The inspirational art of Buffy

March 24, 2017 at 9:09 pm (adventure, BBC, cults, culture, fantasy, gay, geeks, television, United States)

By Carrie Evans (this piece also appears on the Workers Liberty website and in the present issue of Solidarity):

On 10 March 1997 something was created that changed my world forever. This is not using hyperbole to illustrate a point. Buffy the Vampire Slayer shaped my world. Unfortunately for me (or fortunately depending on context) I’m not the only person who feels this way. Which is why Buffy has launched a thousand think-pieces.

But Buffy’s originality still stands up today because it took every cliché and trope and turned them on their heads. To the people who still think Buffy is exclusively for hormonal teenage girls who long for the “bite” of a vampire and basement-dwelling neck-beards — where have you been for the last 20 years?

The first time I saw Buffy I was seven years old and BBC 2 just happened to be on. There was this new American show with a stupid name, but the title sequence caught my attention… Episode One opens as a horror genre show would open. A beautiful blonde, with a petite frame and soft voice, wearing a Catholic school uniform, is being talked into breaking into school by her bad boyfriend.

The boyfriend is an archetypal creep who is simultaneously trying to impress a girl with his badness and bully her into “making out” with him. I remember the rush of fear and excitement I had knowing she was about to die. “I’m scared. I think I can hear something outside” says Darla. (“Owww, she’s definitely about to get it”, thinks me.) “Baby, there’s nothing out there” says creepy boyfriend. Then in a plot twist that my seven-year-old mind could barely comprehend, Darla says “Good”, transforms into a vampire and sinks her teeth into creepy boyfriend’s neck. “OMFG! She was the monster!”

From then on I was completely and utterly hooked. I was a Whedonite (fan of Jess Whedon, the show’s writer). I wasn’t disappointed by the rest of the show. Whedon purposefully makes the opening scene a microcosm of what is to come.

Buffy started out simply. Firstly, what if a young woman walks down a dark ally at night and gets attacked by a monster. But instead of dying as she would in a horror show, she kicks that monster’s arse. Secondly, growing up and going to secondary school is hell for most of us. But what if your school was built on the mouth of hell?

Buffy is a typical teenage girl in every respect apart from the fact she is the vampire slayer. The one girl on earth with the supernatural strength and skill to fight the forces of darkness. Horror is a brilliant medium through which to represent society’s fears. It is why “penny dreadfuls” and Dracula became widely popular during the 19th century’s industrial upheaval and intense urbanisation. Buffy is simply the last and in my opinion best example of this tradition. On the surface it a show about vampires, demons and the forces of darkness. However the demons are metaphors for our own demons. They allow us to safely process and analyse our own deepest fears.

For instance, Angel, the love of Buffy’s life, is a vampire cursed with a soul. In the buffyverse the demon takes your body when you’re “turned” and the soul quits you, unharmed. All that’s left should be a remorseless killing machine with no empathy or morality. However Angel is thought to have killed the most beloved daughter of a gipsy clan. They exacted the perfect revenge by putting his soul back into his body to spend the rest of eternity fighting with his demon.

Angel has a conscience. Angel has to be suffering all the time. If he feels even one moment of true happiness the curse will be broken and his soul will be freed. Here’s the real kicker though, guess what makes Angel happier than anything else? You’ve got it, Buffy. Or more specifically, sex with Buffy. In the episode Surprise Buffy turns 17 and loses her virginity to Angel. Only to wake up the next day with a boyfriend that’s a monster. The story is fantastical yet completely truthful at the same time. Many women experience this phenomenon of going to bed with one person and waking up with someone else. The phrase “He wasn’t like this when I first met him” is a cliché for a reason.

Demons and magic also act as devices through which to analyse wider society. Sometimes this takes the form of long overarching narratives, as with the dark and brilliant Season Six, with three separate but intertwining story lines painting a grim pictures of what it’s like to be a twenty-something woman in the modern world. A lot of this season focuses on Buffy trying to reconnect with humanity.

The Scooby Gang (Buffy’s friends) accidentally bring Buffy back from heaven, thinking that they were saving her from a hell dimension. Only her mother has died, so she’s pulled out only to face being the primary carer to her kid sister, having medical debts her mother’s brain tumour incurred and having no prospects except menial jobs and poverty wages. The season is a great big metaphor for the depression you face in your mid-twenties. Buffy is directionless and lacking inspiration. She isolating herself, alienating her friends and engaging in risky sexual behaviour. Meanwhile two “big bads” are developing right under her nose in the forms of Dark Willow and The Trio.

