Monday, October 30, 2006

These are your favourite things

I undertook last night to defend Torchwood against its critics. Having seen last night's episode I'm less enthusiastic about this task than I was - about the kindest thing that could be said about episode 3 is that it was a load of old tosh. Still, I feel much more kindly disposed towards the series than Justin or Dave - and some of their criticisms strike me as not so much unfair as irrelevant.

I'll set the scene with a couple of Russell T. Davies' earlier hits.
DOCTOR: Look at these people, these human beings, consider their potential. From the day they arrive on this planet and blinking, step into the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do... no, hold on... sorry, that's the Lion King... but the point still stands!
VINCE: Yes, it is! Unrequited love - it never has to grow old and it never has to die!
A lot of Davies's dialogue - a lot of his best dialogue - is like this: elaborate, tasteless and entirely unbelievable, but at the same time moving, funny and enthusiastic.

Especially enthusiastic. Davies's imaginative world has three consistent features, all of which play in the direction of upbeat. There’s faith: faith in love and desire (which are seldom far apart); faith in emotions, and letting them out and acting on them; and ultimately an optimistic faith in people. Nothing is more characteristic of Davies than his setting a vision of the end of the world, in the eponymous Doctor Who episode, five billion years in the future:
DOCTOR: You lot, you spend all your time thinking about dying, like you're going to get killed by eggs, or beef, or global warming, or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible. Like maybe you survive.
Then there’s sex. For Davies there’s always sex - he’s described it as the single most basic plot driver, whatever the plot is. The promise that Torchwood delivers on (or at least promises to deliver on) was made by Doctor Who as long ago as Captain Jack’s first appearance, and as recently as the Doctor’s parting with Rose. (And remember the Doctor and Rose tumbling out of the Tardis into Victorian Scotland? Why were they so unsteady on their feet - and why were they giggling so much?)

The third key element of Davies’s vision - and the one which seems to have given Dave and Justin the most trouble - goes back, I think, to Davies’s early days as a screenwriter for children’s TV. It’s a quality which Torchwood and Doctor Who share with Buffy and Serenity but not with Star Trek, let alone Star Wars. It’s a kind of unencumbered, disrespectful, not-quite-adult lightness, flippancy even. This is partly about the dialogue - you don’t ask whether a line is credible, you ask whether it sounds good in performance - but it also goes deeper, to the level of character. You don’t say, What does the willingness to do this say about Character X? or How will Character X handle the consequences? You say, Would Character X do this? What about you - would you? What about if you could get away with it, would you then? The characters aren’t burdened with foresight or moral reflection, and the writing doesn’t take up the slack with foreshadowing or ominous sound effects. They do what they do, and the consequences come along later to bite them - or not, as it suits the plot. And what they do is what you would do, if you weren’t too inhibited, too boring, too grown-up. I felt quite comfortable with this element of Torchwood - or rather, I wasn’t consciously aware of it - until I read Dave’s comment
The writing team has a low opinion of their creation’s integrity; three out of six are office thieves.
and Justin’s:
A member of the Torchwood team is revealed (in a *hilarious* scene) in the opening episode as a bisexual rapist who traps his victims using an alien aftershave he’s borrowed from work that makes him irresistible.
Office thieves? Rapist? They borrow stuff from work (including the said alien atomiser which induces immediate desire in anyone who gets a whiff). Sure, they’ve been told not to do it - but with stuff like that lying around, well, you would, wouldn’t you?

Youth, sex and optimism: the trio embodied in Queer as Folk in under-age Nathan, amoral Stuart and the eternally hopeful Vince, and subsequently rolled into one in David Tennant’s Casanova, John Barrowman’s Jack Harkness and (most strikingly) Tennant’s Doctor. This isn’t a world where gains are wiped out by their cost, where dilemmas are unresolvable or where darkness means more than the absence of light. It’s a bright and mostly beautiful world, where external threats needs to be resisted because people matter - and people matter because of their capacity to love. It’s also a world brought to us in a hectic patchwork of action scenes, character development, horror, plot exposition, character-based comedy, backstory exposition, beautiful camerawork and moments of calm, still wonder.

It’s not Our Friends in the North; it’s not even ER. It’s not trying to be. But what it does, it does well. At its worst it’s tosh (albeit beautifully-executed tosh), but at its best it’s good.

