Reviews


And let me tell you something
Before you go taking a walk in my world,
…you better take a look at the real world
Cause this ain’t no Mr. Rogers Neighborhood
Can you say “feel like shit?”
Yea maybe sometimes I do feel like shit
I ain’t happy about it, but I’d rather feel like shit
…than be full of shit!

 

There are times in life when it’s necessary to turn to the original gurus of self-righteous self-inspiration, Suicidal Tendencies. Life getting you down, you feel you can’t keep going? Crank up ST and when the boys ask you “Are you feelin’ suicidal?” yell back “I’m suicidal!” and you’ll be back on track in no time. Been meandering through some shit, making mistakes you know are your own dumb fault, and need to kick yourself back onto the straight and narrow? Gotta kill Captain Stupid is what you need. Getting played by conmen who play on your better nature, maybe take you for a ride using your religious impulses? Then you can crank up Send Me Your Money and be reminded that “Here comes another con hiding behind a collar / His only God is the almighty dollar / He ain’t no prophet, he ain’t no healer / He’s just a two bit goddamn money stealer.” That’ll get your cynical radar working again! But the Suicidals’ most useful refrain, the one that applies most often and most powerfully in this shit-stained and terrible world, is the imprecation at the beginning of the second half of their skate power classic, You Can’t Bring Me Down:

Just cause you don’t understand what’s going on
…don’t mean it don’t make no sense
And just cause you don’t like it,
…don’t mean it ain’t no good

This pure reminder of the power of bullshit over mortal men came to me today when I began to delve into the background of the latest Sokal Hoax that has been visited on the social sciences. I’d like to explore this hoax, consider how it would have panned out in other disciplines, make a few criticisms, and discuss the implications of some of their supposedly preposterous papers. So as Mikey would say – bring it on home, brother doc!

The Latest Hoax

The latest hoax comes with its own report, a massive online screed that describes what they did, why they did it, how they did it and what happened. Basically they spent a year preparing a bunch of papers that they submitted to a wide range of social studies journals in a field they refer to as “grievance studies”, which they define by saying

we have come to call these fields “grievance studies” in shorthand because of their common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity.

This definition of the field is easily the vaguest and most hand-wavey way to select a broad set of targets I have ever seen, and it’s also obviously intended to be perjorative. In fact their whole project could perhaps be described as having the “common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail” – starting with their definition of the culture.

The authors admit that they’re not experts in the field, but they spent a year studying the content, methods and style of the field, then wrote papers that they submitted to journals under fake names (one real professor gave them permission to use his name) from fake institutions. They submitted 20 papers over the year, writing one every 9 days, and got 7 published, one with a commendation; the other 13 were repeatedly rejected or still under review when somehow their cover was blown and they had to reveal the hoax.

The basic problem with the hoax

The papers they submitted are listed at the website and are pretty hilarious, and some of the papers that were published were obviously terrible (though they may have been interesting reading). Two of the papers they submitted – one on dog parks and one on immersive pornography – used fake data, i.e. academic misconduct, and two were plagiarized parts of Mein Kampf, with some words replaced to reverse them into a feminist meaning of some kind (I guess by replacing “Jew” with “men” or something).

Submitting an article based on fraudulent data is, let’s be clear, academic misconduct, and it is also extremely difficult for peer reviewers to catch. Sure it’s easy in retrospect to say “that data was fake” but when peer reviewers get an article they don’t get the raw data, they have to judge based on the summaries in the paper. This is how the Wakefield paper that led to the collapse in MMR vaccination got published in the Lancet – Wakefield made up his data, and it was impossible for the peer reviewers to know that. The STAPP controversy in Japan – which led to several scientists being disgraced and one suicide – involved doctored images that were only discovered when a research assistant blew the whistle. Medicine is full of these controversies in which data is faked or manipulated and only discovered after a huge amount of detective work, or after a junior staff member destroys their career blowing the whistle. Submitting fraudulent work to peer review – a process which at heart depends on good faith assumptions all around – is guaranteed to be successful. It’s not an indictment of anyone to do this.

Submitting a word-replaced Mein Kampf is incredibly tacky, tasteless and juvenile. Most academics don’t read Mein Kampf, and it’s not a necessary text for most sociological disciplines. If the journal doesn’t use plagiarism software or the peer reviewers don’t, then this is undoubtedly going to slide through, and while much of Mein Kampf is pernicious nonsense a lot of it is actually pretty straightforward descriptions of political strategies and contemporary events. Indeed the chapter they used (chapter 12 of volume 1) is really about organizing and political vision[1], with only passing references to Jewish perfidy – it’s the kind of thing that could be rendered pretty bland with a word replace. But from the description in their report one might think they had successfully published an exterminationist screed. I’m sure the hoaxers thought they were being super clever doing this, but they weren’t. Detecting plagiarism is a journal’s responsibility more than a peer reviewer’s, and not all journals can. It’s not even clear if the plagiarized text would have been easily detected by google searches of fragments if there was a suitable level of word replacement.

So several of their hoax papers were highlighting problems with the peer review process in general, not with anything to do with social studies. Of the remainder, some were substantially rewritten during review, and a lot were rejected or sent back for major revision. While people on twitter are claiming that “many papers” were accepted, in fact the most obviously problematic ones were rejected. For example the paper that recommended mistreating white students, ignoring their work and dismissing their efforts, to teach them about white privilege, was rejected three times, but people on twitter are claiming that the treatment of this paper shows some kind of problematic morality by the peer reviewers.

The next problem with the hoax is that the authors have misrepresented good-spirited, kind-hearted attempts at taking their work seriously with uncritical acceptance of their work. Consider this peer review that they report[2] on a paper on whether men commit sexual violence by masturbating to fantasies of real women (more on this below):

I was also trying to think through examples of how this theoretical argument has implications in romantic consensual relationships. Through the paper, I was thinking about the rise of sexting and consensual pornographic selfies between couples, and how to situate it in your argument. I think this is interesting because you could argue that even if these pictures are shared and contained within a consensual private relationship, the pictures themselves are a reaction to the idea that the man may be thinking about another woman while masturbating. The entire industry of boudoir photography, where women sometimes have erotic pictures taken for their significant other before deploying overseas in the military for example, is implicitly a way of saying, “if you’re going to masturbate, it might as well be to me.” Essentially, even in consensual monogamous relationships, masturbatory fantasies might create some level of coercion for women. You mention this theme on page 21 in terms of the consumption of non-consensual digital media as metasexual-rape, but I think it is interesting to think through these potentially more subtle consensual but coercive elements as well

This is a genuine, good-faith effort to engage with the authors’ argument, and to work out its implications. But this peer reviewer, who has clearly devoted considerable time to engaging with and attempting to improve this paper, now discovers that he or she was being punked the whole time, and the authors were laughing at her naivete for thinking their idea should be taken seriously. He or she did this work for free, as part of an industry where we all give freely of our time to help each other improve their ideas, but actually this good faith effort was just being manipulated and used as part of a cheap publicity stunt by some people who have an axe to grind with an entire, entirely vaguely-defined branch of academia. And note also that after all this peer reviewer’s work, this paper was still rejected – but the hoaxers are using it as ammunition for their claim that “grievance studies” takes preposterous ideas seriously. Is that fair, or reasonable? And is it ethical to conduct experiments on other academics without consent?

I would be interested to know, incidentally, if their little prank was submitted to institutional review before they did it. If I tried to pull this shitty little move in my field, without putting it through an IRB, I think my career would be toast.

But there is another problem with this hoax, which I want to dwell on in a little more detail: some of the papers actually covered interesting topics of relevance in their field, and the fact that the hoaxers think their theories were preposterous doesn’t mean they were actually preposterous. It’s at this point that the Suicidals’ most powerful rule applies: Just because you don’t understand what’s going on, don’t mean it don’t make sense.

The theoretical value of some of the hoax papers

Why don’t men use dildos for masturbation?

