30.3.09

A Short History of Mankind

I was planning to write my version of the evolution of human society, and particularly the changing nature of the state, drawing on the stuff I have studied in university so far (you can't say I lack ambition). But then I came across someone much cleverer than me, who managed to do this much better than I could ever have done. The book is Nationalism by Ernest Gellner. It was the last thing he ever wrote, and was published posthumously. It could be seen as a summary and a final say on the various topics that interested him through his career. And it's short, clear and very easy to understand. A pamphlet for the starving, ignorant multitude. The following is just some of the enlightenment to be gained from reading it.

Human beings are distinguished from other animals by their ability to organise and to create culture (language, religion etc.). These two things are the raw materials of social science. Their relationship to each other is often the most interesting aspect of studying history, I have found. Anyway, mankind has gone through three basic stages of organisation: foraging, agriculture and industrial society. In the first we have small communities living off the land. I have little confidence in making any comments on the structure of these bands, except to say that they are probably more egalitarian - personality and physical ability being the deciding factors of one's status. Gellner goes into no details on the matter, unfortunately.

He gives plenty of details on the agrarian age, however. Increased food production and storage lead to an explosion in human population. But with work tied to a piece of land, defence becomes an issue. Specialists in coercion and violence emerge, aided by specialists in ritual, doctrine, salvation, therapy and mediation. A hierarchy is created: warlords, divines and peasants.

Such hierarchies are based on food production, food storage, and a relatively stable technology. Technology is fixed, only land and labour are variable. So you can only increase output by increasing land and labour, which inevitably comes up against the Law of Diminishing Returns. Basically, stagnant technology imposes a limit on possible production. However, there is no limit on population growth, so periodically (harvest failure/social upheaval), there is not enough land to feed the population and you get famine (see Malthus). In which case, people starve according to rank. Agrarian society is primarily a food producing and storage system. The silos are guarded by heavies, and they get first priority. Government is essentially control of the store.

This means everyone is primarily concerned with their rank within the hierarchy, rather than the enhancement of output, because rank determines the amount of stuff you get. Extra output is only going to attract pillage or taxation, so it's pointless. Saving and investing is thus difficult and rare, and so technological advance remains sluggish. More often you get power leading to wealth. It's not farmers, but badass fighters, who get rich (or die tryin'). Accordingly, you often find the idea that warfare is a quicker and more honourable route to riches than trade.

The value system of an agrarian society in general despises work and values honour - which can be defined as a cult of aggressiveness and skill in coercion and intimidation. The coercion which dominates agrarian society needs legitimacy, which is where manipulating culture and the divines come in. To cover their backs, the nobility promulgate a value system that is overtly inegalitarian and corporatist. Everyone has their own purpose. Rights and duties become part of the soul (see Plato's Republic). The nobility/clergy also have to establish a distinctive cultural identity, in opposition to other gangs of coercers/states. However, this is less important than culturally reinforcing the internal social hierarchy, which means cultural boundaries and definitions are stronger horizontally (grouping classes) rather than vertically (grouping nations). This is why the political unit you often find in this age is either much smaller than the vertical limits of a culture (tribes, city-states) or much larger (empires). The nation-state, on the other hand, where states map onto cultures, is a modern ideal.

Agrarian society is locked in a circle. The situation dictates certain values which inhibit innovation and growth, production is a zero sum game dictated by finite factors (land, labour), which in turn dictates certain values which inhibit innovation and growth... Organisation and culture mutually support each other and prolong the status quo. Gellner points out that we have no clear theory as to how we broke out of this cycle, i.e. what caused the Industrial Revolution. I'm gonna be brave here, and say that while the rate of technological advance is slow in agrarian society, it's not static. Gradually, a collection of technologies became available that allowed for capitalist mode of production. Why this occurred specifically in England at the end of 18th century (before spreading across the world), I'll leave for others to answer (any ideas?).

The fundamental break between agrarian and modern society is constant economic and scientific growth, often much faster than population growth. The world is no longer Malthusian - capital can increase alongside land and labour. This means that political legitimacy is no longer established through terror and superstition, but through economic growth. Regimes are acceptable if they can engender prosperity. They lose their authority if they do not.

Growth-orientation results in pervasive social mobility. Technological innovation leads to the creation of new jobs, and the relinquishing of old ones. The occupational structure is unstable, so a corporatist society of orders is no longer viable. Technological sophistication make skills and training vital, so hereditary authority is replaced with meritocracy. All men become to some extent equals - differences in their bank balances do not enter their souls or affect certain baseline rights - status is confined to office hours.

That doesn't mean that modern societies are equal. There is often great differences in wealth and power. But these are not ratified by ritual, custom or law. And as such differences are normally incompatible with modern society's basic principles, they are liable to cause a scandal. And do. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!

