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Wednesday, October 31, 2012


In defence of Twilight

In discussion on the last post, I found myself mentioning the Twilight books to illustrate one way of reading. It being Halloween, a story about vampires seems appropriate enough ... but on the other hand, while I've written about Twilight before, I find that I actually have more to say.

What I have to say is this: I think it's time people cut those books a break. Online mockery is a major fashion at the moment and Twilight is an easy target; they've become more or less synonymous with 'ghastly, indefensible books'. So, since it's Halloween, I'm going to do something that appears to be, according to current Net-culture, horrifying: I'm going to defend them.

Now, I should say at the outset that I don't actually like the Twilight series. I've read the first book and seen most of the movies, and they're not at all to my taste. But it's become so axiomatic in pop culture that these are books with no redeeming features at all - one is either with them or against them, and if against, you can be as mocking and mean as you like - that I think it's time to mount the opposite case. These are not polished books, nor progressive ones, but not everybody who likes them is just an idiot who can't read: there are some good points about them, and they are worth acknowledging.

So, what can you say in defence of the Twilight series? Actually, quite a lot.

1. It is a work of art that succeeds on its own terms

There are certain standards one can use to judge art that are, if not entirely objective or beyond discussion, at least broadly applicable; by most of these - style, plot structure, psychological insight - Twilight is not very good. Its characterisations are not subtle, nor are they entirely consistent - Jacob's personality fluctuates dramatically depending on plot needs, for instance. Its style is nothing to write home about. Its plot structures raise and build up threats and then dismiss them at a pace my mother-in-law would call 'dispatchful'. There are lots of things to criticise, in short. There is, however, a standard that's always worth considering: does this work achieve what it sets out to achieve? Is it what it's trying to be? Does it accomplish whatever seems to be its main priority? And on those terms, yes, Twilight absolutely succeeds.

Twilight, famously, was based on a dream, and its goals are pretty simple. It sets out to be a piece of escapist romantic fiction in which an Everygirl enjoys a dramatic and passionate romance with a man who embodies an idealised version of masculinity. Now, you may not share Meyer's ideas about what an ideal man is like: Edward embodies a style of masculinity that can most sympathetically be described as 'old-fashioned': he is authoritative, dominant, there to protect his woman's safety rather than to support her independence; what he offers Bella is salvation through marriage, elevation to a higher plane of wealth and status that she could not access without him. It's also a very Anglo-centric and white version of masculinity, in which his superiority to the more animalistic, brown-skinned male rival is a key issue in the plot: if this were a bodice-ripper of Olde England, Edward would be the titled gentleman who protects his maiden fair not just from the rapist peers who rival him in the Pump Room but from the wild, disreputable gypsy boys as well.

It is the masculine ideal of a society fraught with inequalities, and most of us would not, in fact, enjoy living in that culture. But Twilight is not interested in questioning the values of such a society; it is interested in indulging a fantasy of a relationship with a stylised man of that kind. That's what it sets out to do.

And on those terms, it works very well. Bella's passion for Edward, the narcotic flush of youthful first love, is clearly conveyed. Edward remains relentlessly consistent to the code of values the book elevates, and both characters are rewarded for their playing out of the roles those values dictate. The good, according to Twilight's values, end happily, according to Twilight's values, and Meyer can lay down her pen in the knowledge that she achieved what she meant to achieve.

2. It's an honest piece of id-work

I think this principle can be best expressed by an anecdote. A few weeks ago I was walking down the street with a friend of mine, a woman I met in antenatal class with a son just a couple of weeks older than mine. As we pushed the buggies home, tired after a lively morning with the boys in a soft play centre, I started fantasising aloud: a beautiful spa with a hot tub, handsome young men bringing me cocktails, trained squirrels carrying snacks on trays. The squirrels, she remarked idly, sounded unhygienic, so I declared that the trays were covered. Good, she said, so I wasn't worried about e. coli, then.

No, I replied: this is my fantasy and it does not have any e. coli in it.

At certain times - when you're tired, when you're sad - fantasy exists so that you can get what you want. Even if it's implausible or silly; even if you don't deserve it. You can go into your head and have whatever you want: this is fantasy and it does not have negative consequences. In fantasy, you can be what women with responsibilities are not allowed to be in real life: greedy, selfish, having it all.

Twilight does not read like a cynical book, attempting to manipulate the reader from a distance. It reads like a book in which Meyer sincerely fantasised about what she would most like to have if she were Bella and then went all out to give it to her. Bella gets the most beautiful boy in school despite having no exceptional qualities? This is my fantasy and it does not have any e. coli in it. Bella is lusted after by every boy she meets, loved by every girl, the nexus of drama followed by a shower of gifts? This is my fantasy and it does not have any e. coli in it. Bella surmounts all the established drawbacks of vampirism - getting immediate self-control, a beautiful daughter she doesn't struggle to raise and a body that looks better after childbirth than before it? This is my fantasy and it does not have any e. coli in it.

And more than that, Meyer writes to fulfil these wants with a focused intensity, an utter seriousness, a cheek empty of tongue. It's an easy story to mock because it's so humourless, but its humourlessness is part of its charm: this is a story of lusts, and lusts are not to be taken lightly. Her story is never casual about desire. You can curl up with the book and a bowl of popcorn, but it's not popcorn that the story feeds itself: it's red meat, gnawed from the bone. There is shameless hunger in this book; every impolite desire for sex and status, it sates.

