Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Imitation Game, or, the Inventing Things That Didn't Happen Game.

Went to see the Imitation Game today, the film about Alan Turing, who is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Now, I know I am a miserable old pedant, but I'd like to warn you that The Imitation Game is about as historically accurate as the Sound of Music. WARNING: THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Like many modern films, the Imitation Game follows a set narrative of a single male genius who cuts a path through all the bullshit around him and thus saves everyone. He's the lone cowboy and nobody understands him, etc etc. In this movie, Cumberbatch plays Turing as Sherlock, a difficult, slightly autistic genius that can't get on with anyone. He cracks the code and saves humanity, before being accused of spying and destroyed by his closeted homosexuality. He's a tragic genius, oh, and because of it, he has to be misunderstood and horrible, obviously.

Poor Alan Turing. The only bit of this that's true was that he was a genius. He was certainly eccentric but there's absolutely no evidence that he was either a) horrible b) closeted or c) tortured - except by hay fever, and used to cycle to work wearing a gas mask to avoid it.

In the film, Turing has a difficult job interview for a post at Bletchley Park. In actual fact, he was working for Government Code and Cypher Services from 1938, prior to the outbreak of the war. He personally invents the machine which is used to break the German codes. In fact he developed it from a prototype created by Polish intelligence, which brought an enigma machine to Britain at the start of the War. In the film, he works alone, opposed and misunderstood at every move. In actual fact he worked with a number of other codebreakers, all of whom recognised his skills. Far from being his opponents, they were in most cases his allies.

The bizarrest falsehood created by the film is that, having hacked into the German Naval Enigma Code, Turing and his colleagues face a dilemma about whether to tell their bosses, who are so stupid they will waste this vital intelligence, and let on to the Germans that the code was broken. This is rubbish. British intelligence certainly had problems using the decrypted information without letting the Germans realise their codes were broken. However this was not Turing's problem, and decisions about the operating use of the decrypts were taken by military intelligence. There was no 'statistical' answer to this problem, as the film makes out, and to suggest that they would not have informed their immediate superiors of the breakthrough is balderdash.

(If you are interested in this at all, I recommend reading The Enemy is Listening by Aileen Clayton, a WRAF intelligence officer who worked out of North Africa for much of the war, and who occupied the equivalent rank of Major. Clayton started out intercepting radio communications on the South Coast of Britain during the early part of the war. There is a funny anecdote in her book about how they keep being slipped bits of information that were allegedly 'found in a wastebasket'. Eventually asked to go to a meeting at Bletchley, she finds herself eyeing the wastebins suspiciously, before being let in to the secret. Clayton spent much of the war wrestling with the torture of having access to information which could have saved lives, but being forced to hold onto it for the sake of concealing information gathering networks. Clayton's book is out of print, but you can get it through a library.)

Another weirdness of the film is when cryptographer Joan Clarke tells Turing she has to go home as her parents want her back. Again, this is inaccurate. Conscription for unmarried women aged 20-30 cut in in 1942: Clarke would have been as liable to turn up for service as any man of her age, whether her parents liked it or not. Equally, Clarke was not forced to work in some other part of Bletchley but was part of the team in Hut 8, and for a while was deputy leader.

Nor was Clarke ignorant of Turing's tendencies. Turing had been a fellow at Kings College Cambridge, then an all-male institution where close friendships and relationships between men would barely have raised a murmur, and he was not particularly discreet about his sexuality, either before the war of after. If anything, his eventual downfall was a result of him being more or less 'out' rather than closeted.

Nor is there any suggestion that Turing was disliked or persecuted by the authorities during the war. He was in fact promoted, and sent to the US to share his discoveries with them. He was eccentric, and like many hyper-intelligent people, relentlessly interested in all intellectual concepts about everything, including biology and philosophy, as well as maths. But there is a big difference between eccentric and loathed, and Bletchley Park was notoriously full of odd people.

Finally, he was never accused of spying. He did lose his security clearances during the early 50s, in the wake of the Cambridge Spy Ring revelations. But this film, which allegedly holds him up as hero, actually traduces him in so many ways.

