Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace dramatized in a new television series

By Joanne Laurier
11 February 2016

Leo Tolstoy’s titanic novel War and Peace has received a new adaptation by the BBC and is now airing globally. Directed by British filmmaker Tom Harper, the serialized television production stars American actor Paul Dano and British actors Lily James, James Norton, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea in leading roles as part of a large, predominantly UK cast.

Tolstoy, one of the greatest of the great Russian fiction writers of the 19th century, was born in 1828, three years after the Decembrist Revolt in which a group of officers rose up in one of the first open struggles against tsarism. He died November 20, 1910, five years after the 1905 Revolution in Russia and seven years before the October Revolution. Tolstoy’s other great works includeAnna Karenina (1877) and Resurrection (1899).

His epic War and Peace, first published in its entirety in 1869, is set during the period of the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) and the French invasion of Russia. It follows the members of several Russian aristocratic families as they seek to survive the confusing, frenzied, bloody times.

The eight-hour miniseries opens in 1805 in St. Petersburg, as Napoleon’s victories and his army’s conquest of significant portions of western Europe are having an increasing impact on Russian life. Many of the central characters are introduced at an upper crust social gathering. Among them is Pierre Bezukhov (Dano), awkward but amiable, and initially a supporter of the French leader: “Napoleon’s a great man! He stood above the revolution, he put an end to its abuses and kept all that was good about it! You see good in revolution, sir? The equality of all citizens, freedom of speech, liberty, equality, fraternity, these are ideas we could learn from in Russia.”

Pierre looks on with disgust at the room’s “overfed aristocrats.” The illegitimate son of a wealthy count, he will soon become the object of intrigue for the sinister Prince Vassily Kuragin (Rea), who makes an unsuccessful attempt to suppress the will that names Pierre the inheritor of his father’s vast estate.

Paul Dano and James Norton in War and Peace

Another guest at the party is Pierre’s friend Andrei Bolkonsky (Norton), the intelligent and ambitious son of retired military commander Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky (Broadbent). Also present are the Rostovs, a noble, but down-on-their-luck Moscow family that includes a vivacious daughter Natasha (James), a quiet niece Sonya (Aisling Loftus) and a son Nikolai (Jack Lowden), who has just joined the army commanded by the veteran General Kutuzov (Brian Cox) (“He’s about the only man in Russia who knows what the war’s about and that includes our glorious Emperor.”). Nikolai’s parents (Greta Scacchi and Adrian Edmondson) are depending on their son to reverse the family fortunes.

Russia is in alliance with the Austrian Empire at this point (in the Third Coalition against Napoleon) and a restless, unhappy Andrei (“I can’t bear this life”)––whose young wife is pregnant––and Nikolai set off for the front. Meanwhile, Kuragin maneuvers Pierre into marrying his morally loose but beautiful daughter Helene (Tuppence Middleton). Her incestuous relationship with her dissolute brother Anatole (Callum Turner) is one indication of her manipulative, deceitful character.

Thus the stage is set for the various personal and political stratagems, unions and disunions, as the epoch of war heads toward its denouement following Napoleon’s fateful invasion of Russia in 1812 and the declaration of war by a reluctant Tsar Alexander I (Ben Lloyd-Hughes). On the eve of the invasion, Napoleon (Mathieu Kassovitz) brags that he has 600,000 men while the Russian army has only one-third that number and lies in shambles.

The mini-series

War and Peace has been adapted by Andrew Davies, best known for his reworking for television of such classics as Pride and Prejudice (1995), Vanity Fair (1998) and Sense and Sensibility (2008). He also wrote the popular British political thriller serial House of Cards (1990). His work on the current production results in a credible condensation of Tolstoy’s massive, complex story, some 1,400 pages and more than half a million words long.

Visually graceful and aided by numerous accomplished performances, this large-scale, high-quality production is, on the whole, a gripping experience.

Lily James as Natasha Rostova

The series paints a picture of a Russian aristocracy in which petty and selfish motives predominate. Andrei Bolkonsky goes off to war primarily to escape a vapid, stuffy life. Nikolai Rostov has other motives: his gambling debts have nearly bankrupted his family. He considers it more honorable to turn soldier than remain in the clutches of a nasty, egotistical mother and kindly, but ineffectual, father. In the end, under pressure from his parents, Nikolai breaks his engagement to the impecunious Sonya in favor of a more advantageous liaison.

Andrei Bolkonsky’s sister, the modest Marya (Jessie Buckley), shows her spiteful landlord coloring when she deals with the serfs on the family estate who refuse to help the household escape from the invading French army. Bellows one angry peasant: “The French will set us free and give us land! What have you ever done for us?”

Unfortunately, the production seems to side with Marya and her self-centered concerns. She is soon rescued from the legitimate wrath of the peasants by the timely appearance of Nikolai and his regiment. It is the one major scene that points to the fact that this parasitical social layer lives off the exploitation and enslavement of the peasantry.

