Arriving at Another Language

A lot is made of what we say at the moment. We are made to choose our words very carefully. Saying the wrong thing can get you pilloried, abused, shamed or even fired in this day and age due to the immediate and vociferous reaction by online mobs who are only too happy and quick to reach for the torch and pitchfork. Both the left and right appear to have their demands on how sacrosanct language is and how it should be deployed and used; the Nu-Right delight in using inappropriate language, pleased when they offend by using racist or sexist slurs, complaining of political correctness gone mad, whilst the Left angrily demand all discourse be pulped through the fine mesh screening filter of tolerance and inclusion. Ironically the roles of both have reversed, the typically free and liberal Left demand control and censorious guidelines for discourse and the traditionally control loving Right dislike the control imposed upon their vocabulary. Some more sensible people would argue that the best method lies somewhere in the middle, that one side shouldn’t be so quick to clutch their pearls and the other should not so deliberately try and goad and insult. The trouble is the whole debate isn’t as cut and dried as this. Ironically both sides are guilty of the others sins yet are seemingly unable to recognise the deficiencies in their argument. Language (whether it be English, Spanish, Cantonese, Flemish or any language) is a strange and capricious beast that has been variously described, mainly in science fiction, as living creature, totem and even a virus. For a better understanding of how language can affect us on a fundamental level there is a modern treatise for just this topic in the recent film ‘Arrival’.

*Spoilers for Arrival ahead*

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on the short story ‘The Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang, ‘Arrival’ is ostensibly a science fiction film about invading Aliens. This is far from true it turns out when the Aliens try to communicate with us and by learning their language the lead protagonist discovers it has altered her perception of time. Events of her future appear as memories and events of her past appear as current. Whilst the film itself deals with determinism (an interesting source of intense debate in the field of physics as the Uncertainty Principle comes under closer and closer scrutiny thanks to developments at CERN) it is a profound indicator of how language, on a fundamental level, changes a person’s perception. A study by Georgetown University in America discovered that learning two languages and developing an increased vocabulary increased the Grey Matter in the brain but the European Commission published a study in 2012 that showed people fluent in more than one language suffered from poorer verbal skills because they carry two or more languages with them every time they speak thus creating difficulties whereby they use fewer words day to day and have more frequent tip-of-the-tongue moments as the brain tries to compute a vast library of sounds, this means being bilingual effects your speech on a lexical level but also a syntactic one. Therefore while being bilingual does effect your brain development, increasing the efficiency of the brain’s executive control system that looks after high-level thought, multi-tasking, and sustained attention, and the increase in grey matter, no study exists that shows links between bilingualism and executive intelligence, emotional intelligence and intelligence quotient, i.e. being bilingual doesn’t actually make you smarter (despite what a typically histrionic and poorly researched article by the Daily Mail may have said). What it DOES do, rather amazingly, is changes the actual physical structure of the brain and its processes. So on a very basic level we are defined by the language we speak and how often we speak it. When it comes to perception however things get even more interesting.

Much is made of ‘The Right Word’. Certainly as a poet this is always the bullseye you aim for but what it implies is how the wrong word can create a really deep shift in a discourse or simply total confusion. By omitting a word or clarifying clause to a statement, or simply emphasising the wrong part of a phrase, a jovial conversation can quickly become an argument. The joke of the little boy asked to go down the road and see how Old Mrs Kettle is only to return with the answer “78” contains an inherent truth that our moment is defined by the language we choose to employ. Time itself can be warped and changed simply by shifting tenses, something many note in the English and French languages as being particularly odd. Gone, go and going; past, present and future, if misused can create a strange logical time loop. “Where have you been?” when asked of someone not completely fluent in English, replied with “I go to the toilet” taken at face value means they are going to the toilet at that moment (and more importantly didn’t answer your question!). Of course we know this is malleable, especially when dealing with people who do not speak our language, but when taken on a broader scale we are essentially walling ourselves into our cultures with our given languages. In literature, particularly poetry, much is made of a translation because something written artistically in its mother tongue will be intrenched in cultural nuance, aphorism, argot, idiom and technicalities not present in the other language, therefore something is missing in transference, typically the inherent ‘sense’ of the original is lost. The first line of Albert Camus ‘The Outsider’ being a fine case in point. In poetry there is an oft ignored method called the ‘Version’ whereby you do not translate the poem necessarily but re-write it, hopefully capturing its essence, in your own tongue and hopefully impart that which the original did and it is this that creates the most interesting response to those who argue over language via the notion of language as response to perception rather than perception as a response to language and therefore a way of ‘translating’ an idea/poem/image so it is better understood in its nature by those reading/seeing/hearing it.

Nietzsche once said: “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in Grammar”. Which feeds in well to the major political arguments surrounding the Left and Right’s demands on language; both sides are failing their respective battles because they both believe their language is the correct one and not the fallible creature it truly is. The flaw that Nietzsche, I think, is trying to wrestle with is that language indicates the way things are, not that the way things are informs language. As an example, if you were to see a four legged animal on a lead in the street you might say “that’s a dog” and you would be right, we have the word Dog so when it is said our mind immediately conjures up the image of a dog. The trouble is we then imagine a Platonic ‘Form’ of a dog, an ideal dog that doesn’t exist or is probably our favourite dog from real life or fiction, until we begin to describe it with an endless stream of adjectives: its a short haired, jack russell terrier, with a loud yip and a milky eye that farts when it sneezes and doesn’t eat dried food because… etc. Language does not account for the uniqueness of the dog in an instant when attempting to communicate this. We can see and absorb the individual nature of it but have to create a spider graph of words around it to lock down it’s reality in conversation or dialogue. An ideal language would be able to invent a word upon seeing the object that perfectly communicates its individual features, its nuances and its character, something that Ted Chiang and Denis Villeneuve approach in their story of a language that can perfectly communicate between species because it relies on an entire lifespan of the individual to find the correct instance or example of something that needs to be communicated as Amy Adam’s character does to the Chinese general which in turn saves the globe from intergalactic war. A language that communicates totally and completely in the briefest time would be incredibly freeing, imagine being able to gather all the nuance and empathy of a political argument in a sound.

Sadly we aren’t there yet. As Nietzsche said we are still ruled by our God of grammar, that god in our syntax that still says “It is raining”, “What time is it?” The magical IT or THEY that controls our structure of speech and ultimately our reality, or at least our perception of it. France even has its Conservatoire which perfectly maintains the French vocabulary so no foreign words can intrude unnecessarily, a true example of the tyranny of language personified as a loop; we define language, language defines us. Which, for me, is where poetry comes in. The poet Don Patterson described poetry as “A method of failure”, by which he meant poetry should always exceed its grasp, trying to capture the ineffable in a word or phrase, so that whilst it may fall short we do then have a more appropriate short hand for a given feeling, emotion, state of mind, place, time and so on. Shakespeare was the master of this, a neologist of such depth and complexity nobody goes a single day speaking English without quoting him. No one individual has done more for English communication and expression since. The notion, so beautifully captured in both the short story and film of Arrival, that every facet of our lives is defined not just by our experiences but how they are communicated is one that everyone speaking any language today should heed. With societal division at its highest in centuries the need for better communication, a more frank and nuanced dialogue, is desperately needed and – for me at least – that means: more poetry.