Historical films have a number of purposes, and one of them is to mark the sophisticated, worldly present out from the ignorant past, thus appealing to the ego of viewers. This film paints the war years as some kind of sexually repressed wasteland. In fact the 1940s, with its 'we might die tomorrow' morals was, for many people, an anything-goes era. Prosecutions for homosexuality were rare, as the demands of fighting a total war meant that the state needed the help of any body it could lay its hands on, whether gay, straight, foreign, black or white. Intelligence was notoriously the most anything-goes. It was one of the few parts of the establishment where any kind of person could make a mark, far more so than the official services like the army and navy. In general, prosecutions for homosexuality, like the one that brought down Turing, were a product of the new repression and stringent enforcing of gender norms that took place in the 50s, as the cold war set in and a post-war-shell-shocked society decided that everyone should know their place, again. During the actual war, a nation fighting for its life largely had better things to do than police people's sex lives.

Another thing that bothered me about this film was the very modern insistence on the lone hero. Britain defeated the Nazis because of a giant collective effort, which involved most of the nation's (and several other nations') thinking brains, fighting bodies, and the armies of civilians who grew food, hacked coal, scrimped, saved, volunteered, and refused to give in. (Also, because of the Russians.) We love lone geniuses, in our age of individualism, and get nervous about the concept of collective effort, but the fact is, all Turing's efforts would have been useless without the people who helped him. Turing could only decrypt the information that was intercepted, and picking up this information took a great number of people. Turing himself would have seen himself as part of that giant effort, and to suggest that he was ever disloyal to the British cause is frankly insulting.

So I think the moral of this story is: reading history books will frankly ruin your enjoyment of popular culture, so don't do it, kids.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Review: Terror and wonder: the Gothic Imagination at British Library

This week I was lucky to have work stuff in London, so I had a spare afternoon to visit 'Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination' at the British Library. Bearing in mind that this is a library, not a museum, and the majority of the exhibits are books, you might be forgiven for expecting it to be a bit unchallenging. About four minutes in, I thought so too, then two hours later I was still there, poring over the exhibits.

The exhibition begins with the Castle of Otranto, by Walpole, the original British Gothic Novel written in the 18th Century, and works its way through the Romantics, the influence of Gothic on Jane Austen, the Brontes, Victorian sensationalism, Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, Dracula and the history of vampires, Hammer Horror and modern gothic, and finishes with an exhibition of photos by Martin Parr, of Goth Weekend in Whitby, 2014.

I was totally blown away by seeing original manuscripts of Frankenstein and Jane Eyre. Seeing them in their handwritten state is akin to looking at the innards of a bomb, as one suddenly realises what a massive effect such a small, fragile-looking thing may have when it explodes into being. Shelley was only 19 when she wrote Frankenstein, and it is chaotic and scribbled, with Percy Shelley's nerdy, pedantic handwriting in the margin, like the annoying boyfriend who thinks he knows better. Frankenstein is a book about technology and about nightmares, and was written when both the horrors and wonders of the industrial revolution were steaming into full gear. Looking at the manuscript, I felt a moment of unease, a lurching sideways like the deck of an unsteady ship, and I thought, what an upending of the old order, what a moment of terror, that nineteen-year-old girls might be let loose to document our fears and dreams, and set down the ghosts of the future, and all the the things that frighten us. I have seen all the usual things and images that anyone in the 21st century has, but I honestly can't remember seeing anything more transgressive than those scribbles by Shelley and the Brontes, scraped away with a quill pen, in candlelight and darkness.

I was less fascinated by Dickens but it is interesting to be reminded that what now seems like cosy old-worldy Victorianism was actually written with the intention of revealing injustices and horrific poverty, and that he faced complaints and lawsuits because of it. Also, as the exhibition points out, how the background of gothic changed from one of rural horror to a very urban one. I was startled to find links between things that I was familiar with, but hadn't connected: that the play or Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde premiered at the theatre at the exact time that the Ripper murders were happening, and that the manager of said theatre was Mr Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. 

Some lovely non-book items from the 20th century included costume and set design from theatre and horror movies, as well as a brief section detailing the rise of modern 'goth'. Martin Parr's photographs give their subjects dignity without concealing any flaws or oddities, and the homemade outfits portrayed are far more interesting than the one underwhelming dress by Alexander McQueen.

