Monday, November 7, 2011

A London Journey: The Paperback and Pulp Bookfair

   At ten in the morning on Sunday, the sixth of November, the usual crew of vatic doomsday predictors, Marxists, Muslims and proponents of phallocentrism (verily) were participating in a venerable tradition of free speech and open debate, hollering at their onlookers, disciples and gawkers, over on Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. A crisp autumn walk from there through the leaf-strewn paths of Hyde and Green parks, through the swaths of fat pigeons and spastic cyclists bolting along, one chances upon Buckingham Palace, where the Queen’s guards stand vigilant in their long grey winter coasts, tirelessly blending into the dull grey London autumn, where hordes of tourists, dressed for any and every weather imaginable, scatter about, for what purposes I know not. Slightly further south still lays Victoria station where John Worthing was found in a handbag. Emerging to the surface from this railway station, amidst the bustle and ferment of activity and movement, a select number scurry on to Vauxhall Bridge Road for a short distance, before they return underground, into the belly of the Park Plaza Hotel. This medley of persons is not uniform in age, sex or appearance, but each member conveys in their own unique manner, whether by their yesterday’s jeans, their untidy leather jacket, long hair or gait, that they are not likely to be guests of the fair Westminster establishment. Their purpose, unknown but to rare few, is The Paperback and Pulp Bookfair, the last of its kind in England, as the organiser of the event proudly announces to old and new faces as they lay down their cost of admission and enter inside.
   I discovered this book fair though a flyer sent out months ago in a book I ordered from the event’s organisers, Zardoz Books. These booksellers, out of Wiltshire, specialise in vintage and collectable pulps and paperbacks. The world is slightly larger and more interesting because of Zardoz Books and their catalogues are well worth a frequent visit. My wife and I were extremely tickled to be at this event, after the anticipations of months (though my own anticipation was more often and more vocally expressed). There, in a posh subterranean conference room in the Plaza, we finally found ourselves digging through box after box of old paperbacks—there was less pulp, I saw merely one lonely old copy of Weird Tales—in search of treasure. The plan was to avoid high-end items: for my wife will not be persuaded to trade swaths of lucre for musty old yellow yarns and I am a reader first and a collector second, and in any case, I prefer to make my expense purchases with extreme care and cautious decision, and do not incline to evaporate my funds for items rabidly seized from the dealers’ shelves. I was here especially to dig up a good set of speculative fiction to fill in the long hours of the winter holidays. My wife’s own pulp tastes fall into old horror and historical fiction. The selections offered at the fair were plentiful, well-selected and varied, and importantly, cheap: the average book was £1 and I did not purchase anything over £3. My wife, splurged slightly more for a mint Peter Tremayne novel, priced a decadent £5. O the shameless profligacy of it! The deals were plenty: the first seller I went to cut three pounds off my already excellent score. In addition to science fiction, fantasy and horror there were stacks of westerns, crime novels, movie tie-ins, and 1940s/50s erotica for those of different tastes than mine. Some comics lay hither and thither. Pans, Aces and Penguins filed en masse. The Avenger sat nonchalantly beside Doc Savage, Yoda, Conan the Cimmerian and Hopalong Cassidy. Stacks upon stacks spoke to the long-forgotten popularity of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, Zane Grey and so many other snows of yesteryear. They brought to mind with snide temerity that quip of Latin poetry by Andrew Marvell:
          Nempe sic innumero succrescunt agmine libri,
              Sepia vix toto ut iam natet una mari.

          Such endless masses of books now abound,
              That scarcely one cuttlefish in the sea can be found.
I dare my own translation. One was not so put to task in finding treasure here as in culling the gold from the silver, out of those stately chests; in choosing what to take home and what to leave behind.  
   At first I stuck to my purpose, my greedy fingers plucking out 1960s and 1970s sci-fi novels by Avram Davidson, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson and other names I knew I could trust. I also first grabbed a couple by Abraham Merritt; ghost stories and supernatural horror being a decided part of my winter reading. The frenzy of competition and the steady depletion of the tables did not invite meticulous and deliberative selection. I should have soundly bludgeoned my adversaries on several occasions, but this was not in accord with my manner. For every book’s cover studied with care and with every blurb read, another golden treasure fell into the hands of rival collectors, each one smiling as they shoved and shovelled their spade-hands ahead, into the next bin.
   Once I had a tidy crop in my clutches, gathered against the world, my pace slackened and I grew indolent. I looked to round out what I had and decided upon a new route, with some unexpected forays into unknown territories. Since the value in pickings was not to be measured in monetary gain but in pleasures yielded in the winter evenings actually spent reading these books, finding the good but unexpected was in high order. For this, The Illustrated Roger Zelazny was a happy find; the £3 I paid for it (nevertheless a deal, it was marked for £4) is no more than it is worth, but the six Zelazny stories it contains, and Gray Morrow’s illustrations on every page, many in colour and including two dozen full-page illustrations, most in colour, make it a choice item.
   Because these books are for reading, finding a range and balance is of importance. Old anthologies are great for this, experience has taught me. A short story collection can offer perfect variety for a hectic Christmas, and there is something wonderful about sneaking in a lurid tale into a spare moment when one is gathered for the assorted familial, commercial, religious and bacchanalian festivities which form the week which lurks in the space between Christmas and the New Year. For this hiemal stretch, I picked Mike Ashley’s Weird Legacies, since its cover reminded me of the angels which adorn Christmas trees and its offered selection from the infamous magazine, Weird Tales, including some tales by the venerable masters, such as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith along with some others by storytellers of lesser familiarity, including Mary Elizabeth Counselman, Edmond Hamilton and Francis Flagg. I paired this item with Who Knocks?, selected by August Derleth, who boldly mixed the macabre of Theodore Sturgeon and Ray Bradbury, with redolent ripe pickings from Weird Tales and golden oldies by Henry S. Whitehead and Lady Cynthia Asquith. All in all the makings of a pallid white Christmas were gathered here. 
   Always happy to be judging a book by its cover, the hippie-era redhead and goat-like alien on a blue cover, led me to Lloyd Biggle Jr.’s The World Menders, which I had never heard of before; purportedly about a world of  two races: the ‘artistic, superbly civilized race’ RASCZ and the slave-race OLZ. Another happy find was the second book of Robert Adam’s Horseclans series; a wise friend gave me the first book in the set a couple years ago and it took until now to find the second instalment. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic semi-medieval North America and lives up (judging by the opening book) to the highest standards of epic fantasy; a treasure of a genre, which even its most zealous enthusiasts must admit is inundated with utter rubbish. Hopefully I will find the third book of the eighteen book series in a shorter time than it took to track down this one.
   Having achieved my goal of gathering a bounty matched to my usual tastes, I decided to end the fair with a late harvest gathered from off the beaten path. After scanning over literally hundreds of books by the two Edgars, Wallace and Rice Burroughs, I decided to pick up one from each for something new (I had never read either), by this rare pair, who at least once upon a time, had captivated millions. Edgar Wallace deserves his due today for the original screenplay of King Kong and living on a diet entirely consisting of cigarettes and sugary tea—though he lived neither well nor long off it. I chose his The Yellow Snake for its horrendously politically-incorrect title and cover and its promise of cheap, but not unvalued, thrills. For Edgar Rice Burroughs, I decided against both Tarzan, and the Mars and Venus set, in favour of The Moon Maid, which boasted of ‘discovery and adventure in the unseen world of the Moon’. Unseen? The Moon? That is new, in the very least. Next, I found a decent 1950s copy of a Scarlett Pimpernel novel by Baroness Orczy. I haven’t tangled myself in the Pimpernel’s escapade for many years and delight in their return. Unexpected final additions to the lot then included a Penguin’s worth of James Thurber stories, which are always appreciated, and a couple of Pans, comprising of Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue, a Cambridge novel for my final year at that bastion of British learning (hat tip to my wife for finding this one), and J.B. Priestley’s The Doomsday Men, which was in lost years, highly regarded for heralding the atomic age.
   But all good things draw to a close; it is now Monday, and this day of dull drudgery renews all work and worry. These books will be sitting in a neat pile until Christmas break, when other duties release their sway, and winter feasts on the harvest of autumn’s guilty pleasures. The book fair is over, but the weirdness, terror, nostalgia and high adventure are in store for another day. Still, Christmas is all about looking forward, as we wait.

