Sunday, 29 May 2011

Ian Watson, The Gardens of Delight (1980)


This is really a gloriously odd book: brilliantly, almost repellently eccentric—unpredictable, unlike anything else I’ve read, and other suchlike terms of the highest praise I can bestow. An Earth colony ship, the Copernicus, has gone missing; a second ship, the Starship Schiaparelli, goes in search, retracing their trajectory to a strange planet beneath a yellow sun. As soon as they land their craft is disabled by a mysterious force. As the crew explore—our attention is primarily with the ship’s psychologist, Sean Athlone—we realise that this world is a literalisation of the famous Heironymus Bosch triptych The Garden of Earthly Delight; Hell; Heaven.

Now, another writer might string this revelation out, have realisation dawn slowly on the crew, try and generate narrative suspense. Not Watson. It’s evident pretty much from the get-go that this is where they are—Bosch’s paintings, come to life, on a distant planet—and the explanation for this bizarreness is got out of the way early on too. It’s that tired old Star Trek TOS trope, alien superintelligences with superpowers who trap a starship crew in an environment plucked from the mind of one of the crewmen for their own reasons. Watson isn’t particularly interested in all that. Instead he spends most of this short (180-page) novel simply exploring Bosch’s world. The crew have landed in the Garden; some of the crew try to hang onto their mission objectives and Earthly mindsets; other abandon themselves to the new place. There’s a great deal of polymorphous shagging involving humans, animals and weird Bosch-monsters. There’s a character called ‘Knossos’ (ie, ‘Gnosis’) who seems to be acting as the agent of the world’s God. Sean and some others realise that they have to die and pass through hell properly to understand, and so they do. Hell is rendered with the sadistic-lubricious specificity of Bosch’s original vision. One example: our characters stumble across L’Enfer des Musiciens:
One player was banging his head against a big bass drum. A giant lute rose from the sand like a spineless stringed cactus. A blond man was crucified across the peg-box and finger board of the lute. His fingers and toes plucked blindly at the strings, providing tenor accompaniments to a harp which sprouted at right angles out of the sound hole of the lute. Impaled within its strings writhed a lanky attenuated victim, whose constant spastic trembling urged a rippling gurgle from the strings ... A wrinkled fellow, squatting on all fours, played a flute stuck up his own anus—a far flute. A very fat man crawled round and round the group as fast as he could. He had staves of music tattooed across his buttocks: tattoos that changed shape to the squirm and ripple of his vast flesh. The players’ score was thus only visible to each player for a time, and then in a distorted way. Between glimpses the players guessed or improvised, producing clashing disharmonies which might nevertheless have resolved into harmony if only they could all have got into step with each other. A freakish conductor waddled after the crawling buttocks of his score, draped in punk muslin. He had a toad’s head. [97]
This vignette is the novel, of course. Watson dons his toad-head (not for the first time) and deliberately misfits the usual elements of a space-opera planetary exploration novel to create a jangling, startling, occasionally amazing assemblage. All the beasts and men in these linked worlds evolve into different forms; the fish become merman, the lions become birds, in an never-ending cycle. Where’s it all going? Characters speculate on the purpose of it all, and expatiate on the difference between unteleogical evolution and the progressive gradient of a divine cosmos (‘as soon as you introduce a presiding God you must believe in a tendency towards him’, 77). Sean and some of his friends discover the Devil, are eaten by him and shat into Eden. There’s a good deal of restless motion in the book, although the larger pattern is circular (or, pace the book’s dedication, perhaps ‘toroidal’ would be a better word). Hell is defined by a machinic inability to grow, evolve and flow; but even in hell there is a scatological sense of passing through.
Demons were dropping from the zenith as though newly cast out of Heaven, although there was no sign of Heaven up there, only star-studded darkness. Metallic devils, cyborg devils—with visored helmet heads sprouting antennae, thin steel arms clutching weighted nets, swollen blue pot-bellies and folded butterfly wings! ... The creatures shat convulsively, offloading ballast. A foul rain fell.

“Run!”

