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Sunday, 27 December 2009

2009: A Year of Anniversaries

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 12:  Dean's Verger ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

2009 marked the anniversary of several important historical events. The one that got the most attention was the 200th anniversary of the birth of pioneering English naturalist Charles Darwin, the date also coinciding with the 150th anniversary of his revolutionary book on the theory of evolution, “On the Origin of the Species”. This has seen several films and documentaries, plus some great programmes and lectures – Melvin Bragg’s four part edition of “In Our Time” being a stand out example - I have enjoyed commemorating the man’s life and work. My parents’ company also worked on the biopic “Creation” and, best of all, got a contract at the Old Vic Theatre to supply a trained monkey for the critically acclaimed stage play “Inherit the Wind” starring one of my favourite actors, Kevin Spacey. The run has been packed at every performance and one my regrets has been that I haven’t found the time to watch it. The play is a 1955 fictional piece that was inspired by on 1926 Scopes Trial that saw a Tennessee high school teacher tried and convicted for teaching evolution.

Darwin is quite rightly considered by many to be one of the greatest Britons that ever lived. However, other historical events also deserve some consideration. 1 September saw the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. September saw several programmes and books released used to commemorate the biggest crisis of the 20th century. It made me consider the generation still alive that lived through those terrible times. It feels especially poignant today as many of us know of soldiers who fight in far away lands and we are all too aware of the dangers of bigoted fanaticism. This has happened in the form of extremist fundamental religiosity that has haunted the 2000s and in the rise of far-right groups in the developed world. Most of the people I knew that lived through that era were circus people who had a hard enough time before the war. During the war some of them would fight – my great-uncle was a fighter pilot and my grandfather and great-grandfather were in the home guard – and others would struggle to keep their business running, entertaining those who lived in the shadow of the blitz and the fear of invasion.

My third anniversary is a far less commemorated one. The “BBC History Magazine” – a great publication and podcast by the way – was the only time I saw this anniversary covered in the mainstream. Mary Wolstonecraft was a brilliant British intellectual, born on 27 April 1759, who wrote on a wide range of subjects. She wrote a treatise, history, philosophy, a book on conduct and even a children’s book. Wolstonecraft was a revolutionary thinker remembered almost completely for her feminism. Her reputation was seriously damaged when her well-meaning, honest and loving husband the great philosopher, William Godwin, wrote his memoir on her life after she died. By revealing her illegitimate children and her suicide attempts he only helped fuel the fire of his wife’s anti-feminist critics. A century later and Wolstonecraft’s argument for female equality was being voiced by angry numbers. Wolstonecraft put forward the argument that women were every bit man’s intellectual equal and should be treated as such, the only thing holding them back was education. The Suffrage Movement may have started in France, but much of its inspiration clearly comes from this remarkable human being. A relative of mine on the circus side actually marched and was egged on a Suffrage march during the early part of 20th century. Traditional circus people tend to be more right leaning than left due to their association with tradition and the fact that they are very much products of free enterprise. However, as I have argued before, much of what they have done is as much a shining example of liberal or even socialist ideals as it is of Capitalism. Feminism can be seen through the way women were taking on roles associated with male courage, such as wild animal presenters, and my book “The Legend of Salt and Sauce” reveals Madame Clara Paulo becoming the head of a British circus family a year before women were granted the right to vote at the same age as men.

However, my interest in Mary Wolstonecraft did come through an interest in feminism. It came through the daughter, Mary Wolstonecraft Godwin Shelley, the author of one of favourite novels, “Frankenstein”. But that is a topic for another day.

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Friday, 18 December 2009

My Very Varied Christmas Anthems

By the time I was 25 I had many problems with Christmas. I wasn’t religious and I wasn’t a materialist either – and it seemed that the anthems to this annual ritual of superstition meets greed were either some thoroughly nauseating carols I had hated since my school days and a truly terrible song by Wizard. I recall doing my Christmas shopping in Oxford hemmed by bustling and angry people competing to get to the stores. Everywhere I went I was haunted by the childish words of “I wish it could be Christmas every day...” I couldn’t think of anything worse! Years later the apparent satire of this dreadful track would be explained to me, but I still loathed it along with Slade, Paul McCartney and all the other naff Christmas tracks that were vomited out of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Many years later and I arrived at a truce with Christmas (and my family). Many of the songs have got worse - if that was possible – plus there is now an annoyingly ironic embracing of Christmas tinsel-decorated tackiness as if it were all so wonderfully kitch and the greed had increased, although thankfully now we have the internet to cut out the Christmas shopping nonsense. Something had to be done and, as Man Eats Biscuit once famously sung, "It's Cliched to be Cynical at Christmas". What I ended up doing was to take the parts of Christmas or Winter Solstice or Newton’s Birthday that I did begrudgingly enjoy and excluded the rest as much as possible. It's quite hard to do this, as every year shops seem to try to extend Christmas build-up to an early slot. I recall seeing Christmas promotions up in August in Amsterdam. My fruitless wish is for a return to the 12 Days of Christmas concept, which now only exists as a confusing song to successive generations. Germanic traditions openly embrace Christmas, but they seem to do it with a traditional class. The whole idea is ritualised and primal, anyway. It probably stemsfrom people in the western hemisphere needing to create a festival at the darkest time of year to cheer everyone up and hopefully bring back the sun god, so if you are going to celebrate why not have fun with the traditions. Having a Krampus Day sounds pretty cool, as does putting up the Pagan Christmas tree on 24th December. I can't convince my lot to do that, but the Christmas decorations do not surface until 1st December. November is not part of Christmas, it has its own tradition albeit one that was cut from Halloween in Jacobean times. Anyway, among the relatively small list of small doses of personal merriment I indulge,  I actually was able to find 10 songs that I found had an enjoyable connection to Christmas.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Rage Against the X Factor Machine

Rage Against the MachineRage Against the Machine via

A few days ago I wrote a purely self-indulgent article listing my 10 favourite songs. Nothing too progressive in the art I have to say, other than perhaps my idiosyncratic tastes in music, but it was an enjoyable exercise that paid me money. A received a comment on the said article from an interested reader, “No prizes for guessing who want for the Christmas number one then?” It puzzled me. All the songs I had listed had been out of the UK charts, if they had ever entered them, for many years. Not long before I wrote the article I received an invitation from a Facebook group, “Rage Against the Machine for Christmas Number One”. It seemed like a fairly innocuous and bizarre bit of wishful thinking, as the majority of these groups/causes are, but seeing as I have loved the work of Rage Against the Machine since I first heard them back in 1992 I joined and didn’t think much about it. The most interest I gave it was the thought that perhaps there was a new Rage Against the Machine single out I hadn’t heard yet. Then I just happened to glance at a headline in a tabloid paper – that will remain nameless – in my mum’s house. The story was about an apparent battle between Rage Against the Machine and the winner of X-Factor to get to number one. The very slow cogs in the populist side of my head started to turn.