Why do Twilight fans respond to it with such devotion? The answer, I suspect, is that it taps into desires through a direct line. Naively rendered in many ways it may be, but Meyer has a genuine knack for getting straight to the marrow of a wish, for writing desires - not just for sex or for love, but for standing, for power over others' attention, that secret giant of the wish-fulfilment triptych - that should not be underestimated. There is a place in art for raw id, and Meyer is good at id.

3. It has a cross-experience appeal

Originally, I'd written that it had a 'cross-generational' appeal, and so it demonstrably does. But in fact, its sexual catnip - Edward, passionate but controlled - actually appeals to different experiences of sexuality regardless of age. Different girls and women are in different sexual places, and the 'abstinence porn' aspect of Twilight spans the gaps very cleverly.

The appeal for a teenage girl is fairly clear. Teenage girls walk a fine and confusing line: their own desires are often strong, but seldom treated with much respect; the desires of men and boys for them can be a real threat. Edward, desirous but restrained, offers the perfect fantasy for girls both sexually frustrated, who can identify with Bella's desire and vicariously enjoy the promise that it will, some day, be satisfied, and girls sexually menaced, hoping for the chance of a man who does want them but isn't a pushy jerk about it. Edward is as dynamic as the most rapacious beast and as safe as a eunuch. In other words, a girl can be a virgin or sexually active and still, unless she's active with an exceptionally satisfying lover, and still find something in Edward's sexual paradox to love.

What's the appeal of 'abstinence porn' for older women, the so-called 'Twilight Moms'? I think the question is best answered by changing the word 'abstinence' to 'anticipation'. A happily married woman can generally have sex when she wants to - or if not exactly when she wants to, adults tending to have busy days, then within a reasonable waiting period after the first twinkle in her eye. But happily married women with children have very, very busy days. They can have sex if the children are asleep or safely babysat, but spontaneous, rip-each-others'-clothes-off sex is probably off the cards, at least most of the time. Sex becomes a matter of scheduling. Between the twinkle in her eye and the opportunity to get some husbandly booty falls the Packed Lunch and the Changed Nappy and the Play Date and the Trip To The Park, and while mothers obviously love their children, healthy mothers do not find childcare sexually exciting. Especially with young children, the kind of sex a Mom can have is more likely to be either a quiet quickie or a long-planned event with a lot of unsexy practical stuff preceding it. What Moms lack is time, the time to luxuriate in one's own sexual feelings. Bella can afford to obsess about Edward for long stretches, can afford to build up her desire and enjoy the anguishing, delicious mental foreplay. Ain't nothing weak about that sauce. 

In its formula of intense desire and assured safety, long-delayed but certain gratification, Twilight puts its finger on one mother of a sweet spot. You have to give it credit for that. 

4. The basic idea isn't at all bad

Think of the story in skeleton form. Quiet young girl moves to a new town, falls in love with a mysterious boy who turns out to be a vampire, is drawn into both his world and the world of her best male friend, who turns out to be a werewolf. Big conflicts between the two sides ensue, endangering her. Everybody pays a lot of attention to her and there's strapping talent yearning after her wherever she looks. Grand passion overwhelms her. Sex is endlessly, tantalisingly present. It's a guilty pleasure kind of tale, but you know what? I'm just going to say it: if I found Bella and Edward likeable as characters, I'd enjoy that story. It sounds like a lot of fun.

I don't find Edward or Bella likeable, as it happens. But what is dislikable about them to me comes from a place that is, at least, recognisable. Meyer has overstretched a common writerly device, and one which seldom works very well in the first place: she's written negatively about almost everything but Bella and Edward in order to cast them in a positive light. To make them charming, she's written almost everyone and everything else as irritating, and that is not an effective device, especially when a story is written from a particular character's viewpoint: rather than making them look beautiful against an ugly background, it starts to look like they have an ugly attitude. Likewise, Edward is a pretty classic masterful hero, but it's overdone to the point where he comes across as mean and controlling; again, it's an excess that many pulp writers slip into.

These are faults that lie in the overuse of devices that might, used in stricter moderation, serve the story perfectly well ... but there is nothing moderate about Twilight. Everything is done to excess; that's its whole aesthetic. And for many readers, it seems, one can actually ignore the excesses, adjust them to suit one's own imagination. I've said elsewhere that Twilight isn't a book you're supposed to read. It's a book you're supposed to fantasise about, re-imagine, occupy, dimming this light and brightening that to suit yourself; Bella and Edward's excesses can be, for many readers, moderated according to their own wishes, leaving them with nothing but the basic idea and the passion - and the basic idea is, for a certain kind of wish-fulfilment, pretty enjoyable.

5. It is not genre partisan

Genre loyalists have taken offence at Meyer for her decision not to read vampire books while writing Twilight, and more broadly, for writing, in effect, sci-fi-fantasy books for people who don't much like sci-fi-fantasy. Personally, I think this is a good thing.

