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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.

Letting go

I went to my mother’s funeral on Monday. Writing those words I’m immediately reminded of Camus’ use of a similar opening, which he put to strikingly blank and dissociated effect (After the first sentence: “Aujourd’hui, Maman est morte,” you know that you are in the good hands of Albert Camus. The existential theme is just awsomeJosh, Great Falls.) Well, I’ll see your Meursault, Josh, and raise you Oswald Bastable:

There are six of us besides Father. Our Mother is dead, and if you think we don’t care because I don’t tell you much about her you only show that you do not understand people at all.

Or, for that matter, Lemony Snicket:

If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.

This quite complete statement will stop here.

The funeral was an odd affair. It was billed as a ‘celebration of the life’, with a brief family committal ceremony afterwards. This way of rebranding funeral services usually strikes me as inappropriate at best and positively unhelpful at worst: to celebrate a life is all well and good, but the loss also needs to be honoured – and surely it can’t entirely be honoured without letting go and howling. (She wouldn’t want us to be sad? Not forever, no, but I think she’d want us to miss her.)

In the event, though, the celebratory elements of the ceremony didn’t grate on me; I never felt we were rejoicing in the life so as not to look at the death. The life we were celebrating is over, after all: ultimately, celebration only adds to the keenness of the loss. What I couldn’t share was the consolation-of-faith element. I wondered if this was simply because my religious faith, if not quite non-existent, isn’t strong enough for me to entertain any thought that my mother is in a better place or happier now, let alone that she’s hooked up again with my father. But then, I don’t think I’d want a faith that gave me such certainty about something so unknowable. I’m not sure I’d want a faith that took the edge of something so sharp, either – but that’s not quite the same thing.

The mood of the committal ceremony was quite different. The minister opened by saying that we were there “to let go and let God”, which struck me as exactly right: this was a ceremony to move us on, a place for us to say she’s not ours any more and begin to let our mourning take a different colour. (No less intense – no less painful, for that matter – but different: less anxiety, more melancholy.) The tone of the committal was not at all consoling, and it was all the better for that: the message was a public, collective acknowledgment that something huge and incomprehensible had happened; and that those of us left were in enormous pain; and that this is how it is. Which doesn’t bring in consoling certainties; what it does do (oddly) is make the pain a little more manageable. There’s no denying how I feel – but there’s no denying how it is, either.

China Miéville (via Ellis) got me thinking about mourning and celebration, by way of some thoughts on revolution in fiction. (Stay with me here.) China:

the fantastic is uniquely well suited to examine these issues. I think that there are certain political issues that cannot be dealt with by ‘realistic’ narrative, and for me, revolution is a key one.

a revolution described by someone not in a revolution, let alone a post-revolutionary society so described, cannot be anything other than the palest imitation of the Carnival of the Oppressed that it would be, the earth turned upside down, because our minds are the minds of those living in an earth stubbornly and annoyingly the right fucking way up so if we take seriously the utter radicalism of a revolution and after, it is unthinkable for we who aren’t there. It either turns into absurdity or bureaucracy, in our telling – but with the fantastic, and only with it, I can literalise, concretise, Rosa’s insistence on the revolution’s immanence: I was, I am, I shall be.

actually existing humanity is already pretty fucking great, in much of its numbers, much of the time, so just imagine how fucking great the unfettered variety will be. I’m trying to remember the last line of Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution: ‘From these, new heights will emerge’ – something like that, about the astonishingness of the new human

For what it’s worth, here’s Leon:

the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

But let’s not linger over Communist man. China’s key point – and a deeply Marxist point, for most decent values of the word – is that actually existing humanity is already pretty fucking great, in much of its numbers, much of the time. Amen to that, and cue Russell:

DOCTOR [genuinely shocked]: Who said you’re not important? I’ve travelled to all sorts of places. Done things you couldn’t even imagine, but… you two… Street corner. Two in the morning. Getting a taxi home. I’ve never had a life like that. Yes. I’ll try and save you.

Ordinary people – or rather, ordinary lives – they’re great.

But note the echo of Roy Batty’s death scene (“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”) Street corner. Two in the morning. Getting a taxi home. – those moments, too, will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Ordinary lives, they’re great. They deserve to be celebrated – and mourned.

