Movie Monday, sorta: Marco Polo


So the long winter nights mean catching up on missed television. Unrelatedly, Movie Mondays are a bit thin on the ground these days because I’ve gone through most of my collection of historical DVDs and most of the historical films on YouTube or streaming services that I can bear to watch. But Netflix has this new show Marco Polo, and over the holidays my wife and I have watched the lot of it. And it’s … OK!

I mean, I’m not saying it’s “historically accurate,” but it takes a bigger bite at historical accuracy than most things that have a character with “Khan” in his name. (The appalling The Conqueror, for instance.) Mind you, when I was a youth my parents gave me a book which I now learn was based on a 1982 series about Marco Polo which seems to be well-regarded. That one was mainly about the friendship between Marco and Zhenjin (called Chinkim in the 1982 series and Jingim in the 2014 one). Anyway, it’s on YouTube for now:

(Holy crap, that thing has Denholm Elliott, David Warner, Burt Lancaster, John Gielgud, F. Murray Abraham, Anne Bancroft, James Hong, Ian McShane and Leonard Nimoy in it!)

Now, I’m not going into detail summarising ten hours of television, and I don’t want to get too spoilery, so let’s take the high-level approach. This is clearly a series in the sort of “The Tudors” / “The Borgias” model, focusing on the intrigues and rivalries at Kublai’s court at Khanbaliq (Cambulac in the series, following, I believe, Polo’s spelling?). It’s a good setting, because you get all these diverse characters — Kublai’s court includes Mongols, Chinese officials, Persians, various Central Asian peoples, loads of other nationalities and of course European wildcard Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy). As the outsider, Marco gets to learn things along with the viewer. Many of the characters are drawn from history, even if they all don’t quite overlap — so Kublai’s brother Ariq shows up as an enemy, for example, although he and Kublai actually fought before the action of the series takes place. For budget or narrative reasons, everything is shrunk down so that the big military conflict is between Kublai (Benedict Wong) and the Song Dynasty, here personified by minister Jia Sidao (Chin Han), over a single city, which narrows the scope a little bit, but I guess all the travelling will be in Season 2.

And then there’s all this other stuff kind of stuck in, like a brush with the Assassins (who did clash with the Mongols, just not these Mongols, I don’t think), and Marco’s training under a blind Wudang monk, Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu), and then there’s a beautiful princess with a dark secret (Zhu Zhu) and a tough princess who kicks ass (Claudia Kim) and a scheming finance minister (Mahesh Jadu) and a big strong principled warrior guy (Uli Latukefu) and a hardass Mongol empress (Joan Chen) and rival Mongol warlords like Kaidu (Rick Yune) and and and …

So, stipulating that this is American TV, it is not (or doesn’t seem to be) appallingly racist! It has its moments — is it OK if we never shoot another scene in which some Chinese-American (or in this case Chinese-Canadian) actress has to purr about forbidden love secrets? Can we do that? — but in general it’s not afraid to let Asian actors take the lead, and it portrays Asian cultures in a respectful (if kind of superficial) way. Marco doesn’t come in and show everybody how to do it — he has a Big Idea at one point, but it’s quickly followed by a reversal that reminds people he can’t just do what everyone else does.

So it’s got pageantry, it’s got anachronisms, it’s got pandering (nudity! Kung fu! Nude kung fu!), it’s got weird moments of historical fidelity, like film-Marco sharing book-Marco’s keen interest in taxation and economics (which turns out to be a plot point, but it’s well-seeded). It’s got totally implausible battle scenes, like the one where Kublai decides that the way to attack a breach in a city wall is with a cavalry charge, it’s got characters who can fling a hairpin with throat-piercing accuracy. I mean, it’s goofy as all hell, but it occurs to me that it’s goofy in a very familiar way.

