TV Tuesday: Vikings Season 3

So I have spoken previously about Vikings, the show on the History Channel which we get on Amazon UK. I am now caught up as far as the middle of Season 3, which I think is as much as is out there. And it’s … interesting.

So there are a few trends I’ve been noticing in this season, and I wonder if anyone else watching the show feels the same way.

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Less GoT-ification? Last season it seemed like there was a lot of kind of implausible Game of Thrones sex plot (or I, Claudius if you’re nasty) and that seems to have dried up a little. Instead of Cwenthryth being just some louche debauchery queen who turns up and has sex with a bunch of Ecbert’s troops, we see her as someone who’s stranger and more sort of psychologically complicated (although still in corny TV-show ways, of course; it’s still Vikings). And although there is still a lot of focus on the screwing, it seems a little more subdued. At least to my eye, but what do I know?

Doubling down on the timeline! I have to confess this one surprised me. Obviously the very beginning of the first season set us up for the well-known story of Ragnar getting killed and his sons seeking vengeance. But then this thing with Judith is just … OK, let me ask this. What year is it? Because we’ve got the Vikings making first contact with England (the 790s), the birth of Alfred the Great (the 840s), and the life of Rollo (the 900s). And I thought they were just going to fudge that, but no, they keep reinforcing the idea of tying the story to specific historical figures. Like, people claim that The Tudors is historically inaccurate, and it absolutely is, but at least like Richard III doesn’t show up in it. But the show seems determined to go full Perry Bible Fellowship.

I still don’t care about Torstein. Back at the beginning, Ragnar had this little posse of Viking warrior dudes: there was Rollo and Floki and Lagertha and The Tall One and The One With One Eye and The Other One. Two seasons later, The Other One gets a dramatic arc wrap-up, but … did he have an arc in the first place? As far as I can remember, he just delivered news occasionally. I may be forgetting a bunch of interesting stuff he did.

Sorry, Torstein. It's not your fault you didn't get good stories.
Sorry, Torstein. It’s not your fault you didn’t get good stories.

Ambiguously supernatural stuff! This is my favourite part of this season. Frankly, this show could be Ambiguously Supernatural Adventures and I’d be happy. The more this is about some Legends of the Old West-type historical mythology rather than “well, you know, the Vikings blah blah blah,” the happier I am.

Battle scenes continue to bore. So the big battle at the beginning of Season 2 had some character development in it, and so did the one in this season where the thing happened with Thorunn; I don’t want to spoil it. But for the most part, the fights are just frustrating. They’re just a bunch of dudes running at each other and clanging their swords together, and they’re set up so that we feel like Ragnar is a cheat. Like, he has no business winning some of these things. I swear he makes an opposed landing out of his longships at one point and the Mercian archers just stand there with their thumbs up their butts (not that there were probably a lot of organised archers in early medieval armies, but leave that aside for the moment), zipping off an arrow every now and again.

It just feels fake — the show, intentionally or not, sets up the scene as “this is going to be really difficult,” but then Ragnar just walks it without any real effort to show how he overcame the difficulty.

Clothes and hair. I miss Bjorn’s Bayeux Tapestry hair, and I note that Ragnar is still sewing the seams of his shirts closed with what appears to be some kind of electrical cable. He must be cold as shit. Everything is all black and grey and blue, because that is what colour things were in the past as any fule kno. Sometimes you wonder if people actually think about Viking age costumes or whether they just lie down and go “let me imagine someone who’s tough-looking. What does it mean to be tough?” In the 1950s and 60s, apparently the answer was “little leather shorts,” and in the modern day apparently it means “doesn’t know anyone who can sew.”

Why is everyone I know a scumbag? One of the most irritating things about Sons of Anarchy was that in order to maintain the premise, the show had to keep conserving its characters, which led to this situation where whatsisname, y’know, Hamlet, was forever trusting people who had clearly betrayed him in the past and had no motive to change. In Vikings, this isn’t as bad, because the cast of available supporting characters actually has a good in-narrative reason to be limited — there’s only so many jarls or whatever around. Additionally, this is the kind of political behaviour you see all the time in the sagas, with people being enemies one minute and kinda-sorta allies the next. It’s nice to see it on screen. And then again, it’s all backed up by the knowledge that Ragnar is eventually going to get his comeuppance eventually (probably).

So yeah, I’m going to keep watching and enjoy the occasionally great shots (of the stark, mountainous landscape of, er, southern Denmark … ) and the fun little character moments and wish they could get someone who could write some dialogue. I think it’s very interesting that this show continues to exist.