Pierre, the moral conscience of War and Peace, tries to be honest when he sadly admits that “my life is one mistake after another … I wanted to change the world for the better, help my fellow men and look at me a fat, drunken aristocrat who makes a bungle out of everything.” To make amends for what he considers his mistakes, Pierre becomes obsessed with assassinating Napoleon.

In a relatively modest way, the mini-series does provide some sense of the great events that shaped the Tolstoy novel—namely, the aftermath of the world-altering French revolution. The depiction of the Battle of Borodino in September 1812, the bloodiest single day of the Napoleonic wars, with some 70,000 Russian and French casualties, is one of the series’ strongest sequences. Here, at least for a moment, the aristocratic lifestyle is left behind and we see something of the horror of war: men cut in half, doctors sawing off legs, the misery of the wounded and dying. And later there are the horrific consequences for Moscow’s population.

Pierre Bezukhov (Dano) as French prisoner

A duality exists in Tolstoy’s work between sharp condemnations of the aristocratic life and his acceptance of the inevitability of that life. In his remarkable 1908 tribute to the novelist, Leon Trotsky observed that, despite everything, Tolstoy continued to place in the center of his artistic attention “the one and the same wealthy and well-born Russian landlord” as though outside this universe “there were nothing of importance or of beauty.”

The mini-series tends to adopt the same standpoint, which is far less defensible given the subsequent course of Russian and world history. Trotsky noted that at the end of the novel, Tolstoy showed Pierre Bezukhov, “the restless seeker of truth,” as “a smug family man,” and “Natasha Rostova, so touching in her semi-childlike sensitivity,” as “a shallow breeding female, untidy diapers in hand.” The present series does the same, only more so. The final scene grates with its complacency and suggestion that contented family life offers some consolation for the massive destruction and loss of life.

That being said, Davies is genuinely skilled at choosing and adapting enduring, classic works. True, his genre of intelligent costume drama is not the be-all and end-all of artistic effort. One might even say that stylish adaptations like War and Peace have a certain soothing effect on an audience (with the exception of the battle scenes). If we were currently flooded with challenging artistic evauations of the status quo, it is unlikely that such series would receive quite the attention they do. However, given the actual state of cultural affairs, this version of the Tolstoy epic attracts attention for its general intelligence and pleasing aesthetic qualities.

Andrei Bolkonsky (Norton) with his unit

To their credit, the makers of the miniseries have tried to capture certain crucial features of the novel. A naturalness and elegance underscore and heighten the emotional intensity. As in Tolstoy’s narrative, there is truthfulness, a lack of pretension and artificiality: the viewer is engaging with real people, who have real, complex lives and feelings.

In dozens of essays the leading Russian Marxists, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky and others, pointed to the great contrast between the immortality of Tolstoy’s artistic achievement and the poverty of his philosophical and social ideas. The novelist was a pacifist, a believer in “non-resistance to evil,” a conservative anarchist, “a moralist and mystic,” in Trotsky’s phrase, and “a foe of politics and revolution.”

Nonetheless, as an indefatigable social critic, an enemy of cruelty and oppression, Tolstoy played an enormous role in undermining the tsarist regime and the entire Russian social order. Reactionary forces in the former Soviet Union have not forgiven him to this day.

In an obituary, Trotsky magnificently paid tribute to the great writer: “Truth in and of itself possesses a terrible, explosive power: once proclaimed, it irresistibly gives rise to revolutionary con­clusions in the consciousness of the masses. Everything that Tolstoy stated publicly… seeped into the minds of the laboring masses … And the word became deed. Although not a revolutionary, Tolstoy nurtured the revolutionary element with his words of genius. In the book about the great storm of 1905 an honorable chapter will be ded­icated to Tolstoy.”

It would be misleading to suggest that Tolstoy’s fierce indictment of Russia’s institutions is sufficiently present in the War and Peace mini-series. However, its honest presentation inevitably communicates elements of the social critique, and also may lead the viewer to investigate Tolstoy’s work further. That would be all to the good.



45 Years: A nightmare on the brain of the living?

By David Walsh
5 February 2016

Directed by Andrew Haigh; screenplay by Haigh, based on a short story by David Constantine

In Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling), a childless, middle class couple living in a provincial English town, are on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary. A large, elaborate party is planned at a historic venue. They are both retired. She was a teacher and he worked his way up from the factory floor apparently to be some sort of a manager.

Out of the blue, Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his former girl-friend, Katya, who fell to her death in the Swiss Alps half a century before, has been spotted, as the result of the impact of climate change on a glacier. She is there under the ice, frozen as she was, as a young woman. How strange it is, he says, that “she’ll look like she did in 1962” while “I look like this.”