My finds, in no particular order, altogether for under £36:
Avram Davidson, Rogue Dragon (New York: Ace, 1965)
Samuel R. Delaney, Out of the Dead City (London: Sphere Books, 1968)
Poul Anderson, Mirkheim (London: Sphere Books, 1978)
Fritz Leiber, The Green Millennium (New York: Ace, 1953)
A. Merritt, Seven Footprints to Satan (London: Orbit, 1974)
A. Merritt, Dwellers in the Mirage (London: Orbit, 1974)
Fletcher Pratt, Alien Planet (New York: Ace, 1962)
Leigh Brackett, The Sword of Rhiannon (New York: Ace, 1953)
Roger Zelazny, The Dream Master (New York: Ace, 1966)
Roger Zelazny, The Illustrated Roger Zelazny (New York: Ace, 1979)
Mike Ashley (ed.), Weird Legacies (London: Star, 1977)
August Derleth (ed.), Who Knocks? (London: Panther, 1964)
Gordon Dickson, The Book of Gordon Dickson (New York: Daw Books, 1973)
Robert E. Howard, Son of the White Wolf (London: Orbit, 1977)
Lloyd Biggle, Jr., The World Menders (New York: Daw Books, 1971)
Frederick Marryat, The Phantom Ship (London: Four Square Gothic Mystery, 1966)
Robert Adams, Swords of the Horseclans (Los Angeles: Pinnacle Books, 1977)
Edgar Wallace, The Yellow Snake (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1955)
Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Moon Maid (New York, Ace, [1962])
Baroness Orczy, A Spy of Napoleon (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1953)
James Thurber, The Beast in Me and Other Animals (London: Penguin, 1961)
Tom Sharpe, Porterhouse Blue (London: Pan Books, 1976)
J.B. Priestly, The Doomsday Men (London: Pan Books, 1949)

*Addendum, my wife’s finds:
H. Rider Haggard, She (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1961)
Bram Stoker, The Jewel of Seven Stars (London: Arrow Books, 1975)
Peter Tremayne, Dracula Unborn (London: Corgi Books, 1977)
Robert Bloch, Psycho (London: Corgi Books, 1982)
Marion Zimmer Bradley, Hawkmistress (London: Arrow Books, 1985)
Frank B. Gilbreth & Ernestine Gilbreth Cary, Cheaper by the Dozen (London: Pan Books, 1968)
Ernst Mason, Tiberius (London: Panther, 1961)
Harrison Ainsworth, Old St. Paul’s (London: Pan Books, 1968)
Jack Loudan, The Hell Rakes (London: Tandem Books, 1967)

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Schoolboy Comic Fantasy: On F. Anstey’s Vice Versa

F. Anstey, Vice Versa or A Lesson to Fathers (London: John Murray, 1962)

   ‘Boys hate long words as much as even a Saturday Reviewer.’

   Thomas Anstey Guthrie, who wrote under the pseudonym F. Anstey, rose to acclaim with his first novel, Vice Versa or A Lesson to Fathers, which first came out in 1882. The novel, a popular comic fantasy with a slight moralistic bent, was destined neither to glory in the adulations of future generations of academic critics nor to sustain the interest of the fickle public. But it still had an unexpectedly good run. When my copy of the novel was printed in 1962 for the twenty-seventh time (and by the smell of it, it has been sitting in a box since then), it had managed to stay in print for eighty years—though I doubt many more printings were forthcoming. The novel also managed to appear in film six times. That total does not count Mary Rodgers’s derivative Freaky Friday and the films that book inspired. By any standards, Vice Versa was an extraordinary successful piece of Victorian light humour, but what is now more surprising, is that it can still entertain.

   The novel is set in the late Victorian period, contemporaneous with its publication. When it begins, we meet the middle class business man Paul Bultitude, father, and Dick Bultitude, son. The pair comes into possession of the Garuda stone, a magical talisman retrieved from India by an unsavoury uncle. The first effect of the stone is to transform Mr. Bultitude into his son in the midst of an argument over Dick’s return to boarding school. Dick then quickly uses the stone to turn into his father. Since the talisman gives each person only a single wish, the two are stuck in their reversed positions. The humour is light, sometimes unsophisticated, but never vulgar or bombastic. The novel can still offer a pleasant reading, however, both as a comic fantasy and a morality tale.

   The morality tale is driven by Mr. Bultitude’s transformation into an understanding and caring father. Of him we learn, ‘He was one of those nervous fidgety who cannot understand their own children, looking on them as objectionable monsters whose next movements are uncertain—much as Frankenstein must have felt towards his monster. He hated to have a boy about the house [...]’. This alone could describe a host of adult characters from children’s fiction, or fiction about children. The offish, sometimes nasty, adult who is eventually won over by first abrasive and then endearing children. But here, the ogre-like Mr. Bultitude is not to be won over by a rag-tag band of imaginative and affectionate youths, rather he must do the winning over, trapped as he is in a child’s body.  Mr. Bultitude own hostility towards his son also, somewhat justly, deprives Dick of any sympathy with his father when their bodies are switched. Dick becomes the unsympathetic adult, acting ironically like a spoiled child with his father’s wealth and status.

   Most of the story focuses on Mr. Bultitude, rather than his son. Mr. Bultitude’s reluctant arrival at his son’s boarding-school, Crichton House, and subsequent attempts to escape drive the plot. Most of the situational comedy derives from Mr. Bulstrode’s interactions, with other schoolboys, teachers, the authoritarian headmaster and aptly named Mr. Grimstone and Grimstone’s daughter, who is in love with Dick. Many of Mr. Bulstrode’s travails are ironically presented as the consequence of his own stinginess and harshness towards his own son; his refusal to provide his son an adequate allowance, for example, leaves him in a host of difficulties which a mere few shillings could alleviate. As Mr. Bulstrode experiences humiliations, torment and a host of beatings, a sense of humour is permitted through the sense of justice, in that he is himself unsympathetic towards other characters, especially his son Dick, and that he largely creates his own difficulties by himself through his contempt for the other schoolboys. But the cruelty is never slapstick or exaggerated, rather it maintains a sense of realism, conveying the sort of travails and suffering that a schoolboy could experience at a Victorian boarding school. This of course creates a tension and works to expose potentially hostile nature of the child’s world. This in turn works against the idealised view of childhood as a golden age of bliss and freedom. At the end of the tale, Mr. Bulstrode’s learns to sympathise with his son. The reader is left with the lesson, still apt, is that although childhood has its perks; it can be wrought with a sense of powerlessness, bullying and other trials.

   The realism of Anstey’s portrait of life at a late Victorian boarding school, however, now elicits another means of enjoyment in that provides the reader with a spark of life from the 1880s. We can laugh that Mr. Bulstrode ‘found himself expected, as a matter of course, to have a certain familiarity with Greek paradigms and German conversation scraps, propositions in Euclid and Latin gerunds, of all of which, having strict commercial education in his young days, he had not so much as heard before his metamorphosis.’; but some might lament the loss of a world where the mastery of several languages was not an extraordinary accomplishment for a lad. Perhaps other things, like marrow oil pomade and canings, are better abandoned.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Gigantic Melancholies and Gigantic Mirth - Conan in the '80s

I wrote two articles for Tor on the Conan movies from the 1980s - here are some teasers, along with the links, seeing as I won't be able to comment on the new Conan movie for a week or so, as I have an out-of-town (I mean, in the woods!) speaking engagement this next week.

Gigantic Melancholies: Conan the Barbarian

I saw Conan the Barbarian late in its theatrical run, despite being only eleven years old, thanks to my father’s willingness to smuggle me in to a drive-in showing beneath a sleeping bag in the king-cab of his truck. Dutiful father he was, he made me close my eyes for the nudity, and murmur something like, “Don’t tell your mother about that,” for all the gore.

