Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Reality, Content and the Death of Meaning.

Besides half an episode of the first series of Big Brother, which I switched off in cringing irritation, I have never watched a reality TV programme. Like Nando’s, homeopathy and Chris Ryan books, reality TV seems like an experience which belongs on a list of exceptions to the ‘don’t knock ’till you’ve tried it’ rule.

I just put “try anything once except…” into DuckDuckGo and discovered that it was Sir Thomas Beecham who said he drew the line at incest and folk-dancing. It reminded me how dull I am.

Nevertheless, it is a familiar world. On tired evenings, I like watching The Big Bang Theory on E4, and it is usually sandwiched between extended trailers for the bizarre sexualisation of a tropical beach or Spanish villa, with steroid-queen English boys smirking at siliconed English girls in an atmosphere of mutual loathing, humiliation and hypocritical endearments.

Worse than that incidental exposure to the wretched form is the ‘serious’ criticism that tries to elevate ‘reality’ to a meaningful topic of discussion, rather than the intellectual and moral scab-picking it really is. Oddly juxtaposed with stories about the menopause and FGM, reality TV as a ‘guilty pleasure’ is a stand-by on Woman’s Hour, as predictable as the choice of Book of the Week. Roland Barthes, I suppose, can be used to justify this attention to a form that is so static, so lacking in any sense of revelatory epiphany that even he, I suspect, would have given a Gallic pfft to this stymied vortex of attention-seeking and not-quite-rape. Semiology, seeking to find enlightenment in the dignifying of popular forms, is rendered into a simulacrum of a non-representation by an art that is only artifice: form without even the ambition of meaning.

It is a measure of my trust in the writer John Lanchester that I even started his story in the current issue of the LRB, ‘Love Island’. Such is my disinterest in the topic, that I almost decided to pass over it, even though I am usually delighted to see that he has an article in the Review. His essay on the lasting impact of the great financial crash in an issue a month or so back finally convinced me that we really are living through the death of capitalism. A review last year, You Are The Product, about the confidence trick that is social media, gave me a summary of all the fury I feel towards the corporate monopolisation of the internet and the ruination of this wonderful technology. Over the past couple of years, I have read articles and reviews by him on Brexit, Bitcoin and Nabakov, and they have all been the sort of reading that leaves me feeling empowered by a clearer vision than I can manage on my own.

I really, really recommend Love Island. Buy the edition of the LRB or read it online. It is a short story that has echoes of several science fiction stories that are buried in my collection of old anthologies, never to be rediscovered, but it is beautifully constructed and perfectly paced. He has done what I could never bring myself to do: look at the reality TV form closely and see it through the eyes of the participants: the people for whom the ritual is an elite rite of passage into the gleaming uplands of celebrity and vindication. Not individually stupid, they have buried themselves in stupidity for the sake of validating their devotion to the surface-trapped onanism of our culture. They do it to themselves and they pursue the promise that one, every other year or so, will rise out of the murk to make a career that echoes that of the most wretched of fame’s sub-tribes; the presenter.

There’s a strange further quirk to this story. In the same edition, David Thompson has a (subscriber only) article on binge-watching a drama series about Berlin in the 1930s. His experience has some of the pointlessness of watching an entire series of reality TV, as he highlights the hallucinogenic quality of view-on-demand, multi-layered narrative television drama that, to allow for follow-on series, (excuse me: seasons) never comes to anything but conditional climaxes. However, the particular topic of the series he discusses, the decadence of a doomed culture dancing towards apocalypse, came to have a far more contemporary value, once I had read Lanchester’s story about lost souls, pretending to be happy, pretending to be pursuing love, in a sun-drenched prison, isolated from any redeeming dialectic of meaning.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

At Last, Jedi

Spoilers, spoilers everywhere. I am assuming you’ve seen it and am writing this as a discussion, rather than a recommendation (although I do recommend it, highly).

Even though I love Star Wars (even the crap ones), I left it until yesterday, a good couple of weeks after the film’s release, to see The Last Jedi. Blame J J Abrams, not because of The Force Awakens, which I loved, but for Blade Runner 2049, which cost £25 for two tickets and was a real disappointment. Cineworld, the multi-screen chain cinema on the Island, is the standard modern McCinema, and I have had enough of it, not simply because they charge insane prices, but because the experience of watching films there is not always good: when we saw The Force Awakens, within a week of its release, we were shuffled into a secondary ‘screen’ which was barely larger than some people’s home televisions. Worse, the sound overwhelmed the system within the room, which had at least one blown speaker that hissed throughout. They also keep the interior lights on far too brightly throughout the films: a real annoyance.

However, in Ryde, there is an old cinema and bingo hall, The Commodore, which has struggled bravely on, showing films a few weeks after their release, keeping the old, seventies-era carpets dry with buckets to cope with the leaky roof, and charging under a fiver for a newish release, except on Wednesdays, when you can see any film on show for £2.00. It is staffed by people who seem to care about what they are doing and it has the air of a business that knows it relies upon its customers: there is a plaintive but endearing notice requesting that you do not bring in your own snacks, as they need the revenue to support the ticket price. Our friends, Iain, Jo and Frank, live in Ryde now, and we went to see Paddington 2 last month with them. The screen was large, the sound very good and the film enjoyable.

Had The Last Jedi been a dud, I would not have felt too aggrieved. £4.00 each, plus about £5 for a cup of lemonade for me and a cup of pick ‘n mix sweets for Amanda seems a reasonable price to pay, even if the seats are, at best, hard work (if you choose poorly, you may get one that has collapsed through overuse and suffer horribly, as one gentleman along from us did).

