Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Film Reviews 2017 - #7 Full Metal Jacket

How should we approach the movie ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)?  As a war movie?  As a Vietnam war movie? As one of the Vietnam war movies of the 1980s, alongside Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), Good Morning Vietnam (Barry Levinson, 1987) and Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone again, 1989)?  As one of the Vietnam war movies of the 1980s made in the shadow of the truly great Vietnam war movies of the 1970s, The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)?

Or as a Stanley Kubrick movie, following Spartacus (1960), Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980)?

The story the film tells is straightforward: an educated young man has enlisted in the US Marines; he and his fellow recruits undergo military training at the hands of a brutal Sergeant Major; the young man then begins working as a journalist for an Army newspaper, initially reporting on and then participating in military activity in Vietnam.  The story attends closely to the individual experience of the young journalist and a handful of colleagues.  There is little or no examination of wider context, no obvious reflection on the rationale for the war, no explanation of why this particular battle or operation is taking place.  The film opens without asking a question and concludes without having offered any answers.

The film is, nevertheless, a hugely satisfying experience.  It is shocking, distressing, clever, funny and completely engrossing.  It is a film that, if you have not seen, you should.

The interesting question, then, is: how does this film manage to achieve these effects? It is certainly not the story – which is, as I have said, almost painfully elementary.

The acting? Perhaps.  The characters are persuasive and the performances are convincing.

The dialogue? Perhaps.  The script is sparse and tightly-drawn and has an air of verisimilitude.

The cinematography? Perhaps.  The camera-work is tremendous, balancing intimate close-ups with panoramic sweeps, doing so in a way that is always appropriate.

The staging? The scenery? The lighting, the costumes, the make-up, the special effects? Perhaps perhaps perhaps perhaps.

The direction, then?  And here our ‘perhaps’ becomes a ‘probably’; but is still not quite enough.  Kubrick, perhaps more than any other American film-maker (until, probably, Quentin Tarantino) meets the criteria for being described as ‘auteur’ – an individual, usually a director, who exerts so much control over a film that he (or she) is effectively its ‘author’.  Yes, Kubrick directs the film ‘Full Metal Jacket’: but the experience of watching the movie is of being completely immersed in his imagination; of being in the assured and comfortable hands of someone who has a perfect sense of his own vision, as well as the skills and expertise to render that vision in perfect fashion.  Nothing that should be here is missing. Nothing is here that need not be here.

By way of illustration, I noticed that there are five scenes during the first half of the movie when the squad of trainees is seen jogging as a group.  Five.  Each scene is almost exactly the same as the others.  The group is in formation.  They are jogging around the parade ground, or between the accommodation blocks.  The Sergeant Major is leading the singing.  The group is in formation.  They are jogging.  That’s it.  Five times.

This sort of thing should be boring.  Nothing is happening.  We have seen it before.  Why is Kubrick making us watch them jogging again?

Then think of Tarantino – making us watch someone pouring a beer, lingering over the shot; or making us watch someone walk through the snow to go to the toilet and showing us the whole of the walk; or making us listen to a completely inane conversation with no direct relevance to the plot.

In each case, the auteur just knows – it is part of their genius – that the film needs this.  Did Kubrick ‘decide’ that should be five jogging scenes rather than three or six or one or twenty?  I suspect not.  Yes, he wanted to convey something of the repetitious nature of the training that goes into becoming a Marine.  But, much more importantly, he had a complete sense of what he wanted the film to be; and every single part of it contributes to that being.  No part of it is more or less important than any other.  He found out, during the making of it (like a sculptor?) that it needed five jogging scenes, and five jogging scenes is what it has.

The entire film is like this.  Quiz any part of it, and be left with a ‘perhaps’ or a ‘maybe’ or even a ‘probably’.  See it is as a whole – and that’s what it is.  Complete, even with its omissions.  Perfect, even with its flaws.

Like a Shakespeare play, it is almost impossible to watch a film such as this without its context, without its Vietnam war movie or Kubrick movie baggage.  But, like the best of Shakespeare, in the end it doesn’t matter – Full Metal Jacket is itself, no more no less, and is a piece of timeless genius.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

And then one day you find...

It is sometime in 1975. I am ten years old.  My mother is a dinner lady and cleaner.  During school holidays she takes my sister and me with her to the houses she cleans.  Mostly this is very dull.

One day I am rifling through the LPs in Anthony's house.  I am allowed to do this if I am careful.  One of the albums has an amazing cover.  My mum is upstairs.  I put the album on - and track four changes me forever.

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day 
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. 
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town 
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way. 

