Posts Tagged ‘Legend of the Seeker’

Acting that “isolates and intensifies” the truth

January 22, 2013

Everyone remarks on Craig Horner’s extraordinary work portraying the experience of physical pain as Richard Cypher. This performance challenge is most spectacular in the episode “Denna” (directed by Michael Hurst). Craig describes it as the greatest challenge in filming The Legend of the Seeker, but also the episode he considers the best out of both seasons.

Standard acting advice on portraying pain or suffering is to resist the temptation to make it loud. In the words of Peter Hall, “A child who comes toward you trying not to cry (but who is filled with suppressed tears) is incredibly moving. But a child crying his heart out, a child in extremis, is less certain of our acceptance.”

Craig found a way to bring out the extreme nature of the pain in the torture sequence without violating this rule of drama. Of course, a magical weapon like the agiel helps. There are no points of comparison for the wise-asses in the audience to insist they could endure the same with more composure, because the hypothetical potential of the agiel’s magic is “unimaginable.”

But perhaps more importantly, he has a well-developed political torture sequence to work with in “Denna” – a full complement of psychological torture techniques enrich the exposition of the idea of torture in images.


In a book on acting first published in 1925, Stark Young wrote: “When an actor does a torture scene we are harrowed and sickened not because we think him tortured, but because we receive from him at that moment an idea of torture so compelling that it moves us, moves us more powerfully, perhaps, than the same blood and wounds in life might have done. He does not blur any truth but that of mere accidental externality. He does not, in so far as he is good, blur truth at all, but isolates and intensifies it to fuller power.”

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that a torturer’s power is the true instrument of totalitarianism, destroying the freedom of the individual mind one person at a time. The threat of further punishment is internalized, until any built environment that once would’ve seemed benevolent feels exactly like a cell. Political refugees far from their tormentors see the shadow of that same fear everywhere, reliving the same nightmares awake or asleep.

Actress Jessica Marais describes Denna’s psychological strategy in breaking Richard as “nonreactive,” keeping her tone and facial expressions unreadable, and so exploiting his warm and friendly nature by heightening his sense of isolation. Even when encouraging Richard’s compliance when he stops resisting, she doesn’t seem genuinely impressed. She is free to hurt him whimsically, instead of keeping a score card of whether or not he “deserves” any punishment, though she may tantalize him with a sense of having something to look forward to for good behavior when she turns to seducing him.

Is it strange to warm to someone capable of this? Not when you are otherwise isolated, no.

.. My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. – Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
And can make vile things precious.

But to exploit necessity this way, as isolation torture does, is yet another level of monstrosity. Coldness is not disgusting when it’s ugly. A garden slug is disgusting, but this is not a strong enough word for someone who would salt one. Such an act is better described as repulsive.

How then can walking away seem unacceptable, even if the monster inflicting such pain cannot be overcome or redeemed? Rilke wrote, “Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” As if this were the sticking point for those entrapped by every coercion known to their assailant to be at hand – that out of awful familiarity, looking inside, they confront the soul that would be held to account, rather than spared such honesty out of disdain for the wicked.

As the Mord Sith Cara says in Temple of the Winds, “We always let our captives keep their weapons. It’s a constant reminder to them they are helpless, that even their weapons will do them no good against us.”

It is at first bizarre to watch the deleted scene in the episode “Denna” that reveals she may be falling in love with her victim. Mord Sith madness entails affectionately enjoying instances of showing mercy to a “pet” one is torturing (“training”), but every act of kindness is really intended to cultivate false hope and maintain sensitivity, the better to inflict further pain and catch the victim off-guard.

Being repulsive in this way is something Denna takes satisfaction in, because it serves her purpose – it makes bonding with her excruciatingly difficult, so that a slave she has broken is more completely broken. This is her job, and she is good at it.

Mord Sith know how to co-opt a captive’s pride in his willingness to resist torture, punishing them until they no longer wish to fight back, but then needling them to find another trigger for involuntary reactions that resist again, until in the confusion of pain and self-sabotage they only know for certain that resistance is futile. All sources of pain can temporarily inflict this sense of being at war with oneself and unable to win, but the victim of a Mord Sith knows she could change her mind, and so comes to look to his tormentor as his only hope of any reprieve.

To stop resisting the use of operand conditioning to enforce compliance with simple commands is one degree of surrender, which Richard gives Denna when he partitions his mind by “locking his dignity away.” This surrender comes with a heavy price – he is suddenly quick to reveal his feelings for Kahlan, when before he had the presence of mind to hold back, knowing his feelings could put her in danger. But it is not like flipping a switch, for Denna is an expert at finding chinks in a prisoner’s armor. The secret to staying the course is Richard’s insight that through partial surrender, something inviolable can be held back and preserved from Denna’s effort to corrupt it.

