RIP John Hurt

article-2508559-19758e8e00000578-312_306x423[Something written pseudonymously about John Hurt for a 50th anniversary feature on Doctor Who. I have no idea by who.]

He is the one who comes between. The one we did not know was there. The one who does not count (or, at least, was not counted). Even his costume, part-McGann/part-Eccleston and bridging between them both, is interstitial, not really his own. He is the not-Doctor who says ‘no more’. As Matt Smith’s Doctor explains: ‘I said he was me, I never said he was the Doctor. … The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, … it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise’ – and what he did to end the Time War, destroying Gallifrey and billions of Time Lords, he did ‘not [do] in the name of the Doctor’.

It now seems inevitable that sooner or later John Hurt would play the Doctor, and that when he did it would be this particular Doctor – the War Doctor – or someone like him. The one who can bear it no longer. The one who must face a Kobayashi Maru moment that is no mere test or simulation, and which cannot, Kirk-like, be glibly cheated.[1] It is not just that Hurt, the oldest actor to play the role, has been around even longer than the series,[2] and thus can bring a sense of perspective to the more infantile, gurning, gesticulatory, timey-wimey shenanigans of the relaunched series, to its peacock displays of masculinity, its violence and all the snogging. Although, edging his sorrow with an impish despair at the younger men playing his older self, he does.

Nor is just that Hurt’s sf credentials are impeccable, although they are. In Contact (Zemeckis US 1997), he portrays the billionaire funding the first contact mission as an Arthur C. Clarke lookalike, and more recently he raised Hellboy (Ron Perlman) from a pup for Guillermo del Toro. Haggard and squalid in Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-four (UK 1984), his is the definitive screen Winston Smith; but one can easily imagine him taking a role in Equals, the Kristen Stewart-starring ‘epic love story’ adaptation of Orwell’s novel with which we are currently threatened, just so he can suffer again and suffer some more. It would not be the first time Hurt returned for a further dose of agony and anguish, reprising tragedy as farce. After all, his is the chest from which the alien chestburster first burst, and then again in Spaceballs (Brooks US 1987).

And it this capacity for suffering, and for provoking our sympathy, that is the key to Hurt’s persona and to his casting as the Doctor, and as this particular Doctor; that, and his aura of jaded sexual dissidence – he is, do not forget, Caligula in I, Claudius (UK 1976) – that often also leads to suffering.

He is Max, the heroin addict stuck in a Turkish hellhole prison in Midnight Express (Parker UK/US 1978) but in Love and Death on Long Island (Kwietniowski UK/Canada 1997), he is Giles De’Ath – a reclusive, modernity-hating author who stumbles into a cinema hoping for an E.M. Forster adaptation and instead gets Hotpants College II and is smitten with its star, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley). He is John Merrick in The Elephant Man (Lynch US 1980), disfigured, despised and turned into a sideshow freak. Yet he is also The Countess in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Van Sant US 1993), sagely noting, ‘All of us are freaks in one way or another. Try being born a male Russian Countess into a white, middle class, Baptist family in Mississippi, and you’ll see what I mean’. In 10 Rillington Place (Fleischer UK 1971), he is the ill-educated Timothy Evans, framed and executed for murders committed by serial killer John Christie (Richard Attenborough). In Scandal (Caton-Jones UK 1989), he is Stephen Ward, the procurer at the heart of the Profumo affair, who is abandoned by his Establishment friends, scapegoated and driven to suicide (or possibly murdered by MI5). But he is also the fabulous flaming Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (UK 1975), produced by Doctor Who’s very own Verity Lambert, and in An Englishman in New York (UK 2009).[3] He is the fearfully haunted Parkin in Whistle and I’ll Come to You (UK 2010) and the ailing vampire Christopher Marlowe in Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch UK/Germany/France/Cyprus/US 2013), but he is also the world-weary assassin in The Hit (Frears UK 1984) and, in a neat reversal, Britain’s fascist dictator, the Big Brother to Evey’s (Natalie Portman) Winston Smith, in V for Vendetta (McTeigue US/UK/Germany 2005).

And in Frankenstein Unbound (Corman US 1990), he is Dr Joe Buchanan, the inventor of an ultimate weapon that tears holes in time and space. It casts him back to the very birth of sf, to the Villa Diodati in 1817, but in an alternative history in which Mary Shelley is writing up a factual account, not a novel, of the Frankenstein affair. And then he travels forward into a future in which his superweapon has destroyed humankind.

He has done all this before. No wonder the War Doctor’s weary mantra is ‘no more, no more’. You can hear his exhaustion ground deep in that gravelly voice.

‘I’ve been fighting this war for a long time, I’ve lost the right to be the Doctor’, he tells the sentient ultimate weapon as he prepares to use it, knowing that his punishment will be to survive genociding his own people. But Hurt has suffered – has hurt – for so long, who else had the right to be the War Doctor?

