Firmamentalist

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Joss Whedon and the Lie of Modern Feminism

Recent accusations have been made against the poster boy of the 21st Century empowered female, Joss Whedon.  Whedon has been celebrated for writing strong, female characters such as Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and having been presented with awards from organisations like Equality Now.He has risen to become an influential mover and shaker in Hollywood, directing two of the biggest summer blockbusters of all time, The Avengers (2012), and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). When Zac Snyder was forced to pull out of the much anticipated Justice League movie this year, Whedon was tapped to finish reshoots and edits. He has gone from cult icon to A-list director with an army of loyal fans at his back cheering him on. And all the while he has been waving the banner for female equality and empowerment.

So it comes as something of a blow to hear that he is alleged to have been carrying out multiple affairs with “actresses, co-workers, fans and friends, while he stayed married to [his wife].” If this is true, then it puts the lie to such a person’s respect of women, as well as the gender politics that such a person has been preaching. However, can someone be a serial adulterer and still respect women? Can we overlook the tremendous damage he has done to the one woman, his wife–perhaps we call that a weakness in his character, a sort of addiction perhaps, or something beyond his control–can we then take the art and the message as separate to the man and the artist? Can we allow Joss Whedon to be a flawed man but still a good feminist?

I would argue no, because the disconnect between the ideals championed and the politics preached are right there in the art itself. As someone intimately familiar with the movies and TV shows that Whedon has written and directed, as well as his entire comic book output (yes, even Runaways), there was always an element of his feminism that jarred with me, that didn’t quite fit, and that was how his female characters used sex. I believed it at the time to be just a difference of opinion between his idea of feminism and mine, but now I believe that it was an intentional seeding of misogyny with the intent to create an environment to enable a broken lifestyle. When I heard a report of the accusation immediately three elements of his work came to mind to support this: the character of Inara, the premise of Dollhouse, and the Firefly episode Hearts of Gold.

Inara, played by actress Morena Baccarin

Inara Serra is a character in the TV show Firefly (2002) and the movie Serenity (2005). She is a “Companion”, or more regularly, a freelance prostitute. This is explained as a noble profession and a societal service. In a coarse universe, promising young women are trained as mistresses of sensuality and pleasure.  Classy, and selective, she is empowered because it is her choice as to whom she will sleep with. This is a lifestyle that frustrates one of the male leads of the show, Malcolm Reynolds, who is in love with Inara and must watch her lead man after man into her room to pleasure for entire days at a time.

This character trait is not a one off, it is consistent through Whedon’s writing. In the Buffy TV show, when a female character becomes sexually aware, then they must use that sexuality by sleeping with someone. Even if that experience brings painful or unfortunate consequences, it is never an option not to sleep with someone. Sexual freedom is a large and complex issue, however, as Whedon writes it, it is relatively straightforward: women must be having sex, or they are not empowered.

I’ll admit that I haven’t seen much of Dollhouse (2009). The premise sounded promising, that a girl used as a bodily vessel for whatever personality rich and powerful people want to imbue her with starts to remember her past life and understand the dark origin of the company that is using her. I watched the first episode, thinking that it would start with a woman, in the act of the advertised act, realising that she is being abused and deciding to kick some ass, waging a one-woman war on a huge shadow organisation. And off the back of Buffy, that was not an unrealistic expectation. But that’s not what happened in the first episode at all. The outrageous wrongs of the situation were only mildly hinted at, mostly they were shown to be a useful tool for the protagonist to use–her new identity help bring down a child molestation ring. This formula continued in the next episode, and the next. The moral issue of the advantage taken of the female lead’s body was pushed into the background, not even as a B-plot, but as a series arc. Was this just weak tea, or was there also a more bitter flavour in the dilution? I chose to give the benefit of the doubt at the time and consider the project only misjudged.

The Firefly episode Heart of Gold (2003) is by far my least favourite episode of a very good series. Not officially written by Whedon, it is nonetheless consistent with the above notion and the script would have undoubtedly been okayed by him as series creator and executive producer. A group of men are exploiting women in a bordello and the crew of the ship Firefly step in to stop them. But the liberated women don’t stop selling their bodies to people, they only stop giving their male overlords a cut of their profits. As anyone who has any real knowledge of the sex trade, this idea is insidious if it is not laughable. The greatest myth put about by the industry is that the women who strip or have sex for money are there by choice, that it is their decision, and that they are empowered by doing so. This is not true in the slightest and the excuse is used to throw a blanket over a host of profoundly terrifying evils.

A still from Heart of Gold. The male character is a lead in the show, not one of those overtly exploiting the sex workers.

This is what I call the lie of modern feminism, that a woman’s sexuality is something like a sword, a weapon that is only powerful if it is used. And who does Mr Whedon say it should be used on? Why, really special guys, of course. People who are charming and funny, who really get women, who are powerful and sensitive.  In truth, sex is something that is more devalued the more it is spread around. Sex means very little to the philanderer. He might enjoy it and gorge on it like so many cheeseburgers, but he doesn’t prize it as something uniquely beautiful. He won’t know the sacred intimacy that it can bring between two people because in the end he is left with only himself and the lie that he has become.

