Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Lost in Picardy

The idea that Starfleet might make a first strike was a terrible precedent and undermined the philosophy of peace that the Federation had lived under for centuries. – Captain Jean-Luc Picard (who would presumably be as surprised by the new show as anyone else)

Hmm, well, quite. When David A Goodman and Titan Books published The Autobiography of James T Kirk a couple of years ago, the entity that is Star Trek had been coasting along amiably enough for many years, keeping a nice low profile most of the time, with only the occasion trial of an Abrams-directed movie. No-one would have suspected that the power converters would come off the warp core quite as spectacularly as has been the case over the last eighteen months or so, with the most recent movie underperforming at the box office and the release of Discovery being scorned, mocked and reviled by various elements of the fan base (personally, I’m a mocker, and I’m not even that big a Trekkie).

Such is the world that The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard finds itself sent forth into, once again by Goodman (presumably with just a little help from the man himself, I’m not an expert on how these things are done). Once again, the aim of the book is to tell us Picard’s side of the story and basically join together all the dots that the various TV episodes and movies laid out over the years.

Before we go any further, let us take a moment to consider who is most likely to be reading the autobiography of a fictional character from Star Trek. If you are completely unfamiliar with Trek, especially the late 80s and early 90s version of it, then you are unlikely to give this book much time (also, what the hell are you doing reading this blog? Is there no paint drying or grass growing near where you are?). The pleasure of this kind of thing, surely, is not necessarily that of learning anything new, but of feeling rewarded for all those hours and days spent watching TNG episodes again and again: specifically, that moment of slightly smug recognition when the book covers an event only mentioned as a tiny aside on the actual show.

Goodman potentially has a bigger job on his hands than he did when dealing with Kirk’s memoirs, for a couple of reasons. First of all, Kirk was still a young man when his TV career got underway, and the general details of the second half of his life were established fairly clearly by the TV show and the movies. With Picard it’s different: the show makes it quite clear that Picard had a long and distinguished career prior to the start of TNG – one way and another, he spent more time on the Stargazer than he did on any version of the Enterprise – and naturally the book has to reflect this. Also, the history of the Alpha Quadrant during Kirk’s younger life is generally quite vague (or was, if you still think Discovery actually happens in the original timeline, in which case the Kirk book instantly becomes apocryphal), but for this one Goodman has to make some sense of the occasionally confused references to relations between the Federation, the Klingon, and the other main powers in the mid-24th century, not to mention the peculiar fact that the Federation has supposedly been at war with the Cardassians for years prior to TNG‘s fourth season, yet this was never mentioned in any of the previous episodes.

To be fair to him, Goodman does a pretty decent job of trying to get it all straight, although a couple of very obscure continuity points still manage to trip him up (he implies that it’s a youthful Picard who makes first contact with the Cardassians, which seems unlikely given that the episode Destiny reveals that a Cardassian exile was apparently on Vulcan prior to 2250) – and hey, this kind of thing is surely forgiveable, it’s not like he retcons a new magic warp drive that runs on mushrooms, or something. And it’s not as if the series itself is exactly consistent about everything – for the record, Goodman seems to go with the TV series’ suggestion that Picard went bald while captain of the Stargazer, rather than as a very young man (as implied by Nemesis).

Certainly every major reference to Picard’s past that I can think of is picked up on rather deftly, the only time it becomes laborious is when the fact of his presence at Spock’s wedding has to be explained. Given that we know nothing else about this event, Goodman is obliged to turn it into low comedy, with Picard never quite managing to find out who Spock is getting hitched to, not even her name, despite being in the front row of the ceremony.

To be honest, the book has bigger problems than this. There is, for one thing, the fact that there are at least three different versions of Picard that have to be reconciled in order for this book to really work – there’s the young, ambitious, rakish officer who we hear a lot about, the dry and stiff-necked functionary of the early years of the TV show, and finally the warm, subtle, witty man of enormous moral authority whom Picard eventually developed into.

The thing is that none of these guys really show up in the book, or at least not consistently. Goodman just isn’t a good enough writer to make you believe you’re actually reading something from Picard’s own hand (you’d expect Jean-Luc to have a more elegant prose style, for one thing). It’s all a bit pedestrian, not helped by the same simplistic and slightly gloomy cod-psychology that was a feature of the Kirk book – Picard’s life is dominated firstly by the fact of his poor relationship with his father, and secondly by the fact that he is quietly and deeply in lurve with Dr Crusher throughout his screen career. Goodman is palpably much more enamoured of this second notion than Picard ever seemed to be of Crusher on screen, to be honest, but there you go (the book seems to suggest that the possible future of All Good Things is largely how things will turn out).

This is one of the reasons why this book has picked up some fairly toxic feedback on everyone’s favourite on-line site named after a big river – this, and the fact it apparently disregards an actually pretty good novel someone wrote about the decade or so between Picard losing the Stargazer and being given command of the Enterprise. To be honest, none of the things that Goodman suggests happen to Picard and the rest of the gang after the end of Nemesis strike me as remotely convincing (including his role in the back-story of the first Abrams movie, but that’s another set of gripes).

