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Saturday, October 27, 2007


Another phrase for the Lexicon

... full credit to my friend Joel Jessup on this on; he suggested it in a comments thread a couple of days ago, and I like it so much I think it deserves its own post:

The Disbelief Turnstile

The point in the story where a character has to believe something is actually happening and isn't a dream / a con/ a symptom of madness.

It's an interesting one, that. I think one of the things I enjoyed about writing Bareback was that the set-up (which came out of a conversation with Joel, in fact) presented no Disbelief Turnstile for the character to pass through. She already knows there are werewolves. I watched a lot of werewolf movies while I was writing it, and came more and more to the conclusion that the world didn't need another story where we struggle for ages with 'But ... but werewolves aren't real, are they?'.

The thing about handling a familiar fantastical trope is that the readers themselves will have passed through that turnstile long before you put pen to paper. Other writers have opened the gates for them. The characters may be asking themselves whether this is possible, but the audience knows full well what the answer will be: yes, it's possible, now let's get on with the story. The result is that the audience will be, unless you tell the story with unusual charm, bored. It's never good for the audience to be way ahead of the characters. A little ahead for suspense purposes, perhaps, but way ahead is just marking time.

There are good stories that spend a lot of time pushing the character through the Disbelief Turnstile - An American Werewolf In London comes to mind - but Landis introduces enough new elements (humour and good special effects in particular) that it feels fresh. Landis also does something interesting: almost the whole story is spent dithering at the Turnstile. We stay there so long, in fact, that it no longer becomes an obstacle to pass through, but the point of the story: getting through it is much harder than your conventional tale would have audiences believe, and the entire plot is sustained by doubt and denial. He uses the Turnstile, but he does it properly.

On the other hand, sometimes the Turnstile gets ignored so thoroughly that the genre can wander a long way away from its roots. My boyfriend always recalls browsing in a bookshop, Murder One, I think, and coming upon an entire set of shelves labelled 'Vampire Romance'. Not just a couple of shelves, an entire bookcase. That trope had become so familiar that writers had passed through the turnstile, got on the train, and ridden all the way out to Party Town without a backward glance. To my mind, it's possible to go too far in that direction; vampire romance/erotica isn't something I'm very familiar with (having seen Interview With the Vampire, I'm assuming that 'romance' may be a euphemism here), but if the story you're telling is a romance, does it really have to have vampires? And if there are vampires, is romance the most interesting thing they can do? It's not good to labour the characters' disbelief in fantastical things, but having magical things treated as so familiar that they lose all sense of magic fails to take advantage of the whole point and potential of imaginative writing.

The Disbelief Turnstile, I'd say, functions differently in different genres. Take, for instance, the thriller. Are they really after you, or are you just being paranoid? In such cases, the Turnstile is actually an important part of the story, because it's bad character writing to have the hero believe something implausible too quickly. It's also, equally importantly, an opportunity to start raising the stakes. In order to convince the hero that there really is something going on, you have to introduce the element of danger. A creepy man in sunglasses watching you from a streetcorner might perturb you, but it's not enough of a threat to make you change your whole way of thinking. If the creepy guy suddenly pulls out a gun and aims it at your head, then the writer has simultaneously forced the character through the Turnstile and made the story a whole lot more exciting. Raising the level of danger gets both the character's and the audience's attention.

What are your views, people? Can you think of Turnstile methods you particularly like or dislike?

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Another Lexicon phrase

Advertising Memo

A remark made by one of the characters in which the author tries to convince the readers that the story is going great, such as 'It's like something out of a film!' or 'He'd make a great character in a novel!'.

Surprisingly common even in otherwise good pieces, this one.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


300 Devils

... or rather, a point of comparison between two films I've recently seen: 300, directed by Zach Synder based on Frank Miller's comic of the same name, and Ken Russell's The Devils, based on Aldous Huxley's book The Devils of Loudun.

It doesn't seem like a very natural comparison on the face of it, but it struck me as I was watching The Devils: there's a marked similarity. And what they have in common goes to the roots of a storytelling problem: how do we direct audience sympathy? How do we justify characters when there's a debate? The answer, with a certain kind of male director, seems to have some elements of crudity in both films, even though one is fairly crude and one fairly sophisticated. What we see in both films is stories of men martyred for freedom, in which the handling of facts, realism and human value are, when looked at closely, somewhat odd. And the fact that two such different films resort to the same methods says something about the strength of these methods - not necessarily in a good way.