Notes
[1] Although, being a Steven Moffat episode, actually it can. The scenario can be gamed, and what was written in stone can be rewritten, while handy amnesia also leaves continuity pretty much intact.
[2] Already a stage actor, his first television appearance was in an episode of Probation Officer (UK 1959–62) broadcast two years before ‘An Unearthly Child’.
[3] Sadly, he is also Kerwin, the gay cop teamed with Ryan O’Neal in the alleged comedy Partners (Burrows US 1982).

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William Godwin’s Things As They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

Caleb Williams.2-1Originally published: 1794
Edition used: Caleb Williams (Penguin, 1988) edited and introduced by Maurice Hindle

Of humble origin, Caleb Williams, orphaned at the age of 18, is taken into the household of the local squire, Ferdinando Falkland. One day, he stumbles upon his master behaving in a secretive manner; on perceiving Caleb, Falkland becomes violent. Falkland’s steward explains the curious chain of circumstances that saw Falkland recently accused of murder and then vindicated, after which his personality underwent a profound change. Caleb begins to suspect Falkland is actually guilty of the murder and let others be executed for his crime. Falkland eventually confesses to Caleb, secure that no one will believe a servant over his master. When Caleb tries to flee the tyranny with which Falkland circumscribes his daily existence, he is framed for robbery. Awaiting trial, Caleb escapes, and from that moment on his life becomes a miserable series of disguises and upheavals as Falkland’s agents dog his steps, never allowing him to settle.

Things As They Are is an intriguing test case for where the boundaries of the fantastic lie. A ‘political Gothic’, there is nothing of the fantastic in it – not even of the apparently supernatural that is later revealed to have a mundane explanation. M John Harrison argues that the problem with much sf is that it has become addicted to the mediating metaphor – the whole paraphernalia of future societies, other worlds, monsters and spaceships, and the grab-bag of technical and rhetorical tools – rather than deploying such image-furniture and techniques to establish a metaphoric relationship between text and world. Much the same can be seen to happen in the flowering of the Gothic in the second half of the 18th century and its subsequent permutations.

While the Gothic imagined terrible incarcerations in crumbling vaults and subterranean dungeons, Godwin turned to the reality of the contemporary judicial and penal systems as described in The Malefactor’s Register; or the Newgate and Tyburn Calendar (1779) and Howard’s 1777 report on The State of Prisons, and as witnessed on visiting Newgate prison and in the treatment of fellow radicals such as Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot.

While the Gothic generally used such torments to thrill its readers with the depiction of sensibilities under distress, Godwin – who was not above such things – also turned his Gothic imagination to an elaboration of the prison as a model of the social world.

Falkland-discovering-Caleb2-e1300118099300While much Gothic fiction can be read as a kind of sadomasochistic proto-feminist expression of the internalisation of particular historical restrictions on female experience, Caleb stands as a kind of typical subject for whom the whole world is carceral.[i] The ‘paranoid’ depiction of society as a prison-house becomes an important fantastic metaphor in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), Daniel Paul Schreber’s Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken/Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s My (1924), Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess/The Trial (1925), B Traven’s The Death Ship (1934), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), Samuel Beckett’s Le Depeupleur/The Lost Ones (1971), Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), throughout Philip K Dick’s work and in countless other fantastic and dystopian fictions.

But at what point does one judge the metaphor to have become sufficiently concretised in the diegetic world to make it a fantastic world?[ii]

One particular moment is worth considering in this light. Hiding out in London, Caleb encounters a hawker peddling a fictionalised account of his life:

Here you have the MOST WONDERFUL AND SURPRISING HISTORY AND MIRACULOUS ADVENTURES OF CALEB WILLIAMS: you are informed how he first robbed, and then brought false accusations against his master; as also of his attempting divers times to break out of prison, till at last he effected his escape in the most wonderful and uncredible manner; as also of his travelling the kingdom in various disguises, and the robberies he committed with a most desperate and daring gang of thieves; and of his coming up to London, where it is supposed he now lies concealed; with a true and faithful copy of the hue and cry printed and published by one of his Majesty’s most principal secretaries of state, offering a reward of one hundred guineas for apprehending him. All for the price of one halfpenny. (278)

Robbed of his liberty, Caleb is now stripped of his identity as other characters take this popular account for the truth about him. And it does indeed contain some superficial truths – he has escaped prison, been sheltered by a gang of thieves (although committing no crimes himself), become expert at disguise and made his way to London – but not the truth, especially not what has forced him into this behaviour. But this virtual self becomes a doppelganger, permitting him no rest, even as Falkland’s exercise of arbitrary power takes on a life of its own separate from and outside of his control. Elsewhere, much is made of the difference of justice as it exists on paper and as it is experienced by those subjected to its institutional practices – a long time before Borges or Baudrillard, Godwin observes not only the distinction between map and territory but also the supersession of the territory by the map.

