Tuesday, 18 May 2010

What's wrong with heroes? - Some Thoughts on Superhero Narratives

(As is established early on, this was written in the run-up to Quantum of Solace and The Dark Knight. The quote from Robert Wade on Bourne which I later used in the Quantum of Solace piece appears at one point, but I've left it in for now. Some of my comments on Batman might overlap with the Quantum piece, too. One other postscript: I've just discovered that the phrase "Umberto Eco" appeared randomly in the text, though I've now deleted it. Either this was a leftover from a note I made in an earlier draft, or there's a rather cerebral computer virus going around.)

It’s hard to think of two films that could generate more excitement than The Dark Knight, coming this summer, and Quantum of Solace, coming in November. They are exciting not merely for being the next instalments in the respective Batman and Bond franchises, but because each is a follow-up to a film that reinvented the franchise and increased its popularity and credibility. The recent success of the Bourne trilogy – probably the finest action films to have emerged from Hollywood since Indiana Jones – confirms a current appetite for detailed characterisation and attempts to persuade the audience that this is taking place in the real world, rather than revelling in the sheer energetic lunacy of it all as so many action films do. In The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass has demonstrated more involving and hard-hitting ways of shooting car-chases and fights, while making the protagonist an action hero whose predicament is genuinely affecting and whose inner turmoil is as interesting as his lethal skills. Die Hard 4.0 - released in the same summer as Ultimatum - seemed very dated in comparison, belonging to the eighties Hollywood tradition in which explosions were enough. There’s a car chase in there, but it is no where near as strikingly photographed and bruisingly edited as the ones in the Bourne films. The trilogy has challenged the idea of the “popcorn movie”: films like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Cliffhanger and Face/Off were based upon the assumption that those who paid to see action movies weren’t interested in anything other than spectacle, and so logic, character development and good dialogue were treated as secondary concerns, and little effort was made to avoid cliché. By contrast, the Bournes reject the “leave your brain at the door and enjoy” philosophy, demonstrate that action films can make for outstanding – rather than merely entertaining – filmmaking and that their screenplays can be affecting and though-provoking rather than escapist. As Mark Lawson recently pointed out, the fact that a director such as Paul Greengrass is as committed to working on Bourne movies as he is to United 93 says much about the healthy, fertile state of modern cinema.
The success of the Bourne films has considerable implications for other franchises. The recent revitalisations of the Bond and Batman franchises with Casino Royale and Batman Begins saw the production teams struggle with the dilemma that seems to have plagued adventure narratives since the 1980s: in a Postmodern age, should writers of stories with heroes or superheroes allow the hero to get on with his quest, or should they dedicate time to deconstructing the heroes themselves?
This problem is analogous to the threat posed by modernism to storytelling: the nineteenth century novel as favoured by Bronte, Wilkie Collins, Austen and Dickens, with its emphasis on tension, plot twists, cliff-hangers, suspense, romance and human interest, is replaced by the more analytical, less showmanlike techniques of Woolf and Joyce. First Chandler and more recently Thomas Pynchon (in The Crying of Lot 49) and Paul Auster (in The New York Trilogy) have shifted the focus of the detective story away from his case and on to the detective himself. Out goes the idea of a coherent mystery which is solved at the end, in goes the idea that the quest to find the truth is more important than the truth itself. Just as these writers moved from the story itself to the mechanics and nature of storytelling, so too do mainstream tales of detectives and superheroes move away from their cases and focus more on the heroes themselves.
The mainstream comics industry has much to answer for in this respect. No other artform - not even film - had previously been so homogenised and so unexperimental in its mainstream wing until postmodernism came along. Superheros and Villains stuck to their roles, and plots consisted of straightforward battles and mysteries. The publication of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns prompted a move towards examining the damaged psyche and moral cost of a superhero rather than merely giving them an opponent to fight and a problem to solve. Whether or not this influence upon comics and film is a good thing is debatable, depending upon the work yet to be produced, but these two works at least were exciting innovations. Watchmen, probably the finest of all comic books, took a simple conceit - what if costumed crimefighters actually existed? – and explored superheroes as people rather than ciphers, revealing them to have deep psychological scars, and daring to suggest that their interference might make the world worse rather than better. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight was less complex, but examined Batman as a figure of stark realism rather than of fantasy, firmly rooted in Spillane-esque violence and moral outrage. Like Moore, Miller questioned the effect Batman and Superman would have on society (in both books superhero interference increases crime and nearly causes World War Three), and insisted upon writing about the latter with an emphasis upon psychological realism.
The problem with this path is that ultimately, it can’t lead us away from the fact that Batman is an entirely nonsensical, artificial creation. His origin relies on some ridiculous coincidences (he’s rich enough to buy all this equipment, is a master detective, warrior and athlete and has a convenient batcave right underneath his mansion), and he lacks any kind of flaws that might distinguish him as a human being. The character is pulp through and through, and we are deluding ourselves if we think psychological realism is possible in his portrayal. Moore himself highlighted this problem when speaking of his own take on the character, Batman: The Killing Joke by Moore and Brian Bolland, a graphic novel which attempts to deal with the nature of the relationship between Batman and the Joker and the psychological predicament they face in the style of a two-hander drama rather than an action adventure. Moore reflects:

I mean, it doesn't say anything. It’s talking about Batman and the Joker, and says that yes, psychologically Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other. So? […] You're never going to meet somebody remotely like either of those two people. You're not going to meet people who have been driven mad in that way.

This gives considerable insight into the futility of this desire for so-called realism. Instead of using the rich imaginative possibilities of the character, and attempting to tell the most inventive and entertaining story possible, deadly words like “Postmodern”, “grittier”, “darker” “more realistic” “psychological” and “more relevant” are uttered, and writers become more interested in theorising about a character than actually using him to tell a worthwhile story. Sherlock Holmes might have been a fascinating character, but Conan Doyle never forgot to give him equally fascinating cases.
The Bond films are on the edge of entering this cul-de-sac. Casino Royale, excellent though it is, has a touch of this problem. While Daniel Craig is terrific and both he and his love interest Vesper are well-characterised, the supporting cast and characters are forgettable. It’s important for the filmmakers to remember that Bond himself is only one ingredient. If we can contrast it with the great Bond films of the sixties – From Russia with Love, Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, which remain the series’s artistic peak – we note that while Goldfinger features a fabulous performance from Connery as Bond, it also features equally fine villains in Gert Fobe’s Goldfinger and Harold Sakata’s Oddjob and a particularly satisfying, outrageous plot. Would anyone dare to make a Bond film about a plot to make all the gold in fort Knox radioactive, a woman killed by being smothered in gold paint, fights to the death between gypsy girls, butch lesbian colonels with poison-tipped shoes, a rocket that swallows other rockets or a base hidden inside a volcano? I’m not so sure - probably not “gritty” or “postmodern” enough.
The Pierce Brosnan-led entries in the series bravely showed more fidelity to making carefully crafted, lively, infectious entertainment than the trendier move towards grittier, darker introspection. The last Bond film of this type, Die Another Day, may have taken flak for its alleged “invisible car”, but you have to applaud the makers for their moxy in taking such an outrageous idea and having as much fun with it as possible. Bond films are nothing without a sense of the outrageous. The death knell for the series will be sounded when someone tries to portray Bond as a tragic character. Robert Wade, one of the scriptwriters for both Die Another Day and Casino Royale, observed of the differences between Bond and Matt Damon’s title character from the Bourne trilogy:

Whereas Bourne lives in the real world, we are talking about a heightened, intensified reality. You don’t want to be Bourne. He is a guy in hell. He hasn’t really got any joie de vivre. With Bond, you want to be Bond. You’ve got to want to be Bond.