However, it was not a dud. In fact, I think it’s better than The Force Awakens and was as satisfying, and as thought provoking, as Rogue One. I could have done without quite so much of the Luke Skywalker story. Beautiful as the Island temple is, it is not Dagobah, and Yoda’s appearance came too late to stop me getting fed up with that strand, despite the comforting pleasure of watching Mark Hamill play my favourite ever film character with passion and dignity opposite the powerful and apparently effortlessly perfect acting of Daisy Ridley. These sequences were enriched by Rey’s encounters with the absent Kylo Ren, which could easily have been confusing nonsense but were carried by the simplicity of the visual device used to show them and clarity of Ridley’s performance and, to a lesser extent, that of Adam Driver as Ren. Although it all got a bit tedious at the time, after the viewing I can appreciate the importance of Rey’s spiritual journey, and the way in which Luke’s reluctance to teach her, and the eventual destruction of the Jedi temple, signals a Jedi new covenant: an acknowledgement that we are moving into a new jedi era, shaped by a wider understanding of the line between the Force and the Dark Side. “We are,” Yoda tells Luke, “what they grow beyond.”

Meanwhile, however, the wider universe pelts forward, in traditional Star Wars style. The opening battle is a doozy: a pastiche of world war two aerial bomber movies in which a wonderful hero, Paige Tico, played by Veronica Ngo, is introduced and thrown away in a matter of minutes, dying to save the day. The lead character through this adventure, however, is Poe, the X-wing pilot from The Force Awakens, whom I have struggled to like. His ‘anti-establishment’, standard Hollywood hero role grates on me. He’s supposed to be the light relief, but the film seems to stop for his set-pieces: whereas Han Solo’s humour always felt embedded, Poe’s seems somewhat tacked-in. Where we always knew that Solo’s heart was in the right place, Poe could be simply a demagogue and a show-off.

His arrogance, however, becomes a theme. The leadership of the withered rump of the resistance in this film is almost entirely female. After the death of Admiral Ackbar, and Princess Leia’s injury in the same attack, Vice Admiral Holdo, played by Laura Dern, takes over. She’s an odd character, and for a while, I thought she might be a traitor, as the Empire’s ability to track the Resistance fleet through hyperspace hadn’t been explained. Ultimately, however, she is justified and her authority is shown to be that of a fierce, intelligent woman, fighting fascism and tolerating the boyish heroism of Poe’s histrionics.

This chimes with my thesis that Star Wars is political, and on the right side of politics. Indeed, such an idea is now explicit in the U.S. where images of Leia as a part of the resistance to Trump have been prominent on women’s marches. Mark Hamill has supported this in his prolific tweeting: here is a typical post:

Rose and Finn: a beautiful pairing.

How can it not be so? How can The Empire, and The First Order, not be a representation of the fascist tendency in western capitalism? In this film, it is even more explicit than before: The First Order is shown to be a cash cow for arms dealers who pass their time away on a vulgar casino planet, enjoying the torture of animals for sport and supported by child slaves. A libertarian opportunist (DJ, played by Benicio Del Toro) betrays Finn and his new partner, Paige Tico’s grieving sister, Rose (my new Star Wars crush, played by Kelly Marie Tran with the same joyous brio and frightened determination as John Boyega gives Finn) and the intriguing soul-torment of Ren never escapes his alt-right monomania, contrived self-pity and clueless vanity.

While Rey is most certainly the heart of the new trilogy, and is filling the role beautifully, Finn remains my emotional access point: the side of Luke Skywalker that first grabbed me. He is the reluctant hero, who fails and gets back up, and he is, above all things, loyal: his first question, upon waking from a coma, is “Where’s Rey?” His clay feet are developed in this film, as he is rescued from his own cowardice by Rose, who then rescues him from his heroism at the end. When he asks her why she stopped him, she speaks the line that made me feel this movie has a real-world heart beating within the children’s film spectacle:

“We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!”

I suspect that that line will become a mantra over the coming year, for everyone of courage and good will.

The Last Jedi was worth waiting for.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Must Be Expensive. Very.

Spoilers throughout. Seriously, shitloads of them. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Amanda and I saw Bladerunner 2049 last night, in a large cinema in which we were two of only three viewers, a fact that might be explained by the price of £12.20 per ticket, or by the possibility that word of mouth is spreading the message that this film is neither flesh nor fowl.  It has passages that are truly great, but it has a number of failings, including irrelevant action sequences, clunky product placement and an unnecessarily extended final battle that dilutes what should have been a character-driven, not an action-driven film.

Ultimately, it is a disappointment. I think the reason for this is that, despite being a film of really ambitious scope and honest artistic vision, it is forced, as a Hollywood science fiction film, to include some elements that do not arise from what the film is really about. To understand that, it is useful to note that the original script writer of Bladerunner, Hampton Fancher, said that the film was “…a nine million dollar movie that was all about personal relationships.” Ridley Scott changed that somewhat, widening the script out (with the help of the second writer, David Peoples) to create the world of the story, but the progress, essentially, is a series of relationships and personal interactions built around the personal quests of Deckard and Batty. It is a character drama, set in an extraordinary world.

And that existential crisis of characters being tortured by their environment is repeated in the new film. The hero, K, is a bladerunner and a replicant, kept in line by constant testing and the threat of retirement (i.e., execution) if his personality ever begins to develop away from unquestioning obedience. His psychic journey, including his love affair with an AI girlfriend, Joi, is told in perfect Bladerunner pacing. The antagonist, Luv, is also a replicant. In an early scene, they recognise their common (in)humanity; their slavery, and their different accommodations to their predicament. Soon afterwards, Luv is obliged to watch a newly-hatched replicant’s murder at the hands of her boss, Wallace, and she sheds a single tear. It is a magnificent piece of acting, and the only human feeling Luv allows herself in the film, besides anger, cruelty and, at the last, fear.

It’s not necessary to go any further into the story. K chases a dream while trying to solve a mystery and, in doing so, undergoes a psychic journey reflected by his surroundings in a world in late terminal decline. I think his hypnotic progress is beautiful, bringing to mind a Russian art house film of the seventies: perhaps a Tarkovsky on a much, much grander scale.

