Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Libertine

The Libertine is a biopic about John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), and heaven knows we've all been waiting for one of those. Technically, Wilmot's claim to fame is as a minor literary figure who left behind a collection of intermittently admired poetry and (though the attribution has been questioned) one of the strangest plays ever written. Largely airbrushed out of mainstream literary history, and entirely unteachable in schools, all for reasons which will become apparent shortly, he's a footnote in history.

But, nonetheless, Wilmot is an interesting character. For many historical figures, the interest lies in what they achieved and why they did it. For Wilmot, it's quite the opposite. Despite evident intelligence and talent, he just couldn't be bothered. He began partying at university in his early teens, and kept going until he died from syphilis at age 33. Between parties, he fitted in a spot of writing, much of it jawdroppingly offensive. He lived an utterly pointless life, to the immense irritation of those who had to work for a living, and those who just felt he should be doing something more productive with his talents.

Among Wilmot's more ludicrous activities, he managed to get himself banished from court for several months after inadvertantly giving the king a copy of the wrong poem. He had, by mistake, given Charles II a copy of A Satyre on Charles II, which opens by applauding the quality of female genitalia in England; discusses the king's sexual inadequacies in some detail; explains what steps his mistress had taken to rectify the problem; and wraps up with the helpful information that "All monarchs I hate."

You can probably see why somebody wanted to make a film about him.

As written by Laurence Dunmore, and played by Johnny Depp, Wilmot is a nihilistic cynic. He's too intelligent to fall for any of the social conventions of the day. He's not remotely fooled by the trappings of royalty. He doesn't care what the uneducated masses think. He sees no particular meaning to life. Unconvinced by any of the usual social reasoning of the period, but without any particularly good ideas for what might replace it, Wilmot is simply making the best of it by having lots of alcohol, lots of women, and indulging random ideas that happen to cross his mind. And, it seems, winding people up for the hell of it. It's not so much that he's lazy as that he just can't find anything to motivate him.

The exception is his (historically slightly doubtful) relationship with Elizabeth Barry, one of the first stage actresses. Dunmore's spin on this is that Wilmot finds in the theatre the sort of meaning which is missing in the real world - even if it's solely man-made meaning. It's better than nothing, and therefore one of the only things that truly holds his interest.

All of this is a very interesting take on the character, and not surprisingly Johnny Depp's central performance carries the film on its own. Wilmot is such a powerful character that you can pretty much put him on screen for 90 minutes and it doesn't greatly matter what he's doing.

Which is fortunate, because as the story progresses, Dunmore seems to struggle to hammer it into a satisfying arc. A storyline about Barry reporting on him to the king is introduced and then simply dropped. His deathbed conversion rather comes out of nowhere. Supporting characters are often hugely underdeveloped. And the script doesn't get the best mileage out of Wilmot's remarkable play.

Assuming he wrote it, of course, which is still disputed in some circles. But let's go with the majority and assume that he did. Dunmore's script has the king pressgang Wilmot into doing something marginally useful for once. He commissions Wilmot to write a play commemorating his achievements. This stretches history to breaking point, since it's unlikely that even Wilmot would have been mad enough to respond to that commission with Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery - or indeed that the play would have made it as far as a performance in that context.

Nonetheless, Sodom was indeed reportedly performed once for a court audience, which is amazing by any standards. In the film, it's presented (rather superficially) as Wilmot just pissing off the king by handing in obscene gibberish in response to the commission. In reality, the play is far weirder than Dunmore makes out. Structured as a tragedy but played unequivocally for laughs (and with orgy scenes scattered liberally throughout), the play follows Bolloxinion, King of Sodom, who decides that gay sex is so fantastic that he's going to make it compulsory throughout the kingdom. Ruin and disaster ensue, along with plenty of mock-serious moralising and a lot of on-stage sex. The play features such memorable couplets as this: "What tho the letchery be dry, 'tis smart / A Turkish arse I love with all my heart." A committed and thoroughly active bisexual himself, Wilmot didn't believe a word of the play's heavily tongue-in-cheek moralising, and hammered the point home in the final act with some ludicrously unconvincing epilogues.

