Bonding with history: Skyfall’s postmodern 007

[Warning: spoilers!]

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

So recites Judi Dench’s M midway through Skyfall, quoting Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’. As Thomas Newman’s soundtrack swells and Daniel Craig’s Bond tears on foot through Whitehall, it’s clear the text points to him as much as post-imperial Britain: like Ulysses, better known by his Greek name Odysseus, this film’s Bond is an aging sea dog come home, world-weary, after being lost in action, his kingdom fallen into disrepair. Skyfall, Bond’s own odyssey, is the franchise’s most strongly intertextual entry, classicist touches woven through its story. Even the famous Walther PPK, now fireable solely by him, is recast in Homeric terms, mirroring the bow only Odysseus is capable of drawing, proving his identity; Bond too is defined by his prowess as a marksman, not what it was since his exile – ‘Is there’, Javier Bardem’s villain asks during a shooting contest, ‘any of the old 007 left?’ – and it’s only in the film’s third act, when finally he regains his expert aim, that we know for sure Bond isn’t dead. (If the antique parallels seem contrived or unlikely, director Sam Mendes read English at Cambridge and co-writer John Logan penned Gladiator twelve years before.)

M’s speech namechecking Tennyson is itself a defence of old-fashioned, clandestine espionage. Earlier, as future successor Mallory worries MI6 are viewed as ‘antiquated idiots’, he admonishes her, ‘For Christ’s sake, listen to yourself. We’re a democracy, and we we’re accountable to the people we’re trying to defend. We can’t keep working in the shadows. There are no more shadows.’

‘You don’t get this, do you?’ M replies. ‘Whoever’s behind this, whoever’s doing it, he knows us. He’s one of us. He comes from the same place as Bond, the place you say doesn’t exist: the shadows.’ When interrogated at a government inquiry, she says this:

Today I’ve repeatedly heard how irrelevant my department has become. Why do we need agents, the double-0 section? Isn’t it all rather quaint? Well, I suppose I see a different world than you do, and the truth is that what I see frightens me. I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map, they’re not nations. They are individuals. And look around you: who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now, it’s more opaque. It’s in the shadows. That’s where we must do battle. So before you declare us irrelevant, ask yourselves: how safe do you feel?

That Skyfall should be Dench’s final Bond film seems fitting, since this perfectly inverts the modernist aesthetic of the Pierce Brosnan era, in whose opener GoldenEye she first appeared. (Both films, incidentally, are named for Bond’s infant homes – in the latter case, the Jamaican house were Ian Fleming first conceived of him.) When Casino Royale rejigged the series continuity, depicting 007’s first mission, producers impressed by Dench’s M reportedly kept her on despite this complicating the timeline; to view her in GoldenEye and Skyfall side by side, it’s clear her two Ms are very different characters. On first meeting Brosnan’s Bond in 1995 that M – formerly a finance executive, dubbed ‘evil queen of numbers’ by Michael Kitchen’s Tanner – famously called him ‘a sexist misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War’, while the Craig era’s M has by contrast been a spymaster for decades, even declaring in Casino Royale that she misses the Cold War. By Skyfall M has come full circle from dogged forward progress to nostalgia, and so has the franchise.

Just as the First World War prompted literary modernism, so the USSR’s collapse prompted GoldenEye and films that followed – in a world where things had fallen apart, establishment and status quo crumbling in on themselves, they reached for innovation. Brosnan’s Bond wore a European businessman’s Brioni, wielded gadgetry more colourful than ever at the dawn of the online age and embodied the Blair governments’ fetish for New Britain: this 007 scaled the Millennium Dome, rappelled down the side of the Eden Project and worked at Vauxhall Cross, the new, nineties home of MI6, with Samantha Bond’s more PC Moneypenny, romantically emancipated and (in GoldenEye at least) dating someone else. In Tomorrow Never Dies and Die Another Day, Bond’s love interests (Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry) were fellow agents from China and the U.S., whom he, filmmakers seemed overkeen to show us, was adept at satisfying sexually. As women of colour, in both cases, became his lovers, so MI6 grew interracial, Colin Salmon’s Charles Robinson replacing Tanner as chief aide to M.

The urge to modernise was, in the end, what alienated fans and almost tanked the series – particularly via 2002’s CGI-laden, bullet-time-ridden Die Another Day. Bringing Bond and his setting up to date meant bringing it away from Fleming, whose hero was an anachronism even at the time of his invention. Bond is an Eton old boy and naval Commander, pitched in Live and Let Die – written in the prelude to the U.S. civil rights movement – against criminally violent black people, and against cat-eating Koreans in Goldfinger. (‘Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms’, Fleming writes. ‘Those terms included putting Odd-Job or any other Korean firmly in place, which in Bond’s estimation was lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.’) He is the gamekeeper, as Den of Geek’s James Peaty writes, of an Empire whose absence his creator gravely mourned, and which is being fast deserted by the world around him. With his colonial instincts, ‘corrective’ seduction of Pussy Galore – her name originally refers not to what she has, but what she gets – and rage at fifty years of female emancipation, Bond is written as a man out of time, or steadfastly refusing, at least, to move with it.

The same could easily be said of him in Skyfall, which makes a point of its heroes feeling out of date. ‘You know the rules of the game’, M tells Bond. ‘You’ve been playing it long enough.’

‘We both have,’ he replies. ‘Maybe too long.’

It’s not just MI6 here which faces being deemed antiquated. Bond himself is older and slower than when we saw him last, ‘made weak by time and fate’ like Ulysses, struggling to stay in what Mallory calls a young man’s game. He is matched, moreover, against Bardem’s technoterrorist and with Ben Whishaw’s millennial Q, who chides him as a mere triggerman in the age of cyberwarfare. Bond’s argument, M’s, and the film’s as a whole is that triggermen today are needed; that as espionage and global conflict post-9/11 have been individualised (Silva, the film’s villain, rigs national elections from his solitary lair), so shadowy, individual cloak-and-dagger spies have become relevant again. Where keyboard warrior Q is tricked by Silva, after all, it’s Craig’s low-tech, antediluvian 007 who finally undoes him. The Brosnan era argued Bond could be modern, keeping up with a world turned on its head; now that the world has turned again, and late nineties modernity itself seems dated, Skyfall suggests Bond is needed because he’s old-fashioned.