Unfortunately, there is a second element, which intrudes into this powerful dream. Some of the action scenes in this film arise naturally, as the violence in Bladerunner did, like the ebb and flow of the disturbing but engaging dream. Sadly, though, too many action scenes seem to have been included simply to make an exciting trailer. The first time the mood of the film was broken for me was when K travelled to an orphanage, located in a junk yard, which turned out to be a sweatshop in which orphans were used as slave labour. This was beautifully visualised and acted. Besides developing the question of K’s memories and possible past, it introduced the character of the orphanage director, Mister Cotton, wonderfully played by Lennie James as a Dickensian workhouse director impoverished by his own moral derangement. However, on the way, and apropos of nothing, K’s spinner (flying car) is shot down, he fights a load of feral scavengers and is rescued by satellite artillery that Luv controls from her office as she’s getting her nails done. The orphanage scene is a key section of K’s hero quest and growing identity crisis, and it is entirely in keeping with the main tone of the film. The action sequence overshadows it; it’s all flash-bang, as if it is introducing a new plot element, but then it ends and we go back to where he was headed before it happened with nothing learned. It’s a CGI action sequence shoe-horned in.

Similarly, the director, or writer, or somebody, seems to have had a crisis of nerve during the most powerful and visually unique extended passage of the film. Having realised that he is in mortal competition with Luv for the answer to the mystery of replicant reproduction, K travels to an irradiated Las Vegas to seek out Deckard. His journey there, seen, at first, through the camera of his spinner’s drone reconnaissance vehicle and then as a series of gorgeous shots of him walking through a graveyard of obscene sculptures in the haze of a post-nuclear wasteland, should be the equivalent of Roy Batty’s entrance into Sebastian’s apartment building after Prys’ death in the original film. It is hallucinatory, threatening and compelling – the image to the right here gives an idea of the aesthetic, although it shows Deckard, for some reason, rather than K. As the casino in which Deckard is living appears out of the mist, K comes across some beehives, and the buzzing joins the lovely soundscape, breaking the desert’s eeriness. Finally, K mounts the steps of the casino and enters, into the mock classicism of ruined commercial luxury.

The passage takes the time to allow the viewer to, first savour the imagery and then to read meaning into it. It is a masterpiece. Now, he has reached his destination and finds his quarry but, as if everyone who has just created that sequence has suddenly gone from genius to tone-deaf, they introduce a classic Hollywood male-bonding fight into the scene. It is a grinding, cacophanous halt in the proceedings. Far better would have been to simply allow the two men to work one another out in sparse dialogue, as they later do – the fight resolves nothing. Instead, it kills the mood for the scenes that follow, in one of the richest sets of the film, as they discuss, misunderstand and fence with one another over a glass of clumsily product-placemented whiskey. Despite the advertising forced into it, this is a return to the true pace of the film, but my impatience with the fight scene – less Bladerunner 2 than Lethal Weapon 3 – had thrown me off track. I became bored here, took a while to appreciate the beauty of K’s discovery of a holographic jukebox on which he played Sinatra performing One For My Baby, and was unready for the (more plot-driven) action scene that exploded in the following scene. I’ve embedded the song here, because it really is the best piece of music in the film.

By now, I had realised that I was unhappy with the film. This is a tragedy, as much of the resolution, taking the better part of an hour yet, is just as beautiful as the best of what had come before, but I was outside it now, no longer really feeling it; just watching it. Joi, K’s AI lover, whom he had deleted from his apartment network for security reasons and downloaded to a portable stick, is dead. He is bereaved, disillusioned of his hope of having had an unremembered past and co-opted into a replicant revolution for which he feels little ardour. Unsure whether to carry out the task the rebels have foisted on him or simply to kill himself, he wanders the elevated sidewalks of LA, surrounded by the worn-down Bladerunner cityscape that is so familiar now. He is solicited by an advert: a giant, naked image of the same model of AI he is mourning and, in a shot that should be sleazy, Gosling performs, wordlessly, a remarkable moment of internalised soliloquy. The advertisment’s tagline is, “Everything you want to hear; everything you want to see”; it is a wretched, terrible commodification of a beautiful young woman and, as with all artificial life in the film, we wonder whether she is aware, or simply a mechanised recording. Then she kneels before him, points to him, and addresses him as ‘Joe’; the name Joi gave him to humanise him. She is no longer an object: they are allies.

I take issue with one more sequence, although, given the chance to cut the film myself, this one would be shortened, not removed. The final battle, in which K kills Luv and rescues Deckard, is a three parter, in standard Hollywood fashion, in which the baddy initially has the upper hand, the goody suffers a terrible wound, they break apart to pursue the mcguffin (Deckard, handcuffed to a car sinking under a deluge) and the goody overcomes the baddy with the power of moral rectitude and a nice dose of sadism; in this case, quite rapey sadism. It is overlong and becomes boring. I would have taken out the section on the concrete of the  dam in which Luv displays her martial arts props: it’s just not necessary. It’s there because the fight director thought you can’t have a decent fight in a sinking car. Where we are heading is to a reconciliation between Deckard and his daughter, and to a scene that should have given me goosebumps, in which the, largely disappointing, soundtrack went from teasing to, finally, fully referencing the original film’s soundtrack as K, his quest complete, closes his eyes and dies. The fact that that scene’s force only hit me afterwards was a testament to the way the worst of what had preceded it had so overshadowed the film-makers’ better intentions.

Beautifully acted, beautifully designed and beautifully shot, this film is a monument to how not to edit a movie. It is a masterpiece dragged down to tedium by a load of formulaic marketing fodder.

However, I’m looking forward to the director’s cut.

 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

It’s Artificial? Of Course It Is.

It’s a measure of how busy I have been over the last few months, and how my media consumption has been restricted, that I hadn’t known that Hollywood has made a Bladerunner sequel. I only discovered it from reading my parents’ Telegraph last Saturday, when I was visiting: my father has been ill again, and I took a train trip up to Suffolk to see them. I dislike the Telegraph’s politics, but the review is a fine piece of writing.

I have a very deep love of the original film. Its soundtrack, in both versions, has been a constant presence on my mp3 player/ipod/phone over a couple of decades and the film was my route to reading Philip K. Dick, who was the subject of my dissertation. I bought one of the updated DVDs a year or so back and was happily surprised by how well the film had aged; how it had retained its power and clarity.