My heart, my very soul chills.  I do not fully understand the lyrics, but intuit, somehow, that I am being warned.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain. 
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today. 
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. 
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun. 

Oh no.  No no no no no.  A great void opens up within me: ten years! Ten years can just... pass.  Ten years - an entire lifetime - can, if you are not careful, simply slip by.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking 
Racing around to come up behind you again. 
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older, 
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death. 

I love running!  I chase ideas and lizards, butterflies and novels, encyclopedias and girls.  I am just running towards my own end?

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time. 
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines 
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way 
The time is gone, the song is over, 
Thought I'd something more to say.

I listen again, and again, and again.  I have never heard of Pink Floyd.  I do not know that Dark Side of the Moon - released just a year or two earlier - is one of the greatest achievements in the history of rock music.  I know nothing of mental health, drugs or Syd Barrett. All these things lie ahead.

But in 1975, aged ten, I hear the clues: do not 'hang on in desperation'; do not merely make plans - do them; do not leave scribbled lines on half a page - have something more to say.

The clues take up residence deep in my being, echoing and rippling and reverberating for decades.  On a long drive in 2017, seemingly on a whim, I play the whole of Dark Side of the Moon, in order.  No shuffle.  Loud.

Very loud.

And I cry and I shout and I laugh and I yelp with delight at the madness and the genius and the past and the future and the sheer bloody luck to have heard their warning.  Thank you Roger and David and Nick and Rick - and thank you, most of all, Syd.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Tempus Brexit

(24th June 2016)

I woke today from intermittent sleep
and asymmetric dreams of golden noise
to find that years of pain had been unleashed
from people who had seen their dreaming dashed;
and overnight a mighty storm of rage
had cast my little island from its stage.

A stunned aroma filled the morning air
as spirits, good and evil, sought their voice:
from some came vicious squalls of blame and hate;
from some bewildered others came regret;
but many simply stared in disbelief,
enveloped by an incoherent grief.

By whom has this Dystopian estate
been foisted on our green and pleasant land?
What manner of malodorous caress
has cast this blinding spell across our gaze?
For how long have we failed to understand
the rancour and division now at hand?

The angry victors – what now is their game?
In glory will they stretch a healing hand;
or will their rage propel yet further bile?
And those defeated – ought the bruising taste
of loss condone appeasement’s bitter twist?
Or is the only option to resist?

The past is lanced, yet open wounds remain.
We have no choice: we must endure the pain.
But let us try to dream of sugared light,
when future recollections of this fight
will see us talk of how we made amends,
of how we learned to live again as friends.


- Not to go all T S Eliot, but I thought a couple of notes would be a good idea

- Time flies, but where? And when?  Brexit means Brexit.  A storm, a drama - The Tempest.  Tempest, tempus, tempus fugit, tempus brexit.

- If The Tempest, then strict iambic pentameter.  And dreams.

- If The Tempest, then islands and dreams generally - Thomas More's Utopia, Huxley's The Island, Heller's Catch 22, Golding's Lord of the Flies, and so on. Islands are places where we find the best of us, and the worst of us.

- To live on an island is to know one's edges - where they are, where they have always been.  To have an exaggerated sense of those edges, unchanged by wars and conquest.  To have an exaggerated sense of difference.

- Sense of difference, and the senses - sight, sound, touch, taste, smell - and how to make sense of things: pairwise, perhaps? Golden noise?  Maladorous caress? Strange times need strange combinations, new metaphors.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

What Sort of Jobs Do We Want?

Back in the day (December 2006, as it happens) I wrote a piece for the Town & Country Planning Association Journal with the title: "Healthy, Wealthy & Wise?" It comprised, mainly, a critique of the then-new 'Further Alterations to the London Plan'. Those Further Alterations set out a predictable mix of ambitions for London, including loads of economic growth, loads of jobs, loads of health and happiness, endless joyous children running in the streets and so forth.

Unconvinced, I tried to demonstrate that some of these ambitions may at odds with one another; in particular, I suggested that, given the kinds of jobs foreseen for the capital, the London Plan was actually forecasting an increase in sickness - the very opposite of the 'health' it claimed was its goal.

Following what in retrospect seem a rather turgid few paragraphs, I wrote:

"Another way of considering the question ‘what sort of jobs do we really want?’ is to consider the impact of the jobs we already have. It is well known, for example, that the happiness and well-being of people with jobs is incomparably superior to those without. Material well-being is obvious; but people in work are also physically and mentally healthier than the unemployed. (It is exceptionally important to note that the definitions here are somewhat discriminatory – it is better to think of ‘usefully busy’ rather than ‘employed’ as the determinant of health.)