It would be hard to find more different thinkers than Miller and Huxley; similarly, there are tremendous differences in the presentation of the movies. The Devils is an anti-authoritarian arthouse movie involving collaboration with various artists who were at the forefront of the avant-garde in their day, and 300 is, well, not. But they do have something very interesting in common: they are both films based on books which, in turn, were based on real events, and their interpretations of those events say a lot about the political thought of their respective days - 2006 in the case of 300, and 1971 in the case of The Devils.

To summarise the historical stories in brief, beginning with 300, as it's more recent and pretty much everyone will have heard of it. Greece was invaded by the Persian empire under the rule of Xerxes the Great in the fifth century BCE, and the different nation-states of Greece had varying opinions about this. Sparta, a fanatically militaristic city-state, marched three hundred soldiers to the mountain pass of Thermopylae, backed up by around seven hundred citizens of allied Thespia and nine hundred Helots, according to Wikipedia. Blocking the mountain pass, they managed to hold off Xerxes's army to reasonable effect, with the regrettable side-effect that they all died themselves, and Xerxes was subsequently kicked out of Greece by the Athenians, who had a better navy.

(Herodotos's account suggests that the Spartans made a big effort to take all the credit; he spends some time arguing that 'It was the Athenians who held the balance: whichever side they joined was sure to prevail' with the air of a man disagreeing with someone. He also comments that Leonidas sent away as many non-Spartan troops as he could from the battle because he had a 'wish to lay up for the Spartans a treasure of fame in which no other city should share'. All of which suggests there was something of the suicide bomber mentality about them, but Spartan indoctrination started at birth and was designed to override every other instinct. The place was a cult.)

The Devils is the story of a judicial murder that took place in 1634. Father Urbain Grandier, a gifted and successful priest with a talent for making powerful enemies, was accused by the nuns of an Ursuline convent of sending his soul out and possessing them. The nuns, under pressure from priests and supported by Grandier's enemies, performed some extraordinary contortions in public exorcisms, and claimed that the devil was speaking through them to accuse Grandier. Under the orthodoxies of the time, this should not have been evidence - the devil was supposed to be a liar, so even if you heard him accuse someone through a possession, you weren't supposed to believe him - but Grandier had been both a destructive rake and an aggressive factionalist, annoying numerous people including the king's chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, so Grandier was convicted anyway. Consequently, he was subjected to the 'question extraordinary' (his legs were broken in numerous places - 'question ordinary' meant survivable torture and 'question extraordinary' was reserved for people who were going to be killed anyway), and then burned alive at the stake.

Now, here's the thing. There's a very sound case to be made that in both events, the people who ended up dead were, not to put too fine a point on it, complete bastards. Critics have been saying a lot about the Spartans since 300 came out, so I'll summarise it briefly. Rather than being the champions of 'reason and justice' the film claims they were, they were, in fact, the first state with a reasonable claim to Communism - or Fascism, if you see any difference between the two in practice. Every individual's first and only duty was to the state. To this end, they separated children from their parents at the age of seven and subjected them to brutal indoctrinatory training, forbade young men to live with their families or wives until their late twenties at the earliest, institutionalised pederastic relationships, and generally speaking did everything they could to break down family life in favour of absolutist loyalty to the city. They were also slave-holders on a massive scale: the Helots, the people that surrounded Sparta, were in a state of serfdom so profound that the word has lived to the present day as a byword for indenture. Being outnumbered, the Spartans had to terrorise them to keep them in line. Part of every Spartan boy's coming of age was killing a Helot.

In short, while Athens was pioneering democracy, philosophy, economics, sculpture, drama, historianship and all those book-larnin' things that have actually lasted long enough to make anyone interested in the ancient world nowadays, the Spartans were running around on hillsides killing slaves, scorning learning, leaving no written records and giving the world a legacy of pretty much nothing, except for one thing: totalitarianism. You'd certainly welcome a troop of Spartans in your infantry, but they were not much of a gift to civilisation.