Modern society is dynamic and atomised. Individuals may wish to join associations, but they are always voluntary, rather than being dictated by birth (army) or fortified by ritual (worship). Another complementary characteristic is the semantic nature of work. Men no longer work with their muscle, but employ developed abilities to contact often invisible partners or manipulate messages out of context (use telephones, read manuals etc.). Before, only a few had the skills to do this - lawyers, theologians, bureaucrats. Now, everyone is required to undergo prolonged schooling and literacy is near universal. As a result, 'high' culture can filter down and be shared by everybody, displacing previous 'low' or folk culture. Dialects get eaten away by a standardised language. Horizontal cultural barriers vanish. Vertical ones become crucial - it gets difficult to work with people who don't speak your language. Hence, nationalism is born and the nation state becomes the norm.

Thanks Gellner. Now, where do we go from here? The last couple of decades we've seen the world becoming incrementally more interconnected, in terms of culture as well as economics. However, I'm not keen to herald the end of the nation state and a new globalised stage in the history of mankind. Developing countries have a way to go yet. Some have yet to carve out and fortify their own nation states - see for instance the unrest in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sudan. And as for us, Europe speaks a host of different languages, and America practices a different religion. The world is still too culturally diverse for people to abandon their national identities and interests. We'll be stuck in the industrial/scientific age for quite a while yet.

That is, if global warming doesn't lead to the destruction of human civilization. Gellner can mislead in this respect. History moves forward, but society can sometimes regress backward.

29.3.09

Kid Amnesiac

For me, both Kid A and Amnesiac are half brilliant, half frustrating albums. The songs on each were (I have learned) recorded at the same time. So I thought Radiohead wouldn't mind if I re-sequenced them to make my own perfect record. I should say from the very beginning that I have wielded my scissors according to my own tastes, not any objective standard, so don't come crying to me if you feel that I've desecrated Radiohead's work. Music is, more than most art-forms I think, a subjective experience. I personally wanted something that matched/exceeded Radiohead's most gripping and rewarding long players - OK Computer and In Rainbows. For me, the following works quite well.

Side 1:
1. Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box
2. Optimistic
3. In Limbo
4. Knives Out
5. How To Disappear Completely
6. You And Whose Army?

Side 2:
7. Everything In Its Right Place
8. Pyramid Song
9. I Might Be Wrong
10. Dollars & Cents
11. Idioteque
12. Morning Bell

Hidden/bonus track: Like Spinning Plates

Some words of explanation. I think 'Packt' is a better opening track than 'Everything In Its Right Place'. 'Optimistic' right after is a good, accessible rock 'n' rolla that may calm some nerves. The first half as a whole is the more standard recognisable Radiohead. Side two is where it gets more adventurous. The thinking was to back-end the album so that it builds up to a climax around 'Dollars & Cents' and 'Idioteque'. 'Morning Bell' is like waking up from the nightmare, and I feel it works well as the last song. However, I would hate to exclude 'Spinning Plates', so maybe have it as a bonus track? It plunges you right back in. No release, just more craziness.

As for the stuff that didn't make the cut. 'Treefingers' and 'Hunting Bears' are purged for obvious reasons. I'm not a fan of the jazzy noodling of 'The National Anthem' and 'Life In A Glasshouse', so they had to go. Yorke's distorted voice on 'Kid A' ruined the song for me. Only one 'Morning Bell' is needed, and I prefer the sharper Kid A version. 'Motion Picture Soundrack' is in fact two songs separated and followed by a long period of silence, which is annoying to sequence, and frankly, not worth the trouble. 'Revolving Doors' may be the worst thing Radiohead have ever recorded, imo. I think all of that could have been released as a EP of out-takes for the Radiohead obsessives, leaving what is a pretty excellent album for the regular radio-pop listeners like me. A slightly different slant to something I read here. But anyway, what do you think?

27.3.09

Messiah CompleX

'Wow!', 'Awesome!' and 'How cool is Warpath!' were some of my reactions to the Messiah CompleX crossover. So I liked it. Here are some other thoughts:

You've gotta admire Marvel's editors and their organisation. The story stretches across 13 issues, and is told through four ongoing series (Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, New X-Men and X-Men). The entire thing came out in three months. With four writer-artist teams working on it, you would expect the thing to be a mess. But it isn't. In fact, it's very tightly plotted. The momentum never sags. I find this very impressive, for the story is long and features around 40 characters, most of which are new to me. Marvel's ability to co-ordinate all this and turn out good product is encouraging. I think it has learnt some lessons from television, where there are a pool of writers sharing ideas, before individual writers are sent off to do their thing (see the Mutant Enemy writing process). More recently, this has been employed on Brand New Day Amazing Spiderman. I've read the first 6 or so issues, and the tag-team approach appears to be working well.

