Wonder Woman – The movie and why it is great.

I just got back from the early morning showing of Wonder Woman, and I’m crushed.

It wasn’t just the brilliant visuals or the well-paced and intelligently thought-through secret origins story. Nor was it only the extreme attention to period detail or the well-crafted dialogue. Above all, the preposterous, extraordinary magical figure that is Diana, Princess of the Amazons – a figure it would be so easy to get wrong – is unbelievably believable.

I should make a confession. I grew up on DC and Marvel comics even though school friends sneered at the men in tights and teachers mocked their “simplistic moralistic tone”. Those teachers had never encountered the adaptation of the entire Ring Cycle in the pages of The Mighty Thor, in which an ambivalent creator-god embroiled his own son in a tale of incest and betrayal. Nor had they met a Bruce Wayne driven to attempt to murder his alter ego, The Batman, due to a mixture of psychosis and stress, as occurred in The Untold Legend of the Batman. “Simplistic moral tone” indeed. There were no safe places in these tales that had matured out of the old Silver Age comics in which there were indeed many a jolly jape, and Biffs and Thunks a-plenty.

Strangely, the most sneery voice of all was reserved for Wonder Woman. It was a girls’ comic, clearly. It had a woman as the central character and who did Diana Prince think she was, venturing onto the boys’ reserve? She was never going to be as tough or as badass as the big beasts also in her DC stable: Batman and Superman.

I didn’t agree with that assessment. There was something special about Wonder Woman that intrigued me. It wasn’t just that as a kid in my pubescent hypersexuality I responded positively to the line of a woman’s leg even if it was inked in four colours on cheap paper from the USA. The fact is, Wonder Woman was like no other female superhero.

Look at the others: Supergirl, The She-Hulk, the Spiderwoman. These female heroes were simply twists on established male counterparts.

Then there were the likes of Storm, Jean Grey and the Invisible Girl. These were in their different ways emblematic of what powers the male writers were comfortable in giving to women in their own right. Storm was elemental, a child of nature who worked at a distance on the weather – she was a nature archetype. Jean Grey, The Phoenix, was someone who messed with people’s minds and was not about physical power. The Invisible Girl, one of the first generation of female characters from Marvel’s The Fantastic Four didn’t have the brute power or physicality of the boys in the team. Nope, her big thing was she could make herself invisible. If ever there were an emblem of the traditional way that society thought women should be unseen and that their power should remain hidden and indirect, Sue Storm-Richards was it. Literally.

Yet Wonder Woman was completely different from these other female superheroes. Indeed, I am comfortable in calling her a superheroine, because she is so powerful and physical that there is absolutely no possibility that the feminine diminutive undermines her. What I always thought about the boys at school who sneered at her was that they were stuck in an old-fashioned view of what a woman might be. Wonder Woman was in a class of her own.

This is the starting point of the new Gal Gadot movie. From her early upbringing in the mythical Paradise Island of Themiscyra in which she is trained by a fearsome all-woman group of warriors to fight, there is a toughness and brutality in her story. The society of women warriors among whom she lives is visually believable. They have body language that is fast, no-nonsense, direct and harsh. In councils of war, they set their jaws and walk with a swagger one usually associates with men. This is an all-woman society conceived along Spartan lines.

There are many images from Themiscyra that stay with me. One is of an Amazon warrior jumping from a cliff and firing an anchoring arrow with a rope attached to it in order to swing into battle more quickly. The body language is direct and pragmatic and speaks of centuries of training. Another is seeing Diana’s Aunt, Antiope firing three arrows into three soldiers at once. The look of deadly concentration on her face is utterly real. This is no comfortable stars-and-stripes bikini-wearing 1950s image of domestic womanhood that I’m sure influenced the parents of my schoolboy friends and instilled their cultural references when it came to women. These Amazonians would only lift an iron to work out how best to kill you with it.

