Art


Last week I visited the Boolean Library in Oxford to see the Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition. This exhibition combines work from Tolkien’s estate, material from various museums, and published material to produce a detailed description of his life and the process of producing his seminal work, The Lord of the Rings. It includes a lot of the original artwork he produced, and notes and scribblings from his entire career. Interspersed with these are letters, diary entries, photos and details of his daily life, including memorabilia and ephemera (?) such as the rocking chair from his office.

The central theme of the exhibition is the long drawn out process by which Tolkien developed Middle Earth, from its first sparks in his teen years and early university days to its final realization. To describe this process they use a lot of material from his study and workshops, and present a lot of maps, as well as some of the content of his interactions with colleagues, publishers and his friends The Inklings. The exhibition does not set out to give a background or introduction to Middle Earth, though it contains some fascinating exhibits that link his art and his voice to the contents of his world. There are several readings of Quenya by Tolkien himself, that were recorded at some point and which you can listen to, and there is an excellent interactive map of the journeys of the Fellowship, with locations that you can click on to see pictures that Tolkien drew or painted that describe the settings (his 3-D pencil sketch of Mordor is particularly good). There is a section devoted to various pictures he drew attempting to visualize the world of the First Age and the Silmarillion, which indicate that this period was not settled in his own mind. There are also stories about how others reacted to his illustrations. Of particular interest here is the reaction of publishers to his pictures, with (for example) the publisher of the Hobbit being very happy with his picture of Bilbo drifting through the forest on a barrel, but not so interested in other pictures. From all of this the visitor can gain a deeper insight into just how long it took him to produce the Lord of the Rings, how intensively it was worked and reworked, and how close it came to never being published.

I’m not a big fan of Tolkien’s illustrations, many of which are amateurish and in a style I don’t really like, but even many of the illustrations I don’t like are evocative of a particular vision and style that really helps to define how Tolkien saw his world (and, given his authorial authority, how we should too!) Some, like the Bilbo on a barrel picture, are quite beautiful in a kind of art nouveau style that I think really summarizes Tolkien’s romanticism and his anti-industrial sensibilities. Others give a sense of the scale and power of the world he wanted us to wander through, and help us to understand how he imagined the journeys at the core of the story. They also give an insight into another interesting thing about Tolkien’s imagination: just as he centered the story of Middle Earth in the world of the Third Age, and depicted the First Age as a lost realm of dreams and myth, so he himself had a very concrete vision of the Third Age, but a very vague and shifting view of the past of his world. His pictures and descriptions of the First and Second Age do not provide much clarity about what it looked like, as if he was drawing on memories and dreams, while from his pictures of the Middle Earth of Lord of the Rings one feels as if he was really there. This might help to give some sense to the conflicting myths and legends underlying the story, and suggests that Tolkien never intended anyone to draw any single clear and definitive strand of history from the First Age to the Third.

I cannot review an exhibition of Tolkien without touching on the recurring theme of my analysis of his work, the problem of scientific racism. The museum does not touch on this issue or discuss it in any way, and nor does it need to – this is an exhibition about Tolkien’s life and how he developed his stories, not about any single theme that underlies it, and it had no great interest in the impact of his work on subsequent writers (except to present some excellent examples of how enormously popular his work has been). However, the exhibition does present a single piece of extremely strong evidence in support of the claim that Middle Earth represents Europe, and the Haradrim are Africans. One of the central pieces of the exhibition is the map that Tolkien worked from in preparing the book. On this map he has written in blue ink the names of real world places that correspond with the places in Middle Earth. Hobbiton is Oxford, Minas Tirith is somewhere in Italy, and the southernmost city on the map – somewhere north of Haradwaith – is Jerusalem. It is abundantly clear from this map – prepared by Tolkien himself and a core part of his working materials for the book – that he envisaged Haradwaith as Africa. This should help to settle debate on how we should analogize the Haradrim in his stories.

Although the exhibition does not intend to – and obviously does not need to – describe Tolkien’s political views in detail, it does give a brief account of his role in the war and his reaction to it, which are generally agreed to be important to the development of some of the ideas behind his imaginary world. There is a tragic picture of his graduating class from Oxford (I think it’s Oxford) with all those who died in the Great War shaded out, showing how terribly that war affected his generation, even those like himself who were relatively cushioned from it by their comparatively elite status. There is a sad letter from a friend heading to the front, urging him to continue his writing even if the friend will never live to see it (that friend died at the front). This helps to give an insight into Tolkien’s personality. But the real insight into Tolkien’s personality comes from excerpts of his letters, and the description of some aspects of his personal life. Though he had been appointed professor of Old English at Oxford, Tolkien had no office, and worked from a study at home. In this study he supervised students, prepared lectures, and did all his philological work. The museum also tells us that he never closed this study to his children, and that it was a popular place for them. It has to be said that from these insights into his personal world the museum really gives the impression of a man who was kind, gentle and in no way an arsehole. This may not seem like much but I have worked in Academia for 10 years now and I have to say that not being an arsehole in Academia is a rare and special trait. Furthermore, in this age of #metoo where we are increasingly discovering that the people whose work we love are arseholes, losers and/or abusers, it is genuine pleasure to find that a man whose work was of such towering importance, who was in an elite position in a world where men of his position were protected from all forms of retribution for their behavior, and an academic to boot, really appears to have just been a decent chap. It’s a balm for the soul in these troubled times, and although I had no special impressions of Tolkien’s personality in any direction, it is nice to be given some evidence that he was not the arsehole so many other famous people have turned out to be. Well done Dr. Tolkien!

