Ancestry, Bards, Blackbeard, Buccaneers, Caribbean, Chuck Palahniuk, Cinema, Consulting, Corsairs, Critique, Culture, Dead Man's Chest, Edward Teach, Fight Club, Film, History, Hollywood, Howard Pyle, Literature, Media, Piracy, Pirates, Robert Louis Stevenson, Simulcra, Sir Henry Morgan, Teddy Bears Picnic
JACK SPARROW KNOWS JACK ….
(“Or Hollywood, you can’t handle the truth”)
© The Tartan Trouvere 2013
This well deserved, long in the construct, diatribe (meditation if you prefer) here fashioned into words, has been some years in the making. Like some character from a 1930’s Disney cartoon standing next to a thought bubble, turning ever more red until steam jets from their ears, I too have reached my virtual limit. “What ails you?” they cry, as I stalk past the taverns clutching Gibbon to my breast. “Where shall I begin?”
The thrust of this textual barb rests firmly upon the issue of Hollywood’s seeming inability to deal accurately with historical subjects. It isn’t just Hollywood either, the blind force of ignorance applied to anything period, is equally pernicious in that most excellent medium of mediocrity, Television. Any number of pertinent monikers could replace the initials TV … Totally Void, Terribly Vague, Terminally Vacuous; (feel free to make up your own and award points if you get to more than twenty). By virtue of that understanding however, let us not weaken in our resolve, Hollywood was getting it wrong long before TV ever got it wrong – chicken/egg denizens need not apply.
In the midst of researching a paper I am writing – which could end in book or thesis – I happened upon a brief essay by an author/historian I admire. This essay was a concise expose’ on the perils (for there are few rewards) of working for the film industry as a Historical consultant. The author of the article couched the subjects of his gentle, yet withering derision, in terms which even they might understand, referring to them as Pirates. Since my youth, I had often wondered why it was we never saw a serious document of historically accurate Piracy set to film, and for the record, I pose the same question to Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers”. The most obvious response, one which I take for glib, is the old “It’s entertainment, not a documentary”, to which I counter; a Historical work which bears little or no relation to the history it purports to portray, is neither interesting or entertaining … it is boorish.
It begs the question, what is the motivation, or lack thereof, where there is such little care taken to ensure the authenticity of the subject? Can we assume the producers of such works don’t care themselves, or is it that they have come to believe the lowest common denominator is the only thing the public deserves and understands? Taken as a brief survey to expectation and disappointment, a cursory glance at public reviews of the many history based films that Hollywood has produced, provides ample evidence that the intended audience is usually not the real audience for these films at all.
People who value and appreciate history can be pedantic in the extreme. As Santa is a martinet for good behaviour, history buffs are equally tyrannical when it comes to subjects near and dear to their hearts being “period correct”. So what doesn’t Hollywood understand? Returning to the story of our History Consultant; a man with a few literary feathers in his cap, whose earliest forays into the world of media had him observe this of Radio …
“My book was favourably reviewed by the Chicago Tribune and I could follow publication of the review around the country by papers in the Tribune chain as I received calls at odd times from talk show hosts who had read the review and decided that pirates were the subject of the day. This was my introduction to the vagaries of radio talk shows where vivid imagination and few facts chase one another. The lesson that came out of this was the need to talk in soundbites, for the hosts really did not want you to say anything, but were really intent on listening to themselves talk.” 1
It would appear that the makers of films based in history suffer from a similar impediment, one in which historical accuracy merely reflects their own beliefs and limited understanding – a pox on historical accuracy! The curious might inquire to the reason so many historical films seem to stray so awkwardly off track, and it seems the Chinese (or is it Japanese?) might have already had the answer in whispers. One of the many shortcomings in the bigger than Ben Hur enterprise of film production, is that many hands make light work. The very nature of the method ensures the end product is more often than not light on content as a consequence. About those whispers, our Consultant continues
“The next stage is production which comes when the funder has bought
the ideas and preliminary scripts and is ready to put real money on the table.