I would have to say the bad reviews are onto something, for the reasons mentioned above, although it would be unfair to say the book has no merit at all. It’s technically competent and very readable, and Goodman pulls off one big moment that the TV show never managed, by making the captains of many of the ships that Picard/Locutus destroys at the battle of Wolf 359 old friends and colleagues previously established and fleshed out in the earlier sections of the book. This gives the battle emotional stakes and sense of personal horror that just wasn’t there in an event which was talked about much more than seen, in TNG at least (I suspect we will not be seeing future volumes on the other Trek captains, and will have to settle for brief appearances by Sisko and Janeway in this one – Picard describes Sisko as ‘ferocious’, which is just, well, odd).

I suppose the book will also be helped by the sincere affection many people have for Jean-Luc Picard as a fictional character – the most nuanced and interesting of the Trek captains, in many ways. The same goes for his crew – reading this book, I was suddenly aware of how well-rounded and textured his senior staff are as characters, much more so than the supporting members of the original crew. I mean, Scotty’s a beloved character, but even Riker or Troi seem closer to three dimensions than he does. If nothing else, The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard will remind a lot of people of just how fond they are of TNG.

As I say, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing any books in this series (the consensus seems to be that DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise-related books are less commercially viable), and I would have to say that on balance it’s less successful than the one about Kirk. But then it has a harder job to do, covering more ground and dealing with a much more complex central character. Even so, Trekkies should find something to engage them here, one way or another.

Advertisements

A Strange World of Open Secrets

Many questions could reasonably be asked of the film we will shortly be considering, namely Justice League. Given the generally lousy track record of DC movies over the last few years, will it destroy all the precious momentum generated by Wonder Woman and torpedo that movie’s chance of a genuine Oscar run? Why is all the publicity material treating the presence of Superman in this movie as some kind of well-hidden surprise, considering that Henry Cavill (who plays the Kryptonian on the big screen these days) is second-billed in the cast list? Just how much influence did Joss Whedon exert over this film, given that Zach Snyder retains the sole directorial credit? Why, given Snyder’s take on the DC mythology strains so hard to be dark and edgy and ‘realistic’, have they gone with a title as corny-sounding as Justice League in the first place? And why, given it contains a whole bunch of popular and iconic characters, are so many people approaching this movie with a general feeling of ‘Please don’t let it be as bad as I’m afraid of’?

justice-league-poster

Hey ho. With Superman still dead (I really don’t think this counts as a spoiler any more), planet Earth has been thrown into something of a state of trauma. Batman (Ben Affleck), however, fears that worse is yet to come, especially when he encounters an alien scout on the prowl in Gotham City, and this impels him to step up his attempts to find more gifted individuals to protect the planet. Chivvying him along in this, somewhat, is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). On their list of people to see are the Flash (Ezra Miller), who can run at close to the speed of light, Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who is, um, a cyborg, and Aquaman (Jason Momoa). (Just why, in the context of the film, Batman is so keen to recruit someone whose only powers appear to be the ability to swim really fast and an impressive skill at fishing is not really explained.)

Anyway, things get urgent with the ‘awakening’ of an otherworldly cube, immediately followed by the arrival of a dangerous alien warrior in unusual headgear. (At this point I was wondering if Joss Whedon had done any actual work on this movie to earn his writer’s credit, or whether it was just there to acknowledge how much of his script for The Avengers was being ripped off here.) The newcomer is Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciaran Hinds, who has come in search of a set of plot coupons that will allow him to recreate Earth in the image of his apocalyptic homeworld. Can our disparate bunch of heroes unite to stop him?

All right, so there are (as usual) some baffling creative decisions on display here – not the least of which is the decision to keep Superman’s presence in the film out of all the publicity. And there are some aspects of the plot which just plain don’t make any sense whatsoever. That said, I can only assume the decision not to give Whedon a full co-director’s credit must be down to some complicated technical criterion, for his influence on the movie is clear. Apparently one of his decisions was to cut the thing down from nearly three hours to only two; once, the temptation would have been to say he’d only gone a third of the way to fixing this movie, but no longer, for this is a big improvement on Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, even if it doesn’t match the standard of Wonder Woman.

Full disclosure time: I’m probably more a fan of the DC characters and mythology than Marvel’s universe (not that it wouldn’t be a close-run thing if I were forced to choose). So there’s a sense in which I’m absolutely the target audience for this movie, at least inasmuch as I know who all the characters are, not to mention the associated mythology. It does occur to me that anyone new to this might find all the casual talk of Atlantis and Parademons and the Speed Force and Mother Boxes to be utterly baffling; I don’t know how good a job they do of keeping the film accessible.

