Into Dorkness

I was expecting the new Star Trek film to be a mediocre blockbuster, and it’s fair to say I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s a series of meaningless special-effects action sequences, strung together by an incoherent excuse for a plot, and glossed with geeky references that seem to aspire pretentiously to meaning; but, for this viewer, those postmodernish references simply jar with what little underlying emotional tone the movie manages to communicate in amongst all the kinetic CGI.

Perhaps my brows are lowered a little too much in the direction of this franchise, though. I seem to be in a minority of one when it comes to disliking the preceding big-screen Star Trek offering from 2009, which I felt was a genuinely bad film. Bad, in the sense that it came over to me as a fascist morality play, in which conformism to Mittel-American social values and military discipline is rewarded, while Otherness is punished brutally, usually fatally, and often to the cheers of the multiplex audience.

Like I said, maybe I overreacted?

Still, at least I didn’t find Into Darkness as actively offputing as its precursor, but I’d hesitate to say that the change is due to any deliberate attempt to question and deconstruct the message: perhaps it simply replaces an obnoxious narrative attitude with an incoherent one. I also found myself coldly unmoved, unable to find any entertainment or emotion, or any particularly intelligent plotting or subtext.

There are a few good moments. The sight of the Enterprise rising from an alien ocean in front of awestruck natives is undeniably impressive, silencing all objections with the impact of the sheer vast size of the starship compared to any human being. Similarly, the “beauty shots” of the NCC-1701 flying through space look beautiful, even in old-fashioned 2D. There’s a Tribble, which coaxed a half-smile from me, and there’s a nice touch in one scene with Scotty, where it looks as though a Space Nazi thug has the drop on the Enterprise Chief Engineer, but he turns out to have been just stringing along the bad guy until the exact right moment. The production values are consistently high and classy, and the acting is universally excellent, too – even if I wonder whether the cast produced quite the same tone and subtext that the script expected.

Overall, though, I was underwhelmed. The main problem is the plot, or rather, the varied excuses that the script provides for stringing together the action sequences. Quite why Khan uses a “top-secret transwarp transporter” to teleport directly from San Francisco to a bombed-out and abandoned Führerbunker on the Klingon homeworld, I don’t know, except that it provides the excuse to send Kirk, Spock and Uhura to an abandoned Führerbunker on the Klingon homeworld for the next big action sequence. Quite why Starfleet decides to send the Enterprise to the Klingon homeworld for that action sequence rather than using the top-secret space battleship USS Vengeance, I’m not sure either, except obviously, if the Vengeance had just assassinated Khan with a long-range torpedo strike from the far side of the neutral zone, there would be no film.

The long-range torpedoes are a double McGuffin, since they need to have a second, insanely implausible, McGuffin built into them that’s designed purely to prevent the heroes using them… until it’s rapidly removed so they can be brought into play, which means, of course, that they could have been brought into play sooner, and once again, we would have no film, because the Enterprise would have blown up the bad guys.

It doesn’t help that many of the segues that pass for story here require literal plot-devices – “transwarp transporter”, “long-range photon torpedoes”, “genetically-engineered blood”, technobabble machines that exist purely to facilitate the arbitrary jumping around of the characters, and which generally move at the speed of plot. The torpedoes, any one of which is supposedly capable of laying waste to the Klingon equivalent of Berlin from several light years away, do remarkably little damage when seven dozen of them go off simultaneously aboard the Vengeance – just as much as that particular scene requires, before the angry space battleship comes tearing out of the sky in a later scene like a kamikaze trope.

Similarly, too many of the VFX scenes also rely on frankly dubious and arbitrary plotting. In one scene, Kirk has to skydive through a massive debris field that seem far larger than the Enterprise‘s battle damage should actually provide… or maybe it’s the wreckage of a larger space battle that they didn’t include because they ran out of dollars and runtime to add in the other ships. Who knows? The Enterprise‘s warp drive appears to have been constructed entirely from insanely dangerous and unsafe components, many of which will malfunction or plunge from a great height when the ship is slightly damaged, simply to provide a dramatic obstacle course to threaten any important characters who make their way into the engineering section.

For some reason, the finale consists of two men punching each other a lot on top of a flying garbage truck as it speeds through downtown San Francisco.

It’s not exactly the Mutara Nebula.

The less said about the scene after the finale, the better, since it destroys any tension and credibility when it comes to the danger the heroes have purportedly been put through. The tribble might have raised a half-smile, but as a silly piece of set-dressing, it was rather more interesting than the supposedly pivotal plot-point it facilitated, which was completely undermined by the fact that it lampshaded the ending the moment it showed up.

