Forty Years On (ish): The Four Films That Made Me

Part Two

(Part One on Life Of Brian is here, including an introduction to the series)

[As is, again, the way of things, this part has now been delayed by almost two years. My original intention was to post each of the four parts on the 40th anniversary of the original UK cinema release of each of the four films, but other things continue to get in the way. Or maybe I should spend less time on Twitter. Expect Part Three by June. That’s June 2023, most likely.]

MOONRAKER

ORIGINAL UK CINEMA RELEASE WEDNESDAY, 27TH JUNE 1979.

‘A’ certificate. Not suitable for children under 8 years of age. No dodgyness required!

With ginger Drax and scary Drax recently heading to the edge of space/space—and baby-face Drax not too far behind in person, but way ahead in terms of aspiration—it feels like an apt time finally to post Part Two of this short series about the four films released in 1979 (my twelfth year on planet world) which had the most profound effect on my psychological development. Orbiting Moonraker’s ultra high-concept plot, breathless action and broad comedy are themes and ideas that helped to shape my world view and political identity. Themes and ideas that have stayed with me over the next 42 years.

John Oliver on space billionaires: also the plot of Moonraker.

Moonraker (on balance not only my favourite Bond—just edging The Living Daylights into second place—but one of my favourite films at all) premiered in the UK on 26th June 1979 and was released on 27th June, which also happened to be my twelfth birthday, making it particularly special, especially as I’d been a Bond fanatic since seeing Diamonds Are Forever as a four-year-old (see Part One). As with all of these four films, I saw it at the Sevenoaks Odeon on the first day of release at that cinema, so either on the 27th (which is what I recall) or Friday 29th if the film didn’t go wide till then.


Moonraker also has for me the additional frisson of subsequent location-recognition, due to a family holiday to Venice in the spring of 1980 (more on this in Part Four) during which we visited the glass-blowing workshops (like this one) on Murano and Burano, the trip being something of an inadvertent pilgrimage for me (and the first of many visits to film and TV locations over the following decades).

Add to all of that one of the most underrated title songs of the franchise, a sublime Barry score (it’s no coincidence that superior franchise entries brought out Barry’s very best) and the most gloriously idiosyncratic villain bar none, and you have a film beloved by true connoisseurs, but still mocked, overlooked and misunderstood by both Bond fans and movie geeks.

FOUR KEY THEMES:

1. Psychopath billionaires.

“First there was a dream.
Now there is reality.
Here, in the untainted cradle of the heavens,
will be created a new super-race,
a race of perfect physical specimens.
You have been selected as its progenitors, like gods.
Your offspring will return to Earth and shape it in their image.
You have all served in humble capacities in my terrestrial empire.
Your seed, like yourselves, will pay deference to the ultimate dynasty
which I alone have created.
From their first day on Earth they will be able to look up
and know that there is law and order in the heavens.”

Like Musk, Bezos and Branson, Drax is “obsessed with the conquest of space.” Indeed, he has terraformed his own personal Versailles in the Californian desert, both a stark foregrounding of Drax’s psychopathy and a clever misdirect of Drax’s true masterplan. A piano-playing aesthete with a nice line in drollery: “May I press you to a cucumber sandwich?”; “See that some harm comes to him,” Drax, as exquisitely played by the late Michael Lonsdale, is the most prescient precursor of the world in which we now live—and the inescapable gravity of its power structures. As the doomed Corrine tells Bond on the helicopter flight to Drax’s estate, “What he doesn’t own he doesn’t want.” One has to imagine that a small but not insignificant number of people watched Moonraker on first release and thought: Why would I want to be Bond? He has bosses. I want to be Hugo Drax. No-one tells him what to do.

It wasn’t until I was about fifteen that I realised that both the ladies of Europe’s minor aristocracy (presumably the aristocracy proper would have wanted to be in charge) and the new money heiresses to whom Bond is introduced by Drax—pair one, Countess Lubinski and Lady Victoria Devon at afternoon tea in the palace; pair two, Mademoiselle Deladier and La Signorina del Mateo at the pheasant shoot—are not only aligned with Drax’s idea of “perfect physical specimens” but are also perhaps helping to finance his project. At the very least they have been selected for Drax’s masterplan not just for their beauty but for their status. This is so close to the rich and famous buying seats on civilian spacecraft forty years later that the accuracy of Moonraker’s predictions is truly astounding.

It isn’t only millionaires and the landed gentry who are in Drax’s pocket. When Bond humiliates the Minister by taking him and M to the miraculously-vanished Venice laboratory, the Minister’s outrage is expressed in the fact that he has “played bridge” with Drax. The Minister goes so far as to apologise to Drax “on behalf of the British Government.” This is again hugely prescient and politically astute. A nation state in thrall to an oligarch. The US-UK military-industrial complex exploited for personal gain by a state-agnostic billionaire. And that oligarch clearly with power over both governments, while Britain, trapped between forces far stronger than itself, suffers delusions of grandeur. Thank Fleming for soft power!

Unlike Stromberg and multiple other franchise villains, Drax has no interest in playing the US off against the Russians. His ambitions are geoplanetary rather than geopolitical. The issue of tax is never raised—I mean, this isn’t Ken Loach—but you can guarantee that Drax hasn’t paid a cent for a very long time indeed.

Bond causing the British government such embarrassment means he is taken off the assignment and must go semi-rogue on his “two weeks leave of absence,” with M’s unofficial blessing but without official government sanction, arguably the first time Bond goes rogue in the franchise after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS), and the only time that Moore’s Bond does this at all (although he is removed from the case in The Man With The Golden Gun (TMWTGG), he proceeds to pull at a different thread).

The earthbound geopolitics of it all—some nation states far more powerful than others, but billionaires more powerful than any nation state—is again underscored in the Brazilian monastery where the bolus assassin explodes the head of a mannequin obviously representative of a South American “dictator”. Britain, always happy to help with regime change. The one moment where there’s cause for optimism is when the American and Russian top brass liaise over a possible existential threat to everyone on planet Earth. Maybe that really is the only thing that will make us stop fighting each other.

You could try to argue that Drax isn’t the best Bond villain, but you’d be wrong. Drax works so well because he is both a forecast of our post-capitalist billionaires and an articulate prophet of ecocide, climate breakdown, over-population and shrinking resources. He’s also smart (vanishing his Venice laboratory overnight), wonderfully dry of wit, and almost entirely unflappable. His villainy transcends both money (SPECTRE) and geopolitics (SMERSH) and has a motivation to which we can all, at some level, relate. Indeed, is there another Bond villain as relatable as Drax? Is there a better baddie zinger—or more effortlessly delivered—than: “James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.” And he provokes one of Bond’s franchise-best zingers in return: “Take a giant step for mankind.”

Verdict: psychopath billionaires—bad.

2. Ecocatastrophe.

One can make a strong case that Drax is the archetypal wrong-headed antagonist, trying to do the wrong thing, in the wrong way, but for the right reasons. Even better, notwithstanding some obvious collateral damage, his motivations and actions are always perfectly aligned, unlike The Spy Who Loved Me’s Stromberg, who claims to love aquatic life but is quite happy to annihilate millions of innocent sea creatures with nuclear strikes and the subsequent fallout, not to mention that his entire plan to rebuild civilisation underwater is deeply flawed.

Moonraker is clearly a re-tread of The Spy Who Loved Me (TSWLM) in many ways (and the two films make a perfect double-bill, with Jaws as the secondary antagonist both times), but Christopher Wood and Lewis Gilbert have endeavored to close all the plot-holes so evident in their first attempt. Though having said all that, Drax’s love of nature clearly does not extend either to pheasants or to the inhabitants of rainforest rivers, a subtle indicator of his obvious hypocrisy.

Orchideae Negre

The Black Orchid or “Orchideae Negre,” is the most crunchy and layered of all devices used by Bond villains across the franchise, far more interesting and allusive than yet another nuclear device. It’s so wonderfully apt that the destruction of humankind, which has so befouled its own ecosystem and treated its cohabitant species with such utter contempt should come from a flower.

Drax tells Bond that “one must preserve the balance of nature,” something that the fictional civilisation who lived in the city on whose ruins Drax has built his rainforest base failed to do, dying out due to sterility caused by the orchid’s pollen (though Drax has, of course, “improved upon sterility.”). Here again is the Atlantean theme of hubris: like all civilisations the current one will end, even though we believe we are both invincible and indestructible.

Verdict: ecocatastrophe—bad for humans, great for everyone else.

3. Eugenics.

Drax’s plan to repopulate the world with the cast of Love Island: Aristocracy Special is, of course, all rather Nazi, especially in terms of Drax’s decidedly un-Aryan appearance (isn’t it bizarre how proponents of eugenics almost never look like their ideal human?), notwithstanding that Drax’s astronauts are indisputably multi-ethnic, a clever wrinkle that means while he can be accused of eugenics, Drax cannot be accused of racism: unless it’s against the entire human race that is.

Note that all four of the ladies to whom Drax introduced Bond in pairs are present.

There is also clever resonance with the mythically-superior Amazon women when Bond lands his hang glider and follows a white-robed astronaut to an entirely fictional Mesoamerican temple (even though there were neither Mesoamerican or Inca civilisations in what is now Brazil; the temple used is actually Guatemala’s Maya Tik’al Temple). There’s even a von Däniken-esque hint that the gods who seeded ancient human civilisations are now returning to space in order to start the process again (presumably they aren’t happy with the current iteration). Drax’s monologue quoted above has particular thematic complexity when read through this strand.