The discovery and letter precipitate a crisis in the couple’s relationship. Geoff has been informed about the discovery in Switzerland, he tells Kate, because he is registered as the dead woman’s next of kin—the pair pretended to be married on their travels in the early 1960s so they could always share a single hotel room. Other revelations are even more unsettling, including Geoff’s blunt admission that he would have married Katya had she survived.

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years

He begins to smoke, becomes agitated, investigates traveling to Switzerland. Kate grows increasingly perturbed. Was she his “one and only”? Was she ever enough for him—or at least did he ever think she was? Can she feel the same way about him knowing what he has concealed for decades? The ending is deliberately ambiguous. Presumably, things will not return to the same comfortable groove.

The author of the short story (In Another Country) that inspired the film, British writer David Constantine, based the work on an incident he became aware of 15 years or so again. According to the Daily Telegraph, “Constantine heard of the discovery of a twenty-something mountaineer who had fallen down a glacial crevasse in Chamonix [in the French Alps] in the 1930s. Seventy years on, the retreating ice released its hold on the guide’s body, which the son he had fathered before his death was taken to identify. The shocking sight of his father—perfectly preserved in his prime, while he himself approached his eighties—tipped the son towards insanity.”

It is an intriguing premise, and Haigh does a reasonably good job of exploring it. But 45 Years includes some significant alterations. In Constantine’s story, the couple is considerably older—and his Geoff and Katya were mountain climbing in the late 1930s when the fatal accident took place. That has some importance. Geoff thinks of himself and his girl-friend as having been “brave,” traveling from Germany through Switzerland to Italy (“Hitler where they’d come from and Mussolini where they were going to”)—having “turned their backs on civilization.” Not insignificantly, Katya, an only child, was Jewish.

There is unmistakably a certain historical resonance in the story, and a sharp, deliberate contrast between this possibly “brave” past and the intervening decades of terribly conventional existence for Geoff and Kate and the apparently drab, uneventful quality of their marriage. The “Mr. and Mrs. Mercer” of In Another Country are considerably more stifled and self-repressed than the Rampling and Courtenay characters, and, ultimately, more despairing. At one point, in Constantine’s story, Kate weeps to herself, “for the unfairness,” and thinks, “Surely to God it wasn’t much to ask, that you get through to the end and looking back you don’t fill with horror and disappointment and hopeless wishful thinking? All she wanted was to be able to say it hasn’t been nothing, it hasn’t been a waste of time, the fifty years, they amount to something. …”

Do the changes introduced by the filmmakers matter? Yes, they do, in fairly major ways. Haigh’s Kate Mercer/Rampling is younger, more stylish, clearly more “with-it” in terms of both modern life and her own emotional states. Courtenay, although somewhat befuddled and disoriented, also seems fairly in touch with his own feelings and moods. It is more difficult in the case of the film characters’ marriage to imagine that some powerful undercurrent has been suppressed for more than 40 years, or that the husband and wife might be flooded with “horror and disappointment” at the thought of their lives together.

45 Years

Haigh explained to an interviewer, “I love the idea of them being together for 45 years, but the possibility still existing that it could all break down in a week.” This is a little light-minded. In fact, there are many long-term relationships that would not “break down in a week” in the face of the Katya revelations (which, after all, relate to events before the couple met), or considerably worse. That such disclosures would produce a sudden lurch and upheaval in this particularmarriage seems somewhat out of character and fails to convince entirely. As a result, I found 45 Years less moving than it clearly—and a little too pointedly—intends to be. Rampling is relatively restrained, but I grew a little tired of her moping and her sad face. Oddly, though it does not seem planned that way, Courtenay (a wonderful actor, now 78) proves the more sympathetic figure.

Haigh, in fact, gives the strongest speech in 45 Years to Geoff, who returns from a reunion lunch at his former workplace quite bitter: “You wouldn’t f—–g believe what they’ve done to the place. It’s all been streamlined. My first job on the floor doesn’t exist any more. I tell you, if I was still in management, I wouldn’t have let that happen. And the unions, they don’t give a s–t. Well, maybe they do and nobody takes any notice. … And Len, he’s got a villa on the Algarve [in Portugal]. Do you remember Red Len? We used to call him Len-in, and now all he can talk about is playing golf on the Al-f—–g-garve with his grandson, who’s a banker. Red Len, with a banker for a grandson.”

45 Years and its central motif bring to mind another work, James Joyce’s “The Dead.” But here too the differences are telling. Joyce’s wonderful story, the final and longest piece in his collection, Dubliners (published in 1914), centers on Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, guests at an annual celebration held in January at the home of his aging aunts. Over the course of the evening, Gabriel’s feelings for his wife, with whom he is going to spend a rare night in a hotel, grow in intensity. By the time they reach their room, on a snowy night, he is quite overwhelmed with desire.

Much to his consternation, Gabriel learns that the performance of an old ballad at the party has reminded his wife of a young boy of 17, who loved her and with whom she had been in love years before in another town. The youth, already ill, had come to see her in miserable winter weather and she believes this led to his early death. Gabriel discovers that the memory of the dead boy hovers powerfully over the present. “Gabriel felt humiliated. … While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another.”