It’s not by accident that this film uproots all its own most contemporary elements. At the outset, M and Tanner (now played by Rory Kinnear) supervise Bond in Turkey from Vauxhall Cross, all flatscreens and gizmos – the same gizmos, it turns out, which allow Silva to access MI6’s computer network and destroy the building, prompting a change of scene to underground Churchillian bunkers of 18th century origin. Bond only gains the upper hand, in the film’s third act, by isolating himself and M on a Scottish moor, no servers or cables in sight: between the restoration era house of the film’s title, the 1964 Aston Martin unearthed to journey there and the family rifle with which Bond finally shoots straight, nothing in Skyfall’s climax belongs to the present. Here, too, Dench – sole remaining cast member from the Brosnan years – is written out, replaced by Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory, whose gender and background return us to Fleming’s M. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, declaring ‘Some work of noble note may yet be done’, Bond returns to adventure at the film’s close, finding himself back in M’s oak-panelled, leather-doored office of old. (HMS Victory even hangs in painting on the wall, touching multivalently both on Bond’s and MI6’s revival – the ‘grand old war ship’, in Q’s words, may not after all be ‘ignominiously hauled away to scrap’ – and the vessel which ‘puffs her sails’, calling to Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem.) Eve, previously a field agent in the vein of Brosnan’s leading women, is revealed to be Miss Moneypenny, seated at the familiar desk to flirt with 007.

Skyfall is a truly postmodern Bond film, a metafiction about the series’ own continued relevance, by far its most thematic and thoughtful entry. Ironically, I wonder if as a standalone film on its own terms, this stops it working as successfully – if in its reliance on the intertextual, it sacrifices self-sufficient storytelling. Did I, for example, want or need particularly to find out about Bond’s childhood home? Isn’t he, on a certain level, more interesting as a killer with no clear provenance? It’s a wonderfully indulgent moment as a fan, moreover, to rewatch Bond, M, Tanner and Moneypenny in the courtroom sequence, Fleming’s most familiar lineup reunited in a pitched gun battle, but I also have to wonder: what were Eve and Mallory doing in this film, other than awaiting unveilment in more famous roles? Aren’t we, by suspecting this, perhaps distracted on some level from their self-contained characterisation, just as we might have been had Sean Connery, as considered at one point, played groundskeeper Kincade instead of Albert Finney? Just as the elements of classic Bond here – the DB5, say, or M’s office – feel somehow hollow in diegesis, stripped of their meaning in the series’ broader context, these characters never quite seem fully formed and immersive, as did Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and her interplay with Craig’s Bond. Likewise, Silva’s relationship with him never seems quite as real as that of Mads Mikkelsen’s blood-weeping Le Chiffre.

Where some knocked Royale as a great film but unsatisfying Bond film, I wonder if the reverse applies to Skyfall. (I’ve a great deal of time for both, and more regard than most for the much-derided Quantum of Solace in between, but still think Royale edges ahead.) How will the old-school aesthetic re-established by the close of Sam Mendes’ film serve Bond 24 on his directorial return? How will the new-old world of oak panels, secretarial flirting and mission dossiers stamped TOP SECRET serve its plot, when these things’ purpose is no longer just semiotic? I’m not sure. One thing is certain, though: after reflective, thought-provoking Skyfall, I trust that Mendes can deliver.

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You want sex? So stop asking for coffee

If you weren’t aware by now that arguments about harassment are burning through the skeptosphere again, you can’t have been paying much attention. I won’t be entering that fray myself just yet, except to say – in general terms, in principle – that reports of abuse or harassment should always be taken seriously and investigated. For the moment, in fact, I’ll stick to discussing the issue in general terms, in principle, for reasons I hope are obvious.

The one event I will name is the one to which these spats always return.

Reliably, at least one person will say a version of the following whenever ‘Elevatorgate’ comes up:

For goodness‘ sake, he only asked her for a coffee! Why would she think that was a sexual advance?! He even said ‘Don’t take this the wrong way’. What a professional victim – she must just have been desperate to be offended.

There’s a great deal that response ignores: that the proposition was made in the small hours of the night, in an enclosed space; that it followed the part of the average conference schedule most associated with pass-making; that the man in question invited Watson back to his room – that is, his bedroom – rather than somewhere ‘coffee’ could mean nothing else. It’s the kind of conduct most effectively excused, as Stephanie’s pointed out before, by cutting all contextual detail.

This post though isn’t about Elevator Guy or any other individual. Revisiting that incident just crystallised a feeling that’s played on my mind a while. That feeling is this:

We need to stop asking people for coffee.

Not that we should stop asking people for sex, in appropriate contexts, at conferences and elsewhere; not that we should stop asking people on dates. We need, specifically, to stop saying ‘for coffee’. If that sounds prudish or odd, let me explain.

Some months back, a friend got an online message from a stranger who’d found him in an online student group. The sender, having seen his comments, asked if he was ‘up for a coffee’. It took my friend three days, and hours of advisory IM exchanges, to know how to respond.

Exactly what was ‘a coffee’ in this case? What invitation had been made? Was this coffee and socialising, as in German Kaffeeklatsch? Was it a coffee date? Socialising, with the option of dates to follow? With the option of dates and/or sex? Of no strings attached sex, specifically? A date with the option of staying friends?

‘Coffee’ is popular, I think, due to this ambiguity. It works both as euphemism and get-out clause, putting sex or romance on the table with plausible deniability. Ask to hook up, and your neck is on the line; ask them for coffee, and rejection can be parried with face-saving assurances you ‘didn’t mean it like that’. (Ewan McGregor, in the film Brassed Off, walks Tara Fitzgerald home after a night out. ‘D’you want to come up for a coffee?’ she asks. He doesn’t drink coffee, he says. ‘I haven’t got any’, she replies.)

The trouble is, that ambiguity puts the other person’s neck on the line. Inviting someone neither to dating or sex, nor to a meetup, but to something that could plausibly be either puts on them the burden of interpretation – of negotiating properly an advance chosen for its ambiguity. My friend didn’t want to hurt a stranger’s feelings, but returning their message was a minefield. Guess wrong – that a sexual or romantic invitation was a purely social one, or vice versa – and he faced huge chances of creating awkwardness. He’d no doubt have felt bad if that had happened, but the deck was stacked against him. To avoid taking a social risk themselves, the other person put his feelings at risk by making him guess what they meant.

We’re all somewhat culpable for how what we say will likely be construed; part of communicating well is being hard to misinterpret. It doesn’t matter, in the end, what Elevator Guy meant to say; his job, especially where and when he said it, was to think about how it would sound. When you’ve said something used often as an overture to sex, you’ve no right to blame or guilt-trip somebody for taking it that way. Doubly so if you said it because it’s used that way. Triply if you said it hoping to hide behind its vagueness if they turned you down.

It’s not just about coffee. That’s a prime offender, but the attitude behind it – indirectness about what we want, expecting others to divine it magically and blaming them for guessing wrong – has implications for our wider sexual culture. I don’t think it’s by chance behaviour reported as harassment – unwelcome touching, inappropriate comments, furtive photographs – can often be presented as benign. Central to solid sex-positivity is stating clearly what we want or like. Not doing so means if and when we breach someone’s boundaries (as can happen with the best intentions), the message they get is that their feelings don’t count, and they’ve just ‘misunderstood’.