Let us consider first the paper the authors refer to as “Dildos”, actual title Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use. In this paper the hoaxers ask why men don’t use dildos for masturbation, and suggest it is out of a fear of homosexuality, and transphobia. The hoaxers say that they wrote this paper

To see if journals will accept ludicrous arguments if they support (unfalsifiable) claims that common (and harmless) sexual choices made by straight men are actually homophobic, transphobic, and anti-feminist

But is this argument ludicrous? Why don’t men use dildos more? After all, we know that men can obtain sexual pleasure from anal insertion, through prostate stimulation. There is a genre of porn in which this happens (for both cismen and transgender women), and it is a specialty service provided by sex workers, but it is not generally commonly practiced in heterosexual intercourse or male masturbation. Why? Men can be pretty bloody-minded about sexual pleasure, so why don’t they do this more? There could be many reasons, such as that it’s impractical, or it’s dirty, or (for couple sex) that women have a problem with penetrating men, or because men see sex toys as fundamentally femininized objects – but it could also be out of a residual homophobia, right? This seems prima facie an interesting theory that could be explored. For example, the only mainstream movie I can think of where a woman penetrates a man is Deadpool, and so it should be fairly easy to study reactions to that movie and analyze them for homophobia (reddit should be pretty good for this, or MRA websites). Understanding the reasons for this might offer new ways for men to enjoy sex, and a new diversity of sex roles for women, which one presumes is a good thing. So why is this argument ludicrous?

Why do men visit Hooters?

Another article that was published was referred to by the hoaxers as “Hooters”, actual title An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant. The article argues that men visit “breastaurants” to assert male dominance and enjoy a particular form of “authentic masculinity,” presumably in contrast to the simpler motive of wanting to be able to look at tits. The authors say they did this article to

see if journals will publish papers that seek to problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women and will accept very shoddy qualitative methodology and ideologically-motivated interpretations which support this

But again, this is basically an interesting question. Why do men go to restaurants with scantily-clad women? They could eat at a normal restaurant and then watch porn, or just read playboy while they eat. Or they could eat and then go to a strip club. So why do they need to be served in restaurants by breasty girls? And why are some men completely uninterested in these environments, even though they’re seriously into tits? The answer that this is something about performing a type of masculinity, and needing women as props for some kind of expression of dominance, makes sense intuitively (which doesn’t mean it’s right). It’s particularly interesting that this article is being presented as preposterous by the hoaxers now just as debate is raging about why Brett Kavanaugh insisted in sharing his non-consensual sexual encounters with other men, while Bill Cosby did his on the down-low. It’s almost as if Bill and Brett had different forms of masculine dominance to express! Forms of masculine dominance that need to be explored and understood! By academics in social studies, for example!

Also note here that the tone of the hoaxers’ explanation suggests that the idea that visiting breasty restaurants is problematic is obviously wrong and everyone believes them about this. In fact, many Americans of good faith from many different backgrounds don’t consider visiting Hooters to be a particularly savoury activity, and you probably won’t convince your girlfriend you’re not an arsehole by telling her she’s wrong to “problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women” in the context of your having blown your weekly entertainment budget on a trip to Hooters. Understanding why she has problematized this behavior might help you to get laid the following week!

Do men do violence to women when they fantasize about them?

The hoaxers wrote an article that they refer to as “Masturbation”, real title Rubbing One Out: Defining Metasexual Violence of Objectification Through Nonconsensual Masturbation, which was ultimately rejected from Sociological Theory after peer review. I think this was the most interesting of their fake articles, covering a really interesting topic, with real ethical implications. The basic idea here is that when men fantasize about women without women’s consent (for example when masturbating) they’re committing a kind of sexual violence, even though the woman in question doesn’t know about this. They wrote this article to test

To see if the definition of sexual violence can be expanded into thought crimes

But this way of presenting their argument (“Thought crimes”) and the idea that the definition of sexual violence hasn’t already been expanded to thought crimes, is deeply dangerous and stupid. To deal with the second point first, in many jurisdictions anime or manga that depicts sex with children is banned. But in these comics nobody has been harmed. So yes, sexual violence has been extended to include thought crimes. But if we don’t expand the definition of sexual violence into thought crimes we run into some very serious legal and ethical problems. Consider the crime of upskirting, in which men take secret videos up women’s skirts and put them onto porn sites for other men to masturbate to. In general the upskirted woman has no clue she’s been filmed, and the video usually doesn’t show her face so it’s not possible for her to be identified. It is, essentially, a victimless crime. Yet we treat upskirting as a far more serious crime than just surreptitiously taking photos of people, which we consider to be rude but not criminal. This is because we consider upskirting to be a kind of sexual violence exactly equivalent to the topic of this article! This is also true for revenge porn, which is often public shaming of a woman that destroys her career, but doesn’t have to be. If you share videos of your ex-girlfriend naked with some other men, and she never finds out about it and your friends don’t publicize those pictures, so she is not affected in any way, everyone would agree that you have still done a terrible thing to her, and that this constitutes sexual violence of some kind. I’ve no doubt that in many jurisdictions this revenge porn is a crime even though the woman targeted has not suffered in any way. Indeed, even if a man just shows his friend a video of a one night stand, and the friend doesn’t know the woman, will never meet her, and has no way to harm her, this is still considered to be a disgusting act. So the fundamental principle involved here is completely sound. This is why porn is made – because the women are being paid to allow strangers to watch them have sex. When people sext each other they are obviously clearly giving explicit permission to the recipient to use the photo for sexual gratification (this is why it is called sexting). Couples usually don’t sext each other until they trust each other precisely because they don’t want the pictures shared so that people they don’t know can masturbate to them without their consent. We also typically treat men who steal women’s underwear differently to men who steal other men’s socks at the coin laundry – I think the reason for this is obvious! So the basic principle at the heart of this paper is solid. Yet the hoaxers treat the idea underlying much of our modern understanding of revenge porn and illicit sexual photography as a joke.

I think the basic problem here is that while the hoaxers have mimicked the style of the field, and understand which theoretical questions to target and write about, they fundamentally don’t understand the field, and so things they consider to be ludicrous are actually important and real questions in the topic, with important and real consequences. They don’t understand it, but it actually makes sense. And now they’ve created this circus of people sneering at how bad the papers were, when actually they were addressing decent topics and real questions.

How would this have happened in other fields?

So if we treat these three papers as serious recognizing that two were published, and then discount the paper with fradulent data (dog park) and the paper that was plagiarized (feminist mein kampf) we are left with just three papers that were published that might be genuinely bullshit, out of 20. That’s 15%, or 22% if you drop the plagiarized and fraudulent papers from the denominator. Sounds bad, right? But this brings us to our next big problem with this hoax: there was no control group. If I submitted 20 papers with dodgy methods and shonky reasoning to public health journals, I think I could get 15% published. Just a week or two ago I reported on a major paper in the Lancet that I think has shonky methods and reasoning, as well as poorly-gathered data, but it got major publicity and will probably adversely affect alcohol policy in future. I have repeatedly on this blog attacked papers published in the National Bureau of Economics Research (NBER) archives, which use terrible methods, poor quality data, bad reasoning and poor scientific design. Are 15% of NBER papers bullshit? I would suggest the figure is likely much higher. But we can’t compare because the authors didn’t try to hoax these fields, and as far as I know no one has ever tried to hoax them. This despite the clear and certain knowledge that the R&R paper in economics was based on a flawed model and bad reasoning, but was used to inform fiscal policy in several countries, and the basic conclusions are still believed even though it has been roundly debunked.

The absence of hoaxes (or even proper critical commentary) on other fields means that they can maintain an air of inassailability while social studies and feminist theory are repeatedly criticized for their methods and the quality of their research and peer review. This is a political project, not a scientific project, and these hoaxers have gone to great lengths to produce a salable, PR-ready attack on a field they don’t like, using a method that is itself poorly reasoned, with shonky methodology, and a lack of detailed understanding of the academic goals of the field they’re punking. They also, it should be remembered, have acted very unethically. I think the beam is in their own eye, or as the Suicidals would say:

Ah, damn, we got a lot of stupid people
Doing a lot of stupid things
Thinking a lot of stupid thoughts
And if you want to see one
Just look in the mirror

Conclusion

This hoax shouldn’t be taken seriously, and it doesn’t say anything much about the quality of research or academic editing in the field they’re criticizing. Certainly on the face of it some of the papers that were published seem pretty damning, but some of them covered real topics of genuine interest, and the hoaxers’ interpretation of the theoretical value of the work is deeply flawed. This is a PR stunt, nothing more, and it does nothing to address whatever real issues sociology and women’s studies face. Until people start genuinely developing a model for properly assessing the quality of academic work in multiple fields, with control groups and proper adjustment for confounders, in a cross-disciplinary team that fully understands the fields being critiqued, these kinds of hoaxes will remain just stupid stunts, that play on the goodwill of peer reviewers and academics for the short-term political and public benefit of the hoaxers, but for no longer benefit to the community being punked, and at the risk of considerable harm. Until a proper assessment of the quality of all disciplines is conducted, we should not waste our time punking others, but think harder about how we can improve our own.