On the other hand, I’m also not the easiest person to please. This movie clearly owes a debt to the rebooting of the Justice League by Geoff Johns from a few years back, not least in the way it attempts to incorporate Cyborg as a core member of the team. I am of the generation for whom this guy is a member of the Titans, not the League, and the absence from the film’s version of the team of any Green Lantern, not to mention the Martian Manhunter, is inevitably a disappointment – although there is a tiny cameo by a Lantern at one point. (Shame they didn’t draw much more from the Morrison-Porter incarnation of the group, but then Johns is producing the movie.)

We’re still in a slightly odd world where Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and even the Justice League itself are barely referred to by those names at all (just not credible enough, I guess), but nevertheless the film works very hard to include lots of crowd-pleasing moments to satisfy both casual viewers and the die-hard faithful – from the Flash’s look of panic at the unprecedented realisation that a hostile, amnesiac Superman can actually see him coming, to the decision to incorporate classic elements of the soundtracks of the 1978 Superman and the 1989 Batman into this film’s score.

This is not to say this is a great film, simply one which has its moments. Again and again you realise that this is a film stuffed with charismatic performers who just aren’t being given the material they need to really shine. You never get that sense of the characters coming together as the iconic team they are; they just sort of bump into and hang around with each other. Going with an all-CGI villain like Steppenwolf is arguably a serious mistake. And there’s a point in the second act at which the plot goes off on a frankly bizarre and very wrong-feeling tangent, which the film really has to work hard to recover from.

Still – and bear in mind that, as I say, I’m inclined to be generous here – this is still quite watchable stuff, with all the various quips and one-liners (courtesy of Whedon, one presumes) making up for the tendency towards CGI-slathered heavy metal gloom (courtesy of Snyder, one is quite sure). I still think DC and Warner Brothers have a lot of work to do to turn this into a viable long-term franchise of the mighty Marvel kind, but – and in the context this really isn’t the faint praise it sounds like – on the whole, the thing to bear in mind is that Justice League could really have been much, much worse.

Less Loco, More Parentis

It has been somewhat slim pickings this week, as we are currently suspended between tentpole releases in an odd sort of cinematic dead zone, especially if heart-warming family entertainments about CGI bears are not the kind of thing that oscillates your coracle. Still, there’s nothing wrong with looking a little further afield than normal, and so while awaiting the doubtless unique results of Zach Snyder and Joss Whedon’s directorial collaboration, I thought it might be nice to check out a low-budget movie about the private school system in the Republic of Ireland. Rock ‘n’ roll!

schlife

The film in question is Neasa Ní Chianáin’s School Life (aka, apparently, In Loco Parentis) from last year, an observational documentary recording a year in the life of the students and staff at Headfort, a boarding school for children between three and thirteen located in Kells, about an hour outside Dublin (it says here). A fairly unusual school, then: the student body is multinational, containing kids from as far afield as Tanzania and South Korea, and the curriculum seems a little eccentric, too.

Over the course of the film we see various small moments from the year – the school Olympics (some nations are rather better represented than others), the development of the school band, the school production of Hamlet being thrown into jeopardy when the actor playing the Ghost turns out to be having First Communion on the day of the performance, and so on. No-one seems to pay the cameras very much attention, and the events shown in the film are clearly quite unforced, consistently warm, and often very funny – the school band’s assault on Teenage Kicks turns out to be one of the unexpected comedy highlights of the year.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the stars of the film turn out to be John and Amanda Leyden, two of the teachers who have spent virtually their entire careers at Headfort: John teaches Latin, but also apparently metaphysics and applied rock and roll. A man with apparently infinite resources of sarcastic curmudgeonry and almost indescribable hair, John comes out of the film as a deeply endearing figure, which would probably really annoy him. He certainly provides many of the film’s best lines – ‘Don’t like the sound of that. Sounds like children,’ he mutters, as his rest is disturbed by the sound of his charges approaching. ‘Well, that wasn’t entirely awful,’ is his idea of glowing praise, while he also hits upon an innovative solution to handing out prizes at the end of a class quiz: ‘I have decided to give a cream egg to the children who I like,’ he announces. He sounds, and probably looks, like a figure from some lost age of boarding-school nightmares – or possibly the teacher from Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall video, but what’s immediately apparent in the film is his utter dedication to his work and his students. He has, after all, spent 46 years at this school.

The same is true for Amanda, who teaches English and is also in charge of the school play. She is a rather more maternal and approachable personality, but once again you never for a moment doubt that her work is the absolute centre of her life. Amanda and John are not particularly expressive, either towards each other or their pupils, but in both cases their devotion is clear. They don’t appear to have grown particularly rich in monetary terms, and indeed their home is chaotically shabby, but you are still left with the overwhelming impression who have managed to find the sweet spot of life.

The same could also be said of Headfort’s headmaster, Dermot Dix. Dix is a former Headfort pupil himself, apparently (not to mention a former pupil of the Leydens) and his own reputation from his time at the school is well-known amongst the pupils. I know I run the risk of repeating myself when I say that he seems equally dedicated to getting the children off to the best start in life, but it’s true (even if his lessons in ethical thinking appear to go off at some odd tangents – one scene showing discussion on gay marriage concludes with a pupil  deciding that ‘sometimes it’s better to be gay than single’).