Getting back to Messiah CompleX, maybe I shouldn't be surprised at liking it. Ed Brubaker (Uncanny X-Men) and Peter David (X-Force) are brilliant writers. Mike Carey (X-Men) I'm less familiar with, but I know he's an established name and has done stuff for Vertigo. The real surprise, however, was the New X-Men issues, jointly written by Craig Kyle and Chris Yost, and with some really great artwork by Humberto Ramos. At certain moments, these guys totally overshadowed the illustrious company they were in. I'm looking forward to great things...

There are some truly iconic scenes/images throughout the story, giving it the sense of Lord of the Rings epicness that all superhero stories should strive for. They are, after all, our modern myths.

Brubaker has his characters say 'damn' or 'dammit' maybe a bit too much. Sometimes it gets a little silly - it's difficult to sound like a noir hardass when you're wearing spandex. Perhaps it would have been better to go the way of Bendis and use @*$%! instead. It conveys the ridiculousness of superhero comics better, I feel.

It's strange, but I found Marc Silvestri's pencils on the issue that launches the crossover a bit disappointing. In some panels, Wolverine was too dashing. And Emma Frost often looked like Michael Jackson when not in close-up (I know she's had surgery, but she would have only the best surgery).

Like Secret Invasion, there is a lot of mayhem and excitement. All very well and good. But, also like Secret Invasion, the ending delivers an emotional hit that makes the whole journey worth it. The birth of the first mutant since M-Day unleashes a whole host of hopes and fears, among various groups and individuals. Their contrasting aspirations and ideas about what this birth means is what fuels the various battles in the story. The different actors project their own agenda onto an innocent human being. The baby girl is turned into an object. A 'messiah complex' infects all the characters - they see a saviour/destroyer rather than a human being. This is encapsulated in one heart-rendering scene near the end, where the revealed villain tries to kill the baby as a means to a greater end. Cyclops finally understands their shared mistake, deciding to 'let her be herself - choose for herself - and not be a key, or a strategic resource, or a playing piece in someone else's game'. The thematic punch is immediately followed by an emotional one: 'give her the freedom I was never able to give you' - Cyclops is talking to his own long lost son. The weight of these words gives a justification for all the preceding plot twists and cliffhangers. This is what crossovers should aim to do. It's not enough to just have exciting, radical plot developments, there needs to be something extra that gives them meaning. Messiah CompleX manages to do both, and that's why it's brilliant.

22.3.09

Intellectuals and socialism

Something interesting I came across in Richard Pipes's The Russian Revolution. Capitalism and democracy enhances the role of intellectuals, but it also increases their discontent. Politicians and businessmen are the elites in democratic capitalist societies, and intellectuals become envious of their authority, prestige and wealth. They can only avoid such humiliations if society becomes 'rationalised' - when reason replaces the free play of economic and political forces. So they turn to socialism, where such spontaneity is the enemy. In a socialist society, intellectuals are in a commanding position - the ones able to plan the economy and end the population's poverty and ignorance.

So socialism works to the advantage of the intelligentsia. Self interest and ideology coincide. Pipes notes that anarchists consistently argue along these lines. Socialism is an idea that masks the class interest, not of liberal bourgeois businessmen, but of discontent bourgeois intellectuals. This is why in the modern world anarchism is a faint shadow of socialism. It attacks the ideology and interests of the intelligentsia, and so remains a marginal political movement.

I quite like this application of Marxist analysis to Marxism. Pipes's fundamental point - that in judging human behaviour we must be aware of both interest and ideology - is valid. Seeing how the two balance out is one of the most fascinating aspects of studying history, and indeed people in general. I agree with Pipes that usually we find ideology and interest pointing in the same direction. I'm less sure of his claim that for intellectuals this direction is always socialism. In the period he focuses on (latter half of 19th century Europe) this may have been the case. But in my 21 century university, most of my professors appear to be MOR liberals. If I was to continue a Marxist, materialist analysis of why that is, I would point to today's heavily bureaucratic (and stable) capitalist state, where intellectuals can easily find employment in the civil service and in government. One of my former tutors, a friend informs me, is now working somewhere in the Houses of Parliament. Another used to work as a civil servant. A third was in management before embarking on a university career. Seems like today, working within the system is easier that trying to overthrow it.

15.3.09

Watchmen

Where do you start? Where can you start? Watchmen is huge. There are so many ways in. It has so much to say. I read it a second time a week ago, in preparation for the film, and this time round it really hit me. This is the best superhero story ever told. It is the culmination and the pinnacle of the genre. After it, we really don't need superheroes any more.

