Hurrah for Jodie Whittaker!

 

Apparently some people in the Whoniverse (as I believe the kids call it) have been getting all worked up about the casting of an actual lady as the Doctor’s 13th incarnation, and I find myself thinking, Really? A fantasy sci-fi show about a centuries-old shapeshifting alien casting a woman as the title character actually bothers you?! You should get out more, etc.

Wisecracks aside, I think this is a really promising choice, and I thought Jodie Whittaker was superb in “Broadchurch” (written by next Who showrunner Chris Chibnall, and where of course she starred with 10th Doctor David Tennant).

Nicely atmospheric trailer, too, with a well judged soundtrack (and I really, really hope that under Chibnall’s direction they can lose the awful, syrupy incidental music that is one of my personal bugbears about New Who). And she rocks the greatcoat-and-hoodie combo, too.

“Logan” – somewhere between Heaven and Hell

Warning: spoilers

What is “Logan” trying to tell us?

The end credits roll to “The Man Comes Around”, Johnny Cash’s upbeat take on the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ, though I don’t think you could call “Logan” a religious movie in any conventional sense.

Certainly the question of redemption runs through it like a thick seam, but it has this in common with countless other Hollywood movies, redemption being one of Hollywood’s favourite themes.

But there is no hope for an Afterlife here, no promise of a better world (though there is the possibility of it).

Some critics have warmed to the “darker”, more “serious” tone of this, the latest in a long run of X-Men films now stretching back nearly twenty years, and there’s no doubt that the central cast are getting on – Hugh Jackman, as the title character, is nearing fifty, and though playing the Wolverine has probably paid his mortgage several times over, he’s no doubt tired of having to spend all day in the gym to get into shape for it.

Patrick Stewart, of course, is now in his late seventies, though here he plays a Professor Xavier in his nineties (the film is set in 2029).

After a catastrophe which is only obliquely referred to, but in which we are led to believe people have died because of Charles Xavier’s inability to any longer control his great mental powers – a result of his encroaching dementia – both he and Logan are hiding out in an abandoned factory in Mexico, with the latter taking work as a limo driver across the border to raise money for Charles’s medication. The other mutants, we are told, have all gone – though the explanation for this, when it eventually comes, feels unsatisfying and incomplete, one of several frustrations I had with the script – and only Caliban (a revelatory and nicely understated performance from Stephen Merchant, who I’ve only seen in comedies before now) is left to help look after Charles in Logan’s absence.

Logan himself is grizzled and ailing, his ability to magically heal having stalled somewhat (again for reasons that are never fully explored, though apparently something to do with the adamantium that coats his skeleton slowly poisoning him), and his never-cheery persona is soured even further by the appearance of Laura (Dafne Keen, superb), a young girl who turns out to be his (cloned) daughter, and who has escaped from the lab of evil corporation (is there any other kind?) Transigen, who have been experimenting on children to create a new species of mutant. She, Logan and Xavier go on the run, trying to find a mythical “Eden” somewhere on the Canadian border, whilst poor old Caliban is captured by the bad guys, who force him to use his tracking powers to find his friends.

So the set-up is in place for a road movie which promises – and delivers – plenty of gory action, and quite a bit of ripe language (it’s been given a 15 certificate here in the UK, unusual for a superhero film), but left me feeling pretty short-changed nonetheless.

Why?

Well perhaps it’s the undercooked plot, with what exposition there is, as I’ve already stated, feeling ill-thought-out and flimsy, and supporting characters who are never given much room to develop – Richard E. Grant, as villainous Zander Rice, does what he can with an underwritten, cardboard cut-out role, but neither he nor sidekick Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) are the antagonists Xavier and Logan really deserve, and I missed the chilling authority of Ian McKellen as Magneto. And we have hardly been introduced to the kindly family who give our heroes some (brief) respite from their troubled existence before they’re unceremoniously despatched by the X-24 (also played by Jackman), the latest of Rice’s clones.