I guess this would be the time to mention that I wrote a little Lovecraft-influenced horror novella set in the Viking age. I’m very diffident about everything I do, but if you think that it sounds interesting, you can find the links to buy it here.

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TV Tuesday: Vikings Season 3

Mini Movie Monday: The Roundup

A few quick thoughts on things that I’ve seen recently, some of them on planes.

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The Imitation Game: As you know if you’ve seen this movie, know anything about the history of WWII cryptography or have been breathing the air in the UK since it came out, The Imitation Game is just a tissue of historical inaccuracies. Some of these (reducing the cast, making the individual breakthroughs seem much more important than they really were, introducing John Cairncross, turning Charles Dance’s guy into a baddie) are done in the name of taking complex, narratively-unsatisfying real life and turning it into a story with a protagonist who has an arc, and conflicts, and blah blah blah blah. But some of the other changes — most notably the portrayal of Turing — are a little different.

For instance: Turing was almost certainly not the hyper-rational, joke-blind character the film depicts. Apparently, this is artistic: because a Turing test is about whether you can tell if someone’s a human or a computer, get it? Get it? Damn, son, no wonder this got Best Adapted Screenplay. To cap it off, the screenwriter said, and I am not making this up, that “you don’t fact-check Monet’s Water Lilies.” Because the purpose of the film is to help you understand what it would feel like to be Alan Turing, see? That’s why they changed his personality to be Sheldon Cooper, not because the only way Hollywood can understand smart people is by making them super awkward and mechanical or because Benedict Cumberbatch already plays an ice-cold misanthrope on TV. No, no. It’s impressionism. You might think that’s facile and ignorant, but you don’t have an Academy Award, do you?

The worst part of it is that that “historical impressionism” idea is actually a really good way of summing up the right way to do historical filmmaking. Like, if they had actually given a broad-strokes picture of Turing that focused mainly on his drives and passions rather than on getting every detail exactly right, that would be great. Instead, they just made the exact same goddamn Math Is Hard Hollywood Science Movie everyone makes.

Whatever; no matter how fast he’s wearing out his welcome, Benedict Cumberbatch can act, and it looks pretty and I saw it on the plane so I didn’t pay for it. It’s not even a bad film, but Hollywood has always struggled to make historical films and films about science. Both at once was probably just too much to ask.

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Fury: I have spoken before about the thing where a World War II film necessarily has to be all faded and desaturated and grey because everyone knows that colours were rationed for the war effort or whatever. There’s a lot to be said about the idea that a particular filmmaking technique is a sign of realism (like everyone being covered in grime in the middle ages because no one ever washes even though the women all have perfectly smooth legs and armpits. I guess they depilate in the pigsty).

I like a good testosteroney action movie as much as the next person, don’t get me wrong. Possibly slightly more. I have probably seen The 13th Warrior more times than is technically good for me. But sometimes such a film gets, shall we say, ideas above its station and tries to present itself as a big philosophical question. Which …

… hmmm. I’m not saying a movie shouldn’t try to explore the contradictions and ambiguities of war. And there are moments when Fury actually does this in a very interesting way. The last shot of the film is a good example — it’s nicely ambiguous in a way that sums up the conflicting reactions the main character has to what he’s just experienced. I think the symbolism was just a bit too on the nose. Like Brad Pitt’s character is called “Wardaddy.” Or when the main character gets really angry about something for the first time, he climbs onto the tank and the name “FURY,” painted on the barrel, appears right next to his head. And the whole “rarr, we are men! We are strong and tough, but conflicted! Our simple gruntings conceal profound wisdom!” thing is just … y’know.

Obviously, this is not a historical film per se, but it does do the thing where it takes a particular historical fact that the viewer might not know and front-loads it; in this case the fact that German tanks significantly outperformed their American counterparts for most of the war. It sucks to be the guy who is winning through superior numbers.

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The Long Ships: again, this is based on a historical novel rather than on a piece of history. And like any other movie about the Vikings — notably The Vikings — it’s a really pure expression of the 19th-century romantic image of the Norsemen as filtered through Hollywood’s creepy lustful obsessions. I’m not even just talking about the whole abducting-the-princess thing, or the constant background noise of women being groped and disrobed, but also our hero’s tiny leather shorts. Other than that, it’s your usual adventure flick, with shipwrecks and little wooden models in bathtubs and inadvisable beards and lots of jumping. And distant horns. And a bunch of corny Orientalism (and Sidney Poitier!) because it’s set in “Barbary.”

It is based on The Long Ships by Frans Begtssen, but only in the loosest possible sense. I’ve read the book, although it was a long time ago. There was definitely some stuff about a bell (which is the major plot of the film) but I mainly remember the rapturous descriptions of sausage. Anyway, like the novel, the film rollicks along and doesn’t take itself too seriously, although one might argue that sometimes that’s a flaw. Some good lines, though.

