Sunday, June 1, 2014

Crossbones on Crossbones

I talk about wizards on this blog.  I do this quite a bit.  I do this because it interests me.  Pirates interest me as well, but I don't seem to talk about pirates that often, especially not when compared to wizards and other game bullshit.  There is a good reason for this.  Despite what it may seem, all evidence available posted on this blog, I do like to wait until I have something reasonably intelligent or entertaining to say.  Or write.  As the case may be and most definitely is.
This is one of those times...

Having recently spent time enjoying Black Sails (thanks to a couple of pirate friends of mine who should probably remain nameless for legal reasons but we will call them Leo and Bobby) and the first episode of Crossbones, and being an avid reader and student of all things pirate, I have come to the decision that there are really two conceptions of pirates.  The first is the larger conception, or if you prefer the conception held by the larger portion of the population and thus the more popular one; let us call it the ideal of pirates.  This is typified by the Disney attraction The Pirates of the Caribbean and the films that were inspired by, and share the name of, that attraction.  This is the sort of swaggering, arrrr matey, Talk Like A Pirate Day bollocks that sells so well in the form of merchandise.  It is a mythical type of ideal, as so many are.  When you think about talking like a pirate you are thinking of talking like Robert Newton who "invented" the pirate speak by exaggerating his native Dorset accent when he played Long John Silver for Disney.  This is the sea food restaurant, drinks with umbrellas in, treasure hunting, plank walking, hook-hand-having, eye-patch-loving, raping, robbing, pillaging, freebooter lifestyle that inspires miniature golf courses and Halloween costumes and is typified today by Jack Sparrow.
Then there is the other conception, held by a very few (by comparison) and enjoyed fully by even fewer; let us call it the reality of pirates.  To the larger group, when asked about the reality of the pirates they so love to emulate, they will most likely sheepishly admit that pirates were bad, bad people who engaged in theft, murder and destruction.  Sadly that does not accurately or completely describe the reality and is akin to tarring all of a social group with the same brush for the rather public actions of a few.
Television and films, of course, are designed to appeal to the widest possible audience to garner the greatest possible market share.  This means that the overwhelming majority of piracy shown is of the first type.  When you do see more realistic piracy it is likely of the type seen in Captain Phillips, where Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama.  Desperate men taking desperate actions.  Yet this is not the same sort of thing as we would have seen during the age of Blackbeard.  To some degree it is, but the exact specifications are a bit different.  During the time of Blackbeard the vast majority of pirates were sailors, not just thieves and ruffians looking to make a buck.  Those were bandits and lived on land.  Ships at sea need skilled hands if they had any hope of staying at sea and those hands were accustomed to a certain amount of natural discipline.  Not the lash of the cat type of discipline, but the sort of routine that kept their ship afloat, which was the difference between life and death.  Piracy was, essentially, a business.  It was the livelihood of the men (and yes, occasionally women) who turned pirate.  If we look past the Hollywood and popular imagery and read the actual documents of the era we see a very different picture of piracy.  We see real people with varied attitudes and personalities banding together to achieve common goals of survival, revenge, and even political achievement.  Some of them, according to the documents of the era, where quite charming and intelligent even.
A pirate (no really, just ask the British)
So what, if anything, does this have to do with Crossbones?  Specifically this has to do with John Malkovich's portrayal of Blackbeard.  Malkovich is portraying a pirate lord, a self-styled commodore that is anything but Jack Sparrow.  Seafaring types tended to pick up odds and ends from across the globe.  Bits, baubles, interesting diseases, and customs were assimilated into an already alien (to a landsman) lifestyle.  A sash of fine silk from the Far East, a Mameluke sabre taken from a plundered enemy, or a fine hat obtained in some foreign port looking quite out of fashion to the homeland were the sorts of things a sailor could (and often did) obtain, along with strange habits gained from living in such close quarters as ships require.  The pirate lifestyle demanded election of leaders from among the crew, which meant that those who rose to such ranks tended (with varying degrees of success) to be cunning, charismatic, tough and skilled fellows.  Malkovich's Blackbeard does take something from Colin Woodard's The Republic of Pirates, although it seems more like the behavior of Benjamin Hornigold (who had been Teach's mentor as both a privateer and then a pirate).  In his decorating tastes, styles of clothing and habits there is a flair of the East.  He loves the silks and his outfits are often white and floral when not looking like a Han Emperor.  (Believe it or not fine gentlemen's coats were once very much in the pattern and style of your maiden aunt Sally's favorite sofa...the one in the living room, that she called the "parlor" where no one was allowed to sit unless they were a guest and there was no television and it always seemed  Just me?...carry on)  He seems to have a dangerous intelligence about him.  A desire, as far as we have seen, to maintain the sanctity of his fledgling republic seems to motivate him.  He speaks with a somewhat cultured air of topics outside of rum and wenching, but is also keenly aware that he has built a legend that must be maintained.  He makes threats that are far more effective than blustering boasts normally seen in such fare.  None of this, "I'll have yer guts for garters, you damned lubber" business.  You could imagine him as J.R. Ewing in Dallas, using his reputation and willingness to go to extreme measures to get what he wants.  Indeed this reminds us of Long John Silver as he was written by R.L. Stevenson in the novel Treasure Island.  Not physically imposing, Silver controlled men with his cunning and will.
We see this in Black Sails as well to a far larger degree.  In the persons of Captain Flint, John Silver, and Jack Rackham, among others (landsmen included).  With a show primarily about pirates each character must be a character, that is, must not be a simple stereotype, although plenty of extras will be.  It's only natural.  The swaggering, the "arrrs", the fannying about like a swishy gypsy rent boy (i.e. Jack Sparrow) are all absent.  This is not the ideal of piracy, nor is it, strictly speaking, the reality, but it lists far more to the reality, and that's a good thing.
Not a pirate.  Not even close.  Nancy the Swaggering Rent Boy, yes.  Pirate, not so much.
Of course the fact that these works are not engaging in the exploitation of the ideal of piracy is probably a sign of doom in terms of market share.  The vast majority expect the swagger and, sadly, want the swagger.  The swagger is fun.  I'll admit it.  It's an image that instantly says "Pirate!" and that visual shorthand is part of the nature of storytelling.  The audience doesn't want to be TOLD that Jack Tar is a pirate, they want to see Jack Tar and instantly KNOW he is a pirate.  So if it is a situation of image, of LEGEND, then perhaps the polyester pirate of Hollywood (and thousands of fan girls' disturbing fantasies...including the cross-dressing...oh Manga what have you wrought?) is what is needed to keep this sort of salty fare viable in the market today.
Even so, I confess that I do like Malkovich's portrayal thus far.  It is more cultured master villain than pirate, but to me it is far closer to the reality of the legend than all the Jack Sparrows combined.  In the hold.  Of a ship.  That is sinking.

