The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1570). Source: Wikipedia
“At best, anyway, his ministry had been an odd assortment, attracting hippies and the straitlaced alike, because he’d pulled from the Old Testament and from deism, and the esoteric books available to him in his father’s house. Something his father hadn’t planned on: the bookshelves leading Saul to places the old man would rather he’d never gone. His father’s library had been more liberal than the man himself.
“The shock of going from being the centre of attention to being out of it entirely – that still pulled at Saul at unexpected times. But there had been no drama to his collapsed ministry in the north, no shocking revelation, beyond the way he would be preaching one thing and thinking another, mistaking that conflict, for the longest time, as a manifestation of his guilt for sins both real and imagined. And one awful day he’d realized that he was becoming the message.” – Jeff VanderMeer
Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox’s Batman prequel series Gotham
The Fox network’s Batman prequel series Gotham looks to be a solid but unremarkable bit of hokum, if this week’s pilot is anything to go by. An otherwise competent-enough police procedural, it relies far too heavily on Caped Crusader brand recognition, hoping that none-too-subtle “a-ha!” moments revealing an early version of Batman’s rouges gallery will be enough to make us sit up and pay attention for longer than a couple of episodes.
Still, its inaugural episode made me look back at some of my favourite Batman stories in non-comic book media. I’ve narrowed it down to a top three – a top three of features I don’t mind re-visiting on occasion.*
3) The Dark Knight (2008)
The late Heath Ledger as The Joker
There are only a handful of films I’ve watched in my life time that were bona-fide ‘events’ at the cinema. Not even a handful… off the top of my head I can think of two, maybe three films, tops, that weren’t just successful genre blockbusters but long-awaited, almost social events by dint of their pre-screening buzz and subsequent pop culture impact.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) was the first. Despite the fact that it disappointed me even though I was an easy-to-please kid at the time, George Lucas’ return to the sci-fi/fantasy world that made him a Hollywood pioneer felt like some kind of watershed moment: never mind its intrinsic worth as a film – it was a monumental gesture on Lucas’ part that bridged two generations of fandom, right at the cusp of the internet revolution, which lent fuel to the fire of its many detractors.
Following closely on its trail was a far less controversial film – though its sequels proved to be a fast-tracked mirror image to the disappointment caused by the Star Wars prequels – which I won’t hesitate to call a modern masterpiece: The Matrix; a cyberpunk collage which wore its homages proudly on its sleeve but which was also animated by a pioneering energy.
The Dark Knight was the third and final one that comes to mind – the only example I can think of from past adolescence.
There are several reasons why Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins (2006) struck a chord with me (along with many, many others worldwide). Its escalating tempo perfectly mirrors the chaotic, all-pervasive nature of a terrorist attack (relentlessly topical for all of us post-9/11), with Nolan perfectly balancing blockbuster friendly action with what is now referred to a ‘grimdark’ approach to superheroics. But instead of coming across as too sombre for its own good, Nolan’s seriousness is both gripping and infectious. He commits to the material in a way that doesn’t feel preposterous or disproportionate, in a way that’s been justifiably compared to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).
But it’s unsurprisingly Heath Ledger’s performance as the film’s key antagonist, The Joker, that keeps me returning to the film. Over and above the tragic romance of Heath Ledger being reported dead soon after the shoot wrapped, there’s something magnetic about his performance that makes it a joyous thing to experience.
Yes, it’s disturbing and dark – like his director, Ledger grabs the role by the collar and doesn’t let go, diving head-first into the nihilistic psychosis of his character. But despite being the orchestrator of the film’s panic and chaos, he’s above all fun to watch, a spirited grotesque in the spirit of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow who is enjoyable to experience even in isolation, as his introduction to the parliament of Gotham mobsters amply displays (and rewards in repeat viewings).
2) Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
The Paul Dini/Bruce Timm Batman Animated Series – as transmitted (and dubbed) on Italian TV – was one of the defining cartoons of my childhood. Apart from bolstering my love of Batman lore, it also imbued in me a love of film noir and Art Deco.
It gives us a Batman origin story beyond the my-parents-were-murdered sequence, as well as an uncharacteristic and finely fleshed out romance. There’s no bimbotic Vicki Vales here; in Andrea Beaumont Bruce Wayne gets a mirror image of his traumatic obsession. Also packing in a great Joker story, the feature-length ‘Phantasm’ exquisitely built on the foundations set by the animated series.
