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Dogs in digital cinema

Performances by dogs are a persistent feature of contemporary cinema. In recent years, audiences have been offered a wide range of canine performances by a variety of breeds, including Mason the collie in the remake of Lassie, Jonah the labrador retriever in Marley & Me, the akita in Hachi: A Dog’s Story, the dogo argentino in Bombón: El Perro, Uggie the Jack Russell terrier in The Artist, and numerous others.

However, a number of recent films aimed at children present performances by dogs in which a new phenomenon is visible. Films such as Cats & Dogs (and its sequel), Underdog, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, and Marmaduke combine the traditional canine actor with digital effects. Unlike films in which animal characters are wholly constituted through computer-generated imagery, the animals which feature in this group of films are composite beings, in which the bodies of the animal actors used during the shoot work in tandem with the virtuosity of visual effects personnel in post-production.

Supplementing real dogs with digital animation produces performances that have benefits on many different levels. Firstly, they are much more effective dramatically because they can become more anthropomorphically expressive to suit the needs of the story. Economically they are less time-consuming and therefore less expensive because the performance is no longer determined by the unpredictable or intractable volition of real animals, however ‘well-trained’. The problems that arise even when working with ‘professional’ dog actors can be exasperating, as Lance Bangs’ short film The Absurd Difficulty of Filming a Dog Running and Barking at the Same Time (shot on the set of Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are) makes abundantly clear. The technological mediation of dog actors’ performances by digital effects allows contemporary filmmakers to overcome such problems and present, should they so wish, dogs flying and talking at the same time.

Marmaduke on set, by Patty Mooney. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Marmaduke on set, by Patty Mooney. CC-BY-SA-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

While the Palm Dog, a fixture at the Cannes Film Festival since 2001, has been awarded to both live (such as Lucy, from Wendy and Lucy) and animated dogs (such as Dug, from Up) – it is now the case that much popular children’s media features performances by dogs in which the distinction between real and animated animals is blurred. Two Great Danes, Spirit and George, are credited for the lead role in Marmaduke (with Owen Wilson providing the voice), but the characterization owes as much to the expertise of various modellers, riggers, texturers and compositors as it does to either of the dogs. A ‘digital muzzle replacement’ enables Marmaduke to appear to address the spectator directly, while the digital manipulation of the dog’s eyebrows and ears allows for a range of facial expressions that coincide with the inflections of Wilson’s vocal performance (the flatulence was presumably also added in post-production). While computer-generated visual effects are used throughout the film to ‘animate’ the various dog actors’ faces in ways that support the human actors’ vocal performances, they are also deployed in certain comic sequences. For example, when Marmaduke breakdances or goes surfing, the body of the dog is completely replaced with digital animation for the purpose of presenting ‘moves’ that a real dog would be incapable of executing (such as head-spins and somersaults). Nowadays, digital effects routinely provide the comic spectacle of such ‘realistic’ dogs moving and talking like cartoon canine characters through the photographically real spaces presented by the live-action film.

“The algorithmic programming which enables such composite canine performances is, in important respects, analogous to the manipulation of dogs’ genetic code in selective breeding”

The algorithmic programming which enables such composite canine performances is, in important respects, analogous to the manipulation of dogs’ genetic code in selective breeding. Yi-Fu Tuan has described domestication as involving the manipulation of a species’ genetic constitution through breeding practices. For dogs, this involved their transformation into aesthetic objects. Harriet Ritvo has argued that when breeders ‘redesigned’ the shape of dogs in accordance with ‘swiftly changing fashions’ the dog’s body ‘proclaimed its profound subservience to human will,’ becoming ‘the most physically malleable of animals, the one whose shape and size changed most readily in response to the whims of breeders’.

The manipulability of dogs, in other words, anticipates the inherently malleable digital image. The various exaggerated morphological features that characterize the conformation of the pedigree dog – such as the large head, the flat face, the long ears or the short legs – were produced by a systematic stretching and shrinking of the species according to specific aesthetic criteria, with serious implications for the physical and psychological well-being of the individual dogs.

Composite animal performances like those featured in Marmaduke or the Beverly Hills Chihuahua films can thus reveal for us the repressed histories of such subjection. These hybrid performances, which present personified and plasmatic domestic pets for our entertainment, remind us that dogs have long endured such subjugation. Indeed they remain subordinate to, and constituted by, an aesthetic and technological regime in which they are exploited as if they were already CGI images, and ‘redesigned’ according to the logic of what Philip Rosen has called the ‘practically infinite manipulability’ of digital cinema.