So while Daniel Craig can lend the series an extra sense of danger and credibility, and the scripts can hint - as Fleming did – at the more murderous aspects of Bond’s job, they must not forget that we love Bond precisely because he is a fantastic figure, doing what we all want to do.
And yet one can hardly ignore the changing of the times. When GoldenEye was released in 1996, with the Cold War over and 9/11 nowhere in sight, it envisioned James Bond as a fixed constant in a changing world. Imagery of the decay and ruins of the Soviet Empire pervade the film, culminating in Judi Dench’s M’s famous outburst: “you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur: a relic of the cold war.” Brosnan himself – well-dressed, groomed, dignified, classically attractive, thoughtful, softly-spoken - played the part with an elegance that harked back to Fleming’s languorous style, with just a hint of weariness. By the time of Casino Royale, however, with Terrorism replacing Communism as the threat to pervade the writers’ imaginations, Bond ceases to be a dinosaur and becomes something much needed: a creature of the modern world. There’s never a hint in Casino Royale that Bond belongs to the past, and Daniel Craig’s interpretation – muscular, athletic, weathered, no-nonsense dress style, ruggedly striking, spikier hair, a brutal fighter – is that of the fully-trained commando as opposed to Brosnan’s seconded naval officer.
The script emphasises a need for Bond to exercise moral judgement, addressing the problems of cheering on a West-against-the-East action hero at a time when we are concerned with the folly of Bush’s War on Terror, mistreatment of prisoners at Guantamino and the appalling deaths of those such as Jean Paul Charles de Menzies at the hands of those who believe they are fighting terror. Indeed, when the script of Casino Royale was leaked online, many saw a parallel between the de Menzies scandal and a scene in which Bond is chastised for executing an unarmed man, which led to a brief tabloid accusation of the film attempting to use the tragedy for inspiration. While the allegation was, like so many Bond tabloid stories, mistaken - it now seems certain that the similarity is coincidental, and the script written before the tragedy – it provides a good indication of the topical whirlpool from which 21st century Bond grows.
The series 24 is less careful about the moral implications of its own hero Jack Bauer, with many commentators noting a right-wing sentiment in the more recent seasons of the show. Jack’s recurring use of torture to get the information he needs, and the scripts’ emphasis that he has no choice but to do this (usually millions will die if he doesn’t) take us into the sinister realms of propaganda and the “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” mindset. The problem here is that heroes are black-and-white creations, and every child brought up on stories of good and evil will learn that real life has a lot more shades of grey. One shouldn’t take this too far and discourage children from believing in heroes: there’s nothing wrong with tales of knights and dragons, as long as one understands that there are no knights and dragons in the real world. As anyone brought up on superhero tales knows, our imagination is the only thing that allows us to take part in a world in which pure morals are championed and not compromised as they are in real life.
Bryan Singer’s recent, very flat film Superman Returns sidestepped the problem by failing to address any kind of change in the political climate since the character of Superman was created or worrying implications that his existence would raise, even though the film appeared to be set in the present rather than in a more stylised quasi-past as the original Superman and Batman Begins were. As a child I adored Superman - and still adore the original films - but as I grew older I became aware of both a poignancy and an uneasiness about watching someone save people from disasters, because of one’s awareness that these disasters are all too real - the Tsunani and 9/11 could easily be incorporated into a Superman story - but no-one will ever be able to swoop in and make everything all-right. 1987’s disastrous Superman IV – The Quest For Peace already made this mistake with a storyline in which Superman rids the world of all nuclear weapons, which is unsatisfying in much the same way that watching someone cure cancer in a film would be.
Watching Superman rescue people in Singer’s film, I was troubled by two things: first of all, surely Superman cannot keep rescuing everyone? He’s fast but not omnipotent. Secondly, what is the point of watching a saviour of a type that will never exist, and of seeing prevented things that we have to live with? When asked about the relevance of Superman in a modern age Singer replied “Don’t we need him now?” but the simple answer to such a question is we’re not going to get him. Superman doesn’t work as a role model because his powers come from absurd coincidences: the power of the sun just happens to give him flight, invulnerability and strength: his achievements are therefore not a goal we can strive towards. They result from brute force we aren’t capable of rather than his character or his decisions.
One can link this to the inability in childhood to accept death – we’ve all wondered why God doesn’t stop car crashes from happening, so we invent Superman to do it instead. There’s even a very thoughtful and moving graphic novel, It’s a Bird… by Steven T. Seagle, that deals with this problem. It tells of a comic-book writer reluctantly hired to write for Superman, at a time when his own problems - his aunt has died of Huntingdon’s disease, which he realises is hereditary, and his father has gone missing - are in need of a saviour. The book’s main thesis is that Superman has no relevance to the problems of real life; he triumphs by using brute force of a kind not available to mortals. The problem is the same one that Moore had with The Killing Joke: the strength of fiction is its ability to take us into the heads of human beings, and to understand how others see the world. When one writes of characters with experiences that have nothing to do with those that humans face, it’s hard to keep the story meaningful.
Then there’s the fact that Superman fights for “Truth, Justice and the American Way” – yes, it might strike you as embarrassing, but it’s also lazy for a scriptwriter to ignore it. Whether or not Superman would ally himself with America’s policies and how he would distance himself from, say, Bush’s foreign policy are issues which need to be addressed, even if not at great length. Many critics have indulged in tedious post-9/11 analysis of the current trend for superhero movies - which actually started slightly before 9/11, with Blade, X-Men and the majority of the footage for Spider-Man – interpreting superheroes as a metaphor for the last remaining superpower (personally I think the proportionate strength and agility of a spider doesn’t work particularly well as a metaphor for America itself – some metaphors you just can’t stretch). What they are reluctant to admit is that these movies remain conceptually if not actually pre-9/11, not to mention pre-Iraq, movies, telling stories unfettered - apart from the occasional lip-service – by the problems of using force to overcome adversaries, or whether the allegiance of a superhero should be to their country or to the world.
Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta - a rather more controversial, unsettling story that pitted a murderous costumed vigilante against a fascist Britain – was recently filmed, and could have provided an antidote to this. However, as Moore himself complained, the filmmakers would have done something braver and more relevant if they had updated the story to quasi-Bush America, rather than keeping the obsolete quasi-Thatcher setting. Would any one have the guts to write about a superhero who challenges his own President (I mean a realistic President, not Lex Luthor)?
Ultimately it results in a Jekyll-and-Hyde split between what might be called the camp or parodic coding and the dark, gritty or realistic coding. The former way of coding these stories is demonstrated by the sixties Batman tv series, the Roger Moore Bond films, Superman 3, the two Joel Schumacher Batman films and the 1977-79 and 1987 seasons of Doctor Who. Stories coded in the dark or gritty style include the Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig Bond films, The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman Begins. Although the former can be dire (witness Schumacher’s Batman and Robin) and the latter pretentious, both are equally valid interpretations. Superman 3 remains, for me, a better film than Superman Returns, the Tim Burton Batman movies or the X-Men movies, because while it doesn’t set out to be a realistic, darker or more psychologically complex rendering of the character, or to appeal to those who consider comic-strip adventures beneath them, it has a lot more fun along the way.
The X-Men films are hardly on a different intellectual plane, but because they purport to be a metaphor for oppression (with the fear of the mutants and their powers representing racism and homophobia), they can gain the status of films about “important issues”. Unfortunately, because awesome superpowers are such a clumsy metaphor for racism and homophobia (surely the mutants would be seen as Godlike rather then be oppressed?), the films don’t bear any kind of analysis or repeated viewing in this way, and so the fact that they forget to entertain – unlike Superman 3 – is what stays in the viewer’s mind. Sometimes the camp coding, when done infectiously and imaginatively, can be more worthwhile than the more futile exercises in the serious coding.
This Summer sees the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which will inspire just as much excitement for those interested in action/adventure done well as the build-up to Quantum of Solace and The Dark Knight, but for slightly different reasons. The original trilogy - Raiders of the Lost ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indian Jones and the Last Crusade – remain the finest action films yet made. And yet there is nothing gritty, psychological or post-modern about them
It seems to me that this call for greater introspection and analysis of the hero’s role will always be with us. Like Modernism itself, I don’t think it’s something we can ignore or avoid completely, and in many ways it can produce fine work – Watchmen, Casino Royale, Batman Begins, the Bourne films and The Dark Knight Returns being among the strongest examples. But it should be remembered that postmodernism is no substitute for creativity. Let us get on with telling stories about heroes, and telling them well – reassessing the nature of the hero is a secondary concern. If, in the far future, we start to hear about a “darker, grittier, more realistic” take on Harry Potter, there may be cause for concern…







15 Greatest Action Scenes

From Russia with Love: Orient express fight. A savage fight to the death between Sean Connery’s James Bond and Robert Shaw’s remorseless assassin Grant. In a compartment aboard the Orient Express, Grant has Bond at gunpoint, but Bond tricks him into opening an exploding briefcase. The subsequent fight is superbly staged and edited, benefiting from both actors performing most of their own stuntwork, so the camera captures their snarling faces as they smash one another against the walls of the compartment (there’s a particularly neat moment when they bounce off the unconscious Bond girl without noticing). As Grant hooks a garrotte around Bond’s neck, it ends with one of those satisfying pay-offs in which only Q’s gift (a knife concealed in the briefcase) can save Bond’s life.

The Bourne Identity: Mini Cooper chase. Amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne (matt Damon) and his love interest Marie (Franka Potente) escape from the authorities in Marie’s Mini Cooper. Paul Greengrass’s two sequels demonstrated an extraordinary new visual style for the action movie, but it’s Doug Liman’s original Bourne movie that still just wins when it comes to most satisfying car chase. The build-up nicely links the moment when the action begins to the development of the two main characters’ relationship. Bourne is on the run, and Marie is in danger of being arrested with him. As the police close in, Bourne warns her that this is her last chance to get away from him, but Marie opts to remain in the car. A marvellously funky piece of music - Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready, Steady, Go” starts playing on the soundtrack, Bourne swerves the Mini into gear and the audience knows that Bourne and Marie’s destinies are now inseparable. As in The Italian Job, the small simplicity of the Mini makes it a joy to watch as it hurtles down alleyways, slides over zebra crossings and smashes through glass, and the ingenious stunt-driving is accentuated by setups and visual punch lines: Bourne saying “We got a bump coming” as the Mini leaps down a flight of steps, his little grimace of concentration as he changes gear when they reach the bottom, Marie going “whoa” just before they smash through an open phonebox door. The chase you hope all thrillers are building up to.

The Bourne Ultimatum: Bourne vs. Desh. An assassin named Desh (Joey Ansah), is closing in on an ally of Bourne’s, as Bourne rushes across rooftops to get there first. As Desh takes aim, Bourne leaps off the balcony of an adjacent building - a glorious bit of stuntwork - and comes smashing in through the window, where the two fight like savage bulls. Paul Greengrass’s way of directing action sequences is disorientating and terrifying. It’s edited at a furious pace, going for frantic close-ups rather than panoramic shots, with excruciating sound effects, as their hands scrabble for whatever object - a cookbook, a candlestick, a razor, a towel - is at hand. By the time Bourne has throttled Desh, everyone in the audience feels beaten up.

Casino Royale: free-running chase. Daniel Craig’s Bond pursues Molanka, a bomb maker, through a construction site, and refuses to give up the chase even when Molanka makes it to an embassy. Molanka is played by parkour - or “free-running” - champion Sebastian Foucan, and this extraordinary sport is skilfully integrated into the chase, making it in equal parts thrilling and beautiful to watch, with Bond having to counter his opponent’s unusual talent with sheer determination. The sight of Bond running up a crane is one of the most heroic images in cinema. It ends on a marvellous visual punch line - and with a very big bang - as Bond hands over his pistol to the embassy soldiers, only to pull out a second one, shoot his quarry and then a gas cylinder, vanishing in a puff of smoke. Highly appropriate for such a magical sequence.

GoldenEye: tank chase. Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond commandeers a tank and pursues the car of a Russian General who’s kidnapped the Bond Girl through the streets of St Petersburg, taking on armed Russian forces and destroying a good deal of the city in the process. 1995’s GoldenEye was determined to have fun, as it had been six years without a Bond film and the public were hungry for a return. Rather than apologise for being a Bond film - something the Daniel Craig movies tend towards - GoldenEye is a glorious reinstatement. There’s a big build-up to a spectacular shot of the tank crashing through a wall, a smartly suited Bond revealed at the wheel as the James Bond theme kicks in. What sticks in your mind in the subsequent chase is not just the lavish effects and model work and explosive editing style, but the incongruous sight of an immaculate Englishman at the helm of a tank - who actually adjusts his collar at one point as a wonderful punch line - , the Bond girl’s half terrified, half thrilled reaction to her hero’s rampaging rescue attempts, and the Russian General’s increasingly enraged hipflask-guzzling, all irresistibly joyous touches.

Blade: disco bloodbath. In the opening sequence, a very chic disco is taking place, with hip young things writhing to throbbing music. As the dancing reaches its frenzied climax, blood pours from the sprinkler systems, and the dancers sprout fangs. OK, so we’re watching a horror movie. Then suddenly a huge black dude in shades, armour and leather trench coat appears. The vampires snarl. He snarls back. They pounce, and he pulls out a shotgun and blasts several vampires into ash with silver bullets, rifle-butts one, and rams silver stakes into others, before finishing off the rest with a machine-pistol. We’re not watching a horror movie, but something way more exciting. Reinforcements arrive, and he puts away the gun and unsheathes his sword. His movements are balletic, ferocious, and awesome; the lighting, editing and techno soundtrack irresistible. Now that’s how a movie opens.

Blade 2: Blade vs. vampire guards. Having being drained of blood - the source of his superpowers - Wesley Snipes’s half human, half vampire hero leaps into a giant vat of the stuff. He rises from the blood in a clear nod to Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, and as dozens of henchmen approach defiantly clenches his bare fists. As they attack, he knocks them down like ninepins, sends them spinning like wooden tops into the vat, kicks, twists, and shoves, all to the sound of the Crystal Method‘s “The Name of the Game“. While watching this martial arts display and listening to the music, brutality ceases to become brutality and becomes art.