I remember being rather taken with the spectacle of the film, but unable to articulate why it didn’t bear the same ad nauseum repeat viewings that the far inferior, but more fun Sword and the Sorcerer did. If you’d given me the choice between watching Albert Pyun’s splatterfest of schlock and sorcery  and Milius’s brooding barbarian bent on vendetta, I’d have chosen the triple-bladed-sword every time. Repeat viewings of both, along with the eventual dog-earing of my Ace Conan paperbacks lead me to the conclusion that I’d be hoping to see Conan on the screen when I went to see Schwarzenegger. What I got was a somber Cimmerian, and so was disappointed. I had no expectations of Pyun’s hyperbolized hero, Talon (played by Lee Horsley of Matt Houston fame), but got a character who, while lacking the mighty thews we’d come to expect of Conan (thanks largely Frank Frazetta’s cover paintings, and then John Buscema and Ernie Chan, who put Conan on a regimen of steroids), had the sharp mind of the thief, the propensity for violence of the reaver and slayer, and a combination of melancholy and mirth that Conan exhibited throughout Howard’s writing. In short, I realized that Milius’ Conan wasn’t necessarily Howard’s Conan, despite the film’s narrative nods to Howard’s stories, from the crucifixion scene (“A Witch Shall Be Born”) to Valeria’s promise to return from the grave (“Queen of the Black Coast”).

This isn’t a bad thing: by the time Conan the Barbarian hit theaters, Howard’s character was half a century old, and had taken on a life of his own beyond his creator’s writing. First we had the pastiches, edits, and new tales of L. Sprague De Camp, Bjorn Nyberg, Lin Carter, and later a host of other fantasy writers, including SF heavyweight Poul Anderson. Then came the Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic series and its adult contemporary, Savage Sword of Conan, which adapted both the original REH stories as well as the pastiches, in addition to adding its own new stories and characters to the Conan mythology. So despite protestations by REH purists, by the time Oliver Stone and John Milius wrote the script for Conan the Barbarian, there was no uniform character anymore, but rather a toolbox to draw from: within the comic books alone there were multiple Conans to choose from: the lean, wiry youth of Barry-Windsor Smith, or the hulking bearskin-clad brute of John Buscema?

Read the rest of the article here, at Tor. com

Gigantic Mirth: Conan the Destroyer

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired [badly wigged], sullen-eyed, looking mostly confused, sword in hand, [with] a thief, a reaver [former NBA star], and slayer Grace Jones, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet [and amazing jockstrap].

If you watch Conan the Destroyer back-to-back with Conan the Barbarian, it should take you less than five minutes to divine know how bad this movie is going to be. In the thirty years since I last saw it, I’d forgotten just how terrible it is. The Carmina-Burana-like “Anvil of Crom” theme that started the original has been replaced by a more upbeat adventure theme; the forging of a sword is now footage of horsemen wearing armor that looks suspiciously like armor from the first film; and we’ve been informed that Wilt Chamberlain is playing a role, and may be speaking lines. Things go rapidly downhill from there, and never recover.

Conan has lost his leather trousers, and is now clad in just his underwear, or what is quite possibly the jockstrap David Bowie wore in Labyrinth. Despite being nearly nude, he’s adopted a form of Hyborean Puritanism, pining away for his lost love Valeria, and having nothing to do with any other women (although this wasn’t the case in the original cut — just the PG version that we ended up with). He’s just a big sweaty tease.
This whole movie is an exercise in what happens when you take an R-rated character like Conan and try to make him PG. There are some moments that scream for Tom Servo to make commentary, like when Sarah Douglas, as Queen Taramis, rushes to her teenage neice’s bedroom to find her screaming, clad in a slinky little number. Wilt Chamberlain, the man who boasted of having had sex with 20,000 women, is already there. Creeeepy.

Read the rest of the article here, at Tor. com

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Twin Peaks: White Knight in a Dark Wood

While 90s groundbreaking television series Twin Peaks doesn’t exactly fit the normal conception of Noir cinema, it certainly has a number of noir elements, despite the northwest small town setting: we might call it noir-west small town, given how little time is spent in the series establishing that no matter how dark the woods are at the edges of the town of Twin Peaks, it’s no match for the hearts of the people who live there. For the neophyte, Twin Peaks chronicles the investigation into the murder of Laura Palmer, the homecoming queen, whose dead body is found at the edge of a lake, naked and wrapped in plastic. The show was one part soap opera, one part crime story, and one part writer-Mark-Frost-mysticism plus director-David-Lynch-weird. Take The X-Files, Lost, and Desperate Housewives, mix well, and wrap in an enigma, and you’re getting close to the town limits of Twin Peaks.

Most people think “hardboiled” when they think Noir cinema. Yet French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton identified five elements of noir cinema in their work, A Panorama of Film Noir. Among those elements were oneiric (dream-like) and strange. And Twin Peaks was certainly strange and dreamlike, not leastwise due to the prophetic dream-visions of Agent Dale Cooper, the FBI agent sent to investigate Laura Palmer’s murder: dreams that included dialogue spoken backwards, a dancing-dwarf, and a giant hiding in the body of frail old bellhop.

Read the whole article at!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Some Reflections on Planet Narnia

Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

One of my most fondly remembered childhood adventures was when my father took me gold panning. At the start of the trip, I remember wondering why my father never thought of quitting his job, since he knew where there was gold lying about for anyone to come and dig up. I never asked him this question but kept it in mind until I found the answer for myself: after a day’s panning, if one was lucky—and thankfully I was—one could return home with some treasure, a few rare and slender flakes of gold, but the ratio of gold to dirt was not high enough to make a commercially viable project out of it. As someone who spends considerable time reading literary criticism, I sometimes find it like gold panning, sifting carefully through vast amounts of muck for a few scraps of glitter. But when I do find glimmers of treasure, the excitement of it far outweighs the toils in getting there. Taken in terms of profitability, the intellectual income per unit-of-time spent, hard-headed people will never see literary criticism as anything but a waste of time. But for the treasure hunters, the excitement of the chase and the ecstasy of that rare find is what drives the hunt.

