The Cross

Humankind has long been inventive when it comes to the sphere of killing one another; I could probably write a whole other blog solely on the subject of weaponry for the next 50 years before running low on material, and that doesn’t even approach the field of organised execution. Hanging and stoning are two old-as-the-hills methods still, unfortunately, in use in some parts of the world, and countless others have been developed with varying degrees of complexity, pain and success involved. However, one execution method has proved to carry more cultural weight than all others, and mostly thanks to one man; I speak, of course, of crucifixion.

We all think of crucifixion as a Roman punishment, but like so many Roman things it wasn’t their invention (seriously, even their religion was nicked from the Greeks). Crucifixion first started off in Persia in around the 6th century BC, in the area that would later become the Seleucid Empire after Alexander the Great went and conquered all of it. Like so many other things, the practice later spread across the remnants of Alexander’s Empire, including his native Greece, and here it began making its way towards the ‘civilised’ world of the time. The Greeks were, apparently, generally opposed to this horrible method of execution and used it very sparingly, but much of Alexander’s old Empire would later find its way into Roman hands, and so the idea eventually made its way to Rome. Given that this was a culture whose primary form of entertainment (garnering hundreds of thousands of spectators, something even modern sporting culture can’t match) involved various people and animals dressing up to kill one another in as ‘entertaining’ a fashion as possible, it is perhaps not surprising that the Romans thought crucifixion showed potential as an execution method, particularly for those they wanted to make an example of.

This is hardly surprising; of all humanity’s execution methods, few can rival crucifixion when it comes to being horrifying and showy. This is partly helped, slightly bizarrely, by its cheapness; to show them off to the general populace, something like hanging or beheading would require some sort of raised platform, which covers only a small area and takes a decent amount of time and energy to create. The Roman alternative (the arena) was even more expensive, requiring an investment in either animals or an elaborate set of costumes and procedure in order to provide an ‘entertaining’ execution, and given that games were generally free to go and watch (paid for by the emperor or local governor to curry goodwill with the populace) it wasn’t going to pay itself back. By contrast, the sum total of all monetary investment required for crucifixion is two long sticks, some rope or nails, and a bloke to affix the resulting structure to; the crosses were even moved to the required site by the prisoners themselves, and erecting them took a few soldiers almost no time at all. This cheapness made it easy to show off their victims on a vast scale; after the gladiator Spartacus’ slave revolt was crushed in 71BC, the 6,000 captured prisoners were all crucified along the Appian way, a trail of crosses stretching from Rome to Capua. That’s 200 kilometres (125 miles), along both sides of the road. A forceful example indeed.

The very nature of crucifixion itself also helps when it comes to being showy. The crosses used in crucifixion were big old things, three or four metres tall if they’re an inch, just to ensure the unfortunate victim could be seen from great distances away. The mechanics of the execution build on this; it is often assumed that death by crucifixion comes from exhaustion, hunger, pain and blood loss, but in fact crucifixion causes death by suffocation as much as anything. With one’s upper body held only by spread eagled arms, it becomes very tiring to keep it in position, and one’s head and torso tend to fall forwards after time. However, with the arms pinned in position this stretches out one’s joints extremely painfully, offering no respite from the agony, and pulls upwards on the ribcage. This in turn puts extreme stress on the diaphragm, meaning it has to pull one’s entire weight upward every time you attempt to take a breath, and crushes the lungs under one’s own weight, slowly squeezing the air and life out of the victim. If the executors were feeling kind, then the victim would be tied to the cross, resulting in a slower but slightly less agonisingly painful death. However, Jesus was famously attached to his cross by nails through his feet and wrists (some versions say the hands, but the flesh there isn’t strong enough to hold up the weight of a body properly), and whilst this could offer the possibility of blessedly quick unconsciousness and death due to blood loss and the extreme pain, the sheer agony of the experience doesn’t bear thinking about. No matter how devoted to their cause the victim was, their screams must have undoubtedly echoed for miles as they died, just adding to the showiness of their death. Crucifixion was the ultimate tool, for the Romans, for sending out a warning, a very obvious, demonstrative way of discouraging people from following the lead of the victim.