The idea that one keeps one's writing original by not reading anything at all is a foolish one: we can learn a great deal from seeing what others have done. But the idea that one must study up on a genre if one is going to write in it is equally foolish: it depends entirely on what you're attempting to do. If your aim is to play cleverly with established conventions in a genre, then you'd better be sure you're up to date with them. If your aim is to write a simple story based on your own conception of something, you really don't need to fill your head with everybody else's conceptions, and you could indeed distract yourself from the original simplicity of your idea. It varies. I read up on werewolves a lot for my first book; I read nothing on mermaids for my second, just watched a lot of nature documentaries. Telling a story in which the main issue is a heady romance and in which vampirism is mostly a device to make the romance all the headier, and consequently can be repurposed according to whatever will serve that turn - keep the supernatural strength, ditch the bad breath, add some glitter and magical extras - is a perfectly legitimate decision.

The result? The books say nothing either for or against any particular genre. They're just doing their own thing. For some people they may act as a gateway drug, but a gateway drug to what? That depends on their own tastes. Perhaps more vampire fiction; perhaps more explicitly sadomasochistic fiction; perhaps the classics that Twilight references. It's up to the reader. Twilight is just itself, and if it makes you want more of something, it allows you a nice wide range of options as to what that 'something' can be.

6. It is unpretentious

Twilight doesn't attempt to be more than it is. This is a defence I particularly want to raise because of a comment on writing New Moon Meyer has been exhaustively mocked for:

What if true love left you? Not some ordinary high school romance, not some random jock boyfriend, not anyone at all replaceable. True love. The real deal. Your other half, your true soul's match. What happens if he leaves?
The answer is different for everyone. Juliet had her version, Marianne Dashwood had hers, Isolde and Catherine Earnshaw and Scarlett O'Hara and Anne Shirley all had their ways of coping.
I had to answer the question for Bella. What does Bella Swan do when true love leaves her? Not just true love, but Edward Cullen! None of those other heroines lost an Edward (Romeo was a hothead, Willoughby was a scoundrel, Tristan had loyalty issues, Heathcliff was pure evil, Rhett had a mean streak and cheated with hookers, and sweet Gilbert was much more of a Jacob than an Edward). So what happens when True Love in the form of Edward Cullen leaves Bella?

It sounds hubristic to call your own romance superior to those classics, but read it again: Meyer isn't actually saying that her book is superior. She's just saying that she considers her hero more romantic, which is to say more of a fantasy ideal. And, if you accept the terms on which she defines romance - which many people don't, but as they seem to be sincerely held, just try it for the sake of argument - she's not actually wrong in her list of faulty lovers. Her descriptions of the 'other heroines' loves are, in terms of assessing their non-ideal traits, perfectly correct. Romeo kills Juliet's cousin and gets himself exiled; Willoughby is indeed a scoundrel; Tristan marries another woman; calling Heathcliff 'pure evil' is simplistic but does acknowledge that he's not supposed to be romantic; Rhett Butler is an unfaithful husband and there's certainly a case to be made for the 'mean streak'; if sweetness doesn't do it for you, then it doesn't do it for you. These are actions and traits that make the stories more interesting - including, to many people including me, more interesting than Meyer's - but while it's not the way I read books to look to them for idealised fantasies of true love, based on Meyer's comment it seems plausible to assume that she does. You may question whether this is a good way to read books, and you can certainly question her definition of what 'true love' should look like ... but it is hard to deny that, if she does read that way, she seems to do so for her own gratification, not to impress anybody else. 'I write my stories because of my characters; they are the motivation and the reward,' she claims. She does it that way because it pleases her to do so, no other reason.

Which is, in its own way, integrity. She is a pleasure reader and a pleasure writer, and her engagement with literature serves that simple turn. Yes, Meyer refers to the Brontes and Austen within her books themselves, but in a way that suggests they're read by her as simple romances. It's not an interpretation you'd get many ticks on your essay for, but it's not a reading she's alone in - need I once again mention the 'I [heart] Mr Darcy' tote bags sold in Bath's Jane Austen museum? - and nor does it read like an attempt to sound intellectual. An attempt to make Bella sound meaningful, perhaps, by implicitly linking her fictional romance to historically notable others; to make her sound in-the-world-but-not-of-it by having her read more than her contemporaries while, cleverly, citing only stories that readers will reliably have heard of, with the neat result that Bella can sound deep without seeming intimidating. It's a simple trick, but it's a trick that works, and works with the smoothness of a fantasy glossing over the difficult bits: there is no sense of putting one over on the readership here. Twilight is a work of feeling, not thought, and it doesn't try to get away with anything it can't, on an intellectual level, handle.

7. In tackling sex, it also tackles childbearing

It's not unknown for pulp romances to go the baby-makes-three route, nor for them to sentimentalise the business of childrearing. It is unusual, though, for them to express quite so passionately, to employ quite such graphic metaphors to acknowledge, that pregnancy and birth can be fucking awful. And in a culture where floating through pregnancy with a divine inner glow and bearing your child with essential oils in your burner and a serene smile on your face is a secret but serious test of a woman's value - you don't find this out until you've run afoul of it, but women are judged on their birth experiences more brutally than men are judged on their potency - a female voice honestly speaking out to say that however much one loves and desires a child, bearing it can be nightmarish ... is not a bad thing. Frankly, I'd call it a long overdue thing.

