence of cappuccino. He uses the words "frothy coffee" and "dickhead" interchangeably. A Daily Telegraph sub-editor asserted that hipsters were now the world's most derided sub-group; which must come as quite a relief for all the pedophiles. 

Some people hate hipsters. They hate them even more than they hate immigrants. One of the things that makes them really really cross is that they drink orange juice out of jam jars, which is to say, one of the coffee shops on Stokes Croft has jam jar shaped glasses. I find that sort of thing quite fun, but I can't imagine getting cross about it. I suppose it's a class thing. When people say that they hate hipsters with their beards and their Oxfam clothes and their orange juice what they mean is that they don't like the way in which all the boarded up shops have been taken over by coffee shops and bakeries and forced the crack dealers and whores out of business.

It's gentrification, innit? According to Wikipedia, I myself am 60% Hipster.

I think that one of the things which make "Hipsters" so derided is their affected sense of ironic detachment. The hipster goes to the Cube and the Arnolfini but only in order to strike a superior pose and complain that they've gone awfully mainstream recently; the hipster gets a ticket for the first night of a new play but doesn't appreciate it because he was so busy appreciating how clever and sophisticated he was for appreciating it. When I get accused of being a hipster (a thing which has hardly ever happened) it's never because I re-read Judge Dredd comic books or have Superman radio episodes on my IPod. It's always because I once heard a concert by a Senegali guitarist.

Oooo you hipster! You only went cos you wanted to feel clever!

The hat possibly doesn't help.


I don't think that the person who says that he knows the books he likes are terrible or says that her preferred genre is "trash" has a low opinion of the things which they love. I think that they are simply signaling that they want to suspend criticism. They would rather you stopped thinking, please. They don't want to have, for the seventeenth time, the debate about whether one of the character's was a bit racist and whether there were enough female characters. (He was and there weren't but shut up about it already.) He thinks that if he lies on his back with his tale between his legs, no-one will start a fight with him.

And I was kind of expecting (and so were you) this lecture to end up with me saying "Silly people! Asking me to switch my brain off!  Telling me that I can only see Guardians of the Galaxy is I leave my critical faculties at the door! Saying that some things are immune from criticism! If I can write a long Freudian Essay about King Lear I can damn well write a long Freudian essay about Superman Brought To You By The Makers Of Kellogs Pep (the Super-delicious breakfast cereal.)

But instead I am going to wonder out loud: why does anyone think that this kind of thing is worth saying in the first place?

Isn't it because the hipsters and the critics and the fan fiction writers and the subversives and the social justice vigilantes and the people who should really have grown out of this nonsense years ago are always trying to erect a veil between you and the thing you are watching or reading. Who want to prevent you from, in Lewis's sense, ever receiving any work of art ever again. Who want your primary experience of Guardians of the Galaxy to be that it didn't have any major female characters in it. (Groot knows, the lack of major females characters in Guardians of the Galaxy was as obvious as the fact that Geoff Tracey was a puppet.)

I think that "I like this, but it's rubbish" is trying to safeguard a few tiny drops of actual, primary, artistic experience. In a moment, I'm going to use the word authenticity and everyone will be forced to leave the room.

I think "I like this even though it is terrible" means "don't look at the strings".

I think "I like this even though it is terrible" means "I want to watch this, not through a veil of hipster pretension, but actually itself"

I think "I like this even though it is terrible" means "I like this uncomplicatedly despite the fact that we live in age of irony"

I think "I like this even though it is terrible" means "I like this."

I think "I like this even though it is terrible" means "This is good."

I like Clone Wars even though it is terrible; I like Superman on the wireless even though it is terrible; I like 60s Marvel even though it is terrible. 

But truthfully; truthfully truthfully truthfully, I think that Doctor Who and Star Wars and Macbeth and the Ring Cycle are terrible too.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

work in progress


I have a friend who makes a point of reading stories against the grain. If it's a comic book about a hero who catches thieves just like flies then he decides that the thieves are all heroic Jesse James types and the hero is a fascist oppressor. (OK: the idea that bankers and vigilantes are baddies may not be that much of a stretch.) If it's a story about heroic warriors fighting bug eyed monsters in space he recasts the bug-eyed monsters as oppressed colonial victims. I assume he thinks that Doctor Who is a racist: the Daleks are just misunderstood. Or possibly Doctor Who is just impossible to misread; which probably means it's not worth reading in the first place. 

