Thoughts on Empire (the TV series)

Oi! Thas ma hoom!

I watched this BBC series in tandem with reading the book, which I talked about in a previous post. The series received pretty good reviews, though tackling such a subject at such a time inevitably led to it being criticized for not taking a hard enough line against empire. I can see that (the book felt a bit tougher), but overall I found it an interesting enough show to finish all five episodes.

The second episode begins with host Jeremy Paxman explaining how, “Everywhere they went, the men and women who built the empire created a home away from home. From the wastes of Canada, to the fertile highlands of Africa, and the hill stations of India.” This seemed to me to be a bit tough on my home and native land. Overall, I think Canada offered a more congenial climate for British settlers than Africa or India. Nevertheless, Paxman later returns to the Great White North, calling it one of the most “thinly populated if inhospitable places” to build empire. He says this with an opening shot of him trudging alongside a snowy river. I was expecting to see “Canada” come up on the screen, but it more specifically locates the river as in “Ontario” (a.k.a. “the wild and snowy lands of British Canada”). Drilling down deeper, the place we visit is Fergus, Ontario, which is a ten-minute drive from where I live. I guess the producers thought it irresistibly picturesque, as it’s not mentioned in Paxman’s book.

Anyway, Fergus has a “harsh climate” that particularly challenged Scottish immigrants when the winters turned so cold the wheat froze, “which made the scones pretty chewy.” I didn’t know Scots were so soft, or so particular about their scones. It’s bad on me though that while I knew Fergus’s world-famous Highland Games, and even attended them one year, I didn’t know anything about the town’s founder, the pride of Perthshire Adam Ferguson. He named the place after himself.

Dune on (and not on) film

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been looking at the adaptations made (and not made) of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune: David Lynch’s 1984 version, a documentary on the Dune movie Alejandro Jodorowsky didn’t make, and Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 blockbuster.

To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the book(s), but that may be because I’m not much into that blend of SF and Fantasy. Denis Villeneuve’s movie was widely praised though, and if you loved the novel then I think you’d be happy. This Timothée Chalamet fellow, however, is not winning me over.

Gilded Age kinksters

I was recently watching the PBS documentary The Gilded Age and was struck by an image of a partygoer at the 1883 ball thrown by Alva Vanderbilt as a housewarming for the newly completed 5th Avenue Vanderbilt mansion (since demolished, alas). This was a gathering of the crème de la crème of New York society at the time, all of them competing with each other in a display of wealth and privilege (the newspapers even promoted the event with headlines about “The Amount of Wealth to be Displayed”). But it was the “youthful and precocious” Kate Fearing Strong who showed everyone up in her Catwoman costume.

The idea of a society lady attending such a party wearing a collar with her nickname “Puss” on it struck me as wonderfully 50 Shades. Animal lovers should cringe, however, at the fact that her headpiece was a real taxidermied cat and her skirt had seven real white cat tails sewn against a black background. I don’t know if Strong was the inspiration for Cruella de Vil, but the connection is pretty obvious. All-in-all a pretty disgusting costume then, though the collar is timeless.

Biblical babes

I just watched the National Geographic special on The Gospel of Judas. Interesting subject, though it was handled in a pretty remedial way. As with most documentaries the parts I liked best were the interviews with experts (a.k.a., talking heads). I don’t like dramatic re-enactments of historical events. I often wonder if there’s any point to these at all. I guess they liven things up a bit, but they always seem a little silly to me and not very instructive.

If you’ve seen many Bible-themed movies you get used to it being a story — the greatest ever told! — that’s prettied up. Even the gore of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has a glamorous quality to it, and Jim Caviezel is the usual “close but kind of meatless” actor playing Jesus. That’s the handsome-hippy way he’s also presented in the re-enactments here, with Judas equally good looking but with a dirty beard.

I tend to just roll my eyes at movie Jesuses now. They all look the same and I doubt they’re even that accurate. Even the idea that Jesus had a beard is debatable, as it was actually quite a late addition to his iconography (in the earliest depictions he was a beardless youth). But where I really had to laugh watching The Gospel of Judas was when I saw the women. Here are some early Christians listening to a reading of the gospels.

Come on. These ladies are beautiful. I don’t think many working-class women in first-century Palestine looked like this. And here is the martyr Blandina about to die for the faith in the arena at Lugdunum (modern Lyon).

A model martyr, if you will.

Again Mel Gibson’s movie can be taken as setting a high bar for this sort of thing, with Monica Bellucci playing Mary Magdalene. I guess it makes sense that a pretty Jesus should be surrounded by Biblical babes but this can be taken too far, even by Hollywood.

Double feature

Richard and Clint, plotting their next move.

A book-movie double bill today, with notes on Where Eagles Dare up at Alex on Film and a brief review of Geoff Dyer’s commentary on it, “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy,” at Goodreports. Both well worth checking out. They made me wonder though how much of the interest in Where Eagles Dare today is driven by nostalgia. Not for the Second World War, but its place in the cultural imagination, particularly of boys in the 1960s and ’70s. And whether that’s a kind of popularity likely to last. If so, I think it will have to change into something else.

‘Tis the season

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Over at Alex on Film I seem to have made it a bit of a holiday tradition to look at some less conventional, and usually very bad, Christmas movies. I kept at it this year with the Bad Santa movies and Fatman. Going back a few years, here are some of the other lumps of coal Hollywood has been leaving in our stockings:

Black Christmas (1974)
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)
Bad Santa (2003)
Krampus (2016)
Better Watch Out (2016)
Bad Santa 2 (2016)
Black Christmas (2019)
Fatman (2020)

Top of the world

Going up.

Just over 24 years ago I started what turned into a surprisingly long stint as a freelance book reviewer with a review of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. I think it was the second review I had published, outside of student newspapers and academic journals. Alas, it appeared in a paper that hasn’t had a books page now for over a decade.

I absolutely loved Krakauer’s book, and a couple of months later did a double review for the same paper of a pair of similarly-themed mountaineering books: Dark Shadows Falling by Joe Simpson and Everest: Mountain without Mercy by Broughton Coburn. The latter was a companion book to an IMAX expedition that was on Everest the same time as Krakauer’s team. Apparently I liked the pictures but thought the text “virtually unreadable.” I recently re-read it though, so I can say that judgment was maybe a little harsh. Still, the main draw are the pictures.

I don’t think I saw the IMAX film Everest at the time, but I recently watched it — on DVD, alas, and a small screen — and posted my thoughts over at Alex on Film. I guess after nearly a quarter century this closes that particular circle.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not a mountain climber. Or rock climber. Not at all. Though I do like hiking. You couldn’t pay me enough to get me to go up Everest, though I wouldn’t mind visiting Nepal. The dangerous stuff should probably be left for the professionals.

Return to Stepford

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching the two (big-screen) adaptations made of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Mostly I was trying to figure out what went wrong. Levin’s book is a little classic, and one that would still seem to have a lot to say to us today. But both movies (1975 and 2004) get confused as to what their ultimate point is, and end up being muddled without providing much in the way of horror, humour, or social commentary. I can’t help thinking that someone might still be able to get it right, if they ever want to give it another shot.