   Every reader has different ‘finds’, those moments where an old favourite becomes something new. One of my best ‘finds’ was William Empson’s observation, in Some Versions of Pastoral, that death jokes pervade the Alice books of Lewis Carroll. The implications of this one observation were legion. Suddenly, these books became something new; they became more complex and a shade darker than they were the last time I had read them. This comment changed forever the ‘feel’ of these books for me. That is the sort of experience that I look for in literary criticism. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: the Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, which offers a key to the Narnia Chronicles, envisioning each book in terms of a correlating planet, has many such ‘finds’. One random example: in The Horse and His Boy, Ward connects the twins Cor and Corin to the mythological twins Castor and Pollux, who together form the astrological sign Gemini (153). Castor is a breaker of horses and Pollux a boxer, which is entirely suitably to the twins of Archenland.
   Ward, however, did not write Planet Narnia to provide parcels of insight here and there, but to present what he believes to be C.S. Lewis’s own secret imaginative scheme, which lurks behind each book of the Chronicles of Narnia and further serves as a unifying element. The secret key is the influences of the planetary spheres of medieval astrology, a topic that Lewis writes about in his scholarly work, The Discarded Image. The planetary scheme for the books is as follows:
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe....Jupiter
Prince Caspian.........................................Mars
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.............Sol
The Silver Chair....................................... Luna
The Horse and His Boy.............................Mercury
The Magician's Nephew............................Venus
The Last Battle...........................................Saturn
A couple of notes: firstly, envisioning each book in terms of a planetary influence is supposed to compliment, not supplant, the Christological design of series:
This theological disposition is worked out in each of the Chronicles as the children, who by common grace of ‘nature’ are already part of a planetary world, become more so by special grace as they follow the planetary deity’s leading. Thus, in The Lion they become monarchs under sovereign Jove [Jupiter]; in Prince Caspian they harden under strong Mars; in The ‘Dawn Treader’ they drink light under searching Sol; in The Silver Chair they learn obedience under subordinate Luna; in The Horse and His Boy they come to love poetry under eloquent Mercury; in The Magician’s Nephew they gain life-giving fruit under fertile Venus; and in The Last Battle they suffer and die under chilling Saturn (237).
Secondly, the planets are supposed to provide a sort of intuitive and pervasive influence on each of the books, seamlessly holding the series together; they are not supposed to appear bludgeoned into the narrative by the hammer of allegory.
   Ward claims that his book holds answers three key questions: why were the Narnia books written? ‘Why is the series not uniformly allegorical?’(4) And why are these books so popular?
   In chapter eleven, ‘The Music of Spheres’, Ward tackles third question. Personally, Lewis’s works have followed me through life. One of my earliest memories is watching an animated version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, while now, conducting my own work on medieval and Renaissance literature, I walk past Lewis’s old college at Cambridge almost every day on my way to the library. I loved the Narnia books when I was young, profited much from Lewis’s apologetics in my teens, and profit still from his highly opinionated but highly readable literary criticism. My interest in Narnia, however, has never been consistent. I like Narnia for different reasons now than at the age of eleven, but the reasons I had at eleven were perfectly valid then as those I have now are valid for the present. I don’t enjoy Narnia more, I enjoy it differently. At eleven I loved the terror of the White Witch in her various incarnations, and the imaginative potential for creating my own stories set in the marshlands of Puddleglum or the strange underland and sunless sea in The Silver Chair. I now mostly enjoy Lewis’s hints or allusions to myth and literature, along with the pure adventure. There are even things I see differently: the hodgepodge of myth and nomenclature infuriated me at eleven as I found it distracting from the illusion of reality, whereas now I find it delightful. I was twenty before I experienced anything like what Lewis in Surprised by Joy calls ‘joy’ in reading about Narnia. Ward thinks his scheme explains the popularity of Narnia. Such a claim is incomprehensible to me; I cannot even see anything irreducible or consistent in my own experiences in Narnia.
   Ward’s second question about the series’ uniformity occupies the bulk of the book, but we will return to it. The question of why Lewis wrote these books is treated in chapter ten, entitled ‘Primum Mobile’. Ward thinks that the occasion for the composition of the Narnia Chronicles arose from the debate between C.S. Lewis and Elizabeth Anscombe at the Oxford Socratic Club in 1948, when Anscombe criticised the arguments against naturalism that Lewis had made in his latest book Miracles­­­. According to some sources, this outcome of this debate humiliated Lewis and at least one of Lewis’s biographers has claimed that the humiliation of the debate caused Lewis to turn away from writing apologetics to writing children’s books, as a form of psychological regression, turning Anscombe into the White Witch and so forth. This argument has many flaws, however, the most glaring one is that Lewis did not turn from apologetics to imaginative fiction after the debate: on one hand, Lewis continued to write apologetics, and even modified Miracles to account for Anscombe’s criticism, and on the other hand, the Narnia Chronicles were neither Lewis’s first nor last attempt to explore Christian Truth through imaginative fiction. When one, however, reads through Lewis’s various essays, one sees that he had in fact made his same arguments against naturalism in print quite often, and if in finding them refuted by Anscombe, Lewis was not at least a little disconcerted, he ought to have been. Ward revises earlier arguments that Lewis turned to an imaginative fiction after the debate, arguing that Anscombe ‘had reminded him [Lewis] of the generic deficiency of apologetics that rational argumentation can never convey the concrete realities of spiritual experience’ (221). The composition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe chronologically follows the publication of Miracles and his debate with Anscombe and therefore Ward has some ground in maintaining that this debate set the occasion for Narnia. That is, Ward could be correct in claiming that Lewis wrote the Narnia Chronicles in order to articulate an imaginative response to Anscombe’s criticism. But while Ward is certainly correct in summarising the advantages of an imaginative approach with difficulties with apologetic writing, I still do not see the necessity of drawing the connection with the debate. Reading through Lewis’s collected essays and collected letters one sees Lewis ruminating over philosophical and theological concerns that he addresses in Narnia over a space of several decades. Certainly it is better to see the occasion for Narnia in terms of years spent in contemplation of Christian Truth and his practical experience and difficulties in teaching it to various audiences through books, radio broadcasts, personal letters, lectures and conversation, rather than hitching it all on to one event. The arguments of Mere Christianity are as present in Narnia as those of Miracles. It is not that Ward does not find interesting parallels in presenting The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a sort of revision of Miracles in light of Anscombe’s critique, but he no doubt would have seen more interesting contrasts and parallels between Lewis’s apologetics and imaginative writings if he had taken a broader scope and not hinging the writing of Narnia on one event in Lewis’s life of arguable importance. But this would not serve Ward’s purpose in using his analysis to answer a wider question. That is, if Ward had engaged in a fuller account of Lewis’s approaches to imaginative fiction and apologetics, he would have to abandon the claim that he was discovered the occasion for Lewis writing about Narnia.
   The bulk of Planet Narnia, argues that planetary scheme, already mentioned, serves as a unifying function for the Narnia books. When I first read of Ward’s alleged discovery, I—as I suspect was the case with many others—was sceptical. The first things that came to mind were various passages from Lewis’s own literary criticism, in which he himself warning against this sort of reading. But this sort of counterargument not really fair, as Ward’s thesis ought to be tested on its own merits, and not dismissed on the grounds that Lewis might not have approved. After I read Planet Narnia, I was undecided whether Ward had proven his thesis or not; he does make a lot of persuasive points. It was only after I reread the Narnia series with Planet Narnia in hand, that I became thoroughly unconvinced by its arguments. Although Ward deserves credit for showing the presence of cosmological symbolism in the Narnia books, I cannot believe that Ward’s imaginative scheme is correct.
   Alongside the Narnia books, Ward looks at the cosmological symbolism in Lewis’s poetry and science fiction. Ward’s evaluation of the planetary symbolism in Lewis’s Space Trilogy alone is well worth the price of the book. It not hindered by a governing theory and so Ward darts back and forth, unwrapping layer after layer of depth and insight. Ward’s treatment of feminine theological imagery pertaining to Venus in The Hideous Strength (171-75) gives a depth to Lewis’s treatment of female sexuality that would surprise many critics to find in Lewis’s work. Another great observation connects Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra with Jupiter: 
Almost the last words of Ransom in [Out of the Silent Planet] had been, ‘Somebody or something of great importance is connected with Jupiter.’ The very first words spoken by Ransom in Perelandra are, ‘By Jove, I’m glad to see you.’ He says this out of relief that Lewis (the Lewis in the story) has survived the spiritual barrage that had bombarded him as he arrived at the cottage in Ransom’s absence. But it is not merely a conventional expostulation it is a literally meant expression. Lewis’s survival and Ransom’s gladness at it have both been brought about ‘by Jove’ (48).
Yet it is Ward’s treatment of Lewis’s science fiction makes his treatment of Narnia all the more disappointing. Ward acknowledges that the planetary symbolism is not limited to one planet one novel, a problem Ward addresses in a section entitled ‘Why is the Scheme Not More Perfect’ (232-233) and which he answers by arguing that although one planet is the dominate influence in each book it is not the exclusive influence. If Ward was not stuck on insisting that he had solved the problem of Narnia’s unity, he could have paid more attention to the presence of different planetary influences in different books. But instead we get only the much narrower treatment of one planetary symbol per book, made worse by the insistence that this scheme somehow ‘explains’ the series.
   I have chosen Ward’s treatment of one planet and book to serve as an example of his method. According to Ward’s scheme, The Magician’s Nephew corresponds to Venus. Therefore, when, for example the jackdaw tells a joke (or is made a joke of), we are supposed to feel the levity of Venus. The book’s lightness and humour is supposed, by Ward, to stand for a sort of Homeric ‘Sweet-laughing Aphrodite’. Now, the goddess Venus does have a style of humour, there is even a Latin word for it, undoubtedly known to Lewis, venustus, which designates charming, graceful, elegant wit. But this is not the laughter of the jackdaw, the bear throwing a beehive at the magician’s head, or Jadis tossing Digory’s Aunt, which is more slapstick or jolly good fun than the wit of Venus. Jadis, Ward identifies with the cruel Babylonian goddess Ishtar, which is more than unnecessary as Venus in her Greco-Roman form could be cruel enough (178). Reading the description of the Charn as ‘that great city’ as an echo of Jonah’s description of Nineveh, where in ancient times Ishtar was worshipped, seems to me a stretch. If Charn must match a biblical city, I much prefer, ‘Standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, alas, alas that great city Babylon, that mighty city! For in one hour is thy judgment come.’ (Revelations 18:10), since there at least we have a ruined city. Other symbols of Venus include the pairing of animals, the pairing of Queen Helen and King Frank, and images of growth and fertility. The ‘erotic charge’ (181) Ward sees in the creation of Narnia is lost on me. As is the ‘Venus Anadyomene’ (Venus rising from the sea) which Ward finds suggested in the rising from pools in the Wood between the Worlds. Some foam, sea shells or nude virgins would have helped. In what I regard as utter violence to the text, Ward argues that Lewis portrays ‘Aslan as the incarnation of Venus’ (185). He even hints that one of Lewis’s  proposed titles for The Magician’s Nephew, Digory and Polly hints ‘at the “coupled” nature of this Chronicle’s presiding planetary power’ (186). That is, Digory and Polly represent the act of coitus. The question of audience is relevant here; certainly not too many children can have ever been expected to notice this. Continuing this line of symbolism, Ward says that ‘Aslan brings Narnia to birth like Venus’ (186). Does Aslan really ‘give birth’ to Narnia? This seems to me to greatly confuse Creation and procreation and, what is more, I can find no evidence of this symbolism in the text.
   Ward also claims that Lewis makes use of two images of Venus derived from the Renaissance philosopher Ficino:
It was not only Lewis’s beliefs about feminine divine imagery which made composing this story difficult, but also the general complexity of Venus’s literary history, for Lewis wanted to depict more than just ‘Venus-as-God’ in The Magician’s Nephew. He also seems to have had in mind Ficino’s two Veneres, the Angelic Mind (Venus coelistis) considered in its contemplation of Divine Beauty, and Venus naturalis, the generative power in the Anima Mundi. (187)
I spent a fair amount of time making sense of this passage. At first I wondered why Ward gives Ficino as source of this concept, when it comes from Plato’s Symposium specifically and is present throughout Italian Neo-Platonism generally. The answer is that that Ward is working from a passage in Lewis’s book, Spenser's Images of Life (1978, pp.50-51) that mentions Ficino, which Ward must have forgotten to credit in the footnotes. In any case the passage is unclear for anyone not familiar with the concepts at stake and inaccurate for anyone who is. I have to admit that I am still at a complete loss as to how the figure of Aslan conflates divine beauty and animal sexuality; I just don’t see it in Lewis’s text. Ward writes, ‘The vivification of Narnia is brought about not simply and solely because of a single creative act by the Venereal Lion. Rather, Aslan-as-Venus achieves its creation in consort with Venus coelistis and Venus naturalis; it comes forth between them, together, at once.’ (187). I am at a loss to find what passage in The Magician’s Nephew illustrates this as happening and would be only delighted to learn what other readers make of it.
   What is most surprising about all this planet chasing is that it is supposed to make the Narnia Chronicles appear better organised. But it still does not take long before the hodgepodge nature of the books comes out. After only the first few pages of The Magician’s Nephew, for example, we have the Arthurian-named ‘Mrs. Lefay’, ancestral fairy-blood reminiscent of Anados’s ancestry in George MacDonald’s Phantastes and a box from Atlantis jumbled together in a Nesbit-style children’s story. Lewis mixes his myths; not even the alignment of the spheres can change this; love it or leave it.
   There is nothing of Venereal influence in The Magician’s Nephew that is in anyway obvious or concrete, nothing which makes the case clear-cut for Ward’s thesis. All of Ward’s arguments pile up into senseless vagaries and even then hardly pass muster. The planetary influences as Ward presents them are too abstract and could with ease be reassigned at random to different works. For example, I propose to take The Horse and His Boy as the Venus book. One could now compare Shasta’s arrival on the shore with Venus’s arrival on the shores of Cyprus. I’ll pass over the smell of fish in the first chapter. The horse is often the symbol of unrivalled beauty and thus, Bree could make a symbol of Venus. There is a pertinent description in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis:
Round-hoof’d, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong,
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide:
Look, what a horse should have he did not lack,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back. (296-301)
There we have Bree. The sea in the second chapter appears in terms reminiscent of Venus’s birth and the venereal environment:
Before them the turf, dotted with white flowers, sloped down to the brow of a cliff. Far below them, so that the sound of the breaking waves was very faint, lay the sea.
The landscape of the novel ranges from the lush coastland of Venus Anadyomene, to the hot and heavy atmosphere of Calormen, to the tantalising ‘Valley of the Thousand Perfumes’. There are the ‘coupling’ double-romances of Bree and Hwin, and Shasta/Cor and Aravis, as well as the Rabadash’s lust for Susan. Aravis herself first appears with her brother’s armour on in the image of the androgynous figure of armed Venus (Venus armata), which paradoxically makes her a symbol of chastity while her dark features and mysterious appearance cast her as a symbol of Eros. In the form of armed Venus, Aravis meets Shasta seeking to escape from a marriage. She then abandons her armour and plays a more maidenly role in order to marry Shasta at the novel’s conclusion. In The Discarded Image, Lewis points out that Venus follows after Jupiter in governing fortunate events, appropriate to the restoration of Shasta to his family, the salvation of Narnia and Archenland, the removal of Calormen as a threat of war (since the Rabadash cannot leave his capital city) and the marriage of Shasta and Aravis. Lewis also points to Dante’s Divine Comedy, where under the influence of Venus, lovers, both in paradise and the inferno, are in ‘swift, incessant flight’, which is fitting for Shasta and Aravis as well as the Narnians trapped in Calormen. One could go on at some length like this.
   Although Ward does rightly at some points show the planets comprise a neglected layer of symbolism in the Chronicles of Narnia, his insistence on making this a unifying element does more harm than good. Nor does it provide any sense of unity out of medley of composite elements. If one argues that Father Christmas is out of place in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because Narnia cannot sensibly have a Christmas, it does not make his appearance any less incongruous by saying that Father Christmas is a jovial image, therefore think Jupiter. I would recommend Planet Narnia for all Lewis fans; the analysis of the Space Trilogy is especially fine. But as for the thesis that C.S. Lewis wrote each of the Chronicles of Narnia with a governing principle in mind, I am now more sceptical than ever. What is worst, in my opinion, is that Ward could have written a great book, he has the critical skill for it, but instead he weakened his analysis by a rather a trivial critical flaw, in thinking that he this scheme could explain: why the Narnia Chronicles were written and why they have been successful, as well as pinning down a secret design which hold the whole thing together. Less ambitious claims and closer attention to the books themselves would have made a world of difference.