Because I have written many blogposts analyzing the racism in Tolkien’s work, and the negative influence of its racist and conservative content on the fantasy genre, I am often mistaken for someone who doesn’t like Tolkien’s work and doesn’t consider it especially influential. Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. I love his work and think it was hugely influential. As part of my trip to the UK I went on a tour of some famous sites in Wessex and the area I grew up in, and I realized through these journeys that I really was strongly influenced by the bucolic vision of a green and perfect England that Tolkien incorporated into his works, as well as the Christian and pre-Christian ideas that drive it. I think his work is an amazing and beautiful construction and undoubtedly one of the most important cultural products of the 20th Century (along, perhaps, with heavy metal, role playing, social networks, modern combat sports and computer games). He did something no one else had ever done, and unlike Gary Gygax he did it beautifully on his first try. This exhibition really does a great job of reinforcing that impression, and gives a detailed and careful description of the process by which he achieved his vision, from a clearly sympathetic but not sycophantic perspective. If you have a chance to see this exhibition, please do so. If you like Tolkien, or even if you don’t but are interested in how this important literary figure built and conceived his world, then I recommend you visit this exhibition and immerse yourself in his creative vision. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

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Not what you remember

There’s a moment in Netflix’s The Mist that I think summarizes the rot at the core of modern American TV and cinema. The main characters are Eve and Kevin Copeland, a preposterously young couple with a teenage child, who seem like a nice enough couple though they are struggling with the conflict between Eve and her daughter. At one point near the beginning of the series Kevin’s brother visits them, and we discover something about Eve. It turns out Eve used to be a slut – the town bike, as it were – and Kevin’s rough older brother was a member of the group that she used to hang with. Nothing is made clear, but it is implied pretty strongly that she has slept with Kevin’s older brother. After the brother leaves Eve is unsettled, and so when Eve and Kevin are having sex she demands that he fucks her as roughly as he can. This is funny because the sex they’re having before then is super gentle, and his “hard” fucking is pretty average, but we’re meant to believe that he’s being super rough. Anyway when it’s done there is an air of dissatisfaction, and he asks her “what was that about”, and she does that stupid thing that girls in American movies do where she’s obviously upset about something but pretends everything’s okay.

The upshot of this scene is very clear: that women who sleep around a lot are bad people with problems; that these problems never really go away; that women who like being fucked hard must be sluts with problems; and that to want to be fucked hard is bad.

The executive producer of The Mist was Harvey Weinstein. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that a TV show produced by a serial rapist and sexual harasser would have a scene that carefully boils down every misogynist idea about women who enjoy sexual freedom into a mess of accusations, but some people seem to be surprised that the kind of movie world that could produce this scene would be occupied by people like Harvey Weinstein. At the time that his predations became public knowledge and the #metoo movement started there was a general upsurge of shock at both the banality of predatory behavior in Hollywood, and the extent to which that predatory behavior was enabled and supported by so many people. For people on the right this manifested as a kind of jaded relief, a sense of “oh look these liberal Hollywood types don’t believe in any of this equality stuff, it’s just a pose they adopt to appear cool to each other.” For the rest of us, and especially for mainstream media critics, there was an atmosphere of surprise at how “liberal” Hollywood was actually a nasty network of sexual predators and bullies, its supposedly famous values of liberal tolerance and equality betrayed by its own members.

I wasn’t surprised by any of this, because I’ve never seen Hollywood as “Liberal”, and I’ve always thought a lot of its politics was pretty dire, most especially its sexual politics.

We see the same thing in the reactions to fan disappointment over the Last Jedi. I have read many articles now in Vox, the Guardian and the Washington Post about how this reaction is partly due to fanboys being disappointed in the “diversity” on display in the movie (i.e. there are two female leaders and a couple of non-white characters), and the idea that this focus on diversity distracted from the production values of the movie (or something – I can’t quite figure out how these points are supposed to link together). This has been a controversy since The Force Awakens and Rogue One, both of which featured strong female leads, and we also saw it with the Ghostbusters remake and the latest Mad Max. I think these debates, rather than being a sign of how “liberal” Hollywood is, are really a sign of how incredibly conservative it is and has been. Consider movies and tv shows like Ghost in the Shell, Gunnm, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Appleseed, Bubblegum Crisis, and pretty much any early work from Studio Ghibli. These are all movies from the 1980s and 1990s in Japan, and female leads were a routine part of that world. Nobody questioned whether Major Kusanagi, Alita, Nausicaa or Deunan had a right to be where they were, and nobody thought diversity killed those movies – female leads in Japanese sci fi and fantasy are a pretty standard part of the picture (and this isn’t limited to anime – consider Library Wars, the recent excellent live action Gintama, or Attack on Titan as examples of live action movies with important female characters in main parts). But in America in 2017 the decision to cast a single woman in a lead role, or to have a team of women doing a job, is controversial and a sign of political correctness gone mad. If Hollywood is being castigated for finally doing something Japan was doing in the 1980s, I think we can say it’s not very forward thinking.

Hollywood’s diversity problem is not the only example of its persistent inability to be anything except thoroughly reactionary. Here are some others.