In fact, I have issues with Bladerunner, despite loving it. I think Scott often presents a quite right-wing vision of life. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a book about the terror of life without a soul, without empathy. Dick’s primary concern in all his writing was the importance of the soul – the core of the intelligent existence that is not, ultimately, a material quality. Dick had a pessimistic view of the universe, believing that entropy indicated hopelessness, but consistently wrote about characters who, through empathy, love, optimism, or other spiritual qualities, overcame despair. He had, also, as Brian Aldiss put it, “…unwavering…moral sensibility. He recognizes and portrays the actuality of evil: a kind of being, lacking in empathy, sympathy or any sense of common humanity – be that being android, psychotic, junkie, autistic, paranoid or fascist…Though Dick works hard to make us understand them, he spares little sympathy for them.”* The replicants’ tragedy and suffering in Do Androids Dream… does not redeem them. They are evil. The fear that the human characters may also be artificial, but just better made, is a deeper level of the book, but we know them by their works: it is their qualities, not their authenticity, that define them.

For Scott, the wounded soldier is deep enough and, by tying the plight of the soldier to the plight of the slave, he redeems and dignifies the replicants in a way that is absent in the book. The poor, misunderstood psychopath carries the film and the idea that he is a truer expression of humanity than the human is quite enough around which to build a masterful film. This is partly a result of difference of media: Scott is a true film-maker and a master of telling a story visually, and that will shape the stories he tells. It is also a difference of time: the sense of wonder and possibility of sixties drug-inspired spiritual searching that Dick darkly satirised but also lived, had been co-opted into consumerism by the eighties, and the dark narrowing of human future no longer seemed like a distant vision. Also, on a deeply troubled production, Rutger Hauer saved the film, giving it the quotable summary that gave a real power to the gutted story Scott had filmed.

That said, while I admire Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep more than the film for being, in my view, truer to the world than Bladerunner, I love the film. If I had not seen the reviews, I would be approaching this sequel with trepidation, but I have read them, and they are all superb, and I am looking forward to tonight with huge excitement. I haven’t even watched the trailer, although I have embedded it here, for future reference.

Please, God: let it be good. I need it to be really, really good.

*Brian Aldiss With David Wingrove; The Trillion Year Spree, Paladin, London, 1986, p417

Sunday, 21 May 2017

We Appear to Have, For Want of a Better Word, Momentum.

While Jeremy Corbyn addressed a crowd of many thousands in the Wirral, on the Island, a heartening and well-informed audience gathered to hear Julian Critchley speak in Ryde last night. He addressed the Stockholm Syndrome, likening the media refrains about Labour being ‘unelectable’ to the obedience of imprisoned people who have grown to identify with their captors.

He (Jeremy Corbyn) is only unelectable if you don’t vote for him!

The idea that many people want to vote for Labour policies but are having a hard time shifting their thinking to realise that it is within their power is borne out by my experience of canvassing in East Cowes yesterday. Julian also said that he was impressed by the encounters he’d had, canvassing in Newport and Ryde during the day, and a gentleman from Ventnor said the same. We have a large elderly population on the Island, and the Labour ‘Triple Whammy’ against older people in their half-arsed manifesto has shaken a lot of people, making them feel insecure.

Still, at a party for a friend’s 75th birthday later, I was told, in all seriousness, by a friend who claims to have studied economics, that Labour’s manifesto can’t be afforded. I like her, and didn’t want to burst her bubble, so I didn’t ask her whether she’d read the document on which she was pontificating. She seemed to think that the money for wars and tax breaks for billionaires and foreign corporations comes from a magic pot that doesn’t cost us anything and isn’t available to be used for socially useful purposes. Her ‘argument’, was that any change from the way things are is a fantasy and impossible. She is not rich, but neither is she struggling, and it seemed to me that she was displaying a perfect set of Stockholm Syndrome characteristics: she had bought the lie that our economy is a permanent, externally-caused, state of crisis and that There Is No Alternative (TINA); the greatest of the neo-liberal lies. I was left a little depressed by the encounter.

However, this morning, after I had fortified myself, I took a look at news sources and was left with a rather more hopeful sense of what seems to be happening in the country. Firstly, the mechanisms that construct and maintain the Stockholm Syndrome bubbles seem to be under attack. Have a look at this video.


Quite clearly, the BBC has a policy of depicting the tiny huddled rump of Tory activists at this meeting as a large and successful gathering, representing the community in which it tool place. Equally clearly, that is not the truth of the matter. It echoes the famous bus picture, where someone went off-message and took a step back to show that there were a couple of dozen or so Tory supporters pretending to be a crowd.

So far, so depressing: we are a country ill-served by our media and a lot of passive people, including my friend, are happy to accept the air-brushed truth.

Then I saw this.


Eh? Only a few seconds, as well. Don’t get excited.

Except that, in the replies, there was this:

And this:

(I love the original poster’s reply.)

What? Eh?

Over the next few minutes, a series of tweets appeared on my stream, all showing an incredible event. The ‘hugely unpopular’ Jeremy Corbyn had addressed a Libertines gig the night before, at the Tranmere Rovers football ground. He gave a speech to a crowd of thousands and was drowned out, several times, by the crowd shouting his name as if he were a football star.

It almost looks as though, I don’t know: he’s popular, or something. What he says seems to have caught the imagination of young people. People who probably didn’t vote last time.

And it wasn’t just concert goers and football fans.

Theresa May wanted to make this a presidential election. Who looks more presidential now?

On my ridiculous vanity project Labour supporter’s webpage, I have written this:

Deadline to register to vote is Monday 22 May, 23:59. ie, before midnight. BBC is reporting that two million people have registered since the start of the election, and the majority are young people.This is almost inevitably bad news for the Conservatives, as their vote share, while stable, has not increased numerically for several elections. In other words, the larger the pool of voters, the smaller their share.

There is expected to be a spike of applications in the run-up to Monday’s deadline.