Gal Gadot herself is pitch-perfect as Diana. She enters the world of men with that simplistic moral tone my teachers thought she had. But her story is one of a Bildungsroman, in which the idealistic young hero who sets out to do good has her ideals broken by the complexity of the world – and yet continues to strive to do what she thinks is right.

At another level, she is funny and charming – and of course, she is beautiful. Long gone are the days when commenting on this woman’s physical attributes in any way undermines her seriousness. The whole DC Universe is indeed serious with flashes of light – and Wonder Woman epitomises that mixture – indeed, embodies it at its best.

What is it that makes Wonder Woman so impressive in this film? It dawned on me that in this version of the DC story, Wonder Woman is pre-eminent, the foremost beast in her stable. She has the brawling capacity, the speed and the fight training demonstrated by the Batman, and the brute strength and godlike presence of Superman. Indeed, she goes one better than Superman. She is a goddess. Literally. Thus Wonder Woman combines the very best of these two heroes into one exquisite, brilliant, intelligent, charming, idealistic, thoughtful, brutal package. When she hurls men across the room with a flick of her hand, it looks real. She looks like she means business. There’s no ironic flick of the eye, no sense that this woman could not do this. And yet, you also don’t doubt that she also really does speak hundreds of languages and have a literal Classical education.

I said at the outset that I was crushed by this movie. I am. There were moments when, upon seeing all the potentials I have always known Wonder Woman possessed coming to life on the big screen, that I was close to tears. This story is cruel, beautiful, tough and harrowing. It is a suitable introduction to the world of Diana Prince, Princess of the Amazons. It is by far the best movie from the DC Universe to date.

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The strangeness of creatures: 1

Turkeys circle a dead cat in ritualistic way…

Strange video footage. As more and more footage of animals performing in apparently ritualistic ways and showing a degree of sophistication appears, it becomes more and more likely that the notion animals are not conscious will be jettisoned, like former concepts of miasma, phlogiston and ether.

The footage below is just one of many shots appearing on youtube that makes our current understanding of animals appear less and less complete.

There are some mysteries in the world.

These turkeys trying to give this cat its 10th life pic.twitter.com/VBM7t4MZYr

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14 things Eddie The Eagle taught me

Eddie The Eagle mobbed by autograph-hunting fans.

Eddie the Eagle has an ambivalent reputation in the British psyche. As a boy, I remember the Press sneering at him and implying he was in some way an embarrassment for Britain, or painting him as a kind of likeable buffoon worthy of a comedy mention, but little else – a cringeworthy footnote in the history of the Winter Olympics.

Going to his talk at the King’s Theatre, Southsea, on 27th May 2017, I didn’t know what to expect, but suspected it might easily be the forced story of a wannabe inspirational speaker. That, I guess, was the cynical pressmen at work, even after all these years.

Eddie and me

In fact, Eddie the Eagle’s story of how he got to the Calgary Olympics in 1988 to become Britain’s first Olympic ski-jumper since 1929 is a tale of a young man so in love with his sport and so determined to get there that he was willing to go through extreme hardship to make his dream come true. And all the while he did it, he regarded the setbacks, the knocks, the poverty and the pain as something to shrug off because it was worth every moment of it. Only at the end of the night, when he plays footage of ski-jumpers involved in horrifying accidents does the real danger he exposed himself to in pursuit of his dream came through. His talk, Try Hard, was genuinely uplifting – and I have seen many speakers over the years telling their stories of success.

So, here are fourteen things I learned from Eddie the Eagle Edwards:

  1. Eddie came from a background with no advantages when it came to making it to the Olympics. His dad was a builder with little money, and he was born with a birth defect meaning he had to have his legs straightened in plaster casts – much like the old style pictures you see of kids in calipers.
  2. Eddie fell in love with skiing when he was a kid on a school trip, and his love of the sport took over his life. He did his very first jump across a road on that first trip and began to jump friends, cars and trucks for charity as his skill grew.
  3. As a boy, he beat the members of the All-England squad at races in the UK and was asked to join the team. He lasted for one morning, when the class-ridden prejudices of the squad led to him, a lowly working class kid in secondhand kit, being dropped from the team despite his obvious talent.
  4. He pushed on and ignored the prejudice – opting for the ski-jump option when he realised there was no GB team and hence no competition, and that it might be a way of entering the Olympics more cheaply.
  5. He broke his neck and back in a race with a rival skier after losing control, flying through the air and landing on his rival. The prize for the race was to take a woman out for dinner. The rival skier did so and married her, while Eddie got 6 weeks’ traction for his efforts.
  6. He did his first ski-jump at Lake Placid in the USA, using discarded kit left in a hut by other skiers.
  7. He went from a 5 metre jump to a 40 metre jump in the space of an afternoon under his own steam – a progression that usually takes years of training with a coach.
  8. His first helmet was tied on with string, and later popped off when he did the 90 metre jumps.
  9. His kit early on was provided by donations from teams from across Europe who saw him struggling while training with low quality equipment.
  10. To feed himself while training in Switzerland, he took food from the bins at the Scout house where he was staying and recooked it after the scouts had finished eating. Custard and gravy, he says, is delicious.
  11. In the build-up to Calgary he broke his jaw in a jump. With no insurance, he tied a pillowcase around his head to bind his jaw and carried on jumping – holding his face when he landed to keep his bones in place.
  12. He had to pay for his own flight to the Winter Olympics, working in the hotel where he was training with the US team in Steamboat Springs in order to buy his air fare.
  13. His absolute love of his sport is infectious, and he is really a likeable guy who simply tells his story with no pretentiousness – it simply is a tale of something he had to do.
  14. Eddie lands on his feet with this talk. It’s not the story of someone reaching the pinnacle of success in the eyes of the public, but setting his own standard of what he wanted to achieve, and going for it with every part of his soul. It’s a story of bravery, of joy, resilience and dogged determination. He is well worth hearing.

I am so glad I was impressed! It’s a recommend.

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Writing Edward King – the performances, 27th May 2017

Image courtesy of (c) Portsmouth Museum

Some time ago I volunteered to write a short story about local artist Edward King, who for the last 26 years of his life was a patient at St James’s Lunatic Asylum on Locksway Road, Milton.

It was part of a project run by Annie Kirby-Singh that has incorporated workshops, the publication of an Edward King website www.writingedwardking.com containing the contributions by writers and examples of his work.

His story is a fascinating one. Extolled by Van Gogh for his power and virility in his drawing, he was a member of the New English Art Club alongside Sickert, Singer Sergent, Nash and Augustus John. Yet after the death of his wife in 1924 and a prolonged breakdown, he ended the last years of his life at James’s. In his later years, he took to painting again, producing pictures of Milton Locks, and a series of paintings of the city after air raids during the Portsmouth Blitz.

14 writers produced stories inspired by his works, and I was lucky enough to be at one of a series of four performances that took place in the Minghella Studio of the New Theatre Royal on the 27th May 2017.

One of the things that constantly rocks me on my heels is the extraordinary level of writing talent in this relatively small town. The 90 minute show of which I was a part had works by local writers Christine Lawrence, me, Jacqui Pack, Charlotte Comley, Bernie Byers, Zella Compton and William Sutton. By the end of the session, after hearing stories and songs by these extraordinary writers I felt genuinely humbled.

From Christine’s dark tale of madness, through Jacqui’s account of depression, Charlotte’s story of Nora coming to terms with a troubled childhood, Bernie’s analysis of a painting of the laundry, through Zella’s viscerally real account of an air raid to William’s songs, both moving and funny, the session was a complete moment of exploration and discovery.

You may have missed the live session – but the stories are online for you to enjoy at The Writing Edward King website (link above). There is much there to enjoy… so… enjoy!

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Moscow State Circus – Southsea, 24th May to 4th June 2017

Over the years I have come to realise that there are only three true art forms. These are Punch and Judy, pantomime and circus. Of these, the greatest is whichever I have most recently seen.