The track, of course, is not a new single, but the first great hit of the band, “Killing in the Name of”. It is not exactly your typical Christmas hit, especially if we consider one of the lines in the song refers to the extremist Christian cult, the Ku Klux Klan. Rage Against the Machine have always stood out as one of the most staunch and popular protest rock groups in the last decade. The always seemed somewhat out of place in the early 1990s with their Che Guevara t-shirts, Anarchist Cookbooks and so on, all which were popular during the 1970s, but fast-forward to today and I guess it is all back in. Not since the days of the second generation punk band, Crass, of the early ‘80s can I recall a band being so overtly revolutionary and willing to tackle political issues. They really like to stick it to the man! However, of course, their popularity has meant that they have inevitably compromised and contradicted some of their socialist beliefs. I am not an especial fan of their politics anyway, seeing myself as a militant individualist, but I love their energy in the same way as I love the energy of the early punk rock movement.

I also love the concept of “the people” finally saying they have had enough of X Factor and replied with such a perfect track to express this opinion. It’s not that the show is especially awful, but for years now it seems to have finished the job the likes of Stock Aiken and Waterman started in the 1980s. For five unbroken years the UK has had an X Factor number one for Christmas. Before then it was little better. There haven’t been many good Christmas songs written since the 1950s. A gleaming exception being The Pogues’ “The Fairy Tale of New York”, but even that was denied the Christmas top spot by a cynical and synthetic cover of an Elvis song by The Pet Shop Boys. I recall back in 1998 listening to the charts and thinking that there really wasn’t anything special that had touched the top 10. I thought matters couldn’t get worse. I should have known better. As Bill Cosby used to say, “Never challenge worse!” A few years on and matters had certainly got worse as the battle for the number one Christmas spot was being fought over by several TV talent show and ex-TV talent show contestants. The airwaves and the shops were reverberating with the schmaltzy covers of familiar songs and mundane tick all the commercial boxes original numbers. It was like Rick Astley had set down the commandments for song writing and producing.

One thing that really got my goat, however, was the inevitability being pushed in the tabloid article about the battle between Rage Against the Machine and this other bloke. Bookies were giving odds against Rage Against the Machine’s supporters beating X Factor, as they felt that the Facebook campaign would be no match for the corporate advertising and marketing machine behind X Factor. This is quite sad, but it is reflective of our times. Personally I like the article written in the Guardian’s Music Blog. It gives a sense of balance, referencing a link describing RATM’s obvious political contradictions and describes why, from a democratic point of view, it would be very sweet to see the band get the top spot. Sadly it also speaks with a sense of pessimistic determinism that it would be unlikely for this happen. Another article from another disreputable tabloid cries out for another punk revolution. Now that would be sweet!

The Guardian article:

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Friday, 27 November 2009

Does Truth Matter Anymore? - A Review of Voodoo Histories

Marilyn MonroeMarilyn Monroe via

Voodoo Histories is a long overdue scholarly yet entertaining rational study on the history of the 20th and 21st century's rising interest in conspiracy theory. He looks at its uses in propaganda and its emergence as pop history phenomenon. A common myth among conspiricists is that conspiracy theories are often anti-right wing, but as David Aaronovitch points out, they have no political preference. There have been very popular left and right wing conspiracy theories propagated over time.

Beginning with the fictional Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Aaronovitch shows how a proven piece of 19th century anti-Semitic propaganda, undeniably plagiarized from a French satire on Napoleon III, wove its way into global consciousness. It was endorsed by people such as Henry Ford, then used by Adolph Hitler and finally found its way into the 9/11 conspiracy theories and the Middle East. Even when it was satisfactorily debunked a type of post-modernist argument began that its authenticity was irrelevant, what it revealed was the reality of today. This time of irrational disregard for evidence and truth became closely associated with many conspiracy theories that followed. As real government-level conspiracies were revealed with the Freedom of Information Act, matters only got worse as paranoia and mistrust grew. For example, the discovery that a suggestion was made to the US government by their agents to hijack and crash planes in order to blame the Cubans and justify a war gathered little press before 21st century, despite being in the public domain and commented on in various media. After 9/11, of course, it became a type of proof that this is what had actually happened with the Twin Towers.

After the Protocols there was Stalin’s use of conspiracy theory to back up the infamous show trials that saw the extermination of his last rival for power in Soviet Russia. Aaronovitch carefully argues the model of paranoia found in totalitarian despots like Stalin and his Chinese counterpart Mao or Cambodian one, Pol Pot, would be replicated by many individuals who bought into conspiracy theory then and buy into it today.

Next there was the persistent belief that Pearl Harbour was not a surprise attack at all, but yet another set-up by Roosevelt to wage the war he was arguing for prior to the event. The ‘50s saw matters go back to right wing conspiracy theories with Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts whilst pop interest grew around the death of Marilyn Monroe. It was back to the left during the liberal ‘60s with the JFK assassination and the moon landings. Nixon’s very real conspiracy really fired paranoia up in the 1970s and the cult of interest grew to ridiculous proportions taking us through the next three decades with the growth of a whole pseudohistory business, which was best illustrated by the huge success of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and the “factual” book that inspired it. Interestingly “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, can also be easily traced back to a single hoax.