The Matrix Reloaded: Neo vs. the Merovingian‘s guards. The only sequence on this list from a lacklustre movie. The Matrix Reloaded may have failed to inspire, but the fight between Neo and the Merovingian’s men is a perfect example of how music, choreography, stunts and special effects create an aesthetic effect unlike any other. There’s a beautiful symmetry to the kung-fu and wire work. Neo and the henchmen swivel, somersault, leap, duck and almost dance, all the time playing musical chairs with daggers, swords, spears, maces and sai, to the strident sound of Rob Dougan‘s "Chateau".

Raiders of the Lost Ark: truck chase. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) pursues a Nazi truck and convoy on horseback, leaps onto the truck and throws out the driver. What happens next demonstrates how an action sequence works like a comedy set piece: it depends on the build-up of excess, and the increasing sense of audacity as the ludicrous occurs and yet maintains conviction. One of the Nazis from the convoy leaps into the truck and shoots Indy in the arm. He punches Indy in the wounded arm, and sends him smashing through the windscreen. Indy clings to the bars of the front grill which start to break off in his hands. The Nazi speeds up the truck and attempts to crush Indy against the car containing the main villains. Indy climbs under the bottom of the speeding truck, attaches his whip and slides out from under the back, dragged along by the whip in a nod to Stagecoach. He climbs back on, makes his way to the front, gives the Nazi the thump he deserves and hurls him out through the broken windscreen.

Spider-Man 2: train fight. Spiderman and Doctor Octopus are both gloriously realised onscreen, the latter in particular a superb fusion of CGI, puppetry and sound effects, so it’s a joy to watch them duke it out. The film - while not the modern classic it is sometimes made out to be - is better structured than its predecessor, so there’s a satisfying build up to their second fight, with Spiderman regaining his powers, his costume and his determination in time to confront Dock Ock - who’s kidnapped his girlfriend - atop a clock tower, in a fight which continues as they plummet onto a passing train at the bottom.

The French Connection. Gene Hackman’s tough New York cop Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle pursues an assassin by car - but the assassin’s in an elevated train and Doyle’s driving underneath. This unusual visual composition is enough to make it memorable, but the frantic cutting between Doyle’s charged face, the obstacles under the railway overpass - including a classic “mind that pram” moment - and the speeding train make it among the tensest chases filmed.

Bullitt: San Francisco car chase. Detective Frank Bullitt pursues two hitman through the streets of San Francisco. The touchstone of car chases, still impressive after all these years. McQueen, his Thunderbird, the rolling hubcaps and the hatchet faces of the two bad guys are iconic, and the sight of cars leaping over the hills of San Francisco is one of the enduring images of the cinema. The squealing of brakes makes for perfect incidental music.

Superman 3 - junkyard fight. Somewhat underrated, Superman 3 contains a sequence that was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen as a child Superman has been poisoned by some badly-synthesised kryptonite, and turned evil. Trying to fight off the effects mid-flight, he crash-lands in a junkyard and splits into two: a suited and bespectacled Clark Kent, and an unshaven Wicked Superman in a dark costume. The resulting fight is like a live-action version of a Loony Tunes or Tom and Jerry fight, but played straight enough to maintain tension. Clark hurls Wicked Superman into an acid pit. Wicked Superman leaps out and attacks Clark with a car bumper. Clark hurls tyres at Wicked Superman, encircling him. Wicked Superman breaks the tyres into pieces with a single bound, and drops a large magnet on top of Clark. He puts the unconscious Clark into a crusher, and symbolically crushes his glasses in his hand. Then Clark smashes straight through the wall of the crusher, grabs his alter ego by the throat and squeezes: Wicked Superman fades into thin air, Clark rips aside his shirt to reveal the brighter shades of the true Superman costume (I still find this a moving moment after all these years), and flies off to the triumphant John Williams theme. Perhaps it’s a depiction of the superego versus the id. Perhaps it represents the eternal struggle of good versus evil. The only thing for certain is that it’s a series of images with a unique effect on the viewer.

Kill Bill Vol.1: Beatrix Kiddo vs. the crazy 88. To justify its gruesome excess, Tarantino’s film needs a truly grand guignol climax to reach some kind of catharsis, and it doesn’t disappoint. This is probably the goriest swordfight filmed, as Uma Thurman’s arch assassin Beatrix Kiddo arrives to take revenge on one of the killers that left her for dead (Lucy Liu), but first has to fight her way through her gang of cronies, the Crazy 88, with only a samurai sword. It’s hard not to share Tarantino’s infatuation with Uma Thurman here, clad in that striking yellow tracksuit and wielding the “most perfect sword ever made by man”, her angry defiant beauty providing a heroic contrast to the brutality around her. The fight is so violent it shifts into black and white for the most part to get past the censor. Beatrix slices and dices, and even plucks an eye out (thank God for the black and white), but one could no more take offence than at the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where John Cleese’s Black Knight is dismembered but insists it’s a flesh wound. Just as the black-and-white effect disappears, someone cuts the lights and Beatrix and her opponents are seen only in silhouette. The fight has transcended violence and conflict between characters, and become purely aesthetic. It’s not quite comedy, it’s not quite dramatic tension, it’s something in-between.

Duel: final chase. Dennis Weaver’s stressed businessman David is being pursued by a truck driver suffering an extreme form of road rage. At the climax, David attempts to outwit his nemesis by driving up a steep grade, but just at his moment of triumph his radiator hose fails (has there ever been a more agonising moment in the cinema?) and his overheating car starts to lose speed. Spielberg’s first film is a thing of real beauty. The rusty, filthy, dragon-faced truck and the bland orange car are as superbly cast as Weaver. David reaches a precipice, turns round, jams his briefcase down on the accelerator, and leaps from the car as it ploughs into the truck. The truck gives the terrible roar of a behemoth as it and the smashed car plunge over the precipice. Filmed in slow motion, it’s oddly one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see in cinema. As David gibbers with glee at his victory, the audience has a sense of exhilaration that feels like it comes from somewhere deep inside us, and has lain there since the days of Beowulf and Grendel.

Doctor Who: a Forest of Weeds and Roses

(The following piece was written in late 2006/early 2007, just after series 2 of the modern version of Doctor Who. It's out of date in a couple of ways. Firstly, my view of the modern Doctor Who is less optimistic these days,and secondly Verity Lambert sadly passed away in late 2007. The article refers to her in a present tense, and there are mild criticisms of comments she made, though nothing snide or disrepectful. Also, of course, Doctor Who has gone on to win two more Hugos and a Bafta Craft award. I should also point out that my dismassal of stories like The Sensorites and Frontier in Space was my opinion after seeing them once. I haven't revisited them yet, but opinions can change...)