The demons’ diarrhoea was transformed into billows of asphyxiating gas as it splattered the ground and the fleeing Four. Gasping, eyes streaming blindly, Sean ran, directly into a clinging, tightening mesh. [105]
As convulsively, this cyborg novel shits out images, interpretations, embedded stories, transformations. The pleasure (and it is kind of fun) of using the book as a deranged gazetteer of Bosch’s canvases is smartly broken-up and interrupted. What I mean is: you can lay a reproduction of the Bosch paintings on the table in front of you and check Watson's scenes and descriptions against them, and that would pass the time very agreeably. But although he is scrupulous in his accounting, and has a wonderful eye for detail, yet the book as a whole keeps jolting us out of this ekphrastic pursuit. This is because Watson takes these paintings as repositories of psychological symbols of genuine eloquence; and also as alchemical rebuses—takes, indeed, these two things as in a sense the same thing. Once again, he’s upfront about this.
‘There was a man on the Copernicus who had this vision of evolution. He was obsessed with alchemy—the ‘science’ of transmutation—as a means of this. And he had an obsession with the paintings of an artist called Hieronymus Bosch. One in particular—The Gardens of Earthly Delight, flanked by the Garden of Eden and Hell—was full of symbols of this science: a coded alchemy in action. The alien superbeing we call ‘God’ granted him his vision was He terraformed this world for all the colonists. [114]
Alchemy is an interesting thing. Setting aside its chronological priority, it stands in relation to ‘chemistry’ in ways that are somewhat akin to the relationship between SF and science. Towards the end of this novel, Watson, relents and gives us a more conventional SFnal explanation for all the oddities and perversities of his text (the superbeings speak: ‘Black holes are not forever bound by the event horizon. Quantum tunnelling makes their boundaries fuzzy ... a collapsing ellipsoid mass rotating rapidly about its long axis will shrink, not to a pointlike singularity within an event horizon but to a threadlike singularity that is naked to the manifest universe’, 159) but it’s not so much Physics as a mode of Alphysicky.

The schema, or schemae, of Renaissance alchemy—the four humours and their physical manifestations, the geometric and transformative valences—are all, so far as I can see, worked-out and realised in the structure of the novel: black characters balance white, each bizarre hybrid monster-creature has a semiotic rationale. But the effect of the novel is not precision; it is one of riotous, libidinal excess, energetically crazy, invigoratingly imaginative. It bursts gloriously out of its own scheme in manifold ways. Strange in the best way.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Ian Watson, The Embedding (1973)


[Some more Watsoniana, along the lines of this and this.]

**
Watson’s first novel was lavishly praised. The Gollancz yellowback reissue I read carried not only Martin Amis’s gush, which you can see on the front there (“enthralling ... It gave one the sense of being led very near to the brink of profundity, even revelation”) but also The Spectator (“the most spectacular thing in science fiction since the astounding Solaris”), Telegraph (“ambitious and compelling”) and Times (“brilliantly attempts to communicate a precarious truth about what we think is actuality. The effect is quite hallucinatory”). Does it merit such praise? Is there anything for me to do except echo it?

Chris Sole is a UK scientist involved in a rather heartless experiment. Three groups of Third World orphans have been isolated in three basement environments, each group being raised on a different artificial language, with a view to investigating the extent to which different logics of linguistic communication and self-realisation map the capacity of human thought. Meanwhile, Chris’s wife’s ex-boyfriend, the anthropologist Pierre, is embedded with a remote and primitive Amazonian tribe. These people have a complex, incestuous society and a fantastically complicated language, unlike any other, which Pierre slowly learns. Then we learn that aliens are approaching the planet; and the US recruits Chris (on account of his linguistic expertise) in an advisory capacity. The novel is artfully dispersed between these three storylines.

So what is ‘embedding’? A linguistic term, is what it is. This is how Chris explains it to the American, Zwingler:
‘Self-embedding is a special use of what we call “recursive rules”—these are rules for doing the same thing more than once when you form a sentence, so that you can make your sentence any shape or size you loike. Animals have to rely on a fixed set of signals for communication purposes—or else on varying the strength of the same signal. But we humans aren’t limited like that. Every sentence we construct is a fresh creation. That’s because of this recursive feature. “The dog and the cat and the bear ate.” “They ate the bread and cheese and fruit, lustily and greedily.” You never heard these particular sentences before—they’re new—but you have no trouble understanding them. That’s because we’ve got this flexible, creative programme for language in our minds. [46-7]
With me so far? OK: the point is that ‘self-embedding pushes the human mind pretty near its limits’. Chris gives an example, starting with ‘a nursery rhyme ... a beautiful, recursive series, dead easy to follow.’
This is the farmer sowing his corn,
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn,
That wakened the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog
That chased the cat
That worried the rat
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
Chris goes on: ‘Any four-year-old can follow that nursery rhyme. It’s another story when you embed the same phrases. “This is the malt that the rat that the cat that the dog worried killed ate”. How about that? Grammatically correct—but you can hardly understand it.’ [49] Chris is in charge of one of the three groups of experimental children, and has taught them from birth precisely this complicated, involuted ‘self-embedded’ language; their brains having been facilitated by a ‘protein synthesis facilitator’. The Amazonian Indians speak a more recognisable speech most of the time, but speak an embedded language in sacred rituals after ingesting a special drug native to the region.