And then I realised: it’s basically a Chinese historical epic. The larger-than-life characters, the reduction of historical issues to personal rivalries, the shouting-in-unison, the major government officials settling their affairs with kung fu, the whole bit. It’s like any one of a hundred of these things — I’m a total junkie for them; just give me hundreds of guys in elaborate armour rushing into some kind of palace square with pikes and halberds and I’m happy — except they figured out a way to make it with a white dude in the lead and have it make sense.

Which is kind of disappointing, I suppose, but y’know.

To summarise:

  • Historically accurate? Oh my no.
  • Crunchy nuggets of educational value? Sure.
  • Pageantry and display? Check.
  • More respectful of Chinese culture and history than you might expect? Check.
  • Still not free from flaws? Check.
  • Looks great? Check.
  • Good dialogue? Mostly not.
  • Final verdict? S’allright.
Movie Monday, sorta: Marco Polo

Trip report: Cthulhu, Fiction and Real Magic

Yesterday evening I was down in London for a talk by Ian “Cat” Vincent at Treadwell’s Books, the esoteric bookshop in Store Street known for its fascinating and varied lecture series. This shop is definitely in my top 5 things that occasionally make me wish I lived in London before I remember that within a year I would be a helpless, pitiful nervous wreck.

Anyway, the topic of the talk was “Cthulhu, Fiction and Real Magic,” and if you’re familiar with my own Treadwell’s talk you’ll know that kind of thing is right up my street. Or, you know, if you’ve met me, which statistically speaking if you’re reading this blog you have. This is going to be less a trip report and more me just sort of working through the talk and seeing what I make of it.

I was having dinner with much-more-spiritual-person Abi prior to the talk, and generally talking about the premise. It’s something that I find hard to relate to, but also very interesting: not how can people have magical or spiritual beliefs about a made-up entity — obviously, from my skeptical perspective, there’s no way to have magical or spiritual beliefs about a non-made-up entity, although I respect the views of those who differ — but how people can have magical or spiritual beliefs about an entity they are perfectly aware is made up. Abi seems to differ in her view of how many practicing theists actually regard the veracity or otherwise of their religion’s claims as unimportant (I think it’s a lot; she thinks it isn’t), and she should know.

I suppose the model that suggested itself to me was doublethink — that you have to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time, on the one hand well aware that it says “fiction” on the spine of the book, but on the other hand not handling it with the level of critical detachment that would normally imply. Little do I know of magick, but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to approach it in a spirit of critical detachment, which is why I would make a terrible occultist.

If there's one thing I hate, it's a bigoted asshole who's obviously well-adjusted in other ways. I don't hate Lovecraft.
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a bigoted asshole who’s obviously well-adjusted in other ways. I don’t hate Lovecraft.

So, the talk! I think I was probably not in the target audience for the first half — as I commented to another attendee, this was more “Lovecraft for magicians” whereas what I need is “magick for Lovecraftians.” But that’s not anything wrong with the talk — if it hadn’t included this bit, the second part wouldn’t have made sense for many people. The second part, which was about how fictional symbols became an important part of a lot of modern magical or esoteric practices was a lot more interesting. I had never really thought of the importance of Robert Anton Wilson in this context, if only because I am kind of contrary and the people who like Illuminatus! in high school are so fucking irritating about it that I conceived an irrational prejudice against the man and his works. I may be being unfair to them as well: I was a surly, critical youth.

In fact, there’s a lot of connection between theatre and magic in general, isn’t there?  I need some Modern Esotericism 101, and in fact I think I actually have the relevant book on my shelf waiting to be read. I am going to be catching up on things over the holiday, so I’ll make that a priority.

Anyway, we were into the interesting bit, and Vincent talked about the idea of treating mythical or religious figures “as real” for magical purposes, which I think I had encountered elsewhere but forgotten about — that is, for the purposes of what you’re doing you treat things as if they exist, whether they verifiably do exist, are the result of ancient tradition, were made up by someone in the 1920s or were made up just now by you. In fact, as I understand it, you treat even things that are honest-to-god real (yourself, the world around you) with the same sliiiiiiiiight distance that you treat other ‘as real’ things with, which allows you to monkey with them in ways you otherwise might not be able to.