Bella's experience of pregnancy and childbearing reads, I think, as off-putting to many young women who haven't had children. Speaking as a mother, though, I can see the appeal. Bella suffers extravagantly through the pregnancy and birth: where's the fantasy? Answer: the fantasy is in having it seen and recognised that pregnancy and birth involve suffering. Much of the appeal of an emotionally satisfying drama is in feeling your own emotions validated by seeing a character placed in a situation where things really are so undeniably bad that nobody would tell them to get over it. Nobody's going to tell Bella that it'll 'all be worth it once the baby's born' or that it's 'supposed to hurt'. Nobody's going to dismiss her pain as 'natural'. Bella can afford to dwell on wanting her baby because she's surrounded by people who take the danger to her seriously. This is not the experience for many, many women.

And then after the birth, everything gets magically better. Increased beauty instead of stretch marks and bags under the eyes; increased strength and health rather than weight gain and fatigue; a large supportive family network that does the childcare for her until she's fully recovered rather than days alone with a torn perineum or a Caesarean scar and no idea how to deal with this new baby; a child that grows instantly past the broken-nights-nappies-and-tantrums years to the age of communication and cuteness. Unrealistic? Of course. But while women get a lot of fantasies of trouble-free romance, fantasies of trouble-free motherhood are taboo, more often whispered to each other than committed to print. In reality, I wouldn't choose for my son to magically grow up while I slept - the rewards of watching a child develop outbalance the effort - but if there is a fantasy of motherhood, motherhood without the heavy hauling is what it will be, and I'd certainly like it to be true that giving birth makes you prettier and stronger.

And mothers should get their share of selfish fantasies too: for all its Marianismo, Twilight also has the guts to admit that if one has to be a Madonna, it'd be nice if it were easy.

8. It's original work

Not 'original' in the sense of 'strikingly unlike anything previous', but 'original' in the sense of 'not a knock-off.' Not derivative, except in the sense that all fiction is influenced by other fiction. And there's something to be said for that.

It's been remarked in various places that Twilight reads like fan fiction of a book that doesn't actually exist. It certainly has the note of fantasy-fulfillment privacy that you'd expect in an amateur work written purely for gratification, but personally I think it's more accurate to say that Twilight could be considered fan fiction of an entirely body of work - the Brontes, Austen, the tradition of pulp romances that followed them and a lot of vampiric twentieth-century pop culture. Which is to say that in sinking into the warm bath of fantasy, Stephenie Meyer also took the trouble to reach into her own imagination and come up with all her own characters, her own plot, her own setting and her own imagined rules. (Even the sparkling skin, which must long ago have passed some kind of mockery event horizon, is an original touch, and in itself not necessarily a bad one. Imagine a character like that turning up in a Susanna Clarke novel: it has an eerie oddness that wouldn't look out of place.) She turned to her own dreams. She looked up a real town to fit with her conditions. She looked into the traditions of a Native American tribe - in an appropriative and tactless way, and the Quileute people are apparently far from getting their fair share of the tourist wealth Forks, Washington currently enjoys; one thing I find very hard to defend about Twilight is its racial politics - but while she didn't think about it with much cultural sensitivity, she did think about it.

Elliptical and hazy the story may be, but she did, if nothing else, actually do what original writers do, which is bundle together one's influences and let them mulch until something new grows out of them. Stephenie Meyer wanted to dream, and she made her own way.

There are a lot of criticisms you can make about Twilight. There are doubtless a lot of criticisms I could make here, but you know, I really don't feel like making them. I don't share its politics and I consider it a rough-hewn piece of work, but at the end of the day, it just is what it is ... and for what it is, it's an effective version of that. The word I keep coming back to is 'sincere': it's a work of genuinely-held fantasy that has its own internal integrity. If it's not a fantasy that appeals to you, there isn't much else in the books to attract you. But that's part of the design: it's not meant to be anything but a fantasy to be shared by like-minded people; if you're not one of them, it's not talking to you.

And it doesn't much speak to me. But it has its own voice, and for what it is, it has some qualities that deserve their due.

Monday, October 29, 2012


Human movie monsters

I've been quiet for a few weeks; there's been a family tragedy that's taken up a lot of my time and will probably take up more in future. Just so you know. I'm okay, but very sad.

However, Halloween is coming and it always seems to me a cheerful festival, a chance for pretty orange lights and safe campfire scares. So, with this in mind, here's a Halloween subject:

What are the scariest or most monstrous performances in movies? Not goblins and vampires, but just human beings?

When I started compiling a list, I noticed that biopics were quite a feature; I like biopics. And the monsters they give us, based on real people, are often more subtle: you can play a fictional monster as an archetype, but to play a real one, you must find the place in which they justify themselves to themselves. To me, this is every bit as frightening, with its own fascination. So, while I was originally planning a top five, I think instead I'm going to give two sets of three, one for performed biographies and one for fictional creations. This isn't a complete list, nor even necessarily a set of top anything. There are many fine performances, and ranking them seems a little silly. So, here's my not-really-top-half-dozen human movie monsters.