I enjoyed the carefully chosen suggestions of a nightmarish near-future – driverless trucks hurtle down the freeway, and at one point Pierce mentions in passing that the tiger is now extinct. The metatextual references to X-Men comics – which Logan grumpily dismisses – are a nice nod for the fans, and the scene in a hotel when Charles has a seizure and Logan deals out retribution to his attackers – in violent slow mo – was genuinely exciting, the best action sequence of the film. But I’m afraid this wasn’t enough for me – the movie as a whole felt like standard formulaic superhero fare, its aspirations to grimy authenticity like those of a forger who has just dipped a supposed ancient manuscript in tea to make it look old. Logan may be greying and addicted to booze and painkillers, but he’s still ludicrously buff – no middle-aged flab here. And likewise Professor Xavier’s Alzheimer’s only manifests itself right at the beginning, when we see him spinning round in his wheelchair and babbling nonsense – after that, he comes across as an admittedly frail, but otherwise perfectly compos, old man.  There was no real sense of the humiliation and desolation of dementia, the way it takes everything from you. Jackman and Stewart are both hugely talented actors, but I didn’t feel either of them were really stretched here.

What is “Logan” trying to tell us?

I’m not really sure.

All the older mutants in the film die warriors’ deaths – in battle. No fading away in a care home for them – an ending which, I can’t help feeling, would have been much more radical. Just before the end credits, and that Johnny Cash song about Christ, Laura turns the cross on Logan’s grave on to its side so it becomes an X. She obviously knows the score. Christ may or may not return, but the X-Men certainly will, at a multiplex near you, and soon.

 

Valentine’s Day! It’s got absolutely nothing to do with St Valentine…

Surprising Facts About St. Valentine - History in the Headlines

Photo: history.com

Strange but true – there is no evidence to link St Valentine with lovers or courtship, though both St Valentines – there are more than one – in the Roman Martyrology (one was a Roman priest who died in AD 269, the other an Umbrian bishop who was executed a few years later in AD 273) are said to have met their end on the 14th February, a date which since the 1300’s has been associated with love, apparently arising out of the mistaken but charming belief that birds chose their mates on this day.

It is also historically the Eve of the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, in which young men dressed in goat-skin thongs went about striking women to make them fruitful (please don’t try this at home), and people chose lovers by lot.

In the 1380’s Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem called The Parlement of Foules, in which the birds squabble over their suitors. And in 1477 Margery Brews wrote to her fiance John Paston, addressing him as her “right wellbelovyd Voluntyn”.

What began in courtly circles in England and France soon spread, and by the 1660’s Samuel Pepys is mentioning in his diary Valentine’s customs whereby both married and unmarried people have to draw lots and present their “Valentine” with – sometimes quite lavish – gifts (Pepys himself complains of the cost of buying one Martha Batten seven pairs of gloves for the princely sum of 40 shillings in 1661). He also refers to the custom that the first person one sees on 14th February will be your Valentine – his wife had to spend most of the day in 1662 with her hands over her eyes for fear of seeing the wrong person (she and Samuel had the painters in at the time).

There are fascinating local examples of Valentine’s Day traditions from across Britain, and not all are for lovers or sweethearts.

In Street in Somerset, talking to someone of the opposite sex before noon on February 14th was thought to be unlucky, but in some areas of the country children used to go from house to house before dawn, singing:

Good morrow, Valentine,

First ’tis yours, then ’tis mine,

Please to give me a Valentine.

They would expect gifts of fruit, money, or special cakes called Valentine Buns or Plum Shittles in return. In Norfolk, if they appeared after the sun came up they could be refused gifts on the grounds that they were “sunburnt”. Likewise, on St Valentine’s Eve there was a tradition in the county of leaving presents on people’s doorsteps, knocking on the door, and then running away – secrecy (or supposed secrecy) being an important ingredient of the celebrations, then as now. In Derbyshire, if a girl did not receive a visit or a kiss from her sweetheart on Valentine’s Day she was said to be “dusty”, and her friends would then sweep her with a broom or piece of straw.

By the Eighteenth Century, sending cards to one’s Valentine instead of expensive gifts was increasingly popular, and what at first were handmade and handwritten items became, from the 1840’s onward, commercially produced. These were embossed and gilded, and sometimes perfumed – but, as the Nineteenth Century wore on, their quality decreased, and humorous and sometimes unpleasant “Anti-Valentine” cards led to a decline in the Day’s popularity by the turn of the century.