I can see how this game might keep an intelligent brain occupied while it's owner was watching movies about Cowboys and Indians and Cops and Robbers. (Perhaps if you are bright and creative enough to rewrite the film in you shouldn't be watching the Lone Ranger in the first place.) I would guess that it renders (for example) Watchmen practically un-watchable. The text already undercuts itself so radically that it's hard to see what is gained by a clever reader willfully subverting it. "Let's read Watchmen as if Rorschache is the good guy." Well, yes, the text positively encourages you do that.  "Let's read it as if he's the bad guy." Yes, the text positively encourages you to do that as well.

On Lewis's terms, this sort of playful approach is the least "literary" imaginable. It is only interested in using the text as raw material for a game; anything that the actual author put onto the actual page is likely to disappear under the weight of subversion. Turning Star Wars (in your head) into a story in which Luke Skywalker is a religiously inspired terrorist is only one step up from school kids pretending there are dirty bits in Middlemarch. (Which is what they had do before the invention of the internet.) But can it really be that an active reading is worse than a passive one? Couldn't one equally make the case the kids comic annual that says "Look, space ships" and leaves the kid to do the actual imagining is one of the highest and most dynamic forms of literature. (It's also how good pornography works. So I'm told.)

If you are already taking the trouble to imagine that perfectly clean books are dirty ones; or of reading one novel and making up a different one in your head, then why not go the whole way, write your day-dream down on paper, and create completely new stories of your own? I suppose that's how Fanfic got started.

I don't think that a gay teenager, reading Legion of Superheroes and deciding that (I think it was) Bouncing Boy must be gay was consciously engaging in a subversive queer reading. I think that was a natural thing to do when there were no gay characters in comic books. The whole idea of Robin and Bucky was that you got to imagine that you were Captain America's or Batman's Very Special Friend. At one level, fan fiction writers are using popular fiction in the exact way it's always been used; in the exact way it's intended to be used. (Has any one ever read Harry Potter and not pretended that an Owl is about to drop a very important letter through their bedroom window? See also: Power Rings, Jaunting Belts, Light Sabers, Lenses...)

But it seems to be that when fan fiction becomes too much of a thing, the Legion and Harry Potter are basically reduced to a commodity: raw material to be chewed up and spat out and in new form, one where the baddie is the goodie and both of them are having kinky sex with each other. Which is fine. I mean, its fun, and its creative and its interactive and it doesn't do anyone any harm. I think it might be a pretty good working definition of the difference between a fan and a critic. A critic writes an essay about a book. A fan write three more chapters. (And then dresses up as the main character.)

But. There is Doctor Who fan fiction online before the closing credits of this weeks episode have been ruined by the continuity announcer. When Amazing Spider-Man 2 came to an end, I sat in the cinema for eight minutes to see if there was a post-cred. My fan-fic writing friends used those eight minutes to write a short story based on the premise that Aunt May was having an affair with Norman Osborne, and posted it to the internet before I left the cinema. They must literally sit through the actual movie thinking "What if this character were gay? What if I added a sex scene here? Could that background character be reimagined as the protagonist of the movie?" They have their reward. But this critic wonders if they can be said to have ever actually "seen" the movie they are writing about?

there's more

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

a work in progress


Some people would say that the writer who can write a 15 minute script which ends with the hero getting captured in such a way that millions of children literally can't wait to find out if he escapes or not is just as clever -- maybe cleverer -- than the one who can write 4,000 pages about the minutiae of his childhood in such a way that the broadsheet newspapers salivate over it. But I don't think they really believe it. People also say "You have to be just as good an actor to play Widow Twanky as you do to play Hamlet" but I don't think they really believe it either."

I think that what everyone really believes is that there is a sort of league table of genres with Superman at the bottom, Middlemarch is at the top, and Agatha Christie in the billiard room with the lead piping.

Which means we have been making very heavy weather of a very easy question. "I like this even though it is bad" means "I like this despite its low position in the the hierarchy of genres"

Emotionally, I am pretty sure that this is what I believe. Middlemarch is "better" than Superman. One is about a whole community and a whole nation and asks us to redefine our whole definition of psychology and narrative, where the other sold breakfast cereal to American kids. I definitely feel that Middlemarch is better than "some text that some copy writer wrote on the back of a box of Kellogs Pep" although I also accept that advertising copy writing is a hard job and neither me nor Mary Evans could have done it. 