I'm gonna start at the end, and hopefully this will give some structure to what follows after. Watchmen finishes on a paradox. The greatest villain, the person behind the murder and mystery that open the book, is also at the same time the greatest hero. He commits mass murder in order to save the world. Alan Moore balances this perfectly. Throughout the book we get introduced to various peripheral characters -- the newspaper vendor, the comic-book kid, the lesbian cab driver, the detectives, the goodnatured analyst and his frustrated wife. They are developed enough so that we see the humanity underneath their selfish, harsh or conceited exteriors. And when these people die, in what is some grand arbitrary practical joke, we feel the impact. It's unfair. They were good people. It's wrong.

But at the same time, when the person who engineered these deaths turns and tells us how he pictures their faces every night, so as to remember them and his guilt, and when he asks, with uncertainty in his eyes, if he did right, how can we respond? The villain was driven only by the desire for peace. He was the only one who could foresee disaster, and have the means to prevent it. There is a superiority complex, to be sure, but Moore stresses how deserved it is. He crafts a deeply sympathetic character who commits terrible crimes in order to do what is right.

So the reader is torn between two poles: absolute evil and relative good -- necessary genocide. How can we make a moral judgement on this? The Manichaean dividing lines superhero stories always structured themselves around are overturned. Only Rorchach, who sees only black and white, has the strength of character to remain uncompromising in the face of such an extraordinary situation. The rest of the characters are defeated, and can only remain ambivalent. The ending of the book is open. We don't know whether the scheme will work or not, whether the practical joke will be unearthed and taken seriously ('The end? Nothing ever ends"). Moore leaves no signals for the reader, one way or another ("I leave it entirely in your hands"). We are on the fence. There is no judgement. It's as you like it. What you will.

The entire book is preparing you for this. In one brilliant, radical sequence, Dr. Manhattan sits on a rock on the surface of Mars and thinks about determinism -- how every action and every choice is but a sequence of random causes and effects. Moral values have no meaning. Life is no more special than death. Only when realising how unlikely life is, to the point where it is miraculous, is he prepared to intervene and save humanity. Even so, we are reminded of how, from Jon's scientific universe-wide perspective, we are still pretty insignificant. Jon wants to preserve us only because we are a rare natural phenomenon. I guess that is reason enough.

The Nietzsche chapter -- 'The Abyss Gazes Also' -- puts life in a God-less meaningless universe in human terms. The good-humored, condescending analyst is trying to cure Rorschach. Instead, he is confronted with the manifold evils of mankind, which have twisted a talented and compassionate boy into a brutal monster. The doctor's confidence is torn down. He stares at his petty inkblots and sees only 'meaningless blackness' -- 'we are alone,' he says. 'There is nothing else.'

What I find particularly astonishing about Watchmen is the way it deals with its characters with sympathy and humanity. Rorschach starts out as an odious, horrifying monster. By the end, he is one of the most noble of all the masked heroes we have come across. We come to understand the Comedian, even though he is truly despicable. The developing romance between Dan and Laurie is not only sweet and poignant, it serves as a necessary counterpoint to all the Heart of Darkness mayhem going on outside. Crucially, just before the analyst gets wiped out he rediscovers meaning in the world. Tearing himself away from his wife to intervene in a street-fight, he says: "In a world like this, it's all we can do. Try to help each other. It's all that means anything..." This is the only way forward Moore provides. And in keeping with the many polarities in Watchmen, this central statement is both pathetic and profound.

There is more to say. I've made zero mention of the wild experimentation with the form. The symbol of the Comedian's smiley badge merging with that of the doomsday clock. The Black Freighter image being identified with the radiation sign. The mirror structure of the fifth chapter 'Fearful Symmetry'. Visually, there is so much going on. Gibbons's storytelling is mesmerizing. It's indicative of the book's quality that the only failing I've managed to come up with is the ridiculous tobacco ball smoking tubes everyone uses instead of cigarettes. Everything else is pitch-perfect.

How do you adapt this hulking monster of a comic-book into a film? When Alan Moore tells us not to, he's not just being a grouchy and difficult writer. To get at the heart of what Watchmen is about, you need to spend time with the peripheral characters, or their deaths on screen will have no emotional force. In a film, there's just not enough time to do this, and so you won't get that good/evil balance so carefully constructed by the book. Terry Gilliam may have had the right idea when he wanted to adapt Watchmen as a 12 episode television series, although that plan got shot down. Having seen the new Snyder version, I think Gilliam was on the right track.

Pacing kills the Watchmen film. It is a bitter irony that the director's laudable attempts to stick with the original source material is the very thing that ruins his work. The comic-book is divided into twelve chapters, and individually they work perfectly. The storytelling is deft, and each ending has a particular unifying weight to it. They work as single units. In the feature film you have to string them all together, and there are some very awkward transitions between scenes, where the energy of the story is lost. It just becomes a mess. One way to have dealt with this was to transfer the chapter structure as well as everything else. Divide the film into twelve segments with their own mood and pathos, maybe using a ticking doomsday clock as a device to signal the transition from one piece to another. But then you might as well go with Gilliam, and do it as a TV miniseries.