Stone Temple Pilot

The quasi-Aryan plot strand also foregrounds another piece of clever self-reflexive business. Bond films have a tradition of blonde-haired, blue-eyed baddies/henchmen going as far back as Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love (the Übermensch and homoerotic elements are stark in the scene where Rosa Klebb examines the near-naked Red) and used again to knowing effect in The Living Daylights with Necros (it’s no coincidence that both films were written by Richard Maibaum).

Moonraker takes this trope and magnifies it so that the entirety of the threat to the human race is a quasi-Aryan take-over (led, of course, by an aging villain with brown eyes and brown hair). The way that Bond convinces Jaws to defect to his side due to the obvious lie that Jaws and Dolly—and their offspring—could ever be considered part of Drax’s “master race” is a critical plot beat, without which Bond would fail in his mission.

Verdict: eugenics—definitely bad.

4. Diversity.

Tying directly into the eugenics strand but in direct opposition to it—and clearly the film’s key message: the compassion of the honourable and the humble vanquishes the bigotry of the rich & powerful—another example of Moonraker’s prescience is its trail-blazing and oft-ignored diversity. Especially seen in light of its budget and the consequent risk if the film had failed (its budget was more than double that of TSWLM in actual dollars; Moonraker was the most expensive Bond film in adjusted dollars till Tomorrow Never Dies).

Dr. Goodhead is a bona fide rocket scientist (the name both a gimme to double entendre tradition and a punning observation of Goodhead’s brainiac credentials). It is Goodhead who pilot’s Moonraker 6 into orbit while Bond is literally a passenger. “Hashtag feminism” as John Oliver would say. When Bond first meets Goodhead, he is stunned she’s not a man, neatly puncturing the default misogyny of the late 70s. She’s sharp, dry and witty—a perfect foil for Moore’s effortlessly debonair male entitlement. Bond and Goodhead’s relationship is a guarded one throughout. Even when they sleep together in Venice they each have an agenda. Thereafter their relationship is kept mostly professional till its unguarded consummation in the denouement—which they’ve both surely earned.


The key twist is, of course, Bond’s appeal to Jaws and Dolly, an exquisitely well-written and beautifully played scene. Jaws is smart and Bond respects Jaws enough to acknowledge this. Jaws immediately understands the import of Bond and Drax’s exchange, in which, cunningly provoked by Bond, who plays to Drax’s egomania, Drax confirms that anyone not measuring up to his “standards of physical perfection” will be “exterminated”.

I challenge anyone to watch the moment that follows, in which, after Jaws and Dolly have fully understood Bond’s observation, Drax attempts to command Jaws (“You obey me! Expel them!”) and not be moved by the dramatic and thematic rigour of this exchange. And by the respectively high-impact and wonderfully under-played performances of Lonsdale and Kiel.


Dolly is also very deliberately differentiated from the traditional “Bond girl”. But Dolly is also deaf, and in an artfully paid-off plot turn, her lip reading enables Jaws to free the jammed docking-release system that allows Bond and Goodhead to track the lethal orchid globes in Moonraker 5 and save the day. The fact of their physical difference is never at the expense of either Jaws or Dolly. Indeed, both as individuals and as a couple, they are the emotional centre of the story. The film is, yet again, ahead of its time.

Verdict: diversity—good.

FOUR FAVOURITE MOMENTS/ELEMENTS:

1. Cone and fin.

Moonraker’s opening is one of the best of any Bond film and perhaps one of the best of any action thriller. Taking its cue from TSWLM, by having the opening sequence be the initiation of the current plot rather than the closure of a previous unseen story, Moonraker ups the ante from, as we later learn, Stromberg’s mega-submarine eating smaller British and Russian nuclear submarines (inspired by the real-life Project Azorian recovery operation) to Drax stealing a Space Shuttle—on loan from the US government to the British—right from off the plane transporting it. Plus it features one of the all-time great diegetic film titles. But then we still get a traditional “previous mission” prologue as well, with a pertinent reminder that Jaws is not to be trifled with. Bonus!

The ending, even though clearly inspired by both the climax of Star Wars and early arcade games such as Space Invaders, is still by far the most nail-biting climax of any Bond movie up to that point. And it’s as far from yet another timer countdown as you could possibly get. Also, it’s hugely superior to the static, anti-climactic ending of TSWLM, which is entirely passive, with Bond watching dots on a screen far away from the actual action (notwithstanding he wouldn’t want to be there, though Indy IV proves there is a way to do nuclear safety ‘on site’ as it were).

And as throughout the entire film, this final set piece features Bond and Goodhead as genuine equals, her piloting Moonraker 5 and him firing, then manually aiming and firing the laser. And neither of them is saving the other; instead, together they are saving 100s of millions on Earth down below. As throughout the film, Barry’s score provides seamlessly dovetailed accompaniment. We end with Q’s ultra-dry fnarr and a snappy exchange between Bond and Goodhead, in which it is Goodhead who has the film’s last double entendre. “Hashtag feminism,” indeed. Perfection.

2. Emotional engagement.

Much of this is due to Gilbert, arguably the classic-era Bond director with the most natural talent for drawing the best out of actors (indeed you could argue that Gilbert directing and John Glen editing is the perfect combination). You rarely see Moore’s Bond as vulnerable as he is immediately after experiencing 13G (a scene which also cleverly demonstrates Bond’s obvious fitness for space, even though he’s had no astronaut training).

“Well, here’s to us!”

In giving Jaws his own arc, and making the arc critical to the main plot, Moonraker cleverly shifts the emotional heavy lifting from Bond to other characters, freeing-up Moore to give one of his very best—and most sardonically effortless—performances in the role. That’s not to say Moore can’t do the emotional stuff. In For Your Eyes Only (FYEO), which was originally due to follow TSWLM but was put back so Moonraker could go first, Moore yet again surprises with his most emotionally affecting performance, assisted by the decision to treat the film as a mid-run reboot (what would probably now be called a “grounded reset,” after the space laser battles and broad tonal palette of Moonraker; and of course its huge budget, though FYEO was still the second most expensive Bond film after Moonraker).

It’s also no coincidence that FYEO has so much in common with The Living Daylights, the next time the franchise was rebooted, this time with a new Bond in Timothy Dalton (both films also share the same writers in Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, and the same director in Glen). Next time you watch FYEO, enjoy how the rebooted franchise uses its opening sequence literally to dump its previous baggage down a chimney stack in the shape of a Blofeld-style villain (Eon didn’t have the rights to use Blofeld at the time, of course), clearly setting-out its stall that this is going to be a new type of Bond film: more Earth-bound in every sense.

3. Genre.

Employment terminated.

Moonraker is genuinely exceptional in genre terms. A sci-fi spy action comedy thriller with horror elements and a romantic drama subplot (Dolly/Jaws), it is extraordinary how everything feels organic, from the horror trope of Drax releasing his hounds to chase-down and kill the unfortunate Corrine in the woods after the pheasant shoot (her employment being “terminated”), to the comedy of the coffin-dwelling knife-thrower, the double-take pigeon in St. Mark’s Square and the way Drax calls “dial-a-henchman” after Bond dispatches Chang (part of a supremely elegant midpoint transition sequence).

“What the fuuuuuuuuuck?”

From the climactic (and genuinely violent) space-laser battle (the absence of the Connery-era standard machine-gun battle ironically adding real weight to each death in the vacuum of space) to the dance of trust and deceit between the two lead spies. The film sets out its wide but never broken genre parameters at the very outset with Bond’s thrilling escape from death by free-fall counterpointed with a parachute-less Jaws landing on a circus big top.

Top that!

Add to this Drax as a conscious take on a sci-fi/horror mad professor antagonist—doing the wrong thing for comprehensible reasons—and you have one of the most sophisticated genre blends in the history of popular cinema and a genuine trailblazer. Indeed, without Moore’s Bond—and specifically without Moonraker, the most overtly and deliberately comedic of all Moore’s appearances in the role—we probably wouldn’t have the slew of ultra-sophisticated genre-splicing spy-action-comedy movies of the past few years. It might not be too far a stretch to claim that Moonraker pretty much single-handedly invented the postmodern genre mash-up.

4. Screenwriting masterclass.

The Venice night-time break-in sequence is an object lesson in showing not telling. Bond lock-picks his way into Drax’s building, overhears one of the scientists access the secret laboratory with the five-note motif from Close Encounters used as a keypad entry code, and follows suit, a playful acknowledgment of the franchise jumping on the sci-fi bandwagon (even cuter are the opening notes of Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” aka 2001 played on a hunting horn at the pheasant shoot).

Inside the lab, Bond leaves a vial of clear liquid precariously balanced when he flees to safety on the return of a couple of Drax’s scientists. The complicit boffins disturb the vial, which falls to the floor and smashes, releasing a cloud of gas. The scientists die, clutching at their throats. But the lab rats in a cage are fine. This is Drax’s entire plan in three beats, but subtle enough not to spoil the reveal for most of the audience: rather it’s a piece of perfectly played subliminal foreshadowing, essential for a plot with such a high concept. Of course, there will be a handful of audience members who will work it out immediately (as an insufferably precocious 12-year-old I did just that) but this is advantageous: it binds them both to the story and the brand (as this post conclusively proves).

Clown shark

In terms of set-ups and pay-offs, I’ve always loved the subtle callback to Jaws falling onto the big top in the pre-credits sequence when he follows Bond and Manuela in a Rio carnival clown costume. It’s perfectly in-keeping with the film’s genre multiplicity that the circus/clown trope appears the first time as broad comedy and the second time as genuine horror (a dark alleyway, a solitary female instinctively covering her exposed neck, a horrific monster trying to bite her). But this little cluster of tropes is even more sophisticated, because the vampire bite also pays-off the coffin-dwelling knife assassin. Magnificent.