Having Doctor Who back on Saturday evenings has been a dream many of us had long given up on, but even less expected was that it would be brought back with such care and thought. It could have been done in a workmanlike way as Robin Hood and Primeval have demonstrated, or it could have managed to please the long-term fans while failing to gain any standing as a television programme in its own right (the trap the TV Movie fell into). Instead, it boasts remarkable special effects, intelligent writing, fine acting, impressive ratings, good reviews, a Hugo and three Baftas.
Yet the one thing this hasn’t done is improved the reputation of the original series. It still doesn’t look like we’re going to see any terrestrial repeats. The basic stereotype of wobbly sets has continued. This dismissal from critic Kathryn Flett seems to reflect the public’s recollection of Doctor Who: “Russell T Davies has done wonders, admittedly, but the original was cheap, dull, creaky and parochial”. The praise it attracts from critics tends to focus on how Russell T Davies has improved and revamped the series, and much less on the fact that he did so because he was a huge fan of the original.
Was I the only one a little stunned by David Tennant’s choice of words when presenting Davies with the Dennis Potter Award for Outstanding Television writing at last year’s Baftas? He applauded Russell for injecting heart and enthusiasm into a series “that many thought was beyond redemption” My reaction at the phrase “beyond redemption” was “WHOAA!” Surely the show I’ve followed all my life wasn’t that bad? It has occurred to few if any critics that the relaunch has succeeded not just because of Davies’s skill, but also because of the brilliance of the format.
Let’s consider that format. A show about a man who can travel to any time and place, in a ship small enough to be squeezed anywhere. A show that stars the most romantic of heroes, a dashing man of action who never carries a gun, and abhors violence, will tackle any evil, will not be trifled with and yet revels in the absurd and the childish, an anti-establishment figure who doesn’t have time for any government, can’t stand the military and stands up to evil on his own armed with nothing more than a sonic screwdriver simply because he wants to. A man who can arrive on any house and any street, and will employ anyone – no matter how ordinary - to help him in his fight, and who can inspire any one of us to do the same. A man who can change his physical appearance and everything other than his determination to fight evil and his mischievousness, allowing different actors to succeed each other in the role, playing the part whichever way they choose. A show that can give us gothic horror, satire, ghost stories, lavish futuristic sci-fi, comedy, historical tales or action-adventure. A show with no permanent actors and no fixed style. It’s a brilliant format, and it wasn’t created by Russell T Davies or anyone else (not even Sydney Newman, who initiated the programme in 1963 but couldn’t have foreseen the vast array of things we associate with Doctor Who). The success of the new Doctor Who where so many shows have failed (Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, Crime Traveller, Invasion: Earth, Strange, the Last Train, ) and indeed continue to fail (Primeval, Robin Hood, Torchwood) owes as much to the brilliance of the Doctor and the TARDIS as creations as it does to the considerable skill of Russell T Davies and his team, and his moxy in finally bringing it back to our screens. The shows I’ve mentioned lacked a central character as compelling, rich or as useful as the Doctor, and the absence of the TARDIS meant the range of stories they could tell and press attention and ratings they could attract were limited. After all, Randall and Hopkirk could never meet Dickens, watch the sun explode or find the Devil chained up on an alien planet.
Another regrettable aspect of the show’s revival is that it has contributed to one of the most woeful myths ever attributed to Doctor Who – that it had become unwatchable by the time it was taken off the air in 1989. It’s useful for the BBC, tidily explaining their lack of support for the show in the 1980s, and is supported by the programme’s dwindling resources, the criticism it faced from both the fans and the BBC and its low viewing figures during this period. One of the biggest perpetuators of this myth has been Verity Lambert. It was great to see Doctor Who among Channel 4’s 50 Greatest TV Dramas recently, but what a shame to once again see Verity talking about how the show had become a parody of itself by the 1980s, the programme cutting immediately to the Kandyman to demonstrate her point. Viewers with strong memories might remember a particular couple of scenes on the BBC One documentary on Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary: Verity Lambert talking gravely about the show descending into parody, cutting immediately to the Kandyman. The Kandyman becomes an icon of naffness allowing the whole of 1980s Who to be swept neatly away. Verity was at it again in the last SFX Doctor Who Special, in an interview with herself and Russell T Davies. She’s gracious enough to admit that Russell’s take is pretty good, but otherwise talks again about how the show lost its way after she left.
It’s interesting to note that in both the SFX and the BBC interviews she also speaks disparagingly of Jon Pertwee (from the early 1970s rather than the 1980s), arguing that he was “definitely more of an establishment figure” and that the show lost its magic from then on. Ironically, Pertwee was actually the most fiercely anti-establishment of all Doctors, his inability to escape from Earth only further exacerbating his intolerance of the military and bureaucracy. It seems that for Verity Lambert, Doctor Who went off the rails not so much in the 1980s, as in the post-Lambert era. Inevitably, there is a danger of seeing the period of the show’s genesis as more interesting than its subsequent two decades, in much the same way that Sean Connery will always remain the most fondly remembered Bond regardless of how good subsequent films are. The difference, though, is that in marked contrast to the Bond films, Doctor Who neither peaked nor established its exact nature in the 1960s – the first 1970s season is as crucial a manifesto as Season One, reinventing the show as an action-adventure programme and its hero as a non-violent James Bond. It’s actually far more different to Season One than Russell T Davies’s version is to the original run. Any narrative of the show peaking in the 1960s, becoming fixed in the 1970s and declining in the 1980s should therefore always be challenged.
Another myth regarding the show’s decline in the 1980s is that Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy were inappropriately cast. This myth was partly fuelled by their poor costumes – which become a useful visual icon like the Kandyman in demonstrating the decline: all one has to do in a documentary is show a brief clip of them – and partly by the disastrous attempts in the earlier scripts (such as 1984’s The Twin Dilemma) to make the Sixth Doctor less likeable. The most obvious example of this myth was is the infamous gag in Mark Gatiss and David Walliams’s sketch for Doctor Who Night suggesting that “towards the end any old f***er with an equity card” was cast. (It’s significant that this line was edited out for the sketch’s inclusion in the recent In the Beginning DVD release – now that Gatiss is writing for Doctor Who, a certain diplomacy is called for). The two actors themselves, though, are no more poorly suited to the role than anyone else – they’re certainly stronger and more likeable actors than William Hartnell, and more charismatic - though less consistent, and more likely to go over the top - than Peter Davison.
It’s also something of a misconception that in terms of experience they were odd choices – Davison, Tom Baker, Pertwee and Hartnell were hardly better qualified – who could have known for sure that someone that used to play angry army sergeants, a comedian, a relatively unknown actor and a vet from All Creatures Great and Small were going to be great Doctors? Dismissive remarks about the last two Doctors tend to accumulate due to their occupying the end of the series’ run - at a time of low popularity - rather than what they actually brought to the role.
However, what really riles about the myth is that by 1989, Doctor Who had undergone something of a creative renaissance. From 1987 onwards, the casting of Sylvester McCoy - the best all-round Doctor since Tom Baker - and Sophie Aldred as Ace - the first great companion since the 1970s - and the replacement of Eric Saward with a far more imaginative script editor, Andrew Cartmel, resulted in some of the most original and satisfying Doctor Who stories since the Hinchcliffe era. We start off with something of a stepping-stone in season 24 - it’s far from great, but unpretentious and likeable overall, with a sincere attempt to get back to telling fun and inventive stories rather than the obsession with continuity, past glories and gimmicky ideas (such as the Trial) that had marked out much of mid-1980s Doctor Who.
At the time, all the fans and critics noticed was an increasing cheapness and reliance of guest stars. When, in seasons 25 and seasons 26, we were presented with two of the finest seasons in the show’s original run, we never even noticed. The fact that the show was stuck in a graveyard slot, poorly promoted and visibly running out of money didn’t help - fans launched fanzine campaigns against the producer, wrote articles in the Daily Mail and appeared on Did You See berating the series’s alleged decline while great stories such as Remembrance of the Daleks, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, The Curse of Fenric (a strong contender for the finest of the original Doctor Who stories), Ghost Light and Survival passed them by. The truncated length – four stories instead of six – was also a factor in this, as it left us with only four or five outstanding stories overall: had the seasons been normal length, we might have had two or three more tales of the calibre of Fenric and Remembrance, making it a harder period to dismiss. It still strikes me as woeful that the series was cancelled after the broadcast of some of its finest serials. When the show returned, there was much talk about why and how, but little suggestion that maybe it shouldn’t have been axed in the first place. Hopefully the DVD release of Survival will remind newer generations that Doctor Who in the 1980s hadn’t entirely ground to a halt, and that outstanding Who stories didn’t begin in 2005.
The new series is better than the old in many ways: better effects and production values, obviously. The scripts are often sharper, and the characterisation of the companions stronger. For example, there’s a nice moment in Aliens of London where a policeman asks the Doctor if his relationship with Rose is a sexual one. He says no, and the matter is dismissed, but the fact that the script raises the issue - instead of ignoring it as the original series did – makes his relationship with Rose more convincing, and brings home the fact that it is non-sexual because the writer chooses to portray it that way, rather than because he is unable to allude to sex. (Remember, by contrast, the infamous decision in The Five Doctors not to give the Fifth Doctor and Susan any scenes together because the production team was frightened of drawing attention to the idea of Davison’s Doctor having offspring). It’s also a lot cannier and funnier in its use of pop-culture and teenage language to appeal to younger viewers (compare this with the “yoof” dialogue Ace was sometimes saddled with). It is more experimental – Dalek, Father’s Day, The Empty Child, The Girl in the Fireplace and Love and Monsters do bold things with the show’s format and characters that have never been tried before, and create genuinely outstanding drama. Most notably, the modern version is much more emotionally powerful - these episodes have far more of a remit to moving the viewer than the original series did.
We shouldn’t feel afraid to admit that the original series was also better than the new one in other ways. For a start, the original remains unsurpassed at claustrophobic atmosphere. It remains to be seen if the new version can create tense stories along the lines of masterpieces such as 1977’s Horror of Fang Rock or 1975’s The Ark in Space. Tooth and Claw was for me, one of the few failures of the relaunch. Its relentless humour (couldn’t the “we are not amused” joke have been tightened up a bit?) and the smug, flippant attitude of the Tenth Doctor and Rose in that particular episode (despite the horrors they have witnessed, they head for the TARDIS at the end of the episode chuckling as if they’ve just had the time of their lives at everyone else’s expense) robs it of tension.
It doesn’t help that the episode only lasts 45 minutes: it is hard to bring the Doctor and Rose to the location, establish a claustrophobic atmosphere and have them meet the supporting characters in such a short length of time. When you have elaborate jokes also taking up precious moments of the airtime, you end up with an excellent werewolf that gets little to do but walk around, some brilliantly realised Kung-fu monks who don’t get used at all after the teaser, and a very hurried climax. With Fang Rock or Ark in Space, on the other hand, we spend 90 minutes trapped aboard Station Nerva or in a lighthouse, wondering how the Doctor can possibly overcome this dire threat.
Another criticism - so far, a minor one - that could be levelled at the new series is that while all three seasons have featured a remarkable array of beautifully acted and believably written supporting characters (Florence Hoath as Nancy, Sophia Myles as Madame De Pompadour, Marc Warren as Elton and Jessica Hynes as Joan to name just a few), all of them have so far been the Doctor’s allies. The new series’s villains - such as the Slitheen, the Racnoss, the Carrionites, Roger Lloyd-Pack as John Lumic and Anne Reid as the Plasmavore - are by contrast more generic: even the Family of Blood, superbly macabre as they are, are not three-dimensional in the same way as the other characters in Paul Cornell’s story, right down to Rocastle the Headmaster - beautifully played by Pip Torrens - in his few but vivid scenes. Whether the new series can give us richly-developed villains on a par with Tobias Vaughn from 1968’s The Invasion, Harrison Chase from 1976’s The Seeds of Doom or Sharaz Jek, Morgus and Stotz from 1984’s The Caves of Androzani remains to be seen.
One other hurdle the new series may have to face is its stance on alien planets. We haven’t had an alien planet as evocative as, say, the Cheetah Planet from Survival: instead, the few stories from the new version set on other planets tend to move indoors fairly soon. Of course, when presented with stories of the calibre of Love and Monsters, Blink and Human Nature, it seems churlish to complain about their setting, especially as their plots and characters would be unsuited to an alien environment. However, whilst the Pertwee “exiled to earth” format allowed the Doctor to complain about the TARDIS not working and his struggle to escape from earth, it seems jarring that the Doctor and first Rose then Martha are travelling around the entire universe and we aren’t going with them. It’s a problem highlighted by the way that the temptation of the TARDIS, and the many sights it can bring, plays a major part in both Rose and Martha’s development as characters.
It would be futile to suggest that there were episodes of the original series as moving as Father’s Day, as ingenious as The Girl in the Fireplace, or as spectacular as The Parting of the Ways, but to my taste it would be equally wrong-footed to argue that Rise of the Cybermen is equal to 1970’s Inferno (which remains a masterclass in parallel Earth stories), or Rose to the same year’s Spearhead from Space (which is a much more satisfying alien-invasion story, with much more well-realised Autons). The new version is another chapter in Doctor Who’s long and chequered history: admittedly a hugely important one, but not the definitive one.
Steven Moffat, perhaps the finest writer on the new series, has expressed a different attitude towards the original series. In DWM’s Seventh Doctor Special, Who writers each contributed an article discussing the virtues of each Seventh Doctor story. While Gareth Roberts and Paul Cornell offered infectious celebrations of Paradise Towers and Battlefield, Moffat’s commendation of Remembrance of the Daleks was rather different in tone. It began by enthusing about the new series: “Right now, as I sit typing, I’m a few feet away from the stunning new TARDIS set…” before breaking off and saying, with a palpable sense of irony, “so let’s talk about Remembrance of the Daleks! No, actually, let’s really do.” Although he then praises the story, a patronising opinion of the original series as dwarfed by the new version is detectible.
The article gets more mean-spirited as it continues, with one odd remark: “I remember running home to see Part One, skidding… like a cartoon character. I’d say like Sylvester McCoy, but it’s not a place I really want to go”. It’s difficult to understand this cryptic reference – does he mean he disliked McCoy’s performance? A few lines later, he speaks of “Ferret Man suddenly becoming the Doctor” and “the little bloke from Vision On”. So total is this contempt that actually elaborating on what was wrong with McCoy’s Doctor, or even naming him, is considered unnecessary. It’s a shame that one of Doctor Who’s brightest current storytellers sees the show he wrote for two decades later as only really coming to life in recent years.
That given, it would be going too far to say that there was nothing wrong with 1980s Doctor Who: it went through a very turbulent time under John Nathan-Turner, and suffered under the uncertain hands of script editor Eric Saward. Seasons Twenty to Twenty-two in particular (but not, as is commonly assumed, the show’s last three seasons) appear to have no idea about where they are moving, with little cohesion, under-explored characters and a struggle to find suitable writers. As Gareth Roberts remarked in his recent DWM interview, they would have benefited greatly from the “tone meetings” of the current version. This was also the period that Doctor Who shrank from a teatime family show (something which its revival has restored it to) to a cult show dependent upon a not always appreciative fanbase, which led to its demise.
However, Doctor Who has been nothing over its forty-plus years if not inconsistent; right from the start, there’s been as much chaff as wheat. This is the show that followed City of Death with The Creature from the Pit, The Caves of Androzani with The Twin Dilemma. It’s an anthology show: Black Orchid, Carnival of Monsters and The Curse of Fenric are all excellent, but have remarkably little in common. To dismiss the whole of 1980s Doctor Who as substandard is as foolish as arguing that no decent film or novel has ever been published in that decade.
Furthermore, only two periods in the show’s history have ever been consistently outstanding and with a small number of misfires: the Hinchcliffe era and the current revival. The 1960s, Pertwee and Graham Williams eras are almost as variable in quality as the 1980s. A scan of the Hartnell era, for examples, reveals some great stories such as The Daleks’ Master Plan, but also some stinkers such as The Space Museum and The Sensorites. Even episodes that were thought classics - such as 100,000 BC and the first Dalek serial - are a lot ropier in places than we remembered. The Troughton era, despite having one of the finest Doctors at the helm, is a lot more problematic creatively than many remember, with a reliance on the unimaginative “base under siege” model (The Moonbase, The Wheel in Space) and as with the Hartnell era, a tendency for both the Doctor and his companions not always to be as involved with the main action as they should be (one of the jarring things about 1960s Doctor Who for those raised on the later periods is that when Hartnell, Troughton or one of his companions were due for a holiday, their character would simply disappear midway through the serial, which was very hard to smooth over in an hero-led adventure series). In the Pertwee era, one can line up the outstanding stories (Robert Holmes's two auton stories, the Silurians, Inferno, Carnival of Monsters, The Sea Devils, Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and many would add Curse of Peladon and The Green Death) with the duds (The Time Monster, The Monster of Peladon, Frontier in Space) and find something of a fifty/fifty split. Conversely, the mid-1980s might be one of Doctor Who’s less creative and consistent periods, and yet we still have Snakedance, Caves of Androzani and Revelation of the Daleks hidden inside them.
No matter how many weeds occupy a particular Who era, there are always a few hidden bloomers, and vice versa. Russell T Davies, who tends to be more diplomatic than Steven Moffat, reflected in a November 2003 DWM interview – not long after the announcement that he would be bringing the show back - that he had no particular favourite era, but loved “the whole thing”. This seems to me to be far more in tune with the nature of the programme. One can find pleasures or interests even in Doctor Who’s weakest seasons. The best analogy I have found for the brilliance of the original Doctor Who comes from Dr Johnson’s assessment of Shakespeare. Johnson had to admit that Shakespeare’s work didn’t fit into his preferred classical model of works of carefully structured, scrupulously considered works of Art (the Augustans didn’t like their literature to be frivolous or inconsistent). Instead, he saw it as “a forest […] interspersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses”. There are a good deal of weeds and roses in Doctor Who’s original run: it’s as foolish to ignore vast swathes of the forest as it would be to insist that Troilus and Cressida, A Winter’s Tale, and indeed anything other than Shakespeare’s famous comedies and tragedies are worthless. Let’s not allow the fact that it is currently blooming to overshadow some of those past glories.