The Templars and the Saracens

In a piece which appears in The Salmon of Doubt (I don’t know whether it was published in the author’s lifetime), Douglas Adams writes:

There’s always a moment when you fall out of love, whether it’s with a person or an idea or a cause, even if it’s one you only narrate to yourself years after the event: a tiny thing, a wrong word, a false note, which means that things can never be quite the same again. For me it was hearing a stand-up comedian make the following observation: “These scientists, eh? They’re so stupid! You know those black-box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? And you know they’re meant to be indestructible? It’s always the thing that doesn’t get smashed? So why don’t they make the planes out of the same stuff?“The audience roared with laughter at how stupid scientists were, couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag, but I sat feeling uncomfortable. Was I just being pedantic to feel that the joke didn’t really work because flight recorders are made out of titanium and that if you made planes out of titanium rather than aluminium, they’d be far too heavy to get off the ground in the first place? … There was no way of deconstructing the joke (if you think this is obsessive behavior, you should try living with it) that didn’t rely on the teller and the audience complacently conspiring together to jeer at someone who knew more than they did. It sent a chill down my spine, and still does. I felt betrayed by comedy the same way that gangsta rap now makes me feel betrayed by rock music. I also began to wonder how many of the jokes I was making were just, well, ignorant.

De mortuis, but I tend to think the (self-)criticism was apt. A lot of Hitchhiker is less like a novel – or radio series – than a student revue (a very good student revue, admittedly): take the paper-thin characterisations, the dialogue built around gag lines or – more importantly for the current argument – the evocation of weird and counter-intuitive areas of science and philosophy, undercut by a common-sensical English ordinariness. This is amplified by the Pythonesque dogged persistence which won’t let go of an idea until it’s been pushed to its logical limit, taken over the limit, fined for exceeding the limit and embroiled in a lengthy but inconclusive case in the Court of Over-Extended Metaphors. Stylistically, this gives us Arthur’s exchange with Prosser over the planning notice (“…behind a door marked Beware of the Tiger”) or most of Marvin’s lines (“The second million years, they were the worst too.”) – great lines all, but very unlike anything anyone would actually say. Put it together with the common-sensical idea-juggling and you get, for example, the argument for atheism derived (all too logically) from the Babel Fish. What’s most striking about this argument is that it’s got nothing in common with the arguments of actual proponents of “intelligent design” – which are no less ridiculous, but turn on the idea that the wondrous complexity of the universe does provide evidence of the handiwork of a Designer. There’s a lack of engagement with the Creationist mindset here, which ironically makes that mindset harder to combat. If you assume that everyone starts from the same set of common-sense precepts, genuinely alien world-views will only be explicable on the grounds that the people holding them are irrational or stupid – which isn’t the best way to open an argument, even (or especially) an intransigently critical argument.

The mindset that this kind of writing seems to represent (and affirm) is that of someone who’s learnt a lot of valuable stuff in a short time, and who now doesn’t see the need to learn very much more. There is stuff out there that you could learn, but most of it’s not really worth the effort – at best it’s inessential, at worst it’s a pile of pretentious verbiage. If you demonstrably know a lot more than the average person about genuinely important topics, the chances are that you know enough – enough to see through the people who tell you there’s more to be known, anyway. It speaks to the inner second-year science student, in short. (One of the benefits of doing an arts degree is that you never forget that there’s lots of important stuff out there that you genuinely don’t understand. You never forget this if you have any contact with second-year science students, anyway.)

Terry Pratchett has a lighter hand with the dogged persistence than Douglas Adams, but in most other respects he’s a far better writer (he’s much better at people, for a start). That said, some of his jokes suggest the same kind of self-enclosed common sense, evoking the alien without engaging with it. (Does Pseuds’ Corner take nominations from blogs?) One example is the (admittedly funny) dwarfish war-cry “This is a good day for someone else to die!” Some years ago, the KliLakota original of this slogan (“This is a good day to die!”) was discussed on the newsfroup. The tone of the discussion was cheerful and uncomprehending. I wouldn’t say that anyone jeered at the KlinLakota, but very few people showed much sign of understanding the slogan, as distinct from Pratchett’s common-sensical inversion of it). One’s own death is, after all, an eventuality to be postponed as long as possible, not to be embraced. One poster even suggested that the slogan had begun as a deliberately-tempting-Fate insurance policy, akin to “break a leg”.

Fortunately one poster – the wonderfully-named ‘Catherine Denial’ – pointed out that death in battle was an honourable fate for KlingLakotadammit warriors, so that the slogan could actually be taken literally (‘death in battle’=’good death’, ‘today’=’day of battle’, therefore…). [Update 23/6/2007: it’s just come to my notice that Catherine Denial is in fact not a clever pseudonym but the name of a real person, who has written widely on nineteenth-century American history. Apologies.]