Finally, the brilliant head-melting set-up of the space laser in the monastery courtyard in which Q is testing weapons, expertly preparing us for the space battle to come.

CODA:

It’s no accident that this year’s Black Widow pays homage to Moonraker in an early scene. Natasha Romanoff is hiding out in a remote static caravan in Norway and is not only watching, but quoting along to Moonraker (it’s the scene at Drax’s rainforest temple launch base, in which Bond fights Drax’s pet python). That’s the first and only thing I have in common with Black Widow—the ability to quote the entirety of Moonraker.


There is clearly deep logic to this, with Eric Pearson and Cate Shortland’s film having both the lightness of touch and deep emotional heft of Wood and Gilbert’s masterpiece (both elements sorely missing from other entries in the MCU), in addition to a Bond-style plot, a Bond-flavoured villain, a Bond-flavoured lair (Dreykov’s sky base has clear associations with Drax’s space station) and a protagonist who—while she’s on screen—renders the idea of a female Bond entirely redundant.


Next up, the third of the Four Films That Made Me: The China Syndrome (1979), in which the human-created apocalyptic threat is entirely earthbound, indeed right through to its molten core…

END OF PART TWO

Plague Island Zombies: Covid, The Bullingdon Club and Hammer’s living dead masterpiece

Deep into Hammer’s mid-Victorian set The Plague of The Zombies, villainous Squire Hamilton and the other exclusively male members of his local hunt tease and physically abuse the indefatigably inquisitive Sylvia (though the virulent misogyny on display screams a far darker subtext).

Sylvia (Diane Clare) caught by the hunt

Whenever I see that infamous photograph of Johnson, Cameron and the rest of the 1987 vintage in their Bullingdon Club attire, I’m reminded of this genuinely disturbing scene (you know the photo; for a refresher simply search online as despite permission for its use being withdrawn by the copyright owners, there are plenty of sites still sharing it).

In addition to assaulting young women, the Squire and his landed-gentry acolytes in Plague are exploiting the locals through Voodoo and black magic. They’re killing the village’s inhabitants (the titular plague), resurrecting then forcing them to work in their tin mines as the living dead. Indeed, the death rate is so unnaturally high for the tiny Cornish village, that the local doctor has called his mentor down from London to help (and his mentor’s independently-minded daughter has insisted she tag along).

Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) is resurrected

I’m in something of a unique position regarding what I’m convinced is Hammer’s unassailable masterpiece. Having overseen the restoration of 13 of the studio’s classic films between 2011 and 2013, I’ve probably watched Plague more than anyone except those who worked on the original in post-production. (Other than restoration and grading to restore the film to its original glory, most notably we re-ordered the film’s opening sequence as intended, and reverted to the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, revealing more of every frame. Detailed review of the Blu-ray release here.)

From this perspective, I can justifiably argue that Plague is the most thematically rich of all Hammer’s horror films, combining an overtly Marxist strand (exploited workers) with stark commentary on English feudalism (the landed class abusing the peasants) along with a generous helping of Freud’s “Return of The Repressed”.

The Return of The Repressed

Freud’s concept—the idea that what is repressed psychologically will always ultimately return to wreak havoc—is one of the mainstays of horror cinema and had a profound effect on the generation of North American horror auteurs who arrived then thrived during the 60s and 70s, including most notably George A. Romero, David Cronenberg, Wes Craven and John Carpenter.

Plague was released in both the UK and the US in January 1966, almost three years before Romero’s Night of The Living Dead (NOTLD), the first of the horror master’s Dead sequence. Although the main influence on NOTLD is often claimed as Victor Halperin’s 1932 White Zombie, it’s almost impossible to conceive that Romero was not influenced by Plague also. It is, of course, unarguable that Halperin’s film is the key influence on Plague itself.

Detail of a UK combo quad

In each of Romero’s films, a key element of America’s “repressed” returns as the living dead: in NOTLD it’s slavery and white supremacy, in Dawn of… it’s consumerism, in Day of… it’s US imperialism and Vietnam, in Land of… it’s end-stage capitalism, in Diary… and Survival… it’s the primal instincts repressed by varnish-thin layers of society and technology. In Plague, the repressed that returns is empire, but the location to which it returns (Cornwall) as well as from where it returns (Haiti) are prescient. The Squire and his hench-toffs use Voodoo magic—the fruits of slavery and colonialism—to enslave Cornish villagers.

In fixing the origin of the Voodoo magic as non-British Empire territory, but the location of the exploitation as Cornwall, the film clearly shows the imposition of an empire mindset on England itself: specifically on a part of England that has always claimed its independence from the centre; a part of England which is as much “occupied” by English feudalism as was any part of the British Empire overseas. (For Hammer’s take on the repressed returning from the British Empire itself, specifically British Malaya, watch The Reptile, which was shot back-to-back with Plague by the same director, John Gilling.)

Tin drums

I have long argued that the occupied home nations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have since Brexit been run as a de facto inland Empire, with all that this entails in terms of how the people are abused, exploited and discarded by the ruling class. From the loss of Freedom of Movement to businesses destroyed, from deliberate mass infection to inevitable food shortages, from the summary removal of rights, regulations and protections to the degradation of democracy itself. All enacted against not only the occupied nations, but the non-ruling English. And perpetrated by a small group of ideologues, malignant narcissists and sociopaths at the centre in order to extract wealth and to wield power, it would appear, simply for the sadistic enjoyment.

In a tweet posted on July 19th, Limmy made this irony-laced observation: “This Freedom Day experiment is the sort of thing the British Empire would have done to people in another country, partly as an experiment and partly out of malice. So for Boris to do it to his own, to England, it’s actually quite a progressive move.” Sums it all up nicely.

Work till you die… then keep working…

The kleptofascist project’s in-house newspaper The Telegraph reported on July 26th that the Bank of England advocates raising the pension age, something the Tories have floated several times since Brexit, after already increasing retirement age multiple times since 2010. It really does seem as though our ruling class wants us not only to work till we’re dead, but after we’re dead too—just like Plague’s poor exploited zombies.

LSWF 2018 Session

My LSWF 2018 session on Endings is available on the Private Delegate Network of LSF Connect. Anyone who has attended a full in-person festival should have a login. Go to the video archive, select 2018 and scroll down to find the session. Also available as audio only.

Some Thoughts on the “Hero’s Journey”

“The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life.” Carl Jung

“The map is not the territory.” Count Alfred Korzybski

“There is no spoon.” Neo

Ordinary World:

The ordinary world is indeed absolutely insane. We all need to escape from it sometimes—now more than ever. Stare too long into the abyss without a guide and you’ll go mad. Even with a guide most can’t handle the void’s brutal truth. But when it comes to story there are three ways to effect an escape and they aren’t mutually exclusive. Anesthetizing entertainment has its place—no-one can be “on” all the time. Then there are those creative endeavours that are specifically political/agitational/provocative in nature: but have these really effected any meaningful change in humanity in the long term? And is this because they are attempting to change everyone else, rather than one’s own “Self”?

The third route is what we currently call the “Hero’s Journey”: a non-religious, undogmatic myth of pilgrim’s progress for the post-monotheistic world. Psychologically, it’s an invaluable evolutionary step and enables the reader/viewer to understand and contextualize their own inner journey or quest within that of a fictional character undergoing the same archetypal processes. Consequently, that reader/viewer can lay the foundations and build the temple for real change inside their individual psyche (but, caveat emptor: experiencing this journey vicariously does not in and of itself cause change).

Call to Adventure:

Screenwriters write for many reasons, but a working-through of their own psychology is often the single most important factor (though this truth is usually unconscious—at least to start with). A map that sees the act of writing as a journey equal to the journey of the protagonist is simply a psychological truism. Screenwriters go on a journey every time they sit down to write. And a writer making progress through the mythic terrain of their own psyche can indeed begin to effect change within it.

Refusal of the Call:

Being told that any one template is simply “wrong” can be extremely undermining and unhelpful for any writer, especially if that template has already proven beneficial to them. It’s really not for anyone to cry that any individual map is wrong—especially when there might be specific motivations to cleave to one particular map at the expense of all others.

Meeting with the Mentor:

We all crave the wisdom of those who have experienced what we have not, but there is no one single person who could or should ever be the sole “Mentor” to a screenwriter. Spread your net wide. Absorb everything. Take what works; dispose of what doesn’t. But then keep going around again—and again—because as you change, what works for you will change also.

1st Threshold:

As you progress from neophyte to practising writer, you’ll realise that you’ve naturally osmosed some techniques and maps while you’ve intuitively left others behind. There is no “wrong” or “right”. Accepting this means you’ll absorb the tools and templates that work best for you because you’re open to everything that’s applicable—and maybe even to that which initially does not appear to be applicable at all.

Tests, Allies, Enemies:

The greatest test is to keep an open mind. The more open your mind the more allies you will have—at least intellectually (though it’s also true that blind allegiance to one particular closed-minded system can often offer career advancement). The true enemy of the screenwriter is the closed mind: being convinced that the way one sees things is not just the only possible way to see things but consequently also the only one that is correct.

Approach to the Inmost Cave:

There comes a time when you need to shut-out all advice, theory and maps and simply sequester yourself in your screenwriter’s cave. At this point there are no gurus, systems or structures that matter—only your story world, the characters that populate it and the decisions they make.

Ordeal/Central Crisis:

When you emerge from your cave you will suffer another crisis, so you will be thankful for all the help you can get. This includes every single theory, system and structural paradigm on which you can lay your hands—because sometimes it’ll be the very last lens you look through that unlocks the solution to your story problem. Then you’d best get your ass back into your screenwriter’s cave for the first rewrite. And around and around till…

Reward:

There is very little reward for being a screenwriter. Hardly anyone makes a living. The work that does exist is shared by a tiny pool of professionals and there’s only ever room for a few new screenwriters from any generation to break in. This means that you need very quickly to understand that screenwriting needs to be its own reward. And one of the most rewarding aspects of screenwriting is working-through a mythic journey (metaphorically one’s own) vicariously through a character. This is as valid—or perhaps more valid—than any other motivation.