Monday, 17 May 2010

Comedy for Comedy's sake

One thing critics seem unable to grasp is that comedy itself is an artform as surely as literature or jazz, with its own unique strengths when written well and weaknesses when written poorly. Instead, the tendency when praising comedy is to compare it to literature or theatre, as if this legitimises the work. The greatest sitcoms - Seinfeld, Father Ted, I’m Alan Partridge, The Simpsons before its decline – have all been dedicated to the profound, mystifying process of being funny. Father Ted and Seinfeld should invite critique and analysis as surely as Philip Roth, yet so far the critics haven’t reached the nineties yet. Fawlty Towers, for instance, appears to have been vaguely canonised, but you are more likely to hear someone praising it for its tragedy, its psychological realism and its similarities to Shakespearean and Beckettian comedy than for what actually makes it so enduringly funny. I recall a critic once praised Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff by comparing it to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. This missed the point: the sharp black humour of Brydon’s show is a very different strength to Bennett’s. We don’t have to insist that a comedy show is as good as a drama in order to recognise its value. Shows like The Office and The Royle Family may invite comparisons with Beckett and the theatre, but they are funnier, and this sets them out as part of a different artform to theatre with its own strengths. This is why a lot of poor comedy – Extras, Saxondale – gets praised because of its fruitless aspirations towards profundity.
There are three main cul-de-sacs that modern comedy faces. The first is darkness, which always attracts praise but is no more or less an indication of merit than lightness. BBC2’s Nighty Night initially attracted praise for its unflinching blackness, but it soon became apparent it had nowhere else to go. Saxondale was the kind of show that attracted praise for having greater character depth than the infinitely funnier I’m Alan Partridge, but making the protagonist more miserable and giving him dialogue about the bleakness of his predicament does not increase psychological depth. Whilst in Curb Your Enthusiasm there is a terrible logic to the hero’s misanthropy, Lead Balloon – a show heavily influenced by Curb – simply has its protagonist do the most unpleasant thing possible according to the situation. True black comedy can be sublime, but blackness isn’t automatically clever or hilarious.
The second is self-referentiality, an aspect of post-modernism that is a good deal less interesting than most people seem to think. In shows like Extras and The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, the presence of cameras and tv shows within tv shows is presented as if it affords us a fascinating glimpse into the world of celebrity, when in fact it’s no more interesting than any other setting. The nadir was reached with the climax to the Extras Christmas special, which seemed to believe that launching into a diatribe against Big Brother and celebrity culture constitutes satire rather than yet another aspect of celebrity culture, no better than Big Brother itself. It’s much the same school of thought that persists in thinking that celebrities playing themselves in an unflattering light is both incredibly brave of the celebrity and deeply subversive.
The third is the tendency towards realism, in sitcoms which focus on characters with shabby, self-obsessed lives. The influence of Peep Show and The Office is strong here, and the excellent (and inexplicably axed) Pulling also demonstrated that this can be done well. The problem with these three fine shows is that their influence – along with the improvised, pseudo-documentary style of Curb Your Enthusiasm, probably the finest currently ongoing comedy series – has lead a generation to believe their own lives are funny enough to base a comedy show around.
Father Ted, Seinfeld and I’m Alan Partridge are not brilliant because they are dark, nor because they capture the humdrum reality of everyday life, nor because they are postmodern, and not because they achieve any effects similar to Beckett, Dickens or Shakespeare. In fact, some of those things they don’t attempt to do at all. They are brilliant because every aspect - the performances, the dialogue, the structure of their ingenious little plots, the characterisation, the gags, the imagery – has been scrupulously worked on so that each contributes to an overall effect that is unique and incomparable to any other artform. There is nothing more complex than something that succeeds in being funny, and nothing more valuable for sanity. In comparison with this achievement, postmodernism seems a very small thing indeed.

Cut to the chase: why are there so few action movies for grown-ups?

Has any genre been more underexploited for its aesthetic potential than action? A scene of visceral intensity and excitement, with fine stuntwork, editing, direction and choreography, creates an aesthetic effect unlike any other, and takes us into the realms of pure narrative, where our desire to see what happens next, our hope that the hero survives and that the bad guy doesn’t escape, and our wincing at every blow and gasp at every explosion results in a momentary out-of-body experience. Yet so rarely is this done in a fine movie.
In the eighties and nineties, if you wanted to see an action movie, you had to put up with bad writing, poor acting and a general atmosphere of relentless stupidity. Die Hard is the classic example. Its stunning special effects and spectacle made it a must-see for anyone attracted to action, but the bone-headedness of the scenes in which every other police officer and FBI agent is too stupid to believe anything Bruce Willis says, or the excruciating scene at the end when Willis’s buddy – who has been too scared to draw his gun on anyone since he accidentally shot a kid – triumphantly regains the urge to kill, makes it difficult to enjoy the film unreservedly, let alone make a case for it as a fine movie. The Lethal Weapon films are even more relentless in their stupidity, whilst dross of the kind that Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal star in represent cinema at its most laughable. When we talk about the tropes of bad movies – plotholes, clichés, stock characters – we are usually talking about action movies.
There were some exceptions. The Terminator movies matched action with an intelligent and imaginative narrative, no-nonsense acting and some unusual casting to compelling effect. The best Bond movies and the Indiana Jones trilogy, on the other hand, were more gung-ho but constructed their action scenes with such elegance, and in between the action created such iconic moments, that watching an action movie became a complete aesthetic experience, rather than a combination of longeours and exciting moments. Steven Spielberg’s magnificent Duel transformed a chase between a car and a truck into an epic struggle of David versus Goliath and Man versus Machine, conveyed through expert use of the medium.
The ridiculous films of John Woo were acclaimed by some critics as demonstrating the aesthetic potential of action, in much the same way as some critics insist that martial arts movies possess a balletic grace, but this argument is feeble. Woo’s predilection for slow-motion and shots of doves flying past the heroes do not transform his movies – all of which have dreadful scripts – into art. The endless scenes of men firing twin handguns at each other become monotonous, and the lack of any real physical danger prevents actual excitement or tension (a problem the two Matrix sequels ran into: if the hero and bad guy can’t hurt each other, what’s the point?).
Far more successful are The Bourne Identity and its two sequels, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. These felt like the action movies for grown-ups I’d been waiting for. They were well-written and superbly acted, with attention paid to characterisation and dialogue, and yet they also contained the most extraordinary car chases and fights you could see on celluloid. And while these sequences were superbly staged, directed and edited, they were all the more exciting for being integrated within a compelling narrative and enacted by characters the audience came to believe in. As his hands scrabble for rolled-up magazines or ballpoints to fend off terrifying crunching blows, and cars pursue him at disorientating speeds, we fear for Bourne in a way we never do in a Lethal Weapon or a Die Hard. This is due not just to Paul Greengrass’s riveting visual style, but also to Matt Damon’s empathetic performance, which manages to make Bourne both an iconic figure of danger (it is significant that the posters are confident enough to proclaim “Matt Damon is Jason Bourne”, an honour reserved for mythic figures like Bond), and a person with a sympathetic quandary. The supporting performances are also of a higher calibre than almost any action movie. Franke Potente, as Marie, is a far more well-rounded love interest than any of the Bond girls, while Joan Allen has such a strong presence as CIA boss Pam Landy that the character increases in stature as the films progress. The presence of Brian Cox, Chris Cooper, David Straitairn and Julia Stiles also helps to create an interesting gallery of characters, in contrast to Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace which tend to grip less when Bond is off the screen (despite Judi Dench’s presence, the scenes with MI6 and government officials are the least memorable in both films due to bland characterisation and dull casting).
Unfortunately, the other way forward for action movies, rather than grasp the aesthetic potential of the genre, is to deny the genre itself, in much the same way that science fiction writers have found supposed literary respectability by denying that they write it. When Daniel Craig took over as James Bond, there was an emphasis on how the series would become darker, grittier and more realistic, and grapple with Bond himself as a character. Action movies are in fact not very well-equipped to do this, partly because so much screentime is taken up by setpieces, and partly because their heroes need a degree of superhuman ability if they are to take part in an action sequence, and a degree of implausibility in their origin in order to set them apart from other men. James Bond, Indiana Jones, Bruce Wayne and even Jason Bourne are all ridiculous creations (not that there’s anything wrong with that), to say nothing of the ones that get bitten by radioactive spiders or exposed to gamma rays. This renders attempts at three-dimensional drama unsuccessful: the only emotion behind Quantum of Solace is that Bond is upset at the death of his girlfriend but trying not to let it show, while each of the characters’ predicament, background and psychological profile in The Dark Knight can be summed up in five words or less: Harvey Dent is idealistic, Batman hates crime, the Joker likes crime, Commissioner Gordon is the only incorruptible cop.
And yet, while these movies are trying and failing to be dramas, they are also failing to do what they can do so brilliantly. For all that has been written about The Dark Knight, no critics seemed to notice its most important flaw: the film only had one decent action sequence. The opening sequence in which we first see Batman in action is very flat and seems to end before it’s got started. Clearly the movie is keen to move onto its scenes of human drama, and yet if had started with a gripping action sequence these scenes would be so much more charged and our interest in these characters so much stronger. The scene that most of us will remember from The Dark Knight – and the scene that people will have discussed so animatedly as they left the cinema – isn’t any of the confrontations between the Joker and Batman or the anguished scenes with the Joker and Harvey Dent, but the lavish setpiece in which Batman pursues the Joker, running riot in a huge truck, on the Batpod, a gigantic motorcycle that looks like the kind of bike the devil would ride, only even cooler. It is scenes like this that are the heart and soul of these movies, and create aesthetic joys that can be found in no other type of movie.
So what next for the action film? It must maintain a tightrope balance between two courses ahead. On the one hand, it must continue to increase its ambitions, and to learn the lesson from the Bourne trilogy that just because a movie contains action setpieces doesn’t mean it can’t have good dialogue and interesting plotting, characterisation and ambience. At the same time, it must remember that action itself is crucial to its distinctiveness: to move in the direction of The Dark Knight and Quantum of Solace is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Stephen King, talking of the difference between sensationalist and literary fiction, suggested that the latter were cars with exquisite bodywork but no engine. Action movies can have ferocious engines, with a kick to them you won’t find in classier-looking models, but that doesn’t mean to say we can’t improve the paintwork a little.