Featured image credit: Robert Bray and Lassie, 1967. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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The crime is the fruit of the theology: Christian responses to 50 Shades of Grey

The much anticipated Valentine’s Day release 50 Shades of Grey set off a flurry of activity on social media sites, with bloggers lining up to cajole, shame, reason, or plead with women to resist temptation and abstain from viewing the film. In a case of strange bedfellows, if you will, conservative Christians and liberal feminists alike castigated the film for its packaging of abuse as mainstream entertainment. (Feminists and Christians were also joined by a fair number film critics, whose condemnation revolved more around the film’s artistic offenses than its moral flaws.)

Christians had reason to be concerned about the film’s pernicious influences, even among their own. A 2013 Barna Group study revealed that roughly 9% of practicing Christians had read 50 Shades since its publication the previous year, the same proportion as the general adult population. Despite (or, one wonders, because of?) the social media campaign, the film opened to a record-breaking weekend, though ticket sales have reportedly dropped off rather dramatically since. The film has, however, succeeded in generating a lively conversation among Christians about sex, power, and the abuse of women.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the topic of abuse was all but taboo in many Christian circles. Among conservative Christians who instructed women to submit to their husbands and men to assert headship over women, there was little space in which to address issues of abuse, especially abuse that occurred within the household. In recent years, however, churches, organizations, and individuals have worked to address domestic abuse within Christian communities more openly. Public scandals—from the treatment of rape victims at Bob Jones University, to the well-publicized misogyny of evangelical mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll, to accusations of domestic abuse brought against emergent church leader Tony Jones—have kept the topic of abuse a matter of public discussion among American Christians.

In bringing to light the problem of abuse perpetrated by men who profess to be Christians, however, fellow believers must inevitably confront a critical question: Do perpetrators commit acts of violence against women in contradiction to the theology they espouse, or does that theology itself facilitate a culture of violence against women?

Courtesy of Universal Studios.
Courtesy of Universal Studios.

For the majority of Christians, the 50 Shades backlash has reinforced a narrative that locates abusive practices comfortably outside of Christian tradition, and then situates the faith as a powerful antidote to the oppression of women. This narrative, it may be worth noting, finds echoes in American Christians’ enthusiasm, as of late, for global and domestic anti-trafficking campaigns, and for a public concern about the status of women in Islamic cultures. E. L. James’s “soft porn” depiction of male dominance and female submission, together with Hollywood’s eagerness to cash in on these domination fantasies, certainly lends itself to this interpretive trend.

A smaller number of Christians, however, have demonstrated a willingness to question whether Christianity itself, and particularly the patriarchal teachings that have long shaped Christians’ views of gender and sexuality, may in fact contribute to the abuse women suffer at the hands of Christian men.

This was precisely the question posed over a century ago by a remarkable woman by the name of Katharine Bushnell. Like many other Protestant women of her day, Bushnell was a social reformer. After a brief career in missions, she took up the cause of temperance, which soon brought her into contact with the most destitute of women. Troubled that a purportedly Christian society rebuked “fallen women” as beyond redemption, while essentially allowing men to do as they pleased, Bushnell took up the issue of prostitution in Victorian society. Through her efforts to expose the state-sanctioned prostitution in Wisconsin lumber camps, and then for her campaign against the abuse of women at the hands of the British military in colonial India, Bushnell emerged as an internationally-known activist.

Time and again Bushnell was startled to find that it was Christian men who were perpetrating acts of cruelty against women, or upholding legal or social structures that enabled other men to do so. Even when such men were publicly called out for their complicity in crimes against women, other Christians often continued to consider such men “respectable” Christian gentlemen. Ultimately, Bushnell came to conclude that Christianity itself must be to blame, and she turned her attention to the Christian Scriptures in order to discover the theological roots of the abuse of women.

She found what she was looking for in the early chapters of Genesis, where Eve was purportedly but an afterthought, a “weaker vessel,” culpable for humanity’s fall into sin—a mistake so grave that even Christ’s atonement was not sufficient to lift the curse from her and all women after her. Bushnell also found evidence that the “sacred institution” of Christian marriage in fact robbed women of their will in such a way as to amount to nothing less than “the sexual abuse of the wife by the husband.” She defended her use of the term “abuse,” arguing that subordination was abuse. “Man would feel abused if enslaved to a fellow man,” she argued, and the same was true of women, even if theologians liked to consider women’s subjugation “the happiest state in which a woman can exist.” All of this led Bushnell to conclude that crimes against women were, indeed, “the fruit of the theology.”