But I am not sure that I could rationally defend these feelings. What does "better" even mean?  I could just as well argue: 

Superman — Poked fun at the Klu Klux Klan when it was dangerous to do so; encouraged literally millions of kids to practice tolerance and clean living

Middlemarch — Approved of by F.R Leavis

Superman — Millions of kids ran home to school to listen to it 

Middlemarch — Literally no-one would read it if someone hadn't decided that an English Literature GCSE was needed to get certain kinds of job. 

Superman - Figure who literally everyone on earth has heard of; genuine 20th century myth. 

Dorothea Brooke - Who she?


Mr C.S. Lewis proved that what defined a "good" book was that the reader had a "good" literary experience. One of the markers that a "good" literary experience was taking place was that once the reader had finished the book, he might go back and read it for a second or third time. The person consuming a romantic story in Woman's Realm (intending to throw it away once he's finished it) is doing a different kind of thing to the person sitting down to read Barnaby Rudge for the fourth time. 

I have never read Barnaby Rudge. I have no idea why that was the example which occurred to me.

I don't know if would be prepared to argue (except in order to annoy my Mother) that Doctor Who is "better" than Coronation Street in some objective way. I don't think that it necessarily has better actors, better writers, better directors or cleverer plots. I suppose I could say that it's cleverer to create an alien planet that people believe in than to create a Manchester kitchen that people believe in but on the other hand we've spent 50 years apologizing for the sheer unbelievableness of many of Doctor Who's planets. And some of his kitchens.

But there is no question that we Doctor Who fans do go back and watch our favourite episodes over and over again; but the the idea of anyone going back and listening to old episodes of the Archers is obviously silly. I think I am correct in saying that soap fans, if they miss a few installments, don't try to "catch up" by watching the parts that they missed: they simply start watching again from this weeks episode and take it for granted that the characters themselves will bring them up to speed on what has been happening while they've been away. A bit like real life. There are DVD collections of Inspector Morse, Grange Hill, and the Banana Splits but none of EastEnders or Coronation Street.

On Lewis's view, a "good" reading is one which "receives" the book — that looks at what is there, and only what is there, which appreciates what the writer is doing and tries to have the emotional reaction that the writer wanted you to have. A "bad" reading is one that "uses" the book: which takes some descriptions of sails billowing in the wind and jolly rogers being run up flagpoles as a jumping off point for a day dream that has nothing very much to do with what the author wrote. It's the difference between the person who listens to the classical concert in silence (because he wants to hear every single note down to the last triangle) and the person who is glad that the brass band has started playing because it gives him the excuse to sing along terribly loudly. On Lewis's terms, virtually all pop music is bad. The whole point of pop music is that you "use" it: you dance to it; you use it create ambiance for your party. If you go to a live concert you scream down the band. 

Well, yes. But a dance band is there to provide music for people to dance to; and it might do that well or badly. It might take just as much skill to get everyone in the disco bopping as to win a standing ovation from the cognoscenti in the Albert Hall. Lewis is right that sitting and listening carefully is different to singing along; but I am not sure where he gets "listening carefully to music is better than dancing to it" or "music that you listen carefully to is better than music that you dance to" from. Morally? Psychologically? Theologically?


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

a work in progress


When someone claims to like bad books or bad movies, they are not using "bad" as a description of quality. They are using it as a label for the kind of book that they like. 

At some point in the past "soap opera" was simply a cuss word meaning "bad drama". "Space opera" was what clever science fiction fans called the stuff that they didn't read. We'd now happily say that Iain M Banks was writing "space opera" without even the slightest implication that he really ought to have been trying harder. "Pulp" used to be a literary slur directed at stuff written quickly and printed on cheap paper: it's now a perfectly neutral way of describing stories about detectives and barbarians and pirates. 

("What a shame we are no longer allowed to go out into the garden and admire all the homosexual flowers and listen to a homosexual tune on the wireless!")

People who like "bad" books might perfectly well draw a distinction between good "bad" books and bad "bad" books. And we could point to any number of bad "good" books. The possibility of bad good "bad" books and good bad "bad" books is left as an exercise for the reader.