And I’m not sure even this goes far enough. The point is, surely, that the function of soldiers (contemporary, dwarfish or KlingoLakota) is to kill and risk being killed – and that unwillingness to do the latter makes them less effective in doing the former. The tone is very different, but in terms of the underlying worldview “This is a good day to die!” isn’t so far from the Royal Navy saying “If you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined.” Meaning, in the words of a post from soc.history.what-if by the late and much-missed Alison Brooks,

When it is raining and dark, your feet are giving you hell because they have been wet for two weeks, when you are carrying a pack weighing your own weight, when you are on the edge of a minefield, aware that, well within range, are more people than you who want to kill you, and they have the capacity to do so, when your best friend standing ten feet from you gets hit, and you have to wipe his brains from your face so that you can see, and when the instruction is given to go forward, if you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined.

You risk death – and, if so instructed, take actions which you know will increase your risk of death – because that’s what you do: that’s what being in the armed forces is all about. (Not that you’ll find it in the recruitment literature.) In its more aggressive form – getting back to the Native Americans – this outlook also makes for a more formidable opponent: an enemy who wants to save his own skin first and kill you second is a lot easier to deter than one who just wants to kill you.

As you’ve probably worked out by now, this post isn’t really about Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett; it’s not even about the Royal Navy or the Lakota (let alone the blasted Klingons). It began life about a month ago – a decade or so in blogtime – in response to this post on Brian Barder’s blog and the ensuing comments, this one in particular. Brian writes:

it’s obviously psychotic, isn’t it?, to be unable to perceive the large-scale random murders of wholly innocent people as anything but evil? And when the murders are deliberately and unnecessarily accompanied by the suicides of the murderers, doesn’t that suggest minds that have become completely unhinged? Isn’t it psychotic to suppose that some desirable result can be achieved by killing others and oneself because of ‘grievances’ that have nothing whatever to do with the murder victims, and which can’t possibly have a better chance of being remedied as a result of the murders committed?

As long as we persist in seeing [the bombers] as politically and rationally motivated people whose response to their grievances is to go out and kill people, and as long as we strive to ‘understand‘ that behaviour, we shall encourage more of the same. It is insane as well as evil to act in the way that they have done, and while we need to try to hack out the roots of the insanity as well as of the evil and criminality, we need to beware of giving the impression that by trying to understand them and what they did, we regard murder as an understandable (and therefore in some sense defensible) response to a political grievance. Psychiatrists may properly seek to understand the roots of insane and evil behaviour: the rest of us need to be clear that the behaviour is insane and evil and that it can never be condoned.

Brian conflates two arguments which, I think, urgently need to be disentangled. On one hand, I don’t believe that it does any good to deny that the bombers acted rationally, let alone to describe them as ‘psychotic’: their world view was certainly alien to me, but I don’t think it was also insane. Apart from anything else, is it necessarily a sign of psychosis to kill innocent people, to carry out attacks which will cost your own life, or to attack people whose death can’t in itself advance your cause? Not, I would argue, if you’re a soldier – or an irregular combatant (were Orde Wingate’s Special Night Squads ‘psychotic’? is Hamas?). Similarly, the bombers’ actions make sense if we assume that they saw themselves as part of a guerrilla force, fighting in one front of a war with Britain (among other nations), and prepared to use any means – however inhumane – to further their cause.

Obviously this world-view – as well as the acts it inspires – is vile and cannot be condoned: to understand it is not (pace Brian) to see it as in any way defensible. But, as I said above, there are two separate arguments here. Yes, the London bombings were evil and can never be condoned; but no, this does not require us to characterise them as insane. Visualise concentric circles. To demand that Britain withdraw from Iraq is a legitimate political point of view which is widely held (and which is not necessarily counter to British national interests). To demand that ‘the West’ withdraw from ‘Islamic lands’ is a legitimate point of view which has rather fewer adherents (and which is counter to British national interests). And to set out to kill at random in order to further this point of view is unforgivably evil; moreover, it is an unforgivable evil committed in a bad cause. (As I’ve argued before, it’s hardly possible – and may not even be desirable – to uncouple your assessment of a terrorist act from your assessment of the cause involved.)

This is what I mean by ‘understanding’ – and I don’t see that it involves any ‘condoning’, any ‘in some sense defensible’. What it does involve is visualising those concentric circles – which I think is essential, if we’re to have any hope of stopping the flow of recruits from outer circle to inner.