More people are hired as script writers, producers, directors and ‘gofers’. As
more staff were hired I had less contact with the crew, especially because
they started to travel to tropical places to film the episodes. For all of my
pleading for a more ‘realistic’ show I lost contact with the new people with
predictable results.” 1
As with Chinese/Japanese whispers, the more people an idea passes through, the less likely it is to remain intact by the time it reaches its destination. A ship needs the firm hand of a good captain to keep it on course and when the crew begin adding their two bob into the navigable calculations, trouble generally looms.
“I realized that the real power lies with the people who do the filming. As the advisor you are not there, you are not consulted and when something is in the can it is ‘real’ and your views are not.” 1
It is not impossible for Hollywood to produce superb films in period setting, but efforts like ‘Master and Commander’, an exception to the rule, owe everything to the will, vision and integrity of its director. The aforementioned was a box office smash, so one is left to wonder why more films are not made in the same vein? As suggested by the Consulting Historian, once he lost contact with the main players and the work was handed on down the line, so the integrity of the agreed plot line began to lose touch with reality.
Here he recounts a frustrating and hilarious episode when trying to alert the production team to the absurdity of a scene already filmed. The discussion takes place with the post production director along with many principals in the room.
“The plot demanded that the ship sail into a hurricane. Now, no right-thinking sailor would sail into a hurricane. Every instinct would be turned to sailing away as fast as possible. There was an additional problem. This ship had to sail right into a hurricane and then stop. Such a maneuver would send the ship to the bottom even if it could be done, but true to my status as a mercenary, I provided dialogue that would stop, or at least, slow down, the ship. Unfortunately, I could not stop myself from adding to the script a comment on how real sailors would recognize the impossibility of stopping a ship in a hurricane and if they saw sailors as a potential audience perhaps they might want to rethink this part of the film.” 1
Our consultant was mild in his assessment of the sheer idiocy of the manoeuvre suggested, but the price of action in many a film has come at the cost of plausibility. As I have also found out to my complete lack of surprise, in this life, you can’t tell people anything they don’t want to know and hear without being blacklisted for your trouble. In point of fact, I’m often gleefully determined to steer a conversation onto the rocks, knowing full well my fellow passengers don’t want to go there and that I’m plotting my own destruction into the bargain. I see it as a civic duty to make sure something goes in the punch bowl when stood opposite the archetypes of glib. The diplomacy of truth requires a far subtler hand than mine … I tend to crash through communications windows swinging on a chandelier.
“Work accomplished, I sent the cassette and my comments and rewrites
back to the studio. Days, then weeks, went by and I heard nothing, a sure
sign that I was being summarily dumped. I was naive enough to think that
my comments about sailors would be taken as an amusing comment. It was,
instead, an insult to the powers that be. If they wanted to sail a ship into a
hurricane in defiance of the laws of physics, then it would sail into a
hurricane and silly comments from ‘experts’ be damned – especially when
tensions were high in the production company over the rumors regarding
the project being over budget and no good. I have learned since that
mercenaries should take the money and run and leave their words of wisdom stuck in a file in their word processor.” 1
It is hardly a mystery that the fate of the above author was as he surmised. As a consultant he was metaphorically marooned, having done his best to fulfill the task he was initially hired to perform … consult. It is tempting to speculate on how many big budget films have suffered the same fate, gone to release, with the makers knowing full well their historical Fonzies are lost to a shark jumping loop set to infinite repeat. Is it unfair to pick on films like ‘Pirates of the Carribean’, when to be completely frank, it is a Pirate movie based on a theme park ride? Historians, or lovers of history, would be well aware before shelling out money, that Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow was unlikely to lend academic weight to the subject matter.
The pain of it is, the look of a film like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, is absolutely spot on in so many ways. And while it’s understood that this foray into the land of Disney is fantasy – having more in common with Peter Pan than 17th century Panama – how hard would it be to make just one amazing, serious and historically accurate Pirate movie? It’s not that POTC was a bad movie, it is that every Pirate movie ever made is constructed from the same fluff. As the author to our consultancy insights mused in the closing stages of his article, all of these films have one thing in common; they have little or nothing to do with Piracy.