In this way the modern feminist of this stripe is really worse that the old patriarch because he is the ancient misogynist. In the old patriarchal system that we read about in Victorian novels, often criticised as being too chaste, women are often viewed as possessions, but ones that must be protected and kept pure. This is certainly wrong, but how much more is that wrong compounded by those that see women as beings or objects “to conquer and acquire — specifically sexually“? I now doubt that Whedon’s work is the result of a feminist of a different philosophical orientation, but not a feminist at all. And in all fairness, he may turn out to not be even half of what he has been painted to be–then again, he might be worse. In either case, he won’t be the largest predator in the entertainment industry–a business where men are all powerful and in which there is a high female turnover. But although we fight and rage against Herod all our lives, and though he might kill us in the end, it is Judas who hurts us most, even if his blow is just a kiss.

In Defence of a Happy Batman

Adam West died this week and people have been understandably reminiscent about his role as TV’s The Batman in the late 60s. It was his most famous role, even though it was fundamentally ridiculous, and to West’s credit, it was one he stood beside even to his final years.

West’s–and the TV show’s producers’–portrayal of The Batman had subtle but profound cultural influences. Shades of it can be seen in Roger Moore’s James Bond, and John Travolta and Uma Thurman replicated one of West’s dance moves in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). Until recently when people who didn’t read comic books talked about comic books, it was obvious that they were really talking about West’s Batman (and Christopher Reeve’s more earnest, but ultimately as silly Superman). “Oh, yes, I know comic books. Pow! Sok! Right?”

West’s Batman also had an inverse cultural impact. Writer and artist Frank Miller was so frustrated by the show’s notoriety that he created the DARK KNIGHT RETURNS limited series in 1986. This four-issue mini-series inspired Tim Burton to take a darker Batman to film in 1989, a venture that many thought would fail. The Batman movies of the 90s were drawn back into the gravity of the “camp crusader” until Christopher Nolan took Bruce Wayne’s alter ego back into the shadows with his Dark Knight trilogy.

These days a dark and brooding Batman is very much in the public image.  Everyone can recite his story: a young boy sees his parents gunned down in front of him by a mugger and grows up to devote his life to fighting crime in a brutal, visceral fashion. Ben Affleck’s Batman kills those who attack him, brands murderers with his symbol, and cares nothing about property damage. He works above the law and doesn’t seem to care as much about justice as he does about revenge.

It is clear that Batman is mentally imbalanced. If he really wanted to make the world a better place then he’d use his millions much more constructively, benefiting society rather than building gadgets to catch evildoers. He’d start up after school programs for children of low-income gothamites and summer camps so that underprivileged children could see the wilderness. Wayne Enterprises would found charitable organisations, invest in clean energy renewables, and lobby congress on behalf of the needy.

But instead we have a Batman who spends his nights drawing gunfire and harpooning cars from a tank that he had a jet engine mounted on. So it goes. But why is this gritty Batman championed as being “realistic”? Why is a happy and smirking Batman not just as realistic?

Think about it–with the sort of mental break that young Bruce Wayne suffered–the kind to make him dress up as a bat–he could have gone either way. Dark and depressed or light and ironic. And really, the light and ironic Batman is far more sustainable for Bruce’s shattered psyche. The picture of a happy Batman is a rather touching one, and takes on a quixotic tint. Surrounded by well-wishing enablers–a butler, his adopted son, and the police commissioner–a man dresses up in tights and involves himself in criminal investigations. And like the man of La Mancha, everyone around Gotham’s caped crusader, could be just as amazed and appalled at his success to prevent these crimes and bring the perpetrators to justice. Surely there will come a time when this obvious lunatic’s luck will run out, right? And in that sense there is a great deal more inherent tension in the tale. When will this absurd eccentric finally get in a situation too deep to wriggle out of?

I, for one, would be up for a return to a more light-hearted masked avenger. The dark Batman we have now is fairly indistinguishable from the criminals he fights. For all of West’s Batman’s faults, it was always clear that he always, uncompromisingly fought on the side of good. We may not always deserve that Batman, but we always need him.

Harold Bloom: Give Me Falstaff

To those who have followed Harold Bloom’s writings on Shakespeare, his love of Sir John Falstaff, as portrayed in the two Henry IV plays, has never been a secret. I use the word ‘love’ here as a consuming passion, one approaching a romantic love, in that it knows no proportion or objectivity. For instance, in Bloom’s very clear and helpful book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) his chapter on Hamlet is completely overrun with discussions on Falstaff. This even led to Bloom writing a supplemental book Hamlet: Poem Unlimited (2003) to correct the imbalance when he apparently realised what he had done.  And now Bloom has dropped all pretence and has given us in Falstaff: Give Me Life, released today. This book is nothing short of a 158 page love letter to a fictional character created in 1597… and it’s a pure joy to read.

Were any of us to write a book or essay on our spouses or significant others, we could hardly submit an unbiased view or treat the work academically.  Bloom here, although a brilliant scholar, admits himself too much of a lover to offer any pure criticism. To whit, any discussion of Falstaff as he appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor is completely out of the question and the play is discussed only once. Falstaff’s (or Fostolf’s) early, and apocryphal, appearance in Henry VI Part 1 is not even mentioned.

What is it about Falstaffian characters that attract us so greatly to them? Characters who are unfiltered, who seem to give themselves over to their id without heeding any sort of external check, hold a special appeal for us. It’s easy for any of us to compile a list of these characters: Withnail of Withnail & I (1987), Eric Cartman of South Park, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Donkey in Shrek (2001), and Ron Burgundy are some of my favourites. Not quite hedonists, but all of them unapologetically selfish, and all the more compelling for that. Of course, if these people existed in real life they would be some of the worst people that you would ever meet, but seeing them on the page, or the screen, we participate in an act of catharsis.