The Road Back:

The interplay between writing and life is symbiotic. You’ll be on a constant journey between your imagined world and the real world—with one constantly influencing and mirroring the other. As one moves through life, different stories become more applicable, others less so. There is an ineluctable, biologically-encoded archetypal pattern to life and this has been brilliantly explored by Jung, Campbell, Stevens and Hillman, among others. If you are open to this pattern, the road back is always simultaneously the road forward.

Resurrection:

The only true resurrection is the metaphorical one. This is what Jung called “individuation” (though it goes by many other names in many languages) and it’s a process that is never entirely complete. Most of us will never experience this, whether through poverty, ego, greed, psychopathy, psychosis or just sheer bloody-mindedness. Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are among the most effective routes to this unattainable destination, but they don’t work for everyone and most people can’t afford either. Vicarious “resurrection”—the one that happens cathartically through engaging with a fictional character undergoing this process—is often all that’s available. But this process can be heightened if you are writing that process as well as engaging with it.

Return with the Elixir:

Screenwriting is perhaps more about psychotherapy for the writer than it is about an un-evidenced theory regarding the wider benefits of storytelling for the human race. Stories have been told since before language emerged—spoken or written—but humans are still the venal, fucked-up death-worshiping idiots they’ve always been. So much for the civilizing effects of storytelling. Best advice? Work on your own “Self” because that’s ultimately the only self that cares and the only self that will ever really listen to you (though you may have to shout—persistently). And if you attain true wisdom—what Jung called “acceptance”—you might one day be able to help effect this process in another.

Breaking Fad: Why OZARK and BREAKING BAD are not as similar as they first appear…

***SPOILERS*** for all Seasons of BREAKING BAD (except the Jesse movie, which I have yet to see) and Seasons 1-3 of OZARK

INTRODUCTION

With Season 3 of Ozark dropping recently, it’s time to explode one of the most frequent myths about the hit Netflix show: that it’s simply a re-heated Breaking Bad transposed to Missouri. There are indeed some shallow similarities. Both centre on an American family under extreme pressure. Both have protagonists who become increasingly enmeshed in criminal endeavour. Both have Mexican drug cartels as their Big Bad. But beyond these points of comparison, the two shows diverge in just about every way.

SET-UP

In Breaking Bad we first meet Walter White as a High School chemistry teacher. As the title of the show suggests, Breaking Bad is about a character who “breaks bad”. At the outset he may be intensely neurotic, deeply unhappy, unfulfilled and undergoing an existential crisis, but he is following the moral tracks expected by both his society and his family. In contrast, Marty Byrde is a crook at the outset; he’s already laundering money for the Navarro cartel – he just narcissistically assumes he can carry on as things are without his role (and the involvement of his family) either escalating or completely falling apart.

THE SETTING

It’s ironic taking into account the respective names of the shows, but Breaking Bad is the show in which the setting (specifically Albuquerque, New Mexico) is fully a character, while the Ozarks, for all its beauty, isn’t a character in Ozark, rather it’s a backdrop, as well as providing the multiple milieus that make the show so extraordinary. Notice how in Season 3 the various trips to Mexico are strictly by edit: cutting immediately to the drama without any filmic location-mood (this is, of course, also a production issue, but necessity and virtue are in total alignment here). This isn’t a deficiency – indeed it links directly to the next element…

GENRE and PROTAGONIST/S

In all great writing (and both shows are exceptional) genre, protagonist/s arc/s and theme should be seamlessly integrated and this is true of both shows. Ozark is at core an ensemble drama, albeit one that creates conflict, jeopardy and stakes from its criminal component. Breaking Bad is, at core, a protagonist-centred tragedy, with all of the Ancient Greek and Shakespearean resonances this should evoke, along with the religious, mystical, mythic and horror-toned elements that tragedy demands.

White is a brilliantly clever protagonist name: an everyman in extraordinary circumstances, a psychological archetype onto which the audience can project shared mythology, the disaster who ultimately becomes a tragic hero. The Byrdes by contrast are pretentious to their very core: their believe that, like their country, their very existence gives them licence to take whatever they want, whatever the cost. Marty and Wendy sound like the first names of the protagonist couple in a comedy – again this is entirely deliberate.

Walter’s trajectory is “fall then rise” in that he descends ever deeper into the circles of hell but redeems himself at the end by sacrificing himself to save Jesse. Marty’s trajectory is the opposite: “rise then…” (well we don’t know as yet, but we can make an educated guess). Indeed, if Marty and Wendy are like any Breaking Bad character in an archetypal sense it is Gustavo Fring rather than Walter (with Ruth as their Walter).

Unlike Breaking Bad, Ozark has multiple protagonists all with their own arcs, an element that makes the show so utterly absorbing. So, Wendy is also on a “rise then…” arc and so is Ruth (albeit Ruth more closely equates to the uncarved block of Jesse). Only Darlene bucks the ensemble trend with her “fall then rise” arc. And Navarro, of course, has nowhere to go but down. In terms of genre, Ozark has wonderfully subtle strands of both farce and satire, which are wholly absent from Breaking Bad.

THEME

Breaking Bad traverses family drama, crime drama, myth and religion, but ultimately its deepest theme is that of a feature film: that loss of morality and loss of self go hand-in-hand. This is the same theme as a plethora of movies about gangsters. Breaking Bad dives into the dark underbelly of the American dream in the same way as The Godfather or a Scorsese film.

In contrast, Ozark, with its deeply ingrained and immensely subtle layers of satire, is about the American dream as it actually is: a key moment in Season 3 comes when Ben and Wendy are sitting in Wendy’s car in a parking lot, chowing-down on fast food (could the scene be more American already?) and Ben tells Wendy that she should have stayed in politics, “You could still be a big deal! This is America!” (and a Childish Gambino reference to boot).

Indeed, in Season 3 the introduction of Wendy’s brother Ben makes the case absolutely overt: Marty, Wendy, Darlene and Ruth are psychopaths (with only Ruth showing any signs of the capacity for genuine positive change). But Ben is mentally ill. The deliberate juxtaposition is glorious, drawing out both that Ben is the only sane one in a nest of narcissists, and that it’s Ben who must be excised from this snake pit so that the others don’t have to look at themselves in the mirror. The deep theme of Ozark being that America is, quite literally, insane.

FAMILY

In Breaking Bad, Walter’s family are secondary because they are in service to Walter’s arc as tragic protagonist (as, indeed, is everyone else). The only other genuinely rounded character is Jesse and this is, of course, not an accident, as he’s the only other character from whose POV you could reasonably view the drama. “Who changes the most?” as the screenwriter’s rubric goes. Well, Walter redeems himself through death, so it must be Walter, but Jesse comes a close second as, in the show at least, he transforms from an abject loser to someone reborn, with potential for new life.

There’s always a sense in Breaking Bad that Jesse is the son that Walter wishes he had, and the guilt of feeling this only feeds into Walter’s self-hatred. In this sense the symbolic sacrificing of Walter for his archetypal “son” is apt. But this mythic element also means that Walter’s own family really do get the thin end of the wedge dramatically.

In Ozark, the Byrdes could be seen as a single character, so unified are they most of the time (obviously there is much push-and-pull, with at least one of the four pulling at any one time, whether it’s Charlotte’s emancipation, Marty sleeping in a motor lodge or Jonah at the end of Season 3). But the key here is that the Byrdes are ultimately a single protagonist: just a normal white-collar middle-class American family who can’t get ahead by being honest. This only works because individually all four are such wonderfully rounded characters.

FEMALE CHARACTERS

There is a surfeit of top-notch female characters in Ozark, in contrast with the almost total absence of anything but foils for Walter and Jesse in Breaking Bad. Wendy, Ruth, Helen Darlene, Charlotte – it’s an embarrassment of riches with a tranche of brilliant performances underpinning them. As I’ve said elsewhere with regard to Gotham, there is no greater honour that writers can give to female characters than allowing them to be as gloriously dysfunctional, as psychopathic, as venal and as violent as the male characters. Ozark sings this message loud and clear (and I’m hoping that the boss of the Lagunas cartel turns out to be a woman too).

Following on from how well-developed Wendy and Charlotte are: as with everyone else who watches it, one often can’t help but watch Ozark as though Ruth is the show’s intended protagonist, with everyone else as her antagonist, either intentionally or by default. It’s no accident that Ben, the madman who can see everything for what it really is, falls for Ruth, the only character other than perhaps Wyatt who has a chance of making it out of the entire run alive.

As mentioned, in this configuration Marty is Fring and Ruth is Walter. Or Ruth is Jesse and Marty is Walter – indeed there is a sense that just as Jesse is Walter’s surrogate son, Ruth is Marty and Wendy’s surrogate daughter, but that relationship is entirely betrayed by the end of Season 3 and it’s hard to see a way back. Lines are now drawn for a locals (Langmores and Snells) vs. incomers (Byrdes) war in Season 4.

ENDINGS

It’s hard to believe that Gilligan had anything but the eventual ending in mind for Walter and Jesse as it fits so elegantly with everything that has come before. The plots of tragedies are archetypally delineated and should have an inexorable gravitational pull toward an inevitable ending. This is a double-edged sword, as it means that over multiple seasons, an audience can become exhausted and/or bored waiting for this inevitable climax (and these are understandable complaints about Breaking Bad).

