Why­dotheShel­bourne Ho­tel’s stat­ues have to go?

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - CULTURE - TARA BRADY

The mini-con­tro­versy which blew up this week over the Shel­bourne Ho­tel’s re­moval of four stat­ues from its front en­trance on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin has been, by turns, in­struc­tive, thought-pro­vok­ing and de­press­ing.

When the story first broke, it was no­tice­able how few of the me­dia out­lets run­ning it ac­tu­ally had a de­cent pho­to­graph to hand of the stat­ues (re­ally mass-pro­duced lam­phold­ers) which, de­pend­ing on who you be­lieve, de­pict either chained Nu­bian slave girls or Egyp­tian princesses (or both).

Like many ex­am­ples of the com­mer­cial dec­o­ra­tive arts, the items seem not to have im­pinged much on the public con­scious­ness. They’ve never fea­tured on post­cards and they don’t show up on In­sta­gram. In truth, their par­tic­u­lar brand of Sec­ond Em­pire ex­oti­cism is a rare sight in Dublin, and doesn’t par­tic­u­larly chime with the city’s im­age of it­self.

So it may not be sur­pris­ing that much of the public re­ac­tion on so­cial me­dia to the re­moval was along the lines of: “Stat­ues? What stat­ues? Never no­ticed them.”

The French-man­u­fac­tured fig­ures, which have adorned the frontage of the Shel­bourne since the mid-1860s, were re­moved by ho­tel man­age­ment on Mon­day. Gen­eral man­ager JP Ka­vanagh told The Ir­ish Times there had been no com­plaints about them.

“This de­ci­sion has been com­ing for a num­ber of weeks given what has been hap­pen­ing in the world,” he said.

This is, pre­sum­ably, a ref­er­ence to #Black­Lives­Mat­ter protests which have top­pled stat­ues to slave traders, Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers and per­pe­tra­tors of colo­nial­ist geno­cide in many coun­tries.

How­ever, the Shel­bourne pieces don’t have any con­nec­tion with race-based chat­tel slav­ery or atroc­i­ties in the Congo. They rep­re­sent in­stead a par­tic­u­lar French fash­ion of the pe­riod in which they were made.

“Ev­ery­thing Egyp­tian was the high­est of high fash­ion at the time,” ac­cord­ing to John Du­cie, a tour guide and for­mer vicechair­man of An Taisce. “You will find th­ese stat­ues all over the place. Peo­ple put them in their homes. Ev­ery­thing Egyp­tian was so chic – es­pe­cially the French take on it.”

An eru­dite let­ter-writer (is there any other sort?) to The Ir­ish Times has blamed the writer El­iz­a­beth Bowen for de­scrib­ing the stat­ues as Nu­bian princesses and slave girls, point­ing to con­trary ev­i­dence in the man­u­fac­turer’s cat­a­logue.

“The ‘nu­bian slave’ is, in­deed, a widely fetishised Ori­en­tal­ist vis­ual trope of the 19th cen­tury,” wrote Kyle Ley­den. “How­ever, she dif­fers from the Shel­bourne statue in one im­por­tant as­pect: she is al­most in­vari­ably (and with some de­gree of his­toric au­then­tic­ity) rep­re­sented nude. The lav­ish drap­ing and jew­ellery of the Shel­bourne statue clearly demon­strate it is not, nor was it ever in­tended, to be read as a slave.”

This may well be so, but the fact re­mains that an ex­oti­cised, sen­sual fan­tasy of the “Ori­en­tal” (which in this con­text usu­ally means Arab) woman is still vis­i­ble in a much less overt way in the Shel­bourne pieces. Is that a valid rea­son to take them down? Per­haps, if you’re go­ing to take down half of Paris at the same time. Oth­er­wise it might be bet­ter to talk through the is­sues. This is where things take a de­press­ing turn.

First, the Shel­bourne’s de­ci­sion was not just pre­ma­ture but po­ten­tially il­le­gal. It beg­gars be­lief that man­age­ment were un­aware of this, given their long col­lab­o­ra­tion with the rel­e­vant au­thor­i­ties on the ho­tel’s ma­jor ren­o­va­tion just a few years ago.