The play is not frequently performed.

None of this demented satire on attitudes to homosexuality - which has also been read in some circles as a metaphor for the government's attitude to Catholics - makes it into the play. In fact, the fact that it's a play about gay sex gets shunted to the side as well, with Wilmot's bisexuality only mentioned in passing in the prologue. This seems a very strange decision - it's at the heart of the play, central to the character, and you can hardly start getting moralistic when you're writing about Wilmot.

All of which, however, only really became apparent to me after I started reading up on him. In the context of the film it more or less works, but so much more could have been done with it. And it shows up the problem with the film, which never really gets to grips with Wilmot's intellectual side. He's still a powerful enough figure to hold the film together in the absence of a strong narrative, and on its own terms it's an entertaining enough film - but I find myself wanting to read a biography that deals more thoroughly with this fascinatingly odd character.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Survivor Series 2005

Wrestling pay-per-view time again, and boy, there's a lot to say about this show.

Sunday night's show is Survivor Series. This is one of the big shows on the calendar, which has been on the schedule every year since 1987, back in the days when there were only a handful of pay-per-views. The name buys it a bit of automatic credibility. It helps that it's also one of the few long-running wrestling shows with a half-decent name. Wrestlemania falls firmly into the same category as "Doctor Doom" or "Top of the Pops", where only long exposure to the phrase can enable you to overlook its sheer awfulness. Survivor Series, though... not so bad.

Originally, Survivor Series was a gimmick show full of eight-man elimination tag team matches. They abandoned that a few years back, for a variety of reasons. An entire show of eight-man elimination tags gets a bit repetitive. It requires an awful lot of wrestlers, which in turn requires a deep roster (and costs more money, because the wrestlers get paid extra for appearing on pay-per-view). And there aren't enough stables of affiliated characters these days for the matches to make storyline sense. Nonetheless, as a nod to the past, Survivor Series always includes an elimination tag team match, usually as the main event.

So much for the background to the show. Now to the depressing stuff.

The weeks since the last pay-per-view have been a grim period for the WWE. Following on a run of baffling and badly-written shows, and some increasingly erratic decisions, the WWE has been plagued by a string of disasters. Dave Batista, the Smackdown world champion, has suffered a severe back injury which, if he had any sense, he'd be taking time off to rehab. Oddly enough, one side-effect of inflating your physique with steroids is an increased susceptibility to injuries of this sort. Steroid use is, obviously, rife in wrestling, and the WWE has traditionally taken the attitude of turning a blind eye. (Owner and chairman Vince McMahon is a bodybuilder himself, and likes his men large and implausible.)

With Batista injured, the original plan was to have him lose the title. He was scheduled to defend the belt in a three-way match (thus disguising his injury) with Eddie Guerrero and Randy Orton, which would have taken place a week last Sunday. On the morning of the show, Eddie Guerrero was found dead in his hotel room at the age of 38, from heart failure. A post mortem showed that he had an enlarged heart. This is a side-effect of, you guessed it, steroids.

The WWE duly filled the next week's shows with entirely sincere tributes to Guerrero, a genuinely great performer with immense technical skill, charisma, and a rare ability to fluently combine the Mexican and American wrestling styles. He's left behind a string of magnificent matches that will continue to inspire other wrestlers for decades to come.

That done, the WWE headed off for the scheduled European tour, at which point Nick Dinsmore (Eugene) was found passed out in a hotel lobby from painkillers. This was, to put it mildly, not the week for a wrestler to be found unconscious in a hotel lobby. Painkiller addiction is a chronic problem in professional wrestling, because even though it's co-operative, it's still high impact stuff, and a lot of the performers are carrying injuries. Dinsmore is currently in rehab.

