Movie Monday: Bridge of Spies (2015)

In the many years of Movie Monday on this blog — honestly, it’s been the most consistent feature — I have mainly focused on trash. This is for a number of reasons: a lot of it is easy to find on the web, it’s fun to write about and, crucially, it tends to be short, with glaring flaws that I can make funny jokes about.

So here I am writing about a Big Serious Film from Big Name Director Steven Spielberg, and it’s about the Cold War and oh Lord here we go.

Bridge of Spies Launch One Sheet

OK, so. Bridge of Spies is based on a thing that did really happen, and is pretty faithful to its inspiration by the standards of a historical drama. In 1957, the FBI arrested a Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (here played by Mark Rylance); he was defended by a lawyer named James B. Donovan (Hanks), who fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court despite the fact that no one wanted the guy acquitted. In 1961, Donovan was also involved in exchanging Abel for good ol’ Francis Gary Powers, the pilot whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down by the Soviets in 1960, together with an American grad student named Frederic Pryor who had been arrested by the East Germans basically for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And that’s quite an interesting story, but as we all know, historical movies must be About Something. So what is Bridge of Spies about?

Well, I guess it’s supposed to be about integrity. Donovan is supposed to be a guy who is sort of fundamentally honest, willing to appeal the Abel case because Those Are the Rules, but who grows into a more humane honesty when he tries to save Pryor (who is of no value as an intelligence asset) as well as Powers (who is, of course, very valuable).

Cold War movies tend to be spy thrillers, war movies or stories about finding the shared humanity with people who are supposed to be your enemies. Unless they’re set exclusively in America, in which case they’re about people of principle standing up to a paranoid and repressive American security state (e.g. Good Night and Good Luck). Here, it’s … a little more complicated?

So we start out with the story of Donovan v. Paranoid and Repressive American Security State (hereinafter PRASS). In this one, PRASS, in the persons of a cynical CIA agent (Scott Shepherd), a rich jerk judge (Dakin Matthews), a rich jerk law boss (Alan Alda), and so on, wants Donovan to just bend the rules (inform on Abel, take a dive in court) for the sake of America, but he believes that the rules are America, fights hard for his client and his principles, and incidentally becomes friends with Abel, who is an unassuming guy with a wry sense of humour.

Now that might lead you to think that this is one of those movies about how the Cold War twisted American society into a rotten old maze of institutionalised hatred and partisan self-interest and whatnot, but in the second part of the movie our action moves to East Germany. And of course East Germany is a total shitshow, a mixture of repressive institutions, desperate poverty and the good ol’ Russian boot. And once there things become even twistier and more ambiguous than they were back in the US.

Put these two parts together and the movie becomes both more nuanced and a little simpler: the world is a snaky mess of dirtbags, even if they are dirtbags with nuance and human value, and in such a world it’s important to be as little of a dirtbag as you can be. Something like that, anyway? I mean, you know, Tom Hanks as a figure of weary everyman integrity, just like … most movies.

Historically, it does the things most such films do: it compresses its story, it punches it up and it simplifies it. So, for instance, people were not happy with Donovan in real life, but in the movie someone shoots at his house, which I believe did not happen. Pryor was arrested in East Berlin, but in the movie East German troops beat him up at a half-built Berlin Wall, which was already complete by the time he was arrested. Donovan had a rough time in East Berlin, but he didn’t get mugged like he does in the movie, I don’t think. And of course the film just basically skips the years between 1958 and 1961, making it seem like the whole story takes place in the space of, I don’t know, a few months.

Movie-wise, you know, it’s a film about the Cold War that does, I think, a pretty decent job of showing the murkiness of international relations of the era and which, while critical of American institutions, doesn’t sugar-coat the nature of Eastern Bloc states in doing so. Oh, and it actually deals with the differences between the USSR and its clients, which is something you don’t often see. And it has good performances and a pretty good script and a good general sense of the weirdness of things. It’s not exactly a thrill a minute, but I enjoyed it.