You saw it as quickly as I did, right?

Were we supposed to laugh?

On one level, of course, this movie is a very deliberate and extended riff on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the movie which has come to be seen as the best of all the preceding big-screen outings for the Enterprise; but while I felt a momentary flicker of admiration at the cleverness that inverted Kirk and Spock’s roles in stopping Khan, it really comes over as intellectually out-of-ideas. Cumberbatch’s character bears little or no relationship to Ricardo Montalban’s charismatic, brilliant, but ultimately target-fixated alpha-male. The use of lines and scenarios reprised or adapted from the earlier movie doesn’t really bring either humour or emotional effect, and it’s hard to know if the creative team really knew what they were going with any of this, rather than showing off their to their fellow geeks (or is it nerds? I never can tell).

To make matters worse, the imbalance between attempts at pathos and attempts at postmodernism sends this film lurching from one mood to another with the speed of a jump-cut. When I saw the climax of The Wrath of Khan for the first time, I cried briefly (I was twelve, I think), and then I laughed at the incongruous bagpipe solo that struck up as Spock’s coffin was launched from the Enterprise. That was fair enough, with enough mood and pacing and camera-angles between the reactions to make both of them valid; but I felt nothing at the parallel scene here where Kirk “dies”, and any hope of getting impact from that moment was shot down by Spock’s immediate use of a much-lampooned line from the original move.


After that, it was just two men fighting on a flying dumpster, passing the time until, as we could have all guessed in Act II, Kirk was revived by the genetically engineered blood that Bones had previously injected into a dead tribble for no obvious reason.

That seems to be this highly-regarded creative team’s idea of a respectful homage to The Wrath of Khan. Or something.

On another level, however, there are alarming similarities to Diane Carey’s 1986 Star Trek tie-in novel, Dreadnought!, in which Lieutenant Piper (the trope-defining Mary Sue) and her Vulcan OTP have to stop a fascist admiral who’s built a massive space battleship in order to save the Federation from itself and the Klingons. This leads the Enterprise into Klingon space, where a three-cornered space battle ensues, and the antagonist eventually takes his ship on a botched kamikaze run against his opponents.

That’s right – the parts of Into Darkness that aren’t a misconducted riff on Khan are more-or-less a direct parallel of the plot of Dreadnought!, if you can get your head round the idea that Jim Kirk has been shipped into the Mary Sue role (oh! The postmodernist irony!), and you aren’t bothered by the fact that Pine and Quinto don’t really summon any genuine tension into the Kirk/Spock interaction.

I’ll admit that this jerk of recognition may be limited to longstanding fanboys with eidetic memories and a reasonably high tolerance for Sue-‘fic (I am, as I’ve intimated before, a lapsed Trekkie), but even so, I’m not alone in noticing….

I’m really not sure what to make of that.

And whether or not the movie contains a bizarre extended homage to an obscure tie-in novel, whatever it’s trying to say with the way it plays with reused plot elements to no particular effect, the result doesn’t work. The three-cornered Klingon Standoff between Khan, Kirk and the fascist admiral, made necessary by the intersection between two disparate storylines, is where this movie really breaks down. Sure, when Khan breaks Carol Marcus’ ankle with a casual stomp, and then crushes the admiral’s face between his bare hands, there’s a certain visceral effect, effect but it’s about the only real impact the movie has.

It didn’t have to be that way, of course. The switcharoo that sees Khan seize control of the fascist admiral’s space battleship could have been efficiently handled, without the convoluted plotting (and kinetically unlikely action sequences) that fail to produce any moral or dramatic tension whatever.

But that would have required the sort of brisk, coherent movie that relies on pacing and surprise for impact, rather than attempting to impress with fancy special-effects sequences.

I’m not really sure why this movie’s called Into Darkness, either, unless it’s a reference to the collapse of meaning that seems to be inherrent in the shaky plot and pointless effects, as a metaphor for the vast and dangerous emptiness that serves as the movie’s backdrop, and the cold pointlessness of existence expressed by Admiral Pike’s unflinchingly unheroic death in Act I. I don’t know. Maybe that is the point. Maybe that’s what Into Darkness is supposed to be about. It would at least explain why the whole nihilistic setup is so ridiculously and fatally subverted by the weight of Kirk’s Westley death in Act III.