Apart from that, I have relatively few problems with what Snyder has done. Several points I'll make:

The violence isn't exaggerated -- Watchmen is a bloody book, and the film needed to convey the shock value it had. In fact, I didn't think the film was horrifying enough. The fightscenes are carefully constructed Matrixesque slow-mo awesomeness. It's comic-book BIFF! POW! for the 21st century. Watchmen consciously avoided this. The whole point was to put superheroes in the real world.

The giant squid will be missed. Here is something I didn't think of in relation to it. But I understand why audiences would have trouble buying such a ridiculous senario. Many readers of the comic were left somewhat bemused by the ending. Even a comic-book writer and artist like Michael Avon Oeming has confessed to being thrown, in a bad way, by Watchmen.

I liked the soundtrack -- going through Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and Leonard Cohen. The book is partly a riff on American popular culture -- its pop music, comic-books, adverts and plastic toys -- and its film adaptation should have tried to do the same thing.

There is an unintentionally hilarious, very pornographic sex scene, which was ill judged, although I suspect in a better context it could have been pulled off tongue-in-cheek.

The acting isn't appalling, the problem is the pace. Given more time, I'm sure they could have delivered. Laurie's spikiness is gone, which is a shame. Her relationship with Daniel is stodgy, and there is little chemistry between them. Daniel's moments with Rorschach are equally unmoving. His wail of despair at the end is unearned. But, again, the actors could have been served better within a different storytelling framework. We shouldn't be too harsh on them.

The villain, however, is miscast. The character needed to charm us and win our sympathy, or the central idea behind the whole work would have been lost. Instead, the actor played him as haughty and cold. You can read him a mile off.

In any case, Snyder's film could not be anything but a disappointment when compared with the original source material. I think the fan backlash is unfair. We ask too much of a Watchmen film. I, for one, admire the foolhardy attempts to tamper with a book this huge and this perfect. We shouldn't be surprised at the results.

13.3.09

Nudes and Nightmares


Danae


Venus of Urbino


The Grand Odalisque


Rokeby Venus


The Nightmare

Female Portraits


Tanaquil


Virgin in Prayer


The Penitent Magdalene


St Catherine


Dona Isabel de Porcel

Male Portraits


Evangelist Matthew and the Angel


Wanderer above the Mists


Dante


Marat


Bertin

11.3.09

History and the Holocaust

Something interesting I found in David Engel's short book on The Third Reich and the Jews, where he discusses how people react to the horrible brute fact of the Holocaust. Some historians have argued that Hitler and his regime operated within a totally foreign universe of discourse, according to rules for perceiving and conceiving reality entirely beyond the experience of any contemporary society. When we read Nazi documents, we can only do so with incredulity. Trying to find a point of psychological identity with these men is doomed to failure. There is nothing in our experience that can enable us to penetrate their conceptual domain. They will always be opaque and strange.

I think I found something like this in Michael Burleigh's book The Third Reich, where he was very willing to throw around terms like 'mass stupidity' and so on. There is a lot of rage about what happened, which is of course understandable. But I think this way of thinking places the people and events under study at a distance. Historians should always maintain a critical, objective stance. But I think a good historian is one that has the imagination (which Steven Fry says is the same as sympathy) to inhabit the mind-space of his subjects. This is why I admire Simon Schama, even though (apparently) he gets it wrong sometimes. See the note on Lenin for more on this.

Why should we sympathise? Engel posits that keeping the Nazis opaque negates the historical approach altogether. If historical societies are so alien -- so completely removed from our own experience -- then it becomes impossible to ever understand them. When it comes to the Holocaust, this is a conforming thought. More frightening is the idea that the Nazis, and the German people who collaborated in their dictatorship, are real human beings whose mentality is possible to understand. Even relate to.

Engel quotes the novelist and Holocaust survivor Yehiel De-Nur: 'Whereever there is humankind, there is Auschwitz'. This is what this modern European genocide confronts us with. Modernity has not eroded our capacity to inflict colossal evil on other people. We are no different, or no better, than the barbarians of the Middle Ages.

We are the same. People haven't perceptively changed the way they think or the way they act for all of recorded human history. For me, the main flaw in Marx's theories is his belief that human beings are transformed by their environment. All utopian ideologies are based on this notion, because in utopia people *have* to be better than they are now. In my view, history says different. It confronts us with the best and worst of ourselves. It shows us who we are. And in the myriad examples of human society we come across, it gives us ideas about the way to best manage our qualities and weaknesses, so that we minimize the harm that we do to one another.

