TV Tuesday: Vikings is back!

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One of the things that my wife and I did for Christmas was get ourselves an Amazon Prime subscription, and naturally we used it to watch all sorts of great films that we’d been promising ourselves we would catch up with …

… well, OK, we did watch one or two good things but also I gorged on what’s out so far of season “5.1” (again, it’s totally season 6; this show’s season numbering is an unacceptable pretension) of Vikings.

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoy Vikings. It looks great and it’s often genuinely funny. But it doesn’t … what’s the phrase I’m looking for … make a whole lot of sense.

The central theme of this season is, I guess, the developing rivalry between the Ragnarssons, with Hvitserk torn between the level-headed leadership of Ubbe and the psycho ambitions of Ivarr. Meanwhile, Bjorn is off … basically just goofing around in the Mediterranean, a subplot that works only because Alexander Ludwig is at his best when Bjorn is being a charming doofus.

Having killed off all its extraneous characters in the previous seasons, Vikings now introduces a bunch of new ones, including Nice Cousin Whatsisname, The Greek Guy, and Guthrum, who I guess was technically in it already. Guthrum doesn’t die, for a wonder, since he is a Historical Character who is presumably being set up in advance for an eventual shoeing from Alfred. We also get the discovery of Iceland, including cameos from Ketil Flatnose and Aud the Deep-minded, who must be upset that no one can seem to agree how to pronounce her name.

The other big plot is Harald Fairhair’s desire to become king of all of Norway, which is kind of confusing. For one thing, this isn’t the reason that everyone moves to Iceland, even though medieval Icelanders could barely shut up about it. For another, no one points out to him that his ambition to conquer Lagertha’s town of Kattegat is a little weird since it is in Denmark. Wasn’t Donal Logue the king of Denmark way the hell back in seasons 1 and 2?

The show seems to think that it’s best feature is its battle scenes, which is … I don’t know. They are full of energy and gore and people getting hit with axes, which I guess is fun, but the fact that they don’t make any sense tends to get in the way. Take the ambush in York, for instance. Aethelwulf and Heahmund are lured into the city, believing that Ivarr and his forces have left. They even say the ships are gone, although they are not. How they left is not clear, since it’s not like one Viking can just stand in the back and fire up the Evinrude, but leave that aside.

They go into the city, and then Ivarr springs his ambush; his men, who have been concealed inside the sewers, rush up out of the manholes and attack. Now, what this means is that some poor sod of a choreographer had to block a scene in which the Vikings clamber one by one out of a narrow opening and the English just …

… stand around like dumbasses. Like, I am not a great tactician and I do not know anything about sword fighting, but I reckon that while a guy is using both his hands to climb up a ladder and is pinned in a narrow opening is an excellent time to stab him in his stupid face. You don’t even have to get that fancy; you could just bop him on the head with a big rock. Once he’s dead, you can kick him back down the ladder and, I don’t know, just put your shield on the manhole cover and stand on it.

Once you’ve got that sorted out, it’s Warhammer 4th Edition time. As we have seen from these battle scenes, no one without a name can possibly harm Aethelwulf or Heahmund, and there are only two Vikings in the entire city with names. In the narrow frontage of the sewer tunnels, the Vikings won’t know which direction you’re coming from, and the restricted width means you can just put Aethelwulf and Heahmund at the front and mince your way through the average Vikings until you get to Ivarr and And Hvitserk Too, which I believe is his full name. Then, I dunno, into your hands, blind Justice, and may God defend the right or something. Or just walk off and let a guy who can’t stand up and a guy with a scrubby little moustache rule York from the sewers, I dunno.

My point is basically that it’s not very impressive when your devious mastermind wins the day with a plan that wouldn’t fool a babby.

Also, does Judith have ears now?! I swear she had the tops of her ears cut off for adultery way back in Season 2 or 3 and started wearing her hair down so that people wouldn’t see. Now they’re back. Did they regenerate? Does she revert to her Platonic form when we’re not looking at her?

Anyway, I don’t know what I was expecting. It’s Vikings. It’s silly fun. I find it frustrating but I wouldn’t give it up.

I miss Rollo.

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TV Tuesday: Vikings is back!

Holiday reading: Designing Utopia

I got Designing Utopia: John Hargrave and the Kibbo Kift for Christmas and read it over the break. I thought it was pretty great.