 


fn1: I won’t link, because a lot of online texts of Mein Kampf are on super dubious websites – look it up yourself if you wish to see what the punking text was.

fn2: Revealing peer reviews is generally considered unethical, btw

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And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

Avengers: Infinity War is essentially a terrible movie. It’s about an hour too long, it has too many characters and too many plot threads running at once, and most of the characters are either not introduced or barely introduced, get very little dialogue and don’t get any development. If you haven’t watched a long train of interminably dull prior movies in the sequence, you have nothing invested in this shlock, which is just as well because the movie suffers from a more fundamental problem: it bullies its viewers. This movie is basically a series of scenes in which a giant, invincible arsehole does whatever he wants and takes whatever he wants, and all the efforts of the people that we the movie-watchers are supposed to have emotional investment in amount to nothing. If this were an actually serious, well-made movie about a real topic – sexual abuse at Ohio State University, for example – we would be watching the same series of awful bullying scenes, and we would leave exhausted and shattered by the sheer brutal abusiveness of the experience. This isn’t how you make entertainment, it’s how you make documentaries.

Perhaps the movie-makers knew this, and this is why they made sure that not only is a casual viewer unable to invest anything in the characters, but is also unable to engage with the substance of the movie itself. The script wavers between a serious adventure/sci fi, a classic superhero movie, and a comedy. This means that the viewer cannot properly get into the flow of things. Has Thor just seen his entire crew murdered by a fatally powerful demon who aims to destroy half the living creatures in the universe, or has he had an entertaining evening at a bar with some friends? It’s impossible to tell. Is Spacedouche fighting to save his loved one from a fate worse than death, or just hamming it up for his friends at a keg party? It’s impossible to tell. This is one of the (many) fatal errors that sank the recent Star Wars effort, and it did no favours for this movie either. Well, perhaps it did the movie a small favour – the only reason I finished watching it was the dialogue. I watched the whole thing at a remove though, as a disengaged critic, because I had nothing invested in it or its characters.

And how bad were these characters? I have no sense of Thanos’s motivations, or any emotional engagement with his drive to get the infinity stones and destroy half the universe, which is terrible because a fundamental requirement of these kinds of movies is that you be on board with the bad guy’s plans. I felt more in common with the Alien queen in Aliens than I did with this boring dude and his gold fist. Spacedouche, obviously, is a waste of my effort and a completely awful character. Iron Man long since lost his shine and, like late-vintage Elon Musk, has become just a rich entitled white dude with bad ideas. Dr. Strange is a condescending prat who should have stuck with his original career as a detective. Insipid Witchgirl is weak and boring, and I have no idea why she is in love with Useless Robot (Phase? Nobody introduces themselves), who seems to have no purpose in this movie except spare parts. Black Panther might as well also be a robot for all the energy in his performance, and who was that Steve Rogers guy and why is he so useless? I think I was supposed to feel some emotion other than relief when Spiderman died but why would I, when his sole role in this movie is to act as a ham-fisted tool for breaking the fourth wall (and why are we breaking the fourth wall in a supposedly serious movie?) What is Black Widow’s purpose, and what is wrong with this world that Scarlet Johanson can be paid millions of bucks to turn up, say three lines, and then sit in a chair while her stunt double does 90% of her moves[1]? I think there was a guy who flew a thing and blew stuff up, but I don’t know his name and I don’t even remember if he died. Bruce Banner has now thoroughly ruined the Hulk, turning him from a metaphor for adolescent angst into a metaphor for middle aged male sexual dysfunction. Groot – now Groot is an example of how to really terribly mistreat a great character. In the original Space Daddy Issues movie he was a fun and interesting character, but baby Groot in Daddy Issues 2 was just a waste of space and this teenage Groot is such a depressingly bad form of comedy relief that it makes me want to go back in time and destroy the original movie.

A further mark of how bad this movie is is that it introduced time travel. It is a universal truth that a movie with incidental time travel is a bad movie, and that only two movies in the history of cinema have done time travel well: Terminator and Back to the Future. As soon as you casually insert time travel into a movie you ruin it. This was easily avoidable in this story simply by replacing the time stone with some other noun (the shit stone? the mcguffin stone? It doesn’t matter, because there is no sense in which anything Thanos does with his golden fist corresponds in any way to the supposed functions of the stones embedded in the fist). But no, the directors had to go there because there is no stupid thing that cannot be loaded into a modern American action movie. Of course, in keeping with this principle there were a bunch of other incredibly bad decisions that completely undermined the good guys’ efforts and made all their failures both predictable and frustrating:

  • Spacedouche’s decision to punch Thanos in the face while he was sleeping, just as his friends were about to pull the glove off and save the universe, and indeed his decision to stand there arguing with sleeping Thanos and making everything in the universe all about him instead of helping his friends remove the glove and then punch the stupid blue dude when he was actually vulnerable
  • Dr Strange’s decision to go with stupid Iron Man’s stupid plan to confront Thanos while holding the very thing Thanos wants, and then to give up that thing even though he asserted very strongly earlier in the movie that he would let Iron Man die rather than hand it over (we all know why he did this – see below).
  • Dr Strange’s decision to scan all possible futures for the wisdom of his actions after going to confront Thanos instead of before
  • The decision by the idiots at Wakanda to spend precious time and lives defending Wakanda against invading alien hordes so that Little Sister can extract the stone from Useless Robot’s head without killing him, thus ensuring Insipid Witchgirl doesn’t cry, even though ultimately Insipid Witchgirl has to kill Useless Robot anyway, but does it in front of Thanos so that he knows where the stone is[2] and can go back in time and stop her destroying it (but Useless Robot still dies at least)
  • The dumb-arsed series of historical decisions which led the super people of Wakanda with their super-powered Bullshitanium super mineral and hyper high-tech social order to develop an army that fights with spears, has no air support, no artillery, and no projectile weapons of note, and also lacks the strategic sense to stay on the high ground focusing the piss-weak projectile weapons they do have on a narrow breach in an otherwise almost impassable wall
  • Thanos randomly and incoherently spares people, like the entire crew of Spacedouche’s ship (who subsequently go on to try and remove his glove, almost successfully) and Iron Man, who is going to kill him in the next movie

It’s become a pretty much constant aspect of modern American movies that the main characters make bad decisions based on emotion rather than heart, and then at the end have to save the day by sheer grit and determination in the face of the avalanche of consequences their hot-headed decisions unleashed[3]. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Often these stupid decisions simply lead to long unnecessary extra scenes to undo the damage, and plot complications that make the movie less believable than it would otherwise have been, and frustrating. I have got to the point with movies like this and Star Wars that I am basically just hate-watching them: I watch them to see how terrible they are and to get angry at my cultural overlords, more than to enjoy the actual content of the movie. In truth this is why I skipped most of the Marvel movies leading up to this one, and only watched this one because I was on a plane[4].

I also previously avoided this movie because there is one crucial scene, where Dr. Strange hands over the time stone to prevent Iron Man being killed, which basically tells us that Iron Man is crucial to the one possible future in which Thanos is defeated. This means that the rich entitled white guy is going to be the person who saves the universe. Who could have guessed!? That amongst a cast of thousands of super heroes, all the non-white and non-human characters die “randomly” after Thanos gets the final stone, leaving white Iron Man, white Spacedouche, and white Black Widow[5] to save the universe, with rich white Iron Man as the central hero. I can’t wait to see this unusual and novel ending to a movie! It’s highly unlikely I’ll watch the next one, unless it’s playing on a plane in a typhoon, so it seemed like a waste of my time to watch this one too. Perhaps one day someone can remake these movies without all the stupid decisions and white entitlement, and then they might be actually enjoyable. But probably not.

There is one more aspect of this movie which I found amusing, though. It seems to me that there is a metaphor in this movie for the 2016 presidential election, with Thanos as Trump and the six stones as the swing states that he had to pick up to win the electoral college. Everything our heroes throw at him doesn’t stick or slides off, and while some of his buddies are sacrificed on the path to victory, he is ultimately unscathed, and seems to be protected by this strange otherworldly power that enables him to change reality to suit his whims and battle off any enemies. In this metaphor the glove is Russian interference, and the central scene is the moment where the intelligence agencies are trying to reveal the truth to the electorate – this is Spacedouche’s friends trying to pull the glove off – but instead of helping to reveal the horrible truth and fatally weaken him, the mainstream media (represented aptly in this metaphor by Spacedouche) is distracted by Hilary’s emails – a distraction put there by Trump himself – and the moment is lost in their fury. Thanos wakes up and shakes off the people trying to drag off the source of his power over reality, and he goes on to get everything he needs for ultimate victory. It’s up to you to decide whether the half of the universe destroyed by this are a metaphor for women, the Democratic electorate, or most of the rest of the planet. I guess we’ll find out in a year or so.