Aaronovitch is a thorough author who has far from a pro-establishment background and acknowledges its equally destructive other extreme, contingency theory. His work here not shows us that although often thought as fun as other forms of urban legend, there are real dangers in unfounded conspiracy theory. This danger is indicated in the growing trust in unsupported claims and ideas by many people in the media eye, including prominent politicians. He nicely defines what is meant by a conspiracy theory, as a type of reverse Occam’s Razor. Rather than opting for the solution that requires the least number of assumptions, the conspiricist goes for the solution that has the least amount of probability and requires faith over evidence.

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Monday, 23 November 2009

More than a sequel

"Bride of Frankenstein"Image by Père Ubu via Flickr

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury I present to you a fine example that not only puts forward the argument that sequels can be great, but also that there were good sequels before Godfather Part II. The Bride of Frankenstein actually surpasses the original film and is perhaps one of the greatest horror movies made.

I say all this in spite of its glaring flaws as a sequel. It commits all the cardinal sins that a sequel should never do. It changes the tone of the original by introducing comedy, it retcons the ending of the original (if you have read or seen "Misery" this is an absolute no-no with die-hard fans) and unforgivably it brings in a new actress to play a leading role. If that weren't bad enough the titular character barely makes a cameo appearance. So what makes it so good?

The truth is 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein is James Whale's masterpiece. Despite exhibiting some of the first flashback sequences in a feature film during its opening prologue and some direct links via minor characters early on, the film stands alone as a great movie. Whale recognized how humour can be a valuable tool when dealing with horror. The comedy from the amazingly campish villaint Dr "It's my only weakness" Pretorious (played by Ernest Thesiger and apparently personally directed with relish by the openly gay Whale) , the black humour of Dwight Fray (once more playing a wicked assistant) and the hilarious hyserical moments on offer from the newly introduced Minnie the Frankenstein housekeeper (played by another Whale favourite, Una O'Connor) would have provided the relief required for the movie's darker aspects. This would be used again and again across the horror genre.
There is still the air of menace with Karloff putting in another great performance as the monster, but this time we get see more of his pathos - "We belong dead!"

Despite straying wildly off Mary Shelly's original novel, the film references much of its source material. It even begins with the trio who conceived the novel - Mary Shelly (the actual writer) and her two sources of influence and inspiration, Percy Shelly (her husband) and Lord Byron. Having been excited by Byron's insistance on recounting the events of the previouos film and the storm bellowing outside, Mary decides to tell them both what happened after the monster's apparent demise. Other references include a blind hermit (actually the blind elder member of the De Lacey family in the novel) and, of course, the plan to build a mate for the monster.

The Bride of Frankenstein stands out from all the other Universal classics for its sheer audacity (as well as the coded homeosexual element in Pretorious there are also plenty of references to Christ in the monster, despite having plenty taken out by the strict censors of its time), executed in true style.

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Friday, 20 November 2009

Some thoughts on movie sequels

'CoverCover of Richard III

There are many hasty remarks made about sequels both among the hordes of regular movie goers and the more professional echelons of critics. The hasty remark voiced by the average movie viewer is that vast majority of sequels are worse than the original. The hasty remark by critics, specifically those who write for mainstream movie magazines, is that decent sequels have only really started appearing in the 21st century. I consider both views to be gross generalizations at best.

The critics' generalization is disproved with 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein. This is often considered a vast improvement on James Whale's atmospheric original Frankenstein. Whale had the opportunity to really cut loose on Bride using black humour and a subtle play of hammy campiness not really appreciated until many decades later. The Godfather Part II won more awards and is also considered by many to be a better sequel than the original. And who can forget The Empire Strikes Back. Far from being cynical, the film took chances with a darker tone for a mainstream family movie way back 1980 and is perhaps the most incomplete part of the original trilogy. Yet critics and fans alike look upon it with extreme fondness, so much so that it is arguable that it is more responsible for the negativity the third film received off fans than the first film. Likewise the third instalment of the Star Wars prequels has received more acclaim than its two predecessors.

Still before the 21st century superhero revival and Batman Returns may have seen a decline in box office revenue from its original, but looking back it is perhaps a much better film. Into the 21st century and we see Christopher Nolan scoring with perhaps one of most all round successful sequels to date, 2008's The Dark Knight. This film would also be the sequel that would give the superhero genre their first Oscar for an acting role with Heath Ledger's Joker. Also in the superhero genre we find Spider-Man 2, which is an improvement, in many ways, over the original film.

Most professional drama has seen sequels. Yet we have come to see the movie sequel as little more than an attempt to cash-in on a successful or semi-successful original film. "The Fall of a Nation" was Thomas Dixon Jnr's attempt to cash-in on the first full length feature film "The Birth of a Nation", which was the feature film. Apparently Dixon didn't receive a penny for the first film, so decided to direct his own sequel the following year. It is now considered a lost film, but film critics look to it, in hindsight, as the blueprint for the first attempt to milk an original film with a follow on feature. However, if we look at the history of the novel, the play and even the epic poem we see that there was often a need to continue a story, which was justified in the form of a sequel. A similar argument could be made for remakes, but I will save that for another article.

Few professors of English literature would look favourably upon the view that Shakespeare's Henry VI parts II and III, and Richard III were cynical soulless cash-ins on Henry VI part I. Furthermore, and it is worth mentioning considering we are in a time of prequels and especially considering the bashing the Star Wars prequels have met, it worth considering that the prequels to VI, Richard II, Henry IV part I and II and Henry V are often viewed as superior plays to the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. The popular view is that William Shakespeare was older when he wrote the first parts of history cycle and therefore more mature, intellectual and philosophical in his writing, whereas the latter part of the cycle were written with more melodrama and although still brilliant aimed for a broader audience in order to pay the bills.