Now, a little googling reveals that Watson, not (after all) a professional linguist, had misunderstood 'embedding'. Read 'Tense, said the Tensor's' fascinating post on the novel, for instance:
Watson has conflated two related phenomena: self-embedding and center-embedding. It's center-embedding that produces impossible-to-process sentences, while sentences with multiple self-embeddings can be perfectly comprehensible. Take for example the nursery rhyme about Jack's house mentioned above, or my favorite example, "There's a flea on the wing on the fly on the bump on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea," which contains deeply nested prepositional phrases but still makes sense. More importantly, though, I think Watson also didn't have a clear understanding of the role that the center-embedding phenomenon played in syntactic theory in the late 60's and early 70's, particularly in the theories of Chomsky (the only linguist he mentions by name), leading him to ascribe such structures an importance in Universal Grammar they didn't have. Such embeddings have been mentioned (although not called "center-embeddings") in connection with processing as early as the claim by Chomsky and Miller (1963) that "the English sentence (the rat (the cat (the dog chased) killed) ate the malt) is surely confusing and improbable but it is perfectly grammatical and has a clear and unambiguous meaning." (p. 286) Notice the distinction being made: center-embeddings are claimed to be grammatical but hard to process in some way. If they are grammatical in a particular human language, they must surely also conform to any proposed Universal Grammar. Chomsky (1965) expands on this point when he makes a distinction between the acceptability and grammaticalness of sentences like "the man who the boy who the students recognized pointed out is a friend of mine". He writes: "the notion of "acceptable" is not to be confused with "grammatical." Acceptability is a concept that belongs to the study of performance, whereas grammaticalness belongs to the study of competence." In Chomsky's conception, ascribing the difficulty of such sentences to performance means that they do not violate any principle of the language-user's implicit knowledge of language (competence, in his terminology), but only that they somehow exceed the user's capacity to apply that knowledge in actual sentence processing. Again, this means that center-embedded sentences aren't violations of Universal Grammar, only that they overflow a buffer or something.
But I don’t think this is entirely fair. Despite gestures in the linguistic direction, The Embedding is trying for something larger. What Watson’s novel does, I think, is manage (with some aplomb) to articulate at the levels of both content and form, an aesthetic insight crucial to science fiction and fantasy. I say crucial: in fact it is very often overlooked, or misunderstood.

