Reasons (Other Than Constantine) To Watch Constantine

Author’s Note: This entry was a challenge from a friend, to write a review of NBC’s Constantine now that it’s truly hit its stride, explaining why the show is worth watching without resorting to a description of why its protagonist is awesome – that’s for another entry, possibly as I start my epic Hellblazer re-read. (No fear, it won’t take up the whole blog, I promise.)

It took some time for NBC’s latest comic-based show to get itself up to full speed, but by episode five, it has certainly done so – sadly, it seems, just in time for the network to decide against ordering an additional nine episodes, halting production at thirteen. In addition to being kind of a stupid move considering the show’s ratings (becoming one of the top shows on all the streaming networks, retaining over 80% of viewers from Grimm, which airs in the previous time slot, and showing ratings improvements of over 30% week-by-week, are all very impressive accomplishments for a show relegated to the 10pm Friday night graveyard slot, premiering opposite the World Series with its second episode airing on Halloween), the show has become truly impressive in its own right, even without considering the adaptation from Hellblazer, in numerous ways.

First, the acting is stupendous for the most part, much higher than usual for network TV. It’s not perfect, that’s certain, but in particular the dynamics between the characters are delightful to observe. There are small moments thrown in by the actors, moments of expression, exchanges of physicality that are some of the best I’ve ever seen in TV or film. The actors have been very clearly growing into their characters, and just as the characters themselves develop closer dynamics and become a team, so too have the actors. A modicum of research into the culture of the cast and crew on-set confirms that this is a show with a great set of people working on it, who have become friends as well as colleagues, and who have come to really love their work. Even rarer, they actually make effort to reach out to the fans to share that, something particularly to be treasured when dealing with any beloved and iconic property. The cast and crew have made deliberate forays into the fandom on Twitter; they sometimes turn up in the comments sections on other social networks. They are clearly listening to what fans have to say, but in the best of ways: the executive producers have confirmed that their goal is not to simply conform to everything the fans want, as that never works out well; they simply take it into account before doing their best to give the fans something we’ve yet to think of.

Which brings me to my second point: the scripting. The dialogue has been showing a significant quality curve upward, especially starting in episode three, “The Devil’s Vinyl.” Of course, acting and writing are inextricably intertwined, but we’ve all seen shows and movies where actors manage to screw up great lines, or manage to somehow deliver poor lines well. This show has neither problem – the excellent cast has been given increasingly phenomenal writing to work with, and the wit positively sparkles. One important result of this is that every episode of Constantine has some serious re-watch value. This is true starting even with the (relatively) weak pilot episode. The pacing is consistently rapid, there are constantly at least two things to follow in the story at any given time, and this show never condescends to its audience – a refreshing change from standard comic book fare.

The creators of this show are giant nerds, and they are fascinated with every aspect of their subject matter. They have made the assumption (quite correctly, as it appears from fan response) that at least a portion of their audience is the same way. This fascination goes far beyond the DC Comics universe, though that of course is its beginning – hence the appearance of dozens of “Easter eggs” hidden in the episodes to date – and extends to carefully researched folklore from around the world, linguistics, religion, culture, metaphysics, philosophy, and more. I have personally spotted over a half-dozen languages and writing systems used correctly in the show, and friends have confirmed more.

More impressive even than the research, though, is the respect accorded these cultures and belief systems. When possible, the producers have consulted actual practitioners of the faiths referenced in the show, and in several cases (most notably the dance ritual in episode five, “Danse Vaudou”) have actually incorporated those practitioners and their work into the relevant scenes as filmed. This is more important for Constantine than for some other shows: there are certain aspects to the story of John Constantine which are seriously problematic – after all, this show features a white male who takes direct advantage of the privilege that affords him, to walk safely into and out of places, and to casually appropriate bits and pieces of others’ cultures, to take on roles for information-gathering that accord him respect and authority, while others must make do with less due to their gender or race. This show acknowledges that at every turn, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, such as Papa Midnite’s furious – and entirely correct – accusation, “You are a magpie of magic, a thief of tradition; you steal from other people’s cultures and beliefs to suit your own purposes.” It is both glorious and rare for a show to call out its own protagonist on his white male privilege.