Movie Monday: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Stealing saints

So, a recent episode of the Fencast talked about stealing saints’ relics from one church to take them to another. This might seem like a shocking thing, but it wasn’t actually uncommon in the middle ages, particularly in the early period.

I’ve written about one example before — the removal of the bones of Saint Oswald from Lincolnshire by the Mercians — but there are plenty of others you can look at. This type of thing is known as furta sacra, or “holy theft,” and it rests on a whole bunch of weird assumptions about the power of a saint. I believe, and I speak subject to correction, that the definitive book on the topic is still Furta Sacra by Patrick Geary. It’s not a specifically English thing, either — it happened to no less a luminary than Saint Nicholas, whose remains were swiped and translated to the Italian town of Bari, which is how he became the patron of good ol’ Bohemond of Taranto. Naturally, later sources claimed that Saint Nicholas appeared in a vision to the Italian sailors who nicked them and told them they should take his bones.

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Here’s where they stashed the loot.

Same thing happened with Saint Mark in the 9th century; his bones were “rescued” from Alexandria by the Venetians and smuggled out of Egypt concealed under a layer of pork to confuse the Muslim customs inspectors.

So yeah: stealing saints’ bones is a grand old Christian tradition. Doesn’t seem like it should be, but that’s real life for you.

Stealing saints

Movie Monday: Flyboys (2006)

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Right, so. During WWI, before the Americans joined in, American volunteer pilots sometimes served with the French air force. They were organised into the Escadrille de Lafayette, which is similar to be not exactly the same as the Lafayette Flying Corps. This film is about those pilots, although it plays pretty loosey-goosey with the history.

Honestly, you can make a long list of the inaccuracies in this film, and many have. The airplane models they show weren’t all flying at the same time, for instance, which is the kind of thing people who go to see WWI films notice but not something I would have spotted myself. It simplifies and condenses and exaggerates and so on, but honestly even that’s not the real problem with it.

It’s just … honestly, this thing could just have been called War Movie.

I mean, there’s a rag-tag bunch of pilots: a rich jerk, an idealistic one, a black guy, a grizzled veteran, etc., etc., etc., and each has a one-sentence plotline. There’s a rootless young hero (James Franco) and a gruff French officer (Jean Reno, because who else), and there’s a noble German who gets killed anyway and a vicious German who kills the secondary good guy but gets his comeuppance in the end. And there’s a pretty girl raising some adorable moppets and they have a sweet love story even though, how whimsical, she doesn’t really speak English and he doesn’t really speak French, and, like, basically …

… if I asked you to sit down and write a movie in which James Franco plays an American airman in France in WWI and I didn’t tell you anything else about the plot, you would write this movie, more or less.

So how much you like this movie depends on how much you like dogfighting sequences and scenes of camp life. From that perspective, it’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. Everybody in it does a fine job. It has fight scenes and landscapes and clearly they spent some money on the sets and things, but just …

… just who cares, really? If you know enough about American service in France during WWI to fit on the back of an envelope, you won’t really learn anything new, and you won’t really be surprised (other than by the resolution of the love story, which I have to admit threw me). So if you like seeing planes fly around and blow up and you’ve already watched Red Tails, which has really good dogfights to go with its absolutely average script, you could watch this, I guess.

OK, I’m being unfair. Here’s a good thing: this is a WWI movie that makes it clear that this is a French conflict and the Americans are a sideshow, and doesn’t try to make the French look bad in any way. So that’s nice.

Movie Monday: Flyboys (2006)

Listen to my voice!

So, I appeared on a podcast! A few weeks ago I dropped in to Huntingdon Community Radio and recorded an episode of the Fencast, a podcast that is all about the local history and legends of the Fen region. I was there to talk about Hereward the Wake and the siege of Ely; I’m not an expert on that, but it’s my period and I think we had a fun conversation during which I made at least one pretty decent point.

In any event, you can find it by just searching for Fencast in your favourite podcast app, or you can download episodes from their website. If you’re interested in folk tales and local history, definitely check out the other episodes too!

