June, 2016

Sometimes I feel my dual nationality pretty keenly. There are times when I am fortunate to feel proud of being a citizen of both the United States of America and the United Kingdom. The recent strides taken in both countries for marriage equality, for the right of gay and lesbian men and women to have their love for each other be enshrined in law on equal terms with heterosexual marriages, seemed to me a precious cause for hope in this world.

But then there is June, 2016. The UK tacking towards international isolation and a potentially massive economic crisis entirely of its own volition largely based on the lies and half-truths of a mob of brazenly self-interested politicians, a compromised media establishment, and, I can’t help but feel, a deeply ingrained, jingoistic sense of national superiority. Then in America, a presidential candidate and election campaign  bringing out the worst aspects of the nation’s character, and in the middle of it, a tragedy like there’s never been.

Forty-nine innocent people, members of the LGBTQ community gunned down in one of the few places they were supposed to be able to come together and feel completely safe. Killed by one man and a weapon of war that has no business being sold to anyone in the civilian population.

So there follow the same old arguments. The same denials of a basic truth, that America’s obsession with guns is not, and cannot be, worth the terrible price. The blind insistence that the kind of regulations which have been successful elsewhere in the world are not even worth trying in the United States. And again the media response, distracted by xenophobic fear-mongering and a bizarre compulsion towards taking mainstream ownership over the persecution of (astonishingly resilient but still vulnerable) minority groups, whose ongoing struggles in connection with this tragedy must be acknowledged, not put to one side.

Much has already been written about the initial reactions of the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for president, and I have little desire to dwell upon the subject at this moment, but the self-aggrandising and corrosive message is all too familiar by now, and again I can’t help but feel despair at the support this charlatan still receives.

This year, however, I find myself in a pretty rare and, yes, privileged position, even beyond the usual social, cultural, and political advantages of straight white hetero Anglophone dudes. Earlier this week, I sent off my voter registration and absentee ballot application request to the town clerk of New Castle, New Hampshire. It’s the first time I get to vote in an American federal election, and it is a right (if all goes well) I look forward to exercising. And in case there was somehow any doubt, yes, I’m with her. Before that, however, a week tomorrow, I’ll also be voting for the UK to remain in the European Union. The circumstances surrounding them aside, I feel fortunate to be able to take part in both of these momentous decisions.

At the risk of conflating two separate, but equally complex, political situations, to me these nevertheless feel like voting for the same cause – or, rather, for the same hope. Yes, perhaps in both cases it’s voting for a compromise, for an imperfect candidate and an imperfect institution. But it’s also voting for the first woman president and, I believe, for mutually beneficial co-operation rather than a self-imposed exile. For communication rather than conflict. For building bridges rather than building walls. For tolerance rather bigotry. For empathy rather than callousness. For hope rather than fear. And, yes, love rather than hate. These things I believe in, they are at the core of my values, and my choices are, I hope, in great part the result of reasoning them out as best I can.

But that’s not all. Because I have brilliant, talented, extraordinary friends from other countries in Europe who we are fortunate to have contributing to our cultural and intellectual life, whose own lives may be upturned, or at the very least made unduly stressful and pointlessly more complicated (more so than this whole situation has already inflicted) by the UK deciding to spurn its neighbouring allies and trading partners out of, it increasingly seems, wilful pride.

I have friends in the LGBTQ community, whose heartache I cannot imagine, whose struggles I have not had to endure, whose kindness and bravery is inspiring to me. I’m lucky to have them in my life. So, yes, in both America and Britain, I will be voting with my heart, as well as my head. On both sides of the Atlantic, those who disagree will, I’m sure, be doing the same.

It’s hard not to be hypocritical in such matters, hard not to respond to what feels like an onrushing tide of anger and fear with more anger and fear in return. It’s hard to know when to call it like you see it and when to step back and re-evaluate. It’s hard to disengage when it’s healthy to and, when defeats come, hard to re-engage when it’s important to. I don’t know how much of any of that I’m able to achieve.

But I still believe that it is imperative we keep trying. I believe that change, even if it’s incremental change, can be realised, and that it can make a difference. That people’s lives can be saved and improved by our actions and our votes. That we actually can work together to build more perfect unions and better worlds. Because, if nothing else, it’s necessary.

A Midlife Crisis of Conscience: American Masculinity and Morality in IRON MAN and CASABLANCA

Iron Man PosterCasablanca Poster

Okay, admittedly, this post started out as a joke. In a conversation about the production of Classic Hollywood cinema, my PhD supervisor remarked on the numerous script revisions CASABLANCA went through right up to the point of shooting. I offhandedly commented that it was one of the many things that this most beloved classic of black-and-white romantic dramas had in common with IRON MAN, a comic-book superhero blockbuster about a man in a suit of CGI armour saving the world from villainy, because I have a weird sense of humour.