In 2015, 500,000 people applied to vote on deadline day while registration for the EU referendum in 2016 had to be extended by 48 hours after the website crashed in the final few hours.

DO IT NOW!

If you want us, as a nation, to escape the common delusions that the ruling classes have been imposing upon us for thirty years, then you don’t want to miss the chance to participate in this election. Register to vote, join the Labour Party and, for the sake of everything that is good about our beautiful, muddled, creative and messy country, VOTE LABOUR.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Fabulous

The Ryde gang, who have kindly absorbed us into their loving social circle over the last couple of years, celebrate Eurovision every year. Last year, it clashed with Amy’s hen do, which left the men enjoying the campest blokes’ night ever, but this year we all gathered at Dave and Rik’s beautiful house to watch the final.

As a music lover, Eurovision doesn’t offer me much to celebrate, but I got the impression that there was more artistic variety this year than last. In particular, I was taken with the Hungarian entry: Origo, by Pápai Joci . It made me think of southern Spanish music, with a heavy Arabic influence, but was also a seamlessly modern pop song.

In fact, Pápai Joci is a Hungarian Romani and part of the lyric is, apparently, in Roma, the rest in Hungarian. There is a discussion, with a translation of the lyric into English, in the comment section here. Look for the comment by Unknown You.

There’s a surprisingly politically insightful interview with Joci here. It’s easy to forget that Eurovision serves as a political and cultural unifier across nations. Fun and frivolous as it is on the surface, it is an artistic meeting between many different cultures and, when a country has the courage to present the best of itself, it can give us outsiders a view of what its culture is made of.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Naming the Cheeses in a Safe Place

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem possible to embed BBC videos on WordPress, which is a shame, as Carnage, by Simon Amstell is a work of genius, which I would like to share from the publicly-funded source. Someone has uploaded a pirated copy to Youtube, so I have embedded that. It is a comedy in documentary form, set in 2067, examining the history of veganism and the guilt of a generation who grew up eating meat. It has images of animal cruelty, human nudity and a spot-on parody of angry middle-aged reactionaries calling people smug for not being like them, but it is also very, very funny.

I ended up taking notes, and among my favourite lines (after the masterpiece which I’ve used as the title of this post) are:

“Debbie moved to Rotterdam and married a florist.”

“Food is you, food is me, food is a parsnip.”

“He was like a monk: he was like a monk you could fuck.”

“Mmmm! I wish I had two mouths!”

“I can’t…I can’t look at another sausage.”

“Joanna Lumley recorded every word in the English language, before dying with great charm.”

“What’s left of our British identity? They’ve already shot the king!”

Celebrity chefs are probably the main victims of its persuasive outlook: a clip of Nigella Lawson molesting a chicken corpse is perfectly skewered with the line: “What looks to us now like a documentary about a lunatic was, in fact, a hit show about cooking.” I wonder whether they had to get her permission to use her image. I’ve never been a fan of hers, but, after watching Carnage, her smile will forever remind me of psychotic necrophilia.

Anyway, I highly recommend it. It’s just over an hour long, available on iPlayer for another five months and it has a well-compiled facts page here.

A young vlogger (vlogger? Is that right?), calling herself Aisha Ponders, has uploaded a video of watching it with her meat eating friends. It’s rather charming.

My route to veganism was a long and tortuous one, which must look stupid to young, idealistic people like Aisha. However, as Carnage shows, I was effected by social norms. If you want, and have the endurance, you can read my long essay on my food history here. It is long. If you wish to read it offline, you can press the share button at the end of the post and this will give you a print option. You can then print to a PDF (press control-p). I am looking into creating a download page where I can put an epub version, but that will need a free Saturday and those are in short supply at the moment.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Less Than Fantastic

If Hollywood has one problem that robs it of greatness more than any other, it is this: it thinks it knows what every story must contain, and it doesn’t adapt its approach from one project to another.

Amanda had wanted to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them when it came out, but Christmas was a busy time and, somehow, we never got round to it. The DVD has started to appear in second hand racks, so last night we watched it and, despite its abundance of charm, its lovely acting and its scattered glimpses of J K Rowling’s inventive genius, it was, overall, a bit of a routine Hollywood bore.

Its main failing is that it is trying to be two things, one original, charming and interesting, and the other a rehash of every blockbuster GCI action slog of the past ten years. The introductory story, about Newt Scamander arriving in New York on a mission to free a Thunderbird back into the its native environment, losing various endearing creatures from his magical suitcase, and scrambling around the city in the company of a group of sidekicks to recover the beasts, is a lovely, lovely film. While this thread is played out, it is funny, original, visually and narratively coherent and fun. However, forced into this delightful framework is another story, about a baddy manipulating abused orphans to oppress muggles, and this element, for many reasons, is a crushing roleplay of rote Hollywood tedium.

There is some nod to the established Harry Potter backstory to try to give the ‘battle’ some context, but the characters are mainly new, apart from a reveal at the end which I’d seen coming from the first time my attention wandered, half way through the film. For this reason, it really needed to focus on a tight, controlled group. Either the bad guys had to be established early and with the same manic focus that Rowling put into Voldemort-as-legend in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, or they would never really be anything but a distraction from the good stuff. In lieu of her considered characterisation, there is an opening montage of newspaper headlines talking about Grindelwald, and then Colin Farrell has to try to build threat from ambiguous brooding. His patsy, Credence Barebone, (a classic Rowling name) has an even more thankless task: the actor, Ezra Miller, puts more than his share of acting workshop commitment into playing an abused, repressed, psychotic teenager, but his  role clashes horribly with the main story and just underlines the fact that this sub-plot doesn’t belong in this film.

Of course, it’s there in order to justify a big, over-long, smash-the-city-up CGI borefest, that dominates the last hour of this meandering chore. The first time a wall collapses in gloriously imagined detail, down to individual brick and plaster mote, it is a marvellous effect. By the end, I was recognising the routine, and wondering which f-key they’d assigned it on the compositor.