Playing into Batman’s noir appeal while remaining kid-friendly, it also maintains a certain decorum absent from subsequent – and concurrent – movie adaptations. It certainly has none of the camp excesses of the much-maligned Joel Schumacher films, and neither is it particularly close in tone to the comparatively toned down Tim Burton opening salvos.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have a flair for the theatrical – just wrap your ears around Shirley Walker’s theme tune for a rousing introduction to this inspiring labour of love.
1) Batman Returns (1992)
Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns
Nolan gets all the accolades and Schumacher gets all the hate, but it’s Tim Burton’s second (and final) sequel to his soujourn in Gotham that stays with me to this day – to the point that I re-watch it every Christmas (the period in which the film is set, all the better to amplify its Gothic excess).
It is the only Batman film in the franchise that takes on the core absurdity of the DC Comics character and runs with it.
But it doesn’t run with it in the same way that Burton’s successor Joel Schumacher ran with it; turning it into a camp carnival of steel bat-nipples and shiny gadgets and architecture. In pitting Bruce Wayne/Batman against the double-menace of feral jewel thief Selina Kyle/Catwoman (the never-sexier Michelle Pfeiffer) and the orphaned freak-cum-underground mobster Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (the never-uglier Danny De Vito), Burton showed that he understood the inner workings of Batman and his rogues’ gallery.
It’s about watching mad people in costumes tearing each other apart (which is as far as you can get from the moralistic, dead-serious drama-thrillers of the latter-day Christopher Nolan trilogy).
The snowy pall of Christmas time over Gotham city only reinforces the stylistically-heightened panorama: a truly Gothic sight if there ever was one, and a more than apt rehearsal for that other Burton-sponsored classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
*This, incidentally, remains the ultimate litmus test for me when it comes to deciding what is a ‘favourite’ – particularly in this day and age when daisy-chain social media gimmicks keep requesting usto make a favourite list of this or that. If you truly love something, you’ll keep coming back.
Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azaela in the promotional video for Lopez’s single ‘Booty’.
Considering Iggy Azelea and Jennifer Lopez’s collaborative single ‘Booty’ as a pop single – complete with an accompanying promo video that is arguably more of an ‘event’ than the song itself – is, I think, a fundamental category error.
Taking the aesthetics of both the song lyrics and the video (dir. Hype Williams) into consideration, it becomes clear that what we have here is less to do with music and more to do with pornography.
This isn’t a moral statement, it’s purely a matter of taxonomy, for what it’s worth. When the morally enraged tend to point their guns at supposedly decadent pop culture artifacts, there’s often just enough ambiguity in the equation for them to come across as uptight fuddy-duddies to their opponents.
But it is difficult to make a claim for ambiguity when a song calls itself ‘Booty’ – thereby making it clear that its priorities are purely limited to amplifying the erotic appeal of the bodily feature in question. Though it could also be seen as a collaborative attempt to dethrone Nicky Minaj from booty-pop dominance, the Azelea/J-Lo duet is also something of no-brainer considering both singers have put their backsides as the forefront of their brand.
Their effort is also significantly different in degree to Destiny Child’s now-classic ‘Bootylicious’. Where Azelea/J-Lo repeatedly and aggressively thrust their sculpted backsides to the camera in an attempt to entrance us with their particular anatomical prowess, Beyonce and co. go anthemic: the song understandably became a rallying call for amply-bottomed women to celebrate their bodies. While DC don’t of course deny the intrinsic erotic value of her subject, ‘Bootylicious’ emphasizes a feel-good factor, calling on listeners to cultivate confidence in their bodies.
But as they participate in what is essentially a Booty Dream Team, Azelea/J-Lo, like good capitalists, collaborate purely to maximize their own assets (!), and empowerment for the big bootied masses is clearly not on their agenda (‘Prepare Audience For Maximum Impact’, an opening scroll teases in the song’s promo video).
It’s Booty Degree Zero, and can therefore be seen as nothing more than pornography – a fetishisation of the flesh bolstered by pinprick-precise brand management that has the advantage of a far larger budget than other productions we would be less ambivalent about filing under ‘Porn’.
The issue of taxonomy appears to be a consistent bugbear in some of my most frequented cultural circles: namely, the field of literature, particularly the strands of what can broadly be termed genre fiction when offset against what – again, with a disappointing short-hand – can be termed ‘mainstream’ literature.
It was a distinction – one with any number of attendant polemics – that appeared once again as a consistent theme during my visit to LonCon (or WorldCon) – a predominantly science-fiction based convention that took place in London in mid-August.
Must not forget to get down on Friday.
Amid a rich variety of panels – it would have been physically impossible to attend enough of them to get a representative sample – I was disappointed to find that a victim mentality still reigns supreme among certain elements of the science fiction and fantasy community.