Of course, if you are the cynical type, you might well conclude that all this really is is a massive commercial for what is, essentially, an extremely exclusive private school. Sure, the kids get a marvellous, nurturing education from superb teachers, but this is predicated on the fact that their parents are paying up to around €18,000 per school year for the privilege. Tedious old lefty that I am, as a rule I object to the fact that the quality of a child’s education should depend on their parents’ income, and so there’s a sense in which Headfort represents many things which I don’t believe should have a place in a modern, civilised society. And yet looking at the place, I can’t help but agree that the world is better for having schools like Headfort in it.

This is one of those observational documentaries that appears deceptively artless: there are no captions as such, no voice-over, no interviews as such with the principles. It doesn’t appear to be making a case or arguing a point of any kind, it just seems to be presenting an honest picture of a very nice place.

Nevertheless, questions inevitably arise as you watch it: shouldn’t all schools be like this one? What does it say about our society that education often seems to be less than a priority? Isn’t the education of children one of the most important jobs in any society?

More personally, the film seems to be more widely about life in general. I don’t tend to go on about it much hereabouts, but I am a teacher of sorts, although in my case I generally stick to working with people in their late teens and early adulthood. Watching School Life made me think that I might be in the wrong game, though, and that it’s with the younger children that you can really make a difference. I don’t know.  I do know that seeing John Leyden almost felt like looking at a vision of the future – I do enjoy a bit of dark sarcasm in the classroom, though I draw the line at buying cream eggs for anyone. Unspoken in the film are John and Amanda’s feelings as they contemplate their looming retirement, and what they will do next: it’s clear that this is something they approach with some reluctance.

Again, I sympathise (though in my case the crisis point is still hopefully many years away). But I imagine most people would – this is such a humane film, that it will surely evoke that same humanity in a viewer. Is it about the Irish private education system? No, not really. Of course, it’s about one very unusual school, but it also does that weird thing of not being about anything, and yet at the same being about absolutely everything. But none the worse for that, of course.

The Broken Gender

People seem to easily forget that the word ‘is’ is different from the word ‘should’. If we choose to redress the sexual differences between the minds of men and women through policy, we are going against nature, but no more than when we outlaw murder. But we should be clear that we are redressing a difference, not discovering [that men and women are innately identical by nature]. Wishful thinking that they are the same will be mere propaganda and no favour to either sex.

We seem to be going through one of those periods in which the question of what it means to be a human is rather up for debate. Normally I’d be quite encouraged by any tendency for people to actually discuss big topics, but the current circumstances are, to say the least, dismaying: ever since the initial revelations about Harvey Weinstein, which as I write must have been nearly a month ago, there has been a ripple effect throughout every level of society – mostly taking in actors and politicians, so far, but I’m sure it has every possibility of spreading into other areas, too.

The composite picture of the masculine human created by the recent revelations is not one likely to make one feel proud of being in possession of XY chromosomes. Men are, it would seem, basically unpleasant pieces of work (when it comes to their relationships with women, anyway), and unaware of the fact of their own unpleasantness. What’s wrong with us? How did we get this way? Are we just stuck in the past, following the principles of a male-oriented chauvinistic society, something best consigned to the bin of history?

Hmmm. As it happened, I spent the last month or so reading Matt Ridley’s 1993 book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, and despite the fact that the book is two decades old, I was repeatedly struck by how pertinent it was to the current discussions – also by the fact that so few of the book’s ideas seem to have entered the popular consciousness, despite the fact they seem eminently logical and reasonable.

matt-ridley-the-red-queen-sex-the-evolution-of-human-nature-1993-1-638

But then I am perhaps biased: I have thought for many years that our behaviour as humans is influenced by elements of our evolutionary history that we are reluctant, to say the least, to acknowledge, and that there is little prospect of widespread social happiness until we achieve some kind of accomodation with our biology and instincts.

Ridley’s thesis runs more or less as follows – humans do not occupy a special or privileged position in the world; we are the products of evolutionary processes every bit as much as chimpanzees or elephant seals or peacocks are. This extends to our social behaviour, and particularly our sexual behaviour. As evolution is solely influenced by the transmission of genes via sexual reproduction, it follows that sex is likely to have been strongly influenced by evolutionary pressures. Ridley argues that it is impossible to make sense of human behaviour without accepting the crucial influence of sexual selection.

Coupled to all of this (if you’ll pardon the expression) is what Ridley calls the Red Queen: the idea that evolution is an endless, unwinnable ‘arms race’ (the reference is to Lewis Carroll, whose Red Queen stayed in the same spot no matter how hard she ran). Mice evolve to come out at night, when it’s safer, so owls evolve to see in the dark; mice evolve better ears to hear the owls coming, so the owls evolve silent ‘stealth feathers’ for noiseless flight. You are never safe; the contest never ends.