The case of Grandier is more complicated. The man had various admirable qualities which ought to be honoured: he died with tremendous courage, stood up for himself under horrendous pressure, was intelligent, talented and apparently charismatic. He refused to make a false confession under torture; you have to admire that. The enmity of Richelieu, which is probably the main reason he ended up at the stake, was not necessarily the result of a bad disposition either: he publicly criticised Richelieu in both speeches and writing, which is merely exercising freedom of speech. However, according to Huxley's book, which is what The Devils was based upon, his personal life was appalling. He was known to seduce numerous women, including Philippe Trincant, the virginal young daughter of his closest friend, who had entrusted Grandier with her education; when Philippe became pregnant, again according to Huxley, Grandier took on the role of priest, told her to bear her cross with Christian resignation and refused any claim she might have on him. Meanwhile, presumably to console himself for the inconvenience, he set about seducing another woman, Madeleine de Brou, widely known for her piety. (He eventually tried to marry her, working up various arguments against priestly celibacy to get around the fact that he'd taken a vow of chastity.) He may have meant well by Madeleine, but looking at the story of Philippe, it's hard to conclude that he did anything other than casually ruin her life.

He was also a highly aggressive man. Again, I'm basing this on Huxley's book, and Huxley is frustratingly vague about what sources he's using to substantiate his interpretation, but as Russell was also basing his film on Huxley, I think it's reasonable to use it as a source. Here's Huxley on Grandier:

There are many people for whom hate and rage pay a higher dividend of immediate satisfaction than love. Congenitally aggressive, they soon become adrenaline addicts, deliberately indulging their ugliest passions ... Almost from the first moment of his arrival at Loudun, Grandier was involved in a series of unseemly but, so far as he was concerned, highly enjoyable quarrels. One gentleman actually drew his sword against the parson. With another, the Lietenant Criminel, who headed the local police force, he indulged in a public slanging match, which soon degenerated into physical violence.

Aggression and courage can go hand in hand, but Grandier as portrayed by Huxley was a man for whom the great joys of life were fighting men and ruining women. Persecution brought out the best in him, but it may be a while before we hear of his beatification.

So, historically speaking, both film-makers were presented with heroes whom it was difficult to like. And here's the interesting thing. Despite their wildly divergent political leanings, both Russell and Synder/Miller pick exactly the same tactic for putting us on their side. They make both the Spartans and Grandier more heterosexual than their oppenents.

Synder's Spartans are so hyper-manly that they tip over into camp - a point so obvious it's hardly worth making; there are at least four separate parodies on YouTube set to the tune of 'It's Raining Men' (if you want to watch one, I'd say this one is probably the best-edited) - but if we look at Spartan Leonidas meeting the Emperor Xerxes, there's no question about which is the butch guy here. Bewjewelled, pierced, kohl-smeared, shoulder-fondling, insinutating Xerxes is enough to send a shiver up the spine of any self-respecting homophobe. Youtube is slightly less obliging when it comes to providing detailed examples of The Devils, but watch the prissy intonation of the priest in this trailer. The two main exorcists are played by Michael Gothard and Murray Melvin, both young men whose slender figures and epicene good looks form a sharp contrast with the sturdier Oliver Reed's performance as the handsome Grandier. The film begins with a bizarre theatrical sequence in which Graham Armitage as Louis XIII stages a performance of the Birth of Venus with himself as Venus, little gold bikini and all. Richelieu, meanwhile, played by Christopher Logue, sits bespectacled and fussy, camply precise as he wheedles the king. Again, the Net is being disobliging with illustrative pictures; the best I can find is this. Scroll down to the sixth row of pictures - just under the pair that includes the full-frontal naked woman, you can't miss them - and you'll see the two actors together in the first picture, a gold-masked king primping it up in the second.

There is, to sum up, a definite consistency in physical type. The heroised men are burly, sturdy and sport facial hair; the Bad Guys are slender, lisping and dainty-featured. You can see where this tends, can't you?