So, to the good stuff. Eddy Redmaine is, to my eyes, a startlingly, almost beautifully ugly man, and he is one of the old Etonians, or Harovians, or whatever, who have made a nice living playing sexually ambivalent English posh tossers for Hollywood, but, despite his position of privilege, he can either act quite well or takes good direction. He filled the role just enough, and hammed just enough, to give his character life in Rowling’s Dickensian comic-grotesque mien, without reducing him to a turn. The greatest performance for me, though, is Dan Fogler, as Jacob Kowalski, the comic side kick (ie, Ron Weasley).  The funniest sequence in the movie is the scene where Jacob, dressed in some sort of sporting armour, is chased across Central Park by an amorous erumpunt, a cross between a giant rhinoceros and a puffer fish. In this scene, CGI are used as they are meant to be used; to create a gloriously funny scenario of impossibility and follow it through in as natural a way as possible. Fogel’s comic gifts in this sequence are as effective as any slapstick great: his reaction shots rival Keaton, and his peril is enhanced by the social awkwardness of a big man trying to outrun unwelcome female attention.

Equally engaging is Queenie Goldstein, played by the amazing Alison Sudol, who is Jacob’s crush. She’s a proper Noo Yoik ‘doll’ character: naive but wise, loving and instantly devoted to her unlikely crush. She seduces him with strudel, in another triumphant special effects sequence in which the acting shines, the characters endear and the CGI serves. Thinking back on it, I am struck again by what a tragedy it is that this film was bogged down by an unnecessary second plot.

Scamander’s love interest, and partner/rival, is Queenie’s sister, the disgraced auror, Tina, played by Katherine Waterston. I can’t put my finger on what she lacked in the film: she was interesting, an assured performer, and had a good part, but I think her character was just stretched too thin. It is Tina who is the link between the two plots-Newt really didn’t need to be involved in the Grindewald plot at all, and was squeezed into it as a sort of external consultant. Through Tina, we learn a little about the political tensions within the American wizarding world, and the pressures upon it, and her place within the American version of the Ministry of Magic, MACUSA, would have been quite justified without the violent subplot.

Finally, there are the creatures. They are a success and, had the war story been abandoned, could have carried another half hour of fun. The best is the niffler, a thieving, errant duck-billed raccoon, who has a gift for evading capture and a deadpan slapstick manner that is a joy to watch. He (she?) is probably the real star of the caper element of the movie, although the clingy (“He has attachment issues”) bowtruckle who lives in Newt’s pocket and is, at one point, traded to Ron Perlman’s gangster cameo, develops his own level of stardom. The thunderbird is beautiful, but its plot theme is somewhat squandered in the great ‘climax’, and both the demiguse and the occamy are, in different ways, gorgeous.

So, there is much to like in this film, but it is, in my view, bogged down by the need to create a ‘tense confrontation between the forces of darkness and the power of good’ (© virtually every American movie for the last decade).  Why did they feel that they had to make an action movie? What would have been the harm in letting rip with the comic caper at the heart of this film, with lovely characters finding one another and falling in love, running around New York, establishing America’s wizarding credentials? You could still have had the introduction to MACUSA, you could even have fitted the Grindelwald plot in as a back story, paving the way for the longer and, perhaps, darker themes to develop in the subsequent film series, and have not dragged down all that was good about it. Instead, it is a long, tedious muddle in which the magic seems like an overlay on a standard work of American orthodoxy, and it feels a lot more than an Atlantic Ocean’s distance from Hogwarts.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Roguish Delight

 

I began writing this post at Christmas, and then lost my will to engage with it in the pleasures of the season. I have wrapped it up now (late February), but it is a compromise. I hope to return to it as I get my thinking back into the subject.

Despite the best efforts of Richard Cody to deflate the experience, I love Rogue One. We’ve just got home, and I was surprised by how much time had passed: I hadn’t realised it was such a long film, so caught up was I by the perfect plotting, the heartachingly redolent alien landscapes and pitch-perfect acting. Quite what Cody was on when he watched it, I’m not sure, but his off-target review did have the happy effect of affording me that amazing, “This is actually rather wonderful” feeling about ten minutes into the film: the opposite of a spoiler; an accidental enhancer in which I saw the strengths of a superb Hollywood movie through a scepticism built on a critic’s failure to understand what he was watching.

Cody’s greatest failing is shared by a number of reviewers of popular cinema: he treats the film as a valueless text, a technical exercise whose success or failure rests on its performance as spectacle and nothing more. He ignores the extent to which Rogue One is a political text, with its subject the injustice of military empires. I expect more of Cody but should not, really, be too surprised. The New Yorker is, after all, American. It does a good job of being metropolitan in an American way, but, to a non-American, it is loaded with that sense of American parochialism: the presumption that all that is worth considering is enclosed by two mighty oceans, and the rest of the world is just settings for American psycho-dramas. Part of George Lucas’ strength as an artist of relevance is his ability to see beyond the quasi-religious restrictions of his nationality and to criticise its fundamental failings: its arrogance, its brutality, its assumption of apartness and specialness.

I have, in fact, been a fan of Richard Brody for several years. He writes beautifully, and he is particularly strong at describing the visual experience of film; his technical appreciation leads his consideration of narrative, character and tone. I am a story-led viewer, and so his contrasting perception has enriched my enjoyment of a number of films I might not otherwise have considered watching. He has, on occasion, taught me to see. However, I am not that interested in Hollywood spectacle films, so have tended to read his reviews of them uncritically, and without seeing the films. His avoidance of ideological criticism had not hit me.

Reading his review of Rogue One, and linking through to his other arguments about Star Wars, came as a bit of a surprise. I hadn’t understood the extent to which he is restricted by what I can only think of as ideological blinders: he loves the self-referential tendencies of Hollywood, but he is not prepared to make much of an ideological move outside the walls of the form.

So, when a film’s topic is cinema, as many ‘serious’ Hollywood films are, he is happy to consider the philosophical and ideological implications of the movie. Early this year, for example, both he and I loved  Hail, Caesar, and the following passage of his review entirely chimed with my enjoyment of that fine movie:

The American religion of Hollywood is also, in the Coens’ antic view, the essence of American power. … of military might versus what ultimately will become known as soft power.

