‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Jurassic World (2015)

So, yes: spoilers.

One way of distinguishing a redshirt from an 'actual' character would be to say: a redshirt is the sort of individual who can die without turning the larger story into a tragedy. Combine modern popular culture's allergy (broadly speaking) to tragedy and the received wisdom that 'characters dying' is a copper-bottomed way of ramping up narrative excitement and importance, and we arrive at a situation of redshirt hyperinflation, story-wise.

Which brings me to Jurassic World. I enjoyed this, and Dan (presently seven years of age) enjoyed it more. It takes a little too long to get itself going, and its big T-Rex/Indominus-Rex climactic battle leaves various key plot strands dangling. Plus, the movie can't quite make up its mind about its raptors: are they dangerous predators who could eat any of the main characters at any time, as in Park? Or are they (as per the image at the top) our allies in the war against Worser Sauri, and Chris Pratt's own personal posse? They can't be both and remain coherent as part of the story; although the film seems to want to swap from one to the other and back again for local effects of tension and thrill. That doesn't work, I think. But OK: it's bubblegum cinema and perfectly chewy and flavoursome as such.

The franchise is more than a Park, now: it's a World. What kind of world? Well, it's the world rendered both as theme park and as properly red-in-tooth-and-claw jungle. It is saying, in fact, that the former (which is to say: contemporary Capitalism, with all its comforts and expenses) is actually a sort of thin fiction stretched over How Things Really Are. How are they? Nasty. It's a jungle out there. People die. Which people? Not our hero or heroine, of course; and not the two kids whose peril provides so much Spielbergy excitement. Lots of other people though.

Being a World, this movie is in part 'about' diversity. The biodiversity of the dino-park tropes actual environmental and human diversity. So what is the text saying about diversity? Well, it is saying that our point-of-view characters are all White, and must be preserved. Of these four, two are kids and so universal ciphers. Of the adults, one, Chris Pratt's Owen, is a Natty Bumppo. The other, Claire, is an uptight WASP female whose redemption requires her figuratively and literally to let her hair down and so find sexual redemption (what other kind is there?) with our handsome male lead. The amount of time Bryce Dallas Howard spends in the latter portion of the movie semi-undressed and writhing around in the mud is quite remarkable. But she gets her man in the end, so I suppose it's all worth it.

It's when we leave the controlled compound of Ideological Whiteness and venture into the broader world of the Other that things become dodgier. A text need not specifically push a racial or cultural stereotype at the viewer for that stereotype to figure in the way the film works. It's enough that the characters play into its (White, western) audience's tacit beliefs.

A couple of for-instances, with spoilers. Take Simon Masrani, CEO of the Masrani Corporation and the owner of Jurassic World, played by Indian actor Irrfan Khan. Masrani is one of the good guys: shown resisting the attempts to militarise his dinosaurs, and characterised as much by his compassion as his business smarts. But, see, 'everyone knows' that Indians are good at compassion: Gandhi and so on. Mind you, the film doesn't really take Masrani seriously: he's a bit of a joker, thinks he can fly a helicopter when really he can't. But Indians are like that, aren't they? With their funny head-waggling, sidekick-in-Big-Bang-Theory ways. And, hilariously, this incompetence leads to his own and many other peoples' deaths when he crashes his chopper into the Pterodactyl enclosure releasing the deadly birds. Chris Pratt wouldn't do that. This is because Chris Pratt is White, and not Indian.

Its venue being a World rather than just a Park, the movie makes many such gestures towards one-dimensional diversity. There's one Black African: Omar Sy's Barry, a Raptor wrangler whose job is to play second fiddle to Chris Pratt's Owen, and who is saved from dino-death by Chris Pratt, rather than (say) the other way around. He is Noble. He is At Home In The Jungle. There's one English character, the upper class twit Zara, played by Merlin's Katie McGrath: Claire's personal assistant, she is tasked with looking after the two boys, something she is incapable of doing. Because everybody knows the English are ineffectual poshos who run awkwardly around in the wrong kind of shoes, failing to keep up with the rushing ahead Americans. Until, that is, she is eaten by one dinosaur that (to add insult to injury) is itself eaten by another. There's one Far Eastern character: B.D. Wong's smirking Dr. Henry Wu, the park's chief geneticist, who turns out to be hiding a devious and evil scheming nature behind that inscrutable smile, because what we all know about Orientals is ... look: I'm sure you take my point.

How would this film have been if the two fresh-faced kids had been snapped up and devoured by the Pterodactyls near the end? Tragic, or at least more so. Thank heavens they survived! That lots of other people didn't doesn't harsh our buzz. Because, the film is saying, the other people who die are not our people. They are the world's redshirts: variously black, and brown and yellow and poorer-white (security guards and so on). Not a very comfortable state of affairs, in the larger sense, when you come to think of it. But, hey: look at the shiny dinos!


  1. I guess you could add to this economy of tragedy that redshirt hyperinflation needs a compensating emphasis (directorial subvention?) on something. Whereas the impending peril of people being eaten by dinosaurs isn't actually tragic, the threat of divorce is. There's so much domestic trauma currency going around in Jurassic World: looks, articulated fears, sudden realizations of value, even jokes.
    Luckily we survive or are spared that threat, and out of the disaster a new family emerges.

    It is of course a platitude to point this out, except that the film is so up front about it: while waiting for dinosaur attacks, do notice the leers and fears of adolescents and kids. On the one hand it just is that type of film. A family film. On the other hand, it is, as you write, a very specific type of family with which the spectators should identify.