ANYONE WHO AGREES WITH THIS LEVEL OF BIGOTED SUPERSTITION, PLEASE UNFOLLOW ME.
Trust me, we are incompatible.
I’ve recently fallen in love wirpth Hannibal and I need more of it on my blog. (movies + tv series)
I’ve recently fallen in love wirpth Hannibal and I need more of it on my blog. (movies + tv series)
The Lecter Saga, 1/6
Thomas Harris, in his 1981 novel Red Dragon, described his now iconic cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, as being small and sleek with a wiry strength whose eyes reflected the light in points of maroon. One might wonder what he makes of the cinematic incarnations, the movies themselves, that chronicle the career of one of film’s greatest villains. Beginning with Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), Scottish actor Brian Cox is closest to Harris’ original description in terms of age and stature. Cox had been offered the role after casting had happened to catch him onstage and been taken with his unique delivery, the suppression of his native Dundee accent giving him an ‘otherly’ air. Being this is the character’s first appearance onscreen, this is the Lecter who is responsible, as the media-dubbed ‘Chesapeake Ripper’, for the disappearance of several college co-eds, details that would fade or mutate with time. This Lecter, or ‘Lecktor’ in the film, is a murderer in the vein of Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacey. Sexual predators are a seedy, vile and, ultimately, pathetic lot so when we meet Hannibal Lecktor in his cell, it does not concur with the image we have of the panty-stealing stalker, compulsively masturbating outside a young lady’s window. What we behold instead is a contained, calculating and icily cool intellectual. He is unguardedly disdainful of his visitor and apprehender Will Graham, though the familiarity between them (“Did you get my card?”) belies a more extensive and layered relationship. Cox’ Lecktor is well-spoken, quick-witted and brimming with disgust and ill-will for those around him. The fact that the telltale signs of his sexual sadism are so completely hidden makes him a more unpredictable and terrifying adversary. He could be charming, this one. He would impress with his insightfulness, beguile with his benevolence, render vulnerable with his intellect, and then strike. And consume. His tone is conversational, engaging, as he is quite interested in their subject, the analysis of Graham’s current quarry, known publicly as ‘The Tooth Fairy’. Offering to review the notes, Lecktor asks, too innocently, “Would you like to leave your home phone number?” The threat is very real, a dagger thrown on the table between them, not intended to deceive, just to remind Graham of Lecktor’s misanthropic nature, his fearful abilities and his hate. There is a moment of fearful silence before Graham answers, “No.” Graham finally flees in a panic, Lecktor’s insinuations driving him to anxiety. (“Do you know how you caught me, Will?”). Lecktor is featured twice more, in short scenes, but he casts a very long shadow. Coolly sending ‘The Tooth Fairy’, Francis Dolarhyde, after Graham’s wife and son, the act is one of pure malevolence and sadism. He gains nothing except to take sheer pleasure in destruction, casually guiding horror into the Graham family’s home. The scene might be all we ever need to see of Hannibal Lecter. It sums up everything one might need to know about him, the precision minimalism of Brian Cox performance coupled with a career best William Petersen as Graham.
As an antagonist separate to Lecktor, and the true source of terror in the movie, Tom Noonan portrays Francis Dolarhyde. Noonan’s physical presence, a towering 6’7” with a rangy build, and his physical peculiarities were further exacerbated to encapsulate Dolarhyde’s alienated strangeness. Foregoing the back story detailed in the source material, Dolarhyde is such an oddity it is easy to fill in the blanks for ourselves. His cleft palate, intense shyness and stooped posture speak of painful and unsuccessful relationships, of possible abuse, and loneliness. His interactions with others are fraught with stumbling blocks. A speech impediment, his ridiculous height, he keeps his head low and avoids eye-contact. Until, “the Dragon rampant”, he stands straight-backed and focussed, unleashing immense physical strength to slaughter entire families with a shard of broken mirror. Legend has it that Noonan employed ‘the method’ to play Dolarhyde. After he found that researching serial killers gave no insight and merely sickened him, he spent the production isolated, not socialising with any of the cast, sitting alone in his trailer. A ‘method director’, Mann occasionally accompanied him, the two sitting silently in the dark while Noonan imagined what the cast and crew thought of him, feeding his own latent paranoia and anger. The result is a terrifying but pitiable creation, loneliness and pain grown obsessive and monstrous. A complete voyeur in every sense, Dolarhyde is obsessed with photography, videotape and observation. We are introduced to him via his abduction of the unsavoury tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds. who authored a slanderous Tattler article about ‘The Tooth Fairy’ at the FBI’s behest. When Lounds opens his eyes, he is terrified by an enormous individual, his upper face masked, his huge hands raised and splayed like the leathern wings he seeks to emulate. He lectures a sobbing Lounds with a slide show, showing him his inspiration, William Blake’s painting, The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. Documentation of his attacks on the Reed and Jacobi families follow. Images of his tense journey to the parents bedroom, where he stands over them, naked. Waiting patiently for the horrifying moment when one of them wakes. And the aftermath, when he ‘transforms’ them. We are not privy to these images, only Lounds’ expression as his eyes widen in horror. (“Mrs. Jacobi transformed. Do you see?”) When the lecture ends, Dolarhyde forces Lounds to read a prepared note into a tape recorder. Dolarhyde inserts his dentures and calmly approaches Lounds, stroking his hair perhaps in reference to the article’s implications. Before attacking, biting Lounds on the mouth. The camera cuts to the exterior and the muffled screams. As Graham states, seeing is everything, and it truly is for Dolarhyde. In his tentative courtship of Reba McClaine, he is freed from all scrutiny by her blindness. She cannot see him and, more importantly, she cannot see him looking. When he gifts her a visit to the zoo and the opportunity to touch and hold a sedated tiger, he shares her tears of joy, soaking up her sense of wonder and gratitude from the sideline. His voyeurism cuts both ways, in bloodlust and in kindnesses.
The main cast is rounded out by Dennis Farina, himself a former policeman, as Jack Crawford. It is a restrained performance by Farina, smart in what he chooses not to do, letting Petersen dominate each of their scenes together. Tough, professional, protective; Crawford is nonetheless a man who is out of his depth and he knows it. When the power of Graham’s gift is fully revealed in a disturbing moment of empathy with the killer, Crawford decides to take a back seat. The normally bullish and domineering Farina plays him as a man who believes the end will justify the means, uncomfortable with the Pandora’s box, yet quick to open it. And actually sort of sweet, too. In a scene with domestic law enforcement, Graham is questioned and poked by officers indulging their morbid curiosity. When they stand stunned at Graham’s abilities and his success where they have failed, Crawford cannot help but linger, staring them one after the other in the eye, savouring their shock and ineffectuality.
The role of Will Graham is an odd one, a character defined by those of whom he has intimate knowledge, be they loved ones or mysterious killers. It offers a unique challenge for an actor, but William Petersen, under the direction of Mann, is pitch perfect. Bearing the weight of his sacrifices, it is a mirthless role. The joy from Will Graham’s life has been thieved by people such as Gareth Jacob Hobbs and Hannibal Lecktor. Their true nature is a burden he carries, their very existence contaminating his mind and the normal life he tried to lead. When Crawford attempts to recruit him in an early scene, he finds Graham almost happy, at peace, living with his family on the Florida coast. There are yet traces of emotional problems; he has only just gotten over an obsession with his dogs’ safety and wellbeing. He teeters on a brink and all it takes is a couple of deceased family photos to tip him in the right direction. Petersen imbues Graham with a brittle aggression that steadily builds as the movie progresses, his initial caution giving way to enthusiasm and obsession. His hunt for, and understanding of, Dolarhyde instills in him a blind rage and a fanaticism to rival that of the Red Dragon. When the two finally have their confrontation, in a departure from the source material, it is a collision of mindless forces, both men fixated on their goals. Graham, disregarding the safety of his fellow officers, runs at full pelt through a forest to crash through a glass window. It is a senseless animalistic urge, as if Graham is driven by a Dragon of his own, in the full grip of his ‘gift’ and very far gone. Post-climax, a cut but available ending has Graham visit the home of Dolarhyde’s intended next target, their home movies having been found in his house. Refusing an appreciative invitation inside, a numb and mumbling Graham stands on the threshold, his face as scarred as his quarry’s. Shivering and pelted by the rain, he says, “I only wanted to see you.” The general release has a generic ‘happy-family’ epilogue, but perhaps this is really why we never hear from Will Graham again. A splinter of Dolarhyde’s voyeuristic psyche, the ‘Red Dragon’, still embedded in his mind, working its way to the core.