It’s a nice metaphor, but I have to ask the directors – why did you make us sit through your pain? Couldn’t you have made some other movie, in which the evil arsehole isn’t an invulnerable bully who rampages through the world taking whatever he wants until he gets ultimate power, and the people ranged against him were annoying, powerless losers who consistently make bad decisions? Because I’m not interested in workshopping your pain, and what the world needs now is more superheroes, not more shit superhero movies.

Other reviews you might be interested in

My review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which was a horrible movie in every way

My review of Mad Max: Fury Road, as an exemplar of eco-feminist violence

My review of Dunkirk, as a story set in the in-between


fn1: Sorry in advance if this is a slur on Johanson and she actually does all her own stunts. Even if she did, though, she still was almost not present in this movie.

fn2: This is the best gloss I can put on the insertion of time travel into this movie. Otherwise, why doesn’t Thanos just go back in time to the beginning of the universe and hoover up all the remaining stones as they come out of the big bang? This is why this movie is a railroad – you know Thanos is going to get what he wants, you just have to watch everyone suffer and die until he does.

fn3: See also, Battle of the Bastards

fn4: Did I mention that? I didn’t watch this movie by choice, but because I was flying past a typhoon and couldn’t work on my computer for fear it would fly up into the ceiling of the plane during turbulence

fn5: Wait, isn’t Major Kusanagi Asian?

The Three Fairies

Recently after a week in London for work I took a trip back to the area of Britain where I grew up, in particular Wiltshire, where I spent a couple of years of my childhood. I think I lived there for about four years from the age of about 6 to about 11 (the details are hazy, as there were many moves in that time and also a period in New Zealand). In addition to some maudlin wandering along the rivers and fields of my youth, I also did a fairly intensive tour of some of Wiltshire’s prehistoric sites. I visited Avebury, Stonehenge, Old Sarum, Silbury Hill and by accident a bunch of ancient stones called the Rollright stones. I also spent the better part of a day at Salisbury Cathedral, which is a beautiful building.

The Rollright Stones

I visited these on the way to Salisbury from the Tolkien exhibition in Oxford. At the time I visited unfortunately English Heritage were holding some kind of local event where local schoolkids could fill in some of the missing parts of this stone circle, which was unfortunate because their efforts were woeful. There was also a sculpture by David Gosling, The Three Fairies, which is the picture at the top of this post. These stones were typical of the kind of things you find in this part of Britain, just random ancient structures sitting at the edge of someone’s field, carrying five millenia of wear and largely unknown except to the locals. Set in the sweeping hillside of golden harvest corn under a flint sky the stones are both mundane and majestic, an unprepossessing memory of a time before any religion or ideas that we know.

Holy spaces

Salisbury Cathedral and the spire

I had the pleasure of visiting Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday morning, which meant I had the opportunity to hear the choir and the morning service. The inside of Salisbury Cathedral is a stunning and majestic monument to the hubris of the ancient christian church, and also to its sense of awe and holiness, and it is easy to spend a long time lost in here, fussing over its tiny details and occasionally stepping back to enjoy the grandeur and stillness of the huge hall. It is not thronging with visitors as are some great Cathedrals, so it still maintains a sense of being a working church rather than a relic. In the afternoon, wandering around the main hall again, I was able to listen to the choir practising for the evening service, which simply added to the feeling of being in a working place of worship rather than a tourist trap.

The original spire supports

Despite it not being a tourist trap, I paid for the tour of the spire, and took a precarious and occasionally disturbing climb up to the top of the original tower, to look at the archaic machinery of the spire. The spire is the tallest in England, and was built about 800 years ago, so it is something of an architectural miracle for its time. Although it was strengthened and repair work was done by Christopher Wren, much of the internal structure remains the same as when it was built, even using the same wooden supports and the same material in the arches, which is a little disturbing when you’re standing 70 m above the ground being told that the whole thing is being held together by the work of some engineers 800 years ago. It’s also very impressive to think about the risks they took and the effort they expended to venerate their god. A god, it should be remembered, that is quite new in the world, and which supplanted much older gods whose own holy sites are scattered around the town where Salisbury Cathedral was built.

Approaching Avebury

Avebury

After Salisbury Cathedral I visited the first of these old holy sites, Avebury. This is a massive circle of stones that forms part of a religious complex about an hour north of Salisbury. The stone circle runs around a whole small village, and within that larger circle is a smaller circle. Along the road to Avebury serried ranks of stones point the way to the circle itself, forming a kind of avenue leading up to the town. All around the town are old burial mounds, one of which is open for visitors to enter, and at a little remove from the town is Silbury Hill, a 32m tall artificial hill built out of chalk by the neolithic fanatics who lived around here. The whole area has the feeling of a religious complex, like a Mecca or Rome for ancient pagan ideas. In the museum at the centre of the stones we learn all about what we know about these religious beliefs in the Old Gods – which is nothing. No one knows anything about why they were built or even, to a great extent, how, and the entire enterprise of archaeology is one of speculation and wonder. It is certainly easy to wonder at these stones – by modern standards dumping a big stone in a paddock is hardly an effort, but standing silent and inscrutable in their crumbling glory, ordered according to some religious codex that defies comprehension, they hold a sense of splendour and awe. It’s easy to imagine that there is something about this land that we don’t know, something these stones could tell us if we only knew how to ask. But we don’t, so they stand there grimly defying both our science and our philosophy, warning us that our own human heritage is a mystery to us.

Stonehenge in the summer

Stonehenge

Stonehenge is the apotheosis of these religious wonderings, of course, but when I was a child it was a pretty naff place, just a bunch of hard-to-reach stones that were kind of disappointing when you got up close, and you weren’t even allowed to touch them. Later, when I lived in Britain in 2008 I visited again, but this time there was a car park and a weird stupid tunnel that led you “back in time” to the stones, and they didn’t really impress at all. But now they are much better presented, and I was able to approach them by walking parallel to the old neolithic way, seeing them first on the horizon and then closer and closer as I marched up the hill. I had a map of the layout of the neolithic monuments that surround the stones, including the Avenue, which may have been part of some ancient ceremonial arrangement. By the time I reached the stones themselves they had taken on their full height and splendour, and even the hordes of visitors could not detract from the sense of being in the presence of something mystical and special. They’re huge, they’re impressive, they are a complete mystery to us, and they stand there slowly crumbling on a time scale humans cannot comprehend, reminding us that once we were so incredibly wild and primitive that we held strange worship of strange constellations on windswept hilltops. Under perfect summer weather it was possible to imagine myself back in time, looking at these stones as a visitor to a religious ritual, and to imagine that in their own way they were as awe inspiring as Salisbury Cathedral would have been to its congregants 5000 years later. The people changed immeasurably over that time, but their passion for worshipful displays of piety obviously did not.

Imagining ancient worlds

Spending two days wandering through all these stones and ancient sites inevitably focused my mind on role-playing worlds, and I began imagining the neolithic world as an adventure setting, perhaps using the Mutant system or some free-flowing variant of WFRP3. This would be a great world for adventuring, a small and narrow world to explore intimately, rich with forests and stocked with natural hazards, where any stranger is a threat and people as far away as what is now the next county would be considered threatening strangers. A landscape dotted with strange and powerful monuments to dark and ancient gods, where magic is in the hands of priests and witches who serve the spirits of the earth and the stars, and perhaps have no allegiance to humankind at all. Or perhaps the worship of these spirits really was connected to the cycles of the earth, and the priests of that ancient time, had they wished to, could have enacted some foul rite at Stonehenge and turned the world on its axis. In that world the best weapons would be clubs and stone arrows, and with such paltry gear to enhance themselves all adventurers would be stripped down to just raw talent and their urge to survive.

When I returned to Japan I prepared and ran a one-shot set in this world, which I will report soon. I think it’s an excellent world for adventuring, as well as for tourism, and if you do visit these ancient sites I think you, too, may find yourself inspired to imagine yourself as an adventurer or a priest in an ancient, mysterious world where nobody knows anything, and nothing is what it seems.

A few tips on travel

If you are going to go through a couple of these sites, I recommend buying a visitor’s pass at the first one – I think mine was about 33 pounds, which will almost cover the cost of the museum at Avebury, entrance to Old Sarum and Stonehenge, but more importantly gives you priority access at Stonehenge so you don’t need to book a tour time. I visited Stonehenge by car, although I assume there are buses from Salisbury and other nearby towns, but it’s worth noting that you don’t go straight to the site – you park perhaps 3 km away and then either walk or catch a bus to the site. The bus will drop you off halfway if you ask, and then you can walk over the fields to the stones themselves, which is what I did and which I think is better.