On the other hand, if that is the point, then it’s subverted in turn by the unresolved question of whether it’s the point. Early on in the movie, Kirk figures out the bad guy’s next move, but a later scene implies that he reached the right conclusion for completely the wrong reasons, and I’m not sure whether that’s meant to be clever storytelling, or just evidence of slipshod rewrites.

Either way, it doesn’t matter.

I suppose I should emphasise that I’m not as profoundly antipathetic to this movie as the details of this review might suggest. I think J.J. Abrams can make very decent movies — or at least, I loved Super 8, though that may have been something to do with having been in a very good place emotionally with my favourite ex-girlfriend at the time, and for that reason, being very predisposed to be enamoured with the movie’s romanticization of Americana.

But whether it’s deliberately deconstructive or not, Star Trek Into Darkness still seems like a not very good movie to me. Sure, it looks pretty, in an incoherent Valley Girl sort of way, and I didn’t feel I’d wasted ten dollars going to see it. It’s a thoroughly “good” movie in terms of all the technical aspects of filmmaking – acting, design, CGI, cinematography and editing – and the way it brings them seamlessly together; but it seems to be hiding its crippling insecurity and lack of anything fun to say behind a sparkly mask of unconnected geek references and violent special effects.

And that’s true whether or not it’s fooling itself by aspiring to a deconstructive meaning of some sort, too. In the end, Into Darkness failed for me, because whatever it was trying to do, it didn’t convince me in the slightest.

Maybe that’s just because I’m a snob, though. I don’t know. But the roller-coaster of effects sequences and knowing pop-cultural references did absolutely nothing for me.


Subtext Galore

I’ve not yet seen Skyfall, the latest installment of the James Bond franchise. I’m one of those difficult customers who feels that the current reboot has strayed too far from the original concept of the title character. I do want to see if the latest movie can overcome my sense of dissonance, but it’s not been a priority.

On the other hand, even similarly cynical people are finding good things to say about Skyfall, notable among them being praise for Naomie Harris’ performance as Agent Eve.

“Though,” one friend commented wryly, “I’m not sure Ian Fleming would have have approved.”

At this point, I smiled, and answered with an off-the-wall theory that I’d been bouncing around in the back quarter of my mind; but the more I think about it, the more certain I am that I’m right about this one.

I don’t think Ian Fleming would have had any problem with Naomie Harris’ casting in this movie, or with the modern lack of racial concerns that it represents. In fact, if you go back to the novels, I suspect the most iconic of all Bond Girls was written as an African-American.

I’m talking about Miss Pussy Galore.

I hope that’s still an arresting, striking, perhaps even shocking idea. After all, thanks to the movie version of Goldfinger, the popular image of Miss Galore is very blonde. Very English. And I’d imagine that if any expert fans of the Bond franchise are reading this, they’re already aching to point out that, even if she’s American in the novel, Fleming describes Miss Galore explicitly as “pale”.

Well, yes; but I think there’s more to it than that. Let’s look at her backstory in a bit more detail?

Pussy Galore is based in Harlem, where she started out as a burlesque artiste, assembling a troupe of trapeze performers who diversified first to cat-burglary, then in a fairly serious way to organized crime, under the name of “The Cement Mixers”. This much, Bond knows already before he meets her.

What he’ll also, therefore, know, is that are very few white dancing girls in Harlem. This is the centre of African-American culture, the home at that time of jazz and swing and important movements in poetry, theatre and the visual arts; but it’s also the home of the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom, and an array of other vaudeville theatres, burlesque houses, “buffet flats” and whorehouses. That name, of course, that “inexplicable“, “outrageous” name of hers, is her stage name, as Goldfinger makes clear when he first mentions her – her act was called Pussy Galore and her Abrocats. It’s not exactly a stage name that suggests she performed at the respectable end of Lenox Avenue, either.

The name of the “Cement Mixers” is also part of this context: to the casual reader, it evokes the euphemistic “concrete overcoat”,  but it actually refers to the mechanical pelvic grind of burlesque chorus lines and cheap, synthetic sex.

So, by the time Bond meets Miss Galore, he knows what she is – an African-American ex-stripper.

So when Bond’s narrative voice describes Pussy as “pale”, he’s thinking of her as “pale” within the spectrum of Harlem showgirls. The twist of meaning becomes clearer if you look carefully at the whole description: “pale, Rupert Brooke good looks, with high cheekbones and a beautiful jawline”.