English literature as a taught subject

In David Lodge’s novel Nice Work, Robyn Penrose, a lecturer in English literature and an uncompromising champion of post-structuralist theory, receives a note from her colleague Charles on why he has decided to abandon the cause and become a banker:

Poststructuralist theory is a very intriguing philosophical game for very clever players. But the irony of teaching it to young people who have read almost nothing except their GCE set texts and Adrian Mole, who know almost nothing about the bible or classical mythology, who cannot recognise an ill-formed sentence, or recite poetry with any sense of rhythm – the irony of teaching them about the arbitrariness of the signifier in week three of their first year becomes in the end too painful to bear…
This struck me as the very quandary that those of us that pursued English from GCSE to Sixth-Form, then to degree level and finally to MA, found themselves in. I went to a comprehensive school that taught no pre-20th century novels (with the exception of George Eliot’s slim Silas Marner in Year Two or Three), and little pre-20th century poetry (a notable exception being Keats at A-Level, although as far as I know that was only because that particular English teacher, Mr Giovanelli, loved Keats). Like the students mentioned in the extract, I had no knowledge of biblical or classical mythology. Then, upon arriving at university, I was presented with a module called Introduction to Critical Theory, which challenged the concept of canon. There are a number of approaches behind the questioning of teaching the canon of texts we associate with English literature. Both post-colonialism and feminism prompt a range of previously neglected authors and texts, while much critical theory argues that canons are constructions of language as surely as the texts themselves. Yet the irony behind this is that the academics behind these theories only reached them because they are of the generation that had to read large doses of the canon. How can one know if the canon is overrated if one has not read a fair amount of it?
Here it is worth looking at an article written by Robert Eaglestone, a lecturer in English, for the Independent Education section, on 22nd April 1999.

English Literature at A-level is a branch of the heritage industry, selling an England of lace and Empire Line dresses, loveable Elizabethans and obedient servants. At best, it offers ‘passnotes’ to the latest BBC costume drama or high profile Hollywood blockbuster. At worst, it sells students throughout the UK an outdated and exclusive image of Englishness, a long way from the multicultural society in which we live. […] Judging from the dominance of nineteenth century novels, the A-level curriculum wants us to see ourselves as Jane Eyre, Pip, Darcy, Elizabeth Bennett or Tess. Not only does this exclude literature from other periods but, perhaps most importantly, it means that A-level pays less attention to contemporary literature.
This article was written around the same time as I was studying English literature at GCSE, but presents a very different picture to the one I remember. Clearly teachers of English, remembering their own schooldays, think that students are still saturated with the canon, which seems the exact opposite of my generation’s experience at a comprehensive school that taught no pre-twentieth-century novels. Neither of these two extremes is ideal, although the one Eaglestone outlines actually sounds more attractive to me. Of course literature should not be reduced to a heritage industry, but the belief that it already has been - and memories of the dryness of text-based lessons in their own childhoods - has led Eaglestone’s generation to distrust the books themselves.
Similarly, in the first lecture for the Introduction to Critical Theory module, a professor of English recalled how previously studying English at university consisted of reading the actual literature; ideas like literary theory were saved for postgraduate study. It was clear from his tone that he saw moving away from this as a change for the better, but it left this student yearning for a TARDIS. The professor then compared studying literature without knowledge of critical theory to operating on bodies without knowledge of the equipment, but this analogy is false. Literature doesn’t lie on slabs: it exists as a transaction between the mind of the reader and the mind of the author. What happens there is so complex and beautiful – and so far from being definitively understood – it doesn’t need to be supplanted by any critical theory. As Clive James put it, “literature says most things itself, when it is allowed to.” My aim here is not to attack critical theory, any more then I would condemn quantum physics or art history. Those that are interested in those subjects should by all means be encouraged, but those of us who aren’t should be equally respected, especially as champions of Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction have long been resolutely incapable of explaining to us what those three words actually mean. You either love them or don’t know what they are (I still don’t). My concern is that students baffled by critical theory end up performing poorly in a discipline they might have had an aptitude for if they had been allowed to read the literature itself.
If the slide away from imaginative writing into the realms of philosophy and linguistics is one problem facing the teaching of literature, another is the fear of Englishness. This problem is also very perceptible in the teaching of history: For my GCSE and A-Level in that subject, we were taught nothing that happened before the 20th century (and even before GCSE at the same comprehensive school, little pre-20th century history that I can remember, apart from something about the Spinning Jenny). Obviously it’s a century of profound importance, but the lack of knowledge of anything prior is a handicap when one is embarking on a university course. Not knowing anything about the Reformation, I realised what the difference between the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury was ludicrously late in life. Catholicism, Protestantism and Puritanism tended to play important parts in the literature we studied at university, but it was hard to grasp the differences in the effects they had upon writers’ sensibilities when one didn’t even know what they were. One reason for this coyness in teaching British history before the 20th century is the threat of colonial connotations. A second, more important reason is the extent to which Britain has become a more multicultural society, and the urgent need for teaching to reflect it. To complain that a sense of identity in the teaching of British history and literature has been eroded might seem like a conservative or right-wing point, but it is a complaint that is also noticeable from an entirely left-wing point of view: the lack of identity leads to a lack of enthusiasm, so that by the time we arrive at university there’s a sense of vagueness as to what we have learnt. Without calling for a return to the days of immersing students in a “canon” or “heritage” which Eaglestone and my professor remember, (let alone the nightmare of jingoistic revisionism that the likes of Niall Ferguson and Michael Gove kept threatening to inflict upon the curriculum) we need to conquer our hesitancy over teaching British pre-20th century history and literature, in order that what we are trying to persuade young people to invest their time in has a face, not to mention context and detail.
Perhaps we are expected to read the Dickens, Hardy, Austen, King James Bible, Homer and Milton that we never studied at school in our spare time. However, this isn’t going to happen, at least not in our teens. Reading such intensely challenging and lengthy work requires motivation, which is why the academic study of literature is necessary: it provides that motivation, while teachers can help you see things in the text that you would never have noticed on your own. Outside the classroom, the idea of reading Ulysses is a joke. Inside the classroom, it becomes a credible and potentially very fruitful proposition. On a recent season of programmes on BBC4 looking back at arts television over the years, the debate over the canon was illustrated with a clip of David Hare mentioning that he had noticed how superior Raymond Chandler was to many of the novelists he had been studying at university. The crucial point he didn’t mention was that he didn’t need university to help him appreciate Chandler’s books, and that if he had it might have reduced his enjoyment and interest in them. When I mentioned to a university English teacher how I loved the humour of The Catcher in the Rye, he asked me if I was quite sure it was funny and suggested I read it again, arguing that it was really a very disturbing portrayal of an obsessive-compulsive mind, and offering its alleged effect upon Mark Chapman and John Hinkley as examples. I am grateful for having come across the book in my own time and not through his teaching. My own literary passion is for contemporary fiction, with Terry Pratchett and Kazuo Ishiguro being particular inspirations, but there’s nothing that university could add to my appreciation of them. Like many, I regard the TV shows The Wire and The Sopranos as some of the finest fiction around, but I wouldn’t want to see them taught – what would we watch for pleasure? Moby Dick, on the other hand, only becomes comprehensible with a good teacher. Teaching, after all, requires a subject that cannot initially be grasped by oneself.
Umberto Eco once argued that it was “semiotically uninteresting” to apply semiotic analysis to the work of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas because they themselves became amateur semiologists through their filmmaking, aware of the implications of their intertextuality. You don’t need academic study to realise that Raiders of the Lost Ark is a variation on Boy’s Own Adventure serials, or what movie tropes Quentin Tarantino is playing with. Those films’ audiences are already their students. This strikes me as similar to the problems posed by Media Studies as an academic subject. Philip Pullman defends it thus:

Media studies is easily sneered at by those who think it entirely consists of watching EastEnders and Coronation Street. [But] how TV news and information reaches us through the media is of profound importance.
He’s right, of course. Only a fool would think the media and its effect on our lives not worthy of study (I noticed from a recent interview that Marilynne Robinson, an uncompromisingly intellectual novelist, doesn’t own a television set. Does this mean she’s only seen still photos of President Obama?). The key difference, though is that we are already students of the media. Anyone with the slightest interest in the modern world spends their lives considering the implications of what was on the news or in the paper, how it was presented, and what those that were presenting it were trying to say. We notice rhetorical techniques, fallacies of argument, styles of language and attempts to reach particular kinds of audience or states of mind as they recur. If this sounds a bit high-flown, it’s worth pointing out that obviously we don’t always think of it in those terms – sometimes we’re barely conscious that we’re doing it – but we are consumers of the modern media.
Literature, on the other hand, differs in two ways. Firstly, it largely comes to us from a different historical, social, political, intellectual and scientific context. The classroom is the best way to provide this; the only alternative would be for teenagers to read novels side by side with history textbooks. Secondly, it consists of media – poetry, novels, drama – that are no longer the dominant artforms, and which have been superseded by media – tv, film, computer games, internet – that are much faster, much easier and much more overpowering (notice I didn’t say better). Crucially, they make use of sound – unlike reading, which requires varying degrees of silence – and are visual, whilst reading, except in the most literal sense, isn’t. It happens when the letters you’ve just seen are matched up with their meanings inside your head. Reading Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley requires much more effort – and took me a lot longer – than watching an episode of The Sopranos, even though the latter is vastly superior. Reading poetry is extraordinarily difficult for many teenagers, to the point where it seems barely feasible outside the classroom.
This brings us to the question of contemporary literature. This can be more plausibly read by teenagers outside of school, as it requires no explanation of context. While I think, for that reason, that literature from the past should take priority in English teaching, it is important to remember that contemporary fiction in particular can provide for the literature student an important bridge between academia and the modern world, and can be vital in maintaining their interest. One of my happiest memories of A-Level English is of preparing a presentation on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, while studying Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and Pat Barker’s Regeneration the following year played a major part in sparking my interest in the contemporary novel. A balance has to be maintained between maintaining literature’s relevance to the modern world and allowing students to become acquainted with texts which are too difficult to wrestle with on their own but which have a major influence upon literature which becomes more and more unavoidable as they progress from sixth-form to university. Like anything else, the teaching of literature should move with the 21st century, but let’s allow students to actually read some of it before we get onto that business about the arbitrariness of the signifier.