If you go to Avebury, plan to make a decent day of it. You can walk from the stone circle to nearby Silbury Hill in about 30 minutes, and then from Silbury Hill to a burial mound (I forget the name) that you can enter – when I visited there were two drunk hippies in the entrance who had put candles in every room and were singing plaintive songs, which quite suited the mood, but YMMV. It’s a bit of a walk from Avebury to here and it is possible to get lost – the road goes through some pretty tangled and run down areas that may leave you thinking you’re going the wrong way – so if the weather is bad you may want to drive somewhere nearby (but I don’t know where the parking is). Also there’s no point in thinking an umbrella will be any use – the wind is intense. So just don’t bother bring one, get wet or wear sensible clothes. I would not recommend visiting in winter!

If you visit Salisbury Cathedral I strongly recommend timing your visit to start or end with a service, but be aware that you can’t tour the cathedral during the Sunday morning service, so you’ll have to satisfy yourself with a visit to the magna carta and a circuit of the cloisters. I strongly recommend the tower climb but you should be aware that there are parts where the climbing is a little bit disturbing and their strategy for getting you out if you have an agoraphobic freak out is really disturbing, so if you have a strong fear of heights it’s not a good idea to go. If you’re unsure, check some pictures online of what you might expect to see. I am not good with heights, and this climb had me a little bit shakey at times. But if you are confident you aren’t too bad with heights, do it – it’s great. A good strategy for a Sunday at Salisbury Cathedral would thus be: visit for the beginning of the service to hear the choir; then get a coffee; then visit the magna carta room; then tour the cathedral a bit; get lunch; climb the tower; finish touring the Cathedral; take a break; listen to the choir practicing; stay for the evening service or bail. The lunch at the refectory is surprisingly pleasant given the circumstances, and it’s a nice environment, and on Sunday they do a solid British Roast, so you can make a good day of it.

Also be aware that English Heritage and the National Trust are different, and most of the ancient sites are managed by English Heritage, so if you want a membership to enable you to get into all these sites for free then that’s who you should join – National Trust mostly just manage those boring old country houses.

With that advice I hope you are prepared for a couple of days enjoying the Old Gods and the New!

The New York Times reports on a sexual harassment scandal at New York University, with a bizarre twist: a lesbian feminist philosopher, Avitall Ronell, has been found guilty of sexual and physical harassment of a gay postgraduate student. As is typical of these cases, the graduate student waited until he got his PhD and a job, and then went stone cold vengeful on a Title IX case, getting Ronell bang for rights and seeing her receive some significant penalties. That’s all par for the course for such a case, but in an interesting and unpleasant diversion from the script, we find that a letter was written to NYU, asking it not to punish Ronell at all. This letter rested not on the facts of the case but on her contribution to scholarship and the belief that her actions were inconceivable. The letter was signed by a bunch of literary theorists and feminists, for whom it is apparently too much to imagine that one of their own could abuse the power that accrues at the giddy heights of academia. This letter appears to have potentially been instigated by Ronell herself, which is going to have serious repercussions for Ronell down the track (retaliation is a very serious offence after a Title IX case, whether the case was settled on behalf of the claimant or not). For those of us who are familiar with academia, this is a depressingly familiar story of professors pulling together to protect their own and the (considerable) power of their office – for many academics (mostly but not all men) the right to fuck and harass your students is a job perk, not a temptation to be avoided; and for a great many academics of all genders and races, the right to exploit and academically harass your students is completely valid. What struck me as interesting in this latest scandal, though, is the presence of Judith Butler, queer theorist and originator of the nasty idea that gender is a performance. She appears to have started and signed the letter, including using her status as president-elect of the Modern Language Association. Judith Butler signed a petition not to convict a rapist in 2004 at University of California Irvine, and she was also present in last year’s transracialism controversy, where she was one of the signatories on the hateful letter to Hypatia to have Rebecca Tuvel’s article In Defense of Transracialism retracted on spurious grounds.

Seeing Butler’s name on the latest scandal reminded me that I wrote a blogpost about transracialism and about this scandal a year ago when it aired. In brief, in March last year a non-tenured female assistant professor at an American University, Rebecca Tuvel, published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia which basically argued that a) the process of becoming transgender is a real thing; b) transracialism has many similarities with the process of becoming transgender; c) if you accept the validity of transgender people’s self-identity, you should probably accept the validity of a person’s choice to be transracial. The article was clear, concise and well argued, very much in the spirit of Peter Singer’s work on vegetarianism and animal rights, or Bertrand Russell’s work on religion and war (I think she is an analytic philosopher and so are they, so that makes sense, though I don’t know much about these categories). For a certain class of American activist academics the implications of this work were terrifying: either they rejected transracialism out of hand for obviously dubious reasons, and were scared that Tuvel’s conclusions would degrade the rights of transgender people; or they didn’t really respect transgender rights, and wanted to stop the extension of transgender rights to transracial rights at any cost. This unholy alliance of idiots conspired to write a letter – with 800 signatories! – demanding Hypatia retract the article. In the process they traduced Tuvel’s reputation, embarrassed the journal and their own field, disgraced themselves, and and signally failed to engage with the substance of Tuvel’s work in any way, shape or form. In addition to all of these stupid failings, they also did their very best to destroy Tuvel’s career, which obviously was the worst consequence of all this bullshit.

So today, seeing Butler and her colleagues at work on this stuff again, I found myself wondering what happened to Tuvel after “that little unpleasantness” in May last year? So I did a search, and I was surprised and pleased to discover that she still has her job at Rhodes (I don’t know if she has been approved for tenure or not, or if it is even possible for an Assistant Professor to get tenure), she is still teaching (including the Freedom and Oppression component of Philosophy 101, haha!) and she lists her work on transracialism as her major research interest, so whatever happened over the past year appears not to have destroyed her passion for this interesting topic [1]. So it appears that any consequences of the brouhaha didn’t affect her work, which is great. I checked the status of her paper on the Hypatia website, and it has been cited 4 times already, though google gives it up to 33 citations. In either case this is excellent – getting 4 citations in the first year of publication of a paper is very good, especially in Philosophy. I think the Hypatia metrics are bodgy though because she definitely has been cited more times than that. In particular, I was cheered to discover that the journal Philosophy Today had a whole special issue responding to her paper. This is frankly awesome – very few academics at any level, no matter how original, get to have a whole journal issue devoted to dissecting their work, and to have this opportunity arise from a controversial work that nearly sunk your career is really good. It’s worth noting that in the wash up of the original scandal the issue is generally positive, including an article on the lack of intellectual generosity shown in the response to her work, and some discussion of its implications for various aspects of theory. Tuvel gets to write a response (of course), which means that she gets an extra publication out of her own work, and a bunch of citations – jolly good!

Tuvel’s response is also well argued and thorough, and written in the same plain and accessible style as the original. She begins by noting that the scandal had a significant effect on her psychological wellbeing, and goes on to criticize the establishment for its terrible response to her paper. She then makes a few points in response to specific criticisms of the notion of transracialism. She makes the point first that many critics of her article wanted it rewritten from their own framework:

Critics of my article commented often on how my paper should have been written, which seemed far too often to collapse into saying how they would have written my paper. But different philosophers ask questions differently; and different methodologies shed light differently. We owe it to each other to respect these differences and to resist the conviction that only one method can properly answer difficult questions.
I thought this at the time – Tuvel had apparently presented this work at a conference and received critical feedback from many of the scholars who wrote the retraction letter, and in the retraction letter it was noted that she did not incorporate any of those criticisms in the final article. Nowhere did they consider the possibility that they were wrong. This aspect of the criticism of her work at the time read as an attempt at gatekeeping or policing the content of work, to ensure not just that the conclusions were politically acceptable but that the methods did not stray from those that the crusty elders of the field had always used. One got the impression that the the “Theory” scholars and continental philosophers were horrified at an analytical philosopher just marching in and stating plainly what was true. Quelle horreur! as the Romans would say.
In her response Tuvel also gets a chance to address the criticism that she did not incorporate more work from “African American” scholars. Here she writes (referencing another writer contributing to the symposium):
Botts suggests that typical of analytic methods, my paper fails to engage lived experience when relevant. She further states that “continental methods are better suited to addressing philosophical questions based in the lived realities of members of marginalized populations (in this case, African Americans and transgender persons)” (Botts 2018: 54). However, my paper is a philosophical examination of the metaphysical and ethical possibility of transracialism, not of the lived experience of African American and transgender persons (or African American transgender persons). Not to mention that Botts ignores the lived experience most relevant to an exploration of transracialism—namely that of self-identified transracial people. Insofar as it considers Rachel Dolezal’s story, my article is indeed attuned to relevant lived experience. As Chloë Taylor likewise notes, my article “reflects on whether Dolezal’s experience of growing up with adopted Black siblings, of having an older Black man in her life whom she calls ‘Dad,’ of estrangement from her white biological parents, of being married to a Black man, might be sufficient for understanding her experience of herself as Black” (Taylor 2018: 7). Botts remarks that the relevant populations for my analysis would have been African American and transgender persons, but she does not explain why engaging the lived experience of these populations would be methodologically sufficient. After all, by comparison, one does not rightly suggest that philosophical explorations of trans womanhood must necessarily consult the lived experience of cis women.