I think this reduces our – ultimately quite human and universal – need to clarify and classify into its least productive mode.
While a discussion entitled ‘When is a fantasy not a fantasy’ did yield to some cogent and perceptive observations about the ways we tend to process fantastical works of fiction, it all unfortunately returned to a rather depressing cul-de-sac: that what we’re discussing here remains the purview of dedicated fans, whose passion the ‘mainstream’ world will never understand.
This, despite the fact that “Death to binaries!” ended up being an impromptu slogan of the panel, which included among its ranks Catherynne M. Valente, Jonathan Strahan, Paul Kincaid, Graham Sleight and Greer Gilman (it was moderated by Miriam Weinberg).
‘The Wasp Factory’ at the LonCon Dealer’s Room – an installation in honour of Iain Banks.
Valente, a writer whom I greatly admire for her effusive baroque sensibility and her inspired weaving of myths and folktales into contemporary and often erotically charged narratives, disappointed me by assuming a boringly predictable stance towards ‘the mainstream’.
Though it was buttressed by an interesting central point – that people who aren’t all that familiar with fantasy literature are actually more comfortable with reading ‘straight’ fantasy than any slipstream variation that mixes various narrative registers – Valente dismissively waved away “Booker Prize books or whatever” as if they’re a homogenous, over-privileged bunch that deserve our derision by default.
The old chestnut that mainstream writers use “genre ingredients” with less rigour than genre writers, often levelled at the likes of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, was trotted out once again, with Valente observing that this amounts to “playing with a shiny new toy without reading the instruction manual”. These writers use genre elements as “just a manner, a flash of colour”, favouring emotional impact at the cost of cogent, convincing world-building.
But I would argue that these writers are to be commended for accomplishing their narrative goals without having to worry about finicky world-building details. A writer is, among other things, an illusionist: they are supposed to convince you to plunge into the world they’ve created, and they shouldn’t be “shamed” if they succeed in doing so in a way that you don’t like.
This isn’t to say that categories of literature shouldn’t exist. Beyond commercial considerations – i.e., in which section of the bookshelves you’re expected to stuff certain books in, and how you want to ‘target’ your marketing – I still maintain that it’s useful to discuss how boundaries reflect on our reading experience and expectations.
It’s a factor that the above-mentioned panel did in fact grapple with, which makes the overall notes of victimization all the more deflating.
Paul Kincaid rightly complained that “fantasy is the wooliest word in the English language” – an apt opening salvo for a discussion which then sought to edge out some particulars about this all-embracing genre, or more specifically, our perceptions of it.
While Jonathan Strahan pointed out that certain books are “demonstrably” works of fantasy – the kind of books you wouldn’t hesitate to slide into the Fantasy shelf in bookstores – and that cover illustrations can in fact powerfully calibrate our expectations of the text, almost to the point where the text is altered completely (there goes branding again), this strand of thinking also accommodated a richer part of the discussion: that it is ultimately only the reader who can define a genre.
This is where art triumphs over pornography, I think.
Pornography is not narrative. Pornography is not interested in stories. It is uni-directional: Set phasers to ‘Arouse’. Storytelling allows for ambiguity, but the best stories take advantage of established boundaries – even when they aggressively run counter to them – to maximize the effects of stories.
LonCon/BarCon – alcoholic lubrication aplenty.
To obsess over a perceived, looming bogeyman called ‘The Mainstream’ is to miss the wood for the trees. Let’s focus our attentions instead on what the literary traditions we want to work in have left us. If it was anything, LonCon was a celebration of the kind of communal fellow-feeling that creating distinctions in the first place can create. Let’s keep reminding ourselves that these distinctions can exist to give us a starting point: to add texture to our work and our discussions.
Otherwise we risk of them turning into something they turn into all too often: marks of segregation and exclusion.
“I was taken with the thought that these were dream homes, literally: here was space from which history had been expunged, and an optical illusion of history set up in its place. The real houses were elsewhere on earth. Was this what one built when one lived with a sense of being precariously positioned in space and time? I imagined them all to be sleeping an enchanted sleep that would go on through the years, until they were embedded in a thick enough buildup of time to wake without vanishing into the air” – KJ Bishop
AUGUST 4 – 13:10 – Scandimania: Gods of Ice and Fire
A hearteningly good student performance, this potted history of Norse myth felt neither bookish nor amateurish.
In what was thankfully a more straightforward homage to Norse mythology than Jethro Compton’s Loki, Sundial Theatre, the young troupe behind Scandimania succeeded in not only bringing the Norse sagas to life – impressively speeding through Creation to Ragnarok in nary an hour – but in delivering a finely polished performance using little more than their bodies and minimal props (read: a single, creatively applied ladder).