Ridley starts from first principles, however, and begins by examining what sound like initially rather odd questions – why have sex at all? And why are most animals arranged in the manner that they are, with two sexes, a father and a mother?

It would, after all, be simpler and less stressful just to bud off a clone of yourself whenever you felt was a propitious time – you could save all that time looking for a partner and just concentrate on having children, thus maximising your genetic legacy. Or, if we absolutely have to have sex as a species, why not all be hermaphrodites? Again, this would double (on average) the number of offspring resulting from successful procreation (both participants could give birth), again improving the genetic legacy one left behind.

I must confess that this is the book I very vaguely alluded to a while back when discussing an episode of Star Trek which dealt with a triple-gendered race of aliens. I had been wondering how such an arrangement might evolve and how it would actually work in real life. Ridley’s treatment of the subject is bad news for all but the most heroic and dauntless of SF writers: while it turns out there are sound reasons for sexual reproduction to exist, the same cannot be said for species with more than two genders. (Not without a fundamentally different mechanism for recording and transmitting genetic information, anyway.)

In any case, what the book goes on to make clear is that human sexuality is not a cultural construct but something which has evolved, the focus always being on securing the maximum number of healthy children. So it is that men have evolved to be naturally opportunistic and polygamous, with very powerful men throughout the history of every culture expressing this by leaving behind vast numbers of descendants. Men are likewise particularly attracted to the appearance of youth, as this indicates the potential to produce a larger number of children.

Women, on the other hand, have much less to gain by polygamy – a man can have several women carrying his children at the same time, while a woman can only carry one man’s child at once – and are as a result more naturally monogamous. Similarly, a man’s value is less in his reproductive potential, and more his capacity to provide for his children. Hence the question of exactly what they see in each other turns out to be a matter of evolution.

melania-donald-luncheon-1024x576

This is all discussed in quite exhaustive detail, but Ridley is at pains to keep it all as accessible as possible and generally succeeds. He also takes pains to point out that there is no moral subtext to the book – his attempts to identify the ‘natural’ behaviour of humans does not imply he approves of it or considers it in any way desirable. Men may have a natural tendency for infidelity, especially with much younger beautiful women, but then we also have many other antisocial tendencies which we succeed in resisting on a routine basis. And surely it’s the case that a better understanding and awareness of this kind of behaviour is only likely to assist in controlling it.

In the end, as Ridley suggests at one point, it comes down to the question of whether you believe in original sin (our flaws are inherent and inescapable) or the perfectibility of the human race (we are born as tabula rasa, with no inherent tendencies). Neither is particularly flattering or satisfactory, and indeed the author argues this is a false dichotomy anyway.

This is all very interesting stuff, and I did find myself wondering what a discussion between Ridley and Noah Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, would sound like – Harari does ponder the mystery of why most societies have been male-dominated at once point, and I’m sure Ridley might have some ideas on the topic.

All I can offer is the suggestion that virtually every major culture has developed in a male-dominated form, and as a result they embody certain intrinsically masculine values and attitudes. However, we are still in the middle of a cultural shift to another set of values, ones which may even be rationally- rather than evolutionarily-derived. Hence the current conflict between opportunistic and exploitative masculine instincts, with millions of years of evolutionary pressure behind them, and notions of equality, respect, and human rights, some of which are very recent adoptions, culturally speaking. What can be done about this? I’m not sure. But as Ridley suggests in the quote at the top of this review, recognising that men and women are some levels innately different creatures, rather than being essentially identical and even somehow interchangeable, might be a good start. The key thing to bear in mind about men, is that they are men. On the other hand, being men is something that men are quite good at. We just have to figure out what that really means, and how to make the knowledge work for everyone.

 

‘Allo everybodee! Do not paneek. Your regulair correspondent is busy writeeng ze tradeetional awfool novel as part of somezing called ze Nanowrimo, and so I, ze great Hercule Poirot, ‘ave been asked to feel in for ‘im. Ze timeeng is, ‘ow you say, fortuitous, for zees allows me to investigate ze strange case of ze new movie of one of ma most celebrated casees, Kenneth Brannair’s Murder on the Orient Express, based on ze novel by ma old choom Agathair Christie (or ‘Aggie’, as I always used to call ‘er).

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-New-Film-Poster

Why ‘ave zey decided to do anuzzair version of zis, ‘ow you say, old chestnut? What is ze appeal? Well, I suppose zere is always ze fact that Aggie’s books steel sell by ze truckload, so zere is kind of ze built-in audience, to say nothing of ze marquee value in ze Murder on the Orient Express name. So it is ze safe bet for ze big box office, maybe.

Playing me, ze great Poirot, is M. Brannair ‘imself (we shall come back to zees). At ze start of ze movie he is sorteeng out some nonsense in Jerusalem, which I do not recall telleeng Aggie about, leadeeng me to deduce that ze scriptwriter ‘as made it all oop for some reason. I suppose it is to do wiz subtext or whatevair.