There are various names for the quality, or glory, of SFF that its fans prize so highly, and which is so rarely supplied by other sorts of literature: sense of wonder is one; the ‘Sublime’ another; ‘Enchantment’ a third; ‘Transport’ a fourth. From the mind-blowing aspect of the genre to the intellectual thrill that sets the little hairs on the neck-nape shivering, it's the awe and shock, the magic. This is a transcendental quality. But here’s the thing: we embody this ‘vertical’ glory in a ‘horizontal’ mode—I’m using, as you’ll recognise, Roman Jakobson’s distinction here. Here I'm going to quote myself, from a review I wrote of Farah Mendlesohn's award-winning and highly regarded Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) in which I articulated my baseline disagreement with Farah's critical perspective (I hardly need to add that Farah is a more widely read and influential critic of genre than I am myself, a scholar who has deservedly received multiple signs of esteem from the SFF community, as against my none -- so you may wish to take this bit with a grain of salt). Farah takes a structuralist or formalist, taxonomic approach to fantasy, the rational, linear disposition of the body of SFF texts into a set of definitional categories:
Here is Mendlesohn’s summary of her thesis:
Elaborating on Attebery’s original fuzzy set of fantasy, I have constructed four (or five) fuzzy sets, each of which yet looks to that common center that is so difficult to pinpoint, where mimesis ends and the fantastic begins. Perhaps the only thing at the center is the idea of belief, that however metaphoric a text may be, the fantastical must also contain a metonymic meaning, must be of itself as much as it may be an enhancement. [272]
This seems to me 180-degrees the wrong way about. To deploy the terms metaphor and metonymy in literary-critical debate, as here, is to invoke Roman Jakobson’s influential formulation of the distinction between them—metaphor characterized, vertically as it were, by displacement, and identified as characteristically poetic; metonymy characterized, horizontally, by association or contiguity and formally narratological ... Rhetorics of Fantasy is a study based upon an understanding of Fantasy as a set of continuous prose narratives. Mendlesohn’s net, though thrown fairly wide, was not cast wide enough to snare (say) the Odyssey, the Faerie Queene, Goblin Market or W B Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’. Yet the epiphany (‘enchantment’) she is interested in identifying is surely, to use Jakobson’s terms, strictly a poetic one—an antisystemic and transcendent quality (‘so difficult to pinpoint’) valued by readers precisely for its ability to transport them away from the mundane. In other words, her book is precisely not arguing that ‘the metaphoric fantastical must also contain a metonymic meaning.’ It is on the contrary interested in certain prose narratives—metonymic fantasies that extrapolate associatively from the mundane world—that also crystalize metaphoric moments of intensity and displacement.
We tend to read novels and stories (genre or otherwise), and we watch films and TV shows (genre and otherwise), and almost always we follow a sequential narrative in which one thing happens after another, A to B to C. Characters ‘develop’ according to a linear progression; writers boast of constructing 'story arcs'. But my point is that precisely this linear progression is inimical to this sort of sense-of-wonder, epiphanic moments we genreheads value so highly. The regular, linear, horizontal structure of conventional narrative (something Structuralism is fairly good at apprehending critically, I concede) is not the genius of SFF. What we’re looking for is something that leaps out of that grid altogether.

Another way of talking about this is to think of time, not in Einsteinian terms, cool though those are, but in the sense that Frank Kermode embroiders in his superb Sense of an Ending (the more I think about this book, incidentally, the more profound and important it seems to me ... and that despite the fact that I share many of Richard Webster's reservations about it). Kermode’s emphasis is on religious narratives—the Bible, for instance—but it transfers very nicely to SF & F, modes that share theology’s fascination with transcendence (and also with incarnation and atonement, but that’s not really relevant here). Kermode distinguishes between chromos (which is time in the one-thing-after-another sense) and kairos which is a special time: the right time, a holy time, time (for instance) opened to the possibilities of the Sublime. It may be that few SFF fans are alive to the fundamental oddity of trying to generate moments of kairos out of narrative, character and (indeed) conceptual structures shaped by chronos. But, by George, there are fans who get very cross indeed if their chronos-expectations of ‘story’ or ‘character’ are violated, as I can personally vouch.