Biopic monsters

Forest Whittaker as Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland

By all accounts Whittaker himself is a lovely bloke and found the job of portraying Amin highly stressful. It must, too, be a difficult role for an African American actor to accept without some political concerns; Amin's malice and madness made him so uncomfortably close to the gruesome ogre of racist imagination that it's hard to imagine a black man of conscience wouldn't read the script with worried attention before deciding to take on the part. (Though to the film's credit, it's careful to emphasise that African people are Amin's main victims, that the white 'hero' is, in fact, an irresponsible tosser who initially trusts Amin partly because he doesn't take African humanity as seriously as he should, and that the Ugandan doctor Nicholas supplants in Amin's employ is fifty times the man he is.) It's a daunting role, to say the least.

And we must all be glad that Whittaker made the decision to take on that role, because my goodness, the man delivers. Dominating the screen with his hearty, expansive force, a merry bully whose party you interrupt at risk of your life, Whittaker's Amin is horrifically distractible - a man who may destroy you in a moment of sudden rage or, if you can gather your courage to charm him, change his mind in an instant and lavish gifts on you - usually gifts taken from somebody else. 'You're a child,' Nicholas chokes out, facing his fate: 'that's what makes you so fucking scary.' And so he is, with the ego and the patience of a toddler ... but terrifyingly, he's not stupid. Far from it: he may look simple, but he's sharp, observant, a man who sees your lusts in an instant and feeds them as long as it serves him - then sees your fear of him when you know who he is, and turns on you with paranoid brutality. What might seem like simple-mindedness is just pure, naked shamelessness. He throws tantrums, demands the impossible, blames and lashes out, concerned with nothing but his own comfort to the exclusion of justice, reason and humanity. 'You should have told me not to throw the Asians out in the first place!' he shouts to Nicholas, facing the collapse of his economy, and when Nicholas points out that he did, cries, 'But you did not persuade me, Nicholas! You did not persuade me!' It's not that he can't see reality: he just doesn't want to, and with all his power, he doesn't have to. When you can torture a man to death on a whim, your common sense is under your own control ... and what a nightmare Whittaker makes of it. Amin is a man you can only wish will never know you exist, because once he has seen you, you will never again be safe: he will pick you up like a child picks up a toy, to dandle, chew upon and smash as the impulse takes him.

It's a performance of consummate artistry, entirely deserving of the Oscar it received, and one of the most frightening characters ever committed to film.

Andy Serkis as Ian Brady, Longford

Longford is perhaps my most obscure choice, a made-for-television film from 2006, one of the less famous scripts of the great Peter Morgan. (Miss nothing written by Peter Morgan.) Starring Jim Broadbent as the Labour Party peer Lord Longford, a devout Christian who took seriously his faith's command to compassionate those in prison and who, in the course of his campaigns, found himself appealed to by the Moors murderer Myra Hindley.

For those non-Brits unfamiliar with the case, the Moors murders are one of the worst cases in British history: Ian Brady and his girlfriend Hindley kidnapped, tortured, raped and killed five children aged between ten and seventeen, supposedly influenced by Brady's Nietzschean belief that the superman is above the law. Public outrage was naturally high, and Hindley was classed 'the most hated woman in Britain'. Helped by Longford, Hindley claimed to have reformed and found God and campaigned for her own release, generating further outrage and bringing considerable opprobrium on Longford himself - especially when it emerged that she had, in fact, deliberately been withholding information about the sites of two of the victims' graves all along, which pretty thoroughly undermines her claims to reform. The outrage was potent (and I, for one, consider it right that she died in prison) - but was raised with a vigour not unmixed with sexism. I remember a tabloid at the time lambasting her killing of children because she was 'a woman and a potential mother'; Brady being a man and a potential father did not draw the same ire.

It's interesting to contrast Serkis's performance as the murdererous Brady with another Brady performance: Sean Harris in another made-for-TV drama, See No Evil. The latter is told from the perspective of Hindley's sister and brother-in-law - the latter of whom was invited to join the couple's murderous activities and instead, courageously, went straight to the police, only to find himself a suspect. Harris's performance is also excellent (the whole drama is good, and Maxine Peake's performance as Hindley is better even than Samantha Morton's excellent Hindley in Longford), but he comes at the role in from an entirely different direction, playing Brady as he must have seemed from the outside. Harris's Brady is an egocentric geek, domineering and a bit pretentious, a pushy autodidact fond of unasked lectures and philosophical questions, the eccentric brother-in-law you tolerate because we all have our little ways and he seems to make Myra happy.

Serkis, though, takes the opposite line, playing Brady as Brady saw himself or perhaps as he appeared to Hindley: an unstoppable psychological force that bears down everything in its path. Meeting Serkis's Brady is like meeting the devil, like meeting depression made flesh. Serkis, always a physical actor - he played Brady between playing Gollum and King Kong, remarking that it was the middle point in a series of monsters - gives Brady a dark and massive presence that fills the room with raw, intelligent spite. His Brady is a man who sees inside you and and hates everything he sees, who talks to hurt you and has nothing but contempt for any illusions of goodness or worth you might ever have cherished. It takes some doing to overbear Jim Broadbent, but Serkis does it: we see him only three times, each time more damaged in body as his hunger strike takes a toll, but with a focused malevolence that leaves his own pain aside and goes straight for the soul.