That said, Gostinitsa, the Hotel of Curiosities, currently showing on Southsea Common from the Moscow State Circus, is one of the most accomplished circus offers I have ever seen here – and I have seen many, many circuses over the years.

From the opening tableau, in which the performers arrive at the hotel and intrigue the audience with the promise of what’s to come conveyed with smiles, greasepaint and outlandish costumes, there is something eccentric, self-contained and artistically integral throughout. This is circus and Vaudeville and fantasy rolled into one heady mix.

Let’s start with those costumes. From steampunk kids to 1920s flappers, through comedy bellboys and Cossack bandits, to otherworldly tightrope walkers the colour of living air, there is something so perfect in the visual design that the aesthetic of the show actually at moments took my breath away.

Add to this perfect timing and extraordinary assuredness in the acts and the fact that each act brings with it a genuine surprise and you realise you are watching a show that is truly world class.  From skipping routine to highwire act, the show has an extraordinary energy and something way beyond that…

Many years ago, I realised that if I had my life again, I wouldn’t have wasted it in intellectual pursuits, but would instead make dreams happen, help embody the impossible and cause people to gasp at the potential in human beings. The hard work may not have suited me, I suppose, and may well have wrecked me – but it might also have been something that was an all-consuming passion that made my life whole. That is how it feels when I stand on the outside looking in. I am in love with the circus.

Whether that daydream is true or not, I will never know, of course. But when I watch shows the quality of Gostinitsa, I feel like I have opened a curtain not just on another way of life, but on a whole other world, an Oz, a Narnia, in which the normal rules of physics don’t apply any more.

I have often wept at the beauty of circuses. Tonight, the tightness came to my throat again – and for what? The sheer joy of seeing the absolute cream of acrobatic performers weave a dream before me.

I recommend this show with all my heart, and hope you get the same joyous, anarchic, erotic, crazy hit from it I do. Gostinitsa is a dream come to life.

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7 Random Reasons Why Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 Rocks

So, as a childhood Marvel and DC comics fan, over the last decade or so I’ve taken great delight in the fact that CGI in movies has progressed so far that you don’t actually have to suspend disbelief. I remember seeing the back projection outline when people were thrown off buildings, or the strings when The Invisible Man lifted things up. No wonder they didn’t make that many superhero movies back then. At least not convincing ones.

That it’s all possible to do seamlessly is old news, and the only thing that now holds writers and filmmakers back is their imagination and budget.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 has both in full measure. Here are 7 things picked at random as to why it rocks:

1) Little Groot. Okay, so it’s a merchandiser’s dream, but supercute Groot is joyous to behold, with his big eyes, his innocence and joyful naivety, there is so much potential for the bundle of laughs here. He’s the wide-eyed fool, and he’s hilarious.

2) That opening sequence that subverts the heroic form sets the tone. The show starts with the Guardians protecting some super-duper batteries for a race of gold skinned Sovereign aliens from an interdimensional monster made entirely of teeth, blubber and super-thick skin. But instead of doing the usual thing and focusing on the fight, it focuses on Little Groot’s dance routine. The juxtaposition is hilarious.

3) Drax’s one-liners. Boy oh boy, the writing team have really gone out of their ways to work up the characters for best comic effect. Drax, the alien who doesn’t understand metaphor goes through the show offending, irritating and genuinely making comedy gold. The deadpan delivery adds to the effect. I haven’t been in a cinema for a long time in which the audience is howling with laughter. Drax does it.

