Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, April 27, 2009

On Prologues

It seems that after a bit of a discussion on Twitter, Neil Williamson and Jetse de Vries have got into an interesting discussion on the purpose of prologues. Neil asks the open question: is a prologue ever a good idea? Then talks about scene-setting and backgrounding, exposition and the negative effect it can have in doing little more than present a barrier between the reader and the actual novel itself. Why not just cut to the chase? Couldn’t that scene that takes place “one year earlier” just be Chapter One? And so on. Jetse responds in the comments with a thoughtful cross-posting from his own blog entry on where prologues might function well to get essential info across and/or set the scene. It’s interesting stuff, so you should go read it.

Myself, I’m thinking Todorov’s notion of narrative equilibrium might shed some light on why prologues seem superfluous or otherwise. The conventional narrative in Todorov’s model — with its five “stages” of equilibrium, disruption, recognition, reaction, restitution — is not too different from a practical model of situation, problem, engagement, try/fail cycle, resolution. The actual dynamics is more gnarly, to my mind, with nested and threaded sub-narratives of disruption, recognition and reaction (ump-thousand word blog post on this here). But in your classic simplest-of-the-simple narrative structure all the complex plottiness of the mid-section is still bookended by an obvious beginning (initial situation) and an obvious ending (final resolution). You don’t need a prologue and an epilogue. You just have a Chapter One and a Chapter Umpteen (or Umpty-Ump or whatever).

Here’s a way to look at it though, I reckon: If you have a Chapter One that simply describes equilibrium and a Chapter Umpteen that deals solely with restitution, this might come across as a bit dull, as both of these states are lacking in tension. The whole point is that they’re lacking in tension; the disruption that the plot manifests has not happened yet in one case, while in the other it has been resolved. So maybe there’s a tendency for beginnings and endings to show transitions rather than states, no? In other words Chapter One gives us the start-action (initial situation > initial disruption) and Chapter Umpteen gives us the end-action (final reaction > final resolution).

So I’m wondering if the problem Neil and Jetse are thrashing about comes from a use of prologues to “set the scene”, and if this is fundamentally about establishing equilibrium. Cause I can see how this wold go wrong, reading as pointless infodump to a modern audience.

With the omniscient PoV of Victorian Realism, I mean, you can take the time to establish the worldscape and even tell what’s gone wrong with it, and only then slowly focus in on the protagonist or protagonists who’re going to be engaging with that. The equilibrium is described. A gradual destabilisation is described. Ramifications are described. The point at which characters properly become active agents in plot terms can be hard to identify in that type of fiction because structurally it’s all very organic, all very emergent. The omniscient PoV only gradually winds its way in from the frame to settle on the key players. Thomas Hardy seems like a fair example here. That start-action (initial situation > initial disruption) might well take place over the first two, three or even more chapters. To the omniscient PoV, potentailly scrutinizing social interactions without an immediate involvement, the key disruption is just one of many perturbations in a disrupted-equilibrium of a homeostatic social system. Which is to say, it’s only as the detail is built up that we come to see that there’s a plot in action. There’s a long period at the start which could pretty much be described as “setting the scene”.

Contrast that with the equally omniscient PoV of traditional Epic, which tends to cut to the chase quicker, I’d say, but in doing so makes its scene-setting more blatant, more artificed. In many such narratives you actually get a short spiel, a ritualistic introduction — gather round, boys and girls; once upon a time; long ago, in a distant land; let us speak of a great hero, blah blah blah. In Gilgamesh, it’s the description of the hero and the walls of Uruk that he’s built, an expository laying down of context that’s all just scene-setting — from one persepective at least. Then, of course, it’s on with the Ripping Yarn, equilibrium out of the way as quickly as possible — sorta “stasis is boring; let’s get this narrative rolling already.” Enkidu is found at the watering-hole. The disruption has arrived toot-sweet. In the Epic, there’s more focus on action, on physical agency, so that start-action comes in like the kicking down of a door. Still, the omniscient narrator of Epic does get to lay out the Big Picture in what’s basically just description. There’s a distinct sense of the equilibrium being established upfront rather than revealed as we go along.

With modern fiction — especially pulp fiction — I’m not sure we all have the patience for that anymore. With the shift to the first person or limited third person PoVs of 20th century pulp, as the omniscient narrator falls out of fashion, it seems to me like any attempt to set up the equilibrium may well read as flat exposition. Without the omnisicent PoV, stories sort of become bound to characters who are either involved in the disruption from the get-go, or have no awareness of it until its ramifications force their engagement. The story doesn’t start — from their PoV — until they (perhaps accidentally) pull the narrative trigger and blow equilibrium to shit, or until some ramification of a disruption that’s already taken place comes up and kicks their feet out from under them. You can get away with maybe a chapter (maybe even less) of backgrounding if it’s integrated into a “character getting on with their daily life” scene or two, preferably primed with sufficient foreshadowing, (and the more character-driven or theme-driven a work is, the more you can get away with… perhaps,) but I don’t think the modern pulp reader is very patient. We’re looking for the narrative trigger to be pulled ASAP, for the plot to kick in pretty sharpish.

In story terms, I reckon this creates a stronger tendency to open in media res, to dump the reader in with the protagonist right at the “disruption” stage, if not even later. How many fictions these days actually start at the point where the disruption is just about to impact the protagonist’s life and drag them into the plot — i.e. in the “recognition” stage? In the narrative grammar of Mystery / Crime / Noir which underlies a fair amount of contemporary strange fiction, this may be a fundamental technique. You can make the protagonist’s subsequent discovery of the nature/source of the disruption a key driving force of the narrative. You can kick off in media res with the protagonist’s sudden embroilment due to a ramification of the initial disruption (secondary disruption > initial engagement) and only later reveal the backstory of exactly how this all came about (initial equilibrium > initial disruption = Big Revelation).