Conversely, due to its genre, character configuration and tonality, Ozark could satisfyingly end in multiple different ways. Obviously, someone has to be disappointed, but my money is on Ruth to beat the house. Roll on Season 4…

BREAKING BAD is available to purchase on Amazon Prime.
OZARK is on Netflix.

Forty Years On: The Four Films That Made Me

Part One

[As is the way of things, this piece has been delayed by a few months. My original intention was to post each of the four parts on the 40th anniversary of the original UK cinema release of each of the four films, but other things rather got in the way.

I’m now intending to post the four parts between now and mid-December, so I at least finish the whole piece by the end of 2019.] {Which I have now failed to do, but Moonraker is coming soon…}

First, an Introduction:

Born in 1967 (a Summer of Love birth; A Whiter Shade Of Pale was at number 1) I spent my early childhood in Knockholt, a tiny administratively-liminal village on the North Downs in Kent (about which the most interesting facts are the derivation of its name – āc-holt meaning oak copse – and that Aleister Crowley lived there for a couple of years, indeed I’m convinced that he and his acolytes performed occult rituals at the creepy Victorian mansion where I attended day nursery as a three-year-old).

My earliest cinema memories – from the early 70s – are going with my second day nursery to watch Disney movies (including Bambi and Robin Hood) as well as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (all re-releases) and Diamonds Are Forever on its first release (which I can only assume the nursery teachers were desperate to see; its ‘A’ certificate making this possible). So began a life-long love affair with Bond (though we’ve fallen out somewhat during the Craig era).

It subsequently became a family tradition for my father to take me and my younger brother to each new Bond film during the first week of release.

We moved to Tory heartland Sevenoaks (oaks again) so that in 1978 I could attend Sevenoaks School, the private school to which I’d won a free place (as a “day boy”) via the eleven-plus. The school’s coolest alumni are Adam Curtis (he of masterpieces HyperNormalisation and Bitter Lake) and Charlie Higson. Daniel Day Lewis also attended, but didn’t like it and left after two years.

By the summer of 1979, I had completed my first year, replete with all the public school clichés of sadistic sports masters and continual bullying (exacerbated by me hating sport and being both a chorister and player of the violin).

The music opportunities were myriad and welcome and the school’s music centre had a vinyl listening library that featured mostly classical music but had a single copy of Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) which must already have been played thousands of times by the autumn of 1978.

Convinced that I wanted to stay at Sevenoaks School, but still suffering the effects of the negative aspects, the summer of 1979 arrived not a moment too soon. Between June and November that year I saw four films on their original UK cinema release which I now realise have shaped me more than any other before or since . This due to both the power of cinema (as separate from the power of film) and the stories and themes of these four films.

I became very tall very young and by 12 I could already pass as 14. I was lucky that the then manager of the Sevenoaks Odeon could see that I was a neophyte cineaste and he obviously took the decision (a decision that it would now be impossible to take for someone in his position) that I should be let into pretty much any film that I wanted to see (though ‘X’ certificate films were a challenge early on – more of this anon).

Originally built in the 1930s as The Majestic, the Sevenoaks Odeon (now the Stag Theatre) was a glorious 1360-seat theatre, which was converted into 3-screen cinema in the early 1970s. This was of course in the days of the magic of analogue projection and those brilliantly naff ads for local businesses that the Boomer generation so brilliantly lampooned, from Alexei Sayle’s Stuff to the classic “within throwing-up distance of your local” Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch (I began watching NTNON at its launch in October 1979 after a fairly forthright, but thankfully short, argument with my mother).

This was also the era of original horror shorts shown before horror features. Some of my deepest memories are of these brilliantly macabre and shocking short films – often based on urban legends. I’m sure someone’s written a thesis about them and at some point, I’ll actually find the time to search it out.

The key aspect of my psychological development in terms of themes and genre has always been an interplay between TV and film. By 1979, rich and fertile ground had been ploughed across the comedy, horror and thriller genres with shows/stories like Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (one of my very first TV memories from 1972), virus thriller Survivors (BBC, 1975 – 1977), The Goodies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. On radio (though actually on cassette tapes shared by a school friend) The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (1978) and on vinyl (though again, avidly consumed on cassette tapes from the same friend) all the Python albums up to and including 1975’s Grail.

But 1979 was the year I started going to the cinema regularly on my own, irrespective of the film’s certificate. Thousands of films later, it’s a bug that I have yet to get out of my system.

This intense and compact movie-going period between June and November 1979 was bookended by two momentous events with far-reaching consequences. The first was Thatcher’s election victory in May 1979 – a seismic social and political shift. This was magnified by my parents (one a professional singer, the other worked in the NHS) who both had a justifiable loathing of the Tories in general and Thatcher in particular. The second seismic event – which I will come to in due course – provided perfect polarity, being both intensely personal and deeply psychological.

So, let’s begin with:

MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN

Original UK cinema release thursday, 8th November 1979.

‘AA’ certificate, for which I was two years underage. I saw this with my father, who also loved the Pythons. I’m convinced my late younger brother was there also, though that would have made him four years too young, so he won that one. He loved the Pythons too.

From the John Barry-esque falling major third of the title song, through the truly-bizarre Welsh strand, to the final recommendation to see La Notte “If you enjoyed this film…” (and I wasn’t happy till I had), Life Of Brian is one of my favourite movies in any genre.

Watching it again for this post, what really stands-out is the Pythons’ forensic dismantling of the accumulated absurdity and crass mindlessness of the institutions that define the British state and its establishment masters. This is a film that takes aim at far more targets than organised religion alone. At every level, from Imperialist state to terrorist cell, Brian takes unalloyed joy in undermining entirely unearned and unjustified authority, challenging you to question its motives, its assumptions and its mechanisms of self-protection and self-perpetuation.

These ideas would find more strident and overt lines of attack in 1983’s The Meaning Of Life (think of the stunning match-cut of Jones’s mud-caked public-school rugby player to his trench-sodden WWI soldier), but in Brian they are more subtle and under-played.

For an impressionable 12-year-old on the edge of puberty, at once becoming politically aware for the first time and dealing with the contradictions inherent in the blunt-force sadism and exceptional intellectual stimulation of (an admittedly progressive) public school this was philosophical and satirical rocket fuel. Fold-in the fact that I’d already done a year of Latin (I would go on to scrape a ‘C’ at ‘O’ Level) and you have the perfect audience member for the Pythons’ masterpiece.

How could anyone take the absurdity of English institutions seriously? And these six geniuses – who I already worshipped – were giving me licence to mock, undermine and deconstruct every institution that dared to ignore, frustrate or marshal me.

Four key themes:

1. The absurd and gormless dogmatism of organised religion.

“You don’t need to follow me! You don’t need to follow anybody!” The most overt of the four is a brutal dismantling of the arbitrary inanities, unquestioned conventions and murderous blindspots of religion. This is most succinctly articulated by Mrs. Cohen as she and Brian make their way to the stoning: “It’s written, that’s why!”. It’s also highlighted by the High Priest’s apoplectic “Blasphemer!” and by the wonderful moment when Charles McKeown’s blind man is knocked down by the crowd pursuing Brian after his inconclusive propheting. He may be blind, but they’re all blind.

This is clearly the most obvious of the four I’ve chosen, but forty years on its still mind-boggling just how sharp and brutal Brian is on this. It’s little wonder that the “Bloody C of E!” decided to decry the film to the extent that it did, irrespective of the fact that they chose to use an attack on the person of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour (how many “Brians” are in the title song alone? There are fourteen, I counted them), as their key charge (if they’d simply acknowledged and confronted Brian’s merciless attack on dogma, they wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on).

But even this is deliciously undercut by the Pythons, as ‘Prophets Alley’ is very clearly a joke at their own expense: prophets, they imply, are the same as comedians, espousing surreal notions and telling impossible stories for the entertainment of the crowd.

2. The absurd and casual cruelty of British institutions.

The speed with which Cleese’s Centurion of the Yard goes from ear-pulling to drawing his sword will be instantly recognisable to many a public schoolboy. “Now write it out a hundred times!” is a classic/al public school punishment – at once humiliating and pointless.

There’s almost no British institution that doesn’t come in for ridicule: the Church (“An unbeliever! Persecute! Kill the heretic!”), unions (“What have the Romans ever done for us?”; “Right, this calls for immediate discussion! … Completely new motion!”), the civil service and bureaucrats in general (“Out of the door. Line on the left. One cross each.”), the army/police (“Oh, and er thwow him to the floor, Sir?”; an entire centuria failing to find anyone in Matthias’s house; “Now don’t do it again!” when Brian has just finished doing “it” a hundred times), as well as deeply ingrained hierarchies of class and race (“A Samaritan? This is supposed to be a Jewish section!”).

Politics is also viciously deconstructed from despotic authoritarians (the vain and totally un-self-aware Pilate) to a hard left that genuinely thinks “the entire apparatus of the Roman Imperialist state” can be dismantled in two days, but would ultimately rather maintain ideological purity and argue among itself than risk its cosy existence by actually fighting the power in a rational, effective and non-counter-productive way (“Splitter/s!”; “Sanctimonious bastards!” as Brian shouts from his cross at the end).

3. The absurd and unstoppable stupidity of people.

“Brothers, brothers, we should be struggling together!” “We are!” Beginning with the escalating bickering (both intra couple and between couples) at the Sermon on The Mount and ending (a perfectly circular narrative strand) with the very same people: Palin’s Samaritan Mr. Big-Nose and wife (Gwen Taylor); Terence Bayler’s upper-class Jew and wife (Cleveland); Idle’s Cockney Jew Mr. Cheeky, all still arguing as they hang from crosses (in punishment for the fight from the Sermon scene), there are myriad examples throughout of the sheer unbridled idiocy of human beings.