Dark Willow is the storyline in which Buffy’s best friend becomes addicted to magic. She transforms from being everyone’s favourite shy geek into the world’s most powerful and out-of-control dark witch. Buffy is unable to stop this from happening or even recognise it because she is so lost herself.

The Trio is a group of super villains who are in fact just three misogynistic men, who can’t cope with not being popular, athletic or sexy and decide to turned their frustrations on the Scooby Gang. The Trio start out as comedy villains — typical sad, hapless, kind of pathetic, misogynists, but morph into something a lot more sinister. By the middle of the series, one of the Trio has bewitched his ex-girlfriend into being his sex slave. Fortunately for her his spell goes wrong; she wakes from the spell, confronts him with the reality of what he did, telling him that this isn’t just some sick fantasy but that he has repeatedly raped her. He freaks out and murders her.

Whedon and his gang of merry writers often analysed society’s ills in a single episode, often directly critical of capitalism. In the episode Double Meat Palace, Buffy is forced to take a job in a fast food restaurant but soon realises that her co-workers are disappearing at an alarming rate. At first we think the secret ingredient in the double meat medley is in fact human meat, but there is actually a demon who is picking the workers off one at time. In our culture, workers are just disposable pieces of meat; they come, they go and no one notices. Buffy: “Wow they’re all so identical”. Boss: “Yeah they all start to look the same to me too.” Buffy: “No, not the employees. The chicken slices”.

Similarly in the episode Life Cereal, Buffy takes a job in retail and gets caught in a time loop, forcing her to live the same day over and over again. This is a pretty obvious (even heavy handed) metaphor for the monotony of working life. In the same episode Buffy gets a job in construction but is fired because the men can’t cope with her being stronger than them. In The Wish, the vampires work out how to mass-produce and start factory farming humans. They reflect on their activities: “Undeniably we are the world’s superior race. Yet we have always been too parochial, too bound by the mindless routine of the predator. Hunt and kill, hunt and kill. Titillating? Yes. Practical. Hardly. Meanwhile, the humans, with their plebeian minds, have brought us a truly demonic concept: mass production!”

Marx delved into the world of gothic horror when explaining capitalism and often (quite poetically) compared it to Vampirism: “Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”

Another favourite episode was Anne. Here Buffy runs away to LA and takes a job in a diner. Again, she notices young runaways are disappearing with no trace. She follows the trail and it eventually leads her to a church group that are doing outreach work with the young and homeless. But free meals come at a cost. If you allow the group to baptise you, you get sucked into a parallel hell dimension where you are forced to slave in a factory until you die, for a boss class of demons. As a final cherry on the cake for communist buffy fans, when Buffy does lead the factory rebellion, she picks up two tools to fight with — a Hammer and Sickle. Buffy literally destroys the exploitative class and frees the slaves using a Hammer and Sickle!

I don’t think every staff writer on Buffy was a Bolshevik; I think they saw the opportunity for a joke and ran with it. But there were a lot more thoughtful criticisms of capitalism, state power and modern culture in Buffy than in most popular TV.

Buffy was one of the first shows to treat TV as a complex art form, rather than just cheap entertainment. It established a reputation for innovation, experimentation, witty dialogue and meta humour. It broke new ground in what a prime time TV show could do. When Whedon was accused of using witty, pithy dialogue as a crutch for the show, he decided to do a whole episode, The Gentleman, in silence. It is still one of the funniest and scariest things I’ve ever seen. Here, The Gentlemen come into town and steal everyone’s voices in order to help them harvest organs. When they rip out your heart no one will hear you scream.

There is also a musical episode, a few episodes set entirely inside dreams and an art house episode called The Body which has absolutely no score — a first for television. Another stand-out arty episode is Normal Again. In this episode we find out (or do we? no we don’t. Wait, maybe we do? No. Fuck, I have no idea what is going on…) that the whole Buffyverse is actually just the complex delusion of an institutionalised girl. By doing this, the writers were able to tear down the fourth wall and critique their own work without being obnoxious. Psychiatrist: “But Buffy, it all fell apart when you introduced this sister character into your delusions didn’t it? You can’t just invent a sister out of nowhere.”