Harris's performance is probably more accurate in terms of the real Brady, but Serkis's is a sight you never forget.

Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich, Conspiracy

If you've ever been to a conference, you will feel you know this man. You'll have met everybody at Wannsee: the low-ranking enthusiast scuttling around shaking everybody's hand, the established aristocrats talking quietly to each other in corners and looking askance at those around them, the high-maintenance people who need directions, food, attention, the hard-working subordinate whispering sharp commands to keep appearances up to scratch ... and the star presenter who comes in all charisma and jargon, ready to sell you his vision for a dynamic future.

And so Heydrich is, in Branagh's presentation: handsome, confident, his own self the most polished of products. He has a word for everyone, and he controls the meeting with slick authority, brushing off distractions and speaking over contributions, utterly in charge, holding to himself and unpacking at his own pace the great secret nobody else knows: that he has the mandate to kill every Jew in Europe, and that everyone else's agreement to this plan is a mere formality. There's a frightening sadism, not even towards Jews - not onscreen, anyway - but in the pure satisfaction he takes in unfolding his plan almost as an aesthetic pleasure, relishing his right to overrule anyone who interrupts its pleasing tidiness. Branagh begins as charming, becomes maddening as he lets nobody else have a single moment of self-assertion on even the most trivial subject, and finally, terrifying. His word for everybody becomes ruthless, no longer about management but the necessary application of force, persuading this person with some soft words about a better future after the war, that one with a reminder of his mandate from the Fuhrer, and this one with a quiet, smiling death threat: 'Oh, you will answer now, or you will answer ... later.' All with the same unchanging suavity with which he entered the meeting.

It's an ordinary conference, albeit a well-run one, food and surroundings luxuriously just so. And in the course of it, Branagh's Heydrich condemns a race to death through death threats for his colleagues, and walks out of the meeting calm, cheerful, and pleased with a neat afternoon's work.

Fictional monsters

Fredric March as Mr Hyde (and also Dr Jekyll), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931, directed by Rouben Mamoulian)

If you want to see a film of the old story, forget all the modern remakes, reinterpretations and rehashes: Mamoulian's is the one. Stagey? Undoubtedly. Stylised? Intensely. Unconvincing? Not for a moment. March's Hyde is the most compelling portrait of domestic abuse, of sheer cruelty, I've ever seen.

Making beautiful use of Expressionist iconography - lush staging, deep lights and darks, visual metaphors - the film adapts Stevenson's short story and adds a new plot of its own. Dr Jekyll, scientist, philanthropist, beloved by his patients and suspected by his colleagues, is a man of immense drive - for science, for knowledge, for charity, and for love and sex. Condemned to a long engagement by the father of the woman he passionately loves, his patience snaps and he begins taking for release what he had first taken for science, the drug that unleashes his hidden desires. These desires find a tragic focus in Ivy, a free-and-easy young woman whom Jekyll previously helped after a street scuffle and who, attracted by this graceful, handsome gentleman, made a pass at him that Jekyll could not accept, but evidently couldn't forget either. Unleashed, Hyde goes to find her, and Ivy's fate is sealed.

The physical performance plays skilfully against the make-up, rendering Hyde a fidgety, hunched, simian presence. His restlessness is not nervous but greedy, following every impulse to move, to enjoy, to grasp. Brutality is uncontained - Jekyll's fine walking stick quickly strikes out against any underling who displeases Hyde - but March retains the confidence and intelligence of Jekyll, playing Hyde as a man of animalistic lusts but highly human wits. Most horribly, the script allows points of convergence between the two: both Jekyll and Hyde will, when excited, speechify and call for a response ... but where Jekyll rejoices at his shortened engagement and incites his butler to say how happy for Jekyll he is - a response the affectionate butler is happy to give - Hyde torments Ivy with threatening promises of their evening together and demands she say how happy the prospect of unnamed violence makes her, adding emotional torture to physical.

In both Jekyll and Hyde, March creates passion, intelligence and a masterful disposition; in Hyde, he blends the id with the intellect in a truly horrific alchemy.

Sydney Blackmer as Roman Castevet, Rosemary's Baby

When we first enter the film, it's Ruth Gordon's Minnie Castevet who seems like the nightmare neighbour, pushy, loud, nosy and invasive, apparently long settled into bossing around her quieter husband. Soft-spoken, fond of repeating his old stories and favourite phrases - 'You name a place, I've been there,' 'We shall see, we shall see' - Roman seems mild and ineffective. His tacky wardrobe and flyaway hair, his singsong voice and slight, befuddled feyness: all add up to an old coot who might be a little peculiar, but seems absolutely unthreatening.

Except when you see him in his circle. The sing-song speeches become smooth fanaticism; the quiet voice is a voice that doesn't have to be raised to be heard; the delicacy of manner becomes utter, aristocratic self-esteem. Roman is quiet and off-kilter not because he's confused, but because we are: because he knows something we don't. Those odd repeated phrases are not rambling but preacherly; his apparent submission to his wife is in reality the relaxed authority of a man who knows himself to be the John the Baptist of his faith and can let his followers flap around as much as they like without disturbing his secure, inborn status. And in that status is the pitiless calm of the prophet: as he confronts Rosemary, the young woman who trusted him while he arranged for her to be raped, impregnated, monitored and then robbed of her baby, a woman he has violated in every possible way, his assurance doesn't waver. He just orders aside his loyalists and plays upon poor shattered Rosemary with poised, impervious belief.