Even more subtle is the show’s handling of the protagonist’s lack of privilege in certain regards. Serious mental health issues, physiological addiction, and oh, let’s not forget the bisexuality issue. Initially, I was upset when I heard the official line regarding this: it’s not going to be central to the show, and isn’t going to really be clarified one way or the other beyond subtle information. I, like many other viewers, took this to mean that it was going to be removed entirely. I now have to admit I was wrong in this. While I would prefer that the show deal more openly with this issue, they have actually done exactly as they claimed: sexuality is not central to the show or to the characters’ dynamics, and Constantine’s sexuality has remained ambiguous from the pilot episode onward, with a line-drop in episode five confirming his bisexuality in a very subtle way that can be ignored by anyone who wants to ignore it, but definitely points in that direction for anyone watching closely for signs. This is now being handled the same way as Constantine’s smoking: a gradual introduction, testing the waters to see how the viewer base reacts.

That attitude – experimentation, testing the waters of the viewer market – is typical of the way this show is being run. There is an amazing opportunity here for audience members to cast a vote with our wallets in favor of shows that display social consciousness, smart writing, progressive thinking, and complex moral analysis. If you like all of these things, you should be watching this show; if you have friends who like these things, you should be recommending this show.

One of the best protagonists in decades is just a bonus.


Review of Interstellar

My general rating of the quality of this film is that it manages to be an excellent movie despite several very serious flaws. I am absolutely glad I saw it, and I am particularly glad I saw it in a theater with a large screen, to take full advantage of the stunning visuals.

Author’s Note: Hereafter be minor spoilers. I’ve tried to avoid anything too specific, but general things about the plot are discussed here, so if you’d rather go into the theater knowing nothing of what you’re about to see, don’t read!

I envy anyone who was able to have the IMAX experience. For purposes of this review, readers should be aware that I did not see the film in 3D, so I cannot speak to the difference that might make to the experience. My eyesight prevents me being able to watch 3D films at all, so I don’t know what they’re even like, and can’t theorize. Even in 2D, though, this movie is amazing to just soak in the vistas.

It’s an awfully long soak, though. This movie is nearly three hours long, and one gets the impression that Christopher Nolan had a laundry list of plot points and science points and philosophical discussions he wanted to fit into the movie, and he decided to just make Interstellar as long as it had to be, to get it all in there. For the most part, it doesn’t drag, but the movie would have been better served by cutting out one or two plot arcs, some of the expository dialogue, and making the whole thing 40 minutes shorter.

Except for the very end, the pacing is excellent. There’s a lot of variance in the types of storytelling involved in Interstellar: the dystopia, the dustbowl/Depression-era farming survival story, the family drama, the father-child relationship, the explorer hungering for new horizons, a romance subplot, some action and a neat fight scene later on, lots of great science, space travel, time travel¸ betrayal, nifty robots and their dynamic with people, etc. The movie does contain what has become the obligatory weird revelatory scene involving the space explorer discovering things beyond current human consciousness, where current science knowledge stops and the writers and director get to play with their pet theories. As often happens with such scenes, the writer and director got way too caught up in their pet theories, and the scene is way, way too long. Attentive viewers can figure out what’s going on long before the characters do, and we have to wait for the characters to piece it all together and reveal it again with more expository dialogue.

I got the impression from this movie that the screenwriter thinks most of his audience has never watched a science fiction film before. The theory of relativity is explained far too many times, and cutting some of those repeated explanations could have made the storytelling much more efficient. The movie generally has a problem with telling rather than showing, or rather with showing and then assuming half the audience missed it and telling us anyway.

The script is the weakest part of the film. The acting is absolutely superb, without exception. Matthew McConaughey throws himself into this role to a degree I’m not sure I’ve seen from him before, and it’s incredible to watch. Matt Damon blew me away. Anne Hathaway is equally skilled, though she’s given much less to work with.