But Joyce had something larger in mind than merely an individual dilemma. The writer had left Ireland in disgust at its oppressiveness and backwardness in 1904. The “Dead” in the title who weigh so heavily on the living refers not simply to the boy who died tragically and whose memory endures, but to the condition of everyone in the story, the sentimental, nostalgic, self-pitying Irish urban petty bourgeois, “the living-dead who still inhabit a ghost world,” as commentator Charles Peake noted. These are “people who have allowed their lives to be annexed by the dead.” Dublin’s population is paralyzed, living in “a moribund city, where warmth and romance belong only to the memory of the dead who are buried.” Although the story is written with great sympathy for the individual characters, Joyce’s disgust and even horror at the general Irish malaise come through.

Contemporary artists and filmmakers generally ask considerably less of themselves. As a result, the ability of their work to penetrate and influence deeply is sharply limited. 45 Years is intelligently done, but the filmmakers’ reduction of the drama to the fate of a couple of dissatisfied souls takes its toll. The opportunity was there, for example, to consider the influence of memories—or fantasies—about the more “liberated” 1960s on a certain generation, an ongoing and very tangible social phenomenon, but it was not taken.



Taggers Played an Integral Role in Graffiti’s Rise. A New Film Tells Their Story


In some form or another, graffiti has been around for millennia. Inscriptions, carvings, frescas, and a host of other places where art meets the streets can be found in nearly every civilization, but something particularly influential happened right here, in the United States. The place which birthed Hip-Hop culture served as the breeding ground for an entire movement of graffiti-as-art, including the days before murals and brightly colored pieces adorned subway cars and buildings. Those were the days of taggers, countless men and women who began branding their cities with their nicknames (or “tags”) by scrawling them on any surface available to them. From this, the most commonly celebrated form of graffiti – the kind which would go on to become one of Hip-Hop’s founding cultural elements – was born, making these early artists indispensable to the culture’s subsequent explosion.

These taggers are celebrated in a new documentary film entitled Wall Writers: Graffiti In Its Innocence. It’s all based on a book of the same name compiled by Roger Gastman, who also serves as the film’s director. Specifically, it focuses on the writers active between the years of 1967 and 1972. Featuring interviews with such artists as TAKI 183, Cornbread, Kool Klepto Kidd, Phil T Greek, and Greg 69,  the film is narrated by the legendary film director and screenwriter John Waters and will be shown at only a handful of screenings, at least for now.

Spotted at egotrip.


Taggers Played an Integral Role in Graffiti’s Rise. A New Film Tells Their Story (Video)

George Orwell on the real meaning of socialism


  • January 21, 2016

George Orwell in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell is holding the puppy.

George Orwell – the pen-name of Eric Blair – died on this day in 1950. In his memory we share some of his thoughts on revolutionary Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.

“The essential point is that all this time I had been isolated — for at the front one was almost completely isolated from the outside world: even of what was happening in Barcelona one had only a dim conception — among people who could roughly but not too inaccurately be described as revolutionaries. This was the result of the militia — system, which on the Aragon front was not radically altered till about June 1937.

The workers’ militias, based on the trade unions and each composed of people of approximately the same political opinions, had the effect of canalizing into one place all the most revolutionary sentiment in the country. I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.

Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism.

Many of the normal motives of civilized life — snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. — had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money — tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master.

Of course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the whole surface of the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.

I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this.

The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like.

And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before. Partly, perhaps, this was due to the good luck of being among Spaniards, who, with their innate decency and their ever-present Anarchist tinge, would make even the opening stages of Socialism tolerable if they had the chance.”

– Excerpted from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia

How the Internet changed the way we read


The Daily Dot

As a professor of literature, rhetoric, and writing at the University of California at Irvine, I’ve discovered that one of the biggest lies about American culture (propagated even by college students) is that Americans don’t read.

The truth is that most of us read continuously in a perpetual stream of incestuous words, but instead of reading novels, book reviews, or newspapers like we used to in the ancien régime, we now read text messages, social media, and bite-sized entries about our protean cultural history on Wikipedia.

In the great epistemic galaxy of words, we have become both reading junkies and also professional text skimmers. Reading has become a clumsy science, which is why we keep fudging the lab results. But in diagnosing our own textual attention deficit disorder (ADD), who can blame us for skimming? We’re inundated by so much opinion posing as information, much of it the same material with permutating and exponential commentary. Skimming is practically a defense mechanism against the avalanche of info-opinion that has collectively hijacked narrative, reportage, and good analysis.