This is a wickedly-turned phrase, deliberately deceptive. At first sight, it seems to suggest a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon sort of beauty — Rupert Brooke was an iconic embodiment of Englishness, the great lyric poet of the British Empire at peace and war, and also the most handsome young man of his time; but “pale” is hardly a word that we should really associate with Rupert Brooke: his friends and contemporaries tended to describe him with words like “ruddy“, “richly coloured“, “tanned“, and his own choice of words tended rather towards “brown”.

A girl who has a Rupert Brooke complexion while remaining “pale” is not Caucasian; especially if she’s a former burlesque artiste from Harlem. She’s what the guys at the Cotton Club called teasin’ brown.

There are other hints, as well: as commentators have noted, Pussy’s hardboiled dialogue is “entirely foreign to representations of the American South”, but I think that may change if you drop the assumption that she’s white; and when Bond thinks of her as looking “like a painting by Vertes”, he’s not thinking of some obscure Spanish old master noted for his nudes, but the contemporary illiustrator and designer Marcel Vertès – and presumably, his ethnically mixed or racially ambiguous depictions of Paris jazz clubs and the Harlem demi-monde.

By this point, I’ve thoroughly convinced myself. I hope you’re still with me?

Of course, a writer doesn’t compare an African-American woman to Rupert Brooke unless he’s deliberately setting out to screw with his readers. In 1959, when Goldfinger was published, Shirley Bassey had just her first number one single, and McDonald Bailey’s 100 metres world record had only recently been bested, but the idea of pairing James Bond with an African-American woman would have probably still been shocking to a sizable percentage of the English reading public. It would have been even more unacceptable in the American market, where interracial relationships were still proscribed by varying levels of legal racism in twenty-four states.

There’s a lot I could say more about here. I think this twist in Miss Galore’s identity is designed to tie into more general themes about identity and oppression in the novel, and I think it’s particularly important to acknowledge that her sexuality is a part of that identity as well. She is, as Goldfinger crassly puts it, the leader of a “lesbian organization”.

The trouble is, I’m what you’d call a straight white man, and I’m not at all sure I feel confident to commentate on any of this. That’s also a problem which the author and his protagonist have: the ending of Goldfinger is regarded in critical circles as problematic, because the lesbian heroine ends up in bed with chauvinist arch-conservative alpha-male protagonist.

There is a certain awkwardness in that concept, but if I’m right, I think it’s possible to see some redeeming features in how Fleming and Bond negotiate it. Let’s look at that defining description again: Rupert Brooke was a man who men fell in love with; even straight men. Stuffy Victorian generals sound like starry-eyed teenagers when they describe him. When Bond compares Pussy to Rupert Brooke, he’s not only comparing a women who attracts women to a man who attracted men, he’s also implicitly transcending the usual gendered boundaries of sexuality, because in Bond’s thoughts, the quality that makes Pussy so beautiful and desirable is something you can also find in men.

That Rupert Brooke comparison is a subtle way for the author and his protagonist both to defer to the lesbian heroine, and in that context, the fact that Pussy beds Bond is ultimately her own decision. It’s not Mr. Bond who takes the initiative, and I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily Miss Galore whose sexuality is undermined or problematized in this novel. Insofar as the two of them meet as equals, it’s because the chauvinist protagonist allows himself to be seduced very easily by someone outside his official comfort zone.

I hope I’m at least allowed to speak up for straight while men’s ability to subvert themselves…?

To conclude, though, I want to focus on just one issue. A key theme of Goldfinger is its exploration of American organized crime – organized, that is, along ethnic lines: we’re introduced to fictionalized versions of the Sicilian Mafia, the Cuban mob from Miami, the Las Vegas gambling moguls (presumably representing Eastern European immigration, as in reality), an outwardly ultra-respectable German businessman from Detroit, and the Irish crime boss behind the Democratic Party in Chicago.

Yes, you read that last one right.

This isn’t about racial profiling. Goldfinger’s coalition is composed of immigrant minorities, who originally formed criminal cartels due to their exclusion from full participation in mainstream American society (you’ve seen Gangs of New York and Once Upon A Time in Americaright?); but now the leaders of those cartels have bought their way into that mainstream society, without divesting themselves of their core business: they’re planning a profitable revenge on the American state, while continuing to exploit it through their place in its élite. Not all of them are portrayed unsympathetically, either. The fact that Miss Galore is one of these characters emphasises that they’re not automatically, or inherrently, bad people.

It’s also important to emphasise that in this collection of the ethnic underclasses of the USA, Miss Galore’s Harlem outfit implicitly represents the African-American community.

(This James Bond theme will return….)

Double Vision

The London Daily Mail today has not one but two online articles covering the same photoshoot for a Mexican magazine. That strikes me as being pleasantly surreal.