Update 31/10

Whoa, comments! Sod the politics (and the music), Whoblogging is obviously the way to go.

There's some interesting stuff coming out. Jonn:

"So far the pattern seems to be that a) the Torchwood team have moral compasses that are spinning wildly; b) Gwen is already getting corrupted by it all (look at the shooting range scene); c) Jack isn't nearly as concerned about these missteps as he should be
but I trust the moral grey area stuff to be going somewhere. In fact I suspect it's what the show is going to be all about."


"Torchwood are supposed to be acting in humankind's best interests- they keep a lid on things because others can't be trusted. But the thing is can they? This isn't subtle extrapolating, the question is more or less baldly asked by Gwen, a policewoman brought in to be the team's moral compass.

This is a post watershed show, there is scope for the central characters to be devious and amoral."

A couple of preliminary thoughts. Firstly, I think RTD is a genuinely amoral writer, partly because he sees morality as anti-sex and partly because he likes people. In other words, I think he'd argue that if you just wind people up and let them go it'll work out for the best, probably, for most people - and that even if it doesn't always work out well it's still a better alternative than trying to control them. So I don't think an RTD character is ever going to be riven with self-doubt - or if they are they'll probably grow out of it (cf. Vince). Secondly, there's a question of genre (and in this respect I stand by the comparison with Buffy); you could even say that a basic character makeup of looking for fun and acting without forethought (but learning from the consequences) is a genre convention for this kind of drama.

That said, even I found the shooting-range scene hard to take. I haven't seen lethal violence made to look so attractive since the Matrix - and even that didn't make it look so sexy.

So, I dunno. Two basic possibilities, I suppose. Perhaps it really is just the Double-Deckers with added sex and guns, in which case I'd reluctantly concede that RTD may have pushed the young/sexy/optimistic thing a bit too far into amorality - and amoral nastiness at that. Or perhaps there's some dark stuff coming, but it's not really being foreshadowed - which would fit with the lack of overt morality and the "act first, reflect later" thing. (Let's not forget, the first episode included a character who'd become a serial killer for the love of Torchwood - and who killed herself onscreen. That's pretty dark.)

The big question for me is what they're going to do with Captain Jack - the second and third episodes have suggested that he's not the best person to look after the kids he's surrounded himself with, what with being an amoral bisexual seducer, but also that he's so damn attractive that you probably wouldn't care. Gwen's relationship with her partner - who's been laboriously established as a boring old Welsh spud - is going to be one to watch, I think.

One last update 2/11

It occurred to me today - not that I'm brooding over this obsessively or anything - that the key to Captain Jack may be that odd scene with Gwen where he told her that he couldn't die, and added that if he could find "the right kind of doctor" he might become mortal again. We all spotted the D-word, of course, but was there something else going on there? Why would somebody who'd just survived being shot in the head want to be mortal again? What this suggests to me is that, despite all the tall buildings and general Neoish posturing, the Captain Jack we're seeing is damaged goods. He's survived a major trauma (none more major) and been abandoned by his closest friends - and now, perhaps, he's trying to outrun the effects by turning stress into duty ("Gotta be ready!").

Alternatively, perhaps it really is just a load of old tosh.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Driving aloud

He was writing in 1959 (and he was wrong about the helicopters), but Debord got driving right:
A mistake made by all urban planners is to consider the private car (and its by-products, such as the motorcycle) as essentially a means of transport. In reality, it is the most notable material symbol of the notion of happiness that developed capitalism tends to spread throughout society.
Isolated and in charge, every driver is (in fantasy at least) being driven, being transported; every man his own chauffeur! Every driver is a privileged being, someone superior to everything else in sight. Get these dead bodies off my racetrack! I wonder whether cycling incarnates - or, less ambitiously, symbolises - an alternative notion of happiness. I sense that it could: the obdurate materiality of cycling - the unavoidable contact with the road and the weather, not to mention the effort it takes to get anywhere - suggests a much more physically engaged, and much more egalitarian, vision of travel than driving can ever be. (The same goes for walking and for public transport, pretty much.)