By the late 1920’s, however, Valentine’s Day was starting to once more regain its former status, and though the folklorist Christina Hole – writing as recently as 1976 – claims that “it has not yet recovered (and probably never will) the enormous popularity of its Victorian hey-day”, today, in 2017, she might have cause to revise her opinion. The traditional date of the St Valentines’ martyrdom is now a multimillion-pound industry of flowers, chocolates, cards and dinners à deux, and one you may embrace or reject depending on your point of view and/or romantic status.

 

The Elements – Air (Birds)

I thought that any look at the air in relation to folklore had to include creatures that fly, and as I’ve already covered dragons pretty extensively in other posts I wanted to look at birds, which it seems to me are a good subject for study in any context, but here are three examples that struck me:

Wrens

Steve Round snapped this Jenny Wren out and about in Cheshire.

Photo: bbc.co.uk

In folklore the wren is often characterised as female (“Jenny Wren”), wife to the robin. In Latin it is called regulus, or “little king”. Harming or killing a wren is said to bring misfortune – in Scotland, killing one was meant to make your cows give bloody milk, and in France if you robbed a wrens’ nest your house could burn down, or your fingers rot off as your punishment. However, for one day in the year – usually St Stephen’s Day (26th December) – there was once a custom called Hunting the Wren, found in Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man and some parts of England, which saw groups of boys (the Wren Boys of Christmas) use poles and cudgels to catch and kill one of the birds. The unfortunate creature was then laid on a tiny bier, and with it the boys would visit every house in the village, and be given ale in exchange for a feather plucked from the bird’s breast. It would then be solemnly laid in a specially dug grave. There are many different explanations of this ritual, some connected to Christianity – that the wren’s fluting song betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, or even St Stephen himself as he tried to escape his jailers. But it is likely that this most sacred of birds, haunter of hedgerows and dark places, has been ritually sacrificed since pre-Christian times, so it might bring people good fortune for the coming year.

Owls

Barn Owl - Facts, Pictures, Diet, Breeding, Habitat, Behaviour ...

Photo: animalsadda.com

The screech of a barn owl is an eerie sound, and it’s perhaps no wonder that traditionally it is said to presage death – likewise, if you see one during the day, or one knocks against your window, it is an ominous sign.

Again, there’s a Christian connection – the apocryphal story of Jesus begging a baker’s wife for bread. When she was about to bake him a good-sized loaf, her daughter snatched most of it away, deeming it too large for a mere beggar – but the dough swelled up suddenly, and in her surprise the daughter turned into an owl.

Robin

Robin (Clive Timmons)

Photo: birdwatchireland.ie

Like the wren, the robin is held sacred – it was once said to have had a white breast, turned red by Christ’s blood from the cross (various versions account for how this happened – that the robin was taking water in its beak to relieve Christ’s suffering, or that it was trying to pluck a thorn from the crown of thorns; another story is that it was singed while carrying water to souls in Purgatory).

To injure a robin, or steal its eggs, therefore brings misfortune, as it would for a wren – but as is often the case, there are counter-traditions that hold that the robin is a bird of ill omen, and there are accounts of people throwing away Christmas cards with pictures of robins on them for this very reason.

The link with death is more general that just the crucifixion, too – if they came across a dead body, robins were supposed to cover its face with leaves and twigs, out of charity and respect.

 

 

 

 

 

Uhygge

dark forest - After Dark Photo (24759747) - Fanpop

Photo: fanpop.com

Personally, I like the idea of hygge, the Danish word that doesn’t quite translate into English but roughly means “cosy, with candles, and beers, and warm fires and stuff, for when it’s cold outside, which it is in Denmark a lot”.

This Christmas in the UK, hygge has become the latest thing the marketing men say we should all be into, and books on the subject are selling like hot brunkage.

But I’m rather pleased to discover that there is an anti-hygge, an opposite of hygge, called uhygge (and please don’t ask me how to pronounce it, I’ve only just mastered hygge). Apparently it’s to do with that disturbing feeling you get in, say, a wood at night – that something is watching you, that you’re trespassing somehow, that you ought to leave, quick, and get home for some reassuring hygge.

Anyway, this article from the Guardian has more on the subject of uhygge. Don’t have nightmares…

“Stranger Things”: the power of nostalgia

Warning: contains spoilers.

“Nostalgia,” reckons the journalist Alexis Petridis, “is a type of curation: you edit out the bad stuff.”