Where you’ve got a narrative grammar falling more towards the Epic / Heroic / Adventure end of the spectrum, however, making a mystery of the original start-action might mean telling a completely different story from the one you’re trying to tell. Maybe it’s not a story of discovery you’re aiming for. Maybe it’s just a simple story of dealing with the fucking disruption. There’s a problem to be sorted and the story is of it being sorted, not of faffing about in the mire of complexities, trying to figure out how this all came to be and finding resolution in the realisation of such. Now you can probably get away with a more classic narrative structure if the protagonist is personally involved in the disruption. The first chapter or two can present the disruption from their PoV with a little bit of subtly integrated backgrounding revealing the equilibrium in its negation, via that disruption. But if your protagonist is not personally involved in that disruption, because it’s a large scale disruption and they’re just the ickle bitty farmboy, born in obscurity but destined for greatness… well maybe you do want to lay down the context of the Enchanted Land into which — oh dear — the Dark Lord has broken loose. Or to talk in slightly less conventional terms — maybe you need to get your heroes into Hell in the first place, but you know that the real story only begins with them deciding to engage with it and try to bust their way out, guns blazing.

But this is shifting towards a distinct type of prologue that’s not entirely what Neil and Jetse are (largely) talking about. This is a sort of prologue that presents action in the form of disruption. What about that very expository type of backgrounding prologue which is really just about establishing equilibrium?

What we’re talking about there is framing, I think, and that change in PoV style means it’s harder to get away with that pure framing these days, or even with heavily descriptive introductions from which the plot only gradually emerges. That sort of malarky reads as editorialising blather, authorial infodump, telling rather than showing. (Does Contemporary Realism get way with more? Seems to me the first person CR work might be allowed more leeway with the chatty protagonist doing an explicit introduction with brief personal bio? But I’m not sure.) You do still see it though; classic Epic Fantasy (or Epic SF, for that matter), with its wandering PoV — pseudo-omniscient, multiple third person, or some hamfisted hybrid of the two — seems to have inherited that preambulatory approach, and where it lays out the equilibrium of the worldscape it seems to do so even more distinctly. Why? Epic strives for the sense of scale that comes with the frame, I think. It seeks the grandeur of a bona fide “Hear ye!” announcement that Story is about to commence. So in place of the “gentle reader” malarky of the obsolete omniscient narrator we have the literary equivalent of the scrolling text, the throaty voice-over, the burning map. It’s the modern equivalent of an invocation of the muses, or a description of Gilgamesh the King on the walls of Uruk.

This can fail because we just don’t buy into the artifice or because… well… it’s badly written. One common failure — when the prologue reads as pure infodump, usually because it’s too damn long, and too damn dry — is generally because it’s been written as backgrounding rather than framing, I reckon. The purpose of the “stage-setting” prologue of traditional Epic is not actually to impart information; it’s to impart significance. It’s a conjuration, an invocation, a sales pitch rather than a history lesson. If it paints a picture of the world and the players in it at all, (“Behold the mighty Gilgamesh! Behold the walls he built for Ururk!”) this function is subordinate to the seductive purpose (“Listen up, motherfucker, cause I’ve got a fucking Story!”) The prologue shouldn’t be a big block of blather the reader has to trawl through to get to the hook. It should be a hook in its own right, a sideshow barker saying, “Step right up,” and teasing with a taste of what’s inside.

Now maybe some just react against the blatant sales pitch, but a lot of the time I suspect it’s just that the deliberately leaden (i.e. transparent) prose of commerical fantasy and science fiction doesn’t match this purpose: transparent prose rules out any possibility of enchantment. There’s none of the distinctive lyricism of a narrative voice calculated to draw the reader in. And, man, if you’re simply setting the stage… a map takes up one page; scrolling text should be a few paragraphs max; the voice-over should not drone on for twenty fucking minutes. What we’re looking for is short and snappy. Think Chorus from King Henry the Fifth or the “two star-crossed lovers” intro to Romeo and Juliet. Think of how these are made to work in the Branagh and Luhrman movie versions respectively. Contrast this with the interminable opening of Lynch’s Dune. A prologue should not be worldbuilding, and thinking that’s what theyre is for is just a misunderstanding of the convention. IMHO. The exposition might — just might — work for some viewers on a gosh-wow sense-of-wonder basis, but to be brutally honest I think it’s… tickling the toes of what M. John Harrison so famously referred to as “the clomping foot of nerdism” (or was it “stomping”?). To each his own and all, but… no thanks, mate.

Thing is, even with Epic SF/Fantasy’s roving PoV, the abandonment of true omniscient makes the straight description of equilibrium problematic. You lose the omniscient PoV that sees the frame, the only PoV that can really describe equilibrium with a sufficiently wide-scale overview. Add to this the fact that Romantic plot structures preference active agents over passive observers anyway, and the problem deepens: that equilibrium is disrupted by definition if you have agents active in it. So, the idiom is pushed towards the type of prologue I’m skirting around above, I reckon, one that disguises the framing in the form of a sub-narrative. A little story is crafted that gives all five Todorovian stages from one character’s PoV, but which uses a slingshot ending to set its own resolution as the disrupted-equilibrium of the larger story to come. Non-central character X has been hunting for McGuffin Y for many years, finds it, and all hell breaks loose. End of story? No. End of prologue. Bang! Novel begins with central character Z thrown deep into the shit because of that, action in full swing. This is the sort of prologue that takes place a year, a hundred years, a thousand years or whatever before the plot of the novel. It might even take place directly beforehand but be sort of… aesthetically disconnected.

I’m not entirely averse to this, I have to admit. I like the “pre-credit sequence” aspect of a prologue that functions as a little narrative in its own right, draws the reader in and then fires them out into sudden action, Chapter One beginning in media res. The prologue of Vellum fits this pattern fairly well, I guess. I think it’s an overdone convention that’s often present in Epic SF/Fantasy less because the narrative is naturally structured with such a pre-credit sequence and more as an excuse for the writer to pump up the import with a framing device. But I do think there are stories with more complex beginnings and endings that sort of… separate themselves out from the core story structurally, work best as prologues and epilogues. Like, after the Big Climax, maybe there’s still some disrupting ripples left to create reactions that you then have to work through into a final resolution that gives a full sense of closure — but maybe that can only take place “many years later”. Or maybe the disruption of the equilibrium has been set up “many years before” in a sequence of events that fits the schema (equilibrium, disruption, recognition, reaction, restitution), a sub-narrative that has basically left the worldscape primed for a problem to erupt somewhere down the line, when the narrative trigger is pulled. If there’s a sufficient disjunct, I reckon, you can end up with a naturally prologued and/or epilogued structure to your story. You could take that sub-narrative and label it Chapter One, but structurally speaking it just… isn’t. It’s Chapter Zero. It’s a prologue.

