Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Film Review 2017 - #11 Law Abiding Citizen

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

I think I saw this movie at the cinema when it first came out.  Since then I’ve had a firm memory that it was awful.  In fact, on re-watching, I discover it’s not awful at all.

It’s not great, to be sure – no one involved is familiar with the idea of ‘subtle’, and nothing remotely intellectual, political or philosophical occurs during the film’s 104 minutes – but, so long as you’re suitably prepared, ‘Law Abiding Citizen’ is an entertaining distraction.  Gerard Butler is the baddie, except he’s a goodie; and Jamie Foxx is the goodie, except he’s a baddie.

Or maybe Gerard Butler starts off as a goodie and he becomes a baddie, but actually he’s really a goodie all the way through even though he’s doing bad things; and Jamie Foxx looks like a goodie (he’s the lawyer prosecuting the baddies) but is revealed as a baddie (he is more interested in his career than ‘justice’ so cuts deals with baddies) and only through the process of trying to prosecute the baddie (Gerard Butler) (who is really a goodie) does he learn that he is, despite appearances, actually a baddie too and, by way of redemption, he eventually becomes a goodie.

Along the way there is some flinch-inducing violence, some high-end mano-a-mano acting, a spectacularly contrived back-story (Butler was a super-duper super agent with the CIA before his family was slaughtered) and some great one-liners.  Lots of people die (though not quite the ‘everyone’ that the Butler character at one point memorably threatens), there are courtrooms and dungeons and gizmos, there’s a series of carefully constructed parallels between the lives of the baddie/goodie and the goodie/baddie and, in the end, there’s a satisfying ending.

Gosh. I think I might watch it again.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Film Review 2017 - #10 John Carter

John Carter – 10th in the sequence of DVDs ordained for my 2017 viewing by my sons’ Christmas largesse – is one of the most expensive flops in cinema history; indeed, by some calculations, it is the single biggest financial mis-judgment by cinema executives in the history of the world.

The loss is justified: a great deal of money was spent making it; and the result is execrable.

How on earth did Disney – an outfit with a not-to-be-sneered-at track record of success in the entertainment industry – so comprehensively fuck up?

I imagine a meeting.  It is sometime in 2008.  Disney has been going through some corporate turbulence:  its new CEO, Bob Iger, has been in post for less than three years and the company has been busy buying Pixar, doing deals with Steve Jobs and getting ready for a big corporate re-structure.  The wrong people are in the room.  The scale of investment in John Carter (it was the fourth-highest budget in movie history at that point) means that the money men are firmly in charge.

Instead of the guys [gender plural] who make movie decisions with their guts, the decision was about to be made by guys [gender specific] who make decisions with their spreadsheets.

The early lines of the sheet look good:

  • list of classy actors (Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Bryan Cranston…) – check
  • based on a fabulous story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the guy who wrote Tarzan – check
  • director with a top-end track record (Andrew Stanton - Finding Nemo, WALL-E and co-writer of the Toy Story movies) – check

Yes, it’s looking good so far.  But wait – what’s this?

“So our thinking is, having analysed the market, that we can position this film by drawing directly on previous successes.”

“Go on.”

“We envisage splicing the following movies together.”  Cue a PowerPoint slide (not reproduced here).  “As you can see, we’re proposing to channel:

  • Star Wars – big narrative space arc, flying things like pod racers, lots of stuff in deserts
  • Avatar – tall funny coloured aliens, strife between the good guys and the bad guys
  • Indiana Jones – swarthy hero who runs around a lot chasing things, mysterious icons etc
  • Gladiator – big fight scenes in a stadium with a baying crowd, hero motivated by a dead wife and kid.”

“Uh huh.”

“These movies grossed $11.2 billion, with an average of approximately $750 million.”

“Go make the movie.”

That’s my theory, anyway: the MBAs got their hands on the tiller, ran it as if it was a purely financial transaction and crashed comprehensively into the rocks.  Lessons aplenty, methinks.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, John Carter is a silly and confusing film with lots of special effects.  The end.

[If there's a photo down here it was added August 2017 as part of blog refresh.  Photo is either mine or is linked to where I found it. Make of either what you will.]

Friday, 28 July 2017

Fairy Tales and the Problem of Men

MarinaWarner – who is generally awesome and, amongst other things, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck in London - writes, in ‘Once Upon a Time – A Short History of Fairy Story', that:

“All the favourite and famous fairy tales today are girls stories… But while the stories’ views of femaleness and femininity have been thoroughly shaken up, assumptions about maleness and masculinity have not been interrogated as enterprisingly – there’s been a general reluctance to address the question, and a general retreat from even thinking about boys and fairy tales, probably because doing so leads into very deep waters about what society expects from young men – and these are proving hard to plumb.”