On it’s release, Manhunter, typical of cult classics, faired poorly at the box office and with critics. Several reviews expressed a particular ire for the film’s obvious and consistent style, and the work is definitely Michael Mann at his least restrained. His love of grandiose minimalism is writ large upon the screen in the gleaming azure perfection of Graham’s maritime family retreat and in the bizarrely dominating lunar motifs of Dolarhyde’s refuge. Architecture has been meticulously cherry-picked, each structure chosen to complement a perfect world where a single act of savage violence would pierce the pristine cleanliness. Graham’s sole visit to Lecktor takes place in an immaculate, isolated vacuum that is entirely typical of Mann, yet has bearing in reality. The cell is sterile and minimal, a stark white brick and steel construct, that serves the practical purpose of rendering any foreign object, weapon or otherwise, instantly visible. It also serves to illuminate the captured Lecktor, the anomaly, in a cold, unnatural light, a mysterious and baffling specimen. Scenes are subtly and diegetically colour-coded, from the darkroom where Dolarhyde first mets and falls for Reba McClaine to Graham’s breakthroughs in front of the VHS. Manhunter's soundtrack is quite dated in it's use of then-current synth-pop hits. Yet, in hindsight, it unifies the movie as a product of 80's style. Mann's early success was with the television cop drama Miami Vice, and this was where his production design aesthetic was nurtured. The power ballad ‘Strong As I Am’, by The Prime Movers, is used to perfect effect, it’s dramatic vocals and build towards chorus accompanies Dolarhyde’s heartbreak at Reba’s perceived betrayal, his pain transforming into rage, until “Francis is gone.” The movie’s climax, the police assault on Dolarhyde’s home, is backed by Iron Butterfly’s ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’, diegetically introduced as he blasts the full length version, some 17 minutes, from speakers in his sitting room. The insistent rift threatens to overwhelm while the spiralling keyboard, guitar and drum solos mirror a situation and psyche careening out of control. The synthesizer score by ‘The Reds’ and composer Michel Rubini’s is an ambient wall of sound, an aesthetic choice as well as a complimentary one. It serves to both distance us from scenes, to appreciate the beauty of certain images as if they were still photographs, and immerse us in sound, just as scenes are drenched in coded colours. Manhunter makes voyeurs of us all.
Hannibal, by Ian-John Coughlan, 2013.
Following recent reviews of Guillermo Del Toro’s summer actioner Pacific Rim (2013), I have seen the ‘Bechdel Test’ referred to not just in online film criticism, but overheard in the layman’s casual cinema conversation and referred to on blog after blog. The term is used to refer to a short list of criteria used in Feminist theory to assess whether a movie, and later television and printed media, accurately and fairly represents the female gender. The test has it’s origins in the cartoon strip, Dykes To Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel, who would later author the award-winning and critically-acclaimed Fun Home. In 1985, an instalment of DTWOF featured a character who would only watch a movie if the movie contained at least two female characters who had a conversation at some point and the subject of which was not a man. Since then, the condition that both characters must also be named has been added. The test has become a standard in film critique in the past decade and the consistent failure of the majority of mainstream cinema production has been used by feminist theorists to illustrate how little change, if any, there has been in the patriarchy’s misogyny, gender bias and male gaze.
Personally, I find the application of the Bechdel Test to be problematic. When applied to a great number of movies the failure rate is high, yet said movies can be said to be making intelligent and thoroughly investigated points regarding gender and humanity. Starting at the top, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) falls at the first hurdle. There are no discernible female characters. There is a women present in the film, shown serving the passenger of commercial space travel, yet this is hardly demeaning. Air hostesses are a reality and the scene exists to merely show how the male character is so inured to the idea of space travel, he dozes in his seat. In addition to this, all male characters in the film are sexless, pristine beings, walking cyphers. Ultimately, the film has but one character, Dave Bowman, and an antagonist, HAL 9000, and it is this relationship that is used to instigate and explore greater questions regarding humanity. Gender bias, gender itself, is beneath 2001.
Another science fiction classic, Blade Runner (1982), also fails the Bechdel Test. Yet, like the best sci-fi, it says more about gender than can be perceived at first glance. The film has, in total, three female characters, each of which are named. Though none of them ever cross paths, and therein lies the failing point, each are a critique of the male gaze. As ‘replicants’, these women are designed for men and each are archetypes who rebel against their predestination. Rachel, the movie’s romantic interest, is a cold and efficient secretary, a ‘good girl’ who, when aware of her true nature, rebels against it, and follows Deckhard’s lead, plunging into passion and violence. The childlike, yet sexual Pris is a ‘standard pleasure model’, built solely to satisfy male sexual desire. Post liberation, she chooses her love in the form of Roy Batty, and defends herself viciously when threatened, fighting with her last breath against her male oppressor. Zhora, the femme fatale, is a powerful Amazonian, sexually self-possessed and made for murder. A submissive’s fantasy, she is unfortunately despatched callously, shot in the back as she runs for her life. For everything Blade Runner omits, there is instead a critique of the male gaze and the casual objectification of women. The Bechdel has neither the sophistication nor the scope to evaluate this.
If science fiction proves beyond the Bechdel, other genre pictures may, too. From the British Gangster subgenre, Guy Ritchie’s breakthrough, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), fails the Bechdel in the manner of nearly every war film. It features but a single female character amid an enormous cast of badasses, toffs, psychos, scumbags and chancers. Yet, in her one scene, she emanates such calm authority and cool (her warning to the local hardmen, “Don’t fuck about, boys”), you would be hard pressed to call it a poor representation. Similarly, Ritchie’s follow-up, Snatch (2000), features among it’s catalogue of boys and men a single female character behind the counter at a bookmaker’s during a botched hold-up. (“Do you know who this bookie’s belongs to?”) Both female characters radiate authority, class and, in their respective scenes, are the coolest people in their respective rooms. British gangster movies fail, as do their American counterparts. Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), a psychological cat-and-mouse tale of manichaean personality types, features performances by, arguably, the two best actors of their generation. Yet there are four equally effective female characters acting in direct opposition to the male egos. An embittered and unfaithful girlfriend, a troubled and isolated daughter, an exasperated and desperate moll and an innocent, redeeming prospect. All of the women serve secondary roles, it must be admitted. But each are the victims, in some form or other, of male ego, battered by ignorance, greed and obsession. In a film about noble villains talking to maniac heroes over coffee, the female characters remain pivotal in the men’s fate. It is by their grace that the good and bad alike are saved or damned and no, they never meet to talk. Heat, for all it’s masculinity and cool perfection, is quasi-feminism and critique. Yet, Bechdel has no use for it.
Turn of the century war movies Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Blackhawk Down (2001) both fail, as will any realistic war film unconcerned with civilians. Horror classic The Thing features, among many microcosmic dystopian ideals, the insanity of men without women. Monastery-based murder mystery The Name of the Rose (1986) excludes all female characters, save one, by setting and, again, as a polemic on the corruption of single-sex environments. Other Bechdelian failures are Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009), who all have something important to say about the female gender, by either inclusion or absence.
