Thursday, 1 November 2012

Open Letter to Josh Whedon

Dear Mr Whedon:

At about the 11:30 mark in the film, Avengers, for which you are credited as director, screenplay writer and co-author, there begins a scene serving to introduce Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. The scene begins with a diesel train pulling into a rural train-station in Russia by night, then pans left to a ruined warehouse, where we find a scantily-clad Scarlett Johansson in distress, being tied to a chair and interrogated rather brutally in Russian by someone in a 3-star Russian general’s uniform. Then at about the 12:08 mark in the film, the camera cuts to a long shot where the interrogation continues in a mirror centered in the midst of a still life, thus:

We can see that the still life, which might be entitled ‘Still Life with Kalashnikov’, is a tastefully done still life with a 19th-Century type mirror artistically draped with an off-white fabric. Chicly arranged to the left of the mirror are two icons and on the right behind the two AK-47 assault-rifle barrels a picture that we couldn’t identify but which reminds us of the 16th-Century Dutch Masters (echo of Scarlett’s role as the girl with the pearl earring?).

We were rather curious about this composition. First of all, let us note that it adds nothing to the Avengers story-line. There is no further reference to icons—or indeed to Russia—in the Avengers. The only thing the scene can do is introduce Natasha, formerly Russian KGB agent and now agent of SHIELD. Nowhere further on in the film do we see Natasha’s dedication to icons or iconography, or even Natasha’s Russianness, since only in this scene does she speak Russian. So the question arises why the shot was included in the film. A case could be made that it is gratuitous. Moreover, the camera pulls back from the Still Life with Kalashnikov while at the same time keeping in focus the long shot in the mirror of Natasha being interrogated, so it’s a rather complex shot—unless of course it’s a digitally composited montage with the Natasha scene photographed separately and then digitally inserted into the space of the mirror. If the latter is the case, then the question arises even more strongly why the scene was included in the film: someone went to a lot of trouble to include Still Life with Kalashnikov in the film.

Let us look at the content of the Still Life with Kalashnikov.

First let us look at the icons. The main icon portrayed is a copy of this icon:

We say ‘copy’ because the original of ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Help’ is as follows:

Our Lady of Perpetual Help, also known as Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, is a title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary by Pope Pius IX, associated with a celebrated Byzantine icon of the same name dating from the 15th century.

The icon has been in Rome since 1499, and is currently in the church of Sant'Alfonso di Liguori all'Esquilino. In the Eastern Orthodox Church this iconography is known as the Virgin of the Passion or Theotokos of the Passion.

Due to the Redemptorist Priests who had been appointed as missionaries of this icon, the image has become very popular among Roman Catholics in particular, and has been very much copied and reproduced. Modern reproductions are sometimes displayed in homes, business establishments, and public transportation. The Redemptorist priests are the only religious order currently entrusted by the Holy See to protect and propagate a Marian religious work of art.

The icon has merited two Papal endorsements, one from Pope Pius IX who entrusted the icon to the Redemptorist in December 1865, and another from Blessed Pope John Paul II, who presented an icon to a Muslim cleric in May 2001 during his first-ever visit to the Umayyad Mosque.

A feast in honour of the icon was celebrated on 27 June and “novena” prayers are customarily held on Wednesdays. Today, the feast day of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help is celebrated on June 27 of the year, with novenas held every Wednesday of the weeks of the year.

(From Wikipedia, which is probably where we got the image of the icon. For a more strictly Roman Catholic discussion see the Catholic Encyclopedia)

So the icon has nothing to do with Russia. (Pope John-Paul II was Polish and Russians and Poles are almost the same, we know, but still it’s not a Russian icon.) Moreover, unless someone was going to steal the icon from its heavily guarded place in Rome, it’s not something that a Russian arms smuggler would have in his dilapidated warehouse in the Russian boondocks.

The icon above and behind Our Lady of Perpetual Help (still to the left of the mirror) is more difficult to identify. We at first thought the icon might be of St Nicholas, the patron saint of Russia (although we doubt he is the patron saint of Russian arms dealers), but study indicates the following. The icon is of a full-bearded male saint holding a very large Gospel book. The saint is depicted in roughly ¾ profile from his left side. The framing of the icon—a sort of clover leaf inside a square—reminds us of the icons of the Evangelists that are normally found on the Royal Doors of the iconostasis in every Orthodox Church, as do the small sub-icon above and to the right of the saint’s head—it could very well be the scriptural symbol of the Evangelist—and the ¾ profile.

The Royal Doors are the main entrance to the sanctuary; they are in front of the Holy Table (what Westerners would call the altar, though in the Orthodox Church the whole area behind the iconostasis is called the altar).