  • The lesbian always dies: It’s pretty reliable that if there is a lesbian character in a major movie or drama, she’s either a fucked up person or she dies, or both. Usually she’s in a couple and the other one survives to suffer the grief, but one has to die. This fate also often befalls the fat chick, or the gay dude (it will probably not come as a surprise that the “gay” dude in the Mist is a psychopath, or that I guessed this in the first episode simply because of his implied sexuality)
  • Black dudes are always a stereotype: The dragon in Mulan, the black dude who briefly surfaced in Angel, almost every character Eddie Murphy has ever played … they’re almost always a stereotype, either a gangster or a magical negro. Despite the fact that a sizable proportion of American people are black, and they have been clamouring for better representation forever, it is impossible for an American movie maker to portray one in a sensitive way, except perhaps in a character piece about slavery or oppression
  • Sluts are always bad: If you are a woman who has lots of sex for fun, you are either psychopathic or severely emotionally damaged. Eventually you’ll grow out of it but you’ll never forget it
  • The goth secretly wants to be normal: See for example the horrible betrayal at the end of The Breakfast Club, which is a model for how alternative sub-cultures are treated in Hollywood
  • All women come by being fucked: And it would be completely impossible to show a woman getting licked. True love means that two people can come together and instantly have perfect sex just by fucking, and no man wants to lick a woman, and no woman cares to be; though women love to suck dick, usually on their knees. This is particularly infuriating because there’s a whole branch of American feminist criticism of porn that says it’s an unrealistic depiction of sex, but at least in porn the women actually get licked and the men actually enjoy doing it! It’s also really frustrating in Sex and the City, which is supposed to be about how the main female characters are completely empowered, but every sex scene I saw in the one episode I watched was them selflessly sucking cock
  • America’s latest geopolitical concern is your enemy: Something really jarring in Blade Runner 2049 was the casual insertion of Russian into everyday scenes. There was no Russian in the original, and no hint that Russia was relevant. Why? Because now Russia is a big geopolitical issue for America. It’s not only pathetically insecure, and it doesn’t just make every movie dated, but it also shows really obviously that Hollywood serves primarily to manufacture propaganda for the US as a whole, not to tell interesting independent stories. You can see this in so many action movies, that the enemy du jour is simply whoever happens to be in the American political consciousness at the time. Pathetic.
  • They cannot cover Global Warming: In Blade Runner 2049 it was snowing in Los Angeles. How can it be snowing in California in 2049? We know that is not going to happen! In almost every movie set in the near future in America, global warming is not depicted – it doesn’t form the theme of the movie but it doesn’t figure in the backdrop either. Florida is unchanging despite global warming, and if the weather enters into it it will be weird but it won’t be warmer. This wasn’t always the case – Soylent Green is set in a warmer world – but it is now. Hollywood will not touch the political realities of the future or of America now, only the fantasies Americans have about themselves. America produces a bunch of disaster movies every year, and none of them ever cover anything caused by global warming. Of course global warming is politically controversial in America (and only in America) – so Hollywood simply won’t touch it.
  • Guns are wonderful: Every American movie with even a hint of action has a gun fetish. There is a very simple truism of previews at movies in Japan: If it’s a live action Japanese movie, someone in the preview cries; if it’s a live action American movie that isn’t a rom-com or a human drama, everyone pulls a gun. This wasn’t always the case – watch old episodes of Knight Rider (haha) or CHIPS (hahaha) and you won’t see anyone – even the cops! – wield a gun. But now guns are fetishized. Top tip for people considering whether this is good or bad: guns are not cool, and you can enjoy action without them. See e.g. anything made in the UK, and Jackie Chan.
  • Violence against women is casual, brutal, and full frontal: There are so many crime movies on American TV, and in so many of them women get treated horribly. There is even a very long-running show about a team of cops that only deal with sex crimes (featuring Ice T as a cop, haha show us your principles Ice T!). And in recent movies especially killing women in horrible ways that are shown fully for our viewing pleasure is a real thing. If you look back at the original Blade Runner, for example, the sex scene between Deckard and Rachel is very very rapey, and it really didn’t have to be. This kind of thing is a feature of Hollywood movies
  • The criminal is often a woman: In a lot of the crime shows the murderer often turns out to be a woman, which is likely way above the actual probability that a murderer would be a woman (they’re almost always men). I think this happens because the directors want a twist, and the obvious twist in a crime show is that the killer wasn’t the dude you thought he was. But it’s interesting that when violence against women is too excessive the film makers will argue they’re being honest; but when they could be honest about how almost all murderers and sex criminals are men, they suddenly plead fantasy. It’s as if every single aspect of the film making process is set up to make women look bad!
  • Workplace sexual harassment: This is especially common (though not limited to) TV shows, where women in the workplace routinely get subjected to comments about their gender and their sexuality, jokes about dating co-workers, and suggestive comments about what they should be doing. The really disturbing thing about this is that the jokes are not presented as transgressive, or risque – they’re just facts of the workplace. Is this what it’s like to work as a woman in America? Or is Hollywood just trying to remind women they shouldn’t really be there?
  • Everyone’s home is perfect: Even people on minimum wage have perfect houses. While you, you peon, live in shit. Do you feel like a loser now?
  • Whitewashing: Do I even need to say anything on this topic?

This isn’t even the whole of it. But when you put all of these things together what you are really seeing when you watch material from Hollywood is often an intense barrage of reactionary ideas, combined with a wilful resistance to some of the core challenges facing modern society, and a stubborn refusal to look at the ways that the world has changed. For example, Hollywood in general absolutely will not allow any ideas from pornography into its sex scenes. Sex scenes in major movies in Hollywood have not changed since Sarah Connor and Kyle Rees came together in sudden intense love in Terminator (though that scene was way more consensual than some others I guess). Thirty years later and still it is simply impossible for Hollywood to update its love scenes. We all know that everyone’s watching porn, but nobody in Hollywood will admit to the fact that sex is about more than dicks in cunts. This is just one example of the many ways in which this image factory is still stuck in the 1850s.

We in the rest of the world put up with this, and of course we watch our own cinema which has its own problems and its own reactionary issues, its own humour and its own misogyny, so it’s not like anyone is perfect. But the difference is that nobody in Australia wastes time claiming Australia’s movie scene is relentlessly liberal, then feigns shock when it turns out that the dudes making all these rapey creepy shows were actually sexual harassers. It’s a uniquely American problem that everyone thinks Hollywood is liberal, when it’s really really not.

So don’t be surprised when the people who make this destructive shit turn out to be destructive shits; and don’t buy into all this hype about representation and diversity. Hollywood is not your liberal friend, and because Hollywood is not liberal and not feminist and not interested in equality at all, it has attracted power hungry shits like the Weinsteins. That doesn’t mean we have to credit this industry with being a force for good, even as we pay to watch what it produces. It produces images of America for America, and I really hope America is not as conservative and reactionary as the images it produces, but one thing you can be certain of is that those images are not intended to support any radical ideals – quite the opposite.

Hollywood is not your liberal friend.

Two days ago I wrote a scathing review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and since then I have been digging around for others’ views on the matter. The Guardian has an article giving some fans’ reviews, and the below the line comments are suitably critical of this awful movie. Meanwhile Vox has a pathetic, self-serving article by a film critic attempting to explain why so many people have such different views to the critics. This article includes such great insights as “critics don’t really care about plot” which is dismissed as a “nitty gritty detail” of a movie – they’re more interested in themes and emotional struggles, apparently, which suggests they’d be more at home at a My Chemical Romance gig than a decent movie. How did they get the job?

In amongst the complaints on the Guardian‘s article, and at the centre of the Vox piece, is a particularly vicious little dismissive claim: That a lot of the negative reaction to the movie arises from long term fans[1], who cannot handle what Rian Johnson did with their cherished childhood movie, and are unrepresentative of the broader movie-going public. In the more vernacular form of some of the BTL comments on the Guardian article, fanboys are pissed off because Rian Johnson didn’t make the movie exactly the way they wanted. This, apparently, explains the difference between the critics’ view of the movie and the people giving a review on the Rotten Tomatoes website.