Now, historically this is pretty far gone. The Spartans, macho though they undoubtedly were, had pederasty as one of the foundation-stones of their culture. The simplest way to express the extent of this is to point out that the Athenians - the Athenians, who considered same-sex love an excellent influence on a young lad - thought that the Spartans were all really a bit gay. You know how modern parlance terms sodomy 'Greek love'? Athenians called it 'Spartanizing'. Curiously, a wife on her wedding night would have her head shaved and be handed over to her husband dressed as a boy, presumably hoping anxiously that he could work out the difference if she was ever going to produce that all-important son. Straight men are perfectly capable of being peacocks, but the Spartans had a habit of coiffing their hair before a battle, with a view to dying looking fabulous, that sits very uneasily with the modern association of manhood and rugged scruffiness. Again according to Herodotos, Xerxes sent a spy and was so bewildered at the reports that they were all combing away that he had to summon a Greek collaborator, who explained that 'It is the custom of Spartans to pay careful attention to their hair when they are about to risk their lives', which suggests that Xerxes, too, thought there was something a little frilly about them. A lesbian friend has introduced me to the expressive term 'muscle Marys', which sounds pretty close to what they were. If Synder had wanted historical accuracy (though clearly he didn't), he probably should have watched less Matrix films and more Timotei ads.

Now, I say this not to impugn Spartan culture by calling them gay myself - gay is fine if you can just refrain from culling babies and enslaving your neighbours - but if you're fictionalising according to the customs of a world that associates manhood with hetereosexuality, it may be wise to observe a rule of thumb: when ancient Athens calls you gay, it's time to buy a Pride flag, throw a coming-out party and go with it.

Meanwhile, Xerxes, while undoubtedly a rather emotional man - he's the one who ordered the river Hellespont whipped for destroying a bridge - had seven children by various women, and, as far as contemporary images could record, a fairly enormous beard. (Not in itself a proof of heterosexuality, but still, not exactly as fey as all those facial piercings.) I wasn't there, but in a confrontation between the real Xerxes and Leonidas, the smart money as to who'd shagged more men would be on Leonidas.

(Come to that, even the film, if you look at its actual events, has it pretty debatable. Leonidas apparently spends his youth being flogged for no particular reason, a sadomasochist's dream upbringing. Xerxes, meanwhile, can presumably command any kind of fetish his royal mind can conceive, but what does he actually pick when we see his harem? Hot girl-on-girl action. The absolute peak of depravity, as far as he's concerned, is having ladies in their underwear make out where he can see them. For all the fetish jewellery Xerxes wears, who's the real deviant here?)

Similarly, while Louis XIII was rumoured to be gay or bi, there's no resemblance between Russell's depiction and contemporary portraits, which show him looking fairly ordinary for the period; Richelieu was a trained soldier (though also an invalid), and Mignon, played by Murray Melvin, was elderly, hardly a beautiful boy. According the documentary Hell on Earth, made by Mark Kermode about The Devils, Melvin actually approached Russell and pointed out that he seemed to have been cast as what he called 'an eighty-year-old dodderer', and wondered whether this was a good idea; Russell just told him he was sure Melvin could manage it, as indeed he does, in his elegant way.

Shouting about freedom while fighting a camp opponent seems to be hard-wired into certain kinds of film. Peter Hanly's performance as Edward II in Braveheart comes to mind, a limp-wristed sissy if ever there was one. Now Edward II was very likely gay or bisexual, but I think most people nowadays are aware that that doesn't necessarily make someone effeminate. Actually he was pretty blokey, into things like athletics and mechanical crafts, a big chap who wasn't an especially forceful personality or skilled at managing a war, but was sufficiently interested in women to have at least one illegitimate son. None of that sounds exactly mincing, does it? It sounds more like one of the natural followers on the sports team. Give him a copy of Loaded, and he'd at least have read it for the articles.