The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift are one of those weird groups that pop up in British history — a sort of back-to-the-land folk-y group originally intended as an alternative to conservative, militaristic Boy Scouting but also incorporating mysticism, eugenics, a secret initiatory occult lodge, a weird cult of personality, and lots of other stuff. From a social and artistic movement, it became a political party and protest organisation advocating for something called “Social Credit,” a radical (“crank?”) economic theory.

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Now, I have previously blogged about the Kibbo Kift, back when I went to the Whitechapel Gallery exhibit about them. This is a more detailed history of the organisation, and goes into more depth about John Hargraves’ life and the evolution of the Kibbo Kift. It’s a museum publication, so high production values, lots of pretty art, all that kind of thing.

What I really enjoyed about it was its emphasis on the extent to which the Kibbo Kift was within the intellectual mainstream of the interwar era. The outfits and the neologisms might have seemed a little strange to some observers, but every ingredient in the Kindred’s stew was something that was out there in the culture: an obsession with racial “health,” a sense that there was something wrong with civilised society, a skeptical view of the Empire and the military following the war, a belief in the power of symbolism, etc., etc.

What’s also interesting is the sense of John Hargraves’ personal command. Over its history, the Kibbo Kift shifts with Hargraves’ whims, going from a sort of volkisch mystical hiking and crafty club to a fringe political party with uniformed street team. These two incarnations don’t obviously seem to have much to do with each other, so we’re left with the conclusion that the Kibbo Kift is just the club that Hargraves uses to pursue whatever his current whim happens to be, with the stipulation that no matter what the group is doing, Hargraves, regardless of qualifications, is the boss.

Anyway, this was an interesting read about an interesting group and I was sufficiently keen that I read through it that morning. If you’re only going to read one book about the Kibbo Kift — which seems like a pretty good number — I recommend this one.

Holiday reading: Designing Utopia

2017 Year in Review

Well, another year draws to a close, and it’s been a quiet year on this blog. That’s bad in some ways, but not terrible.

It’s definitely the case that the heckshow that was 2016 diminished some of my enthusiasm for thinking about the kind of historical stuff I usually write about on this blog. In essence, I try to only write “serious” posts every so often, but I ended last year in a mood that didn’t really allow for the kind of writing I typically prefer. That wasn’t the only reason, though, and the other ones were a little better.

The first reason things went a little quiet is that a new project wound up taking a lot of my time. I’m referring of course to Monster Man, my new podcast about the 1977 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. I released over 30 episodes in 2017, and also spent a good amount of time blogging and promoting it. I even went up on Patreon, a project that was almost derailed by the recent Patreon shenanigans.

So obviously that project’s been taking up a good amount of my free time, and I’m very pleased with how it’s been going. But it’s not the only thing that I’ve been doing, and the other thing is a little more history-related.

As I have mentioned in the past, I started volunteering at the Centre for Computing History, the computer history museum here in Cambridge. I mostly do behind the scenes stuff, whether that’s adding items to the archive, helping to organise the collections, or just lugging stuff around. It’s fascinating to see the museum at work, and the team there are a great bunch of people. So that’s been good. I should blog a little bit more about it, honestly.

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I think the recreated 1970s office might be my favourite part. 

Anyway, all of this adds up to mean that I haven’t had a huge amount of time not spoken for, but hopefully I’ll be able to use the holiday to knock out a couple of posts on things I’ve been reading and watching lately.

Despite the fact that 2017 has been a rough year in many ways as well, I come into 2018 with more a … faint-glimmer-of-hope sort of feeling of optimism compared to the grim resolve of last year. Let’s see how the year develops. I hope that all of you enjoy your new year celebrations and that the coming year is a good one.

2017 Year in Review

Movie Monday: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

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So, first things first. I somehow missed that this movie was directed by Mel Gibson; under ordinary circumstances I would not support or endorse his work. However, I was halfway through this film, looking stuff up for this blog post, when I found it out, so whoops. I decided to finish it anyway.

So, anyway, Hacksaw Ridge is a war movie about a guy called Desmond Doss. Doss was a conscientious objector in WWII: as a Seventh Day Adventist, his beliefs forbid him from engaging in violence or carrying a weapon. he still wanted to serve, however, and ended up becoming a medic. He won the Medal of Honour for doing some stuff that was so outrageous they actually leave part of it out of the movie, presumably because it was either narratively inconvenient or ridiculously implausible. Check it out for yourself here. 