One might argue the point that the aforementioned plays were the work of the same person whereas many movie sequels are the work of hacks employed by cynical production companies. This might be a valid point if we consider the second Godfather, Spider-Man 2, the Lord of the Rings' two sequels, X-Men 2, Evil Dead 2, Romero's first two Dead sequels, The Bride of Frankenstein and Superman II*. The Empire Strikes Back may have had a different director, but the writing and creative control were all in the hands of the same man who directed the first film. The argument might be taken further if we think of what happened to the franchise after the man behind the original left. The third X-Men film wasn't a bad superhero film to be fair, but stank by contrast to the first two. The Universal horror sequels that followed The Bride of Frankenstein are charming and fun, but they become exactly what sequels are often considered to be: blatant cash-ins.

However, this can all be considered confirmation bias or selective arguing. After all Sam Raimi made Spider-Man 3 as he did the first two, and most agree it is not a patch on the rest of the franchise. Romero's long time coming fourth and fifth Dead sequels fizzled rather than exploded. We have already George Lucas's work on Star Wars, but it is worth mentioning here to illustrate a point. After Empire, Return of the Jedi prompted the beginning of a phenomenon in fandom known as "Lucas bashing". This was far from assuaged when the auteur took the full helm again with the most eagerly awaited prequels in cinema history. Each successive prequel was hated a little less, but for all their huge financial success, there are many casual cinema goers and militant Star Wars fans alike that agree they were either badly executed or never should have been made in the first place. The big problem many had with the Star Wars prequels was the retconning. In the minds of many there was an established mythology and by adding to it the great auteur ruined the perceptions of many. What, of course, is often forgotten is that Lucas had messed around with Star Wars since the announcement of The Empire Strikes Back when he added "Episode IV: A New Hope" to the opening crawl of the re-released version of the original Star Wars. Even the original trilogy's plots are full of changes that makes Lucas's supposed grand plan dubious at best.

So what makes a good sequel? Essentially I think viewers are impressed by a feel that the sequel progresses naturally from the original. Going back to the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries - not to mention the epic works of antiquity - we can see that audiences were drawn to the ominous warnings, prophesies and dramatic irony that had been set up in the preceding work. If done correctly there is a particularly delicious soliloquy delivered by Richard Duke of Gloucester in Henry VI Part III as, towards the play's final acts, he suddenly reveals his Machiavellian intentions to seize the crown in the sequel, Richard III. Subsequently Richard III, which is mostly viewed, read and studied as a self-contained work, has a significant portion of its speeches and conversations centred on actions that have occurred in previous plays. In fact, the whole play is about the conclusion of the original sin committed in Richard II. In this respect, Richard III is perhaps an ideal representation of the sequel.

Bryan Singer's X-Men and X2 work as if they are two parts of the same film. The same thing happens in Superman and Superman II, which were filmed at the same time. In fact, the sequel is often better in these instances because of the events that set it up in the original. Similarly Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 is an excellent example of a much-loved middle sequel, a la The Empire Strikes Back, because it not only fulfils events set up by the first film, but then takes other matters and leaves them with tantalizing cliffhangers for the third part. Unfortunately this ball is well and truly dropped in X-Men: The Last Stand and even fumbled with in the overblown Spider-Man 3. In the former case a different director could be blamed, in the latter it could be argued that Raimi was under considerable pressure that compromised his position. The same could be said by the much belated "The Godfather Part III". Back in 1974 Francis Ford Coppola was pretty much given full creative control with his sequel to The Godfather Part II, even to the extent that he was able to change convention in having the first sequel to have name "Part II" added**. However, according to Coppola this was not the case with 1990's The Godfather Part III, a film he would have liked to have called "The Death of Michael Corleone". However, as we have already discussed, giving an auteur complete control of a franchise does not always guarantee critical success.

Nevertheless, The Lord of the Rings stands as a gleaming example of what happens when sequels are filmed and fully conceived as part of one whole continuous project by the same creative team. In this instance each film generally received more praise, acclaim and awards than its predecessor. There becomes less need for retconning and new characters appear more fluidly. Much like the first two Superman films, the second two parts of the Back to the Future and Matrix trilogy demonstrated the benefits of back-to-back filming. Like Lord of the Rings, the third instalment is generally considered by casual and professional critics alike to be better than the second, which is very rare in film land. *** One might speculate that viewers are more forgiving with a third instalment if it, at least, keeps a solid and fluid continuity with its predecessor even if it is somewhat disloyal to the original.

Then there are those sequels that break all the rules and still do a good job. "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted" differs considerably from all the sequels, I have mentioned, by not being a genre movie. Although it will always be overshadowed by the viscerally intensive and dramatically impressive first film, "Once Were Warriors", it is still an excellent sequel. What is most impressive is that the first film left no obvious doors open, which judging by the many examples I have given is pretty much a requisite for a sequel to have a chance. However, WBBH does have one advantage over other sequels; it is based on an original novel. It earns other good sequel marks by having most of the original cast. Where it works and shouldn't is by killing off a character from the first film at the beginning and creating a totally new angle to base the rest of the film on. This is normally a sign of desperation in the world of sequels, but with WBBH it results in creating the epilogue to the first film (and novel) that it seems we needed after all.

Likewise, when it comes to the world of bad movies or should I say "films that are so bad they are good" we find that only by being totally audacious with the rules can a film sometimes stand out for the right reasons. Such is the case with "Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives". The films were already illogical, far-fetched and, quite frankly, ridiculous, but never before had the main protagonist since Part II been officially considered supernatural. The sixth part completely threw caution to the wind by bringing the villain back in Universal horror style, with a bolt of lightening sent through his rotting corpse and so was born zombie Jason. By setting up the ludicrous the rest of the picture didn't miss a beat. Like the third A Nightmare on Elm Street, it used the humour wisely without turning the whole film into a complete parody. It was nowhere in the same league as the Nightmares, but it began to demonstrate signs of slasher self-awareness long before Wes Craven used it to good effect in "Scream" a decade later.

For me, sequels vary much as any original film does. You have good ones and you have bad ones. Some are complete insults to the original (American Psycho 2), others just don't measure up to the original but our essentially decent films in their own right (Meet the Fockers), some are respectable continuations (Psycho II), some equal the original (Blade II) and there are a fair few that surpass the original (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me). I definitely feel they work best if they are carefully set-up and plotted plausibly in the first film and then follow a close continuation throughout the franchise, not discounting the events in any part of the chain. In this respect it is a momentous task and perhaps far more credit should be given to a production company who can deliver a critically and commercially well received sequel beyond the first one.