Catharsis is a term which Aristotle first applied to drama, meaning the cleansing of emotions, which fiction provides. A part of us wants to be these characters, to be selfish, to be unrestrained, but almost all of us push those impulses aside, or tie them down. By seeing them performed outside of ourselves, however, we experience a kind of release. These people we don’t allow ourselves to be allow us to relax our hold on ourselves for a short time in the safe environment of our imagination.

Bloom’s love for the villainous rogue Falstaff is infectious, and if you are thin in your admiration of his enormous personality, you are fat with it by the end of this book. Personally, I will admit that I disagree with Bloom more than I agree with him on the intent of Shakespeare’s plays and what there is to admire in them–I far prefer Richard II and Henry V to the middle to of the second Henriad, and will add my vote to that of T. S. Eliot’s when he says that Coriolanus is superior to Hamlet… an opinion for which Bloom considers him deliberately perverse.  Nevertheless, I completely warmed to Falstaff halfway through the book.

Timothy West (left) as Falstaff and Samuel West (right) as Prince Hal, in performance, 1996.

Passion for Falstaff can be all-consuming.  I studied Henry IV Part 2 at school, and vividly remember seeing it in Oxford where Falstaff was played by Timothy West, and Prince Hal by his son, Samuel West, and I think that’s the best cast that you can hope for these days. (I found Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff in The Hollow  Crown TV series far too stark, delivering the “chimes at midnight” line with a sepulchral hollowness that Richard Eyre should have known better than to admit.)  It is my belief that Shakespeare clearly invented Falstaff as a mechanism to propel Henry V to the height that he reaches at the end of his own play. The reason that he was written out in Henry V was to not detract from his ascent, for although there is comedy, in the classical sense, in that play, there is very little humour. Orson Welles famously rewrote Henry IV 1 & 2 to centre around only Falstaff, editing out all that didn’t support his arc. Bloom joins him in the opinion that there is little reason for the Henriad except to give us Falstaff, and after reading his book it’s hard to disagree.

I am now of the opinion that Falstaff is the most intelligent character that Shakespeare ever created. His mind is faster and more manoeuvrable than any other character. Iago could be another contender but he lacks self-preservation, such as Falstaff shows at Shrewsbury. Hamlet is an obvious benchmark for fictional intelligence, but although he has an acute sense of mortality, he does not have so complete a perspective on actual living as Falstaff does. Shylock is very sharp but too easily overwhelmed by wrath.  All of Shakespeare’s characters have deep flaws; his most brilliant characters all tend toward self-destruction.

Orson Welles as Falstaff as Henry IV in The Chimes at Midnight (1967).

Falstaff admittedly is no exception, for he is very famously betrayed. But as Bloom rightly points out, his downfall comes from having a surfeit of life. He dies because a raging bonfire cannot last forever, and although a young prince was once attracted by it, his ambition was never his downfall. That he expected to gain by his relationship is very clear, and expressed, but the old knight lacks the animus to actually change his environment. He has something of the stoic in him in battle. Falstaff will pretend to be dead in order to avoid fighting, but he will still march to war when called. He is painfully aware of what war will do to the ‘food for powder’ that he leads to battle, yet he allows some of those with familial obligations to buy their way out of it.

I almost feel that I could write a book myself about Falstaff, but if I did it would not be a better one. Bloom’s small book is fun, easy to grasp, and laced throughout with poignancy as the author draws on his own feelings of age and mortality in his analysis. And the scholar’s complete command and comprehension of Shakespeare’s context, particularly when it comes to biblical texts, is second to none. Could not recommend more. Five stars.

Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and Forgetting Things Too Important To Remember

Neil Gaiman’s book Norse Mythology, released today, is a retelling of the original Norse myth cycles being a fusion of The Prose Edda and The Poetic Edda. If anyone thought that it would be dry read, or that Gaiman’s easy style would be constrained by such an academic treatment, never fear. I doubt that there exists a more accessible translation, and certainly not a more entertaining one. Gaiman has us, at turns, laughing, becoming outraged, or sympathising with these Norse gods, all of whom carry deeply human flaws and foibles.

The book is published by W. W. Norton & Company, and it is worth drawing the comparison that they also have published Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, which is a spiritual brother to this work both in its technical ability to stay true to the source material, but also to feel current and updated. A few years ago I took a course in Old Norse Language and Literature, as a part of which we were all required to translate some of the original Norse tales and I can almost guarantee that anyone looking at the original and Gaiman’s translation will be very impressed with how near the source Gaiman has kept his own text. The licenses he has taken are few and sensible. The framing device of Gylfi has been despatched with, which is an entertaining angle on the tales, but one that ultimately holds them down and is largely unnecessary. The intermittent poetry has been folded into the narrative, but still exists in a few recognisably alliterative sentences. And the dialogue has been updated, so that the idioms and flow feel as natural to us now as it would have felt to the original listeners.

If there is a flaw in Norse Mythology it is that it feels brief and incomplete — the book can be read in a couple evenings. However, this certainly does not stem from Gaiman but from the fact that the written record of Norse mythology is incomplete. And this has to do with the peculiarities of why people started recording them in the first place, and how we in the West moved from an aural culture to a written culture.

The cover page from an early edition with scenes from the tales. Odin is top centre, with his ravens flanking him. Thor’s hammer is to his lower left, and Valhalla is bottom row, middle. (Click to enlarge.)