But driving isolates. I feel similarly about wearing headphones in public - which these days I almost never do, train journeys excepted. One of the most uncanny musical experiences I've had occurred when I was sitting on a bus with the Gang of Four's third album on my walkman:
Everybody is in too many pieces
No man's land surrounds our desires
To crack the shell we mix with others
Some lie in the arms of lovers

The city is the place to be
With no money you go crazy
I need an occupation
You have to pay for satisfaction

We live as we dream, alone
To crack the shell we mix with others
Some flirt with fascism
Some lie in the arms of lovers

It was an extraordinary combination: on one hand there was the power of the music - Hugo Burnham's drumming is mixed really high on that track - and the awful minatory aptness of the lyrics; on the other, there was the awareness that, vast and all-embracing as the sound was for me, nobody else could hear it... We live as we dream, alone - never more so than when listening to music on headphones.

Or listening to music in a car - and when I'm driving, alone, I almost always have music on. (If you're going to be locked into a dream of mechanical omnipotence, you might as well control the soundtrack.) Some songs work particularly well for me. For short and familiar journeys, a particular kind of lyric can be good. About eighteen years ago I discovered Prefab Sprout's first album (Swoon) and loved it instantly. What I responded to was the lyrics, and particularly the sense that Paddy McAloon didn't care whether anyone understood them or not:
Are they happy to see you? No,
You always bring trouble.
Cast a shadow on Mexico -
Denial doesn't change facts.
Unlike Wire (say) the disjointedness didn't seem showy or self-indulgent; I felt that he knew perfectly well what he was talking about, and if nobody else got the point, too bad for everybody else. (Prefab Sprout's subsequent albums have nothing like this wilfully cryptic quality, more's the pity, although you can hear a bit of it on McAloon's peculiar solo album I trawl the Megahertz.)

I got something like the same vibe from "To you alone" by the much-lamented Beta Band, which for some time was a fixture for short journeys in town:
She's like the snow-capped trees in my jigsaw,
Loose at the seams with inferior dreams
She's like a fool that you meet in the heart store
Hand in the pail and the blacker the veil,
The blacker the veil...
I have no idea what Steve Mason is talking about here, but when you listen to the track he seems to know. And after a few listens they're great lyrics to sing, talk or mutter along to, half-consciously, while the other half of your consciousness deals with the same old traffic lights and gear-changes.

The other great boon for town driving is the song that makes the experience seem more exciting than it really is (which mostly, after all, it really isn't). Volume is important here. The Dandy Warhols' "We used to be friends" works well, particularly if you can time it so that the car is at least in motion when the bass kicks in. Super Furry Animals' "Ice hockey hair" is also good, particularly for journeys that don't last much longer than its 6:57 duration.

Motorway driving is another matter - apart from anything else, most of the time there's no point picking out individual tracks. But I can think of a few recurring situations which have their own ideal soundtrack.

For beautiful but long and unchanging stretches of motorway, particularly where the road curves gently in one direction or the other for miles at a stretch, so that you can watch an evenly-spaced series of vehicles ahead of you passing down the curve like beads on a wire: The Divine Comedy, "Eric the Gardener". Orchestrated by Joby Talbot, this song is built around a six-note phrase which repeats, unaltered, throughout the song's 8 minutes and 26 seconds (not counting a patch towards the end where it fades out before coming back in). All this while oceanic strings sweep over you, like nothing so much as that J.G. Ballard short story where somebody has the experience of drowning in the hugely-amplified sound of a kiss. The lyrics are about a metal-detector enthusiast (viz. Eric), and about history, and how history has always got to the world before you:
Dig deep and dig some more
Dig to the planet's core
Dig till you've gone out of your mind
But all you will ever really find
Is Eric the gardener

Chilling and strange, and beautiful - and mesmeric, and very long.

For driving down a stretch of unfamiliar motorway after realising you've missed the junction you wanted, not knowing how far it is until the next roundabout but wanting to get there as quickly as possible, in the rain: Ed Kuepper, "Today Wonder". From the album of the same name - which is a record of some casual and unhurried sessions with guitar and drumkit - "Today Wonder" consists mainly of a medley of Donovan's "Hey Gyp" and Eric Burdon's "White Houses"; Burdon has recorded "Hey Gyp", so I should imagine he came up with the medley first. I don't know how many chords Ed Kuepper plays in "Today Wonder", but I wouldn't be too surprised if the answer was 'two'; he's the kind of guitarist who doesn't seem to play a chord the same way twice. The effect here is of a dense, hypnotically repetitive pattern of strumming, overlaid with a shifting range of augmentations and pulls and, er, other things you can do to jazz up a guitar chord. It's great - all the more so when combined with the yearning, frustrated and frankly rather pissed-off sound of Kuepper's vocals:
Gonna buy you a Ford Mustang
Gonna buy you a wedding ring
Gonna buy you a mansion on a hill
If you'll just give me some of your love
Please give me some of your love