8.3.09

Beowulf

Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving pieces of English literature -- an epic poem in Anglo-Saxon, probably sung in halls to entertain feasting thegns. Seamus Heaney, probably the most eminent Irish poet living today, had done a new translation. I was intrigued (we were doing Heaney in school) and picked it up. This was a while ago, and my memory of the poem is vague. But as far as I remember, the plot is terribly simple. The monster Grendel is plaguing the kingdom of Hrothgar. Beowulf, a distant relative, comes to kill it. In exchange Hrothgar will give him his gratitude and a share of his treasure. After expounding at length a swimming race he took part in, which involved getting through sea monsters, Beowulf goes and kills the (vaguely described) Grendel, and his (even more vaguely described) mother. Later on, when he has established himself as a king in his own right -- perhaps with the gold and connections he has made -- his lands are attacked by a dragon. Beowulf kills it as well (he's a hero, after all), but is mortally wounded. The poem end with him being buried with lots of treasure.

This 'superhero fights monsters' story is just incredibly simplistic. There is little character depth. There are, however, interesting things in it about the way Anglo-Saxon society functioned: weregilds, mercenaries, treasure, heroic values. Most interesting is the fact that the poem contains overt Christian references, and yet the tale it tells is pretty much devoid of Christian values and symbols. Sidebar: before inventing Hobbits, Tolkien made his name as the first person to analyse Beowulf as literature, rather than just as a historical source. He thought there was a Chistian subtext to the poem. Personally, I couldn't see it -- and a bunch of experts feel the same. For me, Beowulf is interesting mainly because it marks a transition in the culture and religion of Anglo-Saxon society. The Christian bits are likely to be later additions to an older story, which had itself been constantly amended and distorted as it was orally passed down through the ages. The text thus reveals the creeping process of Christian conversion. The new religion -- a missionary religion we mustn't forget -- latches on to the prevalent values, rituals, superstitions, hopes and fears of the people it is trying to convert, and overlays them with a new language and imagery. Beowulf captures a situation where Christian concepts and symbols are comfortably being used in a society that remains largely pagan. It demonstrates the way Christianity, and indeed all missionary religions, are spread among the wider population.

The recent film adaptation by Robert Zemeckis briefly acknowledges this process. During the course of events, the presence of Christianity in the kingdom becomes more prevalent. This is just one of the surprises of Zemeckis's film. When I first heard about it, I assumed that it would be derivative nonsense, cashing in on the post-LOTR wave of epic fantasy features. There would be cool dragon action and little else. However, the promise of dragon action is enough to part me with my money, sometimes to my cost -- Eragon was one of the few films in which I found myself consistently not caring about what happened next. But Beowulf was a surprise in every way.

You would expect a film about dragons to have a wincingly clunky script. But look here. Beowulf is jointly written by comics legend Neil Gaiman and Tarantino script-doctor Roger Avary. Interesting... Any old fool would quickly realise that the original story would need a lot of adapting to suit a modern audience. But in doing so, Gaiman and Avary managed to craft a very sophisticated fable involving a variety of complex characters. In the film, Beowulf (played by Ray Winstone!) kills Grendel, but doesn't kill Grendel's mother. Instead, she seduces him, promising power, riches, military success and eternal fame. When Beowulf returns, he learns that Hrothgar had also been seduced by the demon, and that Grendel was his son. The film ends ambiguously, with Beowulf's successor also facing Grendel's mother, and the choice she has offered to the previous kings. In this way, the film makes a powerful statement about how power, wealth and fame is granted only after a deal with the devil. Beowulf gets all he has ever desired, but at the cost of losing his humanity. He becomes a true hero when he realises this -- he asks his estranged wife to remember him as a fallible man rather than a superhuman demon-slayer.

What is most interesting is how the film portrays lust for power as straight lust. The most arresting image in the film is the digitally animated naked body of Angelina Jolie, dripping with liquid gold, in the seduction sequence. She is a pagan Eve, tempting men with sex and treasure. The overt sexuality of her character is contrasted with the chaste, white-robed Wealtheow, who Beowulf falls in love with after hearing her sing -- i.e. he falls for who she is rather than what she looks like (I suspect Gaiman, who understands symbol, was behind this). The point, I think, is that as power erodes humanity, so lust can destroy love. Deep or what?

I mentioned symbol. The golden horn is another: representing the contract between king and demon, and how it's passed from one king to another. In a clever shot at the beginning, Hrothgar hands the horn to Beowulf, with Wealtheow in the foreground, and says something about giving other 'cups' (can't quite remember the words) if he succeeds. Wealtheow is also a 'treasure' to be bargained with. Her sex is a commodity, like gold. Symbols proliferate in Beowulf. Unfirth jumping into the pissing gutter at the side of the hall when Grendel attacks is a perfect introduction to his character. And Grendel's mother could be seen as a comment on the position of women in ancient and medieval society. They cannot exercise power directly, but have to manipulate men or work through their sons.