Anyhow, soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is summoned back to Britain, which requires ‘im to travel on ze famous Orient Express. On ze train with ‘im are a right boonch of dodgy characters, ‘oo are played by what you call ze all-star cast. Zere are the much-loved acteeng veterans (Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi), ze big-name ‘Ollywood stars (Johnny Dipp and Michelle P-fiffer), and a few oop and comeeng new stars. ‘Ere, for instance, is Daisy Ridley, possibly because ze studio would like to see if she can ‘ave any kind of career beyond what I am apparently obliged to refer to as ze ‘stellair conflict franchise’ (your regular correspondent is a very odd and rathair silly fellow, n’est-ce pas?).

Well, I ‘ave to say we are quite a long way into Murder on the Orient Express before zere is actually a murder on ze Orient Express, but soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is on the case, findeeng ‘e as to contend with a baffling multiplicity of evidence. Can ze Brannair-Poirot breeng ze killair to joostice? Or ‘as ‘e bloondered into somewhat deepair philosophical watairs?

Hmmm. Ze first thing I ‘ave to say about M. Brannair’s movie is zat I was not at first terribly impressed by his performance as me. ‘E ‘as given ‘imself a moostash which makes it look like some minkeys are ‘ideeng oop ‘is nuzz, and ‘e plays me as if I ‘ave ze OCD. It almost makes me zink M. Brannair is takeeng ze mickey out of ze great Poirot. It is ze very big and broad performance.

Zen again, zis is ze fairly big and broad movie, made on ze laveesh scale wiz plenty of ze CGI, which if nuzzink else means it does not look like ze Sunday night telly, a trap into which many of zese period movies fall. On ze othair ‘and, it does ze tradeetional period movie zing where all ze production value and set designs are carefully stook oop on ze screen. Zere are many shots of people foldeeng ze napkins and so on; it often looks more like a big commaircial for ze train ‘oliday zan ze actual murdair-mystery.

Ze sense that M. Brannair is once again playeeng it all rathair safe as a director is confirmed as ze movie goes on, for zis seems very much like ze Christie movie done by ze numbairs. Zere is, as I ‘ave mentioned, ze all-star cast; later on zere is ze bit where I, ze great Poirot, assemble all ze suspects and reveal ‘oo it was that actually dunnit. Of course zees is modern ‘Ollywood and so there is some fisticuffs and shooteng which I do not recall actually ‘appening at ze time, but c’est la vie, especially if you are a fictional detective.

Zis is of course ze very famoos story, and I am willeeng to bet that many people who ‘ave nevair read Aggie’s book already know this story and ze somewhat unusual tweest in ze tale. ‘Owever, ze actual mechanics of ze mystery seem to get a leetle bit lost beneath all ze gloss and ze big performances (I ‘ave to say I did warm oop to ze Brannair-Poirot once I ‘ad got used to ze ridiculous moostash). Certainly I get ze sense that the actual ‘oodunnit is fighteeng for prominence alongside everything else in ze movie.

I did ask your regular correspondent what ‘e thought of ze story, which ‘e apparently read in one sitting on a dull day in Bishkek some years ago. ‘E said ‘e thought it was okay, but was left a little morally queasy by ze conclusion of ze tale (I cannot say more wizzout it being a spoiler alert). Well, if zere is one thing to be said for M. Brannair’s take on ze movie it is that it does not shy away from the moral ambiguity at ze ‘eart of ze story, and indeed elevates it to a rathair central position in proceedeengs. Maybe zees makes me, ze great Poirot, look a bit lackeeng in moral authority, but frankly this is less worrying for me than zat stupid moostash which M. Brannair ‘as insisted on wearing.

Well, in ze end, I suppose zees movie will do okay: it looks nice, it ‘as ze good cast giving ze crowd-pleaseeng performances, and ze ‘ole zing works very ‘ard to give off ze touch of class in every department. All I will say is zat ze studio seem to think zey are making a jolly, cosy, tradeetional murdair-mystery film, while M. Brannair sometimes appears to be under ze impression he is making ze very serious film about ze absence of ze moral absolutes and ze wounding of ze soul which can be caused by guilt and grief. Wiz a very big moostash. If zese two things do not go together perfectly, zen that explain why ze new version of Murder on the Orient Express sometimes feels like a train with an engine at each end, pulleeng it in more than one direction at a time. Maybe as a result it doesn’t really end up goeeng anywhere much, but at least ze scenery is nice dureeng ze trip.

Never a sniff of Tiptoes, as it turned out. Hey ho. It has been a pleasant five or six years with Lovefilm, though, and it would be remiss of me to be too harsh on the service for its persistent failure to provide one particular probably-dreadful dwarf-themed Matthew McConnaughey rom-com. To the end, the mechanics of how the company decided what discs it was going to send me remained obscure – was it ever anything more than a form of eeny-meeny-miney-mo? I expect I shall never know. It’s hard to discern any particular significance to the final disc that was sent to me, fine and welcome though it is: Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

plsh

As is fairly well-known in interested circles, the version of this film which is generally available includes only a portion of Wilder’s original ideas for it – the initial intention was to make almost an anthology, with four linked stories casting Baker Street’s most famous residents in a different light. Two of the stories were removed at the insistence of the studio (what remains of them are available as additional material), meaning that what remains is a little curious in its structure, to say the least.