Seeing as “the bad stuff” is pretty integral to Netflix’s fantasy horror “Stranger Things”, which became an instant hit when it debuted back in July, it may seem odd that so many of the comment pieces about it have used the term “nostalgia” to identify a key ingredient of its appeal.

But like the blues being a sad music that makes you feel good, the best horror – and in my opinion “Stranger Things” ranks among the very best – is a paradox: scary, yet also comforting. John Carpenter – one of several directors whose work is knowingly referenced in the wonderfully named Duffer Brothers’ creation – says that audiences feel good after watching a horror movie because they survived it: they’ve experienced all the symptoms of dread and imminent death without any of the fatal consequences. The thrills are all vicarious, but they leave the cinema feeling more alive all the same – an echo of the strange elation we often experience after a genuine near-death experience, like a car crash.

The choice of setting for “Stranger Things” is revealing – the story unfolds in the fictional small town of Hawkins, Indiana, when local lad Will Byers disappears one evening when cycling home from playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas. On the outskirts of town lies a mysterious government laboratory (is there any other kind?), and it’s quickly obvious that Will’s disappearance – and the simultaneous appearance of an otherworldly young girl named Eleven – is connected to it. But it’s the time in which the story is set – November 1983 – that is the reason its many fans have come over all nostalgic (even though many of its viewers – and indeed even its creators – weren’t even born in 1983).

The Eighties have been having a bit of a “moment”for a while now, and usually I find the recycling of fashion / music / politics that I have already lived through (I was born in 1974) pretty tedious. However, I’m willing to make an exception for “Stranger Things”, not just because of the way it smartly corrals a certain kind of pop culture of the period – from the blocky lettering of the opening titles, to the Tangerine Dream and Vangelis-inspired soundtrack, to the obvious debt to the work of Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and Stephen King – but also because it’s a genuinely unsettling reminder that, though the Eighties can sometimes seem like a simpler time, at least for those of us who grew up in the West (no mobile phones, no Internet, no Islamist terrorism), this is in fact a seductive myth.

I remember my childhood being haunted by the very real threat of nuclear Armageddon, which found its cultural outlet here in the UK with work such as Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel “When the Wind Blows“, and TV dramas like “Edge of Darkness” and “Threads” (which I was too young to watch but was nevertheless aware of). And even in quiet, rural Somerset, it was impossible to ignore the enormous political upheavals of the Eighties, with whole communities left floored by the effects of Monetarism, privatisation, and rapid de-industrialisation.

“Stranger Things” certainly isn’t a political show as such – though, as with so many American dramas of this type, the government – at state and federal level – are definitely Up To No Good, its representatives invariably nefarious and prepared to use violence to protect their interests. Their interests being, in this case, pursuing experiments on vulnerable adults – and their offspring – in order to try and get inside the heads of the pesky Soviets. Unfortunately, they bite off more than they can chew when they open a portal into a parallel universe – and something very nasty indeed comes crawling out…

The idea of the “Upside Down” – as Mike and his friends come to call it – and the way it (quite literally) tends to burst through into our own world is hardly original, but brilliantly and convincingly realised, and the performances of the young cast – from whose point of view the story is mostly told – superb, especially Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, and Finn Wolfhard (another great name) as Mike. David Harbour is well cast as the decent-but-troubled Chief Jim Hopper, and, in a neat piece of casting, two actors who first made their name back in the Eighties appear in prominent roles – Matthew Modine as Dr Martin Brenner, the man in charge of Hawkins Laboratory, and of course Winona Ryder, who plays Joyce Byers, mother of the missing Will. I wasn’t totally won over by her performance myself, but then she does have to play a character who’s pitched somewhere between wired and hysterical for the entire series – not an easy ask for any actor – as well as contending with the frumpiest wig of any TV drama in recent memory. And it’s good to see her back in a starring role.

The way the Duffer Brothers bring together the three main plotlines – Mike and his friends befriending Eleven; the shifting relationship between Nancy, Mike’s older sister, her witless boyfriend Steve Harrington, and Will’s brother Jonathan; and Joyce and Jim’s determination to get to the truth – is cleverly done, and moves towards something all too rare in dramas these days – a Proper Ending (as opposed to those open endings where all the plot strands are just left dangling so there can be another series). A well-crafted plot, where the various stories are actually resolved – God how refreshing! And with just enough of a hint of what a second season might hold (which the Duffer Brothers have insisted will be a “sequel” rather than a continuation), and “Stranger Things” seems to have hit the mother lode. It’s reassuring to know that, along with all the other Eighties influences they have picked up, its creators have also remembered something that was common back then but now seems to have been forgotten: how to tell a good story.