Captured Viking: Where are we?

Rolfe (disgustedly): Civilisation.

I have also been watching Season 3 of Vikings, so look for a post on that tomorrow — on TV Tuesday!

Mini Movie Monday: The Roundup

Mini trip report: San Francisco airport (really!)

There’s a museum in San Francisco International Airport, with exhibits all around the different terminals. A library too, but I gather it’s mostly history-of-aviation stuff and I didn’t go to that. The part of it that I visited was right between check-in and the security line for international departures. It’s not huge; about a dozen or so small cases. But it’s legit!

The exhibit on when we went was Egyptian Revival: an Everlasting Allurewhich is about, you guessed it, Egyptian Revival art. I’ve always been fascinated by the way popular culture interprets the past, as you’ll know if this isn’t the first post by me you’ve read (and if it is, welcome!), so this was really interesting. The exhibit covers a couple of different eras of fashionable Egyptian stuff, including the late 19th century and the post-King-Tut 20s, with some things being a little later. Is there a word for that kind of faux-Egyptian art, as though one were to say Chinoiserie? I have no idea.

Anyway, highlights included:

Scarab humidor -- eternal life for your cigars!
Scarab humidor — eternal life for your cigars!

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I never see Egyptian Revival stuff at vintage fairs or whatever, but maybe it’s because I’m not looking hard enough. Possibly someone’s missing a trick. Get on it, Etsy.

I think the attribution on this exhibit card is backward, but the cover looks amazing.
I think the attribution on this exhibit card is backward, but the cover looks amazing.
Not the Steve Martin one.
Not the Steve Martin one.
Because why not.
Because why not.
Hollywood history *and* popular occultism? Be still my heart.
Hollywood history *and* popular occultism? Be still my heart.
Your one-stop shop for making your house look like a tomb!
Your one-stop shop for making your house look like a tomb!
Cigarette cases, inkwells, and ... I forget.
Cigarette cases, inkwells, and … I forget.
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And of course bling.

2015-03-20 00.51.52So yeah! That was an exhibit that I would actually have gone to see at a museum, only free (which is not as universal in the US as it is here) and conveniently located between dropping off our bags and taking off our shoes. A fitting end to the journey.

Mini trip report: San Francisco airport (really!)

Trip report: Rengstorff house

Another historic house visit! This one is the Rengstorff House, the oldest house in Mountain View, California. Unlike the Ainsley House, this one was in use long after Henry Rengstorff and his family lived there. It was used as a rental property, damaged in a fire and abandoned for a while. So this is an exercise in restoration rather than preservation. The differences are pretty obvious, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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The building’s been restored to showcase both the history of the Rengstorff family and Mountain View in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. The decor is nice: the wallpaper in particular is great.

There's a different local-nature-themed frieze pattern in each room.
There’s a different local-nature-themed frieze pattern in each room.

There are a few pieces of furniture from the original place, but mostly it’s all various different artefacts from the period, with displays about the specific history of Mountain View and the family (including Dave Brubeck, who turns out to be the original Rengstorff’s great-great-nephew). So the house is full of furniture and art and items that are from the era when Henry Rengstorff was living there, although not necessarily the actual items that were there. That’s the case for many if not most historic houses, I’d imagine. It does raise the old issue of the talismanic status of historic buildings — given that the Rengstorff House has been so completely renovated (and had things like public restrooms and a modern kitchen added), to what extent can we really say it’s the same house?

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“It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing.” It doesn’t sound good, I have to say.

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This was a brief post-lunch trip — free guided tours are available on Tuesdays and Wednesdays — but definitely an interesting one. I’ve always had this sort of prejudice that California history isn’t interesting, since it is definitionally post-medieval history and therefore sucks. But actually I’ve been finding these looks at the early modern society of familiar places really interesting. I’ve been driving along Rengstorff Avenue forever and never knew who Rengstorff himself was. It may be that if you’re not me, the idea of people transporting huge loads of grain around the narrow waterways that fringed the San Francisco Bay in “scow schooners” isn’t fascinating, but that sort of thing interests me, so hey.

It’s almost time to leave California, but I’ve got a load of books and other materials acquired here that should give me a few additional blog posts for the coming week or two. After that, things may get a little more sporadic, but hopefully I won’t go back to my infrequent posting schedule of earlier months.