For driving down an unfamiliar motorway in the dark, uncomfortably aware that you don't know where you are or how to get to where you want to go, but stubbornly convinced that the next junction will give you enough information to tell whether you're going the right way or not, or failing that the one after next: the Doors, "Break on through". Or just about anything else by the Doors, within reason. It can be an unforgettable experience. I drove about sixty miles listening to the Doors' Greatest Hits, once. I was only going from Reading to Bracknell.

For the M25, and in particular for sitting stock still in the second of four lanes, in the sun, completely surrounded by equally stationary traffic, but unable to relax for a second in case the queue started to move again as it had done several minutes ago: Soft Machine, "Facelift". Or, more generally, the wonderful Hux double CD of [the] Soft Machine's BBC sessions from 1967 to 1971 - but there's something about the sheer self-confidence and abrasiveness of "Facelift" that makes it particularly relaxing, somehow.

There's a fugal, "go away, I'm busy" quality to this and to several of the other tracks I've listed here; I'm not sure if that's what makes them particularly well suited to driving, which is fundamentally a rather strange, alienated experience. I'm not sure whether they assuage or exacerbate it, either. As my use of words like 'hypnotic' up there suggests, part of what's going on here is that the music gives part of your mind something to chew on while the rest concentrates on manoeuvring a large and solid lump of metal at high speed. Perhaps this is a dangerous luxury, and driving in near-silence would induce the driver to devote all of his or her attention to the road. Or perhaps, in the world behind the windscreen, silence just creates more scope for free-association and daydreaming - perhaps the driver with music on is actually less distracted, by virtue of having something to concentrate against.

It's a strange world, the world we drive in, but it's a world that can change (and may soon have to). Debord:
The breaking up of the dialectic of the human milieu in favor of cars (the projected motorways in Paris will entail the demolition of thousands of houses and flats although the housing crisis is continually worsening) masks its irrationality under pseudopractical justifications. But it is practically necessary only in the context of a specific social set-up. Those who believe that the particulars of the problem are permanent want in fact to believe in the permanence of the present society.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Step right up and show your face

The following letter appeared in the 20th October Independent.
Sir: My fellow countrymen seem bewildered by the niqab, a bewilderment rapidly turning into anger and repulsion; but it is just a simple garment with a simple purpose.

Every other person in Britain has been affected by infidelity, and it all boils down to either party having been charmed by someone else, hence losing interest. Britons are so used to this reality that they view any means of prevention, however logical, as absurd and futile.

Dress code plays an integral part in the promotion of fidelity in a society. Islam seeks to preserve the family and quash promiscuity. Immodest dress is a direct cause of this vice. As for men, in Islam they need to be in the world of work for most of their day, and wearing similar clothing would be a major impediment. Islam prescribes this formula as the only way to attain harmony and peace in marital life.

Do commentators and politicians honestly believe an extra garment worn only outside the house means a woman loses her meaning, her value, her self? This is a backward and oppressive concept which amazingly is being referred to as "progressive" and "empowering".

A woman in niqab is not a mere shadow; she has family and friends who know and appreciate her. They are the only people she is concerned with and who should be concerned with her. A friend of mine complained: "For God's sake, I have a great life, I have a family, friends, go to parties, and everyone I know knows me. The only people who I haven't been quality-stamped by is the public, and I don't see why I need to be."

I and many other Muslim women view the present furore as nothing but a politicised version of being nosey.

Women's faces should be concealed, lest they charm another woman's husband. Promiscuity is a vice. Sex is dangerous. Sex is caused by women's attractiveness to men.

Men need to be in the world of work. Women don't.

A woman's family and (presumably female) friends are the only people she is concerned with and who should be concerned with her.

I grew up in a society which had been deeply affected by the achievements of the women's liberation movement and its successors. As a result, I grew up in a society where attitudes like those expressed in this letter would be laughed at, or at best treated with pity and scorn. I don't respect these attitudes or the practices which derive from them; I don't believe they deserve respect. I believe they're an insult both to women and to men, and should be criticised on those grounds.