 

The Elements – Fire

OK, so I’ve come to the second of my posts on element-themed folklore, and so we’ve reached… fire.

That, of course, can only mean one thing – dragons!

(Well. not just dragons – but dragons are always a good place to start).

The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf gives us a solid template for the popular image of dragons in the Western imagination:

“He lived on a cliff, kept watch over a hoard

in a high stone barrow…”

When a slave wanders into the dragon’s lair and steals some of his treasure, he takes his revenge:

“Then the dragon began to breathe forth fire,

to burn fine buildings; flame tongues flickered,

terrifying men…

He had girdled the Geats with fire,

with ravening flames…”

Beowulf, no longer the young warrior of the first part of the poem, but now an aged king, goes into battle one last time to protect his people, and time and time again is beaten back by the dragon’s fiery breath (“he who had ruled a nation suffered agony, surrounded by flame”). But one of his companions, Wiglaf, runs to his aid, and drives his sword into the dragon’s belly, and Beowulf is then able to finish it off with his knife. But he is mortally wounded by the dragon’s venomous bite, and the mourning Geats build a pyre for him on the headland:

“And there on Whaleness, the heroes kindled

the most mighty of pyres; the dark wood-smoke

Soared over the fire, the roaring flames

mingled with weeping – the winds’ tumult subsided –

until the body became ash, consumed even

to its core.”

(Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World).

In vernacular British folklore, dragons tend to be less like the dragon of Beowulf, and more like snakes, who often live in the sea or in marshland, and kill their victims by wrapping themselves around them and crushing them. But still, a story like The Dragon of Wantley tells of a dragon who “…ate trees and cattle, and once he ate three young children at one meal. Fire breathed from his nostrils, and for long no man dared come near him.” (Katharine Briggs, British Folk-Tales and Legends).

The Dragon of Wantley.

Of course fire is not just a destroyer, but a creator also, and the Titan Prometheus is punished for stealing it from the gods and giving it to mankind by being chained to a mountainside and having his liver pecked out each day by an eagle, whereupon it regrows each night, and the torment is repeated.

There are other versions of this story beyond Greek mythology – in Polynesian myth, the hero Maui challenges the guardian of fire, Mahu-ika, to a contest, in which each shall compete to throw the other as high as possible in the air. But when it is Maui’s turn to throw Mahu-ika, he cheats him:

“Mahu-ika turned over and over in the air and commenced to fall back; and when he had nearly reached the ground Maui called out these magic words: ‘That man up there – may he fall right on his head!’

Mahu-ika fell down; his neck was completely telescoped together, and so Mahu-ika died. At once the hero Maui took hold of the giant Mahu-ika’s head and cut it off, then he possessed himself of the treasure of the flame, which he bestowed upon the world.”

(Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces).

The idea that the world will one day be consumed by flame, and a new one reborn, is common across different cultures and mythologies – the Aztecs believed that flames would end the aeon of fire (our present aeon), and the Stoics believed in “cyclic conflagration”, i.e. that fire will destroy all, before the universe and everything in it is reborn, exactly as it was, and we all get to live our lives all over again.

The Wild Hunt of Odin by Peter Nicolai Arbo

In Norse mythology, this idea finds its fullest expression in Ragnarok, when Loki’s wolf, Fenrir, will be free from his bonds (“Flames will dance in [his] eyes and leap from his nostrils”) and Jormungand, the snake that encircles Midgard, will “spew venom”. The giant Surt, who was there at the beginning of creation, will “…fling fire in every direction. Asgard and Midgard and Jotunheim and Niflheim will become furnaces – places of raging flame, swirling smoke, ashes, only ashes. The nine worlds will burn and the gods will die.”

Out of this great conflagration, however, a new world will emerge: “The earth will rise again out of the water, fair and green… There will be life and new life, life everywhere on earth.”

(Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Penguin Book of Norse Myths).