If it’s sex you want, ask – appropriately, in appropriate contexts – for sex. If it’s a casual date, then ask for that. If it’s fine-ground aromatic Italian espresso, well, all right then – ask for coffee. The rest of the time, steer clear, and say what it is you’re after.

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Secular synthesis and why we need it – or, Hello Freethought Blogs

You already know that I’m a #FTBully. Of all the letters after my name (admittedly, there aren’t very many), those are the ones I’m proudest of. My feeling is, that tells you all you need know about me. Keep reading though.

I’m 22, secular, British, poly, queer, tall, ex-Christian, “left wing and long-winded”, a nerd, a graduate and a keyboard warrior. What that actually means is fallacious discourses piss me off, and so do faulty ideas they transmit. I’m skeptical, you might say, in that sense.

The backdrop to my joining this network is an organised skepticism more divided than ever, teetering toward civil war. I have no problems with that division. If our blogosphere and the community around it become the dogfight expected right now, things will get worse before they get better – but they will, I think, get better. There are problems in our movement – racism, misogyny, transphobia, harassment, wage theft, corruption – that we need to fix, and any chance we take by addressing them is a chance for self-improvement. Should skepticism implode in the coming weeks or months, there’s no point letting it implode again a year or several down the line: the time for staring down internal conflicts, all of them, is now.

Because of that, there won’t just be posts here on UK atheism – that is, on why our image as a godless paradise is unwarranted, our secular community underdeveloped and our strains of fundamentalism growing. There won’t just be posts on leaving extreme religion – how Hallowe’en once terrified me, how my niece was an evangelical at four years old and how I thought aged eight that Satan had possessed me. There won’t just be posts about mainstream and LGBT culture’s myths of sexuality, about sex and relationships, about the nerdsphere or about far-right religion’s fast-forming grip on UK campuses. There will be all of those, sooner or later, but not just those.

I named this blog Godlessness in Theory because I think we need new secular dialectics. I first encountered things like feminism and social justice largely through the atheist scene – I came of age reading Skepchick, Butterflies and Wheels and Greta Christina’s Blog – and I think it’s valuable, vital in fact, to view our movement through those kinds of frameworks. I’m not convinced, though, that it’s enough to switch between discourses as I’ve found myself doing; to blog on atheism some days and queerness others. The most exciting thoughts I’ve had in skepticism have been listening to Pragna Patel, Sikivu Hutchinson or Natalie Reed, in whose work secularity and social justice collide and complete, coherent modes of thinking germinate which speak to both. I love these writers’ work, because this is more than intersectional action; it’s an innovative, synthetic analysis. Pursuing secular synthesis as they have – bringing godlessness into theory, and vice versa – is my long-term stated aim. That’s what I’m here for, and what I think can repair our movement – even, perhaps, make it stronger than ever.

Wish me luck.

For the moment, an overview: if you haven’t read anything by me before, or you’ve read a post or two and you want to read more, the following ten posts are a good place to start.

I’m looking at archiving the rest of my past writing here; to stay updated in the mean time, go and Like this blog on Facebook. If you feel like you still want more, browse through my writing in the areas linked or see my blogroll here for the people I like reading. You can also drop me a line via email or Twitter, and believe me, I’ll be reading the comments.

Hello if we don’t know each other. Hello again if we already do. And hello Freethought Blogs – you’re the greatest network of them all. I’m thrilled to be here.

In defence of Quantum of Solace

[Warning: spoilers!]

Everyone seemed to love Skyfall on its release. Papers listed it among the top few Bond films, reviewers heaped praise on it and Sam Mendes and Adele’s return for Bond 24 met with popular demand. I liked it a lot, myself, though in hindsight slightly prefer 2006’s Casino Royale, in which Daniel Craig debuts and Mads Mikkelsen’s villain (seven years pre-Hannibal) chews the scenery into succulent, meaty chunks. The interceding entry in the series, Quantum of Solace, is the one fans and critics alike seem to have hated – and no, Quantum isn’t brilliant. It’s not on the level of the other two by any means; equally though, it isn’t terrible. Certainly, it isn’t the car crash often recalled.

I recognise the film’s problems. It’s the shortest of all the Bonds, sandwiched between the longest two to date, and also the most violent – an entirely unproductive combination. Royale was gritty in its depiction of a bruised and bleeding hero, but its glamour, humour and storytelling finesse meant it never relied on action; Quantum exhibits not much else. To a large extent, this comes down to the 2007-8 writers’ strike – by the time of filming, the film’s script was only partially completed, leaving the cast and director Marc Forster to devise scenes. It shows: one moment Craig’s Bond is dispatching the icy pith familiar to viewers of the previous film, the next he’s left dependent on pick-up lines like ‘Come up and help me find the stationery.’ (Seriously. Bond says that.) Beyond technical and visual aspects, much of the film just feels underdeveloped, and it suffers greatly as a result. Still though, I don’t think its faults sink it.

Except for single-filmer George Lazenby, each of the past Bonds had a misstep or two: Connery had Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever, Moore had Moonraker, Brosnan had Die Another Day. (Moore’s Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy, plus Timothy Dalton’s Licence to Kill, are borderline for me.) If Quantum of Solace is remembered as Craig’s weakest note, it still stands tall next to most of these.

In fact, thanks largely to the talents of its cast, Quantum is far, far better than its half-baked screenplay might have meant. Beside Judi Dench’s reliably spiky M, both main villains deserve special credit: with his Jokeresque laughter under interrogation and quipping, ‘Tosca isn’t for everyone’ disdain, Jesper Christensen takes previously nondescript Mr. White straight to magnificent bastard status, and Matthieu Amalric radiates creepiness, predacity and danger as Dominic Greene, particularly when onscreen with Olga Kurylenko’s Camille – the scene where he threatens to throw her from a balcony is a rare moment in which a Bond villain feels genuinely unsettling, someone you wouldn’t ever want to meet.

Camille herself won’t be going in the Bond woman hall of fame any time soon, but feels like the major casualty of the partial script; had she been given more time and development, perhaps she’d have come across in deliberate contrast to predecessor Vesper Lynd, as a grittier, less refined but similarly wounded and courageous character instead of an inadequate stand-in. The climactic moment when Camille hunches panicked amid a fire, Bond trying to get through to her, echoes his and Vesper’s shower scene from Royale, and it seems her story might have been just as compelling if fully developed. Gemma Arterton feels equally neglected as agent Fields, though her scenes with Craig and Giancarlo Giannini’s René Mathis crackle with wit and charm, and her death scene – an oily twist on Shirley Eaton’s in Goldfinger – is legitimately harrowing.