Despite these conclusions, however, Bushnell didn’t reject Christianity in its entirety. Rather, trained in classics, she investigated English translations in light of Hebrew and Greek texts, whereupon she discovered a centuries-long pattern of mistranslation and misinterpretation that had distorted true Christianity into “a whole fossilized system” of patriarchal theology. By retranslating the Scriptures, she provided a new gospel for women—one that did not prescribe subordination to men as perpetual penance for Eve’s sin, but rather offered an expansive biblical vision for women’s religious and social authority. Most remarkably, Bushnell developed her radical feminist re-readings of the Scriptures while upholding the authority of the scriptures. Indeed, when it came to issues of biblical interpretation, she identified as a fundamentalist, staunchly opposed to the threats of modernism.

Bushnell’s teachings, which she published as God’s Word to Women, remain popular among some conservative Christian subcultures today, and they have proven formative to a number of Christians who are working within their communities to combat the abuse of women and advocate for women’s religious and social authority.

Even today, Bushnell’s writings offer a poignant challenge to Christians who may be tempted to locate the cause of abuse outside the Christian tradition, and to turn a blind eye to the ways in which patriarchal interpretations of the Scriptures may have distorted Christianity itself.

Those seeking to combat the abuse of women worldwide as part of their Christian witness may be better positioned to do so, and able to do so with more integrity, after coming to terms with the effects of patriarchy within their own tradition. And for that, Katharine Bushnell may be a good place to start.

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Between terror and kitsch: fairies in fairy tales

Anthologists must reluctantly exclude. When choosing the stories for Victorian Fairy Tales, there was one story that both I and my editor hesitated over for a long time, before in the end deciding that it was too different from the other works in the book for it to make sense to include it. The tale in question is Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’. This story may or may not be a fairy tale, though there are certainly fairies in it. However, unlike any of his Victorian forebears or most of his contemporaries, Machen manages to achieve, only a few years before the comfortably kitsch flower fairies of Cicely Mary Barker, the singular feat of rendering fairies terrifying.

With James Hogg’s ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Thrawn Janet’ and several of M. R. James’s marvellous ghost stories, ‘The White People’ is one of only a handful of literary texts that have genuinely unnerved me. Perhaps it is that the fairy-haunted figure is a child; perhaps it is the way that Machen evokes some archetypal terror of lonely woods and country silences.

The fear that Machen summons up with regard to meeting the fairies among the trees was long one of the reasons why rationalist opponents of such tales were so vociferous in wishing them stamped out. Fairy tales were bad for children, because they frightened them. Worse, they were scared by unrealities that could not be, by witches, ogres, dragons and wicked pixies. A course of no-nonsense realism and facts was the required cure, not a giving over of the self to wild imaginings.

Fairy Passage by John Anster Fitzgerald. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Strangely, the terror in fairy stories has become one of the few aspects of the original tales to find favour with contemporary audiences. Those who have seen Angelina Jolie in Maleficent or Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman will have seen the violent darkening of the form; in Conor MacPherson’s extraordinary play, The Weir, one of the terrifying stories told in that forlorn Irish pub is one of the uncanny little folk.

At the other extreme, we’re now given over to the saccharine, Barbie-esque world of Tinkerbell and implausibly large-eyed princesses. Contemporary films and stories fall between two elements, embracing violence or resting in kitsch.

For Machen, the fairy was a dark survival from some earlier time, a trace of the occult ancient ways surviving into the rational present. Others have long felt, and some continue to feel, that the fairy story itself is another such atavistic remnant, bringing into our pragmatic contemporary world unsettling forces and unappetising, outmoded social mores.

However, working on the great Victorian fairy tales, secondary and artificial as they undoubtedly were, nonetheless it grows clear how sanely they once held the two poles of fear and prettiness in place, and at bay. Genuine terror is absent from most of the stories, yet they remain hardnosed and realistic about suffering, aware of the pain in life, the tyranny that oppresses, the aggression that wounds. Above all they are capable of being serious, and seriously attentive to qualities of the numinous and the mysterious that can only, it can seem, become present in our own fictions through recourse to the uncanny or cruel.

At the same time, kitsch is rarely found in these stories (as opposed perhaps to the worst Victorian fairy paintings). Instead, some of the great Victorian fairy tales offer us a spirited, playful fun, a readiness to send themselves up without sacrificing the power to move us.

It’s very different in tone, but perhaps only Disney’s Frozen has come a little bit close to the gentle pantomime-like, but nonetheless feeling quality that we find in the stories by William Makepeace Thackeray and Andrew Lang, in Kenneth Grahame or E. Nesbit. And as for the beguiling enchantments offered by George MacDonald or Dinah Craik, Mary De Morgan or Laurence Housman, maybe this is one thing that the Victorians simply did better than we do, and reading their works is one way of ensuring the survival of that spirit into the present day.