I thought this sounded fishy, so I decided to collect a little bit of data from the Rotten Tomatoes website and have a look at just how far fanboys typically deviate from critics. I figured that if fanboys’ disappointment with not getting a movie exactly as they wanted it was the driver of negative reactions to this movie, we should see it in other Star Wars movies. We should also see it in other movies with a strong fanboy following, and maybe we wouldn’t see it in movies that don’t have strong preconceptions. I collected data on critics’ and fans’ aggregated review statistics for 35 movies from the Rotten Tomatoes website. For each movie I calculated a score, which I call the Odds Ratio of Critical Acceptance (ORCA). This is calculated as follows:

1. Calculate an odds for the critics’ aggregate score, O1, which is (score)/(1-score)

2. Calculate an odds for the viewers’ aggregate score, O2, which is (score)/(1-score)

3. Calculate their ratio, ORCA=O1/O2

I use this score because it accounts for the inherent limits on the value of a critical score. The Last Jedi got a critics’ score of 0.93, which is very close to the upper limit of 1. If the viewers’ score was, for example, 0.83, it is 0.1 lower than the critics’ score. But this 0.1 is a much larger gap than, say, the difference between a critics’ score of 0.55 and a viewers’ score of 0.45. Similarly, if critics give a movie a value of 0.1 and viewers a value of 0.2, this means viewers thought it was twice as good – whereas values of 0.45 and 0.55 are much less different. We use this kind of odds ratio in epidemiology a lot because it allows us to properly account for small differences when one score is close to 1, as (inexplicably) it is for this horrible movie. Note that ORCA scores above 1 indicate that the critics gave the movie a higher score than the viewers, and scores below 1 indicate that the viewers liked the movie more than the critics.

I collected scores for all the Star Wars movies, all three Lord of the Rings movies, both Ghost in the Shell movies (the Japanese and the western remake), both Blade Runners, Alien:Covenant, two Harry Potter movies, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Gedo Senki (the (filthy) Studio Ghibli version of A Wizard of Earthsea), as examples of movies with a fanboy following. As readers of my blog are no doubt very aware, the Lord of the Rings fanboys are absolutely filthy, and if anyone is going to sink a movie over trivial shit they will. Ghost in the Shell is a remake of a movie with a very strong otaku following of the worst kind, and also suffers from a huge controversy over whitewashing, and Gedo Senki is based on one of the world’s most popular books, by a woman who has an intense generation-spanning cadre of fans who are obssessed with her work. Harry Potter fans are also notoriously committed. I also gathered a bunch of movies that I like or that I thought would be representative of the kinds of movies that did not have a following before they were released: Mad Max Fury Road, Brokeback Mountain, that new movie about a transgender bull[3], Ferdinand, things like that. I figured that some of these movies would not get a big divergence in ORCA if the fanboy theory is true.

Figure 1: ORCA Scores for a range of movies, none apparently as shit as The Last Jedi.

Results of my calculations are shown in Figure 1 (sorry about the fiddly size). The Last Jedi is on the far left, and is obviously a massive outlier, with an ORCA score of 10.9. This score arises because it has a critics’ score of 93%, but a score from fans of 55%[4]. Next is Mad Max: Fury Road, which was not as successful with fans as with critics but still got a rating of 0.85 from fans. It can be noted that several Star Wars movies lie to the right of the pale blue dividing line, indicating that fans liked them more than did critics – this includes Rogue One and The Phantom Menace, showing that this phenomenon was not limited to the first generation movies. Note that Fellowship of the Ring, the LoTR movie most likely to disappoint fanboys under the theory that fanboys want the director to make the movie in their heads, had an ORCA value of 0.53, indicating fans had twice the odds of liking it than did critics. Gedo Senki also did better with fans than critics despite being a terrible movie that completely pisses all over Ursula Le Guin’s original book.

There’s no evidence at all from this data that fanboys respond badly to movies based on not getting the movie in their head, and there’s no evidence that Star Wars fanboys are particularly difficult to please. The ORCA score for The Last Jedi is at least 12 parsecs removed from the ORCA score for the next worse movie in the series, which (despite that movie also being a pile of shit) is not that high – it’s lower than Dunkirk, in fact, which was an awesome movie with no pre-existing fanbase[5]. Based on this data it should be pretty clear that either the “toxic fandom” of Star Wars has been hiding for the past 10 years as repeated bad movies were made – or this movie is uniquely bad, and the critics were uniquely stupid to give it a good score.

I’m going with the latter conclusion, and I want the movie critics to seriously re-evaluate how they approached this movie. Star Wars clearly gets a special pass from critics because it’s so special, and Star Wars directors can lay any stinking turd on the screen and get a pass from critics for some incomprehensible reason. Up your game, idiots.

A few minor side points about critical reviews of The Last Jedi

I’ve been generally shocked by the way in which this movie is being hailed as a critical masterpiece. I really can’t see how this can be. Even if it’s not as bad as I think, I can’t understand how it can get similar scores to movies like Dunkirk, Mad Max: Fury Road, or Titanic. Those movies are infinitely better crafted than this pile of junk, with tight and carefully designed plots that clearly hold together under extensive criticism. There is nothing extraneous at all in Titanic or Dunkirk, not one moment that you could say isn’t directly relevant to the unfolding story, and the acting in all three of these movies is exemplary. Worse still, the Guardian is now claiming that Star Wars is the most triumphantly feminist movie yet. This is utter bullshit on its face: The main male character, Po Dameron, repeatedly undermines female leaders, and their attempts to discipline him are ignored, ultimately leading to the death of probably 200 people in a completely avoidable catastrophe, and he suffers no consequences for his dishonesty and treachery. Furthermore, he takes over the main role from Finn, the black character, and Rei is sidelined into a supplicant to an aging white man. As a moral story for entitled white men who can’t bear to be told what to do by women it’s exemplary. But this is even more horrific when you consider that Mad Max: Fury Road is a savage eco-feminist masterpiece, and undoubtedly the most triumphantly feminist movie ever made. This is another example of the weird special pass that Star Wars movies get: they make piss poor tokenistic gestures towards diversity and the critics are claiming they’re the most woke movie ever made.

There’s a strange irony in this. Star Wars fanboys are being blamed for obstinately marking this movie down on the basis of silly stereotypes about nerds, when in fact it’s the critics themselves who are acting like Star Wars sycophants, giving one of the worst movies of the millenium sterling marks for trying. Unless of course the conspiracy theories are true, and they’re all paid by Disney.