Friday, July 15, 2011

10 Years with Harry Potter at the movies

My first experience of Harry Potter couldn't have come at a better time. I was recovering from a personal crisis, going through a major career change, and to facilitate both of those, working as a Teaching Assistant at an elementary school in rural Alberta, thirty minutes outside Edmonton. I had taken to spending my lunch breaks reading books from the school library, introducing myself to A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Time Warp Trio. In reading children's fiction, I found myself retreating to a safer and happier space of memory in my own childhood, recalling reading The Hobbit or Paul R. Fisher's The Ash Staff, and collecting Tintin and Asterix and Obelisk books. I'd avoided the Harry Potter books because there was something about the hardback covers that never grabbed me.

However, when a concerned parent phoned the school to protest grade three and four students taking a field trip to attend a private screening of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone at a local theatre (which had received an upgrade to its sound system just in time for the release of the film), I decided to read the first book, just to see what the fuss was all about. The school's principal knew of my theological background, and hoped I'd be able to bring an informed opinion to the table. I had to return with the reply, "I know where they're coming from, because I heard this sort of thing before (in the '80s, with Dungeons and Dragons), but from my own perspective, I don't understand it."

I've never understood the evangelical Christian prohibition on Harry Potter, largely because I fell in love with the wonder and whismy of the series. Furthermore, when I attended that private showing for our students, I was in a theatre filled with the target audience, and was transported back to the way I felt as a kid, seeing cinematic magic with a wide-eyed-wonder. The students' excitement was contagious, and I took my wife to see the film early in its releases. She asked me to read the first book to her at night, and that, along with seeing the films, became a tradition for us.

I've often looked back on my year at that school, my time among those students, and seeing Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stones as healing points in my recovery. I'd never go so far as to say "Harry Potter saved my life," but I could safely say, "Harry Potter restored my sense of wonder."

