Sometimes I think I baffle my students

Today I asked my students if they believed in love. I was trying to make a point about Platonism and the concept of believing in the existence of something that doesn’t have an observable existence. But it’s kind of an odd question for your history teacher to ask you.

In my defense, I also asked them if there was such a thing as red.

I think my teaching may be a little abstract.

Sometimes I think I baffle my students

Movie Monday: Stalingrad (2013)


Not the 1990s German film of the same name, but the more recent Russian one. This might be our first family effort on Movie Monday, since director Fedor Bondarchuk’s dad directed an earlier Movie Monday film, Waterloo.

So when I saw that this was a modern Russian Stalingrad movie, I made the following guesses:

  • 100% likelihood it will be a big, sweeping glurgey patriotic epic.
  • 50% likelihood it will look cringeworthily half-assed.
  • 50% likelihood it will look bonkers great.

Well, it is a big sweeping patriotic epic, and it looks … mostly bonkers great. It has patches of visual brilliance interspersed with patches of same-old same-old gritty Saving Private Ryan stuff. If you like war movies, though, I recommend giving it a look. There is an early sequence in which Russian troops attack through a cascade of burning oil that’s painted in deep blues and glowing reds and looks a battle on the floor of Hell. And the interiors are all lush and City of Lost Children-y. I mean, it’s a cartoon, but it’s a hell of a stylish cartoon. Where else are you gonna see a burly WWII Red Army guy leaping across a trench to do crazy slo-mo wuxia spinny fighting armed with an entrenching tool and a bayonet?

Anyway, it’s got everything you’d expect. A ragtag band of misfits have to defend a strategically vital building against zee Chermans. I’m not sure if it’s specifically meant to be the Pavlov House or just a reference to it. It’s got:

  • Our battle-hardened hero who still retains some nobility in his soul.
  • The funny/creepy sniper.
  • The gruff old veteran with a core of fatherly kindness to him.
  • The German who ain’t all bad (although he’s still pretty damn bad — and he’s Baron Strucker, to boot. Oh, and he was in the ’93 German one).
  • The German who is all bad.
  • The coward who finds his courage.
  • The plucky girl who becomes the squad’s mascot / love interest.
  • And so on and so on.

And, yeah, they’re corny stereotypes but they’re played with vigour. And the way in which it mixes ultra-straight-faced melodrama with completely over-the-top action (like the scene in which they take out a German artillery emplacement with a bank shot from an anti-tank gun) is really endearing.

Anyway, it’s on Netflix in the UK now; I wouldn’t recommend giving it your full attention for its over-two-hour run time, but if you want to put something on while you’re doing something else, it’s not a bad choice.

As a piece of history? I mean — “the battle of Stalingrad was pretty fucked up,” that’s about it. But that’s not untrue. And it does a pretty good job of putting the civilians in the centre of its narrative, which is always desirable. Sure, it does it with tattered-teddy-bear levels of sentimentality (and I mean there is a literal tattered teddy bear) but what did you want?

Movie Monday: Stalingrad (2013)

Aztecs and ass-beatings

I’m back! The move went well, and the study awaits only one piece of furniture to make it complete. While unpacking the box after box after box of books that make my writing space what it is, I had to come up with a shelving scheme; I didn’t do an amazing job in the end, but it sparked a conversation with a friend about the Aztecs.

(I’m aware of the problems surrounding ‘Aztec’ as a term, but you know what I’m talking about; the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of the Triple Alliance.)

Now, I am not an expert on any Mesoamerican civilisation, but the Aztecs are an odd case. People seem to lump them in in a broader category of “ancient civilisations,” and suggest that they’re this very mysterious culture full of ancient wisdom and blah de blah.

I was reminded of this when looking at a trailer for the upcoming Street Fighter V:

So this is Necalli, one of the new characters in the game. As you can see, he’s portrayed as a sort of bestial, caveman type with lots of brute strength and claw-like slashes (his series of slashing attacks looks a lot like the way Wolverine fights in the Marvel vs Capcom games). He doesn’t talk much, just saying things like Devour!, and it’s strongly implied that he eats people.