I won’t be so cynical. They’re just stupid and wrong, and in future I recommend not listening to reviewers before going to see any movie. Trust the viewers, they have much better judgment!

UPDATE: I have swapped my shoddy figure with a figure supplied by reader frankelavsky, who apparently actually knows how to do visual stuff, so it’s now much easier to see how terribly wrong the reviewers were.


fn1: Which, inexplicably, the Vox article seems to view as Baby Boomers, which is weird since most people want to now pretend Star Wars is a kid’s movie (it’s not[2]). Many of the fans saw it as kids, it’s true, but that’s because we were Gen X, not baby boomers. More importantly, Star Wars fandom crosses three generations, and includes a lot of Generation Y. It’s just dumb to even hint that the themes in the movie pissed off the fans because baby boomers don’t like the idea of handing on the baton to a new, more diverse generation. Star Wars fans aren’t baby boomers, and why would baby boomers have a problem with this anyway?

fn2: How fucking stupid is modern pop cultural analysis of pop culture, and how far has it fallen, that people could say this?

fn3: This is a joke. See here for more details.

fn4: It was 56% yesterday. This movie is sinking by the day.

fn5: Barring UKIP, I guess

Flying in a blue dream …

Last week in Tokyo was Golden Week, the long week of public holidays that people traditionally use to travel. I stayed in Tokyo and chose to use one of the days to visit what I thought of as “the Mucha exhibition” at the National Art Center, Tokyo. This exhibition was timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the opening of the museum, the 60th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia, and the Year of Czech Culture, 2017, so I guess it was intended to be something special. I had previously seen a Mucha exhibition at the Kitakyushu Art Museum in Fukuoka, where I saw primarily a collection of his illustrations and advertising work, and I was expecting the same in Tokyo but perhaps expanded, so I was completely stunned when I walked into the first room and found myself facing an 8m x 6m canvas of luminous beauty, The Slavs in their original homeland, pictured above. In fact this exhibition was displaying almost all of Mucha’s Slav Epic, a collection of huge oil paintings describing key events in the history of the Slavic peoples, which he painted over an 18 year period (1910 – 1928). These pictures showcase incredible art nouveau technique, while displaying striking mythical figures and key historical events in splendid beauty, and their impact cannot be appreciated by viewing them on any screen. Take the picture above, for example: The god on the right of the picture must be 4 or 5 metres high, and the two human figures at the bottom centre are almost human sized. The god doesn’t just loom over the viewer, but seems to actually float out of the picture, and really dominates the space around the picture in a way that even the best onscreen rendering cannot picture. The glowing fires at the centre left also spring to life with an almost feral radiance when you view the picture in person, the stars actually seem to sparkle, and those semi-corporeal distant figures on horseback are vague and indistinct in just the way you would expect if you were standing before that god, looking into the real distance to see oncoming soldiers.

The other pictures in the series are similarly dramatic, and to stand near them is to feel as if you are part of the unfolding drama rather than a witness in an art gallery – and this despite the fact that, because it was golden week in Tokyo, this gallery was packed. The photo below, which I took in the area where photos are allowed, gives a sense of the scale of the pictures and the crowd at the gallery, and the way the pictures stand imposingly above even this many people. In some ways the crowd was a boon, since it forced one to move back from the pictures and view them from their proper distance, as well as helping to keep the scale of the images in perspective.

Let’s enjoy Red Square together!

I’m quite a fan of art nouveau – I visited the Tiffany Museum in Matsue when I lived there, and I’ve visited Mucha and other similar exhibitions before where I can. I know a lot of people probably view it as not real art – kind of effete and shallow, the way perhaps some people view the romantic poets or perhaps like the pop music of art, but I think it has an evocative beauty that also speaks of a rare period of time in history when our developed nations were not yet modern but were full of hope and idealism and looking forward and upward. I also think it reflects non-European influences and I appreciate its intricate connections with advertising and popular theatre, which gives it a kind of populism that I appreciate in art. It’s not as “experimental” as some of the other movements that came at the same time, and for that I think it gets frowned on, and I think some modern art critics probably don’t respect its simple enjoyment of classical or saccharine beauty (especially feminine beauty). But I think at its best it is able to capture something of the human soul or the desire humans have always had to find transcendent beauty in their surroundings, and I think it must have been really stretching the available techniques of the time to achieve that sense of liminal and supernatural beauty that it aspires to. If I ever had any doubt about just how well art nouveau was able to achieve these goals, Mucha’s Slav epic dispelled them. This series of works is a masterpiece, and a perfect showcase of all the best aspects of this style. Walking through the halls of the epic is like drifting through an art nouveau dream, full of diffuse lights and ghostly figures, radiant spaces, beautiful ethereal women and striking, tragic moments. After viewing these massive pieces there was a large collection of his other work but some of his famous pieces – like the four flowers – which would have been masterpieces if they had been shown on their own were anti-climactic after the gigantic dreamscapes of the main display.

This is probably the third really great exhibition I have visited in Tokyo. In 2007 I saw Ashes and Snow at a temporary space in Tokyo Bay, having no idea really of the scale of its content; then quite recently I saw The Universe and Art at the Mori art museum,  and now within a year I get to see this unique apotheosis of art nouveau. This is one of the really good things about living in Tokyo – it may happen only once a year and they may be very crowded, but the quality and global nature of the content is really high. This exhibition lasts until the 5th June, so if you are in Tokyo I strongly recommend getting along to see it. Even if you aren’t especially into this particular artistic form, I think it will capture you with its scale and ambition, and if you do appreciate art nouveau I doubt you’ll ever get the chance to see as good an exposition of its best qualities as you will when you visit this exhibition. So, go, and get lost in dreams of Slavic history.

(This review is a little pointless because the exhibition closes tomorrow).