This film, unusually for Bond, devotes earnest attention to violence against women: where elsewhere in the franchise this is fetishised, here it’s a theme. Camille’s mother and sister were raped, as quite possibly Fields is before her death, and Greene’s relationship with her is shown transparently as abusive; that a trail of murdered women follows Bond is even commented on by M. (‘Look how well your charm works, James’, she says, surveying Arterton’s nude corpse. ‘They’ll do anything for you. How many is that now?’) Unlike other ‘kept women’ in prior films, however, Camille is not seduced by 007 – in fact, in Bond’s closest encounter to date with feminism, it is she who ultimately abandons him, acknowledging his damaged emotional state. Seeing Bond’s torment play out through alcoholism and sleeplessness is itself captivating – Craig is at his tense, brooding best in these moments, and it’s a shame, again, that he’s left little else to do by the film’s unfinished script.

My inner jury is still out on Marc Forster’s direction. Certain cosmetic elements visibly jar: the stylised title cards for the story’s locations feel out of place, for instance, and like the dialogue’s subtitles, don’t match their components in Royale. (It may not seem important, but I notice these things – you have no idea how much it bothers me that the colour and size of the onscreen text changes.) I’m still not sure, moreover, why Forster provides subtitles for two Bolivian extras’ in-taxi exchange. Footage of villagers during a drought captures the travelogue flavour of Fleming’s writing perfectly, though, and in a film over-reliant on action, it’s a good job Forster directs it exquisitely – the scaffold sequence in the opening minutes, in particular, is executed perfectly, and if anything feels like a more natural place for the opening titles to have gone; the rooftop chase leading up to it, similarly, is amazing even as a lesser retread of the Parkour chase from the previous film, and the aerial confrontation just before the final act, while at moments difficult to follow, spectacular. Other highlights include Bond’s hand-to-hand battle with Edmund Slate, one of the whole series’ best fight scenes in terms of both choreography and camerawork, and the entire, breathtaking showdown at the Bregenz opera.

There and elsewhere, Dennis Gassner’s set designs channel the sixties cleanliness of the Connery era: while we don’t get the Shanghai skyline’s modern mystique or the natural beauty of Scotland as in Skyfall, the backdrops of MI6’s new headquarters, M’s apartment, Mathis’ villa and Bond and Fields’ hotel are effortlessly cool. In the case of the operahouse, too, Gassner’s forensic aesthetic helps create a real sense of menace, framing the ensuing shoot-out’s violence like meat on glimmering ice in a butcher’s shop. Quantum, the organisation whose meeting Bond disrupts here, is a superb creation – a kind of global capitalist, 21st century SPECTRE, manipulating world politics for the highest bidder. ‘We’ll supply the private security,’ Greene tells Medrano. ‘We’ll pay off the right officials, and we have twenty-six countries ready to recognise your new, official Bolivian government.’ Chilling indeed. With its boat chase, embattled lead woman, political corruption and gangsterism, and with Bond out of place in a deprived area, the film sometimes brings Live and Let Die to mind – it’s pretty good, too, seeing Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter caught up behind the scenes in shady manoeuvring.

Louise Frogley’s costuming often feels uninspired, particularly in the case of Craig, on whom wider ties and conservative-cut suits just don’t sit right (compare them, for example, to his narrow three-pieces in Skyfall). Bond’s clothes, however, are used to good effect – we see him start out in one outfit at Port au Prince, requisitioning a jacket when needed to cover a knife wound, fly to Austria thus dressed, scavenge for a dinner jacket in the opera’s laundry area, then switch back to his previous outfit keeping the dress shirt. These might seem like trivial details, but deployed in the film, they enhance the sense of a spy on the run, improvising with all resources available – somehow I’m more invested than I would be with Bond’s usual Barbarella wardrobe.

More and more, I’m convinced Quantum’s biggest flaws are in its first few minutes. The opening shot, gliding across Lake Garda to David Arnold’s throbbing strings, has a real air of menace, but the car chase it introduces feels perfunctory and empty. (And why, additionally, has Bond paused to remove his waistcoat since the end of Casino Royale, supposedly only minutes earlier?) ‘Another Way To Die’, the much-loathed theme song by Jack White and Alicia Keys, has greatly grown on me since I first heard it – White’s lyrics and the shrieking, orgasmic guitars of the middle eight blend passion and danger as only Bond can, and the composition hangs more elegantly together than I thought – but the recut three-minute version used for the opening titles does the song no justice, and I wish Arnold had been in charge of its brass and horn sections. Again, the titles should have played after a moment more dramatic than a car’s boot being opened, and Forster’s freeze frame feels distinctly wrong, but while on seeing the film I wished Daniel Kleinman’s chunky graphics from Royale had returned, I’ve come to admire the sequence’s motifs – Bond roaming the desert, gun pointed in every direction, shadowy female forms rising from the sand.

Both films’ theme songs, in the end, epitomise them: where Skyfall was stylish and classic but sometimes slipped from homage to pastiche, Quantum initially felt crude and structureless, too seemingly reliant on percussion, but improves on repeated encounter. Maybe it wasn’t a Royale flush, but if you loathed it in the cinema five years back and haven’t seen it again since, give it another chance – you might find it’s better than you remember.

See also: Bonding with history – Skyfall‘s postmodern 007

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Man of Steel: you’ll believe this turkey can fly

How unjust it is that a sequel to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was announced even before its premiere, while Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s 2006 effort, spawned none in the years which followed its release.

The failure of Returns is largely mythical, despite fans’ recollection of it as a flop prompting DC’s reboot, as Ang Lee’s dismal Hulk prompted one several years before. While its grosses were modest rather than spectacular, the film made only slightly less than Batman Begins – viewed now as one of the great comic book films, whose sequels broke box office records and no doubt landed Nolan a production role on Man of Steel. On release, too, Singer’s film impressed most of its critics, and holds very respectable ratings at Metacritic (72%) and Rotten Tomatoes (75%). As it turned out, it was Man of Steel which reminded me of watching Hulk, a feat I’m sure no current production hopes to accomplish.

Plenty of substandard comic book films have passed through over the years, from Hulk to Fantastic Four, Green Lantern to Ghost Rider. These weren’t good films, but neither were they terrible films: if they were bad, it was only by dint of not being very good. Man of Steel, on its own terms, is an actively terrible film – muddled, humourless, shallow, unfaithful – toward which I felt not just indifferent or unimpressed, but actually angry. The instant I left the cinema, I determined to write down everything that’s wrong with it. You’ll understand, then, that this is going to be a long post. (If it’s any consolation, it’ll still be substantially shorter than the impassioned, 17,000 word all-caps rant at Film Crit Hulk.)

Perhaps most frustratingly of all, many supremely talented people were involved somehow or other in this film’s production – from Nolan to Kevin Costner, Amy Adams to Hans Zimmer, whose score squelches immemorably along for most of the film, though not without its moments of greatness. (Still, I challenge you to hum his main theme ten minutes after you’ve first seen the film.) It’s hard to know, though I’ll try to dissect as best I can, what went so wrong – and harder still to know where to start, for the problems are legion and many.