But this is what The Embedding is about. Watson folds his three stories, one inside the other: we’re compelled to hold them—the children learning new languages in a psychologically violent experiment, the hitherto-undiscovered Amazonian indigenes strangely untroubled by the news that a huge lake will imminently flood their forest, the peculiar trading aliens interested not in technology but in modes of structuring experience, like language, buying actual brains from the alien species they encounter—simultaneously in our minds, or nearly so. This is the profundity, or ‘even revelation, to the brink of which Martin Amis was brought by this novel. Here’s Pierre’s journal, from his encounter with the Xemahoa:
Our own Western talk of time is all wrong. All out of shape. We have no direct experience of time. No direct perception of it. But for the Xemahoa mind time exists as a direct experience. And time shifts according to the infinitely-variable resistance of the proposition. Time can be conceived directly, in terms of the things around them in the jungle. The tail feathers of the macaw. The wing feathers of the kai-kai. It is while wearing such feathers that they dance time to the chant of the Bruxo [their holy man] (73)
Pierre is amazed at the ‘way in which the object of their attention modulates the bird-feather time scale, functioning like a mental rheostat, generating a variable resistance’; and he comes to understand that it depends entirely upon their language. They have two: Xemahoa A and B, the latter an ‘embedded speech’ that ‘keeps the soul of the tribe, their myths, secret’, but ‘also permits the Xemahoa to participate in their myth life as a direct experience during the dance chant.’
The daily vernacular (Xemahoa A) passes through an extremely sophisticated recoding process, which breaks down the linear features of normal language and returns the Xemahoa people to the space-time unity which we other human beings have blinded ourselves to. For our languages all set a barrier—a great filter—between Reality and our Idea of Reality. [103]
If I’ve a criticism of the novel it is that it errs a little too much on the side of consecutive narrative. We’re given linear teasers, tension and mystery (will the Xemahoa survive the flooding of their basin? What’s happening with the children in Sole’s experiment? They appear to be going mad? What is the nature of the aliens?) which, whilst satisfying, are ultimately irrelevant. The way the novel gestures towards a Christianised allegorical game-playing (those names! Chris(t) Sole/Soul—Pierre/St Peter—rock of the church) is a little facile. And there is a sense, perhaps, that these ideas, deftly handled in the bulk of the book, about in effect the superposition of chronos and kairos, collapses somewhat at the end. One of the experimental subjects, a boy called Vidya, reveals a quasi-telepathic talent for ‘empathetic projection’, and forces his ‘embedded’ perspective of the world into Chris’s mind. With the slight tang of anticlimax, this is rendered in terms of ‘madness’, inflected—the book was published in 1973, after all—via the idiom of the fag-end of sixties druggy psychedelica:
Beyond, a barren plateau stretched out into infinite distance, unable to terminate itself with any solid boundary. Panic mounted in him as he searched for the boundaries that ought to be there, but where not. The most he could located was a circular zone of confused light, very far away. Or was it very far away? Or very near? ... From this unbounded, menacing plateau sprung at intervals stiff towering giants, balanced upon great solitary legs, waving their hundreds of arms and thousands of fingers slackly overhead. [247]
It’s a brave go, perhaps inevitably a little trivialised by the more profound ideas handled earlier in the book. In place of metaphysical insight we get an LSD-y synaesthesia: ‘he wore the sky close as a hat. He knew the moil and coil of wisp clouds barely visible in the blue, intimately. His tongue tasted one by one the brick teeth in that closed red mouth of a house that would swallow him.’ Groovy.

But one of the cool things about this novel is the way it knows its larger project—the embedding of the transcendent in the linear quotidia of more-or-less conventional narratives and recognisable characters—is doomed; but has a go anyway. A splendid novel that deserves to be much more widely known than it is.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)


The success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is a puzzler and no mistake. The second film in the series—the overlong, muddled, unexciting Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2002)—is the fourth highest grossing motion picture of all time, one of only seven titles to have taken more than a billion dollars at the box office. Even the series’ third film, the bloated, borderline-nonsensical Pirates of the Caribbean: at World’s End (2007) is the ninth-highest grossing of all time, only a few paltry tens of millions away from joining the exclusive billion-earner club. The very first Pirates of the Caribbean film (2003), for all its ersatz, based-on-a-theme-park-ride cheesiness, had a certain joy to it; some innocent action-adventure, swordfights and malarkey, the odd PG-level moment of watered down horror, and above all (of course) Johnny Depp’s turn as Captain Jack Sparrow. But watching the fourth and certainly not the last in this steeply diminishing-returns endeavour, I’m starting to wonder if Depp’s Sparrow isn’t actually the problem rather than the heart of the series’ appeal. There’s something painful about watching him wheel out his creaking Keef impression yet again; all that gurning and hamming, all the supposedly comic business with the startled-eyes and jerky head, the reeling about and the delirium-tremens-y hand gestures, like a weird revenant from a second-rate silent comedy. I suppose it’s partly the knowledge that Depp is actually one of the most technically gifted actors of his generation; capable (despite rather than because of his good looks) of immense nuance and range and subtlety, whilst also projecting genuine film star charisma—a rare combination. That this enormously talented performer has gained worldwide celebrity from, and will always be remembered primarily for, this pantomime nonsense strikes me, I suppose, as sad. Watching Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides does nothing at all to alleviate the sadness. Even on its own terms—those terms being defined largely in terms of charm, with side orders of sex-appeal and escapist adventure—this fourth iteration of the character is woeful.