Breaking new ground was very apparent in the way the show dealt with gender and sexuality. Buffy isn’t just one super-woman in a man’s world. The whole show centres around amazing women. Women who are powerful, intellectual, magical, caring and sexual. Some of them butch, some of them fem, some of them gay, some of them straight. Most of them are a mixture of both bad and good. All of them however, are belittled, talked down to and held back and physically abused by men who couldn’t even dream of being in the same league as them.

Then when you think you’ve seen it all, Buffy goes and pulls the ultimate socialist feminist move by giving her super powers away to every woman in the world. She is no longer the chosen one, nor is she the burdened one. We all share the power and work together. Buffy: “What if you could have that power now? In every generation a slayer is born because a bunch of old men made up that rule. Those were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of those men combined. So I say we change the rule… From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer, will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers everyone of us. So make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”

So yes, Buffy may look like a show about vampires and high school, with cheap production and a painfully outdated wardrobe, but there’s a reason it consistently features in “best TV ever made” lists. It is camp, complex, beautifully moving and never patronising. It inspired women and girls all over the world to stand up and be strong. It got a generation of writers to treat TV as art and push the boundaries on what is acceptable.

Forever a Whedonite.

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Jack Purvis: Mental Strain At Dawn

December 11, 2015 at 12:42 am (adventure, crime, jazz, Jim D, mental health, wild man)

Jack Purvis, 11 Dec 1906 – 30 Mar 1962 (?)

Purvis must surely be the strangest, most picaresque and mysterious figure in the entire history of recorded jazz. As well as being a phenomenal trumpeter (one of the first – if not the first – of the white players who were obviously influenced by Armstrong), he was also a compulsive liar, con-man, gun-runner and drug smuggler. Naturally, he was also a jail-bird: but one who once, having been released, broke back in, so that he could continue to direct the prison orchestra for their radio debut.

He made no records after 1935 and seems to have committed suicide in 1962 (but even that is in some doubt: there was, according to Richard M. Sudhalter, at least one reliably attested encounter with a man claiming to be “Jack Purvis … I used to play trumpet” after that date). He had a wife and daughter, both of whom were reduced to broken-hearted despair by his antics and absences.

Many jazz musicians could be called “eccentric”, but Purvis’s lifestyle and behaviour went well beyond that: he was almost certainly mentally ill, which makes the title of this 1929 record especially appropriate: ‘Mental Strain At Dawn’:

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Women in men’s airspace?

August 13, 2013 at 11:04 am (academe, adventure, AWL, Feminism, history, literature, Marxism, modernism, reblogged, women)

From Workers Liberty

Camila Bassi reviews Liz Millward’s Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937 (2008, McGill-Queen’s University Press).

The period of 1922 to 1937 represented significant inter-war development of gendered airspace within the British Empire.

From 1922, when the International Commission on Air Navigation debated the place of women in commercial airspace, to 1937, the year in which the female pilot Jean Batten completed her last long-distance record-breaking flight, the British Empire was at its peak, ruling about one-quarter of the world’s territory. Millward notes:

“The interwar period was a window of possibility for many young white women in the British Empire. The First World War had undermined powerful old certainties. Women who were determined to learn the lessons of the past turned to internationalism, pacifism, nationalism, and fascism as they looked for ways to control the future.”

Millward’s concern is with the contestations of female pilots in producing, defining, and accessing civilian airspace during this time. What’s more, she is interested in how such struggles were bound up with different kinds of airspace: the private, the commercial, the imperial, the national, and the body; that in turn had their own relations of gender, class, race, sexuality, nationalism, and imperialism.

Like many geographers seeking a radical understanding of space, Millward draws on the work of Henri Lefebvre, who wrote that “a revolution which does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses”.

Millward concludes that post-war airspace had the potential to be what Lefebvre coined, capitalist “abstract space” par excellence, specifically, in its commodification, bureaucratisation, and decorporealisation.

In one sense it is a curious application of Lefebvre, given Lefebvre’s focus on the city. Lefebvre denounces capitalist urbanity for its drive to repress play and prioritise productivity and rationality. He also recognises potential within the centrality of the urban, meaning that a whole range of social interactions converge.

For Lefebvre, all people have the right to space, i.e. to access and participate fully in urban life, thus the constraints placed on this possibility by capitalism must be critiqued (Lefebvre, 1991; Shields, 1988). Lefebvre’s interest lies in working out the spatial strategies for social change and, as such, his ideas resonate with the French Situationists (with their slogan of May 1968 “beneath the pavement, the beach”) and Britain’s “Reclaim the Streets” movement of the 1990s.