As mentioned above, the film references the Christian conversion process, part of the historical context in which the original poem was written. So while liberties have been taken with the story, the creators are very precise about bringing the Anglo-Saxon world to life. From my brief study of the period, I would say that the portrayal of mercenaries, treasure-hoards, politics and life in the royal hall is accurate, at least as far as our knowledge of the historical reality behind the idealised descriptions in Beowulf extends. It's a nice touch when the film shows the first manifestations of the exaggerated 'Song of Beowulf', which will eventually reach us.

What's funny about Zemeckis's Beowulf is that the script, which in a film like this you would expect to be weak, is actually amazing. Conversely, the visuals, which you would expect to be amazing, are actually somewhat weak. The animation not only fails to bring the motion-captured performances to life, its figures, particularly the galloping horses, are stodgy and unrealistic. There are also some annoying visual gags thrown in, which are jarring when placed within what is otherwise a serious, adult film. I wish the creators could have pushed the certificate to 15, so that we wouldn't have the ridiculous framing tricks that keep Beowulf's privates concealed during his naked battle with Grendel. Just show us his penis, and Angelina Jolie's nipples for that matter. I swear I'm not a pervert. I genuinely think it would have made for a better film. Because this is what Zemeckis's Beowulf is -- a brilliant grown-up film hiding in a pulpy dragon film for boys.

3.3.09

One More Day

Can you say RET-CON?!!

OK. I have been harsh on the regular Spiderman series, mainly because Bendis all but removes its reason to exist (raison d'être) over on the Ultimate series. This One More Day idea appeared from a distance to be a desperate attempt to reignite interest in what had seemed an increasingly irrelevant title. But I judged without reading the thing, and only listened to the baying of betrayed Spiderman fans. This is wrong and should never be done, because unlike absolutely everyone else out there, I really liked it.

People hate this ridiculous deal with the devil idea because it betrays the whole tangled bunch of continuity they have invested in. All of it is overturned, and we've stepped back a significant way. To this, I respond as Grant Morrison may do: continuity should not get in the way of a good story. Completely ignoring it would be annoying, but on the whole what's far more important is that the writers and artists stay true to the characters.

Straczynski does this. One More Day once again reminds us of what Spiderman is all about. Aunt May lies dying from a bullet-wound, and Peter immediately sees his fugitive status as the thing that brought this about. He blames himself for an event that is only indirectly his fault. The parallels with the death of his uncle couldn't be clearer. And like before, he undertakes immense sacrifices to set this right. This is what makes him a hero. He shoulders responsibility for his actions, even though it is easy for him to let go. There is a Rorschach determination in him to do the right thing, despite the difficulties it involves. Faced with the deal put forward, few people would have taken it. This is why Spiderman is Spiderman.

Straczynski manages to play this heart-wrenching decision between Peter and Mary Jane perfectly. The love between them radiates off the page. I don't think the story betrays that. Indeed, it leaves the fate of their relationship open. Perhaps their love is strong enough to defeat the devil himself. And the devil, incidentally, wasn't hokey. There is a real menace to him, partly due to Quesada's dark, hallucinatory artwork. The whole thing was very well done.

Continuity can be distracting. I came to the story fresh, and for me it was a powerful piece of work.

Secret Invasion

A couple of things...

One. People who don't read Marvel comics will have no idea what is going on.

Two. So what if it ripped of Astro City? It becomes different when you set it in the Marvel universe. While Busiek, Ross and the gang did quite well in building a complex mythology in their series, the focus is still on a handful of characters. The invasion happens in the background. By contrast, the Marvel universe is bigger and more vibrant. You can do the widescreen epic invasion because the characters are established and so developing them and making them interesting requires less work.

Speaking of epic, this was pretty Lord of the Rings in scale. It definitely surpassed last year's Civil War. And the action stuff was spot on. A whispered "that's awesome!" escaped my lips on several occasions -- usually the explosions and charging armies. This is what comics were made to do. Nevertheless, it makes you wonder where it can go from here. More Star Wars? I think Marvel might have to reign it back next year, a la Identity Crisis.

A small caveat. The comics page can't really portray fight sequences very well, so the battle splash pages were a little flat. A lot of stuff was going on, but you didn't get the sense of movement. To be fair on Leinil Francis Yu, there's not a lot you can do about that. His artwork on the whole was great. Much better that the streamlined stuff in Civil War and House of M.

Four (is it four?). I like how the event wasn't taking itself too seriously. See the Watcher gag. The Marvel universe is very silly. We shouldn't fight it. That's why it's great.