One major problem is precisely that it places Jack centre stage. He’s there in the opening sequence, masquerading randomly as a high court judge; he’s there in the last, strolling along a sunset beach with a compadre. And he’s there in pretty much every scene in between. Here he is being interviewed by King George II (a ghastly, ghastly piece of actorish mummery, this, from the usually reliable Richard Griffiths); and here he is again, fleeing the king’s guard in a set-piece chase through London that was surely very expensive to stage but was entirely unengaging to watch nevertheless. There’s a pointless little sub-plot about a stranger who is impersonating Sparrow and recruiting sailors for a new voyage; but as soon as this someone’s identity is revealed—love-interest Angelica, (played feistily by Penelope Cruz with sterling supporting work by her own décolletage)—the subplot is forgotten. In fact Angelica has been hiring sailors for the pirate Blackbeard; Ian McShane, who brings a degree of brooding majesty and his blasted, once-handsome mug to the part. Why she pretended to be Sparrow is never explained. Then there’s some chaff about how she conned Blackbeard into thinking that she’s his long-lost daughter; but later it turns out she is his long-lost daughter after all, so that was another unnecessary complication. At any rate Blackbeard sets sail to find the fabled Fountain of Youth; following the Spanish navy, who are on the same quest; and in turn being followed by a Royal Navy frigate under the command of Geoffrey Rush’s hammier-than-parma-ham Barbarossa Barbossa.

Depp is press-ganged and has to work Blackbeard’s ship as a common sailor. Indeed, he is so thoroughly ignored that he is compelled to stage a mutiny just to get the ’beard’s attention. Only after the mutiny is put down do we discover that Blackbeard’s quest depends upon the knowledge that he, Sparrow, happens to possess, which makes his earlier treatment seem rather arbitrary. But then arbitrary is this movie’s watchword. Stuff happens primarily to show off some special effects, or to give the camera another reason to zoom-in-on Depp’s face, or just to shoehorn all the characters into position for a set-piece. Stuff never happens for reasons for organic, logical development of story or character. Of course we never doubt (we’re not idiots) that these various questers will all converge on the mystic Fountain, with all the randomly assigned paraphernalia they need to make it work; magic silver goblets, mermaid’s tears, sacrificial victims. This gives all the to-ing and fro-ing that intervenes between the opening and the final scenes the flavour of pointless faffing about. If the dialogue were written with more snap; or the set-pieces filmed with more verve and inventiveness, or if, indeed, there were anything on screen to entertain us other than Johnny Depp phizog, this might not matter. In the event it matters a lot.

Still, Disney, having paid Depp $55.5 million to reprise the rôle, clearly wanted their money’s worth; and his kohl-eyes and cheeky leer are slap-bang in the middle of the cinematic shop window pretty much all the way through. To repeat myself: this is a mistake, I think. In the first movie Sparrow worked precisely because he was a supporting figure. Howsoever insipid Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley were, they at least helped prop up a movie in which, with only a slight effort at suspension of emotional disbelief, it was possible to invest. Like Heath Ledger’s incomparable Joker, Depp was able to make Sparrow into something iconically memorable because the main focus was elsewhere. Once the spotlight is directed on him and him alone, not only the meagreness but the incoherence of the character becomes unignorable. Any Dad, after a glass and a half of red wine, can wrap a napkin round his head, do the drunken Rolling Stone wobble and gasp out a passable Jack Sparrow impression: the perfect reproducibility of the thing is part of its genius.

I took my family to Disneyland Paris last year, and one of the highlights of the trip was coming across a minimum-wage French teenager in the Park's employ, dressed as Jack Sparrow and signing autographs. My 9-year-old daughter was very excited to meet this fellow, even though the individual in question, beneath the make-up and pirate garb, looked no more like Johnny Depp than I do myself (I might add that, to my wife’s chagrin, I look nothing at all like Johnny Depp). That’s the point, though: the 9-year-old’s excitement, not the performer or even the character. Jack Sparrow has the three-dimensionality of Ronald McDonald, and the same brand recognition. Treating him as a rounded character misses his point. Missing the point, though, is what this film excels at; so backstory is slathered all over Depp’s portrayal. We discover, for instance, that Sparrow seduced, abandoned and broke the heart of Penelope Cruz’s Angelica in a convent in Spain, leaving her despite the fact that he had himself fallen in love with her.

But the more the film concentrates on Sparrow, the more incoherent the characterisation becomes. Half the time Sparrow is bumbling and incompetent, physically cowardly, entirely untrustworthy, fond of sucking up to authority and betraying his friends. But the other half he is a hearty, wisecracking all-action-hero, backchatting the king of England before fighting off dozens of armed soldiers and exiting Douglas-Fairbanks-jr-style on a swinging chandelier and a smashed window. He can’t be both the expert swordsman, capable of holding a dozen zombies at bay (the film does have zombies, although almost nothing in made of the fact, and long before the end they’re all treated like regular crew) and the mewling pusillanimous ‘why has the rum gone?’ clown desperate to save his own skin. Which is to say: he can’t be both and make sense as a character. It would surely have been a better play to jettison the action hero; but then the filmmakers would have been faced with the dilemma of filling the entire film with a slim Falstaff, and that’s not very Hollywood. So Depp is forced to play the role each way against itself, and the result is just absurd. And not in a good way.