“How shall we fuck off, oh Lord?” and the Judean People’s Front Suicide Squad are also prime examples. Indeed, my favourite line of the entire film has always been Reg’s “Oh, peace?! Shut up!”

Brian addresses the issue of divide and conquer/rule head on: the almost complete inability of the oppressed to identify their common enemy and concentrate their fire-power on it (as happens for example in the archetypally-idealised Star Wars: Episode IV). If people weren’t so intent on arguing and fighting with each other (“And Swedish separate from Welsh!”), they wouldn’t be so easy to manipulate and control.

“Nail ’em up, I say! Nail some sense into ’em!” says Palin’s Ben, who could be any adherent of far-right populism in any country worldwide in 2019. Indeed, Ben is a truly brilliant example of the “Stockholmed citizen”, totally in thrall to the powers that are torturing him, and blaming everyone but himself and those powers for his pain and inconvenience. “Oh, well. One born every minute.” as Harry the Haggler says.

The weak identify with the strong in order to feel powerful, but end-up supporting those who would abuse and murder them. Reg’s “It’s the meek who are the problem.” really nails this, so to speak, albeit that Reg has no clue how properly to mobilise the PFJ, let alone the meek. “There’s no pleasing some people.” as Brian says to the Ex-leper. “That’s just what Jesus said, Sir!”

4. The absurd and joyous paradox of life itself.

“Yes, we’ve got to work it out for ourselves!”. This paradox is, of course, most perfectly epitomised in Idle’s final song as ‘sung’ by Mr. Frisbee III with Mr. Cheeky’s overdubbed voice, which requires no further comment, but there are also many other examples.

Brian’s fatally delayed coming-of-age moment, including finally getting his end away but also being crucified, is another perfect example – there is literally no joy without pain and no life without death. Psychologically, this is also a good example of “The frustration of archetypal intent” (Anthony Stevens’s application of Jung’s theory of individuation): Brian’s sadistic/smothering mother has arrested his development, and in so doing has ensured that he meets an untimely end when he finally breaks free of her.)

Notice also how the title song artfully highlights this paradox as its lyrics take Brian from “The babe they called Brian.” to a “A man called Brian!”, when psychologically he’s no such thing as the story starts.

Four favourite moments/elements:

Gilliam’s sci-fi short smashing into the film’s Midpoint in exactly the same way that The Crimson Permanent Assurance invades The Meaning Of Life a few years later (something also highlighted in the brilliant Rule Of Three podcast episode on Brian).

The music suddenly transforms into sub-John Williams and an entire story is played-out without any dialogue, again highlighting Gilliam’s mastery of the visual. Plus, the yellow proto-space shuttle hurtling back to earth is a gorgeously synchronistic link to the first (chronologically) of my four films (to be revealed in due course, though film buffs will already have guessed what it is).

I’ve always wondered what this scene is about. With the profusion of fake and misidentified prophets on display in Brian and the fact that it’s known the Pythons exhaustively researched the historical period and all the theories pertaining to it, I do wonder whether there’s a subtle nod here to the “alien intervention in human history”, “miracles can be explained by alien technology” and “the Earth has always been caught between warring alien races” theories (and, of course, a mercilessly sceptical undermining of all of these).

“He’s been taken up!” as Idle’s follower later exclaims. Hard to argue with that, even though a moment later Cleese’s follower spots Brian: “No. There he is. Over there.”

Spike Milligan’s glorious 80-second cameo has always been one of my favourite moments, but I now realise this is because I am at heart a “Milliganist” when it comes to organised religion and any form of proselytising. Indeed, I have failed sophisticated HR recruitment days at this very hurdle because I literally cannot be arsed to talk people around to my point of view, even when I know I’m right. Like Milligan, once everyone else has run off after Brian, I’ll try once half-heartedly then turn and walk away, never to return. Life’s just too fucking short.

“Leave that Welsh tart alone!” The extreme (yet surreal) transgression of Terry Jones as Brian’s mother Mrs. Mandy Cohen, a character that remains just as shocking now as it was in 1979. As evidenced by:

The vicious slaps she delivers to Brian as both infant (at the end of the manger scene: “Shut up!”) and adult (just after he’s slept with Judith, thus finally freeing himself of his mother, but too late).

The moment when she kneels down to service the Roman officer… (and… CUT).

The pitch-perfect characterisation/performance when she rearranges her headscarf when the crowd starts “Hailing” her as the Messiah’s mother.

The expression of utter disbelief that animates her face when confronted with Judith stark naked.

And finally, the beautifully-circular and deeply ironic line: “To think of all the love and affection I’ve wasted on you!”. Brian is literally abandoned by everyone except his new-found family of crucifixion victims, all of them ultimately willing to “look on the bright side of death”. There’s a mordant beauty to that.

And these don’t even include what would now be the most contentious line in the entire film (it arrives soon after “He was a Centurion in the Roman army…”)

As a sometime screenwriter I want to highlight a few moments, which show just how brilliant the Pythons were at feature writing:

When Mrs. Cohen decides that a “balm” “might bite him [infant Brian]” because “That’s a dangerous animal… It’s great big… [horns].” When she’s challenged by Palin’s Third Wise Man regarding this patent absurdity she replies “Well, there is an animal called a ‘balm’. Or did I dream it…?”

This is expert foreshadowing/subtext, for what is Life Of Brian – and indeed all cinema – but a (fever) dream in which words have multiple meanings and the sacred becomes the profane, while the basest elements are illuminated? But it’s also a story about a nonsensical subjective reality that is created entirely by the characters within it: that Brian is the messiah. This is the entire film and its ideas distilled into one moment. It’s a truly great example of how to do this with minimum observed effort (see also the opening of The Wild Bunch, which I do tend to bang on about).

Almost immediately after this, Mrs. Cohen is at it again, when she decides that Capricorns are all Messiahs and has to be disabused of this nonsense by Chapman’s Second Wise Man. “Oh, I was going to say. Otherwise there’d be a lot of them!” she responds. Again, this is beautifully-crafty foreshadowing, for what is Brian about if it’s not about there being “a lot of them” (at least from the perspective of the idiots who need someone to follow).

Then there’s upside-down-prisoner’s (Ben’s) “They must think you’re Lord God Almighty!”. The subtext here is so brilliantly overt – yet so hidden in both conflict and humour – that it’s easy to miss just how clever this line is. Again, this line is the film’s story in microcosm.

Finally, the brilliant exegesis on narrative suspense at the end of Brian’s improvised propheting “…To them only shall be given… to them only… shall be given…” Always leave them wanting more, but if they’re really hooked they may well insist on more straight away.

Coda:

You could probably sum-up Brian’s ur-theme with Timothy Leary’s famous exhortation from How To Operate Your Brain: “To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability to inform yourself.” Otherwise known in its shorter version: “Question authority; think for yourself.” With “mock” as an implicit and consequent part of said questioning.

As when the crowd is laughing hysterically at Pilate and Biggus Dickus, there is sometimes no better way to respond to authoritarians than to laugh at them (as any fan of political comedy and satire can attest). Otherwise you get nothing but group-think: “Yes, we are all different!”

Spending one’s entire adult life questioning authority can be a lonely, depressing and poverty-stricken path, but, hey, you can’t fight City Hall! (And by City Hall I mean, of course, the innate core of one’s psyche).

“Bloody Romans!”

Oh, and finally I must mention my favourite pun in the whole film: “So your father was a Woman? Who was he?” (No, but his ‘mother’ is a ‘man’.)

You could argue that Brian – for all his naivety, earnestness, stunted growth and bad luck – is indeed a “lucky bastard”, for who else in Judea A.D. 33 got to ride in a space ship?

Next up, the second of the Four Films That Made Me: Moonraker (1979), in which Bond gets to do the same…

END OF PART ONE


The Final Twist – London SWF extra

Hiding the Final Twist Reveal in 
THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE

(Extracted and enhanced from my session on Endings at The London Screenwriters’ Festival 2018. Although this piece is designed to be read by attendees of the session, I hope others may still find it interesting.)

WARNING, SPOILERS: do not read on unless you have either seen both THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE, or don’t mind knowing the ending before you do.

First, a note on terminology:

As mentioned in the session, I’m distinguishing here between story form and plot structure.

Story form is the shape. In the case of both these films, it’s the dual POV of two intertwined stories, each with their own controlling idea.

Plot structure is how that form is executed within the acts, utilising the innate rise and fall that all screenplays/films require fully to engage an audience.

So, as in my session, I’m applying a structure map of six acts, where each of the classic three acts is divided in two by a major Turning Point (albeit that act three is not divided halfway). [See Table below]

THE SIXTH SENSE starts with Dr. Malcolm Crowe (though strictly speaking it starts with his wife, Anna). It’s clearly his story. The story of a man who must realise he is a ghost.

UNBREAKABLE starts with Elijah. Again, it’s clearly his story. The story of a man who must find his opposite, no matter the cost.

THE SIXTH SENSE – primary story premise
From Crowe’s POV: A man must realise he’s a ghost.

UNBREAKABLE – primary story premise
From Elijah’s POV: A man must find his opposite, no matter the cost.

(If the protagonist is the character who changes the most, then Elijah is definitely the protagonist of his own story: a man stops murdering innocent people because he finally finds his opposite.)

Each of these is the premise of the over-arching story of each film, and it is this that ultimately enables the final twist reveal to work in each case.