Why is this? What is it about yells of 'FREEDOM!' that necessitates a nancy opponent? It speaks of a deep but dispiriting instinct in people, that the way to resolve a moral complexity boils down to: 'Well, but you're gay!' But it's more than that, I think. This is a kind of thinking in which manhood is simply a superior state. Being a man, a Real Man, simply allows you more moral latitude, because you're more human than anyone who isn't a Real Man. Watch this clip, in which Philippe Trincant tells Grandier that she's pregnant and ruined. Despite the fact that it's her life that's been destroyed, metaphorically and perhaps literally as well - women died in childbirth all the time - the camera lingers on him as he pontificates, reflecting entirely on his own spiritual development, while in the background, her performance is frankly strange: white-faced like a pierrot, she weeps less out of fear and heartbreak than out of apparent petulance. The contrast between the reflective man in the foreground and the clownish woman fading into the background is inescapable: Russell is genuinely trying to show Grandier's behaviour as a kind of spiritual experimentation, and hers as mere hysteria. (Something that Huxley didn't try to suggest; but then, Huxley valorised Grandier less.) Now, this is very apt for the period - 1971, when the sexual revolution had been around long enough that everyone agreed that free love sounded good, but before feminism had really got its boots on and started pointing out that men getting to shag every woman they saw with no responsibilities wasn't exactly freedom for everyone. Nonetheless, it's odd.

There's a similar only-certain-people-count thinking in 300. It's been pointed out that there's something oddly un-American about the way that the Spartans, though American enough to consider themselves underdogs - they refer to mighty Persia invading 'tiny' Greece, a geographical epithet only an American could bestow on a country that size, not to mention the fact that Greeks of that era considered Greece to be pretty much the entire world - are not really on the side of the little guy unless the little guy is, well, them. Even if they're not so little. Rather than believing in the triumph of the underdog and the Little Warrior That Could, they resolutely reject the hunchback who wants to support the team and scorn the brave 'amateurs' who are giving it their flag-saluting all. It's right there in the title, in fact: there were seven hundred Boetians at Thermopylae, and about a thousand Helots, but they weren't, you know, really there. To really be in the battle, you have to count. In real terms, there were only three hundred people fighting; all the other guys who got chopped up weren't Spartan. Kungfu Monkey remarks:

'All men are not born equal, that's the Spartan belief.' And these are the good guys. Wow. On the other hand, the independent hero, the guy willing to risk it all and die for freedom, that's classic Americana. To have both in the same movie is whiplash-inducing.

But actually it's not as confusing as it seems. You simply have to factor in the idea that there are, as the French Revolution had it, 'active citizens' and 'passive citizens'; people who get a vote in the country's way of life and people who just kind of live there. That's an idea that does have some American roots, but you have to go back a ways - to 1787, in fact, where it was enshrined in law that black Americans counted as three-fifths of a citizen per head.

(As an aside, though, the point is obvious but still important: The Devils is an English film, and it does the exact same thing. If we're talking about a culture, then it's broader than just America, it's the whole modern West.)

In view of this, it's perhaps less surprising to consider that while both male protagonists have plenty to say about freedom in the films, they didn't stand for unequivocal freedom in the real world. Freedom for Spartans, perhaps, but that ain't freedom for everyone; if the Spartans had their way, we'd still be throwing underweight babies off cliffs. And Grandier's beef with the government, as portrayed uncritically by Russell, is highly debatable: Richelieu wanted the fortifications of Loudun knocked down so that the city would have to be part of France rather than self-governing. Grandier didn't; he wanted Loudun to retain its independence. Well, it may have been a popular opinion at the time, but was Richelieu's aim of centralising power in France an entirely bad idea? Because, you see, it's happened, and France is fine. Do you really want every city in your homeland to function like an armed camp?

If you engaged with that idea, though, it would be complicated. And I think that's the basic reason behind the nancification of historical figures, at least some of whom could probably have kicked the asses of the actors who played them. If you have it be a clash of opinion against opinion, the audience may not inevitably come down on the right side - or if they do, it'll take some subtle writing. If, on the other hand, there's something alienating about one side, then whatever they say is going to sound suspicious. It's notable that in The Devils, we see Richelieu's ideas presented only as he sits neatly in his chair, prating to a king who's merrily shooting captives; this is intercut with Grandier standing on the rubble and making a rousing speech to the soldiers of Loudun. Now, if you staged it differently, what you might actually have is a debate between two viewpoints, but Richelieu's logic kills puppies: a camp four-eyes banging on to a crazy gay king on the one hand; a soberly-dressed, rhetorically fine hero shouting to a cheering army on the other. The audience isn't supposed to weigh the words of either party, but rather their demeanour and context - and those demeanours and contexts are supplied entirely by the director, with little reference to reality. It's rigged.