Recently, Jenica and I watched the whole series in 40 minute chunks, watching it like a season of television. Once again, I was transported to a place of wonder and magic. I have trouble assessing the books and films with a critical eye, because I'm an unabashed fan. Nevertheless, as the final installment is released, here are my most recent thoughts on all of the previous films (all written separately, so there's some repetition), as a tribute to a great decade of wonderful cinema for children, and those who enjoy occasionally being child-like.

Philosopher's Stone

Despite being more a realization of Rowling's first book, as opposed to cinematic adaptation per se, I retain a sentimental fondness for this first Harry Potter film, which transported me back to seeing films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Mary Poppins as a child. My first viewing was in a special showing with students from the elementary school I was working at, and that viewing has coloured my memory of it. Lacking the sophistication later installments will achieve, Philosopher's Stone, as it's known outside the U.S., is a film that needs to be seen with the eyes of a child. The franchise will grow with both audience and the three acting leads. Here, the hyper-saturated colour palette suits the point-of-view of an eleven-year-old Harry: prior to adolescence, many of us view the world with wide-eyed, rose-colored vision. This is the same vision the film demands to be perceived through: a cynic will find too many plot holes, too many convenient coincidences. This is a children's story, filmed for children by one of the best director's of films needing a child-like appreciation, Chris Columbus. While there are a few gaffes to poke holes in, there is much to be admired about this opening chapter in one of the most successful, and for my money, most entertaining, film franchises in history.  

Chamber of Secrets

One might say that "Chamber of Secrets" is simply more of the same Chris Columbus's cast and crew gave us the first time around with "Philosopher's Stone," but that would make it sound like a bad thing. Rowling's story certainly takes us further into the world of Hogwarts, but the film only advances marginally in terms of technical achievement: the special effects are better (it's nice to see a time when animatronics were still being paired with CGI - Fawkes the Phoenix is a wonderful bit of puppetry), but the real improvement is in the three principle actors, who demonstrate discernible maturation in their performances. It always seemed to me that they grew up between films 2 & 3, but watching 1 & 2 back-to-back proved me wrong in that respect. The baby faces are already transforming, and I am reminded just how much this series is about growing up. It's by no means the best of the series, but Chamber of Secrets still enchants, despite an episodic narrative. 

Prisoner of Azkaban

Despite a number of departures stylistically and in cast and crew, The Prisoner of Azkaban remains one of the top three films in the Harry Potter franchise to date. Alfonso Cuarón stepped in to replace Chris Columbus, which proved to help the series grow up with its actors, striking a darker, more compelling tone than the previous installments. Gone is the oversaturated colour palette, and with it, much of the wide eyed wonder that characterized the first two films. Michael Gambon found himself stepping into the very large shoes left by Richard Harris, but proved himself up to the task. Thankfully, Cuarón's aesthetic and tonal innovations provide Gambon the opportunity to reinvent Dumbledore. When I first saw The Prisoner of Azkaban, I was struck by how Gambon's Dumbledore has less whimsy than Harris's: Harris is the chld's view of Dumbledore. Gambon is Dumbledore as Harry sees him in his teen years, as he matures. The pacing is excellent, the performances superb, and the overall product one of my favorite film adaptations of Rowling's work. 

Goblet of Fire

Although director Mike Newell doesn't drop the ball, the series goes down a notch from where Alfonso Cuarón had taken it to. In a perfect world, Cuarón would have remained to shoot the next film, handing the torch over to David Yates, who has done a brilliant job with the rest of the films. With "Goblet of Fire," the Potter film franchise begins adapting Rowling's "Door Stopper" sized installments, and screenwriter Steve Kloves is forced into a game of truncation and concision. Contractors may complain of digressions from the book with an almost scriptural fervor, but from the perspective of the film standing on its own, Kloves succeeds. There are still a few obvious cutting-room-floor moments, but overall, the narrative coheres. One wonders why the Potter franchise never went the way of Lord of the Rings, to release longer versions with more footage for the die-hard fans. And despite rolling along at a breakneck pace, the film doesn't feel rushed in the way Order of the Phoenix does. It's jarring to see Robert Pattinson outside his brooding Twilight persona, and just as odd to watch David Tennant turn in a decidedly wicked performance as the evil Barty Crouch. Highlights include the challenge with the Dragon, and the Yule Ball, which has always felt like John Hughes getting to direct Harry Potter. Also noteworthy is Blendan Gleeson's set-chewing, scene-stealing rendering of Mad-Eye Moody. The film ends on a slightly down-note, reminding the devoted Harry Potter viewer of how we're no longer living in the saturated wide-eyed world Chris Columbus invited us into.

Order of the Phoenix
Watching these films again all in a row, there's a feeling that everything prior is all just prelude to this and the following films. Thankfully, director David Yates comes on board at this crucial juncture, remaining director for the rest of the franchise. I really love Yates' direction: all his Harry Potter films are among the strongest in the series. As Harry and crew continue to grow and mature, so does the look and feel of the franchise. The most gothic in its mise-en-scene, returning in many ways to the feel of the third film under Cuarón, it is also the most intense in its pacing. The script does an admirable job of truncating Rowling's epic source material, especially through the use of signs posted throughout the school, and montages of headlines from the Daily Prophet. Unlike previous installments, there is also a thematic core to the film: the need for community, to stand unified, not alone. While Hagrid's half-brother underscores this concept of friends and family, the inclusion feels superfluous: more time could have been spent building the centaurs' antagonism toward Dolores Umbridge. As the fluffy pink monstrosity, Imelda Staunton proves a more loathesome villain than Voldemort, true to her literary counterpart. This is among the best in the series, achieving the Herculean task of truncating the longest book in the series into a single film. Fans need to quit bitching about what individual pet moments or characters get left out, or quit going to see these adaptations. Considering the script packs 26 hours of out-loud-reading into two hours, all Potter heads should be thankful Rowling's creations aren't getting the treatment Paolini's Eragon did.      

Half-Blood Prince

The best of the series to date. Deviations from the source material are a strength here, not a weakness, producing a less episodic, more coherent installment than the previous offerings have. Hogwarts and its denizens continue to mirror the aging process of the principle actors, and the oncoming darkness of the final installment descends in a cinematic cloud the book never quite achieved. While some detractors disliked the romantic shenanigans of Ron and Harry, I found them appropriate to the age of Harry and his companions: even when the world is on the brink of disaster, teenage hormones find time to make trouble. The final scenes with Harry and Dumbledore are among the most striking painterly film images I've ever seen, realizing Rowling's imagined world with poignant beauty, matching the grim tone of the film's tragic climax.   

Deadly Hallows, Part 1

Finally, the Harry Potter films divide! Since Peter Jackson released the special editions of Lord of the Rings, I've been clamouring for more Potter, even if it had to be in a special edition format. One wonders if David Yates would have made this decision had he been helming the franchise from the first film, turning the last three books into double features.

I digress.

After the brilliant scripting of Half Blood Prince, the first act of Deathly Hallows is something of a disappointment, causing me to realize that these stories are less about what happens than who it's all happening to. Certainly, we thrill to the adventures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but we thrill to *their* adventures, not necessarily the adventures themselves. We fell in love with these characters over seven books and seven (about to be eight) films, and we keep watching, not because Rowling's plot is original, but because her characters are compelling. And the films go a step further with these characters because of these capable actors who inhabit their roles, breathing life into them in a way Rowling's prose couldn't.

It's why some of my favorite moments in this film have nothing to do with blockbuster pyrotechnics: Hermione causing her parents to forget her,  Harry zipping up Ginny's dress, or Harry and Hermione dancing in the tent. Certainly, I still love the wands and brooms, but the best moment in the film for me is character based, and another script digression: when Harry yells, "You're lying...and you musn't tell lies" at Dolores Umbridge, it is a very satisfying character moment, and one I was surprised to find wasn't in the book. But it's perfect, and that's what I've loved about the films.