At this moment, the case could be made that unless something has been written down and uploaded, it cannot even be said to have truly happened. But in a pre-literate society, this was never the case. Instead of creating archives of knowledge, be it fact, fiction, history, or what-have-you, the ancients had a more elegant solution to not forgetting something–they simply remembered it. To continue to look at Old Norse writings, the great majority of them, what are called the Sagas, deal with genealogy,  land ownership, travelogueing, legal battles, and blood feuds. (You will also get the odd supernatural occurrence, but only when it impinges on one of the categories above.)

It may seem unbelievable that such received knowledge would be considered in any way reliable, but first consider the hegemonic state that these stories or histories would have been held–at any time any one of a number of people could be called upon to give a breakdown of Egils Saga, for instance, and among the listeners to that tale there would be very often one other present who could vouch for the validity of the recitation and add clarification or correction.

There is an incident in one of my favourite Sagas called Vatnsdæla Saga in which a man and his mother are suspected of making human sacrifices in their house by their neighbours. They send a serving boy down to their house to knock on the door with the added instruction to start reciting a well-known poem as soon as he has knocked and then to remember how far he got through that poem by the time that the door has been answered. All of this is only to illustrate that these people could remember by rote than they could count.

A detail from the Franks Casket. Weyland is on the far left, working at his forge.

And herein lies the problem that we are now faced with: the paradoxical situation that somewhere along the way we forgot a lot of stories that were considered far too popular to ever record… and so they didn’t. And it would now be the case that we wouldn’t even know that they were missing if we didn’t have the odd indication and reference to them. One of these is a direct reference to the tale of Weyland Smith, made by Alfred the Great. In the king’s own (possibly commissioned, but possibly not) translation of The Consolations of Philosophy by Latin philosopher Boethius, Alfred mentions Weyland in place of the Roman Fabricius, as someone who everyone knew. However, no English written treatment exists of the full history of Weyland–he is only mentioned twice in passing in the Old English corpus. Beowulf itself is an oddity in that it is an Old English epic poem that has nothing to do with England at all–neither its characters or setting is English. It is, in fact, now widely accepted as a kind of continuation of the adventures of the characters in yet another Old Norse history, Hrólfs Saga KrakaThese two remnants of ancient literature hint at what would at one time have been a whole catalogue of adventures. It would be as if only two out of sequence Star Wars movies now remained from the extant eight, or we had Iron Man 3 and Avengers, but nothing else and could only imagine the context for those.

The first page of Beowulf, contained in the “Cotton MS Vitellius”. The edges have were singed in 1731 when a fire in the building it was stored damaged it and many other priceless works of British literature.

The written records of what now exists from Scando-European culture, in which we also classify English, was created by Christian monks–some of whom we even know the names of. This was simply because these were the only people who could write. Contrary to what might be assumed, the monks and priests that brought us out of the Dark Ages were very comfortable with their pagan roots. Beowulf, for all that some people insist at being altered or Christianised, only shows three instances of direct Biblical reference or allusion in over 3,000 lines of text, which not even the most obtuse commentator could call heavy-handed. The clergy of the time has evidenced more hesitancy at translating their own Bible than in recording their pre-Christian heritage. In Aelfric’s Preface to Genesis he expresses concern at giving a popular version of the earliest Judeo-Christian stories because he isn’t sure if people hear it read it out of context that they will understand that they aren’t to live in the old law as they are to live in the New Law. Their aim was to preserve knowledge, but not to alter it, whether they agreed with it or no.

So what were the recorded stories recorded for? In England they were almost exclusively given as gifts given by the monks to their patrons–essentially novelties. And the inherent novelty value of recording a story that everyone knows is very small, but a rare or exceptional story of a famous character, or a poem that not everyone has heard of is considerably higher. (Only in the instance of the Icelandic Sagas do we have the situation where a group of monks, spearheaded by the wonderful Snorri Sturlusson, deliberately set out to record EVERYTHING so that nothing was forgotten, and that is why Iceland is unique in the world as being a nation without a prehistoric period.)

And to bring it back to Gaiman and Norse Mythology–this is what we now have: a collection of the odd exceptional tales. We have the time that Thor wasn’t Thor — when he lost his hammer and had to dress up like a woman. We have the various times that the trickster Loki was tricked. We also have the start of the universe and the end of the universe, because these are novelties as well. There’s the time when the god of beauty and light is killed, and also the story of where poetry comes from. And in having these tales, we may very well have the best of what used to exist, but here’s the thing… we’ll never know.

In Defence of Being Inappropriate

Life is too short to live without the extraneous. One of my my guilty pleasures is inappropriateness in art. I don’t mean off-colour humour, or paintings of bottoms, but serious artistic works which which make unreasonable demands on its audience.

Another pleasure is to watch how often Affleck, who plays a blind man, LOOKS at things.

I’ll start by explaining what I don’t mean. I don’t mean a badly written movie, even movies as badly written as Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002), or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).  Although the plots and characters in these are so atrocious to be inappropriately demanding, in and of themselves, that demand arises from bad writing, and I do not find that enjoyable. All bad writing is bland. But a bad movie such as Troma Entertainment’s Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD (1990) comes closer to what I mean.

To me the best example is the original cinematic Daredevil (2003), more accurately the extended Director’s Cut (2008), which features an irrational 30 minutes of restored footage. Most of this footage is a to-do about a trial of a gangbanger played by Coolio, which is not even tangentially related to the main plot. It’s a brilliant display of complete, unreasoning inappropriateness. And while it would be reasonable to write such a sub-plot into an early draft of a film script, consider the mass insanity required to cast, shoot, and edit that stuff.