But then again, you could ask the question another way. What is it about being the Manly Hetero Guy squaring off to the Sissy Gay Guy that necessitates cries of 'FREEDOM!'? A lot of it, I think, comes down to contemporary self-image: 'freedom' is one of those words that you're not supposed to question at all, nowadays, no matter who's using it in any context; hence, it can be a get-out-of-impeachment-free card, a with-us-or-against-us way of saying that whoever uses it must be good. Snyder has famously commented to the press that:

When someone in a movie says, 'We're going to fight for freedom,' that's now a dirty word. Europeans totally feel that way. If you mention democracy or freedom, you're an imperialist or a fascist. That's crazy to me.

As a European, I feel bound to answer: freedom isn't fascist, but the Spartans were fascist. They were the guys who invented the whole live-for-the-state, strength-through-joy, graahh-I-kick-lesser-races-ASS! politics that fascism was founded on. In Europe. Freedom isn't a dirty word, but any word gets dirty if you smear it with bullshit. There are no Teflon-coated words, and freedom wasn't Sparta's game. To quote Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians yet again (just read the darn thing, everyone):

Low RWAs [his term for authoritarian personalities] are downright suspicious of someone who agrees with them when they can see ulterior motives might be at work. They pay attention to the circumstances in which the other fellow is operating. But authoritarians do not, when they like the message ... Heck, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany after running on a law-and-order platform just a few years after he tried to overthrow the government through an armed insurrection.

This is notable in 300, for one striking reason: we're told we're supposed to support the Spartans, but we're never given a very good justification. We never see them do anything unquestionably good. They say they're free, but we never see them ruling with justice, or refusing to honour any man because of his birth - in fact, they positively revere their leader - or have a debate in which all ideas are welcome, even the ones that challenge their way of thinking, or any of that jazz. The Spartans are all tell and no show. Similarly, the Persians pull their king on a big throne and talk a lot about slavery, but what does that mean in terms of rulership? We aren't shown. It's less like a clash of ideologies and more like a clash between two politicians canvassing voters, each with the same basic policy - I want to win - but different ideas about what the right push-button word to woo the voters is. In an era of push-button politics, that's every bit as topical as Ken Russell's pre-feminist sexual libertarianism - but it's an ominous ethos: in 300, it's either talk or fight, and apart from the opposing buzzwords of each side, there's very little to choose.

So again, we're back to manliness. Persia has no policies apart from taking over, Sparta no policies apart from not wanting to be taken over; how to choose between them? Well, the guys who talk about freedom are the real guys; real guys are good, and good people stand for freedom, QED. In effect, it's taking their virtue for granted and attaching traditionally virtuous words to them without really considering what those words mean. There are, as a result of this confusion, two ways to make you support the Spartans: have them say the word 'freedom' - they don't have to live up to it, they can just say it - and have them be straighter than their opponents.

It's a curious contrast in the use of language, because Russell's film, though undoubtedly more intelligent in many ways, seems in its grandstanding to ignore language more thoroughly. People make intellectual points, but The Devils is primarily a visual film, a film of spectacle not speech, and a non-English speaker could follow it perfectly comfortably: the intellectual points are entirely ignorable in the face of the cadenenced voices and splendid pageantry. Rather than having one buzzword, there are no buzzwords; the script is closer to a musical accompaniment than an essential carrier of story. In its way, this is more consistent: if language is going to be secondary, then every word is of equal, though lesser value.