 The story of “Hail, Caesar!” is the story of that…worship of secular images, but…the Coen brothers offer brilliantly ironic parallels between religious belief…and the realms of Hollywood.

American cinema is a power, in other words; a global ideological force that doesn’t so much argue the case for American dominance as bludgeon the world with its assumption of that power. What Cody sees in the Coen Brothers’ view of Hollywood is knowingness: a clear satirical understanding of the role Hollywood plays in maintaining and repackaging a view of the ultimate goodness, validity and entitlement of right wing, white America. What he does not acknowledge in cinema is rebellion: the possibility that deviance from that view can possibly have any artistic validity.

And, in that blindness, he is entirely ‘on message’, as far as Hollywood’s soft power is concerned. Think of the way in which Hollywood has co-opted science fiction-a radically subversive literary genre in the nineteen fifties, sixties and seventies-and turned it into a cosy re-enactment of the militarist right wing mythos of American capitalism. Tom Cruise, the ultimate screen anti-presence, appears every half-decade in some ironed-out mega-epic that hoovers up all the latest devices of science fiction’s inventiveness and presses them into the service of a Nietschian self-worship non-story, in which the white man is always the victim and always the narrative focus, beautiful women (white, black, asian-doesn’t matter: they’re just devices) are the plot key, and daddy’s approval saves the world. Through the appropriation of its creativity, science fiction’s  power to undermine and criticise the dominant culture’s ‘reality’ is rendered impotent, confused, and pathetically excluded, rather than vital, telling and radically marginal.

I have always thought of Hollywood as a pretty monolithic ideological structure and considered making distinctions within its output a bit of a fool’s game, but I am becoming less sure of that. White America is strangely blind to its own privilege and shamefully quiet about its abuses, but that is not to say that it is as uniformly supportive of them as we might believe. Now, I’m not planning to defend Star Wars or George Lucas as a hero of racial justice, but I do believe that there is a serious argument to be made for his branch of Hollywood creativity representing something of a dissidence against the hegemony of the kind of self-focussed orthodoxy represented by his friend and contemporary, Spielberg. In John Baxter’s biography of Lucas, there is this passage which addresses the politics of what are now the grand seniors of Hollywood, but were, then, the enfants terrible.

Later, Schrader (screenwriter and director Paul Schrader) would bemoan the split between Lucas and Spielberg on one side, and Scorcese, Milius, and Coppola on the other, which started to open around 1975. ‘We came up full of piss and vinegar and politicization,’ he said, ‘and we really felt that we were going to create a new brand of movies. Now, if you look at the film-makers of my generation – Walter Hill, Phil Kaufman, John Milius, George Lucas, Spielberg – by and large you see a kind of middle-age creeping in, a kind of establishment attitude and a lack of eagerness to take risks and challenge and upset.

Baxter John, George Lucas: An Autobiography, London, HarperCollins 1999, p191

Perhaps, in 1999, and for a really mainstream auteur like Spielberg, middle age and middle-of-the-road liberal consensus politics is an inescapable comfort zone. I know he has championed civil rights, but he also lobotomised the motivation of the two main characters in The Colour Purple, straightening them out and making their primary motivation daddy issues, instead of female victims of masculine oppression. Because of that, I haven’t watched Amistad, but, having read Roger Ebert’s review, I may put it on my viewing list. I don’t hate Spielberg; Schindler’s List moved me, although I am aware of its critics, but I suspect him of loving war as spectacle, and he more often disappoints than inspires.

“I dislike deeply ‘Schindler’s List,’ for many reasons,” he said. The Spielberg film is “much more easy to see than ‘Shoah,’ it is very sentimental.”

“It’s false,” he added, because it offers an uplifting ending. He also questioned the value of Mr. Spielberg’s underwriting of 105,000 hours of videotaped testimonies from concentration camp survivors and others in 56 countries, asking, “Who will see this?” Claude Lansmann, filmmaker of Shoah.

Lucas, though less vaunted as an artist, gave birth to a saga in which the primary act of heroism is resistance against a militarist tyranny. He has continued to develop the theme of the moral primacy of democracy and justice over commercial power and mechanised military oppression through two Bush administrations, the establishment of the American permanent state of war and the drift into remote terror-war embraced by Obama. Now, as America faces her darkest hour of self-harm, he has handed over the reins to the corporate icon of optimistic capitalism and, instead of changing course, it has given us the most lucid hymn of praise to resisting the militarist tyrant yet, complete with ideological splits, and a rebellion Taliban who are not the bad guys.

In short, although Hollywood is an engine of ideological propaganda, it is also an arena of competition to shape that ideology, and I think Cody has dismissed the extent to which the ideology represented in the Star Wars saga deviates from the mainstream voice of Hollywood, and of capitalist establishment politics.


Let’s address Star Wars‘ ethical weaknesses first. There were no black faces in the first Star Wars film, now known as Episode IV: A New Hope. If you take the Star Wars universe as a representation of America (and you should), it is a purely white America. That is not, in itself, an act of dishonesty. Lucas is a white American and in the film, he “…effectively created his childhood on film: a world of stern fathers, loving but distant mothers, and wayward but essentially good natured boys…”(ibid) Most white Americans do not know any black Americans nowadays, and that was doubly true in the mid  1970s. Suburban white America was his milieu and, therefore, the subject of his art.