Currently my heart aches to see the as-yet-unreleased Batman Forever (1995) director’s cut. Batman Forever was an absurd  movie that, even at a final running time of two hours two minutes, was apparently planned to be as frivolous on an epic level.  Of course in any movie there are a bunch of unused scenes, but take a look at what was left out of this pointless beauty and bear in mind that this is not the full list (which is here):

  • One sequence came directly after the casino robbery, where Batman follows a robbery signal on a tracking device in the Batmobile. He shows up at the crime scene and finds he is at the wrong place (a beauty salon), in which a room full of girls laugh at him. The Riddler had been throwing Batman off the track by messing with the Batmobile’s tracking device. This would explain why in the theatrical version Batman seems to give Riddler and Two-Face moments of free rein over the city. This scene appears in a rough edit on the Special Edition DVD.
  • The construction of NygmaTech was after Batman solves the third riddle and was more in-depth. There were scenes shot that appear in publicity stills of Edward Nygma with a hard hat helping with the construction of his headquarters on Claw Island.
  • An extended scene established Bruce in the Batcave shortly after having discussed with Dick then that this would have saved his life after the battle with Two-Face in the subway system under construction. In this scene he is appreciated as the GNN news (Bruce watching in the Batcomputer) attacking Batman and Two-Face after the battle in the Subway and after that Bruce talking to Alfred turns into the dilemma of continuing to be Batman and try a normal life with Chase. Like the deleted Helicopter fight sequence, this scene also makes reference to Batman himself being “a killer”, and in the original production screenplay, this scene was to contain footage from Batman Returns, specifically taken from the rooftop fight scene with Catwoman. This would explain why in the theatrical version Bruce turns off all the systems in the Batcave telling Dick he gives up being Batman. This scene appears in a rough form on the Special Edition DVD.
  • Look at this insanity

    Another deleted scene involved Bruce waking up after being shot in the head by Two-Face, temporarily forgetting his origin and life as the Dark Knight. Alfred takes him to the Batcave, which has been destroyed by the Riddler. They stand on the platform where the Batmobile was, and Alfred says, “Funny they did not know about the cave beneath the cave.” The platform then rotates downward to another level where the sonar-modification equipment is kept, from the special Batsuit to the hi-tech weaponry. Bruce then discovers the cavern where he first saw the giant bat that inspired him to become Batman. Inside he finds his father’s red diary which he had dropped when he first fell into the Batcave after his parents death. He reads the entry about him insisting his parents take him to the theater to see a show the same night they were killed. He realizes he had misread it, and his father had written ‘even though Bruce insists, we wanted to see Zorro so his show will have to wait until next week’. Bruce realizes his parents death was not his fault after all. The giant bat then appears and Bruce raises his arms to match the wing anatomy of the bat and the shot shows that they are one. Bruce now remembers who he is and goes with Alfred to solve the riddles left throughout the film. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman admitted the scene was very theatrical on the special edition DVD and felt it would have made a difference to the final cut. The bat was designed and created by Rick Baker, who was in charge of the make-up of Two-Face. This scene appears in a rough form on the special edition DVD and is briefly mentioned in the comic adaptation.

  • The original ending was similar in style to the previous Batman films, which had involved a scene with Alfred in the limousine, the camera tracking upward through the Gotham cityscape, followed by a rooftop shot involving a silhouetted hero (Batman in the original, Catwoman in Batman Returns) facing the Bat Signal. When Alfred drives Doctor Chase Meridian back to Gotham she asks him “Does it ever end, Alfred?” Alfred replies, “No, Doctor Meridian, not in this lifetime…” The Bat-Signal shines on the night sky and Batman is standing on a pillar looking ahead. Robin then comes into shot and joins his new partner. They both leap off the pillar, towards the camera. A rough edit of the first half of the scene appears on the special edition DVD, but not in its entirety.

And although screenwriter Akiva Goldsman went on to win an Oscar for Beautiful Mind (2001), let’s not forget that he also wrote Batman & Robin (1997) and Lost in Space (1998).

But not all inappropriate films have to be critically panned. In Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011), the sequence of the creation of the world is, I would argue, vastly inappropriate for modern day audiences… and it completely makes the film. People often declare that there are too many endings in 11 Academy Award winning The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)–I say that there are not enough, and I still feel gypped that they gave Saruman an early exit in that one.

Inappropriate length is one of the reasons that I love silent film. In the early days of cinema there were no established rules, and so no one making movies knew what could or couldn’t be demanded of an audience. And so you got movies like Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922), which is an action/thriller that runs at a masterfully inappropriate four hours and twenty-eight minutes. Eleven years later the same director made a sequel, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933) which was a much more reasonable two hours and four minutes, but which made the completely inappropriate demand that viewers accept that Mabuse, a man previously displayed as possessing a penchant for make-up disguises, could now control people with his mind and leap his consciousness into other people’s bodies.

If we wish to look at literature, I would offer Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo as a masterwork in unrelated asides. Among its frequent and unnecessary departures from the narrative are two chapters that describe life in a 19th Century nunnery and an emotionally descriptive essay on the progression of the battle on the fields at Waterloo. My particular favourite is the several chapters directly in the middle of one of the conflicting climaxes near the end in which we learn the long and winding history of Paris’s sewer system from the 16th Century to the then modern day.

Looking back further we find The Faerie Queene (c. 1590) by Edmund Spencer. Over two thousand stanzas consisting of nine fairly dense lines apiece for which even the author lost enthusiasm for halfway through. Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789)was so luxuriously lengthy that it provoked one of the most dismissive literary observations of all time from the Duke of Gloucester,

“Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?”