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Disco 2000

 

Comics, to me, are as important a piece of literature as any other. Like all art some are better than others, some exemplify all that is good about comics others exemplify all that is bad but to dismiss the entire genre as childish or in some way ‘low art’ is itself truly childish. I read both books and comics from roughly the same age. From between the ages six to twelve was my heyday of comic books until they took a back seat and throughout my teenage years read a lot of books I felt I had to read and I now realise wasted a lot of my time in doing so. I returned to comics in my early twenties and read all the comics I should have been reading instead and was rewarded in doing so. I’ve read plenty of great and rubbish comics when I was young but looking back some were absolutely excellent and informed my reading later in life. Throughout my life though some comics persisted, some comics I bought when I could and always returned to characters and strips out of sheer delight and fascination. One of those was Batman in any and all his incarnations, the other was 2000AD.

2000AD celebrated its 40th birthday last week and judging by Twitter it is in rude health, despite certain worrying moments where sales slipped and discontinuing the print edition was mooted. 2000AD is one of the few British comic books still going and more importantly thriving (along with the similarly iconoclastic and anarchic VIZ) which is one of the many reasons I love it so much. It was also an early stomping ground for and launched the talents of some true luminaries of the comic book form. The likes of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Brian Bolland, Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons, Pat Mills, John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Alan Grant and many more besides were all featured early in their careers by 2000AD and whether you read comics or not believe me the cultural landscape would be MUCH poorer without these people in it. People generally tend to think of Judge Dredd when 2000AD is brought up and he is undeniably the superstar of the comic but the likes of Slaine, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog and even its ‘Editor’ the alien Tharg has gone on to achieve wider acclaim. Not least for a largely independent comic to last 40 years is an achievement in and of itself. It continues to foster new comic writing talent and its ‘Future Shocks’ shorts (one of the few comic strips that canvas from open submissions which I myself have submitted to in the past (to no success)) is still going strong too. They even took on characters from discontinued British magazines like Dan Dare from Eagle comics, another character I have an inherited love for. In short 2000AD is nothing shy of a British institution.

I first read 2000AD by mistake. There was a hardware and second hand bookshop in my old hometown (yes such a thing exists) and as a kid I was always on the hunt for books to read. With my chum we’d go to different bookshops in town (of which there are now considerably less) and have a hunt around. In this particular shop there was a bargain bin for old comics in which you could buy a bundle for something stupid like 10p. My friend liked this because he was a fan of old second world war comics of which there seemed to be an unending supply of. Some of these I enjoyed but even at that young age war porn put me on edge. Instead there were several bundles of 2000AD comics from the early 80s and on a whim I bought a couple of rolls. The first thing that surprised me was they were printed on newspaper like my sister’s Beano and my Dandy used to be, by then I was used to the far more glossy (and expensive) covers of American comics. The printing was also a bit more ‘vintage’ as we call it now, serrated page edges, print holes, colour codes on the inside margin, etc which was unusual but what surprised me more was what was inside. First and foremost, blood, guts and boobs were in each ‘Prog’ in some form or other which to a young kid was a fantastic discovery and a thrill that I had somehow got away with buying these comics. More than this was the illicit thrill of actually more dynamics in a comic. I had discovered that in Batman and DC in general things were a little darker and lines of good and bad were blurred a little more but in 2000AD ‘Good guys’ didn’t exist. Everyone was generally horrible or cruel or had their own selfish agendas and wherever there were ‘good’ people, or at least those with morals that extended beyond themselves, they were punished or beaten down or turned. Importantly however this wasn’t portrayed as a good thing, everyone and everything was terrible in 2000AD but it was pointing and laughing and sneering at this. This was basically my first introduction to dark satire, my genre of choice, which I would find later in abundance in the likes of Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker. With 2000AD though everything was fair game and it wasn’t simply satirised but lampooned, made grotesque, then violently eviscerated. I read and re-read those 10 or so comics 100 times. I wasn’t allowed to buy the current editions back then as they had that damn warning on the cover ‘Mature content. For adults only.’ Not long later it turned out my father was working freelance with some of the artists and designers from 2000AD and would bring home new Progs every so often so I circumvented this problem but only occasionally. Since then I have only bought the odd prog (again similar to VIZ) but when I do I’m always delighted to find every comic strip is still as dark, as angry, as cynical, as sardonic, as biting, as graphic and as FUN as it was when I read those out of date 80s editions as a 10 year old.

2000AD holds a unique place in comics alongside the likes of the Beano, the Dandy and VIZ because, for me at least, they are exemplars of a certain British way of thinking and our sense of humour. I am not a patriotic man, certainly not these days, but if I were asked to explain what being British meant I would probably say to read these comics for the answer. British comics, like American comics, exist in a fantasy version of their home nation; a world of park rangers and strange garage inventors, eccentric vicars and fascist bobbies, a world where the protagonist is a Menace, a freak, dirty, grumpy, an upstart and all with a pig-headed, stubborn refusal to accept a lesser lot and cow tow to those who tell them not to which is similar to the American comic style but the difference is who they are fighting. Typically Spider-Man fights the purse snatcher for the nice police/state/corporation whereas the Brit fights that establishment tooth and nail. Every character in 2000AD is cynical, skeptical, original and stubborn, unlike America where the heroes are typically squeaky clean or fight for ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ or that malleable thing ‘Liberty’, British comics aren’t interested in Heroes, we want actual every people, people from council estates, the working class, the ugly, the unpopular. 2000AD has never attempted to gloss over the disgusting neglect in British society and never afraid of where to lay the blame or point the finger. Where Captain America fights for the maintenance of the status quo, Judge Dredd does the same but in a dystopia where he is undeniably a right-wing, totalitarian monster. It is no coincidence Dredd was born in the UK of 1977 a year of Strikes, a rise in Conservativism in local elections, the release of ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’, the ‘Troubles’ in Ireland, the release of ‘Star Wars’ and most soberingly a year in which the Yorkshire Ripper was claiming more victims. Whilst American comics offer an escapist fantasy and obliquely reinforce the will of the state and the American Dream, British comics show life as it is now from the gutter up, aggressively denouncing those in power, be it through the depiction of an imperialistic ‘Teach’ or a fascist cop, or representations, though sometimes problematic – some pretty dubious sexual politics being the worst offences – , of leaders or the general public as gullible or naive fools. These are a far more honest, if extreme, and dare I say it responsible approach to depicting the world.

Today serial print media is in decline, more people read online and spending is at a low and yet 2000AD perseveres. I myself (under-employed yet again) am unable to afford the special 40th Anniversary edition but I would definitely urge you to. The Dandy ended its print edition some years back which broke my heart but was understandable and the majority of kids weekly literature is generally limited to some commercial tie-in that’s either short lived, some imported American run or just plain rubbish. Luckily we have new kid on the block, The Phoenix, which flies the Brit comic flag proudly and whilst it doesn’t go to the extremes of yesteryear it is certainly a breath of silly, weird and action packed fresh air in the comic book market. For me though 2000AD stands front and centre, most certainly not waving a flag, but forging ahead into the dark and scary political landscape of nationalism and fascism that we are witnessing, to mercilessly take the piss, send up, mock and generally laugh at it all. So thank you Tharg and everyone past and present at 2000AD for maintaining an uncompromising publication and remaining resolutely human. Drokk yeah.