From the perspective of this blog, it helps that the focus of the photoshoot is Eva Longoria. By a sort of osmotic extrapolation from her previous appearance as a topic of discuisson here, it seems that the former Desperate Houswives starlet has just become Quhart’s unofficial metaphor for gender topics. If I’d bothered to write more posts, it could have just as easily been Nordic character actor and part-time Mick Jagger impersonator Noomi Rapace, or boxing gold medalist Nicola Adams.

There was even a chance last week that it was going to be feminist icon Camille Paglia.

It helps, of course, that Ms. Longoria helms a twitter feed that’s all about political activism and being a homely aunt-and-daughter in a large Latino family, effortlessly subverting what clever commentators calls the “male gaze”. I found that out by virtue of an equally surreal London Daily Mail article that I didn’t cover on this blog.

It’s not for nothing that the Mail is now the world’s dominant on-line news source, although they don’t make a huge fuss about the fact. It provides an extensive range of articles on topics designed to appeal to both men and women and ideally both at once (e.g., La Longoria, her lifestyle and her fashion sense), whether the subject qualifies as news, social diary material, fashion coverage, or all of them together (e.g., La Longoria, her lifestyle and her fashion sense), illustrated as lavishly as modern technology will allow, and captioned in a tone that’s uncontroversial and accessible for the broadly patriotic and nostalgic public of the English-speaking world; all of which is exactly what it’s always done; but it does so these days with a knowing smile, a recognition that doing what it does so well can create amusing dissonances and contradictory readings.

Most other media types in London regard the modern Mail with a hilariously un-self-aware jealousy.

All the same, there’s no real question that an attitude of some sort is being indicated in the way that the danger of objectification is being handled here, even if it’s also being challenged and subverted, and quite simply ignored. I generally take the view that ordinary human beings are big enough to deal with that set of contradictions, but all the same, it makes me wonder exactly where the sort of audience-participation that’s encouraged by the internet-powered media becomes unworkably silly, or uncomfortably eccentric.

And that leads me on to some more considered thoughts on wider issues, musings that I’ll try and get together in my next update….

Broken Blade: chapter 4

(… continuing from chapter 3.)

Broken Bladechapter 4 

“I’m still not taking off my clothes,” Blade said. It was odd, to be allowed a decision of her own.

“We could make a selling point out of that,” the big man commented, after a moment’s pause. She couldn’t tell if he was amused, impressed, or just not wanting to waste time.

Then he turned and shoulder-charged her, grabbing her shift, and throwing her forward with the inertia of his movement—sending her sprawling across the arena floor, her rear skidding painfully on the smooth sand.

Sword, of course, just stayed on his feet, looking down at her. She squinted back, surprised how bright the sky was.

“Lesson one,” he said, offering her a hand up, and an appraising look that might have concealed a grin. “Out here, everything’s an attack. Never drop your guard, always look to exploit the enemy’s weakness. But you took the fall very well.”

“Thanks,” she said, with what was meant to be a shrug, but came out inexplicably as a smile.

Sword laughed, and the sound surprised her. “You’re different. That could work in your favour.” His eyes flickered, appraising her. “It also means there might be a mismatch between our fighting styles.”

“Are you saying you might have some difficulty training me, Sword?” She grinned, partially because she’d just experimented with calling him by his name.

“I like challenges. Now, square off, and we’ll go through a few hand-to-hand drills. Then I’ll work out where you fit in the weapons scheme.” He paused, shifting into a fighting stance, to anticipate any surprise attack. “Where did you learn your unarmed combat?”

She met him with a steady gaze, eyes dark, impassive. “Not in the Corps of Janissaries, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“SHACOM girl scout camp, then,” he grinned, feinting with his left hand. It wasn’t any sort of question.

Is he left-handed? she wondered, stepping back but keeping her left foot firm, elbow raised.

“You’d have admitted pretty much anything else,” he noted, stepping right—not the direction she expected. “So is it true that you’re completely beaten now?”

For a moment, Blade just looked at him.

Her answer was a low, spin-kick attack, designed to make him spring to dodge, followed by a push-up jump attack from her crouched left foot.

(… and a link for chapter 5 will go here when it’s online!)

The Adventures of Pneumatic Girl!

This blog post is about a literary archetype (said the author, casually).