Some people think that a long literary novel with a forty page digression about the smell of the protagonist's granny's nightie is basically a pulp novel done badly. "Silly man" they say "He understood so little about pacing that he honestly thought we wanted endless pages about a Russian psychopath wondering the streets thinking about predestination and existentialism when he obviously should have cut straight to the actual murder." (This condition, known as "subtext blindness", is more common than you'd think.) And some people think that a pulp adventure novel is what you are left with when someone tries and fails to write a serious literary psychological doorstep. "Why didn't the writer focus on the effect of shell-shock and PTSD rather than wasting our time with endless descriptions of medieval cavalry charging down orcs with lances?" they ask.

The blessed Germain Greer thought that the Spider-Man movie took a wrong turn when Peter Parker decided to use his powers to fight crime. Surely it should have been about the Kafkesque alienation of an insect person? (She also felt that Master and Commander was too focused on boats.) Paul Merton claimed that Lord of the Rings was the worst book he'd ever read because it didn't contain any laughs; which is a bit like John Cleese telling Malcolm Muggeridge that Chartres cathedral wasn't a very funny building.

Germain Greer didn't really say that the Aubrey-Maturin series was too much about boats. What she said was that setting a story in the Nelsonic navy is a choice: in this case, a choice to tell a story which is mainly about manly men being macho and hardly at all about womanly women being feminine. Only caricature feminists have ever said that Moby Dick, Hornblower and Master and Commander ought never to have been written or that they ought to have had alternate chapters about what the mostly female civilians were doing while the mostly male sailors were out annihilating aquatic mammals and flogging each other, or that they would have been improved by the addition of one of those folk song ladies who dressed up as a boy and went to sea. What feminists actually say is "There are great number of books of the first kind, and very few of the second kind. And only the first kind seem to get turned into movies. Why do you think that is?"

Fanny Price only gets to spend three chapters agonizing about what necklace to wear to a ball because there aren't any French people firing cannon balls at her head. 


My go-to example of loving and forgiving something which I believe to be bad is, of course, my MP3 collection of the 1940-51 Superman wireless serials. There are about a thousand 15 minute episodes and I adore every one. (Well, maybe not the alien cook who speaks in rhyme.) I understand that it went out 5 evenings a week, to be listened to by American kids when they got home from school. Episodes are simultaneously breathlessly fast paced and excruciatingly padded. The kids have got to be engaged; but the story has got to be drawn out for as long as possible. Copy boys run to Perry White's office with urgent messages; but it can take a whole episode for anyone to actually get around to reading them. "Message you say, can't you see that I'm too busy to read a fool message?" "Gee, chief, but there might be something important in it, we haven't heard from Lois for three days" "I can't nursemaid every girl reporter on my newspaper! And don't call me chief!" "What about the message?" GET ON WITH IT!

In this kind of format, it's essential that you can tell which character is which the minute they open their mouths. So practically everyone is a stereotype. Henchmen speak in that "de spring is sprung de grass is riz" Brooklyn accent. Policemen begin sentences with "to be sure, to be sure". Cab drivers sound like de black fella. Butler's are English cockneys. Jimmy Olsen says "swell" a lot. On one occassion the villain leaves a white rose at the scene of the crime and Clark Kent questions the florist. Sure enough, he sounds English and effeminate.

This tendency to very broadly drawn characters is part of the show's texture; part of the aesthetic; part of why I adore it. It wouldn't be improved by telling me about the florist's background; or by casting against type and making him a big tough guy with tattoos. But the line between broadly drawn characters; stereotypes; and out-and-out racism can be quite a wiggly one. There's a 1942 episode in which Clark switches two prisoners and remarks. "All Japs look much the same, after all." My attitude to the series might be rather different if most of the wartime episodes were not lost to posterity.  

But then again. In a pulp war story, all the enemy have to pretty uncomplicatedly baddies. That's part of what makes it a pulp war story. If you stop the action to wonder who the Jerry you just shot was, and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart; or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home, and if he would really rather have stayed there in peace, well, you might possibly have a better story, but you'd have a much worse pulp war story. 

So perhaps the person who says "I like this even though it is rubbish" is not talking about aesthetics or genre. Perhaps he is admitting that his pulp books are bad because they are, or sometimes are racist -- or sexist, or morally simplistic. He's not talking about literary quality, but morals. He is much more like someone saying  "I must admit that I enjoy looking at pornography, even though I know I ought not to" than someone saying "I must admit that I like this painting, even though the lady's head is out of proportion and her leg twists round in a direction it couldn't actually go."

continues in this vein for pages

Monday, October 06, 2014

Goldilocks Was a Hipster

A work in progress

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

Do you remember Thunderbirds? 