This isn't to say that they shouldn't be tolerated. The most worrying thing about the current furore about the veil is that the difference between tolerance and respect seems to have been forgotten or obscured, on both sides of the debate. Defenders of the niqab argue that it's just one more outwardly visible sign of religious observance, like a crucifix or a turban, and should be respected as such; I don't need to restate my disagreement with this position. But critics of the niqab go to the opposite extreme, arguing not only that the niqab is objectionable but that women should be asked - or compelled - to remove it. I detest the niqab - come to that, I'm not at all keen on hijab in general, which seems to me to embody very much the same set of sexist assumptions - but I was shocked and offended by Jack Straw's casual revelation that he asks niqab-wearers to unveil. I find myself in qualified agreement with this columnist from the Arab News:
Mrs. Azmi was suspended not because she is Muslim but because she is unable to perform her job to the standard that parents have a right to expect for their children. If she believes that it is her religious duty to wear the full-face veil — as she does — then clearly she cannot be asked to remove it, but neither can she expect to teach in a mixed-gender environment. I have no doubt that Aishah Azmi is a dedicated and capable teacher but she should be teaching at a single-gender school where she can be free to teach without a face cover. Clearly she knows this since she did not wear a face covering to her job interview at the school.

There are a host of jobs that Muslims cannot undertake. Some, like wine tasting, are out of bounds for men and women. Others, like being a lifeguard, are out of bounds for veiled women. It is in the nature of the job. It is ludicrous to cry racial discrimination because the job we wish to do is incompatible with our religious customs.
One final note on the sexism of the niqab. Apparently Aishah Azmi was happy to teach a class of children unveiled, as long as she could replace the veil if a male member of staff came into the room. Picture the scene: a man comes into the room, the woman hides her face. What message does that send to the girls in the class? What message does it send to the boys?

PS Fortuitously, Brian (who didn't grow up in the 1970s) has been thinking along similar lines.

Update 23/10
Rob, in comments: "to tolerate something requires that you disapprove of it"

Interesting angle. Apparently on Question Time the other night the idea that this is historically a tolerant society (and so why should we have a problem with this?) got a lot of play. My first reaction to hearing this was to laugh out loud - we may live in a society which respects non-white and non-Christian cultures now, but it sure as hell wasn't like that in the 1960s and 1970s, to go back no further than that. (Flicker of sympathy for the anti-Islamophobia lobby at this point. On the anti-racism front we've come a long way, in quite a short time.)

But tolerance - in the sense of "I think the way you live is wrong but you've got a right to carry on doing it, as long as it doesn't harm anyone else" - probably is better-rooted in this society than intolerance ("I know the way you live is wrong and you've got to stop it right now"). And it's intolerance, of course, which Straw and Kelly play to. All very communitarian, in New Labour's understanding of the word - compare Cameron's ostentatious tolerance of 'hoodies'.

(There's a difference between tolerance (public attitude) and toleration (official stance), but since Straw & co are effectively playing both ends - evoking intolerance in support of decreased toleration - the difference may not make much difference in this case.)

Update 30/10

Is this the witness, friar?
First let her show her face, and after speak.

Pardon, my lord; I will not show my face
Until my husband bid me.

What! are you married?

No, my lord.

Are you a maid?

No, my lord.

A widow, then?

Neither, my lord.

Why, you are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife?

My lord, she may be a punk; for many of them are neither maid,
widow, nor wife.

[From Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1. 'Punk' = prostitute]

Karen Armstrong (via Rob) makes some excellent points drawing on her own experience of veiling as a member of a Catholic religious community [sic], a group which has attracted its own share of opprobrium in this country:
When my order was founded in the 1840s, not long after Catholic emancipation, people were so enraged to see nuns brazenly wearing their habits in the streets that they pelted them with rotten fruit and horse dung. Nuns had been banned from Britain since the Reformation; their return seemed to herald the resurgence of barbarism.
She also brings out the history of governmental and imperial oppression which official demands to un-veil bring with them. It's as well to be reminded that reactionary customs may be a resource of resistance to the coercion of state-sponsored liberalism.