I said this was a war movie earlier; what I meant was that it is a War Movie. I don’t know to what extent the details are based on Doss’ actual experiences, and I’m open to the suggestion that it’s all true, but I mean, he turns up in his unit and within minutes he meets a guy called Tex who is doing a lasso trick. There’s also Grease, Teach, Hollywood, Smitty, and so on. It’s a bit … on the nose.

It’s not shy about its scenes of human destruction, either. It’s like the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan turned up to a million zillion, with bone fragments and spurting arteries and people writhing around on fire and whatnot. I suppose I should have expected that from the guy who brought us The Passion of the Christ and, to a lesser extent, Apocalypto. I think that some indication of the devastation that war wreaks on the fragile human body is 100% valid for a movie about a combat medic who’s also a pacifist; I’m just saying it’s not for the squeamish.

I suppose this validates the decision to create all those one-note squaddie characters, since these are the guys who you see later on getting their various parts blown off and their faces shot full of holes. It does give it more impact, corny as the setup might have been.

It’s kind of interesting to see a movie that takes a religious commitment to pacifism seriously, although the film complicates this with some stuff about Doss’ dad’s traumatic experiences in WWI and also his history of drunken abuse and so on, giving Doss multiple reasons to be unhappy with the idea of violence. In that sense, I guess it’s a morally complex film, at least up to the point of believing that a person’s deep-seated moral convictions come from multiple sources. This fits in with the fact that Doss’ brother served in the navy, apparently lacking the same scruples about violence.

There are a couple of interesting details, like the meal in which we see meat on the plates of Doss’ father and brother, but not him or his mother. Although it’s not a requirement, Seventh Day Adventists do advocate vegetarianism, a point that comes up later on in the film as well. These little moments are interesting and fun, and they do something to humanise Doss, who would be a paragon of downhome folksy virtue if he weren’t also weird. The problem is that this movie is like two and a quarter hours long, and could have been shortened by the removal of at least one tender courtship scene and one scene about military officials being jerks to Doss about his CO status.

(I was very surprised by everyone being such a tool to Doss about being a CO. I assume it’s because he volunteered, putting him outside the normal CO pathways? By WWII, the US had been employing COs in various ways for decades, and their status was — as is eventually pointed out — well understood and protected by relevant legislation. Which doesn’t mean that everyone in an army at war was familiar with all of the relevant statutes, of course.)

Anyway, it’s not bad. It has a moment of genuine (if, again, on the nose) religious content. Andrew Garfield is fine, although he is visibly too old; Doss was in his early 20s, and Garfield is 10 years older than that and it really shows. Ultimately, it’s a regular old war movie with a little bit of a twist, the kind of thing you could enjoy and go away feeling you had learned some fun facts from, even the kind of thing that could genuinely impress you with the character’s selflessness. But then you remember Mel Gibson is involved, and it leaves you with a bit of a sour taste.

Apparently this thing’s based on a 2004 documentary. I should probably just watch that instead.

 

Movie Monday: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Trip report: Harryhausen at the Tate Britain

I was in London last weekend, and in the hours between arriving and going to the thing we were actually therefore, my wife and I swung by the Tate Britain to see the Ray Harryhausen exhibit. It isn’t a full-scale exhibition; it’s what’s called a “spotlight,” a little one-room exhibit, but if you’re in the area, it’s pretty great.

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One of the things I felt like the exhibit did well was go beyond just being a nostalgia trip to locating Harryhausen in his context. By showing art from his collection, as well as art from the Tate’s collection by painters who influenced him (especially John Martin), it situated his work in its tradition. Harryhausen was greatly influenced by 19th-century illustration and spectacular painting. These genres weren’t necessarily respected by critics at the time; they were thought to be unsubtle and focused on popular entertainment, a criticism Harryhausen’s work typically faced as well.

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Even if you’re just there for the nostalgia trip, though, it’s a pretty good one. 

Of course, that’s probably no surprise to you if you know more than the smidgen I know about art history. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the trajectory of adventure entertainment in our culture, partly as a result of my new podcast, Monster Man, which is all about the 1977 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual.

That sounds like a tenuous link, maybe, but I really do think the Monster Manual shows a genre, or set of genres, on the brink of a transformation between the legacy of 19th-century adventure fiction and a new status as a distinct cultural entity. And when you look at these spectacular paintings of classical or Biblical scenes while the trailer for Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger plays next to you, I think you can see something similar.