An Alternative Life

 

There’s a scene near the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy is teaching a class and says “Archaeology is the search for Fact, not Truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is just down the hall.” At a time in history that will now forever be viewed as a cataclysmic slide into retrograde beliefs and historically appalling ideologies this phrase, of all phrases, seems to strike a ringing chord for me. Celebrity Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted recently “I dream of a world where the Truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true.” When the gatekeepers of important political information are outright lying using what they claim are ‘alternative facts’ the Truth has suddenly become a rare but malleable commodity, akin to gold. But it very much depends on your perspective today who you believe is the alchemist. And what rare metals you believe are facts.

I spent some time sofa surfing in Brighton last year before I travelled to America where I spent Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year and – importantly – the Election with my girlfriend. Whilst sofa surfing I was left to chat with my friends’ flatmate who liked a chat of an evening. His favoured topic of discussion was science. He loved it, delightfully rattled off scientific facts he had learned through casual study in his personal time and took even greater delight in pointing out the foolishness of people who had faith or believed in something that was only explainable without empirical evidence. His passion regularly made these discussions animated. At another time I was out for dinner with my work colleagues when a similar discussion came up and I happened to point out my general contempt for a Mr Richard Dawkins (not because I disagreed with his theories but I find him a singularly unpleasant fellow) to which I was taken to task, quite aggressively, by a colleague who I am still good friends with but at the time seemed to see me as akin to a child murderer. She took great objection to my dislike for a scientist and took it to mean I had no belief in the scientific method or empirical evidence. Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe profoundly in the scientific method, evidence based research, model projection and you ignore the findings of these at your peril. Anyone who does not recognise the contribution to society made by the scientific community is outright incorrect.

In my current under-employed state I watched through the entirety of Rick & Morty on Netflix the other day and was totally enamoured with it. Not just because it’s uniquely animated and performed, nice and short – each episode clocking in around the 20 minute mark – and genuinely funny and original but because akin to my other favourite cartoon Futurama, it is very very smart. Unlike the open sewer that is The Big Bang Theory which merely parrots scientific findings and geek culture buzzwords the writers probably find on Reddit, Rick & Morty takes huge concepts and ideas and doesn’t attempt to boil them down so they’re digestible but uses these as a premise to explore character development and story arcs, just like in y’know real life. Hanging from the paper thin premise of a knock-off Doc & Marty from Back to the Future they explore graph theory, string theory, the Post Hoc fallacy, the Uncertainty Principle and much, much more. Like Futurama it is beloved by the ever critical (and massively egotistical and arrogant) ‘Nerd’ culture, calling it a “love letter to science”. And whilst I occasionally found it glib or walking well trodden ground from other sci-fi that it was well above, I loved it too ranking it an equal favourite animation with Futurama.

And I think this is where the problem comes from.

My whole life I have never vilified religion or the religious and I still don’t. Why? Because the people against it, relishing in referring to themselves as Atheists, have come across as even more volatile, aggressive, bombastic, argumentative, determined-to-convert, rude and down right unpleasant than any ‘Religious’ zealot I have yet met. It is not a new theory but one that is spat upon today that Atheism is just as much a religion as any other. In the above mentioned conversations and so many more throughout my life, when I point out there are just as many holy books, churches, temples, priests and other religious ephemera attributed to Atheism as any other organised religion, I have been met with a (very literally) violent reaction. There are, obviously, differences between Science and Faith, namely Science has a need to demand criticism, questioning and wants to be proved wrong i.e. like life itself it wants to progress which indicates it’s probably the right path to take. However you’re slightly blinkered if you think faith hasn’t been proven wrong and developed over the course of 3 millennia. What startles me though is how staunchly any questioning of Science is refuted with the immediate appearance of mountains of evidence to support whoever’s claims are being questioned and the line of questioning duly shut down completely as if to say “that’s that put to bed.” This seems to negate the very rule which they live by, a lack of query. If, as I do, you truly believe science is for the benefit of mankind and will provide us a species with a future, this kind of questioning really shouldn’t have any impact on you or your faith (yes, Faith) in it.

What I think is missing from everyday life today – and most definitely on the internet – is Philosophy.

Let us define terms here, I am not speaking of a life philosophy or personal philosophy which everyone develops over time and throughout their life but actual Philosophy. In its simplest form this is the question ‘Why?’ to be asked of everything. And I mean everything. Sadly today it does not seem to be asked of anything. It also requires a difficult and complicated understanding of a lot of different aspects of life, culture and yes Science. This requires reading, a lot of it. In the world of the internet, long form ‘Content’ is discouraged and actively ignored in a culture of tl:dr (as this blog will attest) so the idea of reading an entire text of very difficult theorem and dialectics based on largely intangible evidence is off putting to the point of I-don’t-care. The odd youtuber tries to bring Humanities to the table of ‘Vlogs’ but they are vastly outweighed by the number of loud and proud science channels/profiles.

A few of my friends are Academics, all both doctors and lecturers in the Humanities field and all have expressed dislike of current studies in Neuroscience. They feel with computers creating graphs of emotional responses to literature, or a model for the perfect novel, something is being lost in the analytics of culture – and Humanity – by the human mind. The scientific method aims to create an objective view of the world and our universe so it can be better studied but as Heisenberg himself pointed out: “that which you study you also change”. We change the outcome by measuring it. That is because as humans we are subjective. In short: a fact is rarely an objective one.

If you’re a fan of video games like me you may have heard of GamerGate. This was a recent explosion in a particularly vile sub-section of the internet and gaming culture that found a flimsy excuse to exercise their most misogynistic tendencies and were quickly laying waste to certain websites and certain careers that didn’t align with their views under the banner “Ethics in video games journalism” whilst simultaneously being the most unethical bunch of parasites in the world. You may not have heard of them or may have forgotten them but you know them now because they’re the people who got the UK to leave the EU and got Trump elected. They’re also the idiots who tried to boycott the latest Star Wars films because they were lead by girls and talk about the entirely fictitious ‘White Holocaust’. Milo Yiannopoulos is a good example. These giant children see themselves as Geeks, Nerds, the ‘Alternative’ crowd. They consider themselves informed and erudite and coincidentally are staunch believers in empirical science. In the same way as both the leave campaign and remain campaign AND the Democrat and Republican campaigns were all pretty detestable and had ‘Facts & Figures’ to support their claims, facts – it would seem – ended up being a dangerous thing. This, for me, stems from the religion or rather the Zealotry of Atheism and/or Science. Which is where Rick & Morty comes in.