And yet, and yet. There's a large hole in Armstrong's argument; she ignores or obscures the crucial difference between the nun's veil and the niqab. To take the veil is to devote oneself to God: it's an emblem of withdrawal from any kind of involvement with society or with men, and of being set apart from the great majority of women. To become a nun, in a time when the options for women are defined by their relationship with a man (maid, widow [or] wife - or prostitute), was to refuse a role in a gender-defined social structure; for some women it could be an act of self-determination, even rebellion. To put on the niqab is an act of religious duty, and it's an emblem of withdrawal from involvement with male-dominated society, but these similarities are deceptive. The niqab-wearer's withdrawal from society goes along with a continuing relationship with one man (and his children). It's a way of living within the framework of maid, widow or wife, not withdrawing from it - and its advocates recommend it for all women, even (or especially) those women who are already actively refusing to live a life defined by gender roles. If putting on the niqab is a rebellion, it's a rebellion against self-determination. In many respects it's the polar opposite of the nun's veil.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Don't go changing

I recently read Alison Lurie's New York Review of Books article on C.S. Lewis and Narnia. It's worth reading, if you haven't seen it; her Guardian article includes some of the same material but is much shorter.

This, in particular, leapt out at me:
Many readers have been infuriated by Lewis's final condemnation of Susan Pevensie, the former wise and gentle Queen Susan, as "no longer a friend of Narnia." In The Last Battle she is cast out of Paradise forever because at twenty-one she speaks of her earlier experiences as only a childhood fantasy, and is "too keen on being grown up" and "interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations." Apart from the fact that these seem very minor sins, it is hard to believe that Susan could have changed that much and forgotten her happiness in Narnia and her commitment to Aslan. Apologists have claimed that her banishment was necessary to demonstrate that even those who have once been saved can fall from grace. Nevertheless it has seemed deeply unfair to many readers that Edmund, Susan's younger brother, who has betrayed the others to the White Witch, is allowed to repent and stay in Narnia, while Susan, whose faults are much less serious, is not given the opportunity.

It's not a new criticism, but I think Lurie's wording is particularly forceful: it is hard to believe that Susan could have ... forgotten her happiness in Narnia and her commitment to Aslan. What this brings home to me - the last phrase in particular - is that, if Aslan is (more or less) Christ, then Susan had been as much a Christian as the other three children; if belief in Aslan equates (roughly) to Christian salvation, then Susan had been saved. But nylons and lipstick and invitations were enough to damn her - quite literally, as the Last Battle ends with Aslan enacting the final division of sheep and goats.

There's an interesting defence of Lewis on this point on a blog written by two Christians:
Lewis is at this point deliberately illustrating a very Christian contrast, between the forgiveness Jesus holds out to even the very worst person who turns away from their sin, and the rejection Jesus promises for those who finally reject him:
I tell you that any sinful thing you do or say can be forgiven. Matthew 12:31 (CEV)

The master will surely come on a day and at a time when the servant least expects him. That servant will then be punished and thrown out with the ones who only pretended to serve their master. Matthew 24:50-51 (CEV)

Jesus himself told a story about the jealousy that this free offer of forgiveness arouses in some people, in Matthew 20:1-16. The idea of unmerited forgiveness does seem “unfair” to us, but it is also unfair to accuse Lewis of carelessness in this instance, where he is in fact being careful to follow what Jesus taught.

It's a fair point, but it doesn't go far enough. The real problem is that, in order to illustrate this contrast, Lewis put a traitor to Aslan in the role of repentant sinner, and made his despiser of God a young woman who liked going to parties. In other words, as Lurie says, Lewis 'allowed' Edmund but not Susan to repent. The same contrast could just as well have been worked in reverse, with the committed opponent of Aslan turned away from salvation and the worldly backslider seeing the error of her ways. Susan even had form in the matter of backsliding and redemption: one of her main functions in Prince Caspian is to doubt Aslan and then regain her belief in him. But by the time of The Last Battle, Susan’s worldly unbelief seems to have hardened, in Lewis’s mind, into something worse: she ends up in very much the same position as the characters in the Last Battle who genuinely opposed Aslan. Admittedly we don't actually see her being cast out into the darkness - but we certainly don't see her in the Narnia-beyond-Narnia which is Lewis's final vision of Heaven. She doesn't even end up marooned in Heaven while not believing in it, the ironic fate of a group of selfish and mistrustful dwarfs - they're good-hearted underneath, presumably.

So what's going on here? Philip Pullman got this mostly right:
Susan ... is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn't approve of that. He didn't like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up.