Okay, time to talk about women in this film. Christopher Nolan has taken a lot of criticism in the past for his portrayal of women in his movies, and rightly so, and I don’t see that changing here. He’s showing improvement, but it’s in baby steps. There are three women in the movie, grand total. One is almost entirely insignificant; she’s a background fixture on a farmhouse, there to have a grinding cough and impress upon the viewer just how bad health conditions on Earth really are, and to suffer with quiet dignity (and, oddly, to provide the movie with its Bechdel Test Pass, when she invites the protagonist’s daughter to stay the night and they have an extremely brief discussion of houses and associated memories). The second, played by Hathaway, is very significant, an expert in her field, a scientist, the daughter of the man whose research is leading mankind to the stars… and whose emotional outbursts cause almost every misjudgment in the movie. She is treated with less respect as an expert by the men on her crew than those men are treated by each other and by her, and unfortunately, there’s a reason for it. More than once she laments that maybe she really wasn’t cut out for this exploration, and the viewer has to think that perhaps she’s right. The decision to make this character the only woman on the crew is problematic at best. This is allayed significantly by the third female character, though, the protagonist’s daughter Murphy, who is easily one of the most compelling characters in the film, if not the most compelling. Whip-smart, determined, and able to think outside whatever box people try to put her in, Murphy is handed some of the worst obstacles of any character in the movie, and she handles them with dignity, resolve, and, eventually, success. She is delightful in every way. The film could have been improved with a larger role for her and a smaller role for Hathaway’s character.

One effect this would have had is a shift in focus. As it is, the film focuses on the conflicts among a very incompatible and inexperienced crew who have barely had a chance to work and train together. There is very little focus on the actual exploration of the stars, and why frontiers are exciting and inspiring. A focus on the urge to survive by pushing outward, and on the mission at hand, rather than on interpersonal issues among some fairly cookie-cutter characters and one really interesting protagonist, would have made a much better – and shorter – movie. I’m not sure it would have sold as well, though, because it would have been much more of a genre flick.

Despite these flaws, the expansive world-building, the fascinating hints and open ends, the sheer depth of everything included in the movie because of its nature as something of a behemoth, make Interstellar a pleasure to see and then go chew on afterwards for quite some time. It’s not an easy watch for a relaxing evening, but if you, like me, are the type of viewer who likes a movie that you have to watch and then let percolate for a few days and analyze to bits, you’ll love this.

Representation of Disabilities and Persons with Disabilities in Avatar: The Last Airbender (and Legend of Korra)

Note: The later part of this essay will contain spoilers for the most recent episodes (as of 10/22/2014) of Legend of Korra, and there will be warning for when they will begin. The whole essay will contain spoilers for the TV version of The Last Airbender in its entirety.

As a person with disabilities whose hybrid spirituality includes certain aspects of Eastern Buddhist thought which are beautifully expressed in the Avatar franchise, watching this series was quite the experience. The variety of disabilities displayed both in Avatar: The Last Airbender and now in Legend of Korra is unusual in television, as is the astute writing. I plan to write more about both shows in the long run, but for now I’m going to focus on this particular aspect.

There are four major recurring characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender (noted after as A:TLA) with disabilities that directly affect the course of their storylines: Teo (a wheelchair user following a traumatic injury), Zuko (facial scarring, speech impediment, potential visual impairment, emotional trauma and possible PTSD and depression), Azula (severe mental illness), and Toph (blindness). One thing all of them have in common is that none of them are given a chance in the show to experience full recovery. The audience is allowed to understand that Zuko may recover from some of his trauma, and I understand that in the comics Azula makes something of a recovery from her illness, but the core show ends before either can occur. Teo and Toph have no chance of recovery from their physical disabilities.