*Superman II was originally directed by the same man who directed the first film, Richard Donner. Donner filmed an estimated 75%, but was taken off the film due to - depending on who you believe - artistic differences with the studios or going over budget or both. Nevertheless, I have included in the list as it was shot at the same time as the original and with essentially the same creative team, at least until Richard Lester took over as director.

**The first commercial film to feature 2 or II in the title was 1957's "Quatermass 2", the sequel to 1955's "The Quatermass Xperiment". It was also based on a TV series entitled "Quatermass II". In the US the titles for both the original and the sequel were not used, which is perhaps why many American movie historians overlook this when discussing the history of the sequel. Movie geeks are quick to point out that "Jaws 2" is the first film to actually mention the whole title of the original movie followed by a number. Looking at the way many films have difficulty getting the numbering system right - think First Blood's sequels, Rambo First Blood Part II, Rambo III and Rambo - it is little surprising we find difficulties with continuity in their storylines.

***For sequel haters, the third instalment is regularly considered - to quote the third sequel of the Blackadder series - "The crowning turd in the waterpipe".

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Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Icon Series: Burke and Hare: Ghouls on Halloween

Burke and Hare murdersImage via Wikipedia

I love scary stories and I have a large interest in criminal history. Therefore, the grisly and tragic story of the multiple murderers Burke and Hare is the perfect case for me. It fits in well with Halloween. After all it was at the Hallow-Fair that the two infamous pair met up and at a Halloween party the following year that they committed the last of their terrible murders. In a time when bodysnatching gripped the Edinburgh public with panic, these two “opportunistic low-lives”[i] saw an expedient opportunity to use their lodgings as a slaughterhouse for the poor and vagrant to be delivered to the dissecting slab of the celebrated anatomical surgeon and lecturer Dr Robert Knox.

Up the Close and Doon the Stair,
'But an' Ben wi' Burke an' Hare,
Burke's the Butcher, Hare's the Thief,
Knox the Man, that buys the Beef.

This was the ghoulish rhyme sung by the children of Edinburgh after William Burke and William Hare were arrested. Newspaper sensationalism made sure the story would enjoy good coverage that would climax with the packed public execution of Burke. His body would later be dissected by Robert Knox’s rival, Alexander Monro, where the lecture room would be filled to capacity by morbid onlookers and police would have to be called to remove others who clamoured to get into the room. This later incident reminds of the overwhelming public response to BBC’s decision to allow Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, to appear on the panel of “Question Time”! Ironically for Burke, Monro had also been his and Hare’s first choice when they first embarked on the corpse selling business.

The Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution created an increased demand for doctors and surgeons to help treat injured soldiers and workers. In order to better understand the body and to meet these demands surgeons needed to practice and then they needed to teach other surgeons. For this they needed human cadavers. Archaic laws, completely out of touch with the enlightened drive for medical and surgical knowledge, forbid the use of all carcasses other than those taken from the gallows. Out of this necessity was born the trade of stealing corpses from graves and gangs were formed all over the United Kingdom to take on this grim work. It became pretty obvious to everyone where the supply of corpses for competing lecturers were coming from, but so regular was the trade that the authorities did little to stem it.

History always gives us the benefit of hindsight, and looking back it was unsurprising that eventually the worst of the worst would figure out a less difficult and sinister way to obtain corpses. It wasn’t long before families became fearful that their long dead loved ones would be snatched and started spending extra money on security measures making it harder for the gangs. Surely, it was only a matter of time before someone would figure out that there would be an easier and perhaps even less risky way to obtain corpses, if moral and common decency weren’t too much of problem for you.

By all accounts William Burke and William Hare were not particularly intelligent human beings. Immigrant workers from Ulster, they had travelled to Edinburgh to work as navvies on the Union canal. After construction completed Hare would eventually move into the lodging house of fellow Irish Catholic, Margaret “Lucky” Laird, a recent widow, and become her common law husband. Later Margaret would end up drinking with William Burke and his new female partner, Nelly (aka Helen) McDougal (aka Dougal). Burke had left his wife and two children in Ireland for good and after working on the canal joined up with Nelly. Together they repaired shoes and sold them to the poor. According to Burke the fateful meeting occurred in 1827. The couple would move in at Tanners Close and it was there that the scheme was hatched or happened upon.

According to Burke’s confession, an old soldier called Donald died of natural causes in Hare’s lodgings. Apparently the old man owed Hare £4 rent and the heartless landlord felt that he deserved it by fair means or foul. The corpse was sold to Robert Knox’s establishment. It was easy money. Next time they didn’t wait for a tenant to pass on under natural circumstances. Old Joseph, a very sick lodger whose symptoms were beginning to scare other lodgers, threatened to affect Hare’s livelihood. So he and Burke once again decided to turn a potential financial disadvantage into substantial advantage. Very quickly they adopted the modus operandi that would serve them throughout their career. Old Joseph was intoxicated to the point of virtual unconsciousness then one of the nefarious two pinned him whilst the other pressed a pillow over his face. This is not as efficient or easy method as feature films and stories tell us. It is unlikely that the one doing the pinning just acted as an immobilizer. He probably compressed the chest aiding the suffocation. Later this was probably changed to the more familiar method that would be known as “Burking” – one hand over the nose, the other sealing the mouth and bodyweight to compress the chest again. These murders were committed on drunk and weak individuals in a manner that would leave no marks.

Burke and Hare officially killed 16 people in the course of nine months. The order of victims has been disputed, not just between crime historians but between Burke and, well, Burke. The murderer made two confessions, one to the sheriff and a later, more detailed one, to the Evening Courant newspaper. The two killers’ victims included several truly evocative cases, which ensured that both men and their wives received hatred that bordered on hysteria. Mary Patterson was a particularly attractive prostitute who was known to some of the students who watched her being publically dissected in the lecture theatre. “Daft” Jamie Wilson was a young mentally subnormal 18 year old beggar, well-liked and well-known locally, who apparently put up a very spirited defence before he met his untimely end. There was a 12 year old boy who was murdered alongside his mother.[ii] Finally there was Mary Docherty, a poor old beggar, whose Irish background provided Burke with the perfect story to lure her back to Hare’s lodging house. He claimed that they must be related and invited her over for some porridge and a dram of whiskey. However, her murder did not go unnoticed. A family of lodgers, the Grays, suspected it and saw evidence of the body. When Nelly pleaded and attempted to bribe them, the crime was confirmed and they reported it to the police. The game was up, but the show had only just begun!