The end-titles tell us that the film was ‘suggested’ by Richard Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides; a polite fiction, this, since patently the film was ‘suggested’ by the fact that the previous three films earned $2.6 billion. And the relationship between book and film is far-fetched even by Hollywood standards. The book’s pirate, Jack Shandy, is very unlike Depp’s Sparrow, much more reluctant, introspective and moody. Blackbeard is in the book, though he has no daughter. The whole father-daughter dynamic, something that makes little sense in the movie, is a rather remote distillation of the relationship between an English gentleman called Benjamin Hurwood (driven insane by the death of his wife) and his daughter Beth. Zombies have a rather larger role in the book; they have an afterthought flavour in the movie adapted. On the plus side, the neither-here-nor-there character of Powers’s Beth has been sparked up by rejigging her as Angelica. But on the downside, combining Blackbeard and Hurwood leads to idiocies—where Hurwood was eager to find the Fountain of Youth, Blackbeard really doesn’t care one way or the other, which made me wonder why he went to such trouble to go in the first place.

Here’s an interesting fact: the same year that Powers published On Stranger Tides, 1987 in fact, he collaborated with James P Blaylock on a limited edition volume published by Garland press. This collector’s edition was a bound single page, entitled A Short Poem. The text of the poem, in its entirety, is: ‘ho, ho, ho.’

‘Ho, ho, ho,’ indeed.

The film does have a couple of memorable moments. It’s reassuring, I think, that a budget of over $200 million can generate at least a couple of these. For instance, Blackbeard has a magic sword, with which he can magically animate the ropes of his ship, turning them into slithering snakes to grab people. The sword can also unfurl the sails and direct the rudder, which makes you wonder why Blackbeard needs a crew at all. That said, though, the filmmakers instincts are as often wrong as right: the serpentine ropes are good; the fact that Blackbeard’s eighteenth-century ship is mounted with two forward facing massive flamethrowers is just silly.

Then there are the mermaids. For reasons that are unexplained, presumably because they are inexplicable, the fountain of youth only works when mixed with a single mermaid’s tear. Mermaids congregate at a place Whitecap Bay, wither Blackbeard repairs to capture one. And there they encounter schools of these creatures: all of them skinny young supermodels, with CGI fishtales and their long hair artfully draped over their nipples. The whole sequence of this nighttime encounter—beautiful mermaid maids singing sweetly before suddenly popping out the vampirish fangs and going all Jaws on the sailors’ asses—was rather well done. But then, unable to leave well alone, the film has to make more of the creatures; and as it does do it dissipates their dark glamour.

So: Blackbeard’s crew capture a mermaid called Serena (played by the young Franco-Spanish actor Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) and transport her inland in a glass coffin filled with water; although it later transpires that out of water her tail metamorphoses into legs, which makes the glass coffin a little redundant. Anyway, Blackbeard’s daughter (in another unconvincing half-buried memory of Powers’s novel) is terribly concerned for the health of her evil father’s immortal soul. Accordingly she has insisted that a handsome young Christian missionary be brought along on the voyage. This character, ‘Philip Swift’, occupies the Orlando Bloom younger eye-candy position in the ensemble, and is played as much with his shirt off as on by English actor Sam Claflin (whose splendid surname makes me wonder if he was Christened by an East Anglian vicar whose tongue unfortunately cleaved to his palate at the crucial moment). Swift falls in love with the mermaid, and she with him, thereby revealing herself to be disappointingly and indeed simperingly un-feral. When the missionary is wounded in the final battle Serena drags him away under the sea. It would have more dramatic bite if she did this to drown him, as mermaids (according to the movie’s own logic) invariably do. But no; it’s clear that they’re swimming away to have anthropiscine coitus and live happily ever after.