This addresses an important problem when we demand the inclusion of specific lived experiences in philosophy or theory (or public health, though it’s rarer): whose lived experience, and how do we choose these experiences? As I remarked in my original post on this issue, America has an incredibly prejudiced, parochial and exclusionary view of race and gender, which essentially ignores the lived experiences of most of the world, and in my view specifically excludes the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist views of black Africans in choosing to name black Americans “African”, as well as ignoring the experience of women in almost all of the developing world. More abstractly, there are millions of competing lived experiences, and we can’t even know what all these experiences are, let alone access them. Certainly we should all strive to incorporate the opinions and voices of the people our work will affect, or the people about whom we are writing, but that doesn’t mean we can ever be complete in our coverage of these voices, or even know who they all are – we will always miss some. But Tuvel’s critics wanted her specifically to avoid the most relevant lived experiences, in favour of other voices and lives that are much more congenial to her critics (and from whose ranks, primarily, her critics were drawn). That’s not an especially scholarly alternative to what Tuvel did. In fact Tuvel brought an important additional factor to this debate, choosing to address broad concepts and frameworks analytically, using a lived experience as an example, rather than trying to build a broad theory from a few select voices. This is a much more effective way of doing this kind of work[2].

Tuvel further backs this point up with this important warning to critics of abstract reasoning generally:

All too often such imperatives border on an injunction not merely to engage sensitively and carefully but to defer to the concerns of black people—all the while essentializing them into a homogeneous group. Like any massively diverse group of individuals, however, black people are of many different minds regarding qualifications for black racial membership. Consider, among others, Adolph Reed Jr (2015), Camille Gear Rich (2015), and Ann Morning (2017)—all black scholars who have expressed more sympathetic positions on transracialism.

This is important to remember – we don’t just choose specific voices within a group, but we can also defer to them rather than engage with them. This isn’t how we should do theory. I think Tuvel is a prominent advocate for transgender and transracial people, but here she makes clear that when we advocate for them we need to not only be careful about whose lived experience we choose to privilege, but how we engage with it.

Tuvel follows this with a dismissal of an argument that people could self-identify as centaurs (which gives the heading of this post), leading to the kind of excellent statement that can only be found in the best journals: “Centaurs, however, are not an actual ‘human kind’ (see Mallon 2016)”. The reference here is: Mallon, Ron. 2016. The Construction of Human Kinds. New York: Oxford. It appears that the academy has dealt extensively with the nature of centaurs, and concluded they aren’t human. What about the lived experience of Actual Centaurs?! How are we to incorporate this into our work?! And has Mallon considered the possibility that centaurs aren’t just not a “human kind”, but actually don’t exist? It’s good to know that philosophy is covering the important issues!

I would also commend to everyone the section of Tuvel’s response on “Inclusive identities” and the last paragraph of her section on “Analytical Methodology”.  Here she attacks the notion that race should be biologically determined, or based only on ancestry, and makes the important point that a person with no allegiance to black people or culture can be considered to have a more valid voice on blackness than a white person raised in a black community (like Dolezal was) if they have “one drop” of black blood. These kinds of ideas have been used simultaneously to define and destroy indigenous communities over many years, and they are very very dangerous. I would argue that just from a practical political, bloody-minded point of view, it is much much easier to maintain a political campaign for equal representation of Indigenous peoples if you allow self-identification than if you demand arbitrary biological definitions of race. The imperial powers that sought to destroy Indigenous peoples can’t destroy a people whose boundaries they can’t police! [Well, they can – but it’s harder, and at some point they’ll have to deal with the Indigenous people in their own institutions].

This dive back through Tuvel’s post-scandal career has been reassuring – I’m very happy to see that the original signatories not only failed to silence her or damage her career, but actually gave her a boost by instigating an appraisal of her work that bought her a whole special issue of a philosophy journal. This also means that rather than driving her theories away, her critics have forced the philosophy mainstream to engage with them and take them more seriously, which is good for her, good for philosophy and great for all those people who are living transracial lives (who doesn’t want philosophers debating their right to exist!?) I bet her students are happy to be being lectured by someone so radical, and if her lectures are as clear as her writing and theorizing I imagine they are getting an excellent education. She will of course be always known as “that transracialism woman”, and of course it’s still possible that the scandal will affect her career progression even if it doesn’t affect her current status, but I’m glad that the resistance those letter writers received was sufficient to protect her and to support her. It’s a strong reminder that the academy always needs to police itself against the arrogance of its own elite.

As a final aside, Wikipedia reports that the associate editors of Hypatia who signed the letter were forced to resign; the whole brouhaha was referred to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which found that the journal had acted improperly; and subsequently the journal completely revised its procedures and forced all editors and associate editors to sign on to COPE guidelines. The Andrew Mellon Foundation also gave a grant to a university to develop a code of ethics for publishing in philosophy. So even though Tuvel wasn’t directly involved in any of this, her work can be said to have led to significant reforms in the world of feminist philosophy and philosophy publishing. Very few assistant professors can lay claim to such a legacy.

Also, I’m happy to see philosophers have categorically denied centaurs their humanity. Abominations, the lot of them!


fn1: Her publication record has not been updated, however, so it’s possible that she hasn’t updated her research profile, in which case this information may not be up to date. Assistant Professors are very busy and don’t always get to keep their profiles up to date!

fn2: It’s also essential when discussing the rights of people and animals with no voice: the unborn, the very elderly, animals of all kinds, the environment, the illiterate, increasingly criminals … If the lived experience of real people is essential to ground your philosophy, you’re fucked when the people living the experience can’t speak or write.

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!

Recently I had the opportunity to watch three movies in quick succession: Solo, Death Wish and Pacific Rim: Uprising. Solo was kind of fun but overall these three movies were pretty ordinary, and none of them is really worth its own separate review. I thought I’d put reviews of all three in one post, as exemplars of how America’s cultural industries are falling apart before our eyes. It’s worth noting that all three of these movies are either remakes, sequels or part of a “franchise”, so there’s nothing truly original in any of them. In many ways they’re also movies that are designed to appeal, well, not even to the worst elements of our nature, but to the most banal elements of our nature. Is this how western civilization ends: not with a bang or a whimper, but a long drawn-out sigh of boredom?