4) Rocket, the trickster. Rocket the Raccoon (“I’m not a Raccoon!”) is as super-sneaky, clever and selfish as ever, but now you start to see his “human” side. For a writer, this archetype is a gift. He’s straight out of Carl Jung, and he adds an element of chaos to the whole show. The script, indeed, the whole story arc, starts with one transgression from him – but he’s not all selfishness, as later events show. He intrigues and delights and builds wonderful empathy.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2..Nebula (Karen Gillan)..Ph: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2017

5) Nebula. Ok, I’m going to make an admission. I got through the entire first Guardians without clocking that the blue-faced semi-robot alien with a psychotic streak was none other than Dr Who’s Amy Pond, aka Karen Gillan. It was only when the name jumped out at me on the credits that I clicked – and even then, I thought “Ah, maybe there’s a different actor with the same name, in the US”. Her American accent is pitch perfect, but more impressively, her angry, downtrodden, rage-filled character has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with Amy Pond. I genuinely wouldn’t have picked these two characters out as the same person. That is a tribute not only to the make-up team, but to Gillan’s skill in acting.

6) The visuals are sumptuous (as the picture above attests). There are so many visual delights in this show, it’s difficult to know where to start. Apart from the extraordinarily lifelike cgi, which means you genuinely think you’re watching interactions with real talking trees and real talking raccoons, the part where the designers let themselves go is fabulous. That is on the planet Ego, in which we are treated to a massive vista of impossible things that are beautiful and straight out of dreams. From wonderful colour-popping bubbles that greet them as they leave the spaceship, through the incredible animated fountain to the sumptuously designed interiors of the palace, everything is designed to a “T”. This show should win awards simply for visualisation.

7) The plot is both taut and hilarious. It’s a fine balancing act to get a genuine sense of comedy in a script balanced against a driving plot. If you watch many tv comedy shows, you’ll see that the plot is paper thin, while the comedy simply comes from the characters rubbing together. This has both. Add in the asides with Stan Lee (which are outside the plot for sure) and the extra elements that feed in to future episodes, and it is a work of brilliance.

So, there it is. Needless to say, I’m going back to watch it again with a friend of mine who writes comic books. Discussions after that should be joyous!

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Not Waving But Drowning at the King’s Bar Loft, April 27th

I recently had the privilege of compering a night of Film Poetry Performance at the King’s Bar Loft, Albert Road, on April 27th. It was a fascinating night that showcased some extraordinary talent from Portsmouth and further afield. And it was an event, with wonderful projections provided by Dr Lighthouse and some great decor that gave the whole bar an unusual feel – as if we were descending into the dark depths.

The first act up was Elephant’s Footprint, a duo from Bristol, who gave a talk on Poetry Film and showcased one of their works. Poetry Film is pretty much what the label says – it can be a film with the poem integral to it, or, to give a frisson of live performance, the poet can deliver the poem on the night.

Next came Isabelle Bilton with a diary of an anorexic, and the night took an even darker turn with Jidos Reality performing a disturbing story of a psychopath, called The Hangman’s Many Souls. The first half was rounded of by Maggie Sawkins reading Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning and then showing some of her short films from her award-winning show about addiction, Zones of Avoidance.

So, a sombre first half.

The second half took us into the light, with a crazy, eccentric and ear shattering performance by The Vulture Is A Patient Bird, that lampooned corporate speak with a wicked touch. Next came Richard Williams reading a poem to Jenna Lions’s accompanying film – the change of pace to something gentle being much needed after the frenetic energy of the opening. Craig Maskell had us all laughing out loud with his hilarious Laurie Anderson style loops and auto-tune antics, while he played along to a series of Lego animations. One could feel the mood in the room shifting upwards. Next came Elephant’s Footprint again, with some really uplifting and interesting poetry film from around the world.

Finally, Matt Parsons performed a hilarious and clever piece in which an uppity computer took issue with his nostalgic view of the decline of Shipbuilding in Portsmouth.

The night was organised by Johnny Sackett, whose Front Room happenings at Aurora and Hunter Gatherer showcase some extraordinary talent from near and far, with visuals provided by Dr Lighthouse and sound by Ken Devine.

It was a special night indeed, and two phrases have stayed with me:

1) Why are you dressed like Arthur Askey?

and

2) We’re all in this together.

If you were there, you’ll know why!

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The Snow Witch – Designing the Cover

Following on from my previous blog about using old pictures to illustrate your book, I finally came to designing the cover.