I think I had sort of grasped the basics of this, but he put it in a very clear way, I thought, and I certainly came away feeling like I understood that aspect of it better. Before I go on to the big question that this all left me with, let me bullet point some other things I jotted down during the talk:

  • As an optimist, he doesn’t see True Detective’s ending as a lazy cop-out.
  • Does this kind of pop-culture esotericism represent a form of cultural appropriation? Some traditionalist groups believe so. He was very strongly against cultural appropriation in the question-and-answer section, but it’s hard to see why given the radical individualism of the belief system he sketched out during the talk. In fact, he quoted at length a bit from Doktor Sleepless that blasted the whole notion of “authenticity.” Not sure how that marries up with liberal scruples about cultural appropriation.
  • He thinks the Call of Cthulhu RPG (about which I have written at my gaming blog) is important in this story, and I couldn’t agree more. Quote: “there’s no small similarity between a good roleplay session and a guided pathworking.”
  • “Parts of the Mythos started to leak into the occult counterculture.” I think Lovecraft started to spread into the counterculture generally in the post-war period, and that’s what’s fascinating about the whole thing to me, because he is not an obvious fit at all.
  • I cannot agree with the idea that Stuart Gordon’s Dagon has a more interesting take on the sexual aspects of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” In “Shadow,” the people of Innsmouth have voluntarily agreed to mate with monsters in exchange for power and wealth — relative power and wealth, since mating with monsters means they still live in a filthy craphole. In Dagon, nubile young women get raped by monsters. One of these is a legitimately creepy idea, and one of them is the same goddamn thing that’s in every horror story ever. (I’m torn which of these is more sexist: 2/3 of the female characters in Dagon are raped or symbolically raped by monsters, and the remaining one is a monster. But there are basically no female characters in “Shadow” at all.)

Which leads me to the question I asked at the end. I felt like the second half of this talk did a good job of explaining the role that fictional beings play in “hyperreal religion,” but the big question I had come in with was still unanswered: why Lovecraft? Like, why Lovecraft in particular? Is it just because the Cthulhu Mythos is cool? Is it just because magick enthusiasts are a bunch of geeks? Because the whole authenticity-is-meaningless idea is something Lovecraft definitely believed, and yet at the same time authenticity was incredibly important  to him — he called it a “comforting illusion” without which nothing would mean anything.

Now I think that what people who put an optimistic spin on Lovecraft in their religious or magical beliefs have done is to add an extra thought onto Lovecraft’s way of thinking about identity, and almost certainly a much healthier one, at least for modern Westerners. In my talk, I summarised Lovecraft’s view of history as “if your past isn’t what you thought it was, then you aren’t who you thought you were, and if you aren’t who you thought you were, you’re a monster at best and nothing at worst.” I then suggested that the chaos-magick take on this would be something to the tune of “if you aren’t who you thought you were, then maybe you can be whoever you want to be.” Lovecraft experienced the identity assigned to him by society as protective, but for some (maybe many, many) people, the identity assigned by society is not protective but restrictive.

Now I know that so far this has mostly been me rambling about my own thinking on Lovecraft rather than properly reporting on the talk, but I think you can take that as an indicator of the quality of the talk! It suggested connections that I hadn’t thought of and showed me a question I’d been perplexed by from another perspective.

I do have some nitpicks, though. In particular, the history of Lovecraft and the Mythos that opened the talk is not quite done yet; some of it seems to have been done from memory and it could use a spot of fact-checking. That’s a minor point, though.

So yeah. Good talk, good questions afterward, Treadwell’s always a lovely place. It was nice to meet Justin Woodman afterward, as well.

Trip report: Cthulhu, Fiction and Real Magic