But I think this is kind of coming at it from a different angle from Neil and Jetse. I think what I’m suggesting is that prologues shouldn’t just be establishing equilibrium — whether its in the form of infodump or scene-setting. Or at least that it’s a whole fuckload harder to get away with that these days, that it generally doesn’t work in the modern idiom(s) of commercial strange fiction.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Just a wee heads-up on the latest issue of Heliotrope, in which myself and a whole bunch of other people pay righteous tribute to one Michael Moorcock.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Pimping for meself: it seems that my story, "The Behold of the Eye" is on the long (and I do mean long) list for the Million Writers Award. Which is nice.

Pimping for my good mate Robert "Bob"/"Bert"/"Bobberty" McDowell and his Electric Top Hat games company: it seems that Electric Top Hat's second iPhone game, Tocco Robo has just been released. You can see some YouTube malarky of gameplay here. It looks like the sort of thing I'd get completely addicted to, so I'm almost glad I don't have an iPhone. For those of you who do... go on; support a fledgeling games company that's not an evil corporate bastard working its coders to the bone; you know you want to.

Friday, April 17, 2009


Saul’s Spear

Last night I watched the double-episode pilot of Kings with a judgement so reserved it probably needs treatment for agoraphobia. We’ll get to why that is in a bit, but if you haven’t heard of it yet, Kings is a strange fictional retelling of the Old Testament story of David, the shepherd boy hero who slays Goliath with a stone from a slingshot and ends up as king of the Israelites. Sunday School was too many years ago for me to remember all the detail, but for those of you who had childhoods blithely free of attempts at religious inculcation a brief summary of the basic backstory (as I remember it) might be quite interesting.

It begins X generations after the escape from Egypt, and the twelve tribes have made the Promised Land their home, the main problem being that there’s a whole bunch of other tribes currently living there or in the surrounding area — Philistines, Ammonites and such — who aren’t too keen on that Land being Promised to a bunch of outsiders (as far as they’re concerned) by this upstart YHVH with his One True God complex. Added to this, it’s a turbulent time within the Israelite culture itself, with the judges who rule the tribes not doing too good a job of it. The story as told emphasises their religious flaws in not adhering to the Law (as I recall), but the military defeats that result from God’s disfavour, in the logic of the text, are maybe no small part in the people’s dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. (This is a really crude gloss on it, I’m sure, so if anyone wants to correct me in the comments, do feel free. The key point, as far as I remember, is that the people want to change the whole structure of their society from a system of distributed authority to one of centralised authority, one with sovereignty situated in a single leader.) So eventually we get the prophet Samuel bowing to popular pressure and anointing the first divinely-ordained king, Saul. He does it grudgingly, with warnings from God himself of the autocratic imperiousness that goes along with a One True King, but… well, the people want a monarch with the legitimate authority to forge a nation in the face of hostile neighbours. So they get one.

So in terms of the backstory, there's more going on here than just the hero's journey. We're talking about governance, about sovereignty and legitimacy, Church and State, war and peace, about the building of nations. On "God-given" land. I'm intrigued.

Anyway, fast-forward a few years and the nation is forged, but the conflicts with those hostile neighbours have not gone away. Saul has pissed off God and is suffering for it, a man troubled by demons that look rather like the mood swings of a depressive or an egomaniac. Samuel has decided God wants a new king and is on the lookout for a likely candidate. Enter our young hero, the shepherd boy David, a Darling of Destiny spotted by Samuel, handsome, ruddy-cheeked and a brave warrior. Samuel’s blessing brings the boy to the attention of Saul, who finds in him not just a pretty armour-bearer but a talented harpist whose music hath charms to soothe Saul’s savage breast. In 1 Samuel 16:23 we’re told, “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.”

For a while it’s peachy. David gives Saul musical relief and, after his spectacular victory in the Goliath showdown, Saul gives David one of his daughters as wife. The young man becomes even more intimate with Saul’s son Jonathon, enough so that a queer subtext is arguable even if we ultimately read their textual relationship as homosocial rather than homosexual. In a queer reading of the story, in fact, we can trace homoerotic undercurrents beyond the young men’s sharing of clothes and kisses: David’s nature-boy-musician character resonates with the archetypes of Tammuz, Adonis, Orpheus; as ephebic armour-bearer to brooding Saul, he recalls Patroklus’s relationship to Akhilleos; as servile youth to an autocratic overlord, we might even see a hint of Zeus’s houseboy Gaymede; even the phraseology of the text focuses us on the physical act of David’s hand, the young man’s fingers gently strumming this… instrument. Soothing his master. Offering him… relief.

Then, in the key-point of David’s victory over Goliath, we see a reflection of that male-male power dynamic (elder/younger, bigger/smaller, master/slave, top/bottom) overturned. If we are to queer the image of Jonathon stripping to clothe David at all, I would suggest we read this not just as the sealing of a generically homosexual union, but with the sexual politics of the erastes and the eromenos in mind, with Jonathon now David’s “armour-bearer”. Bottomboy David has turned top and taken the prince as his own passive partner. This is, of course, a deliberate queering, (and I’m not actually convinced that such queer readings have any connection to historical relevance or authorial intent,) but if we accept it as a subtextual reading, what does this say of the source of Saul’s jealousy? While the text explicitly states that Saul is galled by the women singing of David’s victories, this scene comes directly after the covenant of David and Jonathon and directly before the first manifestation of that jealousy in an act with a blindingly obvious Freudian interpretation:

“Now it came about on the next day that an evil spirit from God came mightily upon Saul, and he raved in the midst of the house, while David was playing the harp with his hand, as usual; and a spear was in Saul's hand. Saul hurled the spear for he thought, ‘I will pin David to the wall.’ But David escaped from his presence twice.”