Pacific Rim: Uprising

I want to start this review by pointing out that just a few years ago, when the Lord of the Rings, was first made (or was it the Hobbit? I forget and don’t care) a bunch of LoTR fanboys were ruing the fact that Guillermo del Toro didn’t get the gig as Director. Surely he, more than Jackson, would have been able to make these movies soar? Well now, having watched him royally fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, are you still sad that he didn’t get to make a movie with dragons and elves? A man who can fuck up a formula as invincibly, trivially easy as giant robots would surely have made an absolute dogs breakfast of something as subtle and culturally significant as LoTR. Thank God Jackson pipped him to that one, because this movie – even more than the shit sandwich that was the first one – was an absolute disaster. The worst thing about it obviously is the two people operating the one machine, in the bullshit “neural mesh” setup, who despite being neurally enmeshed have to operate their stupid giant robot by physically doing whatever it does. Watching the scenes of the soldiers in the brainpod (or whatever stupid name it has) I could only think of those ‘90s comedy skits in which terribly earnest acting school students pretend to be trees or ducks or something. What a fucking joke. Don’t get me wrong, if some idiot paid me a million bucks (or a fraction thereof!) to pretend to be running inside a giant robot I would be all in on that shit, but let’s not pretend it’s a contribution to western civilization. God no, burn that crap down. Also is it just me or is there some new phenomenon in action movies, let’s call it jockburn, where the lead characters are first introduced into the mess hall/ bunk room/ shower room where the other soldiers eat/ reside / fuck and your heart sinks when you realize that you are now going to have to sit through several minutes of macho posturing that is obviously meant to be in the vein of Aliens, but you know before it starts that it isn’t going to come close? And then there is the related experience where the leader is about to make a big speech, and suddenly you know the big speech is coming and you’re going to have to sit through about 20-30 seconds of “stirring” speech about how everyone has to fight and die for glory / the glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child / a sack of French porn and you know it’s going to be a disappointing and shamelessly unselfconscious pile of cliches that will just make you squirm? What do we call that feeling? I think it’s an identifiable and common experience in modern action movies. Occasionally you get a good one (the one at the Gates of Mordor, the speech about taking chances in Rogue One) but mostly they’re just shit. And they aren’ t improved when, as in this movie, they refer to the speech in the previous movie (because that’s how low we have sunk) and try to pretend that this one won’t even be trying. Look, Guillermo (or whoever else squatted out this pile of shit), if your work is so bad that you know ahead of time that it isn’t going to compare to even the last steaming turd you dumped on us, please don’t insult us further by pointing out that you aren’t even phoning it in. Just fuck off home and don’t make this waste of pixels. Oh, and while you’re listening to tips from me, can you please please please drop the daddy issues? They weren’t constant and overwhelming in this movie like they were in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (thank the gods of shit movies that that arsehole had some trouble buried in his twitter feed! Now if we could just kill off the cast we can all go home happy!) but right at the peak of the movie, when they’re about to save the world, someone manages to make the resoundingly important point that the lead character is going to make daddy proud. Really? He’s going to risk his life saving the world and all those billions of people are going to be looking up at him as the dude who saved the world but his real single only concern is that his dead daddy will finally love him? He’s an adult, right? What is wrong with Americans and their daddy issues? Also what is wrong with the Chinese people in this movie? I can’t figure out if they’re meant to be the bad guys or patsies, if there’s a message about copying technology in there, or something else, but why did they have to be such arseholes? Also, when you choose to portray America’s current Big Trade Enemy as arseholes in an action movie, can I suggest that you perhaps go and check on how the Japanese were portrayed in the 1980s and ask yourself if perhaps, just perhaps, you’re just repeating a massive flyblown cliche? Because at this point in the cultural cycle of the west, any opportunity to do something original would be appreciated kthxbai. This movie also suffers from another weird problem of action movies that needs a name, perhaps something like self-referential SNAFU, in which there is a central problem or barrier that they have to overcome through some special means, but at some other point in the movie they immediately do exactly the thing they said they can’t do. In this case we’re told that you can’t make the giant robots (I refuse to call them Jaegers, fuck off) fly because there is no fuel that powerful, but in the very first action scene the stupidly named giant robot with the enormously stupid flail (fuck off already I cannot believe how stupid that flail is) jets out of the ocean and onto land using just the rockets in its feet which is exactly what they said these things can’t do. Also we’re told that they had to build these giant robots to fight the giant monsters because the giant monsters are invincible, presumably cannot be beaten with say a rail gun from space or a missile, but then their solution to the final massive, extra super powerful monster, is to drop a disabled giant robot on it from space. Now I don’t know how much these giant robots weigh but right now the Falcon Heavy rocket can put 64 tons of material in space, so it seems pretty easy and cheap to me to hoist say 600 tons of material into space, stick it all together, and drop it on your annoying giant monster. Why build stupid giant robots that need two terribly earnest method actors to neurally mesh (impossible – method actors don’t have brains) when you could just use your reusable rocket to build a makeshift rail gun at a fraction of the cost? This is the self-referential SNAFU I mentioned earlier. To be clear I don’t care if the pretext of the movie is that we need to build giant robots that can only be driven by method actors but I want the movie to stick to the pretext throughout. Failure to do so bursts me out of the bubble and just leaves me disappointed and feeling ripped off. Which is probably the best description for how this movie leaves you feeling. In conclusion: this movie was a joke of a reheated disaster, and if you can fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, you should fold up your director’s chair and go home.

Death Wish

This movie is a straight remake which has the single redeeming feature of having Bruce Willis in it. Bruce Willis is a legend, and anything he touches is made better (although I note that he was not in either Pacific Rim movie and I think we all know why). I haven’t seen the original but I remember when I was a kid it was hugely controversial because of its ultra violent story and the perhaps morally neutral approach towards vigilantism. Now, 40 years later, as militias roam the landscape and Sasha Baron Cohen can convince American politicians to advertise gun self defense schools for four year olds, we can look back to that time of controversy as a purer, more moral era. Now we can watch as the movie-maker postures through the issue by having talk radio hosts debate whether vigilantism is right or wrong without ever making a decision one way or the other, because heaven knows it would be terrible for someone’s career if they made an actual moral judgment on something as grey and uncertain as whether vigilantism is okay. So it is that Bruce (let’s not waste our time pretending his character has any other name) wanders this morally free and pure space murdering random criminals and getting his own back on the people who refrigerated his wife. Unfortunately for the pretext of this movie, the dudes who refrigerated his wife didn’t really even want to, and they’re just small time criminals, and two of them didn’t really even come across as especially bullying, and we didn’t see their faces, so it’s really really hard to get any strong feeling of revenge when he murders them. In fact it seems pretty clear that two of the criminals, at least, were strong candidates for rehabilitation – they were clearly intending just to rob him, they wanted as little trouble as possible, they didn’t want to hurt anyone, they clearly knew that rape and murder are wrong and should not be done, and they were just trying to make a buck. This isn’t to say they were nice people or anything but here’s the thing: this is a vengeance movie. I absolutely love watching bullies get murdered, beaten up, humiliated and destroyed, it’s pretty much the only reason I am still sitting through Game of Thrones. But for my bullies to deserve brutal murder instead of say 10 years to life, they need to actually appeal to my baser instincts. They need to be real arseholes. Not participants in an armed robbery that went wrong. This is why the only really truly satisfying murder is the death of the Ice Cream Man, who steals children’s money when they walk to school and shoots them in the foot if they don’t pay up. His death – and the subsequent looting, essentially, of his still warm corpse by the residents of the block – was the only satisfying death in this bland flick. The deaths might have been slightly more appealing but there was this additional subtext in this movie that made it really hard to fully get behind our hero Bruce – America’s ridiculous and unsustainable levels of inequality, and rich people’s fear of what will happen when America’s poor decide to do something about it. Bruce is a doctor, he’s obviously super rich, and he works in a hospital – a US hospital. We all know that hospitals in the US are key drivers of inequality, and the doctors who work in them get rich working in institutions that refuse healthcare to people who can’t pay, and bankrupt people who come to them for healthcare with bullshit emergency services like charging $500 for an aspirin. So some poor people break into Bruce the emergency doctor’s house to steal some of his ill-gotten gains, and their theft goes wrong because they’re idiots, so they kill his wife, and then this man goes on a spree, murdering poor people across the city. Additionally, at one point he goes into a gun shop and a smily second amendment girl called “Bethany” tries to sell him some guns and makes it really really fucking clear that she doesn’t care who he is and will sell guns to anyone (though she makes the weak sauce excuse that she doesn’t sell them to criminals haha). This entire fucking movie wouldn’t happen if the gun shop was closed down, “Bethany” was put out of a job (sorry Beth!) and everyone got access to universal health coverage. Bruce wouldn’t have got robbed, nobody would have been able to shoot Bruce’s wife and daughter, and Bruce would be able to go home from his job satisfied that he had spent all day saving lives rather than worried deep down inside that he actually spends all day saving only wealthy lives. And we wouldn’t have to feel guilty about the (only very partial) thrill of watching a rich man hunt down and murder poor people for doing whatever they can to make ends meet in a world with no universal health coverage, no minimum wage, no gun laws and no sense. Now I guess someone is going to come on here and make some stupid point that I’m making excuses for murderers but I hardly need point out that anyone who defends Bruce is also making excuses for murderers. You can’t watch this movie and not make excuses for murderers (well, I guess you could tut!tut! at everything but where’s the fun in that). And if you live in Japan (as I do) you can be confident that nobody’s going to murder you for your watch, certainly not with a gun, and everyone can afford healthcare at Bruce’s swanky hospital, so Bruce’s riches are genuinely morally deserved, and he can be confident that his valet isn’t going to take a screenshot of his navi (except perhaps to steal his daughter’s underwear from the washing line). Call me a sad-arsed SJW if you will, but a movie where Bruce hunts down some people who brutally murdered his family for shits and giggles is slightly more engaging than a movie where Bruce the rich doctor hunts down and murders a bunch of poor people because they tried to rob his wife and daughter in a society where they can afford guns but can’t afford healthcare. (And don’t even get me started on how the cops are underfunded and overworked!) It’s not like these movies can’t be made! Korea makes awesome gangster movies, and Korea has gun control and universal health coverage. When a rich doctor goes on a murder spree in a Korean gangster movie I’m all in. Not so much when it’s against a backdrop of a crumbling empire with a huge inequality and gun problem, the contradictions of its own oligopolic order now so apparent that you simply can’t squint past them anymore. It steals some of the thrill, and it also makes the whole thing just … boring. In crime movie genre terms, making a boring revenge flick is like making a bad giant robot/monster movie. It should be impossible, but somehow whatever loser made this reboot managed to do it. Thanks for your efforts Bruce, but this wasn’t your best showing.