Trip report: Rengstorff house

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel is set in 5th- or maybe 6th-century Britain, in a world where Britons and Saxons live in an uneasy peace after the death of Arthur, and ogres, fairies and dragons are all very real threats. The story follows the journey of an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who leave their village to set out and see their son, accumulating a group of misfit characters along the way. Axl and Beatrice’s journey is complicated by the mist that covers the land, robbing people of their memories.

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I realise the setting of The Buried Giant is only nominally historical, but let’s talk about it anyway. And only partly because I started reading it because I was told “it’s set in the middle ages.”

Like many people, Ishiguro envisions the post-Roman period as a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, its depopulated landscape strewn with ruins and inhabited by people who wear rags or rusty armour, huddled behind palisade walls or living in cramped underground warrens. I am not a specialist in this period, but I don’t think that’s where the current consensus is? The naming is also a bit … the Saxon characters are called Edwin and Wistan, which I suppose is fair enough, but the British characters are called Axl and Beatrice, which actually mainly bothered me at the beginning when I realised they were “A” and “B.”

But it’s OK, right? Because it’s all a metaphor.

(As an aside: newspaper articles have engaged in the usual middlebrow handwringing about whether this is fantasy. Even Ishiguro is quoted as wondering whether readers will “think it’s fantasy.” Of course it’s fantasy, dipshit. It’s about a dragon whose breath covers the land in a magical mist and then a rag-tag party of mismatched characters goes to slay it. You’re going to have to work hard to fit that into the middle-class adultery genre. One of these articles even said that some people defined Never Let Me Go — a novel where the main characters are clones — as science fiction. As opposed to a realistic depiction of modern life, I guess? I just hope it doesn’t get the usual “oh, now it shows fantasy can be literary” since this is basically a Gene Wolfe novel but without any of the bold imagination. But critics who think fantasy is all Terry Brooks have never read a Gene Wolfe book, I guess. Which is not a reason to dislike the book, but geez, these people.)

So our heroes wander around the landscape, encountering only and always people who have something relevant to say about the loss of their memories, and each of them has a different perspective on amnesia. Beatrice wants to remember her life and love together with Axl. Axl is afraid that if he remembers who he is, he’ll realise he’s actually not a very good person. Wistan wants memories to come back so that people can be held accountable for what they’ve done, while Gawain thinks that the past is better left buried, forgetfulness having brought peace. Etc., etc. This summary sounds a bit schematic, but it isn’t; the comparisons to the Spanish Civil War or the Yugoslavian crisis or whatever are not as blatant as they might be.

There are a lot of quite good uses of this device, like a group of people who keep doing bad things knowing that they’ll forget about them and thus never feel guilty. And it’s nice to see the usual format of Saxons as unequivocal bad guys and Britons as doomed good guys messed with.

The biggest attempt to create “period” atmosphere is the dialogue, and it’s … odd. Everyone speaks in a very verbose, roundabout kind of way, none of them ever really listening to each other, and with elements of sort of cod-Irish occasionally creeping in. It works, I think, in that it feels all odd and dithery and uncertain, which is how I think it’s meant to feel. But if it’s meant to feel “historical,” well, I dunno. Here’s an example:

“What is it you have to say, Axl, and before I’ve had time to rub the sleep from my eyes?

“We talked before, princess, about a journey we might make. Well, here’s the spring upon us, and perhaps it’s time we set off.”

“Set off, Axl? Set off when?”

“As soon as we’re able. We need only be gone a few days. The village can spare us. We’ll talk to the pastor.”

“And will we go to see our son, Axl?”

“That’s where we’ll go. To see our son.”

So there’s a hell of a lot of talking, but not a lot of saying things, which I think is intentional.

You may choose to see a clever idea in the fact that this is a book about the uncertainty and double-edgedness of history, set in a historical period that isn’t really historical at all. I’m not sure. I think the choice of a legendary period works; having the two sides be Britons and Saxons gives it a heft it wouldn’t have if they were elves and dwarfs or some other imaginary equivalent. But at the same time, it’s jarring because there are all these things that argue against it being the post-Roman period, so you keep getting snapped out of a sense of the world as real. Which obviously it isn’t, but.

So yeah; it’s about history, but although the setting has historical elements it’s a fantasy about history rather than a piece of historical fiction.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Web-series Wednesday? The Man in the High Castle (2015)

Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is probably the classic “what if the Nazis won” alternate-history story, which is funny because that isn’t really what it’s about. It’s about reality and illusion, about a bunch of characters engaging in a series of layered pretenses who start to realise that even the “real” world around them is maybe not as real as it might be.

This was always going to be a hard thing to film, but so far, at least, the Amazon adaptation, which I gather has been greenlit for a full series, is doing an OK job.