Also consider John Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), which I truly think will take me a lifetime to finish. Or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) with its wandering chapters and footnotes that are as expansive as they are essential.

Plug

It’s a concept that I explored in my own fiction in my book The Realms Thereunder. I’m well aware of the inappropriateness of the lengthy process in which one character learned the nearly forgotten art of charcoal burning–and only shortened it to its published length under considerable duress. I also delighted in writing roughly eight pages of complete nonsense in order to bore and entrance my readers to a similar degree that the main character was being bored and entranced. It was a bold experiment, and one that came back to bite me in more than one review. And look at this blog itself–it’s hardly appropriate that I listed all those deleted scenes. I was making only a minor point which could have been taken as read. I don’t blame all of you who gave up before reading this far.

Ultimately, I suppose it goes to show that there’s no accounting for taste, but consider what poor shape we would be in as a species if we were not routinely forced to take a fruitless and unrewarding long detour to our destination.

The Loneliness of the Third Party Voter

This election, as much as others in the past, has been about lies, minority targeting, and emotional blackmail. I won’t say that these factors were more in play in this election than in previous elections, because I don’t believe that they were, however I think that it’s remarkable how much all of those negative aspects have been streamlined for our delivery and consumption. I think that the media is flapping loose in a gale, around without any sort of check or moral responsibility to tie it down and that is definitely a talk that we’re all going to have to have at a later date, preferably sometime within the next four years.

But what has been surprising to me is the animosity and brow-beating that both sides of the political spectrum have been giving to one of America’s least supported minorities–the third party voter. They have faced animosity on both fronts and twice have I heard people say within my earshot that “a vote for a third party is basically a vote for Trump/Clinton, so if you want them to win, go ahead and vote third party.” This simply is not true. It really is as simple as this: a vote for a third party is a vote for that third party. The math is simple: if everyone votes for a third party, then that third party gets in–not one of the other two. Any other point of view is emotional blackmail.

Here’s another reason why a more-than-two-party system makes sense. It has been said many times in the past months that America is becoming more and more polar, that the extremes have never been as extreme. And so, with a country that is having much wider opinions on how the country should be run–why should we not have more political parties to represent those views? If a person is feeling completely alienated by the extremity of their own party, then why not join a party that is more in the center? Conversely, if someone feels that their own party is not far-reaching enough, why should they feel obligated to stay in that party? Several times I have been in conversations with people who have been urging others to vote their party, not their conscience, and this is truly opposite to the very purpose of democracy. If we don’t vote our consciences for what is best for the country, that what other consideration is there upon which to make a decision?

When I was living in the UK I generally supported the Labour Party. However, in the last UK election I felt that my party was not the party that it used to be, that too many compromises and concessions had been made to appear populist and that they had strayed too far from what I wanted them to be. After a little research I found another party whose economic and social policies I felt more aligned with my own and so I voted for them on election day. I say this to make it clear: this was not a protest vote–I genuinely wanted the Green Party to win, even though I knew they had little chance of doing so. Come the election result, the Green Party made no sweeping victory, but they did receive more votes that year than any other year to date, by a factor of five. In the 2010 election they achieved 1% of the vote, in the 2015 they achieved 5%. The Labour Party on the other hand did not win the election and their leadership basically folded, prompting a period of reflection and revaluation, and from that a party leader was selected who really excited a lot of party members, myself included. I feel like I have never identified with a party political candidate as I have with Jeremy Corbyn, and in future elections, if he is on the ballot then I am back with that party. So I feel that my third party vote in that instance was certainly not wasted. So just because your candidate does not win, your voice is still being heard.

There are many lies about third party voting, and people will emotionally blackmail you not to do it–they will say that you will not count, that you won’t be heard, and that you will be the reason that the democratic system breaks down. But if you are convicted not to vote for one of the two main parties, then by no means should you feel obligated to do so. Voting for who you want to run the country is the very definition of democracy, giving in to pressure to vote for someone that you don’t want to run the country is opening the door to fascism.

I have not been a third party voter in this election, but I believe that a third party voter should be valued and listened to, and not treated as a terrorist or anarchist who is looking to sabotage or break the electoral system, but someone who is inherent to it.

Still from Brewster's Millions (1985)

Still from Brewster’s Millions (1985)

Doctor Strange and Eternal Sacrifice

doctor-strange-spell-cumberbatchDoctor Strange, the newest offering from Marvel Studios, breaks new ground on several fronts and looks set to maintain Marvel’s streak of critically well-received superhero movies. We have a fresh character and a different aspect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the mystic and magical realms. And while a lot will be written about that aspect of the movie, it’s actually the movie’s theme and message which I think bear the most attention, since it deals with themes which were really only dealt with in a couple other Marvel movies, namely those of sacrifice. This naturally contains spoilers, so only read further once you are ready to read about the movie in-depth.

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Stephen F***ing King

To my knowledge, there has not yet been any academic work that has dealt with Stephen King’s use of expletives in his fiction work, and this is a shame. This needs to be corrected because it’s a subject that could really benefit from the scientific method. Maybe it would tell us a lot about him, maybe it would teach us something about ourselves–ultimately I think it’d be really entertaining.