There was actually a huge amount to take in and think about, but what I particularly liked was that there was no attempt to dumb down a whistlestop tour of the subject, which nonetheless only touched on half the material it could. The subject is dealt with chronologically, not thematically, so you can see how the genre developed and changed as it went on, but that it keeps being rolled around to deal with the same issues – deep-seated unease around change, cultural identity, sexuality, and social conflict, that it first did right at the start of the industrial revolution. Also how, as a form of art often dismissed as 'trashy' – suitable for impressionable females and excitable poor people – it has consistently dealt with the big questions in society, like gender and sex, technology and colonialism, in the way that 'respectable' literature has not.

I really feel that the British Library should congratulate itself on this exhibition. It's like the kind of public communications that fell out of fashion a few decades ago, when somebody very intelligent and expert just explains something they know a hell of a lot about, with some fabulous and fragile objects, but no CGI. It made my brain hurt, in the best possible way. Also, I now have a reading list as long as my arm.

Finally, to go off at a tangent, if you think all this is only interesting in a historical, literary, intellectual sense, I have to point out you're wrong. Why? I'll tell you a story. Like a proper gothic story, it starts with a country bumpkin (me) who gets lost somewhere alien and terrifying (London underground). At night, obviously. I passed through Westminster, where the bomb blast doors protect the politicians, and up from the Jubilee Line, which looks like something designed for the set of Aliens. I ended up at Blackfriars, under the foot of the shard, where the cranes still worked at ten at night, and a human feels ant-sized, and the City squats like the operating headquarters of some alien invaders, over an older, more human-sized version of London. And then another station, I'd lost track of names by then, brand new and brutally designed in concrete and lit by a violent blue light. Why? Why has someone made these things like this? I am not an especially anxious person in foreign environments, but these places made me afraid. Because somebody made up a nightmare, then built it. These things are not frightening by accident, but because someone designed fear right into it. 

Humans are one big mush of fear and wonder, really, and we don't like to admit to it. But if you are able to recognise the shapes and tropes of it - and give those things names - then you will better see the strings and ropes of it. And remember that monsters always, have a weakness. 


Thursday, 2 October 2014

Review: Dracula, Bristol Old Vic

Like most people I love a good vampire story, preferably one in which no-one sparkles. If you too like vampires I can't recommend anything more than that you leg it down to Bristol Old Vic immediately to see Mark Bruce's dance version of Dracula. It's on in Bristol till Saturday and then at these other venues.

All photos: Farrows Creative

The story of Dracula has been told and retold so many times it's become little but camp and caricature in most versions, but this, which takes place on a half-dark stage filled with a wrought-iron gate, is genuinely scary. Despite the lack of dialogue the story is always easy to follow, and stays fairly true to the Victorian original.

Using ten performers, five male five female, events unfold via a variety of dance styles, all danced with passion and athleticism. There is plenty of darkness, plenty of blood, and plenty of death. Dracula is always awfully sexy, and the fact that he never speaks means his physical presence says more of his powers than any Hammer Horror ever could.

The original Dracula novel was written in 1897 by Bram Stoker, and for the time is startlingly modern in format: there is no writer commenting on the action, as in most Victorian novels, but the reader has to put the story together from fragments of letters and journals. One reason the story has stuck around is that it's about things that still bother us: sex, death, unnerving foreignors, and the eternal battle between civilised respectability and uncivilised passions. Most of these are things that bother us on a sub-verbal level, so there's probably few better ways to represent these conflicts than in an unspoken format.

One of the things I liked most about this production is that it had many contemporary resonances (at the beginning, a blood-crazed Dracula and his black-hooded wolves steal a baby from a screaming, head-scarfed peasant woman, like some awful news story from Iraq or Syria) without losing the quality of the time it was written in. The score used many beautiful (and unusual) pieces of classical music, the costumes were simple and appropriate, and the wrought iron gates, finally, festooned with the bodies of the vampire brides, looked like an Aubrey Beardsley drawing.

I would very happily sit through this production again, as I'm sure there were things I missed. Also, it was just beautiful.