That this approach failed somewhat is like saying the Pope thinks God is a kinda alright guy; crucifixion has guaranteed martyrdom for countless early saints and, of course, Jesus. The concept of ‘he suffered and died on the cross for us’ is, more than anything, the fundamental message of Christianity, embodying the idea of undergoing extreme pain and hardship simply to try and do right by the world and emphasising the pure and unadulterated goodness of Jesus as a person. But this has had an unexpected effect in the long run; since the story is told so often to children, the gory details are often glossed over, or the story simply because so fundamental and oft-told that it becomes very easy to forget just how horrific his agony would have been. Even this post has treated the subject of crucifixion with a decidedly neutral tone, without considering properly just how horrible it is to inflict this level of pain onto a fellow human being. Crucifixion might have been abolished by the Roman Empire 1600 years ago (by Emperor Constatine, if you’re wondering), but it would not do to forget it. Very few things are ever worth forgetting, and torture and murder are most certainly not among them.

Behind Bars

Prisons are an odd thing in modern democracy; in some ways the pillar of our justice system, a testament to a way of doing things that means we can endeavour to transform criminals into productive members of society and a way of punishment that allows us to hold the moral high ground over serious criminals to whom we do not do the whole ‘eye for an eye’ thing. But on the other hand it is, when you think about it, a somewhat barbaric practice; to take a fellow human being, another person born free and equal, and to take away not only their freedom for the immediate future, but in some respects their equality for as long as their criminal record lasts. If crime is a contentious issue, then ideas concerning punishment are even more controversial.

The idea of imprisonment was invented less as a tool of justice and more one of political convenience; whilst an opposing warlord is locked up, he can’t orchestrate a war or rebellion (as I have found out whilst playing Crusader Kings II). Indeed, throughout medieval times, common criminals were never punished by imprisonment; they were either fined, had body parts (usually hands) removed, or were executed (usually by hanging; the chopping block was for noblemen right up until the guillotine, which was a great social leveller when it came to execution). Locking someone up meant they needed feeding and housing, which was only really worth the cost for noblemen who one could ransom. It was also considered somewhat dishonourable to kill noblemen in most cases, even more so the higher rank they were; indeed, there was much outrage when Oliver Cromwell ordered King Charles I executed despite the fact that he had been convicted of treason and was highly unpopular (as well as, by all accounts, something of an arsehole).

Quite a good way of tracking the history of imprisonment as a punishment is to study the history of the Bastille in Paris; a fortress built in the 1300s, it was first declared a state prison in 1417. Originally, it held whichever landed gentry and noblemen had pissed of King Louis the Whicheverwasinpoweratthetime, but over time this role changed, and the commoners started to find their way in too. This was fuelled by the fact that people often got very angry at seeing certain types of often petty criminals, many of whom were barely out of childhood, getting strung up on a gibbet, and riots were generally things to be avoided. Particular bones of contention concerned those who had Things To Say about the French monarchy and government (especially once the state tried to censor the material spewing from the newly invented printing press), and people whose religious alignment disagreed with whoever was in power, but would certainly agree with large sectors of the mob. To try and placate the populace, therefore, the Bastille began to take on more  prisoners who the ruling classes felt would cause… a disturbance were they to be publicly hanged. Increasingly, the Bastille began to be used as a place to hide away those who had spoken out against or in some way fought against the state (whose death would really infuriate the mob), and the prison increasingly became a bone of resentment, a symbol of the stranglehold those in power had over their subjects. As such, it was a natural target for rioters when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, and Bastille Day (14th of July) is still a national holiday in France.