Rick & Morty is indeed about science, Rick is a scientist but the show’s strength is not it’s adherence to science it’s Rick’s ultimate contempt for it. Rick & Morty is more of a show about Philosophy, reconciling the knowledge of oneself and the universe that science brings, with our existence as a whole. Something French author and Philosopher Albert Camus referred to as The Absurd and what is generally paraphrased today as ‘Existentialism’. Ultimately a pure scientist or Atheist should end their life immediately. We have nothing to live for, nothing matters, we are cosmically insignificant, overwhelming evidence suggests humans are a negative force on planet Earth and over population is hastening us towards a swift extinction anyway. But they don’t. We thrive as a species because of science. This dichotomy, this search for meaning in a meaningless existence, is a profound and troubling question that most people shy from. Some people feign Nihilism (normally the same people who love 90s grunge) as a cool exterior or adoptive identity but true Nihilists are rare, if not totally extinct because we have generally accepted we give ourselves meaning to live. See how philosophy helped us? If we didn’t develop these theories we’d all collapse screaming into an abyss as Nietzsche would have it. Rick & Morty explores many of these challenging themes in some depth but the fact that this seems to be overlooked in favour of the science of the show I find troubling. Even the word Science to me has become troubling, or at least its usage has, in the same way as ‘Content’ has come to mean many things whilst killing the nuance of many others, this dogmatic adherence to the Saviour That Is Science is damaging in the extreme. Claiming our involvement in the world is a binary response of either Faith or Science is what got us where we are today in the west: totally divided. Both could learn from one another yet both have dug their heels in harder and harder and resist the scientific and objective method of query as well as the philosophical, less tangible method of query. Both sides sharing links to biased articles, Tim Mnchin songs, videos of Stephen Fry DESTROYING RELIGION, interviews with Climate Change denying scientists and other equally specious ‘Content’ to serve a given agenda. There’s a reason the study of Consciousness is referred to as ‘The Hard Problem’. There is a great quote from a book called Boneland by Alan Garner where a character says “I’m for uncertainty. As soon as you think you know, you’re done for. You don’t listen and you can’t hear. If you’re certain of anything, you shut the door on the possibility of revelation, of discovery. You can think. You can believe. But you can’t ‘know’.” We know an awful lot today but there is a vast gulf between information, knowledge and wisdom, a gulf most of us are happy to stand on either side of and never try to traverse.

In the first chapter of Hard Times by Charles Dickens, ‘The One Needful Thing’, the first words of the book are spoken by Mr Gradgrind: “Now, what I want is, Facts.” The book goes on to reveal Gradgrind as cold and cruel, concerned only with numbers and facts. The more I hear about facts at the moment the less inclined I am to want to listen. Not because I don’t believe in evidence or proof but because the legacy is so pernicious. Like a great band or artist who inspired a legion of rather dreadful imitators (I’m looking at poor Jeff Buckley here) the sanctity of facts has come under the wrong kind of scrutiny but for me the true damage is there is no search for Truth. After all, they’re not the same thing. Philosophy is just down the hall.

indy-0

P.S. There are some excellent articles and videos on the web about the Philosophy of Rick & Morty, Wisecrack’s in particular.

Spectre at the Feast

Ambrose Bierce wrote a short story printed on Christmas Day in 1886 called ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’. It’s a creepy story told in first person mainly about death and the afterlife. In 1895 Robert Chambers published a collection of short horror stories under the title ‘The King in Yellow’. The name is taken from a fictional play that drives anyone who reads it mad that is mentioned in most of the stories and serves as a connecting tissue for the whole collection. Quotes from the play introduce certain stories, one of them containing the line “But stranger still is Lost Carcosa”. Carcosa is mentioned in many of the stories too. Chambers made no secret of his homage to Bierce  and the stories from ‘The King in Yellow’ themselves share a similar dark atmosphere to ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’. Some years later in 1926 a writer called HP Lovecraft began having stories published, now dubbed the Cthulu Mythos, concerning themselves with a genre he termed ‘cosmological horror’, the notion that the vast universe contained horrors we could not comprehend and how insignificant we were in the face of them. Lovecraft equally payed homage to Bierce and Chambers using similar techniques as theirs in his shorts: first person and unreliable narrators, dark and pervasive atmosphere, a book – the infamous Necronomicon – that reappears in many stories and many other themes, styles and settings that they used. Many writers have added to the intertextual horror of the Cthulu Mythos over the years but it seems there has been a rather pointed resurgence in popular culture in the last two years.

My interest was first piqued when I was watching the first series of True Detective, which remains an absolute favourite, and the murderer and his accomplices talk explicitly about Lost Carcosa, the Yellow King, and talk at length about theoretical physics and humanity’s entirely redundant place in the universe and at a key moment a character demands Rust “take off your mask” which is a direct quote from the King in Yellow. This is more of a subtext in the inferior second series but still there in many ways. This added a deep and dark extra layer to something that was already pretty grim. Then there was a computer game released for the latest console generation entitled Bloodborne. Bloodborne is, in its entirety, a fond doffing of the hat to Lovecraft with its sanity meter, Shoggoth-type monsters, dream-like horrors and continual references to the Great Old ones and cities beyond the stars (how Carcosa is often described), all set in the Gothic Victoriana of a fictional city populated by werewolves and madmen. These are two very popular, very well-known pieces of cultural ephemera making explicit references to little known horror stories over a century old.

This weekend I went to see a play at the Royal Exchange in Manchester called ‘Pomona’. It is named after the bizarre and empty island between the canals in the centre of Manchester. It’s poster features someone wearing a Cthulu mask. The play itself is set in a maybe-future-maybe-now Manchester where girls are disappearing and the lives that are thrown together because of this. It shares a lot in common with True Detective in its themes but more so in its references to cosmological horror. Characters in the play are playing a role playing game based on Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu and this may or may not be reflected in their real lives. The same paranoia, insignificance and helplessness infused within Bierce, Chambers and Lovecraft runs through the play like a stick of rock. Independently I could perhaps see that I was simply following my nose to seeking out these things being a fan of this type of high concept horror but it was then that the most subtle but definitely most striking entry into this canon showed itself without me having any idea it would be there.

I took a day trip to London to see Spectre as Skyfall had not only set itself as my favourite Bond but hands-down one of my favourite films and I had high hopes. Largely it delivered, it wasn’t as good as Skyfall (it was never going to be) and was rather long and flabby but was a hearken back to the late Connery/early Moore Bond films and was enjoyably fun and a bit daft. What truly amazed me, however, was its own references to the same intertextual lineage of cosmological horror present in Bierce, Chambers, Lovecraft, Bloodborne, True Detective and Pomona. I’m sure at this point I am being scoffed at but let me explain… and if you haven’t seen Spectre please do so but don’t proceed beyond this point as there will be spoilers.

Spectre-Poster-1

First and foremost Spectre opens in the festival of the dead in Mexico City,  a hardly subtle planting of the flag in the same arena of the uncanny as the other entries but still a similarity. The concept of a shadowy organisation and corruption and paranoia and insignificance in the face of such a force are overriding themes in the others too and certainly in Spectre. The organisation itself is depicted as all pervasive and Bond having no idea what he is in for, “a kite dancing in the wind” but these are more general themes and ideas that I could easily just be bringing to the analysis without their overt presence within the film. As such let’s look at some specifics:

The most obvious is the meteorite. Blofeld (parenthetical aside: why the FUCK did they not just say who Christoph Waltz’s character was before hand? We all knew. The film’s called Spectre for fucks sake. Shit I hate marketing) brings Craig and Seydoux to look at the asteroid that created the crater where his base is, giving a little speech about the insignificance of man against the cosmos. Not only that but the asteroid is shaped with circular divots and drop lit creating the impression that the stone is covered in eyes. In short: it’s an inert Shoggoth from Lovecraft. Lovecraft also wrote a short called ‘The Rats in The Walls’ about a man driven mad by the scratching of rats in the walls of his house where he and his colleagues then explore discovering lost horrors in the foundations of the building. In Spectre Bond comically/drunkenly asks a rat who he works for only then for the rodent to disappear into the walls revealing a secret room beyond. Also worth mentioning a similar rat story is told (badly) by Vince Vaughan in True Detective 2. I did not catch the image but on the cork board above the picture Seydoux snatches in the secret room is a Victorian illustration that looked rather gothic horror. I’d be willing to bet on a freeze frame that is some thinly veiled reference to ineffable monstrosities from beyond the stars. Oh and then there’s the mysterious Mr. White from Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace  (intertextual again) referred to as ‘The Pale King’. The safehouse towards the end is called ‘Hildebrand Prints and Rarities’ a reference to Bond’s own mythos and a Fleming Short called ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’ about a rare fish that Bond goes fishing for (side note, Cthulu and associated monsters are beasts of the deep), the safehouse bears a striking resemblance to the description of the residence of Mr. Wilde in ‘Repairer of Reputations’ by Robert Chambers. Mr Wilde also has a cat, a scar and is well versed in everyone’s business using it for his own Machiavellian ends. Sounding familiar? There was also a wonderful moment where a crowd of drones tapping at keys suddenly halts and turns to face Bond in silhouette. A brilliantly chilling moment that isn’t a reference per se but definitely feels straight out of a Chambers/Lovecraft story.