However, what is less well appreciated is that having a job can make you ill, and different kinds of job are more or less likely to make you ill. Fascinating but under-publicised research by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) throws powerful light on this issue. The HSE has been appending
questions to the annual Labour Force Survey for several years, asking respondents – to one of the largest, most authoritative and reliable surveys of labour markets in Britain – whether their job has caused them to become ill during the previous year, or whether their job has caused an existing
illness to become worse.

The latest figures show that around 145,000 Londoners were made ill by their jobs during 2004. The main illnesses are those related to stress. In effect, 145,000 Londoners with jobs are being made miserable by those jobs. 

Ironically, people working in health and social work occupations are most likely to have their well-being negatively affected by their job.

Brook Lyndhurst has estimated how this may continue into the future. Taking the employment projections in the Further Alterations to the London Plan, and using recent projections of the occupational structure of this employment (driven by the rise in financial and business services, and by the growth in retail and public sector jobs to accommodate the predicted increase in population), we estimate that by 2016 160,000 Londoners will be made sick each year by their job, and by 2026 this will have risen to more than 170,000 per year.

How does this sit with the Mayor’s commitment to ‘promote policies to address health inequalities and the determinants of health in London and improve the health of Londoners’? If the health of Londoners is really the priority, then perhaps we should be concentrating on the idea of the ‘good job’ rather than simply the number of jobs. Perhaps we should be focusing on quality, not quantity.

Again, objections that this is Utopian or – even worse – likely to harm London’s economy are almost inevitable. But consider the reduction in the number of working days lost. Consider the savings to the public purse of reduced treatment costs. Consider the potential impacts on ‘well-being’ – in its broadest sense – if more of us enjoyed our jobs, if ‘work-life balance’ was real rather than rhetorical.

Imagine, then, a London Plan that had, at its centre, not a machismo commitment to passive growth, but a deeper commitment to active improvement of the working lives of Londoners. A London Plan that did not simply commit to building more offices, but which set the parameters of the commercial ‘licence to operate’, that reached out to businesses to help them not just with childcare provision, but a whole range of adaptations to deliver well-being for Londoners. A London Plan that prioritised good jobs, suitable jobs, worthwhile jobs. A London Plan that did not simply lie down in front of untrammelled capitalism, but which confidently said: London expects.

The Mayor’s Draft Further Alterations to the London Plan are already in many ways impressive. The transition from land use planning to spatial planning requires considerable ambition and innovation, and the Further Alterations have both of these. The status given to climate change is progressive and far-reaching.

Sustainability is broader than this, however, and I have tried to argue that a deeper problem remains embedded in the Plan, the consequences of which will take the form of perpetual marginalisation for many Londoners, and persistent misery for many others. If, as we are encouraged to do by the latest
Plan, we are looking to the further horizon of 2026, then it behoves us to raise our sights in many ways. The tools and mechanisms to achieve these kinds of ends have yet fully to be developed. But a spatial plan that looks forward to 2026 should surely be at least considering such possibilities; and if the Mayor’s obligation to address health and health inequalities is to be taken seriously, then it may be that such considerations are imperative.

We should be looking to a 2026 in which there are not merely more Londoners than there are today, but a 2026 in which Londoners are happier and healthier than we are today."

Replace 'London Plan' with 'Industrial Strategy' or, indeed, 'economic policy' more generally, and the gist still, methinks, applies.  I very much hope that the RSA's new initiative on 'good work' has more success than I did.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Film Reviews 2017 - #6 Frozen

Frozen (2013)

Some years ago my sons James and Alex introduced a new Christmas tradition.  Why – they reasoned – should only children receive some presents in a sack from Santa?  Might not adults, too, enjoy unwrapping a selection of cheap and/or funny and/or useless gift items on Christmas morning? They further reasoned that one of the best places to find such items would be a charity shop.  (Gifts from a charity shop would have the additional advantage of Not Being New and could therefore reasonably claim not to be depleting the earth’s finite resources through empty consumerism, something the boys suspected might also please their eco-warrior parents.)

In very large supply in charity shops these days are DVDs.  No one wants them anymore, apparently.  My sons are therefore able to buy a large number of DVDs for next to nothing – perfect for dad’s Christmas sack.  The selection criteria are clearly heterogeneous.  Some of the DVDs are references or throwbacks to movies we watched when they were younger; some are provocatively or humorously bad; some are gems they’ve heard me mention from my own youth.  Some are simply mysterious.