There are those who bemoan the lack of fidelity to the books, but I think they miss the point. I love the books for what they are, children's books. No matter how dark her themes became, Rowling remained solidly, a writer of children's fiction. Certainly, it was children's fiction adults love (though some apparently needed stealth covers to read them on the train, as though someone didn't know who the hell Harry Potter was on that artsy cover), but that's nothing new. The films, on the other hand, grew up. From the bright, saturated palette of Philosopher's Stone to the darkness of the Deadly Hallows, the films, like their actors, have grown up, and it's audience with it.

For those of us already old, it gave us the chance to grow up again, in our imaginations, going back through those difficult years of adolescence, with the horrors of life writ large, and the comforts of Butterbeer and All Flavour Beans to carry us along the way.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sucker Punch, the Musical

Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige encouraged us to watch closely, to see the trick within the narrative, but also warned us that we wouldn’t find it, because we aren’t interested in knowing the truth: we want to be fooled.Maybe Nolan should have included a similar style of disclaimer at the beginning of Inception, given the proliferation of websites explaining the layers of the dream to confused theatre-goers. Add the challenges Black Swan presented viewers in discerning reality from madness, and you’d think we’d have accrued some savvy in making sense of fractured narratives in virtual and psychological spaces. I’m dubious about the depth the average movie-goer views a movie at, but after reading a number of reviews for Zack Synder’s SuckerPunch back in March and April, I’m even less hopeful. Consider Ron Porter’s "brilliant" assessment that the insane asylum protagonist Babydoll is sent to “is actually a front for a brothel/dance club.”  I’m not sure if Mr. Porter was in an actual brothel/dance club when he saw the film, but anyone who’s mistaken the bordello level for reality wasn’t paying any sort of attention at all. 

In my line of work as a University English instructor, I am often reminded of how little we as viewers or readers pay attention. Jay Bardyla, owner of Happy Harbor Comics in Edmonton says the same of comic readers who skim their issues rather than actually reading both text and image. Many reviews of and responses to Sucker Punch, both positive and negative, illustrate how little North American film goers, both professional critics and average Joe, are paying attention, or thinking critically about what they're watching.

Consider Big Shiny Robot's complaint about the mental disorientation Snyder ostensibly produces playing “fast and loose with time and place at every level of the story”:

The insane asylum is vague vintage Americana circa 1950s or 60s. The whore house is Gypsy Rose Lee Burlesque in look – but they dance to contemporary artists like Björk. Then the fight sequences are just all over the place merging the past with futurism etc etc. Which makes you ask the question; How the HELL does Baby Doll imagine this stuff?!?!

Big Shiny Robot has done a fine job of assessing what he saw: he has described all three layers of Sucker Punch's reality with brilliant concision. Let's review those layers before moving on. First, there's the "vague vintage Americana circa 1950s or 60s." Big Shiny Robot gets an A for his alliteration of vague and vintage, but also for how spot on this estimation is. The first level of reality is vague, it is vintage, and it's definitely circa, not a particular year.Furthermore, his choice of "Americana" is brilliant, as it denotes a collective grouping of items or visuals that evoke America. We know this isn't taking place in Asia, or even Europe. The look has an American sensibility to it. Beyond that, we can't say with precision where in America this story takes place. Overall, it has that "once upon a time" aspect of fairy tale films, like Edward Scissorhands, which was vague contemporary/gothic mashup, circa 1980s. There is a sense that this is happening in a past, but not a terribly particular one.The first level of reality is characterized by a desaturated, cool color palette akin to that of the virtual world in The Matrix. The girls are not made up, and wear tattered, ragged clothing.
Observe the following images from The Art of Suckerpunch, as they demonstrate how the visual design of the film was intended to blur the levels of reality. Clearly, however, we're dealing with a different narrative space, even if the characters are in the same actual place
 Level Two is the whore house, which Big Shiny Robot describes as "Gypsy Rose Lee Burlesque in look." Again, Big Shiny Robot (BSR)has astutely placed the visual aesthetic: but Gypsy Rose Lee performed Burlesque prior to the 50s and 60s BSR already mentioned. Already the temporal feel of the film is blurry. The viewer can now conclude one of two things: Zakk Snyder has made a terrible period picture, or this film will be playing fast and loose with historical looks and styles. This is not Stand by Me. The look of this level of reality contains a warmer colour palette, though the hospital green still finds its way into the background. The girls are no longer bedraggled mental patients, but gorgeous dancers. The hospital staff have become the manager and bouncers of the burlesque club. Babydoll's father has become a Catholic Priest, again underscoring how ridiculous it would be to miss the difference between levels one and two.
The third level of reality, of Babydoll's pure imagining, is "just all over the place merging the past with futurism." Again, yes. It's all over the place. It merges the past with futurism. So do music videos and video games, both styles of filmmaking Sucker Punch was pejoratively compared with. Zakk Snyder is again playing fast and loose. Everything BSR said is true - but does that necessarily make it a poorly made film, or has it simply not lived up to BSR's expectations? This level is characterized by the girls looking like they stepped out of an Anime, armed to the teeth in outfits unsuitable for combat, as open to the Male Gaze as their burlesque costumes. Again, note the similarity between the Asylum/Whore House architecture and the design art for the castle. As Snyder notes in The Art of Suckerpunch, "each combat fantasy [features] a building - the pagoda, the cathedral, the castle - all of which are reminiscent of Lennox House in one way or another" (168).

So Big Shiny Robot is aware that this film plays loose and fast with history and styles. Yet despite admitting this, BSR then asks, as many did, a literal question of correspondence, "How the HELL does Baby Doll imagine this stuff?" BSR has mistakenly assumed this is a period piece. Like detractors of Snyder's earlier film, 300, the assumption is that Synder isn't playing fast and loose with time and place in either film. 300 was panned by historians for its lack of historical accuracy, when 300 was a dead accurate cinematic creation of its source material, a comic by Frank Miller. Likewise, Sucker Punch draws its stylistic tool box from a style of film BSR would likely hate: Moulin Rouge!, which Katherine Monk astutely compares SuckerPunch to. Even without Snyder’s open admission of  inspiration from Baz Luhrman’s mashup of classic pop/rock with cabaret, courtesans, and the can can, similarities are evident, such as the trademark Red Curtain opening at the very beginning of the film. The observant viewer will note that there are two Red Curtains in that moment, signifying the layers of reality we will soon be party to viewing. Additionally, it also shows that the "reality" of Baby Doll's home life is taking place on a stage set, further problematizing the ontological stability of any of the story's layers. Note the design art again, which shows the stage inside Lennox House, mirroring this first stage. Stages as spaces of performance before an audience's gaze, primarily male, appear regularly in the film.
 Perhaps audiences would have understood the Luhrman influence better had Synder gone full gonzo and filmed the opening scenes with Emily Browning lipsyncing her own vocals to the film’s goth-styled cover of Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams.” Suckerpunch: The Art of the Film features a photo of “all the ladies together, practicing a musical number with compose Marius de Vries,” sheet music in hand (21).  
Another section of The Art of the Film, “The Theater,” contains images, both conceptual and completed, of at least three large-scale musical numbers. A still shot captured from one of the trailers shows the girls engaged in one of these dance numbers. Another still image showcases Vanessa Hudgens dancing, which certainly explains why an actress best known for her performance in High School Musical was cast in this film. Snyder wasn’t casting an “action-fantasy-thriller,” as Wikipedia purports; he was casting an action-fantasy-musical. I had concluded as much during the end credits of the film, which gave Snyder an opportunity to show footage of Carla Gugino and Oscar Isaac performing a cover of Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug.” I began to wonder how many other musical numbers were abandoned along the way or left on the cutting room floor due to studio pressure.
Consider the soundtrack of nine covers intended to “bring all of the baggage” memories of the original songs would evoke (Snyder qtd. in Rosenberg). Detractors of the film spoke of a lack of depth, but ignored the extra layer of meaning the soundtrack provided. Not lyrically, necessarily, but in the poetic sense of what the song might stand for. Take the remix of Björk’s “Army of Me” featuring Skunk Anansie, a UK hard rock band fronted by Skin, a black female model who once described the band’s music as “clit rock” (, and stated that at one point in her career, "Every interview … started off by describing me as a scary bald bisexual black six-foot-four Amazonian.” The combination of Björk and Skin singing “Army of Me” evokes more than the song’s lyrics, which are about Björk’s perpetually jobless younger brother. After the inclusion of this song on the Tank Girl soundtrack, it seemed to become an anthem for strong women. This is the sonic backdrop of Babydoll’s battle with the demonic Samurai: so while we only see Emily Browning onscreen, we effectively have three women represented. This is why Babydoll can imagine Björk’s music: not because it makes sense from a factual or historical standpoint, but because it makes sense from an stylistic, ideological standpoint.
Of the soundtrack’s nine covers, only one is performed entirely by men, a mashup of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “I Want it All” featuring rapper Armageddon. The music plays over the introduction to the dance stage of the bordello reality, giving voice to lust of the Mayor, Blu, and other men ready to leer at Babydoll’s performance. Two of the remaining eight songs are duets, while the rest are sung solely by women. Consider further, that many were originally sung by men: “Seek and Destroy” by Iggy Pop, “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles, “Where is My Mind?” by the Pixies, and “Asleep” by the Smiths. In addition to “Army of Me,” only Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” were sung first by women. This may seem incidental, but if we view Suckerpunch as a musical, or in its released form, a long-form music video, it isn’t incidental, but important: the songs construct another layer of story. The film may lack character development, but so do most music videos, replacing coherent narrative with dynamic camera motion, dancing, rapid edits, and the lyrics, tempo, and mood of the music to communicate an idea. 