If the aforementioned seem like a list of male filmmakers whose target audience is mostly men, Kathryn Bigelow’s earlier (and superior) output does not pass, either. Near Dark (1987) and Point Break (1991), are both very much ‘man’ movies, but have enough male eye-candy to appeal to a female audience. Borderline homoerotic, Point Break has extra depth and reading given its female director and is an advocate of the ‘female-gaze’, the emancipation of women to view men as sex objects. Bechdel is useless here. There are notably few other female directors with a lengthy career working in mainstream cinema but Nancy Myers has found success producing romantic comedies aimed squarely at women of a certain age, not one of which passes. On the small screen, the adaptation of Candace Bushnell’s novel Sex & The City (1998-2004) was aimed majorly at a female audience, with an allowance made for a gay audience in need of a style icon. Yet, it routinely fails the Bechdel test by theme; it’s core group of female characters talk about nothing other than the men in their lives, save the occasional aside regarding shoes. Recent Danish period drama, A Royal Affair (2012), a two-hour tale of Denmark’s Enlightenment and forbidden love in the Royal court, is a near masterpiece. Yet, it’s narrator and joint lead character is a queen in isolation, a fact-based inequity, who is bred for the sole purpose of marriage and purposefully left bereft of female companionship. Rich in it’s condemnation of turn-of-the-century sexism, it is beyond Bechdel.
As often as a film will fail the Bechdel test, the Bechdel test will fail women. It has positive points; that female characters should be named is non-negotiable. But by its narrow-minded focus on what female audience members need, it over simplifies sexism in the film industry and does women a massive disservice. It also assumes that men are consistently well-represented in cinema, indeed, that cinema needs to follow some rule of verité that supersedes creativity and the intent of the author. Although, if one were to apply the test to a few short hours, possibly a day of one’s existence, would one’s life pass the Bechdel test? Did your life today contain two women, whose names you both know, having a conversation about something other than men? And isn’t that a poor way to judge whether you have a poor or positive image of women in your life?
The aforementioned Pacific Rim took a scalding for its sole female character without anyone noting how poor it’s male characters are treated. Apart from failing the Bechdel Test, which means nothing, characters in Pacific Rim fail the ‘Turing Test’. Not one behaves in any way like a real human being with a measure of sincerity or anything beyond one-dimensionality. How can the filmmakers be expected to get a gender issue right when they fail in the basic necessity of engagement; the human issue. Pacific Rim is not sexist, misogynist, partisan or exclusive. It is just bad. The sooner critics stop pushing their own personal agendas and call garbage ‘garbage’, the better.
Inspired by the Bechdel Test, queer writers have formulated the Russo Test, a list of criteria that a film must have in order to be deemed to fairly represent non-cisgender people. Again, almost everything fails. Speaking as a non-heterosexual male, I find I have very little use for it. Instead, I propose one simple requirement and we might as well call this the ‘Descartes Test’ for his philosophical proposition ‘cogito ergo sum’. I think, therefore I am.
Give me characters who think, who feel, who behave as if they were real. Give me characters I can believe in.
Grant Morrison’s superhero saga Zenith is a virtual lost classic from the late 1980s. First serialised in the British institution that is 2000 AD, it premiered in August 1987 and introduced the titular character; a self-centred and spoiled 19 year old superhuman whose only desire was to make it as a famous pop star. Zenith was set in a world identical to our own, based initially in Thatcher’s Britain but, eventually, reaching far beyond that reality to include alternative planes of existence. The Zenith storyline began in an alternate history of World War II, where the Nazis had cracked the superhero serum, their genetically engineered ‘Masterman’ spearheading the invasion of Europe. Their victory seemed certain until defecting German scientists helped the allies create ‘Maximan’, an English equivalent, who set about turning the tide of the war. The superhumans were engaged in combat on the streets of Berlin when America unleashed the product of its own military research, dropping the atomic bomb on Berlin and killing them both. In one leap forward to the present day of late 80’s Britain, our story begins.
The charm of Zenith lies in its real-world political setting, the shifting of its focus away from the glamour of the United States to the strife of 1980’s British Isles, a time of strikes, growing celebrity culture and the birth of the ‘yuppie’. Retired superhuman and former ‘hippie’, Peter St. John, is now a member of the ruling Conservative party, a commentary on the failure of 60s counterculture ideals. The National Front are growing in popularity, unemployment is holding steady and Britain’s economy has only just begun to recover. At the centre of all this is our protagonist, endeavouring to avoid responsibility and heroism and more concerned with fame, fortune and chart success. Zenith is the first natural-born superhuman, the offspring of two genetically-engineered superheroes from the 1960s. Roped into a defence of Earth by his elders, the remnants of Task Force UK, later the anti-establishment Cloud 9, Zenith stumbles through atrocity and devastation with often only his sarcasm and egocentricity to protect him. Low on superheroics ad distinctly Generation X, he would seem an impossible character to support save for his reluctant stand for right, usually prompted by self-interest or the coercion of his seniors. Indeed, there are not many ‘heroes’ in the story at all. Instead, we are treated to a host of villains, superhuman bodies possessed by Lovecraftian interdimensional beings known as the Lloigor. Villains do not come any worse, trust me. When the background expands later in Phase III to include alternative realities, a multitude of superhuman characters are enlisted to stand against them. Morrison fills out the cast of hundreds with not only his own creations, but characters from the pages of British comics of the 70s and 80s. Anyone aware of The Beano’s Billy Whizz cannot help but notice a similarity with the tragic Jimmy Quick. Heroic characters such as Valiant’s ‘The Steel Claw’ and Buster’s ‘The Leopard from Lime Street’ resurface, though the body count does rise in ghastly compensation. The monochromatic artwork of Steve Yeowell stands the test of time. Steadily progressing from a delicate realism to a stark minimalism over the course of the saga, every panel is steeped in gothic grandeur. The final series, Phase IV, is rendered in colour, a sign of the times and a mistake in this bloggers opinion. Yet it still manages to deliver the saga’s denouement in nightmarish dark hues
When Morrison’s saga culminates, it is a hermetically sealed story of superhuman horror; a tale of mankind’s evolution to godhood and the loss of humanity. It’s hard-edge take on reality only furthers its reading as a parable of hopeless politics and misled science. For all its fantasy, it is still the most realistic superhero tale ever written and deserves to stand alongside Alan Moore’s Watchmen as he best the medium has to offer. Sadly, while Watchmen may be procured at virtually any bookstore, legal issues have kept Zenith out of reprint and collected editions. Morrison and publisher Fleetway are deadlocked, as of this moment, in an issue over ownership and, until the issue is resolved, the work is hard to come by. Back issues of 2000 AD can appreciate greatly according to content while the early collected graphic novels are fragile formats that now fetch ludicrous prices. In this information age, scans are available to download illegally and, with no other recourse, the avid fan could not be blamed for taking advantage.
Image 1: The final showdown between Maximan and Masterman in Berlin. (Morrison/Yeowell)
Image 2: Zenith, charming as ever. (Morrison/Yeowell)
Image 3: Analog of ‘Billy Whizz’, Jimmy Quick is targetted by the Lloigor. (Morrison/Yeowell)
Image 4: Zenith finally acts but, as with all violence in the saga, it is in brutal and horrific fashion. (Morrison/Yeowell)
Why the world still needs a Superman.
The recent failure in representation, namely the cinematic endeavour, has only strengthened the argument that the character of Superman has always been the weaker link in DC Comics; the politically-correct buffer between Batman’s vigilante cool and Wonder Woman’s neofeminist chic. So often dismissed as ‘the boy scout’, Superman has existed under the yoke of one-dimensional do-gooder and had paled during the ‘gritty realism’ of the 90s and the advent of ‘widescreen comics’. In light of work such as Frank Miller’s 'The Dark Knight Returns' and Grant Morrison’s ‘Arkham Asylum’, and bolstered by Christopher Nolan’s more recent cinematic contribution to the Dark Knight legend, it was Batman who flourished during this era. With both he and his adversaries mired in madness, angst, trauma and angry-loner wish-fulfilment, the Batman is ripe and has been fleshed-out by some of the best and ‘edgiest’ writers in comics. Benefitting from a British film director whose early work is steeped in psychological drama, the deal is sealed. The camp comedic missteps are forgotten and Batman, the concept, is now invincible. Any further additions to the canon, regardless of poor quality or day-glo excesses, cannot diminish what, in this Internet age, has been carved in the stone of public consciousness.
And it is the Batman franchise’s infallibility that reflects quite poorly upon the Last Son of Krypton. In this new age of ‘gritty-realism’, it is thought that our heroes should be ‘dark’; flawed and anti-heroic in their methods. We should also relate to them, share similar experiences, even if it be of the traumatic variety to grant a revenge motive. Batman is the ultimate human being. He is the best, with the exception of a certain Lex Luthor, that humankind has to offer and he is still one of us. But this is where Superman runs afoul of bias, for he is not us. And he makes us look reaallly bad.
