Small Worlds: Northern Lights

I’m in the middle of revisiting His Dark Materials, which I absolutely adored when I first read it. This time around, having just finished NORTHERN LIGHTS, I continue to be awed by its imaginative grandeur and its daring, as well as its willingness to inject a kind of wildness and philosophy which is striking to find in a series of children’s books.

But it is impossible for me now not to notice how little time Pullman has for women.

For sure, there are key female characters, notably, of course Lyra. And they are compelling, though still half in the clutches of stereotype: it is rather wearying how Mrs Coulter’s villainy, contemptibility and femininity are all represented as pretty much the same thing. Ma Costa is a powerful presence but—as you might guess from her name—her main role is simply to be maternal. Even Serafina Pekkala can’t quite escape lavish attention to her physical beauty and how much witches love men.

My main complaint, though, isn’t about how the women and girls in the book are portrayed, so much as how needlessly all-male settings recur with dismaying regularity. Why does Jordan College have to be so wholly uncritically portrayed as excluding women? Why (except in the sex-segregated Bolvangar) must all of Lyra’s child friends be boys? Why, among the armoured bears, does “bear” mean male bear, with “she-bear” marking the (silent, passive) exception?

This dynamic undermines the portrayal even the important female characters, whose male daemons get approximately a billion times more airtime than any of the female daemons of the male humans. Contrast the enormous attention given to Mrs Coulter’s golden monkey, the vast amount of dialogue and acts of significance given to Serafina Pekkala’s grey goose, compared to the dumb animal presence of Lord Asriel’s snow leopard or Lee Scoresby’s hare.

The most frustrating example of all, for me, is when the gyptians discuss their rescue mission to the North. A woman in the meeting actually raises an objection to the intention to exclude women, and offers suggestions of how women might be useful (even assuming a firmly gendered division of labour). John Faa says he’ll consider it, and in the next chapter we learn merely that he has decided against, with no real justification. One can’t help but think this represents Pullman’s own approach: noticing that his own book was sexist, giving it about two seconds’ thought, and then shrugging and getting on with (male) things. It lends a strange and arbitrary smallness to a work which is otherwise so vast in its ambitions and achievements.

Patrick Melrose on TV

I hadn’t been sure if I’d wanted to see the Patrick Melrose TV adaptation. There is a permanent place in my heart for the Edward St Aubyn novels, but the marketing around the series suggested a kind of glitzy “Crazy Rich Britons”, playing up Benedict Cumberbatch as a kind of hard-partying squirearchy playboy. Certainly something must be very wrong with anyone who can read these books – which are first and foremost profound studies of cruelty and kindness – and see primarily glamour. But I ended up watching the show on a flight anyway.

I suppose the whole “playboy” tack must have been a bait-and-switch marketing ploy, as was, I imagine, the decision to swap the order of ‘Bad News’ and ‘Never Mind’, thereby maximising Cumberbatch (and drug use) screen time in the first episode. But it turned out overall a competent and faithful retelling, with for me some surprising (in a good way) portrayals of David and Eleanor Melrose, as well as a delightfully horrible Nicholas Pratt, played to utter perfection, particularly in ‘At Last’. And – okay, yes, it’s true – Cumberbatch does Patrick Melrose well.

Ultimately I don’t know that it adds anything to put it on screen rather than on the page, where some of the startling beauty of St Aubyn’s language is naturally lost; and no doubt the impact of some of the best lines of dialogue were lost on me from having pored over the books (especially the ‘Some Hope’ three) far too many times. The nature of the cruelties inflicted by the Melroses senior was also, perhaps unavoidably, slightly flattened by the need for television-friendly storytelling. But the fundamentals of this series are of such power that I have to be glad it exists in another format, to reach a wider audience.

AHIMSA by Supriya Kelkar

Over the course of several weeks, I read AHIMSA by Supriya Kelkar to the kiddo. It follows the adventures of Anjali, a ten-year-old girl in 1940s India. When Anjali’s mother joins Gandhi’s freedom movement, her entire family’s lives are changed.

The plot is enormously satisfying, and roams over complex social territory – not just colonialism, but class and caste injustice, and Hindu-Muslim communal tensions – in a very accessible, organic and humane way, through the ordinary interactions between family members, neighbours, classmates and other members of the community. It is idealistic but not (I think) pat.

The characters are immediate and alive. Even the least sympathetic figures, whom one might be tempted to caricature – the racist British colonial officer, the crotchety and prejudiced old uncle, the Pretty Mean Girl rival – have the opportunity to surprise the reader. I particularly enjoyed Mohan, the Dalit boy who combines hard-bitten cynicism with a sort of impossible romantic streak; who is both (justly) exasperated and yet not unmoved by Anjali’s sometimes-clueless upper-caste idealism.

Kelkar, a screenwriter by background, produces fine dialogue and often has very vivid and lively visual staging for each scene (though this occasionally expresses itself in what feels to me like a slightly workmanlike excess of long gerund phrases).