(Lewis: When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown-up.) Susan hasn’t simply taken sides against Aslan rather than for him; she’s changed, in a way that takes her right out of the Narnian picture. The adult Susan is somebody for whom belief in Aslan - i.e. Christianity - is neither a good thing nor a particularly bad one; she doesn’t think in those terms. And this transition, for Lewis, is far worse than the transition from virtue to sin. Not to care about sin is the truly unforgivable sin - which is to say, it’s the sin which determines the sinner not to seek forgiveness. And, for Lewis, the desire to be very grown-up, and in particular the desire to be a grown woman, is incompatible with caring about sin - so into the outer darkness with Queen Susan.

I think this is just how it was for Lewis - which in turn makes you wonder about how his mind worked. What kind of religion is it that makes indifference to itself the worst possible sin? Or rather, indifference to religion - the ranks of the saved, at the end of The Last Battle, include lifelong worshippers of Tash (the bloodthirsty god of the swarthy Calormenes), but no atheists (with the possible exception of those dwarfs). The bad news is that being good doesn’t get you into Heaven unless you’re also a believer; the good news is that it doesn’t much matter what you’re a believer in. To believe in something is the main thing: something beyond; something other; something not here. To do good is a good thing - which is reasonably uncontroversial; say what you will about Christianity, it’s hard to argue that Love thy neighbour as thyself is bad advice (particularly when coupled with the “Good Samaritan” gloss on the ‘neighbour’ part). But doing good for no other reason than that it’s a good thing isn’t virtue; to be virtuous, good deeds need to be done for the sake of something utterly removed from the people they actually benefit. To be virtuous, in other words, is to do good not because it’s good but because it’s right: to judge your actions by criteria entirely different from the question of whether other people benefit or suffer from them.

It's this abstract, disciplined calculus of virtue which is threatened by the onset of nylons and lipstick and invitations. For Lewis, growing up - becoming a sexual being, not to put too fine a point on it - was a fall from grace, not because adulthood meant living in sin but because it meant living in the world. The world we know, Lewis believed, is only a poor shadow of a real world we can only know through the imagination. As early as the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis rhapsodises about the vividness, intensity and power of Narnian experience, then cautions his readers that, regretfully, we had never experienced anything like it and never would. (Neither had he, of course.) The land where the three good Pevensies go, at the end of The Last Battle, is described as brighter and more vivid - more real - than even Narnia. Lewis's vision recalls the sad but ghastly words of Christina Rossetti in "In the bleak midwinter":
Our God, Heaven cannot hold him
Nor Earth sustain
Heaven and Earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign

To be a Christian, for Rossetti, is to worship God and commit oneself to Him, in the consciousness that our God is greater than anything we know and anything we can imagine. God has no imaginable connection with the world; the Incarnation is more tragic than glorious, and more pathetic than tragic. In this perspective, to withdraw from immediate sensuous engagement with the world - and to devote oneself to oceanic fantasies of being ever more utterly abased, ever more utterly known, ever more utterly forgiven - was not a retreat from reality but a closer approach to it. Further up and further in!

If that's what Narnia stands for, I'm with Susan. As Pullman says, Lewis’s version of Christianity is not only shot through with racist, sexist and elitist attitudes; at a much more fundamental level, it’s ‘anti-life’.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Serene machine

There's a lot to dislike about Serenity, but...

Actually, no - there's not much to dislike about Serenity. (Joss Whedon's address to the fans, now, that is dislikeable. It's three parts you-guys-are-great motivational pitch, two parts my-mental-horizons-are-expanding-right-now! Emersonian wonderment and one of saving irony; it's very American, in other words. But you can always ignore it and just watch the film.)

Serenity does have one big flaw and one major weakness. The flaw is closely related to one of the film's great strengths: the dialogue. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon gave the world an unprecedented three-way hybrid - genre-based action crossed with teen heartache, presented in language as mannered and frivolous as Wilde. (Sure, it looks easy now...) Serenity is coming from the same world, only with grownups instead of teenagers and outer space instead of the occult. But the language... Here are two excerpts:

- This landing is gonna get pretty interesting.
- Define "interesting".
- "Oh God oh God we're all going to die"?

This is the captain. We have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then explode.