But the more I thought about it, the more I found the connection genuinely intriguing, and specifically the leading roles and their surprisingly resonant stories of wounded masculinity and personal redemption. The ground seems even richer given both characters’ relationship with America’s place in the world.[1]

Though it went into production in 1942 and premièred later that year, CASABLANCA is very deliberately set in December of 1941, the events of its plot occurring just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbour and America’s entry into the Second World War. The careful neutrality cultivated by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in the complex internal politics of German-occupied French-colonised Casablanca became, no doubt consciously, a metaphor for the still-neutral America of the previous year.

TonyStark

The journey of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) from wealthy industrialist to superhero takes place in a very different climate, against the context of two drawn-out wars, led by the United States, which have turned into military and political quagmires. A billionaire arms manufacturer who designs his own weapons, Stark represents an America at the height of its powers, but whose actions have appalling unintended consequences for the people ostensibly under their protection.

Like Tony Stark, Rick Blaine has a background in arms dealing. As part of his anti-fascist backstory, we’re told he ran guns to the Ethiopian army during their defence against Mussolini’s Italy in the ‘30s. In the film’s present, his café/bar/casino business in Casablanca certainly doesn’t suffer from the city’s importance on the refugee route out of war-torn Europe.

Like Rick, Tony has a practised cynicism about the state of the world and people’s behaviour that acts as cover for his damaged emotional core. Both begin their stories avoiding their issues with different brands of wit (Stark’s is that of the charming rogue, Rick’s is more of a world-weary deadpan). Both would rather seek solace at the bottom of a glass (or bottle) than genuinely open up to anyone. Both carry their cynicism like a shield.

Rick

Their wounds are born of different circumstances, different losses, but they are both deeply felt. As is continually hinted throughout Tony Stark’s appearances in both the IRON MAN series and AVENGERS, he retains strong feelings of parental neglect directed towards his father, Howard (depicted variously by Gerard Sanders, John Slattery, and Dominic Cooper). For Rick, the damage is rooted in his abandonment by Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and the false promise of true love; a personal catastrophe that is mirrored by the fall of France to the Nazis.

Tony and Rick’s responses to such emotional damage are almost mirrors of each other. Tony throws himself into superficial flings with attractive women in a futile attempt to plug the hole in his heart, while teasing and acting dismissively towards those who really do care about him. Rick, unsurprisingly, disdains the company of women, and almost anyone else. But what unites them is the reluctance to value personal connections, and an accompanying acceptance of the way things are and their established roles in their respective political ecosystems. They both, after all, do very good business out of war.

Both Bogart and Downey Jr.  were both in their early forties when they took on their most iconic roles. Indeed, one of the details that marks IRON MAN apart from most other modern superheroic débuts is that it’s not a teenage coming of age story, like either SPIDER-MAN origin. It doesn’t centre on a young adult male finding his identity, like DC’s BATMAN BEGINS and MAN OF STEEL.[2] His fellow headlining Avengers, Captain America and Thor, are characters blessed with youthfulness belying their true age, whether due to pulp science or mythic vitality.[3] Stark is vulnerable in way they are not, hence the metaphor of the suit of armour which is central to his character, hence his damaged heart.

Tony Stark's Heart

Stark’s resort to patriotism as a defence for his career buckles when he discovers that his weapons have fallen into the hands of America’s enemies, and that they are being used not just against combatants, but on civilians. Tony’s realisation, but not quite acceptance, of his own culpability is what drives him to shut down his company’s production and sale of weapons as his first act on returning from Afghanistan.

It is also, as far as the film is concerned, what gives him the duty and, in a sense, the right to go back to Afghanistan and take action. Of course, because this is a superhero movie, Tony’s means of going about this is building an even swankier CGI suit of armour and bringing the fight to the bad guys.[4] He lives out the fantasy of seeing something horrible on the news, feeling genuinely guilty about it, then going and stopping it. And it is, of course, a fantasy. But it is one which is fascinatingly caught up in a web of anxieties about guilt and responsibility felt towards those caught up in the wake of conflict.[5]

Rick’s revelation is more personal, as he discovers that Ilsa’s own situation was more complex than he had imagined. But the pettiness is part of the point, as he can no longer use her treatment of him as justification for his indifference to the state of the world. He accepts that he has a moral obligation to use his privileged position and resources to help her and Laszlo escape the Nazis. In coming to terms with his feelings of betrayal, and allowing Ilsa to leave with her husband, he returns to the world from his self-imposed emotional isolation. It is no coincidence that his (and the film’s) famous last line announces the beginning of a new and valued personal connection.