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Separated at birth? 
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Joseph Michael Gandy, Jupiter Pluvius, 1819

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Anyway, I thought it was fascinating. I don’t know that it’s worth making the trip to London for, not being huge, but if you’re in the area it’s definitely worth a look.

 

Trip report: Harryhausen at the Tate Britain

Movie Monday: Invasion 1897 (2014)

I don’t think it is a big secret around here that a lot of my viewing choices for Movie Monday are based on whatever I happen to find on Netflix. So imagine my delight when I found Launcelot Oduwa Imasuen’s 2014 historical drama Invasion 1897, which is about the destruction of the independent African kingdom of Benin, just hiding out in the epics section.

A Nigerian movie about British colonialism seen from the other side? Sign me up. Even if Invasion 1897 turned out to be terrible, it would be interesting. And it was! Which was good news, because on a purely filmic level, it’s … not great.

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So, OK. The film has a framing narrative about an art student (Charles Venn) who gets arrested trying to take some of the famous Benin Bronzes from a museum. This is a real-world issue — I mean, the legacy of a lot of artefacts in museums is one of a colonial relationship where the artefacts might not be what you’d call freely given. But the Benin Bronzes fall into the category of straight-up loot.

Anyway, during the highly unrealistic argument about the bronzes, we go into flashback mode and see the story of how the British decided to take control over Benin. Basically, resource-rich Benin has stuff the British want, like palm oil and rubber, leading to a trade treaty that the king of Benin, Ovonramwen (Mike Omoregbe) either understands differently or doesn’t intend to keep. When the trade deal is apparently broken, a rash British official leads an expedition into Benin; the expedition gets massacred, and the British, who had been looking for a pretext anyway, move in.

All of this is more or less told in sequence, although some of the complexities are smoothed out. Where it falls down is … well, the execution.

And, I mean, it’s a low-budget film and it looks like it. I’m not trying to say that an inexpensive film can’t be good. But the British flag on the wall in the shack that is apparently the Empire’s HQ is crudely hand-painted, and there is a scene where one of the British characters is wearing, no kidding, a T-shirt. Several of the British characters have American or South African accents, which did make me think about how often that’s probably the case with non-English-speakers in English-language movies. That Spanish-speaking character could be supposed to be Chilean, actually sound Mexican, and I would have no idea at all.

It’s not just production and casting, either. The dialogue is repetitive and … is stagey the word I’m looking for? Sometimes it’s very elaborate in a way that sounds slightly off to my ear; I don’t know if this is a genuine difference between norms in Nigerian English and British English or just a modern-screenwriter-trying-to-sound-old-timey thing. The performances are also wildly variable. Again, I think budget concerns are a factor here: I don’t think too many scenes in this film got lengthy rehearsals or second takes. That means that every scene is played in whatever the actor’s natural inclination is, whether that’s hyped bellowing (for one group of Benin nobles) or sleepy mumbling (for the guy playing Henry Galway). Most of the main characters are fine, but the supporting parts seem to be played by whoever they could round up.

Whoever they could round up got a certain amount of say in directorial decisions, too, it sems. Galway explains the whole rubber-tree plot to one of his subordinates while standing on a porch and tapping a piece of paper loudly with a stick, and the guy just keeps saying “OK” over and over, sometimes interrupting to do so. I’ve got to assume that was an acting choice on his part. A British officer says “these guys are something else!” at one point. That can’t have been in the script, can it?

And the battle scenes … I’m gonna say the battle scenes “could use some work.”

Also, there’s a bit where a god appears in a haze of blue light to tell Ovonramwen that he’s doomed. And at one point Ovonramwen just turns invisible, presumably as the result of a spell he cast on himself earlier. I … did not think that was meant to be taken literally.

I don’t know how much of this is just that I’m, for want of a better explanation, not Nigerian. Like, I know that what I think of as the structure of storytelling is merely the accepted structures of particular accepted genres. Maybe if I were more steeped in Nigeria’s dramatic traditions the disjointed plot would make more sense? Maybe the idea that the king of Benin had magical powers is a well-enough known trope that it wouldn’t require explanation for the intended audience? Could be! I got that with the constant naming of the chiefs, too — if I knew more about the history of the place and period, those names presumably would have meant more to me. So perhaps some of what made the film confusing is me applying slightly-off genre expectations to it.