We now skim everything it seems to find evidence for our own belief system. We read to comment on reality (Read: to prove our own belief system). Reading has become a relentless exercise in self-validation, which is why we get impatient when writers don’t come out and simply tell us what they’re arguing. Which reminds me:  What the hell am I arguing?  With the advent of microblogging platforms, Twitter activism, self-publishing companies, professional trolling, everyone has a microphone now and yet no one actually listens to each other any more. And this is literally because we’re too busy reading. And when we leave comments on an online article, it’s usually an argument we already agree with or one we completely reject before we’ve read the first paragraph. In the age of hyper-information, it’s practically impossible not to be blinded by our own confirmation bias. It’s hard not to be infatuated with Twitter shitstorms either, especially when we’re not the target practice.

E-novels, once the theater of the mind for experimental writers, are now mainstream things that look like long-winded websites. Their chapters bleed into the same cultural space on our screen as grocery lists, weather forecasts, calendar reminders, and email messages. What’s the real difference between reading a blog post online by an eloquent blowhard and reading one chapter of a Jonathan Franzen novel? We can literally swipe from one text to another on our Kindle without realizing we changed platforms. What’s the real difference between skimming an informed political critique on a political junkie Tumblr account and reading a focused tirade on the Washington Post’s blog written by putative experts?

What’s the real difference between skimming an informed political critique on a political junkie Tumblr account and reading a focused tirade on the Washington Post’s blog written by putative experts?

That same blog post will get reposted on other news sites and the same news article will get reposted on other blogs interchangeably.  Content—whether thought-provoking, regurgitated, or analytically superficial, impeccably-researched, politically doctrinaire, or grammatically atrocious—now occupies the same cultural space, the same screen space, and the same mental space in the public imagination.  After awhile, we just stop keeping track of what’s legitimately good because it takes too much energy to separate the crème from the foam.

As NPR digitizes itself in the 21st century, buries the “R” in its name, and translates its obsolete podcasts into online news features, every one of its articles now bleeds with its comment section, much of it written by posters who haven’t even read the article in question—essentially erasing the dividing lines between expert, echo chamber, and dilettante, journalist, hack, and self-promoter, reportage, character assassination, and mob frenzy.

One silver lining is that the technological democratization of social media has effectively deconstructed the one-sided power of the Big Bad Media in general and influential writing in particular, which in theory makes this era freer and more decentralized than ever. One downside to technological democratization is that it hasn’t lead to a thriving marketplace of ideas, but a greater retreat into the Platonic cave of self-identification with the shadow world. We have never needed a safer and quieter place to collect our thoughts from the collective din of couch quarterbacking than we do now, which is why it’s so easy to preemptively categorize the articles we read before we actually read them to save ourselves the heartache and the controversy.

The abundance of texts in this zeitgeist creates a tunnel effect of amnesia.  We now have access to so much information that we actually forget the specific nuances of what we read, where we read them, and who wrote them. We forget what’s available all the time because we live in an age of hyperabundant textuality. Now, when we’re lost, we’re just one click away from the answer. Even the line separating what we know and what we don’t know is blurry.

We now have access to so much information that we actually forget the specific nuances of what we read, where we read them, and who wrote them.

It is precisely because we now consume writing from the moment we wake until the moment we crash—most of it mundane, redundant, speculative, badly researched, partisan, and emojian—that we no longer have the same appetite (or time) for literary fiction, serious think pieces, or top-shelf journalism anymore, even though they’re all readily available. If an article on the Daily Dot shows up on page 3 of a Google search, it might as well not exist at all. The New York Timesarticle we half-read on our iPhone while standing up in the Los Angeles Metro ends up blurring with the 500 modified retweets about that same article on Twitter. Authors aren’t privileged anymore because everyone writes commentary somewhere and everyone’s commentary shows up some place. Only the platform and the means of production have changed.

Someday, the Centers for Disease Control will create a whole new branch of research dedicated to studying the infectious disease of cultural memes.  Our continuous consumption of text is intricately linked to our continuous forgetting, our continuous reinfection, and our continuous thumbs up/thumbs down approach to reality, which is why we keep reading late into the night, looking for the next place to leave a comment someone has already made somewhere. Whether we like it or not, we’re all victims and perpetrators of this commentary fractal. There seems to be no way out except deeper inside the sinkhole or to go cold turkey from the sound of our own voices.

Jackson Bliss is a hapa fiction writer and a lecturer in the English department at the University of California Irvine. He has a BA in comp lit from Oberlin College , a MFA in fiction from the University of Notre Dame, and a MA in English and a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from USC. His short stories and essays have appeared in many publications.  



Sword vs. lightsaber: How the Samurai warrior inspired the Jedi Knights

Stories with lightsabers & Samurai swords always lead to the same end: The climactic fight between Good and Evil

Sword vs. lightsaber: How the Samurai warrior inspired the Jedi Knights

Ken Watanabe in “The Last Samurai,” Mark Hamill in “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” (Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment/Lucasfilm)

The opening credits of “The Force Awakens,” rolling into the infinite distance as usual, remind you that Jedi Knights are down, but not completely out. I had forgotten. In the 30 years since the Empire struck back, much has happened. There’s a new evil empire, a new evil emperor, and an even deadlier death star. But somewhere the Last of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker, is in hiding. Our young heroes of the Resistance must not only defeat Evil, but also find Luke, and re-inspire him.