Ultimately, even if Caleb’s misadventures are not judged to be fantastical, they nonetheless pose important questions about how we conceptualise fantasy. If M John Harrison’s Things That Never Happen (2004) collects the fiction of a fantasist working to strip the fantasy out of fantasy, Godwin’s Things As They Are seems to tackle the same problem from the other side.

220px-CalebWilliamsIt should also be noted that Caleb provides a template of sorts for the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) – Shelley was, of course, Godwin’s daughter – and that like Shelley’s novel Things As They Are cries out for queer reading.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[i]
This is not to imply that female characters cannot be typical subjects, nor that male experience should be normalised as in anyway typical.
[ii]
Things As They Are bears some obvious similarities to such noirish crime movies as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (LeRoy 1932) and The Big Clock (Farrow 1948), itself a possible prototype for Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977); and a similar question about the boundaries of fantasies is posed by the heady and tortured prose typical of Cornell Woolrich’s crime fiction.

Johnny Storm in a Teacup: The New Fantastic Four

fantastic-banner-10-18To be honest, I’d forgotten there was a new Fantastic Four movie coming out until the trailer appeared yesterday.

My memory was lagging behind in other ways, too. For the life of me I could not figure out why they’d cast Michael B. Jordan as Ben Grimm/The Thing.

I mean, he’s so skinny.

My mistake. They’ve actually cast Jamie Bell, and I’m good with that.1  Jordan is playing Johnny Storm/Human Torch. There was, tediously and of course and now dimly remembered, some kerfuffle about the casting of an actor of colour in a role of pallor. The usual racist bullshit tweeting and trolling. It seemed to die down pretty quickly, especially after Jordan, caught off guard, snapped back ‘You’ll all come see it anyway’. Which is not quite a Neil Patrick Harris well, duh moment, but not bad on the fly.

hulkvsthingMy confusion about who was cast as who does actually make a kind of sense. Because the Thing – although perhaps not quite as obviously as The Hulk – was always one Marvel’s black buck stereotype superheroes.

The Hulk is inspired by Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Hyde is clearly racialised in Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novel from 1886, and even more so in the 1932 adaptation dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde-1starring Fredric March, in which Hyde clearly signifies some kind of simian negritude. (It is always worth remembering that the multiple trials of the Scottsboro boys – a case more typical than exceptional – were dragging on through the first half of the 1930s, even as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, King Kong, James Whale’s Frankenstein, Erle C Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls and other fantastical American racial fantasies were appearing in cinemas.)

Show-Boat-CinematographyThe Thing builds more obviously on the combination of buck stereotype and proletarian image with which Whale imbues Mary Shelley’s creation (building on her description of Frankenstein’s apocalyptic vision of his creations breeding and producing a new posthuman race that will displace aristocratic privilege and white hegemony) and which he explicitly and sympathetically develops in Showboat when Paul Robeson sings ‘Ol’ Man River’.

Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagooncreature3 is a close relation. The appearance of this archaic fishman can easily be interpreted in terms of racist caricatures of African/Afrodiasporic peoples. Something of his melancholy aquatic courtship of Kay, her whiteness emphasised by her dazzling white swimsuit, is carried forward into the sequence in The Fantastic Four (2005) when Ben’s engagement is called off. The racist imagery of the black buck as sexual monster/monstrously sexual it evokes – his finger is just so big he can’t get it into the tight little engagement ring – falls somewhere between unfortunate and hilarious.

Buckwildmsu0And of course, early in his comics career Luke Cage, Power Man – later spoofed, a little unfairly, by Milestone Comics as Buck Wild, Mercenary Man – subbed for the Thing in the Fantastic Four, and soon after had his own side adventure in Latveria with Doctor Doom.

So like I said, my confusion makes a kind of sense. But nonetheless, I am curious about my own unreflective assumption that Jordan was playing the Thing, while also profoundly untroubled by him playing Johnny Storm, a character with plenty of potential (as Chris Evans showed, albeit whitely) to be just another ‘one of those Tom Slick brothers that think you can get by on good looks, a wink and a smile’ (as Black Dynamite‘s Gloria might put it).

The one thing I dread however – partly because over the years I have seen so much awkward, straight-to-video exposition justifying Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Belgian accent to American ears – is the painful scene explaining how come Johnny’s sister, Sue, is white.

I mean, deep down there is a part of me that does actually want to see it, and be appalled by it. But we really could do without it.

It’s not like this is Pleasantville out here.

1
Someone somewhere please, in an alternate universe if not this one, cast him in the other FF franchise, post-Paul Walker, to take up the whiteboy slack alongside Lucas Black.