The fear is strong in this one, says Tony-wan Kenobi.
Shakespeare knew a thing or two about the human condition. Most of his tragedies are still popular today because they show the lives of individuals who have everything they could possibly need for happiness, but are undone by one central and eventually all-consuming flaw. Othello is undone by jealousy, Macbeth by ambition, Romeo and Juliet by the rashness of young love, Hamlet by indecision.
But for the ultimate popular tragedy of fear, we have to look not to Shakespeare but to Lucas, and the story of Anakin and Padme.
Anakin is a child of unparalleled destiny, the Star Wars equivalent of a ‘great man’ in Shakespeare, but in the three Star Wars prequels, we get to see the growth of the emotional cancer that will undo his life, the lives of everyone he loves, and the lives of half the galaxy to boot. A child of slavery, he has preternatural skills that see him rise from obscurity to become the favourite of first Qui-Gon Jinn, then Obi-Wan Kenobi in turn (and there are tragedies in turn to be written of the hubris of both men), but Anakin’s path is ultimately guided not by the two would-be father figures in his life, but by the exotic and the stabilising forces of its women. Apparently ‘begotten, not created,’ he has never had a father figure in his life until Qui-Gon takes him under his wing, but his mother, Shmi, has been all the stability and wisdom he knows. Then he meets Padme Amidala, and a whole other mystery of women is if not unlocked to him, then at least released, set free in his mind and body – an admiration of her beauty and her kindness, her cleverness in setting up doubles to fool potential assassins, and her strength of character. Like him, she’s come from almost nowhere to a position of greatness, and is determined to use it while she has it for the betterment of her people. Like him, she may well be out of her depth, but she tries. Every day, she makes the effort to engage in the politics her people need, in an attempt to outflank the forces of the Trade Federation and its encroachment on her planet. For her part, Padme sees a simplicity, a quiet honesty in the young Anakin that allows her to simply be Padme the girl, not Amidala the queen.
Anakin goes away from everything he’s known in life for two reasons. Firstly, the thrill of the wider universe, as most distinctly embodied by the glamour that is Padme. But secondly, to become a great man who can return and free his mother from her bondage. When that great hope is turned to ashes, we see the beginnings of the dark side that will eventually overwhelm these doomed lovers. No victory against others, no mastery of his emotions will ever bring his mother back, and something that is brittle inside Anakin begins to crack with the death of his mother. When a man holds great power in his hands, beware the influence of the mundane tragedies of life. The pain of his mother’s death in spite of his power and greatness, that equalising mortality that touches even him, becomes a flame, a cold flame of fear in the man destined to bring balance to the Force.
As time moves on and Anakin grows up, while Padme, to be fair, appears not to age at anything like the same rate, the two become close on a whole new level, the padawan learner who sees the quick way to do everything, who knows he has more power in him than those who try to teach him things, finding calm and quietness in the former queen, now an ambassador. When they reconnect, Padme still finds Anakin to have that simplicity that comes from easy prowess, and that and his increasing power call to her, despite the dangers of their love in a galaxy still sleepwalking into darkness. Love is forbidden to a Jedi for purely practical reasons – strong emotional attachments unbalance the judgment, and make us do the wrong things for the right reasons, and vice versa. But as love grows between Anakin and Padme, so too does the fear in his heart, fanned by the whispers of his friend, Chancellor Palpatine. As strong as his love is, one day, it will all be turned to excoriating pain by the death of Padme, and more than anything in the cosmos, Anakin fears that pain, that galaxy-consuming pain and loneliness that comes when those we love die and leave us behind.
The rest of the relationship between Padme and Anakin is almost a philosophical play, she telling him that yes, one day she’ll die, and so might he, but that’s how life works for every ordinary person – the point is to live and love each other while they’re here and, as it turns out, pass a legacy of love on to their children. But Anakin can’t be soothed by the platitudes that apply to ‘ordinary people’ because for over a decade, people have been telling him that he isn’t one of them, that he’s special, and especially powerful. There must be something he can do, there must be. Like Coriolanus, or Julius Caesar, or even Doctor Faustus, he becomes more and more obsessed with one goal – in his case defeating death, not (and here’s the irony of immature fear) especially for the sake of Padme, but to save himself from the wailing, soul-ripping pain and loneliness of the loss of her. He lost one woman who was his whole world when he was just a child. He will not lose another now he is a powerful man.