I had a special reason for going to the first showing of the movie in London. In my book Samurai: The Last Warrior,” I looked at the inspiration behind the look of both the Jedi Knights and their opponent, Darth Vader. So much of it derived from samurai traditions: the cloaks, the tunics, Vader’s helmet, the lightsaber.

Let’s set them side by side:

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, and also not long ago right here on earth, two warriors prepare for action. The two have much in common. They are expert in the use of swords, despite their ability to call on the most fearsome and destructive of long-distance weapons. One warrior carries a supremely strong yet flexible steel sword known as a katana, which goes through flesh and bone like a kitchen knife through cooked asparagus, yet is flexible enough to deflect similar blades without splintering. The other wields a blade of energy, a lightsaber, which emits an annoying hum and deflects other lightsabers and almost anything else with a crackle, but slices through limbs like a katana when the time is right. Both forgo armor to fight in loose tunics. That is how the Last Samurai, Saigo Takamori, went into battle against the Japanese Empire in 1877; that is how Toshiro Mifune appears in Kurasawa’s film “The Seven Samurai”; that is how young Skywalker, up and coming Jedi, faces up to Vader, the father he has lost to the Dark Side of the Force.

Actually, it’s rather more complicated. Vader, though a master, wears samurai-like armor. Why? There are two reasons. First, in a past “Star Wars” episode, he was dismembered, burned beyond recognition, and restored to life inside a special body-suit, helmet and mask. Second, after Japanese unification in 1600, the samurai became redundant, but instead of vanishing they reinvented themselves as vital members of society, adopting ever more extreme armor designs, with overlapping plates, masks with bristling mustaches and helmets with horns, or crab-like extensions (symbols of protection), or rabbits’ ears to suggest longevity. Vader’s headgear is a simplified version of a samurai face-mask and helmet, with neck protection and ear-flaps. Unlike a samurai, though, he does not need a hole in the top of his helmet through which to poke an elaborate top-knot.

Would the comparison carry over into the latest epic? Yes, indeed, lightsabers, tunics and even a samurai mask for the new Evil One (though he removes it at crucial moments, which made me wonder why he needed it in the first place). Finn (male, black, beautiful) and Rey (female, white, ditto), both Londoners, I’m happy to say, confront their evil antagonist, all with lightsabers in hand.

The climax in both these cases is about two different views of heroism, the heroism of the loser and that of the winners. But there is something that the two sets of heroes share, and it’s not just the similarities in their hardware. Swords and lightsabers are both symbols of status and power. They are the ultimate McGuffins, as Alfred Hitchcock called the filmic “thing that everyone wants.”

The samurais’ attitude to swords had a weird logic. The sword had centuries of tradition. It was, at its best, a treasure occupying worlds of magic, spirituality, chemistry, artistry and skill, with its own arcane vocabulary and frequently a name, like King Arthur’s Excalibur. Minamoto Yorimatsa (944-1021), the first of the Minamotos to become famous, had a sword called Dojigiri, “Monster Slayer.” It was one of the “Five Best Swords Under Heaven,” the others being the Demon, the Quarter Moon, the Rosary and the Great Tenta, all of which survive in museums.

By comparison the lightsaber is somewhat lacking in back-story. Luke’s weapon has magical qualities – it inspires visions when grabbed by the future female Jedi, Rey — but where is its character? What master made it? Where is its hamon? Where, in the words of a description of a blade by the 14th century smith Masamune, are its “bright varied lines of kinsuji, sunagashi and deep ashi?” No, I don’t know sword-speak either, but the terms hint at the depth of samurai tradition. To samurai, all swords were and are different. By comparison, all lightsabers seem pretty much the same.

Never mind. Stories with swords and lightsabers lead to the same end: the climactic fight that pits Good against Evil, tradition against novelty. They are the ultimate weapons by which great issues are decided.

By Saigo’s time, armies had rifles, cannon, even early machine guns. His final battle on the slopes overlooking Kagoshima in Japan’s far south was like the last scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” with the odds hopelessly stacked against him, but with no freeze-frame. He knew he was going to die, and in his eyes his death was glorious, struck by bullets and beheaded by his own aide, as the code of seppuku(ritual suicide) dictated.

Finn and Rey are also up against fearsome odds. Their opponent commands a weapon that blasts planets apart, and psychokinetic powers that enable him to freeze his prisoners and suck information from their brains. Yet in the end the struggle between Good and Evil, between First Order and Resistance, with interstellar fates in the balance, comes down to lightsabers and single combat and an enigmatic shot of the reclusive Luke and the triumph of Good in a mighty cataclysm. How Evil survived the apocalypse I have no idea, but I bet there’s a clue amid the explosions. In a year or two, we will all be watching Episode whatever to find out what happens next.