If you have Lovefilm (or Amazon Prime in the US, or whatever) you can watch it for yourself, so I’m not really going to go into detail about the show itself. Instead, I wanted to take a look at its evocation of an alternate-historical period. The Man in the High Castle poses kind of an interesting problem for adaptation, in that it’s set in an alternate past — that is, it’s an alternative reality, but it’s also set in 1962. So the filmmakers need to portray a world that’s different from our own in two ways — first, it’s fifty years ago, and second it’s not our fifty years ago.

I think that part is done reasonably well. The sets look clunky and lived-in and poor, and you can believe that for people under German or Japanese occupation, times are hard. (Not that plausibility is something you need in an adaptation of a novel where the Nazis drain the Mediterranean to make farmland and are busily colonising space).

But in order to drive home the alternate-reality nature of things, the whole “occupying foreign power” thing is hammered home more than you would expect to see in “reality.” There are swastikas and Japanese flags everywhere. The baddies were swastika armbands with the swastika superimposed on the stripes of an American flag. Newsreels end with “Sieg heil!” There is a swastika on a payphone (OK, a payphone near a border crossing, but still).

payphone

This is not, if I recall correctly, in the book (which I read a really long time ago and do not remember clearly, so I could be wrong). In the book, the eastern part of the US is still the United States, just with a pro-German puppet government in power. And pro-German puppet governments were very much the order of the day. I suppose they tend to get forgotten about because they complicate the narrative? But in any sufficiently large country you can always find some people who are actually pro-Nazi, or who are just trying to make the best of a bad situation, or who want to use the occupiers to further their own agenda, or whatever. France’s “Milice” were, if anything, more despised than the Nazis:

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But what you don’t do in that situation is go “Germans Germans Germans, we work for the Germans,” because you need to maintain a skin of plausibility, no matter how thin. OK, you can be a bunch of German stooges, but at least wear berets. Or check these toadying swine out:

Med-Quisling-For-Det-Nye-Norge

Vidkun Quisling, the guy who liked the Germans so much his name became a synonym for treason, but there’s no swastikas on that bad boy. No, it’s all about a heroic, suspiciously-German-looking Norway. If you wanted to run a Nazi-occupied America, the last thing you’d do would be go around painting swastikas on things. You’d want to keep it nice and simple.

But then that wouldn’t be very visual. So by the same logic that turned the novel’s novel into a film in the film, we get a very visually occupied America.

I’m not complaining about that, not at all; the images are very visually striking. I mostly wanted to point out an example of how filmmakers use visual exaggeration to create something that looks plausible or authentic, when the “reality” (if I can use that word here) is probably less “real” looking.

Web-series Wednesday? The Man in the High Castle (2015)

Trip report: Sensual Splendor at the Cantor Arts Center

It’s not that I think art museums don’t usually do a good job displaying medieval stuff, it’s just that they tend not to focus on the things I’m interested in. So when I saw that medieval religious artefacts were on display at the Cantor Arts Center, I went mainly out of curiosity. But actually I was pleasantly surprised!

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So the focus is on medieval art as a sensual experience, and the exhibit certainly lives up to that idea, at least partly. The whole thing is done in an environment of darkened reverence; the icon at the front has a row of little LED candles in front of it to give its gold the appropriate lustre.

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There’s haunting churchy music and even incense to sniff, and it’s all there to remind you that, in the words of the explanatory text, these things were viewed in terms of “privileged liveliness” rather than lifelikeness. That’s a really good and important point — these things were not “works of art,” but were meant to be experienced as part of a particular environment. Of course, you can’t recreate that environment in a modern museum, and even if such a thing were possible, that environment would differ a lot from place to place and time to time. But it’s still a very valuable thing to do.

My one quibble with this exhibit is that the curators appear to have a funny idea of what “medieval” means. Something from the 3rd century? Not medieval. Something from the 18th century? Not medieval. Just being Russian doesn’t mean that it’s old. But there are some good medieval pieces:

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So overall I thought that was pretty good! It’s very small, but then it’s only one small part of a much larger museum. My wife and I explored the rest of the place, particularly enjoying the exhibit of female photographers from Iran and the Arab world. But the highlight of the rest of the place for me was the bit about the Stanford family. I had not known that Leland Stanford, Jr — who died at 15 and inspired his family to found the university and so on — was a keen antiquarian. In fact, in the weeks before his death he met Heinrich Schliemann and he was intending to found an archaeology museum in San Francisco, which is pretty good for a teenager.

Oh, also, the Stanfords owned a “Megalethoscope,” which apparently is a thing that allows you to look at photographs?

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Or destroy all the civilised planets. I forget which.

Trip report: Sensual Splendor at the Cantor Arts Center