In terms of story form, each blends-in another premise, so that each story runs two intertwined stories in parallel, where the protagonist of each of the primary stories (respectively Crowe and Elijah) is the mentor (for good or ill) of the protagonist of each of the secondary stories (respectively Cole and Dunn). Indeed, you could correctly call each secondary story the subplot of each film, in that it commences after the master plot and ends before it.

THE SIXTH SENSE – secondary story premise
From Cole’s POV: A boy must accept his gift.

UNBREAKABLE – secondary story premise
From Dunn’s POV: A man must rediscover his true self by accepting his gift.

The final twist reveal is hidden by moving the spine of the plot onto the secondary story. Story form (a double-axis) allows for the deception, while plot structure (or more precisely the interplay between story form and plot structure) provides the means of execution.

The final twist reveal works because it turns on the primary story, while the Act Three (Part One) Climax turns on the secondary story. The natural climax and release that happens on the Act Three (Part One) Turning Point (each Act Three has very strong physical/spiritual Battle and emotional Revelation scenes) lulls the audience into a subconscious belief that the story is over, weakening/softening them for the Act Three Part Two Turning Point (aka the denouement Turning Point) final twist reveal.

Both films – and their final twist reveals – only work because each is honest at the very outset about whose story each film is telling as its Primary Story. When the final twist reveal happens, we subconsciously (or consciously, if we’ve really been paying attention!) remember the beginning and feel that the ending is inevitable but unexpected.

Each film starts on the spine of the primary story: THE SIXTH SENSE with Crowe and Anna, UNBREAKABLE with Elijah and his mother. Note how Elijah’s mother is present in the final twist reveal scene in order to provide full symmetry with the film’s opening, just as THE SIXTH SENSE both begins and ends with Crowe and Anna.

Each film then very quickly shifts its plot structure spine to the secondary story or subplot: Crowe helping Cole to accept his gift and thereby heal his relationship with his mother Lynn; Elijah helping Dunn to remember his true self and thereby healing his relationship with his wife Audrey and their son Joseph.

Notice how neither Crowe nor Elijah ever really wobble in their confidence that they can mentor/help Cole and Dunn, respectively. Again, this reinforces for the audience that their emotional engagement should primarily be with Cole and Dunn (who do have successive wobbles/refusals of the call).

The Act Three Climax in each case lands on the secondary story or subplot.

Having been mentored by Crowe, Cole tells his mum, Lynn, his secret and shares the message from his grandmother, Lynn’s mother. Now Cole can live as his true self. The family is healed. Catharsis.

Having been mentored by Elijah, Dunn accepts and starts to live as his true self. Now he can be a good husband and father. The family is healed. Catharsis.

Climax and release. Catharsis. We feel that the story is over.

The denouement is where the final twist reveal happens in each case. Crowe with his wife. Elijah with Dunn.

A note on Closed vs Open twist endings

It’s also worth pointing-out that final twist reveal endings never open out again, because this would be too much for an audience to absorb; one major Turning Point is enough for a very short Act Three Part Two/denouement.

Both films move from an open Act Three Climax to a closed Act Three Part Two Turning Point (aka final twist reveal).

So, each film has a literal denouement (an untying or closure) rather than the open denouement (or rather the “renouement”, the literal retying) of examples like THE MATRIX and MEMENTO, which both suggest more story to come (for good or ill, respectively).

A note on Rise and Fall

Also, worth noting the elegant symmetry and/or asymmetry in the Rise and Fall elements of each of the stories within each of the films:

Elijah – Rise and Fall [an Arrowhead]

Dunn – Rise only (Fall in backstory) [Ascent]

Crowe – Fall and Rise [a V]

Cole – Rise only (Fall in backstory) [Ascent]

Notice how Crowe and Elijah both end Act Two Part Two UP, which is asymmetrical to their Act Three Part Two endings, giving a natural Rise and Fall.

A note on enantiodromia

(I missed my slides on the concept of enantiodromia – the innate tendency of a thing ultimately to transform into its opposite – in the session due to time running away; in a nutshell it’s an idea from Jung that for me brilliantly defines how the fulfilment of archetypal intent in terms of character often runs to this rule, especially with the most complex and multi-layered characters e.g. cable-show anti-heroes/dark protagonists).

Again, note the elegant symmetries and asymmetries here:

Elijah:
So fragile that he breaks, so vulnerable that he’s scared of life
To
So strong that he “embraces life” (irony!) by committing mass murder (though this fact is hidden till the final twist reveal)

Dunn:
Scared of life (backstory)
To
Embracing life

Crowe:
Doesn’t trust himself (so much that he doesn’t even trust his own mortal status)
To
Trusting himself (so much that he can finally accept that he is, in fact, dead)

Cole:
Doesn’t trust himself
To
Trusts himself

Table of Act Structure Turning Points

Turning Points Primary Story:
Elijah/Dunn/
(Audrey/Joseph)
Secondary Story:
Dunn/Audrey/
Joseph/(Elijah)
Primary Story:
Crowe/Anna
Secondary Story:
Cole/Crowe/Lynn
Act 1 i aka
The Inciting Incident
(Elijah is born with bones made of glass) [1] Dunn survives the train crash Crowe is killed Cole meets Crowe in the church
Act 1 ii aka
End of Act 1 aka entering (or refusing) the Special World [2]
Elijah becomes obsessed with comics (in flashback) DUNN: “I thought the person that wrote that note had an answer for me. I’m gonna leave now.” Crowe’s wife “ignores” him at their anniversary dinner, causing Crowe to accept his “marriage” is over COLE: “You’re nice, but you can’t help me.”
Act 2 i aka
The Midpoint aka the character pivot
Elijah tells Audrey: “…that possibility, however unbelievable, is now more a probability.” (UP) [5] Dunn tests his gift at the stadium (thereby subtextually highlighting that he is Elijah’s opposite) then is immediately tested (he learns he almost drowned) (UP to DOWN) Crowe thinks he’s not helping Cole (though, of course, he is) but is still resolved to continue (DOWN to UP) Cole shares his secret with Crowe: “I see dead people.” (thereby subtextually highlighting that Crowe himself is a dead person) then is immediately tested (he is haunted by the abused wife) (UP to DOWN)
Act 2 ii aka
Self-Revelation and Mentor’s Final Lesson
ELIJAH (to Dunn): “Go to where people are. You won’t have to look very long.” (UP) Dunn relives the car crash and admits to himself that he wasn’t injured (DOWN to UP) CROWE (to Cole): “I think I might know a way to make them go away. Listen to them.” (UP) Cole is haunted by Kyra Collins, but is now strong and engages with her (DOWN TO UP)
Act 3 i aka Act 3 (physical and/or spiritual) Battle None Dunn defeats the janitor. None Cole defeats Kyra’s mother.
Act 3 i aka
Act 3 (emotional) Climax
None Dunn, now his true self, reveals his gift to Joseph, thereby healing his family (open ending) None Cole, now his true self, reveals his gift to Lynn, thereby healing their relationship (open ending) [3]
Act 3 ii aka
denouement
aka the final twist reveal
Elijah revealed as mass-murderer (closed ending) [4] None Crowe revealed as ghost (closed ending) None

[1] Elijah’s Inciting Incident occurs so early that it doesn’t really qualify as such in terms of plot structure, rather it’s Elijah’s Inciting Incident in terms of story form. This allows the entirety of the Inciting Incident in terms of plot structure to be taken-up with Dunn.

[2]  Both films delay the Refusal of the Call (a story form beat) so late in terms of the Secondary Story that in each case it falls on the Act One Turning Point. Again, this is perfect asymmetry, because the DOWN nature of the Refusal in the Secondary Story balances the UP nature of the Entering into the Special World of the Primary Story.

[3] Just for grins (with apologies to Mr. Shyamalan!): Now a jaded alcoholic, Cole (Hayley Joel Osment) is saved from suicide by the ghost of a woman (Margot Robbie) who died plummeting off the same bridge, but can’t remember why or by whose hand. Their investigation leads all the way to the White House and its freshly incumbent tech billionaire (Ryan Gosling), an outwardly charming man with a dark past he’ll do anything to keep secret.

[4] No story ever really closes finitely – hence GLASS (yay!).

[5] The two stories notably cross at the UNBREAKABLE Midpoint. The carpet in the physical therapy room neatly confirms this, very obviously combining the Dunn family’s yellow/green palette with Elijah’s purple.

Note: You could, of course, for each Primary Story, call the Act One Inciting Incident the “prologue” and the Act Three Part Two Turning Point the “epilogue” or “coda”, but these labels would severely diminish the roles these Turning Points play in terms of overall plot structure and the occlusion of the final twist reveal.

Sinfonia antartica – a personal re/view

Sinfonia antartica by Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Philharmonia Orchestra, soprano Sarah Tynan, Philharmonia Voices, conducted by John Wilson

Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre

Thursday 9th November 2017

A personal re/view

In 1912, Captain Robert Falcon Scott died in his tent along with two other members of his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole (Lawrence Oates, as every English schoolboy over a certain age knows, had already attempted to save the others by self-effacingly leaving the tent for “some time”). In 2010, almost a century later, a mass the size of Dorset broke-off from the vast Antarctic Mertz glacier. The catastrophic environmental impact of this event is only now being seen.

Truly great art has the power to transcend its original context, to be at once pertinent, prescient and perennial. So it was that this superb performance of Vaughan Willams’s Sinfonia antartica sounded not so much like an epitaph to Scott’s expedition, but rather an evocation of humankind’s brutality towards the delicate ecological balance of the frozen continent, and a requiem for Antarctica itself.