This year, I received eighteen of the things.  In a rash and drunken Christmas moment, I pledged to watch all eighteen of them during the course of 2017.  This works out at one every three weeks.  I’m watching them in alphabetical order: and this, dear reader, is why you’ve been subjected to a series of film reviews this year rather than essays about the economics of enough. (I’m also writing a book, which absorbs a lot of the words I have available, but that’s not relevant here.)

Something unexpected happened with 'Frozen', however.  (‘Frozen’, as you know, is an Oscar-winning Disney film, famous for its lead characters being female and for being the highest grossing animated film of all time.)  My ‘Frozen’ DVD was STILL IN ITS WRAPPING.  Unlike the seventeen other DVDs, this film was NEW.  Rather than being acquired in the traditional manner from a local charity shop, this has been deliberately and specifically purchased.

A message is being sent:

  • “Dad, we know you’re basically still a child, so here’s a film for children” ?
  • “Dad, you need to get in touch with your feminine side, so here’s a film with female characters in the lead” ?
  • “Dad, we know you have a well-developed feminine side, so here’s a film with female characters in the lead” ?
  • “Dad, we know you love animated movies, here’s one you’d probably never choose to watch” ?

Only one way to find out…

…and for the first few minutes, I’m a little anxious.  The opening scenes make no sense to me, there’s a song I really don’t enjoy, the vibe of the thing is a long way from the kinds of animated movies – The Incredibles, Toy Story, Over the Hedge, Despicable Me – that I’ve enjoyed so much.

But then something happens, I’m still not sure what, and I’m invested, involved, transported.  The animation is astonishing (the ice and snow are incredible).  The two female characters – sister princesses Elsa and Anna – are wonderful: complex, funny, clever, sassy.  The support characters – a snowman, a reindeer, a prince, an ice-cutter – are rounded and well-deployed.  The baddie (no spoiler warning required) is rendered in a manner far, far away from the classical baddies of yore.  (The evolution of character so evident in US box-set culture, in which the goodies have bad bits and the baddies have good bits, obliging us to engage with the ambiguities of life, is evident even here in Disney...)  The male characters do not ‘save’ the female characters.  The funny bits are very, very funny.

And the music! Bloody hell.  I hate musicals.  I’ve always struggled with them, those painfully contrived moments when someone suddenly decides that singing is the best thing to do next.  But the scene in which the older sister, finally freed from her obligation to keep her (magical) powers under control (and what a fabulous metaphor it is) begins to construct a stupendous ice palace and sings 'Let it go' is sublime.  It unzipped me completely and I wept absolute buckets.

In fact, I cried on several occasions during this remarkable film.  Me crying during animated films (as James and Alex will attest) is not uncommon.  (Seared into their memories, I suspect, is the moment in the cinema when we were watching ‘Ratatouille’.  There’s a scene in this outstanding film (96% on Rotten Tomatoes!) where the arch restaurant critic Anton Ego, voiced brilliantly by Peter O’Toole, is first tasting the hero’s food – “Tell your chef Linguini that I want whatever he dares to serve me. Tell him to hit me with his best SHOT!” – and he is transported, in an instant and as Marcel Proust, to the kitchen of his childhood.  The animated zoom and the reference to A La Recherche hauled a near howl of grief from my throat and my sons were forced to sit in the dark, surrounded by strangers, while their father blubbed like a baby…).

Anyway.  I cried several times during Frozen because it is funny, emotional, clever, wise and a superb piece of story-telling.  I laughed a lot too.

It’s not a Pixar movie (see my review of Belleville Rendezvous for an explanation of the difference between Pixar and Disney movies) so it has little interest in political or social themes.  It’s a little simplistic in places – but it is, after all, a film mainly for children.  And I found some features of the presentation, particularly the disturbingly large eyes of the two lead female characters, somewhat regressive.

But these are minor complaints.  At the end of the movie I returned to the real world with a damp face, a big smile and a warm glow.  An intellectual bit of me even thought that I had just watched a movie that might well be playing a significant global role in the cause of female emancipation.   I can’t wait to watch it again.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Imagining Brexit in 2010? Absolutely Zeke...

Drafted in 2010, and presented unamended

I may march fearlessly into the future if I am confident it will be better than the past.  Whither such confidence? Perhaps I have simply been lucky thus far and the story that I tell myself of life is imbued with positive expectation.  Perhaps I am a member of a class that has control over the means of production, or a profession that has erected barriers to entry, and I envisage my control continuing.  Perhaps I live in a society in which material and cultural changes have within living or recent memory lifted my forebears from penury and ignorance, so I find it straightforward to believe that this will persist into the future.  Perhaps I have been inculcated with the Enlightenment orthodoxy of ‘progress’; or I am persuaded that neo-Darwinian processes of change, whether smooth or punctuated, are inevitable and if met with positive intent will culminate in positive outcomes; or perhaps the tenets of my faith – Christian, Muslim, Confucian, Buddhist - supply a psychological shield of hope or serenity.