Millward concludes that notable female pilots modelled achievement and “beat the men”, so, in effect, supported wider feminist struggles and proved that women were part of airspace.

Nonetheless, civilian airspace was naturalised as masculine and had the potential to become abstract space. She ends: “‘To change life,’ writes Lefebvre, ‘we must first change space’. Women pilots tried to do just that.”

Reflecting on the book as a whole, I wonder: what does Millward gain from a poststructuralist feminist approach? Such an approach emphasises the discursive and contingent nature of all identities with particular focus on the construction of gendered subjectivities. This intersectional analysis combines the cultural and economic features of gender, race, sexuality, nationality, and class.

“Capitalism”, “imperialism’”and “class” are given wider definitional scope: capitalism and imperialism as social, cultural, political, and economic relations, and class as a cultural construct (to include the economic but differing from simply wage-labour). So, rather than asking what is gained, perhaps the real question is — what is lost? Actually, rather a lot I think.

In the context of all that is solid melting into air, I cannot help but sense that the book would have been a richer account had the dialectics of the struggles been fully explored. Three aspects of dialectical materialist thinking would have strengthened the study: firstly, looking for the interrelationship between phenomena to other phenomena (past and present, and including apparent opposites); secondly, seeing conditions (and relations) of existence in continual movement; and lastly, comprehending societal processes moving through contradictory tensions.

Moreover, the book missed (or rather, seemed to bypass) the centrality of class and imperialism and its intersection with gender, race, sexuality, and nationalism. I’ll end, before any retort accuses me of crude economic determinism and class reductionism, with the words of Engels (1890):

“If somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase.

“We make history ourselves, but first of all, under very definite assumptions and conditions…history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a variety of particular conditions of life.

“Thus, there are innumerable crisscrossing forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event.”


Engels, F (1890) “Engels to J. Bloch”, Marxists Internet Archive

Lefebvre, H (1991) The Production of Space (Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith), Oxford: Blackwell.

Millward, L (2008) Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Shields, R (1988) “An English Précis of Henri Lefebvre’s La Production De L’Espace”, Working Paper, Department of Urban and Regional Studies, University of Sussex

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Django Unchained: the Western reinvented?

January 21, 2013 at 10:04 pm (adventure, Anti-Racism, cinema, Civil liberties, Clive Bradley, Cross-post, Racism, United States)

By Clive Bradley (reblogged from Solidarity and the AWL website)

Quentin Tarantino’s last film, Inglorious Basterds, walked a precarious line.

Set in World War Two Europe, it dealt with very serious matters — the genocide of the Jews — but in Tarantino’s inimitable way: at least as much about movies as about history, very violent, very funny.

It could have been a distasteful monstrosity. But to my mind it was a brilliant tour de force, with a delirious and unexpected climax that in fact was very thought-provoking.

Django Unchained sets out to pull off the same trick but this time about slavery in America. Does it succeed?

Django (Jamie Foxx) is a black slave sort-of-freed by a German bounty hunter, Dr Schulz (Christopher Waltz, the marvellous villain from Inglorious Basterds). Shulz — who is essentially a decent bloke — agrees to help Django rescue his wife, Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) from the most notorious and terrifying plantation in Mississippi, owned by Calvin Candle (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Much tension, and then, inevitably, much violence and gore ensues. Along the way there’s a brilliant turn by Samuel L Jackson as Stephen, Candle’s apparently-sweet but actually-terrifying Uncle Tom servant.

Some — notably Spike Lee (though apparently he refuses actually to see the film) have objected to the movie, and indeed to the very idea of Tarantino addressing this subject. He trivialises slavery, they say, and the African American experience. Much of this objection seems to be against Tarantino himself — a geeky white boy who verges, sometimes, on the “wigger”, a film obsessive rather than a historian, steeped in B movies, trash culture, (horror of horrors) genre.

And indeed, as you would expect, Django Unchained is as much about Westerns as about slavery. Its colours, its soundtrack, many of its events, are comments on the genre itself – which was once immensely popular, but died out in the 1970s or before (with occasional revivals, of course, like the recent remake of True Grit).