Let’s examine the mental disabilities first. Zuko experiences flashbacks under certain circumstances, has many of the emotional issues often found in people with histories of abuse, particularly in childhood. Azula shows symptoms of the same, though different symptoms – which is a rarity in television, to see two characters showing very different symptoms as a result of directly-related emotional traumas. Their emotional issues show up in particular relief against the contrasting sibling relationship between Sokka and Katara. Azula, in addition to her trauma- and abuse-related issues from her family life, is clearly unstable in a much deeper way, perhaps so deeply as to be identifiable as sociopathy. As her life changes and the pressures alter in ways she is unprepared for, her grip on reality loosens. By the end of the show, she is hallucinating her missing mother, and spends her last moments on-screen chained to a grate, screaming and spitting blue fire. This is particularly poignant when a viewer considers again the fact that this is a sixteen-year-old girl who wants, more than anything else, to be loved. There is a reason why Zuko and Katara, contemplating her at this time, are not even smiling over their victory.

Zuko is the one character who perhaps shows a mix of physical and mental disability. In addition to his flashbacks, trust issues, and clear depression and anger control difficulties, Zuko also flinches when touched, or when someone approaches from his scarred side; he turns too far around when looking to that side, indicating perhaps that there is some visual impairment on that side. This may just be a fluke of animation, however, as there is nothing ever said in the actual dialogue about this. At the same time, it is noted that his hearing is extraordinarily sharp, a trait often found in those who have an impairment in another sense. It is certainly a valid interpretation, and very subtly expressed if intentional on the writers’ part.

The two characters with definite physical disabilities have obvious visual cues: Teo’s bandages and wheelchair, and Toph’s white eyes. At no point have the writers in the Avatar franchise examined the type of physical disability that doesn’t come with that kind of indicator, but to be entirely fair, that would be very difficult to animate on the budget A:TLA had. Perhaps sometime later in Korra? We’ll see.

Both Teo and Toph have a positive attitude toward their situation, and refuse to be restricted and defined by their disabilities. Teo, whose disability is based in his mobility, uses his wheelchair to fly. As an intermittent wheelchair user, it brought tears to my eyes to watch this. Toph, whose disability is a missing sense, replaces it with another ability: her earthbending. Of course, the catch is that, in our world, neither is possible. It makes me wonder what the writers were getting at here.

There isn’t too much more to do with Teo, he’s a relatively minor character, so let’s turn to Toph, whose disability is the most explicitly examined throughout the series in a number of ways. We see how it affects her in certain environments more than others; we see how she is able to function and live a relatively normal life in spite of her inability to see, but still does run into difficulties that clearly rankle; and we see how others react to her based on their knowledge of her and her disability. Each is worth examining separately.

I read a joke theory once, I think it was on TVTropes, that Toph is blind because “she can’t see anything less badass than she is.” Hilarious though that concept is, because Toph really is badass almost beyond description, it really does encapsulate the way in which her disability doesn’t actually impede her in getting things done, most of the time. She can still walk around towns, talk to people and do almost anything she needs to get done. At the same time, she can’t read wanted posters, or write, or enjoy books, or see when they fly over things, or see through sand or ice or certain other surfaces or… a number of other things, because she is in fact disabled. She’s competent enough that it’s easy to forget, both for the viewer and for the other characters, but it comes up just often enough that we’re reminded that for her, it’s a constant. This is absolutely brilliant writing, reflecting the experience of a competent person with a disability, and rejecting the concept of disability binarism (the idea that a person is either completely able or completely disabled all the time with no variance).

It’s worth looking at how the other characters experience her disability, and, to go further, how she experiences their experience. There are two categories of people in Toph’s life: those who knew her first as blind and then as a great earthbender, and those who knew her first as a great earthbender and then as blind. Those who encounter her disability first tend to see her as fragile and in need of protection and restriction, and unable to make decisions for herself. It is difficult for people who know her first as a little blind girl to understand that she can be more than that. Those who know her first as a great earthbender, often forget that she is blind – most often Sokka, played for laughs, but other characters as well. The first is more obviously discriminatory and oppressive, but the second, particularly in light of the insensitivity it reflects to the experience of constancy described in the previous paragraph, is also a serious issue, particularly given that these are supposed to be the friends who understand her best. Again, this is excellent writing, and reflective of the experience of many people with disabilities. The best part is that, being Toph, she’s willing to trap them in it, call them on it, make fun of them for it, forgive them, and move on. She makes an amazing role model.