Could have moved mountains

Over at the excellent Burning Bird, Shelley recently announced that she was abandoning the Democrats and joining the US Green Party. Here’s one of the responses:

To say “the Democratic party does not represent me” is not a meaningful statement, because what a party stands for in America is constantly in flux, depending on what the vote-getters are perceived to be.I think in England, the only party that truly gets it is Labour — they have ditched many of their core principles to grab the center, and focused heavily on branding and spin — and it has worked like a charm. Forget about a three-party system. If the Conservatives or the Lib Dems don’t buck up soon and take their place as a proper opposition party, soon we’d be calling Britain a one-party state.

“The only party that truly gets it is Labour.” I think this is valid, and I think what they ‘get’ is something relatively new to British politics. It’s not opportunism or the willingness to abandon principles in pursuit of votes – Harold Wilson’s first term as Prime Minister began over forty years ago, after all. It’s stronger than that: it’s more like a commitment to abandoning the party’s principles, repeatedly and demonstratively, so as to disorientate and marginalise the opposition, so as to make it impossible for the party not to be in power.

The trouble is, this can’t possibly be a long-term strategy. Political principles aren’t a renewable resource; abandon them once and they’re gone. Here’s something I wrote in 1995, for the wonderful but short-lived magazine Casablanca.

What bothers me is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips. If he succeeds (which means winning two elections – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails (which seems highly likely – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will probably just cease to exist. Either way it means that, for the first time since the Labour Party was founded, there’s no party worth voting for with any kind of commitment to the Left.What makes it even worse is the odd references to ‘socialism’ from Blair’s direction – a ‘socialism’ which, for the first time in history, says nothing about either collective rights (except those of ‘society’) or individual freedoms (except the freedom to ‘achieve’). It’s as if they’d realised that the Left could never be completely defeated while we still had a language to call our own. (We’ve still got ‘Comrade’, I suppose, and ‘Point of order, Chair’, but that’s about it).

I remember, at a planning meeting for the newspaper socialist (a distant forebear of Red Pepper), suddenly realising what we were doing: we were trying to make water flow uphill. We were giving our time and labour without payment – many of us were giving money as well, in fact – in order to create something which might, one day, be able to sustain itself. (Or perhaps simply to create something which was worth creating, even if we had to go on subsidising it indefinitely.) It can be done, but it needs a language to do it in. Initiatives like socialist need a culture around them which can sustain the belief that they are worth doing and that they are possible: to make water flow uphill, it takes words of power. (I suppose ‘Comrade’ and ‘Point of order, chair’ do have a certain numinosity – at the first Chesterfield conference in 1987, somebody even tried to table a point of order at the evening social – but it’s not much to work with.)

Other Labour leaders have neglected the Leftist underbrush or cleared it from around the party, but only Blair has set out to poison it at the roots. This is bad news for Labour as well as for the Left. There will be a Labour Party after Blair; there will be a new generation of Labour leaders, there will be ideological renewal. Or rather, there will be a crying need for ideological renewal. At the moment, I’m not sure where it can possibly come from.

My 1995 comparison between Blair and Clinton – although not, obviously, my eerily accurate predictions for both of them – was echoed by something David Runciman wrote in a recent LRB.

In Britain, during the recent election campaign, the battleground for this newly personalised form of politics was not tax, but defence, immigration, terrorism, security and crime, where all the arguments were played out on Tory territory. In due course, when the Tories recover their nerve and the state of the economy starts to place Gordon Brown’s reputation under pressure, the argument will move on to tax.It is worth considering what then will be the price of the triangulations of the Blair years, the abandonment of principle, the remorseless pragmatism, the cynical disregard for constitutional proprieties. Too much attention has been focused in recent months on the legacy Blair is likely to leave for Brown, when what really matters is the legacy the Labour government leaves for the next Tory government (and the next party to govern Britain will be the Conservatives, unless the electoral system is changed). The example of the transition from the Clinton years to the Bush years is a salutary one. Clinton left an open door for his opponents to march through, by draining his supporters of their resolve, and hardening it among his enemies. He also acquiesced in the personalisation of politics, without finding a convincing narrative to counter the stories of injustice on which the Republican Party chose to feed. In the end, he made it too easy for them to undo his good work, and he destroyed the short-to-medium-term electoral prospects of his party in the process. Can anyone in Britain say with any confidence that Blair won’t turn out to have done the same?

“they have ditched many of their core principles to grab the center, and focused heavily on branding and spin — and it has worked like a charm”

“It is worth considering … the price of the triangulations of the Blair years”

And the swordsmen, the damned stupid swordsmen will win after all…

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