When we hear the adjective pneumatic applied to the female of the species these days, we tend to think of a girl with a particularly large décolletage, especially of the sort that looks like a bicycle pump was involved – inflated, probably with mechanical assistance. It’s not exactly a particularly complimentary description any more, although it might imply a certain taut-skinned lack of clothing: bare arms and bare thighs, an airbrushed illusion of athleticism.

The cheapness of the word in current use is rather a shame, I feel, because the origins of the concept were a little more sophisticated.

The trope namer was, of all people, T.S. Eliot, with some able assistance from most of the major English literary figures of the early-to-mid twentieth century: Ford Madox Ford, Aldous Huxley, and John Betjeman were all actively involved. Don’t worry if you don’t know who they were. The point is, they weren’t the sort of writers who fetishized air-headed girls with silicone implants; what’s actually happened is that popular culture has fetishized an idea that they developed.

I suspect that in England, the modern archetype is a little more brazen than it is overseas: this is the land of the “Page 3 Girl”, where topless photos are an inexorable part of the biggest-selling daily newspaper; where it’s socially-acceptable to adjust your fake tan colour and upper-body dimensions depending on the season’s fashions, and the reality shows make Jersey Shore look intellectual. Thus, our pneumatic girl has fallen further than America, where the fitness models place a little more emphasis on actual fitness, and the valley girls tends to have a certain lack of stamina and an incoherent sense of social modesty, traits that rule them out of proper consideration.

In origin, the pneumatic girl was a far more respectable thing, a chaste Atalanta, as bad writers (and some good ones) would say. Sporty and taut, not necessarily particularly overdeveloped in the chest, and competent in the manner of the talented amateur rather than the ambitious professional, clean in attitudes and lifestyle. Generally blonde, generally Anglo-English, but always independent-minded, and often with surprising (yet generously understated) intellectual depths – Miss Valentine Wannop in Parade’s End, for example, is fluent in Latin and Greek to the point of random scholarly extemporation, and one of the few people yet invented who can intellectually out-argue that book’s protagonist, Tietjens.

Some English literary heroines of the era, such as Lady Joan Brett in Chesterton’s The Flying Inn, have a more complex relationship with the trope (but that book’s a topic for a more serious blog under another name).

Of course, at first sight, this seems suspiciously like a male fantasy, and there’s an element of that involved; though the first thing I want to say in riposte is that I don’t believe it’s simply a fantasy, or any sort of bad thing, that clever and confident men give honour to the idea of women who they can treat as equals.

This hopeful lack of prejudice in the concept is further strengthened by evidence for a level of metaphor and meaningfulness, as well as a strong twist of self-knowledge. The inherent strength of the pneumatic girl was never entirely physical. Pneuma, if you take it back to the Greek (as Miss Wannop would) is a name for the human spirit; Eliot’s pneumatic bliss, today’s trope namer, is ostensibly a reference to a heaving chest, but his poetic context connects it to the soul, to the highest aspirations of both religion and literature, and to that most human of all actions, conversation. All things, however apparently carnal and transient, hint at something fundamental.

You’re just going to have to take my word on that part, okay?

Buried deeper in the subtext is the fact that the Russian girl he’s describing is the greatest ballerina of the day, a physical embodiment of a skill and beauty; to the unwary reader, her eccentric, accented English might seem to objectify her, but this is merely the mirror to the poet’s own utter incapacity in the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy. She speaks two languages, one fluently, the other charmingly, and her entire body is a thing of high art; he has just one, and his thoughts keep straying to her breasts.

Eliot, who would never use a word with two contradictory meanings when three were possible, was probably also thinking of what were already by then known as penumatic drills – that sound you hear is the shattering of the narrative voice’s own intellectual tarmac – and Huxley, ruthlessly debasing Eliot’s own imagery in Brave New World, gave us a future where “pneumatic girls” are as mechanical, mindless and interchangeable as office chairs – yet here, once again, it’s the male protagonist who fails to make the human connection.

In some cases, in other word, the male narrative voice portrays the pneumatic girl as more than an equal. But I think the inadequacy of the male protagonist is a self-conscious stance that we can happily leave out of the wider discussion. It’s a little boring. It’s that layer of meaning about the soul that I want to turn back to, and explore a little more. In simple terms, it works like this: Eliot’s imagery identifies the quasi-unobtainable and self-possessed free woman with a pure longing of the soul, and see in her athleticism as an expression of a fundamental creative energy.

The pneumatic girl, in other words, is a symbol of goodness, and maybe just she’s capable of improving the typically-male narrative voice, as well.