Hare, in a move that would cast him forever as the more evil of the two, would betray his accomplice and accept immunity from prosecution in return for disclosing their crimes. Up to this point the evidence was only circumstantial against Burke and Hare, so they needed one member of the gang to testify. Hare even arranged it for his wife to get off. Subsequently Burke’s “wife” also escaped without a conviction. All three fled the country and a myth eventually circulated that made it into nearly every criminal re-telling of the story that retribution was eventually meted on Hare. According to the story he was thrown into a lime pit, after which he would walk the streets of London as a blind beggar. This is all highly unlikely and there is no evidence whatsoever to support the claim. Nevertheless, as is the nature of myths, if repeated enough it becomes the “truth” and makes for a satisfactory conclusion to “The Legend of Burke and Hare”. In reality Hare faded into obscurity not long after being released from prison and no credible evidence has surfaced as to what happened to him, his wife or Burke’s wife.

Burke blamed as much as possible on Hare in his confessions. This helped immortalize Hare as the mastermind in most versions of the story, but it didn’t stop the hatred vented against him when he was convicted on Christmas Day. After his public dissection his body remained on show for the public to view. His corpse was then skinned. Apparently pieces of his skin were sold and legend has it that even Charles Dickens used a strip as a bookmark. The Police Museum in Edinburgh has a matchbox made of it on display. Meanwhile his skeleton is on view at the Edinburgh Medical Museum.

Burke and Hare first came to my attention through a feature film that scared the socks off me. Looking back it works more as a dark tragic Faustian tale than the horror film it was intended to be, but nevertheless to a prepubescent boy “The Doctor and the Devils” was a film that made an impression. It was an end of innocence of sorts for me. Beryl Reid, who I had only previously known as a children’s storyteller, plays the Docherty character (here changed to Mrs Flynn) and her inglorious and ignoble death scene followed with having her finger cut off for a ring not worth more than “two bob”[iii] was enough to bring home to me the heartless horror that makes the essence of this story so chilling.

Interestingly “The Doctor and the Devils” changes the names of all the protagonists. Burke becomes Robert Fallon (played by Jonathan Price), Hare is Timothy Broon (played by Stephen Rea) and Knox is changed to Dr Thomas Rock (played by Timothy Dalton). This had been done before for the first feature film based on the lives of Burke and Hare, “The Greed of William Hart”. Robert Louis Stevenson did the same with his novella, “The Bodysnatcher”, which was also made into a 1945 feature film. Although it is perhaps fair to say that Stevenson only used the case as inspiration rather than as the basis for his story. The Doctor and the Devils also has respectable literary origins. The original was a film script written by the famous Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas and presented several themes that were already mainstays of the story. I will come to these later.

Not long after seeing the Doctor and the Devils I began reading a series of booklets written for young teenagers in my school’s library. The stories concerned a group of teenagers who went back in time and found out about 19th century murderers both real and fictional. At the end of each instalment the booklet gave details on the literary or actual history of the particular spotlighted villain. The third book was concerned with Burke and Hare, and for the first time I read a version of the true story. The story, of course, seemed uncannily similar to the film that had scared me previously. The penny began to drop and I began to discover that the facts were even grimmer than the fiction I had seen.

I was 19 years old before I came across the grisly two again. There are several somewhat sensationalist “True Crime” magazines available in the UK. They are marketed and produced like tabloids for the crime historian. An issue with Burke and Hare on the front cover caught my attention. This was at a time when most of knowledge on criminal history stemmed from such books as the pulp non-fiction “World’s Greatest” series, so the mixture of myths and facts without any thorough research didn’t bother me. This account included the fictitious story of Burke breaking the back of the 12 your old boy over his knee.

1960’s “The Flesh and the Fiends” is the best Burke and Hare film ever made. Released the same year as another classic horror thriller, Psycho, The Flesh and the Fiends was old-style horror at its zenith before audiences demanded more gore. I saw it late one night on TV and, once again, I was intrigued to find out more about Burke and Hare. Donald Pleasance stars as the evil Hare, becoming the exact bogeyman caricature most of us imagined him to be. He goads Burke and masterminds the whole murderous scheme, which is pretty much in line with the real Burke’s account of the events. It makes for very eerie viewing and yet is played as a straight drama and pulls it off in good style.

Years later I took my soon-to-be wife and her children in Edinburgh for a long weekend’s holiday. We loved the city so much that we visited it again within a year – and this time on Halloween. Edinburgh is a fascinating city. Fortified for a long time, it became isolated from the rest of Scotland and is often considered to be the most English part of the country. Being a fortified city and densely populated over the centuries houses were built literally on top of one another and there are even some buildings located underground. The result is a maze of incredibly high buildings and dead end closes. It is very rich in history and contains both a palace and a complete castle. This is the city of the tragic Mary Queen of Scots.

I have been accused and I don’t wholly deny it, that I took my family on a Burke and Hare pilgrimage. There were plenty of other reasons why I wanted to go, but it gave me an excuse to really explore the story of Burke and Hare. I bought the films I knew and I found another one I had had no previous knowledge of, The Greed of William Hart. This very low budget horror starring ham legend, Tod Slaughter as the William Hare character, changed to William Hart, seems more at home in the 1930s than 1948 in terms of style. I also picked up the best book written on the subject, “Burke and Hare: The Year of the Ghouls”. Brian Bailey’s book cut the myths away, questioned certain facts about the case and used almost exclusively primary source material. It was an accessible and yet serious historical book.