She goes on to remind us that around half of Grimms’ fairy tales star a young hero; and she suggests that the principal reason for the disappearance of these particular fairy stories is that they became “irredeemably tainted” by the Nazis, who used the stories as “a kind of how-to guide to being hard”.

The consequences of this are simultaneously straightforward and difficult to fathom: young men – young boys – no longer have access to an exceptionally valuable repository of guidance on how to prepare for life; but how can we possibly assess the specific consequences of this?

Warner gives us a clue:

“While the fairy tale genre generally ignores patient merit, it does concern itself with the downtrodden and the ill-used, and a central part of its consolations derives from fate’s twists and turns.  The odds are stacked against everyone, more or less equally, and everything can change, suddenly, without rhyme or reason.  The impenetrability of destiny and the helplessness of humans in the grip of chance count among the sharpest messages of fairy tales, and the exploratory tools, psychoanalytic or other, blunt themselves on their mystery.”

Perhaps, had they been better prepared – had they received these sharp messages when young - there would not be so many furious and dangerous men in the world.

Time to dust down Grimms’ forgotten tales, perhaps?

Monday, 3 July 2017

Film Review 2017 - #9 If...

Released at the end of 1968, ‘If…’ won the Palme d’Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival and has been heralded (by no less an authority than Rotten Tomatoes) as “Incendiary, subversive, and darkly humorous… a landmark of British counter-cultural cinema”.

This all seems appropriate.  The film is weird and wonderful.  Set in a fictionalised English public school, the movie follows a group of rebellious students as they endure the sundry rituals, punishments and humiliations that are part of normal, everyday life in an educational institution of this kind.  The film oscillates between colour and black and white scenes; the various incidents and episodes have a surreal quality, to the point where the boundary between ‘real’ and ‘dream sequence’ becomes blurred; and the highly-stylised characters are engaging and funny and persuasive.  I particularly liked the headmaster, who comports himself as some sort of enlightened philosopher-king despite the brutality and oppression permeating his kingdom.

Wikipedia thinks the film is a satire on English public school life.  I think this is to underplay it.  Satirising English public school life is easy-peasy – it is blindingly obvious that, if you trap a group of adolescent boys far away from home for years and subject them to a regime based on nineteenth century malice, and you throw in the kinds of teachers and adults who would be attracted to work in such an environment, then things are bound to be a bit strange.

What is interesting, I think, is to see the film as a satire on the entirety of English (and I do mean specifically English) culture.  The reality was, and remains, that a simply staggering proportion of the English elite – the judges and lawyers, the journalists and media-wonks, the politicos and financiers – have been educated in fee-paying schools, many of them in schools remarkably like that portrayed in ‘If…’.  It is simply inconceivable that an educational experience like that does not profoundly shape your world view.  I met quite a few of these people at university; I know whereof I speak.  Their notion of ‘normal’ is pretty strange.

So the really interesting question – as far as I’m concerned – is why the rest of us have put up with this for so long.  Pretty much the same set of schools have produced pretty much the same set of young adults groomed to take up pretty much the same jobs in the Establishment for - pretty much - centuries.  Every year they allow a few oiks (mea culpa) close enough to the inner circle to sustain the illusion of social mobility (and, indeed, to remove potential troublemakers from the massed ranks) and, somehow, a truly English revolution has never taken place.

A revolution doesn’t really take place in ‘If…’ either - the rebels are, after all, public-school educated members of the very elite they come to despise – but I found the final surreal scenes of slaughter (including the execution of aforementioned headteacher) enormously entertaining.  I’d probably have enjoyed it even more if the proletariat from the neighbouring village had run in with pitchforks to extend the massacre, but I’m just being greedy.  It’s a funny, political, weird and thought-provoking film, and I’m grateful enough for that.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Vigorous Sieve

The remarkable Hilary Mantel is currently giving the BBC Reith Lectures.

In the advert for the lectures, Mantel offers a wonderful metaphor, suggesting that history is what is left in the sieve after the centuries have poured through.

I envisage that the sieve is not static; there are times when it moves, when it shakes or vibrates.

The shaking has several effects.  It breaks up some existing big lumps of stuff. It accelerates the rate of flow through the mesh. And, because the stuff is sticky and viscous (it consists, after all, of the doings of humans) it forces new lumps to come into being.

Vigorous shaking breaks up old big lumps, and creates new big lumps.

We are living through very vigorous times.  Be careful what you stick with, and what you stick to.