In the absence of such confidence, if I do not have these various protections, I am fearful of change and I shall resist it if I can.  I foresee the loss of income or status: I shall fight for my job.  I dread the collapse of my community: I shall march with my brothers and sisters to defend our tradition.  I have lost faith in my leaders – their gods and their policies – and I shall blame immigrants, I shall seek vengeance, I shall use violence.

Afraid of the future, unable or unwilling to countenance changes to my life that are beyond my control, I shall hunker down, I shall look the other way, I shall take refuge in trinkets and mysticism.  I shall, like a child, hope that it will all go away.  My resistance shall, if all else fails, be passive and stubborn.

Entreaties may be made to me.  I do not trust them.  These people – these politicians, these scientists, these journalists – the people have lied to me before.  Me, my family, my neighbourhood, my class – we have suffered before.  You – the confident, the prosperous, with the control and the power – you will be fine.  Again you seek to assuage us.  Your philosophies and your theories and your models mean nothing to me: I believe only the practical, the manifest, the real.

Don’t tell me, show me.

* * * * * *

Professor Richard Sennett gave the closing address at the Compass annual conference in 2006.  Sennett’s theme was trust.  In those dog days of the Blair administration, Sennett was concerned, in particular, to explain the processes that shape the degree of trust between citizens and their elected representatives.  Blair had, post-Iraq, achieved an acutely refined condition of being distrusted, not least by those comprising Sennett’s audience, which had indeed spent its day in various apoplectic states of dismay at the way in which Blair had traduced, misled and generally betrayed them.  Sensing the mood, Sennett (a gifted lecturer) abandoned his prepared speech and sketched the bare bones of an alternative talk whilst sitting in an anteroom only minutes before he took the lectern (a truth to which I can testify because I had the privilege of sitting next to him on a bench as he did it).  His principal assertion was this: that trust is grounded not in conviction, but in consistency (the unfinished sixth of Calvino’s memos).

Sennett invited his audience to reflect on the superabundance of policies and initiatives that had characterised the Blair years (a character that has hardly subsided since).  Barely was the ink dry on last year’s initiative when this year’s arrived.  What is the citizen to make of this?  It would seem to indicate that last year’s initiative could not have been much good, else why would they need a new one this year?  And this new one – well, we should probably expect another one next year, should we not?  Not much point in changing everything to cope with these latest initiatives if we’ll have to do it all again next year; and no point at all in investing any trust in the people responsible, since they clearly have no idea what they are really doing.

The most trusted politician in Europe – Sennett intoned – is someone most of you will never have heard of.  He is Matti Vanhanen.  He is the Prime Minister of Finland.  He is well known in Finland for not doing very much.  He is not especially liked (he doesn’t smile much in public and is considered boring).  But he is very highly trusted because when he does say he’s going to do something, he does it.  He doesn’t do much, but what he does do, he does.

Trust comes from consistency.

* * * * * *

One can see the dilemma.  Governments are elected to ‘do’ things and so that’s what they do: create new crimes, reform education on a continuous basis, overhaul the organisation of the health system at regular intervals, and so forth.  It is hard to imagine a form of politics in which one might hear a statement such as: “It is important that recent changes have the opportunity to bed down and for everyone to adjust to the new rules.  I am therefore announcing a moratorium on new initiatives of at least twelve months.”

All change brings uncertainty, and the majority of us who do not have the resources to defend ourselves against the anxieties that may be prompted by such uncertainty look to particular people or particular organisations to reassure us, to help us.  For that reassurance to be useful, for it to have the necessary resilience and strength to do its work, we have to have trust in the individual or organisation to which we look.

This, for example, is how – and why – a brand like Marks & Spencer is able to initiate a programme such as Plan A, a programme that is, in the words of its [then] Chairman Sir Stuart Rose, ‘half a step ahead’ of its customers.  M&S customers ‘know’ that their food and clothing needs to be produced in a more sustainable way: they know, too, that, as individuals, they cannot possibly attend to the full gamut of environmental and ethical and supply chain and pricing and other issues implied by sustainability; but they trust M&S sufficiently to be guided by them towards sustainable choices.  M&S is just ahead, leading, but not so far ahead that we get lost.

We need the same of our politicians.  Only when they have regained our trust – by slowing down, by speaking clearly and directly and, most of all, by being consistent – only then will they be able to lead us towards the sustainable lifestyles we know we need.