The film, naturally, concerns various exploits of Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and his faithful amanuensis Dr Watson (Colin Blakely). Initially we find them between cases, with Holmes contending with the depression inactivity always brings on in him, and Watson trying to dissuade him from his cocaine habit. Then they are invited to the ballet, where the prima ballerina has a rather eye-opening proposition to make to Holmes. His delicate attempts to evade the entanglement which she has in mind end up seriously annoying Watson. Almost wholly played for laughs, this is indeed a very funny segment, although rather politically incorrect by modern standards (there are many jokes about gay ballet dancers). Plus, it poses the question at the centre of the film: what kind of personal life does Sherlock Holmes have? Is he even capable of an emotional involvement with a woman?

This is developed in the rest of the film, all of which concerns a single, rather peculiar case which Holmes finds himself involved in, albeit unwillingly to begin with. A young woman (Genevieve Page) is delivered to 221B Baker Street late one night, having been fished out of the Thames. The only real clue is that she has Holmes’ address on a scrap of card in her hand.

It transpires that she is Gabrielle Valladon, a Belgium woman whose engineer husband has gone missing somewhere in Britain. Initially reluctant, Holmes finds the case has enough unusual features to pique his interest, the trail taking them to the Diogenes Club and his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), and then on to the shores of Loch Ness, while also including a mysterious party of Trappist monks, bleached canaries, the Book of Jonah, and, if not a midget submarine, then certainly a submarine for midgets…

The story is undeniably rather bizarre, but not very much more so than many Conan Doyle tales, and I suppose the key qustion must be whether this is intended as a spoof Sherlock or simply a pastiche. Much of the film is played somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it is less broad than, for example, Thom Eberhardt’s Without a Clue (my research has just turned up the news that Judd Apatow is doing a funny Sherlock Holmes with Will Ferrell: oh, God), and it has a rather wistful, melancholy quality which is not what you’d expect from a straightforwardly comic film. The movie is somewhat impertinent towards some elements of the canon, but affectionately so, and in the end I would say this was much more a pastiche than anything else.

Certainly, Mark Gatiss and the Unmentionable One, creators of the great Sherlock Holmes pastiche of our day, have spoken openly of the influence of Private Life on their own version of the Great Detective, especially with respect to its presentation of Mycroft Holmes as some kind of spymaster. You could even suggest that Gatiss’ own performance as Mycroft is basically his interpretation of that given by Christopher Lee in this film.

It is traditional to suggest that Robert Stephens gives us a rather theatrical Sherlock in this film, and this is true: none the worse for that, of course, I would say. He’s a rather good one-shot Sherlock, and the same is true of Colin Blakely as Watson; Blakely plays the part for laughs when it’s called for, but also keeps the character grounded and credible in the film’s more dramatic moments.

As well as a piece of Sherlockiana, of course, the film also seems to me to have a curious place in the cultural history of the Loch Ness Monster. Most famously, one of the Monster props made for the film sank to the bottom of the loch and was only rediscovered in 2016, briefly causing a degree of excitement amongst monster hunters. However, the film also presents the monster phenomenon as being well-known in the 1880s, with various characters making reference to it as an established mystery. This, of course, was not the case, with the Loch Ness monster legend only acquiring currency in the early 1930s (very shortly after the release of King Kong, indicatively enough) – the film gives the impression of a lengthy history of monster sightings prior to the 20th century, for which there is no real evidence, and so you could argue it has contributed to the perpetuation of this charming myth. It’s hardly grounds to criticise the film, either way.

This is a lavish, charming, funny film, and not without grace notes of darkness and melacnholy, as noted. Most of these one-shot Sherlock Holmes seem to vanish without much of a trace, with only the film and TV series seeming to linger in the memory – Rathbone, Cushing, Brett, Downey Jr, Cumberbatch. That this one has not, quite, may be a result of what a singularly unusual take on the Great Detective it presents, but it also surely has something to do with the overall quality of a superior movie.

Z Movie

If you’re going to do a classic horror movie revival, then the chances are it’s going to happen on Halloween, and this year in particular it feels especially appropriate to disinter a movie by the late George A Romero, who passed away a few months ago. So it was that the main screening last night at the Ultimate Picture Palace (I’m virtually certain the name is intended ironically – if not, someone needs to have a quiet word) was of Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Oh well, you can’t have everything.

Nevertheless, clawing itself a place on the schedule in the teatime slot was, indeed, a showing of Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, although technically this was not Halloween-related: the owner of the UPP has been running a series of her favourite films, just ‘cos, and apparently Night of the Living Dead is one of them. So there you go.