Normally the Royal Doors has two iconographical programs: the Annunciation of the Birth of Christ to the Mother of God by the Archangel Gabriel and, separately, the Four Evangelists. We were not able to find the particular icon portrayed in the Avengers and hence the Royal Doors from which it might have been taken, but the following should give an idea of what’s involved:

Above we see the Annunciation and below we see the Four Evangelists. St John the Evangelist is in the lower right corner; we can see that the portrayal of St John here is consistent, mutatis mutandis, with the icon in the Avengers, although here the iconography is undistinguished. The icongraphical portrayal of an Evangelist is fixed and it is relatively easy to identify an Evangelist if he is portrayed according to classical prototypes even if the name of the Evangelist on the icon is unclear. 

Here is a set of Royal Doors which while missing the Annunciation shows clearly where the Royal Doors are in an Orthodox church: the Holy Table can be discerned behind the Royal Doors. In this case St John the Evangelist is in the upper right corner.

Here is a clearer icon of St John the Evangelist, the composition of which might parallel the icon in the Avengers under discussion:

Our judgement is that most likely the icon above Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Still Life with Kalashnikov is taken from a 19th-Century Royal Doors, perhaps of Russian origin. Moreover we are of the opinion that the Evangelist portrayed is St John.  Chances are that the icon was borrowed from a gallery for the shoot.

However, here is the Royal Doors from the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow during the 2013 Christmas Divine Liturgy. We can see the Annunciation above and the Four Evangelists in two groups of two below. The 19th-Century iconographical program here is more Renaissance than in the icon under discussion, which would suggest that the icon of the Evangelist from Still Life with Kalashnikov dates from an earlier period.

Presumably the evil-doers who are interrogating Natasha do one of the following:
  • They pray before the Roman Catholic icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help when they’re not torturing the scantily-clad Scarlett Johansson;
  • They smuggle icons when they’re not smuggling Kalashnikovs;
  • They smuggle icons at the same time they’re smuggling Kalashnikovs (‘Get your free authentic Russian Orthodox Roman Catholic icon with any black market purchase of 1000 Kalashnikov rifles, offer valid while supply lasts’). Today, however, the usual black market for the Kalashnikov is the Muslim jihadi and Muslim jihadis would not be interested in icons. However, perhaps the smugglers are imitating Pope John-Paul II, above;
  • Their business model includes a church supply business; or
  • All of the above.
We couldn’t come up with anything on the picture to the right of the mirror, although it did remind us of the Dutch Masters, as we have said. Vermeer comes to mind although the picture does not appear in his catalog. The Lacemaker is similar in composition but it is not the same.

We are sure you will agree, Mr Whedon, that it would only be right to give those of our pious Orthodox readers who feel that they have a religious vocation that includes arms smuggling a brief summary of the range of Kalashnikov assault rifles available on the market for smuggling.

Of course, one can see that the Kalashnikov included in the Still Life with Kalashnikov is the classic AK-47:

We should point out that as the camera pulls back from Still Life with Kalashnikov, there are a number of what look like RPG rounds below the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (not shown).

Moreover, it should also be pointed out that in terms of the rest of the scene, the phone-call to Natasha is incoherent: the speaker warns the General of an imminent F-22 attack on the place but describes the place completely differently from what we see and as being in a completely different location.

So the question arises, Mr Whedon, what it’s all about. What’s this stuff doing in the Avengers?

Now let us continue with the iconographical program of the Avengers. We’ve just dealt with the evil ones of the Avengers. Now here’s a superhero from the Avengers, Iron Man without his iron as portrayed by Robert Downey:

To be a little clearer about Iron Man’s casual-wear sartorial program, here’s his t-shirt in more detail:

As we can see it’s a t-shirt for Black Sabbath, the occultist rock group. So we have a strong contrast: in the Avengers the evil ones are gratuitously juxtaposed with Christian icons but the superhero is gratuitously identified with an occultist rock group. Hmm....

While we would be surprised to learn that you have an overt hostility to Russian Orthodoxy, Mr Whedon, you know as well as we do that this is how propaganda works. Sophisticated information operations juxtapose images that the perpetrators want the viewer to associate with evil with obviously evil persons, and they juxtapose images that they want the viewer to associate with good with obviously good persons. Here we see Christian icons gratuitously juxtaposed with obviously evil men; and an occult icon (Black Sabbath) gratuitously associated with obviously good men. The effect is, as they say, long-term and subliminal.

Let us look a little more at the context of this.

Here’s the casual-wear sartorial program of the evil Russian General:

There’s a flash on his left arm that shows the Russian flag and which reads ‘Russia’ in Cyrillic:

You can also see his three stars, so he’s a 3-star evil Russian General. The only thing missing in the Avengers portrayal of the 3-star evil Russian General is the open bottle of vodka. Must be your light directorial hand, Mr Whedon.