And if they can’t do it, then we’ll get new leaders.

Film Reviews 2017 - #5 Flight of the Phoenix

5. Flight of the Phoenix (2005)

On the cover of the ‘Flight of the Phoenix’ DVD the guidance to viewers is very clear:


(It really is in upper case; and there really is an exclamation mark.)

It’s a Disaster Movie! Woo hoo!

What a strange genre – the Disaster Movie.  Wikipedia is helpful: “A disaster film is a film genre that has an impending or ongoing disaster as its subject and primary plot device… The films usually feature some degree of build-up, the disaster itself and sometimes the aftermath, usually from the point of view of specific individual characters or their families.”

Looking over Wikipedia’s list of such movies, however, I found myself disagreeing somewhat with the definition.  Many of the films listed seem, to me at least, simply to be horror films, or war films, or sci-fi adventures with a monster.   The distinctive feature of a Disaster Movie is, surely, that the protagonists are trapped, either in or by the disaster.

The 1970s were the heyday of the Disaster Movie, indeed peak Disaster Movie year seems to have been 1974 – Earthquake, Trapped Beneath the Sea, Where have All the People Gone, Heatwave, The Day the Earth Moved, The Towering Inferno… (The Towering Inferno!  Steve McQueen! Paul Newman! William Holden! Faye Dunaway! Fred Astaire!) (Fred Astaire?) (Yup, Fred Astaire – he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor…)

Anyway, the End of the Disaster Movie (disaster!) occurred in 1980 with the release of Airplane, the pitch-perfect parody of all Disaster Movies to date and after which no Disaster Movie could really function.  Before Airplane, Disaster Movies had to take themselves seriously: the peril was real, and all the characters/actors had to perform as if the peril was real, no matter how ridiculous or contrived.  Since Airplane, no Disaster Movie could take itself seriously, because the premise was so obviously contrived for the purposes of the movie, and everyone in the audience knew this, and everyone making the film knew the audience knew this, so the only way around the problem was to adopt a knowing and/or ironic tone.  (Just think Bruce Willis.)

So – Flight of the Phoenix!  It says on the cover it was made in 2005.  It doesn’t say on the cover that it is a remake.  The original ‘The Flight of the Phoenix’ starred – wait for it – James Stewart!  And Richard Attenborough!  And Peter Finch and Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy!  Phew!  It was made in 1965, so ought probably to be seen as an Early Disaster Movie, and should therefore be Taking Itself Seriously.   Indeed, I remember watching it when I was young and being taken in by its verisimilitude (despite the massive suspension of disbelief required to accept that a bunch of people can crash land in the middle of nowhere and then try to build an entirely new plane from the wreckage of the one they crashed in.)  So, a post-Airplane remake of an early, possibly even classic Disaster Movie.  This is going to be great!

It’s not.  It’s awful.

As far as I can tell, no-one involved in this film – not the director, not the script-writer, none of the actors (with the possible exception of Hugh Laurie) (Hugh Laurie?) (Yes, Hugh Laurie!  Pre-House Hugh Laurie, buttering up the American market…) – appear to have any idea of irony, nor possibly any understanding of the post-War history of Disaster Movies.  They try to play this straight, and consequently deliver a sustained onslaught of misplaced pyrotechnics, over-wrought emotional haemorrhage, needlessly extended mini-catastrophes and, worst of all, hackneyed and embarrassing dialogue that induces squirming discomfort in the viewer.

I tried hard through the first few scenes to believe that those responsible for this Disastrous Movie really were self-aware and that the film was deliberately bad as a comic device.

But no.  It simply is just terrible.

Some terrible films, as we know, can be so terrible that they are entertaining.  And what else can we want from a movie than it be entertaining?

Sadly I cannot recommend this film to you on that basis.  It is really, really bad; but not so awful that you might enjoy it.

If I had my way, all copies of this Disastrous Disaster Movie would be loaded onto a small turbo-prop aeroplane, flown into the middle of the Gobi Desert and then forced to crash.  Unlike the protagonists in ‘Flight of the Phoenix’, there would be (spoiler alert) no escape.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Catastrophes are Inclusive

I recently travelled to north west France with my mother.  We visited a number of war graves.

We visited the cemetery at Neuville-St Vaast, near Arras.  It is the largest German war cemetery in France.  There are 44,833 men buried and commemorated there.

Like all war cemeteries, it is an immensely moving place.

Unlike many of the dozens and dozens of war cemeteries in north west France, the cemetery at Neuville-St Vaast is not well sign-posted.  Neither does it make an appearance in the literature to commemorate the centenary of the war.  The Germans, after all, were the baddies, and the losers.