What idea is Suckerpunch trying to communicate, you ask?  That Was Junk offered "ten points" to anyone who could decipher the message. Again, I’m a little saddened people didn’t get it, but seeing as most arguments around Inception centered on whether “he’s still in the dream” at the end, or viewers Pan’s Labyrinth wonder “was the fairy tale real or not,” we’ve had years of practice at missing the point. In both those cases, there is no definite answer to those questions: if that’s all you got, you’re missing the point. In Inception, the ending is a character moment – he puts down the top he’s been so obsessively spinning throughout the film, effectively communicating he doesn’t care whether he’s in the dream anymore or not. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the fairy tale elements mirror the resistance and rebellion of the war story. They are thematically consistent.

Likewise, anyone looking for perfect equivalencies in Suckerpunch is asking the wrong questions. Emilíana Torrini’s cover of “White Rabbit” reminds us we’ve gone down the rabbit hole, into a world with the logic of Lewis Carrol crossed with Heavy Metal. Many reviewers pejoratively compared SuckerPunch to video games and music videos, as though montage and stylistic visuals are incapable of rendering Snyder’s message worth taking seriously. Yes, SuckerPunch works like a music video, and that’s precisely why it mashes up B-52 Bombers over Mordor-like battlescapes. It is an over-the-top pastiche of major action film tropes: war, martial arts, fantasy, science fiction, and horror, all rolled together without regard for convention liminality or temporality.

The film is self-reflexive, painfully aware of how rote many of its moves will be. Consider the cliches Scott Glen delivers throughout: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Many critics mistook this for deadpan serious, but not in the Alan West way they should have. Everyone on screen knows such pithy statements are bullshit, but they are the stock-in-trade of the male-dominated action picture: if they’d painted Glen’s face up with blue woad and put him on a horse in front of Scotsmen yelling those lines, perhaps he’d be up for an academy award. Posters told us “You Will Not Be Prepared.” Obviously, we would be prepared for the imagery of the combat fantasies, derivative of any number of blockbuster pictures. But I'd argue the film is aware of this obvious move, based upon Sweet Pea's words when we first enter the second level of reality: "This is a joke, right? I get the sexy school girl and nurse thing, but what's this? A lobotomized vegetable? How about something more commercial?" This is the line that indicated Snyder knew what he was doing with this bold film. Partial Objects did a hell of a job following this line of inquiry up shortly after the film was released, and I concur with much of what he says there. 
What I suspected when I saw the film was that all levels of reality were prisons. Not one of them was a space of freedom, whatever any supporter of the film has said about the emancipation of women as represented by ass-kicking chicks in badass armor killing zombies and dragons. Babydoll's dance doesn't allow her to escape. Every level is a trap. Compare these images from The Art of Suckerpunch showing the layout of Lennox House and the WWI trenches in the second combat fantasy:
If all of the levels are prisons, then the answer to the question "why would a woman escape into a fantasy of strippers or ass-kicking in scantily clad armor?" becomes, "she wouldn't. You would." I'll give the floor to Partial Objects, as he's done a fine job of making this point:
But the movie is self aware. Are the women hot, like the audience would expect? Sure. Do they do ninja acrobatics as the audience wants them to? Hell yeah. Which explains why Babydoll told, in level 2, “if you do not dance, you have no purpose.” Hey, she’s right.
And self-aware means aware of the audience. Why would a 20 year old girl, to escape the horrors of a retro mental asylum, create the fantasy that she’s in a bordello?
She’s doesn’t: we do. Putting a hot girl in an asylum immediately sexualizes it– the possibility/hope that vulnerability means penetration is considered by us, and the director just makes it explicit. The prostitutes in the movie have to dance for their clients; the actresses in our movie have to dance (ninja style) for ours.
And this is the prison the women of Suckerpunch are trapped inside: one Male Gaze fantasy after another, and each one done with wild abandon, exposing how troublesome each one is. People have asked me if I really think Synder is this smart: I would point them to the final moments of the film, when Sweatpea is about to board the bus that will take her...home? She is wearing a demure outfit, and yet remains a target for the Male Gaze of all men around her, save the Wise Man, Scott Glen's character, who in Wizard of Oz fashion, is now in the "real" world. As she steps on the bus, he states "We've still got a long way to go." And insofar as the liberation and emancipation of women, we do.

This isn't just about skimpy costumes and Barbie doll figures wielding two-handed swords with ease. It's about trapping others in an expectation, an objectification, where a person is no longer a thing, but merely an object to stick something into. This is what Babydoll becomes when she is lobotomized, no different than a sex doll or pornographic image. This is no longer a person, but merely an orifice. And if our reaction to her lobotomy is horror, then that is the right one to have. Many of us are like Madame Gorski, complicit in the system that keeps women trapped in these spaces. Others are like Babydoll, railing against the system. And this is what is meant by the closing narration, and the line that drives one of my colleagues absolutely batshit:
Who honors those we love for the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time, things that will never die? Who teaches us whats real, and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live, and what we’ll die to defend? Who trains us, and who holds the key to set us free? It’s you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!
I'm convinced that the "you" in this monologue is the audience. The fight we're being encouraged towards is one of equality, of feminism. The weapons are not the ones we've seen throughout the film. Babydoll's tragic accident involving a handgun at the beginning of the film is proof enough of that. Further, the weapons the girls use in the combat fantasies are also proven impotent. Some other weapon is required. Granted, Snyder may not have suggested the weapons to us, but at least we have the discussion on the table once more.
Ultimately, I don’t care if people like Suckerpunch or not. I just wish that critics and viewers alike were watching more carefully. But why should I be surprised people aren’t paying that close of attention? Movie soundtracks rarely reward the listener with another level of meaning: too often they are the descendants of the Godzilla soundtrack. The only connection between that soundtrack’s songs and the movie were samples of the big G’s roar. We haven’t seen a pop-soundtrack of Suckerpunchs caliber since The Crow. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a generation raised on soundtracks “inspired by” movies (but having nothing to do with them short of marketing strategy) aren’t listening very closely to the music in the background. Combining a close read of the film with the soundtrack and the Art of the Film book has made for a rewarding study. It's extended my viewing of the film beyond the screen, and taken me to a deeper place of contemplation and research than merely giving the movie a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Suckerpunch is a musical, or at the very least, the result of a filmmaker who grew up along with MTV, who was likely forming up plans for future movies while watching the storied videos of Kate Bush, David Bowie, or Michael Jackson. I’ve been told Sucker Punch is bad film, and maybe that’s true. But as a two hour concept video, or quasi musical, it kicks my ass. When the extended DVD comes out next week, I'll be getting mine, in the hope more of the musical is up on the screen.

NOTE: I can't recommend Sucker Punch: The Art of the Film enough. It opens up a whole new layer of understanding the film, from the dance numbers and architectural concept art shown here, to the intricate tattoo-style art on Babydoll's katana and gun. Really gorgeous book, well worth having.