The chaos following the French revolution and the social upheaval of the next few centuries did change the balance of power and the role of imprisonment within society; it was the punishment of choice for many crimes, the old days of hacking a thief’s hand off gone, and execution was now the reserve of the kind of people who the public felt deserved it. However, right up until the Second World War, the justice system was brutal in a lot of countries; dungeons were generally small, packed with poorly-fed prisoners and infested with disease or rats, and many countries still operated forced labour camps and penal colonies. There were two reasons for this; firstly, prisoners were still expensive to maintain and were not seen as worth expending any great effort for, so any way the state could get some use out of them was seen as all well and good. The other reason concerned the role that prison had to play. Imprisonment was in those days (as today) to prevent criminals from committing more crimes, to punish them for the crimes they had committed and to scare others into not performing the scare crimes; but what wouldn’t come along until much later was the idea of rehabilitation. Our modern justice system is such that almost every criminal, regardless of their crime, will return to the outside world one day, and we can all agree that it would be preferable for everyone if, upon said return, they didn’t commit any more crimes. Trouble is, prison does not do that role any favours; by simply throwing someone in a grotty cell for several years, all you are likely to build in them is resentment against you and the system, and since human beings are remarkably stubborn people, this is likely to lead to re-offending. We have also come to realise that prison on its own is frequently ineffective as a deterrent for serial criminals, who are generally less sorrowful about committing their crimes as they are about getting caught. Once released, they are most likely to just go right on with their old life, the life that was exciting and (in some cases) profitable to them before the law caught up with them. And then, of course, there’s the problem posed by a criminal record, making people far less able to find work and often forcing them back to crime just to keep their head above water. This has given rise to the fourth role played by the modern prison and justice system; that of rehabilitation.

I am no legal expert, nor have I ever spent time in prison, so I am undoubtedly underqualified to talk at length about how comfortable prisons ‘should’ be, the correct way to treat prisoners, how to correctly implement the role of rehabilitation, etc. But I think we can all accept that the role of the justice system nowadays is, primarily, to reduce the amount of crime in this world, and unfortunately, bars and guards ain’t gonna cut it on their own. And we must also remember that, whatever they may have done, prisoners are people too. They still have rights, they still deserve at least some respect; many are victims of circumstance as much as anything else. And in any case, there’s a reason that we don’t hang prisoners any more; because our moral code must be stronger than that of a murderer, because we must show at least a modicum of love to those who would give us none, because we must be better, nobler people than they.

FILM FORTNIGHT: Rango

When it came out, Rango quickly divided critics; some praised its attempt to breath some originality into the world of children’s cinema or its sharp and somewhat tongue-in-cheek reimagining of the classic western, whilst others just found it plain old boring, without being engaging enough for anything interesting to leap out at them. A few even took the opportunity to comment on the trend of an established screen star (in this case Johnny Depp as the title role, although Bill Nighy also has a typically charismatic place as bad guy Rattlesnake Jake) taking on a voice acting job in order to win the film attention, rather than sticking to career voice actors, so short of stuff were they to talk about.

Personally, I don’t know quite where they were coming from with this, because whilst Rango is many things boring is not among them. Admittedly, its plot is hardly the path less travelled; our title character is a domestic chameleon who, upon being dumped unceremoniously out of his comfortable terrarium existence accidentally defeats a hawk and is elected sheriff of a rural ‘old west’ town with a water crisis, before the requisite high jinks and moral lesson or two. Basically, think ‘Flushed Away’ with the water situation reversed and you’re mostly there. However, around this basic premise director Gore Verbinski spins a genuinely deep and relative rollercoaster of a story, ranging from one of the most fist-pumpingly fun chase sequences I’ve seen in any film (Ride of The Valkyries blasting out at the requisite 11 at all appropriate moments as the dive bombers swoop in; yeah it gets kinda random in places) to a group of 4 owls simultaneously fulfilling the roles of orchestra and narration who spend most of the film talking about imminent death (although telling you that is probably less of a spoiler than this caveat is).* That these two scenes are both able to exist in the same film is indicative of the near-constant contrast between the film’s darker, edgier undertones that are the real driving force of the plot and the more action- & humour-based sequences; a contrast that is, however, a sharp one, making the whole business feel like two plots that Verbinski has tried to get running in parallel.