In the telling and retelling of legends, this is exactly how things should be. I forgot about samurais, and loved it on its own terms, and so did the audience, and so will the world.

John Man is a British historian and travel writer with a special interest in Asia. Educated at Oxford and the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Man has written acclaimed biographies of Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, and Kublai Khan, as well as “Ninja,” a popular account of the legendary Japanese stealth assassins, and “Samurai,” a popular history of the legendary elite class of Japanese warrior. In 2007 he was awarded Mongolia’s prestigious Friendship Medal. Man lives in England.



A new film version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth

“Bloody instructions … return to plague the instructor”

By George Marlowe and David Walsh
19 December 2015

Australian director Justin Kurzel, a relative filmmaking newcomer, has brought to the screen a new version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The production, starring Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, is engrossing and disturbing, if uneven.

Kurzel’s version eliminates certain sequences, rearranges others (a few, questionably) and makes much of the Scottish countryside and weather, but remains faithful to the contours of Shakespeare’s drama.


The story takes place at a time of upheaval and civil war in Scotland, with rival nobles and their supporters, along with foreign powers such as England and Norway, fighting for the upper hand. (The historical Macbeth reigned for 17 years as “King of the Scots” in the mid-11th century.) Macbeth is kin to the king, Duncan (David Thewlis), but, along with his wife, aspires to much more.

After Macbeth and a fellow noble, Banquo (Paddy Considine), lead their troops––including child soldiers––to victory against a rebel army backed by Norway, Duncan plans to reward Macbeth with the title of Thane [one of the king’s barons] of Cawdor. Macbeth and Banquo encounter the famed “weird sisters,” played here like poor, outcast women, who predict Macbeth’s rise, even to the kingship, but the eventual crowning of Banquo’s heirs.

Macbeth is spurred on by desire and ambition, but vacillates as he thinks to himself, “Stars hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.” He writes to Lady Macbeth and tells her of his present success and future prospects. She is concerned, however, that he is “too full o’th’ milk of human kindness” to be sufficiently ruthless. Cotillard chillingly prays in front of a church altar: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here / And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood / Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse.”

When Macbeth vacillates (“I dare do all that may become a man”), in the face of assassinating the king, Lady Macbeth convinces him, through a combination of taunts. allurements and bravado (“We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we’ll not fail.”) Assisted by his wife, Macbeth murders the king in the middle of the night and places the blame on Duncan’s guards. The dead king’s son, Malcolm (Jack Reynor), flees Scotland and Macbeth ascends to the throne.

As Kurzel’s film unfolds, the logic and consequences of Macbeth’s initial murderous act oblige him to commit one crime after another to protect his rule, including the murder of women and children (“Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill. … [T]hey say, blood will have blood”). Lady Macbeth meanwhile falls away, in bitterness and remorse (“Nought’s had, all’s spent, Where our desire is got without content”).

The action proceeds with harrowing intensity. Macbeth’s tyranny and megalomania rally his enemies and, ultimately, a large army––including English forces––forms against him. His mental state disintegrates to the point of madness, self-destruction and acute nihilism. After his wife’s death, possibly by suicide, life becomes for Macbeth, in the famed soliloquy, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The acting of the two leads, Fassbender and Cotillard, in particular is very affecting and moving. The entire cast seems deeply sincere and committed. Certain scenes––of battle, the death of children and the psychological breakdown of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth––are powerfully presented.

Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth

Cotillard’s hallucinatory turn as Lady Macbeth attempting to wash the imaginary blood off her hands is riveting (“Out, damned spot! … All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. … What’s done cannot be undone”). She represents Lady Macbeth’s tragic fate with an unusual degree of sympathy. When Fassbender half-smilingly proclaims, “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife,” it is sinister and unnerving. The scene of Banquo’s ghost appearing at Macbeth’s banquet also stands out.

The moody cinematography and desolate-beautiful Scottish landscape add an eerie quality and match the overall tone of the performances. There are striking images and inspired moments in this Macbeth that linger in one’s mind with a dreamlike force. There is much that is commendable here––although there are significant problems too, which we will discuss below.

Literary historians suggest that Macbeth was written in 1606 or so. There appear to be references in the play to the Gunpowder Plot (a conspiracy by a group of English Catholics to blow up Parliament and murder King James I of England and VI of Scotland) of 1605.

The play is the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, only a little more than half as long as Hamlet. It is a frightening work, as every critic (and audience member) has attested to. In the early 19th century, British commentator William Hazlitt observed that Macbeth is “driven along by the violence of his fate like a vessel drifting before a storm.” He is “hurried on with daring impatience to verify” the predictions of the witches, “and with impious and bloody hand to tear aside the veil which hides the uncertainty of the future.”