The most blatant reference to Lovecraft/Bierce/Chambers however is in Spectre’s imagery and symbolism. In True Detective 1 the imagery of a vortex is seen throughout the series, either in the scrawls by the occultists or in the swirling flock of crows until it culminates with the swirling black hole of space Rust finally sees at the end of their case. In True Detective 2 two rorschach-like blotches seen above Vince Vaughan’s bed and on the tablecloth eerily reflect the empty sockets of his murdered colleague’s eyes. In Spectre the repeated imagery is the octopus logo of the organisation itself. Seen repeatedly throughout the film on the ring, it crops up in the corners of frame at regular instances but most subtly when Bond shoots the bulletproof glass which cracks in the same way as the film poster into the shape of the octopus. The octopus itself is shown in gargantuan size in the opening credit sequence, wrapping itself around naked and scantily clad women and none-too-subtly resembling every image of Cthulu available. If you think I am reading too much into this imagery Mendes put plenty in Skyfall, most notably the film’s use of Maritime paintings to convey Bond’s struggle for relevance in today’s world. For real, check it out. This kind of foreshadowing is used a lot in film, sometimes called a callback, and certainly if it is unstated this kind of visual storytelling is profoundly effective in conveying tone but also a deeper sense of a plot or subtext. Humans use symbolism to work through problems. Confronting our own failings is painful and difficult and not always rewarding which is why we tell stories with universal themes and identifiable characters and settings so we can project these feelings and thoughts onto the fiction and process our problems better. It is this cathartic process that can be refined and almost subconsciously adapted to tell a story or convey a point. Horror utilises this particularly well.

My favourite horror film is Don’t Look Now. It is not, on the whole, a scary film but it IS deeply, deeply unsettling throughout and it is the finale that is most terrifying. Roeg uses symbolism and imagery throughout the film to tell the story and to give the shocking ending such weight and horrifying depth. He uses three small things: broken glass, spilled water and the colour red. One of these will be in every scene in that film, maybe even every shot and it has a cumulative effect. From the opening shattering scene involving the broken glass spilling water onto the slide of a red hooded girl that mirrors their daughter’s awful drowning outside to THAT ending that will never leave me, the three pieces of symbolism and imagery connect the whole story start to finish and make it all the more haunting. It’s wonderful stuff. Spectre isn’t quite so involved but the use of its own symbolism that it undeniably cribs (maybe not intentionally) from those early horror writers lends the darker moments much more depth and weight.

So why now? Why is modern culture suddenly so keen on the cosmological horror of writers and stories from over a century ago? The pre-civil rights/post-war world Lovecraft wrote in, paranoia and the feeling of insignificance in the face of larger threats was ever present in society at the time. Lovecraft was also an indefensible racist and anti-semite, something that sadly pervades his work but goes a long way to explain where this resurgence of his and Chambers & Bierce’s brand of intertextual existential and worried horror in mainstream popular culture maybe coming from. We live in a world where (as Spectre also points out) the Snooper’s Charter is in headline news, we’re being watched by drones, innocent black people are being gunned down, school shootings are a near weekly occurrence, each new discovery from a comet to new pictures of Pluto places us in a inconceivably vast universe, wars abroad causing influxes of refugees to all shores across the globe and economic depression are almost all events shared with the time Lovecraft was writing.

‘The spectre at the feast’ is a turn of phrase in reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (oh look at that, another recent film) where Macbeth’s feast is ruined by him seeing the ghost of Banquo, indicating he cannot hide from his guilt as it is his burden. Some people sometimes call this ‘the elephant in the room’. We live in scary and uncertain times that we are struggling to find our place in and it should be deeply troubling to all of us that such massive global blockbuster fare as James Bond would be, intentionally or not, using iconography of a hundred years ago to reveal the horrors being wrought on the planet. This current crop of creative writers, directors, playwrites and game developers who are returning to these stories as they strike such a deep chord, are addressing our own Spectre at our own feast and I worry that this “fit is not momentary” and we should heed better this “very painting of our fears”.

6xjOR

The Perfection of Imperfection

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That’s a picture of the Yin Yang. It’s one of the most identifiable and iconic graphics in the world. It’s beauty is its simplicity. It encapsulates the ideas and belief of Taoism in a single circle, a curvy line and two dots. I won’t go into the overall Philosophy of Taoism but as the Yin Yang shows it means in its basic form that everything has two sides but contains part of each and are inseparable yet distinct i.e. everything contains its opposite. One of the great ideas this ideology imparts is that for something to be perfect it must be imperfect, by which I mean that which makes something truly great is its fallibility.

I have known this since I was a kid. I liked finding mistakes or problems in things I liked because if I still loved it after that then it HAD to be good. For me this is most evident in film and music. There are plenty of films that have significant problems that only stand to make me love it more but what I really wanted to write about was the music side of things.

My brother recently wrote this post on his own blog about the difference in ‘Clean’ and ‘Dirty’ blues. Now I fall pretty heavily on the Dirty side of this particular Yin/Yang argument, my favourite Blues musicians, in fact any musicians/songwriters/albums, are the dirtiest. My argument is that it is the errors that makes it more human and sympathetic. The implication in the Clean and Dirty argument is that the dirtier it is the more visceral it is, more emotion, more power but less refined, slightly ‘uglier’ because of it. The clean music on the other side is more accurate, more refined, more thoughtful but more sterile and less emotional. My favourite two examples in Blues at the moment are Gary Clark Jr and John Mayer. Gary is de-facto dirty whereas Mayer is the most pristine clean you can get. He uses Dumbles for crying out loud. Now Mayer sites Ray Charles as a big influence which is evident in his vocal style, Charles being another artist I’d call ‘clean’, but if we start looking at older recordings a bit more closely the dirtier they become.