Yesterday I visited the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills to see the Universe and Art exhibition. This exhibition attempts to show the relationship between artists’ and scientists’ attempts to explain the cosmos and the human relationship with the stars. It incorporates artistic visions of the cosmic order, scientific explanations of space over time, and artistic interpretations of science, from many different cultural perspectives. To do this it displays a wide array of art, items, scientific objects, film and video art. These objects have been drawn from many different cultures – Indian, Asian, Europe and the Americas – over several thousand years, with a particular emphasis on Japanese material from the past and the present. They include mandalas from India and Japan, star charts from China and Japan, and early stories about space from Japan and Europe. It also includes film, photos and objects from the space programs of several nations, science fiction art and stories inspired by these programs, and visual art that either glorifies or critiques or reinterprets them. Some highlights that I particularly enjoyed are listed below.

The meteoric iron katana

Blade of coolness +5

Blade of coolness +5

What can I say? Apparently Okayoshi Kunimune made two swords from meteoric iron, which took three weeks to craft and required several trips to the local shrine for prayer. One of these is on display, and it is quite impressive. It has all the fine lines of a classically-forged katana, but the metal is kind of darker and less shiny, more sinister-looking. Also the scabbard has “Meteor sword” written on it, which just says it all really. This blade was forged the old-fashioned way in 1898, which was after the samurai era, but was forged in the traditional way, which means that it has that slight rippling pattern in the metal around the blade. Viewed end on it looks wicked sharp. The photo I took is just a snap and overstates how dark the blade is, but I do think it is darker than a normal blade (I haven’t seen many of these artifact blades so I don’t know how dark an original samurai blade is). One of these blades ended up in the possession of the Taisho Emperor, which means that he was decked out in a sword made from a meteorite. I think that makes this a kind of unique artifact and it genuinely is very cool, just sits their heavy with its own sense of foreboding awesomeness. Everyone was impressed by this sword.

Bjorn Dahlem’s Black Hole (M-Spheres)

Space!

Space!

This installation is large and imposing and when viewed in detail kind of naff – it’s just a bunch of fluorescent lights stuck onto some wood – but viewed from afar with that kind of disfocused gaze that you have to take with certain kinds of art it suddenly becomes much more imposing and abstract. In the centre is supposed to be a black hole, with what I guess are galaxies or some kind of star tracks circling around it. A single sphere of black metal somewhere in the middle is, I guess, the black hole that it all is meant to be built around. It’s surprisingly cool (though the windows at the far end of the room give a view of Tokyo from the 52nd floor of this building and are kind of more awesome in their own way). It doesn’t move or anything, unlike …

The God Machine

It watches and waits ...

It watches and waits …

This monstrosity is set up in its own room, and is basically just a series of robust metal arms circling slowly in rings of different size and speed, with brilliant lights on the arms. The lights themselves move in simple planar orbits but the whole structure is set at an angle to the floor surrounded by walls of white, and the motions of the shadows of the arms on the wall are complex, occasionally threatening, and frustratingly close to predictable. The size, clarity, depth and position of the shadows changes as the arms complete their loops, and depending on the direction you look you see a very different system of shadows interacting. A single spike sticking up from the floor casts a complex pattern of shifting triple shadows on the floor. The whole thing is a simple set of ordered moving parts, but it carries this sense of immensity and brooding threat that makes it really cool. I think it’s by Wolfgang Tillmans, who contributed a few beautiful images as well. His website gives a sense of some of his other art, which is quite striking.

The great books

Original history

Original history

The exhibition also featured first editions of Newton’s Principia, Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, and the first works of Copernicus and Kepler. Kepler and Copernicus’s books are open at centre pages so you can see the quality of their work, while the Principia is open to the frontispiece.

On the shoulders of giants ...

On the shoulders of giants …

I studied physics in my undergraduate years, and then statistics, and so for me even just the frontispiece of Newton’s original work (shown above) carries an enormous weight and power – this is truly a book of vast importance in the history of science, and to stand in front of a work that is so close to the original hand of one of science’s greatest and most influential minds is really a great privilege. This book is over 300 years old, heavy and worn with the weight of history, and everything in my career and everything I love about the science I do is built on what is in its thick and fragile pages. So it was really great to stand looking at that frontispiece and revel in the significance of of those three words: Naturalis Principia Mathematica. I imagine if one were an evolutionary biologist one would get the same feeling from Darwin’s Origin of the Species, which was also on display, but for me as someone trained in physics this book is a great treasure and it was the first (and I guess, the last) time I will be in the presence of this original piece of history.

The exhibition had other contributions from the scientists of that era, including an excerpt from da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus that described the movement of the planets (his handwriting is incredibly beautiful, every letter a work of art), armillary spheres and beautiful navigational tools made in intricate and beautiful detail out of brass, and a replica of Gallileo’s original telescope (also, his Sedereus Nuncius and his sketches of the moon, that he made with that incredibly primitive telescope). It’s really humbling to stand in the presence of so many of the original moments of modern science, and to think that almost everything we do now depends on the work these men put into these humble books, or that once people had to find their way to Tokyo using nothing more than one of those brass navigational instruments. It’s quite incredible to see them and realize just how primitive it all was – these scientists really were fumbling around the universe, making guesses on the basis of almost nothing, when you think about what we can do today. And almost everything we can do today depends on their fumbling efforts … So it was quite amazing to see all this stuff in one exhibition, and also to see some of the wild, amusing and speculative ways in which artists of that time and since have speculated on the implications of those scientific endeavours. It’s also obvious when you see that early work that there is no barrier between science and art – those scientists were technicians but they approached their work with a religious zeal and an obvious sense of aesthetics, a joy in the beauty of maths and physics as well as in the discovery of the unknown. For all the challenges of that era, for these men it must have been a very exciting time to be alive.

The Crows and the Insects in Amber

Some of the video installations weren’t so great but there were two amazing works. The first was a high resolution high magnification video exploration of a piece of amber with insects trapped inside it. Set to eery backing music, it moved through the amber filming different parts of it in such a way that it produces spacescapes and scenes like starscapes, nebulae or distant galaxies. In between these strange galactic visuals it zoomed in or out on the insects themselves, so that they loomed in the camera like Cthulhoid monsters, alien horrors, or strange planetary landscapes. This installation was probably 4-5 minutes long (or at least the part I saw was) but it was a fascinating way to turn a piece of something ancient, terrestrial and tiny into something vast, timeless and cosmic. A brilliant idea.