Pitched between the roiling inner turmoil and existential anguish of the 6th (whether you think it’s about WW2 or not) and the mature eclecticism and lush sonorities of the deceptively unassuming 8th, the 7th, or Sinfonia antartica to give its Italianate name, is an expanded and revised version of the film score Vaughan Williams wrote for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic (dir. Charles Frend; scr. Walter Meade, Ivor Montagu and Mary Hayley Bell). This means that unlike much of the classical repertoire – and beyond even overtly programmatic works – we have very clear textual pointers as to what much of the music is specifically about and the emotions it intends to suggest (albeit that Vaughan Williams wrote much of the film score without seeing any shot footage).

In this brilliantly alive, masterfully subtle and deeply enthralling performance, John Wilson conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra – who recorded the original film score under Ernest Irving – did something quite extraordinary, something that only the very best interpretations allow for: inviting us, if we were minded, to encounter the work as if we knew absolutely nothing about it or its provenance other than the title.

Wilson’s quintessentially British approach of combining frost-sharp precision and emotional restraint along with subtle shadings of light and dark and infinitesimal graduations of dynamics created an overall effect that felt apt in every way, but that also left plenty of space for personal interpretation (I much prefer this approach to the works of Vaughan Williams, similar in some ways to that of the late Bryden Thomson, over the more romantic, continental, emotion-wringing approach of, for example, Bernard Haitink).

Charles Frend’s film is a genuine tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, with an expertly-structured screenplay. Starring John Mills as Scott, it closely follows the real-life events that lead Scott and his team to perish in the icy vastness of Antarctica. In one of the opening scenes, Scott’s wife reminds him that he is fascinated by “making the first foot marks”, an aspiration of humans for well over ten thousand years. In parts of Antarctica such as the McMurdo Dry Valleys, extreme cold and almost zero moisture together create an environment in which a footprint can last undisturbed for centuries.

There is also deep irony in the film’s telling early on of how Scott couldn’t raise suitable funding because of the expedition’s apparent lack of forecast economic return. The character of Edward Wilson, the expedition’s scientist, introduces a tension between science and commerce. He is more interested in discovery for discovery’s sake, while the more worldly and pragmatic Scott wants his expedition first to be funded, and then later to be regarded as a great success back home.

This dichotomy is neatly captured in a scene at the base camp before the journey across the ice begins. Having learnt that Amundsen is making for the South Pole rather than the North as originally assumed, Wilson points-out that it doesn’t matter if they beat Amundsen to the pole as they can still do valuable scientific work, indeed much better science if they’re not taking part in a race. Scott replies, “In fact I’m not going to race,” then immediately turns to the map and asks himself out loud, “Wonder what route the blighter’s taking?” He cannot help himself. In a later scene, shortly before the final team reaches the South Pole, Wilson shows Scott some coal, causing Scott to feel vindicated: they did not travel here in vain, there are natural resources to be exploited.

It’s impossible to view these scenes without feeling a strong sense of loss, that it’s our voracious desire for economic growth and exponentially increasing short-term energy requirements that have brought the planet to the brink of disaster. When, months later, Scott’s tent was discovered by a search party, his diary recounted the team’s final hours. One can’t help but wonder whether what remains of humankind in a few millennia will be as informative regarding our fate, or as matter-of-fact about how we all perished.

Scott and his team are portrayed as archetypally stoic in a uniquely British way. Combined with the frozen landscape that the music evokes so magnificently, the 7th can’t help, on the surface at least, but be less overtly emotive than many of Vaughan Williams’s other works, but under Wilson’s meticulous direction the Philharmonia edged along a narrow path that was both expressive and evocative without being either over-wrought or too contained.

Soprano Sarah Tynan and the Philharmonia Voices were flawless. Positioned just outside the auditorium and audible only through an open door, they created a spiritual layer that deepened the work’s effect and meaning. The ‘Prelude’ appeared to move from the majesty and beauty of Antarctica, the wind initially appearing as icily beautiful, to the bells, brass and timpani hammer rise/hammer fall motif which felt like the worsening environmental catastrophe that is already causing real harm to whales, penguins and albatrosses all the way down to krill and phytoplankton.

The end of the first movement, originally designed to showcase the heroism of man’s mighty endeavor in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds seemed more like tragically-flawed hubris, not just of the expedition but of humanity. The wonderfully taut and rhythmically disciplined ‘Scherzo’ with its foreboding woodwind and insistent dual falling motifs spoke to me of impending disaster for everyone and everything, not just for Scott and his expedition.

From a screenwriting perspective, it’s worth noting here that the film not only has a perfect midpoint (at 52’42” with 52’42” remaining) with a Fade To Black/Fade In, but also in story terms a perfect Midpoint scene (at 52’52”) in which Scott sends Dimitri off with letters home (as the editing here makes clear, the expedition is now almost entirely cut-off from civilization and at the mercy of nature). The twelve-man team is now closer to the endpoint (danger/death) than they are to their origin point (safety/life). This metaphorical Rubicon-crossing at the Midpoint of a screenplay is an idea that is innate in practised storytellers.

Although the third movement most betrays the symphony’s film music roots, ‘Landscape’ (initially at least) thrillingly conjures the raw beauty, harsh extremes and awe-inspiring size of the continent. Wilson’s control of dynamics here was superb, rendering every moment intensely suspenseful and keeping one firmly on the edge of one’s seat. When the Royal Festival Hall organ thundered into the movement, it felt like the brutal horror of humankind attacking the continent’s fragile ecology full force.

The ‘Intermezzo’ further ramped-up the sense of apprehension, repeating the bell/timpani death knells, though now under woodwind/strings. These softer, yet more emotionally-forceful knocks at the door by the ‘Reaper of All Things’, sounding not as a bell tolling for Scott and his expedition, but as the final muted blows falling on Antarctica itself, the real damage having already been done. The final oboe solo sounded a premonition of the very last Antarctic penguin standing on the ice, wondering what happened to its colony and its home (a recent photograph of the world’s last male Northern white rhino probably playing on my mind at this point).

The ‘Epilogue’ marched inexorably towards what felt like unavoidable annihilation, as the influence of ‘civilization’ obliterates everything in its path, the trumpet motif from the ‘Prelude’ now sounding like a funeral march for Antarctica.

Human-made climate change caused by ever-rising levels of carbon dioxide (now at levels not seen for 3 million years) has caused acidification of the ocean and a decrease in sea ice, on which the entire ecosystem of the Antarctic relies. The distribution and levels of Antarctic phytoplankton, the fundamental building-block of the entire food chain on the continent, are being altered by these changes in sea ice. Krill feed on these phytoplankton beneath the ice sheets. Diminishing ice means diminishing krill.

Twice in the past four years the annual breeding cycle of the Adélie penguins who inhabit the Petrels Islands has been hit by catastrophe caused by the changes in ocean currents and ice formation brought about by the break-up of the Mertz glacier, and by extreme weather events that are also a direct result of human-made climate change.

Only two Adélie penguin chicks survived in the colony this year, from breeding pairs numbering around 18,000. A lack of sea ice close to the breeding location meant the adults had to travel over 100km to feed on krill, leaving the chicks to die from cold and starvation. Some have predicted that Adélie penguins may soon become extinct on the Antarctic Peninsula, which is seeing some of the most increased winter temperatures anywhere on the planet. Almost ninety percent of the land glaciers there are melting.

Emperor penguins, the Antarctic’s other indigenous penguin species, are currently classified as ‘Near Threatened’, with some predictions forecasting more than half of current numbers being lost within the next 80 years (one lifetime). Again, this is due to diminishing sea ice leading to drastically reduced food sources. Antarctica is also under threat from increased tourism, shipping disasters, oil spills and from non-treaty-bound governments and private companies prospecting for natural resources.

As the symphony’s haunting winds and ethereal spirit voices faded into nothingness, I couldn’t help but feel a visceral dread for the fate of the now-thawing continent as its future hangs in the balance. In those precious moments of silence between the last audible reverberations and the first wave of applause, a question hung in the air: was the requiem for Antarctica or for us, who mostly refuse to respect anything but that which quenches our own ceaseless need for gratification.

Read as an urbanoia/survival horror, Scott of the Antarctic is about a group of “First World” dwellers who travel deep into the wilderness without due care, attention or respect. They ignore the advice of the wise ‘local’ (Nansen) who tells them “dogs, dogs, dogs”, deciding instead to take some dogs, but also ponies and two mechanical sleds, which become useless early on. The ship’s lucky black cat squirms out of Scott’s arms and runs back on board when it’s suggested she should accompany Scott to the pole. Later, perfectly healthy ponies are shot because they have become more useful as husky food than pack animals. Within a horror frame, it’s crystal clear that Scott and his expedition have transgressed against nature and will be duly punished in return. Of course, neither Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates or Evans fight back, rather they accept their inevitable fate with the most British of stiff upper lips.

Stoicism is the polar opposite (pace) of what we need now. Indeed, it is Antarctica that has no choice but stoicism, as it endures everything that human actions throw at it (the burning of fossil fuels worldwide will have set a record high by the end of 2017). Nor, like Wilson and Scott in the film, do we have time to indulge in dream-like flights from impending fate (only eleven miles from safety, Wilson imagines his wife walking towards him through verdant green, in a cinematic trope reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil).

Humanity now has three choices: take radical action immediately, sacrifice ourselves for the good of the planet and its non-human inhabitants, or ultimately find ourselves just another in a long line of extinct species, many of which we have ourselves hastened to their untimely end.

After more than a hundred years of snow, the tent in which Scott, Wilson and Bowers died is now encased under twenty metres of ice within the Ross Ice Shelf, as are, we can only assume, the bodies of Evans and Oates. As the polar ice melts, breaks off and floats away with escalating pace, we can only hope that all five men can rest in peace till nature, in time, reclaims her icy domain.

Greenpeace Antarctic Sanctuary

WWF The Antarctic