Denna will not settle for anything short of breaking his will. What a Mord Sith expects of her slaves (and what Darken Rahl expects of all Mord Sith) is that they embrace contact with the agiel merely because she wishes to use it on them, and compliance with those wishes is all they desire. These bonds are hierarchical, with none of the ethics of equality and reciprocation.


The viciousness defining what a Mord Sith is telescopes our darkest motives and deepest cruelties, as efficiently as the image of the dragon whose teeth were sown at Thebes.

Several linked but different features occur in brutalization: 1. Pleasure in the pain of the victim or victims. 2. The formula ‘I am not going to suffer’ is pervasive. ‘You are going to do the suffering’ is implied and acted upon. 3. ‘I cannot contain what I feel in the way of fear, anger, or persecution’ … 4. Some people do suffer but cannot digest or metabolize the internal situation and it appears that instead of being resolved, old hurts get worse .. until what is acted out is far worse than the original suffering. – Cruelty, Violence and Murder

Not to wince away from the contact through the agiel with the tormenter is a gesture that embraces the shared experience of pain, as the way “out” that obliterates the horror of instinctively trying yet failing to escape. This is what Denna is getting at when she coaxes Richard to appreciate the metaphysics of pain, to use the profound nature of the experience of suffering as a way of escaping the worst.

As Weil says, likening all human experiences of pain to the passion of Christ, the divine spirit “shudders before suffering and death and feels itself in the depths of anguish isolated from man and from God.”

Craig’s decision to show extreme muscle tension by flexing all visible muscles to show maximum definition and strain when grasping the agiel creates a visually stunning effect true to the mechanical “vicious cycle” in which pain magnifies itself, which can be exacerbated when physical torture is combined with psychological torture. “Pain leads reflexively to counter-tension and this, in turn, to renewed pain, so these events continue in a kind of vicious circle.” – At the side of torture survivors

The deep muscle definition Craig uses in this scene also taps into the ability of the audience to relate to the experience of exertion/strain as causes of physical pain. There are also disturbing connotations of sexualized exploitation in this image, evoking the sense in which “violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing,” as Weil puts it.

There is also restraint in Craig’s performance. Richard’s tone of voice is strangely guarded when he reveals that he wishes to spare Denna pain at his own expense. But he has seen the fawning sycophantic behavior she is accustomed to from her slaves. He knows these gestures are really just an elective humiliation in their systems of adaptive depravity, expressing self-loathing as the last refuge of interpretation, to despise their own fate. He clings instead to the last shreds of compassion, hanging by the flimsy thread of unconditional love.

Given the opportunity, before facing the final test, Richard begs Kahlan to stamp out all that is left of his vulnerability, and take his soul with the magic of confession. She refuses, and he calls it a betrayal. But she has hope, guarded though it may be by ignorance of what he has really endured already.


After recognizing all this in the performances at the heart of “Denna”, there is something distasteful about Rilke’s gentle consolation, “Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.” The story, Richard’s journey of the mind, gets under your skin, and then you recoil from the nicer ways of putting it.

This is the difference between perpetrating life-like illusions and the actor’s work as an original artist: “the actor gives you the eternity of love, grief, and death; … The art of acting in that scene is ultimately to be judged by the completeness and significance of its idea. Every work of art endures at last not by its likeness to things outside itself, but by the depth and freedom of the content that it embodies and expresses.”

One foot on sea, and one on shore

January 22, 2013

The magic of confession in The Legend of the Seeker is severe and lasting. While the confessed remember their past fully, they confront it only to answer in interrogation if their mistress bids them. Otherwise they don’t see an immediate need to revisit such things for their confessor’s sake. They become indifferent.

As Isak Dinesen wrote, if “no art has more severe laws than magic; no artist is more severely bound by his laws than the magician.” Quoting Piet Hein, she closes one of her essays with the cruel efficiency of these clipped lines:

Training for the magic habit,
fail not to insert the rabbit.

Like a Wizard with only one terrible ability, but sworn to uphold justice with a militant indifference to flattery among the afraid, the Confessor is expected to use power judiciously for some greater good than acquisitiveness on her own part.

But as in all things, some habits don’t break at the opportune moment; some needful things will not be learned in time. As Kahlan says: “We can only be what we are, no more, no less.”


Prophecy, first episode of two-part premiere in Season 1

Take Susie Bright’s words, “women thrive on exuding as well as seeking masculine energy. It’s like a Valkyrie demanding her due.” To disregard the loss of power in such choices of words is bravado, from a growing indifference to the allotment of gendered pronouns. But it’s a nonverbal world now that traffic lights have evolved to meet us where we’re at, with signals that make hieroglyphs look sophisticated.