*Weirdly, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the theatre version of War Horse (aside note for all people within reach of London; go and see the theatre version of War Horse), which also has a bloke whose sole job is to add some suitable musical accompaniment to the required scenes. Dude is seriously awesome though.

Was Verbinski successful? Well… kind of. On the one hand we have the fact that the action is pretty damn good in a lot of places, the humour and slapstick broadly speaking well-timed and funny, and that the film’s darker & deeper sequences feel genuinely profound and meaningful. Combine that with some almost surprisingly well-done and realistic (well, for a bunch of stylised talking animals anyway) characters, and what is almost certainly the single best animation, graphical quality and overall visual design of any film ever made (yes, I went there), and it’s hard to argue with the quality of Verbinski’s execution of this project.

No, the problem lies less with the film’s content and more with how it all fits together. On occasion, the film’s more subtle jokes (the way it characterises ‘The Spirit of the West’ in a modern light being one good example) are able to exist in perfect harmony with its more meaningful side, and everything (both goofy and meaningful) is unquestionably well-done. On the other hand, the contrast between comic and serious is on occasion not merely sharp but almost painful to watch, each one ruining the other in equal measure. Whether the attempt to join these two tones together was a producer’s decision to try and force the film into a more formulaic, ‘family-friendly’ style, whether that’s the only way the screenwriter could think to tie in all the bits and pieces, or whether Verbinski just had a few jokes he really, really wanted to use is hard to identify, but either way the film would probably have benefited by trusting a little more in the audience’s intelligence and their ability to enjoy what was there, rather than shoehorning in what probably should have been left out. That sensation of what might have been, combined with a plot that seemed patchy on interconnectedness in too many places, was all too noticeable in what was otherwise an entertaining film that genuinely tried to be something fresh and not boring. It frequently succeeded too; that’s what’s so frustrating about it all.

I have one further thing I want to say about Rango; watch it. Just like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ was last summer, Rango is a film whose many good qualities only serve to highlight its errors, and make any review of it seem far more negative than the experience of watching such a fun, intelligent film actually was. Here we have a shining example of a kid’s film that genuinely tries to be something original and smart, pushing boundaries where it could have just been safe and boring, and it deserves as much attention as possible

Huh. Only 900 words. Clearly there’s a reason other reviewers needed something else to write about.

The Sting

I have twice before used this blog to foray into the strange world of film reviewing; something that I enjoy, given that I enjoy cinema, but am usually unable to make a stable source of material since I don’t generally have the time (or, given a lot of the films that get released in my local cinema, inclination) to see too many of them. My first foray was a rather rambling (and decidedly rubbish) examination of The Hunger Games, with a couple of nods to the general awesomeness of The Shawshank Redemption, whilst I felt compelled to write my second just to articulate my frustration after seeing The Dark Knight Rises. Today, I wish to return to the magical fairy kingdom of the big screen, this time concerning something that I would ordinarily have never seen at all; 70s crime flick ‘The Sting’

The Sting is quite clearly a film from another era of filmmaking; I am not old enough to remember the times when a stock ‘thump’ sound byte was inserted into the footage every time an object is put onto a table, but this film contains such cinematic anachronisms in spades. Similarly, this is the first film I have ever seen starring Robert Redford and my first from director George Roy Hill, but age should be no barrier to quality entertainment if it’s there to shine through and thankfully it’s basic plot and premise lend it to a graceful aging process.