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Listen to my voice!

TV Tuesday:Vikings again (again)

(Contains spoilers for the ninth century.)

So it’s been quite a while since I last updated my ongoing account of watching Vikings. And in that time, well … a lot has happened. The fourth season is now wrapped up and things are pretty different from back when they started. Honestly, back in season one I assumed that the plot currently developing — the death of Ragnar and the invasion of England by the “Great Army” — was going to be the main plot of the whole series, but now we’re halfway through the second part of season four, a group of episodes that I still maintain is actually season five. So let’s get down to it.

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Now, I thought the first part of this season — oh heck, let’s call it season 4.1. 4.1 boldly hacked away all the plots no one gave a crap about, like Yidu and whatever Odo was up to, killed off the characters and forgot about them. But it looks like 4.2 is warming up to kill off all its main characters and replace them with an entirely new generation. Ultimately the show is gonna be about Alfred vs the Ragnarssons.

Now, that is very in keeping with the idea that this is a saga, isn’t it? A generational story full of revenges and curses and what have you. If you were going to make a Viking story, that’s the kind of story you would make, even if the details don’t marry up with any particular saga or any particular series of historical events.

But it’s an odd kind of television series. Actually, now that I think about it, I suppose that’s very close to its most obvious model, Game of Thrones, which has shed quite a lot of main characters and gained new ones along the way. Still, Game of Thrones does keep a number of its leads from its first series, while by the time this is done there’s going to be almost no one left in this thing. Like I said, interesting.

As always, the historical accuracy is pretty … approximate, and the costumes and sets are more Skyrim than early middle ages. It continues to look good — it’s well shot, and they’ve clearly spent some money on it. The writing still lags behind the production, although many of the performances are excellent.

Anyway, I have six or seven episodes to cover, so I will just give a quick overview of the points that caught my attention:

  • I do like the way that they have sort of split up elements of Ragnar’s personality among the sons: Ivarr the devious little bastard, Bjorn the warrior, Ubbe the politician, Sigurd and Hvitserk the … other ones. UPDATE: I guess Sigurd is the sensitive one.
  • The geography of the show continues to be maddeningly unclear. In this season they talk as if they’re from Norway, but I could swear that in previous seasons they were in Denmark. Hedeby is undeniably in Denmark, despite its icy mountainous landscape. They talk about Sweden as if it’s the moon — people have come from as far away as Sweden! — but didn’t they go to Sweden back in season 1?
  • Egbert remains simultaneously interesting and infuriating as a character. Writers often want to make a character devious but struggle with the external constraints that would make that deviousness work, since that kind of worldbuilding is not considered to be good television.
  • I like the way Lagertha’s shieldmadiens have turned into a sort of elite corps/personal bodyguard in an army that otherwise includes both women and men.
  • I assume Ivarr wears a scarf over his face when riding his chariot to hide the fact that he’s a stunt double most of the time?
  • Harald’s love interest(ish) is called “Elisif,” which I always thought was a Norse way of saying “Elizabeth,” which is weird in a pagan culture, no? Also, is it just me or does that plot go precisely nowhere? It’s not like the narrative isn’t pretty crowded already.
  • Gustaf Skarsgard has been the high point of pretty much each season, and nothing changes in this one.
  • I do like the idea that political and military turmoil back home happens when the army is off invading places — this was a very real feature of medieval warfare.
  • Aelle is, once again, a circumstantially convenient idiot. He’s totally taken aback by the size of the Ragnarssons’ army, because … his guys who spotted the attacking force don’t know how to count ships and multiply them by the number of dudes in a ship? Again, the “heroes” get to look good by the simple expedient of having their opponents take a dive like idiots. See also breaking formation to do a wild infantry charge at approaching cavalry.
  • Rituals and magic continue to be eerie and interesting. Is this the first time this series has had genuinely supernatural omens? I mean, Harbard was left ambiguous as best I remember, but to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention after he turned out not to be a trash-talking magic ferryman like the actual Harbard.
  • The destruction of the Winchester sets we’re so familiar with is surprisingly moving.
  • In terms of defensive strategies in a town made of wood and thatch, starting a huge fucking fire seems like it should be toward the bottom of the list, but filmmakers are obsessed with the idea of lighting things on fire.
  • Aw, poor old Torve. Didn’t see that one coming ha ha j/k they gave her a line about how she would definitely see Bjorn again. What did we think was gonna happen?
  • Hey, it’s Jonathan Rhys-Meyers! Playing The Sex Bishop! That’s not what I think of when I think of Saint Heahmund but to be honest I have never really thought of Saint Heahmund until this very minute, so.
  • Main character death count so far: Aslaug, Ragnar, Helga, Egbert. Not-main-but-important characters dead: Aelle, Torve. Who-gives-a-shit characters dead: Egil, Elisif, whatsername (aside: if this show was gonna have only one Muslim character, I don’t know about making her a war orphan / suicide knifer, no matter how richly Helga deserved it). Are the only characters left alive from Season 1 Floki, Rollo and Lagertha? I mean, OK, Bjorn was in Season 1, but different actor. Was Aethelwulf in Season 1? I don’t remember.
  • Perhaps all my criticisms simply amount to “it looks good but don’t think about it too hard.”