Whilst in Edinburgh we went on several guided tours of varying degrees of quality. The best for Halloween was undoubtedly the Witchery Tours written and led by a caricature of the ghost of a supposed hanged highwayman called Adam Lyle. We enjoyed the tour so much that we booked it again on our second visit. Of course, Burke and Hare were mentioned along with the stories of the plague, medieval punishments and ghosts.

Recently I got the opportunity to see 1972’s “[The Horrors of] Burke and Hare”, which is the least popular of the films. It is a somewhat misguided fare that tries to add a sex comedy sub-plot into the story. It also has an appalling soundtrack, which makes it sound like an Ealing Studios comedy.

The Burke and Hare films reproduce both facts and myths that have been passed down since the crimes were committed. They have also often repeated several other themes, which have led some critics to claim that each film was a re-make. For example, the tragic prostitute Mary Patterson’s connection with the medical students is turned into a romantic sub-plot used in The Flesh and the Fiends, Burke and Hare and The Doctor and the Devils. This then happens again in 1972’s Burke and Hare, and finally in The Doctor and the Devils. Each film has a different take on the relationship with different results for the fictional smitten student and the Patterson character. In The Flesh and the Fiends this character is played by the great Billie Whitelaw and through her relationship with her ill-fated student lover, we see the terrible divide between the different classes of the time. These contrasts are heightened in both the subsequent films, contrasting the wealth and privilege of the surgeons and their associates with the poor that Burke and Hare live among.

Dylan Thomas blatantly used the theme of the over-reaching hero in The Doctor and the Devils. Dr Rock is easily the most sympathetic version of the Dr Knox character we have seen. Both and he and Robert Fallon, the Burke character, are juxtaposed as driven men. Thomas implies Macbeth in his original script with both characters. Rock over-reaches in his pursuit of knowledge and Fallon in his quest for money. Both, however, become possessed by their own demons and ultimately both end up destroyed in their own way: Fallon on the gallows and Rock with his career in tatters. Cushing’s Knox, however, is a little less sympathetic but has a better ending. There is little to sympathize in the Knox of 1972’s Burke and Hare. He is every bit the callous man of privilege Edinburgh’s people saw him as at the time of the trial of the two murderers. From the accounts I have read I don’t feel this is a fair depiction whereas in contrast Cushing and Dalton’s portrayals of coma across as a bit too kind.

The crimes of Burke and Hare probably influenced copycat killers. In London the term “Burking” had already entered into criminal language. The London Burkers, Bishop and Head, were a gang who apparently modelled their crimes on Burke and Hare. Then there was the Cook family, which featured a female Burker who was testified against by her young son. In the end, Burke and Hare’s crimes led to the creation of the Anatomy Act in 1832, which allowed surgeons to have access to unclaimed corpses for dissection. Coincidentally procedures were already in place as a select committee had already been set up in 1828 the year the majority of Burke and Hare’s crimes took place. Before the discovery of these murders and the further discovery of the murderers in London public opinion was not in favour of the Act. Sentiment, of course, dramatically changed in a very short time.

When we talk of Halloween we think of the supernatural. Each of the main supernatural monsters we have conjured up over the centuries settles into certain human stereotypes. Since Dr William Polidori’s novella, “The Vampyre”, the vampire has become associated with a decadent aristocracy. The self-made monsters, werewolves and Mr Hydes, perhaps fit better in with the middle classes. The ghoul, on the other hand, since its importation from the Middle East is a monster of the common people. Ghouls eat dead corpses from graves and can be found in the masses. Just as the vampire has become a term used for people who sap the energy of others, as parasites, the ghoul is a term used to describe those who are associated with the macabre. Burke and Hare are the perfect examples of the human ghouls. Burke and Hare are unlikely icons for even the most morbid of aspirants. They were a pair of dirty, cowardly, parasitical alcoholics who exploited people of their own class in the most amoral way imaginable. Yet they are perfect icons of real-life horror and also representatives of the symptoms their time.

For further research I recommend Brian Bailey’s “Burke and Hare: The Year of the Ghouls”.

[i] From the sales blurb of Brian Bailey’s “Burke and Hare: The Year of the Ghouls”

[ii] Myths circulated that Burke had killed this boy by breaking his back over his knee. There is no evidence to support this and it would have been a very stupidly violent act for even an intoxicated Burke to carry out.

[iii] Line from the film “The Doctor and the Devils”

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Monday, 26 October 2009

Unacceptable Conduct? - Pseudohistory in the making

YouTube, LLCImage via Wikipedia

Pseudohisoty is the distortion of established facts through the complete creation of disinformation or the application of confirmation bias. Often both occur together or someone starts off with a falehood, then someone else buys into it; invests in the story in some shape or form (often emotionally) and then uses confirmation bias to prove its authenticity. Recently I have seen an example of pseudohistory unfold and it happened in the martial arts community. A videotaped incident of a man being severely beaten in a US karate dojo that apparently occurred in 1984 has been revived on YouTube. Local police said that they had seen the beaten man - a local vagrant - days after the unfortunate episode apparently happened. He said he didn't want to press charges. Nevertheless, it gained some notoriaty in the early 1990s. However, this is nothing like what has followed in 2009.

Apparently the instructor who owned the dojo where the beating occurred, plus set up and encouraged it, is the man responsible for posting the footage on YouTube. This was met with a horrified response. Since then fictional information has been added, including connecting the incident to a "cold case", where a dead man was found in a dumpster around that time. Showing a shocking desire not to check facts, the incident was then reported on a US TV news programme, albeit with the question as to whether or not it was a hoax . When I received an email on Facebook asking to join a club that wanted to waste time and resources to investigate this mythical case, I felt I needed to say something. So, I joined a thread I remember seeing on the Martial Edge forum and posted my views.