But what a comment. Westerns, as a genre, rarely (I think it might be never, but maybe some Western fan can correct me) have slaves in them at all, never mind as central characters. (There are black characters, occasionally – comedy buffoons with wide eyes and shuffling feet — but not, I think, acknowledged to be slaves).

Westerns certainly never have slaves or ex-slaves as heroes, riding horses, shooting guns, and exacting terrible vengeance on plantation owners.

Foxx’s Django is an avenging angel. There is — not quite the climax of the movie, but towards it — the inevitable set-piece Tarantino gore fest (as you would expect, both bloody and played for jokes). And you want him to blow these evil motherfuckers away. You root for the massacre. It’s exhilarating.

I don’t think, here, it’s as successful as the massacre in Inglorious Basterds (where the Nazi leadership is taken out) —which (for me, anyway) makes you reflect on your own bloodthirsty emotions; but it’s not, either, as purely ridiculous and jokey as the bloodfest in Kill Bill I.

But I don’t see that it trivialises anything. It is extremely entertaining — but how is it a valid criticism of a film maker that his film is too enjoyable? It’s not very sophisticated — Django is the good guy, the slave owners are the bad guys… But that’s how Westerns work; it’s pretty much the point of Westerns, except in the classic Western, Good is signified by white (hats, usually), and Bad by black…

Tarantino has said, rightly, that there’s nothing in Django Unchained that’s remotely as violent as slavery was itself. And it includes some marvellous — though very bloody — dramatisations of what slavery actually meant: a runaway torn apart by dogs; slaves forced to pummel each other to death for their owners’ enjoyment.

There is, I’m sure, a great film yet to be made about the experience of slavery in the US. Jonathan Demme’s Beloved, based on Toni Morrison’s novel, was leaden and dull; Spielberg’s Amistad was simply untruthful about the abolition of slavery. Django Unchained is not that film. But it’s a tall order for any film maker — to make the definitive statement about a vast historical experience.

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Great Westerns

November 16, 2012 at 10:00 pm (adventure, blogging, cinema, drama, film, Jim D, United States)

In my experience, most lefties dislike Westerns, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Almost by definition, the genre is a celebration of white settlers in confrontation with native peoples. Sometimes the portrayal of the natives is condescending and/or downright racist. It’s also the most macho of cinematic genres, with women rarely playing significant roles except as home-makers and/or romantic ideals (I leave aside, of course, the bordello girls). Westerns also tend to be morally simplistic, good-against-evil stories that leave little room for nuance, socio-economic background or understanding of the “other.”

Well, that’s what a lot of people on the left tend to think. Actually, the best Westerns explore the human condition and individual weakness in the face of hostile, relentless forces, as few other film genres do (the ‘noir’ detective films also do it, but they’re really just updated Westerns anyway). Some Westerns (and not just recent ones) even explore the position of women (Johnny Guitar) and Native Americans (The Searchers). It’s been suggested, also, that High Noon is, at least in part, about McCarthyism.

Anyway, what’s brought this on is ol’ Prof Norm’s latest poll, open until the end of this month: vote for your favourite Westerns. The Prof has provided his list:

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
Duel at Diablo (Ralph Nelson, 1966)
Gunfight at the OK Corral (John Sturges, 1957)
Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958)
My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)
One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, 1960)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)
Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

…but has been (imho) quite rightly denounced for not including the film that many of us consider The Greatest Western Of All Time..

My list would probably include High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952),  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943), Shane (George Stevens, 1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955), Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), and Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959).

But, as I said, this is the best of them all:

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Skyfall: Bond re-Bourne and Oedipal

November 2, 2012 at 9:32 pm (adventure, cinema, film, Jim D, scotland)

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
– From Tennyson’s  ‘Ulysses,’ quoted by M in Skyfall

For once you can believe the hype. This is not just the best Bond film ever, but it’s a bloody good, intelligent thriller by any standards. Under the direction of Sam Mendes, the Bond franchise has caught up with, and maybe overhauled, the Bourne brand that looked set to consign 007 to the dustbin of history.

Actually, a central theme of Skyfall is the idea that Bond may be past it, rendered obsolete by modern technology, the end of cold-war certainties and -not least- by advancing middle age, too much booze, and declining physical prowess. Judi Dench’s M is similarly threatened with enforced retirement as the politicians question her competence, MI6 having unfortunately allowed a list of its top agents round the world to fall into the hands of a vengeful lunatic who also manages to blow up their London HQ. Said lunatic is ensconsed with his henchmen on a deserted island and bent not so much on world domination (so passé) as upon the humiliation of those who failed to appreciate him when he was himself an M16 agent. Played with evident relish by a camp, giggling Javier Bardem, this may just be the most interesting Bond villain yet, and certainly the first to display such a degree of sexual and emotional ambiguity.