And apart from the mayhem and funnies, there were moments of real pathos. The Captain Marvel and Marvel Boy scene is one example. Tony Stark's silence at the end is another. You get the sense that these are real characters. The only problem was the Janet Pym twist, which was very sudden. You didn't have any reason to care about what happened to her. However, Hank asking after his wife when the smoke cleared had a lot of power, so it wasn't a bad oversight. It does get emotionally paid off.

But most importantly, there's the throwaway line of the defeated Skrull soldier. Bendis never leaves his villains as villains. For a while, I feared the whole thing was only gonna be a wish-fulfillment fantasy of pro-American terrorist bashing. Nothing particularly wrong with that, but it's to Bendis's credit that he doesn't just leave it there. And there is extra weight to the Skrull's lines as we know that the terrorists are partly of our own making.

I hate myself for saying this, but reading this now after the Obama victory makes the thing slightly dated. The war on terror is over now. Still, it's great how superhero comics have managed to engage with what has been going on. It has led to some very mature storytelling. One wonders how the Marvel capes will deal with the economic crisis...

The cliffhanger is a little weak. Everything changes, does it? I don't really care very much. I'm a little worried that the writers at Marvel will run out of ideas very soon. How many pan-universe developments can you push through before it gets a little tired? I think the next event needs to be smaller -- focusing on a selection of characters rather than trying to fit everyone in.

In all, haters be damned. Crossover events are great. Superhero comics are designed for them. Nowhere else can you so easily get do epic plus the background mythology that gives it weight. And Bendis is talented enough to deliver the awesomeness while not losing sight of the characters. And he manages to make the whole thing about something. It's no Watchmen, but imo Secret Invasion is still one of the better superhero comics out there.

2.3.09

Gender equality

A final word on feminism. This time it's about practicalities, not ideology, and it comes from Donald Sassoon's book One Hundred Years of Socialism. By the 1990s, most of the civil rights campaigns have been won -- abortion, divorce, equal pay. Women's issues have receded into the background. Politicians pay lip-service to them, while continuing to focus on the economy and foreign policy.

Feminists themselves have had a difficult time keeping pressure for reform up. The problem is, they are not just aiming to increase women's participation in a man's world. Their goal is much more radical than that. They seek to change mentalities -- to transform what 'male' and 'female' means. It's a revolutionary philosophy, which challenges both men and women. Because of this, even now, some people are uncomfortable with describing themselves as feminist.

Political parties can't change mentalities. As I try to say here, they restrict themselves to creating the conditions for cultural change. What should they do? The fundamental obstacle to real equality between the sexes is the double shift -- women are expected to both care for the family and work. Ending this pattern would require changing the meaning of fatherhood, a concept that stretches back to the dawn of recorded history. Two things can help bring this about. The first is the provision of childcare, which lightens the load of (unpaid) work at home. The second is the extension of the rights and benefits that come with full-time work (majority male) to part-time work (majority female). This will equalise the playing field considerably. The rest is up to us.

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1.3.09

Gender in philosophy

Something interesting I found in Diana Coole's Women in Political Theory. Human beings structure their ideas and debates through a series of binary oppositions: mind-body, subject-object, reason-passion etc. These ethical, political and philosophical categories are 'gendered', defined as being either 'male' or 'female'. And in most cases the 'male' categories have been seen as superior, and the 'female' inferior. What is more, the 'male' category becomes the standard, the norm. Its antithesis is thus negative, and 'other'.

This polarity justified the domination of women by men for most of human civilization. The female principle (nature, flesh, appetite) is made subordinate to the male (culture, spirit, reason). The male defines humanity and the highest goals and ideas of the species.

Coole then argues that in their approach to this male-female polarity, most thinkers can be classed into two basic approaches. The conservatives (including Aristotle, Aquinas, Rousseau and Hegel) claim that there are natural and unassailable differences between the sexes. Women have a significant role in the organic hierarchy of society, mostly associated with reproduction and domesticity. As this status is natural, it cannot be oppressive. Nevertheless, they are incapable of the rationality that men are capable of, and so occupy a lower echelon in the order of the universe.

The radicals (Plato, Augustine, Wollstonecraft, the Utilitarians, Marx and de Beauvoir) argue for sexual equality. However, this approach is often tied with a profound rejection of all things female: passion, intuition, emotion and their relationship to reproduction. The primary gender polarity is not overcome. The 'female' category remains inferior and continues to exert its influence beneath the trappings of formal equality. The radicals still see women as lowly and subversive. Women have to reconstruct themselves into an ideal of enlightened masculinity.

What, then, is the answer? Women shouldn't be classed as 'other' or made into 'men'. Instead, we need the 'de-gendering' of all ethical and philosophical categories -- reclaiming them as neutral. We need to create a synthesis that we can term, not 'male' or 'female', but 'human'. This is what I argue for in the note about gender below. It's nice when someone clever agrees. Permit me a little smugness.