Batman appeals because of his tortured and mutilated psyche. His head is a virtual haunted house of dual-personae, survivor guilt and parental abandonment. In a certain fashion and, hopefully only to an extent, we can all relate. Not so with the Kryptonian. Superman is an unflinching and unshakeable straight-arrow in his thoughts and deeds. He knows no self-doubt nor avarice, and is inflexible in matters of right and wrong. He is an idealised psychological simplification and perhaps this is what repulses us the most. By comparison, we are cowardly, stupid, indecisive and weak. We will all be orphans, someday. We might be lucky enough to have a fortune of millions bestowed upon us. Some of us may even dedicate our lives to honing ourselves into perfect and brutal fighting machines. But none of us are ever going to be born into a superior and advanced alien civilization, the last of our kind, completely unique. It is Kal-El’s extra-terrestrial origin and perceived perfection that offends the most. He could not be more alien, more ‘other’.
Yet, this is where Superman is at his most fascinating. His moral compass cannot have it’s origins in his corn-fed Kansas youth. Raised in an idealised, wholesome farming community, working the land and caring for animals; none of these things are guarantors of anything save a basic understanding of agriculture and economics. Despite, the romanticised notions of ‘salt of the earth’, it is an environment devoid of moral extremes and the notions of innocence and purity associated with pastoral landscapes are mere cliché. Consider how many spree or serial killers have had an identical upbringing. Like all of Superman’s attributes, his superior morality is rooted in his superior biology. Or, in this case, his superior neurophysiology. His brain is so unlike our own that it appears as an iron-cast, binary construct, partitioning all existence with an unbreakable Manichaean philosophy. Kal-El never has to ponder the right move in any given situation. In his black-and-white world, there are no grey areas and this is why he is capable of split-second action, harnessing his abilities to enact instant justice, and never be in the wrong. He makes no errors in judgement. In publications such as Brian Azzarello’s ‘Lex Luthor, Man of Steel’, we see Kal-El through the eyes of his nemesis, a horror of alien invasion received with unforgivable docility. An inhuman engine of destruction that borders on the infernal, destroying all in his path in the process of correction. Indeed, this is why some of the best Superman comic book stories deal with the removal of this percipience. When a being of such power makes even the slightest of mistakes, be it due to red kryptonite or the machinations of Brainiac, the consequences are colossal.
The problems with the Zack Snyder’s recent 'Man of Steel' motion picture are myriad. Leaving aside the technical and narrative failures, ignoring the crimes against canon, let’s focus on the purpose of this blog entry: Superman was not present in this movie. The screenplay depicts ‘Clark Kent’, confused and unsure, bumbling his way from one good deed to the next. During a supposedly formative experience, he watches his own father, Jonathan Kent, die a violent death rather than put himself at risk by exposing his abilities. Mr. Kent, according to legend, keeled over and died of a heart attack metres from his own home, perfectly illustrating to his impressionable foster child the true and ridiculous fragility of these humans. ‘MoS’ has a young Clark Kent cowering in shelter while his father is beaten to death in a tornado. This serves to teach the young alien…what exactly? Self-preservation at the expense of the weak? It is a confusing and erroneous deviation from the canon.
In the ‘final showdown’ set piece, to save a handful of human lives, somehow disregarding the tens of thousands that must have perished in their citywide brawl, Superman kills General Zod by breaking his neck. Setting aside issues with the unlikelihood of Kryptonian death under our yellow sun, this act is an impossibility in the mind of Kal-El. Murder to prevent murder is no viable option. The real Superman would have found a multitude of other options, of course. He’s Superman. By the movie’s own rationale, to remove the threat of Zod from Earth, he might only have removed himself, sacrificing his earthbound lifestyle in order to save the planet. He would have done that, without question. He’s Superman. He is fascistic in his implementation of selflessness and the preservation of all forms of life. The taking of a life by either action or inaction is anathema.
In perhaps his best written monologue, Quentin Tarantino has the titular character of 'Kill Bill II' deliver a summation of the Kal-El/Clark Kent dichotomy in order to illustrate the difference between the assumed and one’s true nature.
"As you know, I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favourite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well drawn. But the mythology … the mythology is not only great, it’s unique. Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S", that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak, he’s unsure of himself, he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race."
Though it’s easy to accuse Tarantino of regular insensitivity and plagiarist film-snobbery, in this matter he has perfect grasp of the relationship between Kal-El and his alter-ego. This is the encapsulation of Superman’s psychology. Yet, in an attempt to make Superman ‘dark and gritty’, the makers of 'Man of Steel' misunderstood the basic relationship between the two personae and began an exploration of the false identity, believing his ‘human side’ to be fertile ground for trauma and angst. You know, that ‘dark’ stuff that’s so hot right now. 'MoS' is an idiot’s version of ‘putting Superman right’, taking what makes Superman special and perceiving it as a problem. In an attempt to reinvent the wheel, they instead delivered a shiny sports car, with no engine nor steering.
Indeed, Bryan Singer’s ill-treated 'Superman Returns' is an even greater success by comparison. Acknowledging the character as a Christ allegory, the film is loaded with resonant imagery, content to harness our innate senses of wonder and awe and frame his very presence as near angelic interventionism. His ‘alienness’ is also compounded by performance. Rarely does Singer’s Superman betray any emotion, save for moments of utmost dramatic importance. Witness the scene where Kal-El realises his Kryptonian embassy on Earth, his ‘Fortress of Solitude’, has been soiled and thieved from. He does not slap his forehead or pace in frustration. Instead, he merely stares into the ice and he brims. His reaction is unreadable, foreign, yet we are very aware of it’s intensity. Superman Returns is the narrative successor to ‘Superman’ and ‘Superman II’, though it benefits from the massive improvements in comic book writing since the 70s. Heavy on psychology, it explores notions of paternity with the deceased mortal Jonathan Kent, the godlike Jor-El, the prodigal Kal-El, and the lost son, Jason White. Where SR favours character development and exposition, MoS instead fills running time with senseless fight scenes that, for all their visual effects, amount to placing two action figures in a clear plastic lunch box and shaking it vigorously. Empty noise when you consider SR's airplane rescue. A furious descent of near-misses and panic that results in an expression of pure power and benevolence, accompanied by snatches of Gregorian chant in the soundtrack. SR also makes several subtle steps to widen the scope of Kal-El’s existence. The line uttered by Perry White, “Does he still stand for truth, justice…all that stuff?” carefully omits the “and the American way” portion, acknowledging America’s difficult standing in the world due to a disastrous foreign policy. News reports of Superman saving lives across multiple continents and speaking in foreign languages, establish him as an adopted son of the planet, not solely the USA. Contrast this with MoS, whose action never deviates from American soil, and the line, “I grew up in Kansas, General. About as American as it gets!” This apparently is the narrow view of someone capable of interplanetary travel, to whom all humans are the same delicate, breakable wonders. Such a limited vision and diminution is uncharacteristic of a man whom we believe can fly, the last son of a forgotten world, the man of tomorrow. Reductive and thoughtless in every sense, surely the real man of steel deserves better.
List of images:
1. Still from Man of Steel, 2013
2. Lex Luthor, Man of Steel, Cover art by Lee Bermejo
3. Still from Superman Returns, 2006
Tumblr, like every other social network, is rife with fandom. But Tumblr, more so than say Facebook, lends itself particularly well to geekery due to its scrolling column format. It is heavily reliant on still images and short video, less so than text, because of it’s easy and speedy navigation. Multiple posts can be traversed with the flick of a finger so images have a tendency to be as striking as possible. The average ‘tumbler’ has a tendency to keep it concise and to the point. JPEGs and GIFs grant fans the opportunity to post fan art, their favourite scenes. A fandom feature of the past few years has been the ‘shipping’ of certain characters. ‘Ship’ is an abbreviation of ‘relationship’, the noun turned into a verb, and is what a fan does when they advocate romantic intimacy between two characters.