Sometimes a gun is just a gun, as they say, but in the shaft-and-head construction, it’s hard not to read a phallic symbol into Saul’s spear, his thwarted penetration. In a queer reading of the text, the story is not just, I’d say, of David and Jonathon as a male-male couple bound by a love characterised as surpassing that between man and wife and, like the platonic ideal it resonates with, presented as chaste or sexual according to taste. Such readings rather strike me as having an air of wish-fulfillment. Rather I see something much more gnarly here, interesting to the point of disturbing, a story of father and son sundered by a shared object of desire, versatile David who is bottom to the father’s top, top to the son’s bottom. It’s a story of thwarted desire turning to insane jealousy, Saul as spurned lover, an aggressive top denied his lust; and of desire fulfilled in surrender, Jonathon as submissive partner, archtypally dying young and mourned as Patroklus. And versatile David between them, catalyst of it all, intermediary and perhaps even — in some deeper, darker, dodgier way — surrogate. There’s a whole can of worms in that story, if we read the politics as sexual politics.

Even if we don’t, if we take David and Jonathon’s relationship as fraternal, the purely political and interpersonal relationships are at the heart of it. It’s the story of the Darling of Destiny coming into the king’s camp, beloved of him at first, winning the king’s own son as his most loyal ally, their friendship so strong that the prince stands with David even when it means choosing friend over father. Saul’s alienation of his own son is a key marker of his incapacitating irrationality, his raging jealousy. Change that dynamic and you transform the whole tale. That reserved judgement I have with regard to Kings? It’s very much to do with this.

United States of Gilboa

But first: if this Biblical story is the palimpsested underlyer of Kings, how specifically is that tale rendered strange-fictional? Rather interestingly is the answer. Most reviews of the show I’ve read couch it in terms like “present-day” and “alternate history”, and those are fairly apt on a superficial level. Kings begins with the imagery of American idyll, the pastoral patriotism of the Midwest — a flag flying, dandelion seeds in the air, a farmhouse in the background as David Shepherd plays ball with a collie sheepdog. Culturally and technologically it seems we’re in the present-day US… except for the little erratum of the fact that the flag is no Stars and Stripes, but rather a bold red banner with a stylised golden butterfly. Called inside by his mother to join the rest of her boys, David switches on the tv, and the groundwork of this elsewhen begins to be set: we see a news report with a caption telling of the “dedication of a new capitol at Shiloh”. Over the next few scenes, as we’re introduced to the key characters of Jack Benjamin (Jonathan), his mother Rose (Ahinoam, Saul’s Queen), his sister Michelle (Michal) and his father Silas (Saul, played by the ever-watchable Ian McShane), a little backstory is sketched in. We’re in the nation of Gilboah, which, yes — culturally and technologically — has the trappings of a contemporary Western civilisation, but which was only founded a few decades previous in the aftermath of a bloody “Unification War”. Its government is an absolute monarchy, headed by King Silas, who sees himself as divinely ordained by a sign from God (butterflies landing on his head in the form of a living crown). The new capitol that’s being dedicated has been built from scratch by the imperious king, a symbol of the nation pulling itself up out of its own ruins. His speech is beamed out to the masses — we see a black family at home, front-line troops in a mess hall tent, commuters in a railway station… and David Shepherd’s family of blue collar boys whose father, their mother reminds them “died fighting for this… Damn fool.”

And so it goes. The prophet Samuel becomes Reverend Samuels. The conflict with hostile neighbours becomes a war with Gath, a country on the nation’s northern border. Goliath becomes a tank, taken out by David in a courageous raid across enemy lines to rescue hostages — one of whom turns out to be Prince Jack. The recontextualisation is often deft and engaging, with little touches that appeal to the same intellectual impulse that appreciates flourishes like, say, the engraved branding of a gun as a Rapier .45 (or whatever) in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. Here the king’s personal scribe records the spin of current events on his PDA, press releases dictated by the king in biblical idiom. Here, instead of the harp David plays piano. But the palimpsesting of biblical and contemporary cultures is also deeply dissonant, deeply estranging. It unmoors the story from geography — from history even. To retell a story so fundamental to present-day culture requires this if one doesn’t want to be dragged down in metafictional side-issues — the story of Kings is on too grand a scale to be simply spliced from one here-and-now to another, the way Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers can be transplanted to “Verona Beach”; and Gilboa can’t just be slipped into our world like Ruritania — but the dislocation from the here-and-now is at such a base level, it makes this elsewhen as strikingly foreign to us as it is familiar.

When Silas references “global culture” and “premier of Austeria” we have little concept of what that means, how Gilboa and Gath fit into this. Are they large or small? In Asia, Europe or North America? The material wealth of a Gilboa capable of such a grand rebuilding project, its climate and flora — these might signal that we’re on the North American continent, dealing with nations the size of the US and Canada. The scale of warfare however and directly referential turns of phrase like “push us into the sea” throw us back to the Middle East. Does the elsewhen of Kings even have those continents? The WASP royal family and the ethnic diversity of supporting characters (and their generally marginalised roles) might signal a history of immigration, slavery, emancipation, a parallel and continuing struggle for civil rights, but all we are given is the vague reference to “unification”. Yes, it looks like America but do we have any sense at all of this nation’s roots on the historic scale? If Silas’s general, Abner is played by a Native American, does this mean there are “Native Gilboans”? On reservations? Did this world have a Columbus? Pilgrim fathers? Does “WASP” even mean anything in this elsewhen? Samuels is referred to by the distinctly Christian title of “reverend” but there’s not a single mention of Jesus. Thing is, given that we’re seeing an Old Testament story playing out, I see no sense whatsoever in setting that story in a discrepant worldscape where the New Testament has already run its course, no reason to assume that’s the sort of world we’re dealing with.