Thoughts on the directions the Bond franchise is moving in.

It’s obvious what’s happening to the Bond films. Phillip Pullman once suggested that the effect of modernism on fiction was analogous to the moment when Adam and Eve became embarrassed by their nakedness. I never did understand the shameful tone of EM Forster’s declaration “Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story”. The Bond franchise, after delivering twenty shamelessly entertaining films, underwent a similar crisis, as it became apparent that the Bond films are quite nakedly constructed to entertain people. Something had to be done about this, and so with the rebirth of Bond as Daniel Craig in 2006’s Casino Royale, words like “darker”, “grittier”, “human”, “raw” wounded”, “tortured” and “emotional” become buzz words.
Fans like to believe that their favourite characters are complicated human beings, and that the narratives they enjoy are fuelled by tragedy and psychology. This is why The Dark Knight was so popular, despite featuring only one decent action scene and its utter absence of fun. Fans could see Batman as a Shakespearean tragic hero, and the film as a parable about America and its current status. In fact, it doesn’t actually succeed as a three-dimensional piece of drama because of the nature of the characters. Each character only has one aspect – Batman hates criminals, the Joker is mad and Harvey Dent is idealistic. This doesn’t make them less worthwhile: as long as they are used with economy, archetypical or mythic characters can tell us just as many interesting things about human nature, and can make for just as rewarding a narrative. However, when such characters are dealt with at the lengths The Dark Knight goes to, the viewer starts to notice repetition in the dialogue and the absence of character development. And while the film has been trying and failing to be an “adult” drama, it has abandoned the one other thing it could have achieved instead: excitement.
Bond, like Batman, is a mythical figure rather than a psychologically detailed creation, and the aspects of him that are alien to real life are essential. Just as Batman’s convenient wealth, the fortuitous presence of a batcave beneath his manor, his intelligence and physical prowess are coincidences that could never occur in reality, so too is Bond defined by those aspects of him – his ability to perform the most breathtaking stunts, outwit any villain and never fail to look magnificent – that no real person could possess. To consider him entirely realistically is to lose part of the man himself, as surely if we deny that Superman can fly.
The word that springs to mind when watching Quantum of Solace is stripped. There’s still no Moneypenny, Q or gadgets, but now humour, warmth and sex have been jettisoned as well. That iconic scene shot through the POV of a gunbarrel where Bond turns and fires - a work of art in itself – is missing from the pre-credits sequence (curiously, it’s been shunted off to the end credits). Most strikingly, this is the first Bond film for some time in which none of the action sequences offer anything novel. The previous film offered the extraordinary spectacle of a free-running chase through a busy construction site and an Aston Martin turning over seven times, but Quantum offers standard car, foot, boat and plane chases, numerous fights and a very straightforward attack on the villain’s base. The film poached its second unit director, Dan Bradley, from the last two Bourne movies, and their influence feels very strong on these scenes, with their frantic cutting and preference for close-ups rather than panoramic shots.
Although it is understandable, The Bourne influence is a step in the wrong direction. Ironically, this was well-put by one of the writers of Quantum of Solace, Robert Wade, who observed in an interview before Quantum was made that:

Whereas Bourne lives in the real world, we are talking about a heightened, intensified reality. You don’t want to be Bourne. He is a guy in hell. He hasn’t really got any joie de vivre. With Bond, you want to be Bond. You’ve got to want to be Bond.

Bond, as Wade says, is an essentially heroic character: there must always be an element of wish-fulfilment in his presentation, and for that reason a script can never expect us to sympathise with him entirely. Bourne is only after his freedom, but Bond seeks monsters to fight: Fleming described him as a latter-day St George. This is why the action scenes in Quantum are disappointing: car chases and brutal hand-to-hand fights are the most exciting things possible in Bourne’s world, but in a Bond film we expect something more exotic.
In fact, the Bond of Quantum of Solace has no more depth than the previous incarnations, just as The Dark Knight doesn’t really work as an allegory about fighting terrorism any more than the other Batman movies. The film proceeds like any action film, except that every now and then Judi Dench’s M offers a solemn pronouncement about Bond being “so blinded by inconsolable rage that you don’t care who you hurt”. This pays lip service to those that want psychological detail, but doesn’t really make the screenplay any more meaningful, or compensate for the toning-down of enjoyment.
This isn’t to say the series is going downhill: Casino Royale was a terrific entry in the series, managing to combine improved characterisation with invigorating thrills, and although Quantum of Solace isn’t as strong, it’s hardly woeful, and Craig is again excellent. But there are a few things that the franchise should take into account. Bond movies, like Indiana Jones movies and Bourne movies, create their own genre: they don’t need to follow the Bournes, terrific though that trilogy is. A full-blooded Bond movie will always be preferable to a Bourne imitation. But in order to get that, we have to come to terms with the fact that we love the Bond movies. We love them for their excitement, their audacity, the humour, their infectious love for their own hero and their sheer narrative drive. We also love the beauty of a Bond film’s structure, with the gunbarrel sequence, the action-packed pre-credits teaser and the animated credits exciting us as the opening of no other film can, before we settle into the many games that Bond must play in order to outwit the villain and win over the girl. We don’t need to persuade ourselves that Bond has to become “gritty” and “dark” before we can admit to liking him. Yes – oh dear yes – the Bond films tell a story.

Mark Haddon's Christopher Boone - Uncle Tom for the 21st century?

As someone with Asperger's Syndrome, I felt uneasy when Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time came out in 2003 - partly because the great Asperger's novel should be written by me, and partly for reasons set out in the following piece which I wrote after reading and rereading the book. It doesn't deny the book's merits, but simply argues that Haddon's book is not the account of life with Asperger's it's often claimed to be. If you haven't read The Remains of the Day (do, by the way) be warned it contains severe spoilers regarding that book's ending.


None of the regrettable effects of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and the misconceptions of Asperger’s Syndrome it has spread, are really Haddon’s fault. In some ways, the adoration of the novel can be linked to the public’s current appetite for tragic memoirs. Dave Pelzer’s books, with their mixture of gruelling descriptions of abuse and torture and self-help sentimentality, have been so lucrative that they have inspired a whole market of books with identically-designed covers, attempting to outdo each other in excruciating detail. They even have their own section in WH Smith’s, thoughtfully labelled “Tragic Life Stories”. As with more upmarket versions like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, the pleasure for casual readers comes from observing people with lives much worse than their own. It’s not too different from what Brian Aldiss called the “cosy catastrophe” of John Wyndham’s novels: all the excitement of watching frightening things happen while knowing they won’t happen to you. Readers and reviewers of Curious Incident seeking a label for Christopher’s condition have settled upon Asperger’s Syndrome, which is even used in the blurb, something which Haddon himself has expressed misgivings over. The phrase “you must read it, it’s very moving, it’s about a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome” is more likely to catch on than “it’s about a boy who’s obsessive-compulsive, emotionally-dissociated and frightened of colours, crowds and strangers and unable to understand sarcasm, lies, metaphor or humour”.
Indeed, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is not a novel about a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. It is a novel about a severely autistic boy. The difference is crucial. People with Asperger’s are not likely to spend the day refusing to talk to anyone because they saw the wrong colour car on the way to school, or lie down on the floor and groan in the middle of a shop because there are too many people around, or attend a school with children that can’t speak and run amok with faeces. What is most important to remember, though, is that Christopher is in many ways dangerous. In one scene, after learning that his father has killed the neighbour’s dog during an argument, he is convinced that he may be next, and arms himself with a Swiss army knife which he is quite prepared to use if his father comes near him. He also threatens first a man and then a woman with the knife simply because they approach him on the train station. He once knocked a girl at his school unconscious, and it is clear that he has no sense of regret or shame about this – he accepts that he must not do this again simply because he is told not to, but doesn’t seem to understand why. One of the symptoms of Christopher’s condition is that he cannot change his ways - from his fear of being touched to his refusal to eat anything yellow or brown - and by the end of the novel he is as likely to hurt someone as he was at the start.
Haddon himself acknowledges this. In an Online Q and A session on the Guardian Unlimited website, he casts a significant light on his novel:

I wish Curious Incident could be seen simply as a novel like any other novel. Christopher never uses the words 'Asperger's' or 'autism' in the book and if I could turn back time I would prefer that we'd never used the words on the cover either. […] I have read criticism of the novel from a couple of people with Asperger's (you can find some on Amazon), mostly on the grounds that they don't recognise themselves, or other people they know with Asperger's, in Christopher. To which there are several answers... The first is that other people with Asperger's have found Christopher very convincing. The second is that Asperger's is a very broad definition and I don't think there's such a thing as 'true' picture of someone with Asperger's, any more than there is a 'true' picture of a musician or a Norwegian. The third was put most succinctly by a good friend of mine who said, "It's not a novel about a boy with Asperger's, is it. It's a book about a young mathematician with some behavioural issues.

This is a reasonable point: Haddon’s book is a well-written, compelling and moving account of a severely autistic mind. It has little in common with the problems faced by anyone with less than the most severe kind of Asperger’s syndrome.
Despite this, the Sunday Times profile of Mark Haddon referred to Christopher’s condition as a “mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome”, a baffling statement that leaves one wondering what the author of the profile considers severe. It doesn’t help that Asperger’s itself is often defined as mild. The Daily Telegraph’s review of the novel, The Spectator’s review of Haddon’s follow-up novel A Spot of Bother, the Independent’s profile of Haddon and Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die all referred to Christopher’s condition as “a mild form of autism”. The nadir was reached with John Mullan’s weekly guide to Curious Incident for book groups in the Guardian. Mullan is Professor of English at University College London and a regular media pundit. It was stunning to see a man of such learning open a chapter of the guide with the sentence:

“I am told that a teenager with Asperger's Syndrome might very well have a sense of humour, even if it might seem odd to most of us.”