Alright, it’s time to talk about Legend of Korra up through recent episodes, you might want to skip to the end of this essay. Go to the next line of italics and you’ll be safe.

Another of the greatest women on TV these days is the protagonist of the sequel series. It was a brave move on the writers’ part, to put her in a wheelchair at the end of season three. Unlike A:TLA, we’re going to have time to see Korra process what has happened to her, and either make a recovery or not. She’s been told now by both Katara and Toph – both of whom know of what they speak – that it will come down to her attitude and her decision whether or not that recovery occurs, and to what extent.

So often, when a television protagonist is injured, we get some kind of time-skip and everything is fine. Even this show has been guilty of the rapid-fix, such as the end of season one, when Korra’s bending was restored awfully quickly after being taken away. This time, the writers are taking their time to do this right. We’ve had a time-skip, but we’ve also had flashbacks to physical therapy, to individual steps one at a time, to the painful process of working through the recovery from an injury and an illness. All the while being told by well-meaning people that she should take her time, everything’s under control, her job is being done by other people.

Which is great, because she does need to take her time. On the other hand, she’s also clearly absorbing the message that maybe, just maybe, she isn’t needed anymore. And that part of her identity is being called into question. The viewers see Korra trying to get in touch with her Avatar spirit and failing. And yet, there’s hope, because we know how strong Korra is, to have even survived this far.

Alright, the spoilers are over. You can come back now

As someone who’s been through some of the issues of disability, illness, recovery portrayed in the show (obviously not the Avatar spirit stuff, but I’ve definitely been through a sense of spiritual damage and recovery), it’s hard to watch sometimes. But that’s a sign the writers are doing it right. It should be hard to watch. I hope it’s hard to watch for people who haven’t been through it, but know someone who has. I hope it’s hard to watch even if you don’t know someone who has, because you know there are people out there who have been through it. This shouldn’t be easy to watch.

I so appreciate that there are writers out there who don’t pull their punches on these issues, and write them with care and precision, love and humor. The world would be a better place for people with disabilities if more media examined disability this way; popular understanding would naturally expand. Please support media you see doing good work like this, and point me at other examples you know.

Why I Love Mordred in the Arthurian Legend

I have loved the legends of King Arthur since I was a small child watching The Sword in the Stone, and eventually reading the full novel of The Once and Future King, but it wasn’t until high school that I really began to understand the sheer extent of the tapestry of Arthurian canon. The complexity of the legends can be mind-boggling, even as some of the renditions and individual stories are very basic and simple, even sweet. The work that really set me on the journey of becoming an Arthuriana enthusiast and scholar was Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, in particular the author’s experiments with viewpoint. I had never realized that viewpoint could be such a pivotal concept in retellings of the legend, and I immediately set out to devour all versions of the legend I could find, the more different the better.

The first “different” version I read was, of course, the direct follow-up to the Merlin Trilogy, Mary Stewart’s own novel The Wicked Day, which retells much of the last book in the trilogy from Mordred’s viewpoint, before adding events to the end which go beyond the scope of The Last Enchantment, the last novel in the trilogy. From that point on, I was fascinated with the character of Mordred, and his history in the Arthurian canon.

At Bryn Mawr College, I took a course on the legends of Arthur. One of the big assignments was a large paper on a character, chosen from the list, and we were to research the canonical history of that character, his or her first appearances, later development through the different Arthurian sources, and the way she or he is interpreted by modern fiction. The professor, after discussing the expectations with the class, asked how many of us had already picked our character; most of us had. She asked how many were planning to write about Morgan. Almost a third of the seventy-five or so students in the class raised their hands. This being Bryn Mawr, this was not tremendously surprising. She then asked, curiously, if anyone was planning to write about Mordred. My hand shot up at the back of the room. I was the only one. The professor laughed. “Ah yes,” she said. “The Mordred people. There’s one in every class. Good to know which one you are. You guys keep us honest.”