For an “alternate history” then, Kings, in the pilot at least, has little concern with explicating its world, mapping it spatially and temporally, what exactly it is and how exactly it came to be. Personally though, I don’t give a fuck. This is not a reason to criticise it but a reason to praise it, to my mind. This stance may seem inconsistent after I laid into Battlestar Galactica for its worldbuilding failures, but where in Moore’s show the result was an unconsidered assumption of Americanist values, (my real problem with that worldbuilding failure,) Kings’ wiring in of divinely-ordained monarchy is so utterly at odds with the cultural markers of Americana that it becomes an erratum permeating the very substance of the show, a fundamental quirk. And in the way it deals with that erratum this show has so little in common with the “if Nazis won the Second World War” school of alternate history that I really don’t think it’s purposeful to critique it in those genre terms at all. This is not a schematic rewrite of history, not a scholastic recreation of worldscape, but a restaging of drama. What it has most in common with, for me, is the sort of live production of Henry IV, Part One I saw as a kid, set on a sparse stage with characters in anachronous military uniform, or Tom Paulin’s BBC-produced redaction of Prometheus Bound — Seize the Fire — with its main character in a greatcoat bound to concrete by twisted steel rods, conjuring up an air of the Russian Revolution and its heroes-become-victims. The aim is ahistorical bot pseudohistrical. The temporal dislocation is performative, a matter of backdrops and props, idioms of rewritten dialogue. It doesn’t seek to be consistent, to offer the well-built world of counterfactual speculation. The strangeness is not there to be explicated away, but to be exploited. Doubtless there are those who’ll berate the show for this “shoddy worldbuilding”, but for me it makes for a refreshing focus on drama over detail. The “clomping foot of nerdism” has been hacked off and chucked away. Deal with it.

That said, there are, I think, points where the approach leads to problems. The Samuel character becomes an example of what I hereby christen the Magic Luther King Negro — that particular brand of stereotyped wise-black-man with gravitas and potency reinforced by their role as pious prophet-to-the-people. That the mythic figure is based on actual public figures doesn’t make it any less stereotyping than a Mandingo based on Mike Tyson. The subservient roles alloted to other characters of colour become similarly dubious. Just how are we meant to take the fact that King Silas’s secret mistress, Helen, is non-white, especially given the fact that one character labels her a “whore” (and especially given the xenophobic associations of that term in the bible with rival polytheist cultures)? Here the lack of historical context leads to an obfuscation of all sorts of issues as regards the moral climate of Gilboa, structures of prejudice and privilege that are clearly pertinent to a drama with aristocracy in the centre of its lens and a blue collar white boy as its hero. If it wants to be truly socially relevant the show will need to articulate the race relations of its elsewhen. And if this simply doesn’t fit with its intent, if it’s positing a Gilboa where skin colour is a non-issue, a multi-ethnic land without that history of abjection — the way one might cast an actor of whatever skin colour as MacBeth or Hamlet without trying to make a Meaning of it — well, they should really think about the prejudices being unintentionally articulated by the particular casting choices that they’ve made, because then there’s really no excuse for relegating your characters of colour to the cliché roles of pious reverend, palace secretary and secret mistress (Magic Negro, servant and slut).

I’ll suspend my judgement on that mark for now, as it’s too early to predict how much detail they might add to their elsewhen and to what effect. For now, I think if this “United States of Gilboa” (my term, not theirs) muddies the writers’ intent as regards race, it does at least make for some intriguing thematics in other areas. The fundamental skewing of what seems familiar recasts the nominally secular culture of contemporary America in a way that foregrounds the religiosity that pervades it at the deepest level. A culture where separation of Church and State is written into the constitution is transfigured (and pointedly so) into one where the head of state claims divine mission, where the mythology of destiny underwrites the very notion of national identity. Through its conceit, Kings has the scope, I think, to address some pertinent questions as to how that goes wrong, how the Silas’s of our world use the power of myth to legitimise their dubious agendas, where patriotism is co-opted by propaganda, where territorial greed and religious faith are fused and confused in bloody wars. It has the scope to tackle both the power-game of Straussian politics as it’s played at the highest level and the bloody brutal fallout of that on the very people who buy into the rhetoric most completely, or who are simply sucked up into the conflicts it creates. Better still, the biblical story it’s grounded in gives it the capacity to articulate these questions in the language of those who hold utterly to the most basic principles of God and family and country. It could — if it has a mind to — be a profoundly subversive series. Moreover, the conceit does universalise the drama and themes of the show, I think, succeeding where Battlestar Galactica failed, to my mind, regardless of what its defendants say. I’ve been focusing on the Americana in my reading here, but there is indubitably a potential relevance to the present day situation of the land it’s base story has its root in. It will be very interesting to see how far Michael Green might choose to address modern Israel through his strange-fictional story of its first kings.

Or the show could fail completely. The story of Saul is of a divinely-ordained king’s descent into tyranny, one that might well interrogate the notion of nobility, but Kings is clearly David’s story as much as Saul’s, and David’s is a monomyth — the Darling of Destiny plucked from obscurity, anointed as God’s Chosen to save the kingdom and win the princess. (Or maybe the prince.) If Kings has the scope to interrogate the fantasies of absolute monarchy, the political machinations validated by appeals to faith, our appetite for authority, it also has the capacity to surrender utterly to the rapture of those dreams. It would not be hard at all, I think, to turn Kings into a legitimisation of every Bible-Belt, blue-collar, baptist-boy’s most bullshit belief, a weirdly slipstream epic fantasy for the Left Behind crowd. American culture as the white-trash Christian Israel, with a blond-haired, blue-eyed, red-necked war-hero as its golden boy king, victorious over the cultural aristos of the power elite and the raghead Philistines who are, after all, pretty much just “The Enemy” in the original text. The presentation of David as a peace-broker and the introduction of an evil war profiteer (who’s currently a tad too crudely villainous for my liking, even if I appreciate the ethical slant) might intimate otherwise, and it’s deeply reassuring to know that Green is Jewish rather than Christian; but never underestimate the conservatism of network television. And it’s unlikely that we’ll ever reach the ambiguities of the later character of the biblical David, I think, the unpacking of the heroic fantasy. For that the series would have to survive a good few seasons of unpredictable ratings. It would have to do so without succumbing to the commercial and narrative imperatives toward easy answers, pat moralising and monomythic pandering. More to the point, it would have to survive without McShane as Silas, continue to function dramatically even after the Saul counterpart dies and its linchpin is gone — which seems, at the moment, inconceivable.