Even Historical re-enactors are riddled with the same rot these so-called period films peddle for facts. What is often re-created is fantasy wholesale rather than an accurate rendering of what was once true. The fact that the visual media record representing the Pirate story is so overblown with fantasy dross, creates a situation whereby fantasy becomes accepted reality and the unreal is taken for real. Trying to sort that basket of snakes from a coil of rope becomes fraught with problems once you’ve had nearly a century of images reinforcing the tropes.
Central to my argument is the vague notion, at some juncture in creation, film has a responsibility to provide an accurate record of our lives. Even in the case of fictional stories, loosely based on historical facts like Alexandre Dumas ‘Three Musketeers’, we find that Hollywood struggles to render true the grave moments found in the book. This obsession with watering life down extends to trivialising depth itself, or things which have their basis in reality. The fear of which is what exactly, that we might see the world as it really is? The pervasive mentality which harbours the idea that entertainment must reside within false representation, is the most insidious aspect of Hollywood. It equates to treating people as simpletons and keeps us in a state of suspended reality; a state which is arguably suggestive of arrested development. I won’t take that any further unless I’m offered Gin …
Who then does it serve to maintain the fantasy status quo? In the not too distant past, children were not always spared the potential horrors of the real world. Grimms tales take us from one nightmare to the next and the lessons of life are etched in each story, dire allegory that cautioned children to heed their parents. ‘The Teddy Bears Picnic’ song, written circa 1907 with words added in the 1930’s, spares children very little should they decide to run off into the woods without their parents supervision. The first and last stanzas of the tune are terrifying … as I vividly recall from my own childhood!
‘If you go down in the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise
If you go down in the woods today you’d better go in disguise
For every bear that ever there was will gather there for certain
Because today’s the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic
If you go down in the woods today you better not go alone
It’s lovely down in the woods today but safer to stay at home
For every bear that ever there was will gather there for certain
Because today’s the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic.’ 4
Hollywood’s soul is strictly commercial, it communicates at the narrowest possible bandwidth, which also happens to be the shortest. The studio heads are glorified advertising agents who want punters leaving their films transfixed with smiles and asking few questions. If we started asking questions, the fantasy could implode and we’d be left with reality, which is apparently bad for business. If the film industry intends to go on as it has, Historians through a sheer vacuum of fact, might well become the new priests of the 21st Century. And if we consent to a culture in which media – normally a barometer for reality – is constantly manipulated and censored, then we indenture ourselves to a future of misunderstanding. Nothing can grow in that vacuum, knowledge and the hunger to learn simply dies. Worst of all, the original meaning of things common to our social conventions are lost to the sands of time. Enter the new priests to interpret the lost knowledge for you.
Basic information now becomes Biblically important, and as what happens on a screen starts to become equated with reality, the facts are turned on their heads as truth/history flies out the window. When the film industry fails to accurately reflect history and reality, young minds are at greatest risk. To a child, representation within the sensory cathedral of cinema, is elevated to the form of indoctrination with quasi religious underpinnings. When the world outside the Cathedral fails to match the world within, the mind seeks the opiate and rationalises the facts. The line between fact, myth and fiction are soon blurred and discrimination finds itself a lock with no key to open it. When this happens you have arrived at a place of information without context or meaning.
A perfect example of ‘information without context or meaning’ is to be found in the Pirate tune, ‘Dead Man’s Chest’. There are few adults who have escaped childhood without playing at Pirate, or having sung “ho ho ho and a bottle of rum”. The irony is that while we expect to know things as an adult that we did not know as children, we often know little more in adulthood than we did as kids. Neither child nor adult would know the meaning behind “Dead Man’s Chest” today, and this is why Jack Sparrow knows jack. Jack Sparrow will never reveal anything about Pirates to anybody, because he can’t … he isn’t a Pirate. What Jack is, is a mechanism of adverstising. Nobody in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie can inform you about Pirates – even in an entertaining way – because it is ‘information without context or meaning’. What it is however, is a ride at Disney.