There are various other randomly accreted bits of movie. Barbarossa Barbossa and Sparrow meet in the cabin of a ship precariously balanced on the top of a mountain, both searching for some silver goblets vital for the ritual. There’s a teeter-totter scene that ought to be have been exciting, or funny, but which is neither. Then we discover that the goblets aren’t even on the ship; the Spanish have already half-inched them. So Sparrow and Barbossa creep into the Spanish camp to steal the cups, something they manage to do without infringing in any sense upon the territory of ‘entertaining cinema’. Finally everybody pitches up at the fountain of youth; a sort of overgrown Greek temple, the fountain itself in the middle, looking rather like a stone statue of one of these. Blackbeard’s crew and Barbossa’s crew go through the motions of yet another redundant, unexciting swordfight until the Spanish turn up en masse and with many guns.

It turns out that the Spanish king has come to destroy the Fountain of Youth as a blasphemous place, since ‘only God can grant eternal life’. So he snatches the goblets from Jack’s hands and stamps them to pieces—something he had previously omitted to do despite recovering them from the teeter-totter ship days before, and having had ample opportunity. His men pull down the pillars of the temple and wreck the fountain. In all the confusion, Barbarossa stabs Blackbeard with a poisoned sword; Angelica, rushing to her father’s side, clumsily cuts her own hand on the same blade, thereby both dooming herself and showing all her previous superb co-ordination and sword-control to have been pure fluke, Barbarossa Barbossa stomps off with his crew; the Spanish leave en masse or en masa, and the film struggles to rouse itself for one more final denouement.

Jack Sparrow retrieves the crushed goblets, which turn out to be not so badly damaged that they can’t contain water; catches the last dribbles of the Fountain of Youth which turns out to be not so destroyed as to have no more juice. He adds the mermaid’s tears and goes over to the dying pirate and his dying daughter. Now, the entirely arbitrary conceit of this ritual is that two must drink the water at the same time from the magic goblets, such that the one who drinks the mermaid’s tears will be gifted all the remaining life from the one who drinks from the other cup. This troubled me more than a little: since both parties were only moments away from death, what good would the exchange be? Anyway Sparrow gives them a choice; Angelica offers to sacrifice herself to save her Dad, Blackbeard greedily agrees and slurps the goblet with the mermaid’s tears. Only Jack has switched the goblets, see! Because he knew Blackbeard wouldn’t do the decent thing, see! And the result is a massive audience: meh. In a final act of characteristic plot-randomness, Sparrow then maroons Angelica on a desert island. ‘I love you!’ she tells him. ‘So do I,’ he replies. ‘Always have, always will.’ Then he rows away. I was left thinking: is that ambiguity between ‘I love you too’ and ‘like you I love me’ deliberate? Or just one more confusing non-event in a sequence of big-budget non events? Is it supposed to be touching, or deflating and funny? Does the film even know?

Who can say?

In sum: this movie is less swashbuckling, more swillbarfing. And I haven’t even got to the music. The official website gushes that ‘Hans Zimmer is one of the film industry’s most respected and sought-after composers with a career that encompasses more than 100 film and television scores.” But a little digging reveals that Eric Whitacre actually scored the movie, reusing Zimmer’s themes from Gladiator, which gives the soundtrack a distinctly second-hand feel to it. (It’s not the first time Zimmer’s been involved in this sort of thing: his superb soundtrack for The Thin Red Line was reused for the risible Pearl Harbor). But it all contributes to the sense of something rather worn-out and derivative.

Does this bring us any closer to answering why this film series has been so globally successful? Clearly something about these fillums has touched a collective nerve; the question is—what. A few years ago, I blogged about the (it seemed to me) strange feature that more than half of the world’s all-time top grossing films peddle a particular, backward-looking version of Englishness: Harry Potter’s English public school world; Lord of the Rings’ various bourgeois nineteenth-century and heroic medieval and Anglo Saxon Englishnesses; and—of course—the Pirates films' simulacrum of eighteenth-century English naval adventures. But saying that the success if a function of a canny packaging of ‘Englishness’ only shuffles the question one notch along: why should the world be so interested in ‘Englishness’? One perhaps surprising implication is that ‘Englishness’ now figures, semiologically, as both as a stiff-upper-lip adventure-heroism and as the louche decadence of sixties rockstardom, and that combining the two hits the sweet spot for millions of fans. Hard to believe, but no harder than the credibility of this particular film.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Project Itoh, Harmony (2010)


Reviewed, over on Strange Horizons. So it is. I should also draw your attention to the Haikasoru Week that ran on the estimable Lavie Tidhar's World SF Blog, including this editorial on Japanese SF by Nick Mamatas, who is also estimable.