In no particular order though, let’s consider some of the glaringest plot flaws.

[Major spoilers, I warn you, from here on out.]

Why does the black hole hovering daintily above Metropolis spontaneously vanish at the right time, and not continue swallowing the city? (Black holes, by the way, are formed by collapsing suns. They are usually much, much larger than this.)

Why don’t Zod and his followers, on retrieving their species’ genes, just terraform an uninhabited planet rather than Earth? Why terraform Earth at all, in fact, when its current atmosphere gives them superpowers?

Why do Krypton’s leaders, faced with impending planetary doom, evacuate only their world’s most dangerous criminals, bizarrely staying put themselves? Doesn’t it occur to them the planet’s destruction will free the prisoners?

Why is a working simulation of Jor-El, up to date with Krypton’s collapse and his son’s history, on a scout ship from millennia ago – equipped, no less, with a form-fitting bodysuit perfectly tailored to Kal-El’s adult physique? Why, when this Jor-El takes control of Zod’s ship to free Lois and Kal-El, doesn’t he programme it to self-destruct or fly into the sun? (Lord only knows what HowItShouldHaveEnded will do with this film.)

Speaking of the Kryptonians: given the scope of their terraforming science, why weren’t they able to fix their planet in the first place? And why does Faora, part of a clearly scientifically advanced society, think natural selection favours ruthlessness and individualism? Come on – this was debunked in The Selfish Gene.

Speaking of Lois, apparently a successful professional journalist, why does she leak her story to obscure conspiracy hacks when Perry White refuses to print it, rather than pitch it to another paper? If she wanted plausible deniability of authorship, why try to print it in the Planet at all? And how does she deduce Kal-El’s identity in a matter of onscreen minutes, simply by asking around? Surely Clark, having sacrificed his father’s life for anonymity and wandered off-the-grid around the world in the years since, would have been more careful?

When bodies fall through the air by the dozen in Metropolis, why does Superman only try to save Lois? Why doesn’t he care about everyone else? Actually, why does this Superman demolish building after building full of people, only to flinch when Zod threatens a family of four – and at killing Zod himself? (And why is he strong enough to break Zod’s neck, but not to break his ribs or inflict bruises in the preceding battle? Either their powers cancel each other out, or each is equally invulnerable to the other, but both can’t be true.)

Plot flaws alone don’t kill a film, by any means; while much discussed, for example, those of The Dark Knight Rises didn’t detract from its good reception. But the holes in Man of Steel are so many and so deep, the makers of Prometheus must feel imperilled. (Don’t worry, though. They’re getting a sequel too.)

These incoherencies, moreover, point to the flaws of David S. Goyer’s script, never fully possessed of its characters. Until Zod’s spine is snapped, the Kryptonians appear immune to each other’s attacks, making any battle between them a guarantee of extended devastation: surely, especially after witnessing this in Smallville – infernos, collapsing power plants and all – the first instinct of Colonel Hardy, or anyone(not least Kal-El himself) tasked with protecting the civilian population, would be to avoid the cataclysmic, city-destroying showdown of the film’s third act? Had the military characters had been written at all thoughtfully, they would have demanded Superman lead Zod and his forces away from Metropolis, to battle him in the desert or above the ocean.

Goyer’s charactering of Superman himself, as evidenced by his indifference to tumbling skyscrapers, lacks even internal consistency. He is the supposedly counter-dynastic heir to a heroic father, wearing his family’s emblem on his chest; the anti-militarist figure embodying U.S. individualism and the American way; the nameless pilgrim travelling the world to hide his superhuman powers, who nonetheless uses them at every opportunity; the noble, serene Christ-figure symbolising hope and optimism, who pummels enemies with hurricane force for insulting his mother. As to the latter, a violent Superman has comic book precedents, but one can’t help feeling producers overcompensated for the controversial punchlessness of Superman Returns. In a film which aspires to rugged realism, it’s a trap to make Superman himself a fist-slinger. A gallant, straight-backed hero figure – like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, a moral rudder in a storm – is if anything more welcome in a dog-eat-dog present day setting, as The Avengers so clearly understood with its out-of-his-time Captain America. When buildings fall and cities burn, Superman should care. To quote the Film Crit Hulk review,

WE DON’T NEED SUPERMAN TO PUNCH THINGS, OR TEACH US TO OVERCOME OUR ENEMIES, OR UNLEASH THE CARNAGE OF DESTRUCTION. THOSE THINGS WE KNOW HOW TO DO JUST FINE… WE NEED SUPERMAN TO BE ABLE TO DO THOSE THINGS AND YET NOT DO THEM BECAUSE IT IS RIGHT. WE NEED A SUPERMAN THAT IS MORE DEFINED BY MUNDANE HEROISMS THAT MAKE UP OUR EVERYDAY LIVES. THE COURAGE TO GET UP AND GO TO WORK EVERY DAY. THE COURAGE TO PAY OUR BILLS ON TIME. THE COURAGE TO GIVE PEOPLE A TINY INKLING OF BUREAUCRATIC KINDNESS. THE COURAGE TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHER HUMAN BEINGS. THE COURAGE TO DO THE HARD THING, WHEN THE EASIER OPTION IS AVAILABLE. THE COURAGE TO BE PEOPLE WHO TELL THE TRUTH WHEN IT IS EASIER TO LIE. THE COURAGE TO BE PEOPLE WHO GIVE WHEN IT IS PREFERABLE TO KEEP FOR OUR OWN. THE COURAGE TO BE OPEN TO GROWTH AND HUMILITY IN THE FACE OF US NOT BEING “BADASS” ENOUGH. THAT’S REAL COURAGE, WHEREAS NOTIONS OF REVENGE AND ANIMOSITY ARE OF LITTLE VALUE IN OUR EVERY DAY LIVES. AND THESE THINGS ARE REAL… THEY ARE MUNDANE… THEY ARE WITHIN OUR GRASP, BUT THEY NEED THAT INSPIRATION MORE THAN ANYTHING TO MAKE THEM REAL. WE NEED A SUPERMAN TO SHOW US WHY THESE THINGS MATTER. WE NEED A SUPERMAN TO SHOW US WHY WE SHOULDN’T PUNCH THINGS.

And why did Lois Lane, for her part, have nothing to say so much of the time, despite being a professional commentator? As the alien ship descended upon Superman at the army base, I hung on a Whedonesque quip from Amy Adams, but as with the later truck-in-the-living-room scene, no punchline came – and as the daughter of one general, a fact stressed in her dialogue at one point, surely she’d have words for Zod, another? (A waste, too, that they never had a one-on-one face off. How much more interesting would that have been than the incongruously lurid dream sequence where Cavill’s Kal-El is out-presenced by a pile of skulls?) For all the 9/11 imagery in the film’s climax and its pretensions of real-world grit, it never makes good on its potential subtext of militarism and occupation, due largely to a Ms. Lane who fails in spite of herself to articulate anything.