The name “Necalli” is a Nahuatl word, at least according to baby-naming sites, and means “battle,” so it seems appropriate. The Street Fighter wiki claims that his design is based on the god Huitzilopochtli, although I guess I’m not sure why other than that he has a serpent design on his loincloth. Oddly, some fans seem convinced that Necalli is meant to be Maori, I suppose because he has facial tattoos and was released at the same time as the New Zealand stage. He doesn’t look Maori to me, but then he doesn’t look very Mexican either, so.

The promo material uses a lot of terms like “wild” and “savage,” and there’s lots of stuff about “primal” this and “feral” that. His character screen describes him as an “ancient warrior.”

This is the forest primeval?
This is the forest primeval?

I guess this is just an instance of the recurring theme “people think everything happened at the same time everywhere around the world.”

For those of you confused about what’s bothering me, the Aztecs are not an ancient culture. I mean not remotely. The Aztec empire flourished in the mid-to-late middle ages and fell in the early 16th century. Is it the pyramids? Is that it?

I’m not saying that video games have a responsibility to educate people about history, even if this one did explicitly state that Necalli was an Aztec character. I think Street Fighter has always been an impressionistic game, with characters based on the association of ideas. I just think it’s interesting that this culture and this character appeared to be associated in the creators’ minds; it shows how widespread this perception of Aztec civilisation is.

Aztecs and ass-beatings

Movie Monday: The Iron Lady (2011)

Margaret Thatcher was prime minister for much of my childhood, although by the time I was aware of the world enough to be aware of politics I was already living in the U.S. To some extent, in my mind she’ll always be prime minister, just because she was around for such a long time when I was young (although oddly my default mental image of the American president is Bill Clinton).

And so I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be looking at The Iron Lady on some Movie Monday, even though a) it’s weird to think of parts of my own lifetime as “history” and b) I was not particularly excited about seeing it. In fact, I put off watching it for over a week when it arrived, in the same way that I have put off watching 12 Years a Slave. Too depressing. But let’s get to it now.

The-Iron-Lady-poster-001Margaret Thatcher was still alive when they made this thing, by the way, but clearly on her way out.

So, I’ve said that I thought I would find the movie too depressing, which I didn’t. What I wasn’t expecting was to find it … well, dull. It’s very well made. Meryl Streep is great, of course, very convincing, very versatile, tough and weird and vulnerable. Jim Broadbent is good as Denis as well, but, y’know. Jim Broadbent. But there’s this whole framing-narrative device about Thatcher talking to the imaginary ghost of her husband, and I’m just not sure it goes anywhere in particular. It humanises her, but not in a way particularly relevant to the plot. Broadbent gets a certain amount of exposition, I guess.

I am not a historian of the period, so I can’t tell you about accuracy other than in outline, but at that level it seems to be more or less on point, although it’s primarily concerned with the personal effects of the various political crises rather than their overall social context. We hear Thatcher say a lot about how things in the country are much better, but very little of the film takes place outside the corridors of power. There is a lot of rumty-tum patriotic music during the Falklands War, although honestly I think it’s just meant to show how tense and serious everything is for her.

Maybe it’s that that makes it so curiously flat. Like a good, responsible Hollywood biopic it wants to portray its subject ambiguously. But most people don’t have ambiguous feelings about Mrs Thatcher; they think of her either as The Iron Lady or as Satan J. Devilface. That’s whatcha call a “polarising figure,” I guess.

(Although I suppose even some people who fall into the Devilface camp might find her story interesting on a personal level, in the same way one might want to know how a famous criminal got that way.)

And it’s interesting and even has some OK jokes. But it’s just Incidents from the Life of the Celebrated Mrs Thatcher. It’s wellexecuted, but ultimately it feels a little pointless. Streep kills it, but … to what end?

Movie Monday: The Iron Lady (2011)

Trip report: Ædwen’s brooch

So this past weekend my wife and I went to Ely to check out this new Aedwen’s Brooch exhibit. It’s an interesting thing: a late Anglo-Saxon disc brooch found in Sutton in the 17th century. It went missing for a bit, then surfaced in a private collection in the 50s and wound up in the British Museum. Now they’ve sent it to the local museum for a bit, which I think is rather a good idea. ps076851_l

So this is the brooch itself, although the image doesn’t give you a sense of the scale of the thing; it’s just under 15 cm across (nearly 6 inches).