‘‘

In truth, their par­tic­u­lar brand of Sec­ond Em­pire ex­oti­cism is a rare sight in Dublin

Sec­ond, the stan­dard of the “de­bate” con­ducted mostly on so­cial me­dia over the past few days has been pre­dictably low, with two camps rapidly form­ing and en­gag­ing in trench war­fare. One lot blames ahis­tor­i­cal wo­ke­ness and cor­po­rate fear of can­cel cul­ture for the de­ci­sion. The other claims this coun­try’s own com­plic­ity in racist op­pres­sion and Ir­ish blind­ness to white priv­i­lege makes such ac­tions in­evitable and nec­es­sary. Amid the ca­coph­ony, the orig­i­nal art­works fade quickly into the back­ground.

Will we ever see them on St Stephen’s Green again? The fear is that, by merely draw­ing at­ten­tion to their ex­is­tence, the Shel­bourne has made tar­gets of the stat­ues if they’re ever re­in­stated, and may there­fore have ren­dered their per­ma­nent de­par­ture in­evitable. This would be a ter­ri­ble shame.

The stat­ues rank with the bil­liard­play­ing mon­keys (now sadly eroded) on the façade of the old Kil­dare Street Club or the frieze on Sun­light Cham­bers as a key part of the long un­der­val­ued fab­ric of the Dublin of the 19th and 20th cen­turies, most of which has been trashed and de­spoiled by suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of the city’s own most highly re­spected cit­i­zens. It would be re­gret­table if we found new rea­sons in the 21st cen­tury to de­stroy or re­move what lit­tle is left.

Does any­one in Marvel ever say any­thing as winning as “Flash, Flash, I love you, but we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!”? Does Won­der Woman or Bat­man ever fly blind on a rocket cy­cle? Has any other comic book adap­ta­tion ever had the wit and wis­dom to put wings on Brian Blessed?

No, be­cause th­ese things only hap­pen in the great­est su­per­hero movie ever made: Flash Gor­don.

The 1980 camp clas­sic, which has been re­stored in 4K to mark its 40th an­niver­sary, has a his­tory of happy ac­ci­dents fol­low­ing its hero’s first ap­pear­ance in a comic strip in 1934. Buck Rogers, an­other in­ter­ga­lac­tic hero, had al­ready spawned nov­el­i­sa­tions and toys when King Fea­tures Syn­di­cate – a sub­sidiary of the Hearst news­pa­per em­pire – ap­proached Edgar Rice Bur­roughs with a plan to adapt John Carter into a comic strip. When the Tarzan au­thor failed to agree terms, the com­pany ap­proached staff artist Alex Ray­mond to cre­ate a space-hop­ping ri­val.

The re­sult was Flash Gor­don, a dash­ing polo player and Yale grad­u­ate who teams up with love in­ter­est Dale Ar­den and scientist Dr Hans Zarkov in or­der to pre­vent Earth from col­lid­ing with the sin­is­ter planet Mongo.

In com­mon with Su­per­man, Flash was banned un­der the Nazis, but oth­er­wise en­joyed a run as a daily strip from 1934 to 1992, and con­tin­ued as a Sun­day strip un­til 2003. It was syn­di­cated in some 130 coun­tries, in­clud­ing Ire­land, from the 1950s. In the 1970s Ge­orge Lu­cas at­tempted to make a film based on the Flash serial films of the 1930s. When he failed to ac­quire the rights from Ital­ian su­per-pro­ducer Dino De Lau­ren­tiis, Lu­cas cre­ated his own Flash-en­thralled space opera.

The suc­cess of Star Wars prompted De Lau­ren­tiis to ap­proach some of the most in­con­gru­ous di­rec­tors imag­in­able. Fed­erico Fellini briefly op­tioned the Flash Gor­don rights from the pro­ducer, but never made the film.