In fact the triangular love-hate relationship between the baddie, Bond and M is the other leitmotif of the film, culminating in a suitably Oedipal penultimate scene that is actually rather moving.

There are, of course, the required high-octane action scenes: the opening sequence in Istanbul is a buttock-clenching chase by car, motorbike and train before the action moves to the vertigo-inducing skyscrapers of Shanghai. There are a few self-referential jokes at the expense of previous Bond films (the new Q – a spotty young nerd – says “we don’t go in for exploding pens these days”). Even the old silver DB5 is retrieved from a lock-up, giving Dench/M the opportunity for a joke about ejector seats.

There are, naturally, the obligatory Bond girls, one of whom is pretty, black, British and a good sport. The other is sultry, foreign, untrustworthy and clearly destined for an unpleasant end. Bond’s relationship with both is fairly superficial but not blatantly sexist. And for the first time ever, Bond has an intelligent and profound relationship with a woman: M/Dench, of course.

I won’t risk giving any more away and spoiling it for you, but I must just add that in many ways you get two films in one. The final action-scenes move to the Highlands of Scotland as Bond decides he can only win by fighting in “the old fashioned way.” This is more Buchan than Fleming and the pace slows (in a good way), the film becoming austere, brooding and almost elegiac.

No question, then: the best Bond  film ever. And in the complex, troubled and intelligent portrayal by Daniel Craig, the best 007 ever.

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Wojtek the soldier bear

September 23, 2012 at 6:19 pm (adventure, anti-fascism, beer, history, Jim D, strange situations, war)

I’ve always said that drinking beer can be an educative experience. I’ve just found out about Wojtek the anti-Nazi soldier-bear, from a the label of a bottle of beer

“He liked a cigarette, he liked a bottle of beer. He even drank his bottle of beer like any man.”

On the label of the (very nice) beer named after him, it says “Wojtek was a magnificent 500lb Syrian bear who served in WW2 alongside a unit of Polish soldiers. Believing he was a man, Wojtek shared their beer, their cigarettes and, eventually, their fate.”

Fascinating stuff, so I set about discovering more. There’s actually a whole lot of material about Wotjtek out there, including some films on Youtube, but my favourite is a somewhat demotic Yank site that names him “Badass of the Week” and concludes thus:

“The idea of a fucking alcoholic Nazi-fighting bear is so awesome that you’d think it was something out of a bizarre cartoon or a Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie.  It’s the sort of shit that, even with all of the historical evidence, seems too totally awesome to be true.  The bear was a hero of World War II, and there are statues of him and plaques memorializing his brave service in Poland, Edinburgh, the Imperial War Museum in London, and the Canadian War Museum.  Unbelieveable.”

Amongst his many exploits, Wojtek apparently  unmasked and captured a Nazi spy, and carried ammo to the front at the great battle of  Monte Cassino. Hence the official Polish army insignia, below:

Even allowing for a considerable amount of anthropomorphic exaggeration, Wojtek’s career as a Private (yes: the Poles enlisted him to get round an Allied army ban on pets) sounds pretty impressive.

The full story of Wojtek concludes with him ending his days in Edinburgh Zoo, where his old Polish comrades would often visit him with cigarettes and beer, and sometimes even jump into the enclosure for a wrestle – just for old times sake. So Wojtek’s story has a reasonably happy ending. I’d feared the worst, reading on the beer label that he shared everything with his comrades, including “eventually, their fate.” So perhaps beer bottles aren’t always the most reliable source of historical information. But – you must admit – it’s a great and strangely moving story, isn’t it?

P.S: I’ve now realised what the beer label means by “he shared … eventually, there fate.” Here’s the Beartown Brewery’s explanation, from its website: “[Wojtek] gave valuable hope and reassurance to his homeless Polish friends during a time of madness, fear and hostility. Poignantly at the end of the war, Wojtek’s fate was to mirror that of his beloved soldiers. Many of the Poles feared to return to their country due to Stalin’s political domination of the region. While Wojtek’s fate was to be confined behind another form of iron curtain at Edinburgh Zoo.”