The main notable thing about Ædwen’s brooch is that it has an inscription on the reverse — well, actually it has two! That’s how we know the owner’s name:


So not only is it an inscription; it’s a curse. That’s good value for money; everyone likes a good curse. And not only that, but the second inscription is a runic inscription that doesn’t make any damn sense. That’s not uncommon for runic inscriptions; it may be because by this date the runes were not generally understood and were just for looks (although to the modern eye they don’t look like much — and they’re on the reverse of the brooch) or it may be because they were thought to be magical in some way.

The “mystery” referred to is what this piece was doing in a hoard — and you can vote on what you think the answer was, using little replica Anglo-Danish coins!


As you can see, the boring but probably correct answer is well in the lead.

It’s a fascinating brooch, is what I’m saying, and they try to tie it in to helping people (particularly younger museum visitors) learn about the Anglo-Saxon period generally, although that’s not the focus of the museum as a whole.

As for the museum generally, it’s a good little local-history museum. It used to be a jail (so did the museum in Norwich Castle — seems like one of those things), and there’s a strange and humorous little diorama of prisoners arguing and/or repenting the night before a hanging — dummies and recorded dialogue and so on.

I did spot something a bit out-of-place in one display. Here’s an image of the Roman invasion of Britain:

20150829_135742 (1)

Now, in looking this up I learned that there actually is evidence for the manica in 1st-century AD Britain, but look at those guys on the right and the weapons they’re carrying. Do they look a bit … Dacian to anyone else?

Anyway, that’s a quibble. It’s an interesting brooch and I thought the exhibit was small but simple and enjoyable.

Trip report: Ædwen’s brooch

TV Tuesday: Fleming, the Man Who Would Be Bond

I have briefly discussed my casual fascination with the James Bond novels, so when the recent BBC America series Fleming came up on Lovefilm, my wife and I checked it out. And it’s … odd.

There have already been two other Fleming bio films, neither of which I have seen, one of them with Charles Dance and the other with (le sigh) Jason Connery. My purpose isn’t to give a review here — there are enough of them out there — but just to point out a pattern that struck me as interesting.

When I started writing this post, I was going to say that it’s unusual the extent to which Ian Fleming (here played by Dominic Cooper) is identified with James Bond. He really is — not just the suave playboy stuff, which appears to have been pretty much true, but a bunch of added action sequences, a scene with a speargun, Bond-esque music and more. But actually, it occurred to me that it isn’t unique to Fleming at all. Arthur Conan Doyle frequently appears in contexts that link him to Sherlock Holmes, and even in the modern literary landscape people are very likely to view H. P. Lovecraft as some kind of master of the occult despite the fact that they should know better.

The reality is that Ian Fleming’s life was interesting only to people like me who find things most people would find boring interesting. He was bright, charming and imaginative, but not disciplined or accomplished; his family got him a series of jobs he didn’t excel at. He had some affairs. He commanded a desk at Naval Intelligence in the war, where he put his charm and creativity to good use but was not the man of action the show makes him (although to its credit it portrays him as someone who would have liked to be a man of action more than an actual one). He became a journalist, he wrote some spy novels and a children’s book, and he died young, very possibly from partying too hard. He tells you interesting things about life in interwar and postwar Britain, but there’s no obvious connection between liking Ian Fleming’s books and liking Ian Fleming.


The thing is that writers’ biographies are often boring, or at least not visually very interesting. Fleming wrote books. At least he wrote books in Jamaica, which is something. And he had lots of affairs and wore good suits. But fundamentally most of the heightened dramatic tension in this thing is made up, just like a lot of the drama in a lot of biopics. Real life is always more sordid and confusing.

What I do appreciate about this show is that at least the type of structure that they keep trying to force the guy’s life into is appropriate to his writing, at least approximately. Which I suppose is the case with both Conan Doyle and Lovecraft as well.

But yeah, same as always: history insufficiently like television, so make it more like a television show. I did learn a few things from this, including the connections between Fleming’s family and various other prominent families of the age, although most of that came from looking things up after going “is that really true?” And it’s certainly well-made, except for the last ten minutes, which are absolutely wretched.

I did discover some great new names, such as this guy’s:


That is Admiral the Honourable Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, and not only was he an admiral and all that, but — I thought this as soon as I saw “Plunkett” and “Drax” — he was Lord Dunsany’s younger brother! I still don’t think his name is as good as that of Admiral Sir Manley Power, but it’s pretty great.

TV Tuesday: Fleming, the Man Who Would Be Bond