“He went to Fellini first,” re­calls screen­writer Michael Allin. “And Fed­erico said: ‘Oh Dino, of course’. And then he dis­ap­peared and it turned into a Bri­tish pro­duc­tion. I met Nic Roeg years be­fore Flash Gor­don and we always wanted to work to­gether. I had a big pic­ture one year called En­ter the Dragon, and he had a big pic­ture that year called Don’t Look Now. We hit it off im­me­di­ately. He was the coolest dude on the planet at that mo­ment.

“He called me a cou­ple of years later from Clar­idge’s in Lon­don. He said: ‘I’m here with Dino; how about we write a movie for him? I said: ‘Tell me where and when; what’s the movie?’ He said: ‘It’s Flash Gor­don’.”

To­gether Allin and Roeg dreamed up a ver­sion that was “Adam and Eve be­ing chased by a jeal­ous God” in which a geno­ci­dal Ming the Mer­ci­less, Ruler of Mongo, de­pop­u­lates the uni­verse world by world, save for one fe­male from each planet with whom he would re­pop­u­late that world.

Com­pletely the wrong direc­tor

De Lau­ren­tiis, how­ever, wanted some­thing less bib­li­cal. He soon ap­proached Ser­gio Leone, who de­clined be­cause he be­lieved the script was not faith­ful to the orig­i­nal

Ray­mond comics. Fi­nally he hired Mike Hodges, the English writer-direc­tor of Pulp and Get Carter.

“I have no idea why he chose me,” laughs Hodges. “Nic was a friend of mine and he sug­gested me. I met with Dino and I looked at the script and I said: ‘Look, I’m com­pletely the wrong direc­tor. I’m not some­one who is into spe­cial ef­fects.’ But Dino per­sisted and even­tu­ally I agreed, per­suaded by my two sons, who re­ally wanted me to make it.”

In the mean­time, De Lau­ren­tiis drafted in Lorenzo Sem­ple Jr, the writer be­hind Bat­man, the kitsch hit 1960s TV se­ries star­ring Adam West, and set out to find his Flash Gor­don. Orig­i­nally he ap­proached Kurt Rus­sell, who turned it down be­cause he felt the char­ac­ter was one-di­men­sional. A young Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger wanted the role but was de­nied be­cause of his thick Aus­trian ac­cent. (De Lau­ren­tiis kept in touch and later hired the fu­ture gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia to play Co­nan the Bar­bar­ian.)

“It was a very dif­fi­cult part to cast, to be hon­est with you,” says Hodges. “I saw a lot of ac­tors. And none of them were suit­able at all. Then Dino’s mother-in-law – who is an English woman – was watch­ing a tele­vi­sion pro­gramme in Amer­ica called Celebrity Squares. And she saw Sam Jones in one of the squares. And she was right! Sam got a lot of rot­ten toma­toes thrown at him when the film first came out. But I think he’s ab­so­lutely per­fect. He’s got that lantern jaw. He’s both very phys­i­cal and he had an in­no­cence about him which is quite rare nowa­days and was rare then. I can’t think of any­body bet­ter than Sam.

“The thing about Flash Gor­don is that he’s one clown short of a cir­cus. Flash Gor­don is not very bright. When I’m in one of my more face­tious moods, I’ve said that he’s a metaphor for Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy, which has always been er­ratic and mind-bog­gling and im­pe­ri­al­ist. So I was very grate­ful when we fi­nally found a per­son who could play the role.”

In a pri­or­ity-re­veal­ing quote from Dino: The Life and Films of Dino De Lau­ren­tiis, the pro­ducer says: “He was a blond, buff, Amer­i­can boy, in great shape and even ca­pa­ble of act­ing.”

In 1977, Sam J Jones, a for­mer Marine and semi-pro foot­baller with the Seat­tle Fly­ers, picked up a mag­a­zine fea­tur­ing an in­ter­view with Clint East­wood. In the months that fol­lowed, he talked end­lessly about go­ing to Hol­ly­wood to try his luck as an ac­tor.

‘‘

Flash Gor­don is not very bright. When I’m in one of my more face­tious moods, I’ve said that he’s a metaphor for Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy, which has always been er­ratic and mind-bog­gling and im­pe­ri­al­ist

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