There's a scene early on in Good morning Vietnam, when Robin Williams' manically free-associating DJ first lets rip. After a few minutes he finds a gap in his stream of consciousness big enough to fit a record in; then he kills the mike, looks up and says "Too much?" For a moment it's as if Robin Williams is seeking reassurance from the director of the film. Of course it wasn't too much, it wasn't that kind of film; in real life it would have been enough to get the guy suspended from army radio pending psychiatric reports, but never mind. (The true story on which GMV was based is a quieter affair, by all accounts.) But either one of the lines quoted above verges on too much, and using them both in the same scene tips the film momentarily from 'adventure film with gags' to 'Airplane with SFX'. Joss Whedon's a fine writer, particularly with regard to the cracking of wise, but as a director he needs to rein that writer in.

Still, there really isn't a lot to dislike about Serenity - and there is a lot to like, starting with the great majority of the dialogue. I liked the odd, sketched-in back-story, and the way the names of the characters ranged from Star Trek-standard ('Inara', 'Shepherd Book', 'Fanty and Mingo') to just plain standard ('Malcolm Reynolds'). I liked the ventures into Andre Norton 'space Western' territory (two genres, count 'em), and the way Whedon is clearly conscious of going there: at one point our heroes are driving across a semi-desert planet pursued by a gang of savages who want to kill them, and sure enough, arrows begin thudding into the ship. (Possibly spears, but the resonance was there.) I liked the technology, which has a solid, grungey, Chris-Foss-with-rust quality to it: the ship being chased through the scrub looks like nothing so much as a JCB, albeit one which (to paraphrase Douglas Adams) is flying through the air in exactly the way a JCB doesn't.

I also liked the acting, even if there were too many characters to keep track of - as the Star Trek films have shown, you can't do as much with an ensemble cast over the length of a film as you can across a series. (Most of the problems with the film, major and minor, come back to it being a spinoff from Whedon's cancelled TV series Firefly, which had the same setting and most of the same cast; to put it more bluntly, the trouble with the film is that it is a film and not a TV series.) I particularly liked what were effectively the two male leads, the wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Operative (who wasn't in Firefly) and Nathan Fillion as Mal (who was). Before Firefly Fillion was in Buffy, towards the end - he played Caleb, the backwoods hellfire preacher who had gone to the bad and kept on going. Personally I didn't think much of him, but I think now the problem was more with the character than the actor. Mal is a great character. He gives the impression of blundering through life without much to sustain him but his determination to keep on blundering through, and of being the captain of the ship for no real reason other than that somebody had to do it. That, and a deep but unfussed love for the ship and its crew, and the determination to keep the show on the road for as long as possible. It's the ordinary bloke as leader, essentially; it appealed to me. Fillion brings it off well, particularly the anti-heroic moments where Mal's inner shallows come out:

- Zoe, the ship is yours. Remember, if anything happens to me, or you don't hear from me within the hour... you take this ship and you come and you rescue me.

- Do you want to run this ship?
- Yes!
- Well... you can't!

He also delivers one particularly fine line of dialogue which I won't quote - it's the last line of the last deleted scene on the DVD. It's a good scene - an exception to the general rule that deleted scenes were deleted for a reason.

As for the film's major weakness, it's the plot. Without giving away too much, the film sets up a horrifically evil force early on, apparently as part of the back-story scenery. Much later, this force turns out to be centrally involved in the main plot of the film, in an entirely unexpected way. I was left feeling that there was something wrong about this - it didn't seem to work as a feature-film plot motor. I don't know if any of the plot of the film figured in Firefly, but it seem to me that what Whedon gave us wasn't so much a plot as a story arc - a theme which could run underneath a series of plots, occasionally affecting the way they developed, before being resolved at the end of a series. (Think "Dawn as the Key" or "Faith and the Mayor".) If you take that out, the plot of Serenity boils down to two people chasing each other - and in the end they both get away.

But perhaps we wouldn't want it any other way: a good plot has a resolution, and resolutions end things. Even Buffy ended, after the total implosion of Sunnydale, with the casual revelation that there was another Hellmouth out there (Cleveland, apparently). Harry Shearer once said that the reason Hollywood studios don't get comedy is that in comedy you don't want your characters to go on a journey or learn a lesson - you want them stuck, like Laurel and Hardy on the steps with their piano, and you want them to stay stuck. Something similar applies to genre fiction, perhaps. Having met Mal and his crew, I feel about them very much as I do about Buffy - I don't want to know how they got to be 'brown coats', and I certainly don't want to know about what happened after they gave it all up and settled down. But I wouldn't mind another story about them flying the ship, going where they go, doing what they do. This one was fun.