The irony bites through their lives, but in seeking to do whatever is necessary to keep her by his side, he becomes more and more a stranger to her, and the simplicity and honesty for which she loves him is snuffed out by secrecy and darkness and an increasing willingness to do unthinkable things. In his quest to keep her, he changes into a man she wouldn’t want to keep, and he loses her while she’s still alive, a fact which pushes him over the edge into the depths of the Dark Side, and, like any lover spurned, he rages at the cosmos for the wrongness of things. Far from getting roaringly drunk and falling into bed with the first warm body he finds though, Anakin goes the intense route, embarking on a killing spree that seals his fate, and ultimately seals his broken, burning body in the bio-suit that gives the galaxy the face of Darth Vader.
Padme gives birth to her two babies and then – in true Shakespearean style – dies immediately, her heart broken by the enormity of her love betrayed, and never mind the raising of the children.
Ultimately, Padme and Anakin are a couple destroyed by fear and insecurity, and by an unwillingness to live in the moment of their happiness by one partner. They’re an object lesson in enjoying the now, and in making the most of every moment of shared happiness, rather than dwelling on the pain that some potential ending down the line might bring. The ending will take care of itself, as and when and how it will. But if you’re lucky enough to find someone who loves you, love them back today in any way you can.
NB – avoid the killing spree if you can. Just a tip.
That’s the story of Wall-E and EVE, the story of a love between a good-‘hearted’ regular Joe, and the hottest, coolest, most ass-kicking environmentalist on the planet. Love, it tells us, is a matter of who you are, how you feel, what you share, and what you do when the chips are down, rather than what you look like or how high-falutin’ your job may be. It doesn’t matter if you’re rusty, with lappy caterpillar tracks and a squeak and a sense of purpose which others might see as pathetic and hopeless. Be you, live your truth, and love can find you.
Wall-E, for those who’ve never seen the movie, is a plucky, resilient trash-compacting robot, left alone on the planet that once was Earth, to tidy up the garbage heap it’s become by the time human beings leave it and head out to the stars. He’s the least considered, most forgotten janitor in the history of the world, but he doesn’t whinge, doesn’t wail about his lot in life – he does what he was built to do – searching the garbage, compacting what he can, making use of what’s around, playing with his buddy, a cockroach, and more or less filling his days with work and what could be described as a positive mental attitude. He’s been doing his job, uncomplaining, for 700 years by the time we meet him.
It’s only when Wall-E allows himself some chillaxing time at the end of a day that we see what’s really missing in his life – observing a view, or a movie, he’s come to understand the need for someone to share it with. Seven hundred years of thankless, relentless slog on a mostly barren planet has taught him loneliness.
But loneliness is just another part of the job, and Wall-E powers up the next day and gets on with his work. In fact the movie takes great pains to show us that loneliness is by no means all that seven hundred years of cleaning up the crud left behind by an absentee humanity has taught him – in the great traditions of both Disney heroes like Dumbo, Pinocchio, Bambi and Baymax from Big Hero 6, and other unconventional film heroes like Number 5 in Short Circuit, ET and Chappie, we’re shown early on that he’s developed an insatiable curiosity, a taste for music, an understanding of kindness to other creatures, and a sense of stewardship that goes beyond emulation, both in terms of the giant skyscrapers he builds and of the world in general. When he finds what looks to be something entirely new – a living plant on the dead garbage-world – he doesn’t pluck it, doesn’t allow harm to come to it, but takes it and the soil in which it’s grown home in an old boot.
We’re also shown early on that Wall-E in himself and his curiosity is special, unique, the last of his kind – other Wall-E units are shown dotted about the cityscape, having stopped in their tracks one day. Wall-E, our Wall-E keeps on going, getting a daily solar recharge and going out to do his job, with the kind of chirpy (but not too chirpy) sticktoitiveness which the initial American audience, and then the audience around the world would be proud to think was an emulation of some of the best characteristics in humanity, contrasting sharply against many of the worst traits we have as a species, personified by the actual humans in the movie. This one little robot has kept on keeping on, powered by sunlight and that curiosity for new things, doing the jobs we never cared quite enough to do. That, in essence, is the ‘heart’ of Wall-E, the thing that deserves to find a companion to watch his love stories with.
None of that would matter of course if there wasn’t someone around to see the beauty of his heart. Enter EVE, a super-duper slick search and rescue droid, being sent out by ‘humanity’ to find signs of sustainable growth in Earth’s planetary soil.