That comment struck me, as did the assumption that a bunch of scholars discussing the Arthurian legend would need someone to keep them honest. As it turned out, the prediction was quite correct, and I learned why: the sources, from medieval to modern, generally espouse a certain moral code, and take for granted certain concepts. One of Mordred’s roles in the legend, and therefore one of my roles in the class, was to constantly call those concepts into question, often playing devil’s advocate (I don’t normally do this, but for some reason this class really brought it out in me). It made people angry with me, just as it made people angry with Mordred in the legend. Fortunately, in a modern liberal arts college, there was a much greater expectation of open-mindedness than would be found in a medieval court.

One can tell so much about the purpose of any piece of Arthuriana by watching how Mordred is portrayed. The reason for this is that Mordred is key to how Arthur himself is portrayed: they are nemeses. In the same way that Batman would not be as brilliant without the presence of the Joker to oppose him, or Superman without Lex Luthor, the list goes on, Arthur needs his Mordred for contrast. The difference between this pair and those others, though, is that Mordred can be just about anything the author wants — which means that Mordred becomes a vehicle for making Arthur anything the author wants. It is very revealing of the portrayal of Arthur, to view his opposite, or sometimes just a foil, or even just a tragic circumstance, in Mordred.

When I first read Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day, and read up on the character, much of the critique I saw of the novel mentioned her “new” take on the character. This seemed odd to me, as Stewart specifically mentions in her author’s notes that Mordred was not originally a villain. He is barely a footnote in the first source in which he is mentioned (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), and we cannot even tell on which side he fought in the battle of Camlann. When I did my research in college, I discovered there are numerous other old sources which have a complex or even sympathetic portrayal of the character. I think my favorite is the Alliterative Morte Arthur, which portrays Mordred as fighting against Arthur for reasons he believes valid, and refusing to back down from his own honor and convictions. The two are set against each other in a conflict that cannot be resolved except through death, and everyone, including both Arthur and Mordred, recognizes the tragic waste. The moment that gave me chills, though, was when I read about Mordred, having just killed Gawain, weeping over the body, realizing that at this point there is no going back even if they should find some way to resolve all of their other issues, and fully understanding the waste of all the brilliant men and ideas that will perish in the battle. This, from a piece written in the late 1300’s. The idea of a sympathetic character in Mordred is definitely not “new.” If anything, the sneering madman of The Once and Future King is the new interpretation. Even Thomas Malory portrays him as bitter and treacherous, but sane and practical.

If you read my earlier post about Game of Thrones and why I love Jaime Lannister, it should come as no surprise that I love Mordred to pieces, and for many of the same reasons. I love characters who call everyone’s assumptions into question. I love complex characters.

Mordred may be one of the most complex characters in all of literature. This comes in part from the sheer number of versions: the evil wizard counterpart to Merlin; the disgruntled brat prince; the smooth-talking madman; the dangerously charismatic and treacherous rebel leader; the misguided and bitter youth; the abused boy manipulated by his vindictive mother; the terrified knight caught up in a destiny he cannot escape; the politician who makes hard decisions; the nobleman who is a victim of circumstance; the leader of a resistance against a regime that has outgrown its usefulness to its kingdom. These are just a few of the thousands of versions of this character that now exist. There’s even gay erotica about Mordred (it was brilliant Arthuriana, actually).

Fun piece of trivia: If you watch Monty Python’s Quest for The Holy Grail, it is possible to determine the identify of Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film. He is Mordred. The proof is two-fold, beyond the fact that Mordred does not in fact appear in the film: 1) He is a baby in the image, and Mordred is the youngest of Arthur’s knights in most of the Grail legends. 2) He is wrapped in swaddling that is green, with embroidered dragons. Green signifies Lothian, the realm of Arthur’s sister; the dragon signifies Arthur himself. The child of Arthur and his sister? Mordred. QED. The Python crew has confirmed this analysis.

Watching the Thor movies with my disabled brother

I saw a totally different set of movies than everyone else I know, and the reason was the person I took to see them.