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The best ‘Titanic’ film of all: A Night to Remember

April 10, 2012 at 3:16 pm (adventure, Art and design, cinema, history, Jim D, literature)

Amid all the hoopla surrounding the Titanic centennial, I thought I’d just mention what I consider to be by far the best film yet made about the disaster. ‘A Night to Remember’ was made in 1958 , nearly forty years before James Cameron’s saccharine ‘Titanic,’ on a fraction of the budget and with none of the sophisticated special effects. Yet the earlier film, directed by Roy Ward Barker and starring Kenneth Moore (as second officer Herbert Lightoller) is more accurate and exciting. The human interest element is far better written and acted than the overblown Winslet – Di Caprio nonsense in the Cameron film. Lee Randall (a self-confessed ‘Titanic “fan” since childhood’) has written in The Scotsman: “One of the most poignant moments in cinematic history is when an elderly couple retires to a pair of deckchairs to await the end together (a scene much repeated but never bettered). I’m welling up thinking about it now.”

Even the final sinking in ‘A Night to Remember’ was filmed in something close to ‘real time’ (just 37 minutes shorter than the actual event). And the meticulous technical accuracy is so impressive that (unlike a lot of nautical films of the time), you’d never guess that the vessel itself was a model, filmed in a pool (to be precise, an open air swimming pool in Ruislip at 2.00 am!).

I have only just discovered, however, that the film was based upon an eponymous novel by one Walter Lord, and adapted by Eric Ambler. Ambler (author of, amongst other novels, Journey into Fear, The Mask of Demetrios and Epitaph for a Spy) was one of the finest adventure writers of the twentieth century, and a leftist and antifascist who saw through Stalinism before most. He deserves to be better remembered and I’ll probably write about him again sometime. I’m sure his work contributed enormously  to the artistic success of the film:

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Flashman on Afghanistan

March 23, 2012 at 11:56 pm (adventure, Afghanistan, Champagne Charlie, history, imperialism, literature, Pakistan, spoofs, war)

“Mr Fraser is a skillful and meticulous writer, twice as good as Buchan, and twenty times better than Fleming” – Auberon Waugh

I’ve decided to re-read entire ‘Flashman’ oeuvre of George MacDonald Fraser, some of the most entertaining and educative historical novels ever written, imho. For a start, the central conceit of the series is that these are not novels at all, and Fraser isn’t the author.

Christopher Hitchens (another fan) explained it in his 2006 essay Fraser’s Flashman: Scoundrel Time (republished recently in Arguably):

“George MacDonald Fraser has never claimed to be anything but the editor of ‘The Flashman papers,’ discovered by luck during an auction at an English country house. When the first ‘packet’ of papers was published, in 1969, several well-gulled reviewers genuinely hailed it as a grand literary discovery (one of them going as far as to say that there had been nothing like it since the unearthing of Boswell’s diaries). It is the deftest borrowing since Tom Stoppard helped himself to the walk-on parts of Rosencrantz and Guilderstern.”

The first book of the series, entitled simply Flashman deals with the cowardly bully’s expulsion from Rugby School (as depicted in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays), his subsequent entry into the army and his “service” in the First Afghan War of 1841-2. Here’s a brief taster:

…[L]ooking back I can say that, all unwittingly, Kabul and the army were right to regard Elphy’s [ie General William Elphinstone’s] arrival as an incident of the greatest significance. It opened a new chapter: it was a prelude to events that rang round the world. Elphy, ably assisted by McNaghton, was about to reach the peak of his career; he was going to produce the most shameful, ridiculous disaster in British military history.

No doubt Thomas Hughes would find it significant that in a such a disaster I would emerge with fame, honour, and distinction — all quite unworthily acquired. But you, having followed my progress so far, won’t be surprised at all.

Let me say that when I talk of disasters I speak with authority. I have served at Balaclava, Cawnpore, and Little Big Horn. Name the biggest born fools who wore uniform in the nineteenth century — Cardigan, Sale, Custer, Raglan, Lucan — I knew them all. Think of all the conceivable misfortunes that can arise from combinations of folly, cowardice, and sheer bad luck, and I’ll give you chapter and verse. But I still state unhesitatingly, that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgement — in short, for the true talent for catastrophe — Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.

Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War and let it develop to such ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganised enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision, and out of order wraught complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.