But they were just boys, like so many others that died in that catastrophe.

And among them were Jews.  It comes as something of a shock, to see Jewish markers alongside Christian markers in a German war cemetery.  We see the past through the prism of subsequent events.  The fact is, a century ago, Christian boys and Jewish boys were sent to their death by the same insanity.

Later, and nearby, we visited the French National War Cemetery at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.  The scale is daunting.  Acres and acres of grounded are covered with graves; there are seven ossuaries, where the skeletons of innumerable unknown soldiers remain; an immense basilica sits atop the hill.

As in the German cemetery, there are Jewish graves here.  What really took me back, however, was the presence of Muslim graves.  Hundreds and hundreds of them.

Here they are.  Oriented to face Mecca.

Suddenly, at this time of so much anxiety and conflict grounded in disputes about faith, a powerful reminder: true catastrophes are inclusive.  They affect everyone.  Dead boys are dead boys, whether they are Muslim boys or Christian boys or Jewish boys.

It is wonderful, I think, that these cemeteries show such balanced respect to all those that died.  It would be better still if we stopped squabbling, remembered how much we have in common, and eliminated any risk whatsoever of sending more boys to their deaths.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

New poem - Hate Rotation Nation

Refugees! Niggers! Women that work!
People that scrounge off the State!
Muslims and Pakis and pikies and Jews!
You gotta rotate who you hate.

Belgians! The Irish! People from France!
People that look overweight!
Anyone gay or abnormal or young!
You gotta rotate who you hate.

Anyone famous with wrinkles or scars!
All those denying we're 'Great'!
Liberal wankers that voted Remain!
You gotta rotate who you hate.

(Inspired most especially by the mind-gurgling front page of the D***y M**l, Monday 3rd April 2017:

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Film Reviews 2017 - #4 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Benjamin Button is born, on the final day of the First World War, with the body of an old man.  He lives a full life and dies at the end of the twentieth century with the body of a baby.  So, in a sense, he lives life backwards: as a child, still learning about the world, he battles with arthritis and physical decrepitude; as a mature adult, blessed with the insights accumulated from decades of experience, he has the athletic body of a teenager.

His mother dies giving birth to him and his father, repulsed by his appearance, abandons him on the steps of a residential home for the elderly.  He grows up with the owner of the home as his mother.  The setting is New Orleans.  His mother is black; Benjamin is white.

We the audience learn this, and everything else about Benjamin’s life, in flashback.  An elderly woman is dying in a hospital bed.  She, too, is in New Orleans.  A great storm is developing outside.  Her daughter is soothing her mother by reading from a journal.  It is Benjamin Button’s journal.  It becomes clear that the dying woman was the great love of Benjamin’s life.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - based on a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald – thus provides the opportunity to explore several Big Themes.  The inescapable passage of time – check.  A brief history of the twentieth century – check.  A prism on the race relations in the USA – check.  A powerful and tragic love story – check.  An opportunity for philosophical reflection on a range of features of the human condition – check.

It must have looked good in theory: A-list actors (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett), heavyweight production and direction teams (it was initially optioned by Steven Spielberg), big budget, awesome special effects, a quirky narrative device.  It even garnered thirteen Academy award nominations.

In practice, however, it is dismally turgid.  The messages are bludgeoned over and over again.  The pacing is awful.  The philosophy is laboured and trite.  It is also, at more than two and a half hours, far too long.  (It won three Oscars – for Best Art Direction, Best Make Up and Best Visual Effects – which kind of tells you all you need to know.  When was the last time you went to the cinema to admire the make up?)

It took me three goes to watch this film – my first two attempts were interrupted when I dozed off.  If a review ought in some way to emulate the art upon which it comments, then this review ought either to be painfully long and boring, or written backwards.  Both seem to represent an excessive ask of the reader.  I thus relieve you not only of the need to read further, but also of any obligation you may have felt to watch the film.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Film reviews 2017 - supplementary - Manchester by the Sea

It is winter.  The haunted exile is working as a janitor.  He is called home by a death.  He has to confront the past.   There is guilt.  There is anguish.  It is beautifully photographed.  It is poignant.  It is brilliantly acted.  He does not escape the pain.  We do not know what it means.  He begins to find a way forward.  It is spring.