All of which leads us to Vince McMahon's entirely unexpected announcement this week that the WWE is to reintroduce drug testing, to cover illegal recreational drugs, abuse of prescription drugs, and - remarkably - steroids. Even more strangely, the WWE filmed Vince announcing the new policy to the troops, and posted it on their website. The WWE had a steroid testing policy once before, but purely as a PR stunt, and they quietly dropped it once Vince was acquitted on steroid-dealing charges. This time, by all accounts, Vince has taken the death of Eddie Guerrero extremely hard and is deadly serious about the idea. How long it'll last is anyone's guess, but the next few weeks are going to provide some fascinating television as some guys change drastically in appearance. And we're not just talking about the obvious steroid freaks - there are plenty of wrestlers of more normal appearance who are also heavily reliant on steroids, given the demands of a heavy schedule on the road.

Meanwhile, back at the storylines, build-up to this show has inevitably been derailed. Having lost an entire week's television to the tribute shows, the WWE found themselves racing through necessary storylines on this week's programming. The big storyline at the moment is the two shows feuding with each other; they seem to have cut their losses and gone with a relatively small card for this show, but there are only six matches announced, and they can't seriously be planning to give them an average of half an hour each. Chances are they'll add a couple of impromptu matches on the show, since at the moment there's nothing scheduled for the Smackdown Tag Team champions or the Cruiserweight Title. (This latter is particularly bizarre, since Nunzio won the belt in Rome during the European tour on an un-televised show, only to lose it back to the previous champion at the Smackdown tapings. Why not just wait and do the match on Sunday, where the card desperately needs padding?)

Anyway... here's what's been announced so far.

1. Elimination match: Team Raw (Shawn Michaels, the Big Show, Kane, Chris Masters & Carlito) -v- Team Smackdown (Batista, JBL, Randy Orton, Bobby Lashley & Rey Mysterio). Unusually, this is a match with no clearly defined good/evil division. Both teams contain a mixture of both, and strangely, the writers have never really bothered touching on the question of how these unlikely teams are supposed to work together. Which is strange, because that ought to be a blindingly obvious storyline route which (even if it's only a feint) should make for a more interesting match. The idea that the wrestlers are loyal to their own show is just about plausible; but the WWE appear to have a curious conviction that there are such things as "Raw fans" and "Smackdown fans", a proposition for which no evidence whatever exists.

Raw's team consists of the still-reliable veteran Shawn Michaels; the Big Show and Kane, two giants currently working as the indestructible Raw Tag Team Champions; Chris Masters, a big bodybuilder type who's being given a big push for no discernible reason other than his physique; and a rather out-of-place Carlito, a midcard villain who's more of a schemer than a fighter and should logically be running a mile from getting involved in this sort of thing when he could be doing something more self-interested. Michaels is excellent, the giants are decent in their role, Carlito is a bit hit and miss, and Masters...

Well, Masters is an interesting one. Because if they're remotely serious about the steroid testing thing - and all sources indicate they are - then he's not going to look like that for much longer, in which case bang goes his gimmick. And while he's not an awful wrestler, he doesn't have the sort of talent or charisma that would get him out of the midcard without that body. He was booked in this match before the steroid-testing thing came up. If they still push him strongly as a main event talent, well, they're in denial.

The Smackdown team are an equally odd bunch. In the face of all common sense, Batista has apparently decided to work through his injury. This seems patently absurd, and they've done a storyline to establish that the character is working injured. They really need to get the Smackdown title off him, but apparently that's not the current plan. JBL and Orton are established main event villains, with Orton in the awkward position of filling the gap left by Eddie Guerrero. (He was simply added to the team without explanation, which is probably for the best.) Underdog Rey Mysterio is always reliably entertaining, and Lashley is... another big guy being pushed for no other reason. Again, it'll be very interesting to see what they do with him in this match, and where they see his future in the bold, steroid-free world allegedly to come.