It’s hard to convey the lack of knowledge and understanding embedded within those words. Certainly, it is unlikely other minorities would put up with such a gross generalisation. My sense of humour has always been an essential part of my make-up, and while it’s been judged as banal or convoluted at times and my timing isn’t always perfect, I think I’m probably funnier than John Mullan.
Anyone with Asperger’s who is expected to behave like Christopher may well come to see the character as the Asperger’s equivalent of Uncle Tom. I’ve started to notice people, upon being asked if they are familiar with Asperger’s, responding that they’ve read Curious Incident of the Dog at the Night-Time - at a lecture on Asperger’s I attended during university, for example. The novel is no more representative of people with Asperger’s than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is of black people, and like Stowe’s novel, there’s something queasy about Haddon’s book despite the good intentions. Both are in their own ways deeply sentimental novels. The difference is that while Stowe’s sentimentality is obviously free of irony and wit, Haddon’s is far more knowing and wry. And yet his book still feels sentimental to me. The emotion in Haddon’s novel comes from the gap between Christopher’s view of things and the knowledge of the reader and author. Rereading Curious Incident recently sent me back to Daniel Keyes’s novel Flowers for Algernon, which I had similarly admired rather than actually liked. It wasn’t until reading Curious Incident, though, that it occurred to me what an obvious, manipulative trick it plays upon the reader. Both novels use stylised language to convey their narrator’s mental abnormalities. Charlie’s words are written in almost unreadable spelling and grammar, which poignantly improves and returns to normal as his intelligence is temporarily lifted. Every time the reader comes across something that they understand but that Christopher or Charlie don’t, the cumulative effect as this irony hits home starts to feel like a voice repeatedly saying “aaah, poor thing”; the irony doesn’t entirely disguise the sentimentality.
No bad spelling is used for Christopher’s account, but his tendency to add clause after clause linked by “and” soon makes itself apparent , and he always uses the phrase “do sex” instead of “have sex”. This second point may seem minor, but it struck me as both patronising (on Haddon’s rather than Christopher’s part) and inconsistent. Nowhere else does Christopher use such jarring grammar, and his language is otherwise formal, always telling us calmly what happened and how he felt rather than breaking down in reaction, so why does his language deteriorate when mentioning sex? At these moments the character feels less like an elegantly and confidently described portrait of an autistic mind, and more like a pathos-drenched Poor Dumb Boy. The trouble with using such formalistic tricks to evoke pathos is that the novelist’s technique in writing these words overshadows the character speaking them, so that Charlie and Christopher feel more like the authors’ constructions then human beings. Reading these novels, I longed for Charlie and Christopher to escape from the designs the authors had on them, but Keyes makes it clear that Charlie cannot succeed either as an intellectual or when restored to his original IQ, while Christopher’s role as a detective is not a fantasy we are allowed to share.
The problem of making these characters three-dimensional is one of language, and one shared by white American 19th-century writers attempting to evoke black characters – Jim from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn being a notorious example - and by 19th-century English writers’ attempts at working-class characters – numerous DH Lawrence characters, for example, or Stephen Blackpool from Dickens’s Hard Times. Archaic or phonetic spelling can be difficult to decode and ugly to look at, and it can be a barrier between the reader and the character, reminding us that we are looking at writing rather than engaging or sympathising with a human being. Ralph Ellison argued that Jim was inescapably “a white man’s inadequate portrait of a slave” – not for one second is he three-dimensional - and Christopher Boone, while less crudely drawn, has a similarly artificial quality that holds the reader back. The best analysis of Curious Incident I’ve encountered has come from Hari Kunzru, who suggested on BBC2’s Newsnight Review:

He feels constructed to me, at times. There is a necessary simplicity about his language, and he is interested in facts. He is interested in greater clarity of statement. But at times, this seems to kind of dissipate the character into a kind of formalism which seems to be more to do with the writer's research about Asperger's syndrome.

Kunzru’s point encapsulates both the extent to which one admires rather than thoroughly enjoys the book, and also the questions that can be raised when a writer immerses themselves in the viewpoint of a minority to which he does not belong or have significant experience with. Christopher’s condition overshadows his personality – is there anything we know about him from the novel that is not connected to his autism? – so that that they are one and the same. To create a human being, the novelist must endow a character with more than just a distinctive style of language.
For a more rounded, three-dimensional and emotionally satisfying account of an autistic mind, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day can be recommended to anyone with Asperger’s. The tale of Stevens, an emotionally repressed butler setting off to meet up with a housekeeper and looking back on his time in the household in which they both worked may not be literally concerned with Asperger’s, but it exquisitely dramatises the same problems faced by people with the condition without ever feeling patronising or emotionally predictable. An example that really struck a chord with me was the following moment where Stevens attempts to make small talk while staying overnight at an inn. The landlord and his friends are amiably enquiring whether Stevens slept well:

‘You won’t get much of a sleep up there, sir. Not unless you’re fond of the sound of old Bob’ – he indicated the landlord – ‘banging away down here right the way into the night. And then you’ll get woken by his missus shouting at him right from the crack of dawn’.
Despite the landlord’s protests, this caused loud laughter all round. […] I was struck by the thought […] that some sort of witty retort was required of me. Indeed, the local people were now observing a polite silence, awaiting my next remark. I thus searched my imagination and eventually declared:
‘A local variation on the cock crow, no doubt.’
At first the silence continued, as though the local persons thought I intended to elaborate further. But then noticing the mirthful expression on my face, they broke into a laugh, though in a somewhat bemused fashion. […]
I had been rather pleased with my witticism when it had first come into my head, and I must confess I was slightly disappointed it had not been better received than it was.

This witty, subtle moment captures many of the problems and frustrations that Asperger’s can cause in communication, and beautifully demonstrates that there is no more complex form of communication than small-talk, or “banter” as Stevens calls it. As someone who finds any social situation difficult to fathom, frequently wonders whether he’s said the wrong thing, and often suspects that his attempts to be humorous may not have succeeded, I found Stevens’s attempts at small-talk highly familiar, and delighted in identifying with his attempts to grasp the art of “bantering”. It’s funnier and more inspiring than anything in Curious Incident, demonstrating how the problems caused by Asperger’s are part of the human condition rather than limited to those who have the syndrome.
The strength of Remains of the Day is that it is more concerned with Stevens as a human being than anything he might have been diagnosed with, and explores the problems and contradictions in his personality through subtle and affecting moments and literary techniques rather than having him avoid the colour yellow or lie down on the floor and scream. When Stevens is asked about his former employer Lord Darlington, he unexpectedly denies meeting him, and while he admits to being baffled at his own denial of someone he respected, he does not at first tell the reader why he did so. It eventually becomes apparent that Lord Darlington was a Nazi sympathiser, but the gradual way Ishiguro reveals this and demonstrates Stevens’s ambiguous reaction to it is precisely the kind of subtlety and insight into an autistic consciousness that Curious Incident lacks. After Miss Kenton takes leave of Stevens for the final time and admits that she often wonders how much happier her life would have been had she married him, Stevens’s narration undergoes a shift:

I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed - why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking.

Stevens has unexpectedly broken free from the shackles of his carefully modulated language and hyper-rational mindset, and the effect is profoundly moving. A similarly devastating effect is created when, as Stevens talks with a stranger about his feelings of failure as a butler, the old man replies: “Oh dear, mate. Here, you want a hankie?”. We realise that our protagonist has finally broken down for a moment, even though as the narrator he cannot bring himself to tell us. There is a psychological depth here and a delicate brilliance of technique, as Ishiguro reveals emotions by peeling away the language they cloak themselves in, that dwarfs anything in Curious Incident.
Another point frequently held in its favour is Curious Incident’s “crossover” appeal - that is, its marketing potential as both a children’s and an adult’s novel due to the simplicity of the language. Those that would not normally read children’s literature have felt comfortable praising the book. On the same Newsnight Review discussion, Germaine Greer – a champion of Haddon’s book – responded to a question about the book’s suitability for both readerships:

I only read books written for adults. I see children playing with toys. They are decoy objects and they are boring and stupid and ugly, so I always wanted what the grown-ups had.

It would be a shame to limit one’s reading of children’s literature to Curious Incident, as that genre has provided some of the richest and most subversive fiction available, from Kenneth Grahame, Lewis Carroll and E. Nesbit through to Phillip Pullman, Terry Pratchett and Alan Garner. Similarly, in a programme for Teachers TV on the greatest books as nominated by teachers in which Curious Incident came in at number 2, Andrea Goodall of the Red House Children’s Book Award remarked that it was the first serious children’s book she had read, but serious children’s books have been with us for the past two centuries. Indeed, for a genuinely profound insight into what it means to be human, richly imagined characters and extraordinary depths of emotion, it is to Pullman’s His Dark Materials that one would be better advised to turn than Curious Incident, while Richmal Crompton’s William and Nesbit’s Bastable children seem to me far more original and rewarding creations than Christopher Boone.
Indeed, Curious Incident feels less original and less anarchic than children’s fiction at its best in its second half, once Christopher has embarked upon an epic train journey to find his mother, and the sentimental nature of the book becomes more apparent. Prior to this the novel reads as a quirky and witty achievement, with some engaging digressions on mathematics and Sherlock Holmes. At this point, however, it starts to feel old-hat, resembling numerous children’s books of the kind by Betsy Byars and Judy Blume. Two familiar tropes in particular are used. The novel’s joyous denouement - and Christopher’s reconciliation with his father - is brought about by a delighted Christopher receiving a puppy as a gift. It’s a device familiar from books such as Blume’s Superfudge, and seems to fulfil the same purpose in the world of children’s fiction as weddings do at the end of Jane Austen’s novels.
The second trope comes in the form of Christopher’s beloved pet rat Toby, something familiar to readers of children’s fiction from Jumble the mongrel in Richmal Crompton’s William stories through to Ron’s pet Scabbers in the Harry Potter books. Charlie from Flowers for Algernon also has a pet rodent: Algernon the mouse, who undergoes the same intellect-enhancing operation as Charlie, and like Toby becomes the protagonist’s fellow fugitive as they flee from untrustworthy adults. The connection between the innocent and the animal is obvious: animals are rational, animals are easy to understand and animals are honest. Like the phrase “do sex”, it gives Christopher something of an “idiot boy” quality, rather than merely a different way of perceiving the world to others. A lazier stereotype is used in the form of Christopher’s interest in Star Trek. It’s commonly assumed that autistic children will be obsessed with Star Trek, but while it is true that autism tends to give one very specific interests and passions, it’s a shame Haddon couldn’t have given Christopher a less predictable one.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, then, is not quite the modern classic it is being made out to be. The tricks it plays upon the reader result in some powerful and poignant moments – its portrayal of the foolishness of adults, its witty use of swearing and its believable portrayal of Christopher’s parents. These tricks also feel predictable and one-note at times. The book heralded the arrival of an exciting new writing talent, but it is by no means a seminal work on autism. And it isn’t about a boy with Asperger’s.