Only the most superficial signs and symbols are available for decoding in the fantasy land of Hollywood. The richness of meaning hidden within songs like ‘Dead Man’s Chest’ remains esoteric to the likes of Hollywood’s secular parish. They file in like church goers and tithe to their gods at the candy bar. “Keep them in the dark and feed them shit” quoth the producers as the credits begin to roll and the sweet packets start to crackle. The anticipation is killing them, it’s death by a thousand cuts … of light.
Much like Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the Teddy Bears Picnic song, ‘Dead Man’s Chest’ is coded with important information. As with the genetic memory of migrationary birds, knowing instinctively where to fly, human beings unconsciously gravitate to the rich content of historical allegory. These experiential mind maps comprise a time travel tapestry that links the wisdom and knowledge of our ancestors to those of us in the here and now. They serve the purpose of ensuring the positive continuity of human development through knowledge, understanding, experience and practice. But Hollywood is a circuit breaker in that vital evolutionary path, and like a Corsair of the mind, it robs us of the real, replacing it with glitter.
So what is ‘Dead Man’s Chest’ anyway? The first stanza is attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson and goes …
‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum Devil and drink had done for the rest Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum’ 3
The meaning of this simple verse is still remote in spite of eighty odd years of Hollywood Pirate films. I wouldn’t like to guess how many Pirate films have been made – going all the way back to the silent era of Douglas Fairbanks Snr’s ‘The Black Pirate’ – but it would not be unreasonable to expect some detail – beyond the stereotype of Buccaneer life – to be imparted after so many goes at the hoop. It therefore remains the role of the Historian to take on the mantle of modern Bard and story teller, to pass on information imbued with context and meaning; Hollywood and Television will not, or cannot.
And now I’ll tell you something Jack Sparrow can’t. The story of the ‘Dead Mans Chest‘ is itself attributed to Edward Teach, infamously known as Blackbeard. Teach discovered a plot by some of his crew and suspecting a mutiny marooned the fifteen men on a
‘… rock off Tortola in the Virgin Islands. it was known as the Dead Man’s Chest because of its utter sterility and its swarm of lizards, mosquitoes and snakes. He (Blackbeard) gave each man a cutlass and a bottle of rum, hoping they would kill each other.’ 2
Would it surprise anyone to know that the singing of ‘The Dead Man’s Chest’ is a celebration of the marooning of 15 men on a speck in the ocean, with the hope and intent of those men killing and cannibalising each other while drunk? The entire scene is a nightmare and if accurately portrayed in film would probably end up R rated anyway. The trivialising of Pirate reality by Hollywood, is a subtle form of cultural theft. Cherry picking an adventure from a Historical orchard of terror is precisely what Hollywood does best. They pull the teeth from real history and place fangs in the mouths of clowns, elevating horror to level of the ridiculous and rendering History mute. ‘Nightmare on Elm street’ is a comedy compared to the real world of Buccaneers. It should do us no harm to know the truth either.
It isn’t the public that can’t face the harsh realities of life, History is there to teach and guide us, it was the world of our forebears and as such reflects our own story. It is Hollywood that can’t deal with reality, and whether by design, hubris or plain belligerence, it remains out of touch with it. Any hope for a faithful presentation of History from an industry in la la land, is filed under ‘W’ for wishful thinking. What Hollywood fails to comprehend is that the truth of our human story is far more exciting and adventure filled than anything they could hope to cook up in CGI. I have a hunch, if Hollywood chose to accurately tell the stories of our human past, there would be little need for the Fantasy genre at all. Dipping into the legends of our ancestors, one need not rely on Tolkien, as we find there were dragons and serpents there too.