Regular readers will be thrilled to know that the WWE website has now got a proper entrance video for Lashley, although admirers of extremely poor graphics work are invited to enjoy this gripping five-second loop for Gregory Helms. Yes, that's really the poor bastard's entrance video.

There's enough talent in here, combined with enough range of characters, that they could have a very good match so long as it's well booked, and the bozos are either eliminated quickly or kept on the outside. If they do something really stupid, like book an extended Masters/Lashley sequence, then it could be grim. But, somewhat against my better judgment, I'm actually looking forward to this one. It doesn't ultimately matter who wins, so I imagine one of the heels is going to turn on their teammates to cost them the match and set up more storylines to come.

2. WWE Heavyweight Title: John Cena -v- Kurt Angle (with Khosrow Daivari). This is the Raw world title, and John Cena still has it, despite increasing problems with crowds turning on him. There's a division of opinion about whether this is because they've realised he's a middling wrestler at best, or whether the character has been badly written and lost the edge that made him popular in the first place. He has, nonetheless, had very good matches against Kurt Angle in the past. But there are big problems with Cena's character at the moment, and there's a lot to be said for him losing the belt now, allowing him (or some other hero) to chase the title over the next few months leading up to the big Wrestlemania show in spring 2006, when the hero traditionally wins the title.

Unfortunately, Kurt Angle may not be the man to do it with. Although an excellent wrestler, Angle's health problems have been an increasing concern over recent years, which is why he's spent so much time in deliberately undemanding matches intended to keep him on TV without risking further injury. He may simply not be in good enough health to sustain the demands of the champion's schedule, which would require him to wrestle an awful lot of main events at live shows.

The gimmick this month is that Angle has brought in the villainous Daivari as his personal referee. Heel ref matches get old very quickly, and if they're serious about having Daivari referee every single one of Angle's matches, I can barely imagine the boredom to follow. I'm also less than pleased to see Daivari back on TV at all - he was originally conceived as the sidekick of Mohammad Hassan, a deeply unpleasant and frankly racist character who was insincerely presented as an attempt to explore the position of Arab Americans. And if you believe that, I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you. Hassan was eventually taken off TV after vociferous complaints from both the British and American networks, both of whom felt that it was simply unacceptable to have an Arab character engaging in acts of mock terrorism the day after the July 7 bombings. Mark Copani, who played the character, has now retired from wrestling, and a good thing too. The Hassan character, and the audience reaction to him, is perhaps one of the most unintentionally compelling demonstrations in recent years of why people hate America.

Neither Hassan nor Daivari, incidentally, were actually Arabs. Mark Copani is ethnically Italian. Daivari is of genuine middle eastern heritage, but he's not an Arab - although admittedly, to the average American viewer, that may be close enough. The language he regularly rants in is Farsi, not Arabic. Nitpickers may also wonder why Daivari seems to be written to speak English as a second language, despite the character being born in Minnesota.

Some have said that it is unfortunate that Copani's career was effectively destroyed by the backlash to the Hassan character. I say, fuck him. Anyone prepared to pander to racism for career advancement deserves everything he gets. If Daivari's career is ultimately destroyed the same way, I shall watch and cheer. Yes, there's a long tradition of racial stereotypes in wrestling, but guess what? There's a long tradition of racial stereotypes everywhere, and everyone else had the common sense to realise it was unacceptable.

Since his return, Daivari has been used as a more generic villain, which is somewhat reassuring. If he does start to lapse back into his previous territory, we may start to have serious problems with the UK airings of the shows, since Ofcom have recently ruled (correctly) that the Hassan character was utterly unacceptable. Generally I don't approve of censorship of imported shows, but if Sky were to cut out everything Hassan and Daivari appeared in, my viewing experience would be greatly improved.

As for the match, it'll probably be good but dragged down by the gimmickry. The crowd reaction to Cena will, as usual, be interesting to watch. I suspect doubts over Angle's health will lead Cena to retain tonight in a generally entertaining match. It'll probably be the usual finish where the heel ref is knocked out and a proper referee comes out to count the pin - although in the interests of rehabilitating Cena's rebel character, a better idea would be for Cena to realise that Daivari can't disqualify him (because the title doesn't change hands on a DQ) and just attack the guy throughout the match in an attempt to knock him out.