Film Reviews 2017 - #3 Casablanca

Casablanca (1942)

There is a refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, untold thousands fleeing war and persecution.  Swirling amid the rumours and intrigue there is a strange haven, a neutral staging post, an interzone, a place of waiting where the rules are in flux: Casablanca.  Here is where you come when you need to go; and congregated here too are all those that seek to profit from your coming and going.  There are thieves and pickpockets, smugglers and forgers, bandits and gangsters.  Most of all, there is a bar, run by an enigmatic √©migr√© American called Rick (although he is given different names by different people) where everyone meets, where everyone hopes, where everyone waits.  Know the right people, have enough currency – or luck – and perhaps you will escape.

Escape to where?  Why, it’s obvious – America.  America in 2017 may be refusing entry and beginning to build walls, but seventy six years ago – the film is set in December 1941 - the United States of America was a beacon for the world.   For the desperate young Bulgarian couple that Mr Rick helps by fixing the roulette wheel; for the elderly German couple tasting one last brandy before they leave, speaking now only in English since this is the language of their future; for Victor Laszlo, freedom fighter on the run from the Nazis and given ambiguous shelter by Mr Blaine; for the beautiful Ilsa, wife to Laszlo and Rick’s true love – for these and innumerable others, America is the answer.

How odd that one of the movie screen’s greatest love stories should be looking back at us like this.  Or perhaps it is not odd at all.  The truly great stories are those (think Shakespeare) that work in and for every age.  And the way that they do this is by allowing us, whoever or whenever we are, to project ourselves and our contemporary fears and foibles onto and into the characters and situations portrayed. The film Casablanca, an archetypically ‘great film’, really is an actual great film: brilliantly conceived and beautifully directed, it has a razor-sharp script full of astonishing dialogue and one liners delivered by a group of actors at the absolute top of their game.  It is clever, funny, moving and dramatic. (It is also extraordinary to realise that the film was not merely set in December 1941, but it was made in the summer of 1942 and released in December of that same year – which is by way of saying that, at the time it was made, World War II was still underway.  We take it for granted that ‘we’ won – but the writers and actors and everyone else involved in the film did not know!)

Rick - or Richard, or Mr Rick, whatever you need to call him - is the film’s central character.  He first came to Casablanca ‘for the waters’, but he had been ‘misinformed’.  He claims throughout the film to be concerned solely with his own interests, but he is clearly loved by all those around him and is progressively exposed as a ‘sentimentalist’.  He ran guns for the rebels in Ethiopia, fought for the socialists in the Spanish Civil War and is wanted by the Nazis.  He fled Paris eighteen months earlier, on the last train before the Nazis marched into the city, having fallen in love with Ilsa.  She had arranged to meet him at the station, but she didn’t turn up, leaving him standing in the rain “with a comical look on his face because his insides have been kicked out”.

His relationship with Ilsa is one of the two central relationships around which the entire story hangs.  She really does love him – but she loves her husband, Victor, too.  At the time she met Rick, she thought her husband was dead.  He escaped a concentration camp and arrived in Paris just before she was due to meet Rick at the train station.  A year and a half later, fleeing persecution like so many others, she and her husband arrive in Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”  How does Ilsa love Rick?  Is it the same kind of way she loves Victor?  And how does Rick love Ilsa?  Will he help her escape, with her husband?  Or will he ask her to stay?  Or will he go with her, back to America?  Love always asks the biggest questions; during wartime, love asks them with particular intensity.  ‘As Time Goes By’.  Play the song, Sam.  You played it for them; now play it for us.

But there is a second relationship, of a very different kind, between Rick and the local police chief, Captain Louis Renault.  Renault is sharp, sly and intent on survival.  He abuses his authority, but does so with humour and good grace.  He is smarmy and obsequious with the Nazis (who are present in Casablanca, and menacing, but who have no formal authority because ‘French Morocco’ remains unoccupied) but is secretly a patriot and loves Rick just as much as everyone else.  (“If I were a woman,” he tells Ilsa, in the moments before she first realises that the Rick of the bar in which she now sits is the Rick from Paris, “and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick.”)

Rick and Renault depend on one another – without Renault’s consent, the bar would not be open; and without Rick’s consent, Renault would not enjoy the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed – but are also both aware that the other is a survivor, which means there are limits to how far they can trust one another.  Survival, in these circumstances, means relying on a high degree of selfishness.

Or does it?  Perhaps it depends on what is at stake. You? Someone that you love?  An idea? Hundreds, thousands, millions of people?  More questions, more intensity.

Between 1965 and 2016 I somehow never saw the film Casablanca.  I’ve now seen it three times in less than three weeks.  I laugh more, and cry more, each time.  I firmly expect to watch it many more times.  If you haven’t seen it, watch it.  If you have seen it, you already know what I’m talking about – so watch it again!