That is a rhetorical question. Of course you remember Thunderbirds. 

Did you like Thunderbirds?

That is also a rhetorical question. Of course you liked Thunderbirds. 

Did you like Thunderbirds even though you could see the strings? 

Did you like Thunderbirds because you could  see the strings? 

Are you pretty sure that most of the time you couldn't actually see the strings?

Or did you just wish everyone would shut up about the bloody strings?

I mean, it would be perfectly reasonable to regard the strings as an insuperable barrier to enjoying Gerry Anderson. This is an action adventure series where the characters are obviously dolls and where no-one has gone to much trouble to conceal the fact that they are dolls, so remind me, why is anyone watching this thing to start with? 

It would be also be perfectly reasonable to watch it "ironically": to watch it because you can see the strings, because it is funny that you can see the strings, to endlessly replay sequences where the strings are see-able, and to pat yourself on the back for being so much cleverer than those silly people in the 1970s who couldn't have spotted a string if it had leapt out and bit them on the nose. 

And it would be understandable if a Gerry Anderson fan got all defensive and said that actually you can't see the strings most of the time and televisions were much smaller in those days and lots of people were watching in black and white and they were meant for children who just accept this sort of thing for what it is and just shut up about the strings, okay? 

It's a while since I last watched Thunderbirds. If I recall correctly, for the first ten minutes the strings are intrusive, but you rapidly slip into a state of mind where you are perfectly aware that what you are watching are puppets but somehow you bracket off the puppetyness and accept it as an exciting science fictiony James Bondy disaster movie. At which point the one with the aliens in the pyramids is quite claustrophobic and the one on the bridge is quite tense and Lady Penelope is always a hoot. 

Yes: of course they are puppets. Any fool can see that. Why did you think it was even worth mentioning? 

See also: Clone Wars.


People sometimes say that they like a particular book or movie or television programme "even though it is terrible". 

Sometimes they sat it in a self deprecating way. "Ha-ha silly me I love trashy horror novels!" 

Sometimes they put it in a defensive way "I love the Twilight series and yes I know it's rubbish." 

And sometimes they are positively aggressive: "What I like BEST is to find some RUBBISH to read and the BIGGER LOAD OF RUBBISH it is the BETTER I'll like it." 

Can you like something and consider it bad? I would have thought that "Works of art I like" and "Works of art I think are good" are pretty much synonymous. Wasn't it Plato who said that no-one considers themselves to be evil, apart from Galactus?

Everyone agrees that Moby Dick is the greatest novel ever written — certainly the greatest long American novel about whale hunting. Everyone also agrees that it is is long, uneven, repetitive, digressive, pretentious and repetitive. But no-one can quite agree what the editor should have done to improve it. The minute you say "Well, he could have ditched the 40 page sermon about Jonah for a start" someone else well say "But that's my favorite chapter."

Moby Dick is seriously flawed. But then, everything is seriously flawed. (I think Theodore Sturgeon said that.) If you are only going to read flawless books, your reading list is going to be quite short.

See also: Cerebus.

Some people do seem to read with their eyes ever vigilante for the chink in the armour that will reveal that this is not the Perfect Book and therefore does not need to be read. "Well, I started reading this book, but on on page 3 the elephant hunter used a rifle that didn't go into production until 1898 even though the book is set in 1897 so naturally I didn't read any further." "On page 54, the writer used a word I didn't know so naturally I tossed the book to one side." I forget who it was who stopped reading Lord of the Rings after Elrond said "This is the doom we must deem".  

F.R. Leavis used this method to reduce his reading list to four English novelists. You have limited time on this earth; and most great novels require several readings, so why waste your time on any book except the great ones? 

C.S.Lewis, on the other hand, felt that the correct approach to a study of sixteenth century English literature (excluding drama) was to read every surviving scrap of literature from the sixteenth century plowing through pages and pages of "drab" writing in order to track down the occasional good bit. I don't suppose Lewis would have said that he liked 16th century literature "even though it's terrible". (He would probably have said that he was a scholar, and "liking" and "not liking" were neither here nor there.)

Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Of the four dead white males two were female although one of them had a boy's name. When asked if there was anything special he wanted for his fiftieth birthday, Lewis replied "I suppose the head of F.R Leavis on a platter would be rather too expensive?" 

Continues indefinitely....

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.