 

TV Tuesday:Vikings again (again)

Evans, Trump, postmodernism

OK, so, this might be a long one. Bear with me.

I was an undergraduate in 1999 when Richard Evans’ In Defence of History came out. Indeed, I may have been genning up for the Historical Method and Theory paper. I wound up writing about the use of archaeological evidence, which was prescient of me, but at the time Evans’ book was the latest thing, the more so since he then came to Cambridge, an event celebrated by a very public debate with Quentin Skinner and … er … someone else. It was a long time ago. In the book, Evans argued against what he saw as a postmodernist disregard for truth and further argued that this kind of thing gave aid and comfort to those with no regard for truth — creationists, holocaust deniers and so on.

I am far from being an expert on postmodernism, but I recall thinking as I read the book that I suspected that Evans was cherrypicking extreme and possibly unrepresentative examples of postmodern history to beat on, which I believe was a common complaint at the time. I’m also not 100% convinced that when Evans and the people he attacked talk about “facts” they’re really talking about the same thing at all, a criticism which I believe has been made better elsewhere. If you’re interested in the debate, there’s a good chunk of it here, as Evans and his critics battle back and forth in honour of the release of a new edition of E. H. Carr’s classic What Is History. (That’s not the exact edition, so if you want to get the one with Evans’ foreword you’ll have to look for the one with a big blue eye on the cover.)

But I’m not really interested in talking about Evans’ full-throated defence of good ol’ “common sense” empiricism, not least since I suspect that even the most radical deconstructionist still shares 90% of their historical DNA with a commonsense empiricist. It’s the other point that I wanted to talk about today, since it turns out that Richard Evans has a Twitter account.

If you missed this, which I suppose is possible, it’s about the recent inauguration of US President Donald Trump. Trump got a moderate-to-small-sized crowd for his inauguration, which is understandable given that a) he’s very unpopular, b) he’s especially unpopular in Washington, and c) it was a rainy Friday afternoon. But this wasn’t good enough for Trump, who is a) a dipshit manchild and b) the President of the United States, and he sent his hapless press secretary Sean Spicer out to give the media a tongue lashing for believing their lyin’ eyes instead of the Real Truth. He got raked over the coals for this by the unsympathetic papers, as well he might. As the totally unnecessary controversy persisted, Trump surrogate Kellyanne Conway tried to defend Spicer on Meet the Press and wound up making an even bigger arse of herself, claiming that Spicer was merely presenting “alternative facts.”

Cue outrage from everyone you might expect: there’s no such thing as “alternative facts!” Post-truth era! To what has our society come! People were quick to blame the Internet, Fox News, partisanship, whatever. And Evans jumped in to blame … postmodernism. And, in the same way that I don’t think holocaust denial and postmodernism have a lot to do with each other, I’m not wholly convinced the connection is as strong as it might be in this case.