Pre the ice-barren sterile age of the 80s (and even during) there are so many examples of errors and distinct uncleanliness in most recordings and this set me thinking. I wonder how many errors you could find in some truly classic recordings. I’m not talking about fly-by-nights or garage bands, I mean number one singles and bona fide classics. It turns out, it’s harder to find recordings without any mistakes. I took to Twitter to ask the hivemind what they could think of as examples. The examples I gave were the wonderfully jarring honk from a trumpet in Move On Up, the oddly out of tune brass in Stevie Wonder’s Uptight, the early saxophone on Land of 1000 Dances by Wilson Pickett and the clangourous humdinger of a wrong chord in Hound Dog. The cause was kindly taken up on Twitter and fast became an avalanche of recommendations on some truly glaring errors and fumbles on some truly classic and legendary recordings. I won’t list them all but some of my favourites were: “Fuck!” Loudly from the drummer in Louie Louie by the Kingsmen, Sting hitting the piano and laughing in Roxanne, various incidents of unwelcome phones ringing, Brian Wilson’s cough during the Organ solo in Wendy, the UTTERLY bizarre knocking in Beat It by Michael Jackson, the ‘you-can’t-unhear-it’ pop at the start of EVERY CHORUS in Paper Planes and likewise the painfully out of tune guitar on Jackie Wilson’s Higher and Higher.

The most ‘hits’ came from The Beatles. Now for the band that have undergone the most scrutiny over time this doesn’t surprise me and quite a few are well known but many had completely passed me by. For instance: ever noticed the really obvious “fucking hell” in the middle of Hey Jude? Or McCartney’s hilarity inducing bail out of a note in If I Fell (no link because the youtube versions are suspiciously doctored. Find a CD or record version)? Or when John & Paul bugger up the lyrics in I’ll Get You? We’re talking arguably the greatest band in the world and number one hits here.

I discussed this briefly the next day with my brother as we debated the lore and apocryphal stories surrounding these bloopers and errors and then realised that this sort of thing is going the way of the Dodo with digital technology and the ability to erase even the smallest recording error, or auto tune a flat vocal, or generally smooth out the audio of anything. And instantly you have lost something. Whether you argue for or against ‘cleanliness’ there is instantly a loss of mystery, there can be no discussion on what the knocking in Beat It is because it would be edited out but I think we can all agree that song isn’t classed as one hit wonder or a B-Side. The dud bass note in Born to Be Wild didn’t stop that becoming a worldwide hit (the movie might have helped though).

What am I getting at? Well I’m certainly not saying add in a fuck up in post but nor am I suggesting we leave every recording untouched by the digital wand of pro-tools. What I am saying is that we live in an era where humanity, emotions and what some consider a soul are being actively distanced through a way of living. I am not knee-jerkingly accusing the internet or social media as I love them but at a time when it took the photo of a dead child drowned on a beach to mobilise certain people in our society and acknowledge this is a problem that’s knocking on our door and won’t go away, I think the small rebellion of leaving in the faults, “warts and all” in the things we create so we can recognise our own foibles and problems is only for the good. There has always been the notion of something being too perfect and it is always seen as a negative. If we look at a robot immaculately replicating our face and expressions we are repulsed by it, it’s called the uncanny valley effect. Perfection is actively refused by our conscious mind. Humans are a messy and disorganised race and our art is no different. When it comes to Blues then, the most deep down howl of despair and melancholy and anger, this should absolutely be the messiest and wrong and error filled music to listen to or it, for me at least, isn’t capturing that sense of our humanity.

So the next time you wish to ‘find fault’ see that as a good thing. We can only ever improve if the errors are pointed out and besides we’ll never create something faultless and utterly perfect. We’re only human after all.

P.S. Twitter amazed me with its suggestions the other night. I storified the whole list of replies if you want a laugh and some truly gob smacking how-did-I-not-notice-that moments. Thanks to Danny Baker and Moose Allain for getting the ball rolling.

Mockingjay & Paddington as Protest

*SPOILER Warning: Plot spoilers for both films below video. Go and see them both before reading. They’re both worth it.*

I saw the third instalment of the Hunger Games franchise Mockingjay yesterday and just got back from seeing the latest incarnation of children’s literary favourite Paddington at the cinema. I thoroughly enjoyed both but not simply as sheer spectacle but they both had some subtle and not-so-subtle critical points to make on western history and on modern politics that I was nothing short of delighted to see. They are both worth the price of admission at the cinema and certainly worth a look when they get released on DVD/Netflix as they are both action packed and rather fun but equally far more intelligent than they are being billed.

Starting with Mockingjay is easiest at its politics are the most obvious parts of these films. It is a really rather open attack on American domestic and foreign policy, its use of media and its dehumanising effect on a populace and a stringent and almost enforced class disparity. Contrary to what a woefully inept critic said in the Guardian not so long ago (whose protest seemed to be so dogmatically old school and anti-populist he came across far more as a Tory than any kind of ‘lefty’) this is not purely an attack on the state its an attack on a set of values now inherent in modern politics and society. This kind of questioning, especially when aimed at the young, should be endlessly encouraged and not whinged about for not picking a target you dislike more. HOWEVER, in this particular part of the Hunger Games series something leapt out at me far more strongly than its anti-westernising ideology; its historical political narrative.

Mockingjay Pt.1 has a very neat set of historical references throughout that compound its initial message that to my eye (and ear) were far more than its tubthumping neo-liberalism (which, again, I like). What brought this to my attention in this film more than the others, was the music. A frequently used fiddle is heard at key moments, the sort of folk fiddle sound you would associate with the American west, certainly at the time of the American Civil war. Katniss’ return to the Victor’s Village at two different points in the film compounds this music with set design. Having recently toured the MET in New York (*CLANG* sorry that was a name I just dropped…) I was particularly interested in the American history section. They had several mockups of mid-19th century households, something near immaculately replicated by the set designers in Mockingjay. Plush 19th century furniture, raggedy work clothes as seen in many photos of the period, wood slat and Queen Anne houses and victorian pastoral scenes are all depicted in the film. Taken together with the western swing style fiddle and the beautifully orchestrated a cappella work song (performed very well by Lawrence) this comes over as an overt commentary. Combine this with the notion of districts being fired upon, especially District 13 depicted as a ‘fort’ which is often seen as the start of the Civil War when Fort Sumter was fired upon. Compound that with the depictions of the districts (certainly in the books) as being populated by different races, most obviously the district from which Rue comes has a nearly all black population. The very notion of each district as slaves, be that logging, coal mining or road/railway building is inescapable in its parallels with the Civil War.

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Another interesting note is that the supposed ‘good’ side of the rebels is not depicted in a favourable light either. Totalitarian, grey and uniform is admittedly the exact reverse of the gaudy Capital but is equally depicted as not exactly an ideal replacement for the gross indulgence of the Capital. This again is a major theme in both the films and the books but the commentary of the literal Capitalism of them is often brandished by its fans and detractors far more than their criticism of the mad, communist utilitarianism of the rebels. Coyne is just as vindictive, steely eyed and (as Pt.2 will no doubt reveal) just as heartless as President Snow. This is perhaps a more subtle sub-text but very much there in District 13’s lack of amusements, prescribed quarters, use of literally ‘red’ propaganda, brutalist architecture and dislike for cats (…you get what I mean). Most notable for me was wonderful character beat between the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Elizabeth Banks where he tells her ‘the door is unlocked’ to which she replies there is nothing  out there for her. Very much a parallel to the communist notion of ‘do as you will’, the notion that restrictions are not placed upon the populace but upon their belongings and allowances. I may be taking it too far when I point out the exciting yet hushed finale is played out under bright RED lights but mise en scene is a powerful cinematic device too and no imagery is innocent.