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Virginia Woolf in the twenty-first century

As we approach 26 March 2015, the centenary of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, it seems apposite to consider how her writing resonates in the twenty-first century. In the performing and filmic arts, there certainly seems to be something lupine in the air. Choreographer Wayne McGregor’s new ballet, Woolf Works, opens at the Royal Opera House this spring and draws on Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Ben Duke’s dance-theatre piece, Like Rabbits, based on Woolf’s short story, Lappin and Lapinova is currently on tour. Life in Squares, a BBC mini-series focused on Virginia’s relationship with her sister Vanessa was filmed last autumn on location at Charleston. At the same time, I’m told, casting was taking place for a film version of Flush.

But how do her feminist essays, A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), read in 2015? While both of these essays started off as talks given by Woolf to audiences of young women, their fortunes have been quite divergent. A Room of One’s Own has become a feminist classic, its title and central tropes (e.g. Shakespeare’s sister) in turn inspiring their own feminist afterlives. It outlines the history of economic, spatial and ideological constraints on women’s artistry at the same time as it produces the first literary history of women. Three Guineas (1938), Woolf’s feminist, pacifist, anti-fascist essay, has had a more uneven reception. It emerges out of a particular historical moment — the rise of fascism on the continent and in Britain — and a particular conflict: the Spanish Civil War. But Woolf’s dissection of her own militarized, monetized, patriarchal society is easily translated to our own. In thinking about whether women, as outsiders, might be best placed to oppose war she reveals the systemic and structural inequalities in public life. Each issue she raises seems uncannily prescient: access to higher education and the role of the university as a democratic space of intellectual freedom; the number of women in public life; violence against women and girls; women in the church; working motherhood; pay inequality.

Virginia Woolf. By George Charles Beresford. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Virginia Woolf. By George Charles Beresford. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Editing Woolf in the twenty-first century means annotating her writing in ways that reveal her wide-ranging engagement with her contemporary moment (and its literary and political histories). It means framing and introducing those references and contexts that have faded from view, such as the photographs she included of public, male figures instantly recognizable to her readers in the 1930s (and restored to their original position in this new edition). Decked out in full regalia, Stanley Baldwin, Baden Powell, Gordon Hewart and Cosmo Gordon Lang may no longer be familiar to general readers in 2015 but as images of the perpetuation of masculine wealth and privilege through spectacle and tradition they need no translation. As Woolf writes in Three Guineas: ‘we listen to the voices of the past […] Things repeat themselves it seems.’

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Wolf Hall: count up the bodies

Historians should be banned from watching movies or TV set in their area of expertise. We usually bore and irritate friends and family with pedantic interjections about minor factual errors and chronological mix-ups. With Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and the sumptuous BBC series based on them, this pleasure is denied us. The series is as ferociously well researched as it is superbly acted and directed. Cranmer probably didn’t have a beard in 1533, but, honestly, that’s about the best I can do.

In any case, criticising historical fiction for being fiction is not particularly clever. The imaginative space through which novelists and screen-writers move is one historians can only look in on from outside with envy, and from which we should learn lessons about practicing our own craft. Yet writing historical fiction, as opposed to another kind, means operating within a set of constraints, as well as investing one’s work with a particular kind of moral authorization. It involves drawing on a well of audience knowledge and expectation, even as it sets out to challenge or surprise.

Here historians do have the right to comment. The question is not whether fiction gets the past exactly right (no two historians would agree upon this anyway), but how claims about the past are used to address questions about the human condition. All historical writing, fictional and ‘factual’, is a kind of conversation between past and present. And in any conversation, we need to listen as well as talk.

In making Thomas Cromwell the focus of attention, Mantel believes she is enabling a suppressed voice to be heard. As chief minister of Henry VIII, Cromwell is not an obscure figure, but he left few records of an intimate or revealing kind. Moreover, his popular reputation suffered in the later twentieth century due to the success of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons (turned into a critically-acclaimed 1966 film), where he serves as foil to the hero, Thomas More, whose lonely refusal to recognise Henry VIII’s Supreme Headship of the Church marks him out as a martyr for individual conscience.

“Although a major protagonist, More’s ‘big moments’ are routinely silenced or sidelined.”

Wolf Hall is a riposte to A Man for All Seasons as much as it is a fresh reimagining of the Tudor World. Bolt’s More, gentle family-man and courageous non-conformist, becomes in Mantel’s vision a cruel, conceited misogynist; Bolt’s Cromwell, a brutal pragmatist, unfolds before us as complex, passionate, and profoundly humanitarian.