Let’s get the two obvious objections out of the way. First, Conway probably misspoke. When she said “alternative facts,” she seems to have meant something like “facts that support another interpretation” not “there’s no such thing as truth, ha ha ha.” People who care about truth seized on this because it was the perfect two-word encapsulation of Trump’s shameless, unrestrained mendacity, not because they actually think Kellyanne Conway doesn’t believe in facts.

Secondly, the historical idea that Donald Trump is somehow steeped in postmodernist discourse is absurd. For one thing, he’s 70 years old and went to university in the 60s. For another, he was an economics major. And for yet another, he’s … I mean, he’s not a big reader. People in a position to know have speculated that he has not read a book from beginning to end in fifty years. The idea that he himself is a product of the postmodern university environment is so goddamn dumb it can’t possibly be what Evans intended.

Indeed, Evans clarified later that he was referring to people like Conway and Spicer, who graduated from university in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Kellyanne Conway went to a Catholic university, Trinity Washington (it was called Trinity College back then) and studied political science. I don’t know if it was a hotbed of postmodernism, but superficially it seems unlikely. Spicer, perhaps, is a more likely candidate — he went to a small private liberal arts college in Connecticut, so maybe it was  nothing but dope-smoking Derrida freaks, I don’t know.

But it’s not like Spicer came out and told the press corps that relative crowd size was a story inscribed on the past by the media and that they should be open to a multivocal inaugural narrative. He came out and shouted at them that they were misrepresenting what he presented as the real truth, bolstered by mock-evidence in the form of misleading photographs and made-up statistics. He didn’t act like a postmodernist, he acted like a conspiracy freak, or if you prefer, a hoaxer.

So we can rule out the idea, I think, that Conway, Spicer or Trump subscribe personally to postmodern theories of, I don’t know, incredulity toward hegemonic narratives. Did I say I wasn’t an expert on postmodernism? Conway and Spicer are the usual combination of cynical opportunism and partisan blindness, while Trump is a combination of a bullshitter in the Frankfurtian sense and a goofy old dope who only knows what he sees on television. You don’t need to have “imbibed relativism” to be a powerful man’s cringing toady or a self-involved fantasist. So what does this have to do with postmodernism?

As it happens, Evans thinks that postmodernism has created an academic environment in which conspiracy freaks who might otherwise be laughed to scorn now get an equal hearing. And there’s … a leetle bit of evidence to support that. I was once at an archaeological confidence where goofball fantasist Michael Cremo (who is a very nice and affable man in person) was invited to speak. And while everyone at the conference knew that this was some kind of weird academic performance/joke/provocation by organiser Cornelius Holtorf in which young defenders of archaeological orthodoxy were tested by their exposure to a pseudo-archaeologist in person, it’s just possible that someone was persuaded by Cremo who wouldn’t otherwise have been because he was able to put “invited to speak at the 2007 conference of the European Association of Archaeologists.” I don’t think it’s likely, but I won’t rule it out.

So perhaps post-modernism has made people more willing to be tolerant of goofuses. But, and assuming this is directed at the media and the left generally, I have not noticed that kind of tolerance being extended to groups like, say, the Tea Party, who most people are happy to point out were a bunch of conspiracy fabulists. The US media’s ludicrous refusal to call a lie a lie until recently, so decried by the left during the Bush years, actually stems from the opposite of postmodern concepts — a strict insistence on “objectivity” and “neutrality.” As I understand postmodern thought — and again, not an expert — postmodernists don’t believe in those things. And not like “don’t believe in slavery” don’t believe, but like “don’t believe in unicorns” don’t believe.

So I think it’s very hard to identify the roots of either Trump’s lying or people’s responses to it in relativist indoctriation.