Their relationship is built on a realistic, humanistic pathway – he first falls for her when he sees her free of the responsibilities of work, flying and effectively dancing like there’s nobody watching, and the beauty and expressive creativity of it enflames his curiosity about her. Slowly, they grow to accept each other’s presence on the planet, and some similarities emerge between them despite their technological differences – she, like him, giggles at the tickling presence of his cockroach friend in her systems. And when he saves her from a smogstorm and takes her home to his place, she gets to see everything he’s done, and he, like many guys trying to impress a girl throughout history, shows her his best treasures – the movie that he watches, the lighter that she instantly ignites, bringing a new flame to their relationship, the simple joy of popping bubble wrap and of dancing. His ingenuity impresses and his klutziness makes her laugh. But when he presents her with his ultimate prize, his plant in its boot, it rocks her world on a whole new level, and she shuts down. Then we see Wall-E the carer, keeping her dry and getting wet (and electrocuted) himself, taking her with him when he has to go somewhere, protecting her from future storms. All he knows is that she’s something absolutely special, and that he’d really like to hold her hand. That inspires him to keep her safe, and when she gets ‘EVEnapped’ by a spaceship, Wall-E the ultimate homebody doesn’t think twice before leaving his home and cockroach buddy behind, and clinging to the outside of a spaceship to be near her.
When they get to her home, the spaceship Axiom, their relationship goes through its mid-phase difficulty, but there’s a balance to it – she didn’t understand his world, but he kept her safe on it. He doesn’t understand hers either, and gets them both into monstrous amounts of trouble, but some robotic sense of loyalty, plus the mystery of what has happened to the ‘missing’ plant, leads her to keep him safe too, and his continuing sense of devotion, both to her and to the things that are important to her, breed in her a growing robotic ‘affection’ that sees them face down the threats of a system rigged to keep the status quo…quoing, and makes them fight, both side by side and separately, to expose the truth that Earth is once more capable of sustaining life, challenging and hard work though the revelation will be for the human crew of the Axiom, seven centuries into their ‘five year mission.’
They may be from different ends of the technological spectrum, but Wall-E’s curiosity, his sense of humour, his dedication to EVE and everything that matters tso her, extends a bridge between them, and Eve, to her credit as the ‘senior’ partner in their romance, appreciates the quirkiness of him. Sure, he’s dirty and from the wrong side of the tracks, but who else brings her bubble wrap and Christmas lights, who sings her silly songs and wants to hold her hand, and most of all, who will absolutely have her back against a system that tells her she’s defective just because she’s inconvenient? This story of robotic romance hits many very human beats, because stripped of its ecological theme (which incidentally is superbly delivered), and its metallic shells (and even really its notion of gender – we only really identify Wall-E as male and EVE as female because the names carry male and female connotations in our understanding), this is a story with which we can all fundamentally identify. Perhaps geeks identify with it more than most, feeling that we’ve all been in Wall-E’s caterpillar tracks, smitten from afar by the most amazing creature in creation, but really speaking, it’s the Prince and the Showgirl, or Aladdin, or Notting Hill, re-framed and delivered in a way that strips away the importance of wealth and takes that relationship back to what it really is – first love, playground love, love so pure and all-consuming that you’d follow the loved one through fire if they needed you to. The kind of love that childhood sweethearts are made of, if they ever find each other, and can appreciate each other for their individual strengths and quirks and oddness and love and loyalty, even when they drive each other crazy or…y’know…accidentally electrocute each other. Wall-E and EVE are a couple that probably grow old together, each doing their thing in their own way, and coming back together a little before shutdown each day, for a movie, and to share the new things they’ve experienced that day, and maybe even for a cockroach tickle, before powering down hand in hand, ready to reboot the next morning and do it all again. And that, when you get right down to it, is the stuff that Happily Ever Afters are made of.
Most of us have been Ginny Weasley at some point in our lives. We’ve had that special person on the fringes of our world that makes us awestruck, about whom we bore the pants off everyone we know, but around whom we can’t speak a word, for fear they might actually…y’know…hear us or something.
Ginny, when we first meet her, is just ten, and is the shy girl who knows all about the wonder that is Harry Potter, so powerful even as a baby that he could defeat the greatest dark wizard of the age. When Harry becomes best friends with, of all people, her brother, Ginny is both delighted and mortified, in the way only the young can be. When the great Harry Potter talks to her like she’s a normal person, even an equal, Ginny runs away, unable to cope with the wow factor and the sudden pressure of having to speak to him. You wouldn’t, perhaps, think of them as a natural-born couple.
When Ginny starts her schooling at Hogwarts, Harry remains an object of amazement and wonder to her, and Ginny has a desperate journey – writing all her feelings down in the mysterious diary that answers back, which, in a cogent metaphor of false friendship, uses all her secrets against both her and Harry. When he and brother Ron rescue her from a basilisk, Ginny’s mortification actively increases – not only has her hero had to rescue her (way to go, Girl Power!), but she’s the one who actually put him in danger in the first place by telling the false friend diary all about him and his story.