Still, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that it at least gets a couple of good seasons and has the guts to go as far as it could with them. Even if its thematics turns out to be quite at odds with my own deep-rooted atheist-humanism (which seems a fair bet given that God is pretty integral to this story), I’ll be happy if at least has the balls to develop that thematics rather than copping-out constantly a la BSG. We’ll see.

There is one thing that makes me reserve judgement here though, more than any of those doubts. It makes me feel terribly predictable and all rainbow-flag-waving single-issue gay rights activist, but I really have a crawling horror at what they’ve done with the Jonathon character and where that means they might go with it. It could be alright, but I have a horrible feeling that it’s going to go all wrong.

Which is where we come back to that subtext.

Teh Ebil Gay

So, one of the biggest and boldest moves in a show that’s pretty big and bold even at the level of basic premise, is that they’ve made Prince Jack, the Jonathon counterpart, gay. Fair enough, one might say. Isn’t this just making the subtext text? While David is (so far, anyway) presented as essentially straight — immediately attracted to Princess Michelle, his musical tendencies shorn of any superficial significance of “sensitivity” (i.e. gayness), just a regular all-Gilboan boy-next-door when it comes down to it — doesn’t this make for a potentially very interesting dynamic, a frisson of unrequited love in their intense loyalty to each other, a dash of one-way lust that doesn’t just spice up the story but places a positive queer character right at the heart of it? Doesn’t it challenge religious homophobia by ascribing homosexuality to this respected character? Doesn’t it allow for an exploration of the subtext of their intimacy that’s nevertheless subtle rather than crude, focusing on undercurrents of desire rather than taking a sledgehammer to the story just to make a blunt point? Isn’t this potentially even more interesting terrain, a deeply loyal mutual love between two men that’s sexual for one, but not for the other? Couldn’t they maybe even rip apart that hoary old cliché of the gay tormented by desire for the unattainable straight boy, suggest that — shock horror — gay Jack isn’t defined by his sexuality any more than straight David, and their friendship might be just that? That David just, you know, isn’t Jack’s type? Isn’t it just a twist that could be taken all sorts of fascinating places?

Except that the pilot pretty much immediately abandons the very idea of their friendship. In the Kings version of the story David’s victory over Goliath is tied to a rescue of Jack, but there’s little sign of any real gratitude here on Jack’s part, just, “hey, you saved my life.” There’s no fraternal covenant, and the offer of clothes is a perfunctory loan of a tuxedo, to be fetched from Jack’s wardrobe and tailored to David by palace staff. In fact, the lauding of David by the Gilboan people in general and King Silas in particular only inspires a jealous animosity in Jack. It quickly becomes clear that Jack has father issues, that nothing he does seems to win respect in his father’s eyes and that this disregard is a wound he can’t stop poking. To the embittered and decadent playboy prince, David is a rival and an interloper, a farmboy being celebrated even as Jack’s ordeal as hostage is not simply forgotten but twisted into suspicions of incompetence. To the show’s credit, those suspicions are revealed as entirely unfounded — Jack is a brattish party animal but he’s not presented as a fuck-up in military terms — but slowly the pilot sets out his character as that of a classic Shakespearean bastard in the mold of Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, except with homosexuality in the place of illegitimacy. The key scene comes in a humiliating confrontation with his father, where King Silas reveals that he knows exactly what Jack gets up to after the night clubs and parties, after he’s made his grand show of licentious womanising. Silas has known for a long time that Jack prefers the boys, and that’s why he rejects his son, why he can never see him as a viable heir. It’s a strong scene, with Jack shocked into silence, visibly shaking as he tries to suppress the tears, as Silas lashes him with his words, laying down the law with raw homophobic hatred. But if the pilot is anything to go by it’s also the pivotal moment that sets Jack on a course of opposition to his father, not as David’s loyal friend but as Silas’s sworn foe, a villainous plotter whose heart is turned black in the breaking. We don’t quite see this role cemented in action in the pilot — not quite — but towards the end Jack turns to that (introduced) character of the (crudely villainous) war profiteer. He’s clearly being drawn to the dark side, and you can virtually hear the thoughts in his head:

Curse you, father! If you will not love me, if society rejects me, then I shall turn myself against all that you stand for, all that society stands for. I shall become… Teh Ebil Gay!

Now, it’s entirely possible that we’re going to see a turn-around in Jack’s character. I’m not sure how you can possibly tell the story with Jack as David’s scheming enemy rather than his friend — not unless you have him as a truly treacherous fake friend, playing the bosom buddy even as he plots against the hero. Actually, I’m not sure how, in this day and age, you could actually think it was anything but cheap, exploitative and just plain bigoted to make Jack a faggot Don John, a homo Iago — not unless you were gobsmackingly insensitive and/or outright prejudiced. And given that Michael Green spent time working on Sex and the City, that sort of patently homophobic character trajectory would seem… astonishing. So I heartily hope that this is simply a little soap-operatic twist to the initial set-up, to be unravelled as the series progresses, with our blackhearted bumboy prince finding an ally rather than an adversary in the hero. But at the moment it feels like a spurious brainwave that should have been smacked down, a “wouldn’t it be neat if…” twist on the original text that wasn’t really thought through in anything other than shallow plot terms.

It’s that sense of shallow plot dynamics potentially over-riding thematics, actually, that engenders the core doubt. My worry with Jack is not so much (or not simply) that he might be a signifier of ill-considered prejudicial clichés at play in the series, but that he might be a signifier of a soap-opera sensibility, a capacity of the show to slip from drama into melodrama. Clearly much of the story of Kings is going to be dealing with inter-personal relationships, and one can assume, I think, that female characters like Michelle are going to be given more important roles to play than most of their biblical counterparts do, leading to a much greater focus on romantic shenanigans. If it can manage to do this and still tell stories that exploit its unique premise, take advantage of this utterly idiosyncratic approach they’ve adopted, this may only strengthen the show. My fear is that rather than exploiting the errata they may, once they’ve established the elsewhen sufficiently to just tell simple soap-opera storylines in that context, they may end up excusing it, end up with a show that functions just as Dallas or Dynasty, but with a superficial gloss of strangeness that adds a sense of wonder to it without serving any other real purpose. Which would be a criminal squandering of the series’ potential.