There’s also the issue that Star Wars, despite being a magnificent work of the imagination, is not really the product of Lucas’ imagination so much as it is a skilful blend of other people’s original ideas. Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, was deeply wounded by Star Wars and considered a suit. Staunch defender of David Lynch’s awful adaptation of Dune that he was, he noted:

David had trouble with the fact that Star Wars used up so much of Dune. We found sixteen points of identity between my novel and Star Wars. That is not to say this was other than coincidence, even though we figured the odds against coincidence and produced a number larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Herbert, Frank, Eye (Introduction), London, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1986, p13

I am terribly sorry for Herbert on this topic. He was shafted by circumstances. He wrote a novel of overwhelming power that turned space opera from the ‘juvenile’ sub branch of  SF into its most vital and powerful element, and then saw his serious work overtaken by an exploitative repurposing into what he must have seen as a juvenile parody, as well as moneyed plagiarism. There are reasons for this, not least of which was that he failed to keep up the quality of the first book in the sequels. The second and third books, whilst at least coherent, are both quite boring to read, lacking the vividness and sensory power of the original, but I recently read the fourth and it is, frankly, ridiculous. Added to these woes is the fact that Dune almost made a cinematic masterpiece: Jodorowsky’s Dune has to be among the greatest of all unmade films. I have seen three of Jodorowsky’s movies, and he is a visual director in search of a story, tied too literally to Jungian hero quests to ever quite bring his amazing cinematic surrealism to full narrative life. The combination of that powerful novel, with its own surrealist undercurrents well tamed by Herbert’s extraordinary plotting and characterisation, and Jodorowsky’s joyous visual imagination, would have made a wonderful adaptation that could have left Star Wars to the kids, balancing out its influence.

However, it was not to be and we are left with Star Wars as the highpoint of space opera political parables, at least on screen. And, whatever my inner twelve-year-old might argue, Star Wars is far from perfect. For me, the most mysterious and involving of the films is The Empire Strikes Back, which Lucas still regards as an artistic failure, but I think Return of the Jedi is a tedious, disjointed film in which the interesting elements-Luke’s battle with his father/nemesis and Vader’s redemption in the Force’s triumph over the Dark Side, are overwhelmed by the kiddy-friendly action story from which it is divorced.

The Empire Strikes Back is about preparedness and the internal jihad: Luke is making himself worthy for the fight against the Dark Side’s temptations. It’s difficult to remember now the impact that the line, “No, I am your father,” had on us at the time. Before then, Vader was not a character, but a figure: evil incarnate, without face or motivation, beyond the exercise of power. With that one line, he became greater, deeper, easier to stare at and consider. His motivation became a question worth pondering, and the Dark Side, as a choice of allegiance, became a much more accessible and frightening idea. A lot of plot devices took on lives of their own in that film, just as those of us who were on the cusp of our teens when we saw the first film, were reaching the age where existential questions were beginning to interest us.

In Return of the Jedi, Luke’s, Vader’s and the Emperor’s confrontation is too similar to the original duel/debate between Luke and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back; visually, rhythmically, emotionally and thematically. Disastrously, the first trilogy’s great climax is a bit of a bore, and the reconciliation between Luke and Vader, for me, failed to rise above standard Hollywood daddy issues, fascinating as seeing Vader’s face was. It was just a little too trite. I was glad when it was all over, even though the final shot of the cast smiling into the camera was just foul, like a betrayal of the operatic depth of the story to which the series had aspired, as if the director had realised that he had failed to reach the emotional tone he was aiming for and had put in an apologetic, “it’s only a kids’ film” shoulder-shrug image to cover his embarrassment.

Nevertheless, underlying the story, there was a constant, and that was the political environment: the ‘cartoon’ morality of which the critics make much dismissive noise, was not a good-and-evil tale of obedient certainty, but a clear imperative to disobey tyranny. The baddies are not outsiders or criminal: they are the soldiers, the policemen, the leaders and lawmakers, and it is the rebellion who are breaking laws, hiding in paramilitary training camps, defying established authority.

And this brings me to Rogue One. It has many threads, and it is told as a montage of encounters with people who have found different routes to the same conclusion: that they are unable to live in peace with the established legal authority of their society. This ties in, in some sequences, with a long standing (and ethically and historically dubious) American myth: that of the defiant frontiersman, for whom all authority is to be evaded, if not defied. However, in the character of Saw Garrera, we have a rare depiction of politically engaged, ethical resistance, struggling with the consequences of the choice to defy injustice. In Forest Whitaker’s exceptional performance, I recognised what I have been struggling to understand in the faces of the dead men and women who have thrown themselves against the American empire over the past two decades, knowing that they could hope for nothing but death and torture as a result, but determined, nevertheless, to cause harm to the power that has oppressed their political freedoms, mocked their faiths, shattered their societies, and murdered their loved ones.

Is Gerrera a mujahadeen? The scenes of the ambush of an Imperial convoy in the streets of his planet’s capital city are too redolent of Afghanistan, Iraq or Palestine for anyone but the densest of viewers to not make the connection. There’s the sand, the close-packed sandstone buildings, the basic armaments of the resistance and the mechanised brutishness and arrogance of the powerful military. We are so used to seeing such sequences shot as triumphalist homages to heroic military sacrifice (Black Hawk Down, anyone?) that it took me a moment to realise what I was seeing: the stormtroopers have left behind their nazi-parrallel roots and have taken on the roles of the American Marine, the Israeli snatch squad; the British squaddie, exercising their power in the service of a resource-raping capitalist occupation.

And this, I think, must be why Richard Cody dare not look too closely at the politics of Star Wars, and is obliged to reduce it to a technical exercise and seek to diminish its power as popular text. Consider the absolutely required reverence for the soldier in Western capitalism: even nominally anti-establishment voices, such as American comedians, cannot speak of soldiers without a hushed genuflection to the ideas of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘service’. It is difficult to raise the question of how closely linked war is to profit in Western discourse: lawyers who were prosecuting British soldiers for rape and torture in Iraq (be warned: this is video of some uniformed shits giving their souls to Satan) have just been stitched up for alleged corruption and the inquiry shut down: the murderers have got away with it and it’s not a big news item. It is so much easier to simply go with the mainstream narrative: to pretend that soldiers are noble servants, making some sort of heroic sacrifice, rather than well-paid mercenaries in the service of an unjust power. When art, however obliquely, addresses such a massive and hegemonic silence of complicity, the best defence against its power is to simply belittle it, and that is how Richard Cody has bottled his duty.