Would especially recommend for kids, but it’s a pretty good read for adults too.

A confusion in proportion

I finally saw the Wrinkle in Time movie. Like everyone else and their dog, I’m disappointed, of course. But I find it particularly frustrating that it wasn’t just a straightforward failure. The dramatisation (rather than communication by internal monologue) of Meg’s social conflicts and frustrations, as well as of Charles Wallace’s precocious oddness, actually raised my hopes.

I wish they’d taken the same approach with the rest of the story. It seems to me as though they thought it was now too old hat – that nobody would be wowed any longer by a centaur angel, so we had to have Reese Witherspoon as a giant flying lettuce; or that the psychological and social terror of a pulsing brain on a dais would seem visually pathetic, so we had to have monster neurons instead (…except that looks just as or even more ridiculous).

Likewise, it shows a lack of faith in the story, that they thought they had to raise the stakes by making Camazotz and IT galactic centres of evil, rather than simply a specific instance of a wider conflict. I think it’s ultimately misguided to think that we can only care about Meg’s story if she is battling some singular ultimate ill, if Camazotz is the start and end of evil. Their move makes the universe seem smaller, not bigger.

I think of some of the iconic moments that have always stayed with me: Mrs Whatsit as a dumpy bag lady falling over her chair with sandwich in hand; Calvin dropping to his knees before the centaur and being told “Not to me, never to me”; Charles Wallace succumbing to arrogance in Camazotz; Mr Murray succumbing to despair; Aunt Beast’s food! Aunt Beast!; Meg’s sobbing heroism in agreeing to return for Charles Wallace. These were cut out, and with them went so much: the wiser heart beneath odd appearances (I mean, Mrs Whatsit just became Reese Witherspoon); the ideas of appropriate reverence, humility, moral reserve; love as nourishment; not just that Meg’s faults have value but how… and they weren’t replaced.

I’m not generally concerned about slavish faithfulness to source material, if changes enhance rather than detract, but all of this did raise the question in me: why adapt a story you don’t trust? The resulting film was colourful and reasonably entertaining in an undemanding way, but I think it ultimately failed because it kept wildly overcompensating out of a lack of confidence in itself. (Ironic, given its themes.)

In a way, I think this dynamic is exemplified by how they handled the role of Calvin O’Keefe. Calvin is in many ways a wish fulfilment fantasy for angry weird self-hating-but-also-arrogant preteen girls-who-are-into-dudes (I think he may have been my first literary crush). The film duly plays this up, quite successfully at first. But it also misses that part of his appeal is that he’s his own person, into his own things, and that he relates to the amazing worlds that they travel to in his own way. Without this relation to everything else, his attraction to Meg becomes less meaningful, and less flattering. Yet in this adaptation, as time goes on, his role becomes more and more simply to direct absurdly moony gazes at Meg, follow her lead and compliment her hair. The reality is that his affections are worth more when they aren’t all that he is. (The storyline about his father is pretty cursorily tacked on.)

It’s this sense of proportion – a recognition that the humbling largeness of the world enhances rather than diminishes us – that the film ultimately lacks.

Reader (colour pencil)

Reader (colour pencil)

I realise the lamp leaves something (…quite a lot) to be desired. But I’m happy with this because: (i) it is one of the most faithfully executed pictures I’ve tried to draw solely from imagination; (ii) I’ve been attempting some variant or another of this scene for a year; and (iii) my initial thinking about geometry and light played out as I intended it to do.

The Last Jedi

SOME THOUGHTS ON THE LAST JEDI – CONTAINS SPOILERS

(This post is probably of no interest unless you are a Star Wars fan, and possibly not even then. It also draws a lot on analysis I’ve read elsewhere, so I’m making no claims to original thought here, just putting together various observations that I agree with.)

The first time I watched TLJ, I was mightily confused, and not entirely sure whether I was disappointed. Partly it had to do with pacing. There is a hell of a lot going on in the movie; there are, I think, slightly more frequent jump-cuts than in its predecessors, and no contemplative sequences similar to the beautiful introduction to Rey’s scavenging in TFA.

Another point that bothered me was the shift in tonality, and in particular, the daft humour. Star Wars has never been sophisticated (I mean, lol), but this film takes the goofiness to new levels. See also: everybody shitting on Hux; Luke tickling Rey with the leaf; and the First Order laundry room. (Hilarious though that admittedly is, it seems straight out of Eddie Izzard’s Death Star canteen or that SNL sketch about Matt the Radar Technician. I don’t generally really like overtly self-conscious movies and it seems a departure from Star Wars.)

Relatedly, the dialogue doesn’t always feel as natural in the mouths of the characters as it did in TFA (where I think the sheer wonderfulness of the characters and the new emotional and thematic questions more than make up for the reuse of original trilogy plot devices). There are also some “out of galaxy” language moments. Instead of bantha fodder and scruffy-looking nerf-herders strong enough to pull the ears off a gundark, we have references to “rabid curs”, “murderous snakes” and “cops”, all of which really ought to have been easily corrected to appropriately dorky alt-galaxy mood music. Even that great move from Hux where he spits out “Long live the Supreme Leader” is tonally somewhat out of place in a galaxy which is not supposed to share our culture.