Given proven track records, writers of cult television serials seek to appeal to as wide a fan-base as possible. Pre-1990, most television shows only featured a token female character, usually the spouse or paramour of our main character. More recent shows have striven to maintain a healthy gender balance. Strong female characters draw in younger female fans while also providing eye-candy for the male gaze. While giant fandoms had existed before, Star Trek et al, I believe it was Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer that began a successful and higher quality trend. Maintaining a core set of male and female personalities and a rotating cadre of ‘big bads’, each of the series’ characters was treated to a love-life, the average number of partners per character being at least two. Obvious matches were dealt with, as were sexual tensions. The genius of the series’ romantic plots lay in timing. Attractions between characters simmered long term beneath the surface until passions exploded at entirely the right or, often more effectively, the wrong time. The introduction of a gay relationship, albeit a digestible lesbian pairing based more on sweetness than sex, added further strings to the bow and brought diversity and variety to the shows already complicated love stories. Though not often the shows most popular character, Buffy Summers herself acted as the lynch pin around which all others revolved. In a testament to fantastic writing, not one of her many relationships ever became tiresome. No easy feat when considering the botched romantic tensions of Mulder and Scully or (for fuck’s sake) Ross and Rachel. Buffy was involved with a string of men whose problems, supernatural or not, injected doses of real life issues into storylines. Obsession, inferiority complexes, addiction and basic incompatibility were all drawbacks in her love life. It felt real because, well, it was made to be. These were the very same humdrum and mundane thorns in our collective sides, the handicaps each of us bear in our quest for love and acceptance. With no character’s capacity for love unexplored, BtVS delivered for everyone.
And in a sense, it spoiled us.
Shows of the same era, though often of similar quality, were lacking in the romantic department. Roswell lacked variety, Stargate and Star Trek both lacked basic sex, X-files lacked focus, Farscape and Sliders lacked seriousness. It was not until the resurgence of ‘great TV’ that ensemble sci-fi/fantasy was once again revitalised.
HBO has scored a runaway hit with its adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire. Filmed as Game of Thrones, the television series has proven to be a perfect marriage of material and medium. HBO has long had a policy of auteur material, quality writing and adult content. Previous productions of note include David Milch’s Shakespearean western Deadwood, Alan Ball’sphilosophical family-drama Six Feet Under and Tom Fontana’s prison parable OZ. The network is known for taking risks and their investment in GoT has paid off. Currently one of the biggest shows on television, it has cross the board appeal, a melding of historical fiction, political drama and fantasy. It benefits from HBO’s no-holds-barred policy with brutal violence, scenes of sadistic torture and a virtual parade of nudity and sex, so much so that the death of major characters and gratuitous sex scenes have become the show calling card. With the tenet of big-screen thinking for the small-screen, other networks have adopted HBO’s liberal attitude. NBC, AMC and even MTV have all produced sci-fi/fantasy shows heavy in sexual and violent content. Coupled with the impossibility of imposing age restrictions and certification, the material inevitably falls into the hands of young adults, even teenagers. And it is there, gods bless them, that it thrives.
With unrestrained passion, young audiences fuel their favourite shows with free publicity, fan art, even treating each new episode as a social event with communal viewings in the flesh or via internet. With the pervasion of online social media, fandoms from different continents communicate and share their passions with weblogs in all their guises. And this is where it gets interesting. Or weird. Or both. With the aforementioned practice of ‘shipping’, fans cut and paste in order to support or influence writers into consolidating romantic relationships between their favourite characters. In most cases, it only just falls short of fan-fiction. In some cases, entire tomes have been written.
With GoT's rampant sex comes romance, and fandom's imagination is unleashed. Central to George R.R. Martin's writing are character relationships, complex unions and tenuous friendships. GoT has numerous pairings that fall tantalisingly short of fulfilment, rousing the tragic-romantic feelings within us all. The impracticality of some relationships are irrelevant. The Hound, Sandor Clegane, a scarred and murderous moral vacuum and Sansa Stark, a virginal damsel in constant frustrating distress, were one of many ‘ships’ proposed. This was despite the age difference, Sansa all of 14 years, The Hound a man of 30. The Kingslayer, Jaime Lannister, and Brienne of Tarth are another popular duo, a pairing slow in gestation and of an intricate psychology. The orphans Gendry Waters and Arya Stark would seem the most likely ‘ship’ to come to fruition, though circumstances conspire against them, and then there are the same-sex relationships that fans support and advocate. (Indeed, fandom is redolent with ‘slash fiction’. A quick search online for ‘Kirk/Spock’ will yield hundreds of scenes of an intimate nature.) In GoT, the chaste and frosty Stannis Baratheon and the staunchly loyal Davos Seaworth share something strong, unbreakable and unspoken but even they are not immune to the romantic ideas of shippers. The Red Priest, Thoros of Myr, and Beric Dondarrion, though having little screen time, prompted a strong response mostly due to their unabashed fondness for one another, or perhaps because one revived the other from death with a prayer and a kiss.
Other shows are also not insulated from the ‘gay-ship’. The more recent hit for NBC, Hannibal, an update and return to quality for one of cinema’s most notable villains, has spawned a massive ship in the form of Hannibal Lecter and his pursuer Will Graham. A slow, boiling relationship that precedes their ultimate enmity, Lecter and Graham’s screen time is pure televisual magic; patient, subtle and intimate. A study in traditional reversal, Lecter is an impenetrable shell of control and carefully restrained menace. Graham is a mess of emotions, given to expression and unfettered thought. The mirroring of the two characters is a constant in the show, as is the truth that in spite of their differences, they are each as crazy as the other. It is, obviously, an age-old opposite-but-equal adversity. But peruse the internet and every contact between characters is interpreted as an affectionate caress. Every understanding look becomes a smouldering expression of longing. ‘Hannigram’ is the shorthand for this couple who are the focus of several ‘ships and fan-fictions; entire blogs are devoted to the exploration of the tiniest of interactions. The fact that this is a nightmarish scenario of manipulation and exploitation does not dampen the ‘ships flame. The power balance, purely in favour of the villain, grants Lecter the role of ‘butch’ or ‘top’, with fan-fantasies picturing him bearing Graham to safety or acting in a more penetrative capacity.
The gay-ship is a two edged sword. Sociologically speaking, it shows, amongst the next generation, an attitude of acceptance and a degree of normalisation when it comes to same-sex partnerships. Though occasionally a perceived humorous jab at masculinity, these are still the musings and fantasies of loyal fans who love their characters. The sexualisation of male relationships is also a common practice in most fandoms where young females are concerned. In order to be desirable, idols are bestowed with an active and pervasive sexuality. But in order to neutralise any threat they might pose to the virginal or insecure, they are queered into a closeted persona. The same practice is common, and encouraged, in boy-bands and du jour in both K and J Pop. It’s considered cute and endearing.
The problem with the gay-ship, and shipping in general, is it’s reductive policy when it comes to analysing any relationship. If we were to take as an example the ‘ship of The Hound and Sansa Stark, we are ignoring so much character and psychology in favour of a traditional romance. Sandor Clegane is a complex character, contradictory and ambiguous, a corruption and critique of the traditional White Knight role. Sansa is a stereotypical damsel taken to an atrocious degree, orphaned and abused. In a less realist telling, the obvious result is a union but that would forego all paternal notions and empathy. There is absolutely no attraction there; they each serve as the other’s reality check, an effect that would be nullified by a forced romance. In the case of Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, the proposal wreaks such havoc with a philosophical and psychological balancing act that the idea is unconscionable. In addition to the Echo/Narcissus relationship that is occurring on screen, Hannibal is completely incapable of ‘liking’ or being attracted to anyone. His relationships with women, as surrogate sisters, and his curiosity regarding Will Graham is the closest he will ever come and still not close enough.
Sometimes the simplest answer is just another problem.