The plot can be fairly summarily described as uncomplicated; a young confidence trickster who ends up accidentally making a small fortune from a fairly routine con is pursued by the mob boss whose money he has now lost, so teams up with an experienced ‘old head’ to bring him down. So Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations. Where the two differ, however, is in their dedication to their subject material; whilst the Ocean’s films are generally content to follow some rather formulaic Hollywood scriptwriting, placing their emphasis heavily on interpersonal relationships and love interests, The Sting goes out of its way to be a true crime story to its very core. Set in the golden age of organised crime (1930s prohibition-era Illinois, real-life home of Al Capone) with a memorable ragtime soundtrack to match, every stage (illustrated explicitly through the use of old-fashioned title cards) of the film’s overarching ‘big con’ plot takes the form of a classic confidence trick, from an old-fashioned money switch to a large-scale rigged betting house, incorporating along the way possibly the finest played (and cheated) game of poker ever to appear on screen. Every feature, facet and subplot from the cheated cop to the seemingly out-of-place love interest all has its place in the big con, and there was nothing there that didn’t have a very good reason to be. Not only did this create a rollercoaster of a focused, central plot without unnecessary distractions, but the authenticity of the tricks, characters and terminology used built a believable, compelling world to immerse oneself in and enjoy. Combine that with a truly stellar portrayal of the seen-it-all genius conman Henry Gondorff by Paul Newman, and Robert Redford’s evident gift for building a very real, believable character in the form of naive youngster Johnny Hooker, and we have the makings of an incredibly immersive story that you often have to remind yourself isn’t actually real.

However, by putting such focus on its central con, The Sting puts itself under an awful lot of pressure, for without any extraneous components (hell, there aren’t even any proper action scenes, despite the not infrequent bouts of gunfire) it has got nowhere to fall if its central plot fails. Thus, the success of the film very much rests on the success of the con it centres around, not just in terms of execution itself but in making its execution fit its style. The Sting is not about coming up with something on the fly, about something unexpected coming up and winning through on the day- it is an homage to planning, to the skill of the con, of hooking in the mark and making them think they’ve won, before turning the ace in the hole. To turn successful planning, what was intended to happen happening, into compelling drama is a task indeed for a filmmaker.

And yet, despite all the odds, The Sting pulls it off, thanks to the extraordinary depth director Hill packs into his seemingly simplistic plot. Each subplot put into play is like adding another dot to the puzzle, and it is left to the viewer to try and join them all to formulate the finished picture- or alternatively watch to see the film do so all with staggering aplomb. Every element is laid out on the table, everyone can see the cards, and it’s simply a matter of the film being far smarter than you are in revealing how it pulls its trick, just like a conman and his mark. You, the viewer, have been stung just as much as Robert Shaw’s mob boss of a mark, except that you can walk out of the room with your wallet full and a smile on your face.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have problems. Whilst the basic premise is simple and well-executed enough to be bulletproof, its ‘setup’ phase (as the title cards called it) spends an awful lot of time on world-, scenario- and character-building, filling the early parts of the film with enough exposition to make me feel decidedly lukewarm about it- it’s all necessary to remove plot holes and to build the wonderful air of depth and authenticity, but something about its execution strikes me as clunky. It also suffers Inception’s problem of being potentially confusing to anyone not keeping a very close track of what’s going on, and one or two of the minor characters suffer from having enough of a role to be significant but not enough characterisation to seem especially real. That said, this film won seven Oscars for a reason, and regardless of how slow it may seem to begin with, it’s definitely worth sticking it out to the end. I can promise you it will be worth it.

Icky stuff

OK guys, time for another multi-part series (always a good fallback when I’m short of ideas). Actually, this one started out as just an idea for a single post about homosexuality, but when thinking about how much background stuff I’d have to stick in for the argument to make sense, I thought I might as well dedicate an entire post to background and see what I could do with it from there. So, here comes said background: an entire post on the subject of sex.