3. WWE Intercontinental Title, Last Man Standing match: Ric Flair v Triple H. 1980s champion and aging playboy Ric Flair still holds Raw's secondary title after defeating Triple H in a cage match at Taboo Tuesday. However, he very thoughtfully won by escaping the cage rather than pinning HHH (even though he was out cold), which is the tenuous justification for this rematch. A Last Man Standing match can only be won by knockout, which means Triple H isn't going to get pinned tomorrow night either. You might think it was more damaging for your character to lose by knockout than to get pinned for three seconds, but for some strange reason, that's not the way wrestlers tend to see it.

Even at age 56, and decades past his prime, Flair is still capable of surprisingly good matches. Quite rightly, he's being writtten in this feud as the underdog facing a former world champion who's still at his physical peak. Last month's match was much stronger than I'd expected, and this will probably be good as well.

Triple H has to win a match in this feud at some point - it really would be damaging if he was comprehensively defeated by Flair at this stage in his career. But he almost certainly doesn't want the IC Title, which is arguably beneath him as a main eventer. (Personally, I disagree - but again, that's probably the way he sees it.) As the boss's son-in-law, HHH tends to get what he wants.

I suspect we're heading towards another rematch in January, with Flair losing the title in the meantime. They might simply go with the idea that Flair hasn't pinned HHH yet, but I wouldn't be altogether shocked if they set up the rematch with the most annoying finish to this sort of match - a draw by double knockout.

4. WWE United States Title, Best of Seven, match 1: Chris Benoit v Booker T. Benoit and Booker T have been feuding over this title for the last month in a storyline that's gone rather well. Quite rightly, the WWE are allowing it to continue rather than panicking and pushing either guy back to the top of the card. The title is currently vacant after their last match, on this week's Smackdown, ended with a ludicrously contrived draw by simultaneous pinfall. (Yes, it is technically possible for two men to pin one another at the same time, but not easily.)

The point of this storyline, which is probably flying over the heads of a large number of viewers, is that Benoit and Booker had an acclaimed best-of-seven series in WCW in the late 1990s, when they were feuding over the WCW Television Title. They're both talented and experienced wrestlers - Benoit in particular is excellent - and sure to have good matches. The bigger challenge is to keep some variation and to build a storyline over seven matches, but they managed it last time. Barring injury, this should be a solid mainstay for a show that desperately needs some stability. Obviously, it doesn't really matter who wins the first match - it depends what story you want to tell, and whether the show needs a match where the good guy wins.

5. WWE Women's Title: Trish Stratus v Melina. This is another inter-show match, with Melina marooned on Smackdown as MNM's manager. There's no real storyline to this, and it was thrown together in the last week. For practical purposes, Melina surely can't win, because the rest of the Women's Division is on Raw. If Melina wins the title, she'll have nobody to defend it against except for Christy Hemme. If by some chance she does win then it's to further an inter-show storyline (and after a month of them, I'm not at all convinced that would be wise - these things have to seem special). Trish's main storyline at the moment is her relationship with disturbingly enthusiastic sidekick/stalker Mickie James (now with own entrance video!), so presumably that's going to figure in somewhere. Presumably Melina's pet thugs MNM, the Smackdown tag champions, will also turn up, since they're not booked on the show otherwise.

The match may actually be quite decent. Although she's used as a manager, Melina is a trained wrestler and somebody Trish can work with. And Trish is a much better wrestler than appearances might suggest - one of the quiet pleasures of the WWE over the last few years has been watching her arrive in the promotion as another interchangeable bimbo, and develop into a genuine talent who's put in the hours to become more than just a pretty face.