Crossbones Episode 1: A Review

Danger: Spoilers ahead
Now that the obligatory warning is out of the way, let us proceed.
Friday 30th of May saw the series premiere of the newest NBC nighttime drama, Crossbones, a story of intrigue and human drama set in the 18th century Caribbean and loosely connected with pirates.
The tale presented in the premiere, and thus setting up the driving plot of the initial season (assuming that there will be a second and subsequent seasons, which I am not willing to do at this juncture), is of the British Empire ruling the waves, unmatched, but for pesky pirates in the New World, the worst among them, Blackbeard!  Secret Agent Tom Lowe (played by Brit Richard Coyle who famously played Jeff Murdock in the BBC's Coupling and starred in the adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal as Moist von Lipwig) is assigned cover as a ship's surgeon by the governor of Jamaica (played by Julian Sands of Warlock fame) as a prized chronometer, the plans for said device and the inventor are being transported back to England to present the marvelous MacGuffin to the king.  This device will allow sailing ships to accurately determine longitude at sea (if you know nothing about seamanship and navigation then just think of it as a GPS) and thus the British can immediately overcome all pirates everywhere all the time.  Take that, Blackbeard.  Only that's silly.  Plot contrivance notwithstanding, Lowe is NOT there to prevent the chronometer from falling into enemy hands.
He's there to kill Blackbeard, the infamous freedom fighter pirate who Lowe believes to be dead already; killed by the governor's own hand.  Only he's not. This fact the governor confirms and so off Lowe goes to, presumably, get captured on purpose as not a soul knows where Blackbeard hides out.  There are just so many islands out there and nobody has a chart...I guess.
As happens in these stories Lowe is captured after blowing up the chronometer, partially burning the plans for its creation and poisoning the inventor, but he is kept alive to keep the inventor alive as the pirates WANT THAT GPS.  But he dies anyway and Lowe buys his life by saying that he will decipher the unburned parts of the plans, which are encoded.
His meeting with Blackbeard reveals a worldly, intelligent, cultured man (played by the esteemed John Malkovich), who does have cruel streak and headaches with weird visions and nosebleeds.  Through a series of spy events Lowe successfully poisons Blackbeard and as he makes his escape discovers a plot forming between Spain and the pirates and so he turns back and risks his all to SAVE Blackbeard because if Eddie dies, Lowe will never know what the plans are to be with Spain to the demise of England.  And thus is the series set up.
Tom Lowe (port side) and Blackbeard (starboard)
This series is supposedly based on Collin Woodard's non-fiction account of the pirate republic in the Bahamas in the early 18th century entitled The Republic of Pirates, but I've read that book twice and it seems more like NBC's attempt to make STARZ's Black Sails without all the tits adrift.  Crossbones has the feel of the type of drama currently very fashionable on pay television, but taking that Game of Thrones market share is going to be damn nigh impossible.  As comfortable as prime time network TV is getting with lewd behavior, fisting on the big 3 is still many, many years away.
As with any series a certain liberty with historical accuracy is expected and not too jarring...yet.  There is a definite poetic comparison between Eddie Blackbeard, who calls himself commodore of the island, denounces kings, speaks intelligently about a variety of subjects (God is a clockmaker...supported by the imagery of many clocks surrounding him), and claims to govern by the authority of his people and the governor of Jamaica, who in the few scenes we see of him seems completely at home with torture and brutality, torturing and murdering a captured pirate while seeking information about Blackbeard.  In the middle is Lowe, loyal to his King and Country, seeking to kill Blackbeard upon orders but saving him for a higher purpose.  No doubt the two of them will have much cat and mouse playing and verbal fencing as the plot continues.
After the cancellation of NBC's Dracula, one cannot help but think that Crossbones is likely doomed to a single season.  Unlike the latest police procedural, shows such as this must go up against similar shows on pay channels that give the same intrigue and character development, but throw in lots of sex and language to get the jaded viewers to commit.  As it stands, Crossbones was more swashbuckling than I expected given the supposed basis (Woodard's book) and felt more like Black Sails than was comfortable (including the key, "I've got the secret code stored in my head so you can't kill me, ha ha" scene), but Black Sails, for all its fancy does seem to have more, dare I say it, historical verisimilitude.  Black Sails seems to focus often on piracy as a business and for all their bluster the pirates of Black Sails seem more like real people, not just stock villains, while much of the pirating on Crossbones seemed of the POTC variety.
I won't praise nor condemn the show on a single episode and I am intrigued enough to watch again next week.  It is a pirate show (well, there are pirates in it) after all.
If you are looking for Pirates of the Caribbean, however, you will be sadly disappointed.  There is not a swishing sugar-pants Jackie Sparrow amongst them.  Yet.