In fairness to Russell, he doesn't appear to have been homophobic in practice. The Devils had Derek Jarman, who was openly gay and a strong campaigner for gay rights and AIDS awareness, as its production designer; the two of them collaborated closely, so evidently Russell wasn't averse to real gay men. And The Devils presented him with a problem: the two bones of contention in the film are demoniac possession and the centralisation of France in the seventeenth century, two controversies so deeply rooted in the thought of an earlier era that it would be very hard for a modern audience to understand the mindset. In Hell on Earth, it's remarked that the sets were deliberately designed in contemporary minimalist style to express the fact that the citizens of Loudun, like people throughout history, considered themselves modern: Russell had to come up with something to reconcile the modern self-image of the characters and the outdated thinking. He doesn't just use homosexuality: the first image we see of Loudun is the gaping skull of a corpse broken on a wheel on the road to the city, dripping maggots from its grinning jaw, and there are plenty of images of violence and horror associated with the king as well as camp flourishes. Russell definitely gives us other reasons to object to Louis than his cross-dressing and flirty mannerisms, and those reasons are good: Grandier is a rake, but he's up against torturers. (And his death is spectacularly horrible.) But it's notable still that Russell excuses Grandier's treatment of women a great deal more than his source, Huxley, does. He also has him talk about freedom a great deal more: Huxley is more interested in 'self-transcendence' and the spiritual implications of the whole gruesome affair. As Russell becomes more political, masculinity starts kicking in, and so does talk of freedom.

300, being less sophisticated, doesn't bother. The homosexuality and talk of slavery - which we don't see in practice - is all we have against the Persians. Notably, while the Spartans talk of Persians fearing the whips, the only people we actually see getting beaten on-screen are Spartans, as part of the agoge training. Both films show people drawing huge machines, but Xerxes's throne is drawn by faceless, shadowed figures who seem little more than scenery, too vague to show any signs of minding their enslaved condition, whereas The Devils shows captive Protestants flogged along, weeping and struggling, clearly visible in the daylight as ordinary men and women being horribly mistreated. Russell retains his awareness that violence has to be a part of tyranny; Synder, celebrating a culture that valorised violence, is in rather a pickle: if he shows violence hurts, that'll make us like the Spartans less, but if he doesn't, then the slavery of which Xerxes speaks is purely notional. He goes with notional, leaving us with a war of words.

In the end, I think we're looking at clumped assumptions. Certain people are assumed to be virtuous a priori. The Devils is a better-made film, and does show Grandier developing virtues as the film progresses, although it's strangely reverent towards him even at the beginning of the story. His virtues develop in sync with his increasing importance, in fact: once he's fighting the evils of Richelieu, he becomes serene, spiritual, courageous, and, notably, he is now occupying a position in which the self-absorption that looks so bizarre in the early scenes of the film now becomes justified. Now it actually is all about him. This isn't necessarily a depiction of a character rising to the occasion; it could equally be seen as the occasion rising to the character, allowing him virtue by allocating him enough relevance to justify his egotism. 300, being a less thought-through film, doesn't trouble to make this transition; the Spartans never have to justify themselves at all, in any way. They begin right, get righter as they go along, and finish right again; audiences asking for proof of their rightness are assumed to be against freedom.

Which leads to the conclusion that in an era that valued different virtues, we might get similar stories with different buzzwords. Eighteenth-century Spartans, as shown in 300, would probably be shouting 'PROPERTY!' However people actually behave, when we start with the unquestioned assumption that they matter more than others, what happens is that whatever words are the fashionable synonym for virtue get placed into the mouths of the heroes, whether or not they're actually in the right, and behaviours that tap into prejudiced unease are plastered to the villains, whether or not they actually have a point. Successful stories always have to appeal to common assumptions - but sometimes those common assumptions don't hold up. As Grandier remarks in The Devils, 'Most religious believe that by crying "Lord, Lord!" often enough, they can contrive to enter the kingdom of heaven. A flock of trained parrots could just as readily cry the same thing with just as little chance of success.' Martyrdom for freedom may be a fine thing, but it's best to think about what the word actually means before we jump too quickly to link it with qualities with which it has, in reality, nothing at all to do.

Friday, October 05, 2007


A new term for the lexicon

Your Opinion Kills Puppies

The tendency of authors to dismiss a philosophy, political point or other abstract opinion by attributing it to a nasty character. Nobody actually disproves this nasty character's abstract principles - but he goes around killing puppies! You don't want to be like him, do you?

This is often used in dispute scenes between Our Hero and Mr Killspuppies. In such scenes, the message is not 'These people are wrong for a reason', but 'These people are bad so you don't have to listen to their arguments'. The conversation goes like this:

Hero: The sky is green!
Mr K: No it's not, it's blue.
Hero: I don't have to listen to this crap, you kill puppies!
Mr K: Darn right I do! Blue skies rule. Hey look, a little Pekinese! Where's my hammer?


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