One of the things that people always say about Trump is “this is not normal.” And within the confines of 20th-century American politics, it’s not. But within the sweep of global history, outrageous political lying is hardly unusual. Hitler accused the Jewish community of all kinds of shenanigans, French revolutionaries saw counter-revolutionary conspiracies where there were none (and sometimes where there were), medieval preachers accused Muslims of horrible atrocities, blah blah blah. People often propound, and almost as often believe, what they need to be true. Obviously, this is a historical phenomenon that predates Trump or American politics generally.

The specific form this takes is one that’s bolstered by a world in which there is no longer a single, authoritative voice to heed. There’s no longer someone you can just rely on, whether a Pope, a king, or an expert. Authority hasn’t spoken with a single voice in a long time, not since printing presses became cheap enough that there was one per political party. And with the growth of cable news, the internet, social media, well … you know the story. Your friend shows you a link from realobviousnews.com and you think well, maybe. But the way in which these different truths are contested isn’t the postmodern one; it’s the conspiratorial one. The real facts are these — the man / big business / SJWs / whoever don’t want you to know them!

You could argue, I suppose, that postmodernism as a way of thinking about knowledge had to result from a society in which this diversity of opinion existed — and furthermore, perhaps, from a society in which some sort of more-or-less, rough-and-ready sense of empiricism was the force that was supposed to counteract that. But it seems to me anyway that opportunistic political liars and/or cranks would use the proliferation of partisan and conspiratorial viewpoints as cover, with or without postmodernism. In fact, surely you can see that exact phenomenon in fields that have never had any real dealings with postmodernism? If you look at medicine, for instance, it’s not like there aren’t snake-oil salesmen, quacks, well-meaning but wrong mystics, “alternative” medicine advocates and whatever other kind of pseudoscientist you can think of, all peddling their wares and increasing their power in a field that you can hardly say has been corrupted by the creeping relativism of the Continent. But the same media and technological trends exist for doctors as for everyone else.

(Medicine, in fact, provides a fine example of the idea that the certainty of truth claims and the, er, truth of them aren’t correlated. In the Middle Ages everyone was pretty much on the same page in terms of the value of truth and falsehood, but they didn’t know shit about anything. But that’s a separate issue.)

Anyway, I thought wild generalisation unsupported by evidence was what we objected to about the French.

Evans, Trump, postmodernism

Sundiata and Alexander

I have been trying to read more this year, trying to get off social media and actually put a book or two in my head. So far it seems to have been working! One of the books I read this January was D. T. Niane’s Sundiata: an epic of old Mali, which I picked up in a charity shop ages ago and then just never got around to reading. It’s a fascinating read — the epic tale of West Africa’s equivalent of King Arthur. Sorcerers! Battles! Prophecies! Severed heads! It’s got everything you want from a medieval epic; I sort of want to see the movie. Sadly, this one’s out of print, and the revised edition seems really expensive, but there are other books on Sundiata you can check out.

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One thing that I thought was really interesting about the story was the historical comparisons. Sundiata is a 13th-century figure, and the stories about him are mostly later, of course. But the figure that Sundiata gets compared to most isn’t a medieval figure. In fact, it isn’t even an Islamic figure, although his dynasty does claim descent (or early association?) with one of the companions of the Prophet. No, it’s Alexander the Great.

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He also listened to the history of the kings which Balla Fasséké told him; enraptured by the story of Alexander the Great, the mighty king of gold and silver; whose shone over quite half the world.

And this isn’t just one case. Sundiata is compared to, or said to be inspired by, Alexander frequently throughout the text. Indeed, he’s compared to him more than to any other historical figure. Heck, I think it might be the only historical comparison in the story. Apparently there was a historical tradition that said there were seven conquerors in history, with Alexander being the second and Sundiata the seventh and last. This looks like it comes from the Muslim traditions about Alexander.

I don’t know what my point is here, other than that I was not expecting to see such an interest in Alexander in medieval West Africa, although in retrospect it should seem obvious that there would be, just as there was in medieval Europe and the Near East.

Sundiata and Alexander