In more recent times, A.C. Bradley noted that “Darkness … broods over this tragedy.” It is difficult, Bradley wrote, “to be sure of [Macbeth’s] customary demeanour, for in the play we see him either in what appears to be an exceptional relation to his wife, or else in the throes of remorse and desperation.” Harold Goddard described the play as a “Descent into hell.” For G. Wilson Knight, “Fear is predominant. Everyone is afraid. … The impact of the play is analogous to nightmare. … The central act of the play is a hideous murder of sleep.” Polish-born critic Jan Kott, in the postwar period, observed: “Everyone in the play is steeped in blood: victims as well as murderers. The whole world is stained with blood.” American critic Harold Bloom described Macbeth as “a great killing machine” and “the bloodiest of all Shakespearean tyrant-villains.”

Michael Fassbender as Macbeth

The play is frightening, not only because of the events, but because of the insight we obtain into Macbeth’s bloody and restless imagination. Among the perpetrators of crime or murder in Shakespeare, including Richard III, Iago, even Brutus and others, Macbeth is unique in his ability to envision his misdeeds and their possible consequences and to constantly anticipate and later relive them. They are always present with him and with us. Much of the drama takes place in his evolving consciousness (which may, in fact, contain the ghosts and spirits). A villain by any objective standard, Macbeth is endowed with perhaps the most unrelenting, corrosive conscience in world literature.

Shakespeare, with his customary thoroughness and psychological insight, took on the problem of political ambition, usurpation and tyranny. The play was written at a time of considerable instability and insecurity: the last years of the reign of Elizabeth I and the first years of James I’s rule. Conspiracies abounded, and repression was severe and cruel. However, it is worth bearing in mind that Macbeth is a historical play, set nearly five centuries before its writing. Shakespeare may well have had in mind aspects of contemporary life, the behavior of rival factions in his own time, but if his play had been perceived as a direct commentary on England’s ruling circles, he would have been clapped in jail.

One of the difficulties with much of the commentary, and Kurzel’s film itself, is the lack of historical perspective. Macbeth’s world, often with references to Hitler and Stalin, is gloomily proclaimed to be identical with ours. Bloom, who freely cites Nietzsche in his essay, goes so far as to assert that “Shakespeare rather dreadfully sees to it that we are Macbeth, our identification with him is involuntary but inescapable.” This is one of those, “Speak for yourself!” moments.

Kott writes that “There is only one theme in Macbeth: murder. History has been reduced to its simplest form, to one image and one division: those who kill and those who are killed.” Macbeth’s supposed recognition that “a man is he who kills, and only he,” the Polish critic terms the “Auschwitz experience.”

Kurzel’s Macbeth, of course, does not go so far or presume so much. However, the occasionally jittery and often close-in camera work, especially during the battle scenes, which suggests video footage, somehow draws in the spectator and implicates him or her. We are meant to see this as “our world,” in some fashion. So too Kurzel’s ending, with Banquo’s son practicing with a sword and running into the murk, suggests too easily that the “cycle of violence” will continue.


However, neither 11th-century Scotland nor Shakespeare’s era of royal absolutism is our world. Things have changed and historically progressed in many ways. Of course, we have bloodiness today, but it is not feudal or even pre-feudal bloodiness. Class society still exists, but there are great differences. Whether they are conscious of it or not, the filmmakers’ ahistorical and somewhat bleak approach has the effect of resigning the viewer to his or her supposedly unalterable fate (“You see, things have always been like this––and always will be”).

Associated with that, there is simply too much bloodiness. We get the point after two or three throat-slashings and such, which in the play largely occur offstage.

The artistic method is somewhat simplistic as well: to suggest the brutality of the period, Macbeth has to look and feel just as “brutal.” One is disinclined to agree with that. The bloodiness is too close, too immediate to provide any intellectual-aesthetic distance. The brutality at times seems to overcharge the performance with the suggestion, again, that everyone is implicated in the monstrousness.

There are other issues. The filmmakers make too much of an effort, too self-consciously, at times to impress with a visual splash. Also, occasionally, the overemphasis on the authentic Scottish accents tends to obscure the play’s incredible language. The direction of the actors, in the interest presumably of realism, sometimes reduces them almost to a whisper and mumble in a number of scenes. Certainly, avoiding heavy-handedness or pompous declaiming is a legitimate goal, but the lines still need to be heard and understood.

The tone is somewhat “one-note” throughout. This Macbeth is missing some of the emotional-intellectual texture of the play and some of its earthier, healthier figures.

These are real issues, and we raise them, not to pick points, but because Kurzel’s film as a whole is such a serious effort. The performances and the dramatic tension leave a distinct imprint. Even if it stumbles somewhat over its historical appreciation of Shakespeare’s drama, this Macbeth, at its best, conveys a genuine sense of the corruption and barbarism of our own times.




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