The fact that is even the worst excesses of what feminists call objectfication by the male gaze hint at it. The modern debasing of the image of the free, athletic woman (and Huxley’s, and Eliot’s) point back towards the fact that it exists there in the first place. The subtext of the exploitative version breaks down as it tries to cheapen and simplify the concept, because by it’s very nature, it is debasing something, or rather – more optimistically – aspiring to be something, acknowledging the archetype in question.

And finally, I want to emphasize the simple fact that not all pneumatic girls of the good sort are imaginary; they operate quite independently of the male imagination. English boarding schools still produce them in appreciable quantities. The Daily Telegraph employs a good handful. We’ve recently seen an Olympics starring Hope Solo and Jessica Ennis, while Katee Sackhoff and Gina Carano are bankable at the box-office, to say nothing of Keira Knightley, who I could probably link to every single conceptual theme within this monologue. Black Swan touches on some important aspects of the trope, and even does so in a new way.

Counterparts also appear quite widely in modern fiction, in the form of that that “strong female protagonist” who’s so fashionable at the minute: Hermione Granger is only the most lucrative example.

Some of them, like Anne and Austra in Greg Keyes’ Thorm and Bone quartet, even have Valentine-and-Tiejens-style flirty conversations about comparative linguistics, too. I should emphasis that in Keyes, as in Parade’s End, this is played for laughs.

I want to mention Matt Stover’s female Knights of Khryl, but I’m not quite sure I have the courage to try and fit them (or anything Mr. Stover writes) into my own interpretative pattern. In this, I’m like T.S. Eliot confronted with a ballerina, bizarre as the simile is.


(An aside I made in a recent post reminded me that I meant to get my thoughts in order about this movie, so here goes – a retroview, if you will, though it doesn’t say much extra in hindsight that I didn’t think about at the time.)

Battleship was a flop, right? It was kicked out of sight on its US opening weekend by The Avengers, and followed that up with a poor domestic gross, negative critical responses, and a worldwide meme of “sunk” jokes.

It’s still made a net box-office profit of over $100 million worldwide, but the informed opinion seems to be that this was less to do with the film itself, and more because it was the first major 3D release in some foreign markets, benefiting there from the added draw (and higher ticket prices) of the funky new technology.

By the time I saw the film, near the end of its UK theatrical run but well before the US release, the critical narrative had already been established. Come to think of it, the fact that Universal shunted their international openings forward may mean that the studio already felt the film was a flop, and wanted to avoid the negative publicity of a low domestic opening.

All of which is a shame, because I actually reckoned this was a pretty good movie.

There have been dissenting voices saying similar things, of course. The Australian media seem to have generally recognized this film as a high-quality piece of mindless fun. Time and Entertainment Weekly, in contrast, gave it a more intellectual sort of thumbs-up. That seems like a paradox, but I don’t think it’s a mistake.

Battleship is, on one level, a very silly movie. After the success of the Transformers film franchise, Universal Studios were looking for more Hasbro properties with a military theme to adapt for the big screen: someone picked up the old back-of-the-car board game where you try and sink the ships on the other player’s unseen grid, and decided it had the makings of a blockbuster.

It’s an absurd idea, and I have a hunch that whoever made the pitch wasn’t actually taking it too seriously.

But Battleship goes two ways with this. On the one hand, this is a gleefully silly film, one which has huge fun with a stupid dork of a protagonist, and a kick-ass alien weapons system that looks and works just like the whole process of pitching the plastic pegs into your opponent’s board. It casts Bajan music sensation Rihanna as a hyper-smart U.S. Navy seaman with an arsenal of great big guns.

It’s also silly in a knowing, cine-literate, way, constructed in large part from second-hand scenes, plot-points and soundtrack cues, patched together with insanely hard-boiled dialogue (“The fact that you know that infuriates me beyond belief!”, “Mahalo, mutha*u”-boom!, and my personal favourite: “They killed all my grad students!”). It throws Pearl HarbourTop Gun, Independence Day, every old technicolor war movie you ever saw, and even Young Guns for no good reason, into a cocktail mixer that doesn’t spare any of their reputations, and produces something which (as the Time reviewer recognized) is essentially a merciless parody of the whole Transformers franchise.

It’s Snakes on a Plane on a big damn boat.

And no, I’m not going to mention the 2010 live-action version of Space Battleship Yamato, which, you know, has the exact same plot.

This is a film with its tongue so far in its cheek it’s giving itself a rimjob. Even the titular battleship is a shameless send-up of the “Chekov’s Gun” trope: in Act I, you draw attention to the presence of the old rifle on the wall (or, in this case, the USS  Missouri and her nine sixteen-inch cannon in a museum dock), so that it can be taken off the shelf and used in Act III.