My brother is severely mentally disabled. He is permanently at about the mental age of six, though he’s over forty, and is also autistic. He loves comics and superheroes, something we share in common, and so I take him to see superhero movies. I was the lucky person – and I say this entirely without irony – who took him to see both Thor movies.

He has a habit of whispering to himself during movies. He’s not loud enough for anyone who isn’t sitting right next to him to hear, so I situate us with him on the end of a row, and me next to him, so I’ll be the only one who can hear him and he won’t disturb anyone else. He also has an amazing ability to cut through all the glitz and layers of deception and societal expectation and crap that Hollywood throws at its viewers, to see what’s really at the heart of any given scene, and any given movie.

He also has a brother and a dad he loves dearly. If you’ve seen the movies, I’m sure you can see where some of this is going.

In this case, having him with me absolutely made both movies worth watching. In some cases, it was things I hadn’t noticed that were hilarious (for example, the shape of the high-tech gadget Thor attacks the villain with at the end of Thor 2: I was distracted by the presence of Christopher Eccleston and by the complex explanation to notice the humorous idea that Thor was attacking someone with a giant nail, until my brother started laughing and whispered it). In some cases it was things that really weren’t (at the end of the first Thor, when Odin says he’s proud of his sons, my brother whispered, “You dorks, that’s always what mattered.” I started crying like a small child). And this happened about every ten to fifteen minutes, over the course of both films, and completely changed the experience in ways I wouldn’t trade for the world.

I’m excited to go see Amazing Spiderman 2 with him next week.

Fetishized Books and Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

DISTURBING CONTENT ADVISORY: This is a post about the practice of covering books in human skin, and some of the disturbing ways that has been viewed by its practitioners.

There were numerous articles in the news recently highlighting a scientific finding at Harvard that one of the books in the university’s collection is covered in human skin. There were three books that might have fit this description, and two were disproved. The third, however, is a genuine example of the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy: covering books in leather made from humans.

In particular, I was struck by the article in the Washington Post. The author ends her article with the line, “The real thing that we might all wish had been fake.” This, of course, assumes that everyone reading the article agrees with her in wishing that books were never covered in human skin.

Okay, sure, it’s a little creepy at first instinct, but as a friend of mine pointed out, becoming a book after death is not such a bad fate, and is actually one quite a few people would aspire to. And the woman whose skin went into the book was not killed for it – she died of illness.

What is universally icky, though, is the inscription, which fetishizes her skin down to its very pores, along with fetishizing the book itself. The strangeness of this, combined with the more-than-vaguely necrophiliac feel of this sentiment, seems to get to pretty much everyone.

Thinking about it, I realized there’s a movie director who captures this beautifully, in one of the most stunning films I’ve ever experienced. That director is Peter Greenaway, who seems, based on his work, to have a genuine fetish for the written word. I don’t mean the content; I refer here to the actual physicality of books and writing. This shows up in both Prospero’s Books, one of my favorite films of all time starring John Gielgud, and a far less disturbing example for those who want to experience Greenaway’s style, and in The Pillow Book, which features multiple characters who paint calligraphy on each other’s skin as an exploration of sexuality. It begins with the sweet concept of a father writing blessings in calligraphy on his daughter’s face as a birthday ritual. It becomes slightly twisted as she equates writing with love, and is willing to subject herself to what she perceives as degrading levels of fetishization to receive it. Eventually, this turns gruesome, and there is a slow poisoning scene which is disturbingly visually beautiful, done so that the writing on a person’s skin will be preserved as a manuscript, all with breathtaking French music in the background. The movie is both ethereal and obscene, both to extremes.

While, in both the movie and in the case of the Harvard manuscript, the lack of consent on the part of the fetishized person is disgusting (oddly, there’s more sexual consent in the film, even in the murder scene), the film captures the writing fetish in such intimate fashion that it becomes comprehensible to the viewer. A fetish for books doesn’t seem so alien after all. It may not be your thing, but if you’re looking to make some sense out of this particular news bit, and are prepared for some psychological drama, you may want to try the film.