The MTV series, Teen Wolf, is a re-imagining of the original 80s movie starring Michael J Fox, though it bears more in common with Twilight than its source material. It is also a show that mires itself in easy answers. Indeed, ‘shipping any couple on the show seems redundant. Before watching a single episode of the show, I had taken for granted that the majority of the major characters were gay. Marketing consisted of hairless, toned torsos glistening in the shower after gym, boys with the same model haircut pushing each other up against lockers, and perfectly chiselled cheekbones and jawlines growling at each other, nose to nose. Unfortunately, it is not as politically subversive. There is one gay character whose sexuality is noted, yet the program steers clear of illustrating any form of homophobia. Rather than depicting homosexuals as targets for bullying or outcasts, the character is an ‘out’ jock, respectable, popular and well-liked. A push away from reality it may be (in a series that features werewolves) but the idyllic, bigotry-free high school is refreshing. The hierarchy of ‘jocks’ and ‘nerds’ remains, is essential to the storyline, but, here, gayness is normal. In fact, more than normal, downright fashionable. The show features an abundance of open-minded pretty-boys parading through the locker room, running topless in the moonlight, and wrestling on rooftops. It seems as though the definition of eye-candy has been re-written. The show was developed by the openly gay creator of Criminal Minds, Jeff Davis. The choice of another high-profile gay man, Russell Mulcahy, the creator of Highlander, to act as executive producer and direct key episodes added flourish but it is at the core, in the hands of the writers, that the real work is done. The female characters, though attractive, have yet to be subjected to any gratuitous boob or bum shots. Instead, they are well-written, smart individuals rallying against stereotypes of dumb cheerleader and girlfriend-in-distress. The show has it’s ‘one-true partnership’ in the form of ‘Sterek’; hyperactive, wily human Stiles and hunky, brooding werewolf Derek. The characters often find themselves thrown together, in states of undress, in confined spaces, and with Derek, the butch of the pair, roughing up his companion a little. Rather than a subtle implication, the relationship is conceived in full-flow, undeniably showy and explicit. The makers, seeming to cater to gay and female pet-likes from inception, know their audience full well and have delivered a package that will only alienate the homophobic, a minority among the sci-fi fantasy population. Still, Teen Wolf gives the ‘shippers nowhere to go because it is all already there, on the screen. Any attempt at subversion would be a step toward mere normality and even that is already covered by the central relationship of Scott and Alison. The writers do all the heavy-lifting for the fans, leaving them to capture stills, make GIFs and enjoy. It may be a show so completely in sync with its fandom that it is a guilty pleasure, but without the guilt of wishful thinking.
If Teen Wolf marks a turning point in the fandom/show relationship, one wonders what the next step might be. Shows that anticipate their audience’s needs are walking a fine line. Joss Whedon made a career out of unpredictability, giving his audience, not what they wanted, but what they needed. Sadly, a look at his post-Buffy track record shows how frustratingly poor he has been treated by studios, despite an ardent fan base. There is no clear answer how long TV shows can be maintained, regardless of quality or fandom. But fandom is eternal. And the ‘ship keeps sailing, in fair waters or foul.
List of images:
1. Cast of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, season 5
2. Sansa Stark and Sandor Clegane, Game of Thrones, season 2
3. Hannibal fan art, by Yanagoya
4. Stiles and Derek, Teen Wolf, season 1
ANYONE WHO AGREES WITH THIS LEVEL OF BIGOTED SUPERSTITION, PLEASE UNFOLLOW ME.
Trust me, we are incompatible.
Driven by hate.
Valhalla Rising is a 2009 film by Danish writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn. The title refers to the Nordic mythological afterlife, a place of reward for warriors who fall valiantly in battle. The film represents a collision of two belief systems; the waning Norse pantheon and the unstoppable monotheistic Christianity spreading through Europe. Set against the backdrop of the 11th century, the film begins with a scene of forced combat between two captives, while their captors sit in audience. The two combatants fight brutally and primitively, until a victor is declared. One eyed and with a scarred face, the protagonist is played by Danish actor and frequent Refn collaborator, Mads Mikkelsen. Throughout the film, he has no dialogue, is literally a mute. Fortunately, Mikkelsen delivers a performance of perfect pitch, minimal and restrained, yet brimming with a charismatic menace and threat. Considering the awe and fear with which other characters behold him, there is never any doubt the character is a most fearful and powerful individual. His silence and watchfulness grant him an otherworldly quality, as he waits patiently for years and his chance to escape. It is this otherness that is further compounded when his prophetic visions are revealed, snippets of the future that sear across the screen enhanced and vibrant, in stark contrast to the gloom and dim glow of the waking world. Whether the character uses his visions to his advantage or abandons his own free will to predestination is debatable. When a vision foretells the discovery of an arrowhead and means of escape, it is not the location of the weapon that is revealed, but the very fact of its discovery. If he has succumbed to a future already written, his philosophy and credo may be better understood. That all actions and lives are meaningless and the worms await us all. While being traded, he escapes his captors and massacres them brutally. There is ritual in the slaughter. One of his escorts is tied to a standing stone and eviscerated, bare-handedly. The Chieftain selling him is decapitated, his head displayed atop a spear. It is a gruesome display of hatred and contempt and all the more shocking for how dispassionately the atrocities are committed. The notions of his captors are confirmed to us; the mute is almost a force of homicidal nature, unstoppable and merciless.
After his escape, he wanders through the barren wilderness, followed at a distance. The young boy who fed and cared for him was spared and it is not long before the two are loose companions, the boy simply having no one and nowhere else to go. They wander almost aimlessly until they come across a band of Christian crusaders in the aftermath of a victory, their pagan opponents dead, their women held captive, naked. When they question the pair, the boy answers for them both, declaring our protagonist’s name to be ‘One Eye’. The group’s leader states that they are intent on travelling to and reclaiming the Holy land and offers One Eye a place among his group of fighters. Bringing the cross into the lives of pagans, before bringing the sword, their General seems firm in his faith, his followers less so. They are more akin to opportunist marauders, raping and pillaging in His name.
And it is here that the film’s subtle and ambiguous theme comes under examination. The character of One Eye is a Norse warrior possessed of, not only the gift of prophecy, but also death. He is possibly supernatural, though earthbound, and there are several clues to his derivation as a fallen deity of a passing age. Norse in origin, he bears marks that link him to Odin, the supreme god of victory and death. When he has visions, his image is often flipped, showing him looking through his ‘other’ eye. With the emergence of new religions and the waning of his own, the gallows god has fallen on hard times. With no worshippers and no homage, he is diminished to mortality and lives a frustrated existence, hateful of those who have abandoned him.
Once again, One Eye acquiesces to an earlier vision of travelling in a boat and he joins the Christians in their crusade. They begin their sea voyage but, after an amount of time, find themselves becalmed. They drift in their small vessel, their food and freshwater supplies running low and tempers fraying. Before long, the unnatural stillness gives them cause to believe evil forces are at work; that they are cursed for bringing the boy on board. One of the Christians moves to kill the child but he is stabbed by One Eye, who had been feigning sleep, and dumped overboard. The crew are near to mutiny, save for their fear of their silent companion and the voyage continues.
Much has been made of One Eye’s defence of the boy, sometimes viewing it as a redemptive move and a softening of the character. The action could also be viewed as another act of vengeance on superstition and stupidity. The crusaders had initially believed the boy to be a token of good luck and, after their becalming, conveniently make the opposite claim, looking for a scapegoat to their misfortune. Though pledging themselves Christian and men of god, their fear shows their beliefs for what they are; transparent excuses for murder and theft. It is perhaps because of their insincerity and the sailor’s foolish attempt at specious reasoning that One Eye kills him, and not out of any affection for the child.
When One Eye senses a change in the waters, he reaches overboard and drinks from what is revealed to be fresh water. They are no longer at sea but floating in a broad estuary and close to land. Scrambling ashore, they find, not the barren holy land of the east, but a strange environment that is bereft of edible vegetation and seemingly all animal life. They continue inland, bewildered by the foreign land but determined to bring their Christ to anyone they find. They find no one. They encounter raised platforms upon which rest desiccated corpses, apparently some form of aerial burial. Misinterpreting the custom, bewildered and frightened, they erect a crucifix in response and await war. When none comes they decide to seek it out. They travel upriver finding no signs of life until they are taunted by a single stone arrow that fells one of their number. They set ashore, swords drawn, yet still cannot find any foe to engage.