Though Kahlan’s perspective on having someone under confession is sympathetic, she is never really as patient as could be, compared to Narcissus conversing with Sir Philip Sidney’s Echo:

“Faire rocks, goodly rivers, sweet woods, when shall I see peace?


Peace! What bars me my tongue? who is it that comes me so ny?


Oh, I do know what guest I have met, it is Echo.

’Tis Echo.

Well met, Echo, approach; then tell me thy will too.

I will too. –”

Her moon is a sow, she grumbles because it is too far off to bite, and her grunt is enough song for any Ishtar, the rocking of her ass is her dancing and it is shiny. Resist, petty lady, crime is never nothing, attempt larceny before deciding whether you want to quench a flame by starving it of air, or feeding it fermented ambrosia until it swallows its own feet – out of complacent indigestion, gurgling on mead, mistaking them for a chaser.

Maybe the same kind of ruthless naiveté had to do with the death of the gifted son of a girl who sought to hold the feet of a king who was under such a dire spell, that he could not survive if he failed to lay his feet always in the lap of a virgin. Fled by his own mother on the day of his birth, he was cursed in her parting words because she was bitter to be disqualified for the virgin’s post by such an unexpected delivery.

“Well, is it dark enough? Can you see me?”

Though adopted since his mother would not give the father’s name, the boy had to succeed in many adventures to gain a name for himself and a bride in spite of his mother’s strange invocations, and it helped that the king’s magician raised him and taught him magic.

His very last adventure is mentioned in troubadours’ lines like “men were deceivers ever, one foot on sea and one on shore,” lines the Celts associated with a woman conjured out of “the flowers of oak and broom and meadowsweet” to be the boy’s wife. Since his mother took revenge on her unwanted child by cursing him to be unable to wed a woman of any race in the world, he had to invent another to find love.

He learned how and married well except the wife was innocent, and spoke too simply to be understood in time by men who were too used to reading between the lines when women speak. While her husband was away it seemed to her that a passing hunter should be invited into his home, and she was plain with him about her admiration because she found him beautiful and saw he was trustworthy, so without hesitation she became his lover.

Knowing and fearing what could occur if a woman already married preferred another, she asked her lover too many questions about whether he would slay her husband in order to marry her himself.


Will Ryman, “Anyone and No One”

Now she learned soon that there was only one way to kill off her husband in favor of her lover:

I cannot be killed indoors or out of doors, on horse or on foot … Make a bath for me on a river bank, with a good snugly thatched roof over the tub; then bring a buck goat and put it alongside the tub. If I put one foot on the goat’s back and the other on the edge of the tub, whoever struck me then would bring about my death.

– Penguin edition, Mabinogion

But the part of the flower girl’s story that surprises and confuses everyone was that she quickly persuaded her husband to stand just so, with her lover waiting nearby armed exactly to the purpose, not for her own peace of mind and yet just as if she needed to see it for herself – so that she could fully appreciate the slimness of the probability he would ever be caught off guard in such awkward circumstances.

The lover no doubt found the flowers innocent, so kept from her knowledge of what comes of killing kings.

Your high heel
shoes evoke
a narrow
stair, resounding
tower for a
bell. Consentingly
tied hair the
larger than
life image
of unerring
pride in a
black bird at
rest, at ease
your skirts a library
of roseate leaves laid out
in eloquent marble
that receives the voice
of public men and
magnifies their speeches
while it elevates
men’s eyes, your waist a
famous line still whispered
by young husbands
patiently seeking a sigh.

Your voice is
that which lives inside
this room, a space for
talk as measured as a loom, and
like a silhouette in stone, body
and clothes belong more to the
garden’s tree than to the echo
of the child I knew, repeating “ear” and “lips”
with lips made new by listening
and learning undisclosed
allusions etched in half-forgotten
etiologies. Just then,
your innocence of mysteries, false
speech, deceit and innuendo
kept your peace – love slept.

Today you speak with reservation
learned at knee, ankle tucked behind,
kind, forgiving, you unwind
yourself from me with delicate
regard. I am no more inside.

The transformations of young Arthur in The Once and Future King (and The Sword in the Stone) also resemble some of the misadventures of a magician in the service of the same king of ancient Britain, whose friend was beloved of such a virgin as kept the feet of the king.


Sumi-e painting of mice

The young lady in question, when no longer qualified, honorably confessed in time to save the king’s life, but at the magician’s expense (and her lover’s). Rather than squirrels and fish, the friends were made wolves and stag and hind and so on until they had children between them either way to satisfy the king, who married the girl in the mean time.