On Grenfell, on foot

Once upon a time I worked with colleagues on a piece of research about social capital in rural areas.  It was full of good stuff but it was years ago and I only remember one thing from it: that ‘social capital’ - particularly the disorganised, hard-to-spot stuff that evades both statisticians and other authorities and which is called by said authorities ‘informal social capital’ - this ‘informal social capital’ is always more prevalent in places where people regularly walk around compared to places where people are usually in their cars.

I’ve long been intrigued by walking.  I wrote a blog a few years ago about the philosophical and political and psychogeographical and health and environmental and sundry other aspects of walking and concluded that it was pretty much the most sustainable thing a person could do.  On all fronts.

And I was pleased last year when, wearing my Brook Lyndhurst hat, I had the opportunity to do some proper research into the evidence about walking (and cycling).  The report was published back in April, alongside the new national Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy.

But it wasn’t until Grenfell that I made a connection that had hitherto eluded me.

I visited the area on Friday, three days after the disaster.  It’s a bit of London I know well.  Thirty years ago I lived at the top end of Ladbroke Grove, just half a mile east from Grenfell Tower.  Since then I’ve lived south, towards Hammersmith, and west, towards Chiswick.  I’ve cycled and driven and walked past and through and around that bit of the world more times than I can even begin to count.  A week or so before the fire I sat outside the pub, just a couple of hundred metres south of the tower (and in sight of the great edifice that is Westfield) where I occasionally play pool with my son or my best mate.

So I felt I had no choice, really, than to be a witness to whatever was or is or might be going on in the strange rectangle described by the Westway, Ladbroke Grove, Holland Park Avenue and the A3320.  I made a special journey. I was on my bike.  I rode around.  From time to time I got off and walked.

I don’t want to spend much time describing what I saw.  What I saw has been widely and accurately described in innumerable other places.  It was awful and amazing and upsetting and overwhelming and incredible and painful.  I didn’t take many photos; it didn’t seem right, somehow.  But this one landed:

It’s something to do, I think, with the juxtaposition: normal homes, normal kids after school, normal car – devastated edifice in the background, appalling symbol of so much.  Of too much.

This one, too, makes a similar point: in the foreground, the Westfield-related development taking place opposite the old BBC building at White City, new homes and jobs for the people who are as mobile and prosperous as the financial capital upon which they depend; in the background, the dark, dark symbol, glowering and castigating us:

I don’t particularly want to make any political or quasi-political remarks about what happened, or what I saw, either.  Again, plenty of that elsewhere.

But as I wandered streets I’d known, and encountered those that know them now, I remembered the report I’d worked on all those years ago.  If you live a life on foot – as you pop out to the all-night shop, as you join the others on the way to school, as you stroll to your church or your mosque or your temple, as you dash for the bus or the tube, as you wait for the elevator on the 20th floor – you inevitably and unavoidably and incredibly bump into all the other people on foot.

Some you nod to.  In time, maybe you chat.  Your baby and my baby have something in common.  Those of us in this queue at the corner store will share a joke.  The group of people over there are doing pretty much what we’re doing over here.  Look: you can see them.

And somehow, magically, a fabric of connections and interconnections, of shared experience and common sense, of – to use Ivan Illich’s great word  conviviality develops.

It has a physical extent, this invisible stuff: you can sense its perimeters very easily.  (It’s a bit like dark matter: we can’t see it, but it’s the only way to explain what we can see.) Just walk south alonSt Anns Road and you can feel it evaporate, its essence extinguished by the ever bigger and more distant homes, the ever more expensive cars, the disappearance of people that ever venture out on foot.

And the power of this physical, bodily, ambulatory, corporeal reality is illustrated, too, by the experience of the politicians and celebrities as they visit Grenfell: look how much trouble Theresa May got into by not walking about.

So I want to say: yes, we need a full enquiry into what happened; and, yes, we need to learn the lessons and to make sure nothing like this ever happens again; and, yes too, we need to question the deep and pervasive political and cultural and economic assumptions that have led us to this place.

But let us also acknowledge the lessons we need to learn from the response to this disaster.  We need to stay on our feet.  We need to keep bumping into one another.  
We cut ourselves off from one another at our peril. We need to stay in touch, not just through social media, and not just through the formal channels and institutions, but with our smiles and our nods and our hands and our bodies. 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Murmurations - the #makechester talks

I am really looking forward to speaking at the Murmurations event on Friday.

My presentation looks like this:

I'm going to be talking about:

* entrepreneurship

* care

* Sisyphus

Fingers crossed it makes sense!