Say what you like about the casting of Kate Bosworth, but the scripting of Lois in Returns was arguably one of the film’s best features. This was a woman whose journalistic thinking was foregrounded, even one who’d snatched a Pulitzer for a column entitled ‘Why the world doesn’t need Superman’ – who, even while authoring a contrary piece by the film’s conclusion, has moved on from him in her romantic life. He, moreover, actually accepts this, making no attempt to steal her back and respecting, by the time the credits roll, her choice of a new partner. In a film with a retro aesthetic, that’s a pretty progressive gender politic. Certainly, it easily beats that of Man of Steel, where Lois, her journalism restricted to reporting what the viewer already knows, kisses Superman for no apparent reason once he saves her life, and where Jor-El’s wife Lara, whose death seems to be her only role in the plot, loses all will to survive when her husband is killed. (Seriously, though: why are women in films overcome with desire for any man who prevents their death? Isn’t this a pretty problematic trope, the logical conclusion of Nice Guy culture, where women dispense love in exchange for benevolence?)

In a film which seems preoccupied via jolting, ever-intrusive flashbacks with the theme of Superman’s humanity, it’s the Kryptonian elements which dominate the story from its first scenes, their swooping alien lizard-birds as derivative of Avatar as the later kamikaze runs and terraforming Genesis device are of Independence Day and Star Trek II. Unfortunately, while front and centre in the plot, these are its least inviting parts – how much do we honestly care about the details of Kryptonian reproduction or what Jor-El did with his civilisation’s codex? (Why does he even preserve it, anyway, after determining Krypton’s society has met its natural end? I’m sorry. This belongs in the list above.) Michael Shannon’s General Zod is sadly no exception, a dull and pedestrian villain, not least when compared with Terence Stamp’s icy BDSM ruler, for whom the phrase ‘imperial leather’ could serve as a byline; it’s one of the Man of Steel’s ironies that as determinedly uncampy as the film sets out to be, Shannon’s character does nothing even faintly as antagonistic, menacing or downright nasty as when Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor attempts to drown Superman in his pool, Kryptonite necklace weighing him down, or Kevin Spacey’s stabs him in the side, tossing him into the ocean below. This Zod is as disjointed as his enemies, stabbing Jor-El with a concealed blade and clear, cold-blooded intent, then later claiming this wholly avoidable, deliberate act haunts him – and his dullness, like so much here, expresses the filmmakers’ misguided aesthetic.

The moment I saw production photographs from Man of Steel, Henry Cavill in costume, my hackles were raised. Superman’s literal depantsing suggested an approach to the source material where elements deemed dated, campy or ridiculous were going to be excised, as they were from the Nolanised Batman. But Superman doesn’t suit this approach, as Batman did. Attempting to apply it was a fool’s errand, because Superman, at root, is dated, campy and at least faintly ridiculous, the spandex superhero of underwear-as-outerwear, laser eyes and shiny-green-rock death. To cut the daft parts leaves almost nothing left – or at least, it leaves the joyless, hollow rehearsal that is Man of Steel, aiming for grit but achieving only grime. The trick is to contextualise the campiness so that it works, as did the Reeve films, and here I include Returns among them. Yes, as a love letter to the mythos it was more romantic than Serious-with-a-capital-‘S’, but on its own self-set terms it mostly works. (I still defy fans not to shiver at its teaser trailer.) Singer’s film has meaning, pace and poise; Snyder’s has none of them, and is a film in which little actually means anything.

As Richard Lawson writes at the Atlantic Wire, the director ‘spends so much time grasping for profundity’ with grandiose imagery and allusion, ‘trying to create a towering mood, that he doesn’t actually tell us a story’. Christian imagery abounds – Clark’s conversation with the priest, Kal-El’s crucifixion-pose above the Earth, his father’s salvific (if false) statement, ‘You can save all of them’ – but what does it actually symbolise? In Superman Returns, there’s a point to the Jesus comparisons: Superman is stabbed in the side, falls to Earth in the shape of a cross and rises from his apparent death because in this, a deeply melancholy film, he’s a hero who suffers for the world he saves – abandoned by Lois, forgotten by humanity, beaten, tortured and left to die by Luthor. The religious tropes make sense because there’s a logic to them largely absent from Man of Steel, and the same is true outside its godly moments.

The point in any adaptation when Clark first dons the cape and tights, stepping into his Superman persona, is a crucial moment of becoming – either as an embrace of his alien heritage, a vow to save humanity as he failed to save his father or the first step in a quest of moral leadership, it ought to mean something. In Man of Steel, as far as I can tell, Clark simply finds an outfit on a hanger and puts it on: there seems no clear reason he then makes his first flight, as there later is in Zod’s case, where levitation comes as a symbol of rapid adaptation to Earth’s atmosphere and soldierly prowess. Taught by his mother to focus his Kryptonian senses, as Zod learns to focus his in order to fly, why isn’t Clark takeoff-capable before he meets Jor-El? What this transformation symptomatises is completely unaddressed, and therefore so is the whole business of being Superman, beyond vague suggestions about hope and freedom. Past films have used Lois, especially Margot Kidder’s incarnation, as a lens through which to ask what Superman really embodies – but because the character is so underused here, the meaning of the Man of Steel persona, as opposed to that of Clark Kent, is equally lost.

Nowhere is this lack of depth more evident than in the Metropolis showdown, as tower blocks come crashing down and satellites are smashed. So much pure spectacle is on show here, and so little soul, that the single room of hostages in The Avengers feels more important than the citywide devastation as Kal-El and Zod duke it out. Beyond Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White, conveniently character-shielded, and a single Planet worker trapped under rumble who appeared to have been created for that sole purpose, no one we know or care about is threatened by the Nagasaki-esque destruction; where Joss Whedon showed us the fear-lined faces of the Chitauri’s hostages or the scrambling of the city police, Snyder only shows us the bird’s eye view.

I’m sure that, if I went on, I could write my own 17,000 words on the faults of Man of Steel: it’s a flapping, squawking turkey of a film. Yet as it stands, sequel in the works, the film has already grossed two and a half times what Returns, a far superior film, managed, so it seems we’ll have plenty of time to keep up our complaints and hope the sequel’s an improvement. All this success, frankly, is enough to make me believe a turkey can fly.

How I learned to celebrate Hallowe’en

This time two years ago, I wished someone at university a happy Hallowe’en. Then I realised I’d never done that before.

Alom Shaha, an ex-Muslim, writes in his memoir The Young Atheist’s Handbook about not being allowed to celebrate Christmas as a child. For me, the forbidden festival was October 31st. ‘As Christians’, a woman named Doreen told us in school, who also ran the Operation Christmas Child collections, ‘we don’t celebrate Hallowe’en.’