Stephen KingWhy I think his use of bad language is particularly remarkable is that it often feels so out of place. “Ostentatious” isn’t quite the word to describe it–I would better describe it as “flamboyant”. If there isn’t an implied drum-roll leading up to it, you definitely get the impression that there is a finishing flourish. It has the effect of bringing you out of the story since I would estimate that 90% of swears happen unconsciously since few people swear for effect and almost nobody does it creatively. So whereas in normal dialogue, expletives are salted away in between phrases, or used as a bridging or time-buying device, or used without thinking at all–as in Robert DeNiro’s character in Midnight Run (1988) –“I have two words for you: shut the fuck up”.  The point is, almost nobody draws attention to the actual swear itself.

Except for Stephen King. He seems to relish a certain inventiveness to his off-colour lyrics, which is sweet. I totally get that the Horror genre is all about creating a world with assumed rules and limitations and then throwing something completely batshit into it–and often this will extend to a character who says something unexpected, or outright offensive, and this even extends into the narration. But even the casual remarks by established characters will stand out awkwardly, in a way that contradicts themselves. For instance, in Under The Dome (2009) James “Big Jim” Rennie is as self-important as he is hypocritical, a man at the centre of the community who has a finger in every pie, runs a meth lab, yet cultivates the image of an Evangelical Christian who goes to church every Sunday. And yet, a word that he’s very fond of referring to unfortunate situations as being “a real clustermug” in front of people, to show how down-the-line he is on the whole issue of swearing. Now, as far as I and the Internet can establish, clustermug was invented and used by King only for this character. Using this word is consistent to the character inasmuch as he is someone who ordinarily would swear horrendously, but stops just short of it for the sake of his image. And yet “clustermug” refers to such a specific and strong expletive, I think most Evangelical hypocrites would simply pretend not to know that word. And by betraying that you do know what “clustermug” is a stand-in for, and that you have just stopped yourself from using it, you’ve gone so far out of your way that you may as well just use the actual word. I mean, I remember my grandmother being upset with my brother and I using the word “geeze”. Even that was too strong for someone of her culture and upbringing.

Clustermug

This method of swearing against character is more than endemic, it’s practically thematic. In Mr Mercedes (2014), a Crime-Thriller, a well-bred woman under interview refers to a certain incident as having “as much a chance of success as a six-months preemie”, in quite an off-hand manner. I find this exceptionally odd. I assume that “preemie” is short for “prematurely delivered infant”, and that the referenced “success” is its chance of living. Now, while it might be reasonable for King to use such an allusion in his narration (I say might because as an author I personally would steer clear from it in case any readers had actually experienced a pre-term delivery) in order to keep the readers on-edge, perhaps. But again it just seems to run counter for such a buttoned-down character to instantly grasp for such a questionable simile, and not only that, but to act so familiarly with the word “premature” that they feel it necessary to knock it down a syllable, to “preemie”.

I wonder what it says about King. It’s clear that no one actually speaks this way, so he can’t have overheard this in a supermarket for instance. Perhaps his friends speak like this? Yet he thinks that people speak like this, and I wonder why. It reminds me of his son Joe Hill’s book Horns (2010) which involves someone being able to hear other people’s thoughts, and at no time does he hear a thought that is not unpleasant. He always hears some sort of dark desire and twisted inner admission–never anyone just trying to figure out their change from five dollars, or struggling to remember what time the mall closes. And while the world that these two particular authors inhabit is open for discussion–what kind of world do they think the rest of us live in?

This is by no means a thorough investigation, and it’s not meant to disparage King or Hill, who are both authors that genuinely enjoy reading. I just think it’s a really rich seam for anyone willing to devote the time needed to this fascinating area of study.

Kierkegaard A Single Life – Review

One of the first facts that Kierkegaard A Single Life Kierkegaard A Single Lifetells us about Søren Kierkegaard is that his name is actually pronounced SOO-ren KEER-ka-gor, which is always the sort of thing I’m supercilious about–if we pronounce every person’s name, every city or village’s name, every linguistic acquisition, the way that they were originally pronounced, then it would be chaos. But set that aside for now.

Kierkegaard A Single Life does precisely what it sets out to do–to present in a clear and compelling fashion the life of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Backhouse is an obvious master of his subject and deals expertly with Kierkegaard’s relationships, the social and political context of his life, his work and writings, and the impact his ideas have had on the world at large in the 150 years since his death. He takes a largely episodic approach, managing to loop the whole story around so that his tale begins with the funeral of an unknown man, and ends with the death of a close friend.

In this book, Kierkegaard is presented as an irascible philosopher, at once reviled by the general public and also revered. A man who had so much to say, but seldom allowed any word he wrote to be actually attributed to him. At once a devious and diabolic opponent of the Church, and also (so Backhouse argues, and I would believe it, since gravestones rarely lie) a staunch follower of Christ. Certainly a man of contradictions–and it would seem that the better part of them were generated intentionally by himself. However, unlike many who take delight in stirring the pot for the mere sake of chaos, it is clear that Kierkegaard suffered very much for his integrity. He broke off an engagement with the only woman he truly loved because he didn’t want to subject her to what hardships life with him would bring. Although an inheritor of wealth, he lived within fairly scant means in order to support himself as a writer until the end of his life. And although his writing brought him more notoriety than fame in his lifetime, he did not waver from his set task of seeking for Truth within Christendom (or outside of it, as the case may have been) and instead planned his publications like military engagements.

marstrand-185x300That we can get any solid sense of a man in just under 200 pages is credit only to Dr Backhouse. To anyone who has been intrigued by hearing this influential thinker’s name bandied about in any number of contexts, but who have no idea where to even begin to get a handle on his corpus, this book is the perfect springboard. Kierkegaard A Single Life also has an added resource which is nearly worth the cover price, which is a 50 page appendix giving a summary of each of Kierkegaard’s major works and placing them in context.