The second was a video work by teamlab, Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Blossoming on Collision–Light in Space. For this you enter a large dark room and stand in a specific spot in the centre of the room, then the entire room begins to shift and move as the video covers all the walls, floor and ceiling. From your central spot you watch crows take flight and then you chase them along the lines of their flight, and then they burst over you and disappear and suddenly you’re chasing new ones. I don’ t know why crows, I don’t know why we’re chasing them, but it’s really good. It’s a kind of mixture of video game and interactive exhibit, I guess, but all through a movie. It probably wasn’t entirely suited to this exhibition – it could easily be the open sky rather than space that these crows are flying through – but it was still a splendid experience.

This exhibition finishes tomorrow so there is not really any point in recommending that you, dear reader(s), rush on down to see it, but at least now you know what you missed. This was a really interesting attempt to combine two fields of human endeavour that are often seen as at odds with each other or unconnected, and it did a really good job both of merging the two and also of introducing me to some genuinely cool modern artists working in this field. It also serves as a good reminder of how space exploration, from its earliest beginnings, has been not just an engineering and physics endeavour, but an artistic effort that expresses something about what it means to be human and what our position is in the cosmos. As we watch new and modern efforts to explore our solar system – and, possibly, to colonize it – it’s worth remembering that they are always about more than just science, which makes them simultaneously both a luxurious waste of money, and an essential attempt to understand the core of what it is to be human. I hope in the future other museums and art galleries will attempt a similar exhibition to this, so people outside of Japan can share this unique insight into how art and science have worked together over thousands of years to bring humans closer to the stars, both physically and spiritually.

jerome

On the weekend in addition to a fine session of Vampire: The Masquerade I managed to get my philistine arse down to the Tokyo National Art Center for an exhibition of paintings from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. I went with a Japanese friend, and while my friend was oohing and aahing at all the cool artwork, I was remembering my trip to Venice and imagining Drew smashing her culture chip and killing the Pope.

And so then I stumbled on this picture, which I think summarizes everything Drew was getting at when she got angry with the skeezy old men leering at the virgin Mary. I think this picture, which is called St. Jerome in Penitence and the Virgin and Child Appearing in Glory, contains a kind of potted summary of everything that is wrong with Christianity’s strange and tortured attitude towards sex. It features an old semi-naked man (Jerome) punishing himself for thinking lascivious thoughts, while staring at a small statue of a young man who was tortured to death by his father because everyone keeps thinking about sex, and all of this being stared at approvingly by the spirit of Mary, whose sole reason for being able to judge anyone for thinking sexy thoughts is that god made her pregnant against her will but she stayed pure. In this one picture we have sin, guilt, death, and purity, all deeply entangled with sexuality and heavily leavened with judgment. It’s hard to see on the internet version, but we also in the bottom left hand corner have a kind of terrified looking lion, nature subjugated – another core Christian ideal. It really is the Renaissance version of one of those tweets that people subsequently delete that tells you everything you need to know about their inner life, and wish you didn’t.

In addition to this picture of a skeezy old man punishing himself for being skeezy, the exhibition had a whole bunch of pictures of Mary being told that she was going to have a baby against her will. Impregnating someone against their will is now considered to be a pretty shifty form of abuse (even if it isn’t rape; it’s easy to find stories of abusive partners fiddling with contraception to try and get their partners pregnant), but it’s a central theme of Renaissance art (or at least it was in this exhibition). Mary looks pretty unhappy in most of the pictures where she’s being told this, but it’s hard to say that she really is – my friend said she looked like she was about to say “why me?” but in reality almost every person in almost every picture looked unhappy. I guess the Renaissance wasn’t a happy time, which is why all the models had Resting Bitch Face. But she certainly looked shocked, and the narrative accompanying some of the pictures made clear that she is supposed to be shocked.

As you would be.

But anyway as a consequence of giving birth to this damned child who grew up to be killed by his own father, she gets to hang out in heaven with another baby (the same baby? Seems to be the implication of the title of the picture – is heaven a kind of Groundhog day where she is constantly pregnant but never gets laid?) and cast judgment on all the men who are secretly dreaming about doing God’s work inside her. And this is the only payoff any of these pictures offer – the chance to judge others. Sure, there’s one picture of heaven, but it makes heaven look like the bottom 10% of that Iron Maiden Number of the Beast poster, where everyone is screaming and dying or fucking, only in the Renaissance version there’s no fucking. Renaissance paradise looked a lot more like hell than I think they intended, but that’s apparently the reward for a life of Resting Bitch Face and self-flagellation. Which I guess is why Bassano produced this monstrous visual rendition of his tortured inner soul.

Just to be clear for all the doubters and whingers, I’m not saying the picture is bad or shouldn’t be held in esteem or whatever. I didn’t like it, but I’m no critic and I don’t think I can separate my appreciation of the art from the nastiness of the content, so I couldn’t really appreciate it, but if people say it was influential and important then I’m happy to believe them. My point is merely that it says so much in one dense little package about the origins of so many of our modern problems with sex and sexuality. In that respect it is a thing of (horrid) beauty.

Two other random thoughts I had while wandering the gallery:

  • I wonder if these artists, all male, had actually seen many babies or any naked women? I don’t mean this facetiously, I really wonder. If raising babies was women’s work perhaps they didn’t see many, which might explain why the babies are all a) the wrong size and b) horribly ugly and c) painted like miniature adults. Perhaps they didn’t see much of their children? In the same vein I noticed that their men were much better drawn than their women and I wondered if perhaps they had never seen an adult woman who wasn’t their wife? I then started wondering – a lot of the women in the pictures look more like teenage girls, in particular their breasts are kind of half-formed and not mature. It made me think – could it be that the only people they could find as life models for female subjects were the children of poor families, and the reason that their women are so badly drawn and strange looking is that they were extrapolating from the budding female bodies of local 12- or 13-year old milkmaids?
  • The same day I went to see this I had read an article about terrifying new findings of highly antibiotic resistant bacteria in chickens and pork, accompanied by more warnings about the dire threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Of course the Renaissance was a time before both antibiotics and the contraceptive pill, not to mention advanced cancer treatments, and it’s likely that most of the older people in the pictures are suffering from various ailments that we just can’t imagine being an issue for the kind of rich people depicted in the scenes – tooth decay, chronic pain, chronic headaches due to poor eyesight, that sort of thing. Maybe Mary looked unhappy in all those paintings because she had a chronic UTI? If so, anyone who doubts the threat of AMR for our future quality of life should check out a hall of Renaissance paintings and ask themselves – do I want to go back to that??