Solo: A star wars movie

This movie was actually fun! The train heist was a gas, and although the Mad Max elements were a bit obvious and overdone it was enjoyable watching the marauders having their fun. Han Solo was kind of forgettable and the less said about Amelia Clark’s acting the better, plus the betrayals and double-crossings were predictable and the bad guys were not exciting. But otherwise the movie kind of hung together, and although the whole thing in the maelstrom was sort of tedious bullshit, at least there was a tenuous effort at explaining the Kessel run, and given they took a short cut it made sense to refer to doing the kessel run in 12 parsecs (also I like that Han rounds it down and it actually took 13 parsecs, nice touch). That fixed a minor issue in the original movie that had always bothered me. Apparently – my friend tells me, because I won’t go into any cesspit of star wars fanboys – lots of people are pissed off with the director for fucking up a few parts of the original canon, because (spoiler alert!) at the end Darth Maul makes an appearance. Apparently the same fan boys who were pissed off that he died 12 years ago are now pissed off that he’s not dead, which doesn’t bother me at all because about the only thing that was good about the three prequels was Darth Maul’s fighting style (which I guess we won’t see him repeat since the stunt actor who did it must have retired). Also Jar Jar Binks, whose contribution to star wars lore by setting up a plausible theory that he was a Sith Lord is probably the only good cultural contribution of the three prequels. But I digress! One aspect of this movie that pissed me off was the way it implies Han started the rebellion by giving the hyperfuel to the tween girl in the groovy mask. In a universe of trillions of people over billions of planets, why does every single thing that affects the history of the universe have to hang on the actions of just four people? Can things be maybe slightly less incestuous? (And on a related note, the idea that Rey’s parents are nobodies is a ridiculous joke. There’s no way an American franchise is going to let that happen). So overall this movie was light, bearable fun. But I think it says something about Disney and modern American entertainment culture that a movie written by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Ron Howard, set in a classic science fiction setting like this, would be just “light, bearable fun,” and that we are satisfied with this because at least he didn’t massively fuck it up.

Which brings me to my conclusion about these three documentaries on America’s cultural decline. What has happened to the production of cultural stuff in America that three movies set in three basically failsafe genres can be so shit that “bearably not fucked up” is our new standard of excellence? And why is it that they can’t make anything original anymore? Almost every action sci-fi now is a super hero movie from the same dumb universe, with no original thought put into any of them. I think the only original movie I have seen in the past three years was Atomic Blonde, and almost everything else has been either a remake, a fixture in an existing franchise or setting, or a sequel. What has happened in the past 30 years that the industry that produced Star Wars, Rambo, Aliens, Robocop, Last of the Mohicans, and that insanely cool Charles Bronson movie about the dude whose dog dies, cannot now produce a single original or interesting movie, and can’t make even half-decent movies in the genres and franchises it already has at its disposal? What’s going on in America now that what was once its powerhouse of cultural production has become so incredibly lame? And what will replace it?

Best not annoy the PLA!

Wolf Warrior 2 is an entertaining Chinese action movie set in Africa. It is the story of Leng Feng, a former special forces soldier in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army who lost his job after killing a corrupt gangster in China (in front of about 10,000 cops, natch), and ends up working in Africa, possibly as a mercenary and bodyguard. Things go wrong for him though when some random bunch of western mercenaries team up with local rebels to try and overthrow the government of the unnamed country where Feng is working. These guys are bad news, too – they don’t have any scruples at all, and are happy to do things like fire rocket propelled grenades into buses full of civilians, and destroy a Doctors Without Borders hospital after executing all its staff. As the rebellion grows in force all the international militaries leave the region, leaving just a couple of Chinese navy ships offshore – but they are unable to interfere because they are not allowed to intervene without UN authorization. China, good global citizens!

This is disaster for a small bunch of Chinese workers left inland, cut off and surrounded by bloodthirsty rebels and their nasty western backers. Fortunately Feng is there, so he grabs a truck and heads inland to save the day. He is accompanied by an American nurse who speaks perfect Chinese (and who knows the Americans will save her because she “tweeted at them on Twitter” haha), a retired Chinese soldier, and a spoiled Chinese boy who comes good at the end. Saving the Chinese workers means a long series of brutal battles with the African rebels and their western paymasters, which includes a pretty cool tank battle and a lot of slaughter of innocents (by the thoroughly reprehensible bad guys).

This is actually an excellent movie. It got a 70% critics review on rotten tomatoes, and an 80% audience review, and it deserves the 70%. The action scenes are well executed, the cinematography is good, the scenery and sets are great, and it has some big set pieces and novel ideas that take the action genre forward a step, to the extent that such a narrow and limited genre can progress at all. It also has a reasonably good sense of humour, decent dialogue and okay acting, which is actually more than one can expect from all but the best action movies. The plot makes sense, though some parts of it are thrown in without much explanation or build up so that they seem more like devices to make the violence hang together rather than a fully developed story. It doesn’t mess around with nuance – Feng isn’t an anti-hero or a conflicted reluctant hero – but in my opinion this is a good thing in action adventure movies. Those grim and conflicted action heroes are just embarrassing, generally – simple, straightforward heroes who do what they have to do and do it well are what we want, and Feng definitely does what he has to do very well. Like most modern action movies it’s too long, and could probably stand to lose a few scenes and be about 20% shorter, but I’m starting to accept that short movies are a thing of the past – 2 hour bloat is just normal in modern cinema.

So overall it’s a fun romp through Africa with a driven and determined Chinese dude on a kind of revenge kick (he has a refrigerated ex who is somehow connected to these mercenaries, presumably from the first movie that I never saw). It’s also interesting because it obviously shows a clear sense of how the Chinese government and leadership want their country’s position on Africa and overseas military intervention to be depicted, and overall it’s a fairly positive story. Unlike the Rambos of American cinema, the Chinese military strictly won’t interfere without UN authorization, and unlike a lot of western heroes Feng didn’t blow in with the latest military adventure to sort out some trouble – he lives in Africa and is doing a good job there minding his own business until African trouble sweeps over his home. When we visit the Chinese factory whose workers he is rescuing, we discover that many of the Chinese workers have African wives and family, and when the Chinese factory leader tries to make the Africans stay behind to be murdered while the Chinese flee, we are clearly meant to understand that this is a terrible thing to do – and Feng steps in to make sure everyone can be helped. The movie has more of a sense of Chinese people embedded in Africa, engaged with it and part of its troubles, rather than swinging in to do a bit of wetwork and swing out again. This is very much in keeping with China’s vision of itself as a neutral mercantile nation with a strict non-interference policy, and it certainly is nice to see a movie where the action hero has to go off alone to do his work because the military that backs him up refuses to do anything illegal – a very different kind of situation to Rambo. This isn’t to say that the movie is free of militaristic propaganda, because in fact it’s up to its neck in pro-PLA propaganda, but the slant of that propaganda is very different to American action movies. There are more action movies coming out of Mainland China, and this story of China as a responsible global citizen is also in the upcoming Operation Red Sea. Chinese militarist action movies are a new thing to me, and it’s interesting to watch them and see how they present China and Chinese strategic interests to the world, and what kind of vision of themselves the Chinese are projecting to the world. And it’s certainly different to the American vision!

So if you want to see a good action movie, I strongly recommend Wolf Warrior 2. You’ll find it doubly enjoyable if, like me, you’re interested in how these kinds of movies reflect and project the culture that made them, and like to try and see the national story that the action is trying to tell. You an also enjoy it as guilt free militarist action, since it’s not set in anything that resembles a real geo-political situation, and every bad guy who gets killed in this movie thoroughly deserves to die. Guilt-free, entertaining militarist action with a fresh worldview – what’s not to like? So if you’re into explosions and insane solo bad-arsed action hero madness, get out and see it!

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