While much of the film would categorically be deemed historic fiction, it is this turn that introduces a science fiction concept to the narrative. Voyagers landing in a strange and hostile environment, they are bettered by an indigenous population they cannot fathom or behold. Indeed, when one of their number is abducted and then returned, his body covered in runes and his psyche permanently altered, the story shares much with an x-file tale of an alien returnee. He cannot tell where he has been nor what he has seen but speaks in profundities, serving to further terrify his fellows. He claims to hear One Eye’s voice saying they are in Hell.
Panicked, starving and fearful, a few of the crusaders turn their aggression toward One Eye, believing it was he who lead them to a literal incarnation of their Hell, a theory easily dismissed until closer examination. When they first meet, the Christians ask the boy where the mute had come from. The boy tells them he came from Hell, “on the other side of the ocean.” “Maybe that’s where we’re going.” the Christian general wonders, when it becomes clear things are not proceeding as planned. In this new land, the crusaders find whatever faith they possess and the position it afforded them to be useless. They lose their reason, are consumed by fear and confusion, and blame One Eye for bringing them to this place. When the child claims to hear One Eye’s voice, too, and begins to speak for him, they are pushed too far. Three of the Christians attack him only to be brutally and efficiently killed. He turns inland toward the unknown, pausing only to look at the child in silent invitation. With two surviving sailors in tow, they leave the general behind, driven mad by his failure, to be murdered, arrows piercing his body.
One Eye is unperturbed by any of these events and when he and the boy finally travel through the forest to the coast, the last crusaders dead by his, their own or unknown hands, the indigenous population reveal themselves. Though primitive, their race is unrecognisable to us and they possess a secure and easy calm. One Eye seems unsurprised by their sudden appearance. Indeed, he has foreseen it all. He nods to the child, touches him tenderly and walks among them, arms outstretched, and abandons himself to a fate already decided. He is struck a single blow across the back of his head and he falls, where he is quickly clubbed to death. The boy is permitted safe passage, though to what possible future it is hard to tell. The natives once again vanish into the land and the child is left alone. The film closes with One Eye, his image once again flipped, in an unknown place and experiencing another vision.
Both One Eye’s and the natives’ mercy towards the child can be a matter of debate. It is easy to advocate the preservation of innocence as the reason behind his survival, yet there is too much else to be concerned with. In revealing themselves to the pair, the natives discern between them and their fellow travellers, observing or knowing them to be separate. The surviving two are a yin and yang of opposites, yet coexisting in easy harmony, unlike their Christian companions. They have to be aware of the carnage One Eye has wrought and behold the child as being no threat. One Eye’s submissive gesture and sacrifice may balance the scales in their eyes, earn the right of the child’s survival and pay both their way.
One Eye seems to be determined that the child bear witness to both his deeds and his demise. The child survives with the potential to tell others of what he has seen; of a man unequalled in every capacity and possessed of a unique will and power. This is, after all, how legends are made. It might also be how gods are remade.
Note: I felt compelled to write this piece after reading some confused and badly written reviews of this film online. Those seeking a Braveheart-style quick fix will be sorely disappointed, while cineastes looking for something more will be rewarded. Valhalla Rising is unorthodox, challenging and altogether a near-perfect work by the team of Refn and Mikkelsen.
The lips that must be kissed.
Androgyny is equally troublesome and delightful for a vast number of reasons. Like many elements that appeal to the primal senses, it challenges society-imposed value systems. Taking male model Andrej Pejic’s career as a perfect example, one can see the issues inherent in different factions of society. Pejic bucks a trend in the fashion world by being naturally and definitively androgynous. Unlike female androgyne counterparts and overly made-up pretenders, when he appears unadorned and unaffected he is still a source of confusion, as our binary-gendered minds try to comprehend and choose an appropriate reaction. Whether a product of a unique chromosomal arrangement or a serendipitous combination of body type and bone structure, Pejic appears handsomely feminine in any light, mostly appearing to be a creature of pure youth and beauty. Throughout his career, Pejic has been used in unisex adverts and walked in bohemian and hipster fashions. It was not until later, after the waters had been tested, that he was sexualised. With his fame and male identity being common knowledge, the fashion industry realised the shock value in portraying him in seductive and submissive poses. It is thus his career has progressed, his androgyny now the subject, not the clothes. Images flirt with the softcore and the playful. In a recent creative photo shoot for the Serbian edition of Elle magazine, Dusan Reljin photo-shopped Pejic in a three piece suit cavorting with his lingerie-clad self. Interestingly, the images looked for all the world like two female models role-playing, such is the Western notion of beauty. In a Vogue Brazil editorial, when the subject was solely Mario Testino’s photography, the wild-card has been played. He has appeared fully nude, with a hand cupping his genitalia, his flat barely-muscled chest uncovered. While this may smack of freakshow, he is treated no worse than any other model in the industry, male or female. Respected, revered and, of course, objectified, he is never presented as anything other than beautiful and desirable.
Though he had been working as a model for some years before, Pejic first entered into controversy in 2011 when he was included at number 98 in a list of the ‘100 Sexiest Women in the World’ compiled by magazine FHM. Though this initially seemed like a progressive and open-minded stance not often associated with tabloid lads’ mags, the entry was hamstrung by the use of language. Underneath a picture of a reclining Pejic, silken legs in the air, the caption referred to him as ‘it’ and went so far as to utter “Pass the sick bucket!”. So new and appealing to the male gaze is Pejic that he apparently warranted inclusion. Yet, in a confusing and blatantly homophobic move, the magazine has to clarify that it is not, for one second, condoning this grotesque nor attracted to the young man. As with all bigotry, the message is self-contradictory. Though considered ‘a trap’, the androgynous represents a challenge to the priapic heterosexual and pornographically-stupified male. In an effort to prove just how potent they actually are, there is still a certain amount of posturing under the pretence that ‘a hole is a hole’. Pejic’s androgyny challenged the basic principles upon which ‘lad’ culture is founded, placing the subculture in a position where they had to put up or shut up. In a bumbling display of machismo, they attempted to do both.
The same month as the FHM débâcle, Pejic appeared topless on the cover of Dossier Journal, a New York-based magazine. Several vendors objected to seeing what they believed to be a bare-breasted woman on their shelves. Any magazine section in any vendor is usually replete with exposed skin. Disregarding pornography, male health and sports magazines feature topless, occasionally only underwear clad, men. With glamour magazines aimed at the female market, breasts are everywhere. Curve-hugging fabrics leave nothing to speculation, while ‘under’ and ‘side-boob’ shots are du jour signifiers of femininity. The female nipple seems to be the final frontier in the West, though several European publications have had a bare-all policy since the 80’s. The curvaceous bosom is almost a necessity, as recent studies have shown in the U.S.A. that women do not register other women in the media who measure less than a C-cup. Therefore, it was not a bosom that may have been deemed offensive, but a pair of male nipples, apparently the most inoffensive of nudities. US book stores Barnes & Noble and Borders sought to pre-empt their customers’ confusion, outrage and lack of deductive reason by only selling the issue after covering the image with an opaque sleeve. There was a genuine concern that the casual shopper may mistake Pejic for a topless, albeit flat-chested, female.
In the Paris fashion shows of 2011, Pejic began to model for renowned designer and provocateur Jean Paul Gaultier. In a first, Pejic took to the catwalk modelling both the male and female collections, causing a stir amongst the fashion press. Feminist groups, already heavily critical of the multitude of crimes committed by fashion against women, saw this as a calculated misogynist insult. Not bad enough that female models were competing to see who could eat the least, they were now being usurped by an idealised male vision of femininity that was also male. The choice of Pejic was seen as the latest in a long line of attacks on curves, health and femininity by the fashion industry. With the upper echelons of the fashion world dominated by male designers, photographers and agencies, and with the women as mere raw material, it would seem that the final master stroke would be to eliminate women altogether, ridding the industry of bothersome breasts and hips. Yet, female models still consistently earn higher wages than their male counterparts.