Of course not: it was a celebration of witchcraft, demonic creatures and evil spirits, and thus verboten, as the Harry Potter series is to thousands of children. Oddly, I was never one of them, reading the books without any parental resistance and introducing one teacher to them – though that teacher, Mrs. Walker, did still issue me with a spiritual warning against Warhammer, when I mentioned aged ten that players could cast soul-rending spells. (She needn’t have worried: I was, and am, a Dungeons & Dragons purist.)

One irony of banning Hallowe’en, a festival of fear, was that I always spent it terrified. At school, I would join in the collective prayers with extra vigour. In the evenings, I would stay in my room, inwardly chanting ‘Jesus is Lord’. If my mother was at work and I was home alone, I would chant it out loud in the sitting room, with curtains shut and all the lights on that I could reach. All this, in a foetal huddle below the front window, so as not to be seen by trick-or-treaters peering through the curtain gaps.

Only once or twice do I remember ever opening the door. Perhaps I was absent-minded or determined to face down whoever was outside. In fact, all I managed was to meet the mask-clad pairs of eyes and retreat inside again, slamming the door after telling them ‘No!’ with all possible force.

You have to understand: to the ten-year-old me, these were not children in white bedsheets and Frankenstein masks. It wasn’t those which scared me. I honestly believed they were the devil’s unknowing servants, engaged unwittingly in his hellish schemes, glorifying the powers of night.

A part of my current self, especially whilst writing about it, still hates the people who raised me this way: rarely, if ever, have I since felt the abject terror that I did on Hallowe’en into my early teenage years.

I know that my upbringing was far more extreme than many believing children’s, and I generally stop short of calling religious upbringings child abuse, but when I make myself recall my own, few other phrases seem sufficient.

At the same time, I don’t doubt my parents and teachers believed what they preached, which means their victimisation, unlike mine, continued into adulthood.

Fittingly for today’s date, what I’ve just told you is a kind of horror story. (A scarier kind than most, in fact, since its central monster – faith – really exists.) There is, however, a happy ending: at 21, I love Hallowe’en, just as I’ve always loved Bonfire Night. These celebrations are my favourite of the year: the collective appeal of hot food on cold nights, fireworks and flames satisfies me on a very primal level. Moreover, since that first ‘Happy Hallowe’en’, I’ve learnt to love this carnival of monsters.

The sight of children dressing up as their greatest fears is, I think, an encouraging one. Put on the clothes of your nightmares, and you become them; take their power to petrify, claim it for yourself, and suddenly you’ll realise that being frightening is just as easy as being afraid. Confronted with our fears, that lends us hope.

Also, of course, Hallowe’en teaches skeptical inquiry as an antidote to terror.

In my post-religious years, my rebellion has stretched to becoming a seasoned horror fan – not so much of contemporary horror films, but very much of classics from the seventies and eighties. In Aliens, the hero Ripley finds a petrified girl, her parents violently killed by the titular creatures, about which both characters have bad dreams.

The girl, Newt, is played by the then ten-year-old Carrie Henn. During the picture’s filming, which includes a slew of gruesome and highly graphic deaths in a dimly-lit abandoned structure, rumour has it that Henn was guided through the puppets and special effects used by producers. The finished movie, as a result, wasn’t frightening for her.

Show child actors the mundane fakery behind chest-bursting aliens, and suddenly their wellbeing is at much less risk. Teach five-year-olds to dress as Dracula, and the sinister powers of the Count are much less imposing. Teach my teenage self the baselessness of Christianity, and the demons at the door are no longer such a threat.

We can use Hallowe’en to teach valuable lessons about fear – namely, that scrutiny rather than panic is the best response to ghouls, including the emotional kind: it was skepticism that stopped Hallowe’en from traumatising me.

At the end of Aliens, monsters vanquished and planet escaped, Ripley and Newt are settling into their cryochambers for the journey back to Earth.

‘Are we going to sleep, now?’ Newt asks Ripley.

‘That’s right’, she replies.

‘Can we dream?’ tries Newt, still wary of nightmares.

‘Yes honey,’ Ripley says. ‘I think we both can.’

Kaftans and camp eunuchs – pop culture’s neutering of visibly queer men

“This”, Stanley Tucci says of fashion in The Devil Wears Prada, “is a shining beacon of hope for oh, I don’t know… let’s say a young boy growing up in Rhode Island with six brothers, pretending to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class.”

A cursory lunchtime viewing of Project Runway will more than confirm it’s an industry of gay men – and more than that, the natural home of unreconstructed queens. On the catwalk, if not currently on Grindr, extravagance is a virtue, and it’s no doubt helped the careers of many designers that their mannerisms are as vibrantly theatrical as their work. This is a field where camp is not a problem.

Perhaps because of this, many influential gay men in popular fiction have been fashionistas. Tucci’s aforementioned character, Nigel, Glee’s Kurt Hummel, Marc St. James and Justin Suarez from Ugly Betty, mincing Alexander from the British Queer as Folk – no series now seems complete without such a figure. Alexander, in particular, owns one of TV’s best ever throwaway lines: “So, I’m stood in Battersea Power Station in nothing but me Tommy Hilfiger pants, when he comes back in…” Unlike some, I’ve nothing against camp men being visible, but I do want to point something out.

Where they appear, these characters are often shown as objects and not subjects, reactive and not proactive, done-to and not doers. They’re depicted as victims, or as lacking sexual agency – especially compared with their “straight-acting” peers.

Justin doesn’t kiss straight-acting Austin, but is kissed by him…

Just as Kurt doesn’t kiss the “manlier” Blaine, but is kissed by him…

…and when Kurt is bullied, Blaine is the one who comes to his aid.

Alexander, similarly, is passive when his family disown him; Stuart, mistaken for straight at times, confronts his mother and destroys her car.

In The Devil Wears Prada, it’s Nigel who is ultimately victimised; in United States of Tara, pouting Lionel dies a violent offscreen death, outlived by his less flouncy boyfriend, Marshall; in Torchwood, sensitive Ianto’s relatives confront him over who he dates, before he dies in lantern-jawed Jack Harkness’ arms. Justin, unlike self-assured Austin, agonises over coming out.

The trope is inescapable. So how should we interpret it?

When gay male characters who are camp always seem to suffer more, it’s tempting to cry overt bigotry. Queeny, gender-atypical fashionistas are often those most accused of “flaunting it”: as long as Neil Patrick Harris or Anderson Cooper don’t get flirty or make penis jokes, homophobes don’t have to acknowledge they’re gay, whereas in Chris Colfer’s presence or Louie Spence’s, there’s no dodging the issue. Camp men in fiction are most visibly queer, so it makes sense their storylines would be hardest hit by prejudice – then again, many of those mentioned were created by gay writers.