It’s not really until The Order of the Phoenix that Ginny Weasley and Harry Potter begin to seem like there might be something to them beyond her devastating girlish pre-and-early teen crush. After seeing something of the world, Ginny grows up a little, getting a non-Harry boyfriend, which allows her for the first time to talk to him as an equal. Where (to be fair, following her mother’s example) Ginny has always been one thing to her brothers – spirited and a devil with a bat-bogey charm, as is almost demanded of her by little sisters of brothers throughout the ages – and another thing entirely to Harry, in The Order of the Phoenix, while still too young to be allowed into the Order’s meetings, she’s able to be in a room with Harry without blushing and running away. In fact, it’s there that we get the first sense of Ginny having that most crucial of equalities, the equality of anger, when she tears the increasingly reclusive Harry a new one for having neither the balls nor the gumption to confide in her, given her history of being possessed by Voldemort and his fear that he too has been a vessel of the Dark Lord, used to attack her father. It’s in the quiet honesty of their shared emotions about that fear – the fear of being forced to do something against their will, of possibly hurting someone that they care about because they weren’t strong enough to fight off their attacker – that something new begins to form between Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley, something not born of legends or objective adoration, but born of the bond of survivors. Make no mistake, the violation of them both by Voldemort has an analogue right there in the non-wizarding world, though it’s one that might spoil readers’ enjoyment of the books and movies. The idea of an adult using their bodies for his own ends, and of the inherent violation, the misplaced guilt, the sense of isolation, of believing no-one will want or need them around any more, is true, and real, and horrifying, and Harry and Ginny begin to bond over their ability to share those emotions, those feelings with each other, when they can’t make anyone who hasn’t been in that situation understand how it feels.
As Order of the Phoenix goes on, Ginny comes more and more out of her shell – giving Dumbledore’s Army its name, and showing a rare perspicacity in its choice: “It’s their greatest fear,” she remarks, cutting to the heart of the opposition’s weakness. She also surprises everyone, and impresses Harry, with some of her spellcasting prowess.
But none of this explains why Harry and Ginny end up as lovers, as partners, and as parents. That’s relatively simple, though. Apart from their bonding over what Voldemort has done to them, Ginny is removed enough from the strum und drang of Harry’s seven year fight against the Dark Lord that, when he needs a place of calm, of quiet, of simple understanding and acceptance, it’s not Hermione he turns to. Not Luna. Not anyone, but Ginny, who doesn’t demand explanations, who isn’t complicated by the fight, who knows the burden he carries, and only asks to share it for as long as she can, to lighten his life and bring his smile back to him. Peculiarly, by books six and seven, it’s Ginny Weasley who understands Harry Potter best of all, Ginny who sees beyond the hype he never asked for, and the name he makes for himself, beyond the aloof isolationism and the sense of responsibility, who sees Harry as just Harry, and knows what he needs. She never tries to push herself into the centre of the action, never becomes something else for Harry to feel he has to worry about, but she’s more than ready, come the Battle of Hogwarts, to do her last full measure of devotion in the fight. She has that simplicity of approach – some things must be fought, and she will fight them as she can. She’s invested in his battle, but separate from it too, the place in a crowded, complicated wizarding world where the would-be auror can find peace and an equal, a force of nature who’s always been there, but who stepped out of the crowd to change his world.
In him, she sees not Harry Potter the legend of her childhood, not the rock star wizard, but the man who does what he thinks is right, even when it’s so hard than any reasonable man would fail or buckle, would take the easy path. In a very real sense, it’s Ginny Weasley who shows us as readers or viewers the moral of the Harry Potter stories. She sees the boy become the man who does the right thing, not the easy thing, and loves him for it. And we love them both right back as a result.
This world is divided many different ways on any given day, but one of the axes around which it splits turns forty this year.
That axis is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it divides people as much today as it did four decades ago on its initial release. It divides them into – if you’ll pardon the parlance of audience partici…pation – Virgins and Sluts. The Sluts are easy to spot – they’re the ones who go to every screening they can, who cosplay characters from the movie, jump up at appointed times and dance in the aisles or on stages, and who come equipped to the movie with a whole range of props, to interact with the on-screen action in real time.
The Virgins…well, the Virgins are those who either haven’t seen the movie yet, or have seen it, and insist, as a friend of mine did this week, that ‘it’s just a bad movie. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.’
Let’s see what the fuss is about, shall we?