Kierkegaard A Single Life is extremely well written and part of Backhouse’s genius is that he is able to give a startlingly clear picture of complex, even contradictory, person from another time, another land. And I hadn’t read more that a couple chapters before I found myself sounding out his name as it should be–SOO-ren KEER-ka-gor–out of respect for someone who feels, in turn, like a friend, a teacher, a prophet, and a close and trusted guide on life’s hard journey.

Cannot recommend this book enough. Buy it now on Amazon.com!

Why Zack Snyder Doesn’t Understand Superman (And Never Will)

Zack Snyder doesn’t understand Superman, and he never will. A few years ago, when everybody went to see Man Of Steel, they were incredibly eager to experience a new, modern take on Superman, by a very acclaimed director. Nearly everyone left the theatres feeling a little confused. Superman was certainly super, but there was something a little… off, that they maybe couldn’t put their finger on, and took a little while for them to unpack. (At this time I wrote a review of Man Of Steel and within days it became my most shared post ever, most of those links coming from people posting it on Facebook to help explain why this Superman wasn’t the Superman they wanted).

Reason #1

Reason #1

And then Batman V Superman happened, even grittier, even edgier than the last movie, although with concessions to the fact that people actually wanted to see Superman actively SAVE people, but missing the mark by even a larger margin than the previous movie. Despite my success with reviewing the last movie, I didn’t even bother to review it since its failings were so obviously apparent. But hearing that Zack Snyder(in all likelihood) subscribes to Objectivism pointed to something much deeper, which explained completely why he doesn’t understand, on a purely conscious level, why someone with incredible powers would ever help anyone else at all.

Objectivism, as posited by Ayn Rand, is all about protecting your power, your uniqueness, your genius, from the rest of the world, from the powers of the collective which will erode those properties into mediocrity. If you make something of beauty and originality, someone will come along and take it and say it belongs to everyone, or they will create cheap imitations to intentionally devalue its worth. And on the face of it, there is a direct, observable logic to that scenario. Where it starts to enter the political realm is where you translate power/uniqueness/genius into money, and the follow-on from that is that the rich must be protected and the riches saved from any sort of devaluing or distribution. (At this point I understand that you go and join a Tea Party somewhere.)Batman-v-Superman_2542

So let’s apply these basic tenants to Superman: his powers and uniqueness must be kept for himself, under no circumstances must they be shared with anyone else–that would devalue them. They must only be used for Superman himself, as an individual… which is where the problem lies, because Superman actually doesn’t have any self-desires. The only reason he exists is to help other people in need, never to obtain his own desires. In fact, classically, Superman has overtly prevented himself from obtaining the only thing that he desires through the use of his powers, and that is Lois Lane.

Which, again, Zack Snyder knows but doesn’t understand, because his Superman very much gets Lois Lane. In fact, at many times in both of his movies, we see Superman completely abandon what he’s doing/fighting at the time to save Lois, in fact, this is the only overt action of saving someone that we get in either movie. We have a brief montage of Superman contemplating saving some people on a rooftop, of Superman rescuing some expensive government property, and of Superman looking very disturbed after rescuing a boy, but the only on screen instances we have of Superman removing someone from harm’s way have to do with Lois, because that’s the only thing that Superman actually wants.

It’s selfishness, pure and simple. It’s a Gordon Gekko view of the world which says that greed is good. The statue of Superman in the movie bears a striking resemblance to Atlas bearing the world’s weight–but without the actual weight of the world, which is the perfect visual description of his character.

Superman Statue in Batman Vs Superman

Like, what even is this pose?

Ironically, application of Objectivism is how most super-villains act in most movies–all of their powers used for their own ends at the expense of everyone else on the planet. So it is therefore telling that all of the true bad guys in Snyder’s movies are, literally, mad. They aren’t people with a different view of the world, with opposing ideologies, or even the same ideologies but opposing aims, they are people with a lot of power who have been driven crazy by other circumstances (I would include Snyder’s portrayal of Batman here), and forced themselves into Superman’s sphere. Both Zod and Luthor go to tremendous extremes to force Superman into any kind of action.

In Rand’s books, it is often government officials who are the hero’s antagonists, and so they are also in Batman v Superman. Here we have a government committee sitting judgement on Superman and asking if Superman “should” do anything. Zack Snyder, after two movies, is still having difficulty with Spider-Man’s first principles of “with great power comes great responsibility”.

Which, in itself, is a kind of irony since Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko is a Randian Objectivist as well. It’s said that he originally split from the Spider-Man comic after a disagreement between himself and Stan Lee over what the identity of the Green Goblin should be–Lee wanted him to be millionaire industrialist Norman Osborne, but Ditko believed that such people should be celebrated, not vilified. This account has been candidly denied by all parties involved, but it does fit with Ditko’s ideologies. In the years since Spider-Man, he’s filled his time making very angry comics telling people that they shouldn’t help out the less fortunate, and insisting that he came up with Spider-Man all by himself (everything but the name).

Steve Ditko The Avenging World

Ditko harbours a Zapp Brannigan-level of irrational hate towards “neutrals”, such as police officers.

In any case, this is the reason that we will never get a good superhero movie from Zack Snyder, or indeed any Objectivist, because power is something that should be guarded, not shared.

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