For the moment then, I’ll definitely be wanting to see where it goes, how it develops. It could be brilliant, it could be awful, or it could be anywhere in between, at any level of consistency. Who knows? But I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it.

If nothing else, I really want to see how they’ll work the steaming pile of two hundred Philistine foreskins in.

What? You don’t remember that bit?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Curiosity of Chance

So the other night I watched a little gem of a movie, The Curiosity of Chance. And then I watched it again right after. Well, actually not right after. First I got on the interwebs to see if there was more info about this unexpectedly awesome movie on Wikipedia, followed the external link to the official website, nosed around that for a while, listened to the linked radio interview with writer/director Russell P. Marleau and producer Lisa Schahet, and then went Googling for blog posts just to make sure that one glass of red wine too many hadn’t addled my quality judgement… that, no, I wasn’t alone in falling utterly in love with this movie I only came across by a random chain of… well… curiosity, aptly enough. This was at maybe… um… six in the morning, judging by the tweet in which I proclaimed it a new favourite and “the best high school movie John Hughes never made”. It was after that tweet, at about the crack of dawn, that I thought, fuck it, and just stuck it back on to play again.

So what is it that drew me back in so immediately, that made me actually kind of tempted to watch it a third time directly after that second viewing? OK, so there’s maybe a little element of wish-fulfilment to it, a hint of a Mary Sue in the character of Chance, but one that I found completely irresistible because it’s probably exactly the sort of Mary Sue I’d be culpable of myself if I were to write a high school movie. Maybe a certain fondness for the 80s teen movies that it’s paying homage to, and a nostalgic identification with its setting in the decade itself — maybe these were part of its charm for me. But it’s more than that, I think. With wit and flair and more than a few quirks of… unusual perspective, it manages to function not just as one of those sweet “coming-of-age” comedy-dramas where the writer (one suspects, at least) is blithely rewriting their high school history the way it coulda-shoulda-woulda been, but as something utterly open and sincere, defusing sentimentality with a wry acknowledgement of its own artifice and developing its central character with a depth of honesty that makes him a true subject rather than just a cipher. Somewhere in that radio interview, producer Lisa Schahet uses the phrase “labour of love” when asked about the difficulties of filming abroad with foreign crew. She doesn’t apply it to herself and Marleau, not it in so many words, but it’s clear this movie was exactly that for pretty much everyone involved.

But what’s it about? I hear you ask.

As the opening caption tells us, the film is set “somewhere in Europe, sometime in the 80s”. Its main character, Chance Marquis (Tad Hilgenbrink), is a student at Brinkland International High School, shown in the opening shots looking pretty cool-for-cats in his Adidas t-shirt and top, walking in through the doors of aforesaid high school as, in voiceover, he talks of looking back on his sophomore year, seeing himself as a “uniquely tragic wreck”. He talks of perspective and problems, draws us in with the promise of a tale to come. But… “this isn’t where my story starts,” Chance tells us. Cue fast rewind / cut back to one year earlier and our hero’s initial arrival at this school as a transfer student strutting foppishly into school in top hat and cane, bow tie and suit jacket, leather trousers and sneakers. Chance is kind of kooky, we’ll quickly realise, a bit of an oddball. Chance is as gay as a feather duster, we’ll also soon learn, and openly so. When called a faggot by the local bullying jock, Brad, his response is “Oh, really?! No!” He’s not ashamed of what he is, the movie tells us more than once. Why the fuck should he be? In fact, while the problems that result from homophobia are very much in focus, the film just isn’t interested in all that tedious “Oh noes! Poor gayz suffering in silence!” shite, so there’s no question of his sexuality from the start, nothing secret about it at all. There are other stories that go with being gay, the film insists, than the tedious tale of the trials and tribulations of the tortured queer kid just discovering his sexuality blah blah fucking blah. Coming-of-age is more than coming out. Why the fuck should the gay kid’s self-discovery automatically be about “accepting” his sexuality? Fuck that shit.

In best high school movie mode, then, we get the classic tropes and twists of teen romantic comedy. We can expect friendships to be struck with kindred spirit outsiders — Hank, the dorky staff photographer on the school newspaper who carries a steel briefcase clutched to his chest, obsessively protecting its contents from the principal’s snooping, and Twyla, the uber-bitch who doesn’t take shit from nobody, who would rather hang with the socially “toxic” Chance than play the bullshit status games. We can expect a relationship with a love interest to be forged, tested, broken and reconciled — said love-interest being Levi (Brett Chukerman), the boy-next-door and “first string forward” on the soccer team. The conflict with bullying Brad is of course going to come to a head, the table slowly set in order to be, in the end, triumphantly turned. And there are parental issues with Chance’s military father (Chris Mulkey) to be resolved — though “Sir” as he’s known comes across as a charmingly sympathetic figure, his failures born of bafflement rather than bigotry; he doesn't judge Chance, just doesn't get him. And so on. Before the movie is over we’ll see a fistful of those archetypal life-affirming “Alright!” moments designed to put a little smile on the face of even the least sentimental. I won’t give examples cause it seems churlish of me to spoil them... even though you’ll probably see what's coming as soon as, say, “the battle of the high school bands” is introduced as a Chekhov’s gun not just loaded but with the trigger cocked. There’s no denying that the clichés are there, but that’s part of the fun of it, part of the point of it. It’s a high school movie and it’s no more ashamed of that than Chance is of being gay.