Firstly, a note of honesty – yes, if you just sit home alone and watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show on your TV, it’s probably a bit of a lame experience. Yes, it’s still got some great actors in it – Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Charles Gray, Tim Curry, Patricia Quinn…erm…Christopher Biggins… and yes it’s a love letter to the great sci-fi B-movies from the 30s-70s, but the plot is mayhem, the narratorial intrusion is probably the antithesis of good storyteling, the pace is slack, the conclusion insane, and if you’re not particularly broad-minded, there’s every chance that what was intended as a tribute-cum-parody of those great movies might insult your sensibilities with its gender-ambiguity, its transvestitism, and its camp-as-Christmas shenanigans. Seen alone, there’s every chance you’ll miss the point of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and remain a Virgin for the rest of your life.
There’s a cure for that.
Shared Memories Like most cures for virginity, the clue is in the company you keep.
First of all, don’t see Rocky Horror on your own. See it with friends. Will that make the movie better? Doesn’t it make most things better?
Apart from anything else, see it in company and whatever your reaction to it is, it’ll be a reaction shared, and that’s the beginning of a memory. And if you want to know what the fuss is about when it comes to Rocky Horror, that’s the essence of the answer – shared memories of the experience, whether those memories are of running round collecting all your props and sequinning your Columbia cosplay or trying to find a basque at short notice, or whether they’re just of watching all the people do their thing, and trying to catch up with the audience participation. Even if you watch it at home with someone else, you can swap questioning eye-rolls about what the point of that line was, and suddenly you’re building a memory of that moment.
Vive La Revolution Secondly, part of the point of what’s already in the script of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is revolution. It slams the cultural clichés of all those marvelous B-movies right into the culture of permissiveness and what were in the 70s thought of as ‘alternative sexualities’ – yes, really, still. There was something shocking about a sweet, white-bread all-American couple running into a proud alien transvestite omnisexual and seeing them succumb to his way of life by expanding their own. But by making up your own interactions – whether they’re the time-honoured audience participations or not – you can engage with a meta-film experience (yes, really, I just said that), stepping outside the boundaries of dialogue. Everyone likes a good shout at the TV now and again, but you’re rarely allowed to do it in a movie theatre. Both the structure and the history of Rocky Horror allows you to do that – you get to heckle a movie screen, in an atmosphere where it’s perfectly acceptable and where – it’s unlikely after forty years, but you never know – your interjection might even make people laugh if they’ve never heard it before, might even begin to be a part of a local ‘accepted’ call-back, and from there, make it into the worldwide anti-script that is the Rocky Horror audience participation ritual.
Permission To Be Silly, Freedom To Be Yourself More than anything else though, Rocky Horror gives a whole group of grown-ups who should know better, but frankly don’t, permission to be incredibly silly in a supportive group environment. Given that the movie first came out in 1975, these are the people, more than any other, who invented live cosplay at screenings, so before you sneer, kindly straighten your bow-tie and doff your fez in their direction. Rocky Horror is a movie, yes, but as Roger Ebert said of it when he initially reviewed it, it’s actually more of an ongoing cultural tradition. It fed into spirits like Mardi Gras and Pride; the Sluts who dressed as Rocky Horror characters were likely to support people’s sexualities and lifestyles in the real world once they’d grown to love Tim Curry’s strutting self-proclaiming Sweet Transvestite, who was as keen to make himself a man for frankly anal funfests as he was to deflower the sweetest American virgin in Sarandon’s Janet. While the message of the movie may well be that self-indulgent hedonism can go too far – after all, there’s murder and cannibalism later on, and the eventual twist is that Frankie’s gone too far and must be punished – from the 70s right through to the modern day, Rocky Horror has been providing geeks and Sluts with not only shared experiences, but a shared environment to be incredibly silly in public, and to be themselves, with whatever kind of strut they choose, empowered by the characters acting out the script on screen, and loved unconditionally by the audience subverting the bejesus out of it in movie theatres.
Don’t Dream It, Be It Ultimately, no-one’s going to convince you to ‘stop worrying and love Rocky Horror.’ Certainly, you shouldn’t do it just cos all the cool kids do. But don’t watch it alone and expect to get the best out of it. That’s like watching Doctor Who with the sound off and no subtitles – sure, you’ll still see what’s on the screen and be able to get the gist (Rocky Horror could never be accused of any crime so monstrous as subtlety when it comes to its core themes), but don’t just watch it – be a part of it if you ever want to experience what the fuss is all about. Go along to a screening. Do some research first if you want, though that’s not necessary – most Rocky Horror fans are beautifully gentle with Virgins. Give yourself over to absolute pleasure, absolute silliness, absolute freedom, and see if there’s not an extra sweetness in your strut on the way back home.