I’ve had various ideas for the cover for a while. A friend of mine is a model and I at first considered adapting a photograph of her, as follows:

Esme Shard, photograph (c) 2014 Steve Chatterton, SJC Photogpraphy www.chattertonphotography.co.uk

I finally came up with this.

However, I wasn’t convinced by this, and felt the image was in some way cluttered. What’s more, with the illustrations inside the book now decided upon, I wanted some drawn artwork.

I went back to the Bible I had been using earlier, but the Witch of Endor was portrayed as an old hag, not the young woman in my story.

So, back to the book collection, which includes a thick, heavy volume from 1894 called “PEN DRAWING AND PEN DRAUGHTSMEN: THEIR WORK AND THEIR METHODS A STUDY OF THE ART TO-DAY WITH TECHNICAL SUGGESTIONS”.

Leafing through the images, I found this:

The figure of the woman, drawn by A Montalti, was perfect, though there was a lot of image around her to lose.

Eventually, I got to this.

Still stark, I thought.

After some experiments with colour, I came to this:

This is the one. Subtle, mysterious and eyecatching. I now have my cover!

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The Snow Witch – finding those illustrations

Some of you may know that a little while ago I completed writing a novel called “The Snow Witch”. I’m currently in the throes of laying it out, and have been hoping to get some illustrations to head up each part of the book.

I was at something of a loss. The story is allegorical, quite beautiful (I think, anyway!) and tells the story of a young woman who comes from a mystery tradition separate from Judaeo-Christianity, and yet connected to it.

One of my other jobs is dealing in rare books. About 15 years ago I bought a pair of stunning, extremely heavy 18th Century volumes filled with luscious copperplate engravings. Last night, I decided to dig those books out from my collection. And, well, I think I have what I want.

Here are the images I’ve chosen.

This is for Part 1 – this section includes reminiscences of the central character’s childhood, in which she was trained in in herblore by her mother.

Part 2 includes a section in which a wild wolf runs loose. This image seemed appropriate:

Part 3 comes to the crux of the story, and includes a narrative about the ancient archetype Lilith, who in Jewish mythology was Adam’s first wife before the unfortunate Eve. This seemed perfect:

Finally, we have an Epilogue. The image of the Phoenix from the bible seemed appropriate enough!

Scanning the 250 year 0ld images has been quite an education. Only once you start to manipulate the image and blow it up, do you see the extraordinary detail of the original craftsman, who scratched the image in reverse on to a copper plate with a steel stylus. The physical strength, endurance and patience it took is humbling for a 21st Century man who often ends up cursing Adobe Photoshop.

We sit on the shoulders of giants.

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Jessica Alba – how little did I know?

One of the things the series of biographic articles I’ve written for The Best You magazine has done for me is make me see famous people in more depth. The most recent article was about Jessica Alba, the actress who plays the Invisible Woman in the dismal Fantastic Four series of movies, and a stripper in Sin City.

I was expecting to be underwhelmed. But it also turns out that she is the founder and brains behind The Honest Company, essentially an American version of The Body Shop, which in under 5 years has risen to a valuation of $1.7 billion from start-up.
She runs the company ethically, has an emphasis on employing the young, often straight out of college, and is involved in numerous charities involved in promoting and lobbying for safe and ethical household chemicals. In the US, the FDA has banned only around 12 chemicals for use in the home, whereas the EU has banned around 1300.

She herself suffered terrible allergies as a child… and when she fell pregnant realised that one of the “child safe” detergents she was recommended by her mother brought her out in a serious rash. That was when the penny dropped. And so she has thrown herself into her role as founder and CEO of a massive ethical business.

These revelations surprise me and make me reassess the woman I see on the screen. As Sue Storm, she is mediocre, in a mediocre movie. But this other side to her makes me realise the limits of my own judgements of people. How little we know.

So, this brief note is in praise of the real Jessica Alba. Thank you for your work.

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