There is nothing to explain
Regard each other as you pass
She looks back, you look back
Not just once, not just twice
… A light, you can feel it on your back…

– Radiohead

Danger lies in the humor that refusal to understand tragedy gives rise to, a kind of irony that can kill with hysterical fits of laughter from which you refuse to resume a dignified response to an impossible situation. Hyperventilation the end of you.

Hyenas cough to give warning when they see the provocation coming from behind you, have no sense of cruelty or needful neglect like the bad conscience that abides in our imaginations.

Another of the Welsh legends in the Mabinogion is the story of a Roman emperor so possessed with love for a girl he only dreamed he had seen, that he could live for no other hope but to find her, and so he found her, and Britain, and made her empress of Rome, and Britain.

“…They’ll seek to find me north and south…”

When news of his dream and intentions first reached her, she remarked to the unexpected emissaries, “Men, I do not doubt what you say, but I do not believe it overmuch either. If it is I whom the emperor loves, let him come for me.” In time he did, and though war was made against him while he was away from Rome, her men returned with his and Rome was won again.

For the Greeks, loss of virginity was officially a kind of death by marriage. Their mythological amazons kept to the edges of the known world, approaching only to steal glory from among men during long-running epic wars. Love kills them, they inspire necrophilia.

“Parting is all we know of heaven. And all we need of hell.” – Emily Dickinson

The whip? “It’s for peace.” The hard truth, we each need a little more peace at heart than we know how to get by asking nicely.

Why a sword of truth and a book of secrets?

January 7, 2013

When Euripides has taken Herakles to the scene of Hera’s final revenge (for his father’s infidelity), he has his friend Theseus find him there, and speak to him with great compassion, knowing few things will bring a man so reduced by grief to his feet:

Theseus: “Is this the all-heroic Herakles talking?”

Herakles: “Not all-heroic. There has to be some limit to pain.”

Is this the final judgment on violence, power exercised through brute force – that all will come to ruin, and our greatest heroes will despair? We have had over two thousand years to think about it since this writing. Why else would our gut feelings favor unselfish fairness? The body knows it has to eat.

It would be nice to think the gut takes the long view, detached from mere questions of opinion, and remembering that we are social animals. Maybe the trouble is that the cognitive dissonance that comes from pretending not to know better isn’t just a private demon – it undermines your ability to trust others, even when they propose to make themselves helpful, instead of acting as your enemies.

Hypocrisy fear drives us to look for all sorts of alternatives to assuming strangers are negotiating in good faith when they make promises. Shell games have the potential to be the most profitable ploys on the market. What could beat getting something for nothing? Claims on expertise are indistinguishable from shell games until the results of acting on the paid advice are in – the product is bought unproven, and usually comes without guarantees.

Then there is an infinite series in the scope for rebounding hypocrisies: when caught we may naturalize or rationalize what were actually intentionally misleading claims as though they were accidental errors, without even knowing how many of those we’ve been lying to were only pretending to not hear the tell in the lie.

Faked susceptibility to lies is actually rather commonplace, so one risks being tricked into believing one’s own lies are believed by others all the time.


The pervasive and easily downplayed normalization of hypocrisy helps explain how the professional witnesses of war crimes at the ICRC can begin to earnestly second-guess whether it is appropriate to report on atrocities that were staged precisely to exploit the mass media’s interest in certain types of atrocity photos. If the soldier is allowed to face death saying “shit life,” the humanitarian faces work in the crossfire or nearby with the epithet hyper-désagréable.”

Threat credibility is a bloody retreat from the intellectual. The value of verbal threats to signal credibility is diminished whenever “brave words” turn out to be nothing more than that (#NotIntendedAsAFactualStatement), but those who would trade on the reputation of a “straight shooter” restore its value arbitrarily on impulse, brawling on slight pretext and then priding themselves on mere willingness to follow through on a bold if-then threat whenever put to the test.

It makes them seem more predictable than those who try to get what they want with promises of what they would do for you in return. And if they aren’t that predictable, at least they’re not insulting your intelligence.

Anti-heroes like Harvey Dent win us over by bluffing as a rule, to make a secret of having a personal commitment to restraint, and still better intimidate especially dangerous foes than an honest pacifist. The Two-Face origin story in The Dark Knight captures the danger in this seemingly noble hypocrisy.


“Covenants without swords are but words.” – Leviathan

The threats he made on a coin toss turned out to be a slippery slope into flagrant use of force that has a momentum of its own, as game play, long after the devotion to duty has died. And cruelly, through the game he relives the trauma of losing that love and self-respect.

So an action hero will be quick to warn against bluffing with respect to violence. Use of deadly force is not threatened lightly, simply because a credible threat would motivate the opponent to contemplate a preemptive deadly counterstrike, to prevent you from carrying out your threat.