There’s a bit in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood where the hapless director declares that if you want to establish yourself as a commercially-successful film director, the place to start is with a horror movie, as – historically speaking – no other genre has the same kind of budget-to-profit ratio. The long tradition of micro-budget horror movies turning out to be massive money-spinners found one of its greatest expressions with Night of the Living Dead (the fact it in parts resembles one of Ed Wood’s own Z-movies does not seem entirely coincidental, somehow).

Romero was making TV commercials in his native Pittsburgh but wanted to branch out, and this was the result: largely filmed at weekends, funded by members of the production company, and featuring a largely non-professional cast, it is almost the definition of guerrilla film-making – the premise is hardly very original, either, owing various bits of narrative DNA to sources as diverse as I Am Legend (the author of which thought Romero’s movie was ‘kind of cornball’) and Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (Romero thought that employing zombies in your workforce was bad business practice and would inevitably lead to problems).

The movie opens on a Sunday evening in Spring, as siblings Johnny and Barbra (Russell Streiner and Judith O’Dea) visit a rural cemetery to pay their respects at their father’s grave. Barbra finds the place creepy, which Johnny mocks her for, but the joke is soon on him as he is savagely attacked by a total stranger who wanders into the area. Barbra flees, taking refuge in a remote farmhouse not far away.

There she is joined by Ben (Duane Jones), a young man who has also been a target for mysterious, random violence. Soon people, or creatures, like the one from the cemetery are clustering outside the house and looking for a way in. Having attempted to fortify the place single-handed, Ben is somewhat disgruntled to learn that another five people have been hiding in the cellar all the time, and a tense atmosphere develops between the different survivors.

TV reports indicate that radiation brought to Earth from space is causing the recently deceased to reanimate and devour the living, and that the safest course of action is to get to a rescue centre where medical support and armed protection is available. But can the group work together long enough to escape from the house, with the numbers of the living dead growing outside?

So, here we are, at an epochal moment in modern culture: the very first zombie apocalypse (even if they’re never actually referred to as zombies, and at the end of the film the authorities seem to have matters well under control). It would be great to be able to report that this is a film which lives up to its place in history, transcending its low-budget Z-movie origins with skill and subtlety.

Alas, that isn’t quite the case: during the screening I was at, the silence was more frequently broken by laughter than cries of alarm or distress, and I could kind of understand why. To a modern audience coming in fresh off the street, Night of the Living Dead doesn’t resemble a great horror movie so much as a parody of bad horror movies, with dubious special effects, sub-professional performances from most of the cast, and somewhat overwrought music and direction.

Apparently, at one point Romero’s intention was to hedge his bets by making a genuine horror-comedy, and to begin with it looks like he is deliberately playing with audience expectations and the tropes of the genre – a young couple drive out into a remote part of the countryside, which is how a thousand cautionary tales begin, but they turn out to be brother and sister, and illicit hanky-panky is the last thing on their minds. The first of the monsters to appear does so quite understatedly, wandering around in the back of shot for some time. Elsewhere Romero seems to be deliberately playing to cliche, with Barbra a stereotypical damsel in distress, unable to cope with the situation – almost to the point where she disappears out of the plot, present but barely participating.

(Seriously, Barbra is absolutely the last person you want to be stuck with in the middle of a zombipocalypse, as she is almost literally useless and rather annoying to boot. Ben certainly seems to find her rather hard work: the biggest laugh at the UPP showing came at the moment where all the sobbing and complaining and general hysteria gets too much and he punches her out.)

You really have to bear in mind that this film was made at a time when American horror movies consisted to a large extent of Vincent Price brooding over his late wife’s portrait, with additional dialogue provided by Edgar Allen Poe. There’s a low-fi rawness about Night of the Living Dead that is wholly new to the genre at this point, and you can almost sense Romero finding his voice as the film goes on: the real drama is not really focused on the ghouls outside, but the fraught relationships between the human characters. The hackneyed stock music cues fade away during the movie’s more exuberant moments of gratuitous nastiness, replaced by pulsing radiophonic growls and shrieks.

However, if Romero was trying to make some kind of satirical statement with Night of the Living Dead, it’s not entirely clear what it is – it’s certainly much less self-evident than the subtext about consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, for instance. Is it on some level about American society at the height of the Vietnam war? Is it about the Civil Rights struggle? It’s genuinely hard to tell – although it is striking that, for most of the film, the fact that the tough, bright and capable male lead is African-American is not commented on at all. Only the nihilistic twist at the very end of the film seems to acquire any additional significance from Duane Jones’ ethnicity.

In the end, Night of the Living Dead is one of those movies which is massively important without actually being especially accomplished – personally, I can appreciate its role in the development of the horror movie, but I think Dawn of the Dead is a technically much superior film in every respect. But context is everything. This clumsy, primitive thing crawled out of the wilds of Pennsylvania nearly fifty years ago, and the virus it was incubating has gone on to become a major part of the cultural landscape. For all its obvious flaws, this remains the index case, and it still retains its power to disturb.