This is not as iconoclastic as recent commentary suggests. Zinneman’s film of A Man for All Seasons was from the moment of its cinematic release a spur to revisionist historical scholarship on More, drawing attention to his hatred of heresy, and the implausibility of his holding or expressing the views on the inalienable rights of conscience that Bolt (in the aftermath of McCarthyism) attributed to him. As Wolf Hall replaces Man for All Seasons as the lens through which most people will view the 1530s, let’s hope it will similarly energise historians.

After catching up on iPlayer, this historian’s reaction is of (almost) admiration for the thoroughness with which the ‘dismanteling’ of More has been carried through. A revealing line is given to Cromwell, as More maintains his frustrating ‘silence’ over the Oath: ‘he wrote this play years ago, and he sniggers every time I trip over my lines’.

Cromwell need not have worried: suspecting that the garrulous More wrote the historical script to his own advantage, Mantel and her adapters, assisted by Anton Lesser’s outstanding performance, have systematically – ruthlessly – rewritten it, down to costume and props. The historical More’s lack of care over personal appearance becomes here distasteful and unsettling. Cromwell – in common with the entire membership of Facebook – likes playful kittens; More appears cradling a showy, and eerily inert, long-eared white rabbit. And is it me, or does Mark Rylance resemble the More of Holbein’s famous portrait much more than he does the corresponding painting of Cromwell? A particularly mischievous touch robs More of the one distinction guaranteed to score points with a modern secular audience: his unusual concern for the education of his daughters. Cromwell’s ill-fated little girls – implausibly – are being taught Latin and Greek too.

Thomas More statue, Chelsea Old Church. By Edwardx. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Although a major protagonist, More’s ‘big moments’ are routinely silenced or sidelined. We see, but do not hear, the conversation accompanying his surrender of the chancellorship to Henry (who promised ever to be his ‘gracious lord’); nor his words at the block, where he joked with the executioner and announced, with characteristic irony, that he died ‘the king’s good servant, but God’s first.’ More’s eloquent speech at the end of his trial is reduced to the shouting of hackneyed slogans. And Mantel wants us to think (against the balance of probability) that his conviction was not caused by Richard Rich’s perjury; rather, More carelessly lets slip his real opinions because he thinks Rich is a person of no importance.

More’s most poignant utterance was made (during an interrogation) in Cromwell’s presence: ‘I do nobody harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live’. In Wolf Hall, More only has time to utter the first few words before an enraged Cromwell cuts him off: no harm! What about Bilney, what about Bainham? These Protestants were burned during More’s period as Lord Chancellor, and we have seen More personally supervising Bainham’s torture. His own fate is more merciful than the treatment he dished out to others.

Mantel’s revisionism seems here to be on strong moral and historical turf. More did believe – an embarrassment to his modern admirers – that unrepentant heretics deserved to die. Yet this was an utterly conventional sixteenth-century opinion, and although More detested ‘heresy’, for both theological and social reasons, he hardly initiated a genocidal slaughter. Six Protestants were burned during his Chancellorship, and he was personally involved in only three of the cases. The accusation of overseeing torture – though made by his enemies at the time – is almost certainly false. More, who had a marked aversion to perjury, denied it in detail in print.

As (Mantel’s) More’s refusal to take the Oath of Succession drags on, Anne Boleyn suggests the wrack. ‘No madam, we don’t do that’, Cromwell icily retorts. Cromwell’s occupancy of the higher moral ground defines his relationship with the supposedly urbane More, and is the marrow of our moral kinship with him.

But does he really deserve to stand there? The historical Cromwell was deeply involved in the fate of the Carthusian monks who, like More, could not bring themselves to recognise Henry’s new title: half a dozen were butchered after spending weeks chained to posts by their necks and legs, stewing in their own excrement. A further ten starved to death in prison. They were executed for ‘treason’, which to modern minds tends to seem less unwarranted than punishing heresy. But Cromwell was implicated in heresy cases too, arranging the burning in 1538 of a Franciscan for the political heresy of saying Rome was the true Church. And in June 1535, it was under commission from Cromwell as the king’s vicegerent (or deputy) that at least ten Flemish immigrants were executed for denying infant baptism. They died so that Henry VIII could demonstrate that – despite rejecting the pope – he was still an orthodox Christian. Cromwell personally promised the emperor’s ambassador that the sentences would be carried out. Thomas Cromwell, in fact, was instrumental in more burnings for heresy than Thomas More was, though his reasons were different.

Whether the motivations behind coercive violence really make some instances of it more defensible than others is a question the past can fairly ask the present. And one which historical fiction might help us honestly explore.

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