Casablanca Ending

So, yes, as humorous as the comparison was meant to be (to myself, anyway), both Rick Blaine and Tony Stark are confronted with a midlife crisis of conscience. They realise that the defence of their damaged pride and their attempts to insulate themselves from further hurt have obscured from them the reality that they can do more to help. In its best moments, Iron Man isn’t just about saving the world from comic-book villains. It’s also about the saving of its hero’s soul. And, as Rick himself famously states, Casablanca isn’t just about the relationship problems of three little people. It is, in fact, about saving the world. More importantly, perhaps, it’s about admitting that the world can be saved.

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[1] Iron Man is also, of course, the inaugural picture of the now all-conquering Marvel Studios, and in that sense the start of something of a throwback to the studio system of Classic Hollywood in which Casablanca was produced.

[2] Adulthood identities turn up in the most surprising places, like caves infested with flying rodents, or alien spaceships.

[3] Captain America actually has something of an analogue, albeit a non-American one, in Casablanca’s Victor Laszlo, the Czech resistance leader whose arrival in the eponymous city sets the plot in motion. They are, after all, both straight-laced heroes possessed of genuine nobility, whose very qualities of goodness and decency are often used as evidence that they’re inherently less interesting than their more cynical foils.

[4] Though, as has become something of a recurring motif for the series, it’s significant that the real villain is American and more embedded in the military-industrial complex than even Tony Stark.

[5] At least until the lacklustre last act of the movie, though it’s a theme the franchise returns to, most noticeably in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.

Sauron sweeps to victory in Middle-Earth

So I wrote this silly thing and figured I might as well put it up here.

the-eye-of-sauron_3133429b

Our top story today is the shocking upset in this year’s elections as Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, sweeps towards a truly unexpected victory across much of Middle-Earth. The controversial policies of the coalition government, including the use of invasive surveillance programs such as PALANTIR, the privatisation of the Houses of Healing, and the pillaging of the villages of the common folk, seem to have done less harm than expected to the fortunes of Mordor’s candidates.

Not since the First Age and the re-election of Melkor, called Morgorth, the Great Enemy, has an incumbent party seen such a resounding increase in elected seats. The Home Secretary, Shelob the Spider, was overheard clicking her mandibles with glee, while the Witch-King of Angmar promised that under his continued stewardship as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Middle-Earth’s economic recovery would be assured.

When asked for for comment, the Dark Lord Sauron, having yet to re-attain physical form and thus remaining, for the moment, a giant fiery eyeball, repeated his highly successful campaign catchphrase: “Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, / Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.” The Dark Lord closed his remarks by whispering the words “I SEE YOU” into the very souls of men, before turning his attention elsewhere.

Sauron’s coalition partner Saruman has, however, been dealt a crushing blow. Formerly of the White Council, it was hoped after the last election that the wisdom of Saruman would mollify the extreme rapacious tendencies of the forces of evil. However, the controversies surrounding university tuition fees and the burning of the Westfold have alienated his traditional base in the Gap of Rohan, and polling data suggests his fighting Uruk-Hai have apparently left him behind, instead opting to vote directly for his evil master, Sauron.

More shocking was the failure of the Free Men of Middle-Eath to make any significant headway, and indeed losing their last grasp on the north, as the Men of Dale were routed in the vote by the Dwarven Nationalists. Last year’s referendum on Dwarven Independence, far from drawing a line under the question of the Dwarven Nationalism, seems to have galvanised support for Dáin Ironfoot, who has long claimed that, with the riches of Erebor now regained from Smaug, the Dwarves are capable of sustaining their own economy without direct support from the south.

Questions will no doubt be asked around the leadership of Faramir, son of Denethor, who has been unable to escape accusations of being a ‘wizard’s pupil’. Despite talk of being tainted by the power of the One Ring, there will no doubt be those who wonder if Boromir, Faramir’s older brother, would have been more suited to leadership of the party in this election. Meanwhile, Théoden King, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, was overheard by one insider muttering “Where now is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They are gone, like rain on the mountainside.”

Elsewhere, the Elves have held on to their previous three seats in Lothlórien, Rivendell, and the Grey Havens. While the Ents did manage to maintain their presence in Fangorn Forest, their leader Treebeard has released a statement saying that “No one cares for the woods anymore.”

The creature Gollum has also managed to hold at least one seat in parliament. During the election, he was often to be found in his cave, surrounded by kippers, hissing the words “preciousss” and “nasty, tricksy hobbitsesss”. Despite being rumoured to have once been a hobbit-like creature himself, Gollum’s anti-hobbit stance has been central to his campaign, and has gained some traction in former Arnor townships such as Bree, which has seen an influx of migrant hobbits in recent years.

Finally, there have also been unconfirmed reports that Gandalf the Grey, also called Mithrandir and Stormcrow, has been seen on the road from Minas Tirith, gnawing on the brim of his pointed wizard hat. More on this story as it develops.