The biological history of sex must really start by considering the history of biological reproduction. Reproduction is a vital part of the experience of life for all species, a necessary feature for something to be classified ‘life’, and among some thinkers is their only reason for existence in the first place. In order to be successful by any measure, a species must exist; in order to exist, those of the species who die must be replaced, and in order for this to occur, the species must reproduce. The earliest form of reproduction, occurring amongst the earliest single-celled life forms, was binary fission, a basic form of asexual reproduction whereby the internal structure of the organism is replicated, and it then splits in two to create two organisms with identical genetic makeup. This is an efficient way of expanding a population size very quickly, but it has its flaws. For one thing, it does not create any variation in the genetics of a population, meaning what kills one stands a very good chance of destroying the entire population; all genetic diversity is dependent on random mutations. For another, it is only really suitable for single-celled organisms such as bacteria, as trying to split up a multi-celled organism once all the data has been replicated is a complicated geometric task. Other organisms have tried other methods of reproducing asexually, such as budding in yeast, but about 1 billion years ago an incredibly strange piece of genetic mutation must have taken place, possibly among several different organisms at once. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but one type of organism began requiring the genetic data from two, rather than one, different creatures, and thus was sexual reproduction, both metaphorically and literally, born.

Just about every complex organism alive on Earth today now uses this system in one form or another (although some can reproduce asexually as well, or self-fertilise), and it’s easy to see why. It may be a more complicated system, far harder to execute, but by naturally varying the genetic makeup of a species it makes the species as a whole far more resistant to external factors such as disease- natural selection being demonstrated at its finest. Perhaps is most basic form is that adopted by aquatic animals such as most fish and lobster- both will simply spray their eggs and sperm into the water (usually as a group at roughly the same time and place to increase the chance of conception) and leave them to mix and fertilise one another. The zygotes are then left to grow into adults of their own accord- a lot are of course lost to predators, representing a huge loss in terms of inputted energy, but the sheer number of fertilised eggs still produces a healthy population. It is interesting to note that this most basic of reproductive methods, performed in a similar matter by plants, is performed by such complex animals as fish (although their place on the evolutionary ladder is both confusing and uncertain), whilst supposedly more ‘basic’ animals such as molluscs have some of the weirdest and most elaborate courtship and mating rituals on earth (seriously, YouTube ‘snail mating’. That shit’s weird)

Over time, the process of mating and breeding in the animal kingdom has grown more and more complicated. Exactly why the male testes & penis and the female vagina developed in the way they did is unclear from an evolutionary perspective, but since most animals appear to use a broadly similar system (males have an appendage, females have a depository) we can presume this was just how it started off and things haven’t changed much since. Most vertebrates and insects have distinct sexes and mate via internal fertilisation of a female’s eggs, in many cases by several different males to enhance genetic diversity. However, many species also take the approach that ensuring they care for their offspring for some portion of their development is a worthwhile trade-off in terms of energy when compared to the advantages of giving them the best possible chance in life. This care generally (but not always, perhaps most notably in seahorses) is the role of the mother, males having usually buggered off after mating to leave mother & baby well alone, and the general ‘attitude’ of such an approach gives a species, especially females, a vested interest in ensuring their baby is as well-prepared as possible. This manifests itself in the process of a female choosing her partner prior to mating. Natural selection dictates that females who pick characteristics in males that result in successful offspring, good at surviving, are more likely to pass on their genes and the same attraction towards those characteristics, so over time these traits become ‘attractive’ to all females of a species. These traits tend to be strength-related, since strong creatures are generally better at competing for food and such, hence the fact that most pre-mating procedures involve a fight or physical contest of some sort between males to allow them to take their pick of available females. This is also why strong, muscular men are considered attractive to women among the human race, even though these people may not always be the most suitable to father their children for various reasons (although one could counter this by saying that they are more likely to produce children capable of surviving the coming zombie apocalypse). Sexual selection on the other hand is to blame for the fact that sex is so enjoyable- members of a species who enjoy sex are more likely to perform it more often, making them more likely to conceive and thus pass on their genes, hence the massive hit of endorphins our bodies experience both during and post sexual activity.

Broadly speaking then, we come to the ‘sex situation’ we have now- we mate by sticking penises in vaginas to allow sperm and egg to meet, and women generally tend to pick men who they find ‘attractive’ because it is traditionally an evolutionary advantage, as is the fact that we find sex as a whole fun. Clearly, however, the whole situation is a good deal more complicated than just this… but what is a multi parter for otherwise?