Now, I’m not someone who usually enjoys metatextual referentiality for its own sake, especially metatextual referentiality of such a huge, self-destructive scale: but the sheer, shameless aplomb with which they carry it off in this flick made me grin right through the movie.

On the other hand, when it comes down to the business of fighting, killing, dying, this film doesn’t pull its punches. While the film generally fetishizes the shiny mechanical fluidity and bright electronic wavelengths of modern military technology, there are times when it knows it can’t: the deaths of men, and the deaths of warships, are handled with an instant, unsentimental finality that’s about as authentic as you can get. Character-arcs are abruptly cut short in fire and shrapnel, and the special effects suddenly aren’t gratuitous or prurient any more.

A soldier who had his legs blown off by a roadside bomb somewhere in the War on Terror is played by… a soldier who had his legs blown off by a roadside bomb somewhere in the War on Terror. You simply can’t argue with that.

This film is basically Flash Gordon meets Went The Day Well.

Now, maybe that’s an odd juxtaposition. But it worked for me – because, I think, the freeform silliness intensifies the impact of the moments when it’s suddenly not there any more, and at the same time, provides the human motivation for the characters to keep on fighting – and it worked, one way or another, for some reviewers who weren’t paying attention to received opinions. Maybe wouldn’t work so well for most people? Maybe most people would find the juxtaposition jarring, troubling, confusing?

But my hunch (though it is only a hunch) is that the problem was more specific: the studio didn’t really know how to market the film, and the media didn’t know how to respond to it.

After all, most people didn’t go and see this movie. Did you?

Broken Blade: chapter 3

(… continuing from chapter 2.)

Broken Blade: chapter 3

Sword could hear the roar of the crowd as he strode forward, down the dark tunnel that led into the light. He could hear the cheer change pitch as he walked out into the vast white space of the arena.

It took a couple of seconds for his eyes to accept that the encircling grandstands were empty—just like it always did; the echo of the crowd roar always seemed to linger. Perhaps it was because he had always kept his eyes low when he was a fighter- focused on the expanse of white sand ahead of him, and whatever dangers it contained; never straying above the false horizon of the arena’s far edge. He needed the sound to fill the emptiness, the dusty expanse stretching so far that the eye could hardly grasp that it was circular.

It was here that Sword had become the Galaxy’s greatest gladiator, and now, it was here that he was expected to turn Broken Blade into a weapon—her owner’s latest challenger for the championship.

“Stand there,” he ordered her, when they’d gone about a minute out into the empty space. She stopped, and glanced at him. “No, just stand natural, like you’re about to get into an alley fight.”

He frowned professionally at the girl as she shifted her weight, then circled round her, studying her poise and the way her her weight translated into force, gauging the muscle definition under her skin, and the shape she was likely to move in.

“You should take off the shift,” he said, his tone flat and professional. In response, she folded her arms below her chest, and looked at him, her expression tightening slightly.

“I’d rather not,” she shrugged.

“You can’t have any sentiment, in this line of work,” he told her, and he meant it. “Your body is a weapon. Nothing more.”

“Don’t tell me you’re not proud of your own body,” she countered, with a small, hostile smirk as she ran her gaze across his bare chest.

“I’m satisfied with what I am,” he answered, with a muscular shrug. “But I’m an unsentimental kind of guy.” He moved towards her, slowing to a fighter’s pace. “My body looks the way it does because it’s the best killing machine my training masters ever produced. It’s functional.”

“In the arena, or the bedroom?” the girl challenged. “You want me to fight for His Lordship, fine. But don’t expect me to pose for the audience of a trillion drooling teenage boys in Future Corps armbands. I know what arena sport is like.”

The corner of Sword’s mouth lifted in what might have been amusement, as he rested one big hand on her shoulder—a gesture that reminded him of how to snap people’s necks with his bare strength. He looked down towards her eyes, not caring if she looked back or not. “Like it or not, they’ll drool at the way you move anyway. There’s not much about the way Stiletto wears her armour that’s especially sexy… there’s just something about a girl who handles a weapon like a ballet dancer.”

“Stiletto?” Broken Blade’s eyebrow lifted, her tone showing the professional interest of a fighter before a fight. That was good.

“Stiletto is the Lady Empress’s reigning champion,” Sword answered. “The woman you’re being trained to kill.”

“I’m still not taking off my clothes,” she answered, looking calmly back at him.

(… continued in chapter 4!)