As a film that wears its genre on its sleeve, there is one quirk of the movie (one of those quirks of unusual perspective) that’s a little jarring at first. The whole of this low budget indie flick was filmed on location in Belgium, with only three cast members brought over from the States — Hilgenbrink, Chukerman, and Mulkey — everyone else being local talent, some old hands and others complete beginners. The result is a setting that’s clearly modelled on an American high school but is populated almost entirely by kids and teachers with decidedly European accents — even when they have names like Brad and are swaggering around in letterman sweaters like an extra in Grease. It's to the credit of the local actors that they generally wear their roles well enough that you don't really care after a while, but for the first five minutes, I have to admit, I was distractedly wondering why the fuck this left field setting had been chosen, feeling that I just didn’t buy this island of Americana with its bizarrely Teutonic bit-parts. But the contextual reason is, it turns out, that Marleau was writing from experience, having attended an international high school himself. And textually as well, once you get past the initial weirdness you realise that it makes a strange sort of sense; it universalises the story but it also foregrounds the bubble-reality status of the world of high school, suggests that on some level all the kids are “outsiders” — All-American Levi as much as oddball Chance. Adolescence is another country, it says, and seen through this lens of hybridised culture, that characteristically American high school society of cliques and coteries seems every bit as role-played as the pirate eye patch Chance wears on his second day of school.

What we get in the end (as for instance in the montage scene of Chance and his friends exploring the unnamed European city the school is set in) is not just a different perspective but a wider perspective. The world outside this high school is not just one that has drag clubs where Chance can discover his inner diva; it’s one where that drag scene is… an integral and accepted part of the culture, less marginal, more mainstream. The setting might be Belgium or it might be Berlin but what it is for sure is something more than Biloxi or Baltimore. It’s not a liberal or libertine’s utopia, but neither is it a seedy dive; it’s just a gay club of queens and queers at ease with who they are, different without that making them “decadent”. Ultimately, I think, the European setting ties in neatly to the message of liberation, switching small town Middle American mores for big city Old World sophistication as the fundamental context, as if to redefine the terms of the conflict, as if to subtly reinforce the idea that… you know what? The world-at-large is on Chance’s side. For all that the high school is a microcosm, the bullying homophobic jock in the letterman sweater doesn’t represent society. Society, outside that crazy little crucible of high school — and even inside it given half a chance — thinks that jock is a complete arse-wipe.

This unusal perspective makes The Curiosity of Chance the high school movie for those of us who thought Molly Ringwald should have gone for Ducky at the end of Pretty in Pink, or been madeover by Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club rather than vice-versa. It’s the high school movie for those of us who felt that on some level all those high school movies were casting us as losers, freaks and geeks who’d always be in the shadow of the Ferris Buellers of that fictive world. Most of all it’s the high school move for those of us who were growing up gay at that time and wishing we had our place in all those stories of love-versus-social-structures, wishing someone would do the story where the guy gets the guy. A love letter to Hughes’s teen movie ouvre, The Curiosity of Chance doesn’t seek to subvert the genre so much as to complete it, to offer us a perspective that was missing in those less enlightened times. I won’t deny that it’s a perspective I identify with pretty deeply, for obvious reasons, but it’s one that speaks to a much wider audience than just teh gayz, I’d say. If Hughes’s movies deal with teens trying to figure out where they fit in, Marleau’s gives us the story of the teen who chooses to stand out. Why, one of his friends asks him in a key scene, if he has to take all the flak that comes from being gay, does he give people more ammo by dressing like he does? “If you had a choice,” he says, “of being ostracised for wearing a weird hat or for being gay, which would you choose?” It’s moments like this that dig down under the surface of Chance, counteract the compensatory/consolatory fantasy of his confidence to reveal a richer character. Free of angst and overblown dama but showing the defensiveness in the defiance, that little exchange encapsulates the emotional integrity at the core of the movie, ringing so true that you can’t help but wonder how much of Marleau is in Marquis.

But this is making it all sound terribly serious and sensitive. Not that it isn’t, but it’s also funny as fuck in places, as in Chance’s choked mugging in the office of Principal Smelker, “quite possibly the most odorous human I’ve ever encountered.” Hilgenbrink gives a great performance throughout, for my money, bold when required but never too broad, demonstrating a deft touch when it comes to comic timing, and all the better because the comedy doesn’t rely on campy queen clichés. Flamboyant as fuck but more strutting than swishy, his Chance manages to flame and yet never strikes you as the sort of limp-wristed stereotype designed to make all red-blooded faggots cringe. One-liners that could be catty come across as quick-witted. Gestures that could seem flouncy come across as — to borrow a significant phrase from the film — dramatic flair. The performance that Chance makes of his life could hardly be called straight-acting, but I’m not sure “camp” would be the right word for it at all. Even when the humour resides in his coming to terms with the utterly foreign notion of “‘football’… ‘foot’-’ball’… ‘futtball’…” it’s as much about quirkiness as queerness.

So, yeah. All in all, I don’t think I’ve felt so much plain old-fashioned affection for a movie since Hedwig. It’s not a movie that aspires to cinematic greatness, the solemn import of the ponderously profound. And as comedies go, it’s not the most gut-bustingly funny film I’ve ever seen. But it’s a tribute to John Hughes that outshines the originals, I think, an exemplary instance of its idiom. It’s funny and touching, uplifting and insightful, the sort of movie that ought to put a smile on the face of anyone who’s got a soul, the sort of movie you can watch a hundred times over and still enjoy. The love that went into making it is palpable in every scene, and that gives it a quality you see in the best indie flicks, a quality of integrity that multiplies its charms even more. In that interview on the official website, the producer Lisa Schahet is asked what made them put their faith in this first-time director with such a left-field project. Her answer basically boils down to: we read the script. People read the script and they just wanted to make the movie, all down the line, from the production company in the US to the crew in Belgium. They read the script and knew they wanted to work on it.

I don’t find that surprising at all, to be honest.

Anyway, if there’s any justice in the world, this is a cult movie in the making. The awards it’s won are well-deserved, and I really do hope they translate into wider recognition and lasting success. A little indie flick like this — I suspect many people may never have heard of it, let alone see it, and I suspect a substantial number of those people would absolutely fucking adore it. So if you get a chance to see it, grab that chance. As I say, best high school movie John Hughes never made.

Thursday, April 02, 2009


Check out the line-up for the latest issue of Heliotrope. I'm in some good company, you should notice. And you might also gather that there's something of a theme.