In a recent release by lifelong gender-botherer David Bowie, Pejic featured in the promotional video for 'The Stars are Out Tonight' directed by Floria Sigismondi. The short video also features that other bastion of androgyny, Tilda Swinton, as well as female models Saskia Brauw and Iselin Steiro. Within the storyline, quiet suburban couple Bowie and Swinton are menaced by new cross-dressing neighbours who break into their home and toy with the couple as they sleep, manipulating them into sexual deviancy and confusion. All in a day’s work for those concerned. One critic, uninitiated, decried the video and criticised the costumery, taking offence that, while the men were all sharply dressed in suits, the one young female was scantily clad in a cocktail dress and heels. I was tempted to reply that the ‘men’ were obviously female in gender and that the poor, objectified young ‘female’ was a Bosnian-born, Australian-raised sensation, who was having the time of his life.
Our story of the Stark children begins with the discovery of a dead direwolf and it is from this moment that the lives of the six siblings are inextricably linked with this legendary beast of the North. Mortally wounded in an altercation with a stag, the scene prophecies the future enmity between the most powerful family in the North of Westeros and the royal Southron family. Another product of this fight is the orphaning and adoption of six direwolf cubs by the Stark children at the relent of family patriarch, Eddard. There is a cub bequeathed to each of the children, trueborn or not, and it is from this moment that the personalities, fates and embodied themes of human and direwolf are intertwined.
"He’s killed too many men to fear them now."
Robb, the eldest son, takes as his the direwolf Grey Wind, a swift and powerful creature with a smoky grey coat and yellow eyes. The heir to the northern bastion of Winterfell, Robb’s life is by far the least complicated, but by no means at all easy. With the imprisonment and subsequent execution of his father, Eddard, Robb becomes an instrument of vengeance and justice. Rallying the North behind him, he is called ‘The Young Wolf’ by his enemies but hailed ‘The King in the North’ by his allies. Likewise, his direwolf becomes his bodyguard and an instrument of war. Unprecedented on the battlefield, Grey Wind becomes the tip of the spear, sent into enemy camps before raids, wreaking havoc and felling horse and rider with savage ease. When Robb’s life is threatened by insubordination, the direwolf restores order and respect in brutal fashion, as if responding to Robb’s silent whim. Both direwolf and master are disciplined, intelligent and deadly, and tragedy only befalls either when they are separated by Robb’s acquiescence to the Freys’ rules of hospitality.
“Red eyes, red mouth, white fur. Blood and bone, like a heart tree. He belongs to the old gods, this one.”
The ‘black sheep’ of the Stark clan, Jon Snow takes for his companion a white direwolf with red eyes. Following his father’s lead, Jon shares all the noble traits of Robb, yet is blessed with none of the advantages. Disinherited by bastard birth, his future is uncertain in all things but one; that nothing will ever be given to him. Though loved by Eddard, Robb, Arya, Bran and Rickon, he is despised by the Stark matriarch, Catelyn, and ignored by Sansa, taking her mother’s lead. As a result, Winterfell may be home, but not where his heart is. It is his quick wit that saves the direwolf pups from death, beseeching Eddard Stark to follow through on the symbolism of the grisly discovery of the dead stag and direwolf mother. That there are five direwolf pups and five Stark children, he rightfully excludes himself. It is only at the last second that he discovers an albino pup, separate from the others, and, thus, symmetry is achieved. The ‘runt’ of the litter, Ghost is as much marked as a misfit as his Master, though loved by his brethren. He is silent, sullen and watchful, attributes shared by Snow. Like all the other pairings, the two are inseparable and when Jon leaves for the Night’s Watch, Ghost accompanies him North to the Wall. He provides companionship during Jon’s friendless beginning and protection during the dark hours. Indeed, it is the direwolf’s presence that forces the Wildlings to reevaluate their captured Crow. In their eyes, he is a ‘warg’, capable of bonding with an animal and uncommon among the ‘kneelers’ of the South, and it is possible his defection is genuine. When Jon must leave Ghost behind before his ascent of the Wall, Ghost understands and finds his own way until, post-carnage, the two are reunited.
“She was the smallest of the litter, the prettiest, the most gentle and trusting.”
It is Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, that suffers the most tragic and short-lived of lives among her litter. She is, unfortunately, bonded with a master who is entirely ignorant of danger, a fantasist and a heedless romantic. Sansa’s idealised love in Joffrey puts her at odds with her brethren but it is her innocent direwolf that suffers for her sins. Following Lady’s execution, Sansa is forever a pawn in other players’ games, collateral by birth. Wolfless, she floats through intrigue and disaster, abused and hapless, becoming no wiser in the process. It may be harsh to say Sansa did not deserve a direwolf companion, but definitely fair to say Lady deserved a better mistress.
"She had yellow eyes. When they caught the sunlight, they gleamed like two golden coins."
Arya Stark names her direwolf Nymeria, after her hero, a warrior queen of legend. A tomboy since she could walk, Arya finds perfect symbiosis with her direwolf, kinship in inspiration and tenacity. Nymeria, under Arya’s influence, retains her wildness and sense of rebellion and their stories, though the direwolf’s is largely untold, are near-mirrors. When Nymeria wounds Joffrey in Arya’s defence, she is painfully but mercifully exiled and saved from certain death. Alone in the wilderness, she fends for herself until she grows to become an Alpha of her own wolf pack, leading attacks in the Riverlands on unsuspecting Lannister forces. The pack thrives under her leadership and they become a force to be reckoned with, huge in number and unafraid of humans. As Arya endures her own adventure, she has occasional dreams of running with a pack, of killing soldiers and of pulling the body of Catelyn Stark from a river. The two do cross paths in later life but, so changed are both by experience, one does not recognise the other. The young girl, unafraid, howls in greeting and the huge direwolf, feeling some kinship, howls back. Then both continue on their separate ways.
"The grey is strong, stronger than he knows."
Perhaps the most literal and best example of the Starks’ symbiosis with the direwolf is Bran. Second youngest of the clan, it is his attempted murder by Jaime Lannister that sets the Starks on their course of action. Though the suspected murder of Jon Arryn had drawn his father Eddard into intrigue and politics, Bran is the heart of the Stark family, an innocent and empathic young boy. Before the breaking of his body, he and his direwolf are constant companions, though the pup is unnamed. During his coma, the direwolves gather beneath his chamber window to lament his trauma and it is his own direwolf, that saves him from the second attempt on his life, tearing the throat from a would-be assassin. Bran, while unconscious, has vivid dreams, full of abstractions and portents and, when he finally awakes, he christens his direwolf with the first words from his lips. ‘Summer. His name is Summer.’ Bran’s journey in the midnight lands has not only unlocked what you might call psychic abilities, but also melded him with his direwolf, the colour of grey-silver and barley, in a more complete way than any other of his siblings. From then on, the two characters are unified, sharing thoughts and dreams until Bran can mentally inhabit Summer’s body, sharing his will and the direwolf’s instincts. He leaves his own broken body behind and can walk again. Indeed, so close is the bond between the pair, Bran is in danger of forgetting who he is, delighting in the hunt and the glory of nature. Though his abilities stretch beyond to almost any mind he chooses, Bran is Summer and Summer is Bran. The tale of one is the telling of the other.
"The black one is full of fear and rage."
A product of neglect, both by parent and author, Rickon Stark is the youngest of all the siblings, a mere child, and his direwolf reflects the lack of discipline and stability in his life. Though loved and cared for by Bran, he has lost his parents and elder family, his mentor in Maester Luwin and his teacher in Old Nan. Rickon has seen loved ones die, his home burned and come to the realisation that this is a terrifying world in which we live. In response, his direwolf Shaggydog, black furred and yellow eyed, has grown into an aggressive and fearsome beast. Reacting to Rickon’s insecurity and fear, Shaggydog brawls with his fellow direwolves and is quick to attack and kill humans brutally. Though Rickon’s good nature is never in doubt, he is still a child and this makes him and his direwolf a dangerously formidable and unpredictable pairing.
My grand uncle, PJ Mulcahy, when he trained soldiers in the Irish Army in self-defence (boxing). After this picture was taken, he left Ireland, modeled for Brylcreem, fought bareknuckle and appeared in the movies, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘The Guns of Navarone’. He was a womaniser, a brawler, a romantic and an adventurer. I miss him terribly.
They don’t make them like that anymore.