6. Eric Bischoff v Teddy Long. Uh... right. This is the figurehead manager of Raw versus the figurehead manager of Smackdown because... uh... um... dunno. This would have made some degree of sense as a build towards the main event elimination match, but it's utterly incomprehensible on the same card. The match will probably be dreadful and hopefully be short. Unless it's used to set up an angle to pay off later in the night, I can't imagine what the point might be. Otherwise, Bischoff is an evil authority figure and Long is the honest, dependable one, so common sense says that the good guy wins when it doesn't matter.

And that's the announced card - six matches, one of which is between two non-wrestlers and doesn't count. This is a pay-per-view in the UK, so is it a buy? The main event is undeniably intriguing, and will probably be entertaining. If it isn't, it'll probably still be perversely compelling from a fandom perspective. The IC and US title matches should both be good, and Cena/Angle has been good before. Trish and Melina... well, it'll be above average for the women's division, at the very worst. I suspect a couple of matches of random padding to fill out the card (such as a Smackdown tag title defence). But yeah, this is a decent-looking card. I'm buying.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


It's been a busy couple of weeks, which has kept me away for a bit. But back to work.

I deliberately held off on writing about Rome until after episode 3 aired earlier in the week. Or, as Americans call it, "episode 4." Because the BBC have treated this show very strangely. Despite co-producing it with HBO, they were not at all satisfied with the first three episodes. So they set about them with shears, cutting them down to two parts. In other words, they trimmed 33% out of the first three episodes.

Quite what the hell they were thinking remains something of a mystery. The BBC's official explanation, which is interesting in its own right, was that the first three episodes contained an awful lot of exposition which was necessary for stupid Americans, but not for clever, well-informed British people. I rather doubt that the viewers of BBC2 and HBO are that far apart when it comes to schoolboy knowledge of extremely basic Roman history. The director believes that the real aim was to focus more on the tits. And to be honest, that's a more plausible explanation than the idea that the BBC truly believes that Cato is a household name in the UK.

It may well be true that opening episodes in their original form were too slow. I'm under no illusions that HBO are flawless - I've sat through season 1 of Carnivale. But you can't just yank out a third of a show without crippling it. There are issues of pacing to consider. Not surprisingly, the first two UK episodes are virtually unwatchable, with characters seeming to teleport around Europe at a speed that would be surprising even today. Episode three (or four) is significantly better, which suggests that the BBC would have been well-advised to keep their shears off the earlier episodes.

That aside, the show has divided UK critics. In large part their reaction seems to depend on what they were expecting from it. The HBO name, and the concept of BBC period drama, carry certain connotations with them. A lot of people seem to have expected, if not high art, then at least the sort of middlebrow serious drama that makes Daily Mail readers feel good about themselves. To an extent, Rome delivers that when it's dealing with Roman politics.

But when it isn't dealing with Caesar and the big names, the show spends more of its time following the various fictional characters on the margins of history. And they're basically engaged in a historical soap opera. Some ropey acting from a couple of supporting characters doesn't help, but many of the storylines are straight out of the daytime soap 101 manual. Atia is written - and played - as a historical version of Joan Collins in Dynasty.

And, as a straight soap opera with a bit of amusing historical detail thrown in, it's quite entertaining. But even then, I find myself wondering at times what the point is. It does rather come across as though the creators liked Roman history, thought the details of the culture were entertaining, and then realised that (beyond the historical re-enactment) they didn't actually have much of a story to tell about it. Historical dramas connect with audiences because of the ways in which the characters are like us, not the way in which they're unlike us.

Rome doesn't really have that, because once you get past the historical dressing, you're dealing with two-dimensional characters in stock soap plots. The only character who comes close to feeling real to me is Marc Antony, and that's almost entirely due to James Purefoy's performance rather than the script. In fact, the script generally can't make up its mind whether it wants to write real people or go for over-the-top melodrama.

The production values are undoubtedly impressive, and the genuine historical politics make for entertaining television. Otherwise, though, everything we've seen so far has been a disappointingly lightweight piece of drama.