NB: Flashman, the first of a series of twelve of books (or “excerpts” from the “Flashman papers”), was published in 1969. George MacDonald Fraser, an old-school Tory and war veteran, died in 2008 having described Tony Blair (to Christopher Hitchens) as “not just the worst prime minister we’ve ever had,  but by far the worst prime minister we’ve ever had,” adding: “It makes my blood boil to think of the British soldiers who’ve died for that little liar.”

Hitchens commented:

“This is morally fraught terrain, between the first sound of the bugle and the news of triumph or disgrace, which it takes a serious man to cover, whether saddled on a mettlesome charger or flourishing only a pen. And, since history is often recounted by victors, why not have it related for once by one who is something worse than a loser? Imagine if King Hal had kept Falstaff on hand as his bosom chum until the eve of Agincourt and you have a sense of Flashy’s imperishable achievement.”

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The Great White Silence

May 23, 2011 at 7:34 am (adventure, cinema, Jim D)

Incredible stuff!

Kingsley Marshall:

Hollywood might be going apeshit over another installment of Captain Jack Sparrow, but here’s why The Great White Silence’s footage of the doomed expedition of Captain Scott is a real nautical adventure.

Who doesn’t love the smell of gunpowder and rum in the morning? The fourth outing of Captain Jack Sparrow certainly delivers both in equal measure as it sails into the cinema this week. Serving as an exemplar of the lengths that Hollywood goes to in order to summon up its summer blockbusters these days, the franchise – which has grossed close to an astonishing three billion dollars in the first three films alone – was borne of a theme park ride that made its debut in Disneyland way back in 1967. Director Gore Verbinski, replaced by Rob Marshall in the latest episode, had the Golden Age of Hollywood on his mind when he signed up, envisioning the pirate ships and swashbuckling of the era populated by the likes of Errol Flynn, Burt Lancaster and the inimitable Robert Newton.

Cinema had found itself a little short of seafaring derring-do prior to the arrival of the Black Pearl and, though followed into theatres by Peter Weir’s nautical epic Master and Commander and Wes Anderson’s more playful The Life Aquatic, few movies have since troubled the inky depths of the cinema ocean.

Despite its best efforts, the most recent installment of Pirates of the Caribbean doesn’t come close to matching the far stranger tides of Antarctica. Currently circulating in a newly restored print from the BFI and due for release on DVD in June, The Great White Silence serves as the official record of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition to the South Pole. Herbert Ponting, a photographer and pioneering documentarian, had shot every aspect of the journey south from New Zealand on the Terra Nova, as well as the team’s initial explorations of Ross Island. Ponting returned to the UK in February 1912 in order to piece together a narrative from what he had captured to his nitrate negatives and glass plates, all intended to feed the newsreels and to accompany a subsequent lecture tour. When the expedition ended in tragedy, the footage offered something very different, and altogether more affecting.

Watching a shot of the men marching off into the great white, a hundred years later, it’s impossible to ignore the poignancy … of their failure to return.

The feature wasn’t completed until 1924, Ponting having spent the years following the tragedy touring filmed segments as part of a lecture which he delivered some 2000 times, and that served to cement Scott’s voyage, and the courage of his team, in British cultural memory. Blinded by snow and sun, suffering frostbite and enduring months of darkness as they waited out a winter during which the temperatures plummeted to 50 below, the film offered a portrait of endurance and courage, as the men prepared for their 800-mile march to the Pole. Bleak and touching in equal measure, it played out in a landscape simultaneously frightening in its scale and beautiful in its otherworldly geometry. Watching a shot of the men marching off into the great white, a hundred years later, it’s impossible to ignore the poignancy both of their failure to return, and the understanding that all five men attempted the long walk back to camp with the knowledge that they had been beaten in their task by Roald Amundson’s Norwegian team.

With no dialogue, the film is informed by Ponting’s many interstitials, and the BFI restoration relies heavily on a score from Simon Fisher-Turner. Best known for his work with Derek Jarman, the composer avoids traditional orchestration in favour of a strange, otherworldly mixture of electronic ambience coupled with foley recordings and what sound designer Walter Murch has referred to as worldized sound – recordings of silence, from appropriate locations. This music supplements the film, without cheapening it through syncresis or by denigrating the power of Pointing’s imagery.

Real adventure may be hard to come by, but The Great White Silence offers a vivid account of one of the greatest in history.

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