The alternative is still more troubling. Are we to conclude from these characters’ misfortunes that a harder life is to be expected if we don’t perform our gender conventionally? That Justin, Kurt et al. might have avoided pain by simply “butching up”? If so, queer liberation’s still a distant goal.

Certainly, their desexualisation speaks volumes. On Glee, the closest Kurt gets to making a romantic pass is a tribute in song to a dead canary; it’s Blaine who initiates their first kiss, who first instigates sex and who is led astray by the similarly “straight-acting” Sebastian; he, Nigel and the gay men of Ugly Betty are shown centrally as eunuch-esque GBFs, whose main role is to entertain and to make things – especially women – pretty, not to be players. Their sexual identity is worn proudly, a must-have accessory, but rarely played out.

Think what this says about gender roles. Sex, the constant subtext tells us, is the domain of manly men and womanly women: if you’re not the former, you don’t get to be a sexual being, and you’ll have to wait patiently until one chooses you.

It’s enormously disempowering, because camp male sexuality is radical. The mere sight of Julian Clary makes straight men in my family squirm, or sometimes change channels – the notion of being subject to a man’s sexual advances, as women are to theirs, genuinely disturbs them. Clary’s famous single-entendre about Norman Lamont was powerful and shocking, I’d suggest, largely because of his effete demeanour: the audience had no doubt he was really capable of penetrating the then-Tory chancellor. At Stonewall, too, it’s said the first bricks were thrown at police by drag queens.

Camp gay men are an essential part of our community, and fears of stereotype threat are misguided – if pop culture doesn’t show the full queer spectrum of gender expression, why infiltrate it? But these characters can be more than passive victims. Let’s give them the power their transgressive, real-world counterparts wield so well.

Foes of Dorothy: queerphobia, bigotry and The Wizard of Oz

In LGBT culture, The Wizard of Oz is practically scripture. From celebrating gay men as “friends of Dorothy” to idolising Judy Garland, from associating pride flags with “Over the Rainbow” to referencing the dialogue in modern works – Alexander’s “Fly, my pretties!” in Queer as Folk is a personal favourite – the reverence we show it at times seems almost religious. So it’s with some trepidation that I’m about to commit blasphemy, and criticise the bigotry and repression I see in this film.

It’s important to say that I understand why The Wizard means what it does to so many people; aspects of it bear tremendous queer resonance. If you’ve spent any significant time closeted, dividing time between straight roleplaying and your “real” self, you can’t fail to appreciate the duality of the characters’ lives. As a country boy, I identify too with the desperate urge to escape Aunt Em’s ranch and go over the rainbow to somewhere freer.

It’s certainly true that Dorothy’s lonely, authoritarian and heteronormative home in Kansas, where Toto is her only companion and her guardians dismiss her concern for him, is symbolised perfectly by monochrome film – and that the rainbow appearance of Technicolor Oz, where she escapes oppressive norms, performs song-and-dance numbers and encounters fantastic creatures, stands for excitement, transgression and positive difference. It’s obvious why closeted viewers might see Oz as an anarchic queer playground, much like a thriving metropolitan gaybourhood – both are distant, fantasised places where no one will stop you breaking normal rules, and both are symbolised by rainbows.

But here’s the thing: the moral of The Wizard is that colourful, rulebreaking Oz is horrifically dangerous. As soon as she gets there, Dorothy starts trying to get home; besides the famous “lions and tigers and bears”, she faces narcotic poppies – surely a drug reference? – and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Especially in the case of the green-skinned Witch, the colour which stands for rebellious, permissive Oz also stands for terror. Recall the scene in which Aunt Em appears in a crystal ball to comfort Dorothy, still in orderly, Kansan black and white, only to be replaced by the Witch’s unnaturally-coloured face – it’s the moment in the film which frightened me most as a child, and the message is clear: go over the rainbow, away from Mum and Dad’s watchful eyes, and you’ll end up terrorised by freakish deviants. “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,” says Dorothy, “I won’t look any further than my own back yard.” Needless to say the film reverts to monochrome for its “happy” ending.

The land of Oz and its inhabitants are shown as distorted parodies of their Kansas counterparts: visually in the case of the Witch and physically in the case of the half-human flying monkeys and the Munchkins. Obviously I’m not saying the actors who played the Munchkins are distorted versions of average-height people, but that the film implies that – and that seven years after Freaks, a singing, dancing chorus of people three to four feet tall has questionable associations. I’d argue, too, that some characters in Oz, especially the Witch, distort Kansan norms of sexuality and gender.

Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked, one prominent queer journey back to Oz (and like The Wizard, more iconic than the book which inspired it) dares to ask what’s so evil about the Witch. Pursuing the ruby slippers makes her an antagonist, but only because we’re on Dorothy’s side; she’s willing to use spells against her enemies, but so is Glinda; she has no qualms about killing, but judging by her response to both witches’ deaths, neither does Dorothy. Exactly why is this woman described as wicked?

In fairytales, witches are the only independent women; their powers are innate, not gained by being a king’s daughter or by marrying a prince. Hence witches are traditionally ugly spinsters – if you don’t have to survive by being heteronormative, why bother looking pretty?

As shown in The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch embodies this tradition. The film’s producers cast Margaret Hamilton, an actor with a history of spinster roles, when their first choice Gale Sondergaard refused to play an ugly green-skinned witch. Unlike in the original book, the Wicked Witch of the East became the villain’s sister, another nod to the classic spinster-witch, and despite owning half the county according to Aunt Em, her Kansan alter ego is the clearly husbandless Miss Gulch.

While good witch Glinda is also unmarried as far as we know, her face is beautified and her attire positively bridal. The Wicked Witch’s crime is that she’s unfuckable – and still more threateningly, that this doesn’t hold her back.

At the height of the sexually McCarthyite Hays Code, which explicitly banned Hollywood from “any inference of sex perversion”, could the Witch’s pointed spinsterhood emblematise an even worse trait? With her ungroomed appearance and plain mode of dress, her now-immortal “My pretty” can be read both as predatory sexual leering and jealousy of Dorothy’s more femme appearance – is the Wicked Witch, as Wicked once again hints, a caricatured lesbian? “It’s so kind of you”, she says, “to want to visit me in my loneliness.”

Certainly, the cowardly lion’s admission he’s “a sissy” has queer connotations – the same term, as detailed in Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, identified the comic archetype of the effeminate male in 1920s film. If the word’s appearance in The Wizard marks a tacit homophobia it’s unsurprising, since reactionary politics in thirties Hollywood had stigmatised these characters and forced many gay actors into retirement. (This would makeThe Wizard of Oz, supposedly a gay classic, part of the heterosexist backlash which triggered some of the first U.S. gay activism pre-Stonewall.)

If the land of Oz still means transgression and queer liberation, then the Witch, not Dorothy, should be our blessed lady. And if the LGBT community wants to cling on to this film, it needs to answer some serious charges.