Dressed from head to toe in white, the team relied on traditional storytelling and crisply choreographed physical performances to present their take on the ever-popular epics. The minimal sets and equally sparse ‘costumes’ were a wise choice, as it allowed the story to unfold without any distractions.
It was also a good trick to keep any tackiness at bay and play into what we can assume was a modestly budgeted affair.
The company also deserve kudos for allowing their show to come to life despite the uninspiring venue – a hotel conference room is hardly an adequate arena for epic battles and cataclysmic events, but like the best storytellers, Sundial Theatre sucked you in.
This kind of event is precisely the sort of thing you hope to find at the Fringe – up-and-coming, but highly promising stuff.
AUGUST 5 – 23:50 – Comedy Sans Frontieres
From left: Francesco De Carlo, Igor Meerson, Eddie Izzard, Dylan Moran, Michael Mittermeier and Yacine Belhousse
Eddie Izzard and Dylan Moran bring a quartet of international comedians to a sold-out crowd, for a mixed-bag night of entertainment whose good intentions, however, are undeniably heartwarming.
Eddie Izzard. Dylan Moran. Names that doubtlessly enjoy top billing in the minds of many stand-up comedy fans… particularly those of us who like our comedy a little bit absurd and a little bit surreal (and a lot of bits British).
So when I heard that this particular duo was headlining a one-off show in the very city that I was planning on visiting, I booked my tickets immediately. Who cares what the event will be about, exactly, if that pair will be leading it, I thought?
But it turns out that this was exactly the kind of reaction Izzard – the erstwhile mastermind and compere of the event – was hoping for. Essentially, with this event Izzard and Moran were using their fame for a higher purpose: namely, to bring comedians from non-English-speaking countries to a mainstream English-speaking audience.
Though it was disappointingly male-centric for an event that placed much stock in promoting diversity (“You are the future,” Izzard told us as he thanked us for indulging his cosmopolitan comedy experiment), the gig was consistently entertaining.
Taking into account the fact that stand-up in a secondary language is bound to be a notoriously difficult thing to pull off, some acts ran more smoothly than others. Germany’s Michael Mittermeier emerged the strongest of the international bunch. Not only was he entirely at ease with the English language, his set had a polished pace and tempo that a couple of the others couldn’t exactly boast of.
Despite his otherwise diminutive height, he certainly stood head and shoulders above Russia’s Igor Meerson and Italy’s Francesco De Carlo, whose material was decent but whose delivery was less of a stand-up comedy show and more of a storytelling session down at the pub.
Meerson, however, offered up some interesting cross-cultural insights. Stand-up comedy would never work in Russia, he told us, because upon hearing someone complain about their life, Russians would likely just scramble up on stage and try to help with whatever problem the comedian may be struggling with.
Like the rest of his travelling comedy comrades, France’s Yacine Belhousse placed a lot of stock in cultural stereotypes, even basing one of his gags around a hypothetical Hollywood blockbuster – a superhero film that would embody every stereotype imaginable (“It would be the only way the French could get leading roles”), while also doing his bit to demystify the idea of Paris as an eternally romantic city.
Izzard and Moran (the latter an Edinburgh resident) were on relaxed and confident form, with Izzard in particular clearly proud of the cadre of international comics he had managed to round up for our delectation. Perhaps a more sinister underbelly to all this is Izzard’s previously declared interest in running for politics; “you are the future,” smacks of exactly the kind of feel-good-factor rhetoric you’d expect a politician to peddle in (in the context of Edinburgh, this has an added bitter edge: Izzard had previously done fundraising gigs for the ‘No’ camp ahead of the Scottish Independence referendum).
Moran shuffled on stage thankfully free of any such baggage, delivering a three-part monologue with his trademark brand of inventive, meandering wit. (During the preamble, Izzard said, “I tend to be surreal and bonkers. Dylan is surreal and poetic”).
By now a consummate professional – if not something of a stand-up comedy legend – the Irish actor-comedian assumed the role of a crazed Fringe participant (bemoaning the fact that nobody has yet some to see his broomstick-installation version of Macbeth), confessed his frustration with Edinburgh machismo (I like the festival, he said, at least it brings in smiling people) and as a side-splitting coup, regaled the audience with a few paragraphs from his Fifty Shades of Grey pastiche.
And so ends my round-up of Edinburgh Fringe highlights. Expect the blog to return to its regularly scheduled programme soon. Now that doesn’t mean I in fact know what this programme consists of, but there we are.