However, we can see this in the uniform of a genuine 3-star Russian General:

No Russian flag on the flash on his left arm. And this guy’s the real deal. He’s Russian Deputy Chief of General Staff Col-Gen Anatoly Nogovitsyn. Far more clean cut guy. 

Here Nogovitsyn’s boss, 4-star General Makarov, Russian Chief of General Staff:

Scary looking guy. Wouldn’t want to shoot a nuclear missile at his town.

Here’s an American 4-star General, General George C Marshall:

Wouldn’t want to shoot a nuclear missile at him either.

Here’s the guy who invented the Kalashnikov. He’s being presented with a medal by then-President Medvedev. His name, strangely, is Kalashnikov. He’s 90 years old. He’s only a 2-star general.

So why are we wasting our time on this, Mr Whedon? Here in its entirety is a recent article from the Independent, a London newspaper. We would ask you to read the article through to its conclusion despite the unseemly subject matter.

Get thee to a monastery... there's a brothel there

Roland Oliphant
Wednesday, 31 October 2012
The Russian Orthodox Church is furiously trying to calm a media storm after police uncovered a brothel on the grounds of one of Moscow's most prestigious monasteries.
The "hotel for lovers" was found operating out of a building belonging to the Sretensky Monastery, an ancient institution just up the road from the headquarters of the Federal Security Service. Two women, from Ukraine and Tajikistan, were arrested during a raid at the weekend.

The institution's seedy reputation was apparently well known. Local media reported that it rented out its seven rooms by the hour, at rates starting from 1,750 roubles (£35).

Founded in 1395, the monastery is one of the city's oldest religious institutions. Legend has it that it was founded on the spot where Muscovites met a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary brought from the neighbouring city of Vladimir to save Moscow from Tamerlane's marauding armies.

The monastery's Father Superior, Archimandrite Tikhon, is said to be President Vladimir Putin's personal spiritual adviser. Father Tikhon hit back at what he called a "media sensation" surrounding the brothel, telling a state-owned channel that the "lovers' hotel" was in a building the monastery acquired only recently, and that evicting the current business occupying the premises was one of the conditions of the sale. He even joked that the church was "lucky" the issue had finally been dealt with.

"Today's storm in the media is just one example of how people are willing to take any slander and not only make a vulgar joke out of it, but launch a very real information attack against the Church," he said.

Here we see another propaganda technique. The article, in a newspaper owned by a wealthy Russian emigre who is said to be a political opponent of Putin, starts off with the strong suggestion that a Russian Orthodox monastery is running a brothel. Only in the second-to-last paragraph do we learn that ‘the “lovers' hotel” … [is] in a building the monastery acquired only recently, and that evicting the current business occupying the premises was one of the conditions of the sale.’

The journalist, assuming that he is not just plain incompetent, seems to be banking on the fact that, as is well-known, most people read only the first few lines of a newspaper article, taking the gist from that. So most people would not read through to the ‘fine print’ at the end of the article that negates the first few lines implying that the Russian Orthodox Church is running a brothel in Moscow. Moreover, because the journalist has told the truth in the fine print at the end of the article he can’t be accused of lying—he’s told the truth even if he’s counting on no one reading it.

The article notes that the monastery is located close to the Russian security services. Since the monastery was founded in 1395, it’s no fault of the monks that they are located close to the security services. They’ve been there for 600 years. Again we juxtapose what we want people to think is bad (the Russian Orthodox monastery) with something people know is bad (the Russian security services).

What bothers us is the sense that there is a cultural war on Christianity. A cultural war on Orthodoxy. A cultural war on Russian Orthodoxy. We think that Archimandrite Tikhon is onto something:

Today's storm in the media is just one example of how people are willing to take any slander and not only make a vulgar joke out of it, but launch a very real information attack against the Church.

So we want to pose this question to you, Mr Whedon:  You are a wealthy man. Are you a good man?

Now why would people want to do this kind of thing? We don’t know your motivations, Mr Whedon, but here are some images from the Divine Liturgy of Christmas in Moscow and Sochi from 2013. We think that the faces themselves explain why people would fear the Russian Orthodox Church and make them want to slander it.

First here are members of the congregation worshipping a few metres away from President Putin at a monastery in Sochi:

Here is President Putin himself:

Here is a member of the choir:

Here is Prime Minister of Russia Medvedev worshipping during the same Divine Liturgy of Christmas but at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. He is with his wife. Presumably the children are theirs.

Here are members of the congregation at the same Divine Liturgy of Christmas at Christ the Saviour Cathedral:

Here is the Patriarch of Moscow Kyrillos celebrating the same Divine Liturgy:

Orthodox Monk

No comments:

Post a Comment