But the biggest issues for me were those of theme and plot. Many people have pointed out that the Canto Bight side plot seems entirely superfluous because the mission fails and it seems, at first glance, to change nothing about what has happened. And while I think Kylo Ren emerges as a superbly realised character, simultaneously drawing the viewer in and endlessly disappointing us in equal measure, I had Feelings about the apparent unavoidable conclusion that he is a simple asshole who will only ever really be overcome through simple violence. Of course it would be hard on any serious moral analysis to ever properly redeem him (hello, genocide), but I feel for Han and Leia, damn it, and I didn’t want Han’s death to be in vain. TLJ seems to snuff out any last hope for even facile Vader-style “redemption”. I found it painful and discordant and on some level unacceptable that even Luke and Leia, at the end, are willing to write him off.

On re-watching, I’ve come round to really liking the film. One analysis I read of the business with Canto Bight is that it was about the danger of impulsiveness and individual heroism instead of collaborative trust. This seemed merely half-convincing at first, when the mission seemed to be “only” a failure, I became much more convinced when I saw it pointed out that it was only Poe blabbing to Finn and Rose that enabled DJ to sell information about the transports to the First Order – thus significantly changing the course of the battle. The mission did, after all, have stakes. They just weren’t the ones I was looking for (ahem).

I also realised that much of my impatience and failure to understand the plot with Poe and Holdo stemmed from my own (wait for it) sexism. Holdo, and I think this may be intentional, pushed a lot of prejudices for Star Wars fan. The perfectly coiffed hair and elegant robes activated suspicion in me; I found myself wondering from the start if she would be a “traitor”, and because Poe is set up as a straightforward hero, Poe’s own suspicions seem to validate the viewer’s. It was actually a great set piece about interrogating our notions of heroism, which of course, the whole film is about.

Likewise, I realised that my own investment in Kylo Ren’s “redemption arc” was something that Rey shared, and which impelled her to go running off to “save” him to begin with – despite the flimsiness of the “evidence” that he was going to come! back! to! the! Light! To appreciate the film’s moves in this respect, I had to be willing to critically distance myself from that investment. And if I laud the move to make Rey’s parents “nobody”, because I didn’t want heroism to come from bloodlines, why should I keep the original trilogy’s insistence that if all is put right in the royal Skywalker family, all is put right in the galaxy? Why does the “fall to the Dark Side” of Ben Solo need any more special explanation than Jabba the Hutt’s villainy? Why should this one asshole’s redemption take up three films when Finn conscientiously objects from day one of TFA?

In all, I think that TLJ has done something pretty cool in terms of taking viewers’ expectations about heroism and critiquing and subverting them. I think those of us who love Star Wars ought to come out doubting, because the film questions some of the sources and forms of that attachment, but in an intelligent way, in the cunning construction of story, and without losing the overall celebration of true heroism – with lessons learned by Rey, and Poe, and Luke alike. One moral of the story is, per Kylo Ren, LET THE PAST DIE. KILL IT IF YOU MUST. I don’t know if the world needed more Star Wars movies (probably not), but I accept that if it’s going to have them anyway, they may as well do cool new things. And I think TLJ did.

PS: I accept that there are serious logical inconsistencies in the warfare tactics etc. but I don’t really care. In TESB they appear to be able to walk around in the mouth of an asteroid-dwelling space slug without pressurised suits. Light craft have their own gravity fields (and the bombers can “drop” bombs in space?!). It’s Star Wars. It’s not supposed to make sense – in fact, the “explaining” in TLJ was one of the things I didn’t like so much about it, and which I felt set up unnecessary expectations of sense-making.

Also, given that new Force powers have been added in just about every single movie (Vader throws shit around in TESB, Palpatine Force lightning in ROTJ, Kylo stops blaster bolts in TFA), I’m just not wedded to any fixed canonical concept of what the Force can do. (Though I’ll accept Han’s insistence that Finn is probably wrong on the subject.)

PPS: I’ve also come round on the subject of the villains, which I had initially been lukewarm about, for fear that they just wouldn’t be very imposing in IX. The First Order is scary shit even without a figurehead. Kylo Ren may have been a fool in the moment but it may be a very different story with the triggers in his personal history- Luke, Han and Leia – out of the way. It’s true Hux is subject to a lot of physical comedy and made to seem a bit ridiculous, but I don’t think we should underestimate him – the infinite flexibility of his toadying is actually quite formidable; as I saw pointed out somewhere, there’s something pretty impressive about how smoothly he drops the next “Supreme Leader” on Crait. And I’m looking forward to the inter-villain conflict which has now been telegraphed for IX.