Put together this creates an actually rather sophisticated extension of the film’s political criticisms making the Hunger Games franchise a series that I hope will warrant further critical study in the future and mass appeal for many generations. To say nothing of Lawrence’s genuinely all-encompassing performance. The woman’s a marvel. Paddington’s political merits, however, are somewhat more implied.

Other than it being a really lovely, old fashioned fable of family and friendship, set against a Mary Poppins back drop of America-friendly London, Paddington came across as a rather determined stand against the rise of the Modern Right. With UKIP now having a seat in parliament the complete implosion of the Liberal Democrats, not to mention the slow ‘Rightification’ of Labour and an unelected Tory government, right wing politics – as the Hunger Games argues – seems to be the norm today in our mass globalised world. A hot button topic going hand in hand with this the world over is Immigration. UKIP itself stands (or sits) on this one issue almost and the fact they now have a voice in government should worry us all and amazingly enough Paddington spells that out for you.

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A Bear Called Paddington was written by Michael Bond in 1956 and the eponymous character’s now famous introduction was prompted by very real events. During the second world war children were evacuated from their homes in London and sent to the countryside for safety away from notorious bombing sites to live with rural families. In addition to this the film makes it clear many european families were separated during the war too, many also sent to England to escape the conflict, in particular – Jewish families. And we all know why they didn’t want to hang around Europe at that time… The film explains this in great detail, even giving it its own little animation that reminded me of the Three Brothers fable that struck me dumb in Harry Potter. But Paddington goes even a little further.

Every nation on earth is built on immigration and humanity’s evolution depends on a diverse mix of our various cultures and creeds, the utterly asinine rhetoric spouted by the Nu-Right attempts to undermine or disprove this by indirectly promoting a fictitious type of National Purity where only a poorly defined idea of a ‘British Person’ may reside on our shores. That may sound hysterical but that really is the ground politicians are fighting on right now. Throughout the film Paddington is resolutely portrayed as a refugee: his home in darkest Peru is destroyed, he stows away to reach London and arrives with nowhere to stay. It does not patronise and even makes a rather satirical joke of the sort of deplorable conditions immigrants can be left to suffer in: Paddington says he will sleep in a bin for the night near the beginning and is later seen sleeping rough on a bench in the rain. London is not initially depicted well at all: commuters ignore the talking bear, pickpockets roam the streets and Mr. Brown is immediately depicted as the kind of ‘pull-your-socks-up’, old school tie Tory I loathe, sniffing at Paddington’s homeless state, calling him a liar, demanding his children lock their doors, etc. But by the end Paddington’s differences are embraced and incorporated by the Brown family, making them far better people and the immigrant Paddington notes “London is a place where anyone can fit in” and “whilst I’m not from here, it feels like home”. Of all the carefully structured heartstring tugging moments that one got me. Yes, Britain and London are places where anyone can fit in, whatever your colour, creed or nationality. Diversity is what makes any country tick and contributes to a rich, interesting and broad cultural pot I am proud to call my home nation.

I admit Paddington and Mockingjay both miss a few things in their keeness to state their case. For a multi-cultural London there aren’t that many people who aren’t white seen there, similarly in Mockingjay despite the token black guy its a pretty WASPy film and even the slummier parts of London are coated with a nostalgic Victorian sheen. These small quibbles aside both film’s hearts, and more importantly – their wallets, are in the right place: their mouths. It appears the most compelling opposition in modern politics comes from the cinema.

With a general election just around the corner in the new year and immigration a key point in every party’s manifesto, a film with Paddington’s box office pull and no doubt due for home release in the spring near election time, it could not be more of an obvious protest against the current political landscape. It is a great fun family film with laughs aplenty and a lot of heart but more importantly it carries with it a warning from history in the same way Mockingjay does: its never those who seek power that change lives, it is those closest to us that do and can do so in the smallest of ways. Ways like volunteering for a sibling or offering a bed for the night. Or simply a helping hand.

To deliberately mis-quote our unelected Prime Minister: We are in this together, they aren’t in it at all.

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Looking Back at Man of Steel

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Its been a year or so since Zack Snyder’s epic reboot of one of my favourite comic book characters and now the dust has settled and we’re a long way off from the sequel still, I wanted to take another look at it from a safe distance.

I liked Man of Steel when I saw it at the cinema and seem to be in the minority in this opinion but re-watching it again recently for the umpteenth time I am still curious as to where the backlash came from. It is very clearly not a BAD film at all. It meets a good standard in all points, matching a lot of the much drooled over Marvel offerings in recent years. Yet the vitriol aimed at it on release was astonishing. I admit I am a fan of the character and as a comic book reader I still volunteer myself as a DC and not Marvel supporter (despite the fact Marvel’s comics and films are vastly superior today) but I’m not wholly biased. Green Lantern was an unmitigated disaster, very similar to Iron Man 2 so there’s never a perfect formula but I genuinely feel Man of Steel’s hate was misguided and unnecessary. Why? Well let’s look at the main criticisms people had first of all:

The first thing that people trumpeted high and low as the films most pernicious message and damning fault was its ‘Christian Imagery’. Okay, well spotted, there is a lot of christian imagery in it. My riposte to this is: “So what?” As anyone who knows their comic book theory,  or even Nietzsche, or just cultural theory should realise the Ubermensch or Superman theory. The notion is dealt with best in ‘Watchmen’ and the sublime ‘Kingdom Come’ but also a lot in X-Men, essentially it is the notion that all Superheroes are Gods themselves. A jump of evolution to God-head. An aspirational notion that makes us question our ideas of God and who we are as beings. A noble and valid theological query. Superman himself, taking the name directly from Nietzsche’s theory, is the emodiement of that. In the fantastic Superman comic series ‘For Tomorrow’ Brian Azzarello looks at similar themes questioned by Watchmen and has a priest as a main secondary character, set after a Rapture-like ‘vanishing’ of the world’s populace. Superman and the Priest have numerous theological discussions on the idea that Supe himself is in fact a God. As such, damning Man of Steel for utilising christian iconography that is hardly subtle or hidden to make its point about aspirational attitudes is slightly redundant in my view. Its actually quite an interesting sub-text and lets not pretend these do not exist in other superhero films. I wrote an entire post about the deliberate and various political subtexts within the Dark Knight trilogy right here, not to mention the wild and varied sub-texts in the numerous Marvel universe films. That kind of additional iconography adds a certain amount of depth to a film but if people are for some reason worried it is trying to push a christian agenda: Fuck off. Doctor James Smith discusses Man of Steel’s atheist message much better over at Everyday Analysis (they have a book out now by the way) but even in blunt terms, Jonathan Kent is clearly an atheist. He laughs cynically at the notion of “divine intervention”, there is no sign of religious ephemera at his home, in his car, etc. Also why is no one tubthumping about its scientologist agenda? Aliens occupying other planets? Old spaceships before the birth of man? Or why does no one complain about the blatant facist ideology? Zod AND Jor El’s notion of eugenics is the main theme. Zod is even pictured in a Stalinist relief when shown to Clark. Or what about the environmentalist imagery? Jonathan makes the argument that being a farmer is enough to aspire to, the destructive force of those oil rigs, the constant imagery of nature (Whales beneath the sea, stills of butterflys, etc) should it not be lauded for that? No, people picked up on a theme that is practically unavoidable in superhero stories (assiduously avoided by Marvel thus far and outright refuted in Thor) and had a knee-jerk reaction to it. I am no christian but do not feel its imagery was in anyway pernicious, if anything it added to its depth.