Keen to show this example of pseudohistory in the making to an audience that would better understand it objectively I passed on details of my small amount of activity on the forum, to the "Undercover Sceptic" blog. Here is their post:

I have seen the power of the media from both sides of the camera. I grew up in showbusiness and my parents' company supplies to the media industry. It is incredible what imagery and emotional language can do to people. Things I have learnt since I embraced critical thinking are that no one is invulnerable to propaganda and gossip, and it is all a question of finding someone's level of creduality. I am still shocked how so many people in the circus world, my first culture, can be taken in by charlatans. It seems mad to me that a culture who counts some of the greatest tricksters of all in their heritage - Phineas T Barnum for example - can buy into all sorts of pseudoscience, old wives tales and superstition. Likewise, the subculture of martial arts and its offshoot, that of modern self protection methods, both of which I am heavily entrenched produce people who are just as gullible. We are in a time where "defence of the self" is being preached as a method of ultimate self defence. I am in line with this way of thinking and feel that we need to be aware on all fronts.

Undercover Sceptic's points that martial artists should be "switched on" not only to the hard dangers in life, but also to the manipulations of others is very apt. In my Martial Arts Scepticism series of articles for "Jissen!" magazine, I pointed out that scepticism is a philosophy that would benefit the martial arts world. A martial artist aspires to a high level of discipline and self control. This is usually meant by the fastidious way they stick to their physical training, rituals and self control often just means don't go around abusing your skills on others. However, I argue that this self control needs to be honed at an even deeper level. A good defence against becoming susceptible to the emotional impact of gossip, the tabloid media and other stimulants that set off the sympathetic nervous system is to become more disciplined with critical thinking. We should always question intelligently and have a rational set of tools to help us spot red flags in a story. When shown any sort of imagery we should be sceptical and ask some simple questions, doing our best to remove our emotions from the questioning. It is not difficult and before long you will have a built-in intuitive sense of whether or not something is entirely true.

The Washington Post's more balanced review of the "cold case"

Some more hysterical responses:

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Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The decline of history

Those of you have read a lot of my rants, ramblings and articles in recent times will notice a certain bent towards combatting pseudohistory. History, unlike science, doesn't have a straightforward testable system to establish "truth". However, it does have a fairly sound methods for researching, investigating and establishing facts. The historian acknowledges famously touted expressions such as the one found in the novel "Roots" that "The winners write history" and Napoleon's famous line that "History is a set of lies agreed upon", but he understands by the value of such methods as Occam's Razor, use of empirical evidence and the objective study of various primary source material that he can arrive closer to the truth than the speculator, the fantasist, the propaganda merchant, the conspiracist, the hyperdiffusionist, the extreme postmodernist and other examples of the pseudohistorian. Such opposition to this propagation of false history led me to read such excellent books as "In Defence of History", "Counterknowledge", "Real Enemies", "Reclaiming History" and "Denying History", which are brilliant guides for anyone who feels a little overwhelmed by the attitude that all accounts of the past are equal.

Nevertheless, as much at it vexes me to see another Dan Brown novel being promoted left, right and centre I need to acknowledge that there is perhaps a far larger problem happening. A good friend of mine once advised me to avoid "them versus us". It was a sound observation. I come from a minority culture - circus people - and a minority subculture - martial artists - and therefore I am no stranger to the feelings of having a siege-like mentality. Rather than just opposing pseudohistorians I need to understand what is happening in our society. Some of the above books provide excellent insights into the psychology of populist movements influencing the way we look at the past. However, perhaps there is something else behind the paranoia evoked by the Freedom of Information Act or the academia of postmodernism. Perhaps there it is simply a case, as Dominic Sandbrook muses in his fascinating article below, that as less and less history is being taught in schools in favour of vocational work, the demand outside continues to grow.

The big fight for those who believe in history is to keep history!

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Monday, 14 September 2009

There are more things in our beautiful garden...

Moa attacked by a Haast's EagleImage via Wikipedia

Because of the supernatural imagery and religious conventions used in Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” the quote “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” is often touted by those who want to believe in the supernatural. However, I think the quote can serve in a similar vein to the Douglas Adams’ one “Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” The current scientific discussions of a gigantic bird, Haast’s eagle, before now considered to have been only a scavenger but now described as a virtual lion from the skies. Even more incredible is that this bird was only made extinct 500 years ago. This brilliantly illustrates the point I am trying to make:

Don’t get me wrong, I love fantasy. I love fantasy for its wonderful useful allegories and powerful metaphors. However, both of these draw their strength from our love of fantasy for the sake of fantasy. There is nothing wrong with escapism. I don’t think there is anything especially wrong with sitting around the proverbial campfire to scare each other with thoughts of magic and impossible happenings, so long as the light of day in our minds returns us to rationality. I often think this is then spoiled by those who decide to persist with a pursuit of the irrational.

The other day I bought a lovely looking hard-backed short encyclopaedia of fantasy aimed at a young audience. It looked like one of the many books that I loved to read in our primary school library, full of beautiful illustrations and details of mythological creatures. Even the introduction looked promising. The writer gave a nice description of her interpretation of fantasy, which pretty much came down to the wonderful power of imagination. Sadly the book was then tarnished with logical fallacies and badly researched data on certain subjects in a weak attempt to convince the reader that “something might be out there”. For example, she explained reports of monstrously high waves used to be thought of as seafaring legends until satellite photography in the 20th century revealed their actual existence. Because of this discovery, she argues, it is not incredible to think that many of the sea monsters described by sailors exist. This is not a logical argument, it is and you will have to forgive the unfortunately appropriate pun, a Red Herring argument. Marco Polo came back with fantastical descriptions of the creatures he saw on his journeys; having never seen such animals before he immediately associated them with the creatures of myth such as the unicorn.

I am not quite sure about heaven, but there are certainly far more things on earth than we can imagine and often they are far more incredible. The sea is a good place to look considering the majority of its species have not been properly discovered. Like Douglas Adams there are also plenty of examples of fantasy and science fiction writers who make a healthy distinction between the realm of the imagination and the real world. Another common myth is to think those who are pragmatic, scientific or embrace rationalism lack imagination. Somehow the logical mind erases our ability to love the impossible. This is utter nonsense. Beatrix Potter, I believe, is a wonderful example of a person who could create wondrous and enchanting escapism and yet, at the same time, keep her head to break social conventions and help found a highly successful prize-winning farming dynasty. Beatrix Potter may have had her head in the clouds a lot of the time, but her pragmatic success demonstrates just how firmly our feet were planted on the ground.

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