It still wouldn’t explain why the British officers have anarchy-symbol patches on their uniforms, though. Or why the officer who hoists the flag then appears standing at the bottom of the flagpole still holding the flag. Or … the fake beards.

Anyway, despite the fact that this movie is a weird, disjointed, kind of crude spectacle, I thought it was interesting. I didn’t know much about the Benin expedition before this, and it inspired me to learn a bit more about it. It was also interesting to see the tale told by a filmmaker who wasn’t British — he doesn’t paint the British as pure villains, necessarily, but more importantly he doesn’t assume they were the most important characters in the whole thing. Even if it’s expressed primarily by shouty rambling, the conflict among the kingdom’s various chiefs and leaders over the Benin Massacre (that’s the bit where the British party was attacked) are portrayed in a more complex way than I would expect from your typical historical drama.

The point about Benin artefacts in British and other museums is made briefly but clearly. I don’t know what there is to say about it, really: the question of what to do with these artefacts is a thorny one in practice, but the rights and wrongs of it in principle are pretty clear.

I can’t decide whether Imasuen is making an intentional choice to portray Ovonramwen in an equivocal way. It might just be equivocal writing, or it might be that I’m genuinely supposed to be rooting for him the whole way. He doesn’t actually do a whole lot, and I sometimes can’t tell whether Omoregbe’s going for heroic resolve or misguided aggression in his performance. When he tones it down, as in the final scene, he’s pretty powerful, but it’s not consistent. There certainly seem to be some scenes where the message is that Benin is better than Britain because it’s more … patriarchal and authoritarian? Again, I don’t know if I’m misreading that, but it would be consistent with the patriotic glurge genre.

So yeah, it’s interesting, at least from my outsider’s perspective. It has a lot of ingenuity and ambition, and it’s genuinely affecting in its portrayal of the horrors of the Benin Expedition and the plight of Ovonramwen. And it talks about heritage repatriation, even if it presents the issue as It’s not good in any meaningful sense. But it’s also not just a knockoff of something else, and after umpty-gazillion of these Movie Mondays I can definitely appreciate that. It’s … the best Benin historical drama I’ve ever seen? Number one in a field of one, I guess.

Movie Monday: Invasion 1897 (2014)

Trip report: fakes, mistakes and mystery

Last week I went to one of my favourite museums in Cambridge, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. My wife had noticed that there was an event that sounded fun, and we hadn’t been in a while, so off we went last Thursday night.

The topic was Fakes, Mistakes and Mystery at the Whipple, and it was about forgeries in the museum’s scientific instruments collection. It combined some additions to the collections with a really interesting and informative talk. The study of forgeries is really fascinating, and it’s particularly interesting to me that even within this sub-collection of what is already a pretty niche collection there are lots of different kinds of forgeries.

Items like these seem to be genuine phonies, so to speak. As it became clear that there was a market for antique scientific instruments, forgeries began to appear, some of them good enough to fool experts in what was then a pretty young field.

If you look behind the cylinder above, you’ll see a sundial. This is a different kind of fake: it’s a genuine sundial of the period it purports to be, but it has a prestigious manufacturer’s name on it even though it is definitely not from that maker. I missed whether this was a contemporary knockoff or a later addition trying to make money on the collector’s market.

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This Persian astrolabe looks very cool, but it is not an astrolabe; instead of the precisely-calculated star positions on the central dial, it just has a bunch of swoopy floral design. Objects like these were aimed at the tourist market. It’s a bit like the mall katana of the astronomical world. It isn’t really what it looks like, but that also isn’t really the point: it’s just going to hang on the wall and look pretty.

So we have intentional fakes, contemporary knockoffs and imitations, and real scientific instruments being sold as something they weren’t. One of the mysteries referred to in the title was the extent to which antique dealers were selling these to defraud. Like I said, antique scientific instruments was (and is?) a pretty niche field. It seems to have been not uncommon for instrument makers to create copies of classic devices just as a training exercise or for fun. Imagine that you have a collector who acquires one of these and knows what it is, or even the person who created it. That person then dies, and their collection passes to a beneficiary who lacks their expertise. It’s not hard to see how these replicas could be misidentified as the real deal.

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Anyway, it was an interesting event, and a fascinating look at the different factors that go into analysing museum collections. Plus there are lots of other good exhibits, including one about Charles Piazzi Smyth and his “pyramid inch.” And these:

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Trip report: fakes, mistakes and mystery