Blackmer's performance is a monster that depends entirely on context, on knowing, finally, what the secret is. But when we know that secret ... that's when the twinkle becomes, truly, diabolical. 

(I'd also put in a word for John Cassavetes's performance as Guy Woodhouse here, Roman's accomplice, callow and callous, who sells his wife to advance his career: his restless irritability and selfish dependence on the goodness of others even before the Satanists start their pitch makes for a fine plausibility in the role. Rosemary is duped by, in effect, a corporate monster, an unholy combination of personalities. Again, it's a movie of contexts, and an exceptional one.) 

Sergi Lopez as Vidal, Pan's Labyrinth

A man so evil that the supernatural monsters of the film seem as much symbolic embodiments of his wicked traits as independent creatures. Fascist captain as the Spanish Civil War plays out its doomed resistance to Franco, Vidal is another man no one can be safe around: a man who will beat a harmless person to death simply for taking up his time being a suspect, who tortures people with amused pleasure - a man who does not allow good people to live. Neutrality cannot exist around Vidal, and neither can mercy: either one accepts servitude to his grand narrative of power and glory - himself as the loyal son to a heroic father and heroic father of his innocent unborn son, for whose birth he's quite willing to sacrifice his wife - or he will press you into collaboration and kill you if you disobey.

Pan's Labyrinth is, in its naturalistic scenes, a violent film, bloodily, wincingly so. Vidal is the nexus of this violence, seeming to regard it as the inevitable fate of those who make the mistake of being inferior to him: he has the pure sadism of a man for whom power is a virtue and the inability to protect oneself from it is reason enough to deserve your pain. Torture is his true home; he recites the same speech while laying out the horribly ordinary tools of his trade with each new victim as if enjoying the chance to reaffirm his own relished identity.

There is much to admire in the fantastical elements of Pan's Labyrinth, including the fine physical performance of Doug Jones as the monstrous creatures. But it's Lopez who grounds the film, who enacts evil in human action ... and in so doing, gives the monsters their real bite.

So, those are some favourite human movie monsters. What are yours?

Friday, October 05, 2012


Brian Cox talking Scotch

Want to know how to pronounce all those different Scotches? Brian Cox knows.

This is not a very literary post and contains no clever insights, but - because of Cox's graceful presence, and perhaps because whisky was always my dad's favourite when I was growing up - I find the whole thing thoroughly soothing. Go enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012


The damsel rears her pretty head again?

Have you noticed a certain trend in children's movies of the last few years?

The damsel in distress is a very old archetype, and it caters to a not-ignoble fantasy. The desire to impress a girl by doing something nice for her is the foundation of many a happy marriage, and if a dragon is trying to eat you, you would have to concede that being rescued is a nice gesture. Not necessarily reason enough to marry a guy, but still, you'd rather he did it than not. Yes, it's simplistic and tends towards the idea that women are passive and helpless prizes to be collected rather than dynamic human beings, and it can be an excuse to write a story in which women are as absent as possible without admitting their absence, but the biggest problem with the damsel in distress is not the idea itself, but the absence of other roles for women in children's fiction. In a culture where there's an ample sufficiency of other roles for women, the odd girl chained to a rock isn't going to do anyone any harm.

Of late, though, I've seen some children's movies that raise my eyebrows a little bit. Not all the way to my hairline, but, well...

Andromeda, Clash of the Titans. 
Actually a vast number of
events take place in that movie -
it has about three films' worth of
plot - but this is the climactic scene.
Getting the girl off the rock
fixes everything.
Here's the thing. A girl chained to a rock is obviously a damsel in distress, and if the hero wants her, he needs to go sort her out. It's clear and straightforward, and in a story for children that involves romance, it's also convenient. How do you get a girl to love you? Well, that's complicated, and if you're going to give a full answer then you're going to have to talk about sex at some point, and while I'm all for having The Talk as early as possible, not all parents are on side with that. Getting a girl by impressing her with your skills is simpler and cleaner - and it has an added, extremely attractive benefit: it provides in one stroke not only the romance, but also the structure of the story. Girl is on rock, get to rock, remove girl from rock: there's your beginning, middle and end right there. Generally speaking the story will require other elements as well, but for a basic coming-of-age story for boys, proving your manhood by getting a woman through some impressive feat is very much still with us.

Nowadays, though, it's generally accepted that this kind of thing isn't an adequate representation of women. Women, most people agree (at least in public), are just a competent as men, just as interested in pursuing their own lives. Women can do stuff; women have opinions. They may even do stuff well, and have opinions that do not match your own.

Enter Astrid.

There are other examples of this character - Colette from Ratatouille comes to mind as well - but Astrid, heroine of How To Train Your Dragon, is such a precise example that I'll stick to her for the sake of clarity.