There are, I confess, numerous plot holes in Man of Steel too. The iffy science of the Kryptonian and Earth atmosphere is a bit of rubber band reality that doesn’t quite square at times (how can he breathe in outerspace then?). There are numerous other inconsistencies but in truth I can overlook them, in the same way the Joker needs to be omniscient for his plan to work in the Dark Knight and why on Earth did Loki need to be captured? All pretty stupid but that’s movie logic. Read ‘Which Lie Did I Tell’ where Goldman rewrites a scene as if it happened in real life and you’ll see what I mean. Additionally problematic is the film’s pacing. It is overstuffed and the plot makes substantial jumps in time that are not noted and commented on. The Nolan-esque flashback/flashforward editing technique does a lot to make it lucid but it is tightened to an almost emaciated level and has very little breathing room. Avengers, despite its whizzbangs, had a very steady pace to a grand finale, Man of Steel rushes to cram everything in. But to that end Snyder tries his hardest to fit in tonal shots and character beats. The odd gag goes a long way in it and occasionally harks back to the fun of the Christopher Reeve originals, but those shots of nature, the chats with Dad, the chats with Mum, the hitchhiking, all add up to a well rounded film. If they had simply cut some of the action towards the end and made a few scenes longer and shots stretch by a few seconds it would not have felt as rushed as it does.

The one problem that I concur with and I struggle to get over is its somewhat callous preoccupation with destruction and mortality. A LOT of people die in this film and a LOT of buildings and private property is destroyed. In itself this is not necessarily awful but it misses out the depiction of people’s safety that other superhero films go a long way to point out. The Avengers takes great pains to rescue the citizens of New York and the police are constantly pictured rushing people to safety and the public are shown afterwards safe and jubilant at their rescue. For reasons best known to itself, Man of Steel will show people in peril but never shows them rescued or saved. Superman rescues but one soldier – catching him in the air, so when asked if he wants to join Zod his passion for humanity being saved doesn’t ring that true, especially after questioning whether they can be trusted or not. Christopher Reeve wonderfully delivers the line “Stop! The People!” in the Superman 2 and that was almost all you needed, instead Cavill’s Supe is so desperate to save the family in the station at the end he breaks Zod’s neck, murdering him and we see him briefly tortured by this murder but we don’t see the family alive and grateful of rescue and nor does SUPERMAN’S CHIEF MOTIVATION FOR NEVER KILLING get dwelled on beyond his pained scream. Having said all that Man of Steel did have the fight scenes I’ve always wanted from a Superman film. With Gods flying around the cities I’ve long wanted to see some mass and epic destruction in a film such as this and Snyder delivers. But just the briefest shots of people surviving and the notion of mortality would have allayed a lot of criticism. I don’t think it was deliberate however, merely just pressure for time and squeezing stuff in.

Those being the main criticisms why do I love it more and more? First and foremost its a beautiful film. It is shot with a very keen and earthy eye. Snyder makes great use of the natural beauty of this world and Krypton’s. Every scene is beautifully lit in high contrast with lush filters and lots of saturated grain. It is a visually arresting film, probably why the iconography is so eye-catching. The CG is also wonderful, Snyder if nothing else is much better at getting the right look for his CGI. Marvel’s take is big bold and bright, Snyder manages to seamlessly integrate his CGI into the naturalistic camera style and colour palate. Clark’s flight round the world and ascent to the skies is particularly energetic and thrilling. The CGI punch up in the streets is also what I’ve been waiting for in a Superman film since I was 4.

The performances are uniformly excellent. The Man of Steel is a big set of Red Boots to fill especially after so many have done it so well (I thought Brandon Routh was an excellent Superman in a dogshit awful film) but Cavill absolutely nails it; soft enough but tough enough, firm and confident but shy and diffident, confused yet sure of himself he manages the full range and has a great chemistry with the equally great Amy Adams. The Kents are a master stroke of casting, Costner is perfect as Jonathan and steals every scene he is in. Shannon steals it for me though. Zod is a frankly preposterous villain when it comes down to it, even his name is dumb but Shannon gets right into the skin of an unhinged general that’s gone ‘Full Kurtz’ in the reaches of space. The worst villain is the one who makes sense and Shannon puts a lot of effort into making his arguments convincing but equally does the shouty aggression well too. He is a constant and growing threat after his appearance halfway through and is genuinely frightening, more than a match for the Man of Steel. The fantastic line toward the end “Where were you trained? On a farm?!” making him all the more threatening.

The music was never going to be a match for John Williams’ utterly faultless Superman theme which will forever be indelibly linked to the big S but to Hans Zimmer’s credit he doesn’t try. Film scoring has long since dispensed with the symphonic characteristics of its forebears, something I mourn personally, where a film used thematic music for characters and events and places which was a hangover from Opera and the like. Instead today in a postmodernist world music scores for emotion in less Romantic fashion and utilises noise and sound in a modernist way. Zimmer has been honing this skill for decades and has brought this full force to bare in recent years, unlike say Danny Elfman who has simply been repeating himself. With Dark Knight, Inception, Sherlock Holmes and Man of Steel Zimmer has found percussion, synth style noise and the odd key hook to be most effective and whilst he never burdens anything with a ‘Theme’ as such he finds the right key sound for every moment. Relying more heavily on all American military brass sound he captures the Big Blue Boyscout perfectly but equally undermines Zod with the same synthy brass by crashing him about in a Montagues and Capulets way. The finale is particularly rousing.

Also Snyder just gets the tone right. All of these things add up to a film that has real world feel, obviously pushed by Nolan’s Dark Knight popularity, but equally has that slightly high key, pastoral old-cinema effect you want from a comic book film and certainly from a Superman film. Donner nailed this too and it shows, subsequent attempts to revive Supe have never had the deliberately nostalgic, slightly dreamy and yes RELIGIOUS aspect to them. Snyder proved he was a comic fan with Watchmen and Man of Steel is further proof he knows the medium extremely well. Marvel benefit from having an entire studio set up from the comics themselves so cannot help but fall into the comics being a major influence. Warner Bros overall disgust with the fact they have to make Superhero films and DC’s inability to market anyone but Superman and Batman is a massive hinderance but Snyder is proving his passion for the source is just enough to get a truly faithful adaptation to the screen.

The Man of Steel suffered from a backlash of over marketing, bad timing and public and critics jaded by Superheroes in general. Behind the, lets be honest, minor quibbles people level at it, is a decent and enjoyable movie. No its not for everyone, no its not perfect but I am hoping in time it will be seen as more than worthy successor to the original two, which lest we forget were high camp, flared trouser waring, time altering, silly messes of movies too. What you want from Superman, and all superhero films/comics is simple. Clark Kent is a lost soul who struggles with who he is and turns out to be an incredibly powerful being. In short, Clark is all of us. Far from being christian or religious the message of Superman is totally humanist. We don’t know who we are or where we are going. The reason superhero films and comics continue to hold such cultural value is because they speak to us. Theses are written on this topic everyday but at the root of it Superman is the original and the ultimate and Man of Steel nobly addresses this fact. Whilst it doesn’t pose those questions itself it leads us to ask the questions which are tough for anyone. But equally the notions of family, love, isolation and growing up are themes we all understand. Give Man of Steel another try. It really is super.

And Krypton was awesome!

Curt-Swan