One could draw parallels between 21st century society and indigenous cultures who were gradually robbed of their own histories. In observance of the inevitable loss and malaise that beset Aborginal peoples removed from their lands, I would argue that Western Culture is already suffering a similar Anomie by way of Hollywood. The ravages and misrepresentation of History as it comprises our own story, will ultimately yield a harvest of sad dissatisfied minds. The further we travel from the essence of our own History, the emptier the vessel we become.
In the right hands, film has the power to be a force for awareness and change. A feature which best illustrates the point of our encroaching Western malaise is ‘Fight Club’, based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk. In the book, the protaganist ‘Jack’ finds himself utterly disenfrancished, living an upwardly mobile, inevitably souless existence in his bachelor pad. Despite all best efforts to mend the gaping hole in his life by filling it with funky consumer knick knacks from Ikea, he comes to realise he is utterly lost and doesn’t know why. Jack’s mental safety switch kicks in and through a haze of insomnia, his alter ego Tyler Durden is born. Tyler’s raison d’etre is to strip Jack of all false hope in order to reset, or reboot his perception of reality. The overarching theme of Jack’s journey is his increasing awareness that the life he has been sold through advertising, the notion of consumerism as a path to happiness and fulfillment, is a rotten facade hiding a multitude of sins. If ever there was a metaphor for Hollywood, then this is it.
‘Fight Club’ thematically explores the notion of escapism leading to a lack of fullfilment. An existence rooted in fantasy, facade and falsehood, are shown to foster a broken internal dialogue, exemplified by the ongoing depression of Jacks daily life. If Jack could wake up and get real, as Tyler Durden urges him to do, he would see things as they really are. Tyler has figured out the secret, warts and all; reality is far more satisfying and exciting than any life designed for you by the ad men. Tyler is the Bard/Historian in this relationship, in their many discussions Tyler uses history to fill in the gaps of Jack’s failed human story in order that he might reconnect with his humanity.
In a kitchen side dissertation on the history of soap manufacture, Tyler spells it out … knowledge is power. Before they are done however Tyler pours naked lime on the back of Jacks hand, in order that he accept reality right there and then. The longer Jack takes to acknowledge that his shit reality is all he has, the longer it takes for Tyler to neutralise the chemical burn. When Jack finally accepts his reality it comes as a revelatory rebirth into a world that previously represented alienation. The scar left on the back of jacks hand is a symbolic reminder that life is not a dream, it is reality and that turning your back on reality can only end in disenfranchisement.
And so Hollywood continues to dish out the disenfranchisement, with films like ‘Fight Club’ being a rare exception to the monolithic rule. The embrace of human History is an embrace of reality, it is a divine act of self affirmation that serves to empower and embolden both young and old. Would it be less entertaining for children to know and understand the realities of Piracy? Would parents celebrate the lives of killers, rapists and thieves in their contemporary settings the way Pirates are celebrated today? Perhaps if parents knew something of the true history of Piracy, they might rethink ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ altogether. I am certainly not arguing that parents should terrorize fragile young minds. I submit that the oral traditions of our past, the direct transmission of human history from parent to child, is far superior to the cultural wasteland of Hollywood.
Herein lies an opportunity to gather ourselves before the storm. The honour and acknowledgement of our human history is a fundamental of our lives. Knowing from whence we came is intrinsically bound in our understanding of where we are going. If we are robbed of our myths, our stories, our very history by false portrayal in the entertainment arts, we are robbed of truth, fact and what is real. To demand anything less, is to acquiesce our very existence to a matrix of advertising, that I for one would see sacked like Sir Henry Morgan did Panama!
1 – Ritchie, Robert C – Living with Pirates
2 – Burl, Aubrey – Black Barty 2006, p20
3 – Stevenson, Robert Louis – Dead Man’s Chest
4 – Kennedy, Jimmy – Teddy Bears Picnic 1932
5 – Palahniuk, Chuck – Fight Club (Not quoted but referenced)
*All images are public domain via Wikicommons
*Pirate images are the work of the great Howard Pyle.