The characters of How To Train Your Dragon live on an island regularly ravaged by dragons; its Viking inhabitants train, boys and girls, to take on this threat. Our hero is the gangly Hiccup, son of the burly chieftain and a deceased mother, who proves hopelessly bad at dragon-fighting. As time progresses, he finds himself caring for, befriending, and ultimately allying with, an injured dragon, learning the truth: dragons are actually friendly creatures, only ravaging the island because they're forced to by a bigger dragon, and it's that insight that eventually saves his culture and makes everything better.

It's a likeable story, and the animation of the cat-like dragons is truly delightful, and the script clearly means to show girls as strong and capable. Hiccup's main rival in dragon class - or rather, the top student while he struggles at the bottom - is Astrid, beautiful, tough, committed, and thoroughly impatient with his incompetence. Desperately in love with her beauty, Hiccup finally shows her his friend Toothless the dragon, which impresses her enough to make her his ally and loyal supporter.

Now, the details vary, but I feel like I've seen a lot of this story recently. And it's discomfiting. Here are the elements:

1. Rather than being helpless and passive, dependent on the hero's superior strength, the girl has superior competence in whatever skill set the story centres around. Her attitude towards him is not swooning gratitude or modest attraction, but bossy impatience: he's a goof and she says so. In effect, she embodies the disregard of the whole of society that our hero has to overcome.

... Which troubles me because embodying the disdain of society is really no more rounded than being a prize for physical courage. The idea seems to be that if a woman is curt with the hero, it's because she hasn't recognised his true worth, not because she simply doesn't like him; this may happen sometimes in our multitudinous world, but it's not one I want to see as a model for romantic relationships. If a human being has a full personality, that has to allow for the possibility of a personality clash. In these movies, though, lack of admiration for a man gets exaggerated into bossiness, lack of interest in him reduced to ignorance, and as the woman is seldom interested in anything other than the field in which the man will shortly prove his worth, that leaves very little real character.

2. Rather than slaying the dragon, the hero must, metaphorically speaking, slay her disrespect for him. Often his attraction to her is based on externals - her beauty, her competence in a field he values - rather than her personality as such, so overriding it loses him nothing. By proving himself to her, he gains ... not the respect of the whole of society, because her approval doesn't carry any significant weight in the larger story; generally he gains a helpmeet who will support him in the real quest, which almost always involves gaining the respect of other men.

... Which troubles me not just for the obvious reason of women being relegated to helpmeets, but because it turns a woman from a damsel who must be protected from an enemy into, structurally speaking, an enemy herself. Her dislike of the hero is something to be defeated - generally in a dramatic scene in which she is confronted with such a startling experience that her eyes are opened and she is forced to concede that she has been wrong all along. Now this is an uncomfortable fantasy from a female point of view: it's a fantasy in which the hero basically wins over the heroine by dominating her. Yes, by the terms of the story, dominating her by showing her something really cool - but really cool on his terms, in a way that erases all her former thoughts.

In real life, usually the thing standing between a young man and the unreachable woman he desires usually is that she isn't interested in him. Turning that lack of interest into a dragon to be slain is not really an advance for feminism; frankly I'd rather be rescued from a dragon than have my freedom of opinion characterised as a dragon and then defeated.

If you're an intelligent woman, you'll probably be familiar with this experience: you attend a party, some man gets into conversation with you, takes a fancy to you and notes that you're intelligent ... so he decides to impress you. And the way he plans to impress you is by showcasing his argumentative skills. (Of course, there are also men who just disagree with you or don't like you, but trust me, the other kind is around too.) He drags you into a debate that he won't let you leave, no matter how tired or exasperated you become, resolutely holding your attention in the hopes that now he's fanned his intellectual tail, you'll be struck with him. Wendy Cope's 'Men and Their Boring Arguments' sums it up:

Some men like to argue with women -
Don’t give them a chance to begin.
You won’t be allowed to change the subject
Until you have given in. 
A man with the bit between his teeth
Will keep you up half the night
And the only way to get some sleep
Is to say, ‘I expect you’re right.’

The men who do this seem to be trying, genuinely, to impress and court you, but the plain fact is that they think the best way of courting you is trying to defeat you. Possibly they do accept, in the normal run of things, that you are in fact allowed to disagree with them, but so determined are they to keep you talking to them until you become impressed that the message they actually send is, 'I like you so much I'm going to hassle you non-stop by picking a fight with everything you say.' It's pigtail-yanking at its most disguised, and it is not, in fact, attractive; it spoils the party because the guy won't have a pleasant conversation with you and won't allow you to have a pleasant conversation with anybody else.

Men want to attract women, and often they want to do this by impressing women. Nothing wrong with that if what the guy does is actually impressive. But there's a cultural creep towards 'impressing' women while taking the chivalry - the desire to do something the woman will genuinely benefit from - out of the picture. The slaying remains, but the only thing you're being rescued from is your lack of interest in the goof that wants you.

I'm all in favour of seeing better-written fictional women, especially in films for children; I have a son and I'd like him to have good stuff to watch rather than sexist nonsense. But I've become extremely cynical about the idea of the 'strong female character', because so often, her 'strength' is little more than another obstacle to overcome - and if that's all it is, frankly I'd rather get back up on the rock and wait for the guy to do something that a girl would actually appreciate.


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