This exhibition really impressed upon me that I don’t like this kind of art. Of course I find it interesting and I engage with the exhibition, even if in this case my random speculations may seem a bit facetious. But ultimately it doesn’t seem like good art to me, and the messages it contains are quite horrible. As a document of our past it’s fine, of course we should respect it and view it etc., but when I look at art like this I always leave overwhelmed by all the horrible ideas behind it, and I really think that to properly present this art to a modern audience some kind of sensitivity to or discussion of these issues would make for a better viewing experience. In this case the majority of the audience were Japanese, so it’s probably just a curiosity to them, but for westerners looking at this art it is really rich in themes that we may not be able to express clearly in words but which I think hit us anyway, and a bit more engagement with how those themes affect modern audiences might help them to react a little less viscerally to some of the denser, nastier stuff. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an exhibition of this skeezy ancient art that has made any attempt to engage with these more controversial aspects, and I expect I never will. But I think it would be nice. And I think until we do begin to engage with these underlying archaic values consistently and clearly, we’ll never really see them swept away.

Which is what I want to see. I want to see this creepy undercurrent of death and guilt and dirt washed out of our sexual substrate, so that we can get on with the business of being sexual unencumbered by our necromantic origins.

 

Only what you see man, only what you see

Only what you see man, only what you see

Today a friend took me, without explanation, to see Sophie Calle’s The Unsold (売り残し) at Koyanagi Gallery in Ginza. I don’t often attend art shows – let alone modern art installations – and I almost never visit Ginza, so this was a real novelty for me, but despite my initial misgivings it was definitely worth it. Here is my review.

When I entered the gallery my first glance revealed an installation of everyday objects, including two dresses, that to my jaundiced and cynical eye immediately resembled Tracey Emin’s execrable bed-type stuff, and I was immediately disappointed. However, right at the door there is an introductory explanation (in Japanese and English) of the premise of the work, which changed my mind. Basically, three artists set up a flea market in the grounds of Yasukuni Jinja. They laid out their wares on three squares of cloth, as shown in the picture. One (I don’t recall which) sold worthless every day items, to each of which was attached a story that actually happened (i.e. a real story) with some relationship to the item but in which the item itself was not directly involved (so e.g. the typewriter on sale is not necessarily the typewriter from the story). Another sold a mixture of semi-antiques (cutely mis-spelled as “semi-antics” in this exhibition) and ordinary items, to which were attached completely fake stories with apparent emotional content[1]. The third sold actual antiques, and one of his original photos. For example one person was selling a completely normal bra for about 25,000 yen, and another person was selling a picture of a psycho-analyst (freud?) for 38,000 yen. One of the antiques was an ancient ceramic hot water bottle, and the picture was a pretty cool sea/sky thing. Each artist catalogued what they sold and the amount of money they sold it for – which was surprisingly large. Apparently an American tour guide passed by as this sale was going on and told his charges “there is nothing here, ignore it.” (Cute). The explanation finishes with the simple, curt phrase “These are the unsold.” So the exhibition consists of the material that was not sold.

This exhibition consists of three pieces of cloth on which the remaining items are laid out, attached to each of which is a tag with the price and the story. Behind each installation, on the wall, is a photo of the original setup, so you can see what was sold. On the opposite wall are the tags for the sold items, with their corresponding story. These tags have no information about the item to which they correspond, so you have to wander across to the original picture and guess. The stories are really interesting and believable, though whether they are actually true or not I have no clue. Investigating on wikipedia I discovered that the Eiffel tower story is true, and just as unbelievable as it sounds – Sophie Calle certainly knows how to do crazy things (I can’t remember if the item attached to this story was sold or not).

I’m an uncultured barbarian, so I have no idea what this installation was trying to tell me about whatever, but I thought it was really cool. Trying to understand why people bought these ludicrously overpriced objects because of their vague stories, or didn’t buy some object even though its story was cool, was an exercise in intruding into someone else’s private life. The stories themselves were fascinating, disconnected monologues, none of which I believed (but some of which I have subsequently learnt are real!) I can’t speak for the Japanese but the English used in the broader narrative descriptions – what the exhibition is about, how the artists met – is clear, sparse and strong. The structure of the main introductory sign and its finishing statement, “These are the Unsold” is particularly powerful, and suits the style of the exhibition. It’s a simple idea done well, and it holds your attention. Why did the passersby leave the charred bedspring and buy the useless typewriter? This, I cannot fathom. I wouldn’t buy the red bucket some guy pissed in, but why would someone else buy the bottle. Also the story of the horn is acutely sad and the horn is quite cheap, but apparently un-sellable. What does that mean?

I didn’t know anything about Sophie Calle before this exhibition, but reading her Wikipedia page I get the impression that she is a powerful, prodigious and generally unethical talent. My friend has also seen the exhibit Take Care of Yourself, which as the quoted reviewer says seems to be both shallow and deeply engaging. Her attempt to get blind people to define beauty sounds like it has the potential to be very powerful (I don’t draw any conclusions!) and the work where she gets a guy to shadow her and then presents pictures of herself sounds really interesting. Invading others’ privacy, not so much. How come medical researchers have to get ethics approval, but French artistes can pursue some guy across the world, or hijack a stolen diary for money?

Don’t answer that.

Anyway, I’d never heard of Sophie Calle before today and I think her work is a genuinely interesting and challenging example of modern art at its finest. I don’t know what she’s trying to say with this exhibition and I can’t really say what I think of it, but it’s really cool. It would be better if she followed it up with some kind of article in a peer-reviewed journal giving her conclusion about what the purchases and non-purchases mean, instead of leaving it to an ignorant rube like me to try and understand, and if she had found a way to summarize what was bought and wasn’t (e.g. rankings with stories, or a website where you can see all the objects with what was bought and what wasn’t, and its story) then the exhibition would have been even cooler. But despite these missed opportunities this exhibition is very cool, and in general I have to say Sophie Calle’s work seems pretty interesting. I hope more of her stuff comes to Japan, and I recommend visiting it if you are in Japan, or keeping an eye out for her work if you are